Author's Note: I've always wondered how Acorn got that scar across his face -- it's so huge. I was also intrigued by the little bit of the 9th Kingdom we see, as they seemed to have a very law-abiding, non-violent citizenry, which certainly doesn't describe Acorn. So I sat down and wrote this out, inspired almost entirely by that scene when Acorn is on the stolen junk barge, studying himself in the mirror.
The Mirror Crack'd
The dwarfs of the Ninth Kingdom had a saying: It takes only one crack to ruin a mirror.
They used this saying in all situations. A batch of ale failed to turn out -- surely there had been some bad hops or barley, as it only takes one crack. The baker's buns did not rise; it takes but one crack. Their children ran wild, and there must be one little dwarf to blame, for it takes but one crack to ruin a mirror.
The dwarfs on the whole liked to think of their country as a mirror, for what the rest of the kingdoms saw was only what was reflected back at them -- so much more happened behind the glass. They did not fool themselves into believing that their kingdom did not have its flaws, for even a very good mirror will distort what is standing in front of it. An excellent mirror will take advantage of that and reflect only what the maker wants shown. And so the dwarfs patched up the cracks in their kingdom's mirror and got rid of the crack-makers. In that way, outsiders saw only industrious little men and nothing more. They used the mirror's distortion to their advantage.
Acorn the Dwarf, poor fellow, did not crack mirrors so much as he shattered them.
Not that he wanted to be seen as a poor fellow. On the contrary, Acorn longed dearly to be seen as a capable fellow, a fearsome fellow. He did not care if he was feared or respected, but he did not want to be pitied. He especially did not want to be pitied by humans, the tall bastards.
He did not mourn overmuch, then, when he was sliced across the face during a fight in a pub. A man had looked at him funny, so Acorn had asked him if he thought the dwarf was funny looking, and when he replied, yes, Acorn was, the dwarf had broken the bottle standing at his hand on the edge of the table and swung it. Unfortunately, he could not reach past the man's waist, and had been too drunk to hop on the table to make things even. So the man had struck out with his dagger and left Acorn bleeding.
He had not been a bad-looking dwarf before that night. No, indeed not. Curly, golden-brown hair and blue eyes. He had not been handsome, not quite, but had a pleasant, honest sort of face. The sort of face that was attached to a chap people left their dogs with outside of stores or tipped very well for holding their horse outside a tavern. If shortly after they went inside the tavern, Acorn left with the horse, well, they could not know that until after it happened.
Tony Lewis had told him during one of their conversations in prison that he would have been called a con man in Tony's kingdom. That stood for confidence man, he'd found out, and that was a person who got people to trust him and give him money, and then he took off with the money and never delivered what he promised. Thinking of the number of dwarf diamond mine certificates he'd sold without ever producing a single diamond, Acorn thought that sounded about right. Of course, the scar he had now had ended all that. He'd have to find new employment.
As he looked into a piece of tin polished enough to reflect back at him -- Acorn had not used a mirror since he had left the Ninth Kingdom -- he lathered up his face with shaving soap and thought about what had happened after he had gotten his eye sliced out.
He'd hauled himself off the floor with one hand clapped to his face, and left a trail of blood to the door. The publican had yelled at him for it, but there hadn't been much Acorn could do about it, had there? It wasn't as if he wanted to be bleeding. Some might say he had asked for it, but he certainly hadn't wanted it.
There weren't many places where he could have gone, not in the middle of the night. He dragged himself, still drunk and looking it, to Goldbird's house. She, at least, was usually happy to see him. She was a widow -- her husband had died in a mining accident -- and she had a soft spot for Acorn. Soft bed, too, he remembered with a grin, slopping lather under his chin.
"Goldbird!" he called, hammering on her kitchen door with the hand that wasn't clamped over his eye. "Goldbird!"
She opened the door suddenly, so that he almost fell through it, but he caught himself on the jamb before he hit the floor. He thought he'd died for a moment, with her standing over him, her blonde hair all lit up by the fire behind her and her worn nightdress looking as filmy as anything a cherub had ever worn. But then he realized that cherubs didn't usually clutch ratty shawls around their shoulders or look quite so annoyed.
"Have a care, Acorn. You'll wake the --" She stopped, and her annoyance was replaced with the realization that she had a bleeding dwarf on her doorstep. "What on earth . . . no, come in."
Goldbird practically carried him into her cottage, even though she was several inches shorter than him and at least a stone lighter. Dwarfwives were strong, and Goldbird was especially strong. She could drive a carthorse and barely feel the strain. Had muscles in her arms like boulders.
She guided him to a chair drawn up next to the fire, the table just next to it. He dropped gratefully into it, his head starting to spin from either loss of blood or the amount of fermented beanstalk juice he'd been drinking. His hand was still held over his eye, and he knew that all sorts of things had run down his face and through his fingers.
"You've been drinking. What happened?" she asked, bringing things to the table from cupboards tucked in every corner of the kitchen.
For the first time that night, he felt a pang of shame.
"Had a bit of a run-in at the tavern," he mumbled.
She turned up the wick on the lantern on the mantle and set it on the table.
"A bit," she repeated. She put her hands on her hips.
"Yeah, a bit. Don't have to reenact the Troll Wars to get sliced up proper."
"Well, let's see just how proper you was sliced." She tugged at his hand when he did not drop it immediately. Some of the bloom went out of her cheeks and her forehead creased with a frown.
"That bad, eh?" he asked.
She frowned in earnest and dabbed at the blood on his face with a damp dishtowel. He pulled away because firstly, it felt like she was trying to pull the skin off his face, and secondly, some of his drunk was starting wear off, so he was realizing just how much it was going to hurt.
"We'll need to call a doctor," she started, but he stopped her.
"No doctors," he said, his hand twitching to cover his eye back up again. It felt better when he had something pressed up against it, like his face was still in one piece. "I think they still remember me from that patent medicine business I had going couple years back."
"What do you expect me to do, Acorn? I'm no healer, and I don't know what to do past cleaning you up and stitching that cut."
"That's all any doctor would do, and charge you a gold Wendell for it. I trust you to do that much."
"It won't be pretty. I'm not much for fine stitching."
"A good thing I wasn't pretty to start with, right?"
Her lips thinned until they nearly disappeared in her face. She hated how casual he was about his badness, and hated herself a little that she could not stop him. She shook her head slightly, as if she'd been woolgathering, and poured him a small glass of a sickly yellow-green liquid.
"That's swamp water," she said, "and it's medicinal, so don't go getting any ideas about lugging the whole bottle to bed with you, because I won't let you."
She fetched her sewing basket then, and turned the wick on the lantern up yet again. Acorn drank the swamp water, and his mind went strangely detached from his body. He could feel every tug of the damp dishcloth against his skin as Goldbird cleaned up his face, and he could feel the sting as she poured a generous amount of very strong, clear liquor over the cut, but he did not especially care. As she finished stitching the wound, he came back to himself and knew fully the last few stinging, tugging stitches. She didn't say a word the whole time, not even when he cringed away from needle.
"You're a mean woman, Goldbird," he muttered when she was done.
She looked at him hard.
"And you are not a nice man," she said. And he could hardly argue with that, because he wasn't especially.
She tucked him up in her bed after that, with another glass of swamp water poured down his throat. Goldbird sat on her side of the bed and shook her head at him while she brushed the curly brown hair off the bandage wrapped around his head.
"We nearly deserve each other, don't we?" he asked.
She snorted and tossed her shawl on the foot of the bed.
"I do not know what I did to deserve you, Acorn," she said and climbed into bed. She kept her back to him.
Muzzy headed from the swamp water, he had lain on his back and listened as Goldbird's breathing went slow and regular with sleep. A little while later, she rolled over toward him and curled against his side. He could feel her breath against his cheek. Even through the swamp water's fog, he hadn't been quite able to figure that he deserved to be lying against a pretty little dwarf housewife instead of half-dead in a gutter somewhere.
Acorn was finished lathering up his face. Thinking about how he had come across the scar made him more aware of it, so it was all he could see as he looked into the tin. He turned his face so that only the unmarred side showed. He'd always had a strong nose, a good feature on a dwarf. But as soon as he turned his face any other way, that scar was the only thing anyone would see. And he was old now. He'd gone into prison as a young man, and he came out older than he'd been expecting. There'd been a time when -- but no, not even Goldbird would have him now.
He sighed. He might as well get used to it, because there were some things that couldn't be changed. Resignedly, Acorn began scraping the whiskers off his face. He might not be able to do anything about the scar, but that didn't mean he had to look like he was running from the law. Whiskers he could get rid of. If anybody asked, he lost his eye in a mining accident when he was a boy.
As he checked his chin for any hairs he'd missed, the phrase his parents had shouted at him so often came back into his head and echoed around.
"Aye, it takes but one crack," he muttered to himself. And then he laughed a bit, because the mirror he had in mind had been made bad.