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"Star Keys" (9 Keys 9 Knights)

“Proceed, scout.” Alexander waves.

“Alright, then. I was saying, we’d heard oinky, snorts, heard piggy squeals, crept, saw, and stopped.” Up from his seat, Goshen paces. He circles the fire while holding his dinner. “Your mighty huntsmen, Caige and Tee, took aim. Whoom!” He blows as lips flap. One arm flys forward. “As the screagle zooms, Caige hurled that axe with such speed and strength, as well as Alexander might ever heave and fell a giant tree. Ptew. Whoosh!” he flaps lips once more. “Then, Tee let loose with his light tool. Whoom!” he blows. “Sun’s rays could have scorched us all. A blazing ball of yellow, then blue, fury singed my hair, my cap, my eyebrows. See here.” Goshen points.

“Ho. It’s true,” says Tee. He laughs. “I lost control.

Ainia, Caige, and Alexander chuckle as Goshen jumps and jerks.

“Brush was afire,” Goshen gasps.

With each member of the group seated about the fire, red hot embers hiss, sparks fly, and they listen, smile, and laugh. Twin suns having set, meters away, the cold, swift, and gurgling Nayan River rushes by while the spooky forest is not far away.

“I thought we’d say grace and eat right then,” Goshen blabs on, “for we did have heavenly, roast skig and I am not lying.”

“Burned an oinker, did Tee?” Alexander sips water from a container.

“Yes,” laughs Caige. He winks as Tee shrugs. “I am grateful for your axe, Alexander, as my toss was accurate, the animal I targeted, cleaved.”

“Bloody, it was.” Goshen inhales deeply. As a happy clown might, midget that he is, he circles, hops, dances, and seems content with his dinner, his companions, with the moment. “Yet, we have our meal; and Tee promises to practice.” He veers and points. “Though your father would be enthused, Tee, develop more control, please, young Thema.”

“In time. Give the boy, time. Enough for now,” says Alexander. He groans as he stretches. Near the goddess of glory and a delight to all men’s eyes, Ainia, he says soft words. “We sleep tonight. You can snuggle to me.”

Ainia rolls eyes. She giggles. “While we have spent the night beneath stars, before, Alexander, scouts have tents.”

Caige’s ears perk. “In the morning, following breakfast, we’ll build a raft, Alexander. Caige cast deep-brown eyes to Alexander and then to Ainia, Tee, and the bitty munchkins.

Alexander’s eyebrows dive. “Goshen and Ghamen will leave us?”

“Yes.” Ghamen nods. Fingers of one hand dip to sweet pudding in a small, glass jar. “We promised our governor, our minister, we would bring you safely to the meadows.”

“Which, we have.” Goshen inhales and blinks. Having taken his seat upon flat rocks, he continues. “Furthermore, we told Guyunne, should we find knights to assist Tee, we would, at the meadow, return by the river, as we told Caige.”

“We promised our wives, too,” says Ghamen. “Wives worry. They worry about storms, Knorrs, ogres, and trolls.”

“I see,” says Tee.

Goshen’s shoulders rise. His eyes squeeze as his lips purse. “I can’t blame my Pita.”

“Nor can I fault Iana, my sweet thing.” Ghamen inhales deeply then exhales and inhales again as eyes twist to new friends. “She mends my clothes, keeps our children…”

“Oh? Who would they be? Their names; and how old?” asks Ainia.

“How good of you to ask, queen of stars.” Ghamen gleams. Legs crossed, on the ground, sitting, he leans and each hand spread to the earth supports him. His eyes roam as corners of his lips slide. “Dear Ainia, Iana and I have three children: Woosle, Rohee, and Soho.”

“Woosle and Soho, boys?” Ainia blinks.

“Very much so. Seven and eight years old, they love to tumble in hay, pull the oxen’s udders for milk, the female cows…get muddy in the river, and use their bows and arrows. We train the boys as archers, at an early age. Boys must learn to hunt and protect the village.”

“Nct. Nct.” Noise from the forest, fills ears.

“A-hoot. A-hoot.” Birds call.

“I see,” says Ainia. “Then, your daughter—Rohee, you said?”

“She is five.” Ghamen spreads fingers of one hand. He flashes his palm to Ainia.

Caige, Tee, and Alexander eat, drink, and listen.

“What does she like to do,” Ainia follows.

“Oh, my, knight of wonder.” Ghamen’s eyes widen and he straightens. “My Rohee helps Iana in the kitchen. Iana is a superb cook. She also makes rueberry, flackberry, and skippleberry pies, which, Rohee helps with, and skippleberry pie is Rohee’s favorite. Then, Rohee enjoys gathering eggs from our fluffy hens, watering colorful flowers, helping Iana and me in our garden. Too, she likes to play with mischievous Gee and Boot.”

Tee and knights blink and appear to wonder.

“Those are my children,” says Goshen. “A handful, my two girls like raising baby jumpers…brubbits.”

“Some day, you will have to tell Gee and Boot the truth about those jumpers, Goshen.” Ghamen’s teeth sink to more sizzling, juicy meat.

“Tell what?” asks Tee. He turns. “Goshen?”

“Oh.” Goshen shrugs. “Secrets, from girls,” he mumbles.

“Such as? What secrets?” Cage’s svelte, muscular frame eases to soft, grass of the meadow. Lying on his side, supported by his right, palm against his jaw and temple, the fire burns as he licks lips. “Jumpers?”

“Jumpers to the fry pan,” says Goshen. “Food for the griddle, some day,” he goes on, “I must tell my girls their treasured, little, soft, cotton-tail, floppy jumpers which grow to adults, are not really released to woods, as I tell my girls.”

“As you lie to them, Goshen.” Ghamen scolds.

“My girls are young, Ghamen. My words are a simple fabrication, for now.” Goshen shakes his head.

Ghamen grumbles as his teeth rip to more meat and he goes on. “You need to tell them dinner is on the table. Fat to the fire, you fry the jumpers. Brubbits keep you, we, along with chegatbles from the garden and other game, keep any of us, fed and, well.”

“Ah, I see.” Caige’s lips pooch.

“Everyone has to eat.” Alexander’s eyebrows rise and edges of his lips turn up.

“Can we talk about tomorrow?” Tee’s knees scrunch to his chest. His arms wrap about his legs. “Will it take long to craft your boat, you two?”

“As we say,” answers Ghamen and he spins, “first thing after breakfast, Caige and monumental Alexander, if you would, cut two or three trees. Once logs are cut to size, notched, locked together, bound with vines and rope, we will be good to go.”

“Then, what’s beyond here?” Tee points. “Over the river, how might we proceed? Where is this castle in which remaining knights, could be, or are they in those highest mountains? Or, perhaps we might find more knights along the way, through the meadow?”

“As certain as you are to make your way, Tee, we call you brave and daring friends, all of you.” Ghamen crosses fingers. He folds hands to his lap. “Simply, stay in the green meadow, like the edge of which we lie in now, and go north, northwest. Keep west of the Cascades.”

“Walk and cross water…small streams.” Goshen tips his cap. “Walk and walk more,” he says and waves, north. “Let the Nayan range to your east be your guide, along with the Cascades, keeping you on course. In the valley of mysterious and sky-high Mt. Berepnion, up the middle is your plan of action. Two, three days walking, you dead end.” He squints.

“Castle of Caves will be before you.” Ghamen’s lips tighten. He wrings hands as eyes narrow. “You will smell it unless the cats get to you, first, and attempt to eat your hearts and take your soul as Knorr might.”

“Tell us about the cats. We have battled the clones and Knorr once before.” Ainia peers to Ghamen. Close by, as the fire still roars, she stares at his right, arm. “There,” she goes on and points. “You have a long, scar. Was it a cat?”

“No. What you see, star-queen, is where a troll slashed my arm.”

“Ah. Trolls?” Tee inhales greatly and blinks.

“One or more?” asks Alexander.

“There were three,” Goshen follows. Ghamen and I had crossed Noofeytink Bridge, a high point that…”

“That leads from southwest Gameon,” Ghamen interrupts. “The bridge spans Oodledevil Gorge and winds to the Nayan encampment. It is a long, narrow, suspension bridge, below which, troll hunt for spoin-king truffles and peppery, corn tubers, which, everyone loves. Too, in addition to bands of trolls in the gorge, friendly ogres sometimes fish for malmry, a fatty, nutritious, but not too pleasing-to-the-taste, bivalve.”

“A clam?” asks Tee.

“Yes. A sclam,” says Goshen. “Bright-yellow and red inside, it’s juicy but, ah, I’d rather have fish from the Raja. Yet, to continue,” Ghamen goes on, “Goshen and I had nearly crossed the tethered, rope, suspension bridge when, brandishing knives, up jumped three trolls who flashed their wicked smiles. With nasty gums and slanting eyes, more sinister and wiry than the Gort and just as tricky, they leapt.”

“What happened?” Tee smacks one cheek as his eyes pop.

“Whoa. They spilled to us as gravy to potatoes, Tee.” Goshen whistles.

“We were smothered,” adds Ghamen. “We could have…”

“Thanks be to Great Shadow’s braves,” Goshen buts in and he jerks again. His scout cap nearly falls to the fire before one hand sweeps, grabs, and rescues a prized, tantamount possession of the munchkin. “With bow and arrow,” he goes on, “and with steady hands, good sight, death found the skulking trolls who wished to harm and rob us. Thwut! Thwut! Their flesh pierced, we chose to let birds of prey, peck their brains and flesh rather than spend time to bury them.”

“Of course, we thanked the Indian braves.” Ghamen nods.

“The Nayans have always been steadfast friends, as Ainia, Caige, and Alexander learned. Tee, your father, Theman, married his Shining Star, Araya, Great Shadow’s quintessentially beautiful, loving daughter, your mother.”

“Oh.” Tee inhales deeply, once again.

“Then, what about the scar?” Turning, Alexander licks lips and blinks.

“Well,” Ghamen says. He rubs his nose. “You see, Alexander, the troll’s name, Oxt, I will never forget. We rolled. He had me by the throat. His bone-blade had slit my arm and struggling, on the ground, Oxt on me, I stared to the dagger’s cold blade. Again, as I was about to die, those who ride the ponies so well, Nayan braves, sent screaming arrows to Oxt. Arrows bit to the troll’s back. Oxt’s eyes, flopped. He coughed and spit blood. More, like a mouse seeing a swake, he trembled as I jerked free and shoved my foot to his face. When he took his last breath, I then stooped, pulled my knife from its sheath, and I carved both his gorgeous eyes from their sockets.”

“Ooaa,” Tee gasps.

“Ho, ho.” Alexander chuckles as Ainia listens.

“Eyes,” Caige mums.

“Yes.” Ghamen nods. “More prized than eyes of blue-eyed bibbit, troll’s eyes are glossy. As play toys now, my boys play marbles with additional colored stones gleaned from the Raja.”

“Whew. Okay. Another tale,” says Tee. “Trolls, truffles, and tubers. Oodledevil Gorge.”

“Right.” Ghamen licks lips and he waves a finger to Tee. “But, you, young knight, are headed for Castle of Caves. Should you get lucky, pluck the eyes of Knorr or clones, there. Return them to me. I’ll add them to my boy’s collection. As well, Iana shall treat you, royally, to a most splendid dinner.”

“Sharpen your skills, Tee.” Alexander winks. “Your light-tool can do the job. Dirt-beasts and more will fall before you, once you train your mind to the force.”

“Agreed,” says Caige. He looks to Tee. “Like us, yet, different as you are, Tee, while we were empowered with certain abilities, neurally-retrofitted for certain tasks, artificially impregnated in various ways, while we seek keys, chips, which integrate to our neural pathways, you, too, have a code. You are hardwired, somewhere in your blueprint. The Order’s foundation principles instilled in you, I’m confident, mind, body, and soul, you will grow and flourish in what your father practices, is, the Way. No Dregg, blue devil, beast of any…”

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