Hralf and the Temple Guardian

In which Hralf achieves his life-long goal and settles down for good. If you’ve not met Hralf, start with the first Hralf story “Hralf, Hewer of Sagas.”  The full set is listed under Short Fiction, above.

Hannery the Fixer? Yeah, that’s me. Who’s askin’?

Pleased to meetcha. So, what can I fix for you today? Anything you need here in Brightwater, I’m the guy who can make it happen. Lay it on me!

You want to ask about one of my customers? I’m sorry, I can’t help you. I have a strict policy of never—

Oh, you want to know about Hralf? You should have said so right up front. Hralf’s public property in Brightwater, you might say, and anyway I never got one thin copper from him so I guess you could say he was never really a customer of mine. And I don’t think he’d mind, anyway.

But look, could you keep it quiet? Hralf won’t mind, but that old lady of his, she ain’t the forgiving type.

‘Course, you could ask anyone else around here, just as well as me. We all know lots about Hralf, whether we want to or not. What did you want to know?

Personal memories, huh? I guess I don’t got much to say. I mean, I’ve seen him standing in the street in front of his place, the Temple of Torminas as it used to be, any time these last couple of years, badgering people to come in and read his sagas.

I suppose I shouldn’t call it badgering, he’s polite about it. But anybody in town can say the same. If that’s what you’re after you ought to talk to Sunny the Beggar. He’s got his spot just across the road from the temple, so he sees the show every damned day. Me, I’ve tried to avoid Hralf ever since—

Well, since he came to town looking to buy a temple.

I guess I’ve got a few personal memories left after all. The bruises have healed and the stains have faded, but the memories have a way of sticking.

So okay, here’s how it went down.

I was sitting here in the Tattered Windlass, like I do most days. I come in, I have a mug of ale and a bowl of chowder, and I talk to my customers. Everybody in town knows to look for me if they need something fixed.

So I’m sitting here, and Hralf and his old lady come in and talk to Arafella at the bar. I notice him at once, of course, because he’s so big he has to stoop, and because, you know, he’s pretty much a lion. We don’t tend to get lion men here in Brightwater. Humans, mostly, and the occasional elf or halfling. And we had a bear come through once, a big black and white brute in weird looking armor. He didn’t say much, but he was a good dancer, I remember that, and he tipped well.

But not too many lion men. Valiria, Arafella’s mama, told me about one who came through maybe twenty-five years ago. Back then there was a tribe of lizardmen who’d moved into the swamps south of town. They’d started attacking travelers, and they didn’t just rob them, they killed them and ate them.

The lion man and his crew cleaned them up but good. I heard tell he tore one of them apart with his claws. It’s better than they deserved, in my view. I know a seamstress here in town who lost her daddy because of them.

Wait, that lion man was Hralf? I had no idea. Explains how he knew about the chowder, though.

Well, in they come, and talk to Arafella for a couple of minutes. I wait, and just as I’m expecting she points them at me. I don’t think anything of it; this table is my place of business, and as I say, anybody who wants me knows to find me here. And sooner or later everyone does. You, f’rinstance.

So they come over and as they’re coming I’m thinking, barbarians, probably fresh off the veldt. This’ll be fun. They’re probably still wet behind the ears, town-wise, I can lead them such a dance they won’t know what hit them.

Then they sit down across from me, and can I say it’s a struggle for Hralf to get his knees under the table? He’s big. And now that I see him up close, I can see that he’s not a young guy. His mane is starting to go gray, for one thing, and he’s wearing a sleeveless linen vest so I can see that he’s got a variety of scars all up and down his arms. I have to revise my thinking. This ain’t some hick fresh from the sticks. This is a guy who’s been around.

His old lady doesn’t look any safer. She’s not a lion, but she’s a big cat too, with golden orange fur and black spots. She’s wearing a leather vest and has nearly as many scars as he does.

I decide I there won’t be any dancing. I’m gonna be polite.

Probably should have run, is what I’m saying.

“You are Hannery the Fixer?” she says.

“That’s me,” I say. “What can I fix for you?”

The big guy looks at me, and says in a voice deeper than Brightwater Sound,

“A temple untidy. 
Forlorn and forsaken the fane.
New owners needed.”

“Beg your pardon?” I say.

“I am Mistress e’Cheni,” says the cat lady. “This is Hralf. There is an abandoned temple down the road. We wish to buy it.”

“A temple!” I say. “That’s a little out of my line. Maybe you should talk to Merrick the Lorist, he handles property transactions.”

Hralf sniffs.

“He sent us here,” says Mistress e’Cheni.

I am surprised. Merrick and I have a good workin’ relationship, being as how I provide him with business now and then. That’s the secret to being a good fixer: you gotta know who can get things done for ya. If Merrick thinks this is something for me, then there’s something out of the way about it.

So I just nod, and say, “This would be the Temple of Torminus?”

I know it has to be, because there’s only one abandoned temple in town. And Hralf’s not wrong—the place is a dump, and has been for as long as anybody can remember. But nobody does anything about it, which is strange, now I come to think about it. It’s a prime piece of property, right in the center of town, but the grounds are choked with weeds, and the temple itself has vines all over it. The purple flowers are kinda pretty, but those thorns!

The strangest part is that it’s still standing at all. Ruins don’t usually last in a growing town like Brightwater—folks take the stones and build new buildings out of them. Even the Windlass, here: if you look over there by the door you’ll see a piece of marble with some writing on it that no one in town knows how to read. But no one’s taken any stone from the Temple of Torminus, for all that nobody around here remembers anything about Torminus or what he was god of.

I perk up a bit. See, Merrick wouldn’t have passed this on if the place had an owner of record. That’s what lorists care about, you know: all the fiddly little records about who did what to whom and what they ended up with. Peaceful town like this, that’s mostly property transactions. The lorists record those mostly ’cause they don’t trust anybody else to do it.

But Merrick don’t know who it belongs to; and if he don’t know then it pretty much don’t belong to anybody. And for me that’s an opportunity. Merrick can’t record a transfer of property in a case like this, but if I bring him a statement that Hralf is the owner, he’ll record it. See?

You have a way of gettin’ a fella talkin’, doncha. You publish any of that last bit, and they’ll be finding you in the chowder, kovaleh? And anyway, what’s in this for me? I’m a business man, my time is valuable.

All right, you’ve bought yourself some time. I’ll have Valiria bring you some chowder.

You’re welcome.

Anyway, I say to Hralf, “I might be able to help you with that. But I hafta ask, what do you want it for?”

He gives me a somber sort of a look, and pulls a stone tablet out of a sack on his hip. Yes, I see you nodding. He puts it gently on the table between us, and says,

“Deeds of great doing. 
Sagas of souls sensational. 
Public the placement.”

I look at his old lady.

“He wants to displays the sagas of his ancestors where people can come in and read them,” she says.

I scratch my head. “Do you always translate for him like this?”

She nods, and Hralf says,

“Partner predaceous.
Sneaky, scheming, and subtle.
Hralf’s heart is happy.”

She puts a fond hand on his. “And he is smitten with me, as who would not be?”

“Okay, so, he wants to display his tablets for the public. But why a temple?”

Hralf snorts, as though it should be obvious.

“Mansion majestic.
Ancestral the accolades.
Space is not stingy.”

“He has many of them and they concern his ancestors,” she says. “A temple is suitably grand and has plenty of room. And also high ceilings.”

Hralf nods.

“Dwarves in their diggings. 
Rabbits running in warrens.
Heroes needs headroom!” 

I don’t need that one translated. “So your husband’s a hero, is he?” I ask Mistress e’Cheni.

She nods, smugly.

“Okay, I guess I can work with that. And you want me to get the place for you. Have you been inside yet?”

The pair of them shake their heads.

“Then we should go take a look. I need to be here for the rest of the afternoon. Suppose we meet across the street from the temple tomorrow morning?”

Hralf looks doubtful.

“Not to worry, I can promise you no one’s going to snap it up before we get there. And anyway, I need to ask around, find out the asking price.”

At last he nods. They leave, and Arafella brings me another ale and replaces my cold bowl of chowder. We have an arrangement, Arafella and I, kovaleh?

Why did I take him to see the place? Well, you’re right there: I could have arranged the transaction sight unseen. No skin off my nose, no trouble for me, an easy payday and no fuss. For me.

But that’s bad business. Customer’s gotta feel like I earned my money. And I’m the curious type. There was a mystery about that old temple, and I kinda wanted to see the inside of the place for myself. And who better to go with than Hralf? Even as old as he is, the guy’s still a badass.

‘Course I don’t do any asking around, ’cause there’s nobody to ask. But I do spend the afternoon thinking, in between customers. Got to make it worth my time, don’t I, but I can’t fleece him too close to the skin. Got to be reasonable.

So the next day, after some bread and cheese, ’cause who wants chowder for breakfast, I show up across the street from the temple. Hralf’s there, blocking traffic; he’s standing in the road like a pillar, arms folded, staring across at the vines. Carters are having to choose between going between him and the temple or turning around, and most of them are turning around.

I’d never noticed it before, but now I see that the roadway right in front of the temple looks mostly untouched. Nobody wants to get too close to it.

Mistress e’Cheni’s standing beside Hralf, looking everywhere and nowhere, keeping an eye on everything and everybody. I decide that she reminds me of my old Aunt Magda, only with daggers. Not that Magda needed daggers, her tongue was plenty sharp enough. Half the reason I left home, my Aunt Magda.

She walks over and joins me.

“Well, shall we?” I say. And to the astonishment of everyone else present, we stroll across the road, through the weeds, and up to the front of the temple where the door oughta be only it’s so overgrown it’s hard to tell.

Hralf starts pulling down the vines, covering the ground with purple flowers—not easy, that stuff is stubborn, but Hralf’s tearing it down like a—well, you know, I dunno. Never seen anything like it. I resolve once again not to make him angry.

If I want proof that the place is unnatural I get it but good: once Hralf’s made an opening, we see two tall bronze doors. Big doors, taller than he is. Good metal is rare in these parts, but here they still are. I begin to hope they’ll be locked.

Hralf, he just gives them a push and they swing open, smooth as butter.

Inside it’s dark. There are window openings around the tops of the walls, where bits of daylight peek through the vines, but it’s not enough to see by.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “I should have thought to bring a light.”

“It is no matter,” says Mistress e’Cheni, and suddenly she’s holding a dark lantern, the kind you can open and close. I have no idea where she got it from, she wasn’t holding anything when I arrived.

She opens it wide, lets it play around the interior.

It’s a big chamber with not much in it but a layer of leaf mold on the floor. The vines have crept in through the windows and down the walls, but not as far as you’d think since nobody’s been cutting them back.

Across the room from the doorway is a broad stone pedestal where you’d expect a statue to be, but there’s nothing on it but dust. Seems the last guy out must have taken the statue away with him, along with all the other temple furnishings. I shake my head. Fixtures are supposed to be sold with the property.

There’s a basin for offerings in front of the pedestal, but no sign of an altar for sacrificing. From the way folks are reacting to the place I’d have expected Torminus to be a death god at least, but there’s no sign of it that I can see.
Hralf and I watch as Mistress e’Cheni moves forward. She goes slowly and lightly, her eyes everywhere until she’s standing where she can see behind the pedestal.

“Clean,” she says softly. “There is a door in the wall here, leading deeper in, and a stairway going down below.”

Hralf goes to join her; me, I go take a look at the basin. To my surprise there are still a few coins in the bottom. I pick one up and hold it in the light from the door, just to see if I can recognize the face on it.

It’s a copper. On one side there’s the head of some ruler I don’t recognize, and on the other there’s a figure of a winged bull with a man’s head and torso.
As I’m looking at it, I hear a voice behind me say, “What do you think you’re doing?”

I spin in place, and I hear Hralf do the same. And then I stare.

There’s a guy standing between me and the door. He’s an older man, bald and a bit wrinkled. He’s only got one eye, but other than that he’s in pretty good shape for an old guy, lean and standing tall. Except that, you know, he’s glowing a bit, and I can see the crowd on the other side of the street through his chest. He’s wearing a robe, and he reminds me a bit of Valiria’s late husband, Arafel. Retired soldier, Arafel. Nobody messed with him.

Hralf growls. I don’t hear anything from his partner, but I’m sure she’s all business.

I’m equal to any situation, me. Ya gotta be in my line of work. I toss the coin back in the basin so’s I got both hands free, and I say, “We’re checking the place out.” I nod toward Hralf. “Got a customer who’s looking to buy.”

The ghost—’cause that’s what he is, not to put too fine a point on it—the ghost sneers at me.

“I ain’t talkin’ to you, you fat piece o’ work.”

This is not anything I’d expect a ghost to say, but I shrug off the insult. You have to have a thick skin to do what I do, and anyway he’s not wrong. Chowder’ll do that to ya, ya know, in sufficient quantities. Well, that and the ale.

“There’s no harm in chatting about it, is there?” I say.

“The temple ain’t for sale,” he says. “Go away!”

And the next thing I know we’re out in the street looking at a pair of closed bronze doors. I don’t mean the ghost ushered us out, I mean that we were just there between one moment and the next. The crowd behind us is gasping and murmuring. Me, I’m thoughtful. I’ve been given the bum’s rush a time or two in my life, but this is a new one on me!

I look at Hralf; he looks back at me.

“Water and windrush.  
Solid stone susceptible.
A canyon is carved.”

“He says that—”

“Perseverance, yeah, I get it,” I say. “Let’s try again.”

Hralf squares up to the doors and pushes them open. I step inside where our glowing friend is waiting, and before I even open my mouth he flips me a rude gesture and I’m back on the street again.

We all look at the temple for a bit, and I say, “Not a good start to negotiations. Gonna be a tough sell.” I shake my head. “C’mon. We need to talk to Merrick.”

Hralf shakes his head.

“Records relentless.
Purposeless piles of paper.
Lorists are losers.”

Mistress e’Cheni adds, “He wasn’t any help before.”

“Not for what you needed. But Merrick knows where all the bodies are buried,” I say, with a significant glance at the temple.

Hralf and his old lady look at each other and shrug.

Merrick is easy to track down; he’s in his cubby in the Guild Hall. He gives me a wary look from under his bushy eyebrows.

“Is there a problem?” he says.

“Yeah, there’s a problem,” I say.

“There’s nothing helpful in the records, I do assure you,” he says.

“That’s as maybe,” I say. “There might not be an owner of record, but there’s at least a tenant in possession. We met him, and he kicked us out.”

The bushy eyebrows go up.

“These are your clients?” says Merrick, with a look at Hralf and his partner. “I’d have thought them equal to ejecting any number of squatters.”

“Tricky in this case,” I said. “And I’m not sure he’s a squatter.”

I fill him in on our morning.

“Can you tell us anything at all about this temple?”

Merrick shrugs. “Not much. It seems it was a going concern until a century or so ago, when Brightwater was brought into the Imperium. The last priest seems to have shut up the place and walked away. Maybe he left your man behind to keep an eye on things.”

“That’s dedication, that is,” I say. “What about Torminus? Know anything about him, what kind of diety he’s supposed to be?”

“Not really.” He puts his head to one side and thinks about it. “If there’s a still an active Temple of Torminus anywhere, it’s probably in Old Galadon. It’s part of the Imperium now, of course, but it was the Galadian capitol before the Imperium moved in. The priest had to go somewhere, after all.” He sniffs. “I suppose you could send and ask.”

“Thanks!” I say and give him a cheery wave, ’cause you have to keep up appearances.
Then we head back to the temple. The crowd’s mostly dispersed, but I see a few people prick up their ears when they see us. Normally I’d be pleased at the publicity, but not today.

“So, I guess we try again,” I say.

Hralf opens the doors. This time I stand just outside the threshold. I start to say, “Begging your pardon—”

And that’s all I manage to say before I find myself tumbling across the street like feather in a gale. I fetch up next to Sunny the Beggar, who helps me to my feet. When I limp over to join Hralf and Mistress e’Cheni she looks impressed that I’m vertical.

“This ain’t doing any good,” I say. “We need to figure an angle to get him interested, and finding out more about Torminus is our best bet. Unless you’d like to look for a used temple in some other town? That might be a lot quicker.”

“Chowder is charming.
Clams, corn, and cream commingle.
Provender pleases.”

He’s got me there. I shrug.

“Well, then, I’ll make inquiries. It’ll probably take a week or two. Check back with me at the Windlass and I’ll let you know if I find out anything.”

A few days later I’m sitting at the Windlass eating some chowder, when one of my little birds drops in. I’d asked him to keep a friendly eye on the client.

“That crazy lion is over at the Temple of Torminus,” he says.

“He’s what? That’s the worst place he could be!” And it is. Our ghost is already angry with us, and to make the sale we need to sweeten him up. Annoying him will be no help at all.

I rush over there as quickly as I can, which ain’t that fast ’cause I’m still limping a bit from my tumble. I join the crowd across the street.

Hralf is up a ladder, clearing away the vines from the top of the doorway. There’s already a big pile on the street behind him, but I can see that he’s starting to have trouble: some of those vines are inches thick!

Mistress e’Cheni comes and stands beside me.

“What gives?” I say.

“My Hralf, he cannot stand the waiting,” she says. “If he cannot get inside, he will clean up the outside.”

While we watch, a fellow I recognize from the Guild Hall comes and stands at the foot of the ladder.

“You there,” he says. “Come down from there.”

Hralf and slowly climbs down the ladder.

“Look here,” says the official, but Hralf interrupts him.

“Handsaws and hatchets.
Teeth tear through thorns and tough vines.
Assist me, give aid.”

Hralf’s got bits of twig and little purple flowers stuck in his mane, but he don’t look a bit silly as he looks solemnly down at the guy.

“Look,” says the guy, “you’re making a huge mess in a public street! I want this cleaned up immediately!”

Mistress e’Cheni taps him on the shoulder—with one claw.

“Hey, that—”

“A handsaw,” she says. “And a cart. Bring them here.”

“You can’t—”

But Hralf just stares at him, arms crossed, and the official gives up. “And then you’ll clean all of this up?”

Hralf nods, slowly.

“Bring the handsaw first,” says Mistress e’Cheni. “You can bring the cart by later on.”

A fellow pushes out of the crowd. He’s carrying a handsaw.

“I can let you use mine,” he says. “It’s gonna cost ya, though.”

Hralf dips into that sack of his and drops some shining coins in the guy’s hand.

Folk here in Brightwater are plenty shrewd, and a few minutes later Hralf’s hired a cart, too. He spends the rest of the week clearing away the vines and hauling them out of town in the cart, pulling it himself like a toy wagon. When he finishes with the vines, he pulls weeds; and when he’s done with the weeds he starts polishing the big bronze doors.

I don’t watch all of this, you understand, but my little birds keep me in the know.
He’s still at it when I get word back from Old Galadon. Seems Torminus is mostly forgotten there, too; but in his day he was something of a god of war. Or maybe not war, so much, but a god of soldiers. He was popular in Brightwater when it was on the Galladian frontier and filled with Galladian troops, but after the Fall of Galadon I guess people lost interest.

Might explain why the temple guardian don’t wanna talk to me, I think to myself. I ain’t no soldier, nor any kind of fighter. I mean, seriously, just look at me!

I head over to the temple to let Hralf know what I’ve uncovered. I’m nearly there, on the other side of the street, natch, when I stop and step back against the wall.

Hralf is sitting on the steps, resting from his labors, I guess, and Mistress e’Cheni is sitting beside him. Behind them the temple doors are gleaming in the sun, every inch; and I stopped because those doors are slowly swingin’ open.

Out steps the ghost, and he speaks to them. I strain my ears, and this is what I hear.

“I don’t get it,” says the ghost. “You’re a fighter, I can tell, and you don’t mind getting your hands dirty. What are you working for a fat fool like him for?” And he points his thumb at me, standing across the street.

Hralf and his lady stand up and face him.

“Honor for heroes.
Temple tenantless to take.
Fixer for fixing.”

“He says we are not working for him, he is working for us,” says Mistress e’Cheni.

Hralf bows, and takes a stone tablet out of his sack. I still don’t know how he does that.

“Tales for Torminus.
Songs of swordwork and sorrow, 
of deeds the best done.”

“He says, perhaps Torminus would like to hear a song of his people.”

Now me, I’m expecting the ghost to send Hralf packing, but no. Instead, he looks Hralf up and down, and purses his lips.

“Yeah,” he says. “Why not.” And he leads them inside.

As soon as they are out of sight I sneak across the road, and stop at the foot of the steps. I can hear Hralf’s voice coming from within. It sounds different from anything I’ve heard from him before. More rhythmical, I guess you’d say.

Veldt-lords and vino, these two are entwined.
Drinking so deeply, the pride they did party.
The cheetahs they came then,
Sly and most slippery,
Creeping among them,
The horn for to take.

It goes on like that for quite a while, and the whole time I’m waiting for the guardian to lose patience. Eventually I cross the street, and stand in the shade next to Sunny.

“What’s going on in there?” says Sunny.

“You got me,” I say.

I think about going inside, to try and earn my commission, but I tell myself there’s no point. I’d only blow the deal, and anyway I don’t want to get blown across the street again.

The rumbling lasts the rest of the afternoon. I’ve got work to do, but I can’t pull myself away.

Hralf and his lady come out at last, casting long shadows down the road. He looks pleased; she looks smug.

They see me and cross the street. Hralf pulls a handful of gold coins from his sack.

“Contracts concluded.
Torminus will testify.
For you a fair fee.”

“No,” I say. “I didn’t do anything, that was all you. Keep your money.”

Hralf stands there and stares at me, hand outstretched, until Mistress e’Cheni taps him on the arm.

“So what did you tell him,” I say. “How’d you bring him round?”

“You must have heard it,” says Mistress e’Cheni. “My Hralf read him his sagas.”

“That’s it?”

“Also we must maintain the temple,” she says, “and we must provide a statue.”

“Of Torminus, I imagine. But who knows what Torminus is supposed to look like?”

“He said it didn’t matter, so long as it depicts a fighter. One who stands firm through adversity.” And then she looks fondly up at Hralf, and says, “I have some ideas.”

So that’s it. That’s my personal memory of Hralf. As I say, I see him on the street now and again, and he comes in here for the chowder every couple of days. I mean,
who wouldn’t?

Is he happy?

Yeah. Yeah, I think he is.

You’re welcome.

____

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

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