Chapter 7: The Market

Chapter 7: The Market

Gnome left their lodgings before first light. With bare feet he was almost completely noiseless, and with his dark cloak thrown over his thin, flexible leather tunic and trousers, his small frame was nearly impossible to detect in shadow.

And shadow is where he traveled.

Rockmoor was a port city with bustling commerce. Like all cities, there were rich denizens and poor, those who ruled, and those who served, those with greed for even more, and those with ambition for advancement. A few sought wealth by virtuous means, most operated with varying degrees of morality—and some just stole what they wanted outright.

Gnome threaded his way through the network of alleys behind the long apartment buildings of the Westwood district. On the southwest side of Rockmoor, away from the coast, the mostly residential area took its name from the forest into which the neighborhood extended.

Nearly all the buildings in Westwood, including the rooms that he and the others had rented, were constructed of wide dark wooden boards harvested from the ancient forest. The best ships produced in Rockmoor were constructed of Westwood’s finest oaks, and wide, elevated boardwalks formed the main neighborhood thoroughfares.

For Gnome, the boardwalks were perfect, because he was small enough to move freely beneath them. Wheeling around from behind a long, low tenement dwelling, Gnome dropped quickly into a small gap beneath the boards and raced along unseen toward the city center.

His destination was the fish and produce market just north of Westwood, on the south edge of Hillcrest. Morning markets in Rockmoor were always teeming with fresh-caught fish, and unwary Hillcrest consumers would most certainly be carrying coin.

These people will have something to steal, he calculated. And I will be ready.

One problem with running barefoot beneath the Westwood boardwalks was the rats. All manner of trash slipped and slid between the wide worn boards, and most of it seemed of interest to the huge grey scavengers. Rats were supposed to be nocturnal, but night reigned eternal in the dark beneath Westwood’s elevated pedestrian streets. Their beady eyes regarded him fearlessly as he rushed by. Gnome was careful not to step too close, as these savages, raised on abundant quantities of discarded fish parts and refuse, had grown larger than any rodents he had ever seen.

Gnome skidded out from beneath the concealment of the boardwalk at the edge of the Torrent River. This wide, rushing river marked the border between Westwood and Hillcrest. Hopelessly polluted by human waste of all kinds, it continued east through the north end of The Grotto and the middle of Fish City before spilling its murky contents into Rockmoor Bay.

The low wooden walkway above him rose to become a bridge over the foul waterway. After a quick look around, Gnome scrambled up the nearest pylon and grasped the first girder of the rusty iron truss supporting the bridge’s expanse. Don’t fall, he thought grimly, as he swung deftly across.

Wood became stone and tile. Mosaic flourishes decorated even the most unlikely places in Hillcrest, which was home to Rockmoor’s most affluent residents. As Gnome climbed to street level, easily scaling a tall foundation sunk deep into the riverbank, he passed a series of ornate mosaic roses placed in a line just above ground level. Mine are some of the only eyes that will ever notice these, he reflected sourly. This is the kind of waste that happens when people have too much money and too little sense. Gnome did not care for Hillcrest. 

He slowed his pace. The sun was just rising now, and he was at street level. His senses prickled as he slid noiselessly from alley to archway, shadow within shadow.

Even at this early hour, the market was bustling with purveyors of all kinds. Hillcrest was quite a distance yet from Fish City and the Bay, but sea smells clouded the air. Wheeled carts carried all manner of salty carcasses along with the reek of room temperature watery death. Gnome detested water and did not trust anything that lived in it. He had grown to tolerate his friends’ taste for fish, but the pungent odor of the market caused him to wonder anew how anyone in their right mind could find the smell anything but repulsive.

A large stand tended by a round sleepy woman showcased beets and potatoes, radishes, cabbages, and green leafy bunches. Now this is more like it, thought Gnome as he slid quickly between the rear of the stall and the high stone wall that bordered the whole market square. A quick appraisal told him that in the unlikely event that the big woman or anyone else came looking behind the stall, the space beneath it would provide adequate cover for him to crawl away unnoticed. 

There he waited.

The early bird shoppers arrived. Ironically they were always the most alert, the fiercest negotiators, and the most difficult to steal from. No thief with good sense would attempt to pilfer from them. Even so, Gnome almost immediately spotted what he had ventured out to find.

His target was young. Almost my size, thought Gnome. As Gnome watched, the adolescent perused the stands casually but did not touch anything. He was easily missed and thoroughly forgettable. An amateur with potential, Gnome appraised.

And then it happened, fast as lightning, and gentle as a breeze: the slightest contact, darting fingers, and the small thief separated some precious thing from its wealthy and oblivious Hillcrest owner.

Now for the hard part.

The thief was on the move. Having acquired something of value, he had to disappear before the mark realized anything was amiss. The small thief darted quickly into an alleyway that led east from the square. Gnome departed the obscurity of his hiding place, and ran briskly around the market’s perimeter in pursuit.

He makes too much noise, scolded Gnome in his mind, as he followed the soft padding footsteps into the gloom. Soon the clean stone facades gave way to clay and thatch structures with rounded corners and eroding walls. The worn dirt pathways had muddy blotches here and there most likely made by drunks and scoundrels too coarse or too witless to walk to the Torrent to urinate. 

The thief was heading into The Grotto.

He’s pretty fast for a little guy, Gnome thought wryly, as he glided noiselessly at a safe distance behind. The boy knew routes between buildings, under bridges, around open roads, and through a wide underground sewer that kept him out of sight. They crossed the Lower Torrent River on a makeshift footpath beneath a bridge and headed into the heart of The Grotto.

There were no real trees here, but the muddy streets and densely-packed, dilapidated buildings sagged and crumbled into an overgrown park of sorts that was constructed of vines on top of vines on top of shrubs and what might once have been man-made structures since pulled down and smothered by time. The occasional iron fence, or mound of dark brown wall, could be glimpsed beneath thick curtains of woven green.Gnome’s quarry disappeared. The boy had raced along, rounded a corner, and promptly evaporated. This could mean only one of two things: either The Den was near, or the hunter had become the hunted.


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