Telling Tales 154
A Sorcerer’s Apprentice
“I don’t like threats.”
“Except when you make them, merchant?” asked the bartender.
Dmitri stepped into the common room so that the children were out of range of his sight. The expression on his face was fierce and full of rage. “I can be a dangerous man.”
The woman looked at him. He had strong arms, to be sure, and the hands of someone who lifted freight and crates from ground to wagon. He also had the gut of a man who sat for long distances, ate too much, enjoyed his drink. He may have been a fighter at some point in his life, but it wasn’t recently. For her own part, she worked day in and day out. She was thick with work and muscle and hard living. Wasn’t that part of the reason people like him looked down on people like her? Rough hands and rougher bodies, coarser skin and coarser language. The merchant had wanted to rise above that station. Perhaps he had thought that a life of less physical labor would be a better one, and if it was better, than the people he left behind must also be worse. She wondered if he thought that way about his parents.
His eyes searched hers, looking for weakness, for defensiveness. She made sure to give him none. No source of comfort and no source of confidence.
“Wash, water, wash,” she said.
To the merchant’s evident surprise, his hands jerked away from the side of his body. “What – ” He took a step toward her. She stepped to the side in case she was mistaken. He took another step, but this time toward the kitchen door, the place that she had blocked with her body moments before. “What’s going on? What have you done?” His eyes were wide and round and frightened. She might have felt more satisfaction in that, but she now knew the reason for his unpleasant demeanor. If anything, she felt pity. “Take this curse off of me!”
“Water, wash no more, water,” she said.
He stopped at the door. His ruddy skin had gone pale under his beard, so pale she could still see the change. “Nothing that I did,” she said. “Only what you said and what we discovered.”
“What I said?” he demanded. He dropped his voice to a hiss. “You’ve done witchcraft on me!”
“There seems to be witchcraft on you,” she agreed, “but it’s not my doing. You’re lucky we learned how to make you stop.”
“Stop what?” He was practically speechless with anger and fear.
“Once you began cleaning. The kitchen is the dirtiest part of our inn. We sweep. We mop. But we have a whole inn to run and more tasks than a woman and a man can complete together in a day, even with the help of our children. There is only so much grease we can clean from between the stones of the hearth, or there would be if we were that determined. You, though, once you started, we thought you would kill yourself with work. Eyes open, muttering to yourself.” She was whispering as much as he did, as intensely as he did. She was not as angry.
“It’s sleep-walking,” he said. His voice rang with desperation.
“It’s more than that,” she answered. “Don’t worry. I have no intention of betraying you to your fellows.” She poked him in the chest. “Don’t give me a reason.”