Chapter 5: The Streets of the City
Hallsassring covered the final leg of her journey to Tarnath without incident. When she stepped onto the smooth stone of the city’s streets, she knew she had officially arrived.
The buildings were packed closely together, often without a gap between one and the next, forming a strange arrangement of short and tall, wide and narrow. The street ran roughly straight, spilling into a crowded intersection with two other streets, and then continuing on at a strange angle. A tall building across from her looked as if it had once been elegant and imposing, but was now weary from years of neglect.
The sounds and smells of the city bombarded her senses. The odors were foreign to her and, for the most part, disagreeable. They filled her nose as a single, jumbled assault, making it hard to single out their individual sources. She paused for a moment to focus: stale bread, freshly-caught fish, foreign flowers, an unpleasant mix of wines and ales, and an abundance of sweat from the many strange creatures who passed her by. She coughed and realized that she had been overly diligent in her olfactory investigation. A stiff pinch of her nose stopped the attack, at least for a while.
The sounds were just as alien. There were many voices speaking in a variety of tongues; some shouted, some whispered, others just grunts and groans. She detected several conversations in Sessym, the common tongue of the Northern half of the Tamarran Continent. Too many to follow. Underneath it all was an uninterrupted background of city sounds: the claps and creaks of doors, hard boots trudging along stone streets, hammers and other tools echoing against walls and door frames, and a constant clatter of wooden wheels over stone streets.
As Hallsassring continued down the street, a stranger walked up to her thrusting a broad smile into her view. The eyes belonged to a human male, who was wearing a long white apron. He smelled of flour and yeast, and held a basket filled with something she could not identify.
“Bread?” he cried out to her, “Finest in the city!” The voice was one part entreaty, another part enticing, held together with a softly commanding tone urging her to nod in assent.
“Fresh! Made it myself just this morning.” He produced a long, light brown loaf from a basket. The aroma of fresh grain poked her nose. It smelled good. In fact, it smelled very good. It also provided the unintended benefit of blotting out the other odors of the street.
“Last loaves of the day! Half price for you, my friend!” He was eager to make the sale. However, Hallsassing was still full from her ample mid-day feast.
“I thank you but no,” was her response, being careful to decline politely.
The baker was disappointed, but hid it well. “There’ll be more tomorrow. Stop by then!” and he turned toward the next unwary pedestrian.
Relieved, Hallsassring steered herself back toward the middle of the street to avoid further encounters. As she looked ahead, she noticed a group of strange beings making their way through the crowds in her direction. She could tell that they were Crawn, another of the Ten Races of Tamarra. According to her instructors, the crawn were a snake-like folk but with two legs and two arms. Their bodies were lithe and sinuous, and their wide mouths showed fangs and a long snake-like tongue, in a face framed by a wide, scaled hood. Their walk had a hypnotizing flow, a combination of their bodies’ graceful contours and their proud swagger. This group looked like soldiers, which was in keeping with what she’d been taught about this militant race.
Hallsassring wanted to avoid an encounter so she veered to her right, but when she did the Crawn leader moved in her direction. She moved to the left, but again the Crawn changed course so their paths would cross. He seemed eager to intercept her. She could not imagine why, but she would not back away from a challenge and picked up her pace to close the distance more quickly.
When they were only a few yards away the Crawn leader halted, and his companions immediately did the same. He called out, “I don’t recognize you, stranger,” and raised his hand in command for her to stop.
“Nor I you,” retorted Hallsassring after taking one more step to stand directly in front of him.
The Crawn leader was not pleased with her response. “We are those who keep the peace in Tarnath. Name yourself and your kind,” the leader replied.
“Your manners leave much to be desired,” Hallsassring retorted. “You should consider correcting your deficit, and while you do, I will continue to walk the streets as I please.”
This was more provocation than the Crawn was willing to tolerate. He spat out a series of indecipherable hissing sounds and drew his sword.
Drawing a long knife from her boot, Hallsassring set her stance and prepared for battle.
She saw a smile of satisfaction from the leader. “You will learn that defiance is met with justice when you stand in front of the Szaskar Crawn Protectors of Tarnath. Now you will taste the…”
“Zesskess, well met!” A new voice interrupted. It was a voice that the Crawn recognized and he hesitated in his advance as a figure walked forward from the side of the street.
This creature was elegantly dressed, with the many colors of their clothes matching the iridescent hues of their scaly skin. Their body was marked by elaborate fins and other fish-like features.
“Perhaps I may be of service?” They now stood directly between the two antagonists.
It was a Zweyjen, another of the Ten Races that Hallsassring had learned so much about. It would seem this day abounded with learnings about these ten most powerful races on Tamarra.
Without removing his eyes from Hallsassring, Zesskess responded, “Nothing that need concern you, Counselor.” He spat out that last word reluctantly and with an unmistakable scorn. “Just a stranger in town who seems to be a trouble-maker. We can handle this matter.”
Before Zesskess could move, the newcomer turned toward Hallsassring and, with a courteous bow, spoke.
“Greetings, stranger. My name is Shwolan, and I am a member of Tarnath’s City Council. Allow me to welcome you to our magnificent metropolis where a lone wanderer is met with interest and civility.” There was a crispness to this Zweyjen’s speech, and it seemed unmistakably comfortable– the kind of comfort that arises from privilege and rank.
Hallsassring was disarmed by this unexpected courtesy, and she lowered her knife slightly.
Shwolan continued in his deliberately casual manner, “If I am not mistaken, you are a Nossring? They are a noble folk. Would my assumption be true, stranger?”
Shwolan’s careful, practiced diplomacy had Hallsassring uncertain of how best to react to this dramatic change in circumstances.
“It would,” she said. Deciding that decorum would be her best choice for now, she pulled herself to her full height and returned the Zweyjen’s bow. “I am Hallsassring and I have come to this fair city from my home deep in the Rimmel Mountains. I thank you for your courtesy, Counselor Shwolan.” She could see that the Zweyjen was impressed.
“You have good manners, Hallsassring.” He looked at the Nossring with great curiosity and seemed impressed with her confidence.
“In my experience,” he said, turning toward Zesskess, “trouble-makers would not be as polite as this.”
Zesskess stiffened but before he could reply, Shwolan continued, “I believe the situation is in hand now, Zesskess, thank you.” With that and a slight wave of his hand the Crawns were dismissed.
Zesskess made no attempt to hide his fury and, with a suffered nod of compliance, strode away with his troops stiffly following.
“She is well-meaning,” said Shwolan. Hallsassring turned toward the Zweyjen who continued, “She is, after all, a Crawn. A good leader and bold. They are good enforcers of law and order, but can be somewhat inflexible at times.”
The Counselor moved on, “May I ask, Hallsassring, where in the Nossring lands you come from?”
Hallsassring hesitated. For the second time today her instinct for privacy warred with her need for allies. The decision was made when she realized that she was in Shwolan’s debt because of the aid he had just given her. “I am from Merring City, the capital of the Nossring Kingdom.”
Shwolan interrupted before she could say more. “Ah, yes, nice! I know Merring City. I visited many years ago.” Hallsassring got the impression that ‘visited’ did not include ‘was impressed by’.
“Of course Tarnath will be very different from what you are accustomed to in your lands. There is a great variety of folk in our fair city, and, of course, the press of so many will be much greater than what you would encounter in Merring City. And, of course, there is the grandeur of the city itself.”
Suddenly realizing where they were, Shwolan added, “Though this part of the city does not have the elegance of other sections..”
“No matter,” Shwolan said, quickly changing the subject. “May I ask if you are looking for any particular place here in Tarnath?”
Hallsassring was not sure why, but there was something about Shwolan that she liked. “I am trying to find a place called Bill’s Bar. I have…”
Before she could finish her sentence, Shwolan swept his staff into the air and with a grand smile interrupted, “Of course! Why would you seek any other establishment!” He seemed not to have noticed his mild rudeness, or had no need to care (perhaps both). “I am headed that way just now, and would be happy to be your guide.” He paused, and seeing Hallsassring’s hesitation, added, “With your permission, of course.” Hallsassring got the impression that Shwolan was unaccustomed to asking for anyone else’s approval.
She appreciated the offer and admitted to herself that it would be helpful to have a guide and companion, especially one who seemed to know the city well.
“You are most generous, Counselor Shwolan, thank you. I gladly accept your kind offer.”
Shwolan was visibly pleased. Pointing his staff eastward he announced, “This is the way!”
As Shwolan led them forward Hallsassring discovered how pleased she was to have a companion, which in turn reminded her how much she missed her true companion, Alliss. “Soon I will find you,” she thought to herself, hoping it would be true.