Chapter 19: Pieces

Chapter 19: Pieces

After leaving Waif, Gnome had traced his steps back to the site of the ambush but the bastard Rove was nowhere to be found. Unwilling to risk being followed—and hopeful he might learn something useful—Gnome hid in the shadow of a nearby alleyway for a full day before threading his way home. Though quite hungry, Gnome’s wits were recovered from the startling attack of the previous night.

When he finally crept back into the cottage, he was surprised to find no one home. This was very unusual. In the dead of night, when he often returned, he could always count on Boudreaux and Arden being fast asleep in their beds. Seeing and hearing the big snoring benevolent mounds made him smile. X’andria was usually in at this time of night, too, though frequently she would still be up, studying by the light of a solitary candle that caused her face to glow dimly across the room, her sharp features cut with the dancing shadows of the flickering flame.

But tonight the cottage was dark and deserted. Gnome’s anxiety billowed within him, and immediately he suspected Rove and his dastardly machinations. Does he know where I live? Had he followed me home in the past? Gnome could not imagine a scenario where Rove, with any number of his sorry brethren, could have possibly bested X’andria, Boudreaux, and Arden. Plus there were no signs of struggle. But perhaps if they were ambushed one at a time, like I was… 

Mind whirring, Gnome decided to risk lighting a candle, and contented himself to wait for at least a little while.

He did not have to wait long.

Boudreaux crashed in several minutes later. “Gettup Arden,” he shouted as the heavy oak door whined on its hinges. “Arden, that bastard Dorton…” Boudreaux stopped short, the door still open and swinging behind him.

“Where’s Arden?” He addressed Gnome with an unusual sharpness.

“Arden’s not here, Boudreaux.” Gnome retorted. “Are you drunk?”

“Well I was,” Boudreaux was raging, “until Ruprecht and his friend attacked me in the street. I’ve been lying in my own drool for the last hour. I’m gonna tear those two apart and stick the wrong halves back together if they like each other so much.” Coming to his senses, he asked sincerely, “Where is everybody, Gnome? Where the hell is X’andria?”

“I’ve no idea.” Gnome seemed genuinely confused. “I don’t know what’s going on. I got ambushed late last night, Boudreaux, by a gang of damn thieves.”

“What?” Boudreaux sat down and only then became aware of Gnome’s swollen and bloody face.

“I just came home, and now everyone’s gone except you. And you’re telling me Ruprecht and that idiot from the temple attacked you. How the hell did they get the better of you, Boudreaux?”

“Good question,” Boudreaux harrumphed. “I just wasn’t expecting it, and I guess I was pretty drunk, too,” he admitted. “I was just trying to tell Ruprecht to stop being a jerk, that his friends need him, that X’andria’s gone and Arden’s freaked out, and that it’s time for him to get his act together. At least that’s what I wanted to tell him. But I didn’t get any of that out, because that guy Dortmund did something to me. I couldn’t do anything, Gnome! He grabbed my arm and sent these waves of pain all through me. It felt like my body was getting stabbed over and over again and like I was being baked in an oven at the same time. I just flopped on the ground and couldn’t move until a few minutes ago.” Boudreaux did not seem seriously harmed, but he was clearly shocked and a little embarrassed.

Gnome was a good listener. He looked up through swollen and crusty eyes with sincere concern at his enormous friend.

“That sounds terrible, Boudreaux. I’m sorry to hear it,” he finally replied. “And so disappointing that Ruprecht could have watched it happen, and would even be associating with someone so… unscrupulous.”

They sat in silence for a few moments, before Boudreaux continued: “Ruprecht looked scared, actually. I was on the ground, and he looked almost like he wanted to stop and help me. But Dortmund insisted they run away, and Ruprecht took off with him.” Stopping for breath, Boudreaux eyed Gnome through the gloom. “What happened to you?”

“Oh,” Gnome stifled a derisive laugh, “there’s this imbecile named Rove in the Den. I didn’t like him the day we met, and he certainly didn’t like me. But I guess I didn’t realize how much until last night. He got together a band of cowards and they ambushed me. Tripped me up as I was heading to The Den. They bound my ankles and beat me up a bit, and told me they were going to dump me in The Torrent to drown.”

“Whoa,” Boudreaux exhaled with a whistle, “That’s worse than what happened to me. How’d you get away?”

“Well I got lucky is the truth of it,” Gnome responded thoughtfully. “Waif is this young and talented thief. He’s actually the one I followed our second day here in Rockmoor when I first found The Den. We’ve become friends, I guess, and he had overheard them plotting to take me down. He felled Rove with a lucky shot from his sling to the creep’s forehead, and the rest of the cowards fled. I just had no idea they would do something so crazy.”

More silence passed.

“Gnome,” Boudreaux finally broke in, “what’s going on with X’andria?”

But Gnome was gone. Boudreaux blinked twice to assure himself his eyes were not deceiving him. Some part of his mind even entertained the notion that the entire conversation had been imaginary, some trick his brain was playing on him between the ale and Dortmund’s attack.

But then he detected Gnome, halfway up the wall to his left, in the darkest part of the room. Gnome had melted away in a flash.

And now Boudreaux heard it too. Someone was approaching. The big man was on his feet in an instant, and crept behind the door. When he wanted to, he could be surprisingly silent. He swiftly unsheathed the silver sword from Bridgeton he kept strapped to his back—the shorter blade would be easier to wield in the cramped space of their cottage.

A moment later the door flew open. “Guys,” came the shout, “it’s Ohlen! He’s hurt bad!” Arden piled through the door half-carrying and half-dragging a nearly unconscious Ohlen with him.

Gnome dropped like an insect from the ceiling and immediately began clearing their heavy wooden table.

Gnome lit more candles. They covered the table with furs, and Boudreaux gently laid Ohlen’s thin body on top. Arden cleaned and dressed Ohlen’s many wounds, spending a long time on the gaping divot in his right leg.

The half-conscious Ohlen seemed totally set upon gripping the disgusting, smelly, rotten forearm that was, itself, holding onto his precious ivory case. Realizing this, Gnome whispered into Ohlen’s ears for almost half an hour to explain that he was safe now, that he was back among friends, that everything was going to be alright, that they would extract the case, and discard the arm.

The message must have gotten through, because eventually Ohlen relaxed his tight grasp on the putrid arm. Gnome covered it quickly in one of X’andria’s blank parchment rolls. After very carefully extracting the ivory case, Gnome gave the arm to Boudreaux to carry outside and dispose of.

At dawn Ohlen opened his eyes. Oddly they were crystal clear, bright even, and did not match the torn and beleaguered body they belonged to. Immediately Gnome offered him water, which he was able to sip slowly through parched and cracked lips.

It was mid-morning before he spoke.

“Where is X’andria?” were his first words.

Boudreaux and Arden turned to Gnome. Gnome swallowed, and seemed to come to a hard internal decision. “I’m not sure she would want you all to know,” Gnome replied carefully, “but given the circumstances, I think I have to explain.”

Gnome then shared what he knew about X’andria’s past from the story she had told him that bright day in Bridgeton. He told them of her childhood in Atolia, of her abduction on the beach, and of her enslavement as a child before the two of them met and came under the tutelage of The Alchemist. Apparently, Gnome continued, she had been down by the docks receiving instruction on how to conjure fire when she spotted a huge tattooed sailor, an Islander, coming toward her down the pier. She did not recognize him in particular, but she did recognize the tattoos: the very same kind she’d seen on those sailors who snatched her from her mother’s arms so many years ago.

“That’s just terrible,” Arden was the first to break the long silence that followed Gnome’s tale. “I had no idea.”

“What about you, Ohlen?” Boudreaux cut in. “You look like you’ve been through hell.”

“I am stronger than I look,” Ohlen smiled weakly, and his bright eyes twinkled. “I have had quite a physical trial in the past few days, it is true, but that came after a deep communion. Thanks to your care and kindness, and especially to Arden finding me in the woods, I imagine it will not be too long before my outside more accurately reflects my inside.”

Boudreaux did not pretend to understand anything Ohlen had just said. “Alright,” he pressed on, “but what the hell happened?”

So Ohlen, between pauses for breath, and to moisten his lips, explained his journey. He began with Magda, with his belief that nature would be an important ally, with the necessity of his solitary meditation. He explained, in spite of their increasingly strained and confused expressions, about the spiritual connections he had made with stone, and field, and forest. As he spoke, miraculously, it appeared as though his body was regaining its strength.

“And then I was attacked by a huge, dead, rotting corpse,” he said simply. “It was probably a week into my meditation when he came upon me. The only reason I’m alive is that I had chosen to take up residence atop a high sheer rock. So I became aware of him clawing at my leg before he had an opportunity to tear me apart completely.” He stopped, seemingly lost in thought.

“And then?” prompted Arden, who was now busying himself over a low flame to make them all a breakfast of rye gruel with dried berries that he had collected during his trips into the forest.

“Well, I do not understand it,” he sighed. “I have never come face to face with something that was already dead before. But I know several things. It was after the orbs,” he patted the ivory case beside him, “and it must have been animated by some powerful dark necromancer. It very nearly killed me, but I somehow got away, and believe it or not, I think the forest actually helped me. Incredible, really.” Ohlen’s eyes misted in reverie.

“Well since we’re all sharing,” Boudreaux said impatiently, “Gnome, why don’t you explain where you got those nasty welts on your face, and then I’ll tell everyone about my cheery reunion with our friend Ruprecht.”

They shared their stories over Arden’s surprisingly tasty gruel. Ohlen seemed somehow to be regaining strength by the minute. It was Boudreaux’s story that seemed to leave them all in the deepest state of consternation.

Gnome summed up, “So X’andria saw some evil guy by Fish City and now she’s gone off somewhere, Ohlen was attacked by a dead monster, I got mugged by Rove and his idiots, and our dear friend Ruprecht watched as his friend cooked Boudreaux in the street. That’s quite a few days we’ve had.”

“So what do we do?” Arden asked eagerly.

“I think we begin with a visit to Ruprecht and Dortmund,” replied Ohlen evenly. “We know where they are likely to be, and they just might have some answers.”

“Excellent,” breathed Boudreaux cracking his knuckles. He pushed himself slowly back from the table.It was the best idea he had heard in a while.

READ CHAPTER 20

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