Mort & Lobelia’s introduction at last
It was a starlit summer’s eve in Forks, and at the Inn in the square, the party was just beginning.
It began quietly enough, with a few new faces among the usual supper crowd at The Toad’s Bottom, the tavern at the back corner of the Westport Inn, nearest reputable inn to Forks’ docks, fishmarkets, and burgeoning river trade.
Two rivers came together here in the first of two massive forks, the second being the fork in the trade road that followed each river upstream – or downstream to the sea, depending on which way you were facing. People and materials travelling down either would pass by one fork or the other, bringing a constant influx of trade goods and raw materials to the growing riverside town.
The Westport was an Inn, not some cheap flophouse, and the charms that kept out the many varieties of vermin or kept all the windows locked at night weren’t cheap – but guests at the Westport got the cleanliness and security they paid for. Certainly there were larger and more expensive inns closer to the center of town, but the Westport and the tavern behind it had done a brisk business for many years with the regular stream of travellers that the river brought.
Over the years the inn had taken on some of its guests’ nautical habits, and its scrubbed wooden floors couldn’t be any cleaner if they’d been holystoned daily, while meals were served precisely on the bell each morning and evening.
There were always new faces at an inn in such an advantageous position, a mix of moneyed sailors on leave, well-to-do travellers on their way to the royal city, merchants travelling with their wares, and ships’ captains ashore for business – or any of the other assignations which could be had in such a port while their vessels were unavailable, tied up to the docks to be loaded and unloaded by lines of grunting, sweating dockmen and sailors, or winched up out of the water entire for repairs or repainting of their hulls.
Invariably they’d end up at the ‘Bottom, where the regulars would cheerfully welcome them in, ply them with friendly drinks, and listen eagerly to their stories. They’d also cheerfully go through their pockets for every clipped copper, were any of those travellers to be so foolish as to pass out in some shadowy corner beyond the watchful eye and heavy hand of Ergo, the owner and barkeep.
Ergo couldn’t be everywhere at once, but both his sight and his hearing were excellent, and when the oak-thewed barkeep ‘threw someone out’ for attempted thievery, he took the phrase very literally. The cobblestone streets outside were hard and unforgiving, and very few were ever caught at it twice. Only Cap’n Halfwood told of someone caught a third time trying to pick a purse at the ‘Bottom, but no one over the age of twelve believed even half of the crippled old sailor’s wild tales anymore.
That didn’t mean one couldn’t discuss a crime at the ‘Bottom, even plan one, but those who tried to commit a crime in Ergo’s tavern were either very good, very discrete, or very, very sorry.
Ergo wasn’t just the owner of The Toad’s Bottom, but of the whole Westport Inn as well. His wife Koshi was the real brains in their marraige, and she kept the books and ran the inn with a motherly but iron-fisted hand, while Ergo devoted his attention where he enjoyed it most, behind the bar at the ‘Bottom. (It was said that, while Ergo might toss a man out onto the cobbles if you roused his ire, his wife’s sharp tongue could shame a sorcerer into first apologizing, then flinging himself into the street to escape its barbed wrath!)
Still, it was a good place to make introductions, to loosen the tongues of those too long at sea, and to mark their pigeons for following to some other, less risky locale for the plucking.
All in all it made for ripe pickings for Forks’ less savory element, and the trio of dusty, worn-looking travellers who slouched over to the nearest empty bench and called for beer were observed, evaluated, and divvied up before the first tankards reached their rough-planked, beer-stained tables.
The reputable regulars at the ‘Bottom ignored them to get on with the serious business of eating and drinking, drinking and eating, or just plain drinking, while the remaining half-dozen or so of a less law-abiding nature – miscreants, muscle, the misbegotten, even a minstrel tonight, though he was currently facedown on the bar – traded Significant Looks around the bar at one another, looks that spoke volumes in the tilt of a head, the lift of an eyebrow, or the way old Cap’n Alfwood’s wooden hook scraped along the bar as he ordered his usual sour ale.
[Young, ain’t they?] went the unspoken conversation, [Tuckered out, too.] [T’girl looks a strong ’un tho.] [They come in with the caravan?]
[Nah.] This from a grizzled enforcer as he downed his ale, not so much as glancing at the other conspirators. [Seen ‘em all, an’ none o’ today’s had any trouble within a week o’ here – all three o’ those have been in a real dust-up sometime today.]
This news was shared via a half-dozen idly-cracked knuckles, a resounding belch, and a brief and shielded handsign or two as the scarred old tough drained his cup, plonked it upside down on his table, and shuffled out without a word, prompting more than one stealthy glance at the trio to note and reevaluate the slashed and not-yet-mended sleeve of one, the edge of a crimson-stained bandage in the shadows within another’s hood, and the specks and splashes of clotted gore still barely visible on all three cloaks under the dust of the road – if one looked closely enough, that is.
Cap’n Alfwood clacked his wooden teeth and shook his head in a wordless negative of his own, his leathery, scarred face almost hidden under his ragged woolen hat. [Nor from the river neither.] the leather-clad enforcer nearest the old seaman passed on, [Cap’n watches the docks all day if ’e wants ’is drinky at night!]
[Walkers then.] opined Jimmy Fingers, with a snort of dismissal that almost upset the tiny carven figures on the gameboard between he and his barbarically-clad opponent. [You want ‘em, or is it young ’arry an ’is girls’ turn ta shear ’em tonight?]
The laconic negotiations were nearly complete when the leader of the trio dropped a single, tiny, platinum-colored coin into into the serving woman’s hand instead of the usual iron or copper bits, bringing the hidden discussion to a halt at her startled gasp.
More than one eyebrow was raised in speculation as she tried to argue in a hushed voice, then dashed to the bar in a rustle of skirts for a breathlessly-whispered conversation with Ergo, and more than one ear strained to hear as the flustered tavern-keeper arrived at the trio’s table for a low-voiced conversation a few moments later.
“Change? Don’t worry about making change, man!” one of the travel-stained trio rasped at the fawning tavern-keeper, throwing back his hood to reveal a haggard and bandaged face, the ends of a long slash that just missed his left eye visible at the edges of his bloody but otherwise clean and neatly-wrapped bandages. “Ye jest keep bringing ‘t beer out, an’ if we hain’t drunk up the full value of that by midnight, ye can keep whateer’s left – Unless we catch ye watering down the drinks, that is! Yer well paid, an there’ll be more ’t come if yer square with us.”
Sudden steel rang in the wounded man’s voice, and even the burly tavern-keeper was quick to reassure him, “Oh aye, of course not – Sir! This is a quality inn! Why, we’re known all the way to the Duke’s keep, we are!”
“Well, unless ye’ve got the good Duke locked in yer pantry ta tell us that Hisself, that don’t do me aught, now does it?” came the good-natured riposte, “Jest bring us a good hot dinner and keep ‘t beer flowin’, and we’ll sing yer praises ’til ’t morrow.”
“Right you are, Sir!” Keeping his face straight with an effort, Ergo stalked back to his usual place behind the bar to pour more beer, his mind awhirl while the dusty trio downed their beer in thirsty gulps and called for more. A platinum piece! A platinum piece just to wine and dine 3? Enough to pay for two dozen, and his good beer at that! He kept hold of the fresh pitcher to get the attention of the serving-girl, then let her have it as whispered hoarsely, “It’s the real thing, lass! Give them whatever they want, and maybe they’ll drop another!”
Sending his only other girl into the Inn, he gave her a note to the cook for more substantial fare than the usual bread and stew, and another to his wife to be sure there were rooms ready in case the trio needed to sleep off their drink – and could perhaps be convinced to pay similar rates for the privilege. Hells, if they tried to drink the full worth of their coin tonight, he thought, they’d be so besotted he’d be able to go through their pockets himself before anyone else got to them! (Ergo didn’t allow anyone else to steal from his customers..)
He was industriously wiping down the long oaken bar a few minutes later, and the hidden conversation had gone through the cant version of “Hold the phone, what’s this?” and was well into re-negotiations once more when the tavern door was pushed open to the stopper with a wooden thunk, and a rabble of assorted.. – Lets just call them “folk”, shall we? – of very assorted folk began to filter into the tavern, some quickly joining the trio at their table, while others found tables and benches of their own nearby before beginning to move the heavy tables closer together, leaving long scrapes in the liberally-scattered sawdust on the floor.
Most appeared to be new acquaintances, but a few bustled in talking like old friends, and at least one pair bickered like old enemies or an acrimonious, long-married couple. Most seemed eager to get to know one another, telling and retelling each other of their own parts in the day’s events, with several toasting and boasting boisterously once they had a couple of cups inside them, overjoyed with relief at not being among the dead at the end of the day.
The silent conversation around the bar, half thieves’ cant and half long familiarity, ground to a wary halt once again as new faces began to outnumber old in the continued influx, and the growing number of rough-hewn spears clutched tightly in-hand, and worn but serviceable blades at the belts of several of the growing crowd gave even the boldest of the conspirators pause.
Newcomers continued to make their way in over the course of the next candlemark or so, until they outnumbered not only the criminal element, but the rest of the tavern’s usual supper crowd as well. A silent consensus was achieved: [Smile and act friendly until we know more about this mob! Now, who will pay us the most for anything we can learn?]
Desultory conversation picked up around the bar as the watchers settled in to wait, while the minstrel was elbowed awake, and after a brief hissed conversation, set to tuning his cat with a will. (er, instrument, sorry – but you wouldn’t know by listening!)
Eyes all around the bar widened in sheer amazement when a tiny, stoutly-built little woman appeared from amongst the growing throng and clambered nimbly up onto a bench, so small that she could stand on the bench with her head at the same level as those already seated. Could it be? A real Halfling, here?!
Not only that, but some of the others looked no less exotic than she did, one so small and gnarled he could only be a gnome, and one or two others with the short, stocky build of dwarves, while one slender, still-hooded figure ordered an imported honeywine, then sat sipping it with a preternatural grace that could only mean elvish ancestors. (Actual Elves would be too much to expect, of course – even a half-elf was a rare thing indeed in Forks, but there was definitely something fey and eerie about that one..)
Ergo’s excitement over his deal began to fade as more and more of the growing crowd were added to the first trio’s tab, and it became more and more likely that it wouldn’t be all that excessive an overpayment after all. His mood showed miraculous improvement a few minutes later, when both of the serving girls reported that others were buying their own drinks and dinner – and paying good silver, for them, too! – and he worked out that he’d make a profit tonight even if he lost money on the drinks. He positively beamed when he realized there was still the chance for more silver (or even gold or platinum!) before the night was out, dealing with the sudden pandemonium with his customary good grace and cheery bonhomie.
One of his serving girls was needed just to run orders and dishes to and from the cook, and Ergo had to send another note to to his wife to send a couple of their daughters to help with the tables, as well as call in a strapping lad from the stables to bring up a fresh keg of his best beer from the cellar, and then another of ale, just so he could remain behind his bar and keep refilling pitchers and tankards as they were emptied.
All of the new crowd seemed well-heeled tonight, and more than one paid for their food and drink with their own coin, some seeking his best wines, another triple-distilled brandy, and one (the halfling) haggling drunkenly for the lowest price she could get on a meal of turnip-and-squirrel stew, yesterday’s bread, and a pint of cheap ale. Ergo was mystified by it all, but careful not to hint that others had already payed for the finest the kitchen could offer. Bouyed by the promise of tonight’s profits, (and to be honest, put off by her shrill voice and shrewish manner), he let the tiny woman have her meal for a few coppers rather than haggle while he could be serving more drink – and collecting more coin – instead.
Through a strange mood of mingled sorrow and triumph, introductions were made and toasts were soon flowing freely. The minstrel struck up a bawdy tune, and before long half the inn was tipsily singing along with the chorus. A few didn’t join in the singing, instead staring silently into their tankards or alecups, their eyes haunted and far away as the celebration went on around them.
By now all the regulars were unashamedly eavesdropping, unsure what to think of such a strange and diverse crowd!
During a pause while the minstrel lubricated his instrument, (i.e. somebody could be cadged into buying him another drink), a short man in faded but durable red robes stood and waved his hands in an attempt to get the attention of the nearby tables, but he was too short to be seen around those gathered at his own. With a wry snort he gave in to the inevitable and climbed somewhat unsteadily up onto his bench, and then up onto the tabletop to stand where he could be heard, (and more importantly seen), over the victory-and-loss-fuelled air of revelry and misery that gripped the mob. Miserevelry?
Both front and back of his heavy red robes were prominently marked with the sigil of St. Cathexis’ martyrdom, a blazing canoe in white, marking him as a trained healer of some skill in the local healing order. – A real cleric or divine healer would wear white robes with a red sigil, but otherwise the symbol and style were the same.
Lowering his hood revealed a sweaty, bullet-shaped head as bald as an egg, lacking even so much as eyebrows. His pale skin was flushed, suffused with drink and emotion. and his piercing eyes were the grey of a stormy sky, albeit rather bloodshot and glassy at the moment.
Standing unsteadily on the plank table, the man held up his glass of wine and called for the attention of the chattering mob, raising his voice to be heard. “Quiet over zhere, I’ve got somezhing to say! Quiet down, the lot of you!”, finally shouting over the din, “Shaddap, I said!”
When the overall hubbub quieted enough to hear him speak he continued, now and again slurring his words or swaying a bit, but plainly not yet completely in his cups, “Now, some of you know me, and a lot of you ozhairs met me today as I wash binding up your bleedin’ wounds. Zhere are many who would not be here if eet were not for me, yesh? My name ish Mort, an’ I-I weesh to make a toasht! A toasht to some of zhe men who did not make it here alive today.” The drink brought out the provincial accent that he normally tried to hide, but he could still be clearly understood.
An expansive gesture with his winecup sloshed his tablemates with some of its contents, to their noisy distress – especially that of the drunken “lady” across the table, the opulently-upholstered halfling in stained acolyte’s robes, who screeched in a most unladylike manner at the sudden dousing, “You wall-eyed sonsh of a toad sucker!” She cried, flailing ineffectually but theatrically in all directions. “You did that on purposshe! I’ma gonna give you such a k/hic/! – Such a kick inna arse, juss’ as s-shoon as I can catch tha th-three of ya!”
Mort rounded on her like a snake to roar in her face, his usually-quiet voice suddenly booming, “I said quiet you! Especially you, Lobelia Crackville-Baggins! I’ve heard all I can take from your filzhy mouzh already today, you horrible half-pint harridan!”
He’d apparently hit just the right note of fury to silence the loudmouthed halfling, who wilted before the blaze of his incandescent anger. From the look on her dumpy, potatolike face when she turned away however, she was anything but cowed, and the imprecations she muttered under her breath were enough to make a fishwife blush! Nonetheless, she quieted long enough for Mort to ignore while he spoke to the now-silent crowd around him.
With a final glare at the halfling he went on, “As I wash shaying, I am Mort-” “Mort the Short!” came the stage-whispered rejoinder, but someone else at the table managed to get a hand over the soused halfling’s mouth before she could say more. Mort’s face reddened even more, but after a deep, cleansing breath and another sip of his wine, he was able to smile and even shrug his shoulders in good-natured surrender, “Yes, yes, Mort zhe Short. Zhat’s me. Zhat ees what zhey called me down in the Gallowsweed, where I an’ m’friends journeyed from just a few daysh back. Well, my friends and.. Lobelia.” Mort grimaces, “I apologishe for zhat part. We tried to keep her from following us, but someone must have let her out of zhe sack!”
“But take note now, all of you!” he went on in a stentorian voice and spreading his arms wide, “I am short, but I am a short MAN! Look at me! I look nozhing like a dwarf! If I were a dwarf, I would be a TALL one, no? – I. am. not. a. Dwarf.”
“I am Mort! – zhe Short, yes. Short men have run in my line for generations, so laugh if you like, call me Short if you must. Share your small talk wizh me, your small favors, your little jokes. Ahah-hah-hah! So funny you can be! But do remember who may hold your life in zheir hands zhe next time you lot bite off more zhan you can chew!” Mort swept his bloodshot eyes over the crowd, then his anger seemed to fade.
“But not all of my friends made it zhis far,” the small man continued sombrely, “An’ I weesh to tell you of two zhat deserve to be remembered.”
“Zhe first, well, hees name was Moan. Yes, Moan Strataxe, youngest son of his fazher, Gripe. And yes, very much a dwarf. I have nozhing against dwarves, as I have nozhing against children – But I am not eizher one!”
“Zhe Strataxes’ clan live in zhe hills around zhe Marsh, and are known for many leagues around for zheir armor and weapon-making, but even more so for zheir forging of fine-wrought musical instruments of every shape and size, and zhe wonderful music zhey would make wizh zhem. Nearly every Strataxe plays an instrument, and zheir musical axes and tuned hammers have sung in every major dwarven battle in zhe last 300 years. On quiet winter nights, you could hear zhe zhrob of zhe beat coming up from zhe very stones of zhe earzh underfoot. Eet is…Magical!”
“Moan and his elder brozher Groan, zhey could see in an eenstant zhat I was no dwarf, but still zhey taught a small-for-his-age boy how to fight – and how to fight dirty when my opponents were bigger zhan me. Zhey befriended me when all else laughed at my stature! Zhey even taught me an old dwarvish saying; “Size Doesn’t Matter.” – as well as zhe dwarven trick of punching anyone who laughs in zhe donglers while zhey are still laughing at zhe words."
Mort smiled wickedly at the fond memory, lost for a moment in the recollection before he went on, “Now Groan, ‘ee was an axe man from zhe beginning, but Moan was more into zhe, ’ow you say? Zhe percussion, no? ’ee didn’t mind being backup hammer of zheir youzhful war band, even compared to his brozher’s role as lead axe. Zhere was never any greed or envy een him, no desire to upstage zhe ozhairs. No, ’ee was satisfied to keep zhem all working together in rhyzhm, to make himself better by making zhe ozhairs better.”
The small man’s face falls as the loss hits him once more, his voice mournful. “He came wizh us from zhe Cursed Marsh just to keep me company! His brozher had found his calling as a Thane – ahh, what we would call a paladin, I zhink, but wizh more lightning – and had begun his training. Moan wanted to see how zhe humans lived in zheir cities, to spend a couple of weeks helping me to get my feet under me, zhen he would return to zhe dwarfhalls to begin his own training as a cleric, so he could continue to keep his headstrong brozher, his fellow dwarves, and all of zheir allies from harm.” Mort looked haunted, “Now.. Now I must journey or send word to his family, to tell zhe elder brozher zhat his little brozher won’t be back for zhe winter concerts, zhe yearly battle of zhe warbands, or anyzhing else – ever. He was slaughtered by a beastly zhing, just as the battle he had no place in began to turn our way!”
Mort angrily wiped at his eyes as as he was overcome by emotion, then went on in a choked voice, “I saw zhat cursed keep where it happened destroyed, wizh no stone left upon anozher, but zhat won’t bring him back.” Swaying on his feet, he raises his cup and says, “To Moan Strataxe, a dwarf and a real man!”
Many hands raised their cups with him, which was just the moment of inattention the halfling needed to escape. Writhing like an eel and biting the hand over her mouth, she wrenched herself free of the man holding her and darted under the table, disappearing among the throng of drunken legs. Her shrill, querulous voice rose from hiding a moment later, “What about Beeeeker? What about my boyfriend?!”
Mort looked about furiously, but couldn’t tell where her voice was coming from. “He was never your boyfriend, you ninny! Beeker was six and a half feet tall, and human besides. You’re no human, you’re a half-witted hassock!”
“He was so my boyfriend!” came the waspish reply, “We use’ta share our lunches every day, an’ I got him a job with that nice Mr. Corpsegrub in his tower down in the Marsh! Beekees invited me ta come to the big city with him!”
“You mean you used to steal his lunch every chance you got – and Corpsegrub was a bloody necromancer!” Mort retorted, setting off gales of amusement at the other tables. "And zhat poor red-headed boy was touched in the head from zhe beginning. He never spoke a word to anyone, just “Meeble-meeble-meeble!” But ee’d do whatever anyone told him to do, even zhe goosegirl. And you, You took advantage of him every chance you got, you hip-high harpy!"
“Was not! Lobelia shrieked from hiding, “Did not! And besides, old Grubby never asked poor Beeker to do anything evil, he just paid him to catch eels and snakes and things from the swamp!”
“Electric eels!” Mort roared back, to the further amusement of the watching crowd. “And adders! Death adders! D’you have any idea how many times he almost died of poison? I have never before seen a man’s eyes light up like hees did, sometimes for hours after every eel-hunt! Just let me find a stronger sack, and I’ll toss you back into zhe swamp that ye sprang from, you tiny trollop!”
Mort stood at the edge of his table, turning his head this way and that as he furiously searched for the halfling’s hiding place. With a glance at his shoulder he sent the owlet perched there winging up into the rafters to seach from above, while he hopped down and began looking under each table in turn.
“Where are ye, you little swamp-rat?” he shouted, his face congested with fury. He was too busy looking amongst the forest of legs under each table to notice the foot-long centipede that scurried from the shadows and begin to wind its way up the length of his iron-shod staff, only spotting it in the last second before it reached his hand. “Come out, an’ I’ll show you just how zhose eels – By zhe Gods!!” With a startled oath as he spotted the creature, Mort dropped his staff as if it were red-hot, then grabbed the length of yew by the far end and began viciously beating it on the sawdust-strewn floor to dislodge the multilegged monstrosity, his half-hysterical stream of curses accompanied by Lobelia’s peals of drunken laughter.
When the bruised centipede finally released its grip and scurried for the shadows Mort followed, catching it just before it vanished back under a table and bringing the end of his staff down on it again and again with crushing force, long after the dismembered segments of the venomous creature had stopped squirming. “God in heaven, die, you damned leggy thing! DIE!”
Only when it was very, very dead did Mort stop at last, gripping his staff in both hands and panting like he’d been in battle for his very life. “I hate zhem! I hate zhose.. disgusting.. vermin!”
At last he shuddered and drew his hand across his face, regaining to his senses just as the little halfling charged out from under a table at him, waving a metal fork in one hand and a short sword in the other and shouting at the top of her lungs, “You-you killed Leggy! You dwarven bastard, I’ll kill you this ti-”thunk! Lobelia’s shout ended as if switched off as Mort’s staff described a precise arc through the air, ending with a loud crack atop Lobelia’s greasy bun and dropping her to the floor with all the grace of a sack of potatoes.
“I! Am! Not! A! Dwarf!” Mort gritted out between clenched teeth, then took several deep and calming breaths breaths to steady himself, letting some of the crimson flush of fury recede.
The murmuring of the assembled mob got louder as the tiny woman’s body lay unmoving on the floor. When the hubbub of voices began to voice individual complaints, Mort snapped at them, “What? What?! Her head ees solid bone! A little knock like zhat isn’t going to kill her – more’s zhe pity!”
Bringing his hands to his face in a show of consternation as the angry murmurs continued, Mort called out mockingly, “Oh no! Oh no! She ees hurt! EES ZHAIR A DOCTOR EEN ZHE HOUSE??”, then widened his eyes in awe as if struck by divine inspiration, “Why seenk my canoe, I am zhe doctor! Oh, we are saved, we are saved! Stand back!” Gesturing theatrically he shooed away the concerned watchers, then bent over Lobelia’s still figure to check her pulse and listen to her humors, “Give her air! Give her – Faugh!” His bald face paled as his small hands examined the knot atop her skull. “By all zhe saints and martyrs! Her-” cough! “- her breazh!”
At last the little man stood and turned away, his face comically woeful. “Eet is as I feared. Zhe little woman.. She’ll live.” Face screwed up in disgust, he stumped back to his table and climbed up onto the bench, saying at last, “For zhat, I apologize.”
Picking up his winecup and peering nearsightedly within to be sure there was wine left, Mort put his hand up for quiet once more as he thought for a moment, then continued heavily, “Touched or not, young Beeker saved us bozh, taking zhe blows zhat would have cast us into zhe boiling rock. He burned up in an instant! But in zhe end he was a man, and in his deazh he lived up to his name.”
Raising his winecup, Mort made his final toast, “To Beeker Blownaparte! Even zhe lowliest can die a man, and we shall all remember heem!” Then drained his winecup with a flourish as the others echoed him before bringing it down on the table with a bang.
“I have just one question for our host,” He mused before the next toast began, looking over at Ergo behind his bar, "Why “Zhe Toad’s Bottom”? It seems a strange name, unsuited for the fine inn you are a part of."
Ergo barely had time to open his mouth before every regular still in the place turned Mort’s way and held up their tankards to chorus, “Where d’ya think he gets this frog-piss ale?!”
Their raucous laughter followed him out the door as he made is way out to relieve himself, leaving Lobelia still snoring on the floor where she fell.