Bitter 284

Britta froze, not knowing if it would be better to slowly walk out or just leg it. Had they recognised her? If she ran, it might give her away. If she played it cool, it might give them time to jump her.

Not sure, she stood there staring back at the mildly curious faces. They went back to their drinks.

Dwarves weren’t exactly her enemies, but they wanted her to answer some questions and possibly give her a talking to. She wasn’t keen. Not right now, anyway. But these dwarves didn’t seem to care about her sudden appearance in their midst.

There were at least a dozen of them, huddled around tables or squeezed into booths, their long beards tucked under the tables. Their clothing was simple and well-worn, but they looked clean. Not miners, she would guess.

She decided these dwarves weren’t part of the council who wanted her captured. They were just everyday working men having a lunchtime pint. She walked to the bar, trying to see if Frau Magda was here. She would have stuck out if she were.

The barman, a grey-bearded dwarf with a bald head, placed a tankard on the bar and pushed it at her.

“Oh. I didn’t order anything.”

“Aye,” said the barman, heavily Scottish in his delivery. “But when you do, that’ll be what you ask fer.”

“How do you know?”

“Because that’s all we serve. That’ll be one copper piece, if you please.”

At least it was affordable, Britta thought as she fished out some money.

She was sure she was on time. There was a bell that rang the hour, now. She assumed it was in a tower somewhere, but she had yet to see it. Maybe it was just played in on speakers. In any case, she’d heard it chime twelve times just before she entered the tavern. The note had said twelve sharp. She was bang on time. No sign of the frau.

“You work for the post office?”

She turned to find a beady-eyed dwarf sitting on the stool next to her. “Um, yes, sometimes. Seasonal work.”

“My sister sent me a package last week, still hasn’t arrived. Where’d it got to?”

He had a lot of facial hair, not just the beard, but overgrown eyebrows and mutton chops that splayed out to the side. His eyes peered out of the undergrowth.

“I don’t know,” she said. “This isn’t my regular route. You’ll have to talk to someone at head office.”

He must have read the back of her jacket and now he was treating her like a spokesperson for the company. She was just a fellow worker trying to make ends meet, she didn’t deserve to be harassed for her employer’s failings. That had been her concept when she’d stitched the uniform together.

“I don’t want to talk to some big jobbie. My sister said it was a woolly jumper she knitted herself. Irreplaceable.”

“Sorry about that.” Britta smiled and looked around for Frau Magda, or anyone willing to help. No one returned her gaze, not even the barman. She ended up looking in her mug. Something was moving around in there.

“I don’t want a refund, I want my bloody jumper. It’s got sentimental value.” He was getting quite upset about it. Must have been a nice jumper.

Britta didn’t remember offering him a refund, but he didn’t want one, so it wasn’t worth mentioning.

“Things sometimes get lost in the post,” she said. “Or they have the wrong address on them.”

“Are you calling my sister stupid?”

This wasn’t going well. She should probably leave. “No. I don’t know your sister. But not everyone at the post office is good at reading, especially fancy handwriting. Does your sister have fancy handwriting?”

The dwarf sat back on his stool. “She does, actually, yes.”

“Might be stuck at the sorting office, waiting for someone to work out where it’s supposed to go. You should go down there and ask them.”

“Oh, okay. I’ll do that. Thanks for the help.” He slid off the stool and staggered towards the door.

Britta let out a sigh. That had very nearly turned into an altercation. She had no idea she was such a good people person. Maybe a career in customer services beckoned. Shame the pay was such garbage.

She was so impressed with herself, she took a sip of her drink without thinking, and immediately spat it out again. It was ginger beer, with way too much ginger. The lining of her nose was on fire.

The dwarf had very unsteadily made it to the door. He reached for the handle when it suddenly opened inwards, hitting him and swiping him to the side. Frau Magda stood in the doorway, more than filling it. She had to stoop to enter.

As a gnome, Britta had found everything in the tavern to be very conveniently sized. It was the first place where she could sit comfortably and still be able to see what was going on around her. But for Frau Magda, it was like entering Lilliput.

She wasn’t exactly a giant, but everything was the wrong size. She looked very awkward, although she didn’t give the impression it bothered her, or that she had even noticed. No one paid her any attention. The drunk dwarf had ended up in a corner where he now lay slumped and snoring.

Britta waved. Frau Magda, dressed all in black, with a bonnet that put most of her face in shadow, nodded, and then indicated a booth in the corner.

They arrived at the table together, and sat down. Britta slid into her seat smoothly, Frau Magda struggling to squeeze in.

“Why did you choose this place?” asked Britta quietly.

“Vhat do you mean?”

“This place. It’s for dwarves, isn’t it?”

“You don’t like dwarves?” Frau Magda reared back, like she was a horse up on two legs, about to stamp on you.

“I don’t mind. It’s just a bit… cramped in here?”

“Ve dwarves are used to it.”

“You’re a dwarf? Were you adopted?”

Frau Magda looked startled. “Yes, that is correct. How could you tell?”

She was possibly the least dwarfish person Britta had ever met. “Um, your accent.”

“Ah, you must have very good ears. I vas taken in by a family of dwarves when I vas but a young girl.”

Britta had the sudden urge to ask if it had been a family of seven. Could she be Snow White, grown older and now working as a housekeeper? What kind of fairytale ending was that?

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