Hralf and the Pot-Boilers

Another tale of Hralf the Mighty.To see the stories listed in reading order, see “Short Fiction“, above.

An interview with Gorteck Ironbark, former employee at Copperbane Publishing in Old Peldentown.

Well, stranger, that was indeed a meal to remember. I do thank you, I surely do.

What can I do for you?

You want to talk about Hralf the Mighty? Now why would you be asking the likes of me about the likes of him?

Well, okay, you got me there. I did work for Old Copperbane once upon a time, and I did write most of the Hralf line of Copperbooks. Copperbane told me I was never to tell anyone, but you can see where that got me: here, living on the streets of Glitter Gulch and renting my nose out by the day. I don’t owe that fat piece of fabrication a damned thing any more—and you already know anyway, so there’s no point to keeping silence.

Yeah, my nose. I’ve got a nose for gold, I always did. I can smell it, right through the ground. There’s a tidy ledge just over there, and down about twenty feet. No cost for that; you bought me a meal already, and anyway it’s in the Great Eight’s territory. They ought to be getting to it in a few months, the rate they’re going.

Back home, my nose was nothing special. Lots of dwarves have a nose for ore, and besides dwarves aren’t in an all-fired hurry. These human prospectors, though, they want to get rich quick. A dwarf will find an area that’s rich in ore, start digging, raise a family. The family becomes a clan, and before you know it there’s a new dwarven kingdom. Takes a few centuries, is all, and a little determination.

But these humans! They’ve got no foresight. They’ve got no plan beyond, “I’m gonna find me some gold, and then I’ll be RICH!” That’s all they care about, getting rich before the other guy. So some of them, the wise ones, or the desperate ones, or sometimes both together, they come and pay me a few pennies to nose around whatever bit of above-ground real estate they’re eyeing and tell them where to dig. Sometimes I find a ledge of quartz, or a placer deposit, and then I might drink well for a week or two. You know, until their gratitude runs thin.

Other times, well, there’s nothing there—or nothing they care about. Once, I remember, there was no gold, no precious metals anywhere near—but I could tell the underlayers were chock-full of copper and tin all mixed together. That’s rare! That guy could have opened an out-and-out bronze mine, everybody needs bronze, and then he could have lived comfortably on the proceeds for the rest of his life. If he’d played his cards right, the fool could have had his own kingdom in a hundred years or so.

I tried to talk him into it, but he wasn’t having any. He only wanted gold, or maybe silver. “I ain’t got time for that,” he said. “And only an earth-grubber like you would want to live in a hole.”

Yes, he really said that. Hurtful, is what it was. Lots of people like living in holes besides dwarves. Kobolds, for instance.

Yes, and halflings too. That’s right. Then the idjit stiffed me on my bill. I went thirsty that week.

Why didn’t I open a bronze mine myself?

Oh, a lot of a reasons. Got no capital, nor no money for tools. Got no family that’ll claim me, got no kids. I mean, look at me. Got nothing but the pickaxe on my back, and it’s been all I can do not to pawn it.

And anyway, no decent dwarf will have anything to do with me, not after what Copperbane did.

Yeah, you’d think some enterprising fellow would put me on retainer, set me to looking for likely parcels of land. But they don’t. Nobody ever hires me more than once. Prejudice, I call it. Folks around here just don’t like dwaves.

So I spend my days following my nose, and earning a few pennies to keep body and beard together. And it’s all Copperbane’s fault. I hope he’s as miserable as I am, damp take him!

I’m sorry, you don’t want to hear about my troubles, you want to hear about Hralf the Mighty. I beg your pardon.

How did I come to write the books?

Well, a mine of a thousand miles begins with one blow of the pick. I guess I better start at the beginning.

I was born in the dwarvenhold of Dhank-Shelaar, what the humans of Old Peldentown call Pelden-Under. It isn’t, really—under the city, I mean. It’s off under the hills nearby. It’s a small hold, got a little tin, a little lead, a whole lot of not much else. There’s not much opportunity there. So when I reached the age of productivity, my parents sent me off to be an office boy at Old Copperbane’s publishing house, he being a connection of my third great-grandfather’s aunt’s fifth semi-cousin.

Oh, I was a promising lad in those days, eager to please, eager to make something of myself. Oh, sure, I was a little dusty behind the ears—what dwarfling isn’t at that age? Being straight from the mines and all. But the older office boys took care of that in short order. I still remember the time they sent me off looking for a left-handed galley. I was supposed to fill it with water from the common font and take it Old Copperbane so he could make tea.

Those were good days.

In time I became the senior office boy myself, and then a junior clerk in the office that managed the firm’s various series of Copperbooks.

What’s a Copperbook? Why, you know that already, don’t you? Being that you’re familiar with Hralf the Mighty?

Oh, all right.

See, this is why Old Copperbane is as rich and powerful as he is. He started out as just another poor dwarfling from Dhank-Shelaar, just like me, but he had a wizard of an idea.

You mine tin and copper, and then you mix them according to a formula, and then you’ve got bronze. A Copperbook’s written to a formula, no different than bronze. But here’s the trick—the ore’s free, and you mine it out of thin air.

What’s the formula? That’s easy.

First, you pick some interesting person people of have heard tell of: Giles Dragon-Tamer, for example, or Ixtaber the Crafty. Could be present day, could be historical; it doesn’t matter, so long as the guy has some kind of hook you can hang a story on. Sometimes we just made characters up, but real people work best: folks like to think they’re getting the inside dross. Then you inflate them so they’re larger than life, and start writing tales. There’s a formula for that part, too: gotta be thrilling, heavy on the action, light on the sense. There’s maybe a dozen standard plots; pick a villain, pick a conflict, pick a setting that’s different than last time. Add a lurid cover and blurb, and sell it for just one copper. That’s the thing and the whole of the thing.

The Copperbooks were among our most popular titles, year in and year out. We had ten major series and dozens of minor ones, and for each one we’d have a new title out every month or so. Giles Dragon-Tamer was a hot seller in those days, and so were the Al-Jarran Nights.

The Nights were different than the others; instead of a single hero, each of the Nights featured some nameless nobody who made good. He’d be a cow-herd, a gutter-snipe, a charcoal burner, something like that, and by luck and hard work he’d rise to be the Lord of the City or some such nonsense. Those flew off the shelves.

The real Giles Dragon-Tamer was a farmer who raised a petty dragon from an egg, tamed it, and used it to guard his farm. We turned him into a great hero who used his dragon to right wrongs, and eventually conquered his own little kingdom.

Who wrote them?

Not the name on the spine, that’s for sure. Other than that, who didn’t? Aspiring authors have to eat, and Old Copperbane didn’t need the books good, he needed them monthly. Copperbane used to say that there wasn’t a successful author in the province who hadn’t contributed his share of the catalog.

Not that we actually had a catalog, not of the Copperbooks—they weren’t written for the ages. We’d do a print run for a title, and as soon as it was complete we’d be tearing apart the galleys to set type for the next one. If you missed this month’s book in your favorite series, too bad, but there’d be another coming along shortly.

Most of them were written by outsiders, but a lot of us in the firm tried our hand at it at one time or another, and the cover blurbs were always written in-house. I got pretty good at those; I got a reputation of being able to turn out a blurb in half-an-hour that would have the books selling like hotcakes. There was a trick to it—I wrote them in batches ahead of time, a good drink at my elbow. Then when we needed a blurb I’d spend twenty minutes looking through my files to find one that matched the cover, more or less, and ten minutes copying it out with the name of the hero, the setting, and like that. Bingo, instant blurb.

And I wrote a number of the books, too. Giles and the Dragon-Napper, that was mine, and any number of tales about Brock Sauvage, the Man of Tin, and some of the Al-Jarran nights. My favorite of those was The Plucky Nightsoil Collector.

So one day Old Copperbane himself sends for me.

“Gorteck, my lad,” he says to me, “I’ve got a special job for you. I’m planning to start a new line of Copperbooks, and I want you to write the first one.”

“Sure, boss,” I said, “What are you looking for.”

“I want a series about Hralf.”

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

“Hralf,” I said. “Really? That lion guy?”

“Yes, indeed. I want you to make him a laughingstock—but it mustn’t be obvious.”

“Gotcha. Consider it done,” I said.

How did I feel about it?

Well, first of all I was proud. The chief had recognized my skills! That’s a heady thing for any young dwarf.

But second of all, it was a little weird. I mean, yeah, we published thrillers about the imaginary exploits of real people. That wasn’t our only business, but it was a big part of it. But people had heard about Giles Dragon-Tamer. Folks might not know that the general who conquered Galadon for the Empire was called Ixtaber the Crafty, but everybody knows what happened to Galadon.

But Hralf, he was nobody special. I mean, sure, he stands out in a crowd. But nobody outside of Old Peldentown had ever heard of him, and not that many inside, either. And he wasn’t even in town for that long.

And then I had to make him a laughingstock. That was different. I mean, our story lines were often completely absurd, but we were under orders to play them absolutely straight. The conceit was always that this was something that had actually happened, and the hero was somebody to look up to. He might be absurd, but he’d be absurdly great. But now I had to make the hero look foolish while pretending to make him look like a hero.

Did that bother me?

A little, I guess. But it was a challenge, too. It was going to take a delicate touch.

Besides, I understood why Copperbane was steamed at him.

Sure, okay, I can talk about that.

I was still the senior office boy the first time Hralf came to Copperbane Publishing, and I got the job of escorting him in to see Copperbane myself.

He was an impressive sight, was Hralf. He was twice my height, for starters, and he had that fur and that mane and those claws and those muscles all over. He looked kind of kingly, was my thought, for all that his clothing was pretty far south of business casual. Anyway I took him in, and waited by the wall in case Old Copperbane needed me to take a message.

Oh, yeah, taking messages was a normal part of my life in those days.

And then Hralf opened his mouth, and was he hard to understand! He had an accent so thick it oozed, and he spoke in this weird alliterative sing-song. I remember, he took this stone tablet—a stone tablet, I ask you, who does that?—out of a sack on his hip and hands it to me to hand to Copperbane, and he says something like, “My sagas to sell, this tablet you’ll take.”

Really peremptory, you know? And I could see that Copperbane didn’t like his tone.

Well, so, there was a bunch of chit-chat, and it took a while, but eventually we got the idea. This Hralf, he had a mess of stone tablets carved with his “sagas” in whatever language he spoke when he was at home, and he wanted us to take them and publish them for sale.

On stone tablets.

And in whatever language it was he spoke when he was at home.

So, you know, a lunatic. You get those in publishing, it isn’t even all that unusual. Most of the would-be authors who walk in off the street are lunatics. Hralf looked more dangerous than most, what with the lion thing, but could I tell you stories! We had one granny who pulled a knife on Copperbane because he wouldn’t publish her book about knitting funeral shrouds for family pets.

Copperbane did what he always did with lunatics: he made nice, he took the tablet, he said he’d take a look at it, where was Hralf staying, he’d send a letter. And then he had me escort Hralf to the door; and when I came back he told me on no uncertain terms that Hralf was not to be allowed back on the premises for any reason, and would I please tell the receptionist. I told him I already had. Then he handed me the tablet and told me to find a door in need of a doorstop.

So I did that, and naturally the next day Hralf came back. I met him at the front desk and told him that Copperbane couldn’t see him, but he wouldn’t listen, he just pushed past me—like I could stop him. So the receptionist pushed the magic button under the desk and we both snickered as he fell through the floor.

See, Copperbane had installed an oubliette under the floor of the entry way. Anybody difficult came in, the receptionist would push the magic button, and there we were, threat contained. The next morning we’d call the Peldentown guards to come fetch whoever it was; Copperbane had a special arrangement.

At least, that’s how it usually worked—but our usual guests weren’t eight-feet tall and made of muscles. I heard a roaring, and an odd creaking noise, and then I noticed that the floor tiles were cracking, and, well.

In the end it took the office boys and the entire sales department working together to subdue Hralf long enough for the town guard to show up and cart him off. The magistrate refused to make Hralf pay for the damage—when a lion comes to see a publisher about a matter of business, the magistrate said, he’s entitled to be angry if he gets dropped into an oubliette. But he happily granted Copperbane an injunction forbidding Hralf to enter our place of business in the future, and that was that, so we thought. Of course the oubliette was now an expensive hole in the ground, and it and the reception area had to be completely rebuilt.

And then a few months later came the Dwarven New Year.

Now, Copperbane wasn’t a dwarven king, not officially, not even a petty king like King Grunther back in Dhank-Shelaar. He had no mine, and he lived above ground, and publishing just isn’t a respected dwarvish occupation. I remember my parents saying that Copperbane wasn’t fit to lick King Grunther’s boots, neither of them being readers, as you might say. But Copperbane was a lot richer than Grunther—and I mean a lot richer—and if he wasn’t the ruler of Old Peldentown’s dwarvish community he was the next best thing. And that meant that he celebrated the New Year in the grand old style, the whole three days, and all the food and festivities you could imagine.

So picture this.

It’s the first day of the celebration, and there we are in the courtyard of Copperbane’s house. We’ve eaten a lot of good food and drunk a lot of good ale, along with a few stronger things. And in bursts Hralf, panting like he’s just run a mile. He bellows something about his damned sagas, and hurls one of his tablets at Copperbane. Nearly takes his head off. And then he wades into the crowd and starts throwing people about like so many bundles of laundry.

Now seriously, I like a good brawl as much as any dwarf. And since everybody was there, the office boys, and the sales department, the printers, the editors, and everybody, it didn’t take long to sit on him. But is that any way to behave?

So Copperbane had reason to be angry with Hralf: between the repairs to his house and the repairs to his to his business, Hralf had cost him a lot of money. What’s more, we had to buy a whole new pack of watch-things for the publishing house—apparently he and this thieving halfling had broken in, killed the lot of them, and then begun to ransack the place before crashing Copperbane’s party. Hralf was lucky to escape having his neck stretched, I can tell you.

Of course, they’d have had to build a special gibbet for him, as I’ve often thought. The usual one wouldn’t be half tall enough.

So you can take it from me that Hralf had worked his way into a special place in Copperbane’s withered little heart. Publishing books about him still seems to me an odd way to get revenge, but that’s Copperbane for you. He didn’t think like other dwarfs.

When was it that Copperbane asked me to write the book? I don’t remember exactly, but it was years after Hralf had left Old Peldentown.

Wasn’t it odd that Copperbane waited so long? Not really, no. We dwarves, we’re sturdy—we can carry a grudge a very long way. Copperbane’s maybe a little more vindictive than most, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to rush things.

Anyway, Copperbane told me to go write a book and I went and wrote a book. I probably should have run instead.

I called it Hralf the Mighty. That was pretty normal: once you had your hero you gave him a title, and that became the title of both the book and the series. You know, like Giles Dragon-Tamer.

How much of it was based on reality? Not much.

Less than usual, even, because I didn’t have much in the way of facts to build on.
I’d seen Hralf, I knew what he looked like and how he dressed. And I knew he could fight. I didn’t try to mimic his way of talking; I mean, who’s got time for that? And anyway nobody would believe it. And I didn’t include his sagas or his stone tablets or anything about the New Year’s party or the publishing house, on Copperbane’s orders. I was to blow Hralf up to the point of extreme heroism, and just that little bit beyond, but I couldn’t show any animus on the part of Copperbane or the publishing house.

Plausible deniability, that was the ticket. Copperbane wanted Hralf’s reputation to grow to the point that folks would see him and know who he was; and then point at him and laugh behind their hands, not because of anything he’d done to Copperbane, but simply because he was a laughable figure. It was a delicate balance, like I said. I did my best, and I like to think I succeeded well enough.

How did they sell?

Not as well as our other series, to be frank. Nobody had heard of him before, and I think people had trouble identifying with him. He was popular in a few places—we had a bunch of dedicated readers down in the Sultanate of Solfege, I think it was—but not most places.

It didn’t matter to Copperbane, he just insisted that we keep churning them out.

Did I ever see Hralf again?

Just once.

Copperbane had sent me up to Clutterback City on some matter of business or other, I don’t remember what it was. He did that sometimes.

So as I’m riding along on my pony I hear a bit a murmur. I turn and look, and there’s a small party coming up the road behind me. There’s a elf on a horse, and a halfling on a pony, and there walking beside them is Hralf. I recognized him instantly, of course. He stands out in a crowd, you know? And there wasn’t any crowd, just the four of us.

At first I wanted to get out of there, for fear he might recognize me. But by this time I’d written several dozen books about him, with titles like Hralf and the Mines of Morbius and Hralf and the Gelatinous Horror and Hralf and the Living Ziggurat of Doom. I knew Hralf the Mighty inside and out. And riding along, it occurred to me to wonder what the real Hralf was actually like.

I had to think about it for a few minutes. But I decided that I’d filled out a bit since he’d last seen me, and I wasn’t dressed in Copperbane’s livery, not like when I was an office boy; so as his party drew even with me I let my pony sidle over to him. At least, I figured, I’d have a funny story to tell the guys back at the office.

“Excuse me, are you Hralf?” I said.

He looked down at me.

“Hralf am I, last of the veldt-lords and scriber of sagas. I do not know you, do I?”

“Oh, no sir,” I lied, thinking, “Oh, I sure hope not.” His accent had faded, but the weird sing-song, that was pure Hralf.

He took a stone tablet from the sack on his hip, and offered it to me.

“Would you like to read one of my sagas?” he said.

I took it. It looked a lot like the one I’d left propping the door in the kitchen back at the publishing house.

After I retrieved it from Old Copperbane’s courtyard after the fracas, I mean.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I can’t read a word of this.”

He nodded, and held out a massive hand to take it back.

“Actually, could I keep it, please?” I had decided that I wanted to prop it up on my desk. It was a pretty good souvenir, you know? For the author of the “Hralf the Mighty” series, I mean.

He looked at me in some surprise. So did his companions. Then he nodded, and I stowed it in one of my saddlebags.

“I shall recite it in your tongue,” he said. And raising his head he began to chant.

Vast is the veldt, and slow the sun’s path,
Wide is the wisdom of the guys of the grasslands,
Long is the lineage of the hunters of hewing,
Enormous the evil of the cheetahs they chase.

It went on like that. It passed the time, I guess.

When he ran down, I asked him to tell me about his own adventures. He shook his head, and it was kind of comical how his mane bobbed when he did it. I asked again, but I couldn’t get him to say anything at all about himself.

The halfling looked over at me. “You might as well give up,” he said. “Hralf doesn’t talk about himself much. Me now, I’ve got some stories if you’re interested.”

I was, of course. Hralf let me go with a nod, and I spent the next several hours listening to tales as tall as any I’d written myself. But I’m pretty good at picking out the true bits, and after a while I started feeling a little sick to my stomach.

Hralf wasn’t anything like the character in my books. He wasn’t vain; he wasn’t a womanizer; he didn’t brag; he wasn’t a glory-hound; he didn’t go looking for fights. He was just this guy who’d lost his entire people to a plague and wanted to preserve their memory. He wasn’t an adventurer; he was just using the skills he had to earn money so he could do that—there being no market for unintelligible sagas on stone tablets.

It’s a horrible thing to meet your hero and discover that he doesn’t live down to your expectations.

I made one last stab at salving my feelings.

“Didn’t I hear that he once started a brawl at a Dwarven New Year party in Old Peldentown?”

The halfling gave me a shrewd look.

“I imagine you might have,” he said. Then he shrugged. “Everybody’s young and stupid once,” he said.

So that was no help.

I was feeling sicker and sicker when an arrow took the halfling’s hat right off his head.

And Hralf exploded into action.

I don’t know how many brigands there were, because Hralf put them to flight in a matter of minutes. He and the elf left three of them lying on the road behind us.

The halfling, Sarvalur his name was, he’d just kept riding on at a comfortable walk.
“We were expecting them,” he said. “People have been complaining about them for weeks. And you know, I can’t stand brigands. They’re bad for business.”

“I can see that,” I said.

I rode with them all the way up to the Clutterback City gate, where we parted; and when I got back to Old Peldentown, that’s when I let other folks start writing the Hralf stories. My heart just wasn’t in it anymore.

What happened next?

Oh, you mean why am I here in Glitter Gulch, instead of living the high life in Old Peldentown.

Well, that happened a year or two later. I was called to the receptionist’s desk, and a man handed me a piece of paper with a fancy seal on it. It was a summons to the Court of Lore in the Old Bailey as a material witness.

Of course I went to see Copperbane, and found he had gotten one too. He’d been charged by the Lorists’ Guild on multiple counts of corrupting the Lore, and most of those counts involved Hralf the Mighty.

You won’t want to hear all the back and forth, trust me. The gist of it is, they put me on the stand and asked me some questions. Not as the author of the books, you understand, that remained a secret to everyone outside the firm, but as one of the people involved with their publication.

Did the Hralf the Mighty books purport to be true, they asked.

Yes, I said, yes they did. I mean, that was the conceit of all the Copperbooks, that was their appeal: this really happened, and it could happen to the reader, too, if they were the plucky, adventurous sort.

Were the Hralf the Mighty books true in fact, they asked.

I can remember Copperbane sitting across the way, with his fancy beard and the golden helmet of his, his eyes boring into me like two spikes.

“Yes,” was the answer I’d been instructed to give. The stories were all set in faroff lands, they could have happened, stranger things have been known to happen, go listen to an adventurer in a tavern some time and you’ll get an earful.

“No,” I said. “We made them up out of whole cloth.”

Now, on the one hand that wasn’t news. Everybody in the room, from the presiding magistrate to the defending lorist, knew that our Copperbooks were a pack of lies from the first page to the last.

But I wasn’t suppose to say so.

See, this was a regular dance we did from time to time. Someone would come to the lorists and complain about the bilge we were publishing, and they would nod seriously, and we’d all go to court and have a pleasant day posturing. It was like a vacation for the lorists: they got to enjoy a bit of live theater instead of wrestling with knotty problems.

And on top of that, everyone knew this was a malicious suit meant to cause trouble for Old Copperbane. But the accusers were from out of town, and Copperbane was a prosperous and important citizen, and so everyone in Old Peldentown was happy to go through the motions so that the Guild could assure the accusers that justice had been done.

So I was supposed to say, “Yes, the stories are all true, we researched them all most carefully.” And what were your sources? “Interviews with the people involved. I can give you names, but they all live far away from here.” The prosecuting lorist would beat on that, but I was to hold the line. Then he’d start trying to trip me up on details. Had Hralf actually defeated a dragon by using a rusty nail to give it tetanus and then calling it names to make it angry? Had the dragon really blown up because it could not open its jaws?

“Yes,” I was supposed to say.

And then the case would be decided in Copperbane’s favor, and we’d all go out to dinner with the lorists. It was a thing.

Instead I said, “No. We made them up. We made all of them up. I’ve met Hralf; he’s nothing like the character in the books.”

There was silence, and then uproar.

Copperbane threw his helmet to the floor, and nearly tore his beard from his face.

The magistrate looked at the defending lorist, who just shook his head and started putting his papers away.

The prosecuting lorist looked dumbstruck.

The magistrate asked Copperbane if he had anything to say, and then had to fine him for contempt when he said it.

Appearances had to be preserved. In the end Copperbane had to pay quite a large fine to the Lorist’s Guild to fund corrections to the Lore, which was absurd because no one in the Guild had ever taken our Copperbooks seriously enough to add them to the Lore in the first place.

And then, when the trial was quite over, Copperbane exiled me.

I’d betrayed my king, you see. That’s how he saw it.

That’s how my parents saw it.

That’s how King Grunther, back home, saw it.

So there I was, with no prospects, and nowhere else to go. And now here I am.

Have I tried finding work with one of Copperbane’s competitors?

I can’t say I haven’t thought about it. But there’s a dwarvish community in every city big enough to have a publisher, these days, and not one of those dwarves would give me the time of day. At least here, the folks just look down on me because I’m a dwarf. It isn’t personal.

Why, yes, I’d be glad to have another drink, and some more of that stew. Thank you kindly.


Photo by Mateusz Raczynski on Unsplash

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