After several hours of traveling, Fiona slowed her pace and stopped.
Grayden leaned forward from behind Tillie. “We’re here.” He swam out of the saddle and turned to Fiona. “I’ll see you soon, Fiona.”
Fiona waved to him with her fins and then turned to Tillie, winking one of her large brown eyes as if to say goodbye.
“Thank you for everything, Fiona,” Tillie said.
“Good luck,” the minnow whispered. Then she shot away into the cloudy water.
“She spoke to me!” Tillie said. “She likes me!”
Grayden looked at Tillie and smiled. “Up we go.” He grabbed the supply sack and kicked one webbed foot behind him.
Tillie pumped her legs and paddled her arms with all her strength, determined to keep up with him. She broke the surface of Lake Loch and inhaled deeply, tasting the air as if for the first time. The cloudless sky above her was dark except for the glowing moon and millions of bright stars. Even though she was much smaller than normal, the moon and stars looked the same size.
“Come on, Tillie!” she heard Grayden yell. She scanned the surface of the water, but saw no sign of the young warrior.
“Where are you?” Tillie yelled back at the darkness.
“Over here!” Grayden called.
Tillie followed the sound of his voice to the edge of the lake. There Grayden sat in a mound of tall grass, his legs curled comfortably under him, his head propped on one up-turned hand.
“Are you going to paddle around like a frog all night? We’ve got things to do.”
“You’re right,” Tillie said, laughing. “I’ve got dirt to scratch and eggs to lay, as Uncle Quentin always says.” As she neared the edge of the water, she found her feet sinking ever-more-deeply into the mucky mud of the bank. She struggled on, nearly losing a cowgirl boot more than once. Finally, she threw herself, boots and all, on shore beside Grayden, huffing from exertion, covered with mud, and dripping wet.
“Are you ready to change back to still-giant size now?” Grayden asked, giving Tillie a moment to rest. “We shouldn’t waste time.”
“Yes, I guess so,” Tillie said, sitting up. “Are you that eager to get rid of me?” The idea of saying goodbye to Grayden made Tillie realize how very sorry she was to lose his company.
“I’m not getting rid of you,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I’m going with you.”
Tillie was so surprised she didn’t know what to say – a new and rather unpleasant experience.
“You didn’t honestly think I’d let you face the Wompus Wulf alone, did you?”
“Yes,” Tillie squeaked. “The Keeper of the Flame told you to go straight back to her to start your training after you saw me off.”
“If she really thinks I’m Keeper-of-the-Flame material, then she must have known that I’d disobey her, don’t you think?”
“What do you mean?”
Grayden smiled. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, Tillie, it’s that doing what’s right doesn’t always mean following the rules. If the Keeper of the Flame really thinks that I am the right person to succeed her as leader of the pod, don’t you think she knows that I’m the type of person who always follows my own direction? She must have known I’d go with you.”
“Sometimes being a good leader means doing what’s best for your people instead of doing what you want.”
“I think it’s only right for me to face the Wompus Wulf with you. According to what the Keeper of the Flame told us, my people have been running from the Wompus Wulf for generations. It’s time for us to stop hiding in the depths of Lake Loch and face that creature.”
Perhaps partly because Tillie had never been one to follow rules either and partly because she really did want him to go with her, Tillie found Grayden’s reasoning hard to argue against. But there was still one catch. “The Keeper of the Flame said that the Wompus Wulf had a taste for the members of your pod,” she said. “Perhaps she told you not to go with me because your presence may make this trip more dangerous, not less….”
“I already thought of that,” Grayden said, smiling again. “If the beast starts stalking us, then we’ll split up and he’ll continue to hunt me. I’ll serve as bait so you can get across the Plains of Wompusmeeste.”
For a moment, Tillie was speechless. “This is too dangerous for you,” she said at last. “You might get hurt – or even killed.”
“Look, there’s no way that you can convince me not to come with you. After all,” he opened his satchel, smiling wide, and produced the tiny vial that the Keeper of the Flame had given to Tillie, “I have the enlarging potion!”
He pulled the stopper free of the vial, dabbed just a little of the potion on his left hand, and then held the vial out to Tillie.
“Thank you, Grayden,” she said, pouring a few drops of the potion on her own hand. “I mean it.”
Grayden just smiled.
In silence, the two set about covering themselves with a thin layer of enlarging potion. Tillie even thought to give the supply bag a coat.
“Do I need to put some potion inside the satchel too?” Tillie asked. “So we have food?”
“No,” Grayden answered. “The potion will automatically enlarge the items inside the bag just like it will automatically enlarge our guts.”
“Cool,” Tillie said. She slipped the vial into the pocket of her cowgirl vest, reserving a few drops just in case.
The two travellers waited in the moonlight, anticipating the magic.
“Nothing’s happening,” Tillie commented.
“I know nothing’s happening,” Grayden said. “The potion takes a little while to work.”
They waited for a few more moments. Still nothing happened.
“I just don’t think this is going to work,” Tillie said at last. “Maybe the Keeper of the Flame only gave me enough of the enlarging potion for one person.”
She looked at Grayden to see if he agreed, but he was no longer there.
“Grayden!” she yelled. “Where are you?” She looked around, but saw nothing except a short, twisted tree.
“A tree and a lake?” Tillie, said, realizing that her surroundings had changed.
Grayden suddenly appeared beside her. “Wow,” he said in a hushed voice.
“Yeah,” agreed Tillie. “When the vanishing powder shrank me I could see the world growing larger around me. This potion was nothing like that. Pretty strange, huh?”
“Very strange,” Grayden agreed. “I’ve never been this large before.” He held out his arms and examined them as if seeing them for the first time. “I could crush the entire Lapadanian army at this size!”
“Don’t get any ideas,” Tillie said. She studied the grassy landscape stretching from the edge of Lake Loch to as far as she could see. The waist-high weeds were broken by an occasional grouping of rocks or stunted tree. “Crossing the Plains of Wompusmeeste isn’t going to be easy,” she continued, her voice wavering as she crossed her arms close to her chest to fight off a sudden chill. “This is the field of grass I saw in my dream.” She stared hard at the grass, half expecting it to form words. She knew that the Wompus Wulf was out there somewhere, searching for food.
“Lake Loch looks so small now,” Grayden said. “It’s hard to believe that’s where I’ve lived my whole life….” He walked to the edge of the water and dipped one toe in. “The other warriors are probably eating their evening meal about now.”
“Eating sounds like a fantastic idea,” Tillie said, patting her belly. “I suggest we eat, sleep here tonight, and then set off on the Trail of Dragon in the morning.” The idea of wading into the tall grass at night did not appeal to her. In truth, she didn’t think that venturing into the grass in the daylight would appeal to her either.
“That plan sounds fine to me,” Grayden agreed.
“I’m really starving,” Tillie said, trying to focus on her hunger and not the growing sense of unease she felt. “I wonder how long it’s been since I’ve had a bite to eat, anyway.”
In answer, Tillie’s stomach gurgled something that sounded suspiciously like the words “too long.”
Grayden removed the supply satchel from his shoulder. “I captured you yesterday afternoon, so, unless the guards fed you, it’s been over a day, at least.”
“I can’t wait to see what you have in that supply bag!” Tillie exclaimed. “I’m so hungry I could eat a snail!”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Grayden said, “because that’s exactly what we do have to eat.” He reached his hand into the seaweed satchel and removed one fist-sized snail. “Looks like they’re just the right size!” He squeezed one hand into the snail’s shell, gripped the soft, pink mollusk, and pulled it free. It wriggled as he held it.
“You’re not really going to eat that, are you?” Tillie demanded. “It’s still alive!”
Grayden took a big bite of the snail. “It’s not still alive,” he said through open-mouthed chews. “The hunters of my pod catch these snails on the edge of the lake and boil them in spiced water. They’re very tasty!”
“Really?” Tillie asked.
Grayden handed the supply bag to Tillie, still chewing. “See for yourself.”
Tillie took the bag from Grayden and cautiously reached into its depths to remove a single snail. The weight of it surprised her; it was heavier than a small watermelon. She gripped the squishy flesh inside and pulled with all her strength, dislodging the meat.
Grayden looked at Tillie.
Tillie looked at the pink thing in her hand.
The pink thing looked at no one.
Tillie raised the snail to her mouth and took a bite. “This is really good!” she said, going back for more.
“So I guess it’s a little better than you thought it’d be, huh?”
“It reminds me of pickled snakes’ feet, a rare delicacy in the Fiefdom of Fairamore. Uncle Quentin told me that the dish is so rare because most snakes can’t resist gnawing off their own scrumptious feet – and usually do so just a day or so after they’re born.”
“Is that true?”
“Mostly.” Tillie licked at the last remaining bits of food nestled between her teeth and realized that she was sleepier than the time she stayed up all night teaching herself to play the tuba.
“Well, I guess this spot is as good a place as any to spend the night, don’t you think?” She began mashing down weeds with one foot to form a human-shaped depression.
“What are you doing?” asked Grayden.
“Making a bed, of course.”
“Oh, of course,” Grayden said, sounding a bit confused. He had never spent the night outside of Lake Loch and was unsure of dry-ground bedtime routines.
Tillie continued crushing weeds beneath her feet until she had made a circle big enough for her to lie down in. She sat down on the springy vegetation, bouncing up and down a couple of times to test her new bed.
Grayden followed suit, making a sleeping spot for himself a few feet away. “This will be just right,” he said, sprawling out on his back and studying the stars in the nighttime sky. “I don’t get to see those very often.”
Tillie relaxed, listening to the wind blowing through the grass and the crickets chirping. Just as she closed her eyes and began to drift off to sleep, the sudden flapping of a bird’s wings brought her fully awake again. She jumped up, scanning the horizon for whatever had made the sound. She saw nothing.
“What’s wrong?” Grayden said, leaning onto one elbow.
“I thought I heard something.”
“Probably just your imagination.”
“Oh, go to sleep,” Tillie said, sitting down again.
Grayden shrugged and leaned back onto his bed of grass. From his breathing, Tillie could tell that he was asleep in minutes.
Tillie, on the other hand, remained awake, involuntarily listing the most terrible creatures she could think of: the elusive, but deadly hidebehind; the Continental-clipped chimera; the tri-venomed splintercat; and the golden-winged argopelter. She had no doubt that the Wompus Wulf was the worst monster of them all.
She pulled her knees up to her chest, hugged them close to her body, and shivered.
The Wompus Wulf was out there in the dark somewhere, prowling the plains in search of blood.