A Girl and a Promise of Adventure
Addi dumped the bucket over his head and the biting cold of the water was a much needed slap in the face.
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. He pumped the handle and water flowed from the spigot.
Splash! The sheet of water ran down his naked body, washing away the dirt, soot and pinky gore that painted his pale skin.
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. Splash!
After the third dose, Addi felt as if he could rejoin the realm of the living. His dad hadn’t worked him this hard since Addi’s mother had died. Five years ago, Frank Trueheart returned from their trip into the city, alone on his wagon and bearing bad news. For the following week, Frank lived in his apple grove and ate, drank and breathed hard labor. Addi hadn’t known true exhaustion since then.
The young man closed his eyes and abosrbed the combination of wind and sun and clean water through his pores.
“Oh Goddess, let this day end,” he prayed.
But the day had many hours left and once Addi’s dad returned, work would resume. Frank told his son to take a break and get a bite while he was gone and Addi practically sleepwalked back home. He longed for his bed but taking a nap was a silly idea. If he so much as touched his cot, Addi would sleep for a week. Instead, he fetched a clean set of clothes and stumbled to the water pump. If sleep deprivation were to be his cause of death, he wasn’t going to go out caked in pinky blood and excrement.
The morning after the goblins’ comical raid, Addi took up the duties of many professions while his father dragged him around town to assist in the cleanup. He had been a janitor, a builder, a draught animal and, among others, a veterinarian. The cat that he and his dad excavated from the rubble was blind until Addi held the animal’s head under a running spigot to flush its eyes. The cat, having avoided being crushed just to be drowned instead, was not a willing patient. Addi had never thought to ask before but between cats and goblins, it turns out cats made the more fearsome warriors.
Addi pumped the handle one last time and let the cool water flow across the collection of burning scratches marking his forearms. He rose slowly, got dressed slowly and marched slowly back into town to drink a beer, eat some food and await his father’s return.
“I say we burn out the whole cave! Cook every one of em,” Jaupis Landree gulped his beer. His throat was hoarse from repeating himself.
“I heard you, we all heard you but you cannot dismiss the possibility that last night’s raid was simply an attempt to antagonize and bait us into retaliation,” Mayor Munchik countered and played to the small crowd by the fire at the Kilson tavern.
“With all due respect mayor, we ain’t dealin’ with geniuses. I saw one of em fighting with his own shadow last night!” Jaupis belched.
“You could not have seen such a thing because I know for a fact that you chose to bunker in this here tavern during the raid,” the mayor dealt a lethal blow to Jaupis’ soapbox. He was, after all, the most intelligent man in Windy Wood.
“Well, I heard about it anyway,” Jaupis refocused on his drink while the mayor polished his spectacles.
Jaupis had got the cart rolling though and while he was momentarily cowed, others had taken up his argument and scooted their chairs closer to the mayor’s table. The crowd pressed upon him their fear of a second attack and the urgent need to form a militia to teach the beasts a lesson. He pushed back with a plea for caution but gave ground easily when his constituents assured him that he wasn’t obligated to lead or even be included in the posse at all.
“We’re going to need fighting men,” the mayor declared with steel resolve. The crowd nodded and drank, finally on the same page. “The bigger, the better!”
Addi entered half-awake and let the door slam hard behind him; a felony in the Kilson Tavern. Timos, who had returned to town that morning, spun around with fire in his eyes but cooled when he saw the state of the Trueheart boy.
“I’m not Ms. Harring, kiddo. You break my door, you pay on the spot,” Timos let him off easy. The man was a short, bald ball of muscle. His son, Nadler, towered over him and still only weighed half as much.
“Sorry,” Addi muttered and crept towards an empty table in the darkest, quietest corner of the room. He already felt the stares radiating from the fireplace and had a response nocked and ready to fire when Mayor Munchik called out.
“Addison! Could you join us for a moment?”
“Leave me alone. On break,” Addi shot back and temporarily won his peace as the obnoxious crowd went back to bothering each other instead of him. He collapsed into a chair and folded his arms for a pillow on the tabletop. Timos handed a plate to Nadler, resting in a similar pose behind the bar, and the youth complained all the way to Addi’s table to deliver the food to his friend.
“Compliments of the house,” Nadler said and dropped the plate and a beer in front of Addi.
“You told your Dad about the door?”
“He thought it was hilarious! He’s always said not to mess with redheads as those with that particular affliction harbor the worst temper,” Nadler’s joke was as stale as the bread on Addi’s plate.
“Happy to entertain,” Addi sighed and closed his eyes again, too tired to eat just yet. Nadler left his friend and resumed his efforts to avoid work. Addi’s eyes throbbed and felt the size of melons. He was massaging the pressure away with the heels of his palms when he heard the chair across from him scoot out.
“I have a job for you,” an unfamiliar feminine voice spoke.
Addi groaned like a wounded bull. His patience for others’ suggestions on how he could spend his time was gone and if he couldn’t find a second of solitude to eat, he’d either cry or commit unspeakable violence. He hadn’t decided yet.
“I have a job. I’m an apple farmer,” Addi moaned. “Now leave me alone, my food is getting cold.”
“It’s a cold meat sandwich.”
Addi opened his eyes and saw slices of chilled pork tucked between two thick cuts of bread awaiting him on his plate.
“As I was saying, I have a job for you.”
“Please. Just let me sit here. Whatever you want can wait,” Addi looked across the table and was surprised to see The Dealer’s blond companion. Her face was imploring and beautiful. She had soft lips and a spark in her dark eyes like she was hammering out the details of a splendid secret.
“But it can’t.”
The girl’s voice was edged with despair and Addi thought he could see tears in the corner of her eyes. The spell weakened the young man’s defenses and for a moment he considered abandoning all hope of sleep to take up whatever desperate task the girl was peddling; But only for a moment. Addi had burnt through his stores of charitable acts hours ago and had no sympathy for any cause other than his father’s bidding and his own bedding.
“I can pay.”
“No,” Addi held firm. He couldn’t help but notice that both the girl’s voice and eyes had dried.
“I have a signed copy of the new Broxton novel,” she said flatly.
“Huh? How do you?” Addi stuttered the half question. In his fogged state, he worried the girl had somehow burglarized his mind.
“Magic. Telepathy more specifically. I studied at the academy in Pocklin,” the girl whispered.
“The First Academy of Mages? Nuh huh.”
“Yea huh. The name is Ember Faey. You can look me up in the registrar’s office,” Ember boasted but saw Addi still had his doubts. “Close your eyes.”
Addison Trueheart was a skeptic that dabbled in cynicism as well but something about the girl made him curious. He felt like he had chugged two mugs of Timos’ brew and could picture himself drinking more; or maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t slept in two days. Either way, he closed his eyes and braced for whatever spell the girl would fling across the table.
But nothing came. He waited longer, secretly eager to see real magic. Still nothing. Enough was enough and he opened his eyes.
“Wow. Great—Hey!” Addi shouted when he saw the results of the girl’s “magic.” His plate, where once sat the first non-apple based meal he’d had since the previous morning, was empty. The girl’s lips, once alluring, were covered in the crumby remains of his cold meat sandwich. Her cheeks bulged like a gluttonous chipmunk and she was struggling to disappear the evidence down her throat. Addi sipped his beer and enjoyed the panic that flitted across her features every time she choked on his food. When the sandwich was wholy inhaled, Ember gasped like a drowning woman.
“My Gods, that bread is like sand,” Ember coughed and beat at her chest. Her tears seemed more honest than last time. “Ta da!”
“You owe me a meal.”
“I have something even better: a job. Look. I need a bodyguard for an adventure, an epic adventure, and you are just the type I’m looking for. I have gold and your friend has already told me all about your love of Landyn Broxton. I was serious about that part. I do have his book and it does have his autograph. So say yes,” Ember gifted Addi a smile perfected through practice and reached for his hand but he pulled away.
“No,” Addi sat rigidly in his chair. His temper started to percolate and he couldn’t afford to owe anybody any more doors. “I said I have a job. I grow apples.”
Addi folded his arms and closed the gates to further discussion. Ember probed his defenses and worried that the fussy apple farmer might be one of the few unassailable men in the world. But he also clearly possessed an anger that was intriguing and could be useful. Ember was ready for a second assault but was interrupted by Mayor Munchik yelling across the foul smelling tavern.
“Addison! Where is your father? I would very much like to speak with him!”
Ember smirked when she saw Addi’s jaw tighten as if he were chewing on leather and thought: “There’s a crack in his walls after all. He tries so hard but he really could go off any second.”
“He’s running a bunch of folks up to the doctor’s,” Addi said monotonously.
“Excuse me? I did not quite catch all that,” the mayor stood and cupped at his ear.
“Then don’t ask me stupid &*$%&$! questions from all the way over there!” Addi wanted to scream but instead raised his own voice to a sarcastic volume while maintaining his monotony.
“I said: he loaded up our wagon and is currently driving a group of townsfolk down the road, out of town, over the bridge, and into the woods to see the doctor. Do you require more details?” Addi clenched and relaxed his fists throughout the monologue, visible to Ember alone. Nadler snickered at his friend’s remarks.
To Addi’s dismay, someone did require more details but it was not the mayor; it was Jaupis Landree, one of Addi’s least favorite patrons of the bar. As Jaupis spoke, Addi wondered if punching the glob of a man would have any effect at all.
“Uhhhhhh, Addi? How many do ya reckon he took to the old doc’s?” Jaupis squeaked.
“A dozen. Maybe more. I didn’t know an exact count was required at the time, Jaupis.”
“On his wagon.”
“No. On his back,” Addi quipped and scored a full laugh from Nadler.
Jaupis’ interminably rosy cheeks drained and he popped up from his chair like the Goddess herself pulled his string. He muttered something incoherent, dropped some coins onto his table and did something Addi had never thought possible: he left the Kilson Tavern without finishing his beer.
As Jaupis Landree, the fattest man in Windy Wood, sprinted across the loose boards of Timos’ floors at speeds impossible for such mass, the crowd’s confusion shifted to amusement. The patrons of the Kilson Tavern laughed and surmised that Jaupis had once again soiled his pants and was racing home before the mess running down his legs revealed the truth. However, for some ghostly reason, the bang-bang-bang of the obese mason stomping out the door unnerved Addison Trueheart. His chest tightened and felt for the second time that day like he was pinned under a familiar barrel of apples.