In a village much like ours, the innkeeper feared the destitute laborers beyond his borders, they were unwashed and regularly sought alms to avail their hunger. To protect his land, the innkeeper hired six mercenaries.
“You shall defend my inn as you would defend your own lives,” he said, and so the mercenaries did and took up their arms.
One day, two seasons later, a strange woman rode into the village.
“Stop,” said the mercenary at the door of the inn, when the woman rode up. “Who are you?”
“I am a weary traveler,” replied the woman. “I have traveled from one corner of this kingdom to the next and to the kingdoms beyond the border. I have seen great wonders. I have seen great evils. And I have seen all manner of action that is neither, but somewhere in between. I am travel-worn and having come upon your village, have decided to settle here for the rest of my days. But first, good fellow, could I trouble you for a place to rest my head?”
“You do not intend to trick, plunder, or ravage this inn?” said the mercenary, and when the woman affirmed she did not, the mercenary let her pass.
For several days, the woman took residence in the inn and entertained the innkeeper’s patrons with tales of her travels yet, while the woman’s coin was good and she made no trouble, the innkeeper was displeased.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, gathering the mercenaries about him. “But would you see how that woman hums and haws! There is nothing but fiction in her tales—for who could believe that a poor man would face peril at her side without asking recompense, when even the knights demand coin from the lords they serve? And who could believe the beauty of far-off lands, when the lords themselves speak only of the uncivilized savagery of such places? Who would take this woman’s word of the goodliness of the destitute on our borders, who have done nothing but ask charity of us all who work and toil for our livelihoods? Falsities! See how she enthralls my patrons, keeping them in their seats, spinning her fictions. Surely, she is an enchantress—look at the style of her hair and the darkness of her flesh! A witch come to wreck havoc upon all our lives. I want her gone. You! Did you not pledge me your arms in defense of this inn?”
“You have paid for my arms in coin,” said one of the six mercenaries.
“Then, I call upon you to defend my inn,” said the innkeeper, and the mercenary went to obey, approaching the woman, who was tossing a ball made of leather to-and-fro with a young child. The innkeeper could not hear the words spoken between them, but saw well enough the woman’s smile as she dismissed the child and spoke to the mercenary for several moments, until the mercenary returned to the innkeeper.
The mercenary drew his sword from his sheath, placed it at the innkeeper’s feet, said, “From this day forth, I am no longer in your service,” and took his leave of the inn.
“Oh! But to see what evils the woman spins with her words,” cried the innkeeper. “Then, you—defend my inn as I have paid you to do.” And the second mercenary obeyed and approached the woman; but as before, after speaking for several moments, the mercenary returned, placed down his sword, and left the innkeeper’s service. So it was for the third, fourth, and fifth mercenaries, leaving behind their short swords in a pile at the innkeeper’s feet.
“This cannot stand!” said the innkeeper. He addressed the sixth mercenary, “Attend me as I confront this woman, for left to your own devices you shall surely be bewitched and leave my service as the others have.” And the innkeeper approached the woman with the sixth mercenary at his side.
“Hello, good fellow,” greeted the woman. “How may I be of service?”
“You may not!” cried the innkeeper. “You have been a scourge upon my inn and my patrons for too long, spreading your lies and dispelling my men from my service.”
“Yet, I have done nothing of the sort,” said the woman. “My words are not lies, and how could I, but with words, dispel men from the service of a man such as you? I did but speak to them. To the first, I told of my meeting a rancher in the East, and who would know by looking that this rancher was the long-estranged brother of your man, for whom he had been searching for many seasons? That he left your service so abruptly thereafter, I imagine, was but his own eagerness to be reunited with his family.”
“Sweet words to trick a man out of his own livelihood, chasing ghosts,” said the innkeeper. “And of the second, the third, the fourth, and fifth men I sent? Shall you tell me that they too had relations in faraway lands to whom they gave chase?”
“No,” said the woman, and she told of the stories with which she had regaled the mercenaries.
To the second, the woman told of the legend of the golden city across the sea, where it was said the ground itself was made of gold, the rivers ran clear as crystal, and the banks were littered with stones of fine sapphire. With the air of a man seeking fortune, so had the second mercenary left the innkeeper’s service.
To the third, the woman told of the greatest library she had ever been, in the desert-state so often at war with their own, telling of the stacks of books that raised from floor to ceiling, spread miles upon miles, and the great scholars who were always eager to share their knowledge and take on new students. So had the third mercenary left the innkeeper’s service, wishing his own enlightenment.
To the fourth, the woman spoke of the poor man who had taken her in, when her funds and her zest for adventure had run low; he who had given her bread from his very own plate when he had none to give and defended her on the occasion she had the misfortune to displease a middling lord with her rebuttal of a marriage proposal. The woman spoke, too, of her regret of never having come across him again once she had left him, for she wished to bestow upon him a gift of her gratitude. Overcome with sympathy and emotion, so had the fourth mercenary offered to seek out the man in the woman’s stead, bestow upon him her gift, and left the innkeeper’s service.
To the fifth mercenary, the woman told of a slave trader she had once passed in her travels, who stole young girls from their families and spun profit by selling their labor and bodies to rich men across the land. So then had the fifth mercenary left, disgusted and enraged, vowing he would go to the ends of the earth to see this vile man at the end of his blade.
“Good fellow, then do you see how little I have done,” said the woman, “but tell my stories? It is your men themselves who so chose to leave.”
A small crowd of patrons had gathered around the woman as she spoke.
“Bah!” exclaimed the innkeeper. “Don’t you see what she is doing? Driving out the good protectors from this—our haven of peace, that others do so covet? For so has this witch enthralled my men with her words and would sooner open her doors to the drudge and dangers of savage places beyond our borders than care a whit for people herein!”
“But, good fellow, are not the people beyond your borders still people for whom I can care?” said the woman. “After all, do they not lead their own lives, till their own fields, and have their own woes? Why, I once met a woman, the most beautiful woman I have ever encountered, the crescent moon itself in her eyes. She hailed from the mountains of the South, and she was but a lowly beggar, when I—”
“Enough of your stories!” said the innkeeper, and he addressed his final mercenary, “Take her from here! Let her not spoil this village a moment longer!”
The sixth mercenary approached the woman, but before he could lay a hand upon her, she said, “Oh, yes, yes, it pains me, but if you do not want me, I shall go. Would you spare, however, but one moment for the last tale of an old weary traveler?” Set in resolve, the innkeeper conceded one last tale, and so the woman spoke:
“Once, I knew an innkeeper much like yourself, good fellow. He was a good man, I am sure, but he was prone to attacks of paranoia for what he felt was his due; and so he employed his sister—who had trained as a foot soldier in an old war—to his service and said to her, ‘Defend me, sister, from those that would steal what is mine and attempt to do me harm.’
“And of course the sister replied that she would. But the innkeeper was not satisfied with the defense his sister provided. ‘You are too welcoming!’ he said; ‘Should you allow every hood rat and beggar into my inn when they seek refuge, then what will we have but empty cellars and not grain enough for ourselves?’
“ Why, dear brother,’ replied the sister, ‘we shall have a full home.’”
“But still the innkeeper was unsatisfied, though there had been no raids from bandits for several seasons and their stocks were full. The innkeeper took it upon himself to grant entrance to the inn only to those of certain dress and standing, denying entry to the lowly farmers and laborers on the fringes of the village, despite the protestations of his sister.
“She said to the innkeeper, ‘Do you not see that this only builds their detest for you? Can you not tell how affronted they will become, when you deny them a warm hearth and refuse to acknowledge them as your own equals?’ But the innkeeper refused to listen and continued to guard the entrance to his inn, until the day it was like the sister had said, when the weary who had long been denied a seat at the inn came to an agreement and left the village for better lands elsewhere.
“At first, the innkeeper was pleased. ‘See,’ he told his sister, ‘they are gone now, and we have never been safer.’ But it was not long before their grains ran low, and the innkeeper despaired.
“ ‘But, brother,’ said the sister, ‘were you not glad when the farmers left so as to not trouble your inn?’
“The innkeeper ignored her; but he had hardly spent most of his coin buying grain from a traveling merchant, when the mead ran dry and the fine men of the village refused to visit the inn any longer without refreshment available.
“ ‘Why, the brewer left, too,’ said the sister, when the innkeeper questioned how this could have happened.
“Next, it was the fire at the hearth, which burned weakly now there was no longer fresh logs to feed it. ‘The laborers have gone,’ explained the sister. So it was that the innkeeper’s inn became cold and destitute, and there was soon not a person in the village who wished to set foot in it.
“Yes,” said the woman of many travels, standing before the innkeeper and his many patrons. “A sad tale. You might wonder, what became of that poor innkeeper? Why, I believe he still runs his inn, of course. Everyone has gone, but yet he remains. My brother was always stubborn, if you’ll excuse his sister saying so.”
To the sixth mercenary, the woman extended her arm. “And now, you may take me, kind fellow, for my tale is set to continue in other lands, far from the places I am not welcome.”
The sixth mercenary said nothing, but before taking the woman’s arm, he too set his sword at the innkeeper’s feet and nodded. Then, leading the woman from the inn as he did so, the sixth mercenary left the innkeeper’s service.
Fiction piece by Cynthia Garcia