by Elizabeth Hopkinson
A soldier returning from the wars was weary both in body and in mind. He limped along the highway, using his old musket as a crutch, until he came upon a roadside inn. The warm lights and sound of singing were a welcome distraction after so many miles on the road.
He went inside. Within an hour or two, the soldier’s belly was full and his head pleasantly fuzzy. The innkeeper gave him a seat by the fire, where he could warm his one good set of toes. But, once the other guests had gone to bed and the fire sunk to an orange glow, the room felt cold and empty.
Another beer would help me sleep. I shall fetch one from the cellar, he thought.
Taking a lantern from the bar, the soldier crept downstairs. He was just about to drain off some beer, when a scratchy voice spoke from somewhere near his knees.
“What are you doing here? Don’t you know that this is my beer cellar after dark?”
The soldier looked down. Standing beside him, no higher than a four-year-old child, was a little man, dressed in a musketeer’s jacket.
As a boy, the soldier had heard many tales from his grandmother about the kobolds, a motley race of little people who live all over Germany. They are full of magic, but hot-tempered and quick to take offence. The soldier decided that, if the little man was a kobold, it would be wise to treat him with respect.
“Forgive me, son of the rocks,” he said. “I am but a poor soldier, wounded in the wars and down on his luck. I mean you no harm.”
The little man cocked his head.
“You won’t find your luck at the bottom of a beer barrel. What you need is a job. And a wife to keep you warm.”
“Not much hope of either for a man with one foot and only one good eye. I heard news on the road that the King hires wounded soldiers as coffee sniffers. Ever since he closed down the coffee roasters, the only legal coffee in Berlin comes from the royal roastery. The king needs men to sniff out the contraband. I was headed for Berlin in the hope that he might take me on.” The soldier shrugged. “But so many have been wounded in this last war, I doubt there will be a job left for me.”
The little man’s eyes twinkled with a silvery light.
“I can give you such a gift that, when the king’s spymaster meets you, he would dismiss his own brothers to employ you. All I ask in return is that you take me with you to Berlin and allow me to share your home and a little of your food.”
“What gift?” the soldier said.
“The gift of smell. I can give you a sense of smell that would put a bloodhound to shame. You will be able to tell a Java from a Mocha at a distance of leagues. You will be able to stand in the Tiergarten and sniff out the apartment where the bishop’s servant is preparing his brew.”
“And all you ask in return is a little food?” His grandmother’s tales had led the soldier to believe that kobolds hunger for gifts as men hunger for food.
“There is one condition,” the little man said. “You must never watch me eat. If you do so, the consequences will be terrible.”
“I give you my word as a soldier that I will never intrude on your privacy.”
And, with that, the two shook hands on the bargain and agreed to set out for Berlin in the morning.
* * *
When he arrived in Berlin, the soldier found everything to be just as the little man had promised. The moment he crossed the city boundary, a world of scent burst forth upon his senses. He knew what the passerby at his shoulder had eaten for breakfast, whether he was happy, angry or afraid. He could sniff out the mice in their holes and the sparrows in their roosts.
He lost no time in seeking out the house of Count de Lannay, the king’s spymaster and chief revenue collector. As the little man had promised, the soldier was recruited immediately, and soon rose to become first among the coffee-sniffers of Berlin. There was no illegal roastery that his keen nose could not smell out. Soon the former soldier became a rich man. He left the poky garret he shared with the kobold, and took a fine set of rooms in the Stechbahn. With his fabulous nose, he was sought out as a coffee-taster for the royal roastery. No longer must he wear the worn boots and jacket of his soldier days. In their place came buckled shoes, embroidered waistcoats and a periwig for his head. And, in time, he wed Widow Doebbert, proprietor of the Stechbahn’s famous coffee house, and settled down to a comfortable life.
All this time, the soldier had not forgotten to set aside a portion of food for the kobold. He never saw the little man, but as the plate was always emptied, he assumed the kobold had eaten his fill.
But the more the soldier advanced in society, the harder it became to persuade his wife to lay out a plate of food on her clean parlour floor. Widow Doebbert was a city woman, brought up in the king’s new ways of reason and enlightenment. Kobolds, she said, were all very well for grandmothers in the country, but this was Berlin. A respectable Hausfrau could not have dirty plates on her floor; it encouraged vermin. How could they be sure that a rat wasn’t eating the food all along?
The words of his wife cast doubt in the soldier’s mind. He had been rather drunk that night at the inn, and his eyesight was not of the best. Yet he remembered his encounter with the little man so well. Could it have been in his imagination?
That night, when the rest of the household was in bed, the soldier kept watch behind a curtain. On the stroke of midnight, a stealthy padding of feet was heard across the floor, followed by the faintest of snuffles.
The soldier peeped out. Hunched in a corner with the plate on his knees was the little man, exactly as the soldier remembered him. But he did not pick up the food between his fingers. Instead, a long tongue, dark blue with two prongs on the end, shot out from the little man’s mouth. With it, the little man speared his food, which shot back into his mouth on the end of the prongs.
The soldier had seen many disgusting sights during the wars, but the sight of that tongue caused him to let out a sick groan.
In a heartbeat, the little man leapt to his feet. His eyes, white like lamps in the darkness, fixed on the soldier.
“You have betrayed me!” he cried. “All these years, I have given you the best and asked for nothing in return but my daily bread and the privacy in which to eat it. Well, you’ll be sorry now, soldier boy!”
As he spoke these words, the little man’s appearance began to change. His eyes grew bigger, his belly rounder. Hair sprouted from his ears and his lips grew hard. His boots and jacket melted away, leaving the kobold naked as a needle, with dark blue skin and a round light glowing in the centre of his belly.
“I shall take everything away!” he screeched.
A sound of shrieking rose from under the floorboards. The walls of the house trembled, then shook, and finally disappeared altogether so that the soldier was suspended in mid-air. A blue whirlwind seized hold of him and carried him away, until he found himself back outside the inn on the road to Berlin with no more sense of smell than he was born with.
* * *
Having nothing better to do, the soldier went into the inn. No one recognised him, as he was now dressed as a burgher and could afford a room upstairs with a feather bed. Here the soldier ate his miserable supper, and lay awake.
Could a man defeat a kobold? The soldier thought hard. In his grandmother’s tales, kobolds came from underground. They were born of the rocks, and whenever humans had dealings with them, it was in a cellar, a mine, a dungeon. He had first met the kobold in the beer cellar of this inn. Could this be a door to the realm of the kobolds?
The soldier got up and dressed. He left some silver for his host and crept into the cellar, just as he had done years ago. Holding up his lantern, he searched high and low for any unusual crack or handle. At last, he came upon a glowing circle at the height of his knee, exactly like the one he had seen on the kobold’s belly.
The soldier touched the flat of his palm to the circle, and a doorway appeared in the cellar wall. He clambered through and found himself in a narrow tunnel, whose damp walls glowed with phosphorescence. For a man with his injuries, the journey was not an easy one. The stump of his toe ached with the cold, and several times he grazed his hands on the wall.
Just as he felt he could go no further, the passage opened out into a cavern of pure cobalt, whose ceiling was festooned with stalactites. Arranged in uneven tiers, a hemisphere of stalagmites formed an underground arena. And on every stalagmite was a kobold, dark blue with a glowing belly.
On the centremost stalagmite was the kobold king. His hair and beard were silver, and he wore a crown of iron. When he saw the soldier, he narrowed his gleaming eyes and leaned forward on his throne.
“What do you here in my realm, son of men? This is the kingdom of the kobolds, and we do not welcome idle visitors.”
The soldier held up his head.
“One of your kindred has stolen away my wife and all that I own. I have come to bargain with you for their return.”
“A gambler, eh?” said the kobold king. “I enjoy a game of chance myself. Let me set you a little wager.”
He stood and made a noise like the sound of chisel on stone. A whole squadron of kobolds came scurrying from a hidden chamber, carrying between them three wooden chests.
“Tell me, soldier, which of these chests contains the prize of greatest worth? Answer me correctly and I will return your wife and goods to you. Fail and you will spend twenty years in my underground prison. What say you?”
“Very well,” said the soldier, and he scrutinised the chests. In his grandmother’s tales, two of the chests would have been inlaid with jewels and pearls, the third of plain wood. And the third would sure to contain the prize.
But these three chests were all of a likeness. Made of oak, with patterns marked out in brass studs, there was little to choose between them.
“May I touch them?” he said to the kobold king.
“Touch. Smell. Taste. Anything short of opening them.” The king’s belly light glowed more brightly.
The soldier knelt by the chests, ran his fingers along jointed corners. He put his ear to the lids, his nose to the keyholes. And from the centre chest, he caught the breath of a scent more familiar to him than his own. A scent he needed no special powers to detect.
“This one, “ he said, pointing. “This contains the treasure of great worth.”
The waiting kobolds threw back the lid. And, as the soldier had known it would, a rich aroma filled the cavern. There, piled high to the top of the chest were hundreds of oak-dark beans, each with a double crack running through the middle.
“Wrong!” The kobold king leapt from his throne in exultation. “You have failed, soldier. Look! Nothing but burned, blackened nuts. Useless for planting, useless for eating. Now, away to the dungeon with you!”
The soldier held up a finger.
“Not so fast, king of the rocks. I propose a second wager. If I can prove to you that this is the prize of greatest worth, you restore my wife, house and former life to me. If I fail, I spend a lifetime in your dungeon.”
“Done,” said the kobold king.
The soldier grinned.
“Then have your people bring the items I shall now list.”
And the soldier went on to list all items usual for the brewing of coffee. Kettles and coffee mills, coffee pots and silver spoons. The delectable smell in the cavern grew stronger; the kobolds on the stalagmites rumbled with excitement.
When the coffee was brewed to perfection, the soldier poured it into dainty Meissen cups. He handed the first one to the kobold king. The king lifted the coffee to his lips, inhaled the fragrance and took a sip.
The soldier waited.
The king took a second sip and bade all his kobolds do the same.
The soldier waited.
The king took a third sip. Meanwhile, the other kobolds were grunting with excitement. They were waggling their ears, swapping cups, digging their neighbours in the ribs.
The kobold king put down his cup. He fixed the soldier with his lantern eyes. Then he gave a great guffaw that resounded around the cave.
“This is heaven!” he exclaimed. “This is the best thing I ever tasted! Bless the day you came to us, soldier, to show us how to make this wondrous drink. We shall drink it every day, and you shall supply us with the burnt nuts.”
“As the king’s chief coffee taster? Not likely!” the soldier replied. “If you want coffee, you must rely on humans, as you have always done, and respect the laws of the land. Now you must keep your promise and restore me to my former life.”
The kobold king grunted, but he could not undo his bargain with the soldier. He began to hum, a low sound from the depths of the earth, and all the kobolds hummed with him. The circles of light on their bellies spun faster and faster until the soldier became too giddy to stand. He fell into a deep swoon and, when he awoke, he was back in his house in the Stechbahn with his wife beside him.
* * *
The former soldier lived a long and prosperous life in Berlin, eventually rising to become Burgomeister. He never saw or heard from the kobolds again. But every night, before he and his wife went to bed, they left a small pot of coffee and a cup on the corner of the parlour floor. Just in case.
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