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.
“Hello, Felda,” she said brightly. That was the first sentence. Felda didn’t like this complete stranger knowing her name. It made her wonder what was written in the sheaf of papers on the table in front of the woman.
The second sentence was the one the woman didn’t say: “Pleased to meet you,” perhaps, or something that started “My name is.”
“Ms. Ansfel is from the Guild,” Felda’s mother said.
“I already talked to the Guild recruiter,” Felda answered. “I said no.”
Ms. Ansfel laughed. That didn’t count as a sentence, but nonetheless it contributed. People who laughed at things that weren’t jokes were, in Felda’s opinion, nearly as bad as people who didn’t laugh at all.
“Oh, I’m not a recruiter,” said Ms. Ansfel. That was the third sentence, and it was the way she said “recruiter” that did it. Felda could easily imagine her saying “farmer” in the same way. “I’m a field contract specialist in our agricultural services and land management division. I’m here to talk to your parents about joining us.”
If Felda hadn’t already decided she disliked the woman, that last sentence alone would have done it. “We won’t sell,” she said firmly. “This land’s been ours since–“
“Since it was granted to your great-grandfather by the Feudal Reparations Act, yes,” the woman interrupted. “Your father told me. Though I suppose that would make it your great-great-grandfather. And before that your family worked these very fields as vassals of the Carl of Whatever for umpteen centuries, I’m sure. We’re not interested in taking you from your land, believe me. The Crafters’ Guild has always been strongly in favor of local businesses staying under local management.”
“Then what are you here for?” asked Felda. She glanced at her parents. They were being unusually quiet. Felda was 16, an adult for a full three weeks now, so she appreciated them including her in whatever decision this was, but why weren’t they saying anything?
“I’m here to offer you an opportunity,” Ms. Ansfel explained. “You recently performed your coming-of-age examinations, I believe. According to the Academy’s records, you scored a 3.4 for Earth affinity on the Antonella scale. That’s borderline mage-level, did you know that? Do sit down, girl, you’re putting a crick in my neck.”
“Yes, the recruiter told me.” Felda sat, though privately she minded not in the least if the Guildswoman got a crick. “I don’t want to be a mage.”
“No, I can see that from the recruiter’s report.” Ms. Anfeld winked in what, Felda assumed, she probably thought was a conspiratorial manner. Felda’s dislike advanced rapidly in the direction of hate. “And I can’t blame you. Between you and me, the folk in the magic division are a stodgy bunch of old men. Plus it’s years of training before you start casting the simplest spells.”
“Are you ever going to answer the question?” asked Felda’s mother.
Ms. Ansfel simpered. “Of course, my dear.” She inserted one gloves hand into a satchel slung over the back of her chair and smoothly removed something, which she set lightly on the table. “Don’t touch, please,” she warned.
Felda stared. The object was shaped like an egg, but far bigger than any chicken or goose egg she’d ever seen. It was about eight inches long, five wide at the widest, and the pale orange-brown of fired, unglazed pottery.
“Is that what I think it is?” she asked.
“Indeed,” said the Guildswoman. “A dragon egg. We are prepared to offer it to you, Felda.”
Felda put a hand to her mouth. “–to me?” A dragon’s egg. A dragon’s egg! She could be a bondswoman, a performer of miracles–
“Benefits are greatest with threes and fours, of course. On average, someone like Felda should expect an effective combined Antonella score of five and a half, though of course that would cover direct manipulation only…”
As the woman chattered on, Felda glanced at her parents and was relieved to see that, at least to judge by their glazed eyes, they understood as muh as she did.
“What do you want from us in return?” her father finally asked.
“Well, first, let me ask you a question, Herr Landsman. Do you know who the largest agricultural producer and distributer in the world is?”
Felda’s father’s eyes narrowed. “You’re about to tell me it’s the Crafters’ Guild, I suppose.”
The woman shook her head. “No! It’s the Healers, of all people! Even though we make most of the tools, they grow more than us by a huge margin. Honestly, Healers growing food, can you imagine?”
She smiled broadly at Felda’s family. Seeing no response, she continued, “Obviously, the Guild would like to be more competitive in this sector, and while we’ve had some success leveraging our vertical advantage, we’ve also been developing techniques for Earth-affiliated farming. That is what we want–for you, your family, your farm to join us as a test bed for the efficacy of our new techniques.”
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.”
“And in return you get our farm,” Felda’s father said coldly.
“Well, perhaps in an abstract, paperwork sense. We’re more interested in seeing how well it works, and of course in making money. But you will all receive good salaries, and continue to live and work where your ancestors did, without needing to fear a bad harvest wiping you out or a greedy banker foreclosing.” Ms Ansfel consulted the papers again.
“No deal,” Felda’s father said firmly.
“But papa–” Felda began.
“He’s right,” said Felda’s mother. “It’s our farm. Doesn’t matter what they offer, it ain’t worth giving ’em our farm.” She gazed sternly at Ms. Ansfel and lowered her voice to a murmur so only Felda could hear. “Don’t be fooled by her pretty talk. This woman’s a snake.”
Felda started to answer that of course she could tell what Ms. Ansfel was, but dragon’s egg, but the woman spoke before she could.
“Ah, here we are!” she said brightly, pulling out a sheet from the middle of the stack. She shook her head at it and tsked gently. “Twelve hundred gil in debt, I see.”
“How do you know that?” demanded Felda’s father, looking slightly purple.
“And you’ve missed your payments for the last four months.” Ms. Ansfel shook her head sadly.
“Old Greta would never–“
“Apologies, Frau Landsman. I suppose it is quite rude of me to interrupt, but I am afraid Ms. Hofstedter does not actually have a say. It’s quite hard out there for an indepent local bank these days, I’m afraid, and the Bank of Frogshackle found itself in dire need of funds. So when we approached them seeking to purchase certain securities, well…”
“I don’t understand,” said Felda’s father. “Our loan is with them, how–“
Ms. Ansfel smiled genuinely for the first time, and Felda, who had been torn between rising hatred for the woman and fantasies of being able to walk through stone found she suddenly had a new factor to consider: fear.
“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.