Chapter 8: Thieves

Chapter 8: Thieves

Shadow was becoming harder to find. With every minute, the sun crept higher in the sky, illuminating the pitted dirt road and causing the peculiar green smell of dense foliage to mingle with the muddy odors of The Grotto and the foul, ever-present wafts from Fish City. Bugs of all kinds had awoken in the thicket, and their buzzing seemed loud to Gnome in the absence of other sounds.

He walked slowly and warily along the narrow road, the backs of low clay hovels on his right, the buzzing expanse of green undulating to his left.

Where on earth did he go?

Several things then happened in quick succession. A shifting shadow caught Gnome’s eye from within a darkened entrance on his right. In front of him, perhaps forty paces away, a small section of the road seemed to settle slightly, as though an earthen trap door that had been open a crack was suddenly closed. Focused as he was on the road and the buildings, Gnome never expected the enormous hand that closed over his face, suffocating him and pulling him aggressively backward against a huge, soft body. A massive hairy arm closed quickly over Gnome’s torso, pinning his arms hopelessly to his sides. Blind and immobilized, he felt himself being hauled backward directly into the thicket. Buzzing and heavy breathing filled his ears.

After a disorienting and bumpy descent, he was deposited unceremoniously, but unharmed, on a dirt floor. Dim light in the shabby underground space illuminated a ring of cruel blades wielded menacingly by a motley bunch of scoundrels. Taking a quick look behind him, Gnome saw that the enormous man who had apprehended him was twice the size of the next largest person in the cramped space. He had to stoop low to avoid hitting his enormous head. While everyone else leered accusingly at Gnome as if waiting for the moment when they could skin him alive, the giant man just stood there, smiling like a child who has caught his first fish.

“You got followed, Waif,” a wiry man hissed admonishingly through broken teeth. Regaining his bearings, Gnome recognized the small thief whom he had pursued cowering silently by a wall.

“I thought ‘e was just a boy!” blurted out a dirty, skinny girl enthusiastically.

“Ugliest boy I’ve ever seen,” retorted the wiry man.

“What are you, anyway?” a tremulous voice entered the conversation over Gnome’s left shoulder.

“I’m Gnome,” said Gnome.

“Fig didn’t ask who y’are, he asked what y’are,” spat back the wiry creep.

Gnome responded with his most withering glare.

“Should I squish ‘im, Rove?” rumbled the huge hairy oaf behind Gnome. Somehow his voice sounded perfectly amiable even when threatening murderous violence.

“Hmm, I dunno.” The creep called Rove feigned consideration. “Should we let Boris squish you, little man?”

In defiance of the hovering blades, Gnome stood up purposely, dusted himself off, and stated, “I am here to see The Master.”

Those were the magic words. The blades drooped. A combination of relief and disappointment played out on the eager faces surrounding him. Several scoundrels just walked wordlessly away, presumably to resume whatever activity they had previously been engaged with.

Rove, still glowering suspiciously, spat sideways at the huddled young thief by the wall. “Why don’t ‘e follow you to The Master, Waif? You let ‘im come with you here to The Den, why not take ‘im all the way? An’ you can tell The Master all about how you led ‘im here while yer at it.”

Departing the dank space on the heels of the shaky young thief, Gnome projected his purest disdain at the taunting wiry Rove. His gaze was met by hatred and a barely contained fury; Gnome knew this man could never be trusted.

“You’re a good rogue, Waif,” Gnome said sincerely as they threaded their way lower into the earth through a series of twisting passages. “You were hard to follow, and you lost me at the end.”

They entered a stone-lined room. A single blue candle burned on a wooden table filled with valuables of various kinds. An ornately carved and generously upholstered chair sat empty and slightly askew just behind the table.

Waif crept to the table and extracted a silver bracelet with a single topaz cabochon set in the center from a pocket inside his tattered grey cloak. He placed it carefully atop a small pile of coins, trying not to make a sound. So that’s what he stole in Hillcrest, thought Gnome.

The voice came from the shadows only after Waif had attempted to slink back out of the room. “You have something to tell me, Waif.” The soft words rang clear and emotionless.

Waif froze. His features gained the pained distortion of a boy trying very hard not to cry. “I’m s-sorry, Master!” he blurted out in exasperation. “I got followed. I led him to The Den. I was careless. I’m so stupid.” The words tumbled alongside the tears and the guilt and the shame.

“Everything happens for a reason, Waif.” Still no emotion whatsoever. “I will see you soon, and we will proceed.”

“Yes, Master.” Waif bowed and vanished.

The space was so quiet now that the burning of the candle became the loudest sound in the room. With the candle’s dim light, even his superior eyesight failed to provide Gnome with The Master’s location in the subterranean blackness beyond the glow. The Master’s voice had seemed to jump around the room.

“Why have you come?”

Suddenly the voice was so close behind him that Gnome whirled around. He saw a compact figure straighten up after landing silently and feather-light on the floor. Had he leapt from some perch in the darkness above? Intense, coal-black eyes bore down into Gnome’s. They peered out from a clean, inscrutable face, framed by curls of thick black hair.“Master,” Gnome bowed low, “I am here to learn.”

READ CHAPTER 9

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