“Welcome to Ashworld.”
The gruff clerk handed Miriam her passport back, stamped. She took it excitedly and stuffed it into her side bag. This assignment was going to be her big break, and she felt like no amount of gruffness could bring her down. This was the opportunity of a life-time, and she fully intended to make the most of it.
So here she was, in the big city: Cindertown, the sprawling harbour port at Ashworld’s southernmost peninsula, taking on the job that nobody else wanted. That was fine by her; she was very small, and she planned to make a big name for herself.
In many ways, Miriam was the picture of a typical gnome. Like most gnomes, she stood about a metre tall, slender and pale. Like most gnomes, she had large, wet green eyes, pointed ears, and a convex nose several times too large for her narrow face. Like most gnomes, her long, hair was the colour of limestone, an enourmous uncontrollable frizzy mop on the top of her head. And like most gnomes, she had an erring itch for adventure.
It was that latter trait that had lead her to becoming a reporter. The thrill of hunting for new information, tracking down leads, and exposing the truth. Although, so far in career, she had done very little besides helping her more experienced colleagues. So when the opportunity to go solo had presented herself, she immediately leapt on it. Of course, there was some initial push-back from the editor. She was too young, too inexperienced. Too small. Much too small for the Big Grey. But she had insisted, and the truth was that no one else wanted it. So in the end, they had caved.
The goodbyes had been teary. Gnome families are large and very closely knit, and there had been a lot of hugs and kisses, far too many for Miriam to count. But they saw that this was something she was passionate about, and did nothing but encourage her on her way.
The first thing Miriam had noticed was the smell. Cindertown reeked of mill discharge, the kind of acrid wooden scent that you can taste on your tongue.
“Pee yew,” said Miriam, waving her hand in front of her face, before excitedly diving for her journal. Pollution? she wrote, underlining it profusely. Smiling to herself, she slipped her leather bound book back into her backpack. There might be a story already. What do the locals think of the mills? How are they powered?
It was the latter question that intrigued her the most, that she knew would excite readers back home. Especially in the Under Garden, where electricity was still a novelty that had yet to wear off. There, things were still done by lamplight (except for the market square, which had been lit with power generated from an underground river).
Oh, how she missed the Under Garden already. The gnomish city had gotten its name when the City above it had grown to encompass the hills that surrounded it, hills that the gnomes had lived under for millennia. A peace treaty had been signed, promising the gnomes their ancestral homes in exchange for non-intervention in the goings on of the Big Folk, as they were often referred to. Generally, the terms of the peace treaty had been kept to, though there were some notable exceptions.
Most recently, the City had tried to gentrify the Hills by laying new sewer pipe, pipes that would have destroyed the extensive caverns of the Under Garden. In response, the gnomes had staged a massive counter-action. Objects began to mysteriously disappear from the construction site. Workers would show up in the morning to begin digging only to leave a few hours later, lightheaded and confused. When the foreman went to investigate, he seemed unable to find the construction site at all, as if the entire park had suddenly evaporated into the ether. Eventually, cost overruns led the City to abandon the project, and there had been an enormous celebration that night. After all, no one loves an excuse to celebrate quite like gnomes.
And celebrate they had, when Miriam had first gotten her new job. Any nay sayers who thought that there was no way that a gnome would be given room at a human news desk bit their tongues, outwardly showing nothing but positivity and support. Of course, it had turned out that it was much more difficult than she had imagined. For one thing, none of the furniture or pens were designed with gnome proportions or statrue in mind, and she had to improvise and learn as she went. Her bubbly optimism and sunny outlook served her well, and she never shied away from a challenge.
Now here she was, all big dreams and big heart, with nothing on her mind but how, exactly, she would turn this posting to the back-water city of Cindertown into her big break.
Miriam stepped through the passport office and into the main terminal. The wood floors and tracks worn in them from the number of people who had passed over them day in and day out. The ticket offices against one wall, opposite a large clock, dangling cables suspended across the vaulted ceiling. Strings of electric lights lit the otherwise dark space. Voices and fragments of conversations echoed, filling the room. She stared up at the clock in awe, watching as the cogs and wheels seemed to turn of their own according, marching along to a drum beat that only they could hear.
“Excuse me, miss?” said a porter.
“Ya haw?” replied Miriam absentmindedly.
“Just letting you know that the station closes for the night in ten minutes,” drawled the porter.
“Right!” she exclaimed. She still needed to find somewhere to spend the night. And, hopefully, in the hotel tavern, meet some people who she could interview.
The tavern smelled like vinegar and cheap alcohol, the sagging floor slanting sharply. Posters of local bands addorned the walls, and the whole thing was lit with dim electric lights. A few people sat at aged wooden tables, or perched precariously on rickity wooden stools. Miriam breathed deeply, steeling herself. Anyone here could be her next lead, and she needed to be on top of her game.
“Hi!” she said to the bartender cheerfully.
“What’s your poison?” he asked, looking down over the bar at her, a bemused expression playing accross his face
“Oh, I’ll just get a glass of water,” she responded, flashing him a wide grin.
He rolled his eyes, filling up a pint glass with clear liquid and handing it down to her.
“Thanks!” she squeaked. “You wouldn’t happen to know of any rumours floating around, would you?”
“Any what?” he asked.
“You know,” she said, “any gossip, intersting tidbits, people looking to tell a story…?”
“I don’t know of anytrhing like that,” he responded. “But you might do well to ask that group over there.” He indicated a group of about four people sitting in the corner. “Strangers, like yourself. They’ve been sitting there for almost half an hour.”Miriam tipped the bartender for his help, stretching up on her tip toes to toss the coins onto the bar.