In Search of Riches
I wake with a raging hunger and renewed resolve. Today I will squeeze a high-paying job of work out of this blasted place, if I have to kill every other mercenary in the market to do it!
As I scramble out of my hay-nest, the first thing I notice is two apples sitting by the ladder. Thaddeus again. Bless him. As I scoff them down, the world begins to seem better and I reflect that perhaps it would be possible for me to find a job without killing anyone.
On the other hand, I do so enjoy putting my knives to good use, and it would make me feel better to clear the world of some idiots.
On the other hand, the blood makes such a mess and we’re in the city so there isn’t any convenient bracken to hide the bodies under. Also, there’s the possibility I might accidentally kill my potential future employer. That would be awkward.
Fine! No mass murder today. But I need to make sure that people take me seriously. Perhaps I could do something about my ridiculous hair? My mouth still full of apple, I try wrapping my blonde locks into a bun, but the hair is so fine and silky that it refuses to stay put. Pigtails would be even more of a disaster. Guess I’ll go as I am then.
At the market, I’m disheartened to find the mercenary aisle looking much the same as yesterday. Same creepy merchant, same groups of mounted warriors. It might be time to lower my standards. I’m staring at a slightly smaller horse, wondering if I could rig some kind of stilt contraption so I would be able to reach the stirrups, when I realise someone is calling me.
I turn around and find it’s the bookish guy. Still wearing those thick glasses. Still standing next to the pile of heavy-looking luggage. He beckons me over. “You are available for work, correct?”
“I’m not carrying your bags,” I inform him as I approach. When I get close enough, it becomes apparent that his eyes are horribly out of alignment. I recoil. “Blimey, did you stare at your own nose too long?”
He pushes his glasses up his nose, which has the effect of emphasising the disfigurement, and looks steadily at a point to my left. “I asked whether you were looking for work.”
His crossed eyes are really freaking me out. “It depends what it is. I’m not carrying your-”
“Don’t be an imbecile,” he interrupts. “It would hardly be efficient to expect a person of your stature to carry anything.”
“You know. I’m not actually-”
“Yes, yes. I can see the curse, and it is immaterial. In fact, it will certainly be an advantage.”
“Hang on, did you say you can see my curse?” Hope rises in my chest. “Are you a wizard? Would you be able to break it?”
“Yes, I am a wizard and no. At least, not for any price you could afford,” he says dismissively. “Now I am seeking a person to accompany me to Naylam Forest to act as bait for a dragon. Are you willing?”
“Yes. Therein lies the advantage of your current form. Little girls. Very attractive to dragons.”
I eye him suspiciously. “Is this an actual dragon or are you using the word ‘dragon’ as a slang term for some kind of child molester?”
He blinks, staring at a place a few yards behind me. “The first one. An actual dragon. I intend to kill it and collect the reward.”
“Offered by the Kingdom of Guln. Fairly handsome.”
I make a show of looking around. “And where is your army for this supposed dragon-killing?”
He scoffs. “For what purpose would I need an army? Manpower is entirely unnecessary when one has magic to draw on. Just as I do not require anyone to carry my luggage.” One eye squints at the pile of bags and, to my amazement, they float majestically into the air to hover next to him.
“Ooh, can you do that with people as well?” I ask. “It’s just that my legs are short and if you’re going to ride a horse, then I don’t-”
“I have arranged for a wagon.”
We haggle over the price of my baiting services. I add another zero to my normal price range. If I’m going to bribe a witch, I have to do this properly. I also insist on a few assurances relating to my safety being written into our agreement. I’m still not entirely convinced of the existence of this dragon, but it’s best to be on the safe side where huge fire-breathing reptiles are concerned. I also demand a clause about being paid whether we find the dragon or not. I might look like I was born not so many yesterdays ago, but I’ve been around long enough to know how to avoid common contractual pitfalls.
After that, there isn’t much left to do. I don’t need to buy any special equipment for the job. The wizard (Fell, as he told me to call him) says my little-girl dresses from the Waldani job are perfect for luring dragons. So, in a celebratory mood after my job-hunting success, I spend my remaining dough on a beautiful new knife. 8 inches. Very sharp.
We start out the same day, Fell being keen to get to the dragon before anyone else has a chance to gather an army and beat him to the reward.
“How big did you say this reward was again?” I ask. I’m perched next to him on the seat of the wagon. Behind us is stacked his luggage (apparently he didn’t fancy making it float all the way there), my much smaller pack of belongings, and our food supplies.
“I didn’t say. I merely indicated its general size using the words ‘fairly handsome’.”
“And are you going to share it with me if we succeed?”
“Have your eyes always been so weird?”
He sighs and then holds one hand over the reins, which proceed to float out of his grasp and levitate a few centimetres in the air. The horses continue pulling the wagon, not noticing any difference. Turning to me, Fell points at his crossed eyes. “This aspect of my vision, which you no doubt consider to be a malformation of eye muscles, is actually a quality imparted by the glasses I wear. What appears to be a disability is in fact part vision-enhancing spell and part disguise.”
“Disguise for what?”
In one smooth movement, he takes off his glasses and leans forward, fixing me with the full blast of his gaze. I gasp in horror. His eyes — both in perfect alignment without the distorting effect of the glasses — are an eerie shade of greenish yellow. What’s more, they’re glowing! He has glowing eyes! “Okay, I get it,” I squeak.
He replaces the glasses and takes hold of the reins again. We drive on in silence for a while. I blink furiously to get rid of the after-image his eyes have burned onto my retinas. Then a question occurs to me. “What sort of vision enhancing?”
“It would be pointless for me to attempt an explanation without you having studied magic and being able to grasp the necessary principles of enhanced light refraction.”
“Is that how you could see my curse?”
“What does it look like?”
He turns to me in exasperation. “Like a loquacious and irritating woman squashed into the form of an even more irritating child. And that is the last question I will answer for the remainder of today’s journey!”
Luckily for my boredom’s sake, the remainder of today’s journey doesn’t last much longer because we arrive at a suitable stopping place. Due to the flat terrain and access to clean water, this large forest clearing is a popular camping site among folk journeying in and out of Druinberg. A few wagons are already lined up in companionable rows and several campfires burn cheerily away with folk gathered chatting and singing around them. Glancing over it all, I shift uneasily as Fell drives our wagon up to an empty spot a short distance away from the other campers. This proximity to others makes the place both safer and more dangerous. Safer from wild animals and bandits. More dangerous when it came to harassment and petty thievery from other travellers. Fell jumps down to unharness the horses. “Do you want me to pretend to be your daughter?” I call after him.
“Why would you do that?”
“How are you going to explain travelling with me otherwise?”
He looks up from a bridle he’s inspecting and glares at a nearby branch. “I am not in the habit of explaining myself to strangers.”
“Oh. Is that why you get annoyed when I ask you lots of questions?”
He stalks off around the wagon without answering.
Over the next couple of hours, I’m kept busy digging a fire pit and running into the nearby woods to collect armfuls of wood. Fell has decided to cook the chicken carcass he purchased in Druinburg and instructs me to make a big fire. I ask him why he can’t just magic it cooked, but he doesn’t deem that worthy of a response. Since I have nothing better to do, I decide to humour his request, even though firewood-carrying wasn’t strictly in my job description.
I’ve made a fairly large pile of wood and am collecting one of my last few armfuls from the copse of trees next to the stream when two men step out from behind a bush. “Hello, little one.” They have rather horrible smiles. Not for the first time, I curse the lack of knife pockets in my little-girl clothes.
“Hello.” I bare my teeth at them in what I hope is a predatory grin but suspect merely comes across as charming.
“You’re that magician’s daughter ain’t you. He’d probably pay a lot to get you back.”
I roll my eyes. One of the most surprising things I’ve learned since being trapped in this body is the amount of faith people have in supposed familial affection. “I wouldn’t count on it,” I say, not expecting to be taken seriously. I drop the armload of wood on the floor and grab one of the pointier sticks, hefting it experimentally. Not my weapon of choice but sometimes a girl has to make do.
There’s a noise from behind me and I swing round, stabbing the stick right on target into the balls of the guy trying to creep up on me. While he doubles over in agony, I whirl and dart towards the other two men, ready to jab them too. Wouldn’t want anyone to feel left out.
I get one of them but the other one leaps backwards out of reach. I smile again, this time in a deliberately cute way, hoping to lure him closer. Indecision flitters over his face.
Then he bursts into flames.
My mouth drops open and I gape at the fire, which burns furiously, consuming the man. After a few seconds, there’s nothing left but a fine mist of ash floating away on the wind. Before I can react, the other two men go through the same thing. Flames rage and roar, then nothing but dust. Within the space of a minute, I’ve gone from being accosted by a group of men with dubious intentions to standing alone next to a pile of sticks and three heaps of ash.
I look carefully at the stick in my hand. Could it have…? No, come on, get a grip, Willa. It’s just a stick. Grabbing the rest of the firewood, I hustle back to the camp.
Fell is sitting by the fire, staring into empty space. A pan lid hovers in the air next to him, gently wafting the flames. I drop the load I’m carrying next to the rest of the wood and put my hands on my hips. “Don’t suppose you know anything about three men who just spontaneously combusted over there in the woods?”
After a few seconds, his gaze focuses on a spot to my left and he scowls. “What?”
“Men. Three of them. Now ash.”
His eyebrows draw down even further. “What sort of men?”
“Apparently the flammable sort.”
There’s a pause, then understanding floods his face. “They were attacking you, I suppose?”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
He looks back towards a spot where the fire isn’t. “I placed a few protective spells on you while we were travelling. Fairly powerful. Probably one of those.”
He flaps a hand vaguely. “Can’t remember exactly which spells.”
I stare at him.
“Anyway, you’re unharmed,” he continues. Then lapses back into silence.
I can’t decide whether he meant the last part as a question or a statement so I ignore it. Sinking onto a stone, I stare into the crackling fire. The flaming logs look eerily similar to the men’s bones, which I saw glowing plainly through their flesh as the blaze consumed them.
“Now I understand why you weren’t keen on cooking by magic,” I mutter.
Fell’s assured manner about taking a dragon on by himself suddenly makes more sense. And he was putting spells on me while we were travelling? I had no clue! Maybe I’d better tone down the questioning. Imagine if his concentration had slipped…