Telling Tales 75
The Citizens of Chalm
They were, without a doubt, the most unpleasant group of people to come to Chalm in living memory. Grandmothers and grandfathers compared notes from where they sat on benches and agreed that, on the whole, this was a nasty, nasty looking bunch, and agreement was not something that came easily to them. The two princes who looked nice and acted charming, if a bit dim, they didn’t help. “They’re part of the problem!” screeched one old man. “Look at’em, fine clothes and fine features and just when you think they’re going to turn out normal another one comes along and…” He trailed off as another crossed into his line of vision and the rest of the bench-sitters growled in disgusted consensus.
The third man – well, in all honesty (and the citizens of Chalm leapt to honesty about others and about each other, especially if it was an unpleasant truth that needed being honest about), in all honesty it could not even be said that it was a man or a woman or even a human. Another day and he’d been alone and they’d have strung him up and used his skin for fancy handbags for some lucky woman, who would not have shared her treasure with her neighbors, to be sure. This creature, whom everyone else in the ragtag bunch (except the two princes, who shied away from him) treated him with courtesy and grace. “Pshaw,” spat an old woman, “they act like he’s a comrade or a brother. It’s more than polite, what they’re doing. It’s more than the minimum. It’s disgusting. It’s beyond the laws of civility.”
The citizens of Chalm were very familiar with the laws of civility, given that they broke them on most days.
The creature stood the height of a man and wore heavy, flowing, silken robes that suggested wealth, but his skin was scaled in metal, a serpent sheathed in silver and steel. The scales were fine and small. His face was capable of delicate expression and his hands – he had hands! – were as nimble as theirs. His two feet, visible in the dirt under his robes, were equally scaled. He seemed to have all of the parts of a man, but little of the appearance.
Then there was the dark man, and everyone disagreed about his color. “Black as night!” one said, but another pointed out that he wasn’t black, merely a very dark brown and the first should get his eyes checked and what do you suppose happened to him to make the man that color. He was tall, the tallest of the group, and lean, and he carried in one hand a tall stick. He wore a kind of tunic – “It’s a toga! I’ve seen pictures!” – “No, it’s not, you’re daft!” – around his chest and waist. Unfamiliar, but not terrifying.
Not like the pile of skins that shambled about with barely a resemblance to humanity at all. Everyone steered clear of that. They might have tried to lynch the group on account of that monster alone, but it was protected by a circle of charmed soldiers whom she had enchanted to look like a forest, at least, so the people of Chalm said.
Their leader looked a decent enough sort, strapping and weather-worn, but obviously a fool to surround himself with such creatures.
The citizens of Chalm were not happy with their arrival, but then, the citizens of Chalm were never happy. It was their lot. And they were hungry, to a one, living on rationed food for weeks already. “What fresh hell is this, then?” they asked.