Mistress Prudence was quite used to living with dwarves in the basement.
She had lived in Felicity Street most of her life. The house had been hers and her husband's when he had been alive, and his parents' before that. Along both sides of the little cul-de-sac stood similar terraced houses, built from warm rose-coloured brick, old enough to be comfortable and still new enough to be sound.
Below street level, stairs led down to the shops, workshops, warehouses and homes of the dwarves who had built the brick houses and sold the above-ground floors to humans to live in. Downstairs from Mistress Prudence, for example, lived Mister Sinter, the glassworker.
Mister Sinter kept himself to himself. He had one apprentice--his nephew, Crimper Inlay Two--and three or four gnomes to stoke the furnace and do the other hot and heavy and dirty work. Mistress Prudence had seen them all on the street at one time or another, but they had always passed with no more than a polite nod and, in Crimper Inlay Two's case, a shy smile and a quickly-ducked head.
Mistress Prudence rented out a room to a lodger, Mister Stone. He worked as a foreman in a furniture manufactory on the other side of the river, and before he caught the horse bus across the Long Bridge in the mornings he liked to read the newspaper. For Mister Stone, "the newspaper" meant the Gulfport Herald.
This morning, the Herald carried a large, heavy headline: "REALMGOLD RISKS ECONOMY".
Speaking for herself, which she was careful not to do around Mister Stone, Mistress Prudence quite liked Victory, the current Realmgold. She considered her a hard-working young woman with a difficult job to do, running the Realm and all. But the Gulfport Herald belonged to her political opponents in the Tried and True Party, and never printed a good word about her if they could help it.
"What's the Realmgold doing now?" she asked.
Mister Stone lowered the paper. His thick brows, with their scattering of grey hairs, knit together in a frown that creased his forehead almost up to the hairline, which was most of the way towards the middle of his head.
"She's issued a law that says that the way the dwarves own the gnomes' service is the same as slavery," he said. "Can't see it myself. Slavery is owning a person, not owning their work, and the dwarves have managed the gnomes’ work time out of mind. But of course now all the dwarf businesses are threatening to shut down."
"They can't do that, can they?"
"Course they can. It'll be a disaster, that's what it'll be."
After Mister Stone had gone to work, Mistress Prudence put on her hat and her shawl and picked up her market-basket. If challenged, she would have said she was going shopping, and indeed this was true enough in the sense that purchases would at some point be made, but her real plan was to have a nosey and see if Mister Sinter and the other dwarf businessmen of the street were open or not.
Mister Sinter's shop door, down the stairs from the street, was unlocked. The glass chimes he hung there sounded as she walked into the shop. At the sound, young Two appeared from the back and stood behind the counter with the attentive idleness of the good retail worker. As an apprentice, he didn't have a name of his own yet, going by his parents' names and his birth number in accordance with dwarf custom. Nor was he allowed to braid his beard, which was already longer and fuller than Mister Stone's, but he kept it neatly combed.
Mistress Prudence pretended to look at some bowls and decorative figurines before approaching the counter.
"Good morning, Two," she said.
"Gd mrnng, Mstrss," replied Two. His heavy Dwarvish accent meant that he seldom pronounced any vowels. His manner seemed the same as it always was: shy, polite, helpful.
"You haven't heard, have you?"
"Hrd wht, Mstrss?"
Mistress Prudence twitched the cloth of her market-basket open and handed him the newspaper. She tapped the lead article on the front page.
She could tell, by the speed with which Two’s eyes ran down the columns, that he read the human language fluently. He looked up at her in alarm, then retreated to the door at the back of the shop space. He opened it, letting a gust of heat into the shop, and called through it twice, a word Mistress Prudence didn't recognise but which she guessed meant "Uncle" in Dwarvish.
Sinter emerged. The young dwarf said something else to him in their language, and led him to the counter, where the newspaper still lay. Sinter looked up briefly at Mistress Prudence, acknowledging her presence without smiling, and then dropped his eyes to the page. He read more slowly than his nephew, curling his long, braided moustache around his right forefinger in a nervous gesture as he did so. She watched his eyes widen slightly in surprise, then narrow in anger. He read to the end of the page, then brought his fist down on the paper with one deliberate thump, paused for a heartbeat, then hurried through the door without a word. Two threw Mistress Prudence a slightly apologetic look and went after him.
She waited, but they didn't come back, and after a little while she took Mister Stone's newspaper and let herself out. The glass chimes jingled behind her, and before she was very many paces down the street she heard the door lock.
For the next three days, the door downstairs remained closed. Mister Stone sighed and muttered over dire predictions of economic collapse in the Herald. With newly-freed gnomes leaving their masters to seek work elsewhere, dwarf businesses were shuttered everywhere. Manufactured goods were hardly being produced. The newspaper mocked a speech the Realmgold had given, saying that humans could live without hammers longer than dwarves without bread, but it made sense to Mistress Prudence.
That evening, she went up on the roof and cut a few extra vegetables from her rooftop garden, wrapped them in a cloth and, when nobody was about in the street, carried them down the steps and left them in front of Mister Sinter's door. They weren't much, but she didn't like to think of young Two with nothing to eat.
The cloth, which was quite a distinctive red-and-white checked one that Two had seen her with many times, was returned to her door overnight. It was empty of vegetables, but wrapped around a small glass dish. She put the dish at the back of a cupboard, because she didn't want Mister Stone to ask questions about it.
It was probably time to kill a roof rabbit or two, she decided. A crock of stew was always nourishing, and easy to reheat.
She returned the dish when she left the stew. It was pretty, but she didn't really have a use for it, and she didn't want to feel like she'd sold them the food. It was a gift between neighbours.
When the predicted crash didn't happen immediately, the headlines in the Gulfport Herald only grew shriller. In Denning to the north, their Realmgold had followed Realmgold Victory's example and made the same law freeing the gnomes. It was sending the Human Purity movement there into a foaming rage. As far as Mistress Prudence could work out, Human Purity meant that humans were the best kind of people and so they could beat up other kinds of people and take their things if they wanted to. The Herald put a lot more words around it, but that was what it amounted to. The Herald seemed to be in favour of it, presumably because Realmgold Victory was so unambiguously against it.
There were riots in Denning, the Herald said. A centaur caravan guard had killed some men who were attacking the dwarf caravan he was guarding, and the local Countygold had ruled that it was justified defence against banditry. Mister Stone went on at length about how both the Countygold concerned and the Realmgold of Denning were beholden to dwarf interests and biased in favour of the "shorties". That was not a term Mistress Prudence liked to hear used in her house, and she plucked up all her courage and said so, a little apologetically. Mister Stone glared at her over his paper, and then, to her surprise, muttered "sorry" and went back to reading, without further commentary.
In the afternoons, when the light was best, Mistress Prudence liked to sit by the window and sew. She made a few extra copper hammers a week at it, which she spent on little pleasures like a really good tea or a new shawl now and again. She had her close-work glasses on, so at first when she looked up from her work to see what the noise was she couldn't focus properly.
When she had fetched the right glasses, she opened the window, leaned out over her little window-box of herbs and looked towards the main street. There was chanting, and a crowd waving things, banners or something. She thought at first it must be a parade.
Then the world came into focus properly, and her perspective changed. Ill-kempt men, six of them, broke away from the unruly crowd and came stalking down the street like tomcats. They were big, sloppy men, most of them, apart from one tall skinny one with sticking-out ears, and they carried poorly-written signs on poles. She couldn't read them very well from this distance, but "Purety" was on one of them in big shaky red letters. As she watched from the window, they pulled the signs unceremoniously off the poles and dumped them in the road.
Mistress Prudence bristled. Felicity Street was a nice little street, and the residents kept it tidy. She decided to go down and give the men a piece of her mind.
She emerged onto the street just as the tall, skinny man picked up a loose cobble and pitched it through the highest window of Mister Sinter's underground shop.
"Hey!" shouted Mistress Prudence, startled out of her usual quiet politeness. The men turned to her and regarded her like predators, and she felt an icicle of fear drop down the front of her slightly worn blue blouse. She stood straighter to compensate.
They looked a lot bigger now that she was down on the street with them, and the way they clutched the poles suggested that they had clutched similar weapons before, and that their opponents had regretted it. They were dirty, their hair every which way, unshaven and jowly and ill-dressed, but what she noticed most of all was their air of dangerousness.
"S'just an old bint," said the shortest and heaviest of the men. "Come on," and he too picked up a loose stone and pelted it through another of the shop windows. It took a large glass pitcher with it, and the others cheered.
"Good one, Big Berry," said one of the others.
All around the street, windows were opening as the other residents heard the crashes.
"What do you think you're doing?" asked Mistress Prudence in a voice that had gone high and shaky. "That's Mister Sinter's business you're smashing up!"
"What's it to you?" asked Big Berry.
"Yeah, what's it to you?" said his friend, the one who'd commended his throw.
"I'm his neighbour," she said.
"Ah, forget her, she’s nothing," said the tall thin one. "Let's get down there and beat up the shorties."
"You will not," said Mistress Prudence, and stood herself, arms folded, in front of the steps.
"Who's going to stop us?" he asked.
"Me," came the answer from behind her, as the shop door opened with a tinkle. Up the steps, carrying a thick, hollow iron rod that Mistress Prudence thought was a glassblowing tool of some kind, came Crimper Inlay Two.
"Here's one now!" said Berry. “Knock the old biddy down so we can get at him, Brick.”
Two put himself in front of Mistress Prudence. "You wll nt," he said, "hrt Mstrss Prdnc."
"Two..." she began, but he shook his head.
"Well, we'll just see about that," began the skinny one, and grabbed at Two’s improvised weapon. They struggled over it, and Mistress Prudence stepped back and down the first stair, terrified but unable to look away.
The door of the house opposite flung open, and her neighbour Mistress Patience erupted onto the street, with an iron skillet in one meaty hand. "You'll have me to deal with first!" she said.
Amity Grocer emerged from her shop on the corner with a big ugly knife she used to open up the grain bags and the packing crates. "And me!" said Amity. From Patience's basement Mister Burin, the dwarf stonecarver, came out armed with a big maul. His apprentice followed, holding a heavy chisel and looking grim. His hand was trembling.
Doors were opening all over the street, now. It was the middle of the afternoon on a working day, and the younger people like Mister Stone were all at work, but old ladies, the occasional old man, dwarf businessmen and their apprentices and even a few gnomes flooded onto the street armed with kitchen implements, gardening tools, walking sticks, trade tools (in the case of the dwarves and gnomes) or, often, nothing but indignation at the threat to one of their neighbours.
The six interlopers began to look around them nervously.
"Here," said the skinny one, "we don't want no trouble."
"Funny way to go about it," said Mistress Prudence, stepping back up to street level. The two interlopers closest to the main street were edging slowly in that direction.
The shop door behind her tinkled again, and Mister Sinter climbed the steps. "Who's going to pay for damages?" he asked.
"Look," said the skinny one, "we..."
"No, you look," said the dwarf, stalking towards him with some sort of clublike tool in his fist. The skinny man hefted his pole tentatively, but thought better of it, dropped it and broke for the main street. His fellows took their cue from him, dropping their weapons and running for the only exit from Felicity Street at the best speed they could manage.
They were out of shape, and their best speed wasn't very fast, but it was faster than their elderly or short-legged opponents were capable of. Angry cries and a few flung objects were all that pursued them past the first few steps.
When they were gone, the residents joined in cleaning up the mess while Mister Sinter fixed his window. In hardly any time at all, there was nothing to show that the six yahoos had ever been there. Nothing, that is, except that everyone was talking to everyone else.
When Mister Stone came in that evening, Mistress Prudence told him the whole story. He was outraged when she mentioned how the youths had threatened her.
"If I'd been here..." he said, and scowled.
"Well, we managed all right in the event," she said. "Two stepped in and defended me, and everyone came out of the houses and those cowards ran off, quick smart."
"Two?" he asked.
"Mister Sinter's nephew," she said. He looked blank.
"The glassmaker's apprentice downstairs."
"Oh," he said. He thought for a little, and then added, "Decent of him."
"He's a nice boy," she said.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"Oh, yes, they never touched me."
She was on her way to Amity Grocer's when Mister Sinter hurried up the stairs and intercepted her.
"Mistrss Prudnce," he said, "do you have a momnt?" His accent was much lighter than his nephew's.
"Of course, Mister Sinter."
"I, uh," he cleared his throat, "I wondrd if you would like to come down to dinnr tomorrw."
"Mister Sinter, that would be lovely. But I wanted to do something for you, to thank young Two for standing up for me like that."
"Well, Mistrss," he said, "as I heard it you stood up for us first. And after all, we do owe you a couple of meals." He looked embarrassed, as far as she could tell through the beard. She smiled at him.
"It would be my pleasure, Mister Sinter, though I do insist on bringing something. A loaf of bread, perhaps?"
He hesitated, then nodded. "Thank you, Mistrss."
"Oh, and I wonder," she said, "would I be able to bring my lodger, Mister Stone? I'd like him to meet you."
The way things are going in the world, I wanted to make this little story of quiet heroism available to as many people as possible - though if you want a .mobi or .epub version for easier reading (and access to more short fiction), you can sign up to my mailing list.
It's previously appeared in New Realm magazine (December 2013) and my solo collection, Good Neighbours and Other Stories, and takes place in the setting of my Gryphon Clerks novels. The short story "Gnome Day," also free on this site, deals with some of the same events.
If you'd like to contribute to making the world more like this, I suggest a donation to an organisation such as the Center for Social Inclusion.