Despite Bodwin’s careful efforts to avoid the gnomes, their two groups had traveled closer overnight. Keenin could see them now, their movement marked by an orange crested bird that would fly away down into the field and shortly circle back to perch with them.
“Get ready to say hello,” Bodwin said picking up his pack.
He sounded disappointed, but rather than lag behind or go further around he took the most direct route through the field of Goldenrods, intersecting the gnome’s trail.
“Primitive forest dwellers,” Bodwin complained. “The only good thing that comes from them are so-called exclusive food and drink. But you can’t even exchange coin with them, it’s all trade and barter.”
Keenin suspected that money was all Bodwin ever expected to get out of anyone.
Something slimy fell on Keenin’s foot and he stopped to reluctantly check. It was a fat slug that started oozing across his foot.
Keenin shook his foot, but the slug held on. He flailed more wildly, but he had to put his foot down so he did, on top of something needle-sharp. Keenin gave a cry of pain and fell onto his butt so he wouldn’t step on anything else. The vine he had stepped on lifted from the ground and remained attached to the bottom of his foot with hair-thin spikes embedded into his skin. The slug remained stuck to his ankle.
Keenin gently peeled the vine from the sole of his foot. The punctures left behind started to itch and burn fiercely and his foot throbbed. Bodwin had reluctantly trekked back to get a look at him.
“Can you walk on it?” he asked.
Keenin was going to say no when something distracted him, a bird, it alighted on the large toe of his injured foot and picked off the slug. The gnomes pushed through the flower stocks into his small clearing and the bird perched in the hair of the female. As he had guessed from a distance, the gnomes were indeed short like children.
“Oh that would be a Glassberry vine,” the man said, “Not nice.”
“It wasn’t poison was it?” Keenin asked since these gnomes seemed to know.
“Poisonous, no. Painful, yes. I may have some ointment,” the man said searching his many pocketed pants.
“What are you doing walking around without shoes?” the woman inquired.
“Ah, I’ve got bandages,” Bodwin said as though to escape the woman’s woeful eyes and avoid looking like a neglectful caretaker. Keenin watched the bird hop around on top of her nest of hair.
“I hope my bird didn’t startle you,” the woman said. “He’s a garbler. They eat slugs.”
“Why does it live in your hair?” Keenin asked. The gnomes were truly fascinating people. When he saw them up close he had to admit their skin was more splotchy and bumpy than the average person, but not as ugly as some books described.
“To keep him with me of course. I need a good bird to keep the slugs out of our grape patch or else we would never get any wine.”
The male gnome had found the small jar of ointment and knelt by Keenin’s foot to spread some over the wound. The ointment made his foot tingle. Compared to the ointment the bandages that Bodwin wrapped on after felt lumpy and constricting, but he wasn’t going to say that, especially since Bodwin ended the wrapping with a sharp tug to signal that Keenin should stand up and get moving away from their new acquaintances. Keenin ignored this. He took his time to flex his foot.
“But you can’t have a grape patch in a forest,” Keenin said.
“We aren’t going to the forest for grapes,” the man explained. “We are going to pay the elves a visit to see if we can acquire some of the best yeast. It’s an important business.”
“Where are you traveling?” the woman asked.
“I thought that I would see the city, but I don’t know after that,” Keenin admitted. “I seem to have started an adventure.”
“Kids these days like to run away early,” Bodwin told them.
“You should come with us,” the male gnome said.
“Dear, I’m sure they have other places to be.”
“We’re going to Behoden for trade,” Bodwin said speaking up, “I’m afraid if we don’t start walking it will take us another day.”
“We’ll be on our way then,” the female gnome said.
“Right,” the male said scratching his head in thought.
His wife got him turned around.
“Oh” he said remembering his thought and turning back. “Boy be careful with that fire. It has an extra kick to it.”
“What fire?” Keenin asked.
The woman gave her husband a whack on the side of the head and stubbornly left him behind.
“Lokeshi dear, I was just trying to be nice,” he said trying to catch up to her.
“You and your foretelling. It worries people,” she grumbled.
“It was not a foretelling. It was the earth speaking to me. Don’t deny me woman! Not when we have the most grapes!”
Keenin watched them leave from his position on the ground, not quite understanding.
“They are a bit funny,” he said.
Bodwin held out a hand and pulled Keenin to his feet.
“I’m carrying enough weight as it is so watch your step,” Bodwin advised.
They continued west. The meeting with the gnomes seemed to have triggered a defensive instinct in him because this time Bodwin started boasting about his own achievements.
He spoke of the time he had gone into town for supplies only to find the entire town sick with Burflu because they had eaten unripe pepper root. He had been forced to boil medicine for days to get them better, but ever since they never charged him for goods. Only the town didn’t exist now. Then there was the time when he had all his possessions stolen and …The Elvin forest they had been walking beside dwindled away behind them opening up to greater fields. Keenin had never thought he could feel sick of flowers, but with no destination in sight the walk felt increasingly hopeless. Did you ever hear of the three-horned bull? Bodwin’s stories were starting to sound boring. Luckily at the fifth story, Keenin saw a line of birch and pine trees ahead of them.
“Is the town right behind those?” Keenin asked pointing.
“Right. It’s a little past those trees.”
Keenin sat down.
“Get up!” Bodwin yelled at him.
“I’m resting. Can’t we stop here?”
He was tired of being nagged at.
“Look around yourself boy. The flowers are dying.”
“Goldenrods are nice until they wither. Then they send out a perfume that makes you want to stay behind in the field. If you don’t want to sit here and die I suggest you get up.”
“It might be nice to die in a flower field,” Keenin said.
“Perfect,” Bodwin said, “Next you will say you don’t like my stories of adventure either.”
The child must have had a very weak resolve. Bodwin should have seen it coming considering the miserable lost state he had found him in. He bent down, wrapped his arm around Keenin’s middle, and tossed him over his shoulder like a sack. Keenin didn’t so much as complain. In fact, he fell asleep for a short time. Bodwin himself wasn’t immune to the flower’s scent of decay, but as a traveling merchant he held a certain passion for visiting new places and he liked challenges so he would plod on.
Keenin started to come to his senses when they reached the trees and he was wide awake once Bodwin tossed him onto the ground.
“Ow,” he said. “Are you trying to make my injury worse?”
“Stop being ungrateful,” Bodwin told him. “I’m the one with a sore back from carrying your weight.”
Bodwin tossed Keenin’s bag to him. He caught it and felt ashamed that he had nearly forgotten about it and the precious map contained inside. He looked through it to make sure everything was still there. Then he looked around. The field was behind them and they had entered a birch and pine forest. Sticky pine needles had glued themselves to his skin and clothes.
“We’re almost there aren’t we?” he asked.
“Of course. We’ll enter the city tomorrow,” Bodwin said undoing the straps on his pack. “Get a fire piled up so we can eat.”
Keenin brushed off the pine needles and went to collect wood. Bodwin cleared a space on the ground to make a dirt patch for the fire. Bodwin explained the importance of keeping a contained blaze and showed him once more how to use flint to light a fire. For that night’s dinner they had dried fruit bars instead of bread with dried meat. The sweetness was so much better than crusty bread and the same oversalted meat.”
“Why didn’t we eat these before? They taste so much better.”
“I never eat these until the end of the trip. It gives you something to look forward to. And speaking of looking ahead, you have you figured out what you want to do in Behoden?”
Keenin swallowed the last mouthful of fruit. He had put off thinking about it. Somehow he had assumed that life would be the same as it always had been. He would either continue traveling with Bodwin or revert to being a thief. And if he didn’t get a magic teacherer within the next year he would go back to his hometown. Surely Renaldo would forget about him by then.
“Can you tell another story?” Keenin asked dropping the topic, “I wasn’t paying proper attention before.”
“Unfortunately no. I have some preparations to finish before we get to town,” he said eating an extra bit of stale bread with the fruit. “Can you watch the fire while I’m gone?”
Keenin didn’t know how to refuse such a request so he didn’t. Bodwin stood up, took his pack, and walked off to be alone in the bush. Keenin was tempted to follow the man, but he doubted whether he could sneak up without the old guy noticing. He stayed at the fire, and waited, and tossed on branches, and yawned. Bodwin eventually returned and told Keenin he could sleep. Keenin thought to ask Bodwin what he was keeping a secret, but it wasn’t as though the two of them were friends. Besides, what more could a grumpy merchant want from a runaway kid.