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June 24, 2024

The Aser Stories 66: For What You're Worth

By Sand Pilarski

Set yourself on the auction block. What is it that makes you a marketable item?

When we walked into the marketplace at Skuleflight Harbor, a woman selling pumpkins and gourds grabbed Melody the Runaway Barmaid by the sleeve of her dress, crying "Child, what are you doing in the company of these vagabonds?"

Now granted that it had begun to rain on us a few hours before so that we were all soaked to the skin, and granted that we were all covered in mud speckles because a coach had passed us at some speed, blowing dirt all over us from the four-horse rig, we still felt just a bit nettled by the remark. Melody shook the woman's hand off, shouting, "Why, ye nosy old hag, whyn't ye mind yer business?"

Margot the troll and I stared straight ahead. Our young companion had adjusted reasonably well to life on the road after she fled her arranged marriage to a man she learned to despise even before the wedding, but the girl had a temper like a badger with a sore ass. She was also quick and accurate at pitching rocks, almost uncannily so, and we knew she kept a pocketful of them.

There aren't many lodgings in the city that specialize in rooms large enough for a troll to comfortably lodge, so we made for the one we'd last used a year ago. Before we stepped over the threshold, we wrung the excess water out of our garments. For Melody, that required a lot of wringing, as she had a sopping wet dress and petticoats. The bottom of her dress was torn and frayed, the waistband had ripped when she'd become snagged on a dead branch along the trail, and her right sleeve was torn open at the shoulder from a hard sidearm throw to knock over a hare for last night's camp supper. The long braids that circled her head were frizzy, with various sticks and leaves deposited in them.

I put three gold coins on the innkeeper's desk. "We need lodging for a few days, I don't know how many. Our clothing needs laundered, and we'll need some loaner garments until our stuff is dry. And food that includes some fresh vegetables. Can you accommodate us?" The gold coinage was the last of a goodly sum I'd won in a bet with Margot, and as we'd been roughing it most of the summer, I didn't think bargaining with three gold pieces was all that exorbitant.

"Oh, aye!" the innkeeper agreed with enthusiasm. "Vera! Come get these worthy travelers some rooms and find the laundry-girl to take their poor, rained-upon travel-wear!"

We let the laundry-girl follow us to the bathhouse, where we handed her our muddy wet clothes. She accepted everything into a handcart, until Melody stepped out of her dress. "Miss," said the launderer, "your dress is torn, here and here and here, and in the skirt, Miss, the color is never going to come back proper, on account of the wet and the mud. You may have to have the dress re-sown at a tailor's and re-dyed. I'm so sorry, Miss." She curtseyed, her face puckered in worry at what the reaction might be.

"A dress like that was never meant to be worn in the rain, Sis," said Melody. "That there dress was meant to be worn by some innkeeper's wife who never got to do aught but fetch beer and empty chamberpots."

"You stole this dress?" gasped the laundry-girl.

"I'm not saying I did, and I'm not saying I didn't," Melody told her with lowered brows. "But I will say that was the dress I was wearing when I made my escape from the big mountain city of Shaddir."

Margot stopped lathering her scaly skin. "She's picking up bad habits from you already, Aser."

"Well, let's hope she doesn't pick up any habits from you and start turning burghers upside down to shake the coins out of their pockets," I replied through the buckets of clean hot water the attendant poured over me.

"How'd you escape?" the laundry-girl asked Melody breathlessly.

"I managed to sneak away from my captor in the dark of the dawn, with nothing but my clothes and that blanket," Melody told her as she unbound her long braids. "These two let me travel with them."

"Oh, Lady, you're a brave one! I know the maid who works for Tailor Thomas, maybe we can work a deal with her to repair your fine dress for less money than he charges."

"Sis, if you can work me a deal, I'm going to be more grateful than you know."

After her own soaping and rinsing, Melody joined us in the hot common pool, which felt uncommonly relaxing and healing after the cold coastal rain. "I never had anybody call me 'Lady' before," she giggled. "Was it bad for me not to correct her?"

"I think she was just showing her respect for you, not confusing you with Lady Seaguard down the coast," I said. "Remember, you called Margot and I 'ladies' when you met us."

"Oh, well, that was because of the gold coins," said the girl. "And because no one ordered you around." She thought for a moment. "That's why the laundry-maid called me 'Lady' -- no one was telling me what to do."

"No one can," grumbled Margot, submerged except for her lips and nose.

"What did she say?" asked Melody.

"She said, 'Caravan.' She's thinking about the long journey south she's going to make to Littledwarf Ridge as a security guard for the trade caravan. Most of the fall and winter will be taken up to get them there. Right, Margot?"

The troll raised her head out of the water, her mohawk plastered down to reveal the shape of her skull. Her eyes glowed orange in the dim light of the bathhouse. "We move pretty quickly until we hit the Eastern Desert, where we switch from horse-drawn wagons to loaded camels. I hate camels. They bite and kick and spit and complain all the time."

"And they can stretch up and look you in the eye," I noted.

"And they aren't even any good to eat," nodded Margot.

"Camels," sighed Melody. "I've heard about camels. They have humps. I heard tell that there was a sideshow in Great Well one year with a four-hump camel that could seat three people on its back and walk for two weeks without any food or water at all."

"We didn't have any of those," Margot told her.

Bath attendants arrived with a huge wheelbarrow of heated towels, and offered them to us. Dried, Melody and I were given some clean tunics to wear until our clothes were dry, and Margot received a garment that looked like two blankets hurriedly whipstitched together and that almost covered her shins. We retired to our rooms to wait for dinner.

Melody sat as close to the fireplace as she could without igniting, using a comb to pick through her long hair to dry it and remove any remaining twigs. Unbraided, her blonde hair fell below her waist. "What does a caravan carry?" the girl asked as she combed. "Who decides what goods will go south? Do you encounter a lot of robbers? Are the people in the caravan all traders and guards?"

"Stuff," replied Margot, "traders, no, no. Eat some chicken, girl."

"Not until I'm done drying my hair, thank you," said Melody. "What other kinds of people go with the caravan who aren't traders or guards?"

"Whoever can pay to go along. Travelers. Slaves."


Margot put down her third roast chicken. "Yeah, runaways -- if they can pay their way. Now if you don't get over here and eat some chicken, there isn't going to be any left."

"I can't eat greasy food until I've got this damned hair dry!" Melody said forcefully. "Every blasted day of me life me mother told me that a woman's hair is her greatest treasure, the more so if it was gold-colored like mine, and how to comb it and how to braid it and how to keep it just so, like the hair was more important than the head it grew on or me throwing arm!" She looked at the fistful of blonde hair in her hand suddenly as though it had spoken to her.

It is amazing what people find to be important in their lives, what aspect of themselves they find most valued. Look at the elves -- you never see a fat elf because they buy into the slinky size two mystique. Any book illustration of an elf shows this willowy thin creature with prominent cheekbones and sad, sunken eyes, not to mention designer clothes that practically drip off them. Bulemia is a big problem with the elves, although not entirely unexpected, as most humans and other species are so revolting to them as to make them puke on sight anyway. Forgotten are the powerful elf-warriors of the Great Conflict, whose rippling muscles wielded mace and sword, forgotten the buxom shield maidens of elven glory. Largely the fault of a chronicler with no sketching skills to speak of (he illustrated the stories of the elves with stick figures, to which a later illuminator simply added clothes and a few bumps) later generations of elves sought to imitate their progenitors by being thin enough to hide behind a tree at a moment's notice. Such is the marketing skill of the fashion world that before many years had passed, the long and bony look of the elves became the standard to which most of the western lands aspired.

Except for orcs and goblins, of course, whose genetic disposition runs to bulky muscles and potguts, which is part of the reason they hate elves so much. Of course, since they tend to value the size of their muscles, they also tend to abuse steroids whenever they have the opportunity, which does nothing at all for their irritable outlook. Also, the female goblins look exactly like the male goblins -- another sad side effect of the steroid abuse. (The female goblins like it, but the male goblins don't.)

In the morning before the sun came up, Melody left our rooms.

"You think she's okay?" grumbled Margot in the dark.

"She was talking with that laundry-maid again, so I think she's fine," I told the troll. "It's nice she's making contacts here, maybe she'll stay."

"Grrrmmmphhhh," voiced the troll.

Our breakfast, when it was light outside, was brought at the same time our laundered clothing arrived. Melody, and her gown, and petticoats were nowhere to be seen.

"Guess she found somewhere to stay," muttered the troll uneasily as she pushed her mohawk into place.

"Looks like," I replied. "You don't need to worry about her -- she's no dummy, that one. She'll land on her feet wherever she ends up."

"Why the hell would I worry about her?" said Margot, making a bacon sandwich out of a whole loaf of bread and all the bacon.

I grabbed three of the hard-boiled eggs and put them on my napkin. Dining with a troll can have its drawbacks -- you have to be quick. "I don't know, why would you?"

"She's just a farmgirl. Skuleflight is a mean-ass city."

"And you love the way she throws rocks."

"Well, wouldn't anyone?"

The door opened. A youngster strode in, as familiar as you please.

Margot stood up with a snarl. "You've just picked the wrong room, little one."

"Haven't. Move yer great arse over and make room for me at the table."

"MELODY??" I shouted.

"What do ye think? I like it, meself." The girl was wearing a man's shirt with a tunic over it, and trousers. Her braids were gone, and her hair was as short as a cat's. "I did a trade with all those petticoats and dress fabrics for some walking clothes that make sense, and then I went to the wigmaker's and turned pain-in-the-ass hair into some cold cash." She pulled a pouch from the pocket of her pants and emptied the coins on the table. "Is that enough to pay for me to follow yer damned caravan?"

Margot tore off an unbitten end of her giant bacon sandwich and offered it to Melody. "You better eat up, girl. We have a long way to walk, and you're going to have to learn how to fight with a shortsword, how to use a sling with your rocks, and all the signal codes of the caravan security. You're going to wish you stayed in that inn just pouring beer and changing sheets."

"Ah, yes, Troll, just like you wish you could wear petticoats."

The best thing people come to find important about themselves is just that: themselves. What is within them is the most valuable aspect of their being, especially when they are willing to share it with the world, especially when they are willing to let the world enter into their lives, too.

They were going to make an interesting team on that caravan. Anyone who can convince a troll to share a sandwich has got a lot going for her.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-09-08
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