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The Littlest Kobold, Read Along – Part Five

Ladies and gentlemen, the finale of The Littlest Kobold is just below. I wanted to say thank you once again to Cristina for lending us her voice on this piece.  We’re excited to get her take on a couple of other Tellest stories soon—lend us your ears again when our next tale is adapted for audio!

Note: we’re aware that Miss Cristina said Part Four in the intro.  Just didn’t get enough time to clean that up!

 

 

The Littlest Kobold
A Story by Michael DeAngelo
-Part Five-
Narrated by Cristina Cruz

 

“And you’ve been with them this whole time?”

Leah nodded, averting her gaze from Gwendolyn’s sympathetic eyes.  “Every time I try to get away, one of Faroon’s people brings me back.”  She turned to Camille then.  “We shouldn’t be here.  It was bad enough involving you and your family, but if they come here and think Aspica was involved…”

“Nonsense,” Gwendolyn said, standing up straighter.  She circled around to the front of the counter and gestured for the children and the kobold to follow her.  “This is a noble cause, and I’m sure the rest of the folks who live here would be happy to lend their hand.  I can’t do much for you, but maybe we could fashion you a better disguise.  No offense to your sling – or to you, Leah – but that won’t hide the fact she makes for one unusually hairy baby.”

Leah opened her mouth to speak, raising her hand, but hesitated.  “Actually, I was a pretty hairy baby.”

Gwendolyn laughed as she led her guests to the front of the shop.  “So obviously you’ve seen my hobby.  I love to make dolls.  My husband and I have been trying for a baby, and when we started, I began working on these dolls.  Still no baby, but my collection’s pretty impressive, no?”

“You made these?” Camille asked with wide-eyed wonder.

“Well, not all of them,” Gwendolyn clarified.  “I purchased the porcelain ones from Sungarden a few years back.  But the clothes they wear and all the other knitted dolls… Those are all mine.”

“It’s incredible,” Abraham remarked.

“Thank you very much.  And now, if we’re ready, I’d like to prepare an outfit for Miss Leah.”

“An outfit?” the tiny kobold repeated.

“We can’t have you out and about while Faroon’s lackeys are looking for you.  Not without a proper disguise, that is.”  Gwendolyn reached high up on one of the shelves and pulled down a doll she had purchased, removing its clothes and placing the naked doll on the bottom shelf.  Finally, she turned about, proudly displaying a dress that would have been fit for a girl of high regard.  Though it was simple with an auburn-tan color, it was bolstered by a lace bodice and sleeves sewn into the top.  It splayed out at the bottom in ruffles as well.  Gwendolyn held it out next to Leah.  “Just your size, too.  What do you think?”

The kobold looked up at the shopkeeper with moisture building on the rims of her eyes.  She spun on her heel and looked at her young rescuers.

“That’s beautiful, Gwenna,” Camille said.  As she finished, she bowed her head, letting her eyes fall upon the pouch that rested on Abraham’s belt.  “My father gave us some gold, but I don’t think it’s enough to pay for that.”

“Nonsense,” Gwendolyn said.  “I’m not charging you for this.  This is a gift to commemorate our friend’s emancipation.”  She held out the dress again, delivering it into Leah’s unsteady hands.  “Why don’t you try it on?  We’ll all look away so you can change out of those nasty rags.”

Nodding, the kobold took the outfit and turned around the corner of the shelves.  They could see the light casting the shadow of her body as she removed her cracked, old linens.

“So your parents know you’re here?” Gwendolyn asked.

“Yes,” Abraham answered.  “Papa would really love this shop.  He really appreciates craftsmanship.”

“Back at home, he carves pieces for games of lords,” Camille said.

“He’s much better at making the pieces than he is at actually playing the game,” Abraham snickered.

“Does this look all right?” the three of them heard.  Turning about, they saw Leah in her new dress, its color complementing her dark fur.  “I look silly, don’t I?”

Both Camille and Gwendolyn brought their hands to their mouths, but Abraham took a step forward.  “You look beautiful,” he said.

“That you do,” the shopkeeper confirmed.  “Now we just need the finishing touch.”  She kneeled down in front of the kobold and placed something on her head.  Abraham stepped around and noticed as Gwendolyn tied the bonnet around Leah’s chin.  “There we are.  Your look is complete.”  She stepped out of the way, letting Camille see her more clearly.

Her mouth opened wide, but it quickly transformed into a smile.  “You look like a princess, Leah.”

“This is incredible, Gwenna,” the kobold said.  “You’re sure this is all right?”

“I insist,” she replied, dropping to one knee.  Leah graciously accepted a hug but averted her gaze when the gesture had ceased.

“Cami, have a look at this,” Abraham said.  “I can’t tell… Is that our carriage?”

The young lady cut across the shop and glanced out the window.  Sure enough, her father sat in the driver’s seat, and Rion leaned out of the side.  “That it is,” she said.

“What opportune timing,” the shopkeeper declared.

Abraham ran to the door and swung it open.  “Papa!” he called out.

“Now, you take care of each other,” Gwendolyn said.  “You’ve been given a chance to make something wonderful of yourselves.”

“I hope we meet each other again,” Camille said.

“I’m sure we will,” she replied.

 

Leah exited the doll shop with her hand in Camille’s.  Virgil swung the carriage about, and Rion was just finishing leaning out of the other window, much to the dismay of his mother.

“Up and about, kids,” the Destrite patriarch said.

“We wanted to introduce you to Gwenna,” Abraham pressed.

“I’m afraid we don’t have time,” Virgil protested.  “Faroon’s voice can still be heard in the northern woods.  I don’t want to miss our chance to escape with the little lady.  If it’s meant to be, I’ll meet this Gwenna another time.”

“Yes, Papa,” Abraham said as he opened the carriage door.

Jerrick hopped out of the cabin and gave a nod to his siblings and the kobold.  As Camille lifted the well-dressed stowaway into the wagon, the eldest boy hopped up next to his father.  Abraham squeezed inside, and he and his sister sat on either side of Leah.  She looked at Nika, who shared a warm smile with the kobold.

“Nice to be meeting you, ma’am,” she said.

“You’re a precious little thing, aren’t you?” Nika replied.  “Even more so up close.”

Leah flashed an awkward grin.  “Thank you so much for taking me in.”

Virgil flicked the reins and urged the horse forward.  The brother and sister who had ventured to Aspica saw Gwendolyn in her shop, waving them and the kobold farewell.  Camille beamed and nodded to her new friend as the wagon pulled out of sight.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Rion had fallen asleep against the wall of the carriage, and seeing him in that relaxed state enticed a yawn from Leah.  She sat between Camille and Abraham and across from Nika.  The children’s mother caught the last moment of the kobold’s yawn, and Leah shied away in embarrassment.

“Whoa,” they heard Virgil say.  At once, the carriage drew to a stop.  Everyone in the cabin heard some incoherent mumbling outside.  “Can I help you?”

“I hope so,” another voice in the woods assured.  Leah’s ears perked up, and her eyes widened at the familiar-sounding man.  “Earlier today, one of my friends went missing.  I was hoping you might be able to give me an idea of where she might be.  Have you seen a kobold running around these parts?”

“A kobold?” Virgil repeated.  “This far from Warus?”

“Part uh our circus troop,” another voice snarled.

“Fergus,” Leah whispered.

“Shh,” Camille hushed.

“Sir, I hope you won’t mind, but I’d like to check your carriage for our friend,” George went on.  “She has a habit of disappearing into strange places.”

“It’s just my family back there,” Virgil assured.  “And we have a newborn that’s just fallen asleep.”

“Don’t make this harder on –” Fergus began to say.

A brief pause interrupted him, followed by the agitated bark and growl of a dog.  Leah shivered against Camille’s body.  The young lady scooped her up and held her close.  Nika leaned forward and grabbed her daughter’s hand.

“The seat lifts up,” she whispered.

Outside, George stepped closer toward the carriage.  “I assure you, sir, we’ll be quick and quiet.”

“My little brother is scared of dogs,” Jerrick piped up.  “One of them bit him on the hand once.”

“We’ll leave this fella outside then,” George conceded.  Not a moment later, the door to the carriage swung open, and he was there upon the ground.  “Good evening, folks.  Sorry for the interruption, but my… employer would have my head if I didn’t take adequate measures to make sure our friend wasn’t stowing away without your knowledge.”

Nika smiled, cradling Kira against her chest.  “Of course.  Just us five, though,” she softly spoke.

Taking a look about the compartment, George didn’t see anything amiss.  It was just the woman and her four children, as she had said.  He began to take his leave when his eyes settled on the seat Camille and Abraham were upon.

“Ma’am, I don’t mean to intrude, but does that seat open into another compartment?”

The briefest of pauses was all Nika would allow.  “Why yes, it does,” she said.  “Children, would you give the man some room?”

“Thank you,” George said.  “You wouldn’t believe how wily this kobold can be.”  As he moved into the carriage, Camille lifted the seat.  “Thank you,” he said again.  He was affronted with the sight of the ruffled dress with the lace bodice.

“That’s just a doll I bought for my sister,” Camille said.  “I know she’s too young to appreciate it yet, but I don’t know when we’ll be back this way.”

The circus guard passed a wary glance at the girl, his brow furrowed.  He reached into the compartment, moving some clothes aside, and pulled the dress down over Leah’s protruding tail.  After a light squeeze on the kobold’s back, he patted her and stood back up.

“I don’t see anything out of the ordinary here,” he said.  George looked at the Destrite family members, meeting their wide-eyed stares.  With an appreciative nod, he displayed a halfhearted grin.  “Thank you,” he offered, his voice cracking just a bit.

As he disembarked the carriage, Abraham shot a surprised and curious glance toward his mother.  She shook her head but remained quiet.

“Wait a minute,” Fergus snarled.  “Hold Rufus for me.  Something doesn’t smell right.”  Without warning, the skinny, short fellow hoisted himself into the carriage.  He took a quick look around, but his gaze lingered on the baby held to Nika’s chest.  He squinted and stepped toward mother and babe.

“You touch my mother or my sister, and you’re a dead man,” Abraham insisted.

That promise stayed Fergus’ hand, but he turned on his heel and peered into the open seat compartment.  He saw the dress and bonnet atop the supposed doll.  Camille swallowed hard and passed a pleading glance to George.  He stood outside, his hand grasped around Rufus’ leash.

Fergus pivoted, bracing his hands on the carriage’s doorframe.  “You stupid idiot,” he seethed.  “You brought us the wrong way!”  He hopped out of the vehicle and approached the circus guard.  “I’m sorry, Georgie.  The pup must have lost the Hare’s scent a ways back.”

Over the sound of the waking newborn, his companion sighed.  “No matter.  We always find her,” George replied.  “I’m sorry to have interrupted you nice folk.  Please be careful as you head up north.  It’s getting dark.”  He turned to the tracker and his dog.  “Let’s go, Fergus.  Maybe she went into the town.”

“Good luck,” Jerrick called out.  Beside him, Virgil snapped the reins, urging the horse on.

Camille reached over and swung the door shut while Abraham lifted Leah from her hiding spot.  When they had travelled a ways, she ventured a glance outside.  Turning back, the Destrites noticed the tears that matted the fur beneath her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Camille asked.

With a sniffle, a weak grin, and a shrug, Leah looked up.  “I’m free.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The darkness had lulled them all to sleep.  Only Nika was still awake, gently stroking her baby’s soft hair.  Crickets outside hummed their tune over and over, so often that it melded together with the silence.  When the carriage stopped, the two children opposite Nika shook forward, and Leah nearly fell to the floor from between them both.  She stirred and instantly shivered at the thought of the stopped carriage.

A whistle cut into the night, and Virgil cleared his throat.  The kobold gave a slight nod and hopped down from her seat.  She took off her bonnet and placed it on the seat beside the young lady who had rescued her.  A flashed smile was the only communication she shared with Nika before she gave the door a gentle, silent push forward.

Virgil looked down as the kobold came up beside the horse.  Together, they looked at the road in front of them.  It forked north and east, trees on both sides.  Each road seemed weathered and beaten.

“I thought you should know:  This path here leads through southern Raleigh,” Virgil said.  “If you’re looking to get back to Warus, that’s the road you’d want to take.  We’ll be taking that one north to Viscosa.”

“Thank you, Mister Destrite,” the kobold said.  She moved along toward where the two roads diverged, each into their own lane of darkness.  She gazed down both paths, her eyes unable to see far beyond where she stood.

“Leah?  What are you doing?” she heard.  When the kobold turned about, she saw Camille standing there beside the carriage.  “Where are you going?”

A shrug lifted her shoulders.  “I’m safe now… away from Faroon and his intentions.”

“But that doesn’t mean you have to leave.”

All those who were awake heard the door to the carriage shut.  When they looked, Nika stood there, Kira still held against her bosom.  She nodded and shot a grin to her daughter.

Camille spun back around and faced her new friend.  “No one is forcing you to go back to Warus.  I know you want to see Brighton Beach again someday, but there will be plenty of time for that.  We’d be more than happy if you came home with us.”

The kobold’s eyes brightened at the offer.  When the young lady dropped to one knee, she ran to her side.  They shared a warm embrace that let her know that even though Warus wasn’t her destination, she was still headed home.

Scooping her up, Camille walked back to the cabin.  Nika swung open the door and let her cheerful smile show.  As the rest of his family settled in, Virgil gave his sleeping son a gentle squeeze before he snapped the reins.

The Destrites continued along on their journey.  And with them was the littlest kobold.

The Littlest Kobold, Read Along – Part Four

We’ve reached the penultimate part of The Littlest Kobold.  Keep those comments coming.  Enjoy!

 

The Littlest Kobold
A Story by Michael DeAngelo
-Part Four-
Narrated by Cristina Cruz

 

“Now, you remember what to do, right?” Virgil asked.

“I think we can handle running through the woods, Dad,” Jerrick was quick to reply.  Rion just nodded with an eager grin upon his face.

Standing once more, Virgil tousled his youngest son’s hair.  “Don’t forget:  Those can’t leave your feet,” he said, pointing at Leah’s torn up outfits tied around his son’s ankles.  “We’re counting on them to distract the dog from her scent.”

Jerrick sighed but finally nodded.  “Come on, Squirt.  This’ll be just like hide and seek, but let’s try and win this time.”

As his sons took their leave, Virgil turned back to the kobold’s room, where Camille and Abraham carefully shorn through Leah’s blanket.  The Hare paced on the far side of the room, chewing on her pointed nails.

“Let’s get this reverse kidnapping started,” Virgil said.  “What’s the plan?”

Abraham’s eyes lit up, and he rose to his feet.  “You mean you don’t have a plan?”

“I have the plan,” Camille insisted.  “Like always.  Papa, we can’t let Leah walk on the ground or else the dog can track her.  So we’re going to make her a sling like Kira has.”

The kobold snarled in protest, cocking her head to the side.  “You can’t seriously expect me to lie in that thing like a baby.”

“It’s the only way to get you out of here in secrecy,” the young lady insisted.  “We can’t very well go around with you upon my father’s shoulder.”

Clearing his throat, Virgil took a step forward.  “As tempted as I am to let this conversation continue, I really do think we should move along with this escape.  Let’s make the sling and get out of here.”

Camille nodded and enlisted her brother to help fashion the looping blanket.  In only a short while, they had crafted the thing and were ready to try it out.

“All right, Papa.  Here.”  Together, the siblings placed the sling over Virgil’s head, strapping it across his chest.  They tugged on it, assuring it was secure.  At that, Camille turned to Leah.  “Are you ready?”

With a sigh that shook her whiskers, the kobold nodded.  “Let’s get this over with,” she said, raising her arms.

Camille picked her up and placed her in the sling, allowing the kobold to wriggle until she found an agreeable position.  Both children looked at her when she furled her brow, staring off at some indiscriminate part of the room.  “What’s wrong?” the young lady asked.

Leah hesitated; she brought her gaze to Camille’s again only when she was sure of herself.  “This is actually very comfortable.”

With a snicker, the young lady helped her brother drape their father’s cloak over his shoulder, covering the tiny kobold.  When she was well hidden, Virgil blew out a sigh and nodded to his son and daughter.

They stepped from Leah’s room, the kobold huddled close to her rescuer’s chest.  As they took to the dirt-floored halls, Camille often found herself looking back.  She saw there the same look she always saw upon her father’s face: fearlessness.  If Virgil carried any sort of anxiety, it certainly didn’t show.

As they made their way out into the light of day, a new sense of purpose washed over them.  They turned abruptly from the path, heading away from their camp.  Their aim was Aspica, the city of the bay.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Together, the trio scrambled up the hill.  Though Leah did not weigh much, Virgil worked at steadying her, and without his hands providing balance, the ascent was treacherous.  Camille led the way while Abraham brought up the rear, offering a hand on his father’s back.  When they finally rose over the final slope, they were captured by the sight of the city below on the other side.

Aspica was one of the better hidden jewels among Daltain’s cities.  It hadn’t succumbed much to industry, only a small harbor on its south side, far from where shops and homes pointed toward the water.  Likewise, only one road entered the city along the northeast.  A farm there was perhaps the most urban looking plot, for all along the western side of the road, a simple fence stretched on for what seemed like a mile.  The sun shed its midday light upon the city.

A voice resonated about the area, carrying so loudly across the wind that Camille was sure sailors could hear it out at sea.

“Find her!” the voice boomed.  “I don’t care how far you have to travel or how long it takes.  Bring me the Hare.”

They knew it was Faroon who spoke, but it was as if he was right beside them.  A glance back down the hill was all they needed to witness the folks pouring out of the circus tent.  That canvas seemed darker, as though the clouds had taken root in the sky above it.

Virgil lifted the sling over his shoulder, much to the dismay of the kobold inside.

“Hey, hey!  What are you doing?” Leah snarled, almost falling out of the carrier.

The Destrite patriarch situated the sling over his daughter’s shoulder instead.  “I thought we’d have more time before they noticed you were missing,” he said.  “I’d like to think Jerrick and Rion found a way to escape to safety, but I can’t take that risk.”

“So what do we do, Papa?” Camille asked.

Once the carrier was safely secured across Camille’s chest, Virgil tugged a pouch away from his belt.  The contents clinked together, and he handed it to Abraham.  “I’m going to go back to camp and find your brothers.  Once they’re safe, we’ll take the carriage into town and pick you up.  Use some gold to stay hidden.  Rent a room at an inn, charter a ship for a few hours.  Whatever it takes.”

“Won’t Mama be mad if we spend all the money?” Abraham asked.

Virgil blew out an exasperated sigh.  “Try not to spend all of it, please.  I’ll explain the situation to your mother.  She’ll understand.”  Both of his children nodded, remaining silent.  “Well?  Go on,” he bade.

Turning on her heel, Camille began the descent, hugging Leah against her chest.  There was no cloak disguising the kobold then.  Their only hope in keeping her hidden was a quick escape.  Abraham held his sister’s arm and led her down the hill.

Camille shivered away the autumn air, the planks beneath her creaking and bobbing.  The bay was still, save for the gentle ebb and flow of the water against the wooden pier.  Leah was still, too, only her shallow breaths reminding the young lady she was still within the sling.

Beneath her boots, she felt the subtle thrum.  As Abraham drew nearer with hasty steps, the entire pier shook.

“Still nothing?” he asked.

Camille shook her head.  “I haven’t seen a single boat out there.  Where would they all be?”  She let her words trail off into nothingness, shaking it from her head.  “Any luck on your end?” she asked, turning to face her brother.

He gave a slight bow.  “Afraid not.  Nobody is home.  Or nobody is answering.”

“It’s like we’ve come to a ghost town.  Where is everyone?”

“You should just leave me here,” a quiet voice spoke out.  Leah rolled in the sling until she could peer out to the water.  “I’m a good swimmer… I think.  I’ll paddle over to the other shore.  They might not be able to pick up my scent.”

Camille was already shaking her head.  “No.  We told you we’d get you to safety, and we will.  I’m not going to throw you into the bay just because it’s our most convenient option.  Come on, Abraham.  We’ll figure something out.”

The siblings made their way from the pier, landing upon the uneven stone street.  One by one, they knocked on doors and windows, but just as Abraham had said, nobody answered.  A quiet sigh shook the young lady as she rejoined her brother.

“It’s like you said.  Nobody is here.”

“So what do we do?” Abraham asked.

“If we can’t find anything…” Camille started to say.  “Nobody is here.  Nobody to take issue with us borrowing their house for a few hours.  Don’t bother knocking anymore.  Try all the doors.”

Abraham swallowed hard but nodded his consent.  As they rounded the bend, though, he stopped.  Camille followed her brother’s gaze and noticed the lantern light that swung about one of the northern buildings.

“That wasn’t on earlier, I’m sure of it,” he said.

“Let’s go.  Maybe we can hide out in there,” she replied.

When they arrived at that building, they could see the picture window had been illuminated as well.  A trio of children’s dolls had taken up residence there, varying in their presentation.  The outer ones were stuffed, knit things, but the center was a porcelain doll that could easily have been mistaken for a small child if it wasn’t so still.  Camille knocked, and when she didn’t hear an answer, she pushed her way inside.

As the door swung open, a line of brass bells cascaded up and over, reporting a joyous little melody.  Both children and the kobold could hear the footsteps leading their way.

“Alexander?” they heard.  A woman came into view and cast a glance at her visitors.  She adjusted her glasses then and swept her dark hair out of her face.  “You’re not Alexander.”

“Apologies, ma’am,” Abraham said, drawing forth a furled brow from the woman.  “Miss,” he corrected.

“We saw the light on, and we thought you might be open,” his sister added.  “Everyone else is gone, though.  What’s going on in this town?”

The woman chortled and looked away.  “Come in and take a seat.  No sense telling you about it in the doorway.”  She led them inside.  Her shop would have been spacious, but rows of shelves made it quite cramped, except for the counter she had among the rear wall.  It was almost situated like the bar of a tavern, with a trio of stools at its front.  The owner made her way around while she offered seats to her guests.

“I should tell you, stories don’t come for free,” she said, drawing incredulous gazes from the children.  With a smile stretching her lips, she continued, “I’ll settle for your names.”

“I’m Camille,” the young lady said as she took her spot upon the stool.  She extended her arm, but as she sat upon the cushion, Leah rolled forward.  Camille drew her hand back and grasped the sling.

“A-and I’m Abraham,” her brother interjected.

The woman arched an eyebrow but shook the boy’s hand.  As she fell back upon her heels, she placed her hands on the counter.  “My name’s Gwendolyn, but you can call me Gwenna if it suits you.”  She sighed and leaned back.  “So no doubt you two just came from the circus.”

Camille froze for a moment but blinked away the tension.  “What makes you say that?”

With a shrug, Gwendolyn gazed past the children, peering down the aisles of the shop to the picture window.  The sun was beginning to set, leaving a shadow stretching from the glass.  “For starters, there’s nothing to do here besides see the town if the circus isn’t here.  And you wouldn’t be in town alone if it wasn’t the circus you’d come here for.

“Anyway, with that particular circus, you’ll rarely get both of us.  The town doesn’t think too highly of the Cirque de Malorum.”

“Why is that?” Camille asked.

“Well, Aspica is a friend of many people, from the dwarves in the mountains to the werewolves of the Grey Isle.  But the Cirque de Malorum, they’re not kind to anyone who doesn’t have coin to spare – or to earn for them.  And don’t even get me started on the way they treat their animals.

“From what I hear,” she continued, “things haven’t improved much.  So rather than show our support, when they show up in the forest up there, we disappear until they leave.  Once, we thought maybe they’d stop coming, but it seems it’s too queer a sight to pass up.”

“Well, I doubt anyone there today will ever return,” Abraham said.

“And why’s that?” the owner wondered.

Camille pressed out a nervous sigh and reached down.  “Gwenna, please tell me you can keep a secret.”  She didn’t wait to hear an answer before she presented the tiny kobold upon her lap.

The Littlest Kobold, Read Along – Part Three

Hey there folks.  You know the drill by now.  Cristina is looking for advice on her audio for the purposes of narrating.  Give this a listen while you read along, and if you find anything worth noting, shoot us a comment!  Thank you much!

 

The Littlest Kobold
A Story by Michael DeAngelo
-Part Three-
Narrated by Cristina Cruz

The trumpets played a deeper song then, a slower melody carrying across the tent.  While the next act prepared, Camille reflected on all the Cirque de Malorum bad offered thus far.  True to Faroon’s words, many of the attractions were eerie or unsettling.  Just after his speech, he introduced a man they called the flying serpent.  With an uncanny burst of speed, he arrived many feet in front of where he first stood.  Every time he moved in that way, though, he left a remnant of himself behind.  A fine layer of skin remained, perfectly formed, still standing, and before his act ended, a dozen other hollow statues joined it.

The huntress from Danai was next, and what seemed like just a demonstration that a woman could be both beautiful and trained in combat quickly evolved.  Esme was competent enough to hold her own against a pair of warriors with ease, but when two more were introduced to the arena floor, she seemed outmatched.  That was when she discarded her cloak and swung her second pair of arms forward.  The audience watched as she wound four swords into an impressive dance, never allowing her opponents a reprieve until each of them lay disarmed upon the ground.

After that, droning dulcet tones introduced a man with forgettable features.  Meek and unattractive, many in the audience didn’t even realize he was a performer.  But when he placed his hand upon one of the central masts and climbed it without any equipment, he had the crowd’s attention.  Jerrick once again pronounced his cynicism, claiming small hooks were placed on flesh-toned gloves.  He was promptly silenced when the performer removed his shoes, letting them fall to the ground below.  Situating his feet on the mast, he drew back his hands and stood sideways.

With his mouth agape, Jerrick watched as the man walked up the rest of the way, holding his arms out wide as if balancing upon a tightrope.  The boy’s eyes grew wide when the performer seamlessly transitioned from the mast to the canvas ceiling.

“I can see the wires,” his brother Abraham mocked with a nasally voice.  Jerrick said nothing as the man proceeded across the top of the tent and down the opposite mast.  The performer was just as quiet as he took his leave, though despite that humility, he received the fanfare he deserved.

The arena grew quiet, until Faroon reappeared with a wide smile upon his face.  No music accompanied his arrival, but the applause of the crowd was warm and welcoming.

“Each of our previous acts had to fight against the many hardships of life.  To us here in the Cirque de Malorum, they are family.  But out there in the world, they are freaks and monsters.  I hope you see them not as different, but unique.

“These next few segments are for the children.  While we pride ourselves on offering an experience the whole family can enjoy, this might be the perfect time for one of the parents to slip away for an ale,” he said with a wink.

Deep bass tones resonated from an unseen drum and were quickly joined by short spans of brass.  The light dimmed from Faroon and instead focused on the entrances on either side.  From there, two lines of elephants emerged, arranged by size.  Each of them pushed large, perfectly round stones, oblivious to the lines they were leaving in the sand.  As they reached the center of the arena, they began forming a circle, when a small, last minute arrival appeared.

Leah charged forward, pushing a far smaller rock toward the procession, but it still seemed to be too big for her.  Her floppy ears bounced with every step, but she finally reached the elephants, her stone falling into the groove the boulders had left.  Hearing the giggles of the children, she smiled and waved, making the queer sight even more unbelievable.  Her perfectly round stone moved just as easily as it had before, with no struggle.

As the Hare saw the brightness in the eyes of the audience, her heart warmed.  She stood taller and lifted her chin.

All of the animals made their way around the circle, and when the music subtly changed, they came back around.  More than once, the elephants lifted one of their massive feet in an erratic manner near the western mast.  Camille narrowed her eyes but was unable to spot anything out of the ordinary.  With a smile parting her lips, she focused on the Hare once more.

A foreign pride had washed over Leah, and she marched forward with her eyes closed and her chin held high.  The rock she rolled forth hadn’t strayed from the rut made by the elephants’ paths, and the tiniest performer was content to keep to that groove.

But with eyes closed and gaze averted, there was no hope for her to see the metal spike that had once held a lion’s cage together.  As her perfectly round stone rolled over it, a loud pop reported a fraction of a second before the fake stone imploded on itself.  At once, it was gone, and Leah fell backward onto her rump.

Though several children in the audience giggled at the queer sight, that mirth was only a precursor to terror, they soon realized.  The elephants darted from their established routes, charging wherever their intuition bade them.  Bumping and stumbling into each other, there was no hope for a clean break.  A cacophonous crack was the only warning in the chaos that something had gone terribly wrong.

The audience watched in horror as one of the masts teetered from its upright position.  It had been rammed by the broad shoulder of one of the fleeing giants and was ready to fall to pieces.  Beyond the entrances, more screams and shouts could be heard as the elephants fled to safety.

In short time, many of the other performers scattered on the arena floor, trying to bring order to the unraveling event.  Minerva held her hand out to charm one elephant but was caught unaware by another that charged out at her.  Barbas was there in an instant, scooping her up into safety.

Other acts which had not yet had a chance to appear rushed to help as well.  A woman with black, mottled skin and green spots took to the floor and cast out her arm, and a gob of sticky yellow slime formed in the air before her.  She flung it out at the dilapidated mast, stabilizing it in place.

Among all the carnage, no one saw the frightened little kobold.  As one scattering elephant charged in her direction, Leah could think of nothing else to do but hold out her hands and pray it would all end swiftly.  Grasped by the collar and tugged to safety, she looked up, once released, and saw her savior.  George was there, panting and working to steady himself.

Even as everything unfurled, Faroon stomped out into the arena.  “You stupid imbecile,” he boomed.  His voice reached such a register that George and Leah both brought their hands to their ears.  “I should have let you drown in that lake in Raleigh, you dumb mutt kobold.”

George stepped forward and bared his teeth for her.  “You know this isn’t her fault,” he growled.

“Step aside, you… beast,” Faroon snarled.

Standing taller, his son squared his shoulders.  “The damage is done, Father.  Do you want to make it worse?”

With gnashed teeth and a furled brow, Faroon spun on his heel.  “Take her to her room,” he ordered.  As he proceeded back toward the east entrance, he sensed a gaze from the crowd.  He looked up, seeing Camille in the crowd, scrutinizing him with narrowed eyes.  “Pah,” he said, continuing on his way.

While the young lady watched him leave, Nika collected her small clan.  A gentle grasp snagged Camille by the wrist.  “Come on, my little loves.”

As she was drawn away, Camille ventured one last glance down below.  Leah still shivered from Faroon’s threats, and her eyes were wide.  She looked up then and locked eyes with the girl from Raleigh.  The littlest kobold blinked away her shame and turned to venture to her room.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Citizens of Daltain and distant travelers alike poured out of the canvas tent.  Boisterous voices were raised nearby the ticket booths, decrying that half a show did not earn a full price.  Elsewhere, people scrambled out beneath the tightly staked tent, unwilling to wait in line while the chaos continued to unfurl within.

The Destrites walked cautiously around the fairgrounds, careful to stick together.  Nika had a firm grasp on Kira, holding the crying infant to her chest.  The onrush finally seemed to slow, and the quiet pall over the area was eerie in place of the constant brass that had led the folk to the Cirque de Malorum.

“That’s it, Papa,” the family heard.  “I’ve had enough of this place.  Surely your debt to him is paid by now.”  They cast their gaze to the northwest, to one of the performer entrances.  There, they saw Minerva stomping from the area, Barbas close behind her.

Rion turned about and glanced at his elder sister.  With only a second of hesitation, he sprang forth, heading in the direction of the girl and her father.

Stepping forward, Camille reached out in a futile effort to stay her youngest brother.  “Rion!” she called out in unison with her mother.  He was already ahead of them, reaching the canvas tent once more, hiding just out of sight of the squabbling performers.  Barbas grasped his daughter and pleaded with her until she woefully followed him back into their massive, travelling home.

“Virgil, it’s too much,” Nika said.  “There’s too much commotion.  I’m going to take Kira back to the campsite.  Please make sure our other children get home safely.”

With a telling grin, the Destrite patriarch leaned forward and kissed his bride on the cheek.  At once, he and his three eldest children raced after Rion.

The boy looked over his shoulder, bearing witness to his family’s fast approach.  He sucked in a deep, powerful breath and slipped inside the circus tent.  Jerrick was the fastest of his siblings and turned into that entrance without any hesitation.

“Rion!” he cried.  The inside of the tent was dark, and there was no sign of his brother.  With a quiet growl, he made his way inside.

In the shadows of the place, the performers walking this way and that looked strange indeed.  Jerrick had to hop back when one of the haudrons stomped across the dark dirt path, his shoulder bouncing against one of the lanterns hanging from the canvas above.  The boy blew out a shallow sigh, thankful to be upright instead of a blemish beneath the half-giant’s boot.  He jumped, though, when he felt a firm grasp on his shoulder.  When he spun about, he saw the look of desperation on his father’s face.

“Where’s your brother?” Virgil asked.

“I can’t find him,” Jerrick said.  “He’s gone.”

The Destrite patriarch locked his jaw and furled his brow.  “Well, that’s just fine,” he mockingly conceded.  “I always thought there were too many of you anyway.  Maybe we can sell him to the circus and at least make some money out of the deal.”

“Abraham found him,” Camille whispered.  Her father and her brother followed her gaze down one of the darkened stretches of the place.  There, far down one of the dirt paths, they could see Abraham, barely illuminated by the hanging lanterns.  Hunched over, he pointed down an adjoining lane.

The rest of his family arrived there soon after, where they were able to see little Rion, sprawled out on the ground upon his belly.  His nose nearly poked beneath a canvas flap.

Virgil stomped forward and reached out for his youngest son.

“What do you think you are doing?” a loud voice boomed.

The man stayed his hand and looked up, spotting silhouettes on the other side of the fabric wall.  Rion hadn’t budged, witnessing as the events unfolded in the small room.

“How can you blame Leah for what happened out there?” George asked.

“Oh, the Hare has a name now, does she?” Faroon spat.  He stomped forward and would have reached the tiny kobold were it not for George extending his arm to block his father.  “Out of my way.”

“This was an unfortunate accident, nothing more.  For you to be angry with her alone… It’s ludicrous.”

“She has been nothing but bad luck since we brought her into the family,” Faroon contested.  “It’s been one accident or another every step of the way for three years.”

“Then let her go,” George bade.  His voice was quiet as a whisper, and his often youthful face was lined with wrinkles.

For a moment, the ringmaster’s features seemed to soften, and he stepped forward.  “We’ll bring you home, Hare,” he said.  Her eyes widened, but a mischievous smile crept to Faroon’s face.  “Brighton Beach, was it?  I’ll look forward to watching you sink to the bottom.”

The tension in the room was palpable.  Everything and everyone seemed frozen in time, except for the flickering lantern light that danced upon the ceiling.  Tears welled up in the tiny kobold’s eyes, matting down the fur just beneath them.

Without warning, George lunged forward, delivering a stunning hook.  Faroon spilled to the floor like a thrown rag doll.  The sounds of the punch and the fall resonated in the tent, an uncomfortable echo that lingered far too long for comfort.  The ringmaster shook the stars from his vision and brought the back of his hand to his face.  He pressed his lip out with his jaw and felt the sting of the air on the wound.  When he drew back his hand, a smeared line of blood was upon it.

“That was a mistake you’ll learn to regret, boy,” Faroon promised as he climbed to his feet.  “Enjoy your brief respite.  The next few weeks will be your undoing.”

As the leader of the Cirque de Malorum stomped away, George’s body deflated.  His shoulders slumped, and his stomach puffed out farther than his chest.  His rosy cheeks went pale in moments, and he found he could only stare at the exit.  “I have to go after him,” the young man said.

“What?” Leah asked.

“I have to appeal to him.  I have to beg his forgiveness.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I am,” he said, casting his gaze to the kobold.  “He will ruin both of our lives if I don’t.”

“You can’t leave me alone,” she cried.  “What if he comes back while you’re out looking for him?”

“I’m sorry, Leah,” he said.  Wasting no more time, he raced from her room and followed the path Faroon’s angry steps had left.

The littlest kobold stood there for a time, considering her terrible luck and worse treatment.  Dejected, she turned, a sniffle already attempting to draw back the emotions running rampant.  As she swept her gaze about, she caught the curious sight off to the side of her meager room.

Rion was sure he had been caught.  Leah seemed to pay him no heed, glaring just beside him.  He ventured a glance to his side, where his father mimicked his position.

“What are you doing?” the kobold groaned.

With his lips tightly closed, Virgil allowed his jaw to drop.  He said nothing, though, scanning her abode as if there was some answer among the mess.

“This position is very good for the back,” Rion offered.

Leah stared at the boy for a moment and, in spite of herself, let a smile stretch the corners of her mouth.  She stepped forward and tugged on the canvas wall, pulling it down.  She hopped back when she saw the trio of other children there.  They froze while their father and youngest brother rose to their feet.

“We’re so sorry to eavesdrop,” Camille said.  “It wasn’t our intention.”

“That old man isn’t anything but a bully,” Rion added.

Leah was already shaking her head.  “It’s getting worse every day.  He really believes I am the cause for his misfortune.  If it wasn’t for George, I’d be…”

“He’s never hurt you, has he?” Abraham asked.

The kobold looked down at her feet and swallowed nervously.  “Not physically,” she admitted.  “But we’re quickly arriving there.  He’s roared at me like that in front of the other performers before but never in front of the audience.  He sees me as useless clutter – as a nuisance and nothing else.”

“Then why not leave?” Virgil asked.  “There’s got to be plenty of places out there that are better suited to you than this horrid place.”

A narrow smile stretched her furry lips.  “Brighton Beach sounded like such a wonderful place.  But if he knows that’s where I’d go, I can never see that place again.  Besides, even though he’d love to see me gone, he’d never let me go.”

After a brief silence, Camille stepped forward.  “Whose choice is that to make?”  She fell to one knee before the kobold.  “He doesn’t own you.  No matter what he’s done to bring you here, that doesn’t mean anyone should condone his torture.”

Leah looked up at the girl and offered a weary grin, but she shook her head only a moment later.  “I’ve tried to leave before,” she said.  “Why would this time be any different?”

Glancing at her father with a plea in her eyes, Camille held out her hand.  Virgil sighed but nodded.  “Because before today,” the young lady spoke, “you didn’t have us.”

Standing as tall as her miniscule body would allow, the littlest kobold let her vision bounce from one member of the Destrite family to the next.  Finally her eyes settled on Camille, smiling all the brighter with her arm outstretched, her palm still awaiting a return of the gesture.  Blinking away the last of her tears and taking a deep breath, Leah gave the young lady her hand.

The Littlest Kobold, Read Along – Part Two

Hey folks.  We’re following up with last week’s read along feature. Just as with Part One of The Littlest Kobold, if you have any advice you’d like to offer to Cristina, please sound off in the comments. Enjoy her narration as you read along to this magical story!

 

 

The Littlest Kobold
A Story by Michael DeAngelo
-Part Two-
Narrated by Cristina Cruz

Boisterous instruments played from some indistinct place around the tent.  A song of brass and percussion was deafening outside, but from the small room layered in heavy canvas, the endless medley rang hollow and distant.

The furry-faced little kobold looked into the mirror and sighed.  Leah wore long costume ears that didn’t match the color of her fur.  Old and ragged, the seams were splitting on one ear, leaving her persona as threadbare as her tiny, round bed.  She caught a glance of it in the mirror and bowed her head in defeat.

“Are you all right, Leah?” she heard.

When the kobold turned, she saw George holding open the exit flap to her secluded portion of the tent.  He looked nothing like when he had apprehended her.  Instead, he was dressed head to toe in magnificent silver armor.  It was ostentations, serving little use, and made to look the part of a real breastplate, but Leah had seen on several occasions where it had been torn apart like paper.

“I’m as all right as can be expected,” she harrumphed before turning back to the mirror.

“You know, if I could help you get away, I would,” George said.

Her nose crinkled up into a momentary snarl.  “It seemed to me like you had a perfect opportunity this morning.  You could have led Fergus and his beast away from me.”

George shrugged.  “Fergus may be an idiot, but he knows what failure means.”

“You mean you know what failure means,” she spat.  A deep, pronounced sigh had the kobold nearly shivering.  She bowed her head in defeat once more.  “Nobody here is held against their will except for me.”

He crossed his arms over his chest.  “You can’t honestly believe that.  We’re all misfits and outcasts.  Some of us are genuine monsters, even if Faroon made us this way.  You should be happy he didn’t find you ten years ago, or he’d have sewn those ears to your head the way he sewed on Nazelle’s wings.

Leah sighed again but lifted her gaze to the mirror.  In the reflection, she could see how weary George was.  She witnessed his eyebrows rising and his lips straightening for that forced smile.  “Why have you not tried to escape?” she asked.

“Where would I go?” he responded.  “There’s nowhere I could be safe without endangering other people.”

A distant stare was upon the kobold’s face.  “If I could be anywhere, it would be Brighton Beach.  I don’t remember much from when I was a pup, but nowhere else would I feel more at home.”

Behind George, the trumpet melody changed on the end of several quick taps.  Silence washed over the place, and a sigh visibly shook the man’s narrow frame.

“Ladies and gentlemen…” they heard.

Leah swallowed away her apprehension and stepped off the stool.  She gave one last glance at the mirror and snorted at the comically large ears she was forced to wear.  When she turned back, George was at the exit flap once more, peering outside.

“The elephants are lining up out there, Leah,” he said.  “It’s time.”

With her hands at her sides, the kobold straightened her posture.  As George swept back the canvas flap, she proceeded into the darkness.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The circus tent was deceptive, for even the large entryway could not have prepared Camille and her family for the wide open space inside.  Were it not for the lanterns hanging from the canvas roof, she would have thought they had walked into the dark of night.  Those lanterns were filled with a dim white light, just illuminating the area they hung from.  Tall wooden masts held the lanterns in place, eight of them standing in the central area.

Virgil had disappeared to find some refreshments, leaving Nika to corral the rest of the family.  With Kira tucked against her shoulder and Rion’s hand grasped in hers, she gestured with her chin.  “The next row up, Jerrick.  No, the next one.”  With a quiet sigh, she looked to her eldest.  “Camille, take him up one higher, please.”

The Destrite clan settled into place in their seats as the lights in the lanterns grew dim.  Instead, a concentrated light seemed to shine down from beyond the canvas roof, as if the heavens were lending a subtle glow.  A white circle landed upon the ground, perfectly centered in the tent.  With a loud pop, flames roared into place upon the perimeter of the circle, eliciting gasps from the audience.

Once the smoke dissipated, it was apparent that someone stood between the flames.  A tall, slender fellow, his skin was ashen white.  His eyes had been covered in dark makeup, barely discernible beneath a wide-brimmed top hat.  As the flames died down, the light remained, and he took a deep bow.  Against the odds, his hat stayed atop his head.  A light applause arose in the tent, and he let a wide smile show.

“Ladies and gentlemen, tiniest of children, you have come to a place of majesty and wonder.  The Cirque de Malorum has travelled all over Tellest for hundreds of years, finding the weird and the eerie, those individuals who are out of place in society.  This travelling band of ragtag misfits has landed on the shores of ten continents, entertaining the downtrodden folks of countless countries, but today we are here for you.”  As he finished speaking, Camille felt those words tickle her ear as if he was whispering just beside her.  She looked about and saw other members of the audience looking to their sides.

“Avert your eyes from the fires I stand between,” the ringmaster bade.  “Turn your gaze instead to the sky.”  Those lanterns near the roof of the canvas tent brightened once more, illuminating the flight of a winged beauty, alabaster plumage fluttering with every movement of her arms.

“I found Nazelle far up north in the Coldwind Reach within Cracius.  Abandoned by her harpy flock for looking different, she was bound to freeze until we brought her in.”

The entertainer flipped and twisted and rolled in the air, swinging about from one side of the tent to the other.

Beside her, Camille’s eldest brother let a little hiss slide off his tongue.  “That’s not a real harpy,” he insisted.  “I can see the wires holding her up.”

Shaking her head, Camille couldn’t be rid of her smile.  The lights above dimmed, and the twin entrances to the dirt floor were illuminated instead.  On the family’s left side, they saw huge cages being led forth by hulking fellows.  Inside, ornery lions paced, hungry for escape.  More than once, one of the pride reached out between the bars, venturing a swat that just missed the giant men.

“These mighty beings here are the last known living haudrons on Tellest, a race of mixed giant and human blood you’ll not see again in your lifetime, save another visit to the Cirque de Malorum.”

As the ringmaster finished speaking, the sounds of a soft string quartet poured into the tent.  The light surrounding the haudrons and their large cages dimmed.  It reappeared among the eastern entryway, where a broad, dark-haired fellow approached.  The man wore a thick mustache and a v-shaped goatee, and his opened tunic revealed a barrel chest covered in coarse hair.  Beside him, a young lady, a meek creature in comparison, clutched a coiled whip and a bulky gauntlet.  Her full head of wavy brown locks bounced with every taken step.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are in for a treat today,” Faroon announced.  “We discovered Barbas on the coast of Saveon, the only survivor of a terrible shipwreck.  So far from home and without any tools, shelter, or hope, it would seem his survival was a lost cause.  Little did we know that he had charmed the lions of the savannah to do his hunting for him.  And with him today is his lovely assistant and daughter, Minerva.”

As the audience applauded, Barbas stomped forward with a determined gaze.  His daughter let her smile beam, and she waved to the crowd on both sides of the arena.  The spotlight moved to the cages again, where the lions paced behind the bars.  Just beside the center enclosure, one of the haudrons – the only one still on the arena floor – stood at the ready, protected by what appeared to be impenetrable armor.  He looked to the approaching duo, and when Barbas gave him a nod, he lifted a handle on the small prison, leaving the lion inside free to venture forward.

That feline made a slow, cautious escape, tilting her head to gaze upon the massive being.  The haudrons watched the lion pass, leaving the gate lifted in the air.  He only dropped it when the maned lion in the center cage roared in protest.  That barred gate fell down with a resounding tung, inspiring the lioness to burst into a charge toward Barbas and Minerva.

“Papa,” a nearly indiscernible plea came from Minerva as he extended the whip and the gauntlet.

Even in the face of that rapid approach, Barbas took the time to fasten his belt.  As soon as his fingers wrapped around the bullwhip’s grip and it dangled to his side, the lioness skidded to a stop.

A chorus rang out from the audience, as charmed as the hulking cat was.  The lion tamer turned and raised his hand, extending his finger to beckon the creature closer.  It strode forward like a lazy housecat, and as he spun a slow pirouette, the lioness followed.  For a moment, it outpaced him, but a quick snap of his neck had the cat leaping away, the gesture serving as well as any whip ever would.  The roles reversed then, and Barbas slowly stalked her as she circled.

Only a faint scrape of steel reminded the audience that another quartet of lions remained.  Released from its confinement, another of them joined the dance, circling Barbas and Minerva.  One by one, each lioness joined the line, until only the ornery male remained in his cage, snarling in protest.

A subtle crack of Barbas’ bullwhip and a deliberate backstep had the quartet of cats eagerly lining up.  The tamer strode forward and let fly a single formless word, “Hup.”  As he proceeded across, each lioness rose upon their hind legs and placed both paws upon his raised, armored fist.  That gauntlet only seemed small when covered by those clawed, furry paws.

Camille’s eyes flickered for a moment, and when she focused again on the spectacle below, the arena seemed somewhat dimmer.  Even in that dusky glow, the final unopened cage had become visible.  The lion charged at all four sides, slamming his broad shoulders into the bars.  He roared in protest with every failed escape.  His small prison rattled and shook, and the haudron moved forward to steady it.

It was too late.  All the pressure, the powerful blows delivered into those metal rods, had finally yielded their intended results.  At once, two of the bars bent from their place and ripped from the cage.  The hulking guard raced to the metal box and placed his hefty hand upon it.

The lion had already wriggled to freedom.  He glared at Barbas, free of the enchantment he had placed on the lionesses.

“Papa!” Minerva shouted.  The young lady raced past the procession of cats and shoved her father out of the path of the rapidly approaching alpha.  With an even more helpless meal before it, the lion’s pace never wavered.  Gasps rang out from the crowd.

Minerva lifted her hand then, and at once, the massive feline skittered to a stop, clumps of sand flung in every direction.  It remained there for some time, mesmerized by that simple gesture.  The audience could see a hint of emerald that seemed to encircle the girl and the lion, but it soon faded as Barbas stepped forward and swept his daughter behind him.  With a snap of his fingers and a downward point, the hulking feline was brought to the ground, as if sent immediately to slumber.

Barbas whistled and waved as he rubbed his armored hand upon the cat’s belly.  At once, the remaining haudron approached with apprehension clearly visible upon him.  The lion tamer exchanged some quiet words, and the crowd was in awe to see the half giant pick up the feline like a lazy housecat.  As the haudron left, Barbas clicked his tongue and pointed, urging the quartet of lionesses to their cages once more.  As a dim light followed the departing half-giant, his brethren returned to the arena and were illuminated.  They each lifted the doors of their respective cages and allowed the cats to step inside.

As the haudrons took their leave, dragging all five cages behind them, Barbas and Minerva turned to the crowd, offering up a wave.  Camille could feel the eldest of her brothers sit up straighter in his seat.  She passed a sidelong glance at Jerrick, whose eyes were bright and wide.

“She’s beautiful,” he said, nudging his brother.

Abraham simply shrugged.  “I couldn’t really tell.  I was too busy looking at the lions.”

“Pfft,” Jerrick scolded.  “What do you know?”  When the young lady on the arena floor turned, the enchantment faded.  The boy in the audience couldn’t keep his shoulders from slumping.

The exotic entertainers took their leave and were replaced once again by the ringmaster.  A wide grin splayed across his face, and he held his arm out wide.

“I heard your gasps and your cries to attention.  No doubt many of you were trying to send warnings to our performers.  But there are some of you,” he said, his eyes playfully narrowing, “that worried about whether our animals could be controlled.  You contemplated whether you were safe where you sat.”  He shook his head.  “We can’t have any doubts like that.  Allow me to introduce my… guard captain.”

Trumpets blared to announce the approach of another of the Cirque de Malorum’s troupe.  Before the light even shifted to him, his sparkling armor seemed to attract the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you George Girard.  Master of security and protector of the fine folks at this circus, he is as much a part of my family as anyone I know.”

“Thank you, Father,” he said, eliciting a wave of laughter from the audience.

With a wide smile on his face, the ringmaster clapped his guard captain’s shoulder.  Beside Camille, Jerrick narrowed his eyes, squinting as he saw that marvelous armor shift just an inch too far from such a light touch.

“Of course, even a man of George’s skills and dedication has his limitations.  How lucky we are that George is no ordinary man.”  He turned to his son then.  “Show them.”

Despite the man’s confident gait to the center of the arena, he stood as if frightened to his core.  Camille studied the scene intently from afar, and she thought she saw the prominence in George’s throat plunge beneath his armor.

“Show them,” Faroon’s powerful voice bade.

The guard captain turned with regret widening his eyes and looked upon the crowd.  His lips parted, and he passed a rapid series of breaths through his gnashed teeth.  As he walked away from his father, a low rumble came from deeper within the tent.  That low brass note underlined the anxiety of every taken step that separated George from Faroon.

All went black as the enchanted lights extinguished.  A startled cry rang out just beside Camille.  Illumination more fierce than anything she had ever seen had audience members shielding their eyes, but her vision remained below on the man wracked with pain.

The light disappeared once more and returned just as quickly, producing an eerie effect that highlighted the monstrous transformation.  George fell to his knees as his body bulged and tore.  The armor he wore cracked apart like glass and clumps of fur appeared on his skin.  A frightening scream gave way to an unintelligible roar.

Though it remained dim, the lights steadied, allowing the crowd to see what had become of Faroon’s guard captain, his son.  His silhouette had grown in size, and he tilted his head back to cry a bestial roar.  The light caught on his yellowed eyes, and he looked upon the crowd with hunger.

Camille felt a firm grasp on her arm as the creature fell to its hands and bounded forward.  Each beat of its hands or feet echoed out within the tent, even as the audience closest to it rose and gasped and cried out in fear.

“Stop!” Faroon’s fierce voice compelled.  The werebear fell to its knees and placed its padded hands over its ears.  Even some in the crowd mimicked the creature, for the ringmaster’s words pierced through the air with ease.

The lights faded in again, and an eerie calm returned to the tent.  Camille took in a deep breath, and as her vision adjusted to the steady rise of the lights, she could see George had returned to his human form.  Still, he firmly shut his eyes, holding his hands to his ears while he gnashed his teeth together.  One eye opened then, as if he expected sight to lend to his father’s crippling voice.

Rid of his armor and his undergarments, George stood again, averting his gaze from the crowd.  Faroon was there in an instant, removing his cape and wrapping it around his child.

“You see, my friends, I would never let any harm befall you here,” the ringmaster said.  “That is the promise we make here at the Cirque de Malorum.  That is the understanding we have when you walk through those canvas flaps and sit in your seats.”  Faroon guided George to the nearer exit and turned back to the crowd once the guard captain took a leave on his own accord.  “My son has an affliction, and while tragic, it grants some extra… prestige – to both his duties and to our establishment.  For while George certainly has his own oddity, so many of us here are just as strange, if not stranger.

“We open up with some beautiful acts.  But there are some you will see here today that tread the line toward something darker.  My son protects those the outside would shun, threaten, or even harm.  As I said, though, none will befall anyone while they stay here.”

The Littlest Kobold, Read Along – Part One

Hey there everyone!  Way back in February of 2015, we featured a story called The Littlest Kobold on this site.  Since then, some pretty big things have happened for Tellest.  We’ve begun selling audiobooks, the titular kobold, Leah, became an upcoming card game character, and we’ve made a bunch of new friends.

One of those new friends is Cristina Cruz, an aspiring voice actress. We’re collaborating with Cristina in order to give her some practice, and we thought we’d bring her to you in order to get her some exposure, and any constructive critiques you might care to offer.

We’re going to be posting The Littlest Kobold once more, only this time, you get to read along with Cristina as she narrates.  If you have anything you’d like to suggest to Miss Cruz in order to help her hone her craft, please leave a post in the comment section.  Big thanks to Cristina for offering her talents here!

 

The Littlest Kobold
A Story by Michael DeAngelo
-Part One-
Narrated by Cristina Cruz

 

In the fading evening light, the forest had taken on a golden tint.  Fallen leaves were scattered everywhere, and the branches above were bare.  Autumn was a beautiful time in Daltain, but it was also a reminder of the harsh winter to come.

For the littlest kobold, it was a reminder of the crunch of leaves beneath a hasty retreat.  Panting excessively, she braced herself on the nearest tree, her furry hand cracked from running on all fours.  She looked around to collect her bearings, but she knew better than most that the unfamiliar territory would offer her no sanctuary.

The howl of the hunting dog echoed through the forest.  Despite the terror washing over her tiny body, the kobold couldn’t stifle a nervous laugh.  What kind of kobold was chased by a dog?

“We’ll find you, Hare!” a voice in the distance called out.

“Better to show yourself now and be done with it,” came another, warmer voice.

Shaking her head, the tiny kobold took one last breath and charged forward.  That time she ran on her back legs.  Her pursuers had not been dissuaded by her simple trick.

Brown and orange leaves were scattered this way and that, and her tracks would mean nothing to the hunting dog in the far reaches of the forest, though her large triangular ears caught the sound of a stream.  The water could easily disguise her scent.

She would be home in Warus before she knew it.

The kobold leaned forward and bent low, charging ahead as fast as her little legs could carry her.  That rush of adrenaline was all for naught, she realized, the moment she stepped on the hidden bramble.

A burst of pain surged up her leg, eliciting a yelp she couldn’t stifle.  The agony sent her tumbling to the ground, crashing down among the leaves.  The dog barked at the sound of her cry, and she knew there was not much time.  Climbing to her feet once more, the kobold began forward.

She was promptly upon the ground again, wincing away the pain in her right foot.  Hushing a growl, she lifted her foot and gazed upon it.  Between the padding just before her toes, a massive thorn was securely embedded and just out of reach for a simple extraction.

The light trickle of the stream sounded so close, but the kobold knew it to be out of reach.  Even if she crawled, the dog and its master would outpace her.

“Come out, come out, Hare!” she heard.

Gulping a large pocket of air, the littlest kobold skittered toward the nearest tree.  There, she lay on her back and gathered up piles of leaves until she was covered.  Sifting through the pile, she made sure even her snout was hidden.  She held her breath then, steadying herself in the darkness.

The next few minutes felt like hours.  The nearby fauna had stopped chattering, only the sounds of rustling retreats echoing out in the woods.

When the kobold heard the dog’s growl, she knew it to be right beside her.  She nearly flinched in terror but somehow kept her composure, even as the scent of the dog’s hot breath permeated the leaves above her nose.

A snicker rose into the air beyond the dog.  “Hold ‘im, will ya?” one of the men said.

Several moments later, the leaves were swept away from the kobold’s face.  She stared at her pursuer, frozen by fear.  He let a wry grin stretch his lips, showing two rows of crooked teeth.

She swallowed hard and sat up.  “If you’re looking for the kobold, I think she went that way,” she said, pointing toward the stream.  At that, she gathered up the leaves and spread them upon herself once more.

Before she was able to cover herself completely, the two men were already chuckling.  The closer one bent down and snatched her by the collar of her vest.  “Come on, Hare, back to the circus with you.”

She could offer little resistance, allowing her head to bow and her body to go limp.  Her lips parted for a moment, but she could not find the sentiment she wished to impart.

“Oi, what were ye gonna say?” the other man asked.

A brief pause had silence passing in the forest.  She finally looked up, her brow furled.  “My name is Leah, and I’m a kobold.”

“Aye, little one,” the man holding her said.  He lifted her up and sat her upon his shoulder.

The other one tapped his dog on the rump and started away.  “But to us, ye’ll always be the Hare.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The scent of breakfast sausages and toasting bread pressed through the cloth tent.  Camille Destrite was sitting up before she woke.  As her eyes fluttered open, that delicious aroma was the only thing she could think of.  She was sure it was powerful enough to rise over the hills to the northeast.

Stepping out of the tent, she understood she was not the only one awake at that hour.  The two eldest of her brothers, Jerrick and Abraham, sat upon rocks that circled the cooking fire, eagerly awaiting their meal.  Leaning up against their wagon, her father, Virgil, was occupied by her one-year-old sister, Kira.  Free of the burden, her mother, Nika, prepared a hearty breakfast for her family.

The only one not in attendance was her youngest brother, Rion.

“Nice of you to join us, Camille,” her mother playfully jabbed.

“Good morning, Mother,” she returned, a sweet smile upon her face.  She reached out, trying to snag a sizzling link of sausage from the pan.

A gentle pivot had Nika away from her daughter.  “Oh, no.  You’ve already got two strikes against you.  You’re the oldest, and you slept the longest – right through your chores.  These boys have waited all morning.  If you want to eat, you’ll have to help.”

“Papa,” Camille said.

Virgil stepped forward, away from the carriage, with a smile on his face.  Nika was quick to turn and face her husband, a challenging stare pointed in his direction.  Tightening his grip on young Kira, he fell back against their wagon.  “Do as your mother says,” he bade.

Their eldest child blew out a quick, shallow sigh, and her shoulders slumped.  “What should I do?” she asked.

“For starters, you can go and get your brother,” Nika said.  “He’s been just over that ridge all morning, up before any of us.  When you bring him back, you can both eat.”

Stifling a groan, Camille took her leave, abandoning the hypnotizing smell that lingered in her nostrils.  She made quick work of ascending the hill and reached the ridge Nika had told her of.  The trees were densely packed there, shedding their leaves before winter arrived.  If they had been farther south, the heat would have kept them green and in place all year.

As Camille crunched forward, she rose over the final expanse.  In the distance, she saw the massive yellow and red tent at the base of the hill, just beyond the outskirts of Aspica.  The circus arrived in the fall, and her father had promised his children for years they would one day visit.

Camille stood in awe for a moment, for the circus tent stretched farther than she imagined.

“Cami?”

She drew her gaze from the magnificent circus tent and looked to her side.  Rion sat there upon a pile of rocks, his knees pulled up to his chest.  He faced the tent as well but remained focused on his sister once she arrived.

“What are you doing all alone out here?” she asked, approaching her younger sibling.  “Mama made breakfast.  Can’t you smell it?”

Rion swallowed hard and looked away.  “If I don’t eat, maybe I don’t have to go.”

“To the circus?” Camille asked with arched eyebrows.  “Why wouldn’t you want to go there?  Don’t you know that’s the whole reason we came all this way?  It’s why Papa rented the carriage and put Theodore in charge of the store and –”

“I’m scared,” he interjected, releasing the tight grip on his legs.  He slid off the rock and stepped toward the edge of the ridge, looking past the trees at the huge canvas tent.

Camille sat beside him a moment later.  “I think you’re braver than you realize.  And you know Jerrick and I were only teasing.  If they do have a gryphon, I doubt they’d let it swoop down and eat children your age.  Now, Kira on the other hand…”

A smile reached Rion’s face.  “It’s not that.  I –”

“And if you’re worried about the elephants, I’m sure they’re an especially docile bunch.  They want to keep their customers coming back, so they won’t allow a stampede.”

“I’m not scared of elephants, Cami.”

“Then what has you so frightened you would willingly avoid breakfast?  Mama is cooking up sausage down there!”

Rion swallowed hard and turned to his sister.  “There are clowns at the circus.”

Staring at him for a moment, Camille crooked her neck as if to see the madness in her brother’s mind.  “Yes, that is usually the case.”

“I don’t think I like clowns,” he said.

Camille sucked in her lips and clasped them together.  Despite that, a smile still started to stretch the corners of her mouth.  She did her best to stifle a chortle, but when that failed, she turned away from her brother.

“It isn’t funny,” Rion asserted.

Steadying herself, she pivoted on her heel and looked upon her sibling once more.  “No, it isn’t.  We have a real dilemma here.”  A laugh burst out of her as her inflection rose.  She covered her face in a futile attempt to shroud her reaction, but Rion stormed off, stomping down the hill toward their campsite.  Camille righted herself and caught up to him, grabbing his shoulder.  “You don’t have anything to worry about,” she promised, sincerity overwhelming in her tone.  “The clowns aren’t there to hurt or scare you, and if any of them did, just know I’d punch them in their foolish faces.”

Her little brother wrapped his arms around her waist, squeezing her in a tight embrace.  She tousled his hair and urged him on, continuing his return to the campsite.  With a bright smile stretching her lips, she turned once more to see the sprawling circus tent in the valley below.

Camille clapped her hands together and followed Rion back to their family.

Art: Cover Recolors by Kimirra

A few months ago—maybe years even—the process of writing the short stories began, and I knew that I wanted to get covers for certain ones of them.  At the time, we were still kind of experimenting with a lot of things, and we determined that we wanted to go with a sort of subtle, sepia tone with an artist named Kimirra.

Recently, we tried looking at the idea of putting the individual shorts up on Amazon, but we were worried that alongside the existing stories, the sepia toned covers just didn’t look right.  Thus, we asked Kimirra to try a hand at recoloring the original two works that we had commissioned.

First up, let’s show what she did with The Littlest Kobold.

 

Camille_Leah

 

Originally, they were in a forest, but you couldn’t really tell what time of year it was, the quality of their dresses, and so forth.

 

The Littled Kobold WIP Color

 

In a slightly updated version, you could see that we were looking at autumn.  The colors were a bit more crisp, and you could see that their dresses were a bit more colorful.

 

The Littlest Kobold Colored

 

The final version was a lot bolder, and the characters almost seem to pop right off the page.  Kimirra did a really cool job with this variant of the cover.

Our Russian artist also did a second cover for us for a story called Remembered in Gold about a man who wins the lottery and gets more than he bargained for.  Here was the original cover:

 

Commission_Kunal_Cascadia Sized

 

As you can see, the sepia tone leaves you wanting a little bit more again, since you can’t really tell what exactly that goop is at the bottom there.  You also can’t really tell the difference between their garb… Cascadia, the woman in back, should look much more luxurious than our hero.

 

Complete Remembered in Gold

 

This variant showed the gold a lot better, as well as the difference in their clothing.  It was just a much richer cover, and Kimirra did an awesome job with it.

Hope you like what you saw of Kimirra’s work.  We know we’re happy to have worked with her again!

Art: The Littlest Kobold Cover

Now that the “long” short, The Littlest Kobold, has run its course, I thought it would be a good time to show off the cover process for it!

We started off by reaching out to Kimirra, who had yet to do something quite like this.  She doesn’t often do anthro work, so the tiny dog-like kobold on our cover definitely required her to think outside the box a bit.  She sent us over a sketch.

img821

 

It was around this time that we realized the versatility that Kimirra had as an artist.  Most of her work is very sensual, or mature, but she designed Camille and Leah to look very elegant and whimsical.

After that, she ramped it up a notch.

Camille_Leah

 

Obviously, we’re quite happy with the artwork.  She did a wonderful job, and captured the innocence of the piece, giving us two excellent new characters to cherish for a lifetime!

The Littlest Kobold – Part Five

I can’t believe The Littlest Kobold is coming to an end.  It feels like we just started on it, and already, there we go.  I do think, after going through it again, that it definitely sits a little outside the types of work that we usually see in the Tellest universe, but that’s not to say that everything always needs to be dreary and dismal.  Mageborn maintained a nice, whimsical tone throughout, and that’s done remarkably well in the review space.

Anyway, I digress.  I seem to be rambling again, when I should let the story do all the talking for me.  I hope you enjoy the conclusion of The Littlest Kobold!

 

 

 

The Littlest Kobold
-Part Five-

“And you’ve been with them this whole time?”

Leah nodded, averting her gaze from Gwendolyn’s sympathetic eyes.  “Every time I try to get away, one of Faroon’s people brings me back.”  She turned to Camille then.  “We shouldn’t be here.  It was bad enough involving you and your family, but if they come here and think Aspica was involved…”

“Nonsense,” Gwendolyn said, standing up straighter.  She circled around to the front of the counter and gestured for the children and the kobold to follow her.  “This is a noble cause, and I’m sure the rest of the folks who live here would be happy to lend their hand.  I can’t do much for you, but maybe we could fashion you a better disguise.  No offense to your sling – or to you, Leah – but that won’t hide the fact she makes for one unusually hairy baby.”

Leah opened her mouth to speak, raising her hand, but hesitated.  “Actually, I was a pretty hairy baby.”

Gwendolyn laughed as she led her guests to the front of the shop.  “So obviously you’ve seen my hobby.  I love to make dolls.  My husband and I have been trying for a baby, and when we started, I began working on these dolls.  Still no baby, but my collection’s pretty impressive, no?”

“You made these?” Camille asked with wide-eyed wonder.

“Well, not all of them,” Gwendolyn clarified.  “I purchased the porcelain ones from Sungarden a few years back.  But the clothes they wear and all the other knitted dolls… Those are all mine.”

“It’s incredible,” Abraham remarked.

“Thank you very much.  And now, if we’re ready, I’d like to prepare an outfit for Miss Leah.”

“An outfit?” the tiny kobold repeated.

“We can’t have you out and about while Faroon’s lackeys are looking for you.  Not without a proper disguise, that is.”  Gwendolyn reached high up on one of the shelves and pulled down a doll she had purchased, removing its clothes and placing the naked doll on the bottom shelf.  Finally, she turned about, proudly displaying a dress that would have been fit for a girl of high regard.  Though it was simple with an auburn-tan color, it was bolstered by a lace bodice and sleeves sewn into the top.  It splayed out at the bottom in ruffles as well.  Gwendolyn held it out next to Leah.  “Just your size, too.  What do you think?”

The kobold looked up at the shopkeeper with moisture building on the rims of her eyes.  She spun on her heel and looked at her young rescuers.

“That’s beautiful, Gwenna,” Camille said.  As she finished, she bowed her head, letting her eyes fall upon the pouch that rested on Abraham’s belt.  “My father gave us some gold, but I don’t think it’s enough to pay for that.”

“Nonsense,” Gwendolyn said.  “I’m not charging you for this.  This is a gift to commemorate our friend’s emancipation.”  She held out the dress again, delivering it into Leah’s unsteady hands.  “Why don’t you try it on?  We’ll all look away so you can change out of those nasty rags.”

Nodding, the kobold took the outfit and turned around the corner of the shelves.  They could see the light casting the shadow of her body as she removed her cracked, old lines.

“So your parents know you’re here?” Gwendolyn asked.

“Yes,” Abraham answered.  “Papa would really love this shop.  He really appreciates craftsmanship.”

“Back at home, he carves pieces for games of lords,” Camille said.

“He’s much better at making the pieces than he is at actually playing the game,” Abraham snickered.

“Does this look all right?” the three of them heard.  Turning about, they saw Leah in her new dress, its color complementing her dark fur.  “I look silly, don’t I?”

Both Camille and Gwendolyn brought their hands to their mouths, but Abraham took a step forward.  “You look beautiful,” he said.

“That you do,” the shopkeeper confirmed.  “Now we just need the finishing touch.”  She kneeled down in front of the kobold and placed something on her head.  Abraham stepped around and noticed as Gwendolyn tied the bonnet around Leah’s chin.  “There we are.  Your look is complete.”  She stepped out of the way, letting Camille see her more clearly.

Her mouth opened wide, but it quickly transformed into a smile.  “You look like a princess, Leah.”

“This is incredible, Gwenna,” the kobold said.  “You’re sure this is all right?”

“I insist,” she replied, dropping to one knee.  Leah graciously accepted a hug but averted her gaze when the gesture had ceased.

“Cami, have a look at this,” Abraham said.  “I can’t tell… Is that our carriage?”

The young lady cut across the shop and glanced out the window.  Sure enough, her father sat in the driver’s seat, and Rion leaned out of the side.  “That it is,” she said.

“What opportune timing,” the shopkeeper declared.

Abraham ran to the door and swung it open.  “Papa!” he called out.

“Now, you take care of each other,” Gwendolyn said.  “You’ve been given a chance to make something wonderful of yourselves.”

“I hope we meet each other again,” Camille said.

“I’m sure we will,” she replied.

 

Leah exited the doll shop with her hand in Camille’s.  Virgil swung the carriage about, and Rion was just finishing leaning out of the other window, much to the dismay of his mother.

“Up and about, kids,” the Destrite patriarch said.

“We wanted to introduce you to Gwenna,” Abraham pressed.

“I’m afraid we don’t have time,” Virgil protested.  “Faroon’s voice can still be heard in the northern woods.  I don’t want to miss our chance to escape with the little lady.  If it’s meant to be, I’ll meet this Gwenna another time.”

“Yes, Papa,” Abraham said as he opened the carriage door.

Jerrick hopped out of the cabin and gave a nod to his siblings and the kobold.  As Camille lifted the well-dressed stowaway into the wagon, the eldest boy hopped up next to his father.  Abraham squeezed inside, and he and his sister sat on either side of Leah.  She looked at Nika, who shared a warm smile with the kobold.

“Nice to be meeting you, ma’am,” she said.

“You’re a precious little thing, aren’t you?” Nika replied.  “Even more so up close.”

Leah flashed an awkward grin.  “Thank you so much for taking me in.”

Virgil flicked the reins and urged the horse forward.  The brother and sister who had ventured to Aspica saw Gwendolyn in her shop, waving them and the kobold farewell.  Camille beamed and nodded to her new friend as the wagon pulled out of sight.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Rion had fallen asleep against the wall of the carriage, and seeing him in that relaxed state enticed a yawn from Leah.  She sat between Camille and Abraham and across from Nika.  The children’s mother caught the last moment of the kobold’s yawn, and Leah shied away in embarrassment.

“Whoa,” they heard Virgil say.  At once, the carriage drew to a stop.  Everyone in the cabin heard some incoherent mumbling outside.  “Can I help you?”

“I hope so,” another voice in the woods assured.  Leah’s ears perked up, and her eyes widened at the familiar-sounding man.  “Earlier today, one of my friends went missing.  I was hoping you might be able to give me an idea of where she might be.  Have you seen a kobold running around these parts?”

“A kobold?” Virgil repeated.  “This far from Warus?”

“Part uh our circus troop,” another voice snarled.

“Fergus,” Leah whispered.

“Shh,” Camille hushed.

“Sir, I hope you won’t mind, but I’d like to check your carriage for our friend,” George went on.  “She has a habit of disappearing into strange places.”

“It’s just my family back there,” Virgil assured.  “And we have a newborn that’s just fallen asleep.”

“Don’t make this harder on –” Fergus began to say.

A brief pause interrupted him, followed by the agitated bark and growl of a dog.  Leah shivered against Camille’s body.  The young lady scooped her up and held her close.  Nika leaned forward and grabbed her daughter’s hand.

“The seat lifts up,” she whispered.

Outside, George stepped closer toward the carriage.  “I assure you, sir, we’ll be quick and quiet.”

“My little brother is scared of dogs,” Jerrick piped up.  “One of them bit him on the hand once.”

“We’ll leave this fella outside then,” George conceded.  Not a moment later, the door to the carriage swung open, and he was there upon the ground.  “Good evening, folks.  Sorry for the interruption, but my… employer would have my head if I didn’t take adequate measures to make sure our friend wasn’t stowing away without your knowledge.”

Nika smiled, cradling Kira against her chest.  “Of course.  Just us five, though,” she softly spoke.

Taking a look about the compartment, George didn’t see anything amiss.  It was just the woman and her four children, as she had said.  He began to take his leave when his eyes settled on the seat Camille and Abraham were upon.

“Ma’am, I don’t mean to intrude, but does that seat open into another compartment?”

The briefest of pauses was all Nika would allow.  “Why yes, it does,” she said.  “Children, would you give the man some room?”

“Thank you,” George said.  “You wouldn’t believe how wily this kobold can be.”  As he moved into the carriage, Camille lifted the seat.  “Thank you,” he said again.  He was affronted with the sight of the ruffled dress with the lace bodice.

“That’s just a doll I bought for my sister,” Camille said.  “I know she’s too young to appreciate it yet, but I don’t know when we’ll be back this way.”

The circus guard passed a wary glance at the girl, his brow furled.  He reached into the compartment, moving some clothes aside, and pulled the dress down over Leah’s protruding tail.  After a light squeeze on the kobold’s back, he pattered her and stood back up.

“I don’t see anything out of the ordinary here,” he said.  George looked at the Destrite family members, meeting their wide-eyed stares.  With an appreciative nod, he displayed a halfhearted grin.  “Thank you,” he offered, his voice cracking just a bit.

As he disembarked the carriage, Abraham shot a surprised and curious glance toward his mother.  She shook her head but remained quiet.

“Wait a minute,” Fergus snarled.  “Hold Rufus for me.  Something doesn’t smell right.”  Without warning, the skinny, short fellow hoisted himself into the carriage.  He took a quick look around, but his gaze lingered on the baby held to Nika’s chest.  He squinted and stepped toward mother and babe.

“You touch my mother or my sister, and you’re a dead man,” Abraham insisted.

That promise stayed Fergus’ hand, but he turned on his heel and peered into the open seat compartment.  He saw the dress and bonnet atop the supposed doll.  Camille swallowed hard and passed a pleading glance to George.  He stood outside, his hand grasped around Rufus’ leash.

Fergus pivoted, bracing his hands on the carriage’s doorframe.  “You stupid idiot,” he seethed.  “You brought us the wrong way!”  He hopped out of the vehicle and approached the circus guard.  “I’m sorry, Georgie.  The pup must have lost the Hare’s scent a ways back.”

Over the sound of the waking newborn, his companion sighed.  “No matter.  We always find her,” George replied.  “I’m sorry to have interrupted you nice folk.  Please be careful as you head up north.  It’s getting dark.”  He turned to the tracker and his dog.  “Let’s go, Fergus.  Maybe she went into the town.”

“Good luck,” Jerrick called out.  Beside him, Virgil snapped the reins, urging the horse on.

Camille reached over and swung the door shut while Abraham lifted Leah from her hiding spot.  When they had travelled a ways, she ventured a glance outside.  Turning back, the Destrites noticed the tears that matted the fur beneath her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Camille asked.

With a sniffle, a weak grin, and a shrug, Leah looked up.  “I’m free.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The darkness had lulled them all to sleep.  Only Nika was still awake, gently stroking her baby’s soft hair.  Crickets outside hummed their tune over and over, so often that it melded together with the silence.  When the carriage stopped, the two children opposite Nika shook forward, and Leah nearly fell to the floor from between them both.  She stirred and instantly shivered at the thought of the stopped carriage.

A whistle cut into the night, and Virgil cleared his throat.  The kobold gave a slight nod and hopped down from her seat.  She took off her bonnet and placed it on the seat beside the young lady who had rescued her.  A flashed smile was the only communication she shared with Nika before she gave the door a gentle, silent push forward.

Virgil looked down as the kobold came up beside the horse.  Together, they looked at the road in front of them.  It forked north and east, trees on both sides.  Each road seemed weathered and beaten.

“I thought you should know:  This path here leads through southern Raleigh,” Virgil said.  “If you’re looking to get back to Warus, that’s the road you’d want to take.  We’ll be taking that one north to Viscosa.”

“Thank you, Mister Destrite,” the kobold said.  She moved along toward where the two roads diverged, each into their own lane of darkness.  She gazed down both paths, her eyes unable to see far beyond where she stood.

“Leah?  What are you doing?” she heard.  When the kobold turned about, she saw Camille standing there beside the carriage.  “Where are you going?”

A shrug lifted her shoulders.  “I’m safe now… away from Faroon and his intentions.”

“But that doesn’t mean you have to leave.”

All those who were awake heard the door to the carriage shut.  When they looked, Nika stood there, Kira still held against her bosom.  She nodded and shot a grin to her daughter.

Camille spun back around and faced her new friend.  “No one is forcing you to go back to Warus.  I know you want to see Brighton Beach again someday, but there will be plenty of time for that.  We’d be more than happy if you came home with us.”

The kobold’s eyes brightened at the offer.  When the young lady dropped to one knee, she ran to her side.  They shared a warm embrace that let her know that even though Warus wasn’t her destination, she was still headed home.

Scooping her up, Camille walked back to the cabin.  Nika swung open the door and let her cheerful smile show.  As the rest of his family settled in, Virgil gave his sleeping son a gentle squeeze before he snapped the reins.

The Destrites continued along on their journey.  And with them was the littlest kobold.

 

The Littlest Kobold – Part Four

I don’t know why, but last week feels like it was years ago.  This winter must just be going on too long.  In any case, we have a new portion of The Littlest Kobold to help you thaw out.  This next portion of the story takes you to the town of Aspica, which has their own opinions on the Cirque de Malorum.  But what would they think of the poor little performer who desperately wants to escape their grasp?  Read on to find out.

 

 

 

The Littlest Kobold
-Part Four-

“Now, you remember what to do, right?” Virgil asked.

“I think we can handle running through the woods, Dad,” Jerrick was quick to reply.  Rion just nodded with an eager grin upon his face.

Standing once more, Virgil tousled his youngest son’s hair.  “Don’t forget:  Those can’t leave your feet,” he said, pointing at Leah’s torn up outfits tied around his son’s ankles.  “We’re counting on them to distract the dog from her scent.”

Jerrick sighed but finally nodded.  “Come on, Squirt.  This’ll be just like hide and seek, but let’s try and win this time.”

As his sons took their leave, Virgil turned back to the kobold’s room, where Camille and Abraham carefully shorn through Leah’s blanket.  The Hare paced on the far side of the room, chewing on her pointed nails.

“Let’s get this reverse kidnapping started,” Virgil said.  “What’s the plan?”

Abraham’s eyes lit up, and he rose to his feet.  “You mean you don’t have a plan?”

“I have the plan,” Camille insisted.  “Like always.  Papa, we can’t let Leah walk on the ground or else the dog can track her.  So we’re going to make her a sling like Kira has.”

The kobold snarled in protest, cocking her head to the side.  “You can’t seriously expect me to lie in that thing like a baby.”

“It’s the only way to get you out of here in secrecy,” the young lady insisted.  “We can’t very well go around with you upon my father’s shoulder.”

Clearing his throat, Virgil took a step forward.  “As tempted as I am to let this conversation continue, I really do think we should move along with this escape.  Let’s make the sling and get out of here.”

Camille nodded and enlisted her brother to help fashion the looping blanket.  In only a short while, they had crafted the thing and were ready to try it out.

“All right, Papa.  Here.”  Together, the siblings placed the sling over Virgil’s head, strapping it across his chest.  They tugged on it, assuring it was secure.  At that, Camille turned to Leah.  “Are you ready?”

With a sigh that shook her whiskers, the kobold nodded.  “Let’s get this over with,” she said, raising her arms.

Camille picked her up and placed her in the sling, allowing the kobold to wriggle until she found an agreeable position.  Both children looked at her when she furled her brow, staring off at some indiscriminate part of the room.  “What’s wrong?” the young lady asked.

Leah hesitated; she brought her gaze to Camille’s again only when she was sure of herself.  “This is actually very comfortable.”

With a snicker, the young lady helped her brother drape their father’s cloak over his shoulder, covering the tiny kobold.  When she was well hidden, Virgil blew out a sigh and nodded to his son and daughter.

They stepped from Leah’s room, the kobold huddled close to her rescuer’s chest.  As they took to the dirt-floored halls, Camille often found herself looking back.  She saw there the same look she always saw upon her father’s face: fearlessness.  If Virgil carried any sort of anxiety, it certainly didn’t show.

As they made their way out into the light of day, a new sense of purpose washed over them.  They turned abruptly from the path, heading away from their camp.  Their aim was Aspica, the city of the bay.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Together, the trio scrambled up the hill.  Though Leah did not weigh much, Virgil worked at steadying her, and without his hands providing balance, the ascent was treacherous.  Camille led the way while Abraham brought up the rear, offering a hand on his father’s back.  When they finally rose over the final slope, they were captured by the sight of the city below on the other side.

Aspica was one of the better hidden jewels among Daltain’s cities.  It hadn’t succumbed much to industry, only a small harbor on its south side, far from where shops and homes pointed toward the water.  Likewise, only one road entered the city along the northeast.  A farm there was perhaps the most urban looking plot, for all along the western side of the road, a simple fence stretched on for what seemed like a mile.  The sun shed its midday light upon the city.

A voice resonated about the area, carrying so loudly across the wind that Camille was sure sailors could hear it out at sea.

“Find her!” the voice boomed.  “I don’t care how far you have to travel or how long it takes.  Bring me the Hare.”

They knew it was Faroon who spoke, but it was as if he was right beside them.  A glance back down the hill was all they needed to witness the folks pouring out of the circus tent.  That canvas seemed darker, as though the clouds had taken root in the sky above it.

Virgil lifted the sling over his shoulder, much to the dismay of the kobold inside.

“Hey, hey!  What are you doing?” Leah snarled, almost falling out of the carrier.

The Destrite patriarch situated the sling over his daughter’s shoulder instead.  “I thought we’d have more time before they noticed you were missing,” he said.  “I’d like to think Jerrick and Rion found a way to escape to safety, but I can’t take that risk.”

“So what do we do, Papa?” Camille asked.

Once the carrier was safely secured across Camille’s chest, Virgil tugged a pouch away from his belt.  The contents clinked together, and he handed it to Abraham.  “I’m going to go back to camp and find your brothers.  Once they’re safe, we’ll take the carriage into town and pick you up.  Use some gold to stay hidden.  Rent a room at an inn, charter a ship for a few hours.  Whatever it takes.”

“Won’t Mama be mad if we spend all the money?” Abraham asked.

Virgil blew out an exasperated sigh.  “Try not to spend all of it, please.  I’ll explain the situation to your mother.  She’ll understand.”  Both of his children nodded, remaining silent.  “Well?  Go on,” he bade.

Turning on her heel, Camille began the descent, hugging Leah against her chest.  There was no cloak disguising the kobold then.  Their only hope in keeping her hidden was a quick escape.  Abraham held his sister’s arm and led her down the hill.

Camille shivered away the autumn air, the planks beneath her creaking and bobbing.  The bay was still, save for the gentle ebb and flow of the water against the wooden pier.  Leah was still, too, only her shallow breaths reminding the young lady she was still within the sling.

Beneath her boots, she felt the subtle thrum.  As Abraham drew nearer with hasty steps, the entire pier shook.

“Still nothing?” he asked.

Camille shook her head.  “I haven’t seen a single boat out there.  Where would they all be?”  She let her words trail off into nothingness, shaking it from her head.  “Any luck on your end?” she asked, turning to face her brother.

He gave a slight bow.  “Afraid not.  Nobody is home.  Or nobody is answering.”

“It’s like we’ve come to a ghost town.  Where is everyone?”

“You should just leave me here,” a quiet voice spoke out.  Leah rolled in the sling until she could peer out to the water.  “I’m a good swimmer… I think.  I’ll paddle over to the other shore.  They might not be able to pick up my scent.”

Camille was already shaking her head.  “No.  We told you we’d get you to safety, and we will.  I’m not going to throw you into the bay just because it’s our most convenient option.  Come on, Abraham.  We’ll figure something out.”

The siblings made their way from the pier, landing upon the uneven stone street.  One by one, they knocked on doors and windows, but just as Abraham had said, nobody answered.  A quiet sigh shook the young lady as she rejoined her brother.

“It’s like you said.  Nobody is here.”

“So what do we do?” Abraham asked.

“If we can’t find anything…” Camille started to say.  “Nobody is here.  Nobody to take issue with us borrowing their house for a few hours.  Don’t bother knocking anymore.  Try all the doors.”

Abraham swallowed hard but nodded his consent.  As they rounded the bend, though, he stopped.  Camille followed her brother’s gaze and noticed the lantern light that swung about one of the northern buildings.

“That wasn’t on earlier, I’m sure of it,” he said.

“Let’s go.  Maybe we can hide out in there,” she replied.

When they arrived at that building, they could see the picture window had been illuminated as well.  A trio of children’s dolls had taken up residence there, varying in their presentation.  The outer ones were stuffed, knit things, but the center was a porcelain doll that could easily have been mistaken for a small child if it wasn’t so still.  Camille knocked, and when she didn’t hear an answer, she pushed her way inside.

As the door swung open, a line of brass bells cascaded up and over, reporting a joyous little melody.  Both children and the kobold could hear the footsteps leading their way.

“Alexander?” they heard.  A woman came into view and cast a glance at her visitors.  She adjusted her glasses then and swept her dark hair out of her face.  “You’re not Alexander.”

“Apologies, ma’am,” Abraham said, drawing forth a furled brow from the woman.  “Miss,” he corrected.

“We saw the light on, and we thought you might be open,” his sister added.  “Everyone else is gone, though.  What’s going on in this town?”

The woman chortled and looked away.  “Come in and take a seat.  No sense telling you about it in the doorway.”  She led them inside.  Her shop would have been spacious, but rows of shelves made it quite cramped, except for the counter she had among the rear wall.  It was almost situated like the bar of a tavern, with a trio of stools at its front.  The owner made her way around while she offered seats to her guests.

“I should tell you, stories don’t come for free,” she said, drawing incredulous gazes from the children.  With a smile stretching her lips, she continued, “I’ll settle for your names.”

“I’m Camille,” the young lady said as she took her spot upon the stool.  She extended her arm, but as she sat upon the cushion, Leah rolled forward.  Camille drew her hand back and grasped the sling.

“A-and I’m Abraham,” her brother interjected.

The woman arched an eyebrow but shook the boy’s hand.  As she fell back upon her heels, she placed her hands on the counter.  “My name’s Gwendolyn, but you can call me Gwenna if it suits you.”  She sighed and leaned back.  “So no doubt you two just came from the circus.”

Camille froze for a moment but blinked away the tension.  “What makes you say that?”

With a shrug, Gwendolyn gazed past the children, peering down the aisles of the shop to the picture window.  The sun was beginning to set, leaving a shadow stretching from the glass.  “For starters, there’s nothing to do here besides see the town if the circus isn’t here.  And you wouldn’t be in town alone if it wasn’t the circus you’d come here for.

“Anyway, with that particular circus, you’ll rarely get both of us.  The town doesn’t think too highly of the Cirque de Malorum.”

“Why is that?” Camille asked.

“Well, Aspica is a friend of many people, from the dwarves in the mountains to the werewolves of the Grey Isle.  But the Cirque de Malorum, they’re not kind to anyone who doesn’t have coin to spare – or to earn for them.  And don’t even get me started on the way they treat their animals.

“From what I hear,” she continued, “things haven’t improved much.  So rather than show our support, when they show up in the forest up there, we disappear until they leave.  Once, we thought maybe they’d stop coming, but it seems it’s too queer a sight to pass up.”

“Well, I doubt anyone there today will ever return,” Abraham said.

“And why’s that?” the owner wondered.

Camille pressed out a nervous sigh and reached down.  “Gwenna, please tell me you can keep a secret.”  She didn’t wait to hear an answer before she presented the tiny kobold upon her lap.

The Littlest Kobold – Part Three

Monday holidays always throw me a little for a loop.  And the snow this morning certainly didn’t help either!  Sorry for the delay in getting this published for you, but I’m hopeful that the continuation of the story helps to make the wait worth it.  Read on to see how Leah and Camille first cross paths.

 

 

The Littlest Kobold
-Part Three-

The trumpets played a deeper song then, a slower melody carrying across the tent.  While the next act prepared, Camille reflected on all the Cirque de Malorum bad offered thus far.  True to Faroon’s words, many of the attractions were eerie or unsettling.  Just after his speech, he introduced a man they called the flying serpent.  With an uncanny burst of speed, he arrived many feet in front of where he first stood.  Every time he moved in that way, though, he left a remnant of himself behind.  A fine layer of skin remained, perfectly formed, still standing, and before his act ended, a dozen other hollow statues joined it.

The huntress from Danai was next, and what seemed like just a demonstration that a woman could be both beautiful and trained in combat quickly evolved.  Esme was competent enough to hold her own against a pair of warriors with ease, but when two more were introduced to the arena floor, she seemed outmatched.  That was when she discarded her cloak and swung her second pair of arms forward.  The audience watched as she wound four swords into an impressive dance, never allowing her opponents a reprieve until each of them lay disarmed upon the ground.

After that, droning dulcet tones introduced a man with forgettable features.  Meek and unattractive, many in the audience didn’t even realize he was a performer.  But when he placed his hand upon one of the central masts and climbed it without any equipment, he had the crowd’s attention.  Jerrick once again pronounced his cynicism, claiming small hooks were placed on flesh-toned gloves.  He was promptly silenced when the performer removed his shoes, letting them fall to the ground below.  Situating his feet on the mast, he drew back his hands and stood sideways.

With his mouth agape, Jerrick watched as the man walked up the rest of the way, holding his arms out wide as if balancing upon a tightrope.  The boy’s eyes grew wide when the performer seamlessly transitioned from the mast to the canvas ceiling.

“I can see the wires,” his brother Abraham mocked with a nasally voice.  Jerrick said nothing as the man proceeded across the top of the tent and down the opposite mast.  The performer was just as quiet as he took his leave, though despite that humility, he received the fanfare he deserved.

The arena grew quiet, until Faroon reappeared with a wide smile upon his face.  No music accompanied his arrival, but the applause of the crowd was warm and welcoming.

“Each of our previous acts had to fight against the many hardships of life.  To us here in the Cirque de Malorum, they are family.  But out there in the world, they are freaks and monsters.  I hope you see them not as different, but unique.

“These next few segments are for the children.  While we pride ourselves on offering an experience the whole family can enjoy, this might be the perfect time for one of the parents to slip away for an ale,” he said with a wink.

Deep bass tones resonated from an unseen drum and were quickly joined by short spans of brass.  The light dimmed from Faroon and instead focused on the entrances on either side.  From there, two lines of elephants emerged, arranged by size.  Each of them pushed large, perfectly round stones, oblivious to the lines they were leaving in the sand.  As they reached the center of the arena, they began forming a circle, when a small, last minute arrival appeared.

Leah charged forward, pushing a far smaller rock toward the procession, but it still seemed to be too big for her.  Her floppy ears bounced with every step, but she finally reached the elephants, her stone falling into the groove the boulders had left.  Hearing the giggles of the children, she smiled and waved, making the queer sight even more unbelievable.  Her perfectly round stone moved just as easily as it had before, with no struggle.

As the Hare saw the brightness in the eyes of the audience, her heart warmed.  She stood taller and lifted her chin.

All of the animals made their way around the circle, and when the music subtly changed, they came back around.  More than once, the elephants lifted one of their massive feet in an erratic manner near the western mast.  Camille narrowed her eyes but was unable to spot anything out of the ordinary.  With a smile parting her lips, she focused on the Hare once more.

A foreign pride had washed over Leah, and she marched forward with her eyes closed and her chin held high.  The rock she rolled forth hadn’t strayed from the rut made by the elephants’ paths, and the tiniest performer was content to keep to that groove.

But with eyes closed and gaze averted, there was no hope for her to see the metal spike that had once held a lion’s cage together.  As her perfectly round stone rolled over it, a loud pop reported a fraction of a second before the fake stone imploded on itself.  At once, it was gone, and Leah fell backward onto her rump.

Though several children in the audience giggled at the queer sight, that mirth was only a precursor to terror, they soon realized.  The elephants darted from their established routes, charging wherever their intuition bade them.  Bumping and stumbling into each other, there was no hope for a clean break.  A cacophonous crack was the only warning in the chaos that something had gone terribly wrong.

The audience watched in horror as one of the masts teetered from its upright position.  It had been rammed by the broad shoulder of one of the fleeing giants and was ready to fall to pieces.  Beyond the entrances, more screams and shouts could be heard as the elephants fled to safety.

In short time, many of the other performers scattered on the arena floor, trying to bring order to the unraveling event.  Minerva held her hand out to charm one elephant but was caught unaware by another that charged out at her.  Barbas was there in an instant, scooping her up into safety.

Other acts which had not yet had a chance to appear rushed to help as well.  A woman with black, mottled skin and green spots took to the floor and cast out her arm, and a gob of sticky yellow slime formed in the air before her.  She flung it out at the dilapidated mast, stabilizing it in place.

Among all the carnage, no one saw the frightened little kobold.  As one scattering elephant charged in her direction, Leah could think of nothing else to do but hold out her hands and pray it would all end swiftly.  Grasped by the collar and tugged to safety, she looked up, once released, and saw her savior.  George was there, panting and working to steady himself.

Even as everything unfurled, Faroon stomped out into the arena.  “You stupid imbecile,” he boomed.  His voice reached such a register that George and Leah both brought their hands to their ears.  “I should have let you drown in that lake in Raleigh, you dumb mutt kobold.”

George stepped forward and bared his teeth for her.  “You know this isn’t her fault,” he growled.

“Step aside, you… beast,” Faroon snarled.

Standing taller, his son squared his shoulders.  “The damage is done, Father.  Do you want to make it worse?”

With gnashed teeth and a furled brow, Faroon spun on his heel.  “Take her to her room,” he ordered.  As he proceeded back toward the east entrance, he sensed a gaze from the crowd.  He looked up, seeing Camille in the crowd, scrutinizing him with narrowed eyes.  “Pah,” he said, continuing on his way.

While the young lady watched him leave, Nika collected her small clan.  A gentle grasp snagged Camille by the wrist.  “Come on, my little loves.”

As she was drawn away, Camille ventured one last glance down below.  Leah still shivered from Faroon’s threats, and her eyes were wide.  She looked up then and locked eyes with the girl from Raleigh.  The littlest kobold blinked away her shame and turned to venture to her room.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Citizens of Daltain and distant travelers alike poured out of the canvas tent.  Boisterous voices were raised nearby the ticket booths, decrying that half a show did not earn a full price.  Elsewhere, people scrambled out beneath the tightly staked tent, unwilling to wait in line while the chaos continued to unfurl within.

The Destrites walked cautiously around the fairgrounds, careful to stick together.  Nika had a firm grasp on Kira, holding the crying infant to her chest.  The onrush finally seemed to slow, and the quiet pall over the area was eerie in place of the constant brass that had led the folk to the Cirque de Malorum.

“That’s it, Papa,” the family heard.  “I’ve had enough of this place.  Surely your debt to him is paid by now.”  They cast their gaze to the northwest, to one of the performer entrances.  There, they saw Minerva stomping from the area, Barbas close behind her.

Rion turned about and glanced at his elder sister.  With only a second of hesitation, he sprang forth, heading in the direction of the girl and her father.

Stepping forward, Camille reached out in a futile effort to stay her youngest brother.  “Rion!” she called out in unison with her mother.  He was already ahead of them, reaching the canvas tent once more, hiding just out of sight of the squabbling performers.  Barbas grasped his daughter and pleaded with her until she woefully followed him back into their massive, travelling home.

“Virgil, it’s too much,” Nika said.  “There’s too much commotion.  I’m going to take Kira back to the campsite.  Please make sure our other children get home safely.”

With a telling grin, the Destrite patriarch leaned forward and kissed his bride on the cheek.  At once, he and his three eldest children raced after Rion.

The boy looked over his shoulder, bearing witness to his family’s fast approach.  He sucked in a deep, powerful breath and slipped inside the circus tent.  Jerrick was the fastest of his siblings and turned into that entrance without any hesitation.

“Rion!” he cried.  The inside of the tent was dark, and there was no sign of his brother.  With a quiet growl, he made his way inside.

In the shadows of the place, the performers walking this way and that looked strange indeed.  Jerrick had to hop back when one of the haudrons stomped across the dark dirt path, his shoulder bouncing against one of the lanterns hanging from the canvas above.  The boy blew out a shallow sigh, thankful to be upright instead of a blemish beneath the half-giant’s boot.  He jumped, though, when he felt a firm grasp on his shoulder.  When he spun about, he saw the look of desperation on his father’s face.

“Where’s your brother?” Virgil asked.

“I can’t find him,” Jerrick said.  “He’s gone.”

The Destrite patriarch locked his jaw and furled his brow.  “Well, that’s just fine,” he mockingly conceded.  “I always thought there were too many of you anyway.  Maybe we can sell him to the circus and at least make some money out of the deal.”

“Abraham found him,” Camille whispered.  Her father and her brother followed her gaze down one of the darkened stretches of the place.  There, far down one of the dirt paths, they could see Abraham, barely illuminated by the hanging lanterns.  Hunched over, he pointed down an adjoining lane.

The rest of his family arrived there soon after, where they were able to see little Rion, sprawled out on the ground upon his belly.  His nose nearly poked beneath a canvas flap.

Virgil stomped forward and reached out for his youngest son.

“What do you think you are doing?” a loud voice boomed.

The man stayed his hand and looked up, spotting silhouettes on the other side of the fabric wall.  Rion hadn’t budged, witnessing as the events unfolded in the small room.

 

“How can you blame Leah for what happened out there?” George asked.

“Oh, the Hare has a name now, does she?” Faroon spat.  He stomped forward and would have reached the tiny kobold were it not for George extending his arm to block his father.  “Out of my way.”

“This was an unfortunate accident, nothing more.  For you to be angry with her alone… It’s ludicrous.”

“She has been nothing but bad luck since we brought her into the family,” Faroon contested.  “It’s been one accident or another every step of the way for three years.”

“Then let her go,” George bade.  His voice was quiet as a whisper, and his often youthful face was lined with wrinkles.

For a moment, the ringmaster’s features seemed to soften, and he stepped forward.  “We’ll bring you home, Hare,” he said.  Her eyes widened, but a mischievous smile crept to Faroon’s face.  “Brighton Beach, was it?  I’ll look forward to watching you sink to the bottom.”

The tension in the room was palpable.  Everything and everyone seemed frozen in time, except for the flickering lantern light that danced upon the ceiling.  Tears welled up in the tiny kobold’s eyes, matting down the fur just beneath them.

Without warning, George lunged forward, delivering a stunning hook.  Faroon spilled to the floor like a thrown rag doll.  The sounds of the punch and the fall resonated in the tent, an uncomfortable echo that lingered far too long for comfort.  The ringmaster shook the stars from his vision and brought the back of his hand to his face.  He pressed his lip out with his jaw and felt the sting of the air on the wound.  When he drew back his hand, a smeared line of blood was upon it.

“That was a mistake you’ll learn to regret, boy,” Faroon promised as he climbed to his feet.  “Enjoy your brief respite.  The next few weeks will be your undoing.”

As the leader of the Cirque de Malorum stomped away, George’s body deflated.  His shoulders slumped, and his stomach puffed out farther than his chest.  His rosy cheeks went pale in moments, and he found he could only stare at the exit.  “I have to go after him,” the young man said.

“What?” Leah asked.

“I have to appeal to him.  I have to beg his forgiveness.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I am,” he said, casting his gaze to the kobold.  “He will ruin both of our lives if I don’t.”

“You can’t leave me alone,” she cried.  “What if he comes back while you’re out looking for him?”

“I’m sorry, Leah,” he said.  Wasting no more time, he raced from her room and followed the path Faroon’s angry steps had left.

The littlest kobold stood there for a time, considering her terrible luck and worse treatment.  Dejected, she turned, a sniffle already attempting to draw back the emotions running rampant.  As she swept her gaze about, she caught the curious sight off to the side of her meager room.

Rion was sure he had been caught.  Leah seemed to pay him no heed, glaring just beside him.  He ventured a glance to his side, where his father mimicked his position.

“What are you doing?” the kobold groaned.

With his lips tightly closed, Virgil allowed his jaw to drop.  He said nothing, though, scanning her abode as if there was some answer among the mess.

“This position is very good for the back,” Rion offered.

Leah stared at the boy for a moment and, in spite of herself, let a smile stretch the corners of her mouth.  She stepped forward and tugged on the canvas wall, pulling it down.  She hopped back when she saw the trio of other children there.  They froze while their father and youngest brother rose to their feet.

“We’re so sorry to eavesdrop,” Camille said.  “It wasn’t our intention.”

“That old man isn’t anything but a bully,” Rion added.

Leah was already shaking her head.  “It’s getting worse every day.  He really believes I am the cause for his misfortune.  If it wasn’t for George, I’d be…”

“He’s never hurt you, has he?” Abraham asked.

The kobold looked down at her feet and swallowed nervously.  “Not physically,” she admitted.  “But we’re quickly arriving there.  He’s roared at me like that in front of the other performers before but never in front of the audience.  He sees me as useless clutter – as a nuisance and nothing else.”

“Then why not leave?” Virgil asked.  “There’s got to be plenty of places out there that are better suited to you than this horrid place.”

A narrow smile stretched her furry lips.  “Brighton Beach sounded like such a wonderful place.  But if he knows that’s where I’d go, I can never see that place again.  Besides, even though he’d love to see me gone, he’d never let me go.”

After a brief silence, Camille stepped forward.  “Whose choice is that to make?”  She fell to one knee before the kobold.  “He doesn’t own you.  No matter what he’s done to bring you here, that doesn’t mean anyone should condone his torture.”

Leah looked up at the girl and offered a weary grin, but she shook her head only a moment later.  “I’ve tried to leave before,” she said.  “Why would this time be any different?”

Glancing at her father with a plea in her eyes, Camille held out her hand.  Virgil sighed but nodded.  “Because before today,” the young lady spoke, “you didn’t have us.”

Standing as tall as her miniscule body would allow, the littlest kobold let her vision bounce from one member of the Destrite family to the next.  Finally her eyes settled on Camille, smiling all the brighter with her arm outstretched, her palm still awaiting a return of the gesture.  Blinking away the last of her tears and taking a deep breath, Leah gave the young lady her hand.