By Everett A Warren
Haelmsvjir Kavoratsson watched the proceedings dourly, as was to be expected for one of his people's nature. He scratched his lengthy beard as his mind wandered in far thought, anything to escape the monotony of the event.
"...So, forthwith on the fifth day of the planting season, we will hold the palace ball, instead of on the eighth day of the harvesting season..."
Haelmsvjir attempted to stifle a yawn, failing to stop his gap-toothed mouth from opening, succeeding only in silencing the noise somewhat. His eyes darted to the Lord-Mayor, and inwardly he gave thanks to hoary Matud that the breech of court etiquette went apparently unnoticed and that the Lord of Sleep did not fully claim him at this awkward time.
This court business bored him, but as an advisor, albeit an unofficial one, to the Lord-Mayor, it was his self-imposed duty to appear at such functions. Vaeortek Snjevkonnic, his people's official ambassador, was too much taken with political intrigue and machinations, having little touch with the reality of the Dwarven people's needs. The warrior grunted in disgust when he saw Snjevkonnic's eyes light up at the mention of the ball. The fop was not even worth his beard.
The undwarvish Dwarven emissary had been selected for several reasons. Amongst his circle of admirers – and, shamefully, there was a number of them – he bragged that he considered that the choice was due his diplomatic skill, though most others outside his circle recognised that this "skill" was only his desire to mix with the court aristocracy and play the little social games he termed diplomacy. More or less, the Dwarven community put him in the position simply to remove him from their presence. Many tried and true clan warriors, whose beards were delayed by some strange twist of nature, despised Snjevkonnic's early and thick growth of whiskers that belied all they supposedly stood for.
Haelmsvjir himself, although his badge of honour had been slightly prodigious, considered Vaeortek to be too much of a dandy to be a true dwarf. In the warrior's opinion, the man was not deserving of such a fine beard, and secretly suspected that some human, or even – when he was quite irritated with the young emissary – weak elven blood ran below the politico's skin. He held, as well, the knowledge that the young ambassador had made acquaintances with several alchemists during his twentieth winter, and regularly visited their shops, always leaving with purchases.
To even suggest that the ambitious dwarf used artificial means to spur the growth of his facial hair was treasonous, but careful research on Haelmsvjir's part revealed this to be near fact. The warrior despised court intrigue, but as Vaeortek revelled in the lies and machinations of governments, Haelmsvjir knew his best defense against the inevitable backstabbing and blackmail was a substantial amount of blackmail on his own part. Forty years of mass warfare and sole combat had taught him well, and his dwarvish outlook on life left no room for mistakes that would expose him to such an enemy.
His thoughts on the matters were interrupted by a breathless and dirty workman who burst into the clean atmosphere of the court. The man was shaking, and it was obvious by his behaviour that, beneath the coating of grime, his skin had taken on the deathly pale hue of one who had gazed upon something that was best to remain unseen.
The watch burst in behind him; apparently, the workman had avoided their efforts to stop just such an unannounced arrival before the Lord Mayor. The Lord Mayor stood, and with a single wave of his arm stopped the watch from apprehending the man. On the far side of the room, Vaeortek turned his nose upward, an orientation well known to him, and one currently in use by the most of the courtiers, noblemen, servants and others present in the room, the exceptions being the members of the watch, the rapidly deteriorating workman, dour Haelmsvjir, and the Lord Mayor himself.
"Beware, milord, in the sewers..." his warning rasped through his dry throat, followed instantly by a scream of the most hideous variety that left the ladies of the court in complete disarray, and the gentlemen not much less so. He spasmed, blood showing at his lips, and then he collapsed. Not a one observing the proceedings needed a healer to determine that man was irrevocably beyond the stages where a powerful holy word would raise him again to life.
Indeed, it appeared doubtful that even intervention by the gods themselves could change the horrible fate of the man, providing the gods would be so interested in reviving the peasant. Whatever had stricken the man had been terrible, without a doubt, and possibly beyond previous comparison. Regardless, anything that could leave even a single man in such a sorry state bode no good for the free city.
It was soon determined that the man worked for the city, his job to clear the city's labyrinthine sewers of blockages. Such men were numerous in the sprawling metropolis, and always worked in teams of ten, to handle possible animals and things that were known to prowl in dark places beneath the more wholesome foundations of the city. As such, much deliberation was made as to the whereabouts of his co-workers, and the location of the horror that was thought to exist, although the man never had a chance to utter a word on what form, exactly, the great evil was manifest.
Copyright (c) 1990 Everett Ambrose Warren
You can read the complete story in my collection, Cautionary Fables: Warts & All, available on Amazon.com or by order from your local bookseller.