Short Story -Going the Wrong Way

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A recent discussion online about The Slayers, an anime I quite enjoy, put it in a slightly different context; I had forgotten, as the person I was reading said I most likely had, the amount of dull “demon politics” and worldbuilding that intersperses the great visual humour and fantasy parody. It does have quite a lot of this, and the most memorable parts – the very bizarre and slapstick fantasy jokes – are less common than I remembered.

This story is my effort to try and be what I remembered The Slayers being – a quite silly story of a bad day for a classic fantasy hero escalating out of control. Indeed its villain is a character I find recurs in my Dungeons and Dragons campaigns – a one-note miniboss who began as a shameless ripoff of Lina Inverse and who has become something a little more.


 

The inn did not exactly fall silent as the traveller walked in, but something about the combination of bad odours that followed their entry did turn heads. There was the intimation that comment would be passed, a drawing of uneasy breath from the innkeeper, and then the haggard figure before them was properly read. Oilstained, heavy leathers. Boots that had at some point been mirror-polished but now were caked with mud. A face dripping with sweat and smuts.

“I… I would appreciate a room, and water drawn for a bath. Possibly the bath first.” A sigh of relief before anything unwelcome could be said about her lack of decorum. “By order of Her Majesty.”

“If you would please go out the back, we will have water warmed for you.” When a Knight of the Queen turned up at a small roadside traveller’s inn, road-weary and struggling to remain on her feet, it was best not to ask questions.

The tub was not so hot as to be truly satisfying but at least it was an opportunity to peel off the heavy clothes and finally be clean. Emerging from the now-black water on which slicks of oil shone in rainbows, the knight realised that she had nothing to wear save the same unsavoury armour she had hurried to remove. As if the invisible servants had read her mind, a dress – simple, rustic and not quite a good fit – appeared, draped over the window-sill. It sufficed.

Her next priority was to eat. Taking a table set aside in a corner, she was provided with bread, soup and a small amount of fruit slightly past its best. This place was undeniably poor, but the hospitality was refreshingly sincere. Profuse apologies followed the meagre meal, about a poor harvest and the heavy rains having affected the orchards. At no point had she given her name, and at no point had anyone asked. It was a constant stream of “Your Grace”, “Sir” and “My Lady”, used apparently interchangeably depending on how nervous the speaker was.

“Please.” She turned to the innkeeper and tried to smile. “My name is Isobel, you may use it.”

“It would not do, sir.”

“I insist.” She did not need obsequiences. She needed to rest, recover her strength, and find some way of getting to the nearest town. The events which had brought her here were a sore memory still – a foolish attempt to ride through the night which had resulted in a lamed horse (now passed off to a farmer, for she had not had the stomach to kill it herself) and then a grim walk through a wood in the pitch blackness and pouring rain where at some point the road had vanished from sight. Morning had come, with no sign of anywhere to stay, and the humid post-rain morning had felt like someone trying to boil her alive. “Is it far to a town?”

“Less than a day’s ride from here’s Gosern, or if you take a barge from the canal you can reach the capital in two days.”

That was right. She had been so close to her destination that taking the risk to ride through the night had seemed sensible. The capital.

“Can you walk from Gosern to the capital? How long does that take?”

“Walk?” Laughter. “There’s been a bridge washed away, nobody’s going to the capital save by boat.”

“Then how should I see about taking a barge?”

“Wait until one of the boatmen gives you a ride. It’ll cost you, mind, passengers are a mouth to feed.”

For two days? The outrage built in her mind and then died. Of course. Space taken up with food, or time spent stopping to eat, is time cargo may rot in barrels and money lost at market.

A number of problems immediately presented themselves. Most of her travelling-gear, including her money, had been in a pack that had vanished at some point during the nighttime journey. Secondly, there was no way of knowing how long she would have to wait for passage, or indeed if the passage would take the estimated two days.

A simple ride from the border-post to the capital to deliver an unremarkable message about the collection of taxes proceeding without incident had suddenly become a very complicated issue. Of course, it would seem easy to an outsider. Send a messenger-bird, or use sorcery to send the word ahead. The law prevented that. There had been efforts to use sorcery for official business in this way, until it had been found out that it was easier to force a message sent in this fashion to be doctored by the sender than for a letter sealed by wax to be edited.

Panic set in at the realisation the message was still in her clothes bundled up in the scullery, and she excused herself with undue haste to recover it. The scroll in its neat leather tube once again safely on her person, she headed up to the room provided on the house, and thought a little about her predicament. She could not handle a boat herself, ruling out hiring one and sailing to the capital. If the bridge was out, and Gosern really was the nearest town, then walking – or even riding – around the flood would take an unknown amount of time through roads she was not familiar with. Sending word in either direction would be a time-consuming process – the border-post several days’ ride away now, and the capital just out of reach. By this point, though, the afternoon was well-established, for she had walked quite some time in patently the wrong direction before stumbling upon this inn. Before long it would be evening, and then another night. Any further travel or efforts to find transport could wait, for even after having enjoyed a bath and some time sat down the very thought of more walking seemed unthinkable. Having not slept, she sent orders to the innkeeper that she should be awoken when dinner was prepared and set herself down on the distinctly uncomfortable mattress provided.

With dinner arrived a passenger coach. The night coach from Gosern to a town she had never heard of brought a group of country folk – stout and spectacled merchants with rosy-cheeked wives in local lace, mostly. They made a scene of themselves in a way that she – the one with the real power, the real ability to turn heads and make demands – never would. Wine had to be provided, not ale. Meat in quantities that would make one quite sick. The fruit, slightly bruised and a little worse for wear, was rejected despite being of a quality that would have passed muster in the border-post’s mess. She said nothing, ate what was put in front of her, and watched the travellers drink themselves into a stupor and retire, leaving only a few diehards in the inn. About to sleep herself, she headed outside to avail herself of the outhouse and became aware she was not alone in the yard.

“Stand and deliver.” Strangely, no sound of a pistol or sword. “If you know what’s good for you.”

“I’ve got nothing.” True, for once.

“I don’t believe you. You don’t walk like someone poor, which means you’re trying to hide something.”

“I’ve fallen on hard times.” It was dark outside, so turning to see the highwayman was probably fruitless. Whoever it was, it took real guts to attack an inn. Unless, of course, all the feigned humility was just luring her in…

“You’re right, you have.” There was an almost inaudible hiss, and suddenly the yard was quite a bit brighter. Sorcery? There had been rumours of a rogue magician on the loose. “Now, before I do something I’m sure won’t end well for you, either hand over your money or take me to where it is.”

She lunged at the figure, which at least was enough to make them lose concentration on the spell. They tumbled to the ground, tried to stand up with each having a different idea of where they should go, and fell in the water-trough for the horses. For a sorcerer, the rogue was really quite lithe. Sorceress. That much was obvious from physical contact. Definitely the notorious figure roaming the countryside and burning coaches. Both parties drenched, the knight scrabbled for purchase against her foe’s armour and found it, pulling at a sword-belt and somehow disarming the woman. Trying to disengage the sword from its sheath proved challenging while using a hand to cover the sorceress’ mouth, so the whole affair had to serve as a blunt instrument. It was ineffective, clumsy and trailing the belt part to rob it of balance and heft, and with the moment this afforded the sorceress slipped out of her grasp. Not for long, though, for for whatever reason she began trying to cast another spell and that was the fatal error.

My God, are they all so drunk a brawl outside their window will not raise them? Turning the fight around, the knight slammed her foe into the door of the inn and they tumbled inside in a new mess of limbs.

“Yield, in the name of the Queen!” With so many witnesses, someone had to help. “I said yield!” A tankard flew into the fight and, with surprisingly good aim, hit the sorceress on the side of the head, putting her out quite cold.

“I apologise for this. This rogue tried to relieve me of my effects as I tried to relieve myself.” Raucous drunken laughter filled the inn from the hardened drinkers that remained. “Let her cool her head in the barn, but ensure she is well bound and quite unable to speak. And in the meantime, have word sent to the local bailiffs at Gosern that a Knight of the Queen has apprehended the highwayman they have sought for some time.”

The only downside to momentary heroism was another endless wave of grovelling, gratitude and free drinks when all that was desirable was rest.

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