When Merrigan Caught a Gnome: chapter 2

Posted: June 21, 2015 in Fiction

Chapter 2

Merrigan sat the gnome down on his desk and looked at him intently. The cage was meter long, and three hands high, it barely fit on The Captain’s desk. The wires were adorned with metal tigers, panthers and other big cats in various positions of the hunt, the clasps were ornate jungle plants. The glass of the cage was as thick as a brick, but clear like a hot day’s sky. The boat had already shifted its course to a port without a name in city Merrigan didn’t remember.

The crew had obeyed without question, as excited as their Captain about their newest acquisition. The men expected plunder, and instead received legend. That’s a poor trade for the long haul, but breaks the inevitable monotony of murder and the sea. Merrigan did not fear his crew, the same way they did not fear him. He was a warrior, longer than most of his men had been alive. They’d all seen him kill men, as a man and a Wolf, and he believed he’d seen every one of them kill a man as well. He paused for a moment and counted on his fingers, making certain he’d seen all twenty-two men of his crew kill a man. He had, there were no exceptions. His crew was made killers and cut throats, and each loved Merrigan truly. His ship’s name was The Savage, but people called it The Bastard, and no one on board was offended when they called it The Savage Bastard. His men were orphaned or abandoned, by war or life or bad decisions. Slaves and debtors manned the oars, set free with nothing but the ocean. Old sailors retired on that boat to die. Salty angry men who hoped to send gold home to restore names in disrepair. Merrigan had always been good to pass on pension to heirs or wives he’d felt had earned it, even sisters and brothers, if the man had made specific claim. Merrigan had read a story about ferryman on a river that separated the living and the dead. He’d boat from one side to the other, his simple wooden boat holding hundreds of souls, speaking in riddles to let his passengers know which side they were on. The dead sometimes forgot the troubles of the living, and the living never knew the troubles of the dead. The story was meant to remind priests or young people that their time was short and death was forever, but Merrigan always took it to show that living men should learn things, to make sure they’re not dead. Merrigon thought he’d stay on that boat forever, and wondered if he had. This, the gnome glaring at him coldly, reminded him of the warm waters and bright sun of the living, reminded him of things off the boat.

Still, some plunder, a fat trading boat from the human cities or Dock Rat’s Galley would have filled his crews pockets, and all killers are happier with fuller pockets, and probably less likely to kill.

Merrigan eyeballed the gnome, and decided he was worth it.

The gnome stared contemptuously. His eyes black specs of hate.

There were varying reports of gnomes’ intelligence. Some stories had them as smart as men, or smarter, outflanking hunters and trappers. Some portrayed gnomes as bumblers and buffoons, breaking into alehouses only to get stuck in mugs and teakettles and drown there, leaving a sad series of suicides for some shopkeep or wench. Others said gnomes were little more than animals. Mindless pests you could keep away with scarecrows or a big fat cat. Merrigan sized up his hostage. He didn’t know if he could kill a big cat, but he knew he was intelligent, because it was clearly scheming.

James walked in while Merrigan was setting his finger. He came in with a bottle of bright purple wine and wrapped paper full of dark purple weed. He walked in and organized the glasses and weed without looking towards the desk. He made eye contact with Merrigan, who held him there for a moment, then slowly dragged his eyes towards the creature in the cage. He pointed his wrapped up finger at the captive. “He smirked the whole time I was mending it.” he said. “Grinned like he was proud of his work.”

“You should drown the thing Captain,” said James hiding fear in his reason. “It’s a monster, I don’t give a damn if you like his damn shoes.” “I do like his shoes,” answered Merrigan, pretending it wasn’t an insult, and telling James he didn’t agree.

“The thing’s poisonous Captain, you might already be dead.”

Merrigan thought about the Ferryman.

“I mean it,” said James.

“That’s enough!” yelled the captain, and poured himself a drink. He took a big swig and turned back to the gnome. “Look at him, he’s terrific. He’s a miracle. He’s the greatest thing I’ll ever see.” James thought of all the shores that they had sailed to and the places they had seen. He liked every single waterfall more than this gnome.

“He might kill you.”

“I don’t think so.”

“He probably already has!”

Merrigan looked at his hand again, it did not look like the gnomebite he’d seen in the mountains. When he was a young Wolf, he was fighting in the steppes of the Northern Mountains and a woman brought in her father or husband to the camp. He was dried up and shrunken, and his skin sloughed off when pressed. Merrigan’s company had refused to let her in at first, fearful of the disease that caused such a body. The woman shouted Gnome, and the doctor chose to see the corpse. Merrigan had too. The doctor had always indulged Merrigan’s curiosity, even as a young Wolf only ever asking about softer spots to bite. That man had died from poison, he’d died screaming and sobbing with snot running out of his nose. His face was a bent mask of pain with the cracking veneer of spit and slime. That woman claimed gnomes had visited her house, casing the place like thieves or soldiers. She claimed she had seen them two days earlier, and had shewed them off. Her husband or father, or whatever the dead man had been boarded up the gaps in the cottage and lit big fires, but a couple of mornings later she woke to find him dying, loud and badly. The wound on the man’s ribs were nothing like this. They were two punctures, like fangs, swollen and hard. They were discolored, and the purple marks of dying veins branched out from them darker, then lighter as they stretched to his neck and heart. They spread all over the man like macabre maps of waterways. His hands looked nothing like that. They were ravaged like a turkey leg.

Merrigan put his face up to the glass. “Are you going to kill me?” he asked. He lifted up his hand the gnome had chewed on. He pointed to the bites with his splint. “These bites?” he motioned, “am I a goner?” The gnome looked eyes, but gave no hint to what he was thinking. Merrigan drew his thumb across his neck in what he thought was a universal sign for death. The gnome set there smiling, or maybe doing nothing, it’s hard to read expressions on a thing you’ve never seen.

James leaned in and asked the same thing in a handful of languages. James claimed to speak eight Languages, Merrigan thought it was closer to four, which was still very impressive and three more than he spoke. James rattled off inquiries from all around the globe. The gnome’s expression never changed. Even if James was faking, he knew enough of language to offer a handhold to anyone looking for a grip.

“Anything?” asked Merrigan.

“Nothing.” said James.

“And you…”

“Eight Languages,” said James proudly.

Merrigan said nothing. He got up and walked across the cabin, he pulled a long fencing blade from a scabbard on the wall, a long thin cut of steel no wider than a finger but sturdy and limber, deadly the way fancy blades are.

“What are you doing?” asked James with a concern that betrayed his sentiment from earlier.

“I’m asking hard questions.” said Merrigan, as he neared the cage.

The Gnome was smirking again.

Merrigan was called a smart man, and he took great pride in that, but he knew more accurately that he was only a curious man, and dedicated to finding things out. There were no authorities on gnomes, and he intended to become one.

He stuck the blade through the wires of the cage. The gnome move, but refused to panic. Merrigan jabbed the point into the little man who barked angrily and shot up to his feet pushing away the sharp point. Merrigan jabbed the point into the gnome again, who let loose another series of angry chattering. Merrigan looked at James and raised an eyebrow. “I can’t make anything out Captain,” said James, shrugging helplessly. Merrigan jabbed the epee into the gnome again, hard enough to pin him against the glass floor. A series of sharp chirps and angry chatter lit up the cabin. “I don’t know what he’s saying sir, but he’s saying the same things.”

“I thought so too,” said Merrigan.

“Yeah, they’re words,” he said, “they’re definitely words,” he listened to the chatter intently, “but I don’t know them.” James whispered in awe. “You see how that sound keeps showing up? The “oo” at the end of the first sounds? that’s probably…” Merrigan nodded half knowing and half listening.

The little man continued spitting those unknown words at his tormentors. James wrote them down. They did not sound friendly.

Merrigan poked at the gnome with his sword and snagged his shirt with the blade.

“What are you doing Captain?” asked James.

“I figured I ought to check this little guy out,” he said smiling, “I’ve already got him angry.”

James turned back to the table shaking his head. James drank a glass of wine and lit the purple weed cigarette with a match. He sat down with book of paper making notes.

Merrigan pulled the gnome’s shirt off with some effort. The captive fought to stay clothed, but when Merrigan hooked him, and started pulling him off of the ground, the gnome raised his arms and slid free from the shirt, landing silently and skilfully on the glass beneath him. He raised his hands like an unarmed fighter, keeping one fist tucked beneath his chin and chattering what Merrigan was certain were the foulest swears on every ocean. The Wolf smiled with every tooth.

He wanted to look in the little guy’s mouth, examine it for fangs, but he wasn’t going to put his fingers next to that maw again if he could help it. He pointed to the little guys stomach. “You see that?” asked Merrigan.

“What?”

“His navel,”

“Pardon,”

“His bellybutton, he has a belly button.”

“I know what a navel is,” said James, more confused than perturbed.

“Well, if he’s got a navel, he’s a mammal.” Explained Merrigan.

“Of course he’s a mammal,” said James, “Look at him,” he gestured without looking.

Merrigan snagged the gnome’s pantleg with the epee and picked him up from the ground. The gnome fought to maintain balance and control as he was lifted by, then suspended from the sword point, but he couldn’t. He struggled, then fell, his pants still hanging from the sword like a surrendering flag. He landed clumsily on the back of his head and neck. “He’s male,” said Merrigan.

“Of course he’s male,” said James distractedly, “He’s got a beard- Oh.” He stopped himself, realizing Merrigan’s new discovery. “Well, I suppose he is,” he added bashfully. The gnome stood furiously, his penis wagging proudly. “I’ve never seen a female gnome,” said James, instantly regretting it, remembering the statue they’d found on The Wizard.

“Me either,” said Merrigan, his eyes lighting up remembering his trinket. “I don’t know anything about gnomes. I don’t know if they all look alike like dogs, or if the girls are drab like birds, or great big like Trapper fish.”

Merrigan poked a time or two more. He had so many questions.

Merrigan shook the pants from his sword and let them fall to the cage’s bottom. The tiny man scowled and dressed with as much dignity as was possible. His shoes had fallen off in the Tumble. Merrigan took a drag off of the rolled weed and admired the gnome’s nimble hands.

“They seem awfully… human.” Said James.

“They do,” agreed The Captain. “I wonder how they work, and why we’ve never seen them.”

“Well, they’re awfully small.” James framed it as a question, but knew it was an answer.

Merrigan furrowed his brow, hoping that wasn’t it, hoping for something more exciting than reason.

“I wonder how they eat and breath, and if there’s a little heart in there.” He poked again at the gnome’s chest. The little creature cursed again, it shook with rage. Merrigan pulled out the sword. James was disturbed by the gnome, its anger scribbled the soft lines of its face, and ruined any cuteness in the thing.

“you could always cut him open and find out.” James said, as calmly as he could.

“No,” said Merrigan. He dipped his head and peered at the gnome, “He’s done nothing wrong. Besides, you said yourself, he seems human.”

“Not for nothing sir,” James continued. “I’ve seen you open up more than a couple humans.”

The words hurt Merrigan’s feelings. He had killed twenty three men, twenty had deserved it, and he never shied away from his guilt, but it was unlike James to mention it. Merrigan focused his eyes on the gnome, and pulled out a drawing book he’d been keeping for years. He laid out the papers and started sketching with pencil. James sipped his wine and looked out the round window for some time.

Merrigan sketched the gnome with considerable skill, especially for a man in a splint. The small charge was sulking in a corner. Merrigan and James drank wine and smoked in silence until nightfall.

At night the crew chummed the waters. They threw buckets of half gutted fish and slop behind The Savage and hooted and cheered as sharks and jackalfish showed up behind them. They started at dusk, and by true sundown, the waters behind them were littered with fins and teeth and torrents of blood. That’s when Merrigan would dive in the water. He tied a chain about his waist and stood on the deck naked and growling. He’s removed the splint he’d worn during the day. Once he shifted, all of his minor aches and wounds would heal or fade away, that was the true gift of a bloodline, anyone who’d ever fought a Beast knew that aspect of the magic.

Merrigan had a cestus wrapped around one had, a bladed weapon attached to a weighted glove. A weapon like that is an ugly weapon. It’s designed ugly, on purpose. A hand weight weapon’s never employed by a force for justice, only a heavy hand ever thinks to grow heavier. A slim hand, or a reasonable hand, grabs a blade, or a pen, or anything more elegant than dead weight, even a hammer is a tool, with some grace and dignity, but a cestus, a spiked brass knuckle, loves to hurt and only hurt. Merrigan wore it grinning.

As a Wolf he could hold a blade, but it was difficult, and thrashing in the water he’d lost over a dozen. He could kill a shark with his teeth and claws and chokeholds, but not well, and not quickly enough when pulled behind The Bastard. A few years ago he’d discovered the cestus in the fighting rings of a slave city, he bought it and two slaves to teach him how to use it. It was easier than he thought and now he had two illiterate oarsmen who always wanted to fight, but they rowed particularly hard on nights he wore the cestus.

As the sun went down, Merrigan’s body twisted and contorted at abrupt and unnatural angles. The Captain growled and grunted with the sounds of battle, not of slaughter. He barked at the world, not his wounds. His teeth jutted from his mouth, his jaws swelled and shifted and locked on his face, his eyes cut wide and slit down the middle. He let out a ferocious howl. He stretched to the sky. His chest and arms swarmed with power, he struggled and flung himself from side to side. His hair hung about his neck and face, the rest of his body sported random patches of coarse fur, no more than he had as a man, but somehow more unseemly. The Captain looked more naked as werewolf, his skin taught and bright pink, heaving beneath his mass. He steamed in the cool air, and growled wildly. His men whooped at their monster. His hands had swollen, and the cestus fit tight around his grip.

James sighed when the Captain shifted. Still nervous of the poison he knew was in his system. Poison was something that can’t be fixed with a wolf’s beating heart. In fact the opposite is true. Merrigan had told James that shifting was harder when you were sick or compromised. When he was young, and first learning to control his changing, he did so drunk, and accomplished nothing but cracking ribs and shitting his pants. It’s still the most common ploy of a werewolf hunter to get a werewolf drunk and jump him at nightfall. When Merrigan’s body twisted and warped James unclinched his fists and breathed deeply for the first time all day.

Merrigan jumped up the plank the men had set over the ocean. He paced back and forth, sometimes on two feet, sometimes on four. His body was a vile machine. It rocked with power and potential. He paced to the length of the dock twice, the crew swooned as he neared them the second time, then he charged at the edge of the dock and leaped into the water. The men roared as he splashed into the bloody mess behind them, the ocean roiled with the bodies and fins of snapping monsters and roaring beasts. Blood, fresh and old, stank about the boat. Even the cool wind could not blow the death away as Captain Merrigan went fishing.

He clubbed and killed two sharks that night, and half a dozen jackalfish. It was more than the crew could eat. So they kept some to chum the water tomorrow.

He didn’t do it every night, but many. He said it hurt his teeth not to change. That night was a New Moon, and the call was less under a New Moon, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. The moons, and men’s understanding of them, are imperfect. It was rare Merrigan didn’t go out on Full Moons though. On days after he changed he was calmer and sharper and less likely fight, so of course, sometimes he held it. Merrigan had to be every tool out here on the ocean, and some jobs required a tool that was as angry, blunt, and inclined to action. Merrigan missed his Pack, or at least having one. Packs are good for growing, and learning and perfecting so many things, but they suck at adventuring, and experiencing, and any of the things Merrigan wanted to do now. Packs are good for killing, and for keeping yourself safe. Merrigan felt like those were the parts of him that needed the least improvement.

Merrigan whistled and pulled teeth out of his forearm. His men were butchering shark. He was already shrinking, and his face was slipping back to its normal position. He moved with the purpose of people perfectly exhausted. Merrigan was tired, and his body ached with the enlightened glow of a man with no more energy. His head was a white fog of serenity that only comes with breaking oneself well. He walked and stretched towards the stars that were hiding in the daylight.

He walked into his cabin, with a small chunk of seared meat he hoped to feed his gnome, whom he’d named Hangnail. He’d left him bread the night before, and some this morning, as well as water and even some of his wine, but the gnome ignored it. He hoped a fresh cut of meat might entice the gnome to eat. The creature was still hunched in a corner, leaning in a pathetic posture to uncomfortable to be identified as setting or sleeping. He slouched into a pile that camouflaged itself from anything. The little man was nothing but debris. Merrigan looked at him, and turned his head sorrowfully. He thought about the tumbles and turns and trauma they’d taken together. He realized he’d probably killed him. He walked over to the door and called for James. He came in a few minutes later with two bottles of wine and a pocketful of his weed.

“He’s quit moving,” Merrigan said, pointing to the gnome.

“I know Sir, and I’m sorry.” he really was. James wanted the Gnome dead, but that didn’t make it easier, just better. “I hope I didn’t do it with the sword.” said Merrigan. “Me too,” answered James, not really caring, “it was probably when you hit the water, and he wouldn’t have made that anyway.” James didn’t let any emotion seep into his voice. He knew Merrigan believed him more when he had no interest in an outcome. It made it very difficult when outcomes were interesting. He poured two glasses and rolled some weed.

“Have you poked him any more?” James asked. “I have, he’s unresponsive.” He looked at his hands, his previously broken finger flexed and bent soundly. He leaned his face to the window and put his finger up next to jaw. “See, good as new,” he spoke to the gnome in a friendly voice, but the creature didn’t stir. He finished his glass of wine.

“I was thinking,” said James, “you said you’d never seen a lady gnome.” Merrigan looked at James with big wet eyes. “Remember that…”

Merrigan was on his feet and across the room before James had finished his thought. “That bag from the wizard.” Merrigan said.

James hated that bag from the wizard, and that wizard. He was a wretched old man that had nearly killed the whole crew, and fought Merrigan, as a Wolf, to a standstill. James wanted to kill him and run from him and he didn’t care in which order. James hated that wizard.

They’d met him in a port town trading black spices. He eyed Merrigan as a werewolf, pulled a silver dagger on him, and cut down two of the crew. When Merrigan shifted into a wolf and grabbed the old man, he fought the captain’s grip off, hit him in the face with a fighting chicken, and taken a woman hostage. He sneaked back with a knife to the woman’s throat, and fell into a rowboat that nobody could track. James saw a glare in that wildman’s eyes he’d never forget. Something that made him believe in Crazy. It was real just like the gods of old women or desperate men. Crazy was real, and served its own purpose, and that wizard was into it deep. When Merrigan grabbed him his eyes went wide like a whore’s nethers. He was excited at the claws at his neck, and he slashed with fervor like lightning. As the Wizard sneaked away with his knife at the strangers throat, he was muttering. Merrigan was focused on fighting, the rest of the crew was focused on knives, but James heard the Wizard mutter. He was sad to go., and that held with the first mate now more than a year later. The old man with bright white eyes wanted to stay in that snapping trap, and only left because he had something to do.

James had spent a full year ignoring the chest with the bag from the Wizard. He’d even thought about destroying it, after he was certain Merrigan had forgotten about it too.

Merrigan flung things aside getting to the chest he’d tucked beneath newer or more important chests. He overturned a satchel full of coins. “Distribute these,” he said, embarrassed he’d forgotten them. James put them under his arm. He’d distribute half, the other half would repair a sail and buy good chain, the ship’s was lacking. Merrigan dug out a chest, and opened it, he pulled out a blazingly simple burlap sack. It was bound with a durable piece of what James prayed was leather. Merrigan undid the knot and opened the bag. It had a collection of trinkets inside, they’d taken inventory when they found it. The bag held a pouch of powder that exploded when exposed to the sun, a handful of seeds that killed the ducks he’d fed them to, a smaller leather pouch full of bird’s eyes, pressed flowers that made his hands itch when he touched them, a vial of water that smelled terribly and shook the snot and spit from your head, polished stones, and rock with a string wrapped around it. It also had a sharp silver and regular iron blade in there, and the finest purple weed Merrigan had ever encountered. That hadn’t lasted long. It also held a wooden figurine about as tall as a pineapple, a squat woman with a shawl pulled over her ears, but who bore a strong resemblance to this gnome. Merrigan pulled it out of the satchel and tossed it in his one hand, eyeing its craftsmanship and judging its size. “It looks like we’ve got a pair?” he smiled. James smiled back. He set the Gnome statue next to the catatonic living one. They seemed to be the same size, their clothing was of a similar style, and they looked to be, for all intents and purposes, a good fit. Whoever had crafted the stout little woman had certainly seen a gnome before. James pursed his lips and ground his teeth together thinking of the Wizard. Merrigan shook his head in awe.

The pile of gnome in the corner of a cage stirred a little, and started eyeing his fish.

Merrigan and James drank whiskey, and the smoke made them dizzy. They barely noticed when the gnome stood up and stretched silently. They didn’t notice as he righted himself and intently studied the statue the two were examining, and they didn’t notice when he adjusted his clothing, and ate the food Merrigan had left. It was cold, but he ate all of it.

Moments later Merrigan saw the gnome staring at them. “He’s up!” he almost screamed, half drunk and fully excited. James turned to look. He was smiling despite himself.

“I was sure he was dead,” Merrigan admitted for the first time. “Me too,” answered James, surprised to find out he cared. They bent down and smiled at the gnome. He looked up at the two monsters staring into his cage almost disinterested. They made large stupid noises, and the bigger one blew smoke in his face. He shook his head, and cleared the smoke with his arms. The smoke was thick, and tasted old, but wasn’t unpleasant. He’d had worse.

“Look at that.” Said Merrigan, “doesn’t seem to mind it. Do you think he’d like whiskey?”

“Probably not, but maybe wine,” suggested James, “nothing but people drink whiskey.” Merrigan had a bottle of cheap wine in his cabin he liked to drink by himself when he told his crew he was reading. James wasn’t surprised. They poured the wine into a shot glass and set in the the corner of the cage. The gnome walked around it and dipped a finger in, he put it in his mouth suspiciously. He dwelt on it for a moment, before deciding to finish the glass.

“He seems to have a discerning palate,” James said from the corner of his mouth. “That can’t be it, or he’d never drink that ox piss.” They laughed for a moment, then nodded silent approval of their pocket-sized drinking buddy, and poured another glass. Merrigan lit another purple weed cigarette and moved to exhale into the cage. The gnome spoke with gestures and hard stares that told Merrigan it would have been a mistake. To all three’s surprise, Merrigan exhaled over his shoulder. The gnome gave a solitary dip in his eyes, and Merrigan gave the same. A while later Merrigan pushed the stem of cheap clay pipe stuffed with weed between two wires of the cage, and the gnome took a drag. Merrigan and James doubled over in laughter. The three creatures, accountable for a hundred deaths between them, drank and smoked together for most of the morning, but the gnome never quit looking at that statue. James had to go get another cheap bottle of wine. Merrigan began to doze while he was standing, his head bobbing and waking him. He’d been up all night in the ocean, killing monsters.

“You should sleep,” said James, and he was right.

“The little guy seems happier,” said Merrigan, mostly to himself.

“You keeping him?” asked James.

“I figure, maybe teach him how to talk.” He sat down in front of the gnome, his eyes drooping. “Wake me up early, I’d like to spend some time in the water tonight.”

“Will you change in front of the little guy?” James inquired, “you think it’ll scare him?”

“I doubt it,” said Merrigan, “He doesn’t seem afraid of anything.” He was his eyes and his breathing were fast asleep. His ears and his mouth were only dozing. “He’s probably a Werewolf too.” He smiled in that haze between wakefulness and sleep.

“That’s probably why they’re so hard to find,” James said quietly,”They’re just walking around looking like raccoons most of the time.” His smile slipped a little as he saw his friend was sleeping, and had missed his joke.

Merrigan cracked an eye open. “Weresquirrels,” he whispered, and grinned at his friend. He nodded the last chuckle, too tired to make sound, and let his ears catch up with his eyes.

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