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First off, I'd like to thank my anonymous benefactor. I don't consider my story especially compelling, but may I never see the day I turn down an honest coin. Speaking of which, would anyone care to purchase a cluster of bramble berries? I have some brambles and two lovely sheaves of Barley, all for sale at reasonable prices.

Now, my story. I'll have to make it brief, as storytelling's thirsty work, and I only have the one beer and can't afford another. I've been nursing this brew for nigh on a month, and I can only pray we get our new brewery up to speed before I finish it. The gentle Dwarf who gave me this brew deserves my eternal gratitude.

Until shortly before my exile, I lived in a mining town deep in the Dwarf Highlands of the Western Continent. In Brae'Nor, women are valued more highly than animals to the extent that they know enough to stop work today before they strain themselves such that they cannot work tomorrow, and can be taught to endure pain silently. You may have noticed that this attitude is a slight departure from what in Puddleby is referred to as "enlightened".

Always a quick learner, I played this game well enough to earn an assortment of privileges not usually granted to animals. I lived as a proper dwarf should, kept my house clean and kids out of trouble while the husband worked the mines, and was relatively happy. Until the stranger passed through town.

The children announced his arrival in myriad shouts of, "Mommy, Mommy, there's a stranger!" Our men all being in down the mines, we women of the town did as proper Dwarven women should and picked up our axes and prepared to send the stranger on his way.

He was quite an unremarkable man, raggedy and mild and skinny fit to starve. But he was human, and his size frightened us considerably. As he took a shaky step forward and raised his hands, all the women scattered to the safety of their homes... all but one.

I mustered up all the courage I could and advanced on him, growling, "We've no need fer yer kind here, be off wi' ye." Rather than run away, he cringed before me and, in what I must say is the worst Dwarven tongue I've ever heard, he simply looked me pleadingly in the eye and said, "Food."

I took him back to my house, sat him down in my old man's chair, and may the gods strike me blind if I didn't feed him the old man's very dinner, knowing full well what it would cost me. The kids clung to me, and the man kept bumping his head on my ceiling, and it wasn't too much of a stretch for me to act very cross the whole time.

Secretly, though, I was euphoric. A Dwarf could live her whole life in Brae'Nor and never see a soul from further away than over the hill. Although the man's speech was barely intelligible, I made sure to grunt often enough to keep him talking. After he ate, he even helped me wash up the dishes.

I wanted him to stay all day and tell me about the world in his broken Dwarvish, but the midday meal was fast approaching, so I warned the stranger he didn't want to be about when the men returned home for their dinner. The man thanked me for my hospitality and, apologetically, pressed a small, flat leatherbound object into my hands as he walked out the door. It was the first book I ever saw.

Thinking quickly, I sent the children to wash up for dinner and ran to see the tavern keeper's wife. "You have to help me," I pleaded, "I need two coppers now, and I'll pay you back however you say, but you must never breathe a word of this to anyone." When my husband came home I told him the coppers were the stranger's payment for the food. The tavern got the money right back, of course, and I got a cursing I'll never forget.

By way of repayment, I did the tavern keeper's laundry for years until his eldest daughter was old enough to be pressed into service, but his wife kept her word, and neither my children nor my husband ever learned of my deception.

I suppose you're curious about the book. Well, it was a reading primer, that's all. For years I secretly studied that book by the fire after the rest of my family had fallen asleep, until I knew every crease of every page. One night my old man caught me at it, raged about "wimmin's place", and threw the book in the fire. But by then I already knew every page by heart. And, more importantly, I knew how to read. I also learned how to do sums.

That primer ignited my passion for learning, and in the years that followed, even paid me back for some of the troubles it cost me. As the only Dwarf in town who knew any arithmetic, I was able to earn my old man a little extra beer money from time to time helping the tavern keeper or the occasional passing merchant with his accounts.

Although my husband never knew it, my moonlighting money bought more than his beer. It also bought books, some at prices that would have made him choke. I tried not to let him see them, as whenever he caught me reading we invariably had a row. This alone was exceptional. No other women in Brae'Nor ever stood up to their husbands. I can only imagine the teasing he suffered in the tavern because of it.

Then, one night, my whole life unraveled. While my husband was out drinking, I had started reading a particularly absorbing treatise on comparative Sylvan philosophy, and didn't hear him come stumbling in. It must have been a rough night in the tavern, because he snatched the book from my hands, heaved it across the house, and shouted that it "ain't proper". I yelled back that it was my money, and I would spend it as I pleased.

He retorted, "Y'ain't got nothin', woman, this 'ouse an' ever'thin' in't's mine!"

"In that case," I screamed, "why don't you take some more of YOUR money and pour it down your drunkard's throat and let me finish my book!"

I hurled the childrens' old cookie jar at him, and a years' wages showerd down on his head. Without a word, he picked up the coins and trudged up the hill to the tavern. I closed the door behind him and cried.

My next thing I remember after that is the pounding on the door, then the shouting. I remember thinking it very odd that my husband would demand that I open up the door to his own house. Numbed by shock, I sat on the floor and clutched my knees to my chest as the door crashed open.

"'Ere y'are, WITCH!" bellowed my husband, his breath foul with drink. He pointed his finger at me. "I put up wi' yer ways fer long... NO MORE!" Angry murmurs of assent sounded behind him. The whole town clamored outside, axes and torches in hand.

Then my old man's eyes rolled back, as they always did when he'd drunk too much, and he passed out cold on the floor in front of me. The mayor stood behind him, a grimace of terror forming on his face. "She's witched him!" the mayor yelled. The crowd roared.

I leaped up and grabbed a big handful of flour out of the sack in the pantry, ran to the door, and flung the flour at the torches. The mob screamed with instinctive fear at the fireball that erupted, as I darted past before they recovered their wits, and ran like never before nor since.

After that, there's not much to tell. A middle-aged, vagrant Dwarf has few options to support herself, and it wasn't long before I ran afoul of the law, caught stealing bread. The magistrate feared the possible consequences of locking up a literate Dwarf knowledgeable in philosophy and rhetoric together with the impressionable, dangerous lot his prison already held; thus, I found myself on the next boat to Puddleby.

Don't feel sorry for me, children. I'm happier here than I've ever been before. Here there is culture, there is diversity and variety of experiences... and I have all the freedom that I could ever hope for, and noone thinks the worse of me for it.

I can play Parcheesi with my "adopted daughter", Jillian (Mr. and Mrs. Green Pants' daughter) and read her bedtime stories. I can crawl the length and breadth of the lands on my hands and knees groping blindly for the missing Kanta Klens, and kindly exiles will crawl beside me. And, most importantly, I cozy up next to the fire and read in the library as much as I want. The only thing I miss is beer.

/action grants herself a precious sip.

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