Letting Life Lead
Note: Writing on the Fly is a series I do when I write cold. Very few edits beyond spelling as I see it. I don’t do outlines. I just write the story as it comes to me.
The king instructed the guard to sabotage their travels with all due cunning and lure Thala to be sold away to the lowest bidder — the farther the better, though, the king would have preferred her heart wrested from her chest. If the guard found failure, the king had yet another plan in motion.
The guard led them deep down the most dangerous roads away from the castle towards the southern docks where the underhanded and devious plied their business and where even the pirates preferred not to lay anchor. “Find the merchant with the blackest reputation, farthest port, and the most questionable ship. If you can’t sell the wretch, pay for her passage,” the King had said.
Thala had led a sheltered, quiet life helping her parents and making herself useful in the nearby villages. She had a knack for fixing and had many times been called to mend one thing or another. When the old mill groaned and got it’s gears stuck, Thala could find the problem faster than even her father. Contentment had been her shelter and little tragedy beyond those of the normal course of living had ever darkened her spirits. She did not know the exact way to the castle, but she felt unease when they turned away from the river which had always been a confident voice that guided her since her childhood.
“Sir, I hope you will excuse me, but shouldn’t we follow the river?” she asked, and her escort replied that the journey was best overland and not by the water’s whims.
Thala stayed huddled by the mule for warmth. The guard ate thrice the ration Thala’s mother had packed and advised against a fire. The wind raised the hairs at her nape, whispered warnings from the river, and would not let Thala sleep nor rest. Trust not, the Zephyr advised.
The next morning Thala could not move her feet to go forth — rooted to the spot as if great weights were put into her soles. The guard grabbed her by the arm and pulled her fruitlessly.
“I do not think the ways of the world wish me to go that way. My shoes are fixed!” She didn’t know why or whence, but when shoes dared not travel forth, a body should listen.
The guard — thinking himself clever — untied her shoes, lifted her bodily, and tossed her over his shoulder. “We go this way.”
They had not gone five strides when the root of a tree twisted up from the ground and tripped them down a steep embankment. Thala’s traveling dress got caught up in a jagged rock that slowed her fall and then tangled in thick bramble until it was flung over hear head. Thankfully, she had the wherewithall to wear her best bloomers. The mule brayed in dismay as Thala climbed back up with the help of rock and root that seemed to always be right where she needed them.
“I think he means to do me harm, Old Fellow,” she told the mule, for that was his name. The guards curses she could hear echo and vile promises of what he would do when he found her. The voice, however, faded further and further away although Thala didn’t move for quite some time unsure where to go until she decided to consult her shoes. Wherever they let her walk, that was the way to go. Thala had always been followed by luck, fortune, and strange happy accidents that kept her from harm. She didn’t think the shoes were bewitched, but that things around her sometimes occurred in a satisfactory way. An old log could float on by if she were tipped from a boat, her clothing might snag to keep her from a hole, a chickadee might startle her away from a path she might have taken.
She walked and rode Old Fellow for a full day and night until a storm raged and she came upon a well-worn Inn with a red door in the middle of the night.
“Please, madam. I am on a task from the king. I require shelter for the night though I cannot pay.”
“And the queen loves my pies.” The petite red-haired woman — half as tall as the door — scoffed. “This is no place for you, this den be for robbers and thieves. On your way, child.”
The innkeeper pushed the heavy door to close it, but Thala put her foot in the crack and begged as she shivered in the downpour. “I beg you. I fear I will catch my death in another moment. I cannot go another step.” Her teeth chattered so loud it sounded like a pickaxe on stone.
“The lot of them come often. Can’t promise your safety and I’ll not turn them out. They pay too handsome when lofty from a good haul.”
“I can’t explain it, madam. I shall be safe here. I know it as I know the rightness of it all.”
And with the last word Thala collapsed.
The innkeeper had just pulled Thalia to warm her in the fire when the door burst open. A rabble of seven thieves burst in ravenous with an unquenchable thirst and high on the spoils of plunder.
“Red!” They called the innkeeper, “Break a cask and fill the tables!” Coin purses clinked, weapons clanked, and chests clunked as they were set upon the long dining tables. They reeked of road, horses, and sweat and Red admonished them after clanging on a pot to get their attention.
“Your rank offends my pots and dogs! Off with you.”
The men and women, rough and rowdy, did as told. None other than the diminutive Red could speak to them that way and they laughed and clambered over themselves to get to the hot springs baths below the inn first, but their attentions were waylaid.
“Here now, what is this? A new pet?” The tallest of the women, Brigit, nodded to the waterlogged Thala who had not stirred yet despite the noise. “Not like you to take in gutter rats.”
Red snorted. “Fell inside my door. Tried to roll her out but the thing just rolled the other way. Got my floor all wet, too.”
“What’s a Little Bit like that doing this deep, eh?” A man with a braided beard bent low and sniffed at Thala. “She smells like bread.”
“Slave you reckon?” Brigit asked to the room. “The mines are near.”
Another knelt down. “Naw. Too clean. Ain’t got no chains or brands. New capture from the docks, I s’pect.”
Red jumped down from the chair and began to prepare for service. “Says she’s on a mission from the king.”
The seven laughed. “Is she now?”
They chuckled and guffawed and disappeared for a time below. When all was quiet again — save for the muffled merriment in the bowels of the inn — Thala awoke bleary and trembling under her wet clothes then squeaked, “I beg your pardon!”
Red snorted a reply and pulled the bellows and opened the flu chain to get the coals in the great hearth to awaken, but the deep hued fire would not rise higher than an inch. “Stubborn y’are.” Red admonished and then scolded the flames more.
“I think your fire is angry. Look how it crimson it is.” Thala watched the flames curl into shapes that appeared at times too look like a cheeky tongue sticking from lips and a then a hand with a rather rude presentation of fingers. “Oh, my! No need for such language, friend.” Thala cocked an ear towards the hearth listening to the creaks and grinds as Red worked it for a while then gave up. “I hear the problem. I can fix it, madam. I’ve a knack for such things. If you would be so kind as to ask your fire to cool the grates and coals, then move to the side?”
Red glanced askance at her sodden guest. There were few strangers who ever addressed or noticed the oddities of the fire. Fewer still who would recognize the fire’s keeper, a fire pixie, with such confidence. “You heard her; move aside.”
The fire wrapped itself up and took away the glow of the coals and the heat from the metal grate before crackling it’s way to a small bird-cage shaped ember keeper on the side of the hearth. The fire took on the form of a pouting, flaming toad.
Thala rummaged through her pack for her simple tools, hopped into the hearth, and set herself to addressing the fire’s complaint. A half disconnected flue chain was the main problem, loose screws, and wobbling workings. Thala asked only for a way to get to the roof and scampered up in her bloomers. Buy the time she was done and had her skirts on again, she was quite dry but blackened by soot hand to foot. All the while the room had filled again with better smelling criminals and a well spread table.
“There you are, my friend.” Thala told the flames that had formed into a snail with tall eye stalks. She laid a trail of kindling back to the hearth’s center as if the fluffs and bits were a royal carpet. The fire creeped and burst into a wall of bright orange and yellow sparks.
“Fancy that. I haven’t seen Ethne that spry in quiet a while.” Red nodded her approval. “Not so useless as I thought.” It was not clear if it was Thala or the fire she was addressing.
“Now, she looks like a mine rat!” One of the rabble said after a long draught of grog.
“Oh, I am a mess to be sure.” Thala approached the biggest man who sat alone at a table tinkering with three broken music boxes. She smiled politely, and held out her hand. “I can fix that, if you please. I’ve a way with workings and mechs. You have a farmer’s strong hands and those bits need a light touch.”
Startled he handed it to her, for she had not recoiled from his hunkering appearance, scars upon his face, or cauliflower ears. None but his three daughters ever looked at him the way she did — as if his ugliness was of no consequence. Thala deftly fixed the three boxes with the odds and ends she was always picking up and kept with her tools. One never knew when they would need a little coiled spring, lense, a screw, or a little gear. Soon she was overrun with requests to fix little trinkets and baubles. Red even let her sit a the table to eat unwashed save her hands.
“Hey, girl. Why ain’t you afraid. We could kill you as easily as look.”
Thala, bent over a necklace chain and worried over a stubborn link. “I suppose that is true for villains. Yet, such a vile person would have slain me the first they saw me asleep. Or woke me, done unspeakable things, then dispatched me. Perhaps, instead, sold me when they were done with me. I see professionals of looting, robbery, and thievery, but not a villain among you.”
This amused them and set them singing crass diddys to make the confident girl blush, but she did not. The seven had not always been plunderers. Once they had been a scribe, a merchant, a farmer, a blacksmith, a breadmaker, a tailor, and a governess.
When Thala passed out by the fire — which sent greateful little white smoke birds to sit in her hair — they began to rummage through the few things she carried (they were thieves after all) and found the sealed letter in the satchel, broke the seal open carefully with the help of pot and steam, and read it. Even the least learned among them could read, for there were many documents that were worth a horse’s weight in coin.
“That Little Bit got herself in a fine mess with that Usurper.” Brigit huffed. “Listen to this…”
Misfortune has delayed me and yet providence has allowed this opportunity to free ourselves from the shadows of prophecy. If this wretch should reach the castle doors have her put to this sentence: set her head in an iron mask and chain her to the deepest dungeon. Keep the Prince away from this business at all costs and speak not of it to anyone. By order of the King.
Red stoked the yellow and blue fire and tossed a blanket over the deeply slumbering Thala. “This girl can’t be more than twenty. What could she have done to deserve that?” Most of them had had families of their own once, and had them still. Thala reminded more than a few of their own children.
“I tell you, the False King is having his amusements again. You always coming up on saps on errands with no end.” The man with the braided beard stroked it thoughtfully and then plotted with his mates.
He had been a scribe and had put his skills much to good use for forgery. He set the others to pry the royal seal carefully without blemish from the scroll and he set about writing another after studying the hand of the king.
Misfortune has delayed me and yet providence has allowed this opportunity to right a wrong. It is my hope that this young woman should reach the castle doors and be greeted as royalty. Betroth her at once to the Prince, have a feast in her honor, and escort to sit upon the throne as a reward for a great deed she has done for me. Do not question all that I bid. By order of the King.
They sealed it carefully and slipped it back into Thala’s satchel. All agreed that it looked more royal than it had originally.
To Be Continued…
(40 years in the making)
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