VI: The Hooded Figure

At the same time that Dûae was heading back to Ga-Ga’s, a shadowy figure (even in the daylight) sneaked off in the opposite direction. Though the streets were now deserted, the man was used to remaining unseen. He moved quickly, quietly, and confidently, using alleys and keeping close to the walls of the village buildings. He was inconspicuous, yet without seeming furtive. He wore soft dark clothing that seemed now black, now grey, now darkest blue, now many other shades. A low hood kept his face from view.

The man moved away from the center of town toward where the Meander entered ToadChapel to the East. When he came to the bridge, he turned off the road and walked a short way into the woods. He blended so naturally into his surroundings that soon he was lost to view.

Thus it was that Mills and Gramm did not see the tall dark figure until he stepped from behind a tree and stood before them on the path down which they were scampering.

Mills, who was pulling her brother by the hand, bumped headfirst into the man, while her brother collided with her from behind. As both children fell to the ground, the man held his empty hands out and offered to lift them to their feet. Mills drew herself up wiping dirt and leaves from her dress, while Gramm scampered to his feet making his hands into small tight fists.

Keeping his hands in view, the man said, “Good morning. It’s lucky we’ve met each other on the path here. I think I may be able to help you. My name is John Mus.”

At the sound of the fabled name, Mills wrinkled her nose and glowered at the rogue. Gramm’s jaw dropped and a look of wonder spread across his face.

“I know you! You’re wicked and you steal and you’ve got a knife in every pocket! You’re a rogue and a gambler and a flirt! I heard you killed a man!” said Mills breathlessly.

Gramm blurted out at the same time, “John Mus! It can’t be true! You saved a girl from an ugly troll, you cheated those bad guys who were lying about having magic beads for sale… why, every town knows your name! I heard you killed a man!”

John Mus knelt on one knee and smiled warmly. “It sounds I’m a busy man!” he replied. “You’re right to watch out for rogues like this one, young lady, even if his misdeeds are a bit implausible. Be thankful you have such a brave defender in this fellow.” At this Gramm fairly beamed with pride and let his balled hands fall open to his sides.

“You don’t have to trust me,” said John. “But I’ll give you some advice if you’ll take it. A dwarf named Herling has roused a few of the idle men in town to form a kind of mob. It’s unclear exactly what sort of trouble he intends to get up to, but he isn’t wasting any time getting started. They’re searching for you two, and while not everyone supports the idea of new rules and regulations, people are scared and they might give Herling what he wants for now. If I were you, I’d keep well out of sight until things settle down a bit.”

“But where can we hide? We don’t want to get GaGa in trouble with Herling and his gang, nor Dûae either, and they’re only friends in town,” said Gramm.

“It’s true you haven’t got a lot of friends in ToadChapel,” replied John. “Though you have more than you might suppose, and perhaps in time you might count me as one of them, Mills. If I were you I’d hide out in the stone barn off the road as you’re coming back into town. The farm there’s been empty for years and no one uses it now. If you need me, I’ll meet you in the graveyard across the road from the farm when the festival moon sets tonight. Until then I’ll see what I can find out about Herling’s plan. I’m sure he has more in mind than capturing young children, no matter how many chickens have been taken.”

“Hey, we didn’t steal those chickens!” cried Gramm.

Interrupting him, Mills took John Mus by the arm and whispered, “Wait. We saw a goblin in the woods. He wore an iron cap and stood guard over a dam that wasn’t there yesterday. The stream’s all blocked up, though you wouldn’t know it in town because it’s such a little stream. We were trying to catch trout- er, find the missing chickens- and we saw him. That’s why you found us running down the path in such a hurry.”

“Hmm,” said John, standing upright again. “I’ll have to have a look at that dam. Perhaps I’ll have news to tell when I see you tonight.”

“We’ll be there,” said both children at once.

“I hope so,” replied John. “Do be careful, and do be quiet, but keep your spirits up and don’t fear these bumbling brutes of Herling’s. In a pinch, trust your own wits. I’ll be back at moonset. Until then, look after each other.”

“You be careful too, sir,” said Mills quietly. “Our enemies seem to have us surrounded.”

Gramm wriggled himself a little taller and peered into John’s eyes. “You can rely on me, mister Mus. She’s has a reason to be scared, but I’ll look after her.”

“Like I said, young man, your sister is lucky to have you.”

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