A Generosity of Coins
The trip back to Druinberg is the most endlessly boring thing I’ve ever experienced in my fairly vast experience of being bored.
I keep trying to make the horses go faster but they are stubborn bastards and obey only when it suits them. At one point I explode with fury and stand on the wagon seat waving my arms and screaming insults at them. Both horses cast scornful looks over their shoulders and carry on walking at the same sedate pace.
After several million, billion years, we finally reach the area around Druinberg and things start to look up. Either the horses recognise their surroundings or simply decide they’re in the mood for a gallop. “Why couldn’t you have gone this fast the whole way back?” I grumble, lying flat on the wagon seat and hanging on for dear life. With my face pressed against the wood, I have a superb view of the reins, which are dragging gaily through the mud as we go.
With these circumstances in mind, one can hardly blame the townspeople of Druinberg for their reaction to what looked like a runaway cart bearing a terrified child. People shriek and yell in surprise, diving out of the way and snatching their animals and wares to safety as we careen at a breakneck pace down the main street. The horses run straight through the town, giving no mind to who they trample along the way. They’ve decided they like this galloping thing and now they don’t want to stop. The wagon swings and jolts along behind them. It must be getting battered to splinters on the cobblestones. Thank goodness it’s not mine.
Once past the main market area, the horses show a sudden interest in a random side street. They veer, making a high-speed turn that has the wagon rising up onto two wheels. I cling on for dear life to avoid sliding down into the muck. Where are those bloody horses going? I suspect they haven’t a clue.
Shouts and hoofbeats come from behind. Two mounted men draw level with us, riding hard to keep pace with my manic steeds. They grab the horses’ bridles, forcing them to slow and eventually halt. Everything grows quiet, apart from the panting of horses and an ominous creaking from the wagon as its boards settle back into place after their ordeal.
“Thank goodness for that,” I mutter, lifting my sore head from the seat where I’ve surely left an imprint of my face. Even my armpits feel bruised.
My heroic rescuers are puffed up with pride over having stopped the runaway wagon and don’t seem inclined to leave. It takes a hell of a lot of talking and finally some tears to get rid of them. Just my luck to be saved by the chivalric, honourable kind of men who are constitutionally incapable of just pissing off and leaving an unaccompanied child to her own damn business. By a stroke of luck, we’ve ended up a few yards from the inn where Fell wanted me to leave his wagon. In the end I have to go there and bribe one of the serving maids who comes out and explains how I’m ‘expected’ here and that my parents ‘will be along any minute’. The two heroes still wear doubtful expressions until she holds out the coins I’ve given her to pass on to them. Then they hustle right along. Just goes to show, there’s no such thing as selfless gallantry.
No selfless gallantry from greedy serving maids either. She recognised a good blackmailing opportunity when she saw one. Suddenly my pile of money is a good few coins smaller. If this causes the witch to reject my plea I’m going to hunt down all three of those greedy bastards and force-feed them their own bribes.
Since I’ve now got a serving maid on retainer, I tell her to prepare a room for me. But long before it’s ready, I’m hurrying out of the inn and into the streets of Druinberg. I have an important errand to run…
This time when I bang on the witch’s door, she doesn’t even bother opening it. I hear her muffled voice from inside. “This establishment only serves people who are tall enough to reach the bell.” I pound with my fist and yell a few curses through the door but the only response I get is the familiar sound of her cackling.
I stalk off in a fuming rage and return a few moments later with the beggar-man from the street corner. He rings the bell for me and then gleefully seizes the coin I hold out and skips away with a decidedly uncrippled demeanour.
The witch opens the door and I immediately march past her into the cottage.“I’ve come to negotiate the fee for turning me back.” I announce.
She closes the door slowly. “Oh, have you.”
“Yes. I’ve plenty of gold. Name your price.”
“Alright.” She strolls across the room and picks up the cat from the cushion in front of the fire, stroking it thoughtfully. “Several instances of unselfish generosity, a handful of honourable self-sacrifice, a decent amount of patient nurturing and a rescued love affair.”
I gape at her. “Sacrifice? A love affair?”
“Yes. To make up for the one you ruined.”
“But…” I drop my eyes to the heavy pouch hanging at my waist. “No. I asked how much money you want?”
“I don’t deal in that currency anymore,” she snaps.
Her words ignite a blaze of righteous anger inside me. Did I just spend weeks riding through endless forest and chasing after dragons for nothing? I dig my hand into the pouch, pulling out a fistful of coins. “Look! Ungrateful hag! These are for you! I travelled and worked and slaved and was nearly eaten by a dragon so I could earn these coins to pay you.”
“Lovely,” she says brightly. “Well, don’t lose them on my floor. You can use them to fund your generous and unselfish deeds.”
“But…!” I say again, opening and shutting my mouth like a helpless fish. “Look this is ridiculous. At least paying with money makes sense. But these… deeds or whatever. How will you even know? How can I prove if I’ve done selfish things or not?”
She fixes me with a glare. “I’ll know. I can read it on you.”
I glare back with as much rancour as I can muster. “If that’s true, then you’ll be able to see that I just kindly donated some gold to help a poor serving maid at an inn because she was down on her luck and everything.”
She shakes her head, grinning. “Nice try but no good. Come back when you’ve got something truthful to tell me. Goodbye!”
Before I know it, I’m outside the cottage again. The door slams shut behind me. I kick it, then give into a kind of frenzy that seizes me for a few seconds, kicking and pounding with my fists, wailing and raging at the unfairness.
I stumble back in the direction of the inn, my detestable curls bouncing cheerfully with each step. Generous and unselfish deeds? I’ve never heard such baloney and poppycock! What gives that woman the power to judge people’s morality? Oh, that’s right, I think to myself gloomily, because she can curse them whenever she feels like it. What a complete and utter…. The thought dies as I’m struck by the notion that she might be able to hear what I’m thinking. Then I’m filled with rage. This is my life! Who is she to dictate what I should be able to do or think?
The strength of my bitterness sustains me until I reach the Hartven Inn’s familiar frontage. The tap room must be crowded. A lively hubbub spills out into the street.
The sensible thing would be to go straight up to my room, draw the witch’s face on the wall and practice throwing knives at it until I’ve calmed down.
What I actually do is enter the main bar and climb onto one of the high stools in front of the counter.My tiny fists are itching for a fight. Let one of those bastards just try asking me what a girl like me is doing in a place like this!
Unfortunately, showing up with my current angelic face is like the equivalent of casting a feel-good charm on everyone. People keep stopping to coo over me, patting me on the head and asking inane questions without listening to a word I say in response. Even my irate shriek: “Leave me alone, cretins!” receives indulgent chuckles in response.
The serving maid I bribed refuses to bring me a beer so I’m stuck with a cup of apple juice. If I can’t break this curse soon, I’m going to have to hire a bloody actor to follow me around pretending to be my parent and doing all the things that require height and a deep voice to get done.
I’m jabbing one of my knives into the bar, pondering methods of torture when a girl seats herself on the stool next to me. She orders a beer and then we both sit in silence, watching each other out of the corners of our eyes. She must be about nineteen or so, dressed in fighter’s garb with a range of weapons, including a couple of really good knives, strapped to her body. Her dark hair is pulled into a rough ponytail bound with a cord.
She intrigues me. In large part, because she doesn’t show any signs of wanting to stroke my face. I figure she’s a mercenary. She reminds me of myself. Or rather, how I used to be. How I envy her for her adult body and her freedom. She doesn’t realise how LUCKY she is being able to sit here, quaffing beer and making eyes at the handsome blacksmith’s apprentice without having to worry about whether or not she’ll be able to reach the door handle on the way out.
Tears of frustration fill my eyes. I blink rapidly and shove my own knife back into my sleeve. This would be a terrible location to start crying. Even all my wasted curse money might not stretch to bribing all the potential heroes in my vicinity. Time to beat a hasty retreat. I kneel on my bar stool to begin the tricky process of descending to the ground.
Suddenly a hand grips my arm. It’s the mercenary girl. “Don’t leave on my account,” she says. Her voice is low and throaty. Her face is serious but there’s a glint of humour in her eyes.
“I wasn’t,” I snap. Even though I kind of was. Then I cringe over how ridiculous my child’s voice sounded and have to spend a few more seconds blinking furiously.
The girl is looking at me speculatively. “You’re not quite what you seem, are you?”
The question puts her a couple of notches up in my estimation. “What makes you say that?” I ask, guardedly. Best to be cautious. She might be looking for someone to act as dragon bait. I slide the knife out of my sleeve again.
She shrugs. “I notice things. A kid your age isn’t usually able to sit still on a chair that long. And you’re mighty accurate with that knife of yours.” I follow her amused gaze to the spot where I’d been jabbing the bar. I’ve unconsciously hacked a pentacle into the wood. With a dead witch inside. Stupid witches. “Don’t suppose you’re in the market for a job?” the girl asks.
I eye her sidelong. “And if I was?”
She grins. “You’re a suspicious one. A girl after my own heart.”
“I’m probably older than you are,” I mutter. She looks at me sharply, but if she heard my remark she lets it pass without comment.
“I’m recruiting for a convoy of guards to escort a royal couple to their wedding. Sound like something you’d be up for?”
“Maybe,” I say.
Usually there’d be no maybe about it. Any mercenary would jump at the word “royal”. Royal means money. Money means… Well let’s face it, in my current state, everything I earn will get wasted on bribing people to do things I’d never dream of paying for normally. Things aren’t normal and they haven’t been for a while. In truth I’m wondering what the point of anything is anymore. Royal means money… I already have a heavy pouch bursting with money. So far it hasn’t helped me get my body back.
The girl is still talking about the job. “If you’ve done protection gigs before, this will be an easy one,” she says. “But you have to decide fast because we’re leaving in two days. There’s been a flu epidemic up at the palace and many of the guards won’t be fit in time, so we’re desperate for more fighters…” Her tone turns wheedling. “…if you feel you could help us out…?”
I stare at the girl. “Help you?” It’s as if she’s said a magic word. Helping people! That’s what the witch said I had to do. Never mind whether I’m getting paid or not. A royal journey is bound to be full of hapless nobles getting themselves into dire straits, needing a selfless and generous heroine to help them out. This could be the single best thing I can do for myself. Go on this job and find ways to help people!
“I’ll be going over protocols with a few mercs at the South Gate tomorrow at dawn. Come join us if you’re interested.” The girl flashes me a wolf’s grin full of white teeth, daring me to pretend I’m a normal little girl with no idea what she’s talking about.
I like her.
I give her my sweetest, most innocent little-girl smile. “I’ll think about whether I’m interested in working for you. Thank you for the information, ma’am.” With that, I jump down from the stool and thread my way through the crowded bar. I hear her chuckle but when I turn back, she’s already signalling to the innkeeper for another beer.
This is incredible. The answer to my quandary presented itself without me having to lift a finger or chase it up. And that girl came to offer me a fighting job. I must really give out a super badass vibe.
As I’m going up the stairs, I notice a portrait of a little blonde angel hanging on the wall. Must be a religious thing. No-one can really look THAT innocent. But it’s weird that they hung it so low.
Then I realise… it’s a mirror.