Zeon’s Message by E. M. Jeanmougin
illustrated by Margaret Dyer and Sue Babcock
Zeon Emberwind was not sure which was worse; the fact that he was trapped underground in a swinging cage hanging suspended above a vat of boiling Bimbleweed Oil...or the fact that his cellmate was a gremlin.
On one hand, the mist from the evaporating Bimbleweed Oil was very bad for his fair, elfin complexion. On the other, Griswomp, his new gremlin companion, didn't exactly smell like a bouquet of flowers, not to mention he hadn't stopped talking to himself since the goblins put them here.
Zeon wished he could do something more interesting than contemplate which details of his confinement made him the most miserable, but he'd been up here for hours and there was nothing else to do.
In sharp contrast to Zeon, Griswomp wasn't bored. No sir, not even a little. He crouched in the corner of his cage, holding a big bone between his small, clawed hands and chomping eagerly up and down its pale length. Occasionally, he would stop like a startled squirrel, his big, furry ears flapping as he looked back and forth and spoke to his imaginary friends. It was nonsensical stuff mostly. Zeon had stopped trying to understand.
Instead, he was sitting by the bars, looking yearningly down at his bow and quiver while absently braiding a strand of his long, raven-black hair. Beside his beloved bow, three burly green goblin guards were grunting at one another in their native language. Presently, one punched the other, which resulted in yet another pointless brawl.
Zeon sighed. What he wouldn't give to lay a finger on that beautiful bow of his one, last time. He actually flinched as the tangle of goblins rolled past it, coming within an inch of breaking its supple wooden frame.
“Why vain elf so sad?” asked Griswomp suddenly.
It took a moment for Zeon to realize he was talking about him, but when he did he glared. “Gee, I don't know Gris. In about an hour they're going to drop us into that vat of oil and fry us up for the Goblin Queen's birthday party. That's enough to get any guy down, don't you think?”
Gris tilted his head and twitched his ears. “Elf intends to die?”
“It isn't that I 'intend' to die, you furry little nuisance. It's just that there aren't really a lot of options at the moment, are there?” he retorted, his gray eyes narrowed in agitation. “What is it that you 'intend' to do?”
“Griswomp definitely doesn't intend to die.” Gris rotated the bone and gnawed on the lower portion. The goblins had given him the thing to stop his hungry whining, but Zeon sort of wished someone would take it away. The noise was so annoying.
“You're going to escape, eh? Do it then.”
“Gris not stupid like elf. Gris wait for best moment,” he replied wisely.
“And when, pray-tell, is that?”
“Oh...Gris say...” Lowering the bone, the fluffy brown gremlin poked his twitching nose through the bars and peered down at the guards. One of them was splayed on the floor, unconscious. The other two were pointing at one another and bickering loudly. Eventually, they seemed to reach some sort of agreement because the smaller of the two fell forward on his knuckles and slouched into the other room. “Now.”
In the blinking of an eye, Gris turned his chew toy sideways and and chomped down on it while stomping at the end with his foot. The bone splintered diagonally, leaving the tip sharp. Holding the longer half between his jaws, he scampered over to the door on all fours. Too short to reach from the floor, he leaped up and hung from the bars with his feet while stretching through to jimmy the pointed bit in the old lock.
Almost instantly, the door swung outward with Gris still dangling from it. Without pause, he pulled the bone from between his teeth, put it over the suspension chain running obliquely to the floor and slid down like a zip-line.
The single guard grunted in surprise as the gremlin landed a mere ten feet from him.
Zeon was so shocked by the display that he was still standing right where he'd been, his mouth gaping a little.
Gris tossed a glance over his shoulder. “Elf comes too?”
“What? Oh! Yes!” Taking three running steps, he sprang out onto the chain and grappled nimbly down.
By this point the goblin had recovered from his surprise and was charging toward the little gremlin while brandishing his club. Gris was quick but not strong. He scrambled desperately in circles, trying to avoid the bludgeon and barely succeeding.
The goblin was slow-witted but surprisingly sure-footed. He cut Griswomp off, pushing the gremlin into a corner. For all his craftiness, in mere moments he would be squished beneath the buffoon’s bone-club.
But it was at that moment that Zeon laid hand on his bow.
Snatching an arrow from the quiver, he fitted it to the string and pivoted on his heel. The goblin had the club raised skyward, poised to smash down. Gris crouched in the corner, his bone-pick lifted feebly over his head.
Zeon released the arrow and the goblin went down with a grunt. Notching another, he spun to face the entrance while addressing Griswomp over his shoulder. “You alright, fuzzball?”
Ears flat, Gris made a four-legged sprint to his side. “Elf save Gris?”
“I wouldn't say we're safe yet,” sighed Zeon as the thunder of heavy feet reached his ears. The goblins were coming through their only route of escape. As the first rounded the corner, the elf sent a wooden bolt through his center, causing him to fall and tangle in the legs of his comrades. The others trampled over them like they weren't even there.
Zeon sent three more arrows flying into the confusion as he backed away. “If you have one of those clever ideas, now would be a good time!”
Gris was already in motion. Wedging his make-shift weapon underneath the bottom of the cauldron, he used it like a lever to spill the Bimbleweed Oil.
As the bubbling green liquid pooled on the floor, goblins yelped and hopped backward one-footed, jostling against one another in an attempt to avoid scalding the bottoms of their feet. Zeon took the moment to grab Gris by the scruff of his neck, sling him over his shoulder and spring nimbly over the oil. His first landing put him on the shoulders of a yowling goblin. Before the bulky creature could lay hold of him, he used his sloped brow as a stepping stone to reach the other side of the spill. Then the stone floor was beneath the heel of his deerskin boot and he was racing swiftly away.
Gris crawled up over his shoulder dug his claws through the elf's leather tunic, hanging tight as they fled. Something was bellowing after them, but Zeon didn't look back. He bolted through the confusing tunnels, dodging into the shadows between puddles of torchlight, turning whenever he could, trying to thoroughly lose his pursuers and managing to lose himself in the process.
The sounds of pursuit first faded, then vanished entirely. Still, he ran, with all the speed and grace of a limber elk.
Finally, he reached a passage where torches no longer lit the walls. Here he slowed out of necessity; he couldn't see.
“Elf needs to keep going forward and watch to the left. Loose stone.”
Gris was so light that Zeon had almost forgotten he was there. The gremlin was about the same size as an elven toddler, though slightly puffier and smellier. He couldn't have weighed more than twenty pounds at his heaviest and with all the adrenaline in his system, twenty pounds had hardly slowed Zeon.
Looking toward the sound of his voice, he found that he could see the gremlin's eyes quite clearly. They were pale yellow with black slits down the center, like a cat's eyes.
“Can you see?”
The eyes moved up and down in a nod. “Yes.”
“Good. You watch my feet for me. I'll do the rest.” With directions from his passenger, he slowly began to navigate through the darkness ahead. It was oppressive and unnerving and he soon found himself talking to fill the void. “So, what brings you down here, Griswomp? Lose a bet?”
“Gris run away from home.”
“You seem to have run decidedly the wrong direction, my friend. What scared you away?”
“Other gremlins cruel,” he replied with a curtness Zeon hadn't heard prior to the moment. Deciding it was a touchy subject, he let further inquiry drop and instead said, “I'm a courier. I've got a sort of important message for our princess but I don't figure she'll get be getting it now.”
“What is elf's name?”
At first, he thought this was a foolish question, since he had known Griswomp's name immediately. Of course, that was only because Gris had a habit of referring to himself in the third person, a trait that he and Zeon didn't share. “Zeon Emberwind.”
“Zeon Emberwind,” repeated Gris. “Well...Zeon Emberwind will deliver his message to his princess. Griswomp will help.”
Zeon smiled weakly and straightened his quiver strap. “Let's get out of here alive before we go making plans,” he said, before moving on.
“Stop!” said Gris suddenly, standing up on two legs and putting his paws a top Zeon's head as he listened.
“Why?” asked Zeon, not expecting an answer. Gris was conversing with himself in his native language again. He felt the gremlin's claws pricking his scalp as his hands flexed nervously. “Gris?”
“Water ahead. Flowing fast.”
“That's good, right? Flowing water might lead to an exit.” Or another dead end. But it was the only lead they had. Treading carefully, he began to make his way in the direction Gris had indicated. The gremlin's ears were as sensitive as they looked. Zeon walked a good ten minutes before he, too, began to hear the rush of water over stone, and another three before they reached the noise's source.
There was light here, breaking through an overhead ceiling crack. Even little Griswomp could not fit through such a narrow opening, but the sight of it was mildly hopeful. It meant they were closer to the surface.
Griswomp jumped down and tried to measure the depth of the water with his splintered bone but the river was swift and deep and almost took the weapon right out of his hand. He looked back at Zeon. “Can not ford.”
“No need. We'll follow.” So they walked along, side-by-side, keeping close to the river. The number of cracks in the ceiling grew as they progressed. Zeon had even begun to feel reasonably hopeful until he spotted the exit.
His elven eyes were sharper than Griswomp's. What the gremlin saw at this range was a cluster of moss covered boulders. Zeon, however, saw what they really were. Goblins. Luckily, they had rather weak eye sight and none of them saw the dark-haired elf scoop up Gris and duck into a nearby nook.
“Shh!” he warned in an undertone. “Goblins.”
“Here?” he asked doubtfully. It was a strange place for a sun-hating race to post a sentry. Perhaps, he thought, the heightened security measures were in honor of the queen's jubilee.
“What do?” wondered the gremlin in a hiss.
Zeon shook his head. He didn't know. They could turn back and try to find another route of escape, but the tunnels were a convoluted mess. The chances of stumbling into freedom before they both starved were pretty low. Urgently, he surveyed the area again and instantly felt foolish for not noticing the obvious solution.
“We swim.” Honestly, it was so simple that he couldn't believe clever Gris hadn't thought of it first. “The river goes right out the tunnel. We'll just hold our breath until we're past.”
The gremlin looked horrified. “No-no-no. Griswomp cannot swim! Besides, water is too fast!”
“There's ten goblins out there and I've only four arrows left. Unless you intend to poke the other six with that bone until they laugh themselves to death, I'd say we're out of ideas.”
Gris frowned, but nodded reluctantly and climbed over the elf's shoulder to latch onto his back. “Okay.”
Swiftly, Zeon crept over to the edge of the river, took a deep breath and slipped in.
The gremlin had been right about the current. It had hold of them instantly and, though Zeon was a strong swimmer, he could not have stopped them from rushing forward. The arrows slipped from his quiver and started to flow away ahead of them, but he managed to snag two before they were gone entirely.
Then he was cartwheeling down the river, trying desperately to stay submerged. It wasn't easy, but he managed despite his aching lungs.
They were very nearly home-free when the light but consistent weight of Gris suddenly vanished from his shoulder. Zeon twisted around in surprise, only to see a flat, heavy foot falling toward his face. He rolled and it landed solidly where his head had been.
Now fighting the current, Zeon pumped his way back to the surface and caught a brief glimpse of what he'd dreaded to see. They must have given themselves away, for the largest of their enemies, a half-goblin, half-troll, had waded into the center of the river and was towering there. In his great hand, he held a half-conscious Griswomp by the scruff of the neck.
The river yanked Zeon back down. He went head over heels, his heart racing in panic. The river would carry him to safety, yes, but without Griswomp. He couldn't leave him. The very thought was despicable.
As his toes found their way back beneath him, he braced his feet against the bed of the river, buckling his knees and leaning hard against the current. Another of the arrows slipped between his numb fingers and twirled away, but that didn't matter. He would only have time for one shot anyway.
What happened next happened very fast but it did not seem so to Zeon.
The elf pushed hard upward, bursting through the surface and into the air like a trout swimming upstream. As he neared the peak of his leap, he tightened his grip around his last arrow and brought it down into the bowstring. The muscles in his arm protested as he drew the line heavy line taut.
He'd reached the top of his jump and was now descending. As the water passed his ankles, he squinted shut one eye. The water passed his knees and he lined up the shot. Then it was around his thighs and as it ascended toward his waist, he fired.
He splashed down. The troll-goblin bellowed. His shot had found its mark. Unfortunately, he was once again submerged so he didn't see his enemy fall.
Too spent to keep fighting the current, he traveled limply downstream, his body bouncing off jutting rocks and floating debris as he went. Finally, his chest hit a drifting log, knocking the wind clean out of him. He clung nonetheless, panting to catch his breath while looking frantically around.
The goblins were long gone but he was still careening down the river at top speed. To make matters worse, Gris was still nowhere in sight. Struggling more fully onto the log, he shook his long hair away from his face and screamed the gremlin's name.
He was nowhere. Gone. His heart sunk. Had the troll-goblin not dropped him?
But then he saw it, a small lump of brown fur floating face-down. “Gris!” he yelped, springing back into the rapids without hesitation.
With the state he was in, it should have been impossible for him to paddle through the fierce swells but there was no other choice. Griswomp in his sight, he swam impossibly hard. He stretched and kicked and wriggled until, finally, he felt a long, drenched pelt in his hands. And then he paddled even harder, springing out of the water periodically for air, thrashing against the current. Then, at last, fumbling his way up the muddy bank and onto dry land.
There was no time to collapse and catch his breath. In his arms Griswomp was unconscious. “GRIS?” He pounded on his back frantically.
After a moment, the gremlin relented and heaved up a lungful of colorless fluid. Sputtering, he shook his head and looked around.
Muddy and bedraggled, he was more akin to a giant, drowned rat than a gremlin, but his big yellow eyes were full of such gratitude that he was actually kind of adorable.
“Elf did save Griswomp.”
“Well, you started it,” he replied, rising wearily to his feet. His heels tried to slip out from beneath him. “Stupid mud. These are brand-new deerskin boots you know. I just-”
Before he could finish complaining, Griswomp bounded up and hugged him tightly around the waist.
“Er...” said Zeon awkwardly. “You're welcome.”
The gremlin seemed then to realize that elves did not hug and quickly let himself fall back to the ground. “Sorry.”
“It's fine. So what now?”
Griswomp sat back on his haunches and let his ears fall back in thought. “Doesn't Elf still have a message to deliver? Gris will help...if that is okay...?”
Zeon smiled as he wrung the hem of his cloak. “Griswomp, my friend...” He scooped the muddy gremlin off the forest floor and returned him to his shoulder. “I'd not have it any other way.”
Author Bio: E.M. Jeanmougin lives in Ohio with her boyfriend and a vast collection of books and DVDs. She likes reading, writing, and singing along (rather horribly) with musicals. She also eats her pizza backwards and has never finished a game of Monopoly. Find out more at: http://emjeanmougin.blogspot.com/
Illustrator Bio: Margaret Dyer is a fine-artist, having made her living for over 20 years selling her pastel paintings and teaching. She is a Master Pastelist with the Pastel Society of America and an award-winning member of the American Impressionist Society.Since childhood, however, illustrating for children has been one of her goals.
The Pastel Journal (Feb. 2011, Dec. 2005, Mar. 2002, Mar. 2001, Mar. 2000, May 1999)
American Artist Magazine (2010 Cover Competition, Jun. 2001)
International Artist Magazine (Jun. 2005, Aug. 2003, Sep. 2002)
The Artist’s Magazine (June 2002)
Pastel Artist International (Jan. 2001)
“How Did You Paint That? 100 Ways to Paint Figures” (2005 and 2004)
“Pastel Highlights 2” (2004)
“Pure Color: The Best of Pastels,” (2006).