All Stories, Fantasy

A Better Bargain by Matthew Ross

Whoah, lad! Stand easy there—I just want to talk. It’d be that poxy old wizard that sent you in here then, eh? Well, he may treat you like a fool who just fell off the turnip cart, but I’ll shoot you straight—I’ve no reason not to. No doubt he snatched you out of whatever backwater town you hail from because you’ve a drop or two of old Edern Dawnblaze’s blood in you, and he knows as well as I that only a Dawnblaze can seal me up inside this cave for another thousand years.

Now, based on how you’re clenching that hunk of pig iron, I’d wager you’re no seasoned warrior. I mean you no offense, now, it’s just that most weapons-masters advise a looser grip, and lower down the haft. And you’re, well…you appear to be squeezing that thing like a farmboy getting his first feel of a milkmaid’s teat, if you’ll pardon the expression. I’m sure that wizard of yours had you practice swinging it around a bit on your journey here, but you’ve had no more training than that, right? Aye, I thought so. No doubt he urged you to strike me down before we could parley as well. Blast his eyes! Just like a wizard to prey on your innocence. More’s the pity…

You see, lad, I’ve no desire to piss in your oat-mush, but that wizard really hasn’t your best interests at heart. Oh, he’d certainly prefer it if you pounded me into yoghurt, I’m sure. But have you any notion what he’d do if I bested you in battle? Shrug his shoulders and go hunting about to see if you’d any cousins he could drag back here with him. You ever play checkers, boy? You’re just a piece on a gameboard to him—and not a valued one, either. If you turn out to be the piece that wins him the game, he’ll gladly clap you on the back, pin a fancy bit of ribbon to your tunic, then dump you back wherever it is he found you. And if you fell in battle, he’d simply head out looking for a new game piece to throw against me. Savvy?

But here’s the thing, mate—there’s no reason we need fight each other at all. I’m sure you’ve heard no lack of scurrilous tales about my supposed wickedness, eh? Well, while I make no claims of sainthood, I’ve always made a point to do well by those who do well by me—it’s just good business sense, is all. So I’ve a proposition to extend to you, if you’re inclined to hear me out a moment longer. I promised I’d shoot you straight, and I’ll continue to do just that.

If we were to join in battle, I reckon we’re matched evenly enough that fortune may well tip in either of our favors. If I had to wager on it I expect I’d hold the edge, but it’d be a close enough contest that either of us might prevail. I’ll not play coy about my ambitions—if I emerged victorious, I’d promptly flee this accursed cave and set about fulfilling my centuries-long aim: to rule over mankind as its sovereign overlord. But what of it? Every mortal monarch whose arse has ever sat a throne considered it theirs by right of birth. I simply happen to descend from a…different lineage than they. What has that to do with the price of ale, though? Young as you are, you’ve likely seen the reigns of several kings already—was your life any different betwixt one and the next? Wizards and their ilk are always keen to exaggerate my faults and paper over my virtues, but take it from the horse’s mouth, son—I’d be no worse than any other ruler, and a damned sight better than most. Most folk would hardly notice the difference—it matters little to the great mass of humanity whose royal buttocks serve to polish the throne.

But let’s say we joined in battle and you were to best me rather than the other way round—what next? I’d wager three evening’s entertainment in the finest bawdy-house the capital has to offer that your wizard has whispered nary a word to you about what’s to happen after you slay the big, bad Shadow Prince. Hit the nail on the head there, did I? I’m not surprised. Everyone loves a hero when they expect to get some use out of them—but after the blood’s been spilled and left to dry on the cobbles? Well, that’s a horse of a different color. Oh, they’d doubtless make some show of recognition—parades are cheap enough, after all—and press a few gold coins into your palm. It’d be bad form not to. But how many? Enough to last a year or two, perhaps—but where will you be ten or twenty years down the road? Will the wizards still be as grateful to you then? Or the king whose throne you’ve purchased with my blood? Rulers like their heroes like their whores: out of sight and out of mind, once the job is done and paid for. All things being equal, a harlot seeking further coin for favors granted last week would be welcomed far more warmly than a bygone hero seeking audience with a king a decade hence, for she’d have much more to offer him in terms of future services rendered. Most kings’ “eternal gratitude” tends to be somewhat…less than eternal. Show me a hero whose deeds lie years behind him, and I’ll show you the wrinkled nose and false good cheer of the king who wishes he’d had the good manners to die in glorious battle. They’re always happy enough to reward you whilst the bloodstains on that borrowed chainmail of yours are fresh—and they will. With a smattering of coins and a few hearty slaps on the back, followed by a swift boot to the arse and a fervent prayer that you’ll fuck off back to whatever filthy backwater you crawled out of and have the decency to remain there…

And yet, the fleeting memories of mortal monarchs present the two of us an opportunity—one that I believe would work to both our benefits. If you’ll agree to do right by me, I can compensate you in ways no mortal sovereign could ever hope to match. For any mortal who offers to make your dreams come true speaks but metaphorically, whereas I always mean exactly what I say. Let me pass unchallenged, and I shall conjure up a world in which your every wish comes true. Riches? Power? Comely lasses? Or lads? Or barnyard creatures? Whatever your desires, you’ll have but to think them, and they shall be so—not a soul will judge you for them, either, whatever they may be. This world will be indistinguishable to you from the present one, though you shall be its sole inhabitant. Its sole true inhabitant, I mean, for you may people it however you wish. Think of it as a kind of…dreamscape, crafted specially for you. Like any other dream, it will feel as real to you as does this one—the food will taste as good, the air will smell as fresh, and the wenches…well, you get the point. Only there’ll be no pain there. Nothing to fear, as nothing can harm you. And unlike other dreams, you’ll never need awake and rise to face the present world and all its disappointments.

As with any dream, time will pass differently in that world than in this one. You’ll spend a century there for every heartbeat that goes by in this one. And as with any bargain, it won’t come without cost. Just as a hearth-fire must be fueled upon a bed of kindling, the enchantment that would summon up this dream-world must be similarly fueled—and as a hearth-fire consumes its logs in order to sustain itself, so shall this enchantment consume the energies of your life-force.

You’ll never notice the difference, of course. You’ll live millennia within your dream-world in the minute or so it will take the spell to finish consuming your body in this one—six or seven of them, at the least. Think on it, lad. Young as you are, how many years yet remain to you in this world—a paltry three or four more decades? Five, if you’re fortunate? Have you any idea how much pleasure you could experience in a hundred years, let alone six thousand? I’m offering you an eternity to live as you please, in a world formed to cater to your every whim. Shade’s mercy, man, have you any idea how many mortal sovereigns would swap their kingdoms in a heartbeat for such an offer? You’ll not find a better bargain from your wizard, I promise you that…

May as well get on with it either way, though, eh? Battle or bargain, lad—what’s it to be?

Matthew Ross

Image by Artie_Navarre from Pixabay 

6 thoughts on “A Better Bargain by Matthew Ross”

  1. Hi Matthew,
    There was a wee bit of naughtiness in this that I enjoyed. When we were discussing this, Diane suggested, especially the way it ended, this could go onto something longer. (Have a think on that Matthew – This could go into novel length very easily)
    You make a few excellent points about politics, being used, temptation and such-like.
    This POV normally annoys me but I have to admit, this was well enough done. The tone and pace were good and the MC’s persuasion was very well done.
    A clever and entertaining piece of writing!!


  2. Thanks so much for the kind thoughts! This one started at about 4500 words before my brilliant wife suggested I chop out everything outside the Evil Overlord’s speech (and as she typically is, she was absolutely right–the story’s way better for it!) In my mind, the Wizard definitely did NOT inform his charge what he’d be facing in the cave, giving him all the more incentive to take the deal…but I’ll leave it to the readers to decide what his answer was 🙂 And while I thought I’d put this world to bed, Hugh now has me very much thinking about expanding this out to novel length…


  3. Love the bawdiness and authenticity of this. I laughed out loud at ‘I’ve no desire to piss in your oat-mush’ and will have to find a way to weave it in to conversation. Very rich, characterful writing.


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