Chapter 2:

Last Thoughts

Paladins of the Pickle Goddess


“Not even a damned sword,” I muttered. My hands were already aching from the pile of laundry I was carting back to the inn. Every time I blinked, I could see the outline of her curved form. Those antlers, stretching up to scrape the edge of the sky.

I shuddered and stomped off my boots at the edge of the door. The inn slumped over me. It wasn’t much. A pile of logs at the edge of a ramshackle town. A stray dog was curled up next to the side door I opened. I knew at the front of the building, a few of the older folks would be lighting up their pipes.

My conversation with the goddess had gone long. The sun would be setting soon.

I needed to hurry. If I thought too much about my task, I thought I could feel something setting wrong in my gut. Was it only my imagination? Had she really cured me?

I shuddered again. None of this was right. I dropped my basket of laundry next to the door and left it there, taking a hard right and fumbling down the stairs to the basement as quickly as I dared. The last thing I needed was a sprained ankle.

Below, in the little crack I’d left in the boards nailed to the window, I could see my jars shimmering. Golden mead, pickled cabbage, dill pickles, spicy pickles, peppers suspended. A set of quail eggs in the corner, rotating slowly like strange eyes.

I stifled the impulse to crush them all. She’d said my work was good. That had to mean something, didn’t it? Don’t push it, Elysia. She was fattening you up before the slaughter.

I ran my fingers down the row. I counted them every day, loosed the lids so they could let out any build-up of the magic that let them ferment. Now I cursed every ripple of glass I touched. One. Are you a killer? Two. Did he ruin you, too? Three.

I pulled out the responsible jar, scowling. I held it up to the light and counted the cucumbers that floated within. I felt my heart soar in relief. He hadn’t tried it, after all.

I let my hand drop. Not that I cared. That apprentice had been useless the whole four months I’d tried to teach him. He couldn’t fry oatcakes, he couldn’t slice a roast, and apparently his pickles were so bad they’d forced me into indentured servitude. I didn’t care who his father was; I’d be glad to be rid of him. It was the one benefit of being forced into working for a worked-up fertility goddess.

I tucked the jar underneath my arm and climbed the stairs, making sure to keep one hand on the railing until I was out in the sun again.

As soon as my feet were on solid ground, I ran. A full sprint, letting the air burn my lungs. I let my legs barrel through the door, past the dog’s head popping up, over through the muck until finally I let the pickle jar soar out of my hand. It fell just short of the creek, breaking into a thousand small shards.

I leaned over, panting hard. Then, before any wildlife got any bold ideas, I walked over and kicked some dirt over those cursed cucumbers for good measure.

Never let it be said that Elysia did things by half measures.

Once I was good and sure that the cucumbers were gone, I folded my arms and stared up at the sky. It was notably free of goddesses. It was starting to turn a dark blue, the sun just below the horizon. “Well? Any bright ideas now?”

The goddess didn’t appear. It seemed she thought her purpose here was done.

I turned on my heel and stalked back to the inn. If I was going on some great journey, I was going to have a good night of sleep first. I was too old to sleep in a cart.

I slowed by the bar as I walked, pausing. I might as well have a drink to say goodbye to the old place. I had a few hours left of my day.

~*~

I woke up the next morning with an aching gut and an aching head.

The aching head was easily explained. I still had the jar of mead cradled in my arms, like some strange glass baby. It nestled neatly in between my breasts.

The ache in my gut, less so. I sat up and winced. “Damn you, Andrena,” I said.

I paused. I couldn’t tell if the ache was getting better or worse. It was roiling as though I might actually have to do something about it soon. I had thought those days were long since behind me. Surely she hadn’t actually planned to kill me. “I mean,” I said, “I praise thee, Andrena, and…” What were the praises again? It had been so long since temple school. I kneaded one eye with the palm of my hand, stabbing pain going through my head. “May every cheese’s rind thicken in your honor?”

The pain in my gut stayed the same. I decided that was enough theology for the moment and stood up. When I managed to hold my own balance, I took a shaking breath and stumbled to the washbasin I kept by the side of my bed, washing out my mouth and pulling a comb through my hair.

It wasn’t much, for a woman approaching forty. A little room at the side of an inn. No window; next to the stables. Woken up by the sound of whinnying every morning. I tugged the comb through my hair again, wincing.

I hadn’t exactly aged gracefully, either. There were definitely wrinkles forming at the edges of my mouth, where I scowled the most often.

Still. I’d done pretty well for myself, hadn’t I? I had my own place to sleep. A steady job. And the goddess liked my pickles.

The woman looking back at me in the mirror didn’t look so impressed. She was on the green side of hungover. The mole on the upper side of her cheek looked less like a beauty mark and more like a witch’s sigil. Her hair was paling to gray at the temples.

I scrubbed a hand over my face and turned to grab my cloak. No time to waste on vanity. I had to quit my steady job and leave my place to sleep.

All because Duran didn’t know sugar from salt.

I paused, watched myself in the mirror. Maybe I didn’t have to leave. I could stay here. I could fry up the oatcakes. There was surely a healer in the next town over-

The ache in my belly doubled. “Fine,” I muttered. “I’ll go, I’ll go. Mercy!”

My clothes were still a little damp. I pulled on my three best tunics, all in a row. The top ones didn’t quite button, but that was fine. I’d learned from experience not to trust anything in a bag when you could keep it in your person. I grabbed breeches- useful for working in the garden- and then a set of skirts- useful for anywhere I wanted to be taken seriously.

I shook out my cloak, straightening it. It was the nicest thing I’d ever bought for myself. When I’d first gotten this job, I’d saved for months. It was a dark brown, nearly black, and double-lined. It had a deep hood and enough fabric to fall closed on its own.

After so much time living life with me, it had a fair share of tatters and a brilliant red patch where I’d sent my elbow through a doorway in an ill-advised brawl. I shrugged it on anyway. It was still warm.

Then there was the question of what to put in my pockets. I contemplated the surface of my side-table. It was sparse. I scraped the few pennies I had saved away into a pocket. My eating knife went into an inner pocket of my skirts.

I considered my last personal object. Everything else here was borrowed from the inn, meant for guests. The enameled comb, inlayed with birds and flowers. That was mine. Did I really want to travel with it again? I’d risked it being stolen the first time.

A horse whinnied outside again. I sighed. It was in danger either way. At least on the journey, I might be able to comb my hair. Into a skirt pocket it went.

Destrab
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