Okay, I’m back in business for real. Starting with one of my favorite shorts I’ve ever written. Previously unpublished, this story actually made it to the final selection rounds of a couple of Major contests. Such as one of the quarterly Writer’s of the Future contests. In part, that’s why I never published it, as I’ve hung onto it for use in other contests. It’s been submitted to a few it was suited for and always makes it fairly far…but hasn’t ever actually won, I’m afraid :-). Anyway, I’ve refined the story as much as I can, and I’ve grown beyond the writing level in it anyway. So I figured, it still being one of my absolute favorite pieces, that I’d put it up rather than just let it wilt away in my personal archives. Without farther ado…
The Misfit Town
Herlodr breathed a sigh of blessed relief as the north gate slid closed behind him. As one of the few dwarves of Cobble Town that was still on good terms with his clan, his trips back to the clanhold were important. He knew that. That didn’t mean they weren’t stressful, though. It was hard to pretend to be a typical dwarf, or close enough to typical that they didn’t mind his visits, at least. Sure, the goods he brought for trade and the money he spent on supplies for the town were both welcome to the small clan, but they weren’t so welcome as to ignore all of his eccentricities if he were foolish enough to shove them in their faces. And the Stone alone knew what they’d do if they ever met his wife…
Thoughts of his wife, whom he’d hopefully see in just a few minutes, lifted the weight of travel from his shoulders and put a spring back in his weary steps. He weaved through the marketplace, waving at the pixie running the weapons stand. He’d never managed to learn her name, what with her having to shout to be heard, but she somehow made the best swords, battleaxes and pikes in town. He’d also never asked how the hell she lifted the finished products, let alone the hammer during the forging process. It wasn’t the sort of thing you asked here in Cobble Town, the only place in the seven realms where anyone could find a home, no matter how different they were.
Herlodr reveled in the oddities around him as he made his way to his own small house, breathing them in like clean air after suffering through his recent trip to the ridged confines of the clanhold. He turned down the lane just past the market, passing by Rugar’s Formalwear as he rounded the corner, spotting the old orc it took its name from helping a centaur get fitted for a suit. The odd sight brought a smile to his lips and he began humming a jaunty little sea shanty as he crossed the street, strolling up to the front door of his home. The smile spread wider, threatening to split his face in two, when he saw the curtains were pulled back. Shallen’tla was home!
He practically skipped down the last few steps of the footpath, eagerly pushing open the familiar, worn wood of the small house. “Sweetie! I’m home!”
There was a startled exclamation, followed by rapid footsteps coming down the stairs. Shallen’tla popped around the corner with a happy smile. “Herlodr! You’re back a day early. I hope things didn’t go poorly?”
Herlodr shook his head, grin firmly in place. “No, save for the slow murdering of my patience, everything went perfectly.” His face twisted into a playful scowl. “You were right about the art, though. The stuff I carved into stone then painted sold out quickly, while the regular paintings barely sold at all. I was sure at least a few of the more bloody battle scenes would sell, but the clan just muttered about them not being sturdy enough.”
His wife laughed, a musical sound he loved, and closed the distance to give him a welcome-home kiss. She had to bend over to do it, of course, but after nearly two hundred years the motion was as natural as breathing for her. He leaned into the kiss, one callused hand reaching up to trace her pointed ear. He chuckled as they drew apart and she looked at him curiously.
“Ah, it’s nothing. Just thinking again how many of my clan would have a stroke if they knew I’d married an elf. The thought of their mass apoplexy never fails to warm my heart after I’ve been to the clanhold.”
Shallen’tla laughed lightly before throwing a mock glare his way. She buffed her nails on her shirt and looked imperiously down her nose at him. “Not just any elf, dear. You married a High Elf. Best you remember to get that right or I’ll send you back to the clanhold without your armor and axe. See what they do to you then!”
Herlodr chuckled and shook his head before changing the subject. “So, how did your own trip go? Did the gnomes really have a new model?”
Shallen’tla rolled her eyes. “Of course they had a new model, when don’t they? Their steam engine nearly exploded though. I was worried from some of the papers they published, but it’s so unreliable that they’re no threat to my business. It certainly put out a bit more power than my Mark IV, but the power couldn’t be maintained safely. Plus, I managed to bat my eyelashes at the right idiot and he showed me how they’d done it. Silly gnome never considered that an elf might be a technologist. I’m pretty sure I can work some of their improvements into the Mark V, while retaining the stability that keep my engines in demand.”
Herlodr smiled fondly as she spun off into a smattering of technobabble that he couldn’t really follow, despite so many years of exposure to her. She didn’t even seem to notice when he gently guided her into his work room and started unloading his pack. Most of his things were still with the caravan, of course, but his paints, brushes, and pens never left his person on trips. He never knew when he’d see something worth drawing or painting, after all.
He put the tools of his trade away, saving his newest half-filled sketchpad for last, thumbing through it quickly before adding it to his project pile. Most of it was just scenery he’d sketched in boredom, but there were one or two he might turn into proper paintings. He was almost certain he’d paint the odd flowers he’d found near the mines, if for no other reason than to amuse himself with thoughts of how horrified his parents would be with their son painting flowers. The carvings of great battles he did in stone, then painted over for effect, those were one thing. Acceptable for a good dwarf. But a painting of pretty flowers on canvas would likely see him disowned if they ever knew about it.
Shallen’tla stopped babbling abruptly when she saw him try to put away the sketchbook, pouncing on it with a pout before he could. Just as he’d known she would. She loved to see his sketches and loved even more for him to paint a picture of words to go with each drawing, telling her all about his trip in the process. He grinned softly as he joined her on the couch. The devil take his race and its general hatred of elves. He’d never regretted stopping to chat with Shallen’tla that day in the market, not once in two hundred years, and he wasn’t about to start now.
There was a tremendous crash from outside and a high-pitched scream. Herlodr leapt to his feet, knocking over the sculpture he’d been working on. Another panicked shout followed, accompanied by the sound of a sword striking stone. He darted for the door, grabbing one of the hammers he used for chiseling on the run. He burst through into the alleyway just in time to see a tall elf in forest garb strike his neighbor and friend, a goblin named Fredrick. The elf had used the flat of his blade, merely knocking Fredrick hard into the alley wall. Herlodr didn’t hesitate, throwing his hammer with the reflexes of his youth training with all manner of weapons. He didn’t practice much these days, but his hand-eye coordination was better now than it ever had been in his days of youthful training in the clanhold and the spinning hammer struck true. The elf staggered away with a cry.
“Here now! What the hell are you doing? Get away from Fredrick!”
Another elf, shorter than the first, appeared from the shadows and lunged at him, only to come up short as a long elven blade interposed itself between the attacker and Herlodr, stopping a bare eyelash’s width from the attacker’s throat. The elf gulped, only his eyes moving to take in the oddity of Shallen’tla’s grease and coverall covered form. His eyes bulged when he took her in her appearance, but he wisely didn’t twitch a muscle.
The first elf had staggered back to his feet and held up his free hand in a gesture of peace. “Hold! Hold a moment please! I’m a bounder from Ellewryn forest here to take in this goblin for questioning.”
Herlodr’s eyes narrowed. Ellewryn shared a border with Cobble Town’s territory. But that just meant that these elves knew full well that they were out of their jurisdiction. “Be that as might be, but I don’t see any of the town guard with you. Which means you didn’t get approval to take him in. Without that permission you’re no different from any other thug trying to hurt a citizen of the town. You just hold still while we summon the guard to sort things out. If you really are a bounder, you’ll likely just be tossed out of town with a warning. If you’re not, you’ll go into the cells like any other criminal.”
The shorter elf looked enraged by the comment but the taller merely sighed in resignation. “Very well. But this is more serious than you know. I must insist that the goblin be brought along too.”
Herlodr shrugged. “Fredrick will need to give a statement, so he’ll be coming one way or another.”
The elf lowered his sword and Herlodr gestured for his wife to do the same. Just as he opened his mouth to shout for one of the onlookers to get the guard, a squad of enforcers in heavy armor rolled around the corner. Clearly, someone had already done it. Herlodr breathed a sigh of relief, tinged with annoyance. He’d doubtless ruined his sculpture and now would have to answer all sorts of questions. He’d be lucky if he got home before midnight.
“Herlodr? Is that what happened?”
Herlodr shrugged and nodded, looking around the room wearily and cursing his stupidity. He’d forgotten that the leader of the forest elves, Lord Elandr, was in town to discuss trade agreements. The elves had been unhappy with Cobble Town for the last few months, ever since the town formally voted to allow peaceful members of the ‘monster races’ to reside in the town as full citizens.
The pair of bounders that had attacked Fredrick had proven to be part of the elf lord’s personal guard, acting on his direct order to track down the goblin. Worse was the reason said lord had given the order, despite knowing the local laws. His daughter, a child of barely twenty years, had gone missing right after the latest round of discussions. A meeting from which Fredrick had been returning when Herlodr and his wife interrupted the elves’ attempt to capture him.
“Their story is accurate as far as I know, though I only saw a few seconds of their altercation with Fredrick.”
Tanien, the half-elf in charge of the city guard, turned to face the bounder, doing his best to ignore the glares of the rest of the elven party that had joined them. The taller bounder, the one apparently in charge of Lord Elandr’s entire guard, had finally given his name as Ril’al and his subordinate’s name as Dilen’an. Dilen’an had barely said a word, merely looking impatient and angry as the guards took statements.
“So, you don’t deny you broke our laws. Which, given the reason you’re here in town, makes me think you have solid reason to believe Fredrick had something to do with the child’s abduction? For anything less, I assume you would have summoned the town’s guard instead of destabilizing the entire conference.”
Ril’al nodded, face cold as he glared at the goblin across from him. Fredrick shrunk away from the glare, nursing his head with a chunk of conjured ice wrapped in a towel. “Indeed. The Lady Aliella’s guard was murdered with a goblin blade. It was found still imbedded to the hilt in the guard’s abdomen and bares markings from a nearby goblin clan. Goblin’s are uncommon even here in Misfit Town and this one,” Ril’al waved a hand at Fredrick, “was involved in the talks. He is the most likely lead we have. Given the need for haste, in case he and his comrades have delivered her to brigands or worse, I was dispatched with orders to bring him in regardless of whose toes I stepped on.”
Tanien grimaced at the derisive name for their town and outright scowled at the bounder’s last sentence. “We’ll be having words about that with your Lord, after this is over. As it is, no lasting harm has been done and we can do this properly.”
“You’ll be handing him over then?”
“No. He must have a fair investigation and trial. He is a citizen of the town just like any other.”
Outrage spread across Dilen’an face and he finally spoke up from beside his senior. “What! You must be joking. He’s just a goblin!”
The elder bounder raised a hand to silence his subordinate. “Now, now, Dilen’an. Misfit Town has its own laws. As we are in their territory, we must abide by them. Though if any harm should come to the Lady Aliella because of this delay, the trade agreements will be the least of their concerns.”
Herlodr’s own grimace at the repeated use of the derisive name was barely suppressed by his worry of that last comment. The forest elves were among their most important trading partners, as well as in possession of a stronger military and much better relations with the surrounding kingdoms. As one of the merchant’s representatives on the town council, he knew that the results of this could be disastrous for the town as a whole.
The bounder clearly knew it too, looking like he expected either Herlodr to change his story or Tanien to cave to the political pressure. But they wouldn’t. Not only did everyone in this town get their fair chance, here if nowhere else, but they also knew Fredrick. The goblin was an accountant, a respected and well-liked member of the Cobble Town Merchant’s Guild. The small goblin had been living in Cobble Town longer than the ordinance for monster races had even existed. He had, in fact, been one of the reasons the law had been passed in the first place. More to the point, Fredrick didn’t have a violent bone in his body. Not to mention that he loved playing with the town’s kids. It was impossible to imagine him kidnapping one for any reason. He also had no contact with his clan, unlike Herlodr did with his own, having been exiled by the other goblins for his ‘unnatural’ hatred of violence and love of numbers.
Tanien and he shared a glance, invisibly arguing over who should take the lead, neither of them really wanting to deal with this mess. Finally, Herlodr’s position as a member of the council forced him to speak up, though he promised himself he’d get his revenge for Tanien’s smug expression. “Fredrick is a well-respected member of the Cobble Town Merchant’s Guild. His race has nothing to do with that. He will be afforded all the rights and privileges of our laws, regardless of what your lord thinks of the matter. By all means, present your evidence before our investigators. Should it prove to be of sufficient strength, we will bring him to trial for the kidnapping. We will also, of course, cooperate with your efforts to find the missing child.”
Wanting to throw the elves a bone, he swiveled to face Tanien. “Guard Captain. Given the serious nature of this issue, I’m officially authorizing you to round up everyone involved with the trade talks. While I don’t believe Fredrick was involved, someone else might have been. We will question them all.”
The guard captain grimaced, hesitated a moment, then nodded. “It will be done.”
Herlodr stared at the dagger the elven bounder had just presented to the entire council. Things had rapidly gotten out of hand with the gathering of those potentially involved and now every member of the council currently in the city was present in the room. As the council, plus the others involved in the trade talks, began babbling accusations, assurances, and other gibberish at the elves, Herlodr focused entirely on the dagger.
Something wasn’t right here. The goblin clan crest was, indeed, from Fredrick’s own clan. Which would no doubt be damning in the elves’ eyes if they were made aware of it. But something about it was niggling at the back of Herlodr’s mind as he ran his eyes over every inch of the small blade. It took several long moments of wracking his brain to figured out what was bothering him. As soon as he did, he gestured toward the dagger with one hand and locked eyes with the senior bounder. “May I?”
The elf hesitated for a moment, glancing at his liege lord. When the older elf made no move to stop him, he passed the dagger over without comment. Herlodr inspected it closely, paying particular attention to the clan emblem. After a few long moments he nodded, looking up to address the room as a whole, which had fallen silent as he looked it over.
“I thought as much. The emblem is newly painted and, more to the point, the pigments used aren’t right.”
The bounder frowned at his tone, clearly understanding there was more. He obliged Herlodr by asking the obvious question. “How, exactly, are they wrong? I’m familiar with that clan’s emblem and didn’t noticed anything off.”
Herlodr shook his head. “It’s not the emblem. It’s the paint. I’m an artist of some modest skill by profession and the pigments used here are much too sophisticated for any goblin clan. The paint was much like the careful blends I use, rather than the crude pigmentations used by goblins relying on blood and crushed berries.”
Dilen’an scowled and spoke from next to his superior. “So what? Either the goblin that did it got some paint in a raid, or else your goblin friend provided it. Maybe you even supplied him yourself. You did say that it was like to your own blends and you’ve seemed awfully quick to defend him from the beginning.”
Herlodr growled in frustration at the accusation in the junior bounder’s tone. “I said it was like one of mine. Not actually one of mine. And I’m defending Fredrick because he’s my friend.”
The elder bounder stepped in smoothly. “Be that as it may, the point still stands. The paint is hardly proof. Indeed, it would be easier for Fredrick to get proper paint than any clan goblin, with his connections to the merchants in Cobble Town. That merely makes it more likely that he did the deed personally.”
“And the fact that the dagger was driven in to the hilt, straight through armor? I know a thing or two about anatomy too, you know. Fredrick is a small goblin to begin with and lives a sedentary lifestyle. I mean, look at him! Do you seriously think he managed to do that?”
Some doubt crept into a few expressions as everyone in the room considered Fredrick’s small form. He was certainly no warrior. Unfortunately, the bounder had an answer for that too.
“This is Cobble Town. There are all sorts of weird potions and magics available here. It would have been easy for him to lay hands on something to enhance his strength.”
The comment brought nods from most of those who had been hesitating and Herlodr tugged at his beard in frustration. He couldn’t even protest the observations, damn it, since he could personally think of at least three shops that sold potions or artifacts that did exactly that. He cast around for another idea to help his friend, coming up blank for long moments. When the elven lord grew impatient and leaned forward to speak, he finally blurted out the first thing that came to mind, knowing full well how stupid it was. Still, it might buy him time to think.
“It rained just last night! Surely there were some tracks to follow? The windows on that side of the building face a garden and it must have been muddy.”
Every single elf scowled harshly at him. The elven lord himself bit out a retort. “You think wood elves would have missed anything so obvious, dwarf? The tracks disappeared on the cobblestone of the city. And before you ask, the tracks were quite small, like those of a goblin.”
Herlodr clenched his tool belt harshly as he failed to come up with anything. Just as he was about to face his failure, he felt the small bag of gypsum powder he’d been using earlier to help prototype his sculpture. An idea formed in his mind and he turned it over mentally a few times before quickly running with it.
“I have an idea that could clear everyone involved in the trade talks. Assuming the tracks are still there.”
The elven lord looked angry at yet another delay in finding his daughter, but the senior bounder put a hand on his shoulder and the elder elf leaned back, sitting rigidly in his high-backed chair. Ril’al looked at the dwarf seriously. “If you are wasting our time and something happens to the child, there will be consequences.”
Herlodr nodded sharply. “It will work.”
At least, he prayed to whoever was listening that it would work. He’d never thought to try something like this before. The bounder nodded and gestured for him to follow. He did so quickly, grateful to escape the harsh glares of the room. The bounder’s legs were long and he moved quickly, but long years of keeping up with Shallen’tla had taught him how to deal with an elf’s near-preternatural swiftness of step. It took less than five minutes to reach the garden and the bounder silently pointed out the tracks.
Most were blurred beyond usefulness, but Herlodr breathed a sigh of relief as he spotted a single crisp print leading away from the window. The tread of the boot was clearly visible, the extra weight of the child having pushed it deep into the muddy soil. He could even see a bit of damage to the boot sole from a crudely done repair. He grinned half-heartedly. At least if the idea worked, it would work well. He removed the pouch of gypsum power from his belt and turned his head to the elf staring at him impatiently.
“I need water for this to work. Do you have a travel skin?”
The bounder blinked in surprise for a moment before nodding and producing a small skin of water and handing it over. Herlodr began carefully mixing the pure water with the powder. It would ruin the pouch, of course, but that was a small price to pay. As he eyeballed the proper viscosity, he finally explained his thought.
“I work with plaster, sometimes, in my art. I’m going to fill in that clear print and quick-set the plaster with a bit of heat. When I pull it out it’ll have the exact shape of the boot’s thread, even that field repair you can see on the heel. Since I doubt anyone has changed boots in the short time since the kidnapping, we can clear everyone by comparing their left boot soles with the impression. There can’t possibly be two boots with that exact tread and exact haphazard repair.”
The bounder looked genuinely startled for the first time since Herlodr had met him. After a moment to think it over, the elf shook his head in disbelief. “So simple. So simple and yet I’ve never heard of someone thinking to try it. Do you actually believe it will work?”
Herlodr grinned. There was a note of genuine curiosity in the elf’s tone. The stiff formality and slight derision had faded in his interest at seeing something new. “I’m almost completely certain it will, since the print is so clear. I admit I was a bit worried that none of the tracks would be undamaged enough, since the kidnapper was likely running.”
The plaster mix was finished and Herlodr carefully poured it into the boot print. Once the print was filled he took out a heat stone, a bit of enchanted granite he used to speed up the setting of the plaster when he was working on prototypes. He triggered its enchantment, held it in place for a minute that seem to stretch an hour, then replaced it in his belt and pulled the plaster up with anxious anticipation. A moment later a gust of air escaped him as he let out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.
The print was perfect.
The entire room was still in anticipation. Ril’al had taken it upon himself to tell everyone about the idea, getting more than a few nods along with raised eyebrows. None of them had heard of such a thing, but the idea was completely logical. Now, Herlodr knelt next to Fredrick, holding the goblin’s left foot up. He felt ridiculous. Still, if this worked, it would be worth it. He held the plaster cast up next to the boot where all could see. There were grumbles and exclamations as the truth hit them.
Not only was the tread wrong, but Fredrick’s boot was clearly too small. He wasn’t the kidnaper.
Herlodr breathed in what felt like his first clean breath in hours. “Gentlemen, I believe that is conclusive. He at least didn’t do the deed personally. Now, everyone put up a boot. We can clear everyone here in moments before we begin to chase down who else it could have been and check them as well.”
There was a general mutter of agreement and boots started coming up to rest on the most convenient surfaces. The whole scene looked hilarious and Herlodr had to suppress a manic sort of laugh. That urge to laugh was quickly ended by the abrasive Dilen’an.
“Bullshit! This is bullshit! A plaster cast of a boot? What kind of idiots do you take us for? The dagger proves that the goblin clearly did it. If not him, then one of his kind. Hand him over!”
Most of the room looked at the angry bounder like he was an idiot. Ril’al spoke after a moment of awkward silence. “The idea is sound. Raise your boot and we can get on with finding the real culprit. The method may prove even more effective than interrogating the goblin, as it is possible he was not involved. There are others of his kind in the city, after all.”
Dilen’an flushed redder than any elf had a right to get. “I will not! How dare this idiot dwarf accuse us that we might have done it ourselves!”
Lord Elandr’s eyes narrowed and he stood. “Dilen’an Andallius, you have been out of line since the beginning. You’ve also wanted us to break off relations with Cobble Town since even before they began allowing civil members of the monster races in. Raise your boot. Now.”
The bounder glared with stubborn defiance. At least, he did until two of the other elven guards locked their arms around his and his senior forced his leg up, Dilen’an struggling the whole way. Lord Elandr held a hand out for the plaster cast and a sinking feeling filled the room as he moved to compare it with the bounder’s boot.
It was a perfect match.
The aftermath of the revelation of Dilen’an’s treachery had not been pretty. Having been raised in a dwarven clanhold, Herlodr had thought that he knew what anger looked like. He had been wrong. Very wrong. The rage of a three-thousand-year-old Lord of the Elves was like nothing else he’d ever witnessed and the poor fool bounder had broken almost instantly under the massive pressure of ancient magic that had radiated from the enraged and betrayed father like light from an angry summer sun.
Thankfully, the child had been found alive and mostly unharmed. Though that would not save the bounder from a harsh punishment at the hands of his lord. The elf had been immediately stripped of his titles and confined, with exile or execution being the only two possible fates awaiting him on the group’s return to their forest home.
Cobble Town, on the other hand, had come off the better for the drama. Lord Elandr had publicly apologized to Fredrick and given a short, impromptu speech about the high moral fortitude of the city. He’d also placed his proverbial money where his mouth was, signing a new trade agreement with the town that was considerably better than the old. In addition to the food that Cobble Town had been receiving from the elves, the town would now be allowed to run trade caravans into and through the elven forest.
Herlodr had personally benefitted as well, to his own shock, when the elven lord visited his studio to thank him. Lord Elandr had been quite surprised by the quality of the paintings and sculptures on display and had ultimately purchased several items. He’d even commissioned a painting of his daughter, insisting that it be done with the chaotic Cobble Town market in the background. It had been a challenging piece to get right and Herlodr was quite proud of the results.
As he finally settled down for a break after the elven party exited the town, cuddling with his wife and drinking a glass of some experimental new concoction of iced fruit and water that he’d discovered in the ever-changing market, he muttered to himself. “Just another day in Misfit Town.”