Sometimes you start out on the wrong foot, and hope for a way to put things right. And if you can't, you at least hope no one has anything to throw at you.
Margot the Troll gave me a shove with one of her huge scaly feet, waking me from a sound sleep. The birds weren't even awake yet. She pointed east. "What do you see there, Aser?"
"Night. Shut up. Please," I remembered to add.
"No. It's going to be dawn soon," she informed me. "The stars, Shaman, what stars do you see?"
"More than I can count," I said, keeping my eyes closed.
"Look, or my dog will lick your face," she warned.
I sat up.
"Aw, damn," said the dog.
"I see the Broken Stair up there, and the Big Pot, and the Little Pot there, and oh, crap, that's the Swordsman -- you can already see his belt! That's what you're looking at, right?"
"Yeah. I have to head back to Anchovy Bay to pick up my contract with the caravan owner. The season's changing and I'm running out of time. Spent too long partying in Shaddir."
"If we keep moving today, we can get to Promontory Hot Springs by nightfall," I said. "Then we're just two days away from Anchovy Bay."
"We? What about her?" asked Margot, pointing with her chin at the inert lump that was our tagalong companion, Melody the Runaway Barmaid. "All she did was bawl all day yesterday because she was tired and her feet hurt. How the hell do you expect to get to Promontory Hot Springs today with her lagging and dragging?"
I added some dry leaves to a hot round coal and blew on them, rewarded by a little flame. I added a few twigs and some dry moss. "If she can't keep up, we'll leave markings along our trail to follow. She has a pack with water and jerky. She'll catch up when she can. That seems simple enough."
The lump stopped being inert and sat up in the glow from the rekindled fire. "Yer not going to leave me alone in this wilderness!" she gasped. "Just because me shoes pain the feet so!"
"Lose the shoes," said Margot, pulling a pan and a water flask out of her pack.
"I like these shoes," said the girl plaintively. "They're pretty."
"They're more suited to a dance than the trail. No one with any sense wears high heeled shoes in the woods, except for elves, but they've got hundreds of years to get where they're going, and they don't mince along for more than about fifty yards before they call a halt for rest and talk about how gorgeous their nails are." I had little sympathy for her fascination with shoes, wearing none myself.
"But them elves are beautiful! They sing such sweet songs about what they lost and how they hunt for it all the day ... " Melody sighed.
"I haven't seen an elf actively hunt for something for two years," I corrected her. "They're a bunch of pompous, arrogant, self-centered twits. And if they lost something, it's because they stopped paying attention and wandered off without it."
"Not true," the young woman pouted, moving closer to the fire.
"Have you heard the elf-song Firjitinalon Ta Anamonde, Ami Cobrenen Othra?" I asked.
"Yes!" Melody cried. "People weep when they hear it sung!"
"It's about Zeldor of Nevereth lingering overlong at the shrine of his uncle's unicorn and getting a fine for letting a parking meter run out. The song tells how he tries to convince the magistrate's deputy that he left his change in his other pants, and so does not deserve a ticket."
Margot laughed so hard she had to lie back on the ground, sounding like a Monster Truck Demolition Derby. She pounded the ground with one fist, making dust rise like ghostly streamers in the light of the fire. "Ah-hah-hah -- Isn't that the one where the elf tells the deputy that the beauty of the earth will fade if he writes the rune that means, 'Illegally parked?'"
I chuckled. "Yeah, and then the deputy says, 'The beauty of the earth can charge its facelift to your credit card, then, Bucko.'"
Margot's dog scrabbled in the dust and ran to the edge of the firelight, and then back to us, barked, and then ran out to the dark again, over and over about five times. He skidded to a stop. "You guys are killing me! How come you never sang this song to me?"
"Listen, Melody. About noon our trail will take us by a village. We'll see if we can find someone to take you in there."
"No!" the girl cried. "I'm not looking for someone to take me in! I'm going to be an adventurer like you!"
"We're not adventurers, and we have to keep moving today. You can't keep up with us, girl."
"I can! I'll show you! I'll be better at walking today, I just wasn't used to it yet!"
I had my doubts. Although Melody was raised on a farm, she didn't have to walk farther than from the house to the milkbarn a couple times a day. And though she'd been sent off to marry an innkeeper in Shaddir, and had run his errands and tended the bar, none of that exercise prepared her for walking long distances -- especially in the stiff leather shoes she had purchased to celebrate becoming a city girl.
Still, we all start somewhere, and all of us make mistakes along the way, and all of us have to grow and change. While the light grew and the path became visible, I remembered what it was like to be young and foolhardy, and how my teacher Rainer had found out that I purloined a boat and poled it all the way from Jennan lands to the Sea. (She found out because I didn't know how to pole a boat back upstream and had to ask some crows to fly home to ask for help.) The theft of the boat could have ended my training, the willful disobedience could have ended my training, my mother's wrath could have ended my training, but Rainer merely grabbed me by the hair and marched me into the Hall of Elders to be lectured by my betters for five days from when they awoke until the last insomniac fell asleep. "This is your second and last chance," Rainer said to me, and I was glad to take it, in spite of the long-windedness of the discourse on what equipment I should have taken with me and how I should have learned more about boats than just poling them away from sandbars.
A second chance is mercy incarnate. To give someone a second chance is to evince a belief in the innate goodness of the individual, a conviction that any one of us can make another attempt to do what is right and true.
The sound of hoofbeats on the trail behind us sent us to the left side of the trail to let the rider pass. Slowing the animal to a walk, the rider called, "Melody!"
"Orthy?" cried the girl in surprise. "When did you come by having a horse?"
"I got him as a loaner for a keg of beer! What are you doing, running off like this? Come home!"
"Home? What home? All I got was a bed to sleep in and more orders than the old Lord's Regiment!"
"I run an inn," the man said, "and you were to come be my wife and help me run it. That's what your dad told me -- did you think you were going to flop down in front of the fire and eat bon-bons all day?"
"Well thank all the gods there may be that you didn't marry me right off, because any fool that would marry you would soon end up a slave, with yer ordering and yelling all day!"
"Did you know how to run an inn when I got you?" he asked, and Margot and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. "No, you knew naught, so didn't I have to tell you?"
"Maybe y'should have sat down with me and explained what needed to be done instead of shouting at me," Melody told him. "Maybe you should have treated me like I was joining you as a partner."
"A partner? Your dad sent you to be my wife! The agreement was that you would marry me and be my wife, and help me run the inn, and in exchange, I would support you! What are you talking about partners for?" The man plucked at his sparse beard in nervous aggravation.
"Husband and wife are supposed to be partners," she said.
"A wife brings a dowry to the man and the husband provides for her and her children," countered Orthy.
Melody walked to the horse's side and grasped Orthy's stirrup. "Was that all I was to you -- a dowry?"
"No, Melody, you weren't a dowry. Your dowry could have got us new cushions in the common room and good warm blankets for the bed, but that wasn't why I wanted a wife. I'm sorry if I made you think that. How was I supposed to know how to talk to a wife? I never got one before. Won't you come back and give me a second chance?"
There you go, Melody, I thought. This is where you say, Oh, Orthy, of course!
"No, I won't, ya drink-watering, tax-cheating, stink-smelling bag of wind! Ye made me cry, the first day I sat in yer house after Dad and Mum dropped me off, shouting at me. And even after scaring me half to death, ye yelled at me until I swept the common room floor when the patrons were gone, and refused to carry my trunk with my blankets upstairs! " Melody screeched.
Orthy frowned. "So you're taking your dowry away?"
"I gave it away, ya grubbin' bastard, every piece of it!"
The man's face grew dark and lumpy. "And what am I supposed to tell your father?"
"Tell him that you were an ass," Melody hissed.
"More likely I'll tell him that you were a runaway wastrel," said Orthy, turning the horse around. "Come away with me -- this is your last chance."
"My last chance at cleaning up after you?" the girl sneered. "My last chance at forking the stables? My last chance at emptying chamber pots yer tenants left first thing in the morning?"
"Ungrateful wench!" said Orthy. "I'll send you a bill for the days you spent sleeping in my house!"
"You scummy reed, take that bill off my wages for while I was working for you!"
"What wages?" he roared.
"The wages I earned when I was tending your business but not yet your wife!" Melody bellowed shrilly in return.
"Oooh, point," said Margot, leaning on her spear.
"Then we're even," shouted the innkeeper as he kicked the horse's side to turn him about.
"No we're not! Your house was as comfortable as a hog's shed!" the girl shouted.
"Hey, maybe I should have advertised for a wife without such a fat ass!" called Orthy over his shoulder.
Melody bent, pulled off a shoe, and with a phenomenal toss, bounced the chunky heel off Orthy the Innkeeper's head.
"Nice shot," the troll commented.
As the innkeeper ducked in pain, Melody raised the second shoe. "Ye think so? Watch this." She wound up and hurled the footgear square onto the shiny butt of the horse, which leaped forward and took off down the trail like all the creatures of hell were attacking him.
The crashing and cursing soon faded into the distance, and Melody dusted off her hands. "That solves me shoe problem, now doesn't it?" She stomped on ahead of us on the trail, turning once to shout, "Did ye grow roots?"
Margot re-shouldered her pack. "I don't think we're going to need to leave her behind at that village."
I agreed. "I don't think she's going to give us a chance."