The Werewolf Pirate and the Gnome

Posted: July 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

Chapter 1.

Merrigan knew what it was immediately, it was a gnome; a tiny man expected to be magical and most likely poisonous. They have different names in different lands, but everyone recognizes a gnome as something peculiar, and wonderful. When Merrigan saw one standing on the deck of his ship in the middle of the ocean, he had to catch it.

He had heard of people seeing gnomes, but never catching one, and he would be the first. The gnome was eight inches tall, fully clothed in a vest, trousers, a pointed green cap, and tasteful shoes. He had a brown orange beard that hung to his belly, and a big nose. His hands and feet were pronounced, and the former were balled into fists. He was white, or close to white, and had bright green eyes that were keenly aware. He was fantastic in his typical nature. A gnome’s a creature both foreign and domestic, a timeless piece of magic as understandable as homemade bread. He stood there motionless, his eyes fixed steadily on Merrigan.

Merrigan dropped the papers and compass he was holding and lunged ferociously at the gnome. The gnome moved too fast for reason. A blur of pumping arms and stubby legs shot away from Merrigan. Before the compass hit the floor, Merrigan had crossed the deck and the gnome had streaked beneath him, too fast even for Merrigan’s unnatural reactions. He dove beneath a crate. The Captain upended it with one arm, sending it end over end across the deck. The gnome split to one side and juked beneath his pursuer, leaping for the railing. He fell short, but darted along the edge of the boat, Merrigan close behind him. The Captain’s long frame halved the distance, The gnome leaped again for the railing and failed. Merrigan was within an arm’s reach. The gnome doubled back, cutting like a vein of lightning. He latched to the man’s pant leg and pulled himself to the knee. He popped up, and pushed off and jumped to the railing, leaping out towards the sea in an arc.

Merrigan rushed to the side, and snatched the gnome out of the air with preternatural speed. As soon as Merrigan grabbed him, the little man broke free. He wrapped his hands around Merrigan’s index finger, and jerked in different directions, pulling the finger back and snapping the bones inside. The little man tumbled towards the sea. Merrigan growled his human threats and swung his other hand to catch him. A regular man could not have made the grab. This time the gnome bit him, and Merrigan shrieked. He knew gnomes are poisonous.

Merrigan screamed a scream that would have delighted his crew, and cost him his ship. He pulled his hand back hurriedly, launching the gnome towards the sky. He cartwheeled in the air, and aligned himself into a dive. Without thinking, Merrigan bounded over the railing and dove in after him, his long frame laid out completely, his mangled hand stretched in desperation. Three fingers wrapped deftly around the gnome, one clubbed at him clumsily. Merrigan pulled the gnome into his chest as he collided with the water. All of his grace exhausted, he landed like a bird killed in flight. The Gnome continued to bite at his hand. He kicked and pulled and hated as they bobbed in the water. The thrashing and splashing alerted the crew, two men’s faces peered over the side, then two more, then two more. “Are you alright Captain?” one shouted, “Sir!?” asked another. The men gathered on deck, not certain what was happening. They continued to ask questions, readying harpoons.

Merrigan wrested his jacket loose still struggling in the water, he folded it over. “Sir!” his men screamed now, harpoons above their heads. Merrigan wrapped up the coat and held it triumphantly in the air as he kept treading water. The package fought and writhed. “A Gnome,” screamed Merrigan “I caught a gnome!.”

“Drop it Captain!” yelled one of his men. “Gnomes are poisonous!” yelled another.

The men brought the two on board. The Captain clutched his coat like a treasure that was intent on ripping out of his chest. “It’s a Gnome!” he shouted “I’ve caught a gnome.”

“Drop it,” said James, Merrigan’s First Mate, and best friend. “Gnomes are poisonous,” he reiterated.

Merrigan was not so sure, “The little bastard’s bit me all to hell,” he said as he switched his grip on the struggling satchel, “and I feel okay.” He held up his hand at a few angles to show the gouges and tears the little man’s teeth had made. Jagged crescent moons littered his thumb and forefinger. James studied them dutifully.

“Sir!” James almost scolded, but the Captain wasn’t listening. He knew that James was scared of things he didn’t understand, and there was no chance he could understand this. James turned and went below deck.

“Let’s see the Gnome!” yelled Crick, one of Merrigan’s bolder sailors. “A gnome!” shouted another. “Ask him about his gold!” yelled Wells, a sailor Merrigan was pretty sure was stupid. “Those are Leprechauns,” corrected Merrigan without judgement, at least not in his voice.

Merrigan walked to the middle of the deck. His hair hung loosely about his ears, his beard was long and unkempt. His body heaved and shook with exhaustion and the tremors laughter. His tall frame and broad shoulders cut such a fearsome form he was difficult to take lightly, even half naked and laughing. Merrigan was a Werewolf, and a remarkable Werewolf. He came from a long reigning family. Even though he wasn’t a Wolf now, he was still a strapping and vigorous specimen. He’d never met a man who could best him in a fistfight or a footrace, and very few Wolves, or Bears, or Badgers would present a challenge, but this little guy had exhausted him, and that, was very funny. He stood there in soaking pants and ruined boots holding a bag full of violence, grinning. His mouth had too many teeth in it, and they jutted out at crooked angles and told stories of their own. If someone paid attention to his teeth, and were particularly gifted with sums, they could decipher when he was lying, which was often. Fortunately for Merrigan, he spoke quickly, and people are bad at math. He was strong, and terrible, and the most wanted man, or Wolf, in The Empire. He had just caught a gnome.

Chapter 2

Merrigan’s men circled around the gnome. Some with nets and others with clubs, one with a shovel. The gnome’s restraints were a lined jacket Merrigan had been wearing all season, it was worn and shabby, but the fabric was strong, and it was dramatically big. It had a high crested collar that made Merrigan feel like a captain. It seemed perfectly suited for capturing gnomes. Merrigan rarely wore shirts under his jacket, and only cheap trousers. As a Werewolf he shifted his form every night, and clothes were a bother he abandoned on the ocean. His boots were very nice, and he hoped this swim hadn’t ruined them. His boots were a vanity. Merrigan’s frame was difficult to clothe, and he had learned early that if he wore one thing well it was enough to convey etiquette, and conveying etiquette was all he ever had to do. Merrigan’s boots and belt buckles hinted at civility. If people feared his animal nature, they found solace in his reasonable shoes. They were the only loot he didn’t share with his crew, those, and the books and maps he took from every ship they sacked.

The men readied themselves and Merrigan shook out his jacket. The Gnome landed on hands and feet and bolted to the middle of the circle of sailors. Fifteen hard men, all armed and focused, closed in on the three pound man. A net flew at the gnome but he darted to one side, another sailed and he rolled out of the way. The Gnome feinted at the circle, testing for escape, but there was none. The Gnome spun growling and pulled a small knife from his belt. Sailors stood ready with nets, looking for an opportunity, others stood there with clubs, fearing one. The Gnome hissed and the sailors shuddered. Crick, a bald man with bees tattooed on his skull shifted his weight and moved to club the interloper, when James emerged from below deck.

He was carrying a cage the men used for holding fighting birds or snakeflies. It was two glass panes connected by a series of wires with clasps at every corner. They had stolen it, and rarely used it. It was strong and too expensive, and exactly what was needed. “This will hold him,” he offered. James muscled to the middle of the circle,and Merrigan knew why he was his favorite. James sat down the cage and opened it. The gnome surveyed the group and weighed his options. He spit on the floor, threw his knife into the deck, and stepped into the cage. He tested the wires, stomped on the glass, and sat down, dejectedly, cross-legged. James fastened the clasps.

The men murmured and lined up to look. Merrigan stepped near and lifted the cage. The men gathered pushed to get better looks. “I’m taking him to my cabin.” He said. The men booed and grumbled. “I need to study this,” Merrigan almost cursed. James called for wine and weed, and the grumbles changed to cheers. James stooped and looked at the knife. He pulled out a handkerchief and pried it lose from the floorboards. It was intricate, but not delicate, and fascinatingly familiar. It spoked James, and he threw it out into the sea.

The men drank too much, even for pirates, and set their course to the nearest city, it was only two days away, a little more if they continued drinking. Merrigan carried the gnome to his cabin, and called for James, and his finest wine, to come with him. The Captain had a lot to learn about gnomes. This one was going to poison him.

Chapter 3

Merrigan sat the cage down and looked at the gnome intently. The wire and glass construct was meter long, and three hands high, it barely fit on The Captain’s desk. The wires were adorned with tigers, panthers, and other big cats cast in metal 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 bother to remember.

The crew had obeyed without question, as excited as their Captain over their newest acquisition. The men expected plunder, and instead received a legend. That’s a poor trade for the long haul, but impossibly enticing when it’s offer. It at least broke the inevitable monotony of murder and the sea. The ship and the men on it trusted Merrigan. He had battled longer than most of them had been alive. They’d each seen him kill men, as a man and a Wolf, and he believed he’d seen each one of them kill as well. He paused for a moment and counted on his fingers: he had. 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 men who hoped to send gold home to restore names in disrepair. Merrigan was good to pass on pensions 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 with hundreds of souls on his simple wooden boat. He would speak in riddles to let his passengers know which side they were on, and if they were meant to get off. 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 people that their time was short and death was forever, but Merrigan always took it to mean that living men should learn things, to make sure they aren’t dead. Merrigon thought he’d stay on that boat forever, and wondered if he had. This, the gnome glaring at him coldly, was special, and reminded him of the warm waters and bright sun and things off the boat. It reminded him the land of the living, it reminded him of things off the boat.

Still, some plunder, a fat trader from the human cities or Dock Rat’s Galley would have filled his crew’s pockets, and all killers are happier with fuller pockets, and less likely to act like killers.

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

The gnome stared contemptuously. His eyes were black drops of hateful ink.

There were varying reports of gnomes’ intelligence. Some stories said they were smarter, out thinking hunters and trappers and whole armies. Other stories portrayed them as bumblers, breaking into alehouses and getting stuck in mugs and teakettles and drowning, leaving shopkeepers with a series of suicides to clean up with the dishes. Others said gnomes were like animals, pests you could keep away with scarecrows or a big fat cat. Merrigan sized up his hostage. He wagered it could kill a barn cat, and that’s saying something; and he knew it was intelligent, because it was scheming.

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

“You should drown the thing Captain,” said James, putting the cork back in the bottle. “It’s a monster, I don’t care if you like his damn shoes.”

“I do like his shoes,” answered Merrigan, pretending it wasn’t an insult, and pretending he didn’t realize James was scared.

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

Merrigan thought about the Ferryman.

“I mean it,” said James.

The Captain picked up his cup and took a long drink. He turned back to the gnome. “Look at him, he’s terrific. 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 been. He liked most women and every waterfall more than this gnome.

“He might be the thing that kills you.”

“I don’t think so.”

“He probably already has!”

Merrigan took another long drink, staring at James over the lip of his glass. He looked at his hand, it did not look like the gnomebite he’d seen in the mountains. When he was young, he was fighting in the steppes of the Northern Mountains. He was running off bandits who were raiding Wolf mining towns, and learning to swing to a sword. A woman brought a man into the camp. It was difficult to tell if it was her father or husband. He was dried up and shrunken.  His lips peeled back tight over yellow teeth. Merrigan’s company had refused to let her in at first, fearful of disease. The woman shouted “Gnome” again and again, until the doctor decided to see them. Merrigan came with him. The doctor had always indulged his curiosity, even as a cub who only ever asked about which spots on a man were most dangerous to bite or easiest to tear. The doctor was a fat man, and inclined to too much drink, but Merrigan always appreciated his knowledge, and his willingness to explain. That man the woman brought in had died from poison. His face was a mask of bent screaming, his pain etched on a cracking veneer of snot and bile and anything else he might have spit up. The doctor showed Merrigan the discoloration of skin and marks of rigor that identified how long he had been dead. Merrigan watched the doctor use his scalpel, and realized that knives can do everything.

The woman claimed she’d seen gnomes in the days before, casing the place like thieves or soldiers. She claimed she saw them, and shewed them off. Her husband or father, or whatever the dead man had been had boarded up the gaps in the cottage and lit a big fire, but a couple of mornings later she woke and found him clawing at the air and shrieking. He died loudly and badly before noon. The wound on the man’s ribs were nothing like Merrigan’s. They were two well defined, if not clean, punctures; like fangs, swollen and hard. They were raised and bruised, purple marks of dying veins branched from the wounds darkly then grew lighter until they reached the neck and heart where they knotted back into dark branches. They spread over the man like a sinister map of rivers. The doctor cut the dead man’s wounds and pulled two teeth from them, he dropped them on a plate with a clink. Merrigan held them up to his eye, they had roots growing out of them and into the man. His hand looked nothing like that. It was ravaged like a turkey leg, and he didn’t feel the little monster’s teeth in it.

Merrigan put his face up to the glass. “Are you going to kill me?” he asked. He lifted 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 locked eyes, but gave no hint to what he was thinking or even if he was thinking. Merrigan drew his thumb across his neck in the natural symbol for death. The gnome sat there smiling, or maybe doing nothing, it’s hard to read tiny expressions on a thing you’ve never seen.

Merrigan turned to his friend. “Do you have any ideas?”

James leaned in and asked questions in a handful of languages. James claimed he could speak nine, but 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 fumbling through most of those languages, or making a couple up, he knew enough words and phrases to offer a branch to someone trying to communicate. The gnome had nothing to say.

“Anything?” asked Merrigan.

“Nothing.” said James.

“And you…”

“Nine Languages,” James said proudly.

Merrigan got up and walked across the cabin, he pulled a long fencing blade from a scabbard on the wall, it was no wider than a finger but sturdy and limber; it was deadly the way fancy blades are. It was silver, and perfectly waited.

“What are you doing?” asked James with a concern for the gnome that betrayed his earlier move to drown him.

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

The Gnome was smirking again.

People called Merrigan smart, and he took great pride in that, but he knew more accurately that he was only curious, 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 moved, but didn’t panic. Merrigan jabbed the point into the little man who barked angrily and shot to his feet, pushing away the sharp point. Merrigan jabbed again, the gnome let loose another volley 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 hisses 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.

James nodded silent approval, and Merrigan poked him again. “Hear that,” said James, as the gnome let loose a series of hard “K’s” and long “O’s”. He spit on the floor of the cage and wrinkled his face as he expelled vile sounds from his mouth.

“I think he’s talking about you.” said James with a smile.

He stood to his full height, a head shorter than the Captain. “They’re certainly words,” James listened to the chatter, “but I don’t know them.” He liked the gnome more now that he was something to study. “You see how that sound keeps showing up? The “oo” at the end of the first sounds? that’s probably…” Merrigan nodded and quit listening.

The little man continued hurling unknown swears at his tormentors. James wrote them down as best he could in a couple of alphabets. They did not sound friendly.

Merrigan poked at the gnome with his sword and snagged his shirt. He lifted him into the air.

“Are you sure that’s best?” asked James.

“I figured I’ve already got him angry, I ought to check him out.”

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

Merrigan pulled the gnome’s shirt off with some effort. The captive fought to stay clothed, but Merrigan was handy with a blade. He snagged him with the tip, and pulled him up, 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 under his chin and chattering what Merrigan was certain were the foulest swears on every ocean. The werewolf smiled with every tooth, and his pirate ally giggled.

Merrigan wanted to look in the little guy’s mouth, to examine it for fangs, or missing ones; but he wasn’t going to put his fingers next to that maw again. He pointed to the little guys stomach. “You see that? He’s got a bellybutton” exclaimed Merrigan.

“What?” asked James

“a navel, he’s got a little,” He pantomimed his finger around his own stomach. “a 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, it means he’s got a mother, and he was born.”

“Of course he was born,” said James coolly, “He’s here.”

“He’s a mammal.” Stressed Merrigan.

“He has a beard,” said James unimpressed with his Captain’s investigation.

Merrigan grunted and went back to work. He snagged the gnome’s pantleg with the epee and picked him up from the ground again. The gnome fought to maintain balance as he was lifted and 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, looking at his charge.

“Of course he’s male,” said James distractedly, “His beard said that too, and what do belly- Oh.” He stopped himself, looking at the naked seething gnome. “Well, I suppose he is,” he added bashfully. The gnome stood furiously, his penis wagging unconcerned.

“I’ve never seen a female gnome.” said Merrigan.

“I’ve never seen any gnome.” corrected James.

“Right, right,” Merrigan dismissed, “but not at all, in books or drawings. I’ve never even heard of one.”

Merrigan was too distracted to notice his friend rolling another cigarette, or the look of concern that crossed his face when Merrigan started talking about lady gnomes. “I don’t know if they all gnomes look alike like dogs, or if maybe the girls are just drab, like birds.”

James stayed silent, not wanting to talk anymore about gnomes.

“Maybe the ladies are all back home, getting fat like castlefish, or sailors’ wives.” Merrigan looked up, James smiled but didn’t laugh. The Captain poked a time or two more. .

He 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 thanked his friend. He took time to admire the gnome’s nimble fingers as they fastened buckles.

“He seem awfully… human.” Said James.

“He does,” agreed The Captain,

James continued, “They’re probably a lot like us.”

Merrigan smiled. “We’re a lot of different things.” Silence filled the room as they puffed on the cigarette.

“Look at how his eyes work, and how he listens. His manor’s all off.” Merrigan spoke to himself and to his friend, and he didn’t know which one would answer.

James was flustered, but he didn’t disagree.

The Gnome circled the cage and sat down despondently.

“I wonder how they work, and why we’ve never seen them,” Merrigan finally wondered aloud.

“Well, they’re small.” James framed it as a question, because he wasn’t certain of the answer.

Merrigan furrowed his brow, 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 remained as still as he could, but when the two men squinted attentively, they could see it shook with rage. Merrigan pulled out the sword. James swallowed hard, and put down his glass. The gnome’s anger scribbled the soft lines of his face, and ruined their symmetry. The blackness of his eyes spilled over his face and cut off any expression.

“you could open him up and find out.” James said calmly, 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 his cool tone, “I’ve seen you open up more than a couple of humans.”

Merrigan exhaled deliberately and steadied his face. The words hurt his feelings. He had killed twenty three men, and never shied away from his guilt. Twenty had deserved 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 with a broken finger. The small charge was sulking in a corner. Merrigan found it harder and harder to capture the gnome with his pencil. Merrigan and James drank wine and smoked in silence.

“You seem healthy,” said James eventually, interrupting the occasional sound of graphite being pulled across paper, and wine being poured into glasses. “I’ll see you this evening,” he said, and let himself out of the cabin.

Chapter 4.

At night the crew chummed the waters. They threw buckets of half gutted fish behind The Savage and hooted and cheered as sharks and jackalsquid showed up behind them. They started at dusk, and by true sundown, the waters behind them were littered with fins and tentacles and torrents of blood. Smaller jackalsquid had an unnerving tendency to run a few paces above the surface of the water, to pull the choice cuts of fish from the air. The bigger squid, angry at their free meals being stolen, adapted by plucking the young ones from the air and gluttonously chomping the new fish out of their little brothers’ bellies. The tentacled corpses floated with their middles eaten out, adding to the gore of the water. Big bull sharks swam by and cleaned up the water. That’s when Merrigan would dive in. He tied a chain about his waist and stood on the deck naked and growling. He had taken off his coat and removed the splint from his finger, 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 them. A Wolf or a Bear or a Lion made man wasn’t just big and terrible, they were next to impossible to kill. When they were transformed their blood pump hot and wild and mended up most cuts and gashes. Unless you took off their head, or something they couldn’t walk around without, they’d continue to rip and rend until it healed. The blood of battle aided the magic or madness that caused a Wolf or other animal to act, so it was hard to stop fighting once they start. Only the sun could burn off the rage the moon put in them. Unless you struck them down then, all weary and whatnot, they would sneak off and nest up and heal the next evening. Wereanimals lived a long time, and died a lot of deaths, but they took a great many things with them.

Merrigan had a cestus wrapped around one had, a blade attached to a weighted glove. A weapon like that is an ugly thing. It’s hideous and nasty on purpose. A hand weight’s never employed by hand that’s not already heavy. No one wants to punch harder, that doesn’t want to punch. A slim hand grabs a knife, or a pen, or a hammer, each of those are great for stopping violence. But a cestus has no grace or dignity. It’s a clumsy monsterous thing. 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 a chokehold, but not as well and not as quickly as he’d like to, especially when being pulled behind The Bastard. A few years ago he’d discovered the cestus in the fighting rings of a slave city. He’d seen others before, but never any made so well he thought to use it. He bought it and two slaves he’d seen fighting with them to teach him how to use it. It was easier than he thought, almost as easy as it looked, and now he had two illiterate oarsmen on his ship who didn’t speak his language and always wanted to fight. 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 war, not slaughter. He barked at the world. His teeth jutted from his mouth, his jaws swelled and shifted and locked in different positions, 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 fist.

James breathed easier 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. Merrigan had told James that shifting was harder when you were sick or compromised. When he was young he tried changing when he was drunk, and accomplished nothing but cracking some ribs and shitting his pants. It’s a common ploy of a Werewolf Hunter to get a Werewolf drunk and jump him at nightfall; in the minute or two when his body goes all wonky. When Merrigan’s frame twisted and warped in its familiar patterns, James unclinched his fist for the first time that day.

Merrigan jumped on 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, it seethed with each breath he took. He paced to the length of the wood, the crew swooned as he neared them, he turned and charged at the edge and leaped into the water. The men roared as he entered the bloody mess. The ocean roiled underneath him, the surface twitched with the bodies and fins of snapping monsters and roaring beasts. Blood, fresh and old, stank on the boat. The cool wind pushed the stink of it elsewhere, but  death was always in the air when Captain Merrigan went fishing. His pirates hung over the edges of their ship, champions of the din.

Chapter 5.

Merrigan clubbed and killed two sharks that night, and half a dozen jacksquid. It was more than the crew could eat. So they kept some to chum the water tomorrow, and threw most of the squid to gulls or big fish that swam near the ship in the day time.

He didn’t change every night, but most. Merrigan said it hurt his teeth if he didn’t. It ached and rattled his head. That night was a New Moon, and the call was less then. The moons, and men’s understanding of them, are imperfect, but generally right. It was rare that Merrigan didn’t change on Full Moons, and easier not to on New ones. Changing made Merrigan calmer and sharper and less likely to fight, so of course, sometimes he held it. He reigned in his nature and held down his rage. On nights he didn’t change he was insufferable; he locked himself in his room and threw axes or practiced the martial stretches the war priests in the Southern Islands taught him. Merrigan had to be every tool on the ocean, and some jobs required a tool that was angry, and blunt, and easy to swing. It was the burden of abandoning the Pack, of choosing his place and purpose. Packs are good for hunting, and claiming territory, but not for adventuring. Packs were good for killing, and for keeping yourself safe; Merrigan thought those were the parts he needed to work on least.

This morning Merrigan whistled and pulled teeth out of his forearm. His men were butchering shark. He paused and popped his fingers, they felt more like his own. He was shrinking, and his jaw was back to the square cut line he spoke through. He moved with the purpose of a casual victor. He was tired, and ached with the enlightened glow exhaustion. His head was a white fog of serenity that only comes with breaking one’s self completely. He stretched towards the stars that were hiding in the daylight.

He walked to his cabin, with a small chunk of seared meat he hoped to feed the gnome, whom he’d secretly named Hangnail. He’d left him bread the day before, but the gnome ignored it. He hoped a fresh cut of meat might entice him more. The creature was almost indiscernible in the corner. He slouched in a pile without form. Merrigan turned his head sorrowfully towards the gnome. He rattled the cage, the gnome barely rustled. Merrigan thought about the tumbles and trauma they’d taken together. He wondered how hard he had squeezed him in their swim and struggles. 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 purple weed.

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

“I know Sir, and I’m sorry.” he really was. James had wanted the Gnome dead, but that didn’t make it easier to watch him die. “I hope I didn’t do it with the sword.” said Merrigan. “Me too,” answered James, “it was probably when you hit the water,” he reasoned. “He wouldn’t have made that anyway.” James spoke quickly and clipped. He didn’t let emotion seep into his voice. Merrigan believed him more when he wasn’t interested in the outcome. It made it very difficult when outcomes were interesting. He poured two glasses of wine.

“Have you poked him any more?” James asked. “I have.” Merrigan confessed. He looked at his hands, his previously broken finger bent soundly. He leaned his face to the window and put it up next to the glass. “See, good as new,” he spoke to the gnome in a friendly voice. 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 closed his eyes and whispered a swear. He hated that god damned wizard.

He was a wretched old man that had nearly killed the whole crew. He had fought Merrigan, as a Wolf, to a standstill, and caught a bullet James had fired right at his heart with his hand. James wanted to kill him and run away screaming and he didn’t care in which order. He hated that god damned wizard.

They’d met him in a port town trading black spices. He eyed Merrigan as a werewolf, pulled a silver dagger on him. He leaped at him immediately and cut down two crew members who stood in his way. 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 crooked club, and took a shopkeeper hostage. He sneaked back with a knife to the man’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 as real as the gods of old women or desperate men. Crazy was real, and worked to mysterious ends. That wizard was a priest or a disciple. When Merrigan grabbed him the wizard’s eyes went wide like explosions. 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, and the rest of the crew was in panic, but James heard the Wizard mutter, and he was sad to go. The wizard had wanted to stay in that snapping trap, he was not avoiding the wolf’s jaws, he left because he had something to do.

Merrigan found the bag, and explored it. James spent a full year finding ways to ignore it, and hide it from the Captain. He thought about destroying it, after he was certain Merrigan had forgotten.

Merrigan flung the contents of his closet aside getting to the chest. He overturned other chests and 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. Merrigan dug out the 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: a pouch of powder that exploded in the sun, two poisonous feathers, a handful of seeds that killed the ducks they’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 shook the snot from your head and cleared your senses, and rock with a string wound around it. It also contained a sharp silver blade and a regular iron one, and the finest purple weed Merrigan had ever smoked. But what it had that concerned them was a statue that seemed rather unremarkable. Merrigan pulled it out of the satchel and tossed it in his one hand. It was a wooden figurine of a squat woman with a shawl pulled over her ears. The statue had no whittle marks or sanding. It looked pure and organic. James proposed it was a mandrake or some sinister doll, but now it was clear it was a match. Merrigan sat it next to the cage. “It looks like we’ve got a pair?” It turned James stomach to think that wizard had seen a gnome too. It was a dark omen, or black fortune. Whoever had crafted the stout little woman had certainly seen an original. James pursed his lips and ground his teeth together. The belts and buckles and fingers all matched. Merrigan shook his head in awe.

The pile of gnome in the corner stirred and eyeballed the statue. Then turned his attention to the fish.

Chapter 6

Merrigan and James were busy with their whisky, and didn’t notice when the gnome stood up and stretched silently, or the attention he paid to the statue they were examining. They didn’t notice when he adjusted his clothing, or ate the food Merrigan had left. It was cold, but he ate all of it.

Merrigan was holding the the statue when he turned to see the gnome alert and wide eyed, 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 realize he cared. They bent down and smiled at the gnome. He looked up at the two monsters 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, He paused for a moment, “he doesn’t seem to mind it.”

James shook his head.

“Do you think he’d like whiskey?”

“Probably not, but maybe wine,” he suggested, “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. 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 finishing 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 piss.” They laughed for a moment, then nodded approval of their pocket-sized bar mate. They poured another glass. Merrigan lit purple weed cigarette and moved to exhale at the cage. The gnome spoke with gestures and hard stares that told Merrigan it would have been a mistake. Merrigan’s eyes lit up and he exhaled over his shoulder. It surprised all three of them. The gnome gave a solitary dip with his head, and Merrigan gave the same. This was fine progress. A while later Merrigan pushed the stem of cheap clay pipe stuffed with weed between two wires of the cage, the gnome approached it furtively, before taking 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 fully quit looking at that statue.

Chapter 7

James had to go get another cheap bottle of wine. Merrigan began to doze while he was standing, his head would droop with gravity and  wake him. He’d been up all night in the ocean, killing monsters.

“You should sleep,” said James.

Merrigan pretended ignoring the question was an answer.”The little guy seems happier,” he said, 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 hanging low like broken sails. “Wake me up early, I’d like to spend some time in the water tonight.”

James nodded. “Did you change in front of the little guy?” James inquired.

“No,” said the captain, “I was afraid I might scare him, but now I don’t think he’s afraid of anything.” The gnome took a drag off of the clay pot and eyeballed the men discussing him. Merrigan sat in his high backed chair and reclined.  “It’d scare me, said James, thinking of seeing a god or mountain change into a wolf. Merrigan’s eyes were fast asleep. “He’s probably a Werewolf too.” His ears and mouth were only dozing.

“That’s probably why they’re so hard to find,” James said quietly,”They walking around looking like raccoons most of the time.” His smile slipped, he friend was sleeping. .

Merrigan cracked an eye open. “Weresquirrels,” he whispered and giggled, nodding the last chuckle, too tired for noise.

“Things are going to be okay,” thought James.

As Merrigan drifted off on that sunny morning, he thought about the Gnome.

He had heard rumors and stories before. In the mountain town, after the man died, Merrigan talked to another local who claimed to trade with gnomes. He said the gnomes brought him orders for iron, and that they traded fine wine and old coins that he knew were worth more than he gave them. He’d met a Wererat in a port town that claimed to see a gate to a gnome city. He said everyone knew gnome cities stretched for miles and he said stupid people thought they stretched to Hell. A Werecat Chieftain told Merrigan he’d seen towns devoured by gnomes, “eaten up” is what he called it, he said towns rested undisturbed, except for the people, he doors were unlocked and valuables were left, but all the people were eaten where they stood, their bones left in neat white piles right next to their folded clothes. The Werecat, was a thick furred white man, harrier in his human form than Merrigan was a wolf. He had a big belly and a bigger mouth, but Merrigan didn’t think he was a liar. He said the people weren’t cooked or prepared, but eaten. He gnomes were the spirits of murdered settlers, and lived inside of stones in the mud.

If Merrigan had gotten a chance to talk to the gnome, he’d have found out those stories were lies. He would have found out all of his understanding was wrong, and that Gnomes aren’t mammals, or even animals, and that things weren’t going to be okay.

Chapter 8:

Gnomes are not animals, they’re almost an insect, but mostly plant. Gnomes are smart, and sharp, and ambulatory, and speak a complicated language they understand from birth. The belly button Merrigan saw wasn’t where the gnome connected to his mother in her belly,  but where he’d hung from the tree he grew up on. Gnome babies come into the world every spring, they start out as buds no bigger than a berry. They ripen all summer and fall in the fall with a thud when they land on their butts. They get up and start walking around, and have most things figured out by the winter. They know who they are, but not what to do, and ask other gnomes, who have been there longer. Older gnomes take them inside, and teach them the things that are important; where they eat, sleep, and dance. It’s a busy life, but they seem happy, and proceed into the world with purpose. Through their first winter they figure out what they’ll do. Gnomes have five jobs: gardeners, hunters, priests, cooks or carpenters. Each one is very important. This gnome was a hunter, or maybe a cook, it’s hard to tell after they get really good; an expert hunter will know how to garden, and all great priests are good carpenters. This gnome was a tremendous gnome, and if his people had heroes, he would become one, but gnomes don’t work like that. His people weren’t people.

Merrigan was right on one thing, the gnome was very much a male. There are boy and girl gnomes, and they do have sex, too much if you ask old gnomes, (who probably just forget what it’s like to be good-looking.) Gnomes have sex, but they don’t make babies, and least not like Merrigan would understand. Most gnomes die in the wild, and carrying a baby would be impossible. The world’s a hard place when you’re 8 inches tall and delicious. Winters are hard, and washing away in a river happens every time they try to cross one. Gnomes are sturdy, and practical and good at surviving, and have no time for getting fat, and not moving. That statue would answer some questions.

It wasn’t a statue, it was  a seed, and once it was a hearty healthy gnome. Gnomes live to be about sixty, and then they dry out. It’s not exactly dying, more like fading away. They dry up to and turn to dust, and crumble like old leaves. They are a crunchy shell and grey debris that rolls under the earth happily when it’s ready to go. Gnomes  are much too close to life to think it ends. They know the truth, it makes them happier. If a gnome is captured he’ll dry up straight away, he’ll drift off and hope to become something useful. Gnomes will dry out if food gets scarce, or if they get bored. Gnomes have had funerals, and they tend to keep each others’ tools or hats after they’re gone, even if better ones are available. It’s terribly impractical, but it makes gnomes happy. Lady gnomes don’t die, at least not from natural causes. They’ll die if they get eaten or frozen or stung by a bee, but not from getting old and rarely getting bored. A lady gnome lives forever, sort of.

Right around seventy years old, when all the boys she grew up with start drying, a lady gnome dries out a bit too. She’ll get foul mouthed and stiff limbs. Her legs will get creaky, and her head will get foggy, and she’ll tend to let go of old secrets. They often hurt feelings and come up with mean nicknames for the ones they leave behind. They wander off and pick fights and misremember things that were important. They’ll forget any human languages they might have learned, and they’ll struggle with sums, but they’ll talk and sing gnomish beautifully. Over the course of an autumn, usually, an old lady will retire to a corner or a bed, and she’ll only take water and smoke, no food. She’ll dry out a bit, and look like stone or hard wood. She’ll go rigid, and quit giving orders, and most of the gnomes will cry, even though it isn’t really sad, just how it goes. A group of gnomes, usually led by a priest or a hunter or a really good cook will pack her onto a sled and drag her somewhere special, where they’ll plant her, and she’ll make a new home.

Sometimes they’ll walk until they figure out where, sometimes they have a place scouted. They’ll plant the old lady’s feet in the ground, and guard her for the rest of their lifetimes. They’ll fight animals and bad weather and anything else they can, until she starts to take root. Her feet will stretch down to the water in the earth, and it will fill her back up with life. Her hands will stretch up to the water in the sky, and a new generation of gnomes will fall off of her branches and onto their asses. They’ll look like gnomes she had known. They’ll get to work gardening and cutting doors the right sizes. They’ll live in that tree for close to forever. Eventually she’ll run out of babies, if she lasts too long, rude gnomes will make jokes. Then the tree gets thick like a castle, they’ll plant new trees in her hallways, maybe start a thicket.

Normally a troop of gnomes head out with a seed to a far away place. They watch it and rear it and teach the first harvest of children. They’ll scratch a suitable name in the trunk, and set to work making order. It’s important that first batch of gnomes learns everything. Hunters make maps and figure out routes to the water, they find the very best places for honey and drive off impending threats. They’re usually young and most likely brave, and less likely to sleep in the tree. The gardeners live at the base of the trunk, and they’re usually excellent singers. The base of the tree is where most attacks happen, so gardeners are good with an ax. They grow and store food in the roots of the tree, cellars are full of yams and music. Gnome society needs both to run. Gardeners tend to the wounded and cater most parties gnomes throw. The priests are the warriors and the writers. They talk to man whenever they must, and to whales whenever they get to. They lead the military and live at the crown of the tree. They brew the ale but don’t drink it. They train with the sword and organize gnomes in time of disaster. They make books of predictions and studies on things and maintain the little order gnomes need. Carpenters are craftsmen and live in the limbs. They make doors, and swords and belt buckles and anything else the gnomes may need. Some live in the roots and man forges. Carpenters are artists and are always looking to improve their loves. Carpenters keep apprentices, and organize gatherings even better than their workshops. They are obsessed with the wheel, and offended they didn’t invent it. The roots are full of cooks, and cooks are total maniacs. They feed the tree. Gnomes by nature are vegetarian, but they keep recipes for every animal they encountered, including man and werewolf. When gnomes are drunk and cocky they call people “fast potatoes.” Cooks perfect poisons and weigh in on war. They are restless but not reckless. If gnomes needed leaders, they’d be cooks. Gnome society is a complicated thing, and all of it rested inside of that statue.

The gnome on the counter wanted it back.

Chapter 9

At three in the afternoon there was a scream from the Captain’s quarters. Two members of the crew made it there before James, but he displaced them both upon arrival. Crick and Porter swung seamlessly to their positions as nurses when James became the doctor. Crick was raised by a makeshift shaman in some island town, and handled most medical concerns. Even though people didn’t know Porter’s origin, he was too good with a razor not to know how bodies work. He was a scrawny and mean spirited man they pulled out of the water years ago. The Savage found him adrift, bobbing on some war debris after a battle they weren’t part of. He was as starved, angry and indestructible as a river rat, and that would have made a great nickname, if Porter didn’t hate it. He took three fingers off of a man who called him that too often, and made them into a fine necklace. The crew agreed that Porter is a good name for a pirate.

Porter started crying when James lanced open the Captain.

He was screaming and howling the whistling shriek that came when he was changing, but this one was full of pain. James had seen the Captain change hundreds of times, and probably knew the process better than the Werewolf himself; this was something different. His body pulsed and writhed. The movements were violent and spastic. Words slurred into Merrigan’s incoherent howls that hinted at delirium. He screamed of fishes and the origin of man. There was a thick pulsing goiter at his throat that James cut open, blood and what looked like the inside of fruit gushed and splattered against the wall. “Take him out onto the deck! And boil water!” James yelled. Crick and Porter latched onto the writhing man/wolf, they wrangled the monster’s upper half to the door as the First Mate lugged his feet. The pirates lined their walk and stared with concern. “It’s that Goddamned Fucking Gnome!” Screamed James nodding to the desk and the cage, which wasn’t there. It was spilled over and jimmied open on the floor. Wires were bent and it was empty. James barked at the idle men to find it, kill it, and burn it. It was only one order. Merrigan shook and convulsed, his eyes and teeth aching against his skull; his face was seeping different humors. Merrigan’s shifting was always hard to watch, and knowing the rifts and disjointed snaps ripping his friend apart only made it worse. James put his hands on his friend’s chest, pressing on the pulsating heart. It was bad to change when you were poisoned. He knew Merrigan’s stories about shifting when he was drunk, and shitting his pants or breaking fingers. This must be ten thousand times worse, but the change had already started. The poison was not leaving. His body was happily killing itself.

The men scoured the ship with nets and hammers. Furrowed brows and clenched jaws searched every corner. They overturned barrels and shined torches down cannon but the gnome was nowhere to be found. The gnome had vanished. Had he been there, had he stayed in the cage and lived a long happy life as Merrigan’s parrot, he still never would have told Merrigan why he was there, or where he had been. He would never explain life in the tree or his connection to the dirt. He’d never talk about vines or gnomeberries or making armor from spiderwebs. He’d never have explained the statue that was now missing from the Captain’s room, or why he took it. Gnomes are familiar enough with men not to trust them, and are generally disinterested in their affairs. They might admire man’s ingenuity, but resent their greedy nature. Mostly gnomes look at men as boring, and lazy. The fact that Merrigan was neither of those probably saved his life.

Another pulsing cyst rose in his armpit, James slit it open with a razor, the wolf thrashed as different pirates took turns holding down his arms and being thrown across the deck. James hacked away at blisters and set bones against his friend’s gruesome twists. The crew killed the sails, and let the boat drift in the green sea. They circled around their Captain and prayed. Some prayed for his safety, some for an easy death. Many prayed about what waited for them should their Captain die. They had killed soldiers from every empire, and every animal kind. They had ravaged other pirates with impunity, and now they had enemies. Without a wolf on their bow, dogs would run over their ship and tear them apart; wolf, bear, lion, lynx, badger, rat, or panther: human and a dozen different dogs. They could only hope to be run down at sea, not in a port, where dogs show off brutality.

The sun fell down like a fighter. It wobbled and struggled at the horizon before collapsing on its face. The moon stood in the young night’s sky, a sliver of a champion. It’s calm light cooled that seas that no one noticed had been boiling. The Captain coughed and hacked up black blood and bits of flesh. His frame thickened like it was filled with water. The wolf’s jaw cracked and slackened, his eye’s twitched and focused razor sharp. The Captain stretched and ached, the crew stood up in expectation. Folds of skin and hair hung about the monster wrapping him up like ill fitting scarves. He struggled and staggered like a drunk, he grinned like one too. He let out a soft whimper, and turned around twice. He sat on the deck with his back against the edge. The ocean smelled alive and vicious. The rocking of the waves matched his heart. He pulled himself to his feet. He jumped to the mast and and called to his men.

“You’re the strongest fleet on these god damned seas!” The words were crisp, and loud like cannon. The declaration was unsolicited, unwarranted, and tacitly untrue.

The men roared approval and rattled their sabers.

Merrigan stood on shakey hind legs and made threats against enemies real and imagined, and promised wealth beyond reason and glory forever. He barely mentioned the gnome.

He fell from the mast and landed deftly, he marched to the bow with conviction. He put a foot on the bow and peered at the ocean, the moon lit the world like a lantern. He growled, calmly, like a hum from a whittler; his eyes on a string to the port they would land in. His men were already rowing with purpose. James approached empty handed. The captain pawed at a wound on his jaw. He dug under the bone and felt the squishy mess. It was full of pus and rot and what felt like a red hot stone. He scraped with a nail and fished a broken fingernail, a cracked black, out of his jawline, it was deep up under his tongue. It looked living and sharp like a seed or a tooth. Merrigan rubbed his face. “It’s the gnome’s knife,” he said, resting it in his palm. He tossed it up for affect, to show it was weightless. “It’s not the one your fella had,” added James, “I threw that one in the water.” Merrigan looked at him quizzically and said nothing, he ran a thumb along his face.

There were gnomes on the ship, or there had been, or maybe the gnome had more knives. “Do you think there were more of them?” asked the Captain.

“Yes,” said James, who was certain. That cage was very heavy.

“And they’re gone now?”

“I think so.”

The Captain rubbed his jaw and looked at the water. There would be one hole on his face in the morning, a rough  scar, like a fang or a stinger. He thought about the corpses and the drawings of gnome bites. Two wounds would have killed him he figured. Two would have made more sense. “Did the gnome steal the statue?” Merrigan asked.

“He did,” said the First Mate.

“Good.” said the Captain.

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