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Five
by Margo Fallis
Damien


          They decided to walk all night since they’d lost time fighting the dragon and tending to Braden. The two moons shone on the hills as they made their way towards Princess Jasmine. As the sun rose they could see the land of Damien with its small village off in the distance. “We’re almost there,” Corin spoke. “I see the village up ahead. Cafania, do you still have that Healing Stone that the Lord of the Heavens gave you?”

     She opened her pack and pulled it out. “Right here, Corin. I’ve been very careful with it. I wonder what it actually does. Why didn’t we use it on Braden?” A look of confusion crossed Cafania’s face, wondering why she hadn’t thought of that earlier.

     Step after step brought them closer to the village. They could see it clearly now. It had about a hundred huts made of straw and branches. There was a fire burning in the center of the village and the aroma of food floated towards them. “Food!” Fingal cried. “I’m so hungry. We haven’t eaten in days. I hope it’s something delicious cooking over that fire, like maybe a roasted pig, or some chickens, or even a large turkey leg would taste good right now.” The others were as hungry as Fingal and as anxious for a meal.

     The food drew them quicker to Damien. When they arrived at the village, many children ran out to meet them, pointing at Fingal. They took the hands of Corin and Cafania and tenderly urged Braden on, seeing his wounded arm. They were taken into the center of the village. After a glance, Braden noticed there were no adults around, just children. “Where are your parents?”

The little boy looked down at the ground, kicking the dirt with his bare feet. “They’re gone,” he whispered.

     Braden knelt down to be on eye level with the boy. “Where are they?”     

     The boy replied, “The trolls took them into their caves. We’ve never seen them since.”

“What’s your name, boy?” Braden brushed the boy’s chocolate brown hair to the side of his face.

“Jasper.”

Braden rubbed Jasper’s head affectionately and then went to talk to Corin. “The parents have been taken by trolls to some caves. Not only do we need to help Princess Jasmine, but now we have to find the children’s parents.”

     Corin nodded. He called Jasper over. “Boy, where is Princess Jasmine? Can you take us to her?”

     The boy nodded, took Braden’s hand and walked toward a straw hut. Corin, Cafania, Gorbal, and Fingal followed, as did the other children. When they got to the door of the hut, the children stopped and wouldn’t go inside. Braden pushed the tattered curtain back and entered, as did Corin and Cafania. In the back of the hut lay a young girl about fourteen years old. She lay still on a feather-filled mattress. Cafania ran up to her. “She’s dead.”

     Braden and Corin stood over the princess. Corin felt her. “She’s not dead, but near to it. Get the gnome!” Corin ordered the others without realizing his demanding tone of voice.

     Braden pulled the gnome inside. “There’s the princess. Now do whatever you need to do with that Healing Stone. Cafania, give it to him. We have to hurry. It doesn’t look like she’s got much longer.”

     Cafania gave Gorbal the stone. He looked at the object in his hand, not knowing what he was supposed to do with it. “All of you leave, except Cafania. I need her,” Gorbal barked, shaking with nerves.

     Braden and Corin went back out with the frightened children, leaving the two alone inside the hut.

                        *  *  *

     Braden and Corin, along with Fingal, searched the village. They went from hut to hut. There were no beds, no clothes, and no food. The huts were barely standing, merely sticks held together with pieces of frayed rope. “What do you children do for food?” Fingal frowned at the unhealthy looking children.

     A bigger boy came forward from the group. “I am Sami. and I kill the food. I’m roasting a deer for us now. The females gather berries and nuts. I’m the best hunter,” he boasted.

     “Well, Sami, the deer smells good. Let’s eat and then we’ll figure out a plan to get your parents back,” Braden said.

They walked over to the fire. A boy turned the roasting deer on a spit made from a branch of a tree. The meat sizzled and popped as its juices dripped into the flames below, causing bursts of flames to shoot up and around the browning deer. The aroma filled the village, tantalizing all. Braden cut off pieces for everyone, saving some for Gorbal and Cafania and the princess. Corin passed around a large bowl filled with ripe, red cherries. Each child took a handful. Braden counted the children with his gaze. Seventy-three ragged urchins, ranging from age eighteen months to around age fifteen, including Sami. A girl carried a large gourd full of fresh water for Fingal, Corin and Braden, filling their simple carved wooden cups. “Thank you,” Braden said, smiling at her.

“Sami, tell us the whole story from the beginning. Don’t omit anything.” Corin sat near the fire, tossing the leftover bones and gristle into the roaring flames.

Sami began. “Not so long ago our village was busy with trade. We hardly had time to sit and rest. It was a thriving village. We had hives full of honey bees, fresh flowers on our tables and in our huts, and grain for everyone. Life couldn’t have been better. We lived in peace and harmony, with laughter in every hut. About three months ago, during the early part of summer, when the fields were full of golden stalks of grain, a huge fire started burning outside of the village, over to the east.” Sami pointed. “The men, our fathers and older brothers, ran to the river and carried back barrels of water. The wind blew very hard that day and many trees and fields burned. Every hut in the village filled with smoke. Our eyes burned and our little ones choked and coughed. Rabbits, deer, squirrels and mice ran toward our village in terror, seeking safety in our huts, but we could not give it to them. The fire raged for several hours. The females, our mothers and older sisters, had to leave their little children so they could help the men carry the water. They too had to carry heavy barrels of water on their backs. Even then, the fire seemed to be too powerful for us to stop. Hour after hour we carried water until the fire was finally put out. Everything was black and smoldering. That night the children were put to bed and the parents collapsed from exhaustion and smoke.

Later that night the trolls from the Caves of Arton came and took our parents, who were too weak and tired to put up much of a fight. Trolls snuck into our huts, one by one, hit our fathers and mothers with their clubs and carried them off. In the morning, when the children arose, we found ourselves alone. I, being the oldest left in the village, went out looking for them. I followed their tracks and their stench to the caves. I watched them force our parents inside, but there were wild dogs keeping guard, so I couldn’t get any closer. I came back here and we’ve been waiting for someone to come along to help us.”

Corin watched Braden wipe a tear from his eye. “Sami, what about Princess Jasmine?”

     “The Princess is just a year younger than I am. The trolls didn’t want the young ones, not even the Princess. We can’t work hard enough for them. They left her too. Sadly, a few weeks ago the Princess was bitten by a very poisonous snake and now she is dying.”

     Braden slipped his arm around Sami’s shoulder. “We’re here now and we’ll help you get your parents back. Why don’t you try to get some sleep.” After the boy left, Braden said, “They moved their entire village over here, where there were trees. They built huts and have survived alone…amazing children.”

Corin, Fingal and Braden sat around the fire thinking.  The midnight sky, ablaze with millions of brilliant stars seemed to close around them like a heavenly robe, enveloping them in security and warmth. Within a few minutes the children fell asleep in the dirt or lay on mounds of tender grass. The fire crackled and popped, sending tiny fireballs to join the sparkling heavens.

                        *  *  *

     “Well, Gorbal? What are you going to do about her?” Cafania gazed at the gnome.

     Gorbal looked down at Princess Jasmine. On her left leg two snake bite marks throbbed, surrounded by red, swollen infection. “Ewwww! That looks bad.” He leaned over and sniffed it. “Smells pretty bad too.”

     “Well?” Cafania asked again, cringing at the odor of decaying flesh.

     “I don’t know! You watch her while I read the book!” He angrily snapped at her, feeling the pressure as his spine stiffened and temples throbbed with tension and pressure.

     Cafania stood over the young Princess while Gorbal sat on the floor. He crossed his legs and turned the pages, looking for something to help him with his dilemma. “Let’s see. Here’s the H page. Hair, hammers, headaches, healing. Oh, here it is.” He read the page to himself, stood, and walked over to Princess Jasmine. “Put the Stone under her chin.” He ordered Cafania, who did as she was told. She lifted the princess’s feverish face and placed the cold stone under it. “Now move out of the way. In fact, go outside! I can do the rest by myself.” Gorbal glared at Cafania, who turned and left the hut. He opened his book again and recited the incantation, or spell, holding onto Princess Jasmine’s hand.

                   *  *  *

     Cafania walked outside and saw Fingal, Braden, and Corin sitting by the fire. The children slept nearby.

 Fingal saw her and screamed. “Here she comes! Did you cure the Princess? Is she alive? Did you kill her?”

     Cafania placed her hand on Braden’s shoulder. “I don’t know yet. Gorbal told me to leave. It seems he can handle it on his own now.” She sat next to him.

     An hour or two passed in silence. Dawn approached. The sun, still below the horizon, stretched forth, lighting the land in warmth and hope. Fingal noticed the tattered curtain of the tent parting. “Look!” He shouted, waking the others. Out walked Gorbal. Right behind him was the Princess. She smiled and looked the picture of health.

The children, hearing Fingal’s screams, woke up and ran to her. “Princess Jasmine!” They cried with relief and delight. Sami walked toward her, his eyes twinkling with joy, took her hand and led her closer to the fire.

     “It looks like you’re feeling better,” Corin said.

     “I feel perfect again.” She looked down at her leg. “Look, there’s no scar at all.” The Princess searched the eyes of the travelers. “Gorbal told me all about you. Thank you, Corin, Braden, Cafania, and Fingal, but especially you, Gorbal.”

     Laughing, Braden shook Gorbal’s hand. “Gorbal, my fine gnome. I don’t know how you did it, but congratulations.”

     Gorbal’s chest expanded with pride and power. Yet, in a shy manner he answered, “It was nothing.” He patted the book, once again safe in his pocket.

     “Now that you’ve got your Princess back, will you take us to the caves?” Corin stood, grabbed his knife and put it back in its sheath.

     The little children ran over to Sami and Princess Jasmine. They hugged her and clung to her, wanting to sit around her feet and be near. Sami plucked a small boy off his leg. “You saved Jasmine. Let’s go save our parents.” He looked at her, his eyes full of love. “Jasmine, the children will stay with you and care for your needs. Cafania, will you stay with Jasmine while I go with Corin, Braden, and Gorbal?”

     Fingal whined. “What about me? I want to go. I don’t want to stay with the children. I want to fight some trolls. I want to kill some trolls. Please let me go, Corin. Please?”

     Sami looked at the dwarf. “Fingal, I know you’d be of great help fighting the trolls, but I’d really be happy if you’d stay with the females. I need you to guard and protect them.” Sami winked at Cafania and Princess Jasmine. “Will you help them, Fingal?”

     Fingal wanted to go with the men, but wanted to be in charge of protecting the children and the Princess. “I’ll stay here, but will you kill a troll for me, Sami? Will you, Corin?”

     Sami laughed and nodded yes. Cafania smiled at Fingal and then her face grew serious and stern. “Gather your weapons and be careful.” She warned the others. “I’ve dealt with trolls before. They are dangerous, loathsome creatures.”

     “Don’t worry, Cafania,” Braden said. “You’d all better go back to sleep.”

     Sami hugged the Princess and whispered something into her ear. She giggled and then kissed him on the cheek.

Braden mouth the words, “Thank you,” to Cafania.

     Corin nudged Fingal with his boots. “Okay, Fingal. You’re the man in charge. Act like a man, not a dwarf. Keep them safe. Sami and I will both kill a troll for you.”

     “Thank you, Corin. Stab it with your knife and cut off its toes and pull out all its teeth. Okay?” Fingal begged. “Bring me back a troll’s ear and don’t worry. I’ll be brave and I’ll make sure they’re all safe, and I’ll keep the fire going, and I’ll…”

     “All right! All right!” Corin interrupted. “We’re only going to be gone for a few hours, not a month.”

     A few minutes later they left, leaving seventy-three children, the princess, Cafania and Fingal alone in the dark village.

                        * * *

     Kolin watched the events from the forest. His stomach groaned with a starving hunger. After the battle with the dragons at the nests, and barely escaping, he’d picked up the group’s scent and followed it to the ramshackle village. A few wounds scarred his body – reminders of the dragon’s razor-sharp claws. He licked them with his rough, blood-coated tongue. Drool fell from his foaming mouth as he thought about the children alone in the village. He’d wait until the next night and then go into the village for his daily kill.  The scratches in his flesh throbbed with pain, but with each throb, his cold, slow beating heart filled with growing hatred for the humans.


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