The Curse of Perfect Curls
Well, one thing’s certain. That’s the last time I’m working for a bloody puppet show!
Branches tear at my clothes as I stomp through the trees but I ignore them. My outfit is ruined anyway. The bloodstains from those dying idiots will never wash out. Sod it. Another dress gone to waste.
You’d think kids’ clothes would be cheaper, being smaller and logically requiring less material to make. But no. They’re bloody expensive. Especially the kind of sickeningly adorable dresses that Waldani required me to wear for this gig. The bastard even wrote it into my contract, along with the clause stating that damage to said dresses was my own responsibility. If it wasn’t for that, you can be damn sure I’d be claiming back every penny it’s costing me getting all gore-soaked while protecting his miserable cashbox.
After the drunken brawl, Waldani decides to skip the last few planned stops, instead driving the convoy of wagons straight back to Druinberg. He needs replacements for the members of his crew who’d broken limbs in the fight, not to mention new security staff. I made it clear after the brawl that as far as I was concerned, my contract was fulfilled and I was finished with his whole band of idiots. I said it all in a perfectly pleasant tone of voice while checking the authenticity of my smile in the shiny surface of the knife I was holding. He didn’t argue with me.
As soon as we roll up to Druinberg’s market square, I sling my bundle of belongings over my shoulder, collect my meagre pay from a glowering Waldani and head off, weaving my petite figure through the crowd.
Heads turn to watch my progress. Men, women and children stop what they’re doing and gaze, open-mouthed, as I pass. Several women try to stop me, asking where my parents are, but I evade them. My parents are dead and there’s no need to go into it.
When I reach the familiar green-painted door, I’m forced to bang on it with my infuriatingly tiny fist because the bell is too high for me to reach. “Come in,” calls a voice. But I don’t, because I can’t reach the latch either. Fuming silently, I thump a few more times. And again. Until finally, the door swings open and a woman with mud-brown hair looks out. She doesn’t see anyone and starts to close the door, until I clear my throat and her gaze drops a couple of feet. “Oh, it’s you.” She chuckles. “Still haven’t shaken it off then.”
“Look, I know I was rude, but this curse is ridiculous. You’ve had your fun. How about you turn me back?”
She mockingly cocks a hand behind her ear. “I hear what you say, little girl, and it doesn’t sound like an apology.”
I stamp my foot. “I’m not a little girl!”
She doubles over, hooting with laughter. “Oh goodness,” she gasps, wiping tears from her eyes. “It was worth the hassle of cursing you just for that. Has anyone ever told you, you’re adorable when you’re angry?”
I make an effort to contain myself and attempt to recollect the mature arguments I rehearsed while on the road. “Look, ma’am, I’m twenty-three years old and a master mercenary fighter. But I can’t get anyone to take me seriously because you’ve made me look like a bloody six-year-old!”
“Yes,” she says. “Isn’t it hilarious!”
Gnashing my teeth, I try again. “My profession is vitally important to the safety of the realm. People could die if you don’t turn me back.”
She shakes her head, smiling. “Sorry, not good enough.”
I fold my arms in exasperation. “You’re ruining my sex life!”
She stops smiling and bares her teeth, looking all at once like the witch she is. “That was the point of the whole exercise, you ignorant, vain little creature. Bad enough that you insulted me in my own home, you also made it clear that you care for nothing but yourself. You boasted about turning heads. Your hobby, as I understand it, was luring husbands away from their loving wives. I think I’ve fairly succeeded in putting a stop to that!”
“But how long are you planning to leave me like this?” I ask piteously. “I’m wasting the best years of my life here!”
“You’ll stay looking like that until I’m convinced you’re sorry and that you’ve mended your ways. Now scram, kid. I’ve got better things to do.” She disappears inside and slams the door.
I think about knocking on the door again, but decide it’s a waste of time and knuckles. I’m halfway down the path when the door opens again.
“I just wanted to say,” she calls after me. “I love that dress. It really brings out your dimples!”
I flip her off and hear her cackling as the door slams again. Witch.
As I trudge off, I’m struck by a wave of helplessness. I really thought if I just gave that woman enough time to cool off, she’d come to her senses, realise how she was devastating my life and have the decency to turn me back. Apparently not. She didn’t seem repentant. Quite the opposite, in fact.
No-one would imagine being turned into a child could be such a horrible punishment. After all, I could have ended up as a frog or a newt or something worse. Plus, there are whole industries that revolve around people being desperate to recapture their youth.
But this isn’t just about being wrinkle-free and rosy-cheeked. I’ve been saddled with a tiny frame, a tiny bladder, milk teeth that wobble ominously, the whole caboodle. Once you start walking around as a child when you’re used to everyone treating you like an adult, you realise it’s actually a pretty vile punishment. And let me tell you, it’s disastrous in my line of work when you turn up for a job looking like I currently do. Doesn’t matter how skilled and famous I insist I am, all they see are the curls. And people just find it too weird hiring a child to protect them.
In all honesty, I don’t blame them. I’d have trouble taking my current body seriously too. No matter how I try, I can’t seem to tone down the cuteness. My complexion is flawless and glowing. My dimpled cheeks are irredeemably rosy. My hair falls into perfect ringlets every time I shake my head. It’s a disaster.
But I can’t hang around forever, waiting for that wretched witch to discover a conscience! The world is wide and there is too much life to live. I need to come up with another plan to make it happen.
And then the answer hits me. Gold! Even the most steadfast of wicked-doers would surely be persuaded of the error of her ways when plied with a great clinking pile of metallic sunshine. I need to collect an enormous pile of gold and then use it to bribe that witch to undo her curse.
The next question is: where am I going to get a huge pile of gold from? The gig with Waldani’s group was a horrible deal and left me with precious little money. In any case, I might need to spend what I have on equipment for my next job. I’ll have to seek out something really lucrative for it to be worth my time.
While I’m thinking all this, my feet have carried me through Druinberg’s cobbled streets to where the city’s famous market is located. I go straight to the section where people can find mercenaries for hire.
In case you’ve never seen a mercenary market, it’s a bit like a cattle market, except with swords. I wander up and down the row, looking at everything. Then wander up and down the same row a second time, cursing my luck. It’s a slow day from the looks of things. Near the water pump are a couple of farmers who probably want protection while herding a flock of stinking animals through some remote mountain region. Yawn. A bookish guy with glasses is standing next to a pile of heavy-looking baggage. Probably wants someone to carry all that while protecting him on a journey. Well it’s not gonna be me! There are the usual mounted groups looking for new members, but the mere fact that I’m currently too small to sit on a horse automatically excludes me from those. I start a conversation with one promising merchant, but get weirded out by the creepy looks he keeps giving me, and eventually excuse myself.
When evening comes, I’m still no closer to finding my next gig. It’s getting too late to look for a place to stay. Besides, I’ve learned to stay away from inns because it gets so bloody boring explaining to innkeepers (and innkeepers’ wives) that no, my parents aren’t staying with me, and yes, I’m fine by myself.
So I take a stroll down memory lane and sneak into one of the horse stables. Back when I was younger and even more skint I used to do this all the time. The hayloft is a snug place to sleep if you can stand a bit of itching. In my current circumstances, I have little choice.
I creep past the dozing horses and shin up the ladder into the loft, where I snuggle into the sweet-smelling fresh hay. It’s less itchy than usual. I must have chosen one of the better stables. Go me.
I’ve hardly closed my eyes when there’s a rustling in the straw by the ladder. I shoot up, grabbing a knife and hiss out a challenge. “Who’s there?”
A voice comes through the darkness. “Whoa, girl, don’t get startled now. It’s Thaddeus.”
Who the bloody hell is Thaddeus?
“I work in the stables downstairs,” adds the voice, helpfully.
“Well, what do you want, Thaddeus?” I growl. “Are you here to kick me out? Because if so, I-”
“No, no, miss, nothing like that. You’s welcome to sleep here. Just thought you mights be hungry. Brought you an apple. They’s for the horses but the master won’t be missing one.”
“An apple?” I repeat.
There’s a pause. “You look like you’s down on your luck, miss. I’m gonna leave it here. Easy now.”
His voice retreats down the ladder. It strikes me that he was using the same gentle tone I heard him using to calm the horses. I roll my eyes, but nevertheless fumble forward until I find the apple he’s left on the floor. It’s crunchy and delicious. He must have searched through the whole pile to find me the best one.
Great. Now I’m so pathetic even stable hands are taking pity on me.