I snapped awake, convulsively, pushing myself up against the wall of my chamber, heart pounding, and muscles tensed. Something had touched me. There was a flutter of movement as it scrambled back. I stared at the small dark shape, baring my fangs at it. Behind it, my entry was barred as always. This was so extraordinary that I reacted as if it was a dream. That is, I did not immediately break its neck.
It was like a goblin; it had the same sorts of features, but larger. It lacked the heaviness of a hobgoblin. There was something graceful to it, as if someone had taken a goblin and stretched it somehow. I had never seen anything quite like it.
How had it gotten in?
It was bleeding in smudges and trickles, messy but not fatal. The smell of hot blood hung in the air; I licked my lips. Bruises and scrapes covered its body; I noticed one eye swollen shut and the mouth looking puffy. There was something odd about the way it held its arm. It smelled male, probably young, and had a short beard. It wore a feathered vest over a woven tunic, which might indicate some wealth. No weapons that I could see.
Was this a dream? A vision? Was this magic? Or a trick of my mind? Perhaps it was a spirit, a magical creature that could walk through walls?
“What are you?” I asked.
It blinked, not responding.
“What are you?” I asked again.
He looked at me then.
“I am of High Cedar,” he gasped, but even through his laboured delivery, it felt like something learned by rote, “of morning dew, child of the moon and the rainbow, people of the great forest.”
I blinked. None of that had meant anything.
“Gnome,” he said, “gnome of the High Forest.”
“Not goblin,” I said finally.
“No,” he agreed. “Not goblin.”
“Get out of here,” I told it.
His head swivelled to look at me with his one good eye. His face was so distorted I couldn’t tell if he was smiling.
“You need work, I can pay.” The arm he was holding shifted, and from its fingers spilled a smattering of pebbles. One of them rolled towards me. I picked it up. A gold coin.
I stared at it.
The not-goblin passed out.
I crawled over to examine him. He was still alive and breathing normally. The arm really was broken; his breath hitched as I touched it, but he did not regain consciousness. Aside from that there were cuts and scrapes, swellings that looked like bruises. I checked his breeches, felt under his tunic.
I found a pouch and spilled its contents. I gathered up the coins, more gold, some silver, and a couple of small gems that looked like amethyst, an assortment of coloured beads.
I checked the bars across my small entrance. The heavy sheet of planks fastened together that served as a door were intact, without visible damage. The bars and braces were untouched. Were they in the same position I had left them last night? I couldn’t tell. How had it gotten into my den? I examined the roof and walls, but nothing seemed amiss. Where did it come from?
Outside was a short, narrow, winding hall. On either side were makeshift stalls, boxes, holes one atop the other, chambers, nests and dens, where arukh retreated. The hall lead to a dead end. The far side of the hall opened onto the great central chamber of Troll’s Lodge. All the narrow winding halls opened onto the great chamber.
Then I went out looking for Iron Pants, the troll who ran the place.
The great hall that formed the heart of the troll’s lodge was almost deserted, sunlight spilled down from above, framing the long central platform with morning light. The lodge only had a partial roof, supported by rafters and braces that ringed the outer walls. It was mostly empty. There were a few here and there, occupied or simply waiting, a few of the most destitute slept in piles in corners, clinging to each other for warmth and safety, I dismissed them. I glanced at the rafters but saw no movement. Most arukh who had chambers or at least hiding holes of their own, would be sleeping, or huddling away, waiting for the night. I kept to the shadow along the edges of the hall as I approached.
Iron Pants wasn’t around, but one of the other trolls was. He squatted by the cistern arguing with the upriver man.
“The price is too high,” the troll grumbled.
“Expenses.” The upriver man shrugged. “If you don’t like it, get your water downriver, after its passed though half the kingdoms.”
I stepped into the daylight and interrupted their conversation.
“Something got into my chamber,” I told him. “It had this.”
I flashed a silver coin. It disappeared from my palm into his hand. He led me away from the upriver man who was muttering about orcs and vampires in the daylight.
“What troubles you, woman?” he asked me.
“A not-goblin visits me.”
“It called itself a gnome,” I said.
He grunted. So, he knew what that was. Was that meaningful? Trolls knew all sorts of strange things.
“How did it get in your hole?”
“Maybe you can tell me.”
“I’ve been here all day. No things but arukh come by. Nothing ever comes here but arukh and trolls.”
So, he was lying then. The creature could not sneak past without him knowing. Or perhaps it had magic.
I stared, but the troll simply looked down at me.
“This one doesn’t look like it was much good at sneaking.”
He ignored my indirect accusation.
“Is it alive?” he asked.
“Does it matter?”
“Did it have any more?” The troll referred to the silver in its palm.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
I thought for a moment.
“No not-goblin. You didn’t see or hear a not-goblin. You don’t hear anything. You didn’t hear of one from me. I didn’t give you the silver.”
He thought about that for a moment.
“We’ll hold the silver, and add it to your account,” he said. I was mildly surprised, I expected him to keep it. Iron Pants was reliable, other trolls not so much.
“My account is good,” I insisted. “I do not owe, I am owed. Even without the silver.”
“Anything else?” His bearlike head nodded.
“There enough meat in the stew?” I asked significantly.
“No, could use some more meat, too many spices, you can’t tell the flavour of the meat.”
“Feed me,” I said. “I am hungry.”
“I am hungry now.”
I grunted, and backed away.
“You know,” he reflected, “strange thing happens, I’d be careful. Strange things never happen as one. There’s usually more of them, and they are usually tied together.”
“Best to step carefully when you find something strange.”
He wasn’t looking at me when he spoke, but there was no one around to hear. He was being careful not to look at me. I headed back to my chamber.
My first memories were of riding with the herds.
I was born among the gentle people, as they are called by some, the vampires. as others call them. The herds were our whole world. It was sound and smell and sight, it was safety and freedom. The sky above, the ground below, these things passed by, we moved, and we moved, but the herd was always there. The herd fed us, sheltered us, carried us along with it.
Aurochs, horses, wisent, antelope, reindeer, cattle, rhinos. Everything that moved, everything that was a part of the herd, we were a part of it. Even the mammoths travelled at a stately pace. I remember the smell, the rich smell of life, of animal bodies, of churned earth and mud, of shit and piss, and all those hundreds of bodies, massive, all within sight of each other.
This was the life of the gentle people. During the day, they slept or rode, as the herd was disposed. At night, they passed among the sleeping beasts, taking blood and milk. That was why they were called the gentle people, their touches light, their wounds faint, they took blood with murmurs and whispers, with slow approaches, with stroking, and the beasts, seduced, let them, standing quietly as the gentle people drank. That was why they were called the gentle people, because they did not kill to live, they took from a creature what it was willing to give.
They knew the bulls that were irritable, the ones that charged and the ones that merely glared. They knew the temper of each cow, what they preferred, where they liked to be, whether they were with calf, and they knew the calves that gamboled beside them. They knew the ones you whispered to, the nursing cows that would let you suck a little at their teat, the ones who stood as you bled them, and the ones that you rode, the ones that might suffer a pack, the ones that liked grooming and sought out combs, that shivered with pleasure at the stroke of a brush.
Every member of the herd was known to them. They knew the old and dying, the sick and the injured. They ministered to each as they could, healing or easing their ends. They were also called the wise people for this.
The herd moved. Every day it moved, sometimes galloping. Sometimes it was like thunder, all those hooves moving, one after another. To us, thunder was just the sound of hooves in the sky, a world above that was akin to the world we knew. We all moved with it, clinging to the backs of beasts, shifting from one to another, as they grew tired or irritable.
The vampires and the young, the dreamers and the nameless, riding to the center of the world, where the land stretched endlessly in every direction and the sky was a great vault.
But when day came, that was when the herd moved. You found a mount and held on, passing the day with the world in motion all around you. Hide and muscle and the ceaseless path, always forward, toward an endless horizon.
To be young out in the herds was to be nameless. You had to dream to earn a name. The vampires were great dreamers. They dreamt as they clung to their beasts, the flex of muscles, the grunt and lows becoming their own, as if there was no distinction between them and the beasts they rode.
We who were without names lived with them, lived as they did.
This was life, and I found it good.
I did not realise then, that I did not belong.
The dreamers were always tall and thin, their limbs seemed to reach further than they should. They were grace incarnate, slipping through the herd lightly as a breeze, they could dance around the meanest bull, steal its rage away, and leave it standing there as they took a little blood. They were known as the beautiful people.
I did not understand at first that I was not like them. I grew fast, but not well. Heavy, without the slenderness of proper children. But I did not know what this meant. The gentle people had little interest in me, but then they had little interest in any of their young. The young weren’t real, not until they dreamed.
I remember playing with others, with the other children of the herd. We were talking about the dreams that would come to us, and what they would mean.
An elder, passing by, told me I would never dream, that my kind were always nameless. I was one of the nameless ones.
I think that was the first time I understood that I was different, not like the others. That I was not one of them, but one of the nameless ones. But I was young; we were all young, the moment was forgotten, the understanding passed like a shadow of cloud moving across a meadow, and the children of the herd returned to their play.
Then one day, the herd was moving, galloping, and I clung to the shaggy hide of an auroch. I saw another nameless losing his grip.
I knew him of course.
We who rode the herds, we knew each other, we knew the beasts and each of their tempers. Ours was a moving world, and we knew it. He was older than me, I guessed, or at least larger. Squat like me, growing too fast, clumsy, without the grace and slenderness of our peers.
He was brutal and bullying, lurching and bellowing as the slender ones swirled around him, in imitation of adult games, the dancers and the bull.
He loved to play the bull, stamping his feet and mock-charging as the children danced. Once he’d caught me with a charge, his mass slamming into me, picking me up off my feet and landing me flat on my back, breathless and hurting. He’d pranced around proudly. The adults watched with amusement. That is what I remember. He was harsh with me, I who was less graceful even than he.
He was losing his grip. Perhaps the beast did not want him as a rider. It had lurched and bucked. Perhaps he chose his grip poorly. Perhaps the hide was slick or the hair loose. But I could see it. He kept sliding, trying to grab or climb his way back, but sliding down anyway.
His expression looked panicked, fear made his movements hasty, each grab, each grip not quite sufficient, abandoned and his paws flung again. Where the dreamers melded with their mounts, he struggled and flopped, and writhed.
When he was clinging desperately to the side, when his weight dragged him down, and he could hold on no longer, I saw him let go. He dropped away, his feet striking the churned earth, a better landing than I could make. He stumbled with the force of landing, lurched and tried to run. He took two steps, I think, maybe three.
That’s when a beast struck him from behind, not even seeing him, but just consumed by the gallop of the herd. Its forequarters stuck him, knocking him forward, and it seemed for an instant that he might race with the herd itself. But then he was down on one knee. It rode over him, and he was down.
I saw its hoof strike his head, his skull breaking open, his brains flung out.
And then the ceaseless bodies of the beasts, of the herd, were in the way. Panting flesh and hide. Gone.
I heard laughter, and I looked up; the dreamers had watched. They’d watched him lose his grip and die. They’d laughed. It was a great joke. They do not call them the merciful people. I pressed my face to the shaggy back, wrapped fists in long coarse hair, clung with thighs and arms. Held on desperately. I would not fall, not like that.
I understood then that I was not like them, not of them. I was like him. I could die, and no one would care.
The walls and corners of the lodge were crowded with sleeping arukh, sometimes wedged into corners, sometimes huddled together; those who couldn’t afford a hiding hole, even sleeping they clutched their weapons. We lived our lives looking over our shoulders. We were not a race that ever felt safe.
Had the creature passed by all these. I stared at the bodies lining the wall. Any that were not asleep? Any that were watching me? The arukh hated each other with a bitter, smoldering resentment.
The other chambers looked secure and I didn’t bother to test them. In my hole the gnome lay where I left him, still apparently unconscious.
I grabbed the broken bones in his arm and twisted.
His eyes bulged, and he writhed in my grip. My other hand was on his throat before he could scream. Slowly, I released both grips. He was gasping for breath, his one good eye rolling around; he stank of pain and fear. I reached for his broken arm again. He flinched away from me. But he had nowhere to retreat.
“You are awake,” I said.
He screeched in pain.
I slapped him.
“Be quiet,” I snapped. Suddenly, I regretted the impulse to hurt him, it felt like mud inside, grainy and clinging, sucking and heavy. It was not good.
I rummaged for a bit of leather and gave it to him.
“Your bones are broken,” I said. “I must bind them in place. It will hurt. But it must be done. This will just be for now. It should be done better, later.”
“I know,” he said.
That surprised me. Did his people know broken bones? It was common enough where I was from. Broken bones, and the practices of binding them so you could ride with them. If you couldn’t ride, you were dead, that was how it was.
He took the leather and set it between his teeth. He surprised me by letting me handle his arm. His breath hissed out as I felt the bones.
“A good break,” I told him. “Low. It will heal well.”
I set two sticks in place, quickly wrapped a leather cord to hold them, and then took a third stick, snapping it for the right length, and binding the three of them tightly. I pushed his shoulder to make sure the bones would not move. He grunted but that was all.
Took up two more cords, and wrapped his arm against his chest, so it was secure. I nodded with satisfaction.
I leaned back. The more I looked at him, the more he seemed to have goblin in him. Was he a half-race? He was bigger than a goblin. His limbs were long, fingers long; he had the slender grace I associated with the fair people, the dreamers.
He was a mess. He had bruises and cuts all over him. On closer look, his fine clothes were torn, stained with blood and dirt. He didn’t seem tough. Not a fighter. Not dangerous. Whatever or whoever hurt him this much should have been able to kill him. If they could break his arm and break his head like this, why didn’t they finish him?
“Why are you alive?” I asked suddenly.
I ignored him. There would be pain, I thought. Even with the bones bound, there would be pain. And there were wounds, and bruises and scrapes, and perhaps things I did not see. There might be sickness, infections or invasions of spirits. He would need a healer.
Should I bother? Should I care? I shrugged.
He blinked, staring at me.
“How did you get in here?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. I covered his mouth and reached for the arm I had splinted. He squealed even before I ground the broken bones against each other. I let go. When he was quiet, I took my hand off his mouth. I cocked my head to the side.
“How did you get in here?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he whimpered. “I don’t know. We were going to have a game, and then it all went bad. We were coming back. Then suddenly, from nowhere, there were knives and blood, and something hit me. It hurt and I screamed. There was fighting—”
“And I woke up, and I was here.”
“You dreamed your way in here?” I asked.
He didn’t respond.
“Did you dream of knives and blood?”
He shuddered. “That was real.”
I reached. He flinched away. I ignored him, seizing his face. Holding him still, I ran my hand over his scalp. There was a lump at the back, blood in his hair. Something had hit him.
“I should kill you,” I said. “That would be simplest.”
His breathing hitched. He was scared.
“No,” he said. “You shouldn’t.”
Interesting. He was scared, but not frozen.
There was too much wrong with this. I should snap his neck and be finished. Despite myself, I was curious as to what he would say next.
“I want to hire you,” he said. “I’ll pay you. Isn’t that how it is? Arukh work for hire? I have money.”
I cocked my head, studying him.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Protection,” he whispered. “I need a someone to take messages to my friends. I need a guard to accompany me to a meeting. To guarantee my safety.”
“Do you just hire now? Did you have guards before? Where are they? Why didn’t they protect you then?”
“We were robbed,” he said, “I got lost. Help me, and you’ll be paid. Protect me.”
“Who robbed you?”
“I don’t know.” He was starting to regain his composure. I wasn’t sure I didn’t prefer him scared. I shook my head in frustration.
“How will you pay?”
“I have money.” He reached for his purse. His expression shifted when it was not there.
“You do not. You have nothing. How will you pay?” I asked again.
“My people will pay,” he said quickly. “Go to my house in the city, deliver my message, and they will pay.”
I considered this.
“People like you?” I asked.
“Gnomes?” I reached for his broken arm.
“No! No!” he squealed, his features contorted with sudden panic.
I stopped. We regarded each other. He was panting with fear. He was scared. But not scared enough? Abruptly, I tired of the game; I didn’t like the fear in his eye. He was so like the goblins in appearance.
I grunted. We stared at each other, letting heartbeats pass.
“I will not hurt you again,” I said finally. “But I will kill you. You will answer my questions.”
He surprised me by laughing.
“You won’t hurt me, but you will kill me? How will you kill me without hurting me?”
“The gentle people….” I hesitated. No recognition.
“The dreamers….” I began again, “the vampires, taught us ways to kill without pain.”
It was simple, really. Lead away from the herd, stroke it, groom it, sing to it, and while this was happening, make a little cut and let its life flow out. There were other ways.
They had killed me that way.
He blinked without comprehension.
“You will not lie,” I said. “You will not hide. You will not trick. You will answer questions. You will tell me truths. Or you will die. I will not waste time hurting you.”
I lifted my hands into claws.
He nodded. “Truth. No tricks.”
“How did you get in here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell me what you want?”
“Two things,” he said. “A message to my folk at the Long Shadow House. Do you know it?”
“That’s a dwarf place,” I said. One of the out-totems, I thought. It was the tallest building for several blocks in any direction.
“Birch Medicine dwarves,” he said, “but my people, High Cedar, hold the high floors.”
“Arrah,” I grunted. I’d never heard of Birch Medicine dwarves. “How will I get to high floors? Dwarves in the way.”
“There are arrangements. Go to the gate, tell them you are there for Swyttolu. He will come down, or they will bring you up. I will write a message down. It will tell them to pay you. Can you read?”
“No,” I lied. “But, I might show it to a learned woman, and she could tell me if the message means me ill.”
“You don’t have to,” he said. “I do not mean harm.”
“You might, you might not. But you cannot be sure I will not show this message. So you will not write kill this arukh.”
He stared at me. I wasn’t sure what his expression meant.
“It would be bad to show the message to the wrong person.”
“It would be bad to write the wrong message.”
Still the strange expression.
“Once you are paid, then you come back,” he continued. “Take me to a gnome named Nephta, a money changer, over at the little market. He will pay you the rest.”
“Nothing,” he said. “I will be safe.”
I thought it over. That seemed simple enough.
“Fine,” I said, “I won’t kill you.”
The second gnome I saw was lying dead in a pool of his own blood. The delicate bones of his body were shattered. He’d fallen a great distance. The side of his face, oddly, was intact. He looked peaceful. I knew if I turned that face, the other side would be a shattered ruin. I stood over the body, and looked up, over the fence, at Long Shadow, the house to which the gnome in my custody had sent me.
In the city, a house could be anything from a hovel to a fortress. The largest and strongest houses were practically small kingdoms of their own, with guards at the gates, the residents a small army ready to defend what was theirs. When the war had broken out, many of these houses had been smashed, but new ones had sprung up in their wake.
Long Shadow was a tower.
I squatted on my haunches, with my arms folded, and looked up at it. I had counted eleven floors; the first four stories were stone, and then a series of increasingly narrow wooden platforms until you reached the top. Mostly, around here, buildings reached two or three stories, occasionally four. It was twice as high as the tallest of the neighbouring buildings. From the lower floors, rope lines reached out to connect it to the other buildings.
Its height had made it a target rather than a fortress. It had burned during the war, but not completely. The fires hadn’t touched the stonework that made up the lower floors. It had belonged to the Wild Otter totem, but they’d abandoned it, and now I supposed it was held by Birch Medicine. They were a dwarf clan, but not part of the Dwarf Kingdom. One of the out totems, born in the city. Hardly even a totem, some sniffed. Hardly even dwarves, some said.
They’d rented the upper three floors to the gnomes. It made a sort of sense. Dwarves were a mountain folk, but they didn’t seem to like heights. Their tastes went to solid and squat. High towers were not their style. Which made me wonder why they’d built it. Which in turn made me wonder if perhaps someone else had built it, and the dwarves had simply taken it over. I shook my head, it didn’t matter.
All I had to do was walk up, give the guards my password, and they’d lead me up. It didn’t feel right. I’d watched for twenty minutes. There were guards at the front of the house, others who seemed to loiter about suspiciously, just regular passersby who somehow weren’t actually passing by. There was no sign of activity on the upper floors. No lights, no movement. There were broken shutters. Something that looked like there’d been a small fire, quickly suppressed, but the black scorch marks were fresh. I didn’t see any gnomes.
Finally, I had given a coin to a hobgoblin to walk up to the building with the password. They’d grabbed him. While he struggled, I faded away.
I’d circled the building, trying to see it from different angles. That’s when I’d come upon the gnome. I prodded the body; it was stiff and cold. The blood was stale and drying. There was a mild stench. I peered up at the building. It looked to me like he’d been killed by a fall from a great height. From the tower, for instance. But he was a good ways from the tower, to land on this side of the wall, so he’d either leaped hard, or he’d been thrown. He’d been lucky, sort of. Landing on this side of the fence had concealed him. A few inches short, and the fence would have ripped his body in half. A few more inches, and he’d have been in plain sight.
I squatted in front of the body, studying it.
“Hello!” a female voice called. “What are you doing here?”
I looked up. It was a young dwarf female, her red hair braided on the left, sideburns carefully trimmed. She had a companion who wore a similar braid. Dwarf, but not quite. She had the large eyes and the chiselled features I associated with kobolds. Her hair was dark and straight. They didn’t seem afraid of me.
“The cousins will find you,” she said. Her companion looked over her shoulder at the mention of cousins.
“I did not do this,” I said.
She made an exasperated sound. “I know that! I found the body already; I was bringing Zola to show her. I’m Squirrel. Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I am arukh,” I replied. “I came here with a message.”
“A message?” Squirrel asked. “What kind of message?”
“Hagrik,” Zola said, pronouncing the Dwarf word for arukh. “Hag. Do you have a name?”
“No,” I said, “the arukh have no names.”
“I’ve heard of hags with names,” Zola piped.
“You should stay far away from those,” I told them. I indicated the body. “Do you know who this is?”
“Swyttolu,” Squirrel said. “It’s Swyttolu; he was the house chief of the gnomes.”
“Whatever that meant,” said Squirrel.
“He was kind of mean,” Zola said. “Always shooing us away. He didn’t like us coming up.”
“Arrah,” I grunted. Swyttolu was the one I was supposed to deliver my message to. The one who was to pay me. I supposed I could still deliver it, but he didn’t look like he would pay. I tilted my head to consider the girls, they weren’t afraid.
“He was the one the message was for,” I said. I chewed my lip.
“That’s too bad,” said Squirrel. “You should have come earlier. He was fine yesterday.”
I almost laughed.
“What are you doing here?” Squirrel repeated. “You aren’t going to steal the body, are you? I’ve heard hags steal bodies and do terrible things with them. Although, I think that being dead is the most terrible thing.”
“You aren’t afraid of me?” I asked.
“Should we be?” Zola asked. “Are you dangerous? Are you planning to attack us? I’ve never seen a hagrik… an arukh before. I’ve heard terrible things. But you don’t seem so bad. Are you bad?”
“If you try anything, we’ll run away and scream, and then you’ll be in trouble,” Squirrel said, “so you better not try. Everyone is upset and running around with swords and clubs already. I bet if we screamed a half dozen cousins would be here right away.”
They didn’t seem inclined to scream. I poked at the body. It was still dead.
“Avrice sent me,” I said quietly, “to deliver a message. Do you know Avrice?”
“We know Avrice,” Zola said. “He’s nice. Always friendly, not like some of the others. He gave me a toy, want to see?”
I took some comfort from that. One piece at least fit together: Avrice was known here.
“She doesn’t want to see your toy, Zola,” Squirrel snapped. “What message?”
“I don’t know.”
Squirrel laughed. “Not much of a messenger then.”
“Oh. Can I see it?”
“Show us!” Zola squealed.
“Show us the message, and I’ll show you Avrice’s toy!” Zola offered.
“She’s not interested in a toy,” Squirrel said. “She’s a monster. Monsters don’t like toys.”
“Show me the toy,” I said.
Squirrel pouted. Zola grinned broadly, looking less dwarf than ever. She fished a small wooden case from her pocket. It was wrapped in a strip of leather. Carefully she unwound the leather strap, and lifted the cover off. She passed it to me.
Inside the flat case were a series of small wooden wheels of all sizes. The wheels were all jagged, as if covered with teeth, and the teeth all slipped between the teeth of other wheels. I turned one of the wheels with my finger, and all of the wheels turned one direction or another. I’d never seen anything quite like it. The motion of the wheels, as they moved each other, was peculiar. Some strange kind of magic? I handed it back.
“What is it?”
Zola took it and started wrapping it again. She used a word I’d never heard before. It didn’t sound like a dwarf word.
“It’s a ratio chamber.”
“What does it do?”
“Avrice says it doesn’t work properly,” she said, “it used to, but some of the wheels were worn, and it wasn’t fixed right. Now the calculations are off. Dreesong made him another. That’s why he gave it to me. But I think it’s marvellous. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“It’s strange,” I said.
I thought about for a moment, and handed the parchment over. The girls, holding each other, approached close enough to snatch it from my hand.
“What’s it say?” Zola asked.
“I can’t read it,” Squirrel replied. I couldn’t read it either, but I’d hoped that the girls might be able to. “It’s all funny. Gnome marks.”
“That’s Avrice’s mark,” Zola pointed out.
“Is there a gnome or someone that could read this?” I asked. “Could you bring them to me? So we could learn what the message says?”
“No gnomes left,” Zola said.
“All gone,” Squirrel said. “There was an attack.”
“Bad men,” Zola said, “bad men came last night.”
“Humans,” Squirrel elaborated. “But in dwarf dress.”
I tilted my head.
“They went right up to the gnome floors, killed some, took some away. It was bad. They smashed the place up.”
“For a long time,” Squirrel emphasized. “They didn’t just come up, they stayed up. We were all running around, wondering what to do. The chief men didn’t want to go up right away.”
I thought about it.
“Didn’t the gnomes have guards?”
“Killed them all.”
“What about the lower floors? What about your totem? Bad men came, they’d have had to go through your floors.”
“They didn’t stop on our floors, they went straight up.”
“And your guards?”
“They got beaten,” Zola said.
“No,” Squirrel said, “nobody got hurt on the floors below. They hit our men, and they went down.”
“Well,” Zola said, “except for Pola, he got beaten up pretty bad.”
“Some weren’t around, a lot of them, they got taken by surprise. The bad men came up when they weren’t looking.” Squirrel said. “That’s what they say.”
I looked at the body between us.
“Now there are cousins all over the place. Men we’ve never seen before. To help guard us from the bad men,” Squirrel said. Her voice went low. “Some of them, I think they look like the bad men.”
“I think,” Zola said, “they’re from the spoonmen.”
“There’s no such thing,” Squirrel said dismissively.
She was wrong, but I would not spoil their illusions.