23 March 2012

ELVEHELM: Eldisle II - Vero Torva

            Biting her lip to steady her hands, Cerdik scraped the slender blade over the lip of the tiny cup.  A small shower of pungent crystals fell back into the glazier’s flask.  Moving swiftly but with extreme care, she placed the measure on the table and stoppered the flask.  Finally, she took up the measure again and poured its contents - slowly, very slowly - into the mortar.

            Her instruments - the blade and the measure - were both made of polished horn, rubbed with a thick layer of wax.  Metal could not be permitted to come into contact with the compounds she was using.  At least, not yet.  At the last instant, she remembered to lean back; the previous time she had performed this task, the sudden surge of grey-white fog springing up from the mortar had scorched her nostrils, nearly choking her. 

On cue, the tell-tale pungent mist bubbled up from the water and other reagents that lay in the bottom of the stone vessel.  Cerdik breathed out slowly through her nose, determined to avoid a repeat of last week’s incident.  She had no idea what she was doing, or why her master wanted her to do it (other, of course, than the immediate utility of her activities to his business); but she was a swift learner.  Once choked, twice shy.

            When the foaming and smoking had died down, she picked up the heavy pestle and, two-handed, worked it around the vessel, grinding the crystals she had just added into the sizzling, muddy mess.  After a few moments of this, she sneaked a peek over the lip of the mortar.  The mucky slop in the bottom of the container looked right.  A few moments longer, she reckoned, and she would be done with the horrid stuff.  For today, anyway.

            The girl’s concentration was commendable; somehow, she had managed to block out the ear-splitting babble of a market-day crowd.  She was working in the rear of an open-front stall - a shop on the Piatella, the high road that ran from the Duke’s palace down to the inner harbour of Joyous Light, the choicest of locations, hotly contested by the merchants and artisans of the city. 

            Anyone who glanced past the heaps of materials, the clusters of wares for sale and the feverish activity of the apprentices (there were few enough who bothered to do so) would have noticed a marked difference between the girl and her fellow labourers.  For one thing, she was a good hand-span shorter than most of them.  Where their skin was pale and blemishless, hers was sun-browned and, where it appeared through her clothing – a worn linen shift, stained and spotty – it looked dappled with patches of some darker hue.  Her ears were more pronounced than theirs, her cheekbones fuller and higher, her manner subdued and observant.  Where their hair was long, black and straight, hers was a heavy, bushy mass of reddish-brown, knotted into complex braids secured with beads of horn and bone, silver and stone.  These swung and clicked gently as she worked the pestle around the heavy stone flask.

            An especially observant interloper would have noted lush contours, broad shoulders, a strong back, and arms which, while still feminine, were muscular and defined.  Although she blended in to her surroundings, all but disappearing amid the ferment and clutter, the girl somehow seemed solider, more elemental - in a certain sense, more real - than her willowy, Third House co-workers.

            Her eyes, too, were different - wide, red-brown and bottomless.  Sons of the Third House – daughters, too – who saw her might forget every other feature, but they never forgot her eyes.  She usually kept them downcast, fixed on the ground.  In the company of her black-haired countrymen, her eyes caused her nothing but trouble.

            Unlike most of the stalls crowding the busy street, the one in which Cerdik laboured, plying the thick stone rod, was a false front, a garish canopy fixed to the facade of a permanent building, rather than depending from the roof of a wagon, or – as was far more common – attached to the rain-flap of a traveller’s tent.  This was because her master, Iniustus Nugo, was one of the more successful of the city’s craftsman - a jeweller of renowned skill, and one who had earned a reputation as a reliable, even inspired, purveyor of divitarum - ornamentation - to the city’s elite.

            His shop - Domus Nugo, to the city’s inhabitants - was an exquisite confection of light hardwood and polished sandstone, leagues above the pedestrian quarters of his main competitors, and correspondingly far more tastefully gorgeous than the wagons and tent-stalls of the itinerant artisans.  But on market-day, the ages-old, often inexplicable customs of the Homelands came into force, and even long-established and highly respected merchants had to play the mendicant.  Hence, the false front - a temporary structure of wooden poles and garish silks that, for the length of the day, made his tasteful shop look like the tent of a colour-blind peddler. 

            To complete the illusion - again, in accordance with ancient tradition - his apprentices and servants, instead of working at their customary workbenches, well-lit and equipped with costly, imported gnomish implements, had moved their operations for the day to the crowded, uncomfortable pseudo-tent.  There they jostled for space, knocked each others’ elbows, squabbled for access to old-fashioned tools, and generally projected the image of a bustling, busy shop - at least to the mobs of ignorant pedestrians who mistook activity for efficiency.  Very little work, and none of any quality, was accomplished on market days at Domus Nugo.  But a great deal was sold, and immense numbers of aureae changed hands.  The increase in income more than made up for the loss of productivity.

            While the master’s deputy, Praetrepido, haggled with a veiled and obviously well-moneyed lady over the price of a golden wristlet studded with slivers of garnets and opals set in the shape of flowers, one of the master’s more senior apprentices - Irasco Salax, a well-made local youth who exemplified the grace, confidence and arrogant beauty of the Third House - sidled up behind Cerdik, unnoticed by all but the girl herself. 

            To those unfamiliar with her nature, she appeared focussed and intent upon her duties; but like all of her people, she had an uncanny awareness of her surroundings.  Very little escaped her attention - especially Salax, who had more than once tried to force his attentions upon her, expecting her to be gratified by his condescension.  He had seemed both offended and genuinely baffled when she had rebuffed him.  His reaction on each of those previous occasions had not surprised her; as a first-rate specimen of High Elven manhood, he no doubt had had many triumphs among his own kind. 

            Cerdik, since arriving in Joyous Light half a year before, had witnessed more of that sort of thing than she ever wanted to.  She knew her place, and did not remonstrate when oppressed or even beaten; but she felt a quiet contempt for the easy virtue of the scions of the Third House, her supposed ‘betters’.  In her tribe – in all of the tribes – matters of the heart were held to be serious, and treated with dignity and restraint.  Among the Rusa, females chose mates, not the other way around; and they did so not on the basis of beauty (and certainly not wealth).

She had tried to explain all of this to the adventuresome Salax the first time he had tested her resolve, but her inadequate command of the High Elves’ language, and his adamant disinterest in any sort of verbal intercourse with one of her station, had made it a fool’s errand from the off.  So she had given up, and simply watched him with the wary attention of a doe watching a circling jackal.

            This time, though, he didn’t even bother with sweet words or seductive posturing.  To her outraged astonishment, he simply slipped up behind her and slid a hand under her jerkin, groping her in the most grossly familiar fashion.

            All thought of discretion vanished; she reacted instinctively.  Dropping the heavy pestle, she spun in place and drove her elbow up into his nose.

            With a cry, the man staggered backwards.  Continuing her spin, the girl dropped to the floor, sweeping her leg in a wide circle, cutting Salax’s ankles out from underneath him.  As he clattered heavily to the ground, she leapt back and shrunk into a wary crouch, scanning her surroundings for other sources of danger, and preparing to bolt.

            The result was chaos.  The dropped pestle struck the mortar off-balance, flipping the heavy vessel over and spraying Nugo’s proprietary and highly caustic silver-polishing solution across the crowded tent.  One of the other apprentices, bent over a stone honing gem-cleaving blades, caught a gout of the stuff across his back, and cried out at the sudden stinging as it began to eat through his chemise.

            Salax made a lot more noise and a much worse mess.  Cerdik hadn’t just broken his nose; she had crushed it.  Blood sprayed between the fingers he had clamped over his face, splashing the girl, the tables, the tent, staining the costly silks.  Wailing like a banshee, the fellow struggled to his knees, hands pressed to his face, spraying gouts of gore about like a mortally wounded gladiator. 

            The girl briefly considered grabbing a cleaning rag and helping him, but then decided to let him bleed.  He ought to consider himself lucky, she thought; had he pawed her like that in her tribe’s jangat, she would have been within her rights to gut him and make a necklace of his teeth; indeed, she would have been honoured and feted for doing so.  Here, though, in the High Elves’ world, she knew that her reward for her momentary loss of temper was liable to be a lot less pleasant.

            That, however, would come later.  For the moment, the offender’s pathetic antics amused her.  She watched him curse and caper, smiling narrowly to herself.

            Then another element insinuated itself into the situation, shouting “Prex precis!”

It was Praetrepido.  His customer had fled at the sight of blood (without, Cerdik noted, purchasing the costly armband) and the master’s deputy was now staring, goggle-eyed and aghast, at the spectacle before him.  “What in the Ender’s arse is going on?” he shrieked.

            Salax pointed a bloodstained hand at Cerdik.  “She struck me, magister!” he cried. 

Blood sprayed from his mouth as he spoke.  This time, the girl couldn’t help herself.  She laughed out loud.

            That was not, as she knew, an especially wise course of action.  Without further ado, a scowl of rage twisting his face, Praetrepido stepped forward and backhanded Cerdik across the mouth. 

            She could have slipped the blow, of course.  She was faster than him, faster by far.  But she knew, from unpleasant experience, that doing so would only have enraged the master’s deputy more, and caused him to resort to the lash or the cane.  His knuckles weren’t nearly as bad as those; Praetrepido, in Cerdik’s opinion, was as weak and effeminate as all of his race, and the blow had probably hurt him more than it hurt her.  She had endured worse thrashings from her childhood playmates.

            Nevertheless, she knew how the game was played.  Instead of enduring the blow stoically, she cried out and let herself fall to the flagstones, inwardly cursing herself for the snivelling performance, and praising Istravenya that no others of her tribe were on hand to witness such a puerile display.

            Canicula hebes!” the man raged.  “Look what you’ve done!  Look at this place!  And at midday!”  He swore a number of incomprehensible oaths.  “We’re going to have to close to clean it up!  What a damnable waste!”

            He was glancing around the shop, estimating the damage and, Cerdik knew, looking for something to beat her with.  She did her best to cower abjectly, knowing that dull submission would shorten her punishment, while stubborn resistance would be likely to prolong it.

            Salax, with the unpleasant ingenuity that was one of his less endearing traits, anticipated Praetrepido’s needs.  Domus Nugo was, as a long-established purveyor to the royal court in Starmeadow, was entitled to display the virgae regina - the trio of lictor’s rods born by the Queen’s escorts whenever she ventured out of doors.  A set of these - stylized, but hard and resilient withal - hung from the frilled canopy of the tent. 

With a nasty grin, Cerdik’s would-be paramour slid one of the yard-long canes out of the hangers.  He passed it to Praetrepido.  “Here, magister.”

            Praetrepido took the rod, hefting it and nodding to the boy.  “Excellent.  My thanks, Salax.  Go get yourself cleaned up while I attend to this...this animal.”  He raised the rod, then added, “Or stay and watch, if you like.”

            Salax, not surprisingly, stayed.

            Cerdik had not expected this.  She glanced around the tent front, realized that there was nowhere to go, rolled to her belly, wrapped her arms around her head, and waited.

            And waited...

            When no blow had fallen after a dozen breaths, she cracked an eyelid and looked up.

            Praetrepido was standing as he had stood - arm raised, rod poised to strike.  But he was no longer looking at her.  Instead, he was staring, distracted, at some sort of commotion a little further down the street.

            It was, as usual, difficult to hear anything over the bustle of market day.  But when a shattering roar split the air, Cerdik heard it.  And not only heard it; she knew what it was.  The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, a reaction not of alarm, but of elation – even excitement.

            She risked a glance at her tormentors, and saw that their response to the unearthly howl did not match her own.  Salax looked nervous, and had grabbed a chisel from a nearby tool-tray, presumably to defend himself with.  The sight made Cerdik smile. 

For his part, Praetrepido blanched, the blood draining from his already pale upper-class hide, leaving him a sickly, fish-belly white.  To her relief, he lowered the rod.

Perhaps unwisely, Cerdik laughed at their reaction – a clear, ringing, mocking laugh.

Praetrepido’s face purpled suddenly.  It was foolish to remind a coward of his cowardice.  The girl received two stinging cuts from the long cane before another commotion – this one closer – caused the shop-keeper to pause again.

“I’d leave off that cac, if I were you,” a voice hissed urgently.

“Why?” Praetrepido demanded, even more curt than usual.

Cerdik risked another peek.  The newcomer she did not recognize, other than as another member of the upper crust – tall, slender, black-haired and green-eyed like the whole pasty, scrofulous lot of them, and outlandishly attired despite the hour.  But there was a difference – the man’s hair was awry, his face was flushed and sweaty, and his carefully-chosen clothes were askew.

“A fight, down by Thymek’s,” the newcomer sputtered.  “Some fool’s brought a tiger into –”

            He broke off as the bustle exploded into an uproar.  Praetrepido appeared to have forgotten about her, so Cerdik sat up.  As she did so, a half-dozen young, high-elven ne’er-do-wells – well-dressed, well-armed, but no longer well-turned-out – pelted past the shop-front, looking as though Bardan’s own balrogs were hot on their heels.  A dozen or more locals ran after them, shouting and jeering at them.

            After the tumult had died down, Praetrepido turned to the newcomer.  “So, Mellys.  What in all the hells was that about?”

            “Just a scuffle,” the visitor shrugged.  “Or so I thought.  A few of the lads, feisty ones.  Calperyso, and his lot.  They were giving the business to that old lumbah who sets up down by Thymek’s shop.  You know the one I mean?”

            “Sure,” Praetrepido shrugged.  “The fellow with the beads and feathers, and the blotchy face.  What about him?”

            He’s talking about Panah Laut, Cerdik realized suddenly.  She knew the man, an elder of the Lumbah Rakut, the Dolphin Tribe.  He was a gentle, humorous old duffer. 

She put a hand to her throat; she was wearing a necklace of amber and shells that he had given her a few weeks back, accompanied by a slyly admiring wink.

She hoped that the blackhair thugs hadn’t hurt him.

            Mellys’ next words assuaged her fears, at least a little.  “Well, they were just…you know, shoving him.  The usual nonsense, right?  Anyhow, next thing you know there’s this sell-sword there, with a round-ear behind him, and the biggest gods-damned cat you ever saw.  Near horse-sized, and black as midnight to boot.  And teeth…”  The fellow whistled appreciatively.  “Big as milady’s bodkin.

            “So, this latro – he tells Cal and the boys to lay off, real polite.  And Cal tells him to shove off.”

            “I should hope so,” Praetrepido huffed.  “Then what?”

            The newcomer’s face split whitened.  “Then the big cat cuts loose with a growl.  You probably heard it.  The warrior don’t do so much as put a hand on his sword-hilt and glare – and the next thing you know, everyone in the street’s screaming and running.  With Cal and his boys leading the pack, pissing so hard the ships’ll be floating an inch higher in the harbour come nightfall.”

            “You were running pretty fast too, so far as I could see,” Praetrepido said sardonically.  “Must be a mightily formidable sword-swinger, to rout a hardened trooper like yourself.”

            “You go an f--- yourself,” Mellys said rudely.  “I won’t take that from a fornicating shopkeep who was polishing rocks at home when I was polishing my lorica at Duncala.  I did my tour ‘gainst the Hand, and if I learned one thing, it’s to run when you’re outmatched and an inch from being crow’s-meat.” 

He shuddered.  “I got many a scare in the hills back in the day.  Damn’ near lost my head to one of those fornicating Hand knights.  But none of them were as...”

He broke off.  The blood flushing his face drained away.

Praetrepido’s eyebrows rose.  “Are you all right?  Do you need a draught of wine or something?”

In a strangled voice, Mellys whispered, “It’s them!” 

Then he scuttled away as fast as his feet would decorously carry him.

A moment later, the most bizarrely mismatched trio that Praetrepido had ever seen hove into view.  The first was a man about his own height – an elf by his poise, maybe, although a little burly, who walked with the easy confidence of an experienced warrior.  He was hooded, and unarmed save for a long sword at his side.  On the left was a much taller individual – a human, thoroughly non-descript, dressed in light, loose clothing and simple sandals, and looking if anything even more graceful and relaxed than the elf.  And on the right was the creature that Mellys had been on about – an enormous cat with mottled black and grey markings and bright yellow eyes, padding heavily along, heeling the elf for all the world like an oversized rat-hound.

The crowd split in front of them like water before the prow of a warship, leaving a comfortable space, and watching the trio with a mixture of astonishment and alarm.  Praetrepido found himself uttering a silent prayer, begging the Protector to will that the elf and his comrade – although obviously well-heeled – were not in the market for jewellery.  Larannel, however, to Praetrepido’s dismay, does not help men who hit girls. 

The hooded warrior glanced over at the shop-front.  Nodding to his human comrade, he turned and approached.

Praetrepido stood behind the counter, trying not to quake in his shoes.

Cerdik, watching with cautious interest, thought that this might be an opportune moment to grab a rag and begin sponging up the splatters of cleaning solution (and Salax’s blood) that were spattered here and there.

“Good morning,” the warrior said pleasantly.  Praetrepido thought that there was something odd in his voice; something rough.  An accent, perhaps?  Or maybe he just has a cold. 

Mustering up his courage (and his avarice – the two did, after all, look like soldiers of fortune, and might be well-coined) – he replied, “Good morning, sir.  How can the House of Lugo serve you this day?”

“I’m looking for rough-cut gemstones,” the warrior replied curtly.  “Trade quality.  Have any?”

“Err...” Praetrepido muttered.  “We, uh...we mostly sell set stones, sir.  We...”

“I’m looking to buy in bulk,” the warrior interrupted. “I’d like to...”

His voice trailed off suddenly.  He was looking past Praetrepido, and into the shop.

At Cerdik.

The warrior saw the same thing that other observers usually saw – a shortish elf-woman, with lush curves and tightly defined muscles, clad in a simple labourer’s smock.  Her pronounced ears and elaborate, rust-red hair announced her origin.  When she glanced up, though, he found himself blinking in astonishment at the deep, soulful glory of her gaze.  They were eyes that a man might lose himself in.

He noticed two other things as well.  One was the necklace the girl was wearing, a thing of amber, silver and shell similar to the one that he had been given, moments before, by the old tribesman he had rescued.  The other - painfully obvious as she bent to scrub the stains from the floor - was a pair of long, narrow welts across her bare shoulders.

He turned back to the shop keeper, glancing pointedly at the rod still clenched in Praetrepido’s fist.  Then he raised his eyes to the man’s face.

The shop-keeper started to shake.

The woodsman said nothing.  He simply stared without expression.  After half a minute of this – thirty seconds that, to Praetrepido, felt like thirty centuries – he casually put his hand on his sword-hilt.

The cat growled menacingly under its breath.  Praetrepido’s bladder let go.

The warrior noticed the trickle, pursing his lips and murmuring, “Hmm.”  Turning to the girl, he asked, “Do you speak elvish?”

She shook her head.  “Unner’stan, little,” she replied.  “No spek.”

He nodded, wracking his brain.  At last, he asked hesitantly, “Siapa namamu?”

The girl smiled shyly, ducking her head.  Namaku Cerdik, pemburu.

As he had expected, to her voice was low, musical.  He knew enough of the south-sylvan tongue to puzzle out her response.  Most of it, anyway.  The girl’s name – Cerdik – had dozens of different meanings, ranging from ‘clever’ or ‘sagacious’ to ‘cunning’ and ‘subtle’.  It could even mean ‘sinuous’…and ‘cute’.  He wasn’t certain what ‘pemburu’ meant, though.

“How appropriate,” he remarked to the human, who merely nodded. 

The warrior glanced back at her, eyeing her closely.  Cerdik knew that he was looking at her tahi lalata – the markings of her birth, that identified her by blood.  “What tribe?” he asked.  “Err…rakuta?”

Rusa Rakut,” she replied.  She bent her head low, almost touching the flagstones.  Terimah kasih, pemburu.  Thank you...whatever.

The warrior nodded. Rusa Rakut mean ‘Red Deer Tribe.’  It made sense; she was soft-spoken, graceful, and from the look of her, both hyper-alert for signs of danger and a little skittish.  Her manner, her uniquely riotous hair, and the subtle dappled markings at her shoulders and hairline suggested that the ancient gift of blood ran truer in her family than in most.

He turned back to Praetrepido.  “I may see you again,” he said blandly.  “But you probably won’t see me.  Do we understand each other?”  As he spoke, he tapped a finger against the pommel of his sword.

Praetrepido, who had not moved from the damp spot he had left on the flagstones, nodded rapidly.  “We do, sir.  Absolutely.”

The enormous cat punctuated the conversation with a menacing rumble.

The sell-sword nodded once more to the girl.  Pergi cepat, pelari.”  Go swiftly, runner.  He knew that much of the language and customs of the tribes, at least.

Cerdik smiled and bowed.  Pergi diam-diam, pemburu.”

He turned to the human, eyebrows raised.  “I didn’t get that.”

The human said, “ ‘Go softly, hunter’.”

“Of course.”  Pemburu meant ‘hunter’.  He should have known that.  He bowed to the girl, and she beamed in response.

As the trio wandered back into the crowd, Cerdik heard the human murmur soft words to the woodsman.  “This is an awfully big country, and their customs are…well, theirs.  You’re not going to make a habit of this sort of thing, are you?”

“She’s a child of the forest,” the warrior grated.  “Like me.  More so.

“And,” he added angrily, “just like all of these stinking hypocrites, too.  The way they treat each other…it sickens me.”

“You can’t right all the wrongs in Elvehelm, you know.”

The woodsman’s fingers kneaded his sword-hilt almost convulsively.  “Why not?”

“It wouldn’t kill you to compromise a little.  But it might kill us if you don’t.”

The last thing Cerdik heard from her deliverer was an angry mutter: “Never compromise.  Never.  Not even in the face of Armageddon.”

When they were gone, the girl turned back to her duties.

It turned out to be a more pleasant market day than she had expected.  Praetrepido didn’t speak to her at all, and to her surprise, he presented her with a brand-new, spotless smock shortly before closing.  The rest of her blackhair co-workers studiously avoided her as well.

Best of all, at one point shortly after mid-day, Salax dropped a flask of distilled water, and got a stiff backhand from Praetrepido.  His nose started bleeding again, and he spent most of the afternoon whimpering.  And Cerdik smiled.

She found herself humming happily as she worked.