tagSci-Fi & FantasySarlene's Touch Ch. 09

Sarlene's Touch Ch. 09

byFuinimel©

The dwarves had been in Haredil long enough to have carved out their own quarter of the city. Despite having lived in the city all his life, it was an area that Almandar had rarely been to; unlike the elves, dwarves only rarely performed magic, and the close-knit and prudish nature of their culture gave him little other reason to visit. In fact, Lady Tarissa was probably more familiar with the district than he was, because of their quality armourers. And there was Dolrim, of course.

Looking around him at the blocky buildings with their small windows, he almost wondered why he had volunteered to come. But, if they were to obtain plans of the ruins beneath the city, his knowledge of Haredil's ancient history might help, along with Dolrim's natural feel for architecture and stonework. Nonetheless, he could not help but feel that the dwarves were a dour people, far from the fun-loving and carefree nature of the elves, or even, to an extent, the gnomes. It was the nature of their culture; they were master-craftsmen, spending all their time in dedicated work to improve their art, leaving no time for gaiety.

Lady Tarissa was leading the way as they walked through the dwarven streets, laid out in a square grid, as regular and monotonous as the buildings around them. As a paladin, she probably approved of the dwarves' dedication, and even Almandar had to admit that they were an honourable and courageous people -- Dolrim had saved his own life more than once. The previous night, Tarissa had invited round some friends of hers from the Temple of Pardror for a pleasant evening of food and conversation out in the courtyard. They had not discussed the apparent threat to the city, but the Temple were potential allies if ever they needed them. Calleslyn had brought a friend too, by the name of Messandra, but he knew enough about women to tell that she was not attracted to him.

Of more immediate interest, however, at least from Almandar's point of view, the young elven squire from the Temple had been very pretty, even attired in the plain white of her order. It was a pity that, as a woman taking her first steps on the path to paladin-hood, she had resisted his attempts to flirt with her. At least she had not looked offended, and the hope of one day ending up between the sheets with her was not, he thought, entirely forlorn.

Not that there was any chance of that here, he reflected. Even were dwarven women not so prudish, they were hardly his image of an ideal bed partner.

Their destination, when they arrived, was, he had to admit, rather different than the bland buildings around it. It was higher, for one thing, with doors of conveniently human height. Ornate buttresses flanked its walls, with arched windows of stained glass depicting images of castles and towers, anvils and hammers. A coat-of-arms stood above the main entrance, carved into stone with exquisite care. When the dwarves wanted to show off their skill, they most certainly could.

For this was the Masons' Guild of Haredil, a profession dominated by dwarves, although also with a few gnomes and humans. Here, they hoped to find the answers they sought, with the assistance of some of Dolrim's contacts.

The dwarven warrior, Almandar knew, was not native to the city, having come from the mountains to the south. He had come here in search of fortune, and, as part of the band of adventurers, had, by and large, found it. But even so, he had made some links with the locals, despite their different clan ancestries -- apparently an important aspect of dwarven culture, so far as he understood it.

The three of them walked up the steps and through the open doors into the lobby. The building had clearly been constructed with humans in mind, but it showed an unmistakable dwarven ambience. The floor of the lobby was polished marble, lined by columns rising up to an ornate cavern-like roof. Stone carvings lined the walls, showing the various stages of construction of a great building, and the banisters of the stairway to the upper story were plated with shining metal.

A dwarf wearing some sort of grey livery approached the group, and spoke briefly with Dolrim, before disappearing into the building. The trio waited politely, looking around at the masons' art on display, until the liveried dwarf returned with someone else and took up his station beside the door again.

The newcomer was another dwarf, obviously a fairly young man, with thick brown hair and a relatively short beard. He was dressed in solid earthen tones, with the heavy boots favoured by his race and a few gold and silver rings on his fingers. Evidently, he was a prosperous craftsman, although probably too young to have his own business as yet.

"Dolrim!" he said, formally shaking the warrior's hand, "it is good to see you again. You must introduce me to your companions."

"Olthen, this are my companions; Lady Tarissa, and Almandar, a magician. Tarissa, Almandar, this is Olthen, a journeyman mason of the Clan of Olain." The half-elf could not help but notice the formality of the phrasing, although it was not overly long and flowery. There might be protocol here, but at least they were not drowning in it. "We have a business matter to discuss, some information you may have that might help us."

"Of course," replied the younger dwarf, "my father and I were just conducting a business deal of our own, but it is nearly complete, and you are welcome to join us. Then we can talk about your own matter." He smiled, clearly quite a friendly and open sort for his race, and led the way towards the door he had emerged from.

Beyond the door was a corridor with several rooms off it, apparently quiet meeting rooms for masons and their clients. They entered one of the rooms, which, like the rest of the building, had bare stone walls carved with friezes, rather than tapestries or wooden panelling. There were several chairs, some suitable for humans, and others for dwarves, and a long table with a few parchments on it. A stained glass window with a picture of bridge allowed plentiful light into the room.

At one side of the table, facing away from the window, was an older dwarf, his hair greying, with a long braided beard and a thick silver armband and bejewelled belt buckle indicating his high status. Skipping over another dwarf, Almandar's eyes were immediately drawn to the third person in the room, evidently the mason's client.

She looked to be about thirty years of age, a human woman in a long dress of dark blue and green. She was, he guessed, of slightly above average human height, which made her tower over the dwarves in the room. She had long sandy-blonde hair, tied back in a pony-tail that reached half way down her back, and a slender face with red lips and blue eyes. Her skin was pale and soft-looking, with a few scattered pale freckles on her cheekbones. She was bending over the table as he arrived, collecting some of the parchments, although the high cut of her dress afforded him a view of no more than the outline of her breasts and the curve of her hips. She looked up as they arrived, her glance apparently no more than simple curiosity.

"Greetings," said the older dwarf, standing stiffly, "I am Tharn ak Olain, master mason and architect. This," he indicated the remaining dwarf, "is my daughter Ostrid, and this is the merchant Relayna, with whom we have business."

Dolrim introduced his companions a second time, and then Tarissa stood forward, shaking Tharn's hand briefly, and maintaining her own formal pose. "We are adventurers, master mason, who recover the lost treasures of hidden catacombs. We request your assistance on a matter of architectural knowledge, and bow to your expertise."

Almandar thought it was all a little overblown, but Tharn seemed impressed, the correct formalities having apparently been observed. "Please join us," he said, indicating the chairs on the far side of the table.

At the mention of adventurers, Relayna's eyes seemed to widen a little, and she looked the group over, as if curious, her eyes resting on Dolrim, and then on the half-elf himself. He fancied that they stayed there a little longer than was necessary, and she seemed a little flushed. Perhaps there was something to be gained by this visit, beyond a little information, after all...

"There is..." Relayna started, pausing slightly as if uncertain what to say, "just something I need to clear up, but I won't interrupt. You don't mind if I stay for a moment?" She looked from Tharn to Tarissa, but it was Almandar who responded first.

"Not at all," he said, "we will not be long." Tarissa cast him a puzzled glance, until it suddenly dawned on her what his reason must be. Her face twitched a little but she said nothing, looking across at the master mason instead. When he also gave his assent, the human merchant pulled a chair away from the table, and moved it to the far wall, behind the dwarves, where she could see the adventurers, but not appear to be directly part of the discussion.

They all sat down, three of them on each side of the table. Relayna was sitting close to the window, somewhat in shadow, but the half-elf's eyes flicked to her easily over the heads of the dwarves. Fortunately, their attention seemed to be largely on Tarissa, for he suspected they would not approve of any flirting. Indeed, he was unsure how dwarven courtship worked, although he suspected it took rather a long time.

"We are interested in the past history of the city and its ancient architecture," began Tarissa, "in particular, the ruins below ground. We were hoping that you might have information on them... as historical curiosities, or to avoid building cellars into them, perhaps?"

"We do have some knowledge, of course," agreed Tharn, "but this is not information we normally share with outsiders. This is guild information, partly, but also a clan matter... this kind of knowledge is hard won, and not readily given over to our rivals."

Almandar thought he was being a little evasive. Did they perhaps have some idea of the threat that the subterranean ruins held, or at least an inkling that there might be something bad down there, something they did not anyone disturbing? It was possible, at least, but Tarissa was the negotiator of the group. She and Dolrim together should be able to get what they needed out of the dwarven masons, if anyone could. And so, he found his mind wandering a little, to the obvious subject of the human merchant.

Relayna certainly looked a little flushed. She actually did not appear to be paying too much attention to the conversation, but at first appeared to be deep in thought. She looked over the adventurers again, and the magician was quite confident that she looked aroused now, her eyes widening involuntarily, her hands clasped together, as if to avoid giving away her interest. To Almandar, though, it was quite obvious.

Her eyes rested on his for a moment, and he caught her gaze, before deliberately sweeping them down to admire as much of her body as was visible behind the table. She was slender, with full high breasts and a long neck. It was difficult to tell at this distance, but he thought he saw a few beads of perspiration on her forehead, behind her short fringe of hair. Her eyes were wide and her eyebrows raised, and he felt sure she was evaluating him as much as he was her.

Then she looked to the side, towards Dolrim, perhaps to see if the other two had noticed her interest, but it seemed they had not, for she soon glanced back towards Almandar, her expression now shrewd. He felt confident that she was planning a way for them to be together... he only had to find a way to give her the opportunity, without the dwarves being affronted by what was going on in front of their noses.

Holding his gaze, she parted her lips and ran her tongue around them, giving him a distinct 'come hither' look. Now he was confident that he had not misread any of the signs -- not, he felt sure, that there ever had been much chance of that, for he could read women well. He smiled at her, hoping that she understood his acquiescence, and turned his attention back to the conversation. It could, after all, be important.

"Under the circumstances..." Tharn was saying, "there are some details we could give you, but not here. Tomorrow night, but Olthen and I must leave for a site before then. Ostrid would have to handle it for you. But you must understand, this is dwarven information, we can give it only to Dolrim. We trust your judgement, my friend," he added, turning to the warrior, "but it must be your decision how to share this. In giving it to you, we are not breaking any bonds, but it must be to you, and you alone. I trust you understand?"

Before he could answer, Almandar was surprised when Relayna suddenly stood up. "I have realised I must go," she said, "I am most sorry for the interruption, but in any event, I should not intrude further. If I could have a quick word with Ostrid before I leave, though?"

Tharn looked slightly irritated, but he motioned to his daughter, and she got up and walked over to the far corner, where she whispered with Relayna for a while, beyond the half-elf's earshot. He had not paid much attention to the dwarven woman until now, for she had not spoken once during the conversation with Tarissa, or, indeed, since he had entered the room.

She looked young, although quite what that meant for a dwarf he was uncertain, and wore a blue-grey dress with a skirt hem that almost trailed on the floor. Her chunky necklace of silver and gold, and the bangle around her left wrist, were both clearly the product of skilled dwarven craftsmanship. She was blond, with her hair in braids, and the pale skin so typical of her race. Had it not been for her stocky build, and thickset limbs, he supposed she might be considered quite attractive, and perhaps dwarven men did think her so.

It occurred to him that Dolrim was going to be alone in a house with her tonight, her family away. Had it been him, and had she been human or elven, he was confident of how that night would have ended. As it was, he could not imagine anything happening at all. Dwarves, he suspected, missed even golden opportunities like that one -- which was probably why Tharn did not seem worried by the prospect himself.

He was more concerned that Relayna was about to leave without giving him any means of contacting her again, but then he noticed that whatever she was saying to Ostrid was making the dwarf blush, and glance over to her family -- who were fortunately looking the other way at the time, back in conversation with Dolrim. It probably did not take much to make a dwarf blush, and when the merchant handed Ostrid a scrap of parchment, and glanced towards Almandar himself, he was confident of what she had said. Even the dwarven woman, it seemed, was able to interpret the purpose behind the note, and was embarrassed by the very thought of it. In her culture, they just did not do things like that.

Soon, Relayna was gone, closing the door behind her and heading back into the guildhall. Ostrid headed back to the table, the note clutched in a hand behind her back, where the others could not see it, her eyes downcast, and looking even more reserved than before.

Whatever Dolrim had said had apparently met with the older dwarf's approval, for they were shaking hands, and the conversation was turning to more social matters. The warrior obviously knew the family, and now that business was over, wanted to talk about it. With nothing else to distract him now, Almandar was forced to listen to what seemed to him dreadfully tedious accounts of dwarven clans and their affairs, but he supposed the warrior had little enough chance for conversation with his own kind, and did not begrudge him the opportunity for it.

Eventually, they all got up, the dwarves now seeming friendlier and less formal than they had earlier on. Perhaps they would make useful allies, after all. As they left, Astrid hurriedly pressed the scrap of parchment into his hand, glancing about to make sure she had not been seen. After he had left, he unfolded the note and read it.

It was the address of a house in the human part of the city, with tomorrow's date.

──◊──

Dolrim reached the master mason's house some time after sunset. Navigating the ordered streets of the dwarven quarter was so much easier than the winding alleys of the rest of Haredil, reminding him somewhat of the great subterranean city of his homeland. It had not surprised him that Tharn had agreed to hand over the plans only to a fellow dwarf; there were many things that should not be shared with outsiders. But, if there was a threat here, he would have to deal with it, no matter the cost.

He knew that the trip would be quick one. He only had to pick up the documents they had prepared, and then leave. Almandar, by contrast, had gone out with a quiet smile on his face, and he would not be back before dawn. The whole human and elven preoccupation with such things seemed rather unseemly to him, and it was good to be among people who knew that you should not talk about such matters.

Ostrid, fortunately, would understand that. Almandar probably already had dirty thoughts about what might happen at the mason's house that evening, but, if so, he could hardly be more wrong. Ostrid was, admittedly, quite attractive, but she was a little young for him, and anyway, there would have been a great many arrangements to be made if he had intended to woo her. Dwarves, unlike humans or elves, simply did not act like that, and it was a sign of trust that Tharn and Olthen had not even bothered to worry about such things. Just because two people of the opposite sex were in the same building together did not necessarily mean that they would try to... well, procreate.

The house had the typical appearance of most of the others nearby, but Dolrim's practiced eye could discern the higher quality of the stonework, as befitted a dwarf of Tharn's status and profession. It was also slightly larger, with a sloping roof of slate, a sign of the family's wealth from its trade. He knocked on the door, and prepared to announce his name and purpose when Ostrid opened the door.

Only, it wasn't Ostrid; it was Relayna.

Dolrim was puzzled, and immediately on the alert. Shouldn't she be with Almandar right now? Or had he misinterpreted what the half-elf was doing tonight? It seemed unlikely, knowing him, but, of course, there was always the possibility that he had met someone else entirely.

Relayna was obviously a trusted friend of the Olain clan, and Tharn in particular, and, indeed, he had even heard her name before. She was a merchant who often worked with dwarves, helping to sell their wares onto the human market, especially beyond Haredil. So, as far as he knew, she could be trusted. Yet her presence here was strange, to say the least, and he had noticed that she had spent some time sizing up the adventurers when they had arrived. Almandar might have thought she was looking only at him, with his sometimes one-track mind, but Dolrim had found himself under her gaze as well. What did she really want?

"Dolrim," she said, "do come in. We were just finishing a meal -- I do love your cuisine -- but all the documents are ready for you downstairs. Or so I'm told -- apparently, I'm not allowed to see them!"

It seemed plausible, but somehow her words did not quite ring true. She was hiding something, but what? He was only carrying a dagger, since it did not do to wander the streets of the city in full armour and weapons, but it was a large one, and he was proficient with its use. He surreptitiously moved his hand towards it, ready to grab it if need be, but nonetheless stepped into the house. They were surrounded by fellow dwarves here, this should be a safe part of the city... but something odd was going on, something he did not quite understand. And, as a warrior, there was only one way to prepare for that.

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