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
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.