I have decided to rather massively alter the setting of the story from which the first two Fiction Friday installments derived. This is what Felda’s first scene has become as a consequence of that change.
It took three sentences for Felda to decide she didn’t like the woman from the Guild. The first was when Felda, responding to her mother’s call, came downstairs to the kitchen to see her parents, tired, worried, older than she’d ever seen them, sitting at the table with a tall, elegantly dressed woman with unsettlingly clean nails.
Felda’s mother frowned. “It sounds like you want to… experiment here.”
Ms. Ansfel laughed yet again. “Oh, don’t worry. We’re not talking about… legless cows or vampire squash or whatever you’re imagining. We’re talking about the things Felda here could do, post-augmentation–and the augmentation itself is of course time-honored and tested, lifebonding is as old as time, as I’m sure you know.”
“What… I would be able to do?” asked Felda. Despite herself, and despite Ms.Ansfel, she couldn’t help but imagine the new abilities she might gain. Floating great boulders with a gesture? Shattering mighty city walls with a glance? Bending rods like they were made of licorice?
“Imagine, if you will,” Ms. Anselm intoned, turning slowly back and forth between Felda’s pareants, “an entire field plowed in a day. Imagine never needing to rotate crops, because your daughter can turn the tired old soil young and new in a matter of days. Plus a lifetime guarantee that you–whichever of you you decide–will always be manager of every aspect of this farm, that the other, Felda, and all your other children will have guaranteed employment at competitive rates of pay, though of course the children’s hours will be limited until they turn 16…” she looked down at her papers. “Ah yes, and a quite sizeable discount on all equipment, seed, and feed purchased from us.”
“As of last week, I’m afraid the Bank of Frogshackle merely administers your loan. We own it. So I’m afraid the choice isn’t actually a matter of whether you want to keep your farm or share it with us. It’s a matter of losing your farm or sharing it with us.” At the horrified stare of all the Landsmans, her smile widened slightly. “Snakelike of me, perhaps, but business is business, and we do very much want to expand our farming operations. Come now!” She slid a clipped-together set of papers out of the pile in front of her and across the table toward them. “It’s not a bad deal at all. You’ll be more productive and make more money than you ever did as a tichy little mama-and-papa farm. You’ll be on the cutting edge!”
There was much more debate, and reading of the contract, and demands to know what certain passages meant, but Felda knew her family had no choice, and soon her parents came to admit it, too. Even the horror of being trapped by this snake of a woman, however, could not entirely dampen her excitement. She knew that by the end of the evening she would be a bondswoman, a somebody, a force to be reckoned with. The snake kept talking about revolutionizing farming, but Felda could see so much more than that. She saw adventures in high mountains and deep deserts, great battles with wicked sorcerers, most of whom looked quite a bit like Ms. Ansfel, the bustle of the great cities and the cries of dragons. She’d never dared seriously imagine being anything other than a farmer, and other than farming, the only other thing she’d ever been good at was reading–and who wanted to be a scholar, shut indoors all day? Being a weak mage would be no better–she knew what kind of work that would mean, sitting at the end of some factory line and casting the same spell of sharpening or strengthening a hundred and fifty times a day.
She wanted that egg like she’d never wanted anything, more than the temporary farmhand she’d spent half of last year lusting after, more than the one volume of Tales of the Nine Realms she didn’t have. So Ms. Ansfel was a hateful, malicious woman–all Felda needed was that egg, and she could squash her! She’d like to see anyone try to take her home once she had power like that.
“Very well,” said Ms. Ansfel at last, putting away the finally signed papers and standing. “This is yours, child.”
Felda held out both hands, vibrating slightly, and the woman put the clay egg in her hands. It was cool, and prickled slightly.
No, more than slightly. It prickled a lot. Stung, actually, and it was growing hotter by the moment. With a shout, Felda dropped the burning egg, or tried to, but it was stuck fast to her hands. Felda fell to her knees, unable to take her eyes off the glowing egg as agony spread up her arms. Cracks began to spread across the surface of the egg, which shone so brightly it hurt, but not nearly as much as the twin columns of fire marching up her arms. The pain reached her shoulders, spread in and downward, swirled together in her heart, before it exploded outwards to encompass everything, her entire being. Dimly she knew she was lying on her side, but it was hard to tell, because the room kept jerking wildly about.
“Stop,” she whispered, to the room, to the pain, to the wild pounding of her heart, but it went on and on. The egg was breaking apart, crumbling, seeping into her hands. She couldn’t see through the red-fire haze that filled the universe, but she could feel it, chunks of dull throbbing agony passing up her arms to punctuate the fire. Was someone screaming?
The lumps were nearly to her heart. She knew she was dying, and welcomed it. What was death but the end of pain? But of course that was absurd, there had always been pain, would always be pain, and death would bring no relief–and then they were in her heart, and she felt it skip one beat, then two, an entirely new kind of agony, a squeezing…
She was lying on the kitchen floor, and every part of her hurt. From where she lay she could see her parents, their eyes filled with concern and fear, but for some reason they were keeping back. “Mama?” she asked, her voice dry and cracked and weak. “Papa?”
“Baby,” her mother whispered, tears in her eyes. “You’re awake! It’s been nearly an hour…” But she came no closer.
Felda took a deep, shuddering breath.
Something large above and behind her did as well.
Felda let her breath out. So did it, warm and wet across her shoulders. It had been there the whole time, she realized. She just hadn’t noticed its breathing before because–she gasped. It whuffed.
Because it was breathing in perfect synchronicity with her.
Slowly, painfully, she rolled over. A great black nose came into view first, then a proud head, great curving horns and enormous eyes, the same brown as Felda’s own. A massive body, short fur the color of rich black soil, powerful legs, strong gray hooves as sharp and hard as flints.
The great bull–her bondling!–lowered its head and nuzzled her. Its nose was warm and cold all at once, like a dog’s but bigger. Gratefully, Felda wrapped her arms around its neck and pulled herself to her feet. “Mama, papa, there’s no need to be afraid,” she said, smiling. “I want you to meet Varick.”
It was good, she thought. They had been caught by the Guild and that woman, yes, but this was worth it. They would still work the farm, sell their crops, buy seed and tools. Her brothers and sisters would go to school and do their chores. The only changes would be no more worrying about money, and Varick. Her Varick. She dug her fingers into his hide and inhaled his smell of sweat and clean, rich earth and growing things. It was more than worth it, she decided, and eventually the rest of the family would understand that as well.
And she was right; within a year even her mother had to admit that they were better off as Guild farmers.
It would be another four years after that before they all came to understand exactly how they had been swindled.