When Elspeth discovered Tjesmond, the boy was curled in the center of a deer trail, shaking from the torments of some strange ague. His body was skeletal, completely devoid of fat; his clothes were worn to paper-thin rags. He would certainly die if Elspeth did nothing.
Elspeth was raised as a devout follower of the One God; and, beyond that, she had learned some compassion in her nineteen years of living. She put aside her planned hunt, cradled Tjesmond (shivering and coughing) in her arms, and took him to her camp. There she nursed him back to health over the course of a trying fortnight, hand-feeding him thick bear-meat broths to build his strength, bundling him about with blankets and putting herself beside them for added warmth; and on the thirteenth night his fever broke, and he awoke lucid, though weak.
"Where am I?" he asked, confused, disoriented. He saw Elspeth; drew back, afraid. "Who are you?"
"I am Elspeth Hrotasdottir," Elspeth told Tjesmond in her accented Old Tongue. "A trapper in the service of the King. I saved your life; you're at my camp now. Who are you?"
At this Tjesmond's mouth clamped shut. Avoiding the question, he tried to stand; his legs refused to support him. Elspeth moved to his side.
"Careful now," she said, putting a supporting hand to his shoulderblades. (He flinched back, instinctually.) "Plenty of time for that later. For now - what do you think of bear meat for breakfast?"
Tjesmond thought. He sniffed the air, once, twice. "It sounds delicious," he told her.
There were many things he refused to tell her - where he came from; his name; why, when first he saw her, he seemed to fear her features so. Elspeth found some deep well of strength, drawing from deep inside her soul, and managed to live without the answers to the first and last of those questions; for the second, she took it on herself to make a name for the boy she had rescued - choosing 'Tjesm-ond', meaning (in the New Tongue) something along the lines of 'indomitable soul'.
"Tkes-mooned?" Tjesmond asked. "What?"
"Tyes-mund," Elspeth corrected gently.
"T-hes-mund," Tjesmond attempted. "...what's that mean again?"
Elspeth made it her project to teach Tjesmond the New Tongue (and the New Faith); in return, Tjesmond began to help with Elspeth's work, going out with the woods with her to hunt the animals by which she made her livelihood. He took to both New Tongue and Faith quickly, showing a quick wit and an eager will to embrace a faith other than that with which he was raised; and, fed on a steady diet of red meat, Tjesmond's strength returned quickly, his ribcage and spine receding from prominence. He healed.
Despite the secrets he kept from her, a warmth grew between Tjesmond and Elspeth. The season turned; winter turned into spring, the snow melted, the days warmed. Tjesmond and Elspeth continued to sleep together, but, by the time the first leaves began to sprout on the treetops, in a different sense.
The days passed quickly, and (perversely) lasted ever longer. The buried fur-cache grew full; and, not long after summer's beginning, Elspeth looked at the sun and pronounced it time for the yearly trip to Rejjvik.
Tjesmond and Elspeth took turns; one would pull the car laden with furs, the other watch the countryside, wary for brigands or monsters. "It's gotten ugly in the last few years," Elspeth told Tjesmond. "Ever since King Hjording took the throne, there's been no sense of order or lawfulness to be found in the realm; not that his father was a Majesty worthy of the title, either."
"Shouldn't the King's men do something?" Tjesmond asked. "If there are bandits terrorizing the land, and all."
"The King's men!" Elspeth laughed. "No, no, sorry, you don't know. Look - there's two groups that you could call by that name. His house-carls - they stick close to him, never leave his side. And the tax-men, which roam the countryside, and, well..."
"Dispense justice wherever they see evil?" Tjesmond asked.
"Ha!" Elspeth laughed again. "Wherever they sense a penny's as not theirs or a harvest they've not taken in whole, more like. Nah, Tjesmond - the tax-men are as much the problem as the bandits and the monsters."
"So, if I see a tax-man, should I shoot him?" Tjesmond asked earnestly.
Elspeth paused. "Not unless he's really asking for it," she advised.
By luck - or by virtue of a vigilant crossbow - the pair reached the city without incident. It protruded from the rocky hills like nothing Tjesmond had seen before - he had to ask Elspeth to confirm what he was seeing. "Rejjvik's behind that cliff?" he asked.
Elspeth looked, blinked. "Cliff? - oh. Those are the city walls, Tjesmond. The Pilgrims built 'em. The city is inside those walls."
There was nearly a scene at the city walls - the burghmester's men, watching traffic entering the city, stepped forward to surround the cart as Tjesmond and Elspeth approached. "Those furs are valuable goods, and as such subject to a fee by City Code," one of the guards said, a gleam of avarice visible in his eyes. "You can pay me with an ounce of gold, if you have that available, or I can seize a few of these quickly - "
"Get your hands away from that," Elspeth said, stepping forward and slapping the guard's hand away roughly. "These furs are the King's property - I'm just delivering them to him. And let me tell you, he won't be happy if he hears that one of you scum thought you were fancy enough to need furs meant for a King - "
"Shut up," the guard interrupted, rubbing his injured hand. "I don't need to hear any more of your cock-and-bull tale. You're a king's woman - where's the proof?"
"I am a servant of the King, not his mistress," Elspeth corrected angrily, "and for the proof, just look at your hand!"
The guard, red-faced, stared at Elspeth for a moment; then he looked down at his hand. There, puffy and inflamed, was Elspeth's proof; the King's mark, left by the signet ring Elspeth wore.
Mute, the guard waved Tjesmond and Elspeth through. Elspeth spat on the ground.
"Time was, the King kept his servant's dogs in check," Elspeth said. "Now - "
"So he's an evil man, the King?" Tjesmond asked.
Elspeth frowned. "Um - King Hjording? No. He's not evil. He's a good person, in person. I don't just work for him because it's the job my mother had before me - I do it because I can be proud, serving the King of All Estelunde. It's just..." She waved her hand.
Tjesmond thought. "It's that he's a good person, but not a very good King?"
Elspeth nodded. "Yeah. That about sums it up."
Tjesmond was silent for the rest of the trip to the castle, mulling this strange idea over.
The Royal Palace was a squat stone building, two stories tall, surrounded by a fortified black stone wall. Two gates allowed entrance to the interior; Elspeth led the way to the smaller of them, the servants' entrance. Another pair of guards barred the way, these wearing light mail with the King's crest in the front. "What business have you here?" the guard on the right asked.
"I come to bring my yearly tribute to the King," Elspeth began, then paused. She stared at the guard who offered her the challenge. "Hey, I know you. What's with all the formality, Jerna?"
Jerna paused. "I'm sorry, but I've forgotten - oh, you're Elspeth! I'm so sorry, I didn't recognize you with the ponytail."
"As opposed to keeping my hair in my face all the time," Elspeth said jokingly. "Yeah, I'm sure I wouldn't recognize me either. The housecarl's armor looks good on you, Jerna. I'd love to chat more, but I really need to get this done before audience hours are over - walk with me to the palace?"
"If I want to keep this armor, I really should stick to my post - " Jerna said.
"Ehh, your shift's nearly over anyway," her companion told her. "Go, walk with your friend. I'll cover for you."
Jerna wavered. "Uh - should I leave my sword with you?" she asked her companion.
"What - so if the howling hordes of the north descend upon us, led by the vengeful ghost of their Great Priest, I can hold them off like a hero from the tales, sword in each hand?" he replied. "Take it, you can return it to the armory yourself after you're done with these two."
Elspeth, Tjesmond, and Jerna walked onward, through the yard outside the palace to the storage outbuildings at the palace's rear.
"Just as well I kept the sword." Elspeth said. "It's been weird in the palace, lately - maybe it's the way the new wing's left the old west wing dark and half-empty, but there've been rumors of ghosts, monsters. Supposedly a couple of the servants have gone missing. But there's no monster that doesn't respect the taste of cold steel - "
"Except the ones that can only be harmed by silver, or wood, or moonlight..." Elspeth listed off on her fingers.
"Yeah, if you believe in that kind of thing," Jerna dismissed. "So who's strong but silent, anyway? Didn't think you had anyone warming your bed last time you were in the city."
Elspeth and Tjesmond, simultaneously, flushed bright red. "It's more complicated than that - " Elspeth began.
"Oh, Lights That Guide, you really are!" Jerna laughed. "I was joking! How'd you meet, found him caught in one of your bear traps?"
Elspeth was saved from answering this question by arriving at her destination; the office of the King's merchantile factor, "to whom," Elspeth explained to Tjesmond, "I am obligated to deliver my furs for assessment and payment."
The party entered the antechamber; the factor's secretary went to inform him of Elspeth's arrival.
"Another of the King's men?" Tjesmond asked.
Jerna looked confused at the obvious question. Elspeth winced. "Probably, though I hope not. He was appointed by the King when he took the throne, and was out of the city last summer when I came to deliver my furs, so I've never met him, only his clerks; so I can't say for certain either way."
"I see," Tjesmond said. He turned to Jerna. "In that case: may I borrow your sword, for protection?"
"What in the Light's reach are you talking about?" Jerna asked.
Again she was to get no answer; the factor's secretary re-emerged, gesturing towards the doorway through which he had come. "The Royal Factor will see you now," he said, and Elspeth and Tjesmond rose to follow his direction.
"Wait for us?" Elspeth suggested to Jerna. "It shouldn't be long; he's only got to sign off on the documents and give me the voucher for payment."
Jerna thought, her brow furrowing, then gave an eloquent shrug. "I can wait a quarter-turn to quench my curiosity," she said.
Elspeth and Tjesmond proceeded through a short hallway into the Royal Factor's inner office. The air grew scented as they approached, touched by some unfamiliar perfume; Tjesmond sniffed several times at it, curious. Inside, gauze curtains hung layered across the room, allowing only the Royal Factor's silhouette to be seen. Iron braziers stood on either side of the doorway, smoking profusely.
Tjesmond halted in his tracks, surprised by the room's contents; behind him, the factor's secretary entered and closed the door behind him.
"I am very disappointed," the Factor said. His voice seemed to echo, as though coming from inside some deep cave. "I had heard such good things about you; your family had served the Royal Family nearly since the inception of this Kingdom, and you yourself have served since you came to adulthood. But it appears that you are... unready to live up to your family's legacy. Do not think me an ungenerous man - I am prepared to give you half your normal pay, in exchange for which you must promise to improve next year - "
"What?" Elspeth said, interrupting. "Unready? What are you talking about? If you check the records, you'll see that I've brought you more furs than last year, even - "
"Yes, about that," the Factor said, his voice filled with unconvincing regret. "I think if you check the records, you'll find nothing of the sort. In fact, you'll see that your yield has been dropping for the last several years - such a shame."
Elspeth stood still. "You're cheating me," she said, her voice cold. "And what's worse, you're cheating the King- underreporting what you take in so you can steal the rest. What's to stop me from - "
"Why - she's trying to kill me!" the Factor cried, his voice filled with mock shock. "Secretary - restrain this madwoman! Then - just for our own safety, after all - cut her tongue out!"
The secretary was already moving, a dagger in his hand. He had Elspeth in a lock - but Tjesmond was to his other side, and pulled him off her, hurling him into a brazier. Coals spilled out onto the wood floor. "Come out, you scum," he said to the Factor, stalking forward through the curtains. "We'll give you to the King's justice - "
A hand shot out, grasped Tjesmond's throat, and pulled him forward. "Little boy, little boy," the Factor's echoing voice said coldly. "Suffer your own justice!"
Tjesmond now understood why the Factor had hidden himself behind curtains.
The King's Factor was hideous. His body appeared to be in the midst of a transformation into solid gold - this being in itself somewhat notable - but his original flesh had taken poorly to the change, dying wherever it contacted the metal. So parts of him were metal, strangely glistening in the braziers' dancing light - but all around those parts were putrescent flesh, rotting and crawling with insects. Also, he was strangling Tjesmond.
Tjesmond coughed. Tjesmond hacked. Tjesmond grasped desperately at the golden arm that was killing him.
None of these actions were extremely effective. His vision began to darken.
Then there was a noise - and Jerna was there, a sword in her hand. "Just like I told you!" she gloated to Elspeth, and in one stroke hacked off the hand that was crushing Tjesmond's windpipe. She drew back, calling, "Surrender, and we may spare you - "
But the King's Factor was long past that point. He drew a jagged blade hidden under his robe and attacked, driving Jerna back in a series of swift blows. Elspeth cast a concerned look in that direction, then knelt to help Tjesmond, who was still prone on the floor with a gold hand around his throat. "Monsters in the King's court..." she muttered.
With the hand carefully pried from Tjesmond's throat, he felt ready to give Elspeth a cautious smile as he got onto his hands and knees. "Looks like Jerna's having trouble," he said, looking in that direction. "Maybe we should - "
A heavy weight fell on him. Tjesmond fell prone once again.
Above him leered the face of the Royal Factor's secretary, who had just knocked Elspeth low by surprise; and, Tjesmond noted in his moment of helplessness, the secretary's eyes gleamed gold.
The secretary kicked at Elspeth, sending her rolling off Tjesmond. "Let's have another round," he hissed to Tjesmond. "This time, I'll rip your throat out - "
Tjesmond hooked a foot around his ankle and sent him crashing to the floor. A quick kick sent the secretary rolling in the direction of the (rather worryingly quickly) spreading flames from the overturned brazier - then Tjesmond came quickly to his feet and ran to Jerna's assistance.
Jerna was, by this time, pinned in a corner, bleeding in several places where her armor had provided insufficient protection. "He's no swordsman, but he's strong!" she told Tjesmond as he approached. "I can't hold him off much longer - "
The Royal Factor took opportunity of Jerna's distraction and knocked her blade out of her hand. Gloating on his face, he stabbed directly into her chest.
"Oh," Jerna said, blood beginning to well from the wound.
Then the Royal Factor's expression of triumph moved very quickly sideways.
"Huh?" Jerna wondered.
"Thank you for the loan of your sword," Tjesmond said, handing it to Jerna hilt-first. "As you said, it was very useful against this monster. To be of clarifying - it severed his neck with excellence. Now - are you all right?"
"Actually, I think I am," she said, pushing herself back to her feet. "He hit me right in the middle of my armor - it's probably going to need some time in the smithy, but I don't think he pierced anything vital, just gave me a very nasty cut. A scar to remember - "
Her knees buckled.
"Let's get you out of here," Elspeth said, carrying her by one arm. Tjesmond took the other. "Before the raging flames do what flames are known for."
Slowly, together, they staggered out of the burning building. Guards surrounded them as soon as they emerged outside.
"Sorry about all this," Elspeth said to Tjesmond and Jerna both. "I didn't..." Her sentence trailed off.
And not only did both Elspeth and Jerna keep their jobs, but Tjesmond got one of his own!
A funny business, monster-killing.