Last Breath of Excelsior 1

CHAPTER 1
The “Knight”

Content Warning: Profanity (A, D, S words)

            “I’m sorry, Ritter, I don’t need any extra help. My boys already handle most everything here,” the shopkeep Tompsa said, tapping his pale white finger on the countertop.

            A young, dark-skinned girl’s hands slid from the counter’s edge, slumping as her shoulders did.

            “Are you sure? I could…just stock things? Or clean?” Ritter asked.

            Tompsa shook his head. “Sorry, Rit. Why don’t you try the saloon? They could probably use some help.”

            “Mum doesn’t want me hanging ‘round there,” the girl looked up to the shopkeep from behind a crestfallen brow.

            Tompsa sighed, and stared into his backroom. “Well, maybe once Dellen goes off for school next year. I’ll keep you in mind for then, alright?”

            Ritter nodded slowly, but a year from now was nebulous. It was an easy promise to make, but far enough into the mystery of tomorrows to be bereft of any real commitment. Ritter could think of nothing else to do, so she shuffled over to the shelf with the candy jars, considering spending a few copper on sweets to soften the blow of rejection.

            “Oh, here comes trouble,” one of the men sitting in the corner playing cards said, turning away from the window.

            “What?” Tompsa chirped, his fingers curling as his hands rested on the counter, his narrow eyes widening.

            “Just the ‘knight’,” Gripple, the other card player mumbled, taking his own glance out the window.

            “Oh, for…don’t say things like that Muller, making me think we’ve got bandits again,” Tompsa growled.

            “Haw haw haw! ‘Bandits again,’ he says. ‘Keep, that was three years ago,” Muller said between snorts.

            “And they didn’t even get to town,” Gripple muttered.

            Ritter looked past her shoulder at the door, gripped with intrigue about the ‘trouble’, the ‘knight’. Footsteps soon clapped on the wooden walkway out front of the shop, and the door opened with a creak after a few eternities of waiting. Ritter’s shoulders sank just a bit as a thin, tall, light-skinned man filled the doorway. Older than she would have expected, with a white crown of hair, and no shining armor, simply hempen pants and a yellowing, cotton button-down shirt. At his hip, no blade, but a leather pouch, fastened shut with a loosening button. The only thing grand of him was a bushy, silver mustache, flanked by cheeks studded by white stubble. Despite the whiteness of his hair, his eyebrows were a thick black, arching downward toward the bridge of his nose.

            The knight approached the counter and gave the shopkeep a small nod.

            “Sir Kel,” Tompsa nodded. “How are the kids?”

            “Fine. Growing,” the man muttered. He pulled a small note from his pocket, unfolded it, and pushed it toward Tompsa on the counter. “I need these today.”

            The shopkeep’s eyes ran over the paper, mouthing most of the list.

            “Think I can get all this…ah, except the maize, we’re short some of it still – Black Hand was found out west, attacking caravans, so shipments have slowed.”

            The old man let out a flat hum from his throat, like a creaking door hinge.

            “Would you like half of it now? Or I can wait until the full stock is in for you?”

            “That’s fine, it can wait,” the old man said. He kept his voice low, as his business was his, though Tompsa was loud, jovial almost.

            The old man’s hand dropped from the counter’s edge and reached for a scroll in his pouch. Ritter surreptitiously eyed the rolled parchment, which he kept close to his leg, mostly hidden between him and the counter. The old man’s jaw tremored, and he kept catching his voice before it became a sentence, until finally working up the courage to speak.

            “And this,” he said, placing the scroll gently on the counter. “If you could put it up on your board…the fee is inside.”

            “Oh, a job posting? Let’s see here…”

            In one last moment of hesitance, the knight’s hand reached fruitlessly for the scroll to take it back, and his shoulders sank when Tompsa unfurled the paper.

            “You need help with your new field?”

            “…yes…” the old man sighed.

            “A gold coin a day? Mighty generous of you, Dun.”

            Ritter’s interest was decidedly piqued. If anyone had paid her any mind, they would have seen her eyes open wide, darting about for signs of other unseen, unemployed jobseekers she would have to compete with.

            “If you could just get that posted, and I’ll help your boys load my carriage.”

            “You sure? With how people…?” Tompsa trailed off into a slight cringe.

            “Just do it,” the old man tried to hide a sneer.

            “Awright, just didn’t want you to toss money on a posting that don’t get no bites, is all. I keep this posting cost, y’know, even if there’re no applicants.”

            “It’s fine.”

            The old man walked to the door, resting his hand on the white-painted wood.

            “Hey there, Dun. How’s that scarecrow workin’ out for you?” Muller said, barely able to get it out without smirking.

            “Shut your damned mouth,” Dun growled, slapping the door open and leaving the shop.

            Ritter pulled a handful of candy from one of the jars, and shuffled up to the counter, pouring some copper coins out of her hand. Muller chuckled loudly, Gripple let out a single “ha” as he examined his cards.

            “Muller, why you gotta be such a sop. Leave the man be,” Tompsa snapped.

            “That man don’t need no kindness,” Muller barked back, slapping his cards on the table – face up.

            Gripple considered the open hand and folded his own.

            “Not sure why you think it’s smart to hassle a guy like that, Mull,” Gripple muttered.

            “Don’t he live near you? You’re gonna wake up one morn with a sword in your chest.” Tompsa took Ritter’s copper and brushed the candy to her.  “Sorry, Rit, here you go.”

            Tompsa took Dun’s note and called for his boys, handing them the list. Ritter’s eyes were locked on the unrolled scroll on the countertop, even as she slowly placed her candies in her pocket. She stretched her body, rolling up onto the tips of her toes to read the scroll. It was upside-down, and she could barely read right-side up. She mouthed the words, one at a time as she deciphered them. It barely registered, though, as her focus was repeatedly drawn to the compensation written at the bottom, “one gold coin a day”.

            Tompsa stepped loudly out from the back room, and Ritter, startled, coiled inward, flat on her feet, hunching over.

            “Oh, Rit, you’re still here?” Tompsa said.

            “Yeah, I…uhhh…” Ritter’s eyes set on the scroll again.

            “Do you…you want to take the job, Rit?”

            “Maybe, since you’re not hiring at all.”

            “Oh Rit, this isn’t a job for someone like you. Farming is hard work.”

            “Not really burdened with the luxury of choice, ‘keep,” Ritter said, resting her fingers on the edge of the counter. “Unless you think I should take on one of the other jobs on the board. Think a ten-year-old’d be good as a tracker in the Evergreen Pall, or maybe the expedition that needs a mage to deal with the Shoff Mine’s slime problem?”

            “Alright young lady, don’t have a snit, it’s unbecoming.”

            “So is starvin’.”

            “You don’t want nothin’ to do with that grump and his dirt,” Muller said.

            “He’s paying, ain’t he?” Ritter asked, nearly adopting the knight’s earlier tone with the cardplayer.

            “Paying for nothin’,” Muller clapped back. “Bought a spot of land near the trees and doesn’t even know the first thing about makin’ it yield anything but weeds.”

            “Wouldn’t listen to anyone neither,” Gripple chimed in.

            “Put up that ugly-as-sin scarecrow before he even has the ground tilled.”

            “Backwards curmudgeon,” Gripple said with a chuckle.

            “Not like the thing works anyway, crows sit right on the damned thing.”

            “Well he needs help, someone starting up another farm is good for the town, ain’t it?” Ritter said. “Means more food.”

            “Oh sure! Can’t wait to see what he reaps,” Muller cackled.

            “At least he’s doing more’n play cards in the market all day,” Ritter said, walking for the door.

            “Now you listen here girl,” Muller said, turning in his chair. “I fought that damned sorcerer and his minions, I earned this leisure.”

            “Muller, the war ended while you were being shipped to the front line, quit saying you fought anything,” the shopkeep interjected.

            “Aw well thanks for your service, Muller,” Ritter said with a mock curtsey.

            Gripple chuckled, turning it into a throat clear when Muller gave him a sour look.

            “Don’t go disrespecting people and how they spend their time,” Muller sneered.

            “Practice what you preach, Muller,” Ritter said shutting the door.

            Outside, just down the street a way, were the shopkeeper’s sons packing supplies into a topless wagon. Ritter’s thumbs dug into her pants pockets, the hems tightening as she curled them back into her fists. She watched as they continued packing the back, shuffling closer on her legs that moved of their own accord.

            “Pa says the maize should be here day after tomorrow, he’ll set it aside for you,” one of the boys said as he left the street.

            “Alright, thank you, boys,” the old man said.

            Dun stopped on his way back to his carriage, staring straight at Ritter with a sack over his shoulder. “What?”

            “Huh?” Ritter jumped, not realizing she had been standing next to the wagon’s back.

            “What do you want? You an urchin, need coin?” Dun dropped the sack in the wagon bed.

            “No…I…”

            “What?” Dun repeated, his annoyance punctuated by slamming the back door of the wagon closed.

            “I…I need coin, but I ain’t no urchin,” Ritter said, staring directly at the point between his dark, arched eyebrows. “You posted that job, something about a farm. A coin a day?”

            “Aye, why would you wanna do that?” Dun stepped away from the wagon’s back, moving to the seat at the front.

            Ritter followed. “Because I need work. Mum’s sick, pa’s away. Coin means food, medicine.”

            “Alright, next question – why would I hire a child to do the work of an adult? Kids should be in school, or playin’ with sticks.”

            “Can’t learn on an empty stomach, twisted in knots with worry about my sick mum. And sticks are dumb, I’d take a sword.”

            Dun stared her down. “And the whole ‘being a child’ thing?”

            “I can work twice as hard as any adult.”

            “Oh yeah? And if I needed an adult to move a boulder from the field, you gonna lift it over your head and huck it skyward to the Eight’s firmament?”

            “You know many adults ‘round who can move a boulder?” Ritter hit quick, and Dun’s cheek twitched, instead of curling into a sneer as it normally would have. “I may not be as strong as an adult, but I’ve got it where it counts, more than the adults in this town. Unless you think someone like Muller is gonna take your offer? That knob wouldn’t know a post hole from his own pucker.”

            Dun couldn’t hide his sneer at the thought of Muller setting foot on his property.

            “Work twice as hard as any adult, huh?”

            “You pay me double, I’ll work twice as hard.”

            “Two gold a day, huh?”

            A chill ran down Ritter’s spine. Had she somehow bartered her way not only into her first job, but at double the posted rate?

            “Y-you bet!” Ritter blurted.

            However, had she gotten in over her head? She didn’t know the first thing about farming beyond it being about making food spring from the ground. Would she dig holes? She’s done that before, at least. Conversely, she figured Dun wouldn’t hire her for work he knew she wouldn’t be able to do, for experience that she lacked.

            “Two gold a day, at least seven bells of work.” Dun held his wrinkling, tanned hand out to the girl. “Think you can handle that?”

            Ritter slid her palm onto Dun’s, feeling the callouses immediately. Her fingers could barely reach around the sides of his hand as she shook it.

            “You won’t regret it!”

            “Hope not,” Dun said, releasing her hand. “You know where to go?.”

            Dun climbed into the seat of his wagon and took up the reigns.

            “Farm at the edge of town, near the trees. I’ll find it.”

            “See you tomorrow, then. Wear somethin’ you don’t mind gettin’ dirty. Somethin’ ratty,” Dun warned.

            “I’ll leave my ballgown in the closet then,” Ritter replied, smirking.

            Dun took a deep breath and sighed, turning his attention ahead and spurring his horse to motion.

            “See you tomorrow!” Ritter called.

            Dun made no effort to respond, but Ritter didn’t care, she was too busy smirking about the prospect of two gold coins a day, for digging holes or something like that.

            Ritter had left the house when the sun hit the edge of her pillow, which she considered nature’s way of forcing her out of bed, lest the light shine directly onto her head. She wore a baggy set of her father’s overalls she took from her parents’ closet, her mother smiled to see her in it. Ritter’s feet stamped on the dirt as she jogged down the road leading outside of town. The rolled-up hems of her overalls flopped around her ankles as she made wide steps, and the shoulder straps took turns daring to slide off her shoulders as her arms swung in wide, excited arcs. As she crested the small hill at the edge of town, she saw the tips of the tree line that flanked the area, and nestled next to it, a small farm plot.

            In the field of dirt and grass patches was a crooked standing scarecrow, its shoulders slumped, and an old burlap sack topped with an ill-fitting, ratty old cap — what would pass for a head — drooped like a sullen drunkard deep in his cups. Several crows had perched around it, either cawing from atop the head or shoulders, or pecking at the dirt it was pitched in. Ritter might not have considered it “ugly as sin”, as Muller put it, but it certainly didn’t seem to do its one job. As she approached the grounds, Ritter could hear the murmurs of different farm animals, always punctuated by the crows’ calls.

            The house was modest, a single story with a porch, furnished with a bench, barrel, and chair. Ritter climbed the single step to the porch, glancing into the two windows on either side of the front door as she approached it, but she saw nothing but bare, wooden walls within. She curled her hand into a fist and rapped on the door with the sharp edge of her middle knuckle. She waited silently, listening to birds chirp, crows caw, and a cow moo from elsewhere. She knocked again, and this time, she heard heavy, dragging footfalls on wood beyond the door, which soon opened. Dun’s eyes lowered to Ritter’s, unspeaking as he chewed on the remnants of something, eggs to Ritter’s best guess.

            “I heard you needed some boulders moved from your field?” Ritter said with a wide smile.

            Dun closed the door in her face. Footsteps receded into the house. Ritter stared at a knot in the grain of the door as she exhaled. She opened the door and stepped into the house, letting the door shut behind her as she entered the modest space. The floor creaked as she shuffled into the center of the house.

            “Hello?” Ritter said, looking about.

            A lone plate sat on the table with a fork sitting tines-down at its center. The hearth crackled with cooling embers. A stack of books sat next to an old chair near the hearth, facing the window that gave a decent view beyond the porch to the town and the hills past it. On the wall hung a leather satchel, different from the one she had previously seen on Dun’s hip. The flap was pushed aside, and the corked top of what looked to be a potion bottle peeked out, but it was otherwise clasped shut with an elegant buckle. Despite the house being about twice the size as her own, Ritter was surprised that it was far less furnished.

            Dun emerged from the single bedroom door adjusting the collar of his shirt.

            “I hope you aren’t going to be cracking jokes this whole time,” he said, brushing past her to the door. “I didn’t pay for a jester.”

            “Of course not, the jesting is free of charge,” Ritter said happily.

            Dun’s shoulders sank, and his hand rested on the doorknob. “Let’s go.”

            Dun left the house, and Ritter hurried to keep up, following the old man.

            “To start, I’ll get you to help with the animals, and then take over while I tend to other things.”

            “So not digging holes?”

            “Digging holes?”

            “Just…I thought that’s what we’d be doing with the field.”

            “For now, just the animals. I’ll show you the kids first.”

            Dun opened a small shack, beyond which was an enclosure where four baby goats played around a tree stump.

            “Oh hello you wee cuties!” Ritter’s eyes lit up.

            The kids pranced around Dun and Ritter, bleating happily.

            “That’s Cheese, Milk, Potatoes, and Two Gold Coins,” Dun pointed at each in kind. “I call him ‘Coins’ for short.”

            “What are those names…?”

            “It’s what I traded for them.”

            “Oh.”

            “For now just make sure their troughs are full at feeding time. Might ask you to play with them now and again, let them graze, burn off some energy.”

            “Okay.”

            “And watch out for Potatoes, she’s an asshole.” Dun left the enclosure, leaving Ritter to look Potatoes right in the eyes and regard her with a newfound wariness.

            Potatoes stared straight back, and feinted a charge, digging her little hooves into the dirt, her ears flopping on either side of her menacing gaze.

            Dun led Ritter to the small barn next to the enclosure, and pushed the door open to the three stalls within, with a large pile of hay in the corner.

            “These are the dairy cows.” Dun looked to the two cows, one with black spots, and one with orange spots. “You’ll make sure they get milked twice a day each, take the buckets over here and fill the tanks carefully.”

            Dun kicked a large metal tank in the corner of the barn.

            “What are their names, Watermelon and Cartwheel?” Ritter said, walking up to the orange-spotted cow’s stall.

            Dun put his hands to his hips. “You think I could get a whole-ass dairy cow for some watermelon?”

            “Well what’s her name then?” Ritter asked, holding a hand out to the cow she stood next to.

            “That one? Bull.”

            “You traded a bull for a single cow?”

            “Not one.”

            “They’re both named ‘Bull’? How do you tell them apart?”

            “They’re different colors, and if you’re gonna keep criticizing what I name my animals, I’m gonna knock off that extra gold coin a day we agreed on,” Dun grumbled, leaving the barn.

            Ritter followed, saying “Okay, I’m sorry. What else will we be doing?”

            “I’ll be out in the field most of the time, once you finish with the animals, I’ll probably have something else for you to do.”

            Dun guided Ritter to the field, the small patch of dirt, populated by nothing but the crows and shirking scarecrow.

            “Oh yes…the ‘ugly-as-sin’ scare.”

            “The wha?”

            “Your scarecrow. Muller and Gripple were making fun of it.”

            “Those muckbrains have anything good to say about anything?”

            “My dad used to say if you couldn’t say anything nice about someone, you shouldn’t say anything at all.”

            “Yeah, and…?”

            “I ain’t got nothing to nice say about them, as per pop’s rules.”

            “Good,” Dun said, looking at the scarecrow in the distance. “It’s a small field, but I’m gonna be digging the rows for planting. We’ll get the kids and the cows to graze, help keep everything from growing over.”

            “Okay…what are we growing?” Ritter asked, putting her hands to her hips.

            Dun scoffed. “‘We’, she says. I wanted to start growing maize. There’s a stream a little ways in the woods there, can use that to get whatever water we need if it doesn’t rain enough.”

            “Maize ain’t from around here, right?”

            “Yup, heard the people on the Western Shores grew a lot of it. Shipments have been coming in, thought I’d get some.”

            “Why not wheat?”

            “Everyone grows wheat,” Dun sneered.

            “Folk said you didn’t listen to anyone’s help.”

            “No one offered me any – just said I was a fool to buy the land; a fool thinkin’ to make it a farm; a fool for thinkin’ to grow maize. I told them I knew what I was doin’, they steered clear, and that’s fine by me.”

            “Why put up the scarecrow before you had anything to scare them away from?”

            “Wanted to see if it would work.”

            “Well, I got news for yah, sir…”

            Crows continued cawing around the misnamed mannequin, hopping about its malformed shape. The scarecrow shifted slightly in the earth, and the crows scattered to the sky, leaving ebony feathers in their egress.

            Ritter dodged a man on horseback, slipping aside as they trotted down the tight backstreet. She came to a small home, more of a hole in the wall, and she scraped dirt from the soles of her shoes on the edge of a small wooden stoop. Ritter opened the door slowly, trying to mitigate the hinge’s stressed squeaks as best she could.

            “Rit? Is that you?” a strained, female voice said from within.

            “You’re awake,” Ritter let the door open wide, no longer caring for the door’s wailing.

            In the small home sat Biel, a dark-skinned woman covering her frail frame with a thick blanket. She moved with visible lethargy, but still emitted a bright smile.

            “Yes, only for a little while now.” Biel set down a book and inched herself to the edge of the couch. “Come here, let me see the hands of a hard worker.”

            Ritter smiled, walking across the den, rubbing her hands clean with her pantlegs. She held her palms up to her mother, who took them in her lap. Biel’s soft fingers weakly slid over Ritter’s hands. Ritter knew she was looking for some kind of injury, she always did. Biel could never stop her from her spirited play, but it was almost ritualistic for Ritter to be inspected for cuts and bruises she could mend.

            “Oh I think I see a callous,” her mother said.

            “What? Where?” Ritter asked, leaning in to look at her own hands.

            “Right…here!” Biel’s lithe fingers tickled Ritter’s palms.

            Ritter giggled, pulling her hands away, wiping away the sensation in her palms on the stomach of her overalls.

            “Your turn, hold out your hands,” Ritter said.

            Biel opened her hands in her lap, and after digging into the pocket of her overalls, Ritter gently set two gold coins in her palms.

            “Oh my, two gold,” Biel said.

            “A day.” Ritter smiled. “You can put those in the coffer. The first of many.”

            Biel took a coin in each hand, holding one out to her daughter. “We’ll put one aside, but one is for you.”

            “No, I did this for us, I don’t need more than some copper in my pocket, mum.”

            “Ritter, you earned this. Take it,” her mother said sternly, with as much authority she could muster in her ailing state.

            Ritter could tell when her mother was being serious. Having been a teacher, she had a specific tone she could take on, so Ritter relented. She pinched the coin presented to her between two fingers and stared at its slightly worn face.

            “I’m so proud of you, Ritter. I only wish you didn’t have to do this on my account.”

            “It’s okay mum,” Ritter said, pocketing the coin. “This is what I wanted to do. I can go back to school when you’re able to go back to the schoolhouse with me.”

            Biel smiled, taking in the sight of her daughter draped in the ill-fitting overalls.

            “You look so adorable in your father’s overalls. Did they help you work on the farm?”

            “Oh yeah, that place is dirty. Dun has animals, and he gave them really dumb names like Potatoes, and Potatoes is a little monster.”

            “A…monster?”

            “Oh, not a real one,” Ritter laughed. “Potatoes is a baby goat, but she thinks she’s a dragon or something.”

            “Spirited farm animals, then? And what of Sir Kel, was he helpful?”

            “He’s cranky, but it’s fine.”

            “You be sure not give him a hard time.”

            “I know. I heard Gripple call him a knight. Is that why you call him ‘Sir Kel’?”

            “Of course, and you should do the same. It’s not very often a man of his stature comes to a town like ours. He needs to be treated appropriately.”

            As Dun’s farm was some ways outside of town, what little perpetual light that bloomed from the settlement didn’t reach very far. Instead, the moon and the stars bathed the homestead in a dim light, coloring the land beneath in a cool blue sheen. In the field, three figures shuffled around, dumping sacks of rubbish onto the dirt. One with a shovel had taken to burying the refuse from his sack.

            “I’m empty,” one whispered, coming up on the figure with the shovel. “Now what?”

            The figure with the shovel patted the dirt with the flat of the spade, and burped. “I’m thinking it’s about time we did something about…that thing.”

            The shovel-wielding figure stumbled through the field, dragging the tool behind him, approaching the scarecrow, tilted to one side in the dirt.

            “Really? You wanna smash it? Won’t he know it’s us then?” the third figure asked, bringing up the rear.

            “We ain’t the only ones what laughed at this eyesore.”

            “Do it then, Muller, let’s get outta here. Bein’ this far from town so late at night gives me the willies.”

            “You sop, grow a spine,” Muller whispered loudly, raising the shovel in his hands.

            “Get it, Muller,” the other figure said.

            Muller widened his stance and wound up with the shovel, staring the scarecrow right in the burlap sack. The brim of the ratty cap that topped it flapped gently in the night breeze, and Muller’s grip tightened.

            “Well? Get it,” a figure insisted.

            “I…” Muller muttered, all but frozen in place. “Somethin’ don’t feel right.”

            “Gettin’ spooked there, Muller?”

            “Hey Muller, ‘grow a spine’, ya sop,” the other figure chuckled.

            There was a rustling, low, almost like a growl. Muller dropped the shovel and backed away. The men stared at the scarecrow, and in the failing light, the dark played tricks with their eyes. The scarecrow’s silhouette writhed in the ink of the night, and three crows scattered from its form, cawing and beating their wings with an almost thunderous display.

            “Shit, I didn’t even see ‘em!”

            Then, something hit the men, each deep in their chests, and running felt like the greatest idea they had ever had in their entire lives.

            “Go, get!” Muller said, turning away.

            “Bu- my spade!”

            “Leave it!” Muller growled.

            The three figures rushed from the field toward the road that flanked it, where a wagon was parked. On the opposite side of the field, where the modest house sat, Dun stood beneath the shadow of the porch, watching the men scurry away. He looked in the distance to the scarecrow, listening as the crows’ noise subsided.

            We could have laid waste to them all, if we had only known what we were walking into. Yet how could we have known? They lied to us, a voice echoed in Dun’s head in the silence of the night.

            The old man took a deep breath through his nose, and then headed back inside.

            While Ritter’s first day on the farm was mostly her watching as Dun showed her how to do what he was paying her to do, the next day her work began in earnest. Dun’s workday started much earlier, cleaning up the garbage that had been discarded on the field. He could have left it for Ritter to pick up, but he felt that wasn’t her problem. Ritter arrived none the wiser a little before noon, and Dun left her to her own devices while he began plunging a shovel into the dirt. Ritter was content in the confirmation of her previous assumption that farming, somehow, did involve digging holes, even if she wasn’t digging them herself. Ritter followed behind the kids as they began prancing about in the field, finding patches of grass to nibble on.

            “Potatoes headbutted my leg,” the girl said, approaching Dun with a slight limp.

            “I told you to watch out for her.” Dun leaned on his shovel. “She hasn’t picked on me since I shoved her over, so she’s trying to pick on someone her own size.”

            “That’s awful, sir.”

            “Are you going to let a baby goat push you around?”

            “Well…”

            “She’s only gonna get bigger.”

            “You’re not paying me to hassle goats, Sir Kel,” Ritter said, cocking her head.

            “Fixated on that pay, huh?”

            “Need the coin, but I’d rather be doing something more active.”

            “Ah, a mercenary, are you? Blood only flows when the coin does.”

            “I prefer adventuring,” Ritter said, hopping behind one of the kids as they skipped by.

            “‘You prefer’, huh? What do you know about adventuring?”

            “Go places, help people,” Ritter said.

            “And get paid – sounds like mercenary work to me.”

            “I suppose you would know, bein’ a knight and all.”

            Dun sneered.

            “Hey, Sir Kel.”

            “Stop calling me ‘sir’, Dun is fine.”

            “Mum said I should call you ‘sir’, said you were a knight, and that deserves respect.”

            “Well all that’s just the furthest from the truth.”

            “What, that you were a knight? Or that it deserves respect?”

            “If I say both, will you stop calling me ‘sir’?”

            “I’ll stop calling you ‘sir’—” Ritter said, to Dun’s delight, “—if you tell me why you’re farming, instead of helping the downtrodden.”

            Dun sighed. “What does it matter?”

            “I dunno, it’s a pretty boring change to make.”

            “Maybe I like boring.”

            “Might as well be dead, methinks,” Ritter said.

            If I had known this was what awaited me, I never would have followed you.

            Dun felt an anger wash over his body at the implication; it made his head light and his limbs numb, but he caught himself, and instead took a deep breath.

            “Do you even know what a knight does?” he said, almost snapping.

            “Helps people?” Ritter shrugged. “Goes on adventures?”

            “Bein’ a knight and bein’ an adventurer are two different things. Knights are idiots who own land and a sword. The adventures they go on are either fighting in some snob’s war, or gettin’ eaten by a chimera trying to make a name for themselves. You wanna die for people who don’t care about you, you can do that without being a knight.”

            “But what about helping people, and going on adventures?”

            “Can do that without the nobility, too. I partied with a man from the Eastern Sands. He helped people and went on adventures.”

            “He wasn’t a knight like you?”

            “You think the aristocracy recognized the standing of a brown man, from beyond their borders? Even though he claimed he was nobility in his homeland, they treated him like everyone else treats us. To them he was just a peasant with a sword they could exploit.”

            “But he still fought for others?”

            It was never about glory, Dun. It never should have been about glory. The words rang through Dun’s mind.

            “Uh-huh. Because that’s the noble thing to do – something no one in the nobility would ever do.”

            Ritter let out a hum, as if she understood. “So, why does everyone hate you?”

            “They don’t hate me.”

            “They told me to stay away from you, said you were an angry old fool.”

            “Well, they ain’t wrong.”

            “What’s it all about then? You seem fine enough to me.”

            “That’s because I’m payin’ you.”

            “Paying me to work, not to chat, but I like chatting with you all the same.”

            “Oh how I wish you didn’t.”

            “You are mean,” Ritter laughed.

            “Alright, go corral the kids, we need to head to the shop,” Dun said.

            Ritter nodded and called for the goats, clapping and ushering them towards their enclosure. Dun walked to the barn and laid his shovel against the wall, next to another shovel – the one dropped by the men last night. He stared at it, took a deep breath, and then scooped it into his hand before walking to his wagon.

            Dun drove the wagon up to the front of the shop, and Ritter hopped out before he could even set the brake.

            “You want somethin’? I’m gonna get some copperworths,” she said, turning back to the old man.

            Dun hopped from his seat, and then reached into the bed, pulling the shovel up.

            “Why you gotta shovel?” Ritter asked.

            “Don’t worry about it,” Dun grumbled.

            Ritter’s nose wrinkled up, but she had no other cause for concern, so she made for the shop. Dun saw Muller and Gripple through the window, playing cards as usual. A tingle ran up his spine and bloomed inside his skull, but he took a deep breath and walked forward, tapping the shovel in the dirt like a cane. Inside the shop, Ritter was already paying for something that she jammed into the pocket of her oversized overalls. Muller and Gripple froze in the middle of their card game. Gripple’s eyes nearly curled out of his head as they locked on the shovel in Dun’s hand, tapping against the floorboards. Muller made some kind of noise, but Gripple cleared his throat to silence him.

            “Ah, Sir Kel,” Tompsa said warmly. “All that maize you wanted finally came in.”

            “Praise the Eight,” Dun said, tapping the head of the shovel on the wooden floor before leaning it against the counter.

            “I’ll get the boys to load it up for you. Wagon out front?”

            “Yeah, thanks. We can get the bill settled now, too,” Dun said, digging into the pouch at his hip.

            “How come he gets to call you ‘sir’ and I don’t?” Ritter asked.

            Tompsa left a sheet of paper on the counter and then made for the back.

            “Because he’s not as impressionable as you are,” Dun said, setting a small stack of coins on the counter. “Still a chance I can stop you from doin’ it.”

            “Alright then.” Tompsa shuffled back to the counter. “If you’ll sign right here, this should do it.”

            Dun took the pen offered to him and oriented the document on the countertop.

            “Say, has anyone inquired about the job?” Tompsa asked, leaning forward to urge an answer.

            “Just this one,” Dun said, motioning his head to Ritter.

            “Oh you did come together. Rit, you got the job?” the shopkeep laughed, leaning on the counter while Dun finished the paperwork.

            “Someone’s gotta do it, right?” Ritter said with a smirk.

            Dun set down the pen with a slightly loud clack. “Yeah, we got the field all cleaned up, ready for planting soon.”

            Muller’s hand slipped, sending a cascade of copper coins across the wooden playing table.

            “Rit’s thumbs’ll be green before the next moon, sounds like,” Tompsa said. “Good for you, Rit. Sorry I couldn’t help you out.”

            “It’s fine, Sir Kel here needed more help anyway,” Ritter said.

            “That extra coin is still on the chopping block, y’know,” grumbled Dun.

            Ritter pursed her lips.

            “Sir Kel, you’re all loaded up,” the shopkeep’s son Dellen called from the door.

            “Alright, thank you boys.” Dun picked up the shovel and turned for the door, but stopped next to the table where Muller and Gripple were playing. The two men took uneasy breaths and set their cards down to address the old man.

            “Uh…Dun. G’day?” Gripple said, his head shaking so much you could barely see that he had nodded.

            Dun’s hand tightened around the shaft of the shovel, so tightly his knuckles turned white, and he could feel every groove and split in the grain. His forearm flexed and muscles carved themselves into shape beneath the skin. Fire flowed through Dun’s veins and he clenched his jaw. Muller and Gripple looked to each other, and back to the old man.

            “Dun?” Ritter whispered.

            “Something…we can help you with, ‘farmer’?” Muller said. He smirked for a split second, almost to be mistaken for a twitch, but he and Dun both knew what it was.

            Dun took a deep breath through his flared nostrils, and the air blew away the fire in his brain. He tossed the shovel onto the table, dashing their card game into a mess.

            Muller yelped. “Hey, watch it you old fo—“

            “—Appreciate the gift,” Dun interrupted, “but I already got a shovel. See that gets back to your friend.”

            Ritter glanced back and forth between the shovel and Dun.

            “C’mon Rit, we gotta get back. The cows need milkin’.”

            Dun left the shop and quietly climbed into the driver’s seat of the wagon. As Ritter hopped up into her own seat, Dun looked back at the wagon bed, filled with bags of maize.

            “What happened back there?” Ritter asked, looking at Muller and Gripple through the shop window.

            “It’s nothing,” Dun growled, grabbing the reins on the toeboard.

            “Didn’t seem like nothin’.”

            Dun stared ahead, taking measured, calm breaths. Ritter looked forward, expecting them to move, but they sat there in the road. She reached into her pocket, picked one of the candies from her clutch and held it to Dun.

            “Do you want a candy?” she asked meekly.

            Dun looked at the wrapped sweet out of the corner of his eye, then looked ahead again, snapping the reins to set the wagon in motion.

CHAPTERS
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