The rain had turned the street into a muddy chaotic mess. It was dotted with holes where the cobblestones had been broken up and it was full of dwarves. They were milling about everywhere, carrying tools for digging or setting up pumps to drain the holes on water and mud. The dwarf she'd been directed to, the foreman of the emergency drainage operation, was standing in one of the holes, dirty brown water slowly filling it up past his knees. His name was Enslow von Gretelsdig and he was having a heated conversation with someone over the phone.
Neta didn't know the language, some dwarven accent, not local, but she could tell the dwarf was upset by the way he was talking; long harangues, hastily shouted, interspersed with breaks for carefully worded phrases said slowly and in a pleasant tone.
Dwarves were weird like that. No matter how angry or upset they were they always maintained the polite form of addressing someone. They always used full name and title pronounced with dignity and care. She'd learned about it when taking a basic course in dwarven society and culture while at university. It was rare to see it happening in real life though and the few times she'd experienced dwarven rage in the past she'd had a hard time keeping her face straight.
Today she could easily keep from smiling. The rain was hammering down on her umbrella, the mud was ruining her shoes and the shoes were ruining her feet. She was cold, wet and pissed off. Neta had thought she was going to a meeting to be briefed on the current state of the city's sever systems and had dressed accordingly. Expecting dull presentations with lots of numbers, charts and the odd misplaced clip-art picture she'd donned a modest but professional-looking suit, sharp horn-rimmed glasses and, worst of all, high heels. It had looked great in the hallway mirror when she left home in the morning, but not anymore. She'd even ordered a carriage to take her to work so as to not get wet before the meeting.
She had no idea why the city wanted a shaman from the police force to attend a briefing on severs and neither did anyone else. The other senior seers didn't want to go so it had fallen to Neta, the most recently promoted one, to attend. That was usually the way of it; she was young, new and female – she got to do the boring jobs no one else could be arsed with.
Things hadn't turned out as expected. There was no meeting room with a projector and a whiteboard. There were no bottled water and croissants for refreshment. She'd received a plastic cup full of too hot coffee from someone and then she'd stumbled and poured it all over the front of her suit jacket.
It was a miserable day. She was pissed off and soaked through with coffee and rain. Her feet were killing her and the person she was supposed to have a meeting with was an angry dwarf in a hole full of mud in the middle of the street.
The angry dwarf in question was till shouting into his phone. The muddy water had reached his waist and his beard was dipping into it whenever he nodded his head. With a last grunt he signed off the call, pushed in the antenna and clipped the phone onto a strap on his shoulder.
“My sincerest apologies. You must be Ms Giseladautir, I heard you were on the way. It's very kind of you to come out here. I simply had to make this call but I'm all done now. The name's Enslow von Gretelsdig but please call me Enslow. I insist.”
The dwarf stretched out his hand as if to shake hers, realized it was covered in mud and dirt and made as if to brush it off on his pants and noticed they were mostly under water. The fact he was down a hole and she was on ground level didn't seem to occur to him.
“Oh dear, I'm not presentable. Please allow me to clean up a little before I shake your hand Ms Giseladautir.”
“Of course. But should you not first consider getting out of that hole Enslow? I notice the water level is increasing.”
Neta went straight for the first name like he'd asked her to. It was part of the protocol when dealing with dwarves. If they insisted you call them by their first name they'd feel slighted if you didn't. Not doing so was a common source of miscommunication between dwarves and humans.
“Right you are. How inconsiderate of me. If you give me a moment please Ms Giseladautir I will get my myself out of here and then we shall see about finding ourselves a more comfortable location for our meeting.”
That sounded quite alright to Neta. She had no desire to remain out here in the rain and mud any longer than she absolutely had to. She'd spotted a nice little cafe that looked to be open further down the street, but she wasn't sure if they'd let the mud-covered dwarf in there.
Mud-covered was turning out to be a very accurate description of Enslow. He was on his belly, halfway out the hole and struggling to get his legs over the edge. Neta looked around to see if none of the other dwarves were going to come help the foreman. She dreaded having to step in and give him a hand herself; the way this day was going that could really only end with her falling on her ass down the muddy hole.
Fortunately, before any comedy style accidents could brighten the day further, Enslow got his right foot hooked on the edge and was soon out of the hole and on his feet. He did his best to brush off the worst of the mud and while he succeeded only marginally he at least got an opportunity to catch his breath.
“Here Ms Giseladautir, this way, if you please.”
Finally it was time to get out of the rain. Neta wasn't too surprised to note that Enslow was headed nowhere near the direction of the little cafe, but was still a little disappointed. It had looked like a really nice place. She'd have to check it out some other time.
As it were, Enslow von Gretelsdig's opinion of what was a comfortable place for a meeting didn't quite match up with Neta's. He lead her up the street, past water-filled holes, dwarves hard at work and electrical pumps burping and belching as they sucked water out of the ground, until they arrived at a temporary canvas shed erected on the sidewalk.
The dwarf lifted up the flap as high as he could to let her in, but even then Neta had to stoop nearly to her knees to get through without brushing her head agains the waxed canvas. Once inside the shed was large enough to allow her to stand up straight. She closed up her umbrella and laid it on top of a stack of crates standing by the entrance to her right. The shed was full of them; crates were stacked high along two of the four walls. A table with what looked like maps and blueprints stood along the third wall and the fourth was the one with the flap they'd come in through.
A couple of camping chairs that had seen better days were leaning against the crates in the back. Enslow proceeded to unfold them after he'd entered and offered her the first one to sit in.
“Please Ms Gisealdautir, make yourself comfortable. I'll get someone to bring in some coffee.”
The dwarf pressed a button on his phone and while it was beeping he unfolded a second chair for himself. When a voice spoke up on the phone he unhooked it, pushed it to his ear and ripped off a few words in the same dwarven accent as before. Neta still didn't understand a word. It was definitely not a local tongue.
They both sat down. Enslow fidget a little and reassured her that refreshments would be arriving shortly. Neta tried to make herself comfortable but it was easier said than done. The shed kept the rain and the wind out, but the thin canvas walls didn't keep any heat in. Her feet and legs were soaked and she was starting to get cold. Best get this done and over with so she could get out of here; back to the office where she kept a spare set of clothes for occasions just like this.
The fold-up chair was cold and a little bit unstable and Neta shifted uneasily.
“So, Enslow, what can I do for you? I was told I would be going to a meeting to be briefed on the current state of the sever systems in the city. Is that the case or has there been some kind of miscommunication somewhere along the way?”
The dwarf stared at her without a word. Even though most of his face was covered by an enormous beard and a bushy mustache she could see him shifting through a range of emotions; from confusion to anger to embarrassment and Neta hurried to add on.
“I don't hold you responsible for any kind of misinformation. I have no doubt your message was clear. It must have been distorted in the bureaucratic process of conveying me the invitation.”
The dwarf let out a sigh of relief.
“It comforts me to hear that Ms Giseladautir. I had no intention of giving you incorrect information in order to lure you out here in this miserable weather to our humble work site. I do apologize that my message wasn't clear enough not to be misinterpreted. I will do my best to make sure it doesn't happen the next time I have to send an invitation.”
The dwarf looked nervously at her to see if she would accept his apology. He fidgeted with the phone and looked for all the world like a schoolboy worried he might have gone too far and was in for a hiding. Dealing with dwarves was always a tricky matter, and it was just as tricky for dwarves to deal with humans. The less the two races had to interact with each other the better they got on.
“There is no need for an apology Enslow. You've already proven yourself a most honorable representative of your dig and I have no doubt your message was communicated with the best of intentions.”
Enslow sighed with relief and relaxed visibly. By accepting his apology Neta had absolved him from the responsibility of the confusion over the invitation. That in turn cleared him from the prospect of being an eternal embarrassment to future descendants of his dig.
Enslow ensured her they would get down to business as soon as the refreshments arrived. They exchanged a few pleasantries but mostly spent the time waiting in uncomfortable silence. Neta eventually kicked off her heels and rubbed her feet with her hands to try and warm them up a little. Enslow noticed she must be cold and for a short panicked moment Neta thought the little dwarf might offer to rub her feet for her. She wasn't sure she'd have the composure to refuse the offer politely. People touching her feet was one of the few things that could really freak her out. More than one former boyfriend had found that out the hard way.
Fortunately Enslow would not be so bold. Instead he rummaged through one of the crates and produced a heavy woolen blanket. It was patched and dirty and had a musty smell to it. Still, in her current state she couldn't say no to a warm blanket and she'd have to take her suit to the dry-cleaner anyway. The dwarf helped drape the old blanket over her shoulders and she soon felt a little warmer and a little better.
Shortly thereafter another dwarf arrived through the flap in the wall. He was carrying a thermos, some plastic cups and steel tin. He bowed politely, put his burden on the table and then left without a word. Enslow poured coffee into the the cups, handed her one and opened the tin. It contained some paper plates and four frallens wrapped in kitchen foil.
Neta was warming both her hands on the cup while sipping the coffee (which was vile), so Enslow put a frallen on a plate and carefully placed it on her lap so she wouldn't have to stretch to the table to try and reach it. It was a nice gesture but it presented a new predicament. Unwrapping the frallen without spilling the coffee.
She placed the cup on the plate and took care to sit still so as not to get coffee over herself again. The round bread roll - cut in half with cheese, butter and peppers stuffed into it - was carefully wrapped but she eventually got it freed and bit in. She'd not eaten since breakfast a few hours ago and though a frallen is never a culinary experience she was hungry and the food was welcome. Enslow was on his second already and breadcrumbs dotted his beard.
“There, I'm sorry to have dragged out the meeting so long Ms Giseladautir. I simply couldn't let you sit there cold and hungry while I did nothing to ease your discomfort.”
Crumbs were spraying everywhere as he spoke and it created that comic effect so often associated with dwarves; short and hairy, often dirty and always excitable they were easy to poke fun at.
“I very much appreciate it. It's good to be out of the rain and cold and to get something to eat and drink. I'm ready and eager to hear what you have to tell me.”
It was true. She was feeling a little better but also couldn't wait to be done with the meeting and be out of there. Hopefully what the dwarf had to say was at least important and she wouldn't have ruined her clothes and her mood for nothing.
“Well then Ms. Giseladautir, now that we're settled I'm sure you're wondering why I asked you out here...”
They spoke for the better part of an hour and in the end Neta had to agree that requesting the assistance of a shamanistic operative hadn't been a bad idea. She still wished it had been someone else out there, but at least she knew there was a good reason she was there.
The dwarves out in street were part of the drainage operation initiated to get rid of all the excess water that were flowing through the streets and severs of the city since the rains started. They were attempting to dig holes down to an old abandoned subway tunnel that would be ideal for directing excess drainage from within the city out towards the lake. From old architectural plans they'd deducted that this street was the best site for accessing the old tunnels and this is where they'd started their digging.
Unfortunately it had turned out that the layer of soil just beneath the street was extremely spongy and bound large amounts of water to it. Any attempts at digging through the soil resulted in water-filled holes and more than a few near fatal incidents had been reported.
Normally this wouldn't have been an issue. The dwarves had equipment designed especially for this kind of digging. Unfortunately that equipment was stuck on a boat somewhere down the river and wouldn't arrive in at least another week and the hole was needed now, preferably yesterday.
A local mage had been contacted to attempt to hold the water off from a hole while the dwarves dug. This had met with some success but in the end the enchantments binding the water to the soil had failed and the hole had turned into a deep pool of watery mud. The two dwarves in it had gotten out alive, but the mage had collapsed from the effort of keeping the water away long enough to save them. They were all three currently recovering at the Kul Viller Royal University Hospital.
The next step for the dwarves had been to request shamanistic assistance and they'd gotten Neta sent to them. In a nutshell, they wanted her to keep the water away long enough for them to dig a shaft forty meters deep. Once the hole was dug they would have their own ways of securing its walls; it was the digging that was the tricky part.
Neta was pretty sure she'd be able to pull it off once she figured out how. Her shamanistic powers were strong enough and she was well in tune with the Innastarn, but she had no idea how or where to start. She'd explained as much to Enslow, but the dwarf had not been deterred. Shamanistic assistance was their last hope of getting the hole done without the specialized digging equipment. By the time that arrived several streets in the lower parts of the city would already have been flooded.
She had better give it a shot and she had better be successful. Flooding was already an issue out in the suburbs and throughout the countryside. The city itself had been spared so far, but if she didn't manage to help the dwarves secure their hole it would soon be a reality here too.
“Right then Enslow, I will head back to the office and confer with the other seers there and see what advice they can give me on this. I will be back later this afternoon. I have your phone number now in case I have any questions. I trust you will be here for the better part of the day?”
“Of course we will be Ms Giseladautir. We'll be clearing out an area for where we deem the hole most suitable, like I showed you on the map, and we will then await your return while making sure we're ready to get started as soon as you are done with the ritual.”
They'd talked about that too. Neta had tried to impress on the dwarf that even if her ritual was successful they might have to wait several hours or even until the next day before the ground was dry enough to reliably dig through. The dwarf hadn't listened but stuck to his conviction that she would be able to instantly suck out all of the excess moisture from the ground.
That wasn't how shamanistic magic worked. You didn't just instantly move a few hundred tons of water bound to soil somewhere else. A powerful magician, or a group of them, might pull it off with some preparation and a thorough knowledge of geology, hydrodynamics, the mechanics of osmosis and probably a whole slew of other more or less scientific disciplines. That was the problem with magic as she saw it. You needed to know what you were dealing with or it was about as useful as parlor tricks.
Shamanism was different. It was slow and it took time. It wasn't about manipulating reality directly the way magic was. Instead, it was about convincing reality to change of its own will, usually by invoking the spirit of the land. Such change was slow by its very nature; slow to get started, slow to happen and even slower to stop should any unexpected side-effects occur.
Some of the projects the projects the shamanistic division of the Kul Viller police was working on had taken months and even years of preparation and the changes initiated by them were still occurring even decades later. Fortunately what the dwarves were asking was a relatively minor operation as far as shamanistic magic was concerned. Still, invoking the Innastarn was never to be taken lightly. The spirit of the city was an immensely powerful force and the risks involved when asking its help, even for minor things, were considerable.
That was yet another reason she needed to consult with the other senior seers back at the office. Not only did she need ideas for how to get started. She also needed feedback on things that could go wrong so as to be able to avoid them.
“Very well then Enslow, many thanks for your hospitality. I'd better get going so I can get back here as soon as possible and get started. I will see you later.”
With that she stood up, taking care not to drop the blanket on the ground and putting it on the crate it had come from. Enslow held up the flap of the tent and grabbing her umbrella Neta stepped out into the rain once more. Walking down the street she got her phone out of her purse and called for a carriage to take her back to the office. The rain was still pouring down, her feet started hurting almost right away and her damp suit was quickly getting soaked again, but at least now she had a purpose. That somehow made it all worth it. For once she'd be able to actually do something other than just compiling divination data. She was eager to get back to the office, change into some dry, comfortable clothes and get to work.
Down at the corner of the street she stopped to wait, just outside the little cafe she'd seen earlier. From what she could see through the large windows it was nearly empty, which wasn't strange considering the weather. She didn't go in. The carriage would arrive any minute now and she was in a hurry to get back and to get going. She did make a note of the address though. Once things quieted down a little she'd come out here to check it out, maybe even drag a friend along for someone to talk to. She'd been way too lonely lately.
The carriage arrived.