Chapter 3: The Bridge

Chapter 3: The Bridge

The day was warm and clear. Gnome and X’andria walked along in pleasant silence through the quaint town. Ignoring a few stares from townsfolk who seemed unaccustomed to the appearance of a gnome walking alongside a young she-elf, they quickly found themselves at the southern edge of Bridgeton headed along a wide path into a thick, lush forest. 

Gnome enjoyed being with X’andria. With others he was burdened with the impulse to assert himself. This was something carried over from his early years. When he had entered the world of Big People, it only made matters worse. His physical size and stature, and the speed with which he was written off as inconsequential, served to augment his insecurities.

Added to that was Gnome’s fierce loyalty and tactical brilliance. Not only did he feel obligated to protect those he loved, he was also really good at it.

When taken together, these things kept Gnome in a relatively sour mood most of the time. His mind whirred with constant calculation, he braced perpetually for imaginary fights, and he dreamed up plausible consequences that would likely never come to pass, but clouded his consciousness nonetheless.

But all of the anxiety melted away when he was with X’andria. For some reason she put him completely at ease. Perhaps it was her easy-going demeanor—X’andria seemed wholly unconcerned with what other people thought of her. She was more interested in snails, flowers, and nettles than she was with speed, combat prowess, or dominance.

It also didn’t hurt that, of all his friends, she was the closest to his size.

And then there was their shared obsession with magic.

“Did you ever do it before we met The Alchemist?” she asked, once they were a good ways into the wood.

“Sorry?” Gnome asked, “Do what, X’an?”

“Magic.” She looked at him searchingly, her wide eyes like deep glassy pools.

“Oh my goodness,” Gnome replied. “It was before we met, X’an, and it was totally by accident.”

The gnomes lived in a deep and complex network of tunnels under a series of rolling hills. While they had profitable relationships with a chosen few Big People whom certain members of the clan would meet above ground for trade, most would go for months or even years without seeing the sun.

Gnome was the second of two sons born to the eldest clan leader. From an early age, he was taught to fear and hate Big People, to fear and hate the sun. His early childhood was spent scavenging for edible roots, bugs, moles, and snakes, which he would deliver to his mother for use in stews and roasts. As he grew older, his father commanded that he practice knife fighting with his older brother, “in case their home was ever invaded by the Big People.”

Gnome asked to see the outside world on many occasions. His requests were always met with stern rejection. His father would say, “Once you learn proper fear and respect of the world above, you may visit it.” Logical even at a young age, Gnome countered one time, “But how am I to learn proper fear and respect if I cannot see it with my own eyes?” This bit of brilliance earned him swats about the ears and a night’s stay in “The Hole.”

Years earlier, the gnomes had tunneled too deep. They hit water in the depths, and with the water came cold, dampness, slime, and all manner of small slithery creatures. Rather than fill the tunnel, Gnome’s father decided to seal it with a heavy oak door, and use it for punishment. He called it simply “The Hole.”

What pushed Gnome over the edge, however, was when his older brother—who had never shown any interest in the world above—was chosen to accompany the lead trader to the surface to bargain with the Big People over the gnomes’ fur garments, finely whittled woods, and polished gemstones. As he left to ascend toward the surface, he cast Gnome an arrogant smile normally reserved for those moments when he bested his younger brother in knife-fighting practice. Those moments, incidentally, were now few and far between, since Gnome had grown to be quite a terror in close combat with the short blade.

So Gnome snuck after them. 

He crept behind his brother and the trader, against his father’s explicit orders, and followed them all the way to the surface. He arrived in the open air and witnessed a spectacular sight that he would later come to know as sunset. 

It took his breath away. Still stuck partially in the secret entrance to their home, with only his ears and head poking out, he stayed above ground just long enough to see the pink and orange fiery ball in the heavens dip behind the incomprehensibly vast horizon.

He would have watched longer, but he was snatched from beneath by his father, and dragged forcefully back inside. The beating and scolding he endured on the way back to The Hole was like no other he had ever experienced. His dad was in a towering rage, made worse by his embarrassment that his own son had defied his decree. 

His father decided to make an example of him. Gnome stayed in The Hole for a long time. Occasionally his mother brought him food to eat, but he became so hungry in between meals that he even resorted to capturing and choking down some of the slithering creatures borne in by the frigid water at the base of the chamber.

That’s when it first happened. He was dreaming about the sun, recalling the scene in all its glorious detail, when a large slimy bug crawled onto his hand.

Several things happened at once: his eyes flew open; his dad opened the door to The Hole to let him out; and he felt a surge of energy tear from his brain as the bug inexplicably burst into countless points of light, becoming a perfect shimmering replica of the sunset he had constructed in his mind.

 “I don’t think Dad had any idea what he was seeing or how it came to be,” said Gnome, “but it was clear enough to him that I was obsessed with the outside.” 

Gnome concluded heavily, “So he told me, if I was so interested in the world above, that I should pack my things, leave them in peace, and never come back. The last I remember of them is my mother sobbing, my dad’s arms crossed, and my brother’s stupid grin. So that’s the first time I did magic, and the last time I saw my family.”

They walked in silence for a while. As they neared the sound of roaring water, X’andria knew instinctively she was the first person to whom Gnome had ever told his story.

“Thank you for sharing that with me, Gnome,” she said in a small voice. “It sounds like a really tough journey you’ve had, and all I can say is,” X’andria stopped to face him, her huge eyes glistening, “that I’m really glad you decided to come above ground, and that we found each other at Mama and Papa’s.”

They arrived at the gorge. It was magnificent. The path led up to a great wooden bridge woven together with thick ropes and fixed at either end to massive stone pylons.

“So much power,” breathed X’andria. The rapid current of the wide and swollen stream rushed over the edge of an enormous waterfall, plunging into a pool at the bottom of the deep gorge far below.

They walked out to the middle of the bridge and stared over the edge for a long time. X’andria’s mind raced as she imagined how someday she might learn to unlock nature’s many secrets—to be able to control them. Gnome just drank in the beauty of the scene. He enjoyed the rare peace that the natural world brought to him, a peace he’d first known briefly when he saw that glorious sunset long ago.

“How about you, X’an?” Gnome asked on the walk back to town. “What’s your story?”

As soon as he asked, though, Gnome wished he hadn’t. X’andria’s expression, normally so bright and open, became a mask of darkness. They walked for some time in silence before she finally spoke.

“I’ve never told anyone about it, Gnome.”

“Please, X’an, forget I asked, alright?”

But she had made up her mind.

“You told me your story, Gnome, so I’ll tell you mine.” For her part, X’andria felt particularly comfortable around Gnome, too. With almost all men, she was aware of a certain degree of separation. The way they looked at her. The words they chose. The innuendo. There was often a thinly-veiled flirtatious desire mixed in with their actions. In Boudreaux’s case, as much as she liked him, it was not veiled at all.

But with Gnome it was different.

Gnome was her companion and she always felt that what Gnome said, Gnome believed. Having Gnome as a friend was what she imagined having a brother might be like.

“I grew up far from here, across the sea, actually, in Atolia. Have you heard of it?”

Gnome nodded.

“I remember playing with the other elf children in these amazing green forests with crystal-clear streams and waterfalls. Not all that different than the gorge we just visited, except the elves knit things together with magic, not rope.

“I never knew my father, but thinking back I wonder if he left my mother when I was born, or if, maybe, the elves did not allow him to return to the forest and live with us because he was a man. I guess I’ll never know.

“I don’t know why my mom took me the night she did. She was fighting constantly with her parents. I don’t think they ever really shouted, but I remember the tension between them, and I remember my mom crying most nights. So she was probably just trying to get away from them.

“She packed up everything she could carry, and we left that beautiful place in the middle of the night. We walked until morning. I had no idea where we were going. She didn’t answer any of my questions—at least not that I can recall—but I do remember her singing softly to me. Laamnu neila hiiwa. Sleep little one.

“It seemed like we walked for days and days, but I’m sure it wasn’t really that long. Eventually we neared the coast and the ground became sandy and the air became salty.

“She was so excited when we came upon the huge ship moored off the coast. And her excitement got me excited, too. It was all so new, and the air and the earth felt so hot and so different than anything I’d ever experienced.

“But it all went wrong. These huge painted men came toward us shouting in a language I couldn’t understand. Mom was scared, I could tell. As soon as she realized they meant us harm, her body got all tight. It felt like stone, like she was heavy, sinking into the sand. She must have poured all her elf magic into the beach, because I remember the men sinking into it as they came at us. I remember the sand whipping their faces, knocking them down, trying to swallow them. But they were too strong, Gnome. They just kept coming. Mom fought so hard. She squeezed me so tightly, I remember it hurting—but for years after I would have given anything to feel her hold me like that again. I still find myself imagining it from time to time.”

Tears welled in X’andria’s eyes, they welled in Gnome’s too. After a few long moments she continued, “They finally snatched me away, and shoved Mom hard into the sand. I was so small, and they hoisted me into their huge sweaty arms and fought their way back toward the ship through mom’s furious sandstorm. The last I recall of her, she was shrieking on that beach of swirling sand as they rowed me out to the huge ship. I could still hear her when they loaded me on board, and stuffed me below deck.“Anyway. The boat was dreadful, so many prisoners stuck together. When we arrived in the city, I was made to carry water and food for the big fat man who owned the vessel, and owned me. Almost as soon as I got there, I started dreaming of escape. And eventually I did! It wasn’t long after that, that I landed on the street and got scooped up by Mama and Papa. I still have nightmares sometimes about that boat and that terrible, fat man.”

READ CHAPTER 4

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