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Rumtuggle?
The guard nodded, snorting a laugh in the process.  They say they
heard that we were holding him captive, and they have demanded his
release.
 You told them he doesn t exist? Brack asked, wide-eyed.
 I thought about doing exactly that, said the guard,  but then I thought
they might not understand and might go somewhere else and ask someone
else about it. The people they ask might not think to come to you about it.
 Hmmm . . . Brack ran a thumb along his jawline.  I see your point.
They might ask questions, which may cause others to ask questions.
Brack sighed.  Send them to my tent.
The guard nodded, and within five minutes the delegation was in
Brack s command tent. Several of the gnomes became immediately
distracted and started sketching the design of the tent supports for future
application. The red-haired gnomish woman would not be turned from her
purpose and zeroed in on Brack with a sniper s precision.
 We understand you have one of our numbers here as a prisoner, she
said curtly.
Brack managed his widest, sternest smile.  You have been
misinformed. We hold no prisoners at this camp, not even good-faith
hostages.
 We understand you have had problems with a gnome named
Rumtuggle, said the woman.
Brack paused for a moment, then nodded slowly. There was no telling
who else the gnomes would be talking to.  There have been reports of
small accidents involving someone of that name. He chose his words
carefully, telling the truth only as far as it served him.
 We  she motioned to her motley crew  represent the various small
gnomish communities in our area. Rumtuggle is not among any of our
communities. Therefore, she growled, screwing up her face and
glowering at the lieutenant,  he must be your prisoner. You should release
him at once.
Brack looked at the guard, who stood at the doorway. The guard
shrugged. To the gnome the lieutenant said,  I assure you we don t have
your Rumtuggle at this camp.
 You have him at another camp? asked the woman.
Brack sighed.  No. We don t have him at any camp.
 We don t have him in any of our communities! said the gnome
woman.  No one has seen him for months!
 Had anyone seen him before? said Brack.
The gnome bridled and said,  I don t think you re taking this matter
with the proper seriousness.
Brack took a deep breath and regarded the group. A small, heated
discussion had broken out in the back of the party about how the lantern
wicks in the tent could be better cut. These were not rebels, Brack decided.
These were barely targets. Gently he said,  Your Rumtuggle was probably
a wanderer. He wandered into our lives, caused some havoc among our
occupying forces, and now will wander out. I doubt, Brack added with a
hard look at the guard,  that we will ever hear about him again.
The gnome woman was not mollified.  Your answers are evasive,
human. You have three days to release Rumtuggle. After that we will have
to take action. She stomped her foot for effect.  Three days, human! She
spun on her heel and left the tent, her gaggle of gnomes in tow. One took a
lantern with him, peering at the wick.
The guard waited behind, looking at Brack. The lieutenant sighed
deeply and said,  I think we may have a small problem.
 Emphasis on the small, said the guard, breaking into a smile.
Brack smiled as well.  Very small, but for the next while, Rumtuggle
should vanish from the reports. No point in stirring up the locals.
 And when she demands his release? asked the guard.
Brack shrugged.  She s a gnome, he said.  In three days she ll have
found something else to worry about.
Of course the gnome leader did not. Each day, for the next three days, a
gnomish messenger arrived at the edge of the camp, demanding
Rumtuggle s release. Each day Brack explained that they did not have
Rumtuggle in their keeping.
On the morning of the fourth day, the cattle disappeared.
Brack never figured out how they did it. One night the cows were in the
pasturage, the guards keeping an eye on them between games of dice.
Then the sun came up on empty fields. Several hundred head of cattle, the
provisions for most of the outpost, had vanished.
A messenger arrived, declaring that the cattle would be returned when
Rumtuggle was released.
Brack looked at the messenger. He counted to five, then to ten. He
explained that he could not release what he did not have and unless the
gnomes gave back the cattle pretty damned fast he would unleash the
entire fury of his unit on the surrounding area. A hungry army was an
angry army. The gnome said he would be back the next day.
Privately, Brack worried. A hungry army was an angry army, but most
of that anger would be directed at those responsible for feeding them
like their officers. Brack sent out scouts in all directions, both the hapless
hobgoblins and real horsemen, in the hopes of finding whatever secluded
valley the cattle had been squirreled away in.
They found nothing. The next day the gnome messenger returned.
Brack counted to five, then to ten, and then to fifteen, then told him that
they did not have Rumtuggle. The gnome said that he would return the
next day.
Brack doubled the patrols, calling in favors from other commanders
who knew about his fictitious gnome. Already the troops were restricted to
salted meat, and would have to get by on hardtack if the cows were not
returned. Brack sent word back up the line for additional supplies.
The patrols found nothing: no secluded vales, no herds of cattle in
secret hiding places. All they found was increased evidence of lumbering
in the area. Going into the gnomish towns was considered hazardous,
since several gnomish inventions had gotten loose in the past and harmed
some hobgoblins, and none of the nonhuman troops wanted to go
anywhere near the gnomes, particularly now that Rumtuggle was
apparently helping them.
The troops were getting hungry. And angry.
A query came from HQ asking what Brack had done about the cattle
problem and notifying him that the rear echelon would be sending the
provisioner-general to find out what happened to the missing cattle. The
official would arrive the next day.
Hot on the heels of that message, the gnomish messenger returned,
repeating the demand that Rumtuggle be released.
Brack counted to twenty but finally gave up trying to hold his temper.
 I can t give you Rumtuggle! he shouted at last.  There is no Rumtuggle!
Rumtuggle isn t alive! [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]




 

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