“Eighty-five gold! That’s outrageous!” The beefy tavern owner slammed the table with his fist. “I won’t pay it!”
Martin shrugged calmly, used to such outbursts. “I am here to assess the King’s Tax, not to collect it. You have the right to contest my judgment. Of course, that will prompt a more thorough investigation of your resources.”
The man paled. Most people did their best to keep wealth a secret, especially from a tax assessor. Martin did not resent this, or even blame them. However, it was his duty to estimate the total value of a household, not just what was obvious.
The innkeeper had put out patched tablecloths and chipped earthen mugs in anticipation of his visit. But there were also lighter sections of wall where tapestries and other decorations had been removed and hidden away. Martin was a not a bright man, but he had been told what to look for.
The owner glowered for a moment, and then reached into the small purse on his belt. “If you take some time to check your numbers, I’m sure you will find that you are off by at least thirty.” He tossed three gold coins onto the table and smiled. “I will be happy to pay you for your time. And provide lodging and some, ah, interesting company for the evening?”
Tensing, Martin shook his head and stood up. The assessor he was replacing had been very susceptible to bribery. Again, he took no offense. “My figures are correct. And while I appreciate your kind offer, I must decline on all counts.” Martin did take some small measure of pride in seeing the astonishment on the innkeeper’s face. No one seemed to be prepared for honesty.
“But…” The man was finally at a loss for words. His cold eyes spoke volumes, however.
Martin swallowed nervously. He was racking up an impressive number of powerful enemies –merchants, traders, even the Duke himself had gotten used to less honorable ‘servants’ of the King. A smarter man might grab the offered coins and change his figures. However, Martin had a job to do, and he stubbornly held firm. “Payment is by the end of the next cycle. Good day.”
Gathering his scrolls, Martin shrugged on his backpack and left hurriedly. It would be best to put some distance between himself and the wealthier inhabitants of this town before nightfall. Traveling alone and unarmed, he and his records were easy prey. And they knew as well as he did that a replacement assessor was likely to be more flexible.
This position was a great opportunity for a commoner with limited means and education. It was also something that Martin didn’t want. He had been happy working in the King’s Storehouse, dutifully filling ledgers and handling the repetitive, boring tasks that others considered drudge work. Simple jobs, done well. He found contentment following orders, comfort in a soft bed and a full stomach.
There had been little comfort in the few weeks since he was summoned to the Treasurer’s quarters and ‘promoted.’ His treasured routine was interrupted, and he’d been forced to adjust to new situations. Some would consider the work challenging. Martin hated it. However, his sense of duty and responsibility forced him to do the best he could.
It was getting cooler as the sun sank, and he realized he would have to find a place for the night. Although his stipend allowed for lodging and food, he was afraid to stay anyplace public. The last assessor had been found with his throat slit, rumor being he had gotten too greedy. Being too honest was putting Martin in danger of the same fate.
There were not a lot of options. He had angered both of the local tavern owners, and while he would be welcome to stay the night, he doubted if he would wake up. Why had he been given this position, anyway? Surely the King’s Treasurer knew how ill-suited he was to the task.
Perhaps he could find lodging with one of the local farmers. As unpopular as he was with the wealthy, Martin had found great acceptance with the common folk. Unable to afford bribes, they had suffered under other assessors who overvalued their meager possessions to make up for what he hid for the rich. Fair treatment had been the same to them as a windfall.
He trudged down the uneven dirt road, trying to remember who owned the closest farm. Sleep had been fitful at best ever since he took the position, and fatigue was wearing him down. Even huddled in a peasant hovel, he suffered from recurrent nightmares. Dark shadows wielding shiny blades. Nightmares too close to reality to be dismissed. Only by day could he dream of a simpler life.
“Good Evening, Assessor.”
Martin nearly jumped out of his skin when an old woman seemed to pop into existence just behind him. Gods! He must have been lost in thought not to hear her approaching. Recovering quickly, he nodded and smiled at her. One of the peasants from the other side of town. He struggled to recall her name. “Ah, Good evening, Dame Judith.”
“Lillith.” She smiled with all six teeth.
“Sorry. Dame Lillith. Good evening.”
The woman nodded. “Good evening. Are you looking for a place to stay? I can put you up for the night, if you aren’t too fussy.”
He hesitated. The woman’s tiny cottage barely had room for her and her ancient tabby cat. Still, it would hardly be a place that enemies would look for him. “Your hospitality would be greatly appreciated. And paid for, of course.”
“Nonsense. Come along, then.” She grabbed his arm and tugged him off the road with surprising strength. “This path that will take us around town. A bit longer, perhaps, but much safer.”
Her comment made him nervous, for it hit much to close to his earlier thoughts. Still, he followed her as they twisted through dense woods. The extra exercise was almost too much. By the time they reached her little farm, he was barely able to walk. She helped him remove his backpack and guided him inside to the solitary chair. When he protested, she simply pushed him back into it.
"Sit! You look like death warmed over." She turned to stir the small pot that hung over the fireplace. Some sort of porridge, thick and gray. "Hot food and a good night's sleep will make everything all right with the world."
Too tired to argue, he nodded. "My appetite has been off a little recently, and sleep has been hard to come by."
She grabbed a crude wooden bowl and scooped a large serving from the steaming pot. Noting his reluctance to take it, Lillith grinned. "Don't worry. It is less than two days old, all wheat and oats, with some special herbs for flavor."
Martin flushed slightly. Some of the peasants kept such a pot on the fire for weeks, throwing in bits of meat and whatever else might be available. He should be grateful for her to share anything at all, much less show distaste. Although the thick paste didn't look like much, he was surprised to find that it smelled like warm bread, and had a pleasant, nutty taste. Any guilt over consuming her meager supplies was eased knowing she would be able to buy a hundred such meals with the coins he would leave her.
"It must be difficult, spending so much time away from your family." Lillith filled a clay cup with water and handed it to him. "You must miss them very much."
"I don't really have a family." He was surprised at his own admission, but after so two weeks on the road, he felt like talking. "I've been on my own since I was a child. No real friends, either. I guess I've always been something of a loner."
"Is that why you took the job?"
Martin hesitated, and then gave a deep sigh. "I didn't have a choice. They needed a new assessor for this county, and I was chosen. When I tried to tell them I was not qualified, the King's Treasurer told me it was my duty to serve the Crown. They gave me a week to learn the job, and sent me off."
The old lady took his bowl as soon as he was done and refilled it, pressing it into his hands with a smile. "An unusual honor for such a young man. You must have impressed someone."
He ate as he pondered that. In truth, he had earned little more than scorn from the Storehouse master. Although Martin was a steady worker who never complained, he had been severely criticized for his lack of initiative. His selection for this position had angered his more competitive coworkers. Even he did not understand why the Master had recommended him over the others.
"Why is it you do not line your pockets like the others?" Lillith stared at him intently. "Most in your position become rich. You could buy anything you want, live where you please. Why, the Duke himself maintained a guest room for the last Assessor."
Who gained an extra smile in the night, Martin thought sourly. Shaking his head, he used his fingers to scoop another mouthful of porridge into his mouth. "There have been some troubles in this area. The King's Treasurer is watching everything closely. Besides, I prefer a simple life. A comfortable place to sleep and enough to eat. And some simple work to pay for it."
As he finished, it occurred to him that she had not eaten herself. He was probably consuming more than she did in a week. Even so, it was difficult to turn down her offer of thirds.
He settled back in the chair when he was done, feeling more relaxed than he had in weeks. It didn't matter that the only bed was the woman's straw-filled ticking. He was falling asleep in the chair when the old woman nudged his foot.
"You will suffer in the morning if you sleep there." She opened the door. "Follow me. I have a place you can stretch out."
Still groggy, he stumbled after her as she headed for a small barn behind the cottage. Going inside, she indicated an empty stall. At first, Martin felt mild resentment. Then he realized he actually had more room here than she did in her cottage. A coarse, stained blanket had been laid over what he hoped was fresh straw. The place smelled of horse, and he was sure there were fleas anxiously awaiting him. Still, it was no worse than most public rooms he had slept in.
"Thank you. This is fine." Martin sat down on the bedding and then lay back. So tired. He hadn't eaten that much in weeks, and found himself drifting off in a pleasant stupor. Then the old woman said something that startled him wide awake.
"They've decided to kill you."
"What?" She'd been so matter matter-of fact in her tone that Martin wasn't sure he'd heard her right. "What did you say?"
"The innkeepers and the Duke." Lillith leaned against the stall gate. "They've hired someone to kill you. Quietly, away from the town. Your records are to be destroyed, and your body hidden away so that no one can ever find you."
Martin shook his head, trying to fight increasing drowsiness. How could he sleep now? Pushing himself up slightly, he tried to focus blurred vision on the old woman. "How did you find out?"
She chuckled. "Because they came to me, my boy. Paid me to poison you, and dump your body in the bog."
Gods! He suddenly remembered that she hadn't eaten anything. Struggling to get up, his strength failed and he flopped back onto the straw. "Why?" He felt horribly betrayed. It was one thing to have some unknown assassin murder him in his sleep, quite another to have someone he trusted and felt comfortable with do the deed. Tears ran down his face as he felt Lillith loosen his shirt and breeches. "I never hurt anyone."
"No, you didn't." Lillith started to tug off his clothing. "But they think that getting rid of you will solve all their problems."
Why was she stripping him? Martin lacked the strength to fight anymore, letting her poison carry him off. At least there was no pain. Only a curious itching in his skin, and some numbness in his hands and feet.
The old woman finished removing his clothes, and started stroking his temples in a soothing manner. "Do not fear, my young friend. You are going to disappear, but not in the manner that you or they expect. Only the one who sent you here will know the truth."
"I don't understand." Confusion teased his thickening mind, and he struggled to stay awake. He felt heavy, warm, and oddly content. It was a strange way to face death.
"Of course you don't." She rubbed his ears. "That's why you were chosen. They needed someone honest, someone who would do his duty no matter what. Someone the Duke would have to kill. Then they could swoop in and charge him with the murder of the King's Assessor. It's all a set up."
Martin stretched out, muscles pulling as he slid across the floor. Some of the sensations were curious. He felt swollen, bloated. There was no feeling in his fingers or toes, and his legs were getting stiff. At the same time, the odors around him increased in strength, not unpleasant, just richer. Lillith kept rubbing his ears in long, hypnotic strokes.
Huh? He struggled against the black suction of oblivion and forced his eyes open. Vision was worse than before, but he could still see that his face was pushed out too far. "Wha.. what happen…?" His lips were difficult to control, thick and oddly wide.
The old woman chuckled and patted his chest. "You aren't dying, boy. Just disappearing. Courtesy of your Master back at the King's Storehouse. If the Duke hadn't approached me, I was to take care of you anyway. The Duke would have been blamed for your disappearance, regardless."
The Master? Anger flared briefly, but faded quickly. It did make sense. There had been some talk of the Duke, but he had paid little attention. He was the least important member of the staff, the obvious choice for a sacrifice. Then he realized something else Lillith had said. "Not.. dying?"
"Of course not." She stroked his chest again, the pressure insulated by something that felt like soft cloth, or… fur? "As long as Martin the Assessor is never found, the Duke can be prosecuted. So I am turning you into Martin the Donkey."
"Don-keeee." He should have been terrified, but the warm contentment of transformation was lulling him into slumber. "Whyyy donn-keeee." The words were starting to blur in his head, and emerged in a wheezing sound.
"Because the spell was easy, the shape is common, and because it suits you." Lillith's hand slid over his chest, ruffling the thick coarse hair. "What was it you said? A simple life. A comfortable place to sleep and enough to eat. Some basic work to pay for it." She stood up. "In short, you have been seeking the life of a jackass. And by morning, that is exactly what you will be."
A jackass. No responsibilities, no complications. No need to think at all. Maybe it was part of whatever magic she was using, but Martin suddenly felt rewarded. He opened his mind to the dull contentment, allowing it to wash away the worries and fears that had tortured him over the past weeks. The next time Lillith spoke, her words were meaningless noise. She seemed to realize what had happened for she fell silent, and finally left him alone in the stall.
Martin rolled over on his distended belly and crossed his arms under his head for the last time. His muzzle twisted into a smile, and he allowed himself to drift off to sleep, no longer having to dream of the simple life.
- end -