The Torchbearer's Quest

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The Centaurs must have finished each other off, or failed in their search for the escapees. The three slept like the dead, the dense undergrowth sheltering them from a brisk wind.

The chattering of birds finally woke them around midday.

Devon brushed off the threads of ferns. The spikes of his hair were completely flattened on one side. “Good morning. How'd we sleep?”

“Surprisingly well, considering last night,” Willow said yawning and stretching. Devon helped her to her feet. “I think this is the first dreamless night I’ve had since....” Tears welled at the corners of her eyes, and Devon slipped a supportive arm around her shoulders, pulling her into a comforting embrace.

“I’m glad you had a night of peace. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but you will begin to heal. The scar will always remain, but the pain will subside. It did for me anyway.”

Willow wiped away a stray tear. “Thank you.”

“Of course. I’m here for you. Whatever you need.”

A moan escaped from Rohan who was still huddled on the ground.

With his arm still draped over Willow, Devon nudged Rohan with the toe of his boot. “Rise and shine; it’s a beautiful day.”

“Says who?” Rohan asked. Scooting out of range, he glared at Devon whose arm had been around Willow far too long.

“He’s not really a morning person, is he?” Devon asked.

“He’s only grumpy when he misses a meal. And last night's didn't count,” she said, trembling at the memory.

“There's not much I can do about the food this morning. We really need to get started. But our first priority needs to be water -- for the horses and for us. My canteen is nearly empty. I’m going to check the map, and then I’ll saddle the horses. Think you can get him up?” Devon nodded in Rohan’s direction, who was pretending to have fallen back to sleep.

Devon pulled Willow in for a quick squeeze before releasing her. His firm, tight muscles pressed up against her. She flushed deeply but leaned into his embrace, allowing it to envelope her; reveling in the security of his affectionate caress.

His hold on her slacked, and then he let his arms fall to his sides.

“Will do,” Willow said as he walked away. She had to gather herself before kneeling down to Rohan. “We have to get going.”

She nudged him gently. The only result was moaning.

“I don’t want to do this, but it looks like it’s my only choice,” Willow said.

She unscrewed her canteen and dribbled some water on his face. Rohan swatted at her hand and rolled away.

“Very well. You asked for it,” she said, emptying the contents over his body, soaking him through.

“Willow!” Rohan yelled, jumping to his feet and shaking the water out of his long blonde hair. “I can’t believe you actually did that!”

“I warned you,” Willow said without remorse.
“What are you going to do if we can’t find water anytime soon?”

“It was worth it.”

“You drive me crazy, you know that?”

Rohan's anger melted and he laughed, giving her a friendly push.

“You know you love me!” she jested.

“You have no idea,” Rohan said, and the next thing Willow knew, they were playing tag.

Then for a split second, just as Rohan was about to catch her, they locked eyes. Willow was struck with the thought that he might kiss her.

Willow had read about the feelings she was having a thousand times. Had even sensed their aura once or twice – catching a cherished secret kiss shared between two star-crossed lovers as she waked by. But personally, direct experience was completely foreign to her.

Did she want Rohan to kiss her? What would it mean if the answer was yes? To be more than best friends and be the couple everyone already assumed they were? But what had she felt for Devon just a moment before? Rohan has always been like a brother, where Devon could take her breath away. But something in Rohan had changed. Was it changing her?

Devon interrupted the game. “I hate to break up the party, but are you two ready to head out?”

His words were like cold water being poured on her. “Sure, Devon.”

Rohan shrugged his shoulders unenthusiastically.

“According to the map, there should be a river just on the other side of that hill,” he said pointing to a large, forest capped slope that rose about five miles away.

They were all still tired and walked the horses for most of the way, no need for hurrying this day. Then they rode over the hardscrabble rocks of the hill and the air chilled under the fir trees. As the map had promised, the hill descended to a slow moving river. After a lengthy drink and a quick rinse, they filled their canteens and continued on.

The afternoon light was waning. From time to time, indistinguishable forest animals darted through the dense foliage, flitting about in the deeper shadows. Willow was grateful to have two brave young men by her side.

“Halt!” Rohan said suddenly.

Willow pulled back on the reins. “What is it?”

“Something's over there, beneath that pine.” He pointed to a tan discoloration along the trunk of a large tree. “I’m going to check it out.”

“Do you think you should?” Willow asked, not ready for adventure at that moment.

“I think that it is some kind of hurt animal,” he said, slipping off of Bellefire and reaching for his wand.

“Be careful,” Willow called after him.

Rohan marched over to the light brown mass at the base of the tree. He examined it for a long moment before calling back in a low voice, “Willow, come here. You have to see this.”

Willow and Devon dismounted and secured the horses. Rohan was crouching over something, and then put a finger to his lips and beckoned them forward. They tip-toed to his side. A small spotted fawn was sprawled out in the bracken, quivering. His right leg was bent at an impossible angle.

Willow put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, no. Poor thing! Can you fix him?”

“I think so. I remember Mr. Ashcroft, in Practical Magic, saying something about it being easier to heal animals than humans. Animals heal quicker or something like that. Let me think for a second.”

Willow looked at the fawn in silence, and then her eyes flitted to the surrounding woods. She thought that she saw a tiny face peak between the leaves of an adjacent bush. But when she looked again, it had disappeared. She shook her head at her imagination. Hunger and exhaustion were making her see things.

“Alright. I think I’ve got it,” Rohan said, his wand hovering over the fawn’s broken leg. “Medicor,” he said with eyes scrunched closed, afraid to look at the results of his work.

The bone shifted back into place and the wound healed over. The fawn got unsteadily to his feet, shook itself of the bracken, and pranced into the woods.

“You did it! Rohan, that was incredible!” Willow said.

“I did?” Rohan said, opening his eyes tentatively. “I mean, it was nothing,” he said, blushing proudly.

“Umm...brilliant work,” Devon said gruffly, patting him on the shoulder awkwardly. “Let’s get back to the horses, shall we?”

They found a meadow sheltered by a rim of thick bushes to camp that night.

Devon was about to hunt for dinner when a small voice cried out, “Ahem...Ahem...Ahem...”

A tiny man, pale of face with blushing red cheeks and a long gray beard, measuring no more than a half a foot tall, stepped out from the bushes. He was dressed in a blue linen shirt and brown trousers. A hammer and knife protruded from a tool belt about his waist. He wore tiny birch shoes, and a red peeked cap added height to his diminutive stature.

“Hello there,” Willow said. “Can we help you?”

“My kind and I are the Guardians of the Animals -- Gnomes, I believe we are called in human dialect,” the Gnome squeaked. “I was out doing my daily work -- scouring the forest for wounded and dying animals that need aid -- when I happened to stumble across you three huddled over that little fawn. I was just about to break from my cover and demand that you leave the poor creature alone, when I realized that you were trying to help him.”

Willow’s mind flashed to the tiny face in the bushes that she had seen earlier. At least she wasn't seeing things -- that was a relief. Her knowledge of Forest Gnomes was limited, strictly obtained from textbooks, whereas she was more familiar with the Garden and Farm species that were prevalent in Speratus. The Garden Gnomes tended to the flowers surrounding Credo and entertained the students with woebegone anecdotes. The Farm Gnomes, more conservative in nature, operated on wounded farm animals that grazed on the village’s surrounding fields.

Of Forest Gnomes, she knew that they rarely came into contact with humans, preferring to seek companionship with animals. They were extremely peaceful beings, like all species of Gnomes, but did appreciate the fine art of jesting. They had little prejudice for their animal friends, though they had a severe disfavor for all feline creatures. Their only true enemy was the Wild Troll -- the malicious, dimwitted, and distinctly ugly fiendish giants that lived in forsaken caves, rocks, and mountains.

Gnomes lived under their birthday tree and were able to move through solid earth quite as comfortably as humans travel through air. They often lived to the ripe old age of four hundred and had a brain capacity that surpassed man's. Seven times stronger than humans, with eyesight exceeding hawks, and a sense of direction comparable to a homing pigeon, they were well suited for surviving this rugged terrain. They could communicate non-verbally over extended distances, and were pigeon-toed to aid in speed and agility, allowing them to reach speeds of an excess of thirty-five miles per hour.

“On behalf of all Forest Gnomes, I would like to thank you for your kind service to the Animal Kingdom. If it pleases you, I would like to host a banquet in your honor,” the Gnome said, bowing his head in Rohan’s direction.

Rohan’s eyes lit up at the word banquet. His stomach growled in response. “Really? That would be awesome!” he said licking his lips.

Willow said, “We would love to dine with you, but only if it is not too much trouble.”

“It’s not, is it?” Rohan creased his forehead, fearing that the opportunity might slip through his fingers.

“No trouble at all,” the Gnome assured them.

Rohan breathed an audible sigh of relief.

“May I ask the names of you kind folk?” the Gnome asked.

“I’m Willow, and this is Rohan and Devon,” she said, indicating them in turn.

“It’s so nice to meet you three. Truly, it is a pleasure to encounter fellow friends of the animal world. My name is Bournfoodle.”

“It is so good to meet you, too,” Willow said.

Bournfoodle turned and gestured grandly with his hand, “My family.”

With that introduction, three female and two male Gnomes stepped out of the brush carrying impossibly large platters piled high with the most delectably mouthwatering foods.

“This is my wife, Merciafoodle,” he said indicating the oldest woman, dressed in a gray blouse and skirt that flowed to her ankles.

She had black socks and high shoes. Her long hair was secured in a black scarf. She offered a polite curtsey, balancing the large platter with ease.

“Our twins, Cromwick and Elvinawick,” he said as the oldest children stepped forward.

Cromwick was dressed much like his father. Elvinawick’s attire resembled her mother’s, though hers were khaki in color and she wore a green peaked cap. Her long blonde hair in two plaits was bedecked with blossoms and berries.

“And lastly, our other set of twins, Begawicket and Rowbiddle.”

The youngest children stepped forward, dressed exactly like their siblings.

“It is wonderful to meet you all,” Willow said.

“It is truly our pleasure. Shall we tuck in, then?”

“You don’t have to ask me twice!” Rohan said, all but drooling.

They sat down around a fire that Willow quickly set to blaze. The evening was filled with jesting and laughing, talking and feasting. The food was endless -- no matter how much they ate, they could not seem to empty their plates. There were a variety of nuts and wild mushrooms, peas and beans, potatoes and limitless fruit, applesauce with cinnamon, vegetables and tubers. To drink: Mead Dew -- brewed honey -- and fermented raspberries, leaving Willow’s head spinning, as the tiny goblets never ran dry. For dessert: decadent blackberry preserves.

Between heaping mouthfuls, Rohan asked Bournfoodle, “There aren’t Trolls in this neck of the woods are there?”

Apparently Rohan was paying more attention at Credo than he would like to have admitted and recalled the lesson on Forest Gnomes.

“On occasion, yes. One will pass through the area every now and then. But as long as you travel by sunlight and keep a bright fire at night you have nothing to fear.”

Willow swallowed hard remembering their midnight journey and fireless night.

Rohan seemed unperturbed and said, “Phew! That’s a relief,” before taking another mammoth bite.

Willow pushed her plate away, full and content. She smiled as she watched Rohan pile spoonful after spoonful into his already full mouth. She could see that he was reaching maximum capacity -- the glazed look in his bright blue eyes, the slight decrease in the ferocity in which he attacked his plate -- and yet he seemed determined not to stop.

“Rohan, I’m sure our friends do not expect you to eat everything,” Willow said laughing.

“Are you kidding me? This is the first time I’ve felt full in ages! I’m not taking any chances. A meal like this doesn’t come along very often. I am eating every bite I can physically muster.”

The Gnomes laughed softy, and Merciafoodle said, “I’m so glad that you enjoyed the meal. It’s about time I take these youngsters home though. Bournfoodle, are you going to stay?”

“Just for a night cap, and then I’ll be on my merry way.”

“Very well, dear. But no smoking, mind you.”

“Of course not, dear. Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Hmm...” she said clearly doubtful.

They rubbed noses in farewell, and Bournfoodle walked down the line of children to do the same with each.

“Again, thank you so much, Merciafoodle. And it was so nice meeting your children,” Willow said.

Merciafoodle answered with a friendly wave and marched her children home, carrying the enormous platters, now miraculously spotless.

“Who’s up for a night cap, then?” Bournfoodle said, pouring a proportionally large glass of spiced gin.

The three politely declined – the Mead Dew and fermented raspberries’ effect was lingering.

“Now that was a feast!” Rohan said contentedly, stretching out and patting his bloated belly.

After Bournfoodle’s drink he pulled out a corn cob pipe and indulged in a smoke.

“Best we don’t tell the missus,” he said with a wink directed at Willow.

While he puffed, spiraling curls of smoke wafting into the air, he absentmindedly polished a perfectly cut amethyst.

“That’s beautiful,” Willow said, nodding at the gem.

“Thank you. I cut it myself. It’s sort of a hobby of mine. When I’m not helping injured animals, I busy myself with stone cutting and making jewelry. Would you like it?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t. That’s extremely generous of you though. You are very kind.”

“Here, take it,” he said pressing the tiny stone into her hand.

“Are you sure?”


“Thank you so much, really,” she said examining the stone.

“Say no more about it.”

Rohan eyed the gem. “Ever come across any diamonds?”

“Oh yes, all the time. Emeralds and rubies too.”

“Awesome,” Rohan said.

Reluctantly they said farewell to their new friend as the moonlight slanted through the trees.

“May I?” Bournfoodle asked Willow, and then flipped over her hand that rested in her lap with surprising strength.

Willow nodded and lowered her hand to the ground. The miniscule man nimbly climbed on. He must have weighed no more than ten ounces. Carefully she raised him to eye level. Bournfoodle bent forward and rubbed his infinitesimally small nose across the bridge of hers. The sensation tickled and she struggled to contain her laughter, not wanting to offend him. She set him down carefully, and he gave a grand bow blushing deeply, coloring his already rosy cheeks a dark shade of scarlet.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t tell the missus about this either.”

Willow laughed and agreed but felt a jolt of sadness as she watched him go, knowing that the chances of reuniting with their new friends were slim to none.

“Wow, that was a night! Certainly makes up for last night, huh?” Rohan mused, his mood at its best since setting out on the quest.

“They were so nice, and so generous,” Willow said. “I wish we could meet more beings like that. I’m done with the mischievous and lethal ones.”

“Amen!” Rohan said wholeheartedly.

“This has been the calm before the storm, my friends,” Devon reminded them. “The Pit of Despair looms before us.”

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