by Ian Donnell Arbuckle
They were brothers, Tag and Joffrey, but they had come from different mothers. Both of their mothers were dead, having passed away on the same day from the pains of childbirth and the rage that, at that same moment, there was another woman caught in the same labor. Tag and Joffrey grew up with their father, a village tailor.
Joffrey had golden hair. “I have golden hair,” he would say. “My mother was a princess.”
“I have red hair,” Tag would say.
“Your mother was a whore,” Joff would interrupt.
Many were the times their father thought it would have been easier had both of the boys been born with black hair, like his.
The brothers were the fiercest of competitors. When Joff climbed a tree, Tag had to climb higher. When Tag snared a coney, Joff had to kill a brace of them. From sunup to sundown they outdid each other, running in circles if there was nothing more brave to do. Sometimes their battles lasted well past bedtime; one would begin to snore and the other would try to drown the sound with his own, and soon their father’s shack would be shaking like a duck before slaughter with the tidal noise of phlegm and lungs. The boys’ father was overjoyed when apprenticing day finally came. The young men of the village gathered around the well to have the artisans and merchants, the taskmen and the scholars look them over as though they were breeding stock. The most enviable apprenticeship, it was whispered, was to be a student at the college, but only one boy was chosen each year for that position. It meant a clean cell all to himself, warm robes, and no heavy lifting. Tag and Joff stood shoulder to shoulder, straightening their spines when a master came around to them. Some Tag hoped would pass right by them, such as the dung-bailer and the gull-washer — both of those men took boys much thicker around the trunk than Tag or Joff. Then the headmaster of the college came around. He started at the opposite side of the circle, so Tag’s heart had as long as possible to flutter up. The headmaster would come to him before Joff. That single room was surely his!
The headmaster was shorter than Tag. He looked up into the boy’s eyes; Tag resisted the urge to flick his gaze down to meet.
“Can you tell me, boy, what is history?”
Tag unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth. “Master, if you please, I can. History is what happens before now.” Now Tag’s heart seemed to stop beating entirely, for the headmaster gave no nod or shake of the head, no confirmation of success or failure.
“Master, no, I can tell you,” said Joff, elbowing Tag out of the way. “History is just stories.” The headmaster’s eyes had slipped from Tag to Joff like a stone over water. Tag tried to shove Joff back to his position in the circle, but it was a weak try since he didn’t want to appear hotheaded to the master.
“You,” said the headmaster, nodding at Joff. “Can you read?”
“Not yet, master.”
“Fine. Come with me.”
And that was it. The headmaster led Joff through the circle, which parted to allow them through; each remaining boy had a dirty look for Joff, and Joff had a certain gesture to throw back at Tag before the bodies closed in again and he was out of sight.
One by one, the other boys were selected and trailed off after their new masters. Finally, the square was empty save for Tag, his father, and a fishmonger dressing up his wares for display.
Tag’s father sniffed. “Well,” he grumbled. “Let me see your hands.” Tag presented his knuckles, skin red from having been scrubbed that morning. “Palms up,” said his father. Tag rotated his wrists. His father sniffed again. “All right,” he said. “You’ll do.” So Tag followed his father back home to be apprenticed as the village tailor, and he slept that night in his old room, all by himself.
The years passed, and Tag grew first scabs then calluses on his needle fingers. He learned about the chain stitch and the lock stitch, basting, slips, whips, and feathers. He was amazed at how quiet the house became with Joffrey gone. He could hear the blood rushing in his ears, even at the height of the day, when he and Joff used to have their best fights. Maybe his father started feeling uneasy, too, because he took up the habit of whistling as he worked.
Before he knew it, Tag was answering customer calls himself and taking garments to his own side of the table to mend them instead of sliding them over to his father. They would work until light failed, and then light the candles and continue, and father would whistle.
Joffrey would visit from time to time, on feast days and at midwinter. The first time he returned, Tag had expected them to slide back into their old arguments like children on an icy slope. Instead, their throats seized up, frozen. They ate and spoke sparingly. Father didn’t whistle until the next day, when work had resumed and customers needed their warm clothes.
The next winter, Tag’s father died of a fever. His last words to Tag were to practice his embroidery, for it was highly requested by the ladies. Then, as Tag framed a response, he raised a finger to his lips and died in silence.
Tag assumed the duties his father abandoned without a grumble. I might get a touch cold at night, he said to himself, and I might get tired of skinny chicken, but it’s not as bad as all that. It was no warm cloister, but it was, indeed, not as bad as all that.
Joffrey sent him a gift as congratulations for succeeding their father as master tailor. It was a covered basket, delivered by an urchin with a nose ruined by a pox. Tag gave the kid a penny and took the gift to his table. Work was literally piling up, though, so the basket was shoved to the corner in favor of the needle and thimble. Tag had settled into silent, hunched labor when a noise disrupted him. A fly was buzzing around the table, its crazy path seeming to center on the gifted basket. Tag shooed at it with a word and a wave and a puff from his cheeks. The fly landed, out of sight, and rested its wings. Tag went back to work. It wasn’t long until the whine of wingbeats returned, however, and this time when Tag looked up there were two of the creatures.
“Get off,” said Tag. The Flies were not keen to oblige. Tag tried to bend again to his work, but he found he could not concentrate without silence. The insects were singing a chorus to themselves, oblivious to their ungrateful audience, in two-part harmony.
No! Tag realized, glaring over. There were four, now, or maybe five — it was to focus on their ballistic bodies.
Curiosity got the better of Tag. He reached across the table and flipped open Joff’s basket, dislodging one of the flies. A stench rose immediately and settled into every crevice of the room. Tag fought the urge to vomit. There was a note. It read: This is what you’re used to, right? Love, Joff. This meat had not been good for a long time; had it been, the urchin would have eaten it.
A fly settled on Tag’s nose. “God’s own! Get off!“ he yelled. The startled beast and her mates settled on the basket, licking their forearms with what looked for all the world like glee. “I’ll be damned if I suffer you a moment more; damned or crazy,” said Tag, and with that he slid his simple hide belt from his trousers and,bip, brought it back, and, bop, smacked it down on the main body of the flies’ disgusting congregation. Those not squished beneath took to the air and disappeared through secret holes. Tag gently lifted his belt and counted the bodies. There were seven. Seven! And that hadn’t even been all of them.
The dreadful buzzing thus stymied, Tag returned to work, feeling rather pleased with himself. A rather tedious darning awaited him but, after a moment’s thought, he set it aside and drew his belt from where it lay by the basket. He wiped the fly guts from its surface and gave it a careful examination. He had yet to test his skill at embroidery — it had not been as popular as his father had expected — and this seemed an appropriate time and place to deploy that skill. After all, he thought, don’t the butchers take meat to their tables? don’t candlemakers light their homes with tallow from their shops? The design for his belt came at once to his imagination; he only paused once in his needlework, and that was to wish that he could write, so that no man — no literate man — could mistake the legend he was setting to thread.
When he was finished, he slipped the belt through his trousers and stood in front of the small looking glass he had installed for customers. The design on the belt was of seven death’s heads in gold thread, one for each of the crushed flies. They glinted when he turned, appearing as though they were made of precious metals, hard won. It was a pleasing effect.
“I shall show my belt to Joff,” said Tag. “So that he will see how much I appreciated his gift!“
The pile of mending could afford to be put off for the remainder of the afternoon, Tag decided. He simply would have to take advantage of the candlemaker’s wares that night.
The footpath from the village to the city where the university had its campus wound up from the quiet green valley and through a thick, sudden forest. It was mid-afternoon when Joff set out, having stopped at the market for a wedge of cheese for his supper, rather than trying to find a wholesome meal in the squalor of the city. He whistled as he went, thumbs hooked in his belt, glancing down every so often to admire how the sunlight glinted off the seven death’s heads.
As he slipped under the first thick branches of the forest’s fringe, he heard a pitiful sound, like a baby’s wail, but higher pitched. He carefully parted the branches of a clump of thistles and saw a small blackbird with its wings spread out like a cape. It saw him and fluttered, trying to take to the air. As it did, Tag saw that the bird’s legs both were broken like twigs. It cried every time it moved, and it moved every time Tag did.
“Don’t move too quick,” said a deep voice from behind. “Else your skull be punctured, here.”
Tag straightened, leaving the bird where it lay. “I have no money,” he said. He turned. Before him stood the largest man he had ever seen. Not only tall was he, but wide as a redwood. He was bald, but the top of his skull was so dense with seaman’s tattoos that he seemed to have a thin fuzz of pale blue. As Tag was taking this in, the man cocked his head and squinted at Tag’s belt. He moved his lips, then said, “Seven? Seven dead, huh.” He grinned.
“With a single blow,” said Tag, hooking his thumbs in the belt.
The giant blew out a cheekful of air. “With a single blow, you say? Oughtn’t your muscles be thicker?”
“They are no thicker than they need to be, so’s I do not take up more space than a man ought.”
The giant grinned, or at least bared his yellow teeth. “Oughtn’t your feet be quicker?”
“They are quick enough,” said Tag, a bit short in his tone. The giant nodded, pressing his lips together in an expression that seemed to indicate that he once had seen a thoughtful man. Then he folded himself over and scooped a stone from the ground. He weighed it in his hand and brought his fingers together, vanishing it. He squeezed. The tendons of his wrist grew through the matted black hair like fish brushing the surface of a stream. Small beads of what Tag at first took for sweat began to run along the underside of the giants hand, pooling and joining before snapping to the ground with soft bip bip bop sounds. It was flowing too freely to be sweat, especially from a creature as obviously fit as the giant was. With a start, Tag realized that it was water, and it was leaking from the stone itself! The giant smirked and unfolded his hand, letting Tag get a good look at the granite lump.
“Are these muscles wasted, little man?”
Tag nodded, realized what he was doing, and shook his head. He was thinking about how useful it would be to summon water from stone, but, even in the desert, a man needs more than water. The thought of food made his stomach churn in anticipation; he patted his pouch with the lump of cheese inside, and had an idea.
“Well done,” he said. “Water from granite. But I shall produce milk from marble.” With that, he reached into his pouch and drew out the lump of cheese. His closed his fist swiftly around it, giving the giant the barest of glimpses, and squeezed. In the slow blink of the giant’s eye, thick whey seeped from between Tag’s fingers and fell to the forest floor, bip bip bop. When the cheese was dry, Tag tossed it over his shoulder into the brush, ignoring the whimper his stomach made at being so deprived. The giant made no effort to hide his astonishment. “I never have seen such a thing!“ he cried, looking Tag head to toe again, as if he had missed something the first time. “But then, I never have seen a man take seven in one blow. Tell me, can you do this?” Up came another stone in his meaty hand. He hefted it, the whirled on his heels and threw the stone in one easy movement. His aim was almost perfect, threading a path between the sparse tree trunks for a hundred yards or better before colliding with an oak with a meaty thunk that took several seconds to reach Tag’s ears.
“Very good,” said Tag, eyeing the pale gash left in the tree’s flesh by the impact. A raven had been perching in the oak and now it took to scolding the men as loudly as it could. Tag had another idea. He scooped up the broken-legged bird from the brush behind him and hurled it too quickly, he hoped, for the giant to see that this “stone“ was bleeding. Unused the flying, the bird fluttered crazily around branches but heading in a more-or-less straight path, past the wounded oak and out of sight.
“Well, now,” said the giant. “Never have I seen a thing like that.” As Tag turned to face him, his proud grin came into contest with the giant’s cudgel on an arc of collision. Bip bop.
* * *
Tag was woken by his own groaning. He found himself in a dark room, on a dirt floor, which smelled strongly of onion and copper. He was unbound, though kept still by the pounding in his head. There were voices coming through the wall; they all sounded like the giant’s.
“I don’t believe it,” said one.
“You think I did? So he’s in the pantry,” said another.
“Captain Quail is out for Vineland on the morning tide yeah?” asked another.
“Yeah, let him decide if the runt can handle three months on the oar,” said another. A veritable chorus of laughter answered.
None of this sounded promising to Tag, who had abandoned the question How did I get into this mess? with its associated implications for How can I get out of it? He tested his arms and legs. They seemed to be functioning without complaint, though the same couldn’t be said of his head, which had dulled its throb to a tidal swell.
He was beginning to put it to use assembling escape routes from the gloom when the voices beyond the door burst through again. “He’ll sleep up to a bucket to the face.”
“I tell you — I know my own strength.”
“You’re in your cups.”
“Not alone, anyway.”
The voices faded. Tag lay still, a throbbing in the bones of his face reminding him what just one of the giants could do when sober, and his imagination conjuring up whole seas of pain that all might cause when drunk. He didn’t know how long he stayed unmoving; the next thing to mark the progress of time was a crawling shaft of dusty moonlight through a crack in the wall, and after that the sound of snoring. One single man, no matter how large, could not be making that much racket, he told himself. They must all be asleep. He crept to the door and gripped the latch, thankful for the silence of the packed earth floor. He gave the door a light tug and, to his surprise, it opened a fraction. It wasn’t locked, which, on retrospect, wasn’t surprising, as the walls looked to have been built out of planed driftwood with no effort made to make the joints airtight. It clearly wasn’t a structure meant to last.
The hinges are the pantry door were sticky and took a good deal of Tag’s strength to budge. He finally made a gash wide enough to slip through, and he did so. The room on the other side was long, and thin, and completely bare save for the mountainous bodies of the giant and his men, which Tag took at first for furniture. He made a quick count — there were seven, strewn about every which way. The air reeked of alcohol and halitosis.
Tag stood frozen for what seemed like minutes, but none of the giants seemed to be moving, apart from the labored rise and fall of their chests. At the opposite end of the room was a hole to the outside, a frame without a door. Tag began moving toward it, quiet as a dead mouse. He happened to glance to his side once as he was passing the first sleeping brute and something caught his eye: the giant’s cudgel. An idea sprang into Tag’s mind. He sidled over to where the cudgel rested against the wall and gripped it. It was heavy, as heavy as his father’s casket had been, but he managed to shift it to his shoulder.
He was just testing its heft to swing it at the giant’s bearish head when he thought better of it. After all, if he missed, or if his strength was not enough to crunch the giant’s skull, he would have one angry giant in front of him and, more than likely, six more behind him. So, cradling the cudgel like a basket of clothing, he made his way to the door where, if he failed, he at least could drop the weapon and run. The giant by the door was sleeping on his back with his arms resting on his gut. Tag wrestled with the cudgel, got it positioned, and froze. The giant’s lips were moving, a slash of deeper black opening and closing. Something gleamed at the side of his mouth — a river of saliva. It slid down his cheek and, bip bip, onto the ground.
Tag brought the cudgel down, bop.
It made less of a sound than he was expecting. He was ready to drop and run, but he barely heard the impact himself. The head of the cudgel passed through the head of the giant like a needle through burlap. None of the other giants even stirred.
Tag realized he had been holding his breath; he caught it and then, not wanting to waste a good thing, moved on to the next brute.
By the end, his arms were fit to drop from their sockets. He let the cudgel drop from his grip and roll on the floor. The air still smelt of alcohol, but now it was mixed with a thick wind of coppery blood. Flies already were buzzing around the corpses. Tag waved at the air to scatter them. “Seven blows,” he said.
He stumbled out into the night and looked around. The giants’ cottage were on a cliff. Tag moved to the edge; the ocean crashed below and there, off in the direction of the moon, were the docks of the city, and beyond them the city itself making the air orange with firelight on a smoky backdrop. He started walking.
It was dawn by the time he reached the city gates. The guards posted there glanced him once up and down and let him pass with a warning to “Watch out.” There was a buzzing a few twisted streets down, in the general direction of the university. Tag made his way down the block, politely refusing fish and fruit from the mongers who set their stalls close to the gate. The commotion reached its highest pitch when Tag emerged into Small Square, a cramped, unclassifiable shape which was, at the moment, filled with braying citizens whose attention was focused wholly on a limbless figure on the dirty marble dais at the rough center of the square. Tag wondered for a second where the torso’s arms and legs were, then he saw them being waved like flags by certain members of the mob, or being fought over as chicken bones by the family dog.
True to mob form, there was no consensus as to what to chant, so Tag was having a hard time figuring out what was going on. He ambled over to a large woman, flung out to the fringe of the square because the space she would have taken up at the center would have been too highly prized by three — maybe four — full grown men. Tag hooked his fingers in his belt and made a simple bow to her. “Good morning!“ he yelled. “What’s going on?”
“Hope he burns in hell, gods’ mercy on his soul!“ replied the woman.
“Um,” said Tag. “What did he do?”
“That? That was Captain Quail of the Daroga!“ She spoke the name as though it encompassed whole firesides of stories. Tag tried to remember where he had heard it before. “That bastard stole my son and sold him to those murderers in Vineland!“ the woman screeched. She waved her fist. At the center of the square, two large men were taking hold of the body. One grabbed the bloody stump of a waist, the other the chin and neck. They began straining away from each other, and now the mob as a whole decided on a cheer.
Tag looked at the body; even with arms and legs, Captain Quail couldn’t have stood much over five feet, and his gut wasn’t more than genteelly wide. Tag looked at the woman, her pachyderm legs and good Northern stature. “By himself?” Tag wondered aloud. The woman looked at him as though he were a child. “I’m from the village,” he offered, as explanation.
“Him and his band of giants!“ the woman yelled. “They steal our children and he buys ’em up and takes ’em away!“ What was left of Captain Quail suddenly split at neck height. The men who had been playing tug-of-war each stumbled back with their respective trophies.
“Giants,” said Tag. “Seven of them?”
Well, good, Tag thought and nodded. He watched a squabble break out over Captain Quail’s head. As this was going on, the woman finally turned away from the mayhem and sized him up. The lateral sun glinted off the seven death’s heads on his belt.
“Seven,” she said.
“With a single blow,” said Tag, grinning. He thought that she might get the joke, having herself fought no foe more worthy than a fly, or perhaps a husband.
The woman’s jaw went slack. Tag didn’t notice; he was trying to figure how best to fit another seven death’s heads on his modest belt. The next thing he knew, hands were shoving him back to the gates, bodies were pressed tight against us, and voices were echoing, “Show us! Show us!“ in alternate anger and disbelief.
In a daze, Tag gulped out the specifics of his meeting with the giant and his brothers, trailing off at the end. Some of the mob were disbelieving, others in awe — both sides were struck dumb as they reached the giants’ cottage and a flock of scavengers scuttled away. Every last citizen, mothers and urchins, mongers and footpads, filed past the open doorframe, taking in the grisly scene. Tag stood to one side, smiling faintly. “Seven at one blow!“ shrieked the large woman from before. “Seven at one blow!“ the mob crowed back, loud enough to drown the grumbles of the skeptics around the edges. Tag was lifted to someone’s shoulders and remained there all the way back to the city. The mob grew like a stain a it spread through the streets, and before long Tag found himself at the steps of the lord’s keep.
The lord himself, having been alerted by the commotion, was waiting on a wide seat at the top of the stairs. He looked bored, as though the mob had committed a terrible breach of etiquette by arriving late. Beside him stood a vision in a red silk skirt and black velvet shawl to keep off the morning. Her hair was black and curled loosely, like frozen peatsmoke. Tag was stunned, and rightfully so. He was set down on the first step and the cheering quieted. He didn’t know how to do much more than a simple bow, so he did that. The lord raised an eyebrow and then a hand to beckon Tag forward.
“I understand that the Quail gang has been dealt with,” said the lord. “I am impressed.”
“So are we,” said someone in the crowd. Tag wondered if Joff was somewhere close, listening. Wouldn’t he be jealous!
“I set a bounty on the giants’ heads, though I am told that their heads are no longer in suitable shape to be piked on the wall. Pity. Nevertheless, the bounty stands, when the realm is safe.” Tag didn’t know what to see. He thrust out his chest and was about to expound on the generosity, yea the infinite godlike qualities of his lordship when the regal voice continued. “Your belt shows seven deaths. I wonder who they were?” There was a pause, just long enough for the more clever in the mob to think, Hey, wait — and then the lord went on. “No matter. The bounty shall be paid when the realm is safe, which, I am grieved to say, has yet to happen.” There were one or two hisses from the assembled. “There was an elf marauder in the forest, short weeks ago. Our good watchmen were able to dispense with this beast, but not with his mount. He rode upon one of the horned creatures fit only for his kids on his side of the veil. This creature, like unto the stature of a horse but several hands taller, or so I am told, is loose in the forest.” Was it Tag’s imagination, or did the lord smile?
“Forgive me, my liege,” said Tag. “But I came here on an errand to visit my brother, and I—“
“The bounty is five hundred sovereigns,” said the lord. That was enough for Tag to retire himself and whatever children he might choose to sire in the future. Still, he had heard stories of these one-horns, and the stories always ended red. “I meant to speak with—“ he began.
“And the hand of my daughter,” said the lord. The woman by his side inclined her head toward Tag. Her eyes were needle-gray. Tag felt a redness of his own swell at his throat. He bowed to the lord’s daughter; she sniffed once, loudly, and Tag hoped she couldn’t smell him.
“I—“ said Tag with what must have been enough of a tone to prompt the crowd behind him to erupt in shouts of Hurrah! Once again he was lifted onto the shoulders of stronger men and hauled to the gates. The lord and his daughter strode into the keep without a second glance.
The crowd set him down at the gates and wished him good luck, offering such advice as They smell fear, and Play dead, if you can’t run. The large woman whose son had been taken by the Quail gang gave him a hearty hug and kiss that covered half his face. He set off down the path, looking over his shoulder every few steps, and every time he did the crowd would shout Hurrah again, though each time with somewhat less fervor. Eventually, the city disappeared behind a hill.
Tag had not slept in some time, discounting the restless unconsciousness in the giants’ pantry, but cold blood was pumping through his brain and limbs and keeping him at least awake, if not alert. It was late afternoon when he reached the forest. Before entering, he kicked around beside the path for a large rock to wield. He found one that fit his palm like the lump of cheese had. His stomach growled.
The path pelted through the underbrush and twisted around tamaracks so tall they waved like blades of grass in even the slightest breeze. Eventually it came to a thin stream and followed its course. Tag stopped for a drink. As he was bent to the water’s surface, he saw a scattered reflection of something on the opposite bank. He looked up. Mushrooms! A colony of puffballs that looked ripe for eating.
He splashed through the stream and fell face first into the ground, dropping his stone, and rooting amongst the fungi like a hog. His mouth filled with the taste of soil and growth and his stomach burbled its pleasure. Something else breathed its anger. Tag froze from the waist up — his legs twitched to keep from sliding into the stream. A sick smell wafted over him, counter to the water’s current, a scent of grease and feces. The ground shook. Tag levered himself off the ground and turned. Broadside to him was the one-horn, head bent to the stream, but not drinking. It was staring at him with its one facing, dipping its knotted horn as though stitching the air. It snorted, flared its nostrils as if it were Tag’s odor weighing the air. Tag fumbled for his stone, but knocked it with his knuckles, sending it rolling into the stream. The resulting splash startled the one-horn straight. It turned its thin face toward Tag, then past, fixing him with the other eye. Then it opened its mouth and screamed. Horses, in Tag’s experience, generally whinnied or snorted; they never tore such a sound from the bottom of their lungs as the one-horn did, a thick, bubbling wail, like motherless child.
Tag didn’t have a chance to protest. The one-horn sprang into motion, rotating on one muscled leg and leveling its driftwood horn. Tag scrambled to his feet and immediately tripped over the root of a mammoth pine. He regained his feet, but had nowhere to go, his back up against the tree’s trunk. Foam dripped from the one-horn’s mouth. Its eyes rolled crazily away from each other. At the last second, Tag’s legs gave way and he sank to the ground. He felt — and more than that smelled the breath of the one-horn pass over his shoulder and heard the deep thunk as the horn itself pegged the tree. There were splintering noises that Tag at first feared were made by his own weak bones.
But he looked up and saw the one-horn, buried to its forehead in the living wood. Its hooves flailed, forcing Tag to scramble backwards over the ground, flattening what was left of the mushrooms. His arms slipped and he slid down the bank into the stream, his head going under. When he sputtered to the surface, the one-horn greeted him with another terrifying scream, but this one was born of frustration, rather than anger. No matter how the creature’s hooves flashed and pounded, it couldn’t budge from its place. Tag slowly regained his feet, fighting back the urge to splash away home, maybe have a scribe write a simple letter to Joff.
What would he write? Say, did you hear about the man who killed the Quail Gang? That was me! And Joff would write back, I heard that man then was beaten by the one-horn. Don’t worry. whoreson, I took care of it. The realm is safe.
It wasn’t much, but it was enough to urge Tag to fish another stone from the streambed. It froze his joints and nearly slipped from his grasp several times. He approached the one-horn’s head, keeping well clear of the frantically pumping hooves. He found the right grip on the stone and swung his arm like a windmill. The stone caught the one-horn right above the eye. The creature’s skull caved in and something sticky spurted onto his fingers. The legs kept twitching, so, repulsed, Tag took another swing, then another, and another. Finally, the one-horn slumped, held up by its caught horn.
Tag caught his breath, expecting at any moment the creature would find a reserve of life to flail its limbs once more. He thought he might have to call this whole heroism thing off if it kept to its current trend of growing more difficult with each victory. A cooling breeze snuck low to the ground, but it was unequal to the task of carrying away the one-horn’s stench. Tag’s stomach heaved. He lost his mushrooms.
He wasn’t hungry on the way back to the city, but he was exhausted. Night was washing in like a high tide when he tripped on his own feet in sight of the gates and hit the ground like a sack of wet laundry.
Later, he didn’t know how much, a flurry of lightning bugs resolved into torches being carried by a score of guardsmen. Their voices came softly to Tag’s ear:
“Is that him?”
“He did it?”
“But the bounty was ours!“
It may have been part of a dream, but Tag could have sworn that a fight broke out above him between a man who wanted to air his lungs and the remaining good souls who wanted to bring him to a bed and tuck him in with lullabies.
The good guys one and, through fluttering eyes and an equally flighty mind, Tag found himself in the lord’s receiving chambers being talked to in a voice that reminded Tag of the tone his father would take when lecturing his sons, though the voice’s words were about honor, and duty, and thanksgiving, and other things that meant Tag couldn’t go to bed, yet.
Then he found himself in bed. It was smelled like women’s powder, and something tugged the sheets whenever he moved, but it was warm, and soon he was fully in dream. He awoke to a blast of cold air and the buzzing of a mob and feared for a moment he had imagined the victories of the previous day. He rolled out of bed before he knew exactly why and got his bearings. He was in an ornate, if small, bedroom. The bones of a dead fire lay in an open bit at the center of the room, a brass hood settled overtop to catch the fumes. The stone floor was cold on his bare feet. He wondered where his shoes had gone. He looked down, and then wondered where the rest of his clothes had gone.
Behind him came the clearing of a throat. He turned to the doorway. The lord’s daughter stood there in the same red dress she had worn yesterday, the same needling scowl darkening her brows and eyes.
“You talk in your sleep, husband,” she said. The door was open and in the hallway beyond Tag could see two large men in scale and half-helms, visors down to mask their expressions. “Seven flies?” the lord’s daughter scoffed. She crossed behind the fume hood, during which time Tag thought to preserve what he could of his modesty with a pillow from the bed. The lord’s daughter paused a moment at the open window, the source of both the cold air and the angry amalgamate voice of the crowd. She looked out, surveying her domain, and then closed the shutters.
“You should hear my brother,” said Tag, unsticking his tongue from the roof of his mouth.
The lord’s daughter grinned at that, but it wasn’t a warming expression. “Yes. Your lies now are common knowledge,” she said. She adopted a hurt frown. “I’m afraid our marriage is over.”
“I’m... sorry?” said Tag. He wondered how long he had been sleeping.
“Guards,” said the lord’s daughter. She turned away from Tag as the guards entered, peering out through a slit in the shutters.
“Um,” said Tag. The guards each took a shoulder and led him out of the room, kindly allowing him to take his pillow with him. They went down what seemed to be the back way, passing through a room of red-hot pot-bellied stoves, circumventing a bustling kitchen, and edging down several thin, dark spiral stairways. They arrived, at last, at a corridor of cold blue stone, a row of small rooms chopped out of each side. Tag was escorted into one of these cells, urged to sit on a straw pallet, and, finally, ordered to relinquish his pillow. An iron grate was slid out of the wall and fastened with a small loop of chain. Without a word, the guards clanked away. Tag looked around his new accommodations in the faint hope that there would be something to hit. That’s when he realized that they, whoever had taken his clothes during the night, had also taken his belt.
“You are such a whoreson,” said a voice. From the corridor came a figure, shrouded in long black robes. A pair of hands emerged from the sleeves and lifted back a heavy hood, revealing a head of golden hair made silver in the filtered light.
“Joff,” said Tag. “Gods, what are you doing here?”
“Picking up the salt you sowed across my plans, grain by infuriating grain. What are you doing here?”
“I... wanted to show you my belt,” said Tag. Then, as Joff snorted, he added, “And to tell you I saw your mother in an alley.”
“Giving last rites to yours?”
Tag got up from the pallet and wrapped his fingers around the cold iron door. “Can you get me out here, Joff?”
Joff never used to belly-laugh. Even when Tag tripped that one time and fell into a dry well, he just chuckled, like dust sifting down into Tag’s lungs. Now, he threw back his head and shook cobwebs from the corners. He had been learning. “No. I can not get you out of here, no more than I can order my hands to turn against me. I put you here, and, until I recover from your interference, here you’ll remain. Besides,” he added. “It’s for your own safety. The citizens were merely smoldering yesterday, when they got ahold of captain Quail, compared to the rage they feel toward Tag the Tailor.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It has come to their attention, through a number of rather elegantly-written broadsides, that the Quail gang were actually killed by each other, if you can believe that of such good and moral men, after a night of drunken revelry. Some had their skulls smashed, some bled to death.”
“But that’s not—“
“And, also, the body of the one-horn in the forest has disappeared which, the author of these broadsides dares suggests, may mean that the one-horn was not, in fact, executed as Tag the Tale-Teller would have us all believe.”
“And the belt? The death’s heads mark seven pillbugs, squished beneath mighty Tag’s rather overlarge feet.”
“Flies,” said Tag. “They were flies.” He slumped back into the shadows. The difference in distance was made up by Joff, who pressed close to the bars.
“You see, dear brother,” he said. “Your storied lies are bare! mere skeletons to drape a notion over. You haven’t the imagination to mortar the spaces with detail. You trust your audience will take the task up for you. I, on the other hand, have reservoirs of imagination and very little trust at all.” Tag had nothing to say, but Joff seemed more than happy to fill the silence. “Your divorce now to my dear Vivianne should be complete. As the man who exposed Tag the Thief to his lordship, I find myself in good favor. Perhaps I should thank you. I had meant to collect on the bounty myself, through the use of several ingenious devices of my own, but all seems well, and I am more than pleased to let it end well.” Several days later, as Tag judged it from his dim cell, a guard came by with a platter full of steaming meat. Tag had been hearing cheers all day long — a pleasant change from the mob’s grumbling.
“Your share of the wedding feast,” said the guard, sliding the platter under the door. Tag went over to it and picked up a scrap of parchment that had come with it. On the parchment was a picture of a one-horn, and beneath the picture a number of what Tag recognized were words, though he didn’t know what meaning they carried. They spiked and dipped over the page like a row of men with pitchforks, taunting him. He tore the paper and picked at the meat, though it was mostly gristle, and bits of the hide had been left attached.
A week later, Tag was awoken in the night by a voice hissing, “All clear!“ and the whine of his cell door being pulled aside. A pair of rough-built men shouldered their way in and grabbed Tag by the elbows.
“Your brother says remember this,” said one, and then they were out the door. Tag was bundled onto an empty liquor cart and covered over with a burlap sack. He kept his head down. The cart took the weight of his rescuers and then a whip snapped and they rumbled off.
Tag dozed off; he awoke halfway upright, the wide hand of one of the roughs gripping him by the neck.
“Your brother said remember this,” said the rough. The hand around Tag’s neck vanished only to return, with more force, on his solar plexus. He fell down gasping as the cart executed a ragged turn and drove back the way it had come.
Tag got to his feet. The cart had dropped him practically on his doorstep, had his tailor’s shack had a doorstep. Wincing when he breathed, he went inside to greet the hills of mending that had risen during his absence.
News from the city tended to come only occasionally to the village, more from lack of bother than anything else. So, the men and women there were unconcerned with Tag the Tale-Teller, as long as he was still Tag the Tailor. Things returned to the way they had been before Tag ever made his belt; he took to capturing flies in jam jars and releasing them outside.
One day in summer, news from the city did reach the village: the lord was dead, and his son-in-law would be assuming the regency after a week of mourning and celebration. A number of men from the village planned to attend the festival; they invited Tag to come along, but he politely declined.
The men returned at the end of the week hungover and exuberant. Tag, they said, had missed the greatest festival of all time: the lord’s daughter, lady Vivianne, had appeared in on the third day in the somber company of her husband, the new lord Joffrey; on the fifth day, she came alone, but silent and tearful; on the sixth day she told her secrets, and all were made aware that lord Joffrey had poisoned lady Vivianne’s father so that he might ascend the swifter. Before the seventh day dawned, the mob had beaten down the doors to the university, where lord Joffrey still maintained his private quarters, and set the dormitories ablaze. On the seventh day, with no sign of Joff the Pretender, lady Vivianne declared she would rebuild the university better than it had been before.
Tag was ready, therefore, for the knock that came at his door the night after the revelers returned. He greeted the visitor with a swung fist. The man was wearing a homespun sack and fell as though it were full of potatoes.
“Gods damn it, Tag!“ Joff whirled to his feet, trying to look regal, but, in his current attire, he just came off silly. “Let me inside!“
“All right,” said Tag, an impulse from childhood overtaking his desire to crow victory in case it would goad Joff into stealing it from him. He stepped aside.
Joff darted in and slammed the door behind him, leaning on it to catch his breath and dab at his new split lip. “She—“ he said, and spit blood like venom “—had some stories of her own to tell.”
“So I heard,” said Tag. He returned to his sewing.
After a while, Joff ventured further into the room. “Have you anything to eat?” he asked.
“Out back,” said Tag. “I saved some of your generous gift.” Joff, forgetting for the moment what gift Tag was speaking of, headed for the back door. He reappeared a moment later.
“We have to go,” he said. A torch cartwheeled through the old glass window behind him. “I may have been seen,” he conceded.
Tag got to his feet and gave Joff another good fist in the mouth. Then he poked his head out the front door while the torch sputtered uselessly on the bare floor. A knot of men were plugging the path toward the center of town.
“They’re out back, too,” said Joff.
“Can we make it to the forest?” asked Tag.
“Not alive,” said Joff. Tag crept to the back door and peered out, careful not to show too much of the whites of his eyes. He had an idea. “On the count of two,” he said to Joff.
“What do you—“
“One, two,” said Tag, then shoved open the back door. Bip, bop, two arrows slammed into the wall. Tag ran, Joff hot on his heels, at an angle away from both groups of toughs. The shadows hid them a bit, but not enough.
“Where are we—“ Joff began, but he was interrupted by Tag coming to a halt and throwing himself down a well. An arrow hissed over Joff’s shoulder and took with it all his reservation. He leapt in after his brother.
“Remember this?” asked Tag when all the dust had settled.
“We can’t stay here,” said Joff.
“Well, obviously,” said Tag.
“No, I mean we can’t stay here. We need to find another place to live. It’s not safe for us here.”
“It’s not safe for you.”
“You’ll recall I made things somewhat difficult for you, as well.”
A pounding of feet shook dust from the sides of the well; it sifted down like silver shavings. Tag chewed his bottom lip.
“Fine,” he said. “You win.”
* * *
This city smelled of incense and monkey feces, rope and sweat. The streets were long strands, connected only loosely and occasionally. Women carried baskets of fruit on their heads and wore garments so loose, so filmy that their stitches had to be made of spider’s webs. No one had need of a tailor of his skill.
Tag had found an intersection to set up his table, a rough plank on two empty casks. He saw new people every day, which was good for a man in his line of work.
He dealt the cards out on the table and watched with one eye a beggar down the street. The beggar had found a mark, a younger woman with a bowl of tubers in the crook of her arm. The girl was blushing. She beckoned to the beggar and he followed her around a bend and out of sight.
Tag focused on the task at hand, sliding the cards, shiny with grease, around on the tabletop for the fat, sleepy-eyed woman in front of him. The woman stroked her chin and pointed at a card. Tag flipped it over.
“I’m so sorry,” said Tag, pocketing the woman’s coin. The woman laughed, shrugged, said something in her own language and went on her way. Tag shuffled the deck of cards to pass the time.
The beggar appeared from a doorway and ambled over, shaking dust from his golden hair.
“Good business, brother?” asked Tag. Joff shook the pocket of his loose trousers. The fabric jingled.
“I told her I was a ruined king. I have to purchase my noble steed back from the shah. I think that’s what I said. You?” asked Joff.
Tag spotted a likely mark. He spread his cards out on the table, face-up. “I’ll tell you in a bit,” he said. He raised his voice and switched to what he knew of the local tongue. “Hello! hello! Would you like some easy money? Yes, you would! Just watch the seven.” He flipped the cards. “Watch the seven.”
Copyright © 2005 by Bewildering Stories on behalf of the author