The dwarf leered eerily at Maya while generously pouring hedge hyssop infusion in two large clay cups from a rusty old kettle; his long yellow front teeth set in a frame of what might have been a smile.
‘You haven’t come empty-handed, have you?’ he said rather than asked.
‘I’m sorry, I haven’t brought anything.’
What kind of unnecessary enquiry was that? He knew very well she had not come to the citadel for tea, and there was no need to assume she would have any refreshments with her.
The quirky host placed himself on a high wooden stool, not without some effor. He pushed one of the cups towards his guest, took the other one with both hands and stared at the swirl of steam coming from the surface of the hot beverage. His facial expressions changed so vividly as if the vapour was telling the most thrilling of stories.
‘You have golden hair,’ he said in a voice that was both squeaky and mild, still looking at the green drink and noddling his head slowly.
‘Golden hair and eyes of moss. You...’ he finally looked up and stretched a long gnarled finger at her, ‘...will bring us three years of abundant harvest, and a plague when those three years have passed. A plague, cruel and merciless, the kind of which these lands have not seen for hundreds of years.’
He said it all very calmly, almost in a chant; his whole body swaying from side to side now. This was the most extraordinary dwarf Maya had ever seen, which could as well be explained by the fact that she had never seen a dwarf before, ordinary or not. His reasoning in its turn didn’t seem any less odd to Maya than the speaker himself.
‘And that is because I have golden hair an eyes of moss?’ she asked in perplexity.
‘And eyes of moss,’ he nodded assent.
‘I’m still quite puzzled. How exactly do these things ...?’
‘Shall I explain?!!’ the dwarf interrupted her ardently. The chance to officially explain himself had sparked a flame of genuine excitement. He put his cup on the table, took a deep breath, widened his eyes just to narrow them again dramatically.
‘You see. If one has hair of gold and eyes of moss, they bring to these lands prosperity for a year, a year and a year,’ he counted all three years by unbending the fingers of his left hand with his right one, ‘and then a plague: a pestilance rich in death and sorrow, and all things unpleasant.’
‘And is there no one else with hair and eyes like mine in this city?’
‘Was!’ the dwarf banged his fist on the table. ‘Four hundred years ago, there was. And there was general prosperity that lasted for three winters and three summers. And the plague was there too, at the end of it all.’
‘And the hair and eyes? What do they have to do with that?’
‘What do they have to do?’ He looked at Maya bewildered, utterly astonished by such lack of deduction skills in a human mind. He sighed heavily and started again.
‘A woman lived here in those days. She had those eyes and that hair. It’s all in the Chronicles. And she was held responsible. For the plague at least. Some say the rich harvests and fortunate trade in the years prior to that plight were also her doing. But until this day everybody in Arbora, from a king to a toad, knows it’s a bad omen when the likes of her come to the city. Have you a hat?’
When was the last time this creature had left his shack, Maya thought? Did he know at all that Arbora and the lands surrounding it were already overcome by plague and war? There was no need to predict any more of it. Had he any knowledge of who the king was, or who claimed to be the rightful queen up there in the citadel? She would have liked to ask him, explain to him if necessary had the time not been so scarce and so precious. But it was. Therefore she got straight to the one question that had been on her mind all along, and although it didn’t seem very likely that her host would be of great help, she had to give it a chance.
‘I’m looking for a friend,’ she said.
‘Tell me about it,’ the dwarf rolled his eyes. ‘I’ve been looking for a friend too, yet never managed to find one.’ He reflected on his own words for a moment. The swaying stopped. The dwarf’s gaze seemed to be wandering somewhere. Maya didn’t quite know how to carry on with this interview in a more sensitive manner, but the need for answers about her old friend was stronger than the compassion for this new acquaintance.
‘The truth is, it’s this particular friend I’m looking for.’
‘You have friends?’ Dwarf’s eyes widened and his whole face gleamed at the revelation that these creatures might actually exist, that right now there was somebody, sitting here oposite him in his own kitchen, claiming to have seen them.
‘Just one,’ she smiled sadly.
‘One friend!’ the dwarf raised his index finger. He held it very close to his eyes and squinted at it in admiration.
‘Anyway, I hope I still have this one left. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Perhaps you know if he’s here. His name is...’
‘No!’ The dwarf said with firm certitude. He clambered off the stool and headed towards the door. As he was about to disappear behind the sheaves of garlic hanging at the doorpost, he added without looking back: ‘I have not heard of any friends in Arbora.’