Chapter 3.1

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The harsh sound of impatient knocking tore Gnochi from his nightmare of fire. Rising from the wooden chair in which he had dozed off, Gnochi stretched and wiped from his brow and face the sweat that accompanies his recurring terrors. He opened the door and immediately braced his hand on the tarnished brass handle as he felt the air rush from his chest. The hallway revealed a dark-haired girl. She offered a smile that lashed at Gnochi's heart. Pippa? He thought, and then shook his head realizing that he was not seeing a reflection of his niece, but rather a maid for the inn. The more his brain emerged from its nightmarish fog, the more Gnochi saw that this girl was not his niece, no matter how similar she looked. He swallowed a lump, fearing that hallucinations would begin to follow his waking from every night.

"Are you Master Gleeman?" the girl asked.

Gnochi relished the fact that she sounded different from his niece. The maid's voice, unlike that of Pippa, sounded older, where Pippa's sounded wispy. Although, Gnochi noted with intrigue, this maid stood barely taller than he remembered his niece. He did not realize how much he was leaning on the door until he felt his head rest against its worn surface. Gnochi stood in awkward silence without an ounce of strength to turn away, so he cleared his throat and said, "You're a maid willing to knock on a door not knowing who is behind it? What, is it your first evening on the job?" Gnochi started chuckling to himself, but heard the foreign sound as it spilled through his mouth and cut it off abruptly.

"Yes," the girl said matter-of-factly. "Mistress Mirage sends for your presence in the dining room below, before your performance."

"I'll be down, thank you," Gnochi said starting to close the door. A moment before it closed, the girl shoved her booted foot in between the door and the wall. A boot, which Gnochi noticed with a shock of intrigue, bore no scuffs of common wear. It looked un-broken, the leather, still spry. Surprised, Gnochi opened the door back and scowled at the girl. "Hmmph, they expect tips for everything now," he grumbled to himself as he retreated to fetch his purse. Before he could hand the girl a copper pence, she entered the room and stood, arms crossed in defiance.

"I hope you don't mind, Master Gleeman, but today is my first day, and I don't want to anger my mistress, or mistress Mirage, by returning without you."

"I don't suppose I could pay you to leave?" She shook her head in response.

The girl's stubborn response tugged on Gnochi's heart. He feared that if he did not purge clear the nightmare from the recesses of his mind, then he might start believing this maid to be Pippa. "Well, give me five minutes then." Gnochi brushed past her, ambled down the hall to the common washroom, and splashed cold water on his face from the washbasin. He stopped scrubbing his face when his eyes caught their reflection in a small scratched mirror. His face drooped from fatigue and sat raw from his recent travels. His eyes, their usual shade of dark-churned earth, were bloodshot and seemed to sit heavy. His cheeks had lost all trace of their rosy color and sunk into his face. Rogue drops of the frigid water slipped through his rugged scruff and splashed onto his shirt.

Gnochi returned to his room to find the serving girl sitting on the side of his bed, on top of his poncho which he had laid out to flatten the wrinkles. "No girl, don't sit on that," Gnochi yelled as he rushed into the room. The maid got up, looking frantic at what she had ruined.

"I'm sorry, I thought it was a bed decoration." She retreated to a corner and sat down hugging her knees to her chin.

Gnochi pulled the poncho before his face, seeming to study the faded pattern of woven fabric and noting the tears and burns as though he had already catalogued and memorized each one. He placed the poncho over his head and turned to the maid, the fear on her face shocked him. "I shouldn't have yelled." When he realized that she was not going to say anything, he cleared his throat and said, "Alright, let's head down to the dining hall." The girl picked herself up out the corner to which she retreated.

"You won't tell them that I sat on your clothes will you?" Gnochi shook his head as he and the servant walked out the room. "Master Gleeman, if I may ask."

"If I may answer," he replied closing the door.

"Huh?"

"Just ask."

"Okay. Well, I overheard my mistress saying to the other staff that you are the best thing the inn can have for a night. Now, I've been around enough entertainers to know the good ones. But you don't even look like an entertainer. Where are your colorful clothes? Granted your poncho has color in it, but it's faded and looks like it's been dragged through hot coals. Where are your silky ribbons, and cute animals? All I saw was your clothes, your supplies and that weird pendant."

"Pendant?"

"Yeah, the black pendant with a small red stone in the center."

Gnochi turned, loped back to his room, and thrust open the door. Jackal's instructions came ricocheting through his head from the darkest recesses where Gnochi hid them. Hide this with your life. It has one purpose, to be bestowed once the job is done. Do not let anyone touch this. Do not let anyone see this. We will know, and your family may pay the price for your insolence. Gnochi emptied his pack onto the ground scattering the supplies and clothes. After a minute of rooting, Gnochi found the pendant and dangled it in front of his eyes. Clasping it between tight fingers, Gnochi felt the pendant pulsate under his grasp, though he thought that he could have been feeling his own heartbeat. It seemed, all at once, as cold as his empty heart and as hot as the rage he felt towards Anubis, and its shadowy leader, Jackal. The pulsations quickened as if the beating heart roared in anticipation. He imagined Jackal looming over his mind, saying to him 'we know.' Gnochi knelt to the floor and rocked, clutching the pendant to his forehead. He wished that it would burst into the flames of his nightmares and consume him. A lone tear escaped his eye and trailed down his nose.

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I have decided, thanks to some thoughtful advice, to split my chapters into more manageable sized chunks.  I imagine that I will be splitting at a natural segue (where I would be changing the POV/Setting/etc. but if I am not, and I have to split up one scene, I'll be sure to let you all know.

Read on,

Matt 

Photo credit: Pixabay user Hans  



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