“But how did fourteen sneezes come all of a sudden?” Ramya looked puzzled.
“I think the relative rate of flow of time between the worlds is in a state of constant flux. Time in the land we were in must have suddenly slowed down compared to our world. So within minutes there, time moved 3-4 hours in our land and hence Sneezy’s fit of sneezes.” Vinod’s tone had taken on an air of a professor addressing his students.
The other three still looked confused. But they decided not to press it any further for the fear of Vinod launching into another of his long lectures filled with scientific mumbo jumbo. What they clearly understood was time moved weirdly in the strange lands and if they were not careful, they might come home late and would end up making their parent’s suspicious.
“I wonder what kind of land will be there today,” said Navneeta.
“We should have checked with the gnomes. Sleepy might have seen it in his dreams.”
“ What is the fun knowing beforehand, Ajay? Don’t you have a sense of adventure? How much more fun to land there and discover the lands?”
Ajay remained silent. Silence was the best approach with Ramya.
They were soon at the cave entrance. They called out at the hollow and waited. It was a long time before Dopey arrived. As usual, he was silent, lost and efficient. They soon found themselves at the Burrow.
“To what do we owe this honor of your esteemed visits, friends” asked Doc.
“We had a free Saturday. We thought we will come and spend time with you guys and maybe visit a new land. We really loved the Land of Bargains and Kissanpur”
“Well, my dear friends, even a rose bush comes with thorns. Not all lands that come offer us joy.”
“Maybe we can just take a peak,” said Ramya.
“But you must definitely be careful when you are in an unknown land. One needs caution when venturing into unknown lands. Fools rush in where angels fear to trend.”
“Sure, we will be.” Ramya was all charged up.
“While we get ready, may we offer you our hospitality?”
The children made themselves comfortable on the floor. Soon each had a small bowl of some mashed up substance that had the smell of potatoes and olive oil. They tasted it and it was indeed delicious though they could not make out the ingredients. They had never tasted something like this before.
Navneeta could feel tiny fingers tugging at her hair. She turned around to find the cutest of the gnomes, the only one without a beard: the one they called ‘Bashful’. He reminded her of one of the dolls she had when she was much younger. She smiled at him. Her smile seemed to send him into raptures of delight. He jumped up and down excitedly and uttered squealing sounds. Then suddenly he caught hold of her hands and pulled. He seemed to want her to come along with him. Strangely most of the gnomes other than Happy, Grumpy and Doc seemed very taciturn. And Bashful being Bashful was more so.
He led her to the back of the cave where there was a little door. He opened it and beckoned Navneeta to follow. She had to stoop to be able to pass through the door. They waked through a narrow passage and then they emerged into a dimly lit area. Bashful puffed his cheeks and made some gentle noises. She could hear some movement in the distance. In a few moments a dark form emerged. It was some kind of animal, almost Navneeta’s size. For a moment she froze in fear. Had Bashful brought her here to be fed to some underworld monster? She should have never come with him alone.
However as the creature came into view, her fears were put to rest. The creature moved with a gentle grace and its eyes with dark circles around it had a benign calmness to it. The creatures fur looked like the finest velvet and despite her fears, Navneeta could not resist the urge to extend her arms and run her fingers through the smooth fur. It felt so soft and nice. The creature did not seem to at all mind this unwanted intrusion on its self. It responded by gently rubbing its snout on Navneeta’s face. This seemed to be a nice animal like a pet dog.
“Grandfather mole,” said bashful proudly. Ah! That is what this was. She had seen pictures of moles in her books. She surveyed the creature, looking closely at its spade like front paws and its twitching snout with smart whiskers. It seemed too large for a regular mole but then nothing was regular inside this cave.
By the time they decided it was time to go back, the mole had got quite friendly with her and followed them to the burrow.
The other children were surprised to see the new visitor. The gnomes however showed no sign of surprise. Apparently it was usual for the mole to pay them a visit.
‘”Welcome to out humble abode, great Bracken. We are honored.”
All the gnomes rose to welcome him. The children looked surprised.
“These entire networks of caves were built by the race of giant moles. They are the real rulers of this place. But most of them died out due to infighting, disease and other disasters. Bracken is one of the last surviving members of this ancient race. He knows the entire network of caves like you know the back of your hand.”
The children nodded. They were a bit scared but felt reassured seeing how Navneeta was comfortable around the creature.
They were soon ready to visit the land.
“Sleepy told us about this new land. It is called the land of odors. While it is not a particularly dangerous land, it is not likely to be a very pleasant one either. I also have a feeling our friend Bracken with his excellent sense of smell would be very useful to have around. So what are we waiting for? Let us march on ahead my, Yeomen. Ho Ho Ho.”