Something that just walked into my head… not sure if it’s part of anything larger, or not…
One Fine Day At Ye Olde Magick Shoppe
Haldebard sighed. The war… well, the nearest war… was over, and that meant the sad tromp of soldiers back from the battlefield. Conscripts graciously allowed to return to what might be left of their farms, mercenaries regrouping to seek more work, and sworn soldiers of the Duke finding that the coin counters had counted the coins and it seemed a few too many soldiers were surviving to collect their promised pensions, so some would have to go. Haldebard didn’t particularly care about that; he was of the opinion that the tax collectors already took too much, not that he’d share that opinion, due to the high value he placed on his own life.
He knew what happened after wars. They’d come here. They’d all heard tales and legends and rumors, of how some trophy taken in battle turned out to be worth a dragon’s horde, and they expected him to empty his coffers into their pockets in return for whatever rusted blade they dropped on his counter. The door creaked open. First customer of the day.
Haldebard glanced up. Yes, exactly like the dozen from yesterday. Dirty, battle-worn, a clanking pack full of armor, stringy hair that might be brown under all the filth, scars that showed he wasn’t important enough to get the attention of a godsworn healer and had to make do with the services of some random leech who tramped after the army, mixed in with pack boys and camp followers. The man inhaled deeply and straightened up, undoubtedly of the opinion that he, a big, tough, manly, soldier, would easily cow the frail merchant into parting with his coin.
“No”, Haldebard said, before the customer could even open his mouth.
“Hail to thee, merch…er… what?”
“No”, Haldebard repeated. “No. I’m sure it’s a word you’ve heard many times. Let me assure you, it means more coming from me than from whatever village girl you last heard it from.”
“I don’t… she didn’t… wait, what? Look, I’ve got something…” He started to fumble at his belt. Haldebard held up his hand.
“Nooooo”, he said, as if talking to a slow child. “You probably can’t read, but if you could, the sign outside the door would say ‘Arcane Rarities And Curios’. That means, ‘magic’. Booga booga! Wizard stuff. Get it?”
The soldier nodded enthusiastically, like a happy puppy. “Yes, yes! This dagger, uh…” he was still trying to detach it from where it was tangled in his pack straps. Civilian garb did not suit him well. “…it’s magic, it…”
“No”, Haldebard said once more. He then pointed to the crystalline lattice over the door. “See those?” The man turned to look, nearly knocking over a nearby display with his pack.
“Those”, Haldebard went on, “glow and sparkle when any kind of magic passes beneath them. They didn’t glow. You bear no magic, not a jot, not a tiddle, not a dram. You have nothing to sell to me. I can tell by looking at you that you are not here to buy. This is a business. People who come here either buy, or sell, or they get out.”
The soldier reddened. “Listen, you… you… shopkeep! I nearly died protecting this land, so you can…” He didn’t see Haldebard glance, barely for an instant, at the suit of armor in the corner. He did see the suit animate and draw its blade, and begin to glow a sickly green, which played over the countless items scattered around the store.
Haldebard fixed his gaze on the would-be customer. “You can get out. For the moment. In about three heartbeats, you won’t have that option.” The animated armor, clearly without a wearer, clanked forward grimly. The customer backed out in a panic, tripped on some loose cobblestones, and fell. The door slammed shut. Haldebard sighed again, signaling his metal guardian to return to its dormant state. “And it’s not even second bell.” He opened up his latest acquisition, a selection of parchments from Old Talstane, each of which contained an animated, erotic, sequence that would replay endlessly, and considered if pricing them individually, or as a collection, would be preferable.
The door opened again. Haldebard looked up, prepared to dismiss this one as well, then noticed the gems were sparkling. Even if the profit for whatever bit of feeble hedge-magic he was carrying would be small, it would still be a profit. He forced a thin smile onto his face, an exercise that was physically painful.
“Greetings and welcome to my humble store. Do you seek items of great power, or do you offer me something to peruse?” Haldebard evaluated the new entrant even as he listlessly recited the greeting. A bit cleaner than the last. Dark skinned, black hair that showed signs of recent tending but which was a bit out of sorts from travel, gold rings set with stones small enough to be authentic, clothes that were well-worn but of good quality and which needed cleaning more than mending.
The man didn’t respond immediately to Haldebard’s question. He was slowly scanning the store, eyes passing over the glowing bottles, the sparkling amulets, the collections of bones and mummified flesh, the rings and knives in secure cases of what seemed like glass, the armor golem, the books and scrolls. When he was done, his face twitched slightly and he made a barely perceptible nod to himself, then seemed, for the first time, to actually notice Haldebard.
“Selling. Are you the owner?”
“Good. I hate wasting time only to get the” — his voice became a high, sycophantic, whine — ‘Ah, I must get my master’s approval to make such a purchase’ drivel.” He detached the scabbard from his side and set it on the counter. “Here. What’s this worth?”
Haldebard looked up at him. “Are you offering the scabbard or the blade, or both?”
“Blade. You can keep the scabbard for free, if you want. Hell, keep it for free if you don’t want, I don’t feel like carting it around anymore.”
“I am not a bonepicker. Toss it where you wish, just not in here. Now then…” He drew forth the sword, tilting and turning it, feeling the weight, and holding it up to catch the few rays of sun that filtered through the windows. (Haldebard had found that a gloomy pallor was what customers expected, and had had a small illusion placed to provide the proper atmosphere.)
He made a few soft tongue-clucking noises as he considered the sword. Hm. Decent quality. Clean. Shiny. As a sword alone, it would fetch a fair price. Haldebard strapped a brass and silver monocle to his right eye, and closed his left. The room became a swirl of colors and patterns, but he focused closely on the blade. The counter top had no enchantment on it, not even for cleanliness or security; indeed, it was fashioned of wood known for rejecting all enchantment, so it formed a clean, black, backdrop for the study of auras.
The blade had one, so the man at least was offering something worth buying. The gems detected only magic, not where it was held on the person. Haldebard spent several minutes watching the auras at play, ignoring his customer’s increasingly dramatic sighs, fidgets, and foot-tapping. Strands of crimson and cinnamon, overlaid with sparkles of azure that flared and faded. Flare time was one… two.. three counts… luminescence, about three tenth-wisps… two dominant hues, two, no three, subordinate… good coverage, no dead spots or transient whorls… hm. Not, not quite. There was a wavering in the aura, a flicker here and there. A trivial flaw. It probably meant the blade turned green on the Solstice, or made wine sour in the skin randomly, or some such. Minor.
“Fifty gold. I’m in a good mood.”
“Fifty. Five followed by… ah, wait, you’re Tulachian, aren’t you? Uhm, El. El gold.”
The man snarled impressively. Haldebard had seen better, but on rare occasion. “My parents were Tulachian. They settled here. I was born not ten miles from this town, in the Province Golthar. Do I sound Tulachian? Do I wear Tulachian armor? No! I am not confused as to the meaning of ‘fifty’, I am confused as to how a scrawny thing like you has the balls to insult me to my face with that ridiculous offer!”
Haldebard considered signaling the golem, but held back. This was just bargaining.
He smiled blandly, his face the epitome of calm reason. “Hardly an insult. It’s a year’s pay for many.”
“And it’s a thousandth part of what this blade is worth! Are you actually a merchant of the mysteries, or are you a delusional junk peddler with gullible clients?”
Haldebard sneered. “Fifty thousand gold? If someone’s delusional here, he’s not on this side of the counter. You fought for the Duke in the war, yes?” Haldebard didn’t wait for an answer. “I am a loyal subject of his Highness, and I have great respect and admiration for those who serve him and protect our realm, and of course my tiny… but very well respected… shop. I will double my offer.”
“Two piles of shit does not tempt me more than one pile. Still…” he made a great show of looking around. “It’s obvious times are hard and you are poor. The taxes imposed must have truly broken you, to judge from what you’ve got here. Twenty thousand.”
“My penury”, Haldebard continued, “has more to do with my excessive generosity than with the perfectly reasonable taxes requested by our noble Duke. Two hundred. I’ll be lucky if I can sell it for that, there’s rather a surplus of blades coming in now, you know.”
“A surplus of junk that some wandering fraud passed off on some clueless peasant as a blade of power, you mean. I’m not surprised you’d be taken in by such things, based on the other crap in this place. It reminds me of a rover’s ‘wagon of wonders’. Ten thousand, because I am bored and tired and seek to move on. Be grateful my ill mood is one which moves me to end this bargaining, rather than your life.”
Haldebard drummed his fingers. “Your sword truly is magic, or I wouldn’t be wasting my time, but, sir, skilled as you surely are as a soldier, it is possible that some ‘wandering fraud’ may have convinced you that this sword is much more than it is. It’s not exactly Tollorian’s Lost Blade now, is it?”
The man tapped angrily on the turquoise runes on the sword’s hilt. “See that? You ought to know those signs. This is Jandurial, Slayer of Colgoran!” He smiled smugly.
Haldebard smiled back, equally smugly. “Oh, it has a name. Well, that’s special. My left boot is called Clompy, Slayer Of The Large Hairy Spider I Found In My Privy Last Tuesday. Will you pay me a thousand gold for it?”
The soldier gaped at that, like a shia-haz master whose opponent had made a wholly unexpected move, but this flash of confusion lasted only for an instant. Haldebard was ready to activate the armor and a dozen more defenses, but then the dark-skinned man laughed, quite loudly. Something in the back room was awakened briefly by the noise. “Ha! By the gods, man, your balls must be half your body weight! Five thousand, then.”
Haldebard sighed once more, and tapped a single finger on the wood as he pondered. He had to admit, he was starting to enjoy this battle more than he had any such session in months. It might not be bad to have a man like this as a friend, as there were occasionally things to be dealt with outside the shop he’d spent years weaving into a fortress for himself.
“Look”, he said, trying to let his face and tone express his actual feelings, which required some effort; putting on various masks was so instinctive he found he had a hard time taking one off. “Your parents were merchants, weren’t they? I’ve only ever heard of Tulachians being allowed to actually gain citizenship if the came here with gold. So you must know something of trade, and you know what I’m saying now is truth. There are laws more dire and unforgiving than those of any noble or mad mage, and those are supply and demand. With the war ended, there’s a lot of supply, and not a lot of demand. Yes, I’m offering less for this than you’d get a year ago… and if, oh, let’s be honest, when another war breaks out, I’ll be selling this for… well, a lot more than I’m going to pay you for it, but still far less than you think it’s worth.”
The soldier nodded, slowly, his lips tightly clenched. “You do speak truth. It pains you. I also speak the truth — this blade is enchanted. You have already admitted as much.”
“Oh, it’s magical. I don’t deny that. I wouldn’t have wasted five breaths on you if it wasn’t… ask the clumsy sot who was here before you. It’s just not a particularly special magic. It really doesn’t matter if it’s got a name. People name everything.”
The soldier couldn’t entirely hide his slight smirk. “Even boots.”
“Even boots, yes. What matters is the might of the enchantments upon it… and if you’ll accept for a moment I am still speaking truth, these enchantments are weak. There’s the usual basics every craftmage starts with just to make the blade survive the enchanting process… it is stronger than all but the best iron, it rusts very slowly, the edge requires only the barest maintenance to keep sharp. There’s an enchantment of accuracy on it, it will twist a bit to dodge a parrying blade or pull your arm forward, just a little, to turn a miss into a hit, but it’s a minor one, something an adept of the first mysteries could manage. It also has what’s sometimes called the iron-bite, it will rend and tear when it passes through a living man, so the wounds it leaves behind are somewhat more grievous… but, again, a basic version only. It’s also got a minor flaw. I’d be inclined to undue generosity if you’ll tell me what it is, so I don’t need to spend a week figuring it out.”
“Flaw? You may know magic, but not blades. I lived by this blade. If it was flawed, I would have died by it.”
“As you say, you know blades, I know magic. Do odd things happen around the sword? Does it make sounds like a chicken? Does food taste strange to you? Do you find bees circling your head even in places where there are no bees?”
“No. And I’m not going to tell you of every time I banged my head or stubbed my toe so that you can then claim this is a cursed sword of toe-stubbing and cheat me. Eighteen hundred.”
Haldebard considered. It was very possible the soldier knew full well it was flawed, but wasn’t going to admit it. It was also possible he’d never noticed any pattern to his ale souring or his sudden fascination with sheep. “Fine. I’ll need to keep it off the shelves until I can fully analyze it, then, so I need to consider lost sales… Fourteen hundred.”
“You won’t be selling it for at least a year, long enough for you to do all sorts of mumbo-jumbo. Fifteen. Fifteen hundred.”
Haldebard finally nodded. He produced a small sheet of parchment and uncorked a bottle of ink. The fluid inside gave off a sulfurous stench and bubbled for no good reason. He wrote, in large, flowing, letters, “Tender unto the bearer coin or certificates of value equal to one thousand, five hundred, true coins of the Emperors’s own mint, bearing the Duke’s mark, to be drawn from the account of Haldebard, authorized and guildsworn dealer in items of mystery.” He waited a few moments for it to dry, then breathed upon the page. The letters sparkled. He rolled it up, dripped wax on it, and sealed it. “Here. Take this to the counting house. They’ll give you what you’re owed, minus their usual fee. He braced himself for the usual burst of stupid questions, but the soldier simply took the rolled parchment, gave a polite nod, and left.
The gems above the door flickered as he walked out. Haldebard considered this. His customer evidently bore more magic than this blade. Interesting… either he didn’t know he had other enchanted items, or he needed them more than he needed hard coin.
His gaze returned to the sword. Might as well get it done, he thought. He turned back and took out a large wooden stand, big enough to hold an opened tome. He placed two sheets of parchment on it, and used his finger to trace a pattern on the left-hand sheet. There was a flutter in the air when he was done with the gesture. He also retrieved a flask of more mundane ink — bloodtwinned ink was expensive, and used only when demanded as a proof against forgery.
He began to write, in smaller, tighter, letters than bill of sale. “Purchased on the fourteenth day of the spring of the sixth year of Duke Margolith the Second, long may his wise and just rule continue, a blade, alleged by the seller to be called Janduriel, and bearing two enchantments of the first order, the first being of accuracy, the second being of ironbite, and a flaw or warp, of minor degree, yet to be identified. I attest, on pain of all applicable punishment, I saw no sign of blasphemous powers, diabolic nature, or entrapped spirits. A payment of fifteen hundred was made, the guild’s fees to be added to my annual tally and paid at the appropriate time.”
As he wrote on the left sheet, each stroke appeared, echoed, on the right sheet. When he was done, he took one of the twin pages and placed it in a thick binder, then took the other, rolled it, then sealed and marked it, placing it in a small oaken box, one decorated in a complex pattern of curves dotted with silver droplets, below the counter.
I swear, he thought to himself, the damn parchment-maker’s guild must have dirt on the elders of every other guild in the kingdom, the way they keep coming up with new ways to make us consume their wares. He tapped four of the many points on the box’s carved surface, and there was a faint, musical, chime. He didn’t bother opening the box to verify that the scroll was no longer within it.
“Well”, he said, to the empty store, “might as well analyze that flaw.” Years before, Haldebard reflected, he could have sold it “as is”, or with a suitably cryptic “may contain as yet undiscovered enchantments, possible of great power”, warning, but the guild frowned on that now, and there was a saying “It is safer to have a demon smile at you than to have the guild frown at you.”
The blade was still sitting on the voidwood. He rolled his arms and twisted his back, looking forward to a long session of standing still and staring. Considering for a moment, and, he admitted to himself, looking for any excuse to put off doing the actual job, he wandered to the back room and brought out a massive tome, Jovar’s Compendium, Sixth Edition, a great work filled with pages which showed colors and patterns of auras, all of the documented types, levels, and degrees, along with their many “signatures” — tones, scents, even the summoning of memories or brief flashes of emotion. One day, Haldebard hoped to be able to afford to bind a book imp to it, so he could simply describe what he wanted and have the imp find the correct page. One day… maybe if there was a decent war in a year or two, maybe if he could turn the junk he was buying around at a decent clip… dream on, he told himself, dream on.
He heard the door open even as he was returning with the book. As he hurried back to the front room, he looked up at the gems, and saw they remained dull and lifeless. Stomping through the store was, of course, another warrior back from the war, this one with an immense sack. The newcomer bellowed, “Hey there, mister magic guy! I gots stuff for y’all!” Before Haldebard could even begin to tell him to get out, he upended the sack, dumping an astounding quantity of random items out onto the counter.
Haldebard stared. He knew none of them were magic, but what did this oaf think he was selling?
The oaf smiled broadly. “Four orc livers, a dagger, two gutripper eyes, a scabbard, some large rocks, I think that’s an eagle’s feather, the beak of a mmmph” Haldebard had shot out a hand and clamped it over the speaker’s mouth. He then held up a finger, in a common gesture of a teacher asking for a moment’s silence.
“Why are you bringing me this collection of butcher’s scraps and well-spoiled spoils of war?” He slowly removed his hand to allow the customer to answer.
“To sell! All the guys tolded me, when we marched home, to collect anything that looked kind of interesting, ’cause someone here would pay good coin for it!”
“Did they, now?”
“Uh yup! And when I got here, I were tolded that if I had odd stuff to sell, this were the place to sell it!”
The shopkeeper looked at him quizzically. “Is that a Celarian voice I hear? You are far from home, if so.”
The soldier nodded his head rapidly, reminding Haldebard of a pet desperate for a treat. “Yup, I sure am! I went off to war to seek mah fortune, I did, and won’t they all be surprised when I come back with all the gold you’re gonna give me for this! So, what do I get?”
Haldebard nodded. “They won’t be too surprised, I’m sure. You must have written to them on your journeys. I understand that all outposts sworn to the Duke will accept messages and have them carried homewards for soldiers.”
“Aw, I never got time to learn none of that scribblin’. They’ll just be happy to see me when I come back with mah gold. An’ I ain’t got much time, I wanna go get drunk, so tell me what I get!”
Haldebard said nothing, but glanced over at the emerald-armored golem, then at the seemingly stuffed longtoothed leatherwing hanging overheard, then at the jar in the corner which contained a roiling ball of dark mist and crackling lightning. All three silently and swiftly animated and moved towards the customer.
He didn’t bother watching the outcome, but began to scribe another document. “Unto Zamriff, sometimes called The Odd-Fingered, and member in good standing of the registered order of reanimators, greetings. I have one for you, usual rates. Fair warning, this one was stupider alive than most of yours are after treatment, but that doesn’t get you a discount. Send someone after ten bells for the pickup. By the way things have gone so far this morning, you might want to send a small wagon.” He placed the scroll in the box below the counter and tapped out a different pattern of sigils, and was rewarded with a slightly different chime.
Well, that will help me make rent this week, if nothing else.
He looked at the golem, waiting patiently. Haldebard pointed to the pile of junk left on the counter. “That to the waste dump in the alley, and that”, pointing to the body on the floor, “to the basement storeroom.” The golem went about its work.
The city bells tolled. Haldebard counted. Three. Three bells. By all the gods, it’s only three bells. There’s no way I’ll get anything accomplished today. Reluctantly, he set aside the tome and placed the blade under the counter, then waited for the door to open once more.
This work is a bit unique compared to almost anything else I’ve posted here, for the really trivial reason that it was written in the WordPress editor. Yeah, that’s a pretty low bar for ‘unique’. Don’t ask me why; I just started writing it, and this is what came out.
The whole thing kind of arose in a spontaneous flowering after the ‘Clompy’ line walked into my brain a few weeks ago and demanded to be let out. 90% of this was written in one spasm (plays have acts, symphonies have movements, writing has spasms), and the rest written in two or three smaller, I dunno, let’s call them twitches. Editing, as always for stuff like this, was minimal; what you see is pretty much what first came out. I do see some concepts for a larger tale here, some hints of something considerably longer but not any more original, and I may see if they coagulate in my mind, or not.
And, yeah, the hapless doofus at the end is my pathetic little swipe at the MMORPG tradition of bringing back orc tongues and boar testicles to any merchant, any one at all, and demanding they pay you good money for them. Someday, the merchants will strike back.
Lastly, the title is a callout to the late, great, Don Martin’s titles for his cartoons in MAD.