A white butterfly fluttered by Keenin’s nose as he kept his eyes on the back of Bodwin’s large pack, clinking with dangling pots and stuffed to bursting with the scaly cockatrice skins. The large man didn’t even slow as they climbed a grassy rise. Keenin gripped his own small bag and a borrowed canteen of water and tried to keep up without tripping.
He nearly face-planted into Bodwin’s pack. The merchant had stopped at the height of the rise and now Keenin could see why. Spread out as far as Keenin could see was the largest field of Goldenrods he had ever seen, all with their tall, broad-leafed stalks and strands of clustered yellow flowers sprouting from the top like a feather duster. White butterflies played on the breeze overhead and trails cut through the field where other groups had passed.
“This is Fiore. ‘The Field of Gold’ is what the elves called it,” Bodwin explained. “I never did see the connection. Field of heart attacks is more like it.”
Keenin took the opportunity to hand the canteen back to Bodwin, who accepted it.
“Do you know how long this field is?” Bodwin remarked. “It takes a day to cross and you’re exhausted by the end. It makes my feet hurt just thinking about it.”
Keenin became aware that he couldn’t see trees on the horizon.
“You aren’t lost, are you?” he asked to make sure.
The merchant had been promised a way to the city of Behoden and if it wasn’t for the comfort of some prepared food and interesting company Keenin might have found his own way.
“It’s a shortcut.”
That said, Bodwin moved down the slope and began wading through the chest-high stalks. Keenin followed behind, trampling on the stems.
Bodwin wasn’t so bad. Sure he was ill-tempered and a little greedy, but he was a big talker and as they wandered across the empty field he began again to tell stories of his travels. Thanks to that Keenin figured out that Erinhall was where the elves lived and their forest not only grew huge because of constant rainfall but had a lot of strange creatures living in it.
“Have you ever seen an elf?” Keenin asked him, thinking back to the pointy-eared man who saved him.
“A real elf. Never. They don’t show themselves outside the forest and they don’t like humans. I’ve only spoken to their half-breed cousins.”
“You need to learn your politics. I’m talking about the half-human elves,” Bodwin said. “Pure breed elves are too snobby to speak with us.”
“So you can understand what they say?” Keenin asked interested.
“Sure. Tree is Sulla, Rock is De, and Flower is Sebe. That’s all you need to know.”
“But what if I want to speak to them,” Keenin said.
Elves were supposed to be the most amazing race. Half of the books he had seen were about them.
“No you don’t. They’re pompous fools that think they know everything just because of their ancestors.”
“That’s like every noble in the world,” Keenin protested. “I’m sure there are open-minded elves too.”
“Ya, the dead ones,” Bodwin laughed.
“Come on. How do you say ‘thank you’ in elf, or elvish, or whatever?”
“Or whatever…” Bodwin laughed even harder at his personal joke.
This conversation continued for a long while and ended with Keenin forgetting most words as he saw more creatures and plants to be explained. Bodwin resisted answering every question and after a while, he limited the number of questions that could be asked at a time. Talking kept their minds away from the traveling they had ahead and Keenin suspected that the old merchant was starting to enjoy the company. When Bodwin wasn’t talking, Keenin would sometimes see him turn his head to look at the horizon beyond the field and smile to himself.
Just as Keenin was thinking to ask if the merchant had a family waiting, Bodwin stopped smiling and stopped in his tracks. He raised a hand to shade his eyes as he looked into the distance. Keenin copied the motion, but he saw nothing out in the field. Bodwin let his arm fall.
“Let’s move this way,” he said plowing a new path to the right.
“What’s wrong?” Keenin asked.
“There are more travelers.”
“I didn’t see anyone,” Keenin said.
“They were short. Probably gnomes. You would have seen the flowers moving.”
“Why can’t we go straight?”
“I don’t want to risk my merchandise,” he grumbled.
Keenin decided to leave it at that. After all, he might have tried getting away with the man’s goods had he still been a thief. And Keenin knew how much Bodwin fretted over his merchandise after watching the man carefully remove, pluck, and dry each scaly skin.
Still. It felt sad not to give the strangers a chance. For better or worse Keenin’s approach to strangers had changed because of Alaban, but he didn’t want to think about it. Having nothing better to do and feeling no worry over the approach of these short people, Keenin occupied himself with reciting elven words.
When the sun fell low in the sky, the two of them settled down in the middle of the field. They stomped out a circle in the flowers and sat down. The plants made a soft bed on the ground, but since they couldn’t safely light a fire Bodwin handed out dried bread from his pack.
“Thank you,” Keenin said in elvish.
Bodwin gave him the interested look of someone who saw potential, then he dropped his eyes and sighed.
That sigh made Keenin wonder if Bodwin would rather he not know elvish or if he was simply tired of being bothered. Either way, Keenin decided not to say anything more. Not yet ready to sleep he rested on his stomach and examined some of the plants growing nearby while Bodwin took out a small notebook to scribble down some ideas, or whatever people wrote these days.
Eventually, Keenin turned onto his back and gazed up at the night sky, slowly drifting to sleep as fireflies shone through the tangle of stems. A rustling sound snapped him out of his trance. Keenin turned his head to see that Bodwin was digging something out of his pack. He pulled out a glowing object and to Keenin’s surprise set the purple glowing stone onto his chest.
“Don’t lose that,” Bodwin said standing, “I’m going to relieve myself. Stay here with that so I can find you again.”
Bodwin tromped off into the field, and Keenin tiredly sat himself up to get a better look at what the merchant had handed over. Keenin experimentally closed his hand over it, shutting out the light, then opened it again. He was curious as to how it worked.
He placed the stone on the ground in front of him to see if that made a difference. If he managed to change the glow, he wasn’t sure how to apologize to Bodwin, but then the guy shouldn’t have left so suddenly. Regardless, the stone continued to glow.
Then something else pulled at Keenin’s attention. He thought he heard someone talking. Bodwin. Was he muttering to himself? Keenin couldn’t pick out the words, but there were long pauses between when Bodwin spoke that made it seem like a conversation. Could there have been another person out there? It was impossible, Keenin would have heard the snapping stems if anyone approached. He moved to crawl closer when a snake slithered out of the flower patch and raised its head in alarm in the open area. By the time Keenin waited for it to pass Bodwin rustled back through the field and the startled snake slid away. Keenin picked up the stone and handed it to Bodwin who returned it to the pack as though nothing had happened. Once more the fireflies became the only source of light and the deep shadows between Bodwin and him intensified Keenin’s unease. He could hear Bodwin shifting the goods around in his pack and pulling it closed.
“Who were you talking to?” Keenin finally asked.
“You heard that huh.”
Bodwin didn’t sound concerned, but he was taking his time to answer.
“Was it other travelers?” Keenin questioned directly.
He would try to determine if the merchant was lying.
“No. Nothing like that,” Bodwin said. “I just like to give my thanks to the gods. Makes me feel braver out here by myself when I ask for their help.”
Oh, Keenin thought, feeling dumb. That made a lot of sense. Bodwin lay himself down. Keenin felt his own exhaustion and did the same, rolling onto his back. The shining stars greeted him from above.
“Do you think (Keenin yawned) they exist? I heard that people made the gods up to explain stuff.”
His questioning mind yearned for more answers, but Keenin’s eyes were already closing, his ears not hearing past the static of his slipping thoughts.
“Go to sleep kid.”