Friday, March 14, 2008


Free Fiction Friday: "Timmy Gromp and the Golden Hen of Time"

As I've mentioned, last week I spent a few days at the second annual Clockwork Storybook writers' retreat with all the old gang. Most days were spent with each of us working on our various independent projects while the sun was up, getting together for dinner, and then reading aloud and critiquing in front of the roaring fire through the evening hours. On Friday, though, we did something a little different.

I think the idea had originally been Bill Willingham's, in email, and it was modified and mutated a few times in the subsequent days and weeks. In it's final form, it was simply The Story Challenge.

The challenge was simple. To write a complete short story in one day. With a few... complications.

There were only a few rules. On Friday, each of us contributed one idea, an element that every story should contain. Then, from then until dinner that night, the five of us would go off to our respective corners and write. The goal was to include at least three of the ideas that everyone had contributed, ideally find a way to work in all five. Then on Friday night we'd each read our stories, and when they'd all been read we'd vote to decide whose was the best, both in terms of artistic merit and in terms of the skill with which the elements were included.

The five elements to be included (many of them references to things that had happened during the week) were "an upsidedown chicken," suggested by Bill Williams, "a cow skeleton," suggested by me, "a really excellent sword-fight," suggested by Mark Finn, "a gruesome death involving pepper," suggested by Matt Sturges, and the inclusion of the character Mike Bretz from the old Clockwork Storybook days, suggested by Bill Willingham.

All five of the competitors, as it turned out, found ways to include all five suggestions. Otherwise, though, the stories couldn't have been more dissimilar. Mark's was a brilliant tall tale involving boxers, banditos, and a border town, Williams's was part of his fascinating "hard boiled fantasy" world, Willingham's was a gem of a story in the tradition of Zelazny, and Matt's was a little bit of genius from his in-progress vampire world. And mine was the little bit of silliness that follows.

Somewhere along the way, the reading and critiquing somehow became a drinking game, wherein everyone had to take a drink whenever one of the five suggestions popped up in a story. We all got a bit toasty, which is probably the best explanation for how the voting ended up in a five-way tie. The grand prize, which was to have been to pick the restaurant on Saturday and be treated by the rest, became instead a committee decision, which was a whole other story.

The other four entries in the challenger were dandy little stories, which I fully expect to see in print in some market or another, before too much longer. My story? Well, it probably doesn't have a terribly wide appeal, so I'm sharing here with all of you nice people.

This story won't make much sense if you aren't familiar with Timmy Gromp, about whom I've written once or twice before. Heck, it probably won't make much sense if you are familiar with him. As for Mike Bretz, who shows up at the end, he was a shared character from San Cibola days, and all you really need to know about him is that he is the most powerful sorcerer in the universe, looks just like Drew Carey circa 1999, and is a complete dick.

Timmy Gromp and the Golden Hen of Time
by Chris Roberson

Timmy Gromp clutched the golden chicken tight to his chest, the metal cold even through the thin fabric of his windbreaker, and peered into the darkness of the dungeon passage. Now he wasn’t sure if he’d ever get home.

“Are you sure we’re going the right way?”

“Yes,” growled the little badger at his side, becoming irritated by the incessant questions. “Now hurry along, there isn’t much time.”

Timmy chewed his lower lip. Now he was seriously wishing that he’d never picked up the chicken statue in the junkshop, while his parents were next door drinking weird coffee drinks, eating scones, and checking their email and stock tickers on their phones. But how was he to know that the statue wasn’t an action figure from the Gobopokomeon cartoon show, but was actually the linchpin of all creation, the thing that held the multiverse together? It wasn’t until he’d given it a polish with the sleeve of his windbreaker and the Chartreuse Fairy had appeared that he’d realized that it was something much more than a toy from a TV show, and by then it was far too late.

“Hurry along, little master,” the badger growled. “Only moments remain before time runs out, and the Uncreator will hold sway.”

“Okay, okay,” Timmy answered, whining more than he intended. Then, under his breath, he muttered, “Assbug.”

The Chartreuse Fairy hadn’t even given Timmy a chance to back out. And it wasn’t as if he’d even paid for the statue. She’d just floated before him, all glittery and twinkling, and told him that what he held was actually the Golden Hen of Time, a central cog in the clockwork of creation, lost millennia before. And that by discovering it, he was obliged to return it to its sacred resting place in the Caves of Secrets, in another dimension, filled with all sorts of weird creatures with bad breath, all of them hungry to eat little boys from the human world.

Of course, the Chartreuse Fairy hadn’t actually mentioned the bad breath, but it hadn’t taken Timmy too long to work that one out on his own.

So while all Timmy wanted to do was put the chicken statue back on the junkshop shelf and rush next door to find his parents and their weird coffees and scones and phones, instead he’d suddenly found himself transported to another dimension, all alone under a starless grey sky, at the edge of a desert of blue sands. If not for the badger, who showed up a few minutes later, Timmy would probably be still out there, shivering in his windbreaker, waiting for some monster to come and eat him.

Of course, then at least he wouldn’t be down in this spooky dungeon, so maybe that wouldn’t have been so bad, after all.

“The left path,” the badger said, pointing with his sword as the dungeon passage branched in two before them. The flickering orange light of the torch in the badger’s other paw reached only a few yards into either branch, with only murky blackness beyond.

Timmy supposed that, with all of the other strange things that had happened to him over the years, over and over and over again, he shouldn’t be surprised when a badger in hip boots and a Three Musketeer hat with a sword at his hip appeared out of nowhere. But Timmy was embarrassed to remember that he’d wet himself, just a little, and squeaked like a mouse caught in a trap, jumping a few feet in the air in fright.

Then the badger had explained that he’d been dispatched by the Chartreuse Fairy to aid him in his quest—whatever that meant—and that he knew the way to the Cave of Secrets, at the desert’s far side.

Timmy had tried to convince the badger to take the chicken statue himself, and to let Timmy go back home, but the badger had explained that the rules governing the Golden Hen of Time were pretty strict on this point, and that having been the one to discover the thing, he was the only one able to carry it the rest of the way.

By the time they were halfway across the desert, blue sand stuck in place Timmy didn’t even know he had, Timmy was beginning to seriously hate the Chartreuse Fairy. If she was going to send some sort of animal helper for his “mission,” why couldn’t it have been a giant eagle that could fly him all the way there in seconds? Which wasn’t to say that the badger wasn’t pretty quick on his little feet, though.

“What’s that sound?” Timmy drew up short, peering wide-eyed into the darkness before them. A strange, clacking noise echoed out of the dungeon passage up ahead, like the sound of a hundred teeth clacking together, or a box of dominoes falling on the floor.

“One of the guardians of the Cave of Secrets,” the badger answered, tightening his paw around his sword’s handle. “Prepare yourself.”

The Chartreuse Fairy had explained that, if Timmy couldn’t return the Golden Hen of Time to its resting place in the Cave, something called the Uncreator would succeed in unraveling all of existence, winding it back to the beginning like a video tape on rewind. But instead of hitting play again, the Uncreator would just toss the tape in the trash, or something like that, and nothing that had ever existed would ever exist again.

The Fairy had also said that, now that the Golden Hen had been discovered, there would be others who would want it for themselves. That’s why the badger had come along, not only to show Timmy the way, but to defend him against anyone who might want to steel the statue from him. But the Fairy hadn’t said anything about any “guardians” they’d have to contend with, as well.

When the guardian clacked out of the darkness and into the light of the badger’s torch, Timmy realized why the Fairy hadn’t mentioned it. If she had, he’d probably have stayed up in the blue desert, and told the badger to go bite himself.

The guardian towered over them, standing eight feet tall if it was an inch. It was skeletal, without a bit of flesh or muscle, a collection of bones moving like a living being, it’s motions jerky and halting, like the stop-motion animation in the old movies that Timmy’s dad was always trying to get him to watch. It stood reared up on its hind legs, with wicked blades affixed to the ends of its forelegs, and front the sides of its fleshless skull rose long, pointed horns.

“It’s a cow,” Timmy said, gawping.

“It is a demon,” the badger said, stepping ahead of Timmy, the point of his sword raised before him. “Stand back, I’ll handle this.”

The badger rushed forward, a blur of motion, his tiny sword darting in and out, flashing in the torchlight like summer lightning.

It was, all things considered, a truly excellent sword-fight, but Timmy only caught bare glimpses of it, his hands covering his eyes, shrieking like a little girl.

“Come along,” the badger said, “we’ve lost precious time.”

Timmy lowered his hands, and saw the now immobile and lifeless cow bones scattered on the passage floor.

“Hurry,” the badger urged, pushing ahead.

Timmy clutched the cold statue to his chest and followed behind, mincing around the scattered bones.


Finally, after several more very exciting and terrifying encounters, they reached the heart of the dungeon maze, the Cave of Secrets. And there, atop a plinth of black stone, lay the altar of the Golden Hen of Time.

“Hurry, young master,” the badger said, his little black eyes narrowed to slits in his furry little face. “Only moments remain! Place the idol on the altar, or we are undone.”

“Okay.” Timmy started towards the plinth, the flickering torchlight casting strange shadows across the stone floor. He held the Golden Hen in both hands, eager to be rid of it. “Then can I go home?”

Before Timmy had gone halfway to the altar, a strange voice from the shadows stopped him in his tracks. “I’ll take that golden dingus, if you don’t mind?”

Timmy whirled around, startled. A man emerged into the torchlight. He was dressed in a cheap suit, with a blonde buzz cut, and his eyes hard and cold behind the thick black frames of his glasses. Beneath his suit-coat his shirt strained across a round belly, and steam rose in curls from the coffee mug in his hands.

“The accursed Mike Bretz!” the badger snarled, paw tight around his sword’s hilt.

The fat man sneered at the badger. “Who were you expecting, Edmund Wharton-Fogg?” He turned back to Timmy. “I’ve been looking for that little chicken for a long time, kid, so why don’t you hand it over before I do something suitably horrible to you.”

“Never!” the badger yelled. “You’ll not have it, on my life!” He glanced over a furry shoulder at Timmy, his furry face shadowed by his Three Musketeers hat. “You take care of the idol, young master, I’ll take care of this interloper.”

The badger rushed forward, swinging his sword in one hand, his torch held high in the other, a battle cry on his little black lips.

“Oh, please,” the fat man said, rolling his eyes. Taking a sip of coffee from his mug, he snapped the fingers of his other hand.

Suddenly, the flame atop the badger’s torch raged outwards, becoming a miniature inferno, a tight ball of fire that engulfed the brave little badger completely. Already rushing towards the fat man, his momentum carried him forward even as the flames roasted him alive. Fur burned off into ash, and as the flames died back down in an instant, the smoldering carcass of the badger skidded to a halt at the fat man’s feet, the blackened sword clattering uselessly to the floor.

The fat man bent down, and taking hold of one of the badger’s little charred limbs, snapped it off and brought it to his mouth. He took a crunching bite of meat, burnt skin, and gristle, and chewed thoughtfully.

“Hmm,” the fat man said. “Could use a little pepper.”

Timmy couldn’t remember a time that he was more scared, and he was sure that he’d wet himself again, if only a little, but as he watched his brave little badger guide sacrificing himself, he knew that if he didn’t do something, and fast, he’d end up much the same way. So while the fat man wasn’t looking, Timmy had sidled over towards the plinth, and was in the process of reaching up and putting the Golden Hen of Time into place before the fat man noticed what he was doing. With the torch finally extinguished, the Cave of Secrets was lit only by a faint green glow, so Timmy wasn’t quite sure he was putting the statue in the right place, but hoped he could get it close enough to count.

“No!” the fat man said, his face twisted in annoyance, as Timmy slammed the statue home.

The green glow which lit the cave began to grow brighter, shifting up the spectrum to yellow, then orange, then red, as an eerie groaning noise issued from the walls around them.

“Can I go home now?” Timmy said, eyes wide and fearful.

The fat man rushed over to the plinth, dropping his coffee cup onto the floor without a second thought. “What have you done, you little puke?” The man reached Timmy’s side, and as the red glow glared brighter, looked from Timmy to the altar and back again. “You assbug, do you know what you’ve done?” He pointed a finger at the Golden Hen of Time, its little golden legs just visible above the altar’s surface. “You’ve got it in upside down!”

The red glow glared brighter, and shifted to white, as the eerie grinding noise grew deafeningly loud. Then there was a flash, and a bang, and…


Timmy Gromp clutched the golden chicken tight to his chest, the metal cold even through the thin fabric of his windbreaker, and peered into the darkness of the dungeon passage. Now he wasn’t sure if he’d ever get home.


Thanks for sharing, Chris!

I have an NPC in my long running Amber PBEM roleplaying game, Lorius, who has some parallels with Mr. Bretz. Lots of sorcerous power, arrogant, self-confident to the point of megalomania, and often a big pain in the a$$ to family and foe alike.
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