CH 47.4 — Several gnomes cleared away the brush from a round door, and Butterfingers used his bundle of keys to unlock it. O’Henry and his men marched inside the gaping maw, followed by the group of gnomes who had flown in from the Tulgey Woods.
Janine gulped. This was it. Her heart began to pound.
Ezra took her hand and squeezed it. “Everything will be all right.”
Together they slipped inside. Fritter came behind them, and Butterfingers, who was last, closed and locked the door. Several gnomes placed glowing orbs above their heads, which cast a dim light as they hurried along.
Janine wondered how much farther it was going to be. She was used to the clean, well-lit caves and passageways belonging to the dragon. This secret way was damp and cold, not to mention cobwebby and slimy under her boots. She’d been walking in semi-darkness for what seemed like hours. Every now and then, the gnomes paused to listen. Only a dripping of water and an occasional rustle of a rat scurrying by interrupted the silence.
The closer they got to the castle, the more Janine found it hard to breathe. She coughed as an awful stench filled the air. It was the same scent she had smelled in the dragon’s cave after Zelda’s lily perfume had worn off, only this was much worse.
“What is that smell?” she whispered.
“That,” said Butterfingers, “is the stink of troll farts.”
“Oh,” gasped Fritter. “I have just the thing.” He opened his satchel and pulled out the small bottle he had found in the forest near Connie’s house. “Fart Remover.” He popped the cork and waved the bottle around.
A sticky substance filled the air and settled on them all, causing them to cough, sneeze, and rub their faces, frantic to get the goo off. Janine’s eyes burned as she scrubbed her face with her sleeve.
One of the gnomes groaned. “When are you going to get anything right, Fritter?”
“You should have stayed at the dragon’s cave,” said another gnome.
“You’re worthless,” said another. “The King was right to get rid of you.”
Poor Fritter wilted. “I… I don’t know what happened. I was sure…”
Janine put her arm around Fritter and scowled at them. “So he made one mistake. Big deal. Fritter is an accomplished herbalist. I’ve spent years working with him, and he doesn’t deserve your criticism.”
O’Henry pushed his way back through the gnomes until he got to them. “What’s going on here?” When Fritter tried to explain, he snatched the bottle away and examined it. “You dolt! That is not Fart Remover.” He shoved the bottle back at Fritter, who corked it and slipped it back into his satchel.
“I’m very sorry, sir.”
All the gnomes began to murmur.
“Enough!” said O’Henry.
The gnomes fell silent.
O’Henry folded his arms and glared at them. “You’re acting like a pack of baby toves. Can you make any more noise? You’d better not have blown our cover.”
They all froze in place, moving their large, pointed ears as they listened to the dark, but the passageway was silent.
“All right,” said O’Henry. “Let’s get moving. From now on stick to the plan.” He stormed back to the front of the line, and the gnomes proceeded forward once more.
Fritter trudged on with shoulders sagged and head bowed.
Janine threaded one arm through his. “Don’t let them get to you.”
Fritter’s eyes glittered with tears. “He’ll report back to the king about this. I’ll be the laughing stock of the gnome kingdom. Again.”
“Then I’ll tell Jay to eat them.”
Fritter gave her a wan smile. “You’ve been a good friend, Janine. The very best.”
“And so have you. We odd balls have to stick together.”
Fritter frowned and opened his mouth to reply.
“Quiet,” someone ahead of them hissed. After that they walked in silence.