Chapter 17: The Plot Thickens

Chapter 17: The Plot Thickens

On several occasions, Arden had joined Boudreaux for ales after training. They had gone together to a basement tavern called The Iron Axe not far from their cottage. The stuffy smell of sweat-soaked wooden tables and chairs on an old floor that had seen much worse, caused Arden to yearn for the fresh air of the outdoors. But Boudreaux seemed oblivious to the odor and went there happily night after night. 

Neither of them had ever seen square, wooden cups before. Made of simple panels held together by thin black iron fittings, Boudreaux was crazy about them, and was thoroughly convinced they imparted a special flavor to the ale served within. Arden concurred that the cups imparted a flavor, but he was not so sure it was a flavor he cared ever to taste again.

This night, Arden’s startling discovery in the woods had left his nerves frayed with anxiety. Already exhausted from a long day of intense exercise, he emerged from the forest into the darkened training field breathless and sweaty.

Hastening through the deserted, moonlit expanse, past the lodge, and into Westwood, Arden checked nervously over his shoulder as he went. He could not shake the feeling that something was pursuing him.

It was only as he descended the worn wooden steps to The Iron Axe’s heavy oak door that Arden’s pulse and breath began to return to normal. He pushed inside, relieved to be entering a space with other people around, and scanned the room for his companion.

Boudreaux was a creature of habit. He was sitting at his usual table, talking animatedly to the older of two daughters who served ale, stew, and bread each night to the woodsmen, hunters, and carpenters who frequented the dingy tavern. The young woman, who looked like she wanted to be anywhere but here, smiled feebly at the jovial, babbling Boudreaux, and took her first opportunity to escape back to the kitchen.

“There’s Arden!” Boudreaux boomed, as his friend threaded his way between the crush of tables, chairs, and hunched bodies—the Iron Axe was crowded tonight. Perhaps it was just his paranoia, but everywhere Arden looked he saw unfriendly faces, dangerous eyes, baleful glares. With Boudreaux’s announcement, the low hum of conversation stopped briefly as the motley assemblage regarded the new arrival.

“Boudreaux, I need to talk to you,” Arden murmured as he bent to take a seat.

“Arden, I think you need a drink,” his friend beamed back at him, and raised his enormous arm to flag down one of the sisters. “Ale!” he shouted.

Two hooded figures sat nearby, and although Arden could not see their shadowed faces, he could tell by the incline of their heads that they were both listening.

“I think we need to go, Boudreaux.” Arden persisted, “I need to speak with you in private.”

“The older one is crazy about me, Arden.” Boudreaux was obviously drunk. “Did you see how she was looking at me?”

Arden reached across the table and gripped Boudreaux’s forearm just as his friend was lifting his square cup of ale to his lips for another swig.

Now, Boudreaux, we have to go now.”

The change was remarkable, really. Boudreaux seemed to will himself to sobriety. Recognizing the urgency in Arden’s face for the first time, he placed the wooden vessel deliberately back on the table. Rummaging wordlessly in his trousers for a few coppers before casually spilling them onto the table, Boudreaux stood and headed straight for the door as if leaving had been his idea to begin with.

They entered their cottage to find Gnome and X’andria deep in conversation. Words were hurriedly spilling from X’andria when they banged through the door, and even though she abruptly stopped talking at their appearance, it was clear from the look on her face that she was upset.

“What’s up, X’andria?” Arden asked.

X’andria was silent, shaken, and looked through red puffy eyes from Gnome sitting beside her to the two large men looming in the entry way.

“X’andria’s just had a rough day, guys,” Gnome said simply. “What’s up with you two, how was training?”

“What happened? Did magic man finally make some magic moves?” Boudreaux joked sardonically, unable to control himself.

“Tonight isn’t the night, Boudreaux,” Gnome warned in a low voice, as X’andria slumped and looked away at the far wall.

“I’m sorry to hear it, X’andria.” Arden was clearly concerned. “Believe it or not, I’ve had a troubling day, too.” Arden and Boudreaux both sat down noisily on the floor near the others. “I was just telling Boudreaux about it on the way home.”

It was after midnight, and everyone slept except for Gnome. Before bed, Arden had described the unnatural presence in the forest to all of them. X’andria, having told Gnome privately about her terror on the docks, remained silent in front of the other two. Boudreaux voiced his concerns again about Ruprecht’s long absences and bizarre behavior. They all rallied around the hope that Ohlen would catch up with them soon.

Gnome’s soft leather garments allowed him to rise without a sound. He wore deep-sea eel-skin slippers that had been a gift from The Master. They molded to his feet in such a way as to allow his soles to roll catlike along the earth almost as though he wore nothing over them at all.

The Master had chosen to train Gnome to scale walls. Naturally gifted at moving without detection, this was a new skill Gnome was particularly eager to learn. The slippers were indispensible, since difficult climbing involved exploiting the smallest of toe-holds. The eel skin was tacky, and helped him cling to almost any dry surface as long as he oiled it regularly. The slippers also distributed his weight beyond whatever minute piece of flesh or nail he was able to wedge into the faint cracks and divots his probing toes encountered when he climbed.

Gnome sped, like a piece of the night itself, through the now-familiar alleys and underpasses that led him east from Westwood into the heart of The Grotto and toward the thieves’ den. Racing, climbing, and swinging along, he was deep in thought. The stories he’d heard were swirling around like puzzle pieces in his mind.

Poor X’andria! What a cruel twist of fate that the very same men who tore her from her mother’s arms as a child and forced her into slavery would appear before her on the docks of Rockmoor. And Arden got so worked up describing the destruction he found in the forest. He’ll go back and investigate that tomorrow, thought Gnome. Tonight I’ll see what the thieves know about docks and tattoos.

And that was the last thought to go through his mind before his feet locked up and his face bit hard into the packed dirt road of The Grotto.

“Well look who’s sneakin’ ‘round here, boys?” The voice was loud enough to be jeering, and soft enough not to wake the neighborhood.

It was Rove, the rude, skinny thief Gnome had met on his first visit to The Den. Rove had tossed a weighted trip cord at just the right time to bind both of Gnome’s feet tightly together at the ankles.

“What the hell, Rove?” Gnome ground out through gritted teeth, as he spat bloody dirt out of his mouth.

“Yer not gonna like it, freak, so we’ll let it be a surprise.” The skinny man hovered a few feet away in partial shadow, moonlight reflecting the danger in his narrowed eyes.

“You’re violating The Code, Rove, Master won’t be pleased,” Gnome burbled through his spittle into the dirt.

Master won’t be pleased,” Rove mocked in an over-enunciated sing-song impersonation of his captive to the snickering delight of his little band of followers. “Master won’t never know, freak, once The Torrent has its way with ya.” Rove’s words were laced with menace. More anxiously, he snapped, “C’mon Fig, do ’is hands!”

Fig, a witless boy who had come under Rove’s influence, fumbled forward with a second weighted trip cord. Gnome had seen Fig a few times skulking around The Den, but had never heard him speak.

Gnome secretively inched his hand toward the hilt of his dagger, which was pinned between his left hip and the ground. His feet were hopelessly locked together. This was a dangerous disadvantage. He did not want to hurt Fig, but as the boy approached, he knew it could not be helped.

Fig bent awkwardly to loop the cord around Gnome’s wrists. Rolling his body swiftly, Gnome extracted and sliced his dagger savagely through the night. The blade cleanly severed the boy’s left pinky and ring fingers, and half of the middle finger. The shocked adolescent dropped the cord and jumped backward, howling and cradling his maimed hand, blood spurting between his fingers.

“You idiot, Fig, shut up!” Rove hissed dispassionately at the whimpering boy. “You’ll wake the whole Grotto!” Gnome was attempting to wriggle away on the ground now, all the while shimmying his legs back and forth in an effort to loosen the thin cord binding them.

But Rove advanced predatorily toward Gnome and growled, “Alright, ya pointy-eared freak, have it your way,” as he kicked him, hard, on the left side of his head.

The night swam. Gnome’s ears rang like he was inside a giant bell. Hurting and disoriented as he was, though, somehow Gnome understood that Rove was ordering his small band of thugs to drag him by his feet to the Torrent River.

Rough hands grabbed his ankles. They flipped him over, and began pulling him, face down, over the foul earth. They had not dragged him very far when Gnome heard a thud, a shout, then felt them drop his feet.

Gnome warily propped himself up. To his surprise, he saw that Rove was lying on the ground next to him, blood dripping down his face from a nasty forehead wound.

Some unseen assailant had rendered Rove unconscious. Gnome was able to hold himself up long enough to see the sorry band scatter into the night, Fig weaving deliriously at the rear.

Moments later, Gnome felt hurried and shaking hands working to unwind the weighted trip cord from around his ankles.

“Can you move, Mister Gnome?” Waif’s face appeared just inches from his own.

Some minutes passed before Waif was able to assist Gnome down an alley to a sheltered alcove where he could rest and gather his wits. They left Rove behind at the scene of the ambush.

“Thank you, Waif, I think you just saved my life,” Gnome finally managed, once it felt like his head would not explode.

Waif just hovered silently.

“How did you do it? How did you know?” Gnome asked.

Waif produced a leather sling and mimicked swinging it in the air. Flashing a smile, he said sheepishly, “I heard them talking, Mister Gnome, they wanted to hurt you.”

“Well, they managed that, didn’t they?” Gnome said bitterly, “but not near as bad as I think they wanted to.”

“Rove hates you, Mister Gnome, and I think he don’t like how much time The Master is with you.”

They sat silently for a few minutes as Gnome stabilized.

“I need your help, Waif,” he finally said. “Do you ever spend any time down by the docks?”

X’andria was relieved to discover Gnome was gone when she rose late that night. It was simple enough to sneak out past Arden, even though he was a light sleeper, and Boudreaux was capable of snoring through anything. But Gnome, especially since their arrival in Rockmoor, seemed to notice even the smallest of sounds and motions around him, and X’andria knew that Gnome would not approve of what she was about to do.

Carefully pulling the door closed behind her, she stepped out into the still night. Gliding along the boardwalk, she nervously fingered her small golden loop, turning it over and over like a tiny set of prayer beads.X’andria raised the hood of her cloak to conceal her face. Approaching the north edge of Westwood, she swallowed hard and turned her feet back toward the docks.


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