Monday, March 7, 2011

"Of Kin and Clan" by: Nancy A. Hansen

"Of Kin and Clan"
by: Nancy A. Hansen
as published in
Fantasy & Fear #3 


“See anything you like?” Rhandor asked, as they threaded their way through the crowded marketplace. The short man with the long sword and the natural born warrior’s stride walked slowly alongside the equally short woman in the light leather ranger’s outfit, his eyes constantly darting around watching for potential problems.
Roshanna was still far from popular in the capital city of Calimsharv, even after getting an official pardon from the Duchess. Rhandor felt it was his duty to protect her when she was in the city, though he knew Roshanna was perfectly capable of watching out for herself.
“They don’t seem to have much to offer,” Roshanna said with a little frown that narrowed her green eyes and wrinkled her snub nose. “It’s all the same stuff, and most of it is far too big for me too! I don’t want plate; it’s too hot and heavy. Ring mail is lighter and you can move better in it, but crossbow quarrels go right through it, so what’s the point? I already have all the leather I need. I think we’re wasting our time,” she protested.
“Don’t give up that easily,” the shorter of her two male companions said with a grin. “The best equipment isn’t usually out for the public to see. You have to ask for it. They put out the common stuff that they figure mercenaries and day soldiers can afford and save the better things for the good paying customers. They want to unload this garbage as fast as they can,” he said, sweeping an arm to indicate the hodgepodge assortment of rusty plate mail and battered shields in the stall they stood before. “The good stuff is usually behind the counter somewhere.” As a an experienced soldier, Rhandor knew his way around an armor dealer’s stall, and so he was more than happy to escort the fabled Huntress of Greenwood on a shopping excursion.
There was a throat clearing noise on Roshanna’s other side that said Leonhar was about to weigh in on the matter. The journeyman wizard had accompanied them on this trip into the city simply because he invited himself along. Tall and lean, always with a serious expression on his face and long black hair tied back in a mare’s tail, he was quite the traveler, and so very knowledgeable on many topics. Unfortunately he was always too eager to prove it too, and could be quite the bore at times.
“Remember, we haven’t been to the Dwarven section yet,” Leonhar added in his usual know-it-all fashion. “There you will see uncommon workmanship even amongst the most mundane of items.”
“Yeah, and an uncommon price to match it!” added Rhandor with a sarcastic chuckle. He purposely cut Leonhar off before the taller man could expound upon his vast knowledge of Dwarven artisans and techniques. “Show them a purse and the cost of the item goes up before they even find out what’s actually inside.”
Roshanna shook her head, making both of her russet brown braids bounce, as she walked ahead. “Well I’m not getting anything here even if this junk is in my price range. Let’s go look at what the Dwarves have to offer,” she called over her shoulder as she started winding her way through the crowd toward the lower end of the marketplace. “At least their stuff will fit me. It’s made for short, round, and well-filled out beings!”
The men exchanged amused glances and then the three young friends crossed the courtyard of the open market square and clattered down the granite steps to the lower level. Roshanna eagerly led the way; the fringe on her doeskin tunic swaying with the bouncing of her full bust and ample hips as she eagerly bustled down the stairs. For all the trim little man was fast on his feet, Rhandor was somewhat hampered by the long sword sheathed at his side and found it hard work to keep up with her. Lanky Leonhar swept down the stairs at a more decorous pace, though because of his long legs he was able to take the steps two at a time.
The Dwarven section of the market was beyond the beast holds near the lower gate, as Calimsharv was still a prejudiced city in spite of the amount of interracial trade that passed through her gates. It was much less crowded there, as the average citizen could not afford the higher-priced Dwarven goods. A few court nobles with their ladies were strolling past the gem and jewelry booths, and some of the more successful looking mercenaries fondled arms and armor and haggled with the vendors over prices. There was a half-caste who sold potions and powders, and a pipe seller with an impressive array of exotic tobaccos that got Leonhar’s attention for quite some time. Roshanna stared around her in fascination at the diminutive people and their beautifully wrought wares.
Spying a dagger twice as good as the used one she had purchased on the upper level, she tugged on Rhandor’s sleeve.
“I wish we’d come here first,” she whispered. “I wouldn’t have wasted my money upstairs!”
“Don’t say that till you’ve seen the price,” he answered with a grin. “Dwarven craftsmanship doesn’t come cheap!”
“No, their work isn’t inexpensive,” said the young wizard, catching up with his friends while cocking a dark, arched eyebrow in the smaller man’s direction, “But their wares are the finest made and each is unique because of the carving and etching. They never do the same design twice, and often there are power gathering or protection runes worked into the pattern. Such implements are well worth having, even if they don’t get used for offensive purposes.”
Leonhar, who was the more cosmopolitan of the three, appointed himself official guide and interpreter for this leg of the shopping spree. He led them amongst the booths with the air of a connoisseur of fine workmanship.
“To a Dwarf, business is all,” he explained. “They have a strict code of honor that does not allow them to steal; that would be dishonorable. But they will bargain you right down to the last copper pinty on an item, all the while boasting about the effort required to produce it and inflating the cost of materials outrageously. One thing they never exaggerate about though is the quality of workmanship that goes into the merchandise they sell. You’ll never purchase an inferior or mediocre handcrafted item from a Dwarf. Everything they sell is superbly constructed.”
Rhandor snorted in derision.
“A lot of good this superior quality is if it takes a year’s pay to purchase it. I could buy a couple of nice horses and stabling for six moons for what one midgrade sword would cost me. I’m telling you Roshanna; you’re wasting your time here. You’d be better off back upstairs.”
Roshanna was glancing at everything eagerly, so she was only half listening.
“Fine Rhandor, you go back up there if you want to. I want to look around some more, even if all I can do is dream about what I’d like to buy.” She waved him off impatiently.
Looking vexed at the interruption, Leonhar frowned at the smaller man. He took Roshanna’s other arm and leaned toward her.
“I’ve made a study of Dwarves, have I ever told you that?”
“At least a dozen times,” Roshanna groaned under her breath. “Please don’t go on about why their beards are important again, it’s embarrassing!”
The wizard pretended not to hear her. He wandered over to look at a finely carved pipe, and inquired as to the price. Looking it over with a critical eye, he studied the design for a moment, and then put it down without a word and meandered back toward his companions. The Dwarf vendor picked up the pipe and examined it carefully, and then set it back down and made an obscene gesture at the tall man.
“What you just witnessed is the secret to effectively dealing with Dwarves,” Leonhar said in the self-important tone he used for the dull-witted. “Never let them see how badly you want the article. Make it seem as though you’ve seen a thousand of those particular items and are just curious to see why this one is so overpriced. Of course don’t tell them you consider it overpriced; that would be insulting.”
“You mean as insulting as what he’s doing right now behind your back?” Rhandor asked with a smile. The wizard turned around, and his face flamed in embarrassment for a moment, and Roshanna chuckled to see Leonhar’s look of chagrin.
Take that, Master Smarty Breeches!
 Ignoring her amusement, the wizard continued his lecture.
“You have to use a lot of finesse in bargaining with a Dwarven merchant. I indicated that I considered the piece to be worth considerably less than it is. I shall go back later and offer him half price for the pipe. He will counter offer at two thirds and we will settle on something comfortable to both of us.”
He probably went on for quite a while afterward, but Roshanna wasn’t listening anymore. She wandered a little away from them, while Leonhar droned on. She glanced around making mental notes of all the things she wished she could buy, then narrowing it down to the practical. Finally she settled on several items and decided to inquire on them.
Detaching herself from her two male escorts, who were arguing economy versus quality again, she walked up to a vendor and fingered a shimmering silversteel coifed mail hauberk of finely wrought links. The sunlight danced upon it like water in a mountain stream, and it threw iridescent sparkles around as she stroked the exposed surface and hefted it and held it at arm’s length. It looked to be a perfect fit for her. It was dazzling; much lighter in weight than anything she had seen that day, yet was more finely crafted than even the finest armor the Duke’s Guards wore. There wasn’t a bit of rust to mar it, and no matter how hard she looked, she could not spot a single rivet in the many fine interconnected links.
“I’d like to see this,” she said quietly, catching the Dwarven vendor’s eye from where he stood sharpening a broad-headed axe on a small grinding stone.
“I can see it fine from ‘ere,” was the guttural reply in roughly accented Commonspeak. “Be ye that hard o’sight?”
Roshanna smiled ruefully. “No, I mean, it’s so beautiful I didn’t want to try it on without asking,” she answered with a tentative sound of admiration in her tone.
“Huh,” he said, coming over to fix her with a suspicious glare. “Me work is not that fragile, I can assure ye. Ye can maul it all ye want,” he said, pushing it to her. “T’is made fer battlefields and twon’t break by yer pawing at it.”
“I’ve never seen anything this finely woven in mail,” she said in wonder. It’s almost like knitted cloth!”
The Dwarf raised a shaggy eyebrow, and his homely face bore a hint of a proud smile. “T’was me father’s pattern, may he rest under stone for eternity,” he said, stepping up to turn it over to show her the clan crest worked into the links. “Took me a fortnight to make just the sleeves for it last winter. Costly te make too; a whole bucket of alloy went into the crucible for each pouring, and I only skimmed the top third for each set of rings. Put it on, if ye’d like te check the size.”
Roshanna took her dagger out of her belt, and laid it on the counter. She slipped the mail over her head, and it fit as though made for her. Her ample bust took up the extra length of the sleeves, and it molded itself to her body. She lifted her arms and stretched and tensed as if drawing a bow. It was not heavy, but had a substantial feel to it. It allowed plenty of free movement and hung well below her hips without obstructing her legs.
“It’s so light and supple,” she said in awe, a look of longing in her eyes. “I could wear this all day and not feel tired!”
“There’s strength in it too,” the Dwarf said, yanking on the shoulders to demonstrate. “Twon’t pierce easy, nor come apart without going into the furnaces.”
Roshanna slipped it off again, and refolded it carefully. “How much is it?”
“Seventy silver Dhohbins, and worth every pinty,” he said, and she repressed an involuntary gasp. She seldom had that much money all in one year.
“See what I mean?” said Rhandor under his breath as he leaned over her shoulder to take a peek at what she was looking at. “Ridiculously over-priced.”
“I ‘eard that!” the Dwarf said with a growl. Raising his weapon slowly he added, “Why don’t you get lost now, afore I decide to test me axe’s edge against yer skull?”
Rhandor’s hand went to his sword hilt but Roshanna stopped him with a look.
“Knock it off Rhandor,” she said through gritted teeth. “Go take a walk and cool off, and take Leonhar with you. You’re both getting on my nerves today.”
Rhandor shrugged and tilted his head in deference. “Fine, have it your way. It’s your money Roshanna.” He spun on his heel and waving the reluctant wizard over, said in a loud voice.
“It seems we’re not needed here after all. C’mon back with me to the Bit and Bridle, and I’ll treat you to a round or two. I understand there are some new veil dancers in town. Clear veils too.”
“Clear veils, how utterly intriguing,” said the wizard with a half smile. Roshanna glared at their backs as they sauntered off. She wasn’t fooled. They were just salvaging their wounded male egos.
Mental note: never shop with men.
Turning back to the Dwarf she stroked the mail shirt again.
“This is the best mail work I’ve seen today, probably the best ever, and it’s worth every pinty you’re asking. But I can’t afford it no matter how much I love it. Is there anyway you could hold this for me until I can scrape up the cash?”
“Sure,” the Dwarf said sarcastically with a glint of mirth in his pale blue eyes, “And how many years would that be?”
Not insulted by his dry humor, Roshanna busted out laughing. “Too many for you my friend, I’m afraid! I’m over my head here. But I do admire fine work and I couldn’t resist asking.”
“Well, I suppose I could come down a little,” he said, stroking his straggling red beard. “It’s been a good year for me, all things considered. Sixty Dhohbins and twenty quad, but not a pinty less.”
She looked longingly at the mail coat, and shook her head. “That’s more than fair of you, but I just don’t have it. A pity too, I’d love to show this one off to my know-it-all friends.”
The dwarf sighed and his bushy brows knit together. He stroked his beard furiously, and tugged at his braids and tassel of his hood. Finally, rubbing the end of his bulbous nose he said sharply, “Fifty-five and twenty and I’ll not lower the price again so don’t ask!” He took a spread-legged stance and gave her a furious frown.
“I can’t afford it, I’m sorry,” she said with a sheepish grin. “I only have one Dhohbin and a quad or two to spend.”
“Then why’re you wasting me time!” he bellowed, waving his arms around like a windmill’s blades. “Get out of here ye bum!”
Roshanna picked up her knife and sheathed it as she wandered off, chuckling to herself. Something about the way these Dwarven people bargained so hard made her feel at home among them.
Maybe it’s my grandmere’s blood showing through, but I do like them! They’re so unaffected and real. It’s like a breath of fresh air just talking to one.
She stopped at a booth several down, where a Dwarven woman was selling fine hunting blades. Roshanna fingered a real beauty with a carved bone hilt and was about to ask the price when a great commotion broke out behind her.
A tiny dwarf boy came barreling down the steps full tilt with a fine old buckler shield in his arms that was as big as he was. Two uniformed Calimsharv guards thudded behind him in hot pursuit. The Dwarf boys short legs pumped as fast as they could but the men overtook him at the base of the stairs. One of them grabbed him and held him up by his hooded cloak while the other pulled the shield from his grasp and barely eluded his boxing fists. A tiny hobnailed boot caught the second man square in the nose and he cuffed the boy, and the man that held him shook him like a terrier shakes a rat.
“Whose is he?” the second man shouted, while the first one held the squirming, kicking dwarf boy at arm’s length to the crowd.
The marketplace grew malevolently silent.
He can’t be an orphan, thought Roshanna. He’s too finely dressed and cared for.
The first man looked around, and announced in a loud voice, “This hill-rat is a thief and he’s going to be horsewhipped unless somebody comes forward and claims him!”
Roshanna could feel the tension building all around her as Dwarf men and women fingered their axes and daggers and their eyes narrowed into a calculating squint. They’re itching for this to become a brawl. I can’t let that happen! They’ll lose all they have here in an insurrection, and there’s not another large city to sell in for miles.
Roshanna turned and took a step forward with her hand on the dagger at her hip. After all, she was an outsider here with little to lose…
The Dwarven woman selling the knives stopped her short with a curt gesture. “We’ll ‘andle this our way,” she said quietly. She called out in her guttural tongue, “Korgi, what has that male-born of yers been up to now?”
In the next booth a Dwarf woman sat at a low table assembling gemstone necklaces and earrings. She looked up and hastily scrambled to her feet.
“I’ll find out soon, that ye can be sure Gerri! Watch me booth will ye?”
To Roshanna’s surprise the awkward looking Dwarf woman grabbed an axe leaning against the stall wall and vaulted over the low front counter in one clean movement. She charged straight at the guards and they dropped the boy and drew their swords. Defiant and unafraid, her golden braids swinging free of her hood, she faced them down. The boy ran past her, then turned and clung to her skirts.
“No Maman,” he begged, “Don’t kill the soldiers! They only shaked me a little. They di’nt hurt me.”

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