The Golden Key

One winter's day, when the ground lay deep in snow, a poor boy was sent to the forest with a sled to bring back wood. After gathering the wood and loading it onto to the sled, he was so cold that instead of going straight home, he thought he'd make a fire and warm himself a bit. He cleared a space, and as he was scraping away the snow, he found a little golden key.

"Where there's a key," he said to himself, "there's sure to be a lock."

So he dug down into the ground and found an iron box.

"There'must be precious things in it," he thought. "If only the key fits!"

At first he couldn't find a keyhole, but then at last he found one, though it was so small he could hardly see it. He tried the key and it fitted perfectly. He began to turn it--and now we'll have to wait until he turns it all the way and opens the lid. Then we'll know what marvels there were in the box.

(Tale 200 in The Complete Grimm's Tales for Young and Old, translated by Ralph Manheim).


There was a time, long ago, when no one knew that Rabbit was a coward. All the creatures thought Rabbit was a very brave animal, because he told everyone he was, and so they all respected him and left him alone.

One morning Rabbit went out early to munch some clover. It was a windy morning and the trees were swaying and creaking. Rabbit, being in reality a very nervous, cowardly sort, didn’t like all the noise and commotion. When a leaf blew off one of the trees and its shadow fluttered over him, Rabbit lost his nerve and took off like a shot.

Coyote saw him running. “Look at that Rabbit go,” Coyote said to himself in wonder. “He’s a good runner. About the best I’ve ever seen. I wonder what’s chasing him. It must be something pretty terrifying to scare old Rabbit. I’d better run after him and find out what’s going on, in case it’s something that might harm me, too.”

He sprang after Rabbit, but saw nothing at all coming behind. He passed Grizzly Bear, who called out,

“Hey, Coyote, what are you doing?”

“Something really terrible is after Rabbit,” answered Coyote. “I can’t stop to talk. Come with me, and we’ll find out what’s chasing him!”

“Very well!” cried Grizzly Bear, starting to run after Coyote. If you think that Grizzly Bear can’t run fast, you’re mistaken. He can run very fast when he wants to. He wasn’t really afraid of this terrible thing that was chasing Rabbit, because he himself was the biggest, most frightening creature he'd ever met. But he was curious and wanted to find out what could possibly frighten the fearless Rabbit.

So now there were two racing after Rabbit to find out what he was running from. But Rabbit kept getting further and further away from them.

They raced through woods, over hills and mountains, until they came to the wide open plains.

Coyote’s tongue was hanging out his mouth. He had to stop. Not long after, Grizzly Bear caught up to him.

“I don’t see anything following us or Rabbit,” Grizzly Bear said, throwing himself down in exhaustion. “And Rabbit is long gone.”

“Rabbit is the fastest there is,” Coyote said. “If it wasn’t for my nose, I would’ve lost him.”

“Well, your nose won’t help us catch up to him,” Grizzly Bear grumbled. “This is a very flat country. I can see very far here. But I still can’t see Rabbit.”

“I can see him just fine,” Coyote said, squinting his keen eyes. “That’s why I stopped here to wait for you.”

“Well, where is he, then?”

“Right over there,” Coyote said, pointing to a distant clump of sage-brush. And there, almost dead from running, lay Rabbit, his sides going in and out, in and out, very fast.

“Let’s go talk to him,” Grizzly Bear said, and he and Coyote got up and walked toward Rabbit. As they walked they sang a song to let Rabbit know they were not coming as enemies. When they got near enough, Coyote asked,

“Tell us, swift one, what was chasing after you that made you run so fast?”

“I don’t know what it was,” Rabbit gasped. “I was in the forest when something flew over me. It was yellow and it came down at me from one of the trees, and twirled as it fell. I think it wanted to eat me.”

Coyote started laughing when he heard this. He knew right away Rabbit was talking about a leaf. Grizzly Bear didn’t catch on right away. It usually takes him a little longer than Coyote. He looked at Coyote rolling around with laughter.

“What is it? What’s so funny?” Grizzly Bear growled. He was annoyed by the fact that Coyote always got the joke first.

“It was a leaf,” Coyote explained. “Rabbit was frightened by a leaf!”

Grizzly Bear started laughing too.

“You little coward!” Grizzly Bear growled. “You made us run all that way for nothing!”

“Let’s go tell everyone about this,” Coyote shouted. He loved causing trouble.

“Yes, let’s!” Grizzly Bear agreed.

And they went off to tell everyone how cowardly Rabbit was. And ever since that day, all the creatures know how easily frightened Rabbit is, and they often chase him just for the fun of it.

-- Adapted from Kootenai Why Tales, by Frank Linderman


Halloween seems like a good time to talk about witches.

The Perilous Realm is of course teeming with witches of all kinds. Good witches, wicked witches, so-so witches. Sorceresses and sybils. Elf-witches of terrible power. Witches that fly with the aid of broomsticks and those that fly without any help from common household items. Fake witches with painted faces and warts glued on. Werewitches (men that turn into witches) and witchwolves (witches that turn into wolves, or is it the other way around? I can never remember). White witches and scarlet witches. Kitchen witches, weather witches, sandwiches. Crones, hags and beldames. Creepy old ladies who live alone in houses, and all the kids in town think they're witches, and you know what, some of them are.

The most famous witch, perhaps, is the witch in the story of Hansel and Gretel. Her real name was Caramelita Gumdrop. Some say she didn't actually die when Gretel shoved her into the oven -- it just slowed her down a little, giving Hansel and Gretel time to escape. She managed to crawl back out of the oven, and though it took her a while to recover from the severe burns (about three hundred years, I'm told) eventually she was back to her old tricks. Although she discovered that gingerbread was no longer very popular for enticing children, and so she built a house of chocolate. But this didn't work, because kids had wised up considerably by then. They knew that a house of candy in the middle of the woods was just too good to be true, and they stayed away. It didn't matter what she stuck to the outside of her house -- gum, licorice, toys, i-pods -- kids had gotten too smart, and they didn't fall for it.

So the witch was forced to change her diet, from children to adults. Instead of using candy and treats, though, she plastered the outside of her cottage with posters that claimed she could teach you the secrets of getting rich. The grown-ups fell for it every time.

ice dragons

Long ago, when much of the Perilous Realm was locked in a neverending winter, the ice dragons ruled. They were mighty creatures, powerful and unpredictable. Few humans ever saw them, for they dwelt only in the most frozen, inaccessible regions.  Nor were they interested in gold or treasure or in capturing princesses, like their more avaricious and meddlesome cousins, the dragons of fire.

Those few storyfolk who dared travel in the lands of ice brought back tales of huge winged shapes that left blizzards of frost in their wake, of avalanches that had the power to change direction and even charge uphill, of lakes that would suddenly freeze over, or just as suddenly crack apart and plunge travelers into the icy water.

There are those who say that the glaciers we see today are the sleeping bodies of these mighty beings, and that although their kingdom has shrunk much from what it once was, they may still be roused from their slumber. Even as it withers away and dies, ice is a magnificent and dangerous phenomenon to behold.

In The Shadow of Malabron, Rowen of Blue Hill has a very close encounter with an ice dragon on the Whitewing Glacier. An encounter that will have important consequences for the fate of Fable and all of the Perilous Realm.

Illustration by Mary Wharton

The Shadow of Malabron has just come out
in the US with Candlewick Press.

First review, in Kirkus:


After Will Lightfoot steals and wrecks his father's motorcycle, he stumbles into a foreign worlda fractured realm in which stories originate and from which they migrate, transformed, into other worlds. Not able to use the portal by which he arrived, Will undertakes a seemingly impossible quest to find a gateless gate that will take him back to his home and family. His companions on this trek are a toymaker-cumlore master and his granddaughter, a soldier and a talking wolf found by Will in the city library. Their group becomes seven on the road when they are joined by the mysterious Moth and his companion, a raven named Morrigan. Lush descriptive prose, cleverly sustained suspense, a sprinkling of humor and an exciting climax will keep readers riveted to the story, while those who know their folklore will be delighted by Wharton's twisting of the tropes and tales of myth and legend. Give this book to readers who love their fairies gritty or their tales fractured. They will thank you for the recommendation. (Fantasy. 10-14)


Also known as smallfolk, thumblings, gnatties, wee men. The biggest creelings usually grows no larger than a human thumb, and many are much smaller. They often live in fortified "towns" tunneled out of fallen logs, or built of mounds of sticks and earth, though there are some creelings who have developed more advanced forms of architecture, culture and transportation.

Creelings generally avoid larger beings like humans, because of our propensity for picking on things that are smaller than us. In the past whole Creeling villages have been taken captive by wicked humans (and other beings) and forced to toil as slaves. Despite this dark history, there have been notable alliances between Smallfolk and "Bigs" as they call humans and others of our size. The Creelings proved to be valiant allies in the war against Malabron long ago, and they have remained friendly with the Tain Shee.

Creelings have a liking for the stuff that "Bigs" discard. They put our refuse and unwanted junk to clever uses in their building and home furnishing. Many stories have been told of the resourcefulness of Creelings, and the clever ways they have learned to live and prosper right under the noses of humans without us being any the wiser.

-- from Redquill's Atlas and Gazetteer of the Perilous Realm.

Far Lands

The Far Lands of the Realm are those which one hears about but can never visit, because no matter how long or far you search, you can never find them. Here are a few of the Far Lands. I'm afraid I have no maps of them, or directions on how to get there:

Dark Aunc, where immense flocks of crows peck at the blue sky and carry it away piece by piece, leaving a starless night that slowly grows a delicate shell of blue again. And then the crows return ...

In Outer Oub, everything is made of sound. In Inner Oub, utter silence reigns.

Yederne, where rivers, hills, and trees fall in love with the traveler and follow her wherever she goes.

In Tirreth Dree, the festival country, there are no workdays, and the jugglers and street musicians rule.

Dread Errefal, with its scorpion armies and fountains of blood, is also said to have the nicest beaches.

Why does everyone speak English?


Why does everyone in the Perilous Realm speak English? a reader asked me.

The short if cryptic answer is that they're not speaking English, they're speaking Story. If someone from France came to the Realm, she'd probably find everyone speaking French. A Japanese person would hear everyone speaking Japanese. It should be remembered that The Shadow of Malabron is really a translation into English of a story written in story, so to speak.

There are, however, numerous indigenous languages in the Realm that a visitor might have chance to hear spoken, including Eldish, an ancient tongue spoken by dragons, elementals and other creatures of wonder. It's said that anyone who can speak a full sentence in this obscure tongue will feel a strong connection to the earth, like an electrical current humming in his bones. Or there's Portentic, an ominous-sounding language of low, guttural syllables favoured by wizards and witches. They copy down their secret spells in this language, and often use it when we mere mortals come snooping around, in order to awe and intimidate us. Another odd language is Carc. The entire vocabularly of Carc consists of one word: carc. What exactly carc means depends on how you pronounce it, and to whom, and where, and at what hour of the day or kind of weather. So one must be very careful using this language, since carc, depending on changing circumstances, might mean I come in peace at one moment, and my goodness you really fell off the ugly tree, didn't you? the next.

One of my favourite Realm languages is Babbelese. Anyone can speak it fluently without any practice or lessons. All you have to do is open your mouth and go. Anything you say, even a string of slapped-together grunts and other assorted noises, means something in Babbelese. You often hear minor background characters in a story speaking it, in an undertone, just at the edge of the main action.



The unthunk has been described as a "humped, spiny boulder with arms and legs, two tiny eyes and a gaping crevice of a mouth in the hump where its head should be." Some travellers have reported unthunks with one eye, or three, or with extra limbs, or with no mouth, or with bony plates instead of spines. But most sightings of the creature conform to the description above. Keeping in mind that most sightings are of brief duration, while running the other way.

According to most sources, there are two sizes of unthunk: regular sized (standing about 7 feet tall) and the giant-sized (anywhere from ten to twelve feet tall). Whether they are separate species, or simply juvenile and adult versions of the same species, is not known.

The unthunk is a solitary creature that usually dwells in the desolate barrenlands known as the Screaming Wastes. Mostly living things cannot long tolerate the terrifying howls and moans heard at night in the Wastes (and for which they are named), but the unthunk doesn't seem to be perturbed by these sounds, leading some naturalists to speculate that the unthunk has no organs of hearing. It does, however, have a very large mouth, and has been observed ingesting everything from cacti to livestock.

The unthunk is unpredictable, to say the least. It has been known on many occasions to shy away from humans, but there are also several verified cases of the creature stalking and attacking people. There are also a few reports of unthunk seen fighting in the service of Nightbane.

-- from Balthazar Budd's Flora and Fauna of Wildernesse


Great news: Thomas Wharton's The Shadow of Malabron, the first novel in the trilogy The Perilous Realm, has been nominated for both the Ruth & Sylvia Schwartz Childrens' Book Award, and the Manitoba Young Readers Choice Award.



About an hour's walk southwest from the main gate of the city of Fable is the Crossroads of the Bourne:

"... A slight rise, shaded by a ring of tall elms, where roads from five directions met. In addition to the road from Fable, here the wide stone main road of the Bourne ran north and south, and crossed the narrower but well-tended east-west way.... Directly south on the main road lay the town of Goodfare, a day's walk distant. To the east were Stook and Owlet, two tiny villages less than a mile away, the pale wood smoke of their chimneys visible above the trees. Other larger towns lay that way, too, and beyond them, the River Arrow and the eastern borderlands. To the north the main road wound up through a range of hills called the Brades and so to the citadel of Annen Bawn upon the Bourne's stony northern marches. The road west led to several farming villages and other branching ways, then ended at the vast forest..."

Beyond the borders of the Bourne itself in every direction stretches the immensity of the Perilous Realm, with its innumerable lands and kingdoms and wonders. The people of the Bourne have long been accustomed to thinking of their country as one tiny, unimportant corner of the boundless Realm. They like to call their homeland a place where nothing ever happens (and they like it that way) but at the same time they have a saying that every road in the world eventually leads to these crossroads. If the Perilous Realm is the realm of Story, then the Bourne is that place that lies just at the edge of every Story, just on the margins or borders of Tale. And the crossroads of the Bourne, then, is the meeting place of Storyfolk, the place where all stories come together, if only for a moment, in passing.

So is the Bourne at the edge of all stories, or is it really at the centre? Or perhaps somehow it's both at the same time. All I know is that you can stand at these crossroads and for a fleeting instant feel that you have come to the true secret heart of Story.


A small cottage-like shelter for travelers. Can only be found by those who carry a waylight, a lantern which, when lit and carried near a snug, causes the snug’s own lantern (above the door) to light, thus revealing the location of the snug. When one enters the snug, it is always found to be ready for a guest: a fire is burning cheerfully, a pot of soup is bubbling, the featherbeds are turned down for sleeping. And yet the traveler will find no one else there.

It is said that the Stewards created these hidden shelters long ago, during the Great Unweaving, as places of safety and rest for those going on perilous journeys through the dangerous, war-torn lands of the Realm.