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by Margo Fallis
The Gathering

           The bright orange orb descended behind the mountains of Lithgon, its rays absorbed the blues and greens reflected from the Sea of Ruce and touched the sky with a shimmering canvas of color. Braden leaned against a birch tree and gazed at the evening’s first star until darkness engulfed him. His thoughts wandered back to earlier in the day when a messenger had delivered a scroll.

He and Bramber sat in the shade of a willow, a worn blanket protecting them from the damp ground. The air smelled fresh after the rain had washed the pollen away. With their picnic finished, empty containers and food-covered plates lay scattered in the center of the blanket. Meadows of delicate pink, yellow, orange, and purple wildflowers bathed them in their fragrance. Braden picked a few and tucked the delicate petals into Bramber’s long, golden hair.

A messenger from the village ran through the grasses and up the dirt trail, handing Braden a paper scroll tied with a strip of leather. Out of breath, he struggled to give his message. The boy began, “This is for you, Braden. Master Ilgrin said a raven delivered it to him this morning. He said it was very important. I’ve been searching for you all morning. Mistress Bramber’s mother told me you’d come to the meadow. I came here hoping to find you.”

Braden took the scroll. “You may run back to Master Ilgrin and tell him you were successful. Thank you, Jonstrap.” Braden pulled a small leather bag out of his pants pocket. He pulled the leather string to untie it and poured a few gold coins into Jonstrap’s hand.

“Thank you, Braden.” The messenger put the coins into his own pocket and headed for the village. Happy with his tip, he took his time, stopping to smell the flowers.

Braden lay on his back, snuggling close to Bramber. He unrolled the scroll and read it in silence. His sapphire-blue eyes gave away his puzzled thoughts.

 “What is it, Braden?” Bramber spread her hand on his arm. “What sort of message does a raven carry? Is it from one of the Lords?”

Braden pulled a few strands of her hair from her mouth. “Yes. It’s from the Lord of the Heavens. He wants me to meet with him at his temple a week from today. It doesn’t say why, just that if I don’t go, many will perish.”

In return Bramber ran her gentle fingers through the back of Braden’s dark brown hair. “Will you go, my darling?” She stroked his cheek.

Braden jumped up, pulling her with him. He towered above her. “I must go. The Lord of the Heavens wouldn’t send for me had it not been just as he says, a matter of life and death. I shall leave in the morning. Come. I must prepare. I’m sorry to spoil our picnic.”

“Our picnic was not spoiled. I treasure every moment with you, Braden.” Bramber took his hand and the two walked towards home in silence.

                    *  *  *

     In the evening, when the twilight sky cast its dark shadows on the land, Braden stood at the front door of his cottage, wondering what changes were coming to his life in the next week. Crickets chirped, singing tunes to one another. Frogs croaked to their mates in the nearby ponds. A breeze blew; the rustling leaves humming a lullaby to the animals of the valley. “Time will tell.” His hand slipped into his pocket; the scroll lay safe in its depths. Turning to see the last lamp turn off in the villager’s windows, Braden closed his door and hoped for a good night’s sleep.

                   *  *  *

     “Would you shut up!” A deep voice roared across the valley.

     “But Corin, I just wanted to give you some advice.” A high-pitched squeaky voice answered.

     “Listen, Fingal, I didn’t ask for your advice and I certainly don’t need it, nor do I want it. I’m going and that’s that!” Corin flopped himself down on a tree stump, causing pieces of decaying bark to fall into the grass springing up around it. Tiny beetles scattered after being exposed on the bare patches of the trunk.

     “If you’re going, so am I.” Fingal’s pouted; his long, pointed ears drooped. He fell to the ground next to Corin’s feet. His chubby fingers tightened into a ball and he shoved them under his pudgy chin. The two sat, stubbornly quiet in thought.  Fingal’s ears stiffened as a thought blurted out in words. “Corin, where did the scroll come from anyway? Who brought it? When did they come? How come I didn’t see someone deliver it?”

     “I dunno. It was lying on the doorstep this morning.” Corin reflected for a moment. “I wonder why the Lord of the Heavens wants to see me. What is it that’s such a life or death problem?  I don’t need this right now. I was going on a much needed holiday next week to Kamwirth. Instead, I’ve got to go to Zolfin…alone!”  He looked at Fingal with raised eyebrows. How did he ever get tangled up with this dwarf anyway? Corin shook his head back and forth and stood to leave. “You need to stay here and take care of the house. What about Grogan? Who’ll feed that mangy mutt if you come with me?” Corin smelled of camel’s hair and he wore no mustache or beard.

     “Please let me come! Please, can I come? I won’t get in your way. I promise.” Fingal begged, getting on his fat knees and grasping Corin’s loose-fitting gray pants. “I’ll run to Jiggo Rabil’s house and take Grogan with me. Jiggo loves dogs, especially Grogan. I’ll ask him to watch the house too.”

     “Are you trying to pull my pants off?” Corin shook the pest away from his leg. He stood six-foot-four-inches tall, with long, light brown hair that fell down his back to his waist. Around his forehead he wore a leather band. After years of sweat, nothing but a worn, thin strip kept the hair out of his eyes. He rubbed his rough cheeks; he was much in need of a shave. His thick and bushy eyebrows shaded his emerald green eyes. Corin felt for his pet mouse, Suska. He kept it in his pocket. Nobody, not even Fingal, knew he had it.

 Fingal gazed up at the giant. He, being only three-feet-two-inches high, admired the size of Corin’s bulging muscles. His strength offered Fingal a sense of security. Fingal wasn’t much to look at, as most dwarves aren’t. Besides being dwarf-sized, his curly black hair grew down the sides of his face, leaving not much on top except for a few baby-fine strands criss-crossing his scalp like strands of barbed wire.

His eyes looked like two black pearls. Fingal’s face sagged from hundreds of wrinkles; each fold of skin was soft, like a spring leaf. His burlap pants, thin, beige, and filled with small holes, barely held together by threads, hung loose and baggy. The supply of grain kernels kept in his pockets for a midnight snack attracted many rats which had nibbled through the dwarf’s pants. Fingal had the scars to prove it. His shirt, once white, now lay underneath layers of dirt and sweat. On his feet he wore a simple pair of sandals, woven from palm fronds; his three toes wedged tightly around the thong.

Corin glanced at the pathetic looking dwarf. “Oh, all right, you little worm. You can come. But don’t cause me any trouble. We’ll leave in the morning for Zolfin. That’s about three days walk if we don’t stop much. Now leave me alone. Go ahead and have a talk with Jiggo about the house and that mutt. I’m going to sleep.”

     “Thank you, Corin. I promise I’ll not be a pest. I really do. I’ll stay out of your way and I won’t….

     “Shut up!”

                    *  *  * 

     Hair grew in patches from his thick-skinned body and the wiry strands swarmed with gnats. Several landed on his tongue, which hung out of his mouth, slimy and covered with little purple bumps. Instead of swatting them away, Gorbal pulled his tongue back and wiped his forever dribbling nose. His disk-like ears picked up sounds from far away. Gorbal plodded through the muddy bog, sloshing about as the dark brown ooze squished up through his chubby bare toes; tripping him with every step. Mud coated his entire body, including the tuft of cinnamon-red hair on top of his fat, round head. “Ohhhh, if I ever get out of this alive, I’m gonna kill him.” Gorbal snarled and spat. “Doesn’t he know gnomes don’t belong in bogs or swamps?”

     “Gorbal, he sent us for some bog mushrooms. It’s your own fault you’re covered in mud, not his,” Cafania lectured him, pointing her finger in his face.

     “Who asked you anyway, Cafania? You shouldn’t even be here. Shouldn’t you be teaching the Edelfon children how to count or something like that? This is man’s work, not a woman’s!” Gorbal looked at his friend. Nearly twice his height and tall for a woman, her sandy-colored hair, cut short, framed her oval face. Her skin, soft to the touch and a healthy pink color, set off her eyes. They sparkled like dew-covered violets in the morning sunlight. She wore tight black pants that looked painted onto her body. Her creamy shirt was tucked in at the waist and on top she wore a gray vest, knitted of wool from a wilfon lamb. Tiny hairs stuck out all over, irritating Cafania’s skin and causing her to scratch herself often. Her shoes were made of sturdy leather and carried her through all terrains, though they were now covered with bog slime.

Gorbal looked down at his clothing. A simple pair of chocolate-brown pants, tied with a drawstring at the waist and a granite colored, long sleeved shirt hanging loosely was all he wore. Aside from his canvas shoes, which stayed around his ankles with the aid of pieces of frayed rope, he had few other possessions.

     Interrupting his thoughts, Cafania, in her sweet, charming, yet sarcastic way, reminded Gorbal, “The Edelfons are no longer in this land.” Hesitating, she continued, changing the subject. “Oh, Gorbal, I forgot. This was delivered to you and me this morning.”

     “A scroll? Who delivered it and when?” Gorbal scowled.

“Funny thing. A raven dropped it in my hands when I went outside to fill the bucket from the well.”

“Well, read it to me,” he demanded.

Cafania sat on a large rock and unrolled the scroll.

Gorbal looked around for something to sit on. Finding nothing better, he fell into the mud.

Cafania shook her head with disgust.

Looking back at her and shrugging his shoulders, he said, “What the hey! A little more mud ain’t gonna hurt now. Is it?”

     Cafania read the scroll out loud. “Gorbal, the gnome, and Mistress Cafania, you are both commanded to appear at the temple of the Lord of the Heavens in the land of Zolfin in one week. Many lives depend on your arrival. Your talents are desperately needed.”

     Gorbal scratched his head with his sticky, muddy hand. “What is that all about?”

     “I don’t know, Gorbal, but we’d better go. It’s from the Lord of the Heavens. We’ve no choice, not really. Let’s leave in the morning after you’ve taken a bath.” She looked at the mud clumped in Gorbal’s hair. “I’ll take my bow and arrows. You’d better take your ‘hocus-pocus’ book.” A concerned look crossed Cafania’s face.

     Angry with her comments, Gorbal rebuked her. “It isn’t a ‘hocus-pocus’ book. It’s a book of ancient spells written in a secret code. I am the only who knows how to read it.” Knowing full well that he had never looked at the book and was lying his head off, he went on. “My father taught me, as his father taught him, and I will teach my son, if I ever have one.”

     “Well, whatever it is, let’s take these bog mushrooms back to Conrad, get our money and then get some sleep. It sounds like a busy week ahead of us.” Cafania rolled up the scroll.

                        *  *  *   

     Neither noticed the dark shape lurking only yards away, nor did they see the glowing red eyes glaring at them. The wolf listened to all they said. From years of wandering the land, he’d learned to understand most languages. He turned and ran towards Zolfin, desperate to know the reason for the importance of the gathering called by the Lord of the Heavens.

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