Make no mistake, it is humanity’s greatest asset, the constant desire for more. The town I was in, the alcohol I was drinking, the friends I was renting — none of them would have existed were it not for greed. Avarice is, perhaps, my dearest friend.
But she has an ugly cousin: impatience. Some among us raise greed to an art form, manipulating the world with cunning and grace to take what they want. The most skilled practitioners of avarice have the patience of a toothless god. Alas, my acquaintances in that run-down tavern were not among that elite, to my sorrow and theirs.
For the happy part of my stay in Mountain Forge I was losing money to them steadily, each day enjoying my drink and leaving the tavern a little poorer than I had entered it. The dice were weighted, the cards marked, but I let them think I didn’t know, and enriched them a little more every day.
Little Elena was an island of light in the unbounded sea of gloom that is Mountain Forge when the rains come. My second day in the tavern, she greeted me, “H’lo, fucking Lord Toad-fucker.”
“Well, h’lo, you little festering pustule on a donkey’s scrotum.”
She smiled, then scowled. “What’s scrotum?”
The smile was back. “Nice. Scrotum.” I watched her face as the word was neatly boxed and labeled, ready for reuse. And so began a tradition. Each day as I walked into the tavern she would greet me with a new insult, and I would respond in turn. She was a natural talent. On the last day she compared me to the offal running down the leg of the River God’s ox after it ate too much skungeweed. I was so impressed I almost forgot to insult her back. I sat down at one of the long tables with a warm feeling in my heart, and greeted my new friends.
But greed is always with us, and when not tempered by patience it will cause men to do foolish things. One of my new friends, perhaps the grizzled old man everyone called Mug, decided to accelerate the leakage of my funds into the community kitty. My wine that night had a little extra in it. Nothing dangerous, just enough to make a man feel invincible.
And invincible I was. Without the moderating influence of my own wisdom, I took the poor bastards for all they had. Invincible, I ignored Elena’s tugs at my elbow, her worried looks. I ignored the cloud gathering in the tavern, the angry glares and muttered curses. I laughed at them!
The illusion I had fostered was broken; my time in Mountain Forge was at an end. I don’t blame those men, not really, for what followed. I gathered their wealth, stood a little unsteadily, and stepped toward the door.
“Yer not leavin’ with that,” Jake said.
“It is mine,” I pointed out.
“Let the godfucked son of a whore’s twat go,” Elena said. Structurally a fine epithet but verging on nonsensical. She tried to push herself between me and Jake. Jake slapped her aside and I punched him in the face and to be honest I don’t remember exactly what happened after that. It was a blind and desperate struggle, surrounded, overwhelmed, crushed by numbers, flinging a fist into the confusion, feeling many land in return. Stars dancing as blows find my face, reeling breathlessly as fists hammer my gut. Sagging under the weight, in the end curling into a ball but there’s no protection in that, not really, as the kicks land on ribs and spine and death becomes a real possibility.
It was not the first time in my life my gambling friends had turned on me, but it was almost the last. This time, I did not draw my knives. I did not kill them all. Perhaps that small fact is significant, a sign that greater powers were in motion, twisting destiny. Perhaps I was just drugged and didn’t understand my peril. Perhaps, as Bags would say, there’s no use fretting over shit you’ll never know.
* * *
“Marty.” I had heard my name used many times, I realized. I pried open one eye, puffy and reluctant. Elena was hovering over me. When she saw my eye open she said, “Fuck, Marty. I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. It’s my fault.”
I raised a filthy hand to touch her face. “It’s all right.” More breath than words.
She shook her head. “I brought the twat.” She glanced over her shoulder. “The lady. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Elena’s face was replaced with Katherine’s. I closed my eyes and wondered if dying from exposure was still an option. “It just keeps getting better,” I said. I think. Something else was wrong, as well. I reached to my side where I kept my hunting knife and found only bare skin. I was naked, without a single sharp instrument that I could kill people with.
“Let’s get you inside,” Kat said.
“Get Mrkl,” I said to the night, hoping Elena would hear me. I had no desire to be nursed by the blacksmith, under his silent disapproval, but that was better than being trapped with someone who wanted to change the world.
“You’re staying with me,” Katherine said. A statement of fact, not an invitation. I was in no position to argue.
And there was Bags, gleaming in his new chain mail, lifting me up like I was made of shit-smeared glass, and I clung to his tunic with a white-knuckle fist and choked off any sort of outburst as my ribs ground against one another.
Somewhere behind us Kat said, “Take him to my room. You, girl.”
“Yes, m’Lady?” I’d never head Elena’s voice sound so timid.
“You will arrange a bath. In my room. With hot water.”
“Of course now. This man is filthy. Go.”
I heard the girl’s footsteps hurrying off through the mud. I felt a moment of nostalgia for something that hadn’t happened yet. I was going to miss her when I left town.
I was beginning to shake violently, and Kat put her tunic over my naked form as Bags carried me into the boarding house, his strong arms cradling me. Light-headed, I began to laugh. “Be careful what you wish for,” I said.
A small smile from Bags in return. “Watch out, or the Soul Thieves will come for you.”
I pulled myself into his warmth and laughed at what I thought was a joke.