Hello everyone! It is chilly out there, so I hope you’re inside where it’s warm, and I hope you’re snuggled up next to a good story. Last week, I opened up on the two big halves of The Littlest Kobold. You saw Leah, the titular character, and you also met Camille and her family, the Destrites. They get along pretty well, and their lives are a lot better off than the so-called Hare.
This week, we’ve got a different kind of treat for you. For some reason, I’ve always been bound to the idea of the circus existing in my fantasy realm, and while I’ve toyed around with the concept a little bit, it was Rhianna who finally put the pin on it with the Cirque de Malorum. Considering the vast many people with odd powers that exist in Tellest, it isn’t too much of a stretch to believe that a place like this could exist. But I digress. I’d rather have you experience it yourself than have me blather on about it. Enjoy!
The Littlest Kobold
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.”