The autumn sky was clear, the moon was full, the air was cool enough to keep the bugs away, but more than comfortable in the warmth of the fire. There was plenty of wood and water, there had been more than enough food, and there was brandy. Zhanh fed the fire, leaned back against the tree behind him, and thought contented thoughts as he looked over the odd gathering.
Their hostess, the nameless queen and goddess of the grove, sat opposite him in her throne among the roots of the massive ancient oak at the center of the grove, sipping brandy from a wooden cup. To her left was Fiddler, temporarily no longer a ghost, embodied for the night as a silver haired faun with a single horn in the middle of his forehead. Inq the fairy sat on Fiddler's shoulder between frequent raids on the brandy. To Zhanh's left was what seemed to be a young girl with long red hair and a matching red leather dress, the spirit of Zhanh's hat called forth by the dryad's power. She sat quietly and watched, as was her nature. Zhanh found that the dryad was watching him, and he raised his cup in acknowledgement.
"It is time," the Lady said. "When you asked for my hospitality, you offered reasonable service, and I call on you to give it to me."
"As it is within our power," Zhanh replied.
"It is a fine night for stories," the Lady said. "I would have you tell me of yourselves." Hat looked up nervously, and the Lady smiled at her. "Not you, little one. This task is too complex for you. But you others... I would know what you are, not what you chose to present yourselves as. So you will each tell me the tale of the WORST thing you have ever done. Be warned; I will know if you lie in the course of the story, and I will know if you lie in your choice of story, as well. Zhanh Redcap, you may begin."
Zhanh stared at the Lady for a moment, then began to speak. "I've killed a LOT of people," he said. "I can't say that they all deserved it, but I will say that they all had a chance to back out, to turn and run. Except for one, the very first one. Him, I stalked, and trapped, and killed..."
He stared into the fire, took a deep breath, and continued. "When my master, Grezhakh, decided it was time to promote me to journeyman status, he wanted to go back to the wizard's guild in Khazan, which was on the far side of the continent. So we started working our way back along the south coast. Coasters never travel among more than three or four ports, so we changed ships fairly often. On one ship we were barely out of the harbor before Grezhakh said that the cargo master was an idiot, that the ship was loaded wrong. He said that the ship was far too tender for the load she carried; there was too much weight too high. He went on to say that *I*, ignorant bumpkin that I was, could probably get the ship put right, given a few men and a few days to work. And then he said that if we caught a storm, we would have our work cut out for us keeping the ship on her feet."
Zhanh looked up and met the Lady's eyes before he continued. "Well, we DID catch a storm, and it took all of the magic Grezhakh had, and all of the energy I could feed him, to keep the ship afloat. And once it was over, I pretty much carried him to his bunk, and put him to bed, and then collapsed on the floor myself. And when I woke up, he was dead; the strain had been too much for him."
Zhanh took a sip of brandy and stared into his cup for a moment. "I told the captain that Grezhakh was dead, and then sewed his body into a shroud made from scraps of sail cloth, with a ballast stone at his feet. When I was done, the captain called a gathering, said a few words, and we put the body over the side. And then I set in to torment the cargo master. I called him an idiot, blamed him for Grezhakh's death, and did everything I could to provoke him into challenging me to a duel."
Zhanh looked up and swept his eyes around the gathering. "He had to challenge me, you see. If I challenged him, he would get to specify the terms, and we would have a knife fight, and he would kill me; he had a hundred pounds on me, and a reputation as a brawler. If he challenged me, though, I could specify, 'No Rules', which would let me kill him with magic. And no one on the ship knew I had magic; they all thought I was only Grezhakh's servant, not his apprentice. I worried a little bit that he would realize that I was up to something, but he had enough of a temper that he challenged me before anyone caught on. The proposed duel was brought to the captain, according to ship's law, and once the storm repairs were over, we fought."
Zhanh went back to staring at his brandy as he went on. "The whistle blew, and he charged me, and I blasted him in the face. I sidestepped, and his momentum carried him all the way to the rail, head first into a scupper, where his skull collapsed. There was a long silence; duels are usually noisy, but this outcome had shocked everyone. The captain gave me a long look as he re-evaluated me, then told me to prepare a shroud for the body, pretty much as a punishment. And then he said that I had better be as good at managing cargo as I had claimed when I was baiting the former cargo master, or it would go very badly for me."
Zhanh drained his cup and looked up. "I did better than expected as cargo master, stayed with that ship for nine months, until we got as far west as Bamora, and I applied to the Wizard's Guild there. I claimed the cargo master's knife; he had intended to gut me with it, and it seemed right. I still have that knife." He paused and stared into the fire. "I have been over the situation a thousand times since then, and I know that I would do exactly the same thing again, but that doesn't mean I won't go over it a thousand more times." He looked up and met the Lady's eyes, and she nodded; Zhanh took that as a signal to find the brandy bottle, and refill his cup.
"Fiddler Trollkiller," the Lady said, "It is time for your tale."
Fiddler swept his eyes around the circle as Inq flew over the fire and landed on Hat's head. "I lived a very long time," he began. "I had many servants over the years. Most had been abused wives; some had been slaves, some were just bored and unhappy girls who wanted a different life. One, and only one, was male."
Fiddler stood, and started to pace as he spoke. "I hadn't had a servant for a while, and I was out on the edge of nowhere. I was feeling lonely, and hadn't been combed in months, and the only person who answered my call was this bored farm boy who wanted a taste of the Glory Road. So I bonded with him, and we set out, and for a while it worked well. He had done some hunting, and knew how to catch and prepare his own food, and he really took to the life. Except..."
Fiddler stopped, found his cup, and took a long pull. "Except that I was an idiot. See, when I dreamwalk with another person, I can't actually MAKE them do anything. I can shapeshift myself into anything I want, and I can shapeshift them if they let me, but they have to go along, they have to let me. What I CAN do is make them want to do what I want them to do. They may have regrets afterwards, but inside the dream, they are never afraid, and they are always happy."
"It's still rape," Zhanh muttered.
"But it is not your turn, Zhanh Redcap," said the Lady.
"I just didn't think about it," Fiddler continued. "I barged into Kelath's dreams, convinced him he wanted to know what it felt like to be female, and things went from there. And everything seemed to be fine, as far as I cared to see. And then one day, after Kelath had been with me for two or three months, we were crossing this high bridge. It was late summer, and the water was low, just a trickle among the rocks. And Kelath jumped off of my back, and vaulted the parapet of the bridge, and shattered on the rocks below."
Fiddler took another gulp of brandy. "I didn't take another servant for a LONG time after that. Years. When I did, it was after a LOT of conversation. After Salsi accepted the bond, I kept her young and healthy for over a hundred years, until we both died..."
The Lady cocked an eyebrow at that, and said, "But that is another tale. Inquisitive April Moonflower, it is your turn."
Inq looked around nervously; the Lady sensed her intent, and gestured. A tree root rose from the ground between Zhanh and Hat; Inq fluttered to it, and turned to face the Lady. "I am not sure what story I can tell," Inq said. "I have only been myself for a few years, and the only noteworthy thing I have done is fall in love with a dead unicorn."
The Lady smiled. "The worst thing that you remember doing, then, even if it were before your birth."
Inq nodded and said, "THAT, I can do. Fairies never forget anything; we come into existence with all of our ancestor's memories, and then add our own on top. But never forgetting is not the same as remembering; my memory is a huge cellar into which things have been thrown for centuries. Everything is still there, but good luck finding the single thing that you want. Still, there are things that stand out..."
Inq looked across the fire to Fiddler, who smiled and nodded. Inq continued, "I think that several of my ancestors were involved in this one; I remember different points of view. It seems that there was a hamlet on the edge of a swamp, and the house that was nearest the swamp, on a sort of peninsula of solid ground, had had fairies in the attic for a long, long time. And then one day a holy man came, and started telling the people that fairies were evil. He was very persuasive, and the people tried to chase the fairies away, and started setting traps for them. And then one day, one of the villagers managed to catch and kill a fairy, and the fairies got angry."
Inq threw a longing look at the thimble-- a bucket, by her scale-- that held her brandy, shrugged, and went on. "There was a young girl, barely old enough to walk, who lived in the house at the edge of the swamp, and one night the fairies--we-- managed to lure her out of the house, and into the swamp. We led her along paths that couldn't possibly support an adult, or even a child that was much larger. And when we felt she was far enough away, we started to torture her."
Inq looked into the fire for a moment, then raised her head and went on. "We didn't hurt her, much. We just poked her until she cried; the idea was to have her make noise. Sure enough, before very long, the girl's mother came charging out of the house, ran into the swamp, broke through a bit of bog, and disappeared. The girl's father was more careful, and gathered his neighbors before someone tried again. The village huntsman said that they needed to negotiate with the fairies; the holy man would have none of it, and the people listened to the holy man. They tried several things, but every attempt to reach the girl ended in another death, usually without the fairies doing anything, though we did cut their safety ropes."
Fiddler had managed to get the thimble of brandy to Inq's perch, and she stopped and took a drink. "By noon, there were seven or eight people dead, and the huntsman had had enough. He put an arrow through the child, which silenced her, and then put an arrow through the holy man, which silenced him, and then walked away, never to return. The man who lived in the house next to the swamp, who had lost his wife and daughter, packed and moved away also, leaving the house to the fairies. And the fairies lived there for a long, long time, until the house fell apart, because fairies are no good at maintaining things. But the local people and the fairies were never friendly again."
The Lady nodded, and said, "Well told all. The debt is well and truly paid; be welcome in my home."
The following morning, Zhanh shouldered his pack and set off again. The red-haired urchin was once again a red leather hat; the silver faun was once again a disembodied spirit bound to a dagger that was not made of ivory. Zhanh was still Zhanh, and the road was still the road. Inq was painfully hung over, and spent the morning wrapped in a dark handkerchief on top of Zhanh's hat, cursing the world and wishing she were dead.