HSN: And Then There Were Two (short story) 07/10/2015 07:18 PM CDT
>I watched in horror as my brothers and sisters walked away, leaving me -- us -- for dead. I tried to call out, but my weakened state and parched throat made it impossible to speak, much less yell, and my broken body pinned me to the ground. I could only gaze across the bloated soil and wonder what was going to happen to us.

He looked up and scanned the audience with his coal black eyes, noting an innocent - yet anxious - look on their faces. He pressed on, reciting the words on the brittle parchments tucked securely inside the leather journal.

>I must have drifted in and out of consciousness, because I remember seeing the moons and sun. I am certain that multiple days passed, but exactly how many, I do not know.

>A rookery of albatross flew above my head. Their calls were distinct. High-pitched chirps with a lilting tone echoed across the farmland. There were hundreds of them, and you could have heard them for miles. That did not matter, though. What was important was that I heard them. Wersch Wiglow. I was alive.

The elder gnome leaned back and rocked a few times in the old oak rocker, one hand resting on the chair's arm, and the other clutching the journal from which he read. He flipped the book over, hiding its aged pages. "Keep going! Keep going!" A chorus of young voices echoed the sentiment, the room deafened by a cacophony of youthful pleas.

"Kitcha, would you be so kind as to refill my blackberry juice?" A smattering of hushed snickers escaped the mouths of a few of the older children who had sneaked a taste of that notorious blackberry juice. They knew it contained a little more than just blackberries. Nonetheless, he continued to read aloud.

>I looked around and saw Pretla slumped over a rock jutting out of the sand. She wasn't moving. I tried to crawl, and it was then that I realized my leg was broken. The very thought of curling my crushed limb beneath me sent an excruciating pain from the tip of my nose all the way to my big toe, and I wondered how I would get all the way over there, to her. I had to know if she was alive; I had to know.

>My early days of woodcutting meant that my arms were as strong as an ox. I called on that strength, clenched my fists, and sunk them into the soaked ground, dragging myself across the seemingly endless stretch between me and her. My heart was pounding, and I could feel each bead of sweat form on my brow, and as it trickled down the bridge of my nose, I could see the scarlet tinge as it mixed with the blood that must have been pouring from the gash on my head. The sunrise had begun and in just a few hours, the heat would be draining.

The elder paused, smoothing the stray, dark grey hairs that had fallen across his face. Kitcha returned with a fresh glass of blackberry juice and handed it to her grandfather with a smile, pausing expectantly. He gave her a nod of approval and returned her bright smile. She skipped to her space on the floor, plopped down, and turned her attention back to the storyteller. He sipped from his now full glass and swished the liquid in his mouth a few times before swallowing. His cheeks appeared full of color.

>The morning sun moved across the afternoon sky like a stallion-led chariot, swift and smooth. The more I closed that gap between me and Pretla, the closer the sun got to the opposite edge of the sky. I began pulling myself faster, chipped shells scraping against my stomach as I inched along. I had to stop and rest. I remember inhaling deeply, and the smell in the air was familiar, perfumed by the comforting, yet blood-tinged, scent of my friend.

>I reached out, barely enough strength to lift my arm, and just as my fingertips grazed her torn and bruised cheek, I heard them again. Only this time, it was chaotic - and soothing - all at the same time. They sounded as if they were flying above me, rejoicing in my victory. And yet, their calls sounded urgent and alarming. The sky filled with streaks of black and white, and I was convinced that I was losing my hold on reality and that I would soon join Pretla beyond the Ebon Gate. I was with her now, though, so it was okay. As I reached for her hand, slowly and painfully, the feathers rained down around me. Hundreds - thousands - covered us in a fluffy blanket of grey. They stuck to our wet skin, and at that moment, I knew that it was not over. My destiny was being written, here and now.

>I don't remember how long I watched the feathers fall, but my trance was broken immediately when Pretla grabbed my hand. Relief swelled inside my bruised body, and getting us to safety, up and out of the deluge and onto drier land, was now my main priority. The albatross soared high above the dangers of the flooded land, flying into the distance and then back again, over and over. They wanted me to follow. It was a sign.

He stifled a yawn. "Are you not tired yet? We've been reading this for hours, and it is nearly bedtime." The children begged in unison, "Finish the story!" He complied.

>Her hand was cold, but it warmed me. She was alive, and we had another chance. We were given another chance. We had to take it. The water was rising around us, and I knew it would just be a matter of time before it engulfed our surroundings. The albatross flew off to the east.

>I spotted a thick branch just on the other side of the rock, and while I hesitated to let go of Pretla's hand, I needed that branch; it could be my cane, and it could help us get out of here. I reluctantly released my grip and dragged myself around the outcropping until I was close enough to grab the stick. It felt glorious in my hand.

>Pretla was mumbling. I couldn't make out the words, but I rushed (as much as I could) back to the edge of the rock. I watched her mouth move, barely making out the words as her weakened hushed voice trickled over her lips. "Help me up." She must be crazy, I thought. Up? Here? NOW? I gripped the tree limb in both my hands and hoisted myself to a sitting position, ignoring the incredible pain in my leg. I didn't care, because I knew my leg would heal. Pretla was an expert in the healing arts, and once she was recovered, she would be able to tend my wounds. Sitting, while more painful, gave me much better positioning to help her, and with a solid, but gentle tug, I was able to help her up. It was exhausting. She motioned toward the small flask that was still attached to my belt. Yes! Of course! Water. The thing that threatened to destroy us was also that which we needed to survive. I grabbed the flask and pressed it to her lips, tipping it slowly. She drank, gulp after gulp. "Slow down there, or you'll make yourself sick," I suggested. She nodded and leaned back from the container. It was then that she saw my leg. I noticed her concern but insisted that we make the attempt for higher ground. She agreed.

The audience was quiet and still, entranced by the story. They'd heard it a hundred times, but it never grew old, unlike the storyteller.

>East. We must head east. Pretla looked at me with curiosity. I explained to her about the albatross - their song, their back and forth travels, their feathers. She began to remove the feathers from our bodies, carefully plucking each one from our skin. "Careful," I cautioned. In her sweet little voice, which had begun to return, she said calmly, "I understand. We will save these. They were meant for us to keep them, and so, we shall." Without hesitation, she swung her legs over the side of the rock and stood, slowly checking that her strength was enough to stand on her own. Her pack was still slung over her back, and she began to place the feathers inside delicately. "These feathers are near perfect. I want them to stay that way," she said.

>Dark clouds began to swirl overhead, the need for relocation becoming clear. Walking would be difficult, at best, and agonizing, at the least. Pretla decided to sacrifice her already sapped resource of energy to tend to my broken leg. This way, we could move together, toward the east.

"Grandfather?" One of the young ones called out, breaking the room's hush. He marked his spot on the parchment with his finger and addressed her, only slightly annoyed. "Mmhmmm?" He raised one eyebrow for slight intimidation. The child continued meekly, "Can you skip all that icky stuff and go right to the part about the forest?" Childish but contagious laughter broke out amongst those seated, and the elder couldn't help but join in, recognizing that not all like to hear of the transformation of wounded flesh. He found it fascinating. Not all shared his interest in the details of healing arts, however. He nodded politely and flipped a few pages in the journal, quickly scanning the words. "Here we go."

>The walk was brutally slow, and the rain had begun again, but the albatross remained overhead, practically leading the way. The land looked foreign despite it being our home for the last several years. The wind - the rains - the storms - had demolished any familiarity that we may have had. The albatross knew where to go, and they could see where the higher ground was. They were leading us there.

>The edge of the forest was thick but a welcomed change of scenery. It felt as if we were making progress, even if slow. We walked a long time. The sun had disappeared below the edge of the sky. The darkness was nearly suffocating, but I could still hear the albatross, soaring above us. They let us know they were still there, and we continued to follow their sounds. "Where are the others?" Pretla spoke hesitantly. My heart sank. I knew this question would come. I didn't want to answer it. I pretended not to hear her and continued walking. She did not ask again -- at least, not on this day.

>The sun rose the next morning, and I could see the silhouette of the mountain. We were exhausted, but we knew this would be our new home. We will begin again. My mind was flooded with thoughts of the others. I had hoped we would meet up again and share our survival stories, but alas, this day never came.

>We climbed to the top of the mountain, the albatross at the lead. Upon reaching the summit far above the flooded valley below, the grey skies cleared, and we collapsed to the ground, weak and hungry. How fortuitous that we landed in the middle of a blackberry bramble.

The elder gnome took a deep breath and laid the journal face-down across his lap, indulging in another sip of his blackberry juice. "Bedtime," he said. The youngsters sighed, but knew there's no changing his mind. One by one, they approached the rocking chair and gave their elder a big hug before rushing off to their own beds.

He gazed out a small window, admiring the scenic view from his homeland perch. Sipping his blackberry juice once more, he closed his eyes, nearly ready to retire himself. A familiar touch brushed across his shoulder, and he smiled. "Bedtime?" she asked. The elder gnome set his mug down upon a side table, tucked the journal on the bookshelf beside the chair, and reached for his cane carved from a thick branch, weathered with time. "Bedtime," he agreed. "Tomorrow is a new day, and there is much work to be done. Come, Pretla. Tomorrow, we will sort feathers and teach the designs." Wersch removed his apotl and placed it on the wooden frame designed to hold his ceremonial wardrobe. He rearranged a few of the black and white albatross feathers and nodded.

Hand in hand, the couple retreated to their quarters. Wersch hiccuped, and Pretla muttered to herself, "You and that blackberry juice of yours. Hrmph."

~ Haliste ~
The Forest Gnome of Silverwood Manor