A Tock the Gnome short story
In honor of what’s going on today, and the days and years to come. Of what some of us fear will come to pass.
May we all embrace Love, and be kind to one another.
(Inspired by the famous fable “The Lion and the Mouse” and the historic tale of Androcles. And by a friend who suggested I include this tale as part of Tock’s own herosim.)
Once upon a time, in the middle of their quest, the crew of The Bucket set down in an unknown forest in order to replenish their supplies.
Beyond the clearing where they landed lay a vast expanse of trees, with rocky hills along the horizon. It was warm - like a jungle, but not quite the same. Casting simple magic to determine the likelihood of finding food, Eunan - the mage - noticed that the hills contained many caverns. So, with this reassurance of shelter, the group of them settled the ship and set forth.
Bumble, their Captain, looked for mushrooms, truffles, nuts, fruits and berries - acceptable fare for his own Gnomish constitution, of Dwarves like their rogue Actia, and of Eunan’s badger-like form. Actia did the same on her own, expecting as always to pull the biggest haul from this practical mission. Onna, their Orcish warrior, hunted small game for herself. Eunan sought underground waterways, to pull up fresh water for the lot of them. And Tock, their guide and commissioner of the quest, sought deposits of coal to fuel the ship.
(As usual, this seemed to bother Eunan, but the small, overconfident engineer paid no notice.)
By the time night fell, they had worked their way through the wood and to the rocky hills, as they had anticipated. It was agreed that they should find shelter within the caves there. Choosing one at random, they gathered wood, built a fire and feasted on some of their spoils. Safe and sated, they lay down to sleep, protected by a magic shield cast around their chosen resting place.
Around midnight, Tock woke to a strange, low moaning. She sat up, looked around at her companions and found that it hadn’t come from any of them…. Still, it had to be coming from somewhere. She tiptoed around her friends’ sleeping forms, moving closer to the back of the cave, and listened.
She took a branch of kindling and, quickly coating it in resin, created a torch for light. She lit it from the remnants of their fire, cursing the time that it took to do so, and then stepped gingerly back toward the cave’s rear wall. Now illuminated, she found that it was not a shallow space after all - beyond the entrance where they’d settled was a winding tunnel, going further into the earth. The sound was louder now, and so clearly pained. Without thinking Tock found herself travelling down toward it.
Several minutes later, the winding path finally ended in a smaller cavern, and in that cavern was a large, hulking shape - moaning even more loudly now. It hadn’t noticed her. With its back turned, its massive form must have blocked out the light. Or perhaps its eyes were closed.
It had ragged, brown fur on the body of a beast, and a full mane covering what she could see of its head. Instead of a tail to match, something more like an insect’s - with a huge stinger at the end - curled up behind it.
She gasped, which finally drew its attention, and she saw that its mane framed a face like an Elf’s. At least, from what she’d read in her legends. Legends which had, only once, mentioned this kind of creature too.
“You’re a Manticore!” she exclaimed, fully delighted despite any possible danger.
It roared at her and drew itself further into the small space, its back now against the wall. In its shifting, Tock could see its front legs and noticed it was cradling the right one. A large, red thorn stuck violently out of the center pad of that paw.
“Oh you poor thing!” she gushed, now wondering how she could get closer to it. As excited as she was to meet such a being, its rows of sharp teeth gave her some pause.
As she considered this, and the Manticore considered her, the sound of many footsteps sounded through the tunnel behind them. Louder and louder they came, until suddenly the rest of her crew skidded into view. They all gasped, and shouted for her as one.
“Tock, get back!” Onna yelled, while Bumble called “Tock, what are you doing?!” They both started forward to reach her, but Actia pulled Bumble back and Eunan touched Onna’s arm, gently, to stop her. He looked intrigued, and that gave them all pause.
“Tock…” Bumble called again, more quietly this time.
She waved a hand toward him impatiently, still focused on the injured creature. “Now now,” she said, inching closer. “It’s all right. I’m here to help.”
It bared its teeth again but didn’t shrink away any further. She kept creeping forward, still cooing at it calmly.
“It cannot possibly understand you!” Bumble hissed, only to be shushed by Eunan, who nodded confidently in the direction of their leader.
Finally, the Gnome woman was close enough to reach. Still shooshing it, she leaned forward, and - eyes locked with its - she grabbed the thorn and yanked. It released with a pop and a bead of blood, and a roar from its former victim, as she fell backward and tumbled out of the way again.
The others watched in stunned silence as the Manticore licked its wound and stood, sudden majesty filling its form as it regarded Tock anew.
She sat cross-legged where she had fallen and grinned up at it, the long thorn in her hands. “See? All better.”
It stepped forward, crossing the space between them in a moment. The others nearly jumped, fearing danger, but the creature just nuzzled Tock’s face gently. Gratefully. She laughed and rubbed its nose with her’s.
It stepped back again, nodding at her. To the amazement of all, the Manticore’s body began to glow and then dissipated into golden light, filled with blinking stars and the forms of small, winged figures. Within moments, it was gone.
Bumble gawked, and Actia ‘hmmph’d,’ finally releasing him. Onna relaxed and looked on with reverence akin to Eunan’s, though he looked like he understood something more than the others did. And Tock herself just laughed, feeling closer and closer to finding the Princess every time they found magic like this.
Together they traveled back up to their settlement at the cave’s entrance, hoping to get some sleep before dawn. Most of them still marveled at the night’s events, though Actia continued to regard Tock with disdain (even if a bit more respect lay under it, now) and Bumble suggested blocking off the tunnel (which the others dismissed).
When morning came, they headed back toward The Bucket, eager to resume the search.
Tock lingered, though, as they stepped out of the cavern. She could have sworn she saw a faint golden light trail behind her, only for a moment, and felt a warmth in her heart born from kindness and the belief she held in all good things.
She hurried to catch the others, refreshed and somehow sure she was protected.