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by Margo Fallis
The Journey

    “Gorbal, how many days have we been walking? I’m tired of being cut by thorns, twisting my ankles on rocks, and having giant bats try to take bites out of me.” Cafania usually didn’t complain.

     “Cafania, I know this is hard on you, but if we don’t hurry, we won’t make it in time and the Lord of the Heavens will put a curse on us or something. We must go on,”

Gorbal urged. “My legs are much shorter and fatter than yours. I have to take twice as many steps just to keep up with you. You don’t hear me whining.”

     “Yes, but your skin is like the hide of a jungle beast. It doesn’t scratch like my delicate skin does, and your hair; it smells so bad that it keeps the giant bats away.”

     “Look, Caf, it’s only three more days to Zolfin. We’ve passed through the Forest of Zundor; now all we have to do is cross the Plains of Marsol and go over Steffer Pass, then we’re there. We’ll rest when we arrive at the Plains, OK?” Gorbal tried to comfort his best friend.

     “This had better be worth it.” Cafania grumbled and complained. A week of misery with this stupid gnome is going to kill me.

     “I heard that.” Gorbal jumped over a puddle of stagnant rain water, splashing and sending a wave onto Cafania’s legs

“Gorbal! Why I ought to…”

                   *  *  *

Braden reached the Plains of Marsol. He’d been walking alone, non-stop, for three days and nights. He came to a swift flowing stream and knelt to drink. His knees sank deep into the mud. The cool moisture splashed on his face and ran down his parched throat. He’d had no food or water during his travel. He scooped several handfuls and drank; the last he threw on his face to rub the dust off. “What pleasure that brought.” He sat on the mossy banks. “A bath! That’s what I need!”

     Braden removed his pale blue shirt, his black pants and brown leather boots. Naked, he waded into the stream. The icy cold water drenched his bronzed skin, rejuvenating and refreshing.  He slipped under to wet his hair. Several fish swam through the clear water, swirling through the strands of his floating hair. He climbed out and stepped onto the grass-clumped bank. Water cascaded from his body, running down his lean muscles and puddling near his feet. He turned his head at the sound of giggling coming from a nearby bush. Without moving, he called out. “Who is there?” The giggling continued. “Who is there? I demand you show yourself!” When silence followed, he said, “Very well, I will just go on with my business as I am.” He bent over and picked up his pants. A whistle came from the bush. Braden turned to see a woman and right next to her, an ugly gnome. “Well, are you going to stand there and stare?” Braden smiled, not the slightest bit embarrassed.

     Crawling out from behind the bushes, the gnome gawked. “And who might you be? I must say, you are a fine specimen of a human.” His bumpy tongue slithered in and out of his mouth.

     Braden pulled his loose-fitting pants up and tied them with a rope belt around his waist. “I am Braden, from the land of Vespar on the Sea of Ruce. I am traveling to Zolfin.”

     Cafania interrupted with a cough of surprise. “We are going to Zolfin too.” She stepped closer. “I’m Cafania. This is Gorbal. We are going to a meeting at the temple of the Lord of the Heavens. We’ve been walking three days and are quite weary. May we camp with you?”

     “The three of us could travel the rest of the way together. Can you keep up? It’s still several days walk.” Braden questioned the odd pair.

     “Sure we can.” The gnome boasted with confidence. He dropped his bag and sat in the grass. “There is safety in numbers and besides that I’ve had this feeling that someone, or something, is out there. I’ve had goose bumps all day. I don’t know about Cafania, but I’d welcome companionship.”

     “And you?” Braden’s gaze wandered from Cafania’s head down to her feet.

“Yes, I’d like to travel with you. Don’t worry about me. I can keep up with you, and then some. Besides, I’ve had that same feeling. There is something evil lurking out there. I just know it! You look like a nice man!” She let her big blue eyes wander up and down Braden’s body, returning an admiring ogle.

     “Very well, my new friends, let’s camp and have our eats. We must rest. Darkness will fall soon. Perhaps if Cafania could gather firewood, you and I could build the camp.” Braden looked at the gnome and Cafania for acknowledgement and approval.

           *  *  * 

     Five hours later they lay asleep, surrounded by a thick layer of darkness. Clouds covered the moons, keeping the visibility low. The wolf crept within a few yards. His hunger and the smell of their food captivated him and drew him closer. Yet, he knew if he destroyed the group at this time, he’d never discover their quest. Curiosity held him at bay. A sharp knife whizzed by, piercing the tree within an inch of the wolf’s head.

                            *  *  *

“A wolf! A wolf!” A squeaky voice screamed. “Did you get it, Corin? Did you get it, huh?”

“Oh shut up, you stupid moron. No, I didn’t get him. Didn’t you see him run away?” Corin’s deep voice echoed across the Plains.

The others stirred awake, anxious about the commotion. Corin and Fingal plodded into the camp. “You three just about became a wolf’s dinner; mighty big wolf at that.” Corin stood near the fire with arms folded across his chest.

“Yea, he was big. He was really big, and he had big red eyes, and they glowed, and he was scary with big teeth.” Fingal rambled on.

Braden, Cafania and the gnome walked towards the two strangers. Braden spoke first. “Welcome to our camp, strangers. My name is Braden. This is Cafania and Gorbal, the gnome. The three of us are on our way to Zolfin. What brings you to the Plains of Marsol?”

Fingal whispered to Corin. “Is that a gnome? He’s ugly.”

“Quiet!” Corin walked over to the others. I’m Corin and this is Fingal, the pest.” He glanced at Fingal, who pouted and crossed his fat, pudgy arms in anger and hurt. “He’s a dwarf, if you can’t tell. They never shut their mouths!”

“I am not a pest.” His head hung low. “At least my tongue isn’t covered with purple bumps.” All eyes went to Gorbal, who pulled his tongue into his mouth once again.

Corin continued. “I was presented with a scroll commanding my presence at Zolfin. The dwarf and I are on our way there. We saw the glow of your campfire and came to investigate. That’s when Fingal here spotted the beast. It was huge. The oddest thing is that its eyes glowed this eerie red color. Never seen anything like it before.”

“But he missed it! He missed it! You see, he threw his knife but he missed the wolf!” Fingal spoke as fast as he could before Corin told him to shut up.

Ignoring the dwarf’s words, Braden questioned Corin. “Would you like to camp with us tonight? There’s still plenty of time to sleep before morning!”

“That’s mighty nice of you. So, here we are, the four of us, and it,” Corin said. He pointed at Fingal, “We’re off to the land of Zolfin. If there are any others going there, we’ll know by morning.”

“Five, counting me, Corin. Five.” Fingal held up five fingers.

Each found a place around the fire and fell asleep.

* * *

     Meanwhile, about a mile away, the wolf lay panting heavily, relieved at avoiding the close call of death. Hungry, tired, and very angry, Kolin plotted revenge against the man who’d tried to take his life. A fire raged inside. His eyes glowed more than ever with intense hatred and evil. He’d follow them to Zolfin and then destroy them all. Destroy! Destroy!

                   *  *  *

     The next two days passed uneventfully. The group walked towards Zolfin, nobody saying much to each other, even though all had many thoughts going through their minds. Braden kept thinking about Bramber and how he longed to hold her in his arms. Cafania thought about Braden and how she’d like to hold him in her arms.

     The dwarf tromped along behind Corin, taking the insults with a grain of salt. He knew Corin cared for him.

     The gnome watched Cafania and laughed when he saw her drooling over Braden. “Humans.” He shook his head, mumbling.

     Corin, the suspicious one of the group, scanned the surroundings and couldn’t stop thinking about the wolf. He turned often to look behind him. His gaze continually searched behind trees and boulders. Those eyes would haunt him forever.

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