Aphelion Issue 287, Volume 27
September 2023
 
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A Deal’s A Deal

by Jason Battle




“It looks like rubbish to me.”

The hawker recoiled as if struck by the words themselves. Mouth hung agape; hand clasped over lips as to prevent the insult from entering his person.

“I, Martin de la Pouliousse der Argenschwitz Simonicus the Third, would never peddle counterfeit or duplicitous merchandise. I, sir, am the exclusive proprietor of the blessed Lady of Armouthe’s most sacred relics. I can assure, with the sisters’ of Armouthe assurance, that this has been blessed with the holy Lady’s own tears and when a tonic is consumed by a prospective mother will render the woman exceedingly more fertile as to rival the hares that propagate and proliferate throughout your countryside. Why, a lusty man must only gaze at his woman after she drinks the fertility tea, and she would be stricken with a cluster of progeny. The only problem with this relic, sir, is that a man must be ready at once upon digestion to consummate for the woman would be struck with such a desire to seek alternative potential donors!”

With that, Martin de la Pouliousse der Argenschwitz Simonicus the Third produced a spotless handkerchief and with a flourish grabbed the root out of the farmer’s hand. Martin spun on his heels and the holy relic disappeared into one of his many hidden pockets as he made his way back to his cart.

The farmer’s wife glared with sufficient acidity at her husband to spur his reconsideration.

“What?” said the farmer “I think it’s rubbish.”

Her stare intensified and the farmer relented with a sigh.

“Fine,” the farmer said, “Hold on, excuse me Marty de la Puckersauce der....”

“Der Argenschwitz” Martin turned back to the man, all silk and pointed smiles “and the sanctification of your statuesque and most symmetrical wife’s womb can be obtained for a mere two silver.”

“Two,” spat the farmer “Silver did you say?”

Even the wife seemed taken aback, but Martin did not budge. He reached back into his velvety multi pocketed overcoat and produced the blessed root, displayed upon his out-stretched hand.

“I watched as the holy sisters steeped this in the few remaining remnants of the blessed woman” continued Martin, the inflection and volume of his voice increasing with every word “I wrapped this neatly in virgin cloth and carried with me over continents and across rivers and oceans. An object of this potency, this influence, this preeminence would normally be reserved for the only most influential nobility. But I, Martin de la Pouliousse der Argenschwitz Simonicus the Third, am willing to endow the most sacred dominion of her blessed and departed relic for one silver coin.”

The farmer and wife stared and were notably moved.

“One silver?” asked the farmer “Still seems steep, but you have a deal.”

“Excellent! A deal’s a deal.” Martin replaced the silver in the farmer’s open palm with the root before he could reconsider.

“What do I do with it?” questioned the farmer.

Martin measured at the man with a quizzical look, for once at a loss of words but managed a reply.

“Why sir, it gets stiff, and you put it inside your wife until, well you know where certainly? You’ve not done this before?”

“What!” exclaimed the farmer “not that, the root, I know that!”

“Well, you don’t do anything besides let your wife brew a tea with it and drink it and immediately consummate your relationship as many times as possible.” Martin again turned his back and began to step towards his cart when the farmer’s hand grasped his shoulder to hold him in place.

“And what if it don’t work? How do I get my coin back?” the farmer asked, squeezing Martin’s shoulder for emphasis.

Martin turned and shrugging off the farmer’s calloused and mud-stained hand and said “Our most blessed Lady’s tea has never failed save for the cases of impotence, old age, and an otherwise lack of functional reproductive mechanisms. As long as you are of minimal potency, you shall harvest the fruit of your seed within a year. If you have doubts, ask your neighbors to the west, half of their spawn were conceived this way.”

With that, Martin leapt upon the seat of his horse drawn wagon and snapped the reins before his customers could propose additional questions. As the draft horse slowly began to pull the wagon through the water-logged mud road Martin called over his shoulder “Enjoy your copulation, and feel free to name your first born after me, Martin or Martina are both acceptable.”

Martin’s covered wagon and horse sloshed easterly through the muddy road, the farmhouse receding slowly to the horizon, Martin looked back to see the wife leading her husband towards their house.

“Another happy couple,” Martin stated to no one, settling into his seat.

A couple of hours of travel brought Martin past the vast stretches of agriculture without encountering other potential customers. He entered a small forest of thin birches residing upon a gradual hill which the road, now composed of thick, flagstone, allowed his wheels to gain traction. The late afternoon sun cast rays of light past the wooden sentinels. He pulled on the reins to halt his pair of worn mules and jumped down to answer nature’s call. As he finished relieving himself, he was about to climb back aboard to complete his day’s trip to a village over the next rise, when an unnatural shape, further off the road caught his eye.

“What do we have here?” Martin pulled a short dagger he carried in his boot and crouched low as he creeped towards it.

With minimal stealth and abundant cursing, Martin tripped over a previously unseen exposed root. He spilled into a small clearing; a motley collection of trinkets fell from his pockets onto the dirt packed ground. As he dusted himself off and gathered his wares, he chanced a glance at his initial target.

Resting beside a pile of stones in the clearing was a body. Sensing no movement from the body, Martin snuck forward and observed a circle drawn into the mud a few hands span from the body’s feet. Crawling forward, he was able to perform a closer inspection of the body. It was a young man, seemingly previously full of life. His face was devoid of color now, he had gentle features and wavy chestnut hair. His eyes, the color of sapphire, were patched with dots of red, his lips were swollen, and a violet bruise encircled his neck. Martin reached out and touched the young man’s face with his hand. It was cold and he drew his hand back quickly.

“Let’s see what you have,” Martin said as he patted the pockets of the corpse. A small whittling knife and a bauble made of glass were all that he found. Martin pried open the boy’s mouth, but given his age and station, did not have any precious metals that had replaced his teeth.

Sighing, Martin stood, “poor boy, literally actually. You have nothing on you that I can use.”

He was about to turn back towards the road when a glint on the ground next to the boy caught his attention.

“What is this?” Martin reached down and picked up a thin silver coin with a trio of stars on one side and a skull on the other “why would you be having this? No matter, it’s mine now, I thank ye kindly.” Martin tipped his hat to the corpse and turned back towards his wagon, kicking up the dirt and deadfall as he retreated to cover his tracks.

Dark, brooding clouds sat threatening the horizon. They began to release fat, heavy droplets when Martin approached the village. Composing of barely more than a dozen clustered buildings surrounded by a low stone wall, the village was dominated by a large center hall and an inn across from a currently empty village square. The stone lane leading to the entrance was empty, save for a stray goat which bleated meekly at Martin as he passed.

Leaning against the entryway to the inn, a potbellied, flush faced man with retreating red hair watched Martin’s wagon pull to a stop in front of him. Behind him, the glow of a hearth fire and the aromas of stewed meat and freshly baked bread wafted out from the inn. A wooden sign hung next to the doorway, proclaiming the inn The Lumpy Pickle. The portrait of an erect pickle accompanied the name, its image vaguely resembling a part of the male anatomy.

“My good man,” Martin called out to the innkeeper as he leapt down from his seat, “would you be so kind as to send the ostler around? I will also require accommodations for the evening at your fine establishment.”

The man gave Martin a look of confusion while he mouthed the words Martin had spoken, one unknown in his vocabulary.

“The stable boy?” Martin clarified.

The innkeeper grunted,” ain’t got no stableboy on account we ain’t got no stable.”

Martin halted in his tracks and stared up at the man before responding,” now where will I store my goods? There are innumerous priceless wares accumulated over vast distances that require security lest some hooligans deign to engage in outright burglary.”

The innkeeper shrugged, “there be a barn round back you can hitch your wagon to. For your stuff, I’d put it in a sack and bring it in. We don’t have too much thieving in these parts, but you can ne’er be too careful. When yer done, come in if you plan on staying. Rain’s gonna get harder.”

Given the area was known for sudden gusts of westerly winds, Martin was surprised that what the innkeeper referred to as a barn was still upright. Barely a straight line in sight, the planks that held together the structure were termite eaten and weather beaten. The whole place looked as if one stiff wind would mercifully rid the town of the fire hazard. If the outward appearance was disheartening, the innards were disgusting. Stinking of cow manure and other assorted feces, Martin quickly and with a bit of guilt for his animals having to endure the discomfort, relieved his mules of their load and stabled them for the night. He threw the belongings he had that would fetch the highest prices into a well-worn burlap sack and left the structure behind him.

Fortunately, as dilapidated as the barn was, the Lumpy Pickle was in fine shape and the smells of stew made his stomach rumble, reminding him that he had not taken a meal since early morning. Two bearded men sat at the end of an oaken bar which dominated the center of the inn. They nursed an amber liquid with a slight haze and a full head. Martin gave the pair a friendly nod which was received with a snort.

“Sir, I would ask for a bowl of whatever the cook has that is making my mouth drool and a tankard of ale,” Martin took a stool.

Rounding the end of the bar, the innkeeper shouted Martin’s order back to the kitchen and filled a wooden tankard with the same liquid his other guests already had. He placed the ale in front of Martin.

“You said you be wanting a room for the night?” the innkeeper asked Martin.

“Yes, from the appearances you have vacancy?” Martin drank deeply from the tankard and raised it in appreciation, “the ale is quite fine.”

“You have coin?” the innkeeper asked.

Martin pulled out his coin purse and felt out a couple coins. He pulled out two coins which he could tell from their weight were copper and placed them on the counter. To his surprise, and quite by accident, he had also dropped the coin he had found on the dead boy on the bar top. He quickly scooped the last up before the innkeeper had a chance to appraise it.

“Hmm, good enough.” the innkeeper said as he grabbed a key from under the bar,” Here’s the key to the room, first one on the right at the top of the stairs.”

“What’s that you have there?” a scratchy voice from beside him startled Martin nearly causing him to jump off his stool.

Martin swiveled to see a bent gnome who stood barely higher than the gnarled maple cane he used to steady himself. Given the length of his eyelashes, a point of pride in the gnomish community, the one presently addressing Martin seemed quite aged. The gnome man straightened himself as best as his ancient body could and squinted at Martin.

“Don’t you go about bothering my customers, gnome. You know I don’t serve your kind here,” the innkeeper said to the new arrival as he gathered up Martin’s payment.

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Gurn. Snuttlegurn is the name, and apologies for startling you so, we gnomes forget races’ auditory deficiencies,” the diminutive gnome stroked his beard and mustache in a gnomish greeting towards Martin, “and I am honored to be the sole proprietor of the Snuttlegurn’s Excellent Emporium, third generation. Located right here in town.”

“What do you sell there?” Martin asked as he regained a measure of composure.

“Junk,” inn keep Gurn interrupted with a guffaw as he left the two to tend to his other clientele, scooping up Martin’s payment.

“Hmph. At Snuttlegurn’s Excellent Emporium we trade in the finest components needed for arcane crafts. High quality items only, unlike the drivel passed for ale in this swill shop,” Martin’s new acquaintance, Snuttlegurn addressed the final bit to Gurn’s backside.

“I happen to think the ale here quite enjoyable,” Martin took another sip from his tankard.

“Apologies again, I forget humans are anathematized with unsophisticated palates. If you ever desire to indulge in the most ambrosian creations ever to have been fermented, one should venture to my gnomish ancestor’s homeland. There you will find brews so hoppy it would make your chin whiskers curl. There, they have concocted make a stout that you have to slice with knife and spread it on bread to imbibe it properly”, Snuttlegurn sighed and climbed atop a stool next to Martin.

“That sounds quite interesting,” Martin said to Snuttlegurn,” I think I’ll stick to this for now.”

A young woman delivered Martin’s order, a full steaming bowl of stewed venison with a side of buttered bread on a trencher. She had a tangle of auburn hair and beneath her apron Martin allowed himself to appreciate her full womanly curves. As she departed, Martin’s mouth filled with saliva from the smells alone, a first taste confirmed the skill of the cook.

“Now about that coin,” Snuttlegurn tore a chunk off Martin’s bread,” the one with the stars and skull. “Where abouts did you say you found it?”

“I didn’t,” said Martin.

“Well, I have an idea where you did, and I know some who would pay a pretty amount for it,” Snuttlegurn stoked his eyelashes, “Perhaps this evening you can come by my shop. You cannot miss it, it is opposite side of the main street, due west.”

“I don’t see why not,” Martin slurped stew, appreciating its richness of flavor. When he turned to ask another question, he found the gnome had disappeared.

“Mind your head,” Snuttlegurn told Martin a moment too late as the human bounced his head off a metal pot, hanging from the rafters of the gnome’s shop.

“Forgive my forwardness,” Martin said, “but your shop would benefit from some revamping by a gnome of the fairer sex.”

“I am currently a bachelor,” the gnome answered.

“Who shall be the next generation owner of Snuttlegurn’s Excellent Emporium then?” Martin rubbed his head and ducked his head beneath another metal pot collecting rainwater from the leaky roof of the gnome’s shop.

“Why would I need a female gnome for that?” asked Snuttlegurn, momentarily silencing the surprised Martin. The gnome shook his head,” so lacking in knowledge of the other races’ biology are humans.”

“You may consider then,” Martin reconsidered the topic of discussion, “making your place of business more accommodating to your customers’ proportions.”

“Always the same with humans. Assuming that they are to be gratified. I am in the firm belief that I am of perfect dimensions for myself. That includes my shop. In case you were unaware, gnomish size is of perfect proportion for device and magical manipulation. In addition, our long lifespan enables us to appreciate living in balance with our surroundings. I would also point out that you are not aware of the measurements of my clientele. Many of the fae folk are of similar build to gnomes, and it is they who have, like gnomes, the patience for the practice of the finer arcane arts.” Snuttlegurn navigated the small goat trails carved into piles of clutter in the front of his shop with Martin in tow,” Have you encountered a practitioner of magic before?”.

“In the village that I grew up in, there was a troupe that would come by every harvest festival. One of them would do tricks, illusions. He created explosions in the sky of different colors and made things vanish in a puff of smoke,” Martin said as he sat on a stool, offered by the gnome.

Sitting, Martin was finally able to appraise the inside of Snuttlegurn’s Excellent Emporium, without having to be on alert of another metal obstacle at every step. The sheer amount of goods that were contained within the small shop. It appeared all three generations of Snuttlegurn goods were carefully, if not messily, crammed inside the Emporium’s interior. Jugs of cicada shells sat next to flasks containing the shed skin of asps which in turn were arrayed alongside what appeared to be stuffed remains of a greyish owl. The floor, made of split timber, was covered in piles of parchment, rows of urns emanating odd moldy scents and a miscellany collection of trinkets. If Martin was prone to claustrophobia, he would certainly be experiencing anguish.

“Tricks, sleight of hand or the use of some device. Perhaps an illusionist of little regard, the one that you’ve seen before,” Snuttlegurn said, “certainly not any that I would cater to.”

“And what exactly is it that your wares do?” Martin asked.

“Like all craftsmen, real magicians use tools. The smithy uses hammers of differing variety for each of their needs such as the ball peen which are ideally suited for are forging, bending, forming and peining. But, like smithies, there are jobs which call for an embossing hammer. So, akin to all skilled craftsmen, certain situations call for specific tools.” Snuttlegurn pulled down a flask with what appeared to be beetle husks, about the size of a man’s fist, soaking in a clear pungent liquid that smelled of pickling juice and unstopped it, “take the shell of the Boulder beetle. Used primarily by warding spell-weavers, it is critical in enchantments which enhance a fortification’s sturdiness. Utilized by the dwarven folk originally, they grind the shells into the paint which the wards are composed of and are applied to the structure to add resiliency. It can also be used in metallurgy to add strength to whatever is cast in. As you can see, my wares are extremely versatile.”

“All this time, I’ve been mindlessly squashing bugs without knowing that they are valuable goods. Snuttlegurn, I am well accustomed to using a few fancy turns to prey on a customer’s hope, not to say I don’t believe in magic. It is well known that the kings and dukes enlist a wizard or two in their retinue, and the fae certainly relies on its advantages. I am skeptical that dead bugs contain any charmed properties,” Martin peered at the aforementioned beetle specimens, “but that is not why we’re here, is it?”

“Indeed,” Snuttlegurn pulled a small teak box from a cluttered shelf beside him, “that token you found, I’ve seen it before, and I happen to know where you found it.”

“Do you?” Martin leaned forward.

“Yes, because it was stolen from me.”

“Who would steal it?” Martin asked.

“I had an assistant. Young human boy named Otho. Didn’t speak too much, listened, and never asked too many questions. He would aid me when I would go on trips to gather my goods, carried my packs, and tended to the animals. Otho was with me on my last trip. We took the river ferry south and then into the western desert. It was an arduous trip, but it was worth every moment. For you see, in the western desert there are a group of priests, terribly dull lot as they’ve taken an oath of silence, whose worship involves death of the innocent. Every year, they sacrifice a virgin boy and girl to their god or goddess or whatever these pagan humans believe in. This does not improve my assessment of them. Terribly violent and gruesome lot, you humans.” Snuttlegurn stood and walked over to a tea kettle, “can I interest you in some juniper tea?”

“No, thank you.” Martin said, “So these priests? You brought them your assistant to be sacrificed?”

“Not at all,” Micro said, appalled, “I am not some monster. I made a purchase. I obtained a finger of one of their sacrifices, the virgin girl I believe.”

“Morbid.”

“Yes, well, she didn’t require it any longer.” Snuttlegurn stoked coals in an iron wood burning stove while he put the pot of water on it, “if you were in the business I am, you would know that ground bone of the innocent are a particularly valuable component in several necromantic rituals.”

“What does this have to do with my coin?” Martin asked.

“I will get to the matter of the disputed token, mind you, in a moment.” Snuttlegurn stirred the steaming water and poured himself a cup before sitting down, “Now, like diamonds need cutting and polishing, a component needs its own manner of enhancement. To intensify and finalize the bone’s influence in the ritual, it is ground into a powder and sealed inside a manner of currency. The latter appeals to the unholy spirits and the former to allow the process to take place. It is then stamped, crudely I admit, to resemble the currency of those which tend to the dead.”

“If I were to believe this, what do these tenders provide in return?” Martin asked.

“The most valuable commodity indeed. Knowledge from the deceased. The dead do not lie or obfuscate the truth. Imagine the possibilities,” Snuttlegurn said, and he put down his tea and opened the teak box.

“An interesting story my friend gnome. It sounds as if you are eager to acquire this token,” Martin pulled out the coin and held it in his open hand, “I heard you mention valuable, what is it you are willing to spare for it?”

“Spare? It was stolen from me by Otho, I am sure of it. Although I cannot imagine why, he was the sole one who had access and knowledge of its worth and I haven’t not seen the boy for two days.” Snuttlegurn said, “I assume you purchased it from him or obtained it in some other nefarious manner and asked you here to offer an opportunity to relinquish it back to its proper owner.”

“On the contrary my good gnome,” Martin responded, “some perversity was brought upon your assistant. I found this coin next to the body of a young man, I assume this was the Otho you speak of.”

“Body? You are sure he is dead?”

“Quite,” Martin said.

Snuttlegurn stood and started to pace about the back of his store. He muttered to himself in vaguely distinguishable language, mentioning something about the uncouthness of humans and how someone could leave and pillage a corpse to be exposed to the elements and wild animals. Finally, he reached a decision and turned back to his guest.

“We shall bring the village reeve to where you found him, an investigation should be opened,” Snuttlegurn stated as he rejoined Martin, “can you find the location where you found him again?”

Martin nodded.

“I will alert Reeve Noyth at dawn,” Snuttlegurn pushed a curtain aside, revealing a small window, which through the downpour could be observed, “there is no sense in going out in this weather. I will meet you at the inn at first light.”

“This better not be another one of your tall tales, Snuttlegurn,” a surly reeve Noyth wiped the sleep from his bloodshot eyes, “I’ve heard enough about Gurn pestering your abominable goat. If I had a right mind, I might encourage that innkeeper to have his daughter make it into stew.”

“You know, reeve, that I always tell tales that are factual,” Snuttlegurn said Martin led the pair out of town on the main road.

“That’s half true, gnome,” the reeve grunted.

Snuttlegurn had not allowed leeway in rousing the local administer of the lord’s laws in the early morning and the man did not seem one accustomed to greeting the sunrise. A weak chinned man with a flush faced and pot belly, reeve Noyth appeared to still be recovering from the previous nights’ revelry. From the abundance of liver spots populating his face, the reeve’s consumption had become habitual and was confirmed when Martin spied the man furtively sipping on an iron canteen with a foul-smelling liquid as Martin led them back down the road.

As sunlight began to burn away the morning mist, Martin spotted a familiar copse of birches where a small clearing could just be seen, next to the slate road. “Just this way,” Martin led the still-bickering gnome and reeve towards the gap in the trees, “mind your step.”

Aside from the previous night storm’s rain and wind eliminating the curious circle cut into the mud, the scene was identical to when Martin had found it and he was relieved to note that the body had not been disturbed or removed by scavenging beasts.

“Is this your assistant?” Noyth asked Snuttlegurn as he knelt next to the boy’s body.

Snuttlegurn leaned forward and stared down before replying,” indeed this is Otho.”

“It would appear,” Noyth pointed to the deep purple bruising on the boy’s neck,” that he was strangled. If I were to guess, I would say with a rope of sort and from behind.”

“Do you know what this means, Noyth?” the little gnome asked, “It means that we have a murderer living among us. Who would do such a thing?”

“Why don’t we ask him?” Martin held out the coin he had found on the boy its trio of stars to Snuttlegurn,” you said this allowed you to talk to the deceased, now is your chance.”

Seeing the coin in Martin’s outstretched hand, Snuttlegurn let out a low grumble, “do you know what that is worth? I’ll not waste it on a common thief such as this boy,” the gnome poked Otho’s corpse with his cane.

“I’ll be the judge of that gnome,” Noyth pushed himself up, “if there is a way which we may be able to find out who committed this crime, we will do it. Now, tell me Snuttle, does this actually work? What will we need to do?”

“Yes, it will work, and I am familiar with the process, having performed it before.” Snuttlegurn said, “After beginning the spell I may be able to ask the boy a few questions. I shall be the sole witness to what he has to say, including anything he may share related to the inquiry into his untimely demise. All I require is the token that Martin took from this boy, legitimately or not.”

Martin flicked the coin to the gnome, who caught it deftly in midair. As he leaned over his former assistant, Snuttlegurn opened the boy’s mouth with a swift jerk of the chin. He stuck the token; the trio of stars face down upon the tongue of Otho and closed their mouth again. With his eyes closed and muttering in a low, guttural voice, barely audible by the reeve and Martin, Snuttlegurn ran his hands over the boy’s face, hovering them just above his eyes.

The gnome switched to the common tongue before addressing the corpse, “Otho, my boy, tell me who did this to you? What do you remember from when you were murdered?”

Several long heartbeats passed, and nothing occurred. Then without warning the boy’s previously unfocused and dead-grey eyes illuminated with a vibrant turquois glow. Martin and the reeve recoiled back in surprise and the reeve covered his mouth with an open hand. The gnome, his eyes closed, and brow creased in grim concentration, raised a reassuring hand, “tis part of the process.”

They stayed that way for a few moments while Snuttlegurn hovered a hands width from the boy’s mouth in complete meditation. He neither moved nor made indication that the ritual was successful. Then, with abruptness he sat straight up and looked the reeve directly in the eye and said, “innkeeper Gurn.”

“What?” reeve Noyth said, surprised, “what does he have to do with it?”

“The boy had impregnated the innkeeper’s daughter and they were madly in love, or at least my former assistant believed it so. Regardless, the boy stole this token to sell to one of my customers that had inquired about it, would have made quite a bundle if he had done it by the way. He intended to use the money to elope with the innkeeper’s daughter, Helien. Unfortunately for him, Gurn found out about their forthcoming offspring, followed him out of town, and attacked him when he was traveling on the road. I assume he brought his body here to be well away from prying eyes,” Snuttlegurn stroked his eyelashes as he spoke.

“You are certain of this information?” the reeve asked as he stared at the corpse whose eyes had returned to their naturally dead color.

“There can be no question of the reliability of the story, given the source,” Snuttlegurn said.

“It would appear,” reeve Noyth said,” that we will be having a discussion with our good innkeeper.

Mornings are always preferrable for public executions.

Martin could spend the remainder of the day washing away his involvement in it, regardless of however just it was. The information gained from the ritual Snuttlegurn performed was only the catalyst for the reeve to investigate further into the innkeeper. After they had found a length of rope, covered in blood and skin. This evidence, and the innkeeper’s daughter confessing that the boy and she were indeed expecting a baby allowed the reeve to probe with harsher techniques. While the reeve employed a method by which the interrogator stretched the interrogated on a wheel meant to slowly break all the unfortunate soul’s limbs, the innkeeper confessed to the murder.

As the pale of the early morning receded, the rest of the villagers shuffled away from the public square. Martin had attended several hangings; this was by far the solemnest. No angry jeers as the condemned was brought out. Not a single rotten fruit was thrown as he was led to his fate or enthusiastic cheer when the deed was done. Just an audible gasp as the reeve kicked over an already wobbly stool and Gurn fell, and his spine was severed with a click. The only one unmoved was the gnome himself, who invited Martin to share a pot of tea before Martin left the village. Martin, still staring at the body as it swung gently, the man’s tongue lolled out his left side, nodded without thought at the invitation.

“Grim deed.” Snuttlegurn poured a steaming green brew into Martin’s teacup, “a waste if you ask me. Killing the boy would not prevent the girl from having the baby, terribly violent and impulsive lot, you humans.”

Martin took a sip of the tea, it was flavored with mint and a touch of honey and then asked” what will happen to her now? I assume she can still find work but would someone take her in?”.

“She will work for me of course,” the gnome said as he settled across from Martin in a nook between his pile of wares.

“Your new assistant?” Martin asked.

Snuttlegurn blew on his tea before he spoke, “no, I am through with assistants after the mess the last one made. I have offered to purchase the inn; she certainly could not run it. She can resume her cooking duties. I am thinking of calling it, Snuttlegurn’s Stunning Stopover. Or something to that effect. Well, I can assure you next time you are in the area, the Lumpy Pickle will be naught a distant memory. I intend to start brewing gnomish ales and stouts. Mayhap even fix up that excuse for a barn.”

Snuttlegurn allowed Martin to finish his tea in quiet as the gnome buttered about his shop, rearranging various trinkets into whatever over complicated system he had created.

Martin stood and strode toward the door as the gnome appeared to be lost in thought,” I should be leaving now, there are customers along the way to the next town and I’d like to make it before sundown tonight.”

“Of course,” Snuttlegurn said, walking Martin out the door, “I was just thinking we never found out what that odd circle drawn in the mud next to the boy’s body was.”

Martin opened the door and stepped outside where it had started to drizzle. He started to walk towards his wagon and then stopped. He turned back towards the gnome, who was still in the doorway, “when I showed you and the reeve the body, the storm from the night before had washed it away and I don’t recall mentioning it.”

The gnome grinned, his eyes sparkled from beneath the long, braided eyelashes as he spoke,” oh dear me, gnomish weakness, vanity, and all. The boy didn’t steal anything from me, he told me that he would tell my customers my goods were all powerless junk and trinkets unless I gave him coin. I couldn’t let that happen, so I agreed to meet him and cast a spell to stun him using the token as an enhancer, that’s what created the odd circle, then I strangled him and planted the evidence. I just needed a patsy to discover his body. I knew the reeve would never take my word on anything given my history and I am a gnome. Luckily, you showed up.”

“I’ll tell the reeve. He’ll come back and arrest you,” Martin said.

“And tell him he executed an innocent man? Do you think he’ll believe you? I will deny everything and there is no proof regardless. But I do have something for you. Here, take this,” Snuttlegurn flicked the token to Martin where it landed in the thick mud, the stars face upward, “you played your part well and a deal’s a deal.”


THE END


2023 Jason Battle

Bio: Jason Battle resides outside Chicago where he lives with his wife and son. When not pursuing his amateur golf career and losing at on line chess, he works in medical research. He does not like the oxford comma. He has been published before in scientific publications, but this is his first attempt at fiction.

E-mail: Jason Battle

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