“So, Joseph, how ye be voting in the Grand Assembly?”
“I say we join the humans.”
The questioner munched on his bread for a few moments, mulling this over. “So, ye like the humans.”
“Didn’t say I liked them. What choice do we have?”
“Some say we should wait until they’re weakened from attacking one another and then take our revenge on what’s left.”
“Some are idiots, then.”
Behind Joseph, a large rock seemed to lift itself into the air. A second red-haired gnome appeared underneath, holding the rock and slammed it onto the shepherd’s head with a sickening thud.
The remaining shepherd yelped in surprise, “See what ye’ve done, Aik. Ye’ve killed him now. I thought we were to just keep those who was against us from voting in the assembly.”
Pushing with one booted foot, Aik nudged the body toward the mud. “Killing them is a certain way to keep them from voting, now in’t it? What’s one traitor more or less to us? Ye’ve just as much blame as I. Ye lured him here. Help me with this rope. We’ll tie him up and load him down with stones. So, if we do lose the vote, we come back here later, untie him, take out the rocks and find he fell in the pond, hit his head and drowned.” Aik was working as he talked, using a piece of rope pulled from his pocket to truss up the unconscious gnome.
The shepherd watched his compatriot working without a single wasted motion to prepare the body to be tossed into the water. “Ye’ve done this before, no?”
“So what if I have? What’s wrong with efficiency? Hand me some stones, I said.”
The other gnome complied reluctantly, “Joseph was my mate. We chased these sheep together all over these hills since we was only so high.”
“Joseph was a traitor and deserved to die. The humans killed half our people and took half our land. They’re just waiting until they get the right chance to get the other half. Come on, it’s a fair walk to the assembly and we don’t want to miss the vote.”
With a splash, the body rolled into the water and sunk to the bottom of the pond. Aik set off to the east at a brisk walk, whistling. With a regretful glance over his shoulder, the shepherd hurried to catch his companion.
Denae reached over slowly with her left hand and untied the rope on her wrist. She blew softly and the reed that she had been using for breathing fell over as if pushed by a breeze. If anyone had looked in the vicinity where the reed had been, there would have been nothing to see. The spy had already swum below to unhook the rope on her ankle from the rock. Stroking slowly and carefully so as not to disturb the surface, the young woman reached down to the shepherd, now conscious and struggling furiously for his life. She came close enough for him to see her in the murky water, signed to be still, and grasping under both arms, tugged the young gnome along toward a dark spot under the shadow of a Giant Plemish.
She could see no one, but, in Ghejanlan that didn’t mean much, as Joseph’s recent experience had demonstrated. More importantly, she did not hear anything. Denae’s hand was clamped tightly over the gnome’s mouth, preventing him from coughing out the water and gasping for air. As a result, water sprayed painfully but silently out of his nose. He glared at her furiously but she was paying no attention.
Now that he could breathe again, the red mist cleared from in front of his eyes, he looked around carefully in case he might need to make a quick escape. The woman who had rescued him was definitely human, or not gnomish at any rate. She was huge by gnome standards, probably half-again as large as Joseph himself, and he was not particularly small for a gnome. Blonde hair and braids were common in Ghejanlan, but this woman had hers coiled on her head, with some type of tight, leather cap covering them. Every inch of her, from her hair to her bare feet was designed to be as unnoticeable as possible. Floating as they were, motionless, in the darkest shadows between the water and the bank, no one would spot them unless they were to come right on top of them. No gnome would ever come through the tangled brush to this exact, damp spot when there was a perfectly good path to a sunny bank but a short walk away.
The woman put her lips next to his ear and whispered, so quietly that no one more than inches away could have heard, “I’m a soldier in the Nurliyan army,” she had found people to have an unreasonable prejudice against the word, ‘spy’ – “Once I get you up on the banks there, I am going to take a look to see if there might be any other people around who want to kill either of us. By the way, in case you missed it, the one who bashed you on the head with the rock was named, Aik and your mate there helped him tie you up and toss you in the water.”
“I know,” whispered Joseph, just a bit more loudly, “I was only unconscious for a minute. I figured if I let them know that, all tied up as I was, they would have slit my throat, and it would have been a bit harder to get out of that.”
Denae smiled, “You know, Joseph, I like the way you think.”
Still, he noticed that, while she slit the ropes binding him she held the knife between the two of them, point toward him. If he had any plans for arching backward to grab the soldier, they would have been met by a knife deep in the back. Awkward as the position was, he was aware of the feel of her breasts against his back. If she had any hint as to his reaction, she ignored it.
“You can call for anyone you want. I’ll be gone by the time they get here, anyway. If you’re here when I get back, we can talk.”
“Ye’re not going to tie me up and gag me? Are ye not worried that I could call a search party and we could find ye?”
“No, but you’re welcome to try if you don’t have anything better to do.” The young woman smiled again. He had the completely irrelevant thought that her eyes were a particularly pretty shade of blue. Then she was gone.