Saturday, 15 August 2020

One Öre


   This month, The Zi'veyn turns 2, and The Sah'niir has its 1st birthday,
so I wrote this month's short story in connection to it.
It takes place on the morning of The Zi'veyn - no prior reading needed!


   Garon frowned at the coins dropped into his palm. 'Two, four, six...' Seven öre and one krona. It was all there. And yet, bouncing them in his hand, it felt just a little too light...
   His grey eyes lifted back to the trader. The man's amiable smile had stiffened, and even as he looked offhandedly across the surrounding market, he seemed to be trying to shuffle off to the side and away from his cart. Garon smoothly caught his wrist.
   "What," he presented the coins, "is this?"
   "Your change, sir," the man replied without a trace of concern for his grip. His smile had even revived. There was no shame in his eyes at all. It was a perfect mask. And, logically speaking, nonsensical.
   Garon sighed to himself. This man knew exactly what he was doing. And he didn't have the time for it.
   Unfortunately, matters like these were his jurisdiction.
   He didn't release his wrist, and turned himself only slightly, but the shift of his cloak was enough to draw the man's eyes to the hilt of his sword, and the White Hammer insignia stamped on the flat of the pommel. At that point, the chipper colour drained from his face.
   The trader's gaze lifted back, his eyes suddenly as wide and innocent as a child's, and he opened his failing smile to speak.
   Then snatched the coins and ran instead.
   Garon cursed and set off after him, darting around the cart while the trader dashed away behind the rest before swinging down into a lane. He called over the startled merchants for the man to stop, but the words, as they always did, fell on deaf ears. They were little more than a formality. Leaping as easily over the crates and debris thrown in his way as he did, the man must have known he could never outrun him. But he would try. They always tried.
   And so Garon wasn't remotely surprised when the man barrelled out from the far end of the lane to the street beyond, and crashed straight into the side of the horse. A surprising number of alley chases ended that way.
   While the cart-horse squealed and stamped its surprise, coins scattering all over the cobbles, Garon strode out to the street, seized him by the wrist, dragged him to his feet, and dutifully intoned: "I am arresting you for possession of and intent to distribute counterfeit coins, suspicion of counterfeiting, and treason." His grip didn't falter while the man tried to struggle his way out of it. Nor when his effort doubled at the timely arrival of two guards.
   Garon all but shoved him into their care. "Detain him, and recover those coins. The Hall of the White Hammer will be in to collect him in due course. I'm following up on something else at the moment."
   They straightened and nodded their agreement, then began calling for the civilians to keep clear while a third guard hurried over to help them.
   With a grunt of satisfaction, Garon turned and strode away. He had another, greater matter to see to.

*

   One bronze öre rolled its way beneath the wagon and bounced across the cobbles. It wove its way out between boot and hoof, narrowly avoided striking the well, and missed the eye of the local miser.
   It was only when a single misstep sent a foot grazing and stumbling over the uneven stonework that its roll for freedom was broken.

   Petra cursed and cast the road a spiteful sneer, restraining herself from kicking it. She was about to move on when a bronze glint caught her eye.
   Her gaze narrowed, and a thought puckered her lips. 'Luck,' she wondered, 'or just chance?' Was the question even worth it?
   She bent down and lifted it from the stone, when a voice rose behind her.
   "Are you Petra Dalin?"
   A smile flickered across her face. 'Luck.'
   She turned as she rose, and considered the armed man who waited a wary few steps away. About fifty, almost twice her own age; a strong frame, but lean rather than bulky; a scar running from his cheekbone down through his beard; a confident bearing - trained, not inherent, and probably deserved. A soldier, she surmised, until not that long ago.
   This wouldn't be an easy win.
   Petra straightened and moved her cloak aside, deliberately placing one hand on the sword at her hip. The gesture was made only in part for intimidation. "I am." Her eyebrows rose when he bowed his head.
   "Then I extend a challenge, if I may."
   "You may. And more politely than I'm used to."
   "Don't misunderstand my honour as chauvinism." There was a steadiness in his eye when he looked back up. "I know well of you. I won't hold back."
   "In which case," her eyes similarly hardened, "neither will I. Where?"
   "The square."
   "When?"
   He drew his sword.
   A smirk flickered across her lips, and she drew her own in answer. "Lead the way."
   A number of people followed them from that busy street. She could hear her name, and his, flow throughout the growing crowd, and when they reached the town square, marked by a small and poorly maintained public garden, it had swelled to perhaps three dozen.
   She glanced over them as they came to a stop, removed their cloaks and prepared themselves, but her evaluation of their wealth was cut short by the cold. She fought back a shiver and swung her arms to warm up her shoulders. Spring felt further off than it should have been. Surely the ice floes had moved off by now...
   'I'll have to try my luck north in Kasire one of these days...'
   She shook the useless thoughts away. She was wasting time.
   Her attention returned to her opponent, watching his warm up, looking for injuries and where he was taking more care. There were plenty of small weaknesses, but they appeared mostly healed. But even if some of them were nothing more than left-over ticks from an injury healed a decade ago, they could be exploited.
   Her own most recent had cleared up a few days ago, and she did her best not to show any subtle hints of protection. But she had the distinct feeling that even that level of physical wellness wouldn't last for much longer.
   The soldier ended his warm up. "I am aware of your rules, Miss Dalin. We fight to disarm."
   "Yes, that's...all of them..." She shook her bemusement away. "No amendments?"
   "None. Are we ready?"
   Someone nearby started calling for bets.
   'I am now.' She stepped aside and unlaced her coin purse. It contained only about one quarter of the money she carried; the rest was in a pouch hidden inside her cloak. This was a show of arrogance. She was sure to feign a slight limp as she approached the collector.
   "On me," she said, and was about to drop the pouch into his waiting hand when she remembered the lucky öre. She drew it from its hiding place in her cinch just as a warning rose from the other side.
   Everyone scattered before she could finish her curse.
   She snatched her cloak from the ground and threw up her hood, covering her blood-red hair, and fled along behind them. A few corners later, she breathed a sigh of relief. The guards here were quick to move, but not to pursue. But no rules had actually been broken, so she'd been prepared to protest her innocence. As for the soldier, she would find him again later.
   Tying her purse back to her cinch, she looked down at the lucky coin and smiled. At least she'd made something, if only a penny, and, resolved or not, she'd found a challenger too.
   The mid-morning sun glinted across the bronze as she flicked it up into the air. Then a sudden doubt pulled at her eyebrows as she caught it. She squinted closer, turning it between her fingers. "This isn't..."
   She looked around quickly, spotted a beggar sitting hunched on a low wall, and dropped it onto his book.
   If Petra Dalin was caught with a counterfeit, it would destroy her.

*

   Anthis blinked at the coin on his page. Glancing up from beneath his tattered hood, he looked about from one passing figure to another, but there was no knowing who'd done it.
   So he shrugged and pocketed it, read on to the end of the page, closed his notebook and tucked it into the satchel beneath his travel cloak. After dusting the moss from his rear, he hoisted the bag, bundled himself up and left. Why was it still so cold?!
   He shook his head to himself as he drew the cloak tighter around his neck. It would be fine once he was moving. Or working. Or just not thinking about it. Which was difficult when it was everywhere.
   'Silverwood, Silverwood, Silverwood...'
   That seemed to do the trick.
   He'd been to the ruins in that old, pear-speckled forest for two days on the trot, comparing notes from that ruined archway to notes on others from over the length of the country. No one else took much of an interest in them, but that was probably just as well - depending on how you looked at it. No one was around, which meant no interruptions, and the rest of the Historical Society didn't seem to give two sniffs about the thing. Too far beneath them, probably.
   Anthis scoffed to himself. That was their attitude on so many things. Armchair historians, the lot of them. The Fellowship was riddled with them, ironically. He was one of only a few who actually went out to investigate his theories.
   But on the other hand, that also meant that there was little he could fall back on. Any discovery would be entirely his own, but it would also be hard-won. And you know what they say: two minds, yadda yadda.
   Not that he could rely on many of them. He wasn't well-liked, and more or less precisely because he didn't attend sherry nights. But that didn't really bother him. Was he lonely? Perhaps a little. But he was also never happier than when he was out in a ruin, following up on his own research. And 'ornamental stones' or not, the archways were fascinating. They always stood alone, all of them, and he was sure they had once been gateways - intangible, yes; metaphorical, symbolic. Had they been made by post-magic elves, they could well have been actual portals, but these all dated - all of them - well back before the elves were gifted their magic, way back in the First Era, and they all seemed dedicated to Nara, the God of Hands - Vastal's face of craft and toil.
   But not all of them. Some were instead dedicated to Doru, the God of Mind, Vastal's face of intellect and compassion. And yet they all looked the same, aside from a few small engravings.
   They had to cross over somewhere, beyond simple aesthetics. There was a reason they all looked the same - same shape, same height, same dimensions, same coiling ornamentation. Weather and ruin not withstanding, of course. There was a link between these two of the Goddess's aspects in elven culture - but he'd been to seven sites in Turunda and several more in Kalokh and Doana, and he couldn't find it! Even just pondering it now, as his feet carried him almost feverishly through Edam's streets, he could feel a frustration clawing at the insides of his throat.
   Which face was dominant? More arches seemed to be dedicated to Nara, but was that just because they were crafted? Were they actually dedicated to Doru instead, and built with a higher, intellectual purpose? Like the communication between themselves and the gods? The 'gateway' to better understanding them? Maybe Nara only came into it at all because they had to be crafted by hand. Or maybe Doru was only relevant because it took planning and co-ordination to get so many so identical.
   He shook his head over the matter for the umpteenth time. Elves and their damned context. It was never simple! And while they left their stories engraved all over the things, so many words had multiple meanings that it was impossible to know for sure without a broad study. Which is exactly what this had been so far. Needlessly so. So broad, in fact, that he was beginning to wonder if they were linked at all - which was something he was hoping would've been answered five sites ago. Give it another day or two and he'd be off, no doubt, to yet another.
   He huffed to himself, loosening his cloak.
   He didn't notice the smile already creeping over his lips half a heartbeat later, nor the haste in his feet as he rushed out through Edam's town gate. Nuisance or not, the mystery, the search for the answers, they were what he lived for.
   Nodding at the guards as he left, he spotted a trader just ahead, and hurried forwards at a thought. "Excuse me," he called, already running in his previous excitement, "excuse me, sir!"
   The trader turned. It seemed a cumbersome movement with the pack on his back trying to overbalance him, but he grinned amicably enough. "Good morning, sir! However can I be of assistance?"
   Anthis returned his friendly smile as he puffed to a stop beside him. "Do you have any pencils?"
   The man blinked. "Pencils? Graphite?"
   "That's them exactly, yes. No one in Edam had any and I think - I hope - I'll need them." He watched the man tap his chin as he mentally noted off his inventory, then smiled in relief as the man snapped his fingers and lowered the pack from his back.
   "So, artist, are you?" He asked, rifling through one of the side pockets, which itself could have rivalled his own over-stuffed satchel.
   "Oh, no - historian. I'm heading out to the arch in Silverwood." He could see the man had already lost interest. Fortunately, he'd also already found the pencils.
   "Ah, here we are. Well, I can't see what good staring at old stones will do for a people as long-gone and as foul as the elves, but each to their own. I'm sure it has meaning to someone." He presented three wooden pencils. "Half an öre each, or all three for one."
   Anthis nodded and pulled the bronze coin out from his pocket. "All three, please."
   "Lovely jubbly."
   Anthis stuffed the pencils into his bag and thanked the man profusely. The trader watched him go with a bemused look on his face. "You're in a rush! The rocks ain't going anywhere!"
   "But the past grows only more distant!" He called as he hurried on away.
   The trader blinked then shook his head. "...Can't argue with that."

*

   One coin heavier, the trader followed the road from Edam towards the highlands, and the trees began to close in, ash and alder giving way to spruce as the ground climbed. He puffed along that wretched route with such a weight on his back, but he didn't consciously notice the strain. He whistled to himself whenever he had the breath to spare. There were easier routes, but this one was lucrative.
   And, after a few hours of travel and passing a handful of other trundling customers along the way, two figures emerged up ahead from among the trees: a grim-looking man, one who'd surely never smiled a day in his life, and a child.
   The trader narrowed his eyes as he always did, but never voiced his questions.
   "Morning, sir," he hailed the pair, and unstrapped the bundle tied to the side of the pack without taking it off. He paid no mind when the man ushered the child behind him. Hermits would be like that.
   The man handed him the money immediately, and he in turn the package. His burden felt wonderfully lightened, and his purse that beautiful degree heavier as he counted the coins and dropped them in. But he was twenty öre over.
   But the glint of the man's silver took him.
   He drew the strings together.

   "Taxes have gone up again," the trader told him before he'd even turned back to see Rathen's waiting palm. "On account of the war." He shrugged and smiled apologetically enough. "Sorry, friend."
   Rathen growled and dropped his hand, but he didn't pursue it. "Mead?"
   "No change on tax there."
   The usual grim lines in his face deepened in irritation. "Do you have any?"
   The pack came off of his back, and Rathen waited while he opened one of his many compartments. A moment later, he presented a bottle. Rathen managed not to sneer at the flourish. It was only a bottle of Edrich. The man thought he was an idiot. But what could he do about it?
   Plenty, really. But this thief didn't know that.
   And it was better that he didn't.
   Rathen reached out to take the bottle, but the trader immediately moved back. With another grumble, he drew his meagre coin pouch from his sleeve. "How much?" He didn't need to look up to see him eyeing his coins hungrily.
   "Two krona."
   "Two whole krona?! You said the tax didn't change!"
   "No," he smiled in that wretchedly apologetic way again, "but it's in demand at the moment. On account of war."
   "Of course it is." He handed over his last silver coin and took the bottle. A subtle tug came at his side, but he didn't look around at it. "And sugar."
   "Ah." That sounded sincere. "That one's not so easy, on account--"
   "Of war," Rathen finished. "Yes. Well, find some. Or it won't just be my purse strings getting cut." He made sure the look in his eyes was unmistakable, and rather enjoyed watching the man flinch.
   "R-right-o," he stammered. "In that case, I'll scour my storehouses, and raid my competitors'. Now, if that's all--"
   "Yes, thank you. Go." He watched the trader hoist his bag back onto his shoulders and move at surprising speed for his load. He shook his head to himself, but managed not to curse. "Thief."
   He saw the little hands grabbing up beside him in their usual desperation to help. The package was heavy, but the bottle could be smashed. But she was more likely to fall with the package.
   "Be careful," he said quite precisely, handing her the bottle. "If you drop it, don't try to save it."

   "I won't drop it, Daddy." Aria wrapped her arms around the bottle and held on both as tight and careful as she could, even as she watched the trader go from beneath her thick hood. It was a long moment before she realised her father had already turned and started back up the hill away from the road.
   She gasped and hurried along after him, feeling danger nipping at her bum. She raced at first, then remembered the heavy, sloshy bottle and instead took long but careful strides. Only when she was back and safe at his side in the shadow of the woods did she puff a sigh through her cheeks. Then she turned him a frown. "What did he steal, Daddy?"
   "Anything he can get his grubby hands on, I'm sure..."
   "But," the knot in her forehead tightened, "you gave him the money for all this."
   The smile he gave her was tired, but his ruffling of her curls through her hood was firm enough to rattle away her confusion at least a little. "Yes, little one, I did. Maybe I am an idiot."
   "You're not an idiot, Daddy."
   "Thank you for saying so."
   "'Dim-witted', Kienza says." She hid her smile behind the bottle while he turned a flat look down at her, then lowered it and gave him a careful grin. "Please still make me a cake."
   "Might not be able to. On account of the war."
   "Mmm," she pursed her heart-shaped lips in thought. "I suppose soldiers need cake, too..." Her eyes drifted back up to him, noticing again the same strange line between his eyebrows he'd worn since morning. "What's wrong?"
   "Hm?" He glanced down at her, then seemed to notice it himself. He forced it away, and it didn't come easily. "I don't know, little one. I just have a...feeling..."
   "About?"
   She watched him shake his head, then he stared forwards into the forest. "Like something's about to change..."


Words copyright © Kim Wedlock
No part is to be reproduced without my permission.



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