by John R. Plunkett
"Oh, Retla, you look absolutely ravishing," Lilla exclaimed, clasping her hands together and tittering like an adolescent.
Retla Flinthand turned back and forth, regarding herself in the full length mirror, which was a sheet of rolled glass with a silver back, not merely a piece of polished metal. Her wedding outfit clanked and rattled, gleaming under the mage lights. "I do, don't I," she mused, setting her hands on her hips.
Among Men, Retla had heard, brides wore elaborate gowns. These garments were made to show off the wealth and creative skill of the bride's clan. So it was among Retla's people as well. The only real difference were the skills being demonstrated. No female Man Retla knew about had ever gone to her future husband wearing plate mail. Still and all, only details differed, not the basic idea. Retla's suit covered her completely from head to toe; the plates comprising it were strong enough to turn any sword, axe, or polearm, and cleverly joined so as to close off the gaps through which a clever opponent might slip a blade. Despite all that the suit remained flexible enough that Retla could dance in it. Moreover, it weighed remarkably little, and fit her so amazingly well, that she could dance in it, likely with less discomfort than what some wives of Men experienced in their outfits of mere cloth, if pictures Retla had seen were any indication. Nor was the suit any less beautiful than a formal gown; the metal gleamed like polished silver, chased with astoundingly intricate engraving and filigrees of gold and copper.
A Man might comment on the lack of adorning jewels, which only proved how little they understood Retla's folk. The suit's true beauty lay in its exquisite craftsmanship, the way it combined protection and wearability to a degree that others called magical, because they lacked the ability to match it or even approach it. The suit's relative plainness was itself a boast: the armor's inherent value was such that ostentatious decorations would only detract from its perfection. Which, in the case of suits built in Thane Flinthand's halls, wasn't a boast at all.
The Thane's daughter wasn't getting married in a plain suit, though, no matter how well made. The jewels simply weren't part of the armor itself; they came in the form of a crest, bib, bracers, girdle, leggings, and train, all made of chain or woven wire, and encrusted with so many gems the metal underneath was hardly visible. The whole mass, taken together, weighed more than the suit itself. Retla would have four bridesmaids holding her train; not only to show off the decoration but to help carry it.
Retla could carry it all herself, it simply wouldn't have been as graceful and dignified as the situation demanded. It could be said- and had been- that Retla herself was a fine piece of work, as strong and beautiful as her outfit, and every bit as well-made. Though a Man would say her face was too square, her brow and jaw too heavy, her shoulders too broad, her arms too large and muscular. Assuming, of course, he ever got past her relatively short stature and thick, heavy build. Men, Retla understood, liked their females tall and willowy.
On the plus side, even one of those slender maidens might envy Retla's smooth, creamy skin, broken only by a dusting of freckles on her cheeks; shoulders, and bosom. Of that Retla was justly proud; she'd worn a mask made of finely woven serge while working the forges, in order to protect her skin from heat and sparks. The chest plate of her suit bulged markedly so as to accommodate her breasts, which were quite large yet round and firm. Her hips, buttocks, and thighs were equally substantial, and her suit showed the curves impressively well.
What Retla liked most about herself was her hair, colored a deep red like firelight reflected in burnished copper. Loose, her tresses hung to the middle of her back; right now they were braided, secured by jeweled clasps, and hung down her chest, because they wouldn't fit in back once she put her helmet on. Retla stroked them lovingly, then leaned close to the mirror and inspected her sideburns. She did not, as some Men thought, have a beard; just a fringe of hair running forward from her ears onto her cheeks. She'd already trimmed them as exactly as she could; there wasn't any more she could do with ruining them.
"You have suck lovely sideburns, Retla," Lilla sighed. "I can't do a thing with mine. They're all thin and frizzy. I've even considered shaving them off."
"Oh, they aren't that bad." Retla exclaimed, turning away from the mirror. "Try some of this Elven salve. It does wonders."
"I'd love to, but it's terribly expensive," Lilla responded.
Retla blinked. She had no idea how much the salve cost. She wouldn't even have known where it came from except that the container bore unmistakable signs of Elven craftsmanship. "Well, it's about time," she said, picking up her helmet. She and Lilla had grown up together, but the social separation between them was such that they might as well have been different species. Stumbling into it like that left Retla feeling embarrassed.
"Yes, of course," Lilla agreed. She seemed as glad as Retla to let the gaffe pass unremarked. She held Retla's braids while she settled her helmet in place. "Why, Retla," she said with a giggle, "with your helmet like that, you almost look like you have a beard."
Most likely, the only reason Lilla said that was to change the subject. As Retla glanced in the mirror, though, she realized that Lilla was right. The lower part of her helmet covered her chin, so it wasn't obvious that the braids didn't attach there. If you ignored the soft, smooth skin around the eyes, which were themselves a startlingly vivid shade of green-
"I don't think anyone would mistake me for a male," Retla commented, laying her gauntleted hands on the bulges in her breastplate. The bitterness in the words shocked her deeply; it wasn't like she'd chosen to be female, had she? It simply was.
And yet... the idea of being mistaken for a male had stirred something, a thing she'd never noticed before. As she thought about it, though, she realized that wasn't really true. It had always been there; she'd merely trained herself not to think about it.
Thane Flinthand had been, and sill was, what many would call an indulgent father, and not always in a way meant to be a compliment. His wife had died in childbirth and he'd never remarried; his people didn't do that. So perhaps he'd felt doubly indebted to his daughter, lavishing upon her all the love and attention he would otherwise have reserved for her mother. He taught her jewelry-making, at which she excelled, but he also taught her 'manly' skills: stonecutting, metalsmithing, and combat. He'd found it intensely entertaining to give his baby daughter a little axe, sized just for her, and send her to the training hall to hack gleefully at effigies of Uruks, trolls, and giants. He found it even more entertaining when she bested males her own age and even older. They grumbled, of course, but not too loudly: the Thane had attained his position as much through his martial prowess as his skill in smithing, and he was even more punctilious than usual about his honor.
And that, Retla realized, was the problem. To him it was all a game, an amusing diversion. Of course she'd give up all that foolishness once she got married. She'd spend the rest of her life in her husband's hall, managing his household, raising his heir, and making jewelry in her spare time. Of course she understood that all this training was simply harmless fun. She'd never expected she'd really go out and fight monsters, go adventuring under the open sky, meet Men and Elves?
Except that, at some point, Retla had expected all those things. In the naive way children do, she'd really expected her daddy to take her adventuring. Even when she'd asked him, and he'd told her she was being silly, he hadn't seen it. Even then he'd thought she was playing; he'd never once thought she might be serious. She'd done as she was told and forgot about it. Except that she hadn't. She'd pretended to forget. Then she spent so long pretending that she'd forgotten she was pretending. But she'd never really forgotten
"Come now, you wouldn't want Gudira to mistake you for a male, would you?" Lilla said, giggling. "That would make things rather confusing on the wedding night, wouldn't it?"
For a second Retla couldn't remember what Lilla was talking about. Retla's own thoughts had drifted so far she'd lost the thread of the conversation. She forced herself to smile and chuckle.
"You're so lucky, Retla" Lilla gushed. "Gudira is fantastically rich. And so handsome." She sighed dreamily.
"Yes," Retla agreed, quietly, barely more than a whisper. Gudira had gone away to seek his fortune; he'd won it- and a great deal of renown- leading a company against the Bitterroot Goblins. He'd sacked their halls, taking their treasure and their king's head and bringing it back. He presented the head and much of the treasure to Retla's father, which gained him a favorable ear when he sought to court the Thane's daughter. She'd listened with rapt fascination while Gudira- and others- told their stories of daring raids and fantastic treasures, in an effort to gain her and her father's favor. Gudira won in the end... but only now did Retla really notice that he'd done so without involving her. Father had worked out all the details. Which was as it should be; marriage- especially to a family as rich as powerful as Retla's- wasn't a matter to be taken lightly.
"Do you know," Retla said, "That up on the Surface there's people who think we don't have any women at all?"
Lilla snorted. "That's silly. Where do they think children come from?"
Retla said nothing. First time she'd heard it she'd reacted just like Lilla. Now, she realized why it sounded so strange. Surface people thought there weren't any female Dwarves because they'd never seen any. They spend their whole lives in the deep halls.
"Did you ever see the sun, Lilla?" Retla asked.
"What do you mean?" Lilla asked, quizzically.
"Just that," Retla responded. "Have you ever seen the sun?"
"Of course. There's an image of it in the Grand Court."
"Have you ever been outside?" Retla pressed.
"Why would I ever want to do that?" Lilla responded. She sounded genuinely perplexed. She took Retla's hand, holding it as tenderly as she could, through the gauntlet. "I know you're nervous," she said gently. "It's a big step to take, getting married. But don't worry; it'll be okay."
How would you know? Retla wanted to ask. Lilla wouldn't get married until after Retla; it wouldn't be appropriate for the handmaiden to the Thane's daughter not to be a maiden. In addition to that, Retla now saw that Lilla had bought into it just like the Thane and everyone else. What Retla really wanted to ask was if Lilla actually believed all that stuff about what females were supposed to do, or was she simply going along with it? Surely Retla couldn't be the only female who'd ever thought of this?
Retla hadn't ever seen the sun. Gudira had; he spoke of it while telling his tale. It had never once occurred to him that Retla hadn't. In her mind Retla heard a thunk as the lid to her sarcophagus was lowered over her body. In death as in life, surrounded by stone...
Somewhere nearby a door slammed. "Wait!" Retla shouted. She'd been about to add I'm not dead yet. But what did it matter? What difference was there, really, between now and then, except for the size of the room in which she interred herself?
"Retla?" Lilla looked worried now.
"It's all right." Retla composed herself with an effort. "I- excuse me just a moment." Without waiting for an answer she rushed into the privy, shutting the door in Lila's face. She turned on the water and splashed her face.
"Look, it's all right," Lilla said through the door. "We all get nervous at times like this. It's only natural."
Retla took a deep breath. The air seemed close, as if she were already starting to suffocate. Suddenly, in a flash, everything came into focus. She wanted to kill an Uruk and bring its head to Father. She wanted to find a treasure. She wanted to see Elves singing under the stars. She wanted to see tall Men, riding horses. She wanted to see a horse; Gudira and her other suitors had mentioned them but never described them. They all knew what a horse looked like. She wanted to present her trophies and tell her tale in the great hall, in the hopes of impressing some handsome lad's parents.
She wanted to see the sun.
Retla wasn't conscious of the moment in which she made her decision; it seemed that one moment she was one thing and the next she was something else. And the person she was now needed to get out of here. She looked around; there wasn't any way out. Her eye fell on the privy itself; she grabbed it and lifted it up. It sat on a wooden frame that fit into the top of a narrow well. No good; she couldn't have fit through even without her armor, and she wouldn't have time to shed it. Then an idea formed. It gave her a pang of conscience but she was desperate. She set the privy aside and opened the door. "Lilla!!" she called. "Help me, please! I dropped my ring!"
"Oh, no!" Lilla rushed in. "Where?"
"There." Retla pointed at the privy hole. "You can just see it down there, but I can't reach it."
"Where?" Lilla knelt and peered down.
"There." Retla put her hand on Lilla's back and shoved. With a yelp Lilla pitched forward into the hole. Her broad hips caught on the coping; her feet kicked frantically and her muffled screams came up through the floor.
Pulling Lilla out of the hole would have been childishly easy; Retla had more than enough strength, even wearing her armor. But that wouldn't have suited her need. She rushed to the outer door of the suite and threw it open. Two guards waited there, to escort her to the Great Hall. "Retla's fallen into the midden!" she exclaimed breathlessly. "She's stuck! Please help her!"
The guards blinked, then hurried in. They never thought to ask why Retla didn't pull Lilla out, or how Lilla managed to do such a silly thing in the first place. Females had no sense; everybody knew that. They knew it so well they never even thought about it.
Watching them, Retla had to wonder about males, too. Both guards tried pressing into the privy; there wasn't room for them both, not wearing full ceremonial armor and cloaks, as they were. After a brief scuffle they laid aside their cloaks, weapons, and helmets.
As if she'd rehearsed it a hundred times, Retla grabbed a cloak and an axe, even though her paired short swords already hung at her hips. If she meant to represent herself as a guard, people would expect her to have an axe. She turned to go, then hesitated, pausing to grab several large, jeweled bracelets. She dropped them over the hilts of her swords, where the cloak would cover them. The guards would have caught her dead to rights if they'd simply turned around, but they didn't.
Out in the hall Retla encountered the four bridesmaids, drawn by the yells from the privy and all a-twitter. "Lilla's fallen into the midden!" Retla exclaimed. "Go help them pull her out!" She gave the girls a push to move them along, but it was hardly necessary; they were already in motion.
Hundreds of servants filled the palace in preparation for the wedding. Each time Retla met one she gave the same story and set them on. When the chamberlain arrived she sent him on as well, not giving him time to ask questions. By now Lilla was surely out, but the press of people rushing in to help would keep her bottled up just as effectively as if she were still stuck.
A hidden door opened into a servant's passage. Retla ducked in and hurried down to the kitchens. The lower levels of the palace were packed with servants but none of them questioned her, nor even looked at her. Wedding preparation kept them busy, and even if it hadn't it wasn't their place to question why she'd chosen to come this way. This time the social gulf worked to Retla's advantage; she might as well have been invisible.
The goods entrance at the back of the kitchen stood open; even now deliveries were being made. The carters weren't as well trained, and stared curiously. Retla felt a twinge of unease, then returned the looks with a cold glare, as haughty and imperious as she could manage. They quickly looked away.
Free of the palace, Retla picked up her pace. Her little diversion couldn't possibly hold up much longer. Nevertheless she strode boldly, with her chin up, glaring angrily at anyone who looked her way, as if she had every right to do what she was doing and no one had any right to question her. The amazing thing was that it worked; most of the people who knew Retla personally were at the wedding, but even those who should have known better- guards and soldiers, for instance- let her pass. It was as if they couldn't see that she was female.
The Hall of Trees got its name because the columns holding up the roof had been carved like the boles of enormous trees, with spreading branches intertwining across the ceiling. Down the center of it ran the Grand Canal, the main route for goods coming in and out of the kingdom. The wedding hadn't impeded trade any; the bazaar was in full swing. Merchants- Dwarves and Men, mostly- haggled loudly over goods brought in or to be shipped out on boats lining the canal. Retla moved into the press; interestingly enough her bright, fancy armor barely stood out against the garish and varied costumes around her. The large number of Men helped immensely; they towered over her, hiding her from view. Finally she reached the canal and looked up and down; one boat looked about ready to leave. she hurried up to it. The apparent owner- a rangy looking Man in plain clothes- looked up. "I want to leave the city," Retla said.
For a moment the Man looked at Retla quizzically. Her heart leapt into her mouth. Surely he'd raise the alarm-
"My pleasure, milady," the Man said, bowing deeply. "Step in and have a seat. We'll eat as soon as we pass the Outer Gates."
The Man winced slightly as Retla took his hand and stepped onto the boat. She didn't at all like the feeling of motion and squeezed rather harder than necessary. The boat was loaded with billets of iron and sacks of tools; Retla took a seat in the tiny deck house and pulled her cloak tightly around her. All of a sudden this didn't seem like such a good idea. It was madness; a foolish, childish prank that would get everyone mad at her, especially- and most importantly- Father. She rose to her feet-
The boat rocked as the boatman cast off the moorings and shoved off. Retla dropped into her seat; the motion, gentle as it was, made her queasy, and the possibility of plunging into the water while weighted down by armor alarmed her far more than the idea of getting into trouble with her dad.
"What carry you?" A guard shouted.
"Billets, goods, and one passenger," the Man replied, steering his boat to the quay.
A guard boarded. He looked at the goods piled on the deck... and glanced into the deck house. He must have caught the gleam of polished metal in spite of Retla's cloak because he paused and came back. He looked at her for a moment... then saluted. "Good hunting, milord," he said, and continued on his rounds.
Retla was so stunned she couldn't even speak. She sat there while the boat moved on through the Inner Gates. She examined her braids; did they really look that much like a beard? The cloak covered her chest... but there was still her face. How could he have possibly mistaken her for a man?
Between Inner and Outer gates the canal went through an S-shaped tunnel lined with galleries and murder holes. The Dwarves of Kulandom might greatly favor trade, but not so much as to take foolish chances with their security. Because she sat in the deck house, facing backwards, Retla didn't see the Outer Gates open... but she did see the brilliant, golden light spilling through them as they swung back. Even reflected from stone the light was brighter than any she'd ever seen. Suddenly she was afraid; how bright would it get? She pulled the cloak over her head and huddled in the deckhouse, shivering.
The light grew brighter in spite of the cloak. The quality of sounds changed; Retla could feel the stone walls falling away from around her. New sounds filled her ears, once she'd never heard before. She loosened the cloak a little, but the light hurt her eyes. Besides, she was afraid. More afraid than she wanted to admit.
"It's okay, miss," the boatman said. "We're away from the walls. They won't see you now."
Surprise caused Retla to raise the cloak more quickly than she'd intended. Dazzling glare washed out her vision; she shaded her eyes with her hands, peering between her fingers.
She was... outside. The canal followed a natural watercourse between towering cliffs. Light bathed the natural stone, picking out fascinating textures and colors. It was... sunlight. Slowly, she lowered her hands and stared, mouth agape.
"Don't look up," the boatman warned.
"Why not?" Retla asked, too surprised to be concerned about the warning.
"If you look directly at the sun it'll burn your eyes," the boatman explained. "I get a lot of you young types, out on your first big adventure."
Retla rose and turned to face the boatman squarely. He used a long pole on the floor of the canal to push the boat along. The work gave him a lean, wiry build; his lined face and darkened skin made him seem middle aged, though Retla wasn't sure how Men aged as compared to Dwarves. "Why did you help me?" she asked, bluntly.
He glanced up. His mouth quirked up into a smile; his eyes had a warm, twinkling quality that reminded Retla of her father in a happy mood. "Once upon a time I was a dumb kid, just like you," he said. "My mom had everything lined up for me. A job, a home... a wife. She was a wonderful girl; she could cook, clean, and sew, and wasn't too bad looking either. Best of all her dad had money, so she came with a nice dowry."
"Why didn't you marry her?" Retla asked.
"Because, as I put on my nice suit, I found myself thinking that I wasn't living my life, I was standing there watching someone else's. Lis was a wonderful girl, but- I hope you won't think I'm mean- I didn't like her. Oh, I suspect I could have; she wasn't bad or anything... it's just that whether or not I liked her as a person didn't matter. Except to me, and I wasn't making any of the important decisions. So I ran off. I know it was mean... but I had to get away while I still could."
Retla didn't answer. It was too strange that she felt closer to this Man than to the people with whom she'd grown up. "You'll get in trouble for helping me," she said quietly. "Aren't you worried about that?"
"What sort of person would I be if I didn't help someone who needed it?" he responded. "Besides, I'm getting tired of this business. This is as good a time as any to try a new line of work."
Again, Retla could only stare. The boatman's attitude was even more shockingly alien than the scenery. "I can't let you do that," she insisted.
"You aren't going back," he replied.
"Why not?" Retla demanded, her hand falling to the hilt of one of her swords.
"Because the reasons you had for leaving are the same now as they were before," he replied, unfazed. "Do you want a life or don't you? Or I should say, do you want the life you want or the one someone else wants?"
Retla settled back down. She couldn't think of an answer. At least, not one she wanted to admit, even to herself. "But how do I get away?" she asked. "They'll come looking for me."
"Not soon, they won't," he replied. "They'll start by looking in all the places they expect you to be. When you don't turn up, they'll assume you've been kidnapped or something; they won't think of you leaving willingly."
"But how can't they?" Retla protested. "People saw me. Lots of people."
"How many of them stopped and questioned you?" the Man countered. "The guard who boarded us thought you were a male. How could that be? The answer is, people see what they want to see, and very rarely what actually is. He looked right at you. He saw your face, your boobs, your figure. And he discounted it. The idea that you really were a runaway female- and the Thane's daughter, no less- was simply too absurd to consider. So he didn't."
"How did you know who I am?" Retla demanded. Her hand gripped her sword; she hastily took the bracelets off so she could grab the hilt properly.
The boatman laughed. "You think I've spent years coming here and not learned anything? If that armor isn't Thane Karl's work I'll eat my hat. He wouldn't make a suit like that for a female if she wasn't his own flesh and blood."
In spite of the situation Retla couldn't help smiling. "I hope your hat is tasty. I made the suit."
"You?" His brows shot up. "I'm impressed! That's some mighty fine work."
"Well, Daddy did help me," Retla admitted. Then she did a double-take. Naturally she'd assumed he meant good for a female, the way Father's people always had. She'd heard the words in her mind, even though the boatman hadn't actually said them. But he hadn't; he meant exactly what he'd said, that Retla's work was good even by the routinely high standards of her folk. She felt dazed; he'd told her that people saw what they expected to, and here she was, doing it.
"It's no less than I would have expected from Karl's heir," the boatman observed.
"I'm not-" Retla began. She was doing it again, responding to what she thought he'd said instead of what he had said.
To Be Continued