Aser and Margot are trying to figure out what to do with their tagalong Melody. The only problem is, Melody wants to figure this out for herself.
As the dog poised for pursuit, Melody the Runaway Barmaid took careful aim with an egg-sized rock at a pheasant hen sitting on a low branch. She let fly the missile, hit the bird, knocking her off her branch right into the jaws of the dog.
Margot the Troll and I looked at one another, our amazement mixed with admiration. When we met Melody, she was just a girl who was having some serious second thoughts about being married off to a boorish, bossy innkeeper -- a farm girl who hadn't traveled farther from home than the family woodlot until she was sent with her dowry and a new pair of city-girl shoes to the city of Shaddir. It had taken all of one night on the road for her to shed her old life and heartily embrace a new one. Our initial misgivings gave way to amusement as the young woman discovered a world of freedom and wonder.
"I never met a troll before, you know," she confided in us a couple nights before. "They always used to tell us kids that trolls would just as soon eat you up as look at you, and that they were fat and stony-looking, and lived under bridges and log piles."
"Eating people is bad for your skin," Margot nodded. "And a constant diet of them is as bad as pasta and potatoes for the waistline. I try to stick to a healthy diet of fish and venison as much as possible."
"Where did you live before you got the job with the trade caravan?" I asked Margot, not remembering many troll-sized buildings in Skuleflight Harbor.
"Under the boardwalk, like the rest of the security guards and dockworkers. All of us were mean and ugly and big and didn't want to waste money on rent."
"But you're not ugly," said Melody. "You're the hottest-looking lady I've ever seen. I wish I could dress like you do and walk around, not afraid of nothing."
"You want to dress like a hot troll?" I asked. "Cut your hair into a mohawk and stomp around in a leather brassiere and a red skirt?
"It's not a brassiere, it's a leather halter top," rumbled Margot.
"No, I don't think I'd want to go about in a brassiere," said the girl. "I'd get too cold, but -- "
"It's not a brassiere," said the troll a little more loudly.
" -- but why do I have to wear dresses like this and petticoats and chemises, and you don't?"
"I don't know. Why do you?" the troll asked, "I never understood why you girls wear all that complicated stuff. Thought it was because you liked it."
"Well, if I didn't, what would people think? They'd say I was crazy, or a hussy."
The troll shrugged. "No one says I'm crazy or a hussy."
"Don't let her kid you," I interjected. "She can get away with a lot by being eight feet tall. And anyone who calls a troll a hussy is likely to get pounded into the dirt."
"Well, what about you, then, Shaman? You don't wear dresses and lace. You don't even comb your hair! But you walk around just as happy as you please, and you don't look like you could pound anyone into the dirt."
"That's part of the whole shaman thing, Melody. People see the tattoo and the staff and they know I'm not a threat."
"Yeah, right," said Margot. "That's why you spent the whole summer on the run from wizards who wanted to make gloves out of your hide."
The girl's eyes grew large. "But see, that's what I'm talking about! You two go all around having adventures and seeing new places and you can sleep on a trail and wear what you want! I wish I could do that, too, instead of getting dumped off in the next city like you keep saying!"
I shook my head. "I'm headed back to my home village and some everyday life, not an adventure. Running around with a troll was just vacation."
"And I'm going back to work," said Margot. "I'm a security guard with a caravan."
"Me, too," added Margot's dog, thumping his tail.
"Never saw a talking dog before, either," Melody said, looking downcast. "All I'm going to be able to do in your dumb city is get a job as a cook or a servant of somesuch. And keep wearing dresses and petticoats, the rest of my days."
"You were ready to be our servant when we first met you," I reminded her. "Just to get out of that inn in Shaddir."
"Well, I didn't know that there was another way to live, now did I? And now I know! 'Tisn't fair."
"No, it isn't. But what's your alternative? You can't follow us like a pet, you don't have a trade, and you can't go wandering around by yourself -- you'd starve or be attacked by highwaymen."
Just about the most terrible thing about growing up is seeing your life begin to narrow down to fewer and fewer choices. When you're a little child, you can envision yourself as a warrior, as a king, as a ballet dancer. Circus performer! Pirate! Best Actor in a Stage Series!
Ah, but then the child grows too tall, and so he'll never be able to be a jockey. The young man becomes nearsighted, so the village huntsman's job is right out. The lissome girl becomes a dancer, but then loses the opportunity to settle down and raise a big family.
For the lucky ones, the ones that have a choice, the narrowing down of options is more like being able to focus on what they love the best. But for a lot of people, the options just aren't there. Melody was one of them. The things she had to learn were the survival skills of the homestead: cooking, sewing, gardening, chicken-feeding; cleaning, child-rearing, meal planning. The future that had been planned for her was to become the wife of a man she'd never met, to ensure that she would have a roof over her head and food for her stomach. Those are good things in the world in which she lives, but it was just too bad that she'd decided she wanted more.
"You're just a kid," Margot told her. "Probably in a couple years you'll think that finding a husband is more important than anything else, anyway. So you better be in a city where you can catch one."
Melody jumped to her feet. "Oh, that's about the meanest thing I ever heard!" She stomped off into the woods.
Margot nodded at the dog, who woofed softly in agreement and trotted after the girl.
"Well, she doesn't have many choices," I said. "I feel bad for her, but she's only gotten this far tagging after us. I can't keep a servant -- not living in a cave like I do."
"I know," said the troll. "If she only had some skill."
Melody returned to our fire just before sundown, the dog panting beside her. "So I can't survive on my own, can I? Here, ye nay-sayers, take a look at this!" And she flung onto the ground a fine fat rabbit and a partridge.
"Where'd you get those?" I asked.
"She knocked them down with a rock! You should have seen us! All I had to do was flush them out into the open, and pow! she nailed them square. That's my kind of hunting!" The dog said, prancing enthusiastically.
"I can live in the woods outside of your village," the girl said to me. "Or I can follow Margot's caravan. I can catch my own food and walk on my own feet and not bother anyone, but I am not going to stay in your damn city!"
There wasn't a whole lot of room for argument. Not while she was still holding a rock.
I looked at Margot and shrugged. "Guess we don't have a choice."
"Guess not," Margot said.
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