--Chapter Twenty-two: Gimble’s Adventure, Part One
Five years and three seasons later in the northern woodlands...
Gimble the gnome yawned and sat up in his moss bed. From the look of the sun above him, he was already running late for his last day of sixth grade. He would have to act quickly if he did not want his mother to yell at him...
“Have you taken your shower yet? You’re going to miss the boat unless you hurry!”
Gimble went through his normal steps when he did not have much time in the morning: he threw on his gray tunic and trousers from yesterday, grabbed his shoes and tied them haphazardly, and then he put his lucky green hat on to cover his hair without having to comb or shake off the dew on the leaves above him to give himself what was the gnome definition of the word “shower.” Lastly, he grabbed some pencils and put them in his trouser pocket.
“Coming, Mom,” he yelled to a branch below. He started to climb down the tree trunk, and he felt his back spasm a little as he did so. This could almost definitely be attributed to a lack of sleep lately, but Gimble also thought it had something to do with his bed. He would have to remember to collect more moss for it and bring that up to his sleeping branch, since clearly he had outgrown what little moss made up his bed at that time.
At the lowest branch on the maple tree, Gimble’s mother had prepared his breakfast: a bowl of nuts, the same thing he had nearly every morning. He looked through the tree’s leaves and saw in the distance that his school boat was about to arrive on the riverbank. There would be no time for a leisurely breakfast this morning. Mom knew it, too. She handed him the bowl so that he could grab a few of the nuts and eat them on the way to school. Then the two gnomes rubbed noses in the traditional greeting and parting gesture of their species, and Gimble left to climb the rest of the way down the tree. To free up his hands for the descent, he took all of the nuts he had grabbed and stuffed them in his mouth. He would worry about chewing them without choking once he reached the ground.
He took care of the descent and the nuts in short order. Then he had to run to catch up with the boat, but he managed to make it on time. The school boat, constructed exclusively from sticks, leaves, and twigs, came every morning of the year except during winter vacation. So except for when he had been too young to remember anything happening around him, for all intents and purposes, he had spent three quarters of his life going to school. This was not so bad, he supposed, because he had enough friends to ensure, more often than not, that the experience was a good one. Still, he enjoyed vacation time whenever he could get it, and with the winter break only one day away, he—and every other gnome child with him—could hardly wait for the last hours of the school year to pass.
Gimble hopped into the boat and sat in the third row of seats, where his two best friends, Pelidial and Elgin, saved him his usual spot.
“Hey, Pel. Hey, El.”
“You guys nervous about the history final?”
El laughed. “Let’s just get it over with... That’s what I say. Why we have to learn about this stuff anyway is beyond me.”
Pel added, “You said it, man. As soon as that test is over, I think I’ll run home and skip the boat.”
El asked, “Say, you guys wanna do something tonight?”
“Can’t,” said Gimble. “I gotta pack for tomorrow.”
“Oh, that’s right,” said El. “You’re going with your family... Wait. You’re not packed yet?”
“Aw, man... But you’re going cross-country! You have to get so much stuff ready for that—”
“I know. I’ll start it right after I get home after school.”
The school boat sailed down the river for another fifteen minutes, during which time the children on it had fun talking and making plans for the rest of the day. Since Pel and El were busy planning exactly that, Gimble passed the time by looking out over the woodland stream.
On this particular day, the water was very calm. Trees and the occasional rock slipped by on the far bank. Gimble saw his own reflection clearly today: the classic, rounded features and short, wavy chestnut brown hair (which, in Gimble’s case, his hat mostly covered), bright blue eyes, and, because of his age, the beginnings of what would soon become a true gnome beard.
Gimble did not look at the water just so he could see his reflection, though; rather, he hoped to see a fish or two before school.
It was not long before he got his wish. Two trouts, each one the size of Gimble’s entire body, leaped out of the water only a meter away. The gnome watched with a certain fascination. He would have loved to be able to live his life that way, swimming and frolicking freely in the wild from sunup to sundown. Odd, he thought, that some of the least intelligent animals in the forest would be so lucky—and yet, because of their inferior brain power, they would never know how good they had it.
When the boat arrived at school (a bunch of trees interlinked by gnome-sized rope bridges), Gimble took his mind off the fishes and readied himself for the day’s final exams: history, science, and mathematics. The first exam, and the hardest, would be history. Gimble made his way through the leaves and branches and bridges until he reached the oak tree where his class took place. He and El had seats next to each other on the fourth branch up. Their teacher, a plump old gnome woman by the name of Fewgs handed out the exam sheets one branch at a time. Gimble took one of the pencils from his pocket and started immediately...
Although the test was excruciating, this only added to the gnome’s relief when it finished. The other exams were very easy when compared to this first one. Gimble finished his last exam, the one for mathematics, half an hour early. He left school with a generally positive feeling about how he had done... But the moment he got off the boat and climbed up his home tree, he would not even think about the tests anymore; now he had a vacation to pack for!
A gnome’s method of packing for vacation worked much like a recipe from a cookbook. Instructions could have read, “Take three burlap bags, as many belongings as you can fit in them, and all necessary ropes for tying the bags shut. Mix ingredients and throw into the cart for the donkey to carry later.” Gimble did all of this and managed to fit all of his clothes and a little bit of moss into his bags. The only thing missing, he knew, was food; he would need provisions of some sort for the trip, but there was no more room left in his bags. He adjusted for this by taking one day’s outfit from one of the bags and making a mental note to place some nuts, berries, and bread there later on.
Gimble’s mother and father had already packed their belongings, and by the time Gimble had finished getting everything together, all that remained was for the family to get some much needed sleep before setting out early the next day. This happened soon enough.
In the morning, Gimble took his shower and dressed at his own pace. He could do this now, since the donkey waiting at the ground would not leave without him like the school boat would have done. His parents, too, took their time, thus almost defeating the whole purpose of waking up early to get a fresh head start on the journey.
“This is Ihgom, our fairy,” said Gimble’s father at the branch designated for kitchen purposes. He pointed at a small yellow orb floating next to the tree, and then he resumed eating his nuts. In between bites, he said, “He’s done plenty of picture trips before, so he should be alright.”
Gnomes and elves would hire fairies, much in the same way mages did, but instead of using the tiny electric beings for trickery, traveling woodlanders would use them for taking what was known as a “fairygraph.” If a fairy lined up its electricity so that it surrounded an object or person, the fairy could then remember with perfect accuracy the appearance of that being and later engrave the image on any wooden surface. The reason fairies could do this owed not to any supernatural magic, as some less educated people thought, but to a scientific fact known as the Second Law of Fairydynamics. Gnomes and elves would learn this law in a university-level fysics course—not to be confused with fysiology, the study of the fairy anatomy.
The donkey Gimble’s family used for the trip was loaned from a human’s farm just south of the woods. For a price of one alligon, they could rent it all the way to Desdon and back.
Gimble’s father used a rope ladder to mount the donkey. Then he set up another rope so that it could be used as a pulley for getting the cart of their belongings up and secured. Gimble then climbed the ladder, and once everything else was ready to go, Gimble’s mother climbed up and took her seat on the last of three simple chairs attached one in front of the others on the saddle. Gimble’s father gave the reins a tug, and the donkey started at a fast walk. The journey had begun.
They spent the first few hours riding through the woodland. Most of the leaves by now had fallen, though a few still clung, and while the scenery may not have been the lush green of spring or the brilliant veritable rainbow of earlier autumn, it still had its charm. For Gimble, it was hard to appreciate that charm, though since he had grown up surrounded by it and as a result had accepted it all as just another part of his life. The fish in the brook might have scolded him for not appreciating how lucky he was to live in such a beautiful forest instead of cold, ordinary water... but Gimble never even considered this irony in his relationship with the wilderness.
Every now and then a squirrel would hop by or another gnome would wave and wish them a safe expedition. They saw no elves; elves tended to live east of this part of the forest. A few birds flew overhead. These avians, mostly geese and blue jays, represented the last of the flocks headed southward for the coming winter.
The serene nature Gimble saw in every direction, plus the rhythmic plodding of the donkey’s feet, eventually put him to sleep, which he needed to catch up on anyway, given the morning had been such an early start.
When he woke up, he no longer saw any woods around him. They were now out on the plains. To his left, he could see a farmhouse and several fields, all of which by now had been harvested and would not see new crops until spring. To his right, Gimble saw nothing but open grassland, hills stretching all the way to the western horizon. The sun was low but not quite ready to set yet, and the air, though not cold, contained within it a wind that made the atmosphere seem almost frigid at times.
Gimble yawned and asked out loud, “Where are we?”
His father answered, “We’re an hour or so out of the woods, and in a moment, we will be on the Windmill Road.”
Gimble tried to remember his geography lessons from the previous year. When he more or less had his bearings on their location, he asked his father, “Where are we going to stop for the night?”
“That’s a good question... The first town is called Ableridge, but we’ll be lucky if we reach it by nightfall. It’s easier for elves and their horses to get there in one day’s travel, but I don’t really think we should be going faster if we want to keep the stuff in the cart from falling out.”
Within the hour, they were riding down a very wide and heavily traveled Windmill Road. The name fit, too; on both sides of him, for several kilometers into the distance, Gimble saw farmhouses, silos, and windmills turning in the breeze. To such a small gnome, these great mechanical creations no less than filled his imagination and made him wonder, if humans were capable of such great things as creating the windmill, then why did their species resort to destructive war in all the history textbooks? Maybe these conflicts were not meant for simple gnomes to understand. On the other hand, maybe humans were just characteristically inconsistent.
Whichever way, though, Gimble decided he liked windmills a lot. He would have to learn more about them someday.
Ableridge was a fairly large township, the only civilization, outside of the northern woodlands, that could truly be said to be run by elves. Elves maintained the inns, the shops, the stables, and the restaurants. Many humans went through the town on a regular basis, but few of them actually lived there, since they were farmers from the outlying fields. All the inns had special large rooms designed for humans and elves, as well as small rooms designed for gnomes, so once Gimble and his family got there, which was a few hours after sunset, they had no trouble finding a place to spend the night.
The inn where they stayed stood across the street from a restaurant. There an elf waitress greeted them and told them to take a seat at any of the gnome-sized tables to the left side of the dining room. Gimble had not known what to expect when he first went into the tavern, but amazingly enough, the setting seemed very familiar, in large part because woodlanders had built it. Everything in the entire building was made of oakwood. On every wall hung several fairygraphs of various places in the northern forest. And, of course, the people in the restaurant were all woodlanders, with only a couple of exceptions.
Because the woodland holiday season took place in the winter, Ableridge and other outskirts of the north would be crowded this time of year. Traditionally, few gnomes and elves went farther south, but lately, because the humans’ war had ended (and not started up again for more than half a decade), more were taking the journey to explore the rest of Aren Country. So Gimble and his family would not be alone this year.
They ordered their meals (Gimble decided on his favorite: trout), and while they ate, they made plans for the road ahead. Gimble’s father did most of the talking.
“Tomorrow, we must be very fast. Our donkey will have to travel a full day’s distance by human horse standards. The good news is, once we get past the next hill here, we’ll be traveling downhill. Gimble, I want you to sit in back and make sure nothing falls out of the cart while we ride. The town we hope to reach is called The Windmill Road.”
“Wait...” said Gimble. “Isn’t that the—”
“Yes, it is the name of both the road and the town. Don’t ask me why; I don’t know. I hear they have a good tavern there, and they finally put in gnome seating this year.”
“Do they have gnome hotel rooms?”
“Now that I’m not sure of... We’ll find out when we get there. Anyway, from The Windmill Road, we head east and then southeast. Eventually the road will fork at the Yearling river. There are no more towns along the way from The Windmill Road all the way until we pass that river and travel an extra day at least after that. We’ll have to make camp about five to eight days before we get there.”
That’s stupid, thought Gimble. Why couldn’t they just make a town for every day’s travel? Why do we have to camp out in the cold all the time?
“Give or take a few days for the weather, with any luck, we’ll be in Desdon in a fortnight. We’ll stay there then for two fortnights, and then we’ll go home.”
“Sounds like a plan!” said Gimble’s mother enthusiastically. “So what time should we wake up tomorrow morning?”
“Same time as we did today, but this time without as slow a breakfast. I’ll see if we can get some sort of room service.”
The hotel did not offer room service, but luckily the restaurant was open all day and all night, so they simply went back across the street in the morning, picked up a few rolls they could eat on the road, and from there went to the stables to get their donkey and cart.
Today it was Gimble’s mother’s turn to hold the reins while father rested and Gimble did his best to hold the cart steady. As he sat with his seat turned to face the road behind them, Gimble saw more of the same countryside pass by. The windmills became fewer after a while, and the stench of cattle filled the air for the next hours. What exactly caused this odor, Gimble could not say; he saw very few animals around. At one point, there were a few cows grazing in the distance, and later, a nearer herd of sheep seemed to watch the travelers from behind a fence rail.
To a gnome, even a sheep could be huge, and seeing a whole herd of them this close made Gimble ask, “Can I take a fairygraph, Dad?”
“Sure thing. Just get Ihgom out of the cart there.”
Gimble looked into the cart and called for the fairy. It flew up immediately and startled the gnome. Gimble pointed to the sheep and said, “Could you make a picture, please?”
For two full seconds, forty very confused sheep found themselves surrounded in a yellow glow. Then it stopped, and the fairy flew back into the cart. It came back out again holding a wooden plank the size of Gimble’s head. Some electric charges shot out of Ihgom’s cloud, and a minute later, the fairygraph was finished. Ihgom politely handed Gimble the final result. Gimble eagerly looked over it. He could hardly believe the detail and wondered how a fairy could take such large creatures and fit them all onto such a small piece of wood.
He thanked Ihgom and put the fairygraph in the cart for safekeeping. Ihgom too went again into the cart and probably fell asleep.
Gimble did not see any other animals for the rest of the day. Most of them, he concluded, would by this time of the year be inside the barns.
They kept on riding all the way through a light lunch of nuts and bread, a small sample of what provisions they packed for the trip. Eventually the sun lowered in the western sky, and just before it was about to set, The Windmill Road came into view.
At that moment, an elf on horseback passed them—as had a couple other elves along the way. The gnomes waved to each elf they saw and thanked them for not letting the horses kick up too much dust in the donkey’s face as the larger creature passed.
Gimble and his family reached the village almost exactly at sunset. A man named Jhaddel greeted them at the stables and vowed to take good care of the donkey overnight. The gnomes went right across the street and booked a hotel room—no, they did not have gnome-sized rooms, but they had gnome-sized cots available. These would do nicely.
The tavern next door was full of elves and gnomes, but the servers were all human. A woman named Isa showed them to the new gnome seating next to the fireplace and asked if she could take their drink orders.
Although this village was much smaller than Ableridge, the tavern was even busier and livelier the one they had visited the night before. Elves who had not seen each other in seasons were getting reacquainted. Gimble did not see any other familiar faces, but there was one family of gnomes eating at the table next to them.
They ate their meals, but Gimble was still hungry afterward. He wanted another bowl of soup.
“But we have to get to bed here,” said his father. “Tomorrow will be another early day if we want to keep up the pace.”
“I know,” said Gimble, “but I’m really hungry, and the soup here is pretty good. Please?”
“Tell you what,” said his mother. “I’ll stay here with Gimble. You go back to the room and get to sleep. You’re going to handle the reins tomorrow, so you need it more than we do.”
Gimble’s father nodded. “Sounds good. I take it we pay for our dinner in the morning?”
“Yes,” said Isa, who happened to be approaching their table then. “You can pay in the morning, if you wish. We will keep your tab.”
“Don’t run up a million alligons of soup, Gimble,” said his father. Then the elder gnome thanked the waitress and left.
“One more bowl of soup, please,” said Gimble.
“Coming right up,” said Isa with a smile.
By the time she returned with their soup, the bar was less crowded; most people left early because of the early darkness in the sky. Gimble figured that with all the other staff present, Isa would not have much other work right now... Maybe she could answer a few questions for him.
“Yes? Is the soup alright?”
“It’s fine. I wanted to know... Have you ever been to the East?”
“No I haven’t, but I’ve heard many stories about it.”
“Why aren’t there any towns between here and the Yearling River?”
Gimble’s mother almost broke in to keep her child from distracting the waitress from her job for too long, but Isa did not seem to mind.
“I think it was because of the war. Incria and Desdon could not develop westward while they kept fighting north and south. That was five years ago, though. Now they’re setting up towns all over the place. Are you headed that way?”
“We’re going to Desdon.”
“Oh! Well, you’ll see several towns before you get there. Basically wherever a little river or stream can be found, by the road, there’ll be some form of civilization.”
“Really?” said Gimble’s mother. “Well, I guess we should get a more recent map, then!”
Isa laughed. “You know, I hear that a lot lately. Wish I knew a good mapmaker, but they all tend to live in the big cities. Maybe you’ll find one in Desdon.”
“Yeah, and we’ll bring it home for the elves to correct their current ones,” said Gimble. A few of the elves in the tavern overheard this, but none took offense. No woodlander would ever get angry over a little innocent teasing.
After breakfast the next morning, the gnomes set out once more. They would reach nine more townships on their way to Desdon, and as it turned out, they never had to set up a camp outdoors. Gimble’s father was worried they would run out of funds for all the hotels, but eventually they compensated by eating only their packed rations and not stopping at restaurants.
Ihgom cam in useful several times, increasingly so as the family went deeper and deeper into human territory. As the towns progressed, they contained fewer and fewer forest elements. Stone architecture and metal railings replaced the wooden framework of buildings in the heartland, and past the Yearling River, all the roads were paved in brick. This brick road, they learned, was the result of a massive building project ordered by the King of Incria; imprisoned criminals from across the land could serve their sentences by spending a year or two laying brick. The gnomes thought this a novel idea, but they never were able to figure out what the word “criminal” meant. It must be a type of person not indigenous to the woodland, that much was certain.
By the time they actually reached Desdon, they were weary of traveling but not so much so that they would think about returning home yet.
Desdon looked marvelous in the afternoon sunlight. The entire city was built of red stone. An enormous wall surrounded it at every part except where a river ran through it. This was the Great South River, which stretched all the way from the mountains to the Eastern Ocean. Some boats rode with the current into the city, and many humans traveled the road with them as their donkey faithfully plodded along.
The gnomes got their share of odd looks, since so few of their kind came by until recently. Also, the looks tended to get odder as Gimble took more and more fairygraphs. Eventually he decided to stop and give Ihgom some rest. He could not understand why Desdon residents would react this way to a fairy, unless of course it were local custom.
Although there were plenty of hotels in Desdon, not a single one contained rooms or cots for gnomes. They had expected this would be the case, so they simply chose a single room and climbed up on a human bed for the night.
They stayed in Desdon for three days before Gimble’s father admitted he had not brought enough money for them to stay longer—the effect of the hotels along the way was indeed starting to kick in.
The first day, they toured the historic sites: the old fortress and city defenses during the war (as well as a history lesson on how the city lost), a museum of antique weapons and writings that nobody in the modern age could interpret, and the historic shipyards, which for centuries had served most of the city’s trade with the rest of the nearby towns. Many fairygraphs were taken until Ihgom ran out of wooden planks. Gimble sighed and made it a note to bring more wood should he ever come here again.
The second day, they visited more with the people of Desdon. The locals turned out to be very friendly when they weren’t surrounded in a yellow field, Gimble noticed. Very few people talked about the war; most were concerned with living their daily lives and getting a certain number of chores done before sunset.
Gimble thought the most interesting man he met that day was one Geppith, a blacksmith, and his uncle. The donkey the gnomes had ridden into town on needed new horseshoes, and this pair agreed to sell them for a very fair price.
“Just gonna take a wild guess,” said Geppith’s uncle while the blacksmith went to work on the iron. “I’d say from lookin’ at you that you probably aren’t from around here.”
Gimble did all of the talking, since his parents were mostly distracted watching Geppith at work.
“That’s right,” the gnome said. “We’re from the woodlands, up north and west of here.”
“Oh, the woodlands, eh? You don’t say.” The old man chuckled. Gimble would have guessed him to be in his sixties or seventies, since humans and gnomes basically lived the same lifespan. His hair was white, but his skin looked very dark and wrinkled. He seemed happy and healthy, except for the obvious limitations of old age. He sat down on a giant anvil not currently in use and said, “You know, I wasn’t originally from around here either. No, I was from a little city called Pril.”
“Pril...” Gimble recalled geography class once more. “Wow, that’s a long way.”
“It certainly was, boy. It certainly was.” He took a pipe out of his shirt pocket and in a minute had it lit. “I’ve sailed much greater distances, though. Back in my day, I was what you would call quite the adventurer. I’ve seen it all, just about: sea monsters, storms, people from every region of the Aren Country and even from continents afar... Six years ago, I even saw a land war—that was when I came here to retire and live with my nephew here.
“I’ve never been to the woodlands, though.” He smiled, and Gimble smiled back.
Gimble had a policy of knowing the names of people with whom he talked, so he asked politely.
The old man laughed and said, “In Pril, nobody ever asked for names; since I’ve moved here, though, everyone asks. I still haven’t gotten used to it, I don’t think. But if you must know, my name is Salt.”
“Nice to meet you, lad.”
“So do you like it here in Desdon?”
“Oh, I should think it’s much better than Pril as far as the city goes. The people here are nicer, especially. I miss the sea, though. Desdon has this tiny harbor that only sends boats locally. You’ll never see a real ship here... I remember ones that were bigger than an entire city block and longer than even the highest spire is tall here... ships that took crews of fifty or more to sail them to the farthest reaches of the globe... Have you ever seen anything like that, Gimble?”
“Uh... I’m a gnome,” said Gimble bluntly. “Everything here seems humongous to me.”
“Aha, I guess it would...”
Geppith was about finished nailing in the horseshoes; since the donkey could use some of the pre-made ones from a back room and needed no custom fit, the blacksmith’s task was very simple. Gimble’s father paid five linnes for each shoe and thanked Geppith properly.
“Well, I see you’re about to go,” said Salt. “But you just remember this one thing, Gimble: wherever you go, and however many journeys you take, you just be grateful that you’ve got a home to return to. The best lesson of traveling is that in all the world over, nothing quite beats coming home.
“Now you stop by anytime you’re in Desdon; I’d like to hear more about this woodland up north sometime. Have a safe trip, okay?”
The gnomes simultaneously said, “Okay,” smiled, and left with their donkey.
The next day, the gnomes bought an updated map, but otherwise, they rested. They knew they would need all their stamina for the trip home.
Gimble spent much of the day just sitting at the windowsill (he used a curtain rope to climb up to it) and looking out upon the city street. As he watched the crowds go by, he could not help but think about what the old man had said the previous day... Gimble knew that Salt was right, too: for all the vacation had shown him, he could think of nothing better than to go home again. And though this city may have been home to thousands, it would never be home to the gnomes. All the people who walked and rode their horses past the window that day looked as though they took their setting for granted. None of them stopped to admire the pavement, which contained some very fancy brickwork and stonework. How long had it taken Desdon’s builders to pave every street in the city as ornately as this? And for what? So it all could be stepped on and ignored? Well, Gimble for one appreciated it, whoever had constructed it. There may not have been any bricks for construction projects in the woodland, but gnomes could recognize good craftsmanship when they saw it.
That afternoon in the hotel room, Gimble’s father laid out the plan for the trip home.
“We’re low on rations and money, but if we’re careful, we should make it back just fine. We’ll have to go on two meals a day, and when we get back, I promise we’ll have a feast or something. Sound good?”
Gimble and his mother agreed to this strategy. The next day, they set out on the Windmill Road.