A single ray of moonlight pierced the thickly wooded path and flashed across the quick silhouette of a stout hooded dwarf. Silently and swiftly he made his way to the house at the far end of the valley.
Carefully, the figure slipped to the back of the house. Peering into each window, he watched the occupants within. When he found the window he sought, he tapped it lightly. A tall, bearded man opened the heavy hand-carved wooden shutters. The two men whispered. Then the dwarf handed something through the window, bowed, and disappeared into the darkness.
It was a warm, beautiful day in Poppan Valley. The sun shone brightly, giving the valley a clean, fresh look. Shiny red poppan plants were in full bloom, and their sweet fragrance filled the air. Children laughed and played in neighboring yards. Every once in a while a mother stepped out to call in her child. The little red-clay houses were scattered about the land, each looking exactly alike; all with wood shingle roofs and colorful gardens. The day seemed like any other, filled with the familiar sounds, smells and sights of the valley. But something evil was coming. Laila could feel it.
Outside the house on the far edge of town two young siblings sat quietly under a giant old tree. Lailaís insides trembled, yet she wasn?t sick. She jumped at every little sound and felt dreadfully uneasy. She knew, deep inside, that something was horribly wrong.
"Whatís bothering you, Laila? I haven?t heard you laugh, or even seen you smile, all day. Thatís just not like you." Tokarís light blue eyes narrowed in concern.
Laila stared at the gently waving stalks of grass without answering. How could she explain what she herself didn?t understand?
"Itís a lovely day. Come on, letís walk through the garden." Tokar pulled her up from under the broad, low-hanging branches of the hiding tree. He tickled her left side, the one that was most ticklish, laughed and ducked at the same time. "That will cheer you up. No one can be grumpy when they smell the sweet fragrance of the poppan plants."
Laila attempted to wipe the frown off her face. "I just can?t shake this feeling that something is wrong. I don?t know what, but something is terribly wrong."
Laila shook her head, trying to erase the uneasy feeling from her mind. "Itís probably just that I?m worried about Father. Last night I thought I heard him talking to someone, but I know no one was in the house. He paced and mumbled for at least an hour. Letís make supper really nice tonight, Tokar." Laila grabbed Tokarís hand. "You?re right about the flowers. Letís pick some poppan plants for the table to cheer him up."
"I had no idea. All right, you pick and arrange the poppan plants, and I?ll lay out his dressing gown and slippers. I?ll even set up the chesi board. That always lifts his spirits." Tokar squeezed Lailaís hand, then bolted into the house.
Inside, Tokar stopped in the kitchen for a bite of freshly made fudge ? his favorite, made with sweet keowa nuts ? then proceeded to his fatherís room to prepare the surprise. The sun streamed in through the hand-embroidered white lace curtains onto the multicolored quilt covering the immense bed that Father had carved himself out of a giant pica tree. As Tokar laid his fatherís dressing gown on the bed, he tripped on his untied bootstring and fell against the bedpost, tilting the post knob. While trying to straighten it, he discovered that the hand-carved knob actually screwed onto the post. He hadn?t broken it, he had just knocked it crooked.
Strange. Father said he carved this bed out of solid wood. Why would this post knob come off? Guilt flooded over Tokar as he cautiously looked about the empty room. Then curiosity overwhelmed him.
He unscrewed the crooked knob and peeked inside the hollowed-out post. At first it seemed empty. He could see nothing. There must be something here. He tried reaching in with his long, narrow fingers but could not reach far enough. Glancing about the room he spotted a boot lacer just the right size to fit down the narrow bedpost. After a few unsuccessful tries he managed to hook something. He gently pulled out a brown leather sheath tied around a very old scroll and a soft leather pouch.
Carefully Tokar screwed the knob back on the post, laid the pouch on the bed and began to examine the scroll. The scroll contained strange, unfamiliar words written in the most beautiful lettering he had ever seen. He smoothed it out with great care, for the scroll was obviously very old and he didn?t want to tear the fragile document. He studied the words. They were peculiar, but one word stood out larger than all the rest. "Var," he whispered. As he read it, the word made him shudder. Something trembled deep inside him, and he felt evil in the very sound of the word.
The room darkened. Tokar glanced out the window and watched the valley grow darker. He could see blackness coming, moving like an enormous cloud, slowly covering all the land.
What have I done? Did reading the scroll do this?
Outside, he heard his sister scream as she ran into the house.
"Tokar, what is it?" Lailaís voice shook with fear as she called up to him.
Quickly he shoved the scroll down the front of his shirt, hung the leather pouch on his belt, and ran to the kitchen. Laila stood by the door, her brown eyes wide and filled with fear. She stood twisting the pocket kitsch that covered her floor-length skirt. Her body trembled. Her golden hair, which hung in curls down to her waist, looked disheveled and wild.