The small, sad dwarf found a new friend. But who is Dasher and where did he come from?
Dasher moved fast. He was unlike anyone the dwarf had met before. Frequently, he would bound on all fours. This helped him climb trees to scout out the road ahead. More than once, the dwarf noticed Dasher disappearing among the branches and leaves. The dwarf called to him.
“What are you doing?”
“Oh, nothing!” Dasher would say. Then there came a crunch. The flapping of wings. Dasher jumped down from the trees, wiping his mouth.
“This way, come on. Hurry!”
They had left the town far behind and entered a forest. It was nothing like the forest the dwarf had passed through earlier. Here, the trees were gnarled and cruel-looking. Only a little bit of light came through the canopy. The dwarf heard eerie sounds wafting from the sides of the road. Dasher laughed off his worries, saying it was normal.
“I didn’t think much was still left alive,” the dwarf said. “After the end.”
“Oh, not much is,” Dasher said. “In fact, what you’re hearing might not even be alive.”
Dasher refused to explain what he meant. It troubled the dwarf and he kept away from the sides of the road.
“Are you sure the man and his daughter went this way?” the dwarf asked.
Dasher spun around. “Are you doubting me, my friend? Do you have any better idea of where they went? As I see it, I’m the only soul left who has seen your quarry. Might as well trust me, eh?”
The forest grew thicker. It worried the dwarf that the road became hard to follow. Soon, it seemed to vanish altogether. He followed Dasher across flat, dry ground, with no clear path at all. The trees grew thick and close together.
Dasher didn’t seem worried. Yet he stopped climbing up the trees.
“It must be getting late,” the dwarf said. He realized they had been walking for hours. “Very little light is coming through the trees.”
“No, the trees are just getting thicker,” Dasher said. “There’s light, just up ahead. We have to get over this, though.”
Whatever path they had been following was completely blocked. A sheer rock wall was in their way. Dasher was pointing up. The dwarf craned his neck to see to the top of the cliff, but couldn’t make out anything other than the tree branches. And the darkness.
“I don’t know if I can climb that,” the dwarf said.
“It’s easy! See?” With a leap, Dasher sprung to the cliff wall. As easily as whistling, he scaled it, disappearing into the dark. He came back down.
“I’m afraid I’m not as nimble as you, Dasher,” the dwarf said.
“Nonsense,” Dasher said. “All you have to do is grab onto those cracks in the stone, see?”
“I think so,” the dwarf said. “I won’t be as fast as you.”
“Take your time,” Dasher said. “Maybe you’ll have a better time if you empty your pockets.”
“Sure. You can hand them over to me, if you like,” Dasher said.
The dwarf put a protective hand over his coat. “No, that won’t be necessary.”
He ran to the wall. Bumps and knobs stuck out all over the wall. They were small, but he was able to find them. Slowly, he moved up the cliff. He was sweating with effort. Dasher scrambled up past him, urging him on.
The darkness closed in around the dwarf. It felt like a million eyes were watching him. The air was close and warm. But also cold. He thought he heard voices all around him. He did not like what they were saying.
Pressing his eyes shut, he kept climbing. Something snagged his coat. The dwarf needed to pull it free, but he didn’t want to let go of the wall. Gritting his teeth, he let go with his left hand. He grabbed the corner of his coat and pulled. It felt like something was holding onto it. But it came free. The dwarf grabbed the rock again and climbed faster.
When he reached the top, he was cover in dirt. The dwarf collapsed across the flat, rocky ground. Light poured over him like a waterfall. He saw Dasher at the edge of the hill.
“You did it! I knew you could, friend,” Dasher said. He pointed further away.
“The road stretches that way. Care to take a look?”
Slowly, the dwarf got up and walked over to the edge of the hill. The land beyond was rough, full of caves and stony projections. Further away, though, it seemed nice. There even seemed to be a long road, stretching on for miles. The small dwarf could almost see houses. But they were too small.
“As I see it, we can go one of two ways,” Dasher said. “The Great Road goes North and South, past the Rock Valley.”
“Which way did the man and his daughter go?” the dwarf asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Dasher said. “Wherever there’s life.”
“Not much of that left,” the dwarf said.
“But they wouldn’t waste their time going to another abandoned town, would they?” Dasher said.
“I think I see a town, that way,” the dwarf said.
“Ah, but are there people there? Is it dead, like the last one?”
“I-I don’t know.”
“If only we had a way to see it better,” Dasher said. “We shouldn’t waste all our time going there, just to be disappointed.”
“I know!” From his pocket, the dwarf produced the binoculars he found at the man’s house.
“My goodness, looking glasses,” Dasher said. “You are full of surprises.”
The dwarf looked at the land ahead through the binoculars. The tops of the houses were big and crisp. He thought he saw a thin line of smoke coming out of a chimney. But he saw no people.
“There might be people there,” the dwarf said. “Somebody’s cooking. I see smoke.”
“No, that’s not smoke,” Dasher said. “It’s just dust, kicked up by the wind.”
“No, I think it’s smoke.”
“Let me see.” Dasher held out his hand for the binoculars. The dwarf held them back.
“No, these are mine.”
“Why won’t you let me use them?” Dasher demanded.
“They were left for me,” the dwarf said. “I can’t give them up.”
“All I want to do is use them for just a moment,” Dasher said. “Why are you being so selfish?”
“I’m not selfish, I’m just careful.”
“Give me the glasses, you little thief!” Dasher snarled at the dwarf. His face twisted into a gruesome scowl.
Dasher moved closer to him.
“What else do you have hiding in your pockets? Did you find it? Did you find the gem?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the dwarf said.
“Don’t lie to me.” The dwarf turned to run, but there was nowhere to go.
Dasher howled as he pounced.
To be continued…