...in the days when magic ruled, and sorcerers sent sword-wielding mercenaries on quests to procure various items for their arcane purposes...
... did they require the mercenaries to submit expense reports?
Well, my apologies to Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, who'll probably turn over in their graves, but here's The Alchemist's Ledger, Part 1...
The tip of the broadsword made a satisfying schwick sound as it passed through the man’s throat. Time seemed to slow, like it always did in the heat of a fight, and the mercenary saw the droplets of blood and bits of the man’s trachea hang in the air as the heavy blade continued through the arc of his swing. The first man was done for… gone and forgotten.
The mercenary had already shifted his feet for his next move, and he deftly passed the well-worn leather grip of the sword’s hilt from his left hand to his right, allowing the weight of the blade to pull his upper body around to face the attack he knew was coming from his rear.
The second attacker halted his charge abruptly as he suddenly found the tip of the mercenary’s blade trained on his breast. He started to back away, but a companion shoved him from behind. His eyes widened in surprise as he found himself impaled. Clever move, thought the mercenary. His weapon was now weighted down with the body of the second man and useless against the attack of the third.
The mercenary swiveled on the ball of his right foot, hooked his left under the rungs of the chair he’d just risen from, and kicked the chair into the legs of the third man. The third attacker’s feet were swept from under him, aborting a vicious overhead swing with a battle axe that had been aimed at the mercenary’s head.
Still spinning, the mercenary used his momentum to jerk his blade from the body of the second man and sever the third man’s arm. The disembodied hand remained gripped around the handle of the axe, now embedded in the wooden floor. The man straightened, stared in horror at his stump of an arm spurting blood, and screamed. His scream was cut short when the mercenary’s next swing took off his head.
The mercenary spun into a defensive posture, his blade ready, facing several others who had drawn their weapons. They glanced at each other nervously, thought better of it, sidled around him, well out of sword’s reach, and left by the front door.
The mercenary stood and looked around to check for any remaining threat. There was none. He shifted the broadsword to his left hand and strode toward the bar, reaching into a small coin purse at his belt. The fat man behind the bar stepped back involuntarily at his approach, bumping into the shelves behind the bar. The stacks of dishes, cups and mugs rattled precariously, but nothing fell.
The mercenary tossed a gold coin onto the bar. “This should cover the damages,” he said.
A pudgy hand darted out to catch the coin before it spun to a stop. The hand went directly to the barkeeper’s mouth. His unshaven jowls and double chins jiggled as he tested the coin’s authenticity with his teeth. Then he nodded in agreement.
The mercenary swept his eyes around the inn once more before sheathing his sword and walking over to kneel beside the body of the first man. He reached inside the man’s vest and smiled as his hand closed around a jewel hanging from the dead man’s neck. A quick jerk snapped the thin leather strap and the jewel came free. The faceted gem gleamed red in the dim light of the inn, and the weight of it in his hand confirmed it was not the mere glass bauble the dead man had tried to imply.
The mercenary stood with a grim smile on his lips. Thank the gods, he told himself. This crazy quest is coming to an end. He wrapped the thin leather strap around the jewel and stuffed it into a pouch hanging on the left side of his belt, among the hundreds of small bits of paper within. As his fingers rustled through the papers, his smile faded. His shoulders sagged in resignation. He turned and slumped back towards the bar.
This was the part he hated.
The barkeeper saw him coming and hurriedly slipped the gold coin into a pocket under his apron, out of sight. He spread his lips into a tentative smile. “Is there something else I can get you, sir?” he mewed.
The mercenary looked down at the man, a strangely apologetic expression on his face. “Uh, yeah,” he muttered. “I need a receipt.”
The barkeeper stared blankly. The mercenary took a deep breath. He closed his eyes and threw up a silent prayer to the gods for patience. He launched into the explanation that never sufficed, although he’d rehearsed it a thousand times.
Twenty minutes later, he closed the door of the inn behind him and stepped out into the chill of an early winter’s evening. The wind carried bits of sleet that stung his cheek in places the week’s growth of beard didn’t cover. The cold instantly penetrated the thin material of his cloak, but it helped to clear his head.
He was exhausted. Not from the deadly sword fight, nor from the last few months of hunting down his quarry, but from the endless negotiations and explanations of why he needed those precious bits of paper stuffed in the pouch at his belt. Never again would he take on such a job, no matter how generous the payment.
And I won’t have to for quite a while, he thought to himself as he leaned into the wind and strode down the packed earthen street towards the livery where he’d left his mount. Tonight he would bed down next to his horse and get an early start in the morning before word spread too far that he had the jewel. The end of this quest was less than a fortnight away if he rode hard and didn’t stop too often. He wanted to deliver the jewel to the alchemist and get the rest of his payment as quickly as possible.
He shouldered open the stable door and closed it quickly behind him to keep out the cold and storm. Despite his effort, the wind blew bits of dust and straw about and stirred the blankets and tack hanging nearby. His horse turned its head and nickered in recognition and Frederick, the livery master who was in the midst of grooming the animal, turned and regarded him.
“Whew,” said Frederick, with a shiver. “Feels like the storm’s brewing up pretty good out there. Did you find who you wuz lookin’ for, sir?”
The mercenary nodded, but didn’t elaborate. The less the man knew, the better. And after dealing with the barkeeper, he didn’t feel like doing any more talking. He gave a weak smile and walked around to the other side of his horse. He stroked the animal’s neck and reached into a pocket for the core of an apple he’d saved from his meal.
Frederick shrugged and resumed his grooming. “This is a fine horse you got here, sir. And I can see you’ve took good care of ‘im, too. Says something about a man that takes care of his horse, it does.”
The mercenary smiled. Brawn was a good horse. He offered the apple core and Brawn took it appreciatively. “Yeah,” he agreed, patting the horse’s neck, “he’s worth the effort, aren’t you boy?”
“So, where’d you two come from?”
“How far south?”
“By the way, my name’s Frederick.”
Frederick peeked around Brawn’s front quarters and looked the mercenary in the eye, his brows raised.
The mercenary sighed. The man was just trying to be friendly. “Sorry,” he said. “I’ve been on the road by myself for a long time. I’m not much used to conversation. My name is Sing.”
“Well now, Sir Sing…”
“No ‘sir’, just Sing.”
Frederick lifted his head and raised his voice in a rich, throaty baritone, “There was a young maid from the south, whose fist fairly fit in her…” He trailed off and grinned sheepishly. “Sorry, I reckon you get that a lot.”
When Sing gave no reaction to the joke, Frederick cleared his throat and continued, “Well, then, it’s me should apologize for bein’ so nosy. Your business is your own and don’t need to be shared.”
Sing smiled. “You’ve done my horse well,” he said, continuing to stroke Brawn’s neck. “Listen, I’d like to bed down here tonight if it’s okay. My business is done, and I want to be away by first light. I’d hate to disturb you that early, so can we settle up now? What do I owe you?”
Frederick gave a last long stroke of the brush down Brawn’s flank. “That oughta do it, big guy,” he cooed at the horse. He stood straight and stretched his back. “Sure, you can sleep here if ya like, but I ain’t got any special accommodations.” He waved his hand around the stable. “What you see is what you get.”
“It’s fine,” said Sing. “I can throw my bedroll right here in the straw. Nice and warm in here. Better than we’re used to.”
“Well, then, I can’t see any reason to charge you extra. Rate’s posted on the door outside. I reckon you’ll owe me 12 krin for the stall, feed and grooming.”
Sing pulled some coins from his purse and handed them to Frederick. “Here’s two extra krin for your trouble.”
“Oh, it weren’t no trouble, Sing.”
“Well, uh, it might be. I need a receipt.”
“A receipt. I need you to write down on a piece of paper how much you charged me, so I’ll know.”
“But I just told ya.”
Here we go again, thought Sing. “I know, Frederick, but…”
“An’ it’s posted on the sign outside. If ya don’t think 12 is fair, how come ya gave me 14?”
“No, no, it’s fair. That’s not the point. I just need to know how much I spent here.”
Frederick held out his open palm with the coins spread out across it. “It’s 14 krin. See? There’s a 10-krin gold piece an’ four coppers.”
“I know, but I need to remember it for later, so I can show my employer how much I have left.”
“Ya can’t tell how much ya have left by… how much ya have left?”
Sing gave a long sigh. “Friend, I wish I could explain so you’d understand. I wish I could explain so I’d understand. But, the man who sent me on this… trip… required that I have every bit of coin I spent recorded on paper. Look.” Angrily, he reached into the pouch where the jewel lay and pulled out a fist full of papers, including the one he’d just obtained from the barkeeper down the street. He waved them in front of Frederick’s face.
“These papers have recorded every cursed expense I’ve incurred since I started. My employer won’t pay me for my services unless I show him proof of how much it cost me to do the job.” He jammed the papers back into the pouch. “I know it’s a pain in the ass, but I need a receipt.”
Frederick took a half-step back and raised his hands defensively. “Didn’t mean no offense, Sing. It just seems a little…”
“Strange? It is a little strange, but I have to ask.”
“An’ I’m glad to oblige, but… well, I never learned writin’. I mean, I had to get Tom Thornwood down the street to paint th’ sign outside.”
Sing waved a hand dismissively. “Not a problem. I have paper, quill and ink. I’ll write it myself and you can sign your ‘X’.” He bent to pull a scroll from his pack, tore a piece from it, and rummaged for the ink and quill. He straightened with the items in hand and looked around for something to use as a writing surface. His gaze settled on an anvil near a small forge, where coals from a fire provided the heat that warmed the stable. “There,” he said, and he strode over to Frederick’s work area.
Frederick followed tentatively and watched as Sing spread the paper across the flat iron surface, removed the top from a small bottle of ink, and dipped the quill. Sing chewed on his lip in concentration as he covered the paper with precise lettering. After a minute or so, he straightened and stepped back, handing the quill to Frederick. “There. Just sign on that line at the bottom.”
Frederick took the quill in an uncertain grip and regarded the paper. “What does it say?”
Sing ran his forefinger along the lines as he read, “Fourth Day of Frostmoon, Frederick’s Stable, Fourteen krin for lodging, feed and grooming.”
Frederick bent close and peered at the markings, nodding in affirmation as if he suddenly could decipher the writing. He marked an awkward “X” relatively close to the line Sing had indicated. “Like that?”
Sing lifted the paper from the anvil and blew on the ink to dry it. “Like that. Thank you for your trouble.”
Frederick snorted. “More trouble for you than me, I reckon.”
Sing nodded. “True enough. But thanks, nonetheless.” Satisfied the ink was sufficiently dry, he folded the paper and stuffed it into the pouch with the other receipts. “I’ll trouble you no further,” he said.
Frederick scratched at his beard as he watched Sing begin to lay out his bedroll and make himself comfortable in the straw near his horse. “Fine, then,” he murmured. He dropped the 14 krin into a purse secured to his belt and shuffled to the other end of the stable where he ducked through a curtained doorway leading to the modest room he called home. When he woke the next morning, Sing was gone.
Next week we’ll find out what happens when Sing delivers the jewel, and his expense reports, to the Alchemist. There may be a surprise in store for both of them.
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Until next time, Happy Reading!
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