Once upon a time there was a tribe of gnomes living high upon a mountain overlooking a deep valley, their houses hidden among the high crags that kept the lowlands in perpetual shadow.
It was a hard life, even by gnome standards, but the fertile valley where they could have easily grown their crops was home to a sleek pack of wolves. Each member of that pack had a coat as black as midnight, except for the leader, an enormous she-wolf who was notable for her larger size and a patch of red fur upon her chest. The wolves were nearly invisible — even to the sharp eyes of wary gnomes — as they flitted soundlessly through the shadows of the ancient trees.
Many gnome families had gone into that valley seeking an easier life along the river that flowed swift and strong. None had returned, but the howling of the wolves seemed to tell their tale as it echoed from the mountain crags, in the moon glow where gnome children shivered and cried in their cold, dark beds.
Now the gnomes that remained on the mountain were starving. The animals that lived on the higher slopes — the mountain sheep and the stag — were too big for the gnomes to catch, and the soil in the mountains was so thin that the few crops they could grow were blighted and poor. Children were lucky to get a single carrot or half of a turnip for their dinner, and their parents had even less.
“Ow-ooooooo. … Ow-ooooooo,” came the howling of the wolves every night, but in the ancient language of the starving gnomes it sounded like “Come down! Come down!” And many did go down into that shadowy vale, never to return.
Finally, there remained but two families still living on the mountain, and they were old friends with much in common. Both families had a mother, a father and a single child of the same age. One child was a little gnome boy, and the other was a little gnome girl, and they were so small that if they were standing beside you, the tips of their tiny red caps would only reach the bottom of your knee.
One day — a gray February day that was bitter cold with blowing snow and a biting wind — one gnome father, Matias, said to the other gnome father, Joona, that his larder was bare, and so Joona said to Matias that for supper that night, both families should share the one turnip that he had left.
That night, after eating the turnip and sending the children to bed, Matias with his wife, Oona, and Joona with his wife, Leonia, sat together around the table. The guttering flame of a single candle cast the gnomes’ shadows on the wall, making them seem much taller than they were.
“What will we do?” asked Oona. “We have no more food, and we grow weaker by the day.”
“We must leave this place,” said Matias. “If we go down to the valley, perhaps we will find fish in the river, or mushrooms growing under the trees. It is dangerous, but we must risk it!”
“But the wolves . . .” started Joona, voicing all their fears. “No one has ever returned from that dark valley.”
“The wolves matter not,” said Leonia. “We cannot just stay here and watch our babies starve! At least with the wolves, it will be over quickly!”
And so it was decided. The gnomes snuffed out the candle, plunging Joona’s and Leonia’s neat home into darkness. The gnomes all tried to sleep, but could only think about the next morning’s march that would take them down the mountain and into the valley below, that shadowy vale from which none had returned.Click here and continue to Chapter Two