Turn Me Back!

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The Clothes Make The Deed

The next morning I drag myself out from under the warm blankets with a groan. I have to go and meet that stupid girl about the stupid royal protection job. Why does the meeting have to be at dawn? Why are things always at dawn? What would be so bad about meeting a few hours after sunrise? After breakfast. Or why not after lunch for that matter? It would be a hell of a lot easier to face the thought of a day of monotonous travel or gruesome killing with a couple of meals under your belt. Maybe I’m in the wrong industry. I ought to choose another profession where things don’t start until later in the day. Oh, that’s right; there aren’t any! Life’s a bitch.

I forgot to add time to compensate for my tiny legs, so I have to run the last stretch to the south gate. The dark-haired girl from the bar is there and she greets me with a horribly cheery wave. “I knew you were interested,” she says when I get close enough.

“I’m too old to get up this early,” I pant in response, stomping over to join the group of recruits who’ve gathered to listen to her. Most of them cast surprised looks my way. They’re all male. A mix of seasoned mercenaries wearing leather and carrying well-worn swords in notched scabbards. Even my demurest little-girl clothes look laughably dainty among this lot. But who cares. If they tried anything with me, they’d soon find out what’s what. Once this stupid meeting is over, I’m going to buy myself a new knife as a reward for getting my next job so fast.

The men are all idiotically tall, so I stand at the front while we receive our instructions from the dark-haired girl. She introduces herself as Kayla. Turns out she’s in charge of the entire operation. I’m a fine one to talk, but I have to say she doesn’t look old enough to be running such an important assignment. The couple we’ll be escorting is no less than Princess Isla of Hellavan and her husband-to-be, Prince Theodore of the neighbouring Kingdom of Vantral. According to some obscure kingdom lore, they can only be married in the mountain chapel at Zair. It’s an astoundingly high-profile trip. I guess strength in numbers was a key factor in the decision to combine the travelling parties. The bride and groom aren’t supposed to spend time with each other before they’re married, but I’m sure there’ll be some clever camping arrangement to keep them separate.

Not that I care that much about the details. The fee Kayla quotes is more than handsome enough to buy my time in the coming weeks. She also mentions there could be bonuses for special bravery shown during the assignment. I scoff to myself about that. No point being “specially brave” if you end up too dead to collect your reward. Balancing risk and profit — that’s what the merc life is all about. The guys around me react excitedly when she mentions the bonus, so either they haven’t been fighting for as long as their equipment suggests, or they’re all numbskulls. I suspect both.

Kayla gives us the meeting point and time of departure tomorrow (another dawn meeting — who’d have thought?). There are a few things I need to buy for the trip, so I trek back to the marketplace where things are only just getting started. See? Dawn is too early for everyone.

A barber’s stall catches my eye. I pause for a moment. Should I cut my hair short? Kayla didn’t mention anything about needing me for my cuteness like my last two jobs. And let’s face it, these bouncing curls are just begging to be grabbed by some would-be assailant. I stand lost in indecision for a moment until the barber notices me and jokingly clicks his scissors my way. “You’d better be careful, little girl,” he calls. “If you come too close, you might lose all that beautiful hair!”

Okay, that decides me. There’s no way I’m going over there to argue with him about whether or not I really want my hair cut off. If it turns out to be too much of a nuisance on the trip, I can just hack it off myself with a knife. Speaking of knives….

The visit to my favourite weapons stall cheers me up. By now the vendor knows me and has evidently made his peace with the dubious morality of selling sharp knives to a six-year-old. I guess the fact that I’ve turned up numerous times, still in possession of all my fingers, has convinced him of my trustworthiness. Since my bribe turned out to be useless and I won’t need my room at the inn any longer, I’m unexpectedly rich, so I splurge a large proportion of my remaining cash on a gorgeous set of throwing knives.

I’m admiring the sheen on one of them when someone taps me on the shoulder. Startled, I spin around, causing the person behind me to jump backwards out of reach of my blade.

“Whoa! Easy now. I wuzn’t tryin to hurt you or nothin.”

It’s a boy a couple years older than me. By which I mean a couple of years older than the age I currently look. Straggly blonde hair peeps out from under his cap and his patched, darned clothes are covered in bits of straw. It’s the strangest thing. I don’t recognise him at all, but his voice is inescapably familiar. “Who are you?” I demand.

He turns pale. I guess I shouldn’t have shaken the knife at him, but some things are impossible to resist. “I…” he stammers, eyes nervously following the blade.

Oh for heaven’s sake. I put the knife away in its sheath and smile at him in what I hope is a reassuring way. Sadly, that doesn’t help things either. He just gets a sort of dazed look on his face.

Okay, time to resort to the foolproof kick in the shins. To my surprise, he jumps nimbly out of the way as if he’d been expecting it. At my startled look, he grins showing a row of crooked teeth. “Can’t kick a stable hand. The horses try that trick too often.”

Everything clicks into place. “Stable hand. You’re the kid who brought me those apples. Thaddeus?”

He frowns a little at my use of the word ‘kid’, but nods, confirming my guess. “That’s me.” He gestures uncertainly towards the stand full of knives behind me. “Beggin’ your pardon for disturbing your… business, miss. I wuz just wondering how it’s going for you now. If you found someplace to sleep and all. You’s welcome to come back an sleep in the stable any time. I wouldn’t disturb you or nothin.”

Bless the little chap. No doubt he now considers me a permanent resident of his stable, to be fed and cared for along with the rest of them. “Thanks, I’ve got a place to sleep at the moment,” I say. “But I was grateful for those apples.” I run my eyes over his clothing a second time and an idea strikes me. “Look, Thaddeus, let me do something for you in return.” I grab his hand, ignoring his protests about needing to get back to work. Tugging him over to the section of the market where the tailors and fabric merchants reside, I insist on buying him a new set of ready-made clothes. Socks, cap, underwear, the works. Stint on the generosity? Not me!

Finally, the bemused object of my benevolence stands there clutching his squashy package, attempting to make a speech about how grateful he is, but I ignore it and seize his hand again. I’m not finished with him yet. After a brief stop at a conveniently placed bush where I badger him into donning his new outfit, I drag him onwards.

When we reach the green door, Thaddeus gives me a leg-up to reach the bell, following which we both stand there expectantly. The door flies open. I gesture proudly at my gaping companion in his new finery.

“Very good,” says the witch. Her hair looks mussed, as if she’s been taking a nap. Maybe she had to get up at dawn for something. “Keep it up.”

“So does that count as one of…?” My words peter out as the door slams and I’m confronted with a familiar view of the green-painted boards. I mutter a few curses and give the door a couple of good kicks.

“Here, watch out. You’ll spoil her paintwork,” Thaddeus cries.

“Oh shut up!” Turning on my heel, I leave him there and stomp back to the inn.

So much for ‘Doing Good’. If being generous ends up being this much effort every time, I highly doubt whether I’ll ever manage to lift the curse.

I ought to pack my equipment for tomorrow morning but I’m too disheartened. Instead, I fling myself on the bed and wallow in the infuriating unfairness of everything.

The door is painted a sinister shade of green. It creaks slowly open before I’ve even reached for the bellpull. “Come in. I know why you’re here,” calls the woman inside.

I step through the doorway into the dim room, closing the door behind me. Herbs hang from the shadowy rafters. Various unrecognisable things are pickled in jars on shelves. A dark-haired figure sits by the window, working on a loom where a complicated piece of weaving is in progress.

“If you know why I’m here,” I say, “then you also know I’m willing to pay for what you can do for me.”

The woman rises from her chair and crosses the room towards me. Although she must be only in her 30s, she gives off an aura of power and wisdom that makes her seem much older. “The first thing you need to know is this,” she tells me. “I don’t ask for payment out of greed but to force you to stop and think about what you are doing. A decision like this is not one to rush. Even coming here, you show your choice to be a grave one.”

“Was that an intentional pun?” I ask.

She blinks. “What?”

“Never mind. Yeah, yeah, I can pay. Just get it over with, will you.” I flap a hand dismissively. Too many people have already lectured me about this. I just want to get back to fighting.

She’s gazing at me with a troubled expression.

“What?” I ask. “Do I have something on my face?” I turn to check my reflection, but the walls of her tiny cottage are bare. “Didn’t you ever think of getting a mirror in here?” I ask. “Not that you’d much enjoy looking in one,” I add under my breath. She’s a rather ugly woman. Good job she’s in a profession where it’s sort of expected. Or possibly even necessary. Maybe you get more power the uglier you are. Kind of like a status symbol. She must be really powerful.

The witch has wandered off to stare into the fire, ignoring my comment. After a moment, she turns to face me. “Wilhelmina Lang, I’m not convinced you truly understand the gift you’ve been given and the severity of the step you’re proposing to take.”

For crying out loud. “What exactly makes you think that?”

She glowers at me. “We’re talking about ending a life. Your attitude leaves something to be desired.”

“I’m a paying customer. My ’attitude’ doesn’t have any bearing on the service you provide.”

She shakes her head. “I’m not here to serve anyone. I help people because I choose to. In return they offer me money or goods towards my livelihood.”

“Yeah, and I’m sure there are prostitutes who justify their lifestyle choices that way. Can we get on with it?”

For a moment she looks angry, then her face hardens into a smile. Reflected firelight gleams in her eyes in a creepy way. “Before that, I have a question,” she says.

“And?”

“What does the father have to say about it?”

I shrug. There’s a pause where I can feel my face growing red. My remark about prostitutes hangs in the air between us.

She raises her eyebrows. “You aren’t sure who he is?”

“I know who he is alright,” I say defiantly. “It’s just that he’s…”

She nods. “Married.” She turns back towards the fire.

I’m sick of her attitude. “Come off it! I’m a mercenary. I only get a few days in town between jobs. He was handsome and I’m a grown woman!” I point a finger at her. “Just because you’re too hideous to have a sex life doesn’t mean you have the right to shame me for having one.”

She turns and glares, her eyes flashing in anger. “Your libido is immaterial. Anyone can accidentally conceive. If you feel shame, it should be for betraying the woman whose husband you bedded, for the marriage you helped destroy. Or for your lack of courtesy towards a person who was willing to help you.”

“I just want to get out of this mess,” I mumble. She stalks across the room and opens the door of a cupboard. Her last sentence hits me and I take a sharp breath. “Hang on, what do you mean ‘was willing’?”

“Don’t worry, little mercenary. I’ll help you alright.” Reaching into the cupboard, the witch pulls out a flat object, holding it carefully horizontal.

“What’s that?” I ask. I’m starting to feel dizzy. Is the fire giving off some kind of fumes? Everything looks hazy.

She advances on me, holding the object. “You wish to be rid of the child you carry. This shall be so. But for your lack of honour and the gaping void where your manners should reside, your body will return to the age where you should have learned these things.”

“Wha…” My lips have grown numb and my arms are heavy. I can’t think. She’s coming closer and getting taller with each step. The floor seems to be getting nearer too. I don’t understand what’s happening.

With a gloating smile, she holds up the object in her hands. My eyes try to focus on the image. It’s shiny. Like a mirror. But that can’t be right. If it were a mirror, it would show an image of me. Instead it’s a picture of…

Of a little girl.

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