Friday, 2 August 2013

Cymru - the Apothecarists' Tale

So I wrote this because Iceduck gave me a challenge yesterday to write a 2000 word short story set in the Cymruverse about a misunderstanding between a shopkeeper and a customer, and told me I had until 3pm today. That translated into about five hours of time, in the end, because of Stuff. So it's shit. But I'm pleased at my speed, so I thought I'd put it here. Heads up: it's completely unedited.


"Ooh, Eira! We've had that new conditioner in! Truth be told you could do with some, girl; your hair looks fucking terrible at the minute."
"Mine looks terrible?" Eira straightened, and stared in disbelief at her eighty-year-old mother's thin, grey hair. "Good gods woman, you barely even have any. And I shan't even start on your skin."
"Eira, bach, of course I look like porridge," Mari said, shaking her head. "I'm old, that's the privilege I earned. You're only sixty."
"You're an idiot," Eira said irritably, straightening the baskets of hair soaps with unnecessary vigour. "And you never had good hair anyway."
"Aye, that's true," Mari nodded reminiscently. She lined up the medicine bags on the shelves swiftly, gnarled fingers dancing. "Ooh, I looked a tit when I was younger. You got that from me. Shame. I got asked out last night, mind."
"I am, of course, fascinated by your love life," Eira said brusquely, scanning the shelves. "However, I must stress that my fascination for why you haven't finished making the cough medicines is stronger."
"Because I got asked out last night," Mari repeated patiently. "Bloody addled you are, do keep up you little twat. I was in the pub up on fifth -"
"The Goat's Horn?" Eira asked, raising an eyebrow. "The one with that foolish eighteen-year-old who short-changed you and tried to steal your purse? You truly are an idiot. Give me that broom."
"Having a drink, I was," Mari nodded happily, passing over the broom. "And in comes Bedwyr Gefail, you know, the blacksmith with the angry grandson with the stupid beard -"
"Yes I know," Eira interrupted, exasperated. "There's only oneBedwyr Gefail! And he's been here seventy five years! I think I've just about spotted it by now."
"- and he comes up to me and he says 'Mari, I've been wanting to ask for months. We must go dancing. Will you dance with me?'"
There was a pause. The soft, busy noise of the street outside the shop filtered in. Eira sighed.
"And you said?" she asked resignedly. Mari grinned a triumphant grin.
"I said no!" she cackled. "'I'm eighty!' I said! 'I couldn't even dance when I was young, I was a fucking menace dancing!' I tried a bloody hornpipe one night and your father went home wearing my shoe in his bloody ear! He looked proper sad, though, so I feel a bit of a bitch now, truth be told."
"Good," said Eira primly. "Though he's actually dodged an arrow. Now get behind the counter; I'm opening up."
"Aye, and I told your father that a few times and all," Mari sniggered, ignoring Eira's vicious glare as she scurried back to her seat. "I was always good at other types of dancing!"
"Great," Eira said evenly, moving to the door.
"Fucking, I mean -"
"I got it, Mam!"
The doors opened to reveal a queue. That wasn't unusual - the apothecary tended to be engulfed in an immediate rush first thing, since people needed speedy cosmetics so as not to die socially in the event of unexpected guests and speedy medicines so as not to die permanently in the event of unexpected illness. Also, this queue was headed by Elidir Gwyn, who was generally the first customer through the door to beg advice about at least three different ailments he was certain he'd developed overnight and also which hair soaps to use. It was all reassuringly normal.
Oddly, though, the bulk of that morning's queue seemed to be a throng of people from the Etruscan district, holding delivery boxes and looking politely wretched. Eira swore internally. That, she reflected, suggested a Problem. They had a Thing. And she knew at least three of them, and they barely spoke a word of Cymric, which was going to make sorting the Thing difficult.
"Eira!" Elidir said nervously. "Um. Sorry to be a bother, but, um, I think I might have the plague."
"Really?" Eira asked sternly. "And you decided the best option was to leave home and spread it about? For goodness' sake man, use some sense. Get in."
He squeaked something that might have been 'meep', and scuttled in. Eira sniffed, glanced once more at the worried Etruscans, and followed him in.
"Elidir!" Mari was saying brightly inside. "Morning, bach. What fake illness do you have today, then?"
"Plague," Elidir said mournfully.
"Plague," Mari said admiringly as Eira rounded the counter. "Bugger me, boy, but you've had that a lot this Half, it seems. You should be bloody immune by now. What symptoms?"
"Nose and eyes like a tap!" Elidir moaned. The Etruscans lined up patiently behind him, clutching their delivery boxes, worried smiles in place. " And I've got this rash. It itches, it does, Mari -"
"Aye, well, that's fleas, you daft bastard," Mari said sagaciously. "Your Ffion has been bringing home cats again, and you're allergic, man."
"Really?" Elidir asked, in the voice of a man almost relieved but afraid to take the branch offered just in case. "But -"
"Good gods, man!" Eira snapped. "It's bloody fleas! Take some fleabane, wash your sheets and get out!"
"Meep!" Elidir may have squeaked, and got out.
"Well," Mari said conversationally. "You bollocksed up that bit of customer relations. Yes, bechod, can we help you all?"
"Er," said an Etruscan, eyeing Eira warily. "Is no soap?"
He held out his delivery box. Eira and Mari peered in.
It contained a fairly unremarkable selection of items; deodorant, tooth powder, two blocks of hair soap, a stoppered clay phial of conditioner and three bags of selfheal.
"Buggered if I know what he's on about," Mari muttered. "What about you?"
"Soap?" Eira asked, frowning. She pointed at the hair soap. "That?"
"No," the man shook his head. Others had stepped forward now, showing their own boxes. "Not... Should be soap?"
"Another kind of soap, maybe?" Eira asked perplexed. "Check the orders, Mam, see if we forgot to include some."
"Er..." The Etruscans huddled for a moment, whispering swiftly; then the man stepped back.
"No missing from order," he said confidently. "With order. Free soap."
Eira gasped.
Mari dropped the order forms.
There was a short, shocked silence.
The Etruscans looked terrified.
"Free?" Mari demanded, reeling. "What's he saying? What the pigging fuck is he saying, Eira? He wants free things?!"
"Young man," Eira said, with all the stern gravity she could muster. "We do not use the word 'free' in this shop."
"You have placed your order and it has been fulfilled!" Eira continued, forbidding. "We do not add free things! This is a shop! We only add free things if my mother here is attempting to take you to bed!"
The Etruscans all looked at Mari in fascination.
"And even then, I do not approve!" Eira thundered.
"Oh my fucking days, she does not," Mari muttered. "Still won't let me hear the end of that one."
"But," the Etruscan said nervously, sweat obviously beading on his forehead, "offer is free soap with order for us, no? We are told - we were told we get free soap because we... are being Etruscans?"
"You're being Etruscans?" Mari asked, one eyebrow raised. "What, aren't you really? No offense, bach, but that's fucking cultural appropriation right there. No soap for you."
"You are dim-witted," Eira told her irritably. "He's saying they were told they'd get free soap because they are Etruscan."
"Really?" Mari asked skeptically. "I like Etruscans as much as the next lot, but fuck me that does not make them unique and special snowflakes entitled to my bloody soap."
"Special offer?" the sweating Etruscan tried.
"Do you know how long I spent on that pissing soap?" Mari demanded. "Look at my hands! I'm making it with fucking claws! I am not pissing it away just because you have a pretty accent!"
"Right, hang on," Eira said, folding her arms and glaring down the Etruscans. They wilted slightly more. "Did you say you were told you'd get free soap for being Etruscan?"
"Er..." said the man. Today was clearly not a good day for him. "Yes?"
"Who told you? When?"
There was a pause as they all went back into their huddle. Mari glowered. Eira tapped her foot. The man emerged from the huddle, looking miserable.
"Is - was boy. Eight-een? With leather on him, like Rider but not. Um. Hercna has seen him by forge. Was with us this morning."
Eira leaned forward. They leaned back.
"Was he... angry?"
The man gave her a look that fairly succinctly suggested that, however angry the boy might have seemed, current comparisons were rendering that a difficult assertion to stand by. A young woman, no more than thirty, stepped forward.
"Please?" she suggested. "He had stupid beard."
They all sniggered. Eira drew herself up. They all stopped.
"I see," she seethed. "So you turned down his grandfather for dancing and now he's trying to give us a bad name."
"Bedwyr's boy?!" Mari asked, indignant. "Well, fuck me pink! Bedwyr already suffers with his toes, I was doing the silly bastard a favour!"
"Give them some soap," Eira declared, grabbing a shawl. Mari nearly spluttered.
"What?!" she yowled. "I spent fucking ages on that batch! I even put some of that bloody lavendar in!"
"Give them a small sample each," Eira repeated. "As a show of good faith. Tell them it won't happen again, and if that boy comes to them again they can tan his hide if I haven't already, which is now a distinct possibility. I'll be back in a bit."
"What has the fucking world come to?" Mari asked darkly, turning to haul up a block of soap as Eira headed for the door. "Well? Don't just stand there you twats! Help me get this on the counter!"
The sound of the whole throng of Etruscans running to help echoed in Eira's ears as she left.
The forge was a street above theirs, with the speediest route to it being a flight of alley steps populated by pick-pockets and the odd beggar. By the time she reached the street she was out of breath from the steps and from smacking three teenagers upside the head with her shoe after they aimed at her pockets, which although holding a certain catharsis, nonetheless didn't help Eira's mood. So when she arrived at the forge and saw Bedwyr sitting at a table to one side, carefully polishing a row of horse brasses and unbothered by soap-seeking Etruscans, her temper rose.
"Right!" she snarled, marching in and slamming her shoe down on the table in front of him for effect. He almost jumped higher than the brasses. "Asking my mother to dance! Sending us Etruscans to ask for free soap! Trying to give us a bad name! Explain yourself, Bedwyr Gefail!"
"I... what?" He looked up at her, wide-eyed and lost, a brass clutched in his hand. "Eira? What are you - ?"
"If I wanted to spend a further five minutes repeating myself rest assured I'd have started already," she thundered. "Why have you done this! Because she turned you down? It was a mercy! Her dancing is so bad she can clear entire taverns! It's probably law in Tregwylan that she doesn't!"
"Hang on," Bedwyr said slowly. "She turned me down because she can't dance?"
"Of course she did!" Eira snarled. "And I don't care! Your grandson has spent the morning telling Etruscans we're going to give them free soap! Focus on that bit!"
"Oh gods." Bedwyr looked horrified. "Right. Well, how does three free sacks of oxides sound in compensation, for starters? High quality, you know it will be."
It sounded amazing. Her temper didn't quite agree yet, though.
"Excellent!" she yelled. "What about your grandson?"
"Oh, I will kill him, Eira bach, don't you worry."
"Will you? Will you? I want him dead!"
"Oh, it'll be no trouble, he'll make the forge burn hotter."
"Oh, um, I realise that probably feels like a satisfactory solution to you both," said a concerned voice behind Eira, "but do you mind using less illegal fuels and I'll just arrest your grandson?"
They turned, and Eira's stomach lurched. A Rider was standing by the door, probably attracted by the shouting, and weirdly, trying to politely insert itself into the procedings. It was female, and exotically dark, with honey-dark skin and black eyes. It was also deceptively small, but Eira knew well that meant it would be fast and agile. And it wore a Tutor's sash over an informal uniform.
And it was offering to sort out Bedwyr's bloody grandson.
"That sounds marvellous, Rider," Eira nodded. "I'd consider it a particular favour if you could feed him to your young Riders."
"I wish people didn't keep saying that," the Rider sighed morosely. "I just make dens with them and teach them what rowan berries look like, you know. It's not remotely creepy."
"You're wearing daggers imbued with the blood of your enemies," Bedwyr said, fascinated. The Rider rolled its eyes.
"Whom I didn't then eat," it said. "And they were trying to kill me. Anyway. Where is your grandson?"
"Ruining my business," Eira snapped.
"In the back," Bedwyr said. The Rider beamed at them both, disconcertingly bright and cheerful, before moving to the back of the shop. Eira sniffed.
"Creepy things," she muttered, ignoring Bedwyr's disapproving glance. "Goodbye, Bedwyr. I shall remember you to our Mam."
"Will you?" He brightened. "Thank you. Um. What activity should I ask her to, do you think?"
"Good gods man, isn't it obvious?" Eira said. "Drinking. Always drinking."
He wasn't so bad, Eira reflected as she made her way back down. And three sacks of oxides meant they could make some excellent cosmetics this month. All in all it had actually been a profitable morning, therefore.
Although Mari would never forgive her for that soap.