In my days of exile I had precious few friends. Additionally, Ahzi was the most fearless swordsmen I've ever known. I once saw him leap into a dragon's open maw so that he could reach its eyeball with a hatchet. We ran into, and ran from, man-eating beasts frequently back then. The fate of the kingdom wasn't in our hands quite yet, but keeping his friendship felt just as dire. I told him I'd help.
Ahzi took to planning with the same intensity that overtook him the night we raided Fort Jodden. I told him to calm down. Rescuing a thief is no military campaign. However, freeing the girl proved difficult enough to make this story worth telling.
I asked why he was so intent on freeing a caged thief. His response was so honest that I almost laughed.
“She looked at me.”
Women looked at us all the time. I was used to it. I still am. I told him so. He countered,
“Yes, women look at us. They look at my scars and your orange hair, not at me.”
I used to dye it, now I wear my natural blue. Orange is passé.
He went on and on. Not like I do, but given his curt nature, even a few phrases seemed loquacious. “She picked me out of that crowd, peered into my eyes, asking for help.”
I suggested that she must be a magician and could probably escape by magic if she could speak to him through the din of a crowd while stuck in a cage hanging so far up. “She asked me with her blue eyes,” he explained.
“You could see their color?” Even his keen eyes weren't that sharp.
“I made up the blue part,” he admitted, “I thought you'd appreciate the poetry. You understand though, don't you?”
I did. He begged- threatened me really, not to tell Louie or Sakarii. Personally I would have preferred to have had a wizard's help, but Ahzi was too embarrassed. The last adventure Ahzi and I had shared without Sakarii's aid was the incident involving the mouse dragon, which I'm sure you've heard all about. I lost consciousness from loss of blood, not the sight of blood.
This time there were no dragons, monstrous or miniscule. Only a provincial volunteer sheriff and a wooden cage dangling from a tall crooked pole stood between us and our goal.
Ahzi's goal, rather. My courtship of the Lady Tace was at a standstill then, but my love remained. I had no intentions of wooing or wenching thieves, but I was happy to help Ahzi do so. In frankness I found it exciting to assist his romantic pursuits, since exile on pain of death kept me from my own.
Our plan hinged on a certain bit of stage magic I may have used in my youth to charm many a maiden—a road wizard's trick that transmutes the weight of a falling beauty to the weight of a songbird. It works to catch homely women, as well, not only beauties. I mean to catch them literally, not romantically, though it is a good start. Also, I don't mean to imply that the maiden in question was homely by any means, though I doubt that she was a maiden at the time.
But I digress! The pole was the problem, not the wench—err, woman.
The pole was bristling with nails and coated in pitch, so shimmying up to reach the cage was no option. We discussed chopping down the pole, but my magic wouldn't transmute the weight of both the prisoner and her cage. Spells have tightly specific applications. Only the weight of a woman is reduced by the spell, not her clothing, purse, nor anything else she may carry. Many dabbling adepts have been flattened attempting to stretch the specifics of that particular transmutation.
Eventually we came up with a far-fetched plan lacking a key element. First, we would write a note clearly describing our intentions to the prisoner and tie it to an arrow. A long silken cord would be tied to that arrow as well. On the opposite end of the cord, we would tie a hand saw.
Second, I would muffle the arrowhead with a “shh-ing” spell, to mute the twang when Ahzi shot it into the cage's ceiling. I warned him that taking such a shot was unwise at night but he swore he wouldn't hit the woman. In the end he was right, but so was I in a way. Ideally, she would read the note, pull up the saw, cut her wooden bars and jump safely into my enchanted arms. We'd call our horses from the woods, she'd ride off with Ahzi, fall madly in love with him, join our band of exiles, help defeat Lord Versac, onward and such until happily ever after.
But we didn't have a saw.
We managed to find a furniture maker as he was closing up his shop. I was surprised that a village with two pubs and a lively market had only one carpenter, but apparently all the able-bodied men in town had been called off to serve in the ducal wars six years prior. Only one skilled woodworker had returned.
The carpenter rightfully suspected us of mischief, so I cut to practical negotiations, guessing correctly that he was no man for small talk. We needed a hand saw. I told him we had one simple cut to make and would be happy to compensate him fairly for one hour's use of it, after which it would be promptly returned.
When he asked what we needed it for, Ahzi blurted out, “To cut something. Something wooden.”
To make a boring tale quick, I purchased the six-mark saw, along with the carpenter's silence, for the price of eight gold crowns. He insisted we pay in silver marks so that he could spend the coins without drawing attention. The sum amounted to all the silver we carried and I'm sure if he had known about the pewter pittance in Ahzi's boot, he would taken that, too. It was the last saw in town.
We set to enact our plan! I prepared my limbs with the spell to catch a falling maiden and set it to release on a whisper. Ahzi hid our horses in the outskirts of the forest, using some hedge-charm to make them stay untied until he whistled. Under darkness we approached the hanging cage undetected.
Ahzi made his shot perfectly but thanks to the muffling charm, the sleeping prisoner didn't notice. Hearing her raucous—I mean, dainty snoring, we realized one of many mistakes. Ahzi tugged the rope, swaying the cage. The arrow fell and the cage jolted with heavier movement as the prisoner awoke.
“Let me sleep, you little baker's bastards!” She continued hollering colorful curses until Ahzi called out, “We're not children!”
But the arrow he shot sent a much louder message, silencing her.
“Read the note!” He whispered excitedly.
The lovers held their first fateful conversation. Allow me to play both parts.
“Oh, the arrow has a note! You aren't here to assassinate me. It's too dark to read, master scribe.”
“I . . . wrote out an escape plan.”
“I don't believe it.”
“That I'm here to rescue you?”
“That you can write!”
“We . . . I . . .I am the man you looked at!”
“I look at lots of men from up here. Isn't much else to do!”
“There's a rope tied to the arrow, pull it up!”
At this point I noticed several lanterns poking out from doorways, but Ahzi remained unfazed.
“M'lady, have you found the saw at the end of the rope?”
“What in all the hells can I do with this?”
The saw sounded strangely musical as it flew over our heads.
“M'lady, if you cut the wooden bars, you can jump down to us! I, um, my friend can catch you!”
She laughed loud, clearly trying to alert the townsfolk.
“You want me to jump? I could slip through these bars if I wished! The height is my prison, not the bars. Even if you did catch me, I'd break my bones and hopefully yours!”
“There's a magic spell, it said in the note-”
“Bugger your magic!” She spat, at him, I presume, but it landed on me.
Ahzi was speechless. Panic invaded his face. This was a man who once went sword-to-sword with a giant made of iron. He dared call Queen Dialyse a coward to her face, and the faces of her thirty royal guardsmen who consequently removed him by force from the royal court. I've had few chances to see him actually afraid and this was the first. Ahzi feared neither pain, death, nor public opinion of his character. Nor how deeply my reputation suffered for associating with him. Yet it seemed that he was terrified by the thought that a female criminal he had met at a glance didn't want him to rescue her.
He attempted an aside that she overheard. “Serjio, can you do that persuasive spell you use on bar-maids?” In the past I may have abused seductive magics to avoid paying for ale, but never for the ungentlemanly reasons you're assuming. I admitted that she seemed far too willful for charming, magical or otherwise. Noting the lanterns, I suggested we leave immediately, without her. Ahzi refused.
“I know what'll make her jump!”
With that, Ahzi did the most foolhardy thing I've ever seen him do. He he picked up the last saw in town, knelt beside the tar-covered pole and started sawing. He was risking something he valued more than his own life—hers!
She shrieked for help. The streets flooded with villagers.
“I can catch you! Jump!” I hollered, “Trust us, or trust the cage!”
The pole creaked and tilted. She slid through the bars and fell towards me as the cage tumbled down. I whispered the word of force and caught her just in time to hear the shouts of the mob.
Whistling for the horses, Ahzi took her from my arms and ran. He tossed her onto his sturdy mare and mounted with a leap. By the time I managed to get on my rouncey, they had vanished into the woods. The mob, a lance-length away, pelted me with stones and rubbish. An arrow even whizzed past my ear. Thankfully, horses always outrun crowds.
So that's how Ahzi and Marlyn met. She used to hate when I told that story. So, one day Ahzi asked me to magically re-scribe her memory as a present for their fifth anniversary. Marlyn agreed, claiming she never wanted to remember the truth! Since Tace and I had personal experience with the matter, I warned them that altering memories puts a marriage at risk. But they insisted.
So I created a rescue story far more gallant on Ahzi's part and wrote myself out of it. I may have thrown in a troll or two, certainly a sword fight with a corrupt sheriff and his posse of knaves. Ahzi suffered a near-fatal injury, and the night culminated in an amorous encounter fueled by the thrills of escape. It was an exquisite yarn of romance and heroism.
Yet every enchantment has an undoing. When altering memories something must store the truth, for truth cannot be destroyed, only hidden.
Strangely enough, Ahzi never did throw out that six-mark saw. In fact, he carried it with on our countless other adventures. He always claimed that it might come in handy, but I knew better.
It was never useful, despite what he'll tell you. He considered it a token of Marlyn's love. She never gave him a proper favor, since the tumultuous early days of their romance were anything but courtly. Whenever I told Ahzi to leave the saw behind, he'd get this sentimental look and say, “But it was the last saw in town . . .”
However, after I imbued it with his wife's true memories of their first meeting, he tossed it down a well.
As expected, the pair came to regret the golden falsehood. Ahzi could never correctly remember the details of the lie, and Marlyn was constantly disappointed when Ahzi couldn't live up to his romantic feats of their first meeting. Within weeks Ahzi begged me to dispel the enchantment. But without the saw, no magic could do that.
Although I had promised no more adventures after marriage, Tace gave me her blessing for one last secret outing, knowing the stakes involved. I met Ahzi at midnight, by the market square well. I secured the rope and kept lookout as he descended. This time we were able to complete our midnight mission undetected. Still, when Ahzi came up soggy as a fish with that rusty saw in his mouth, I laughed out loud. At least that night we recognized our foolishness. Even now, with her true memories, Marlyn laughs with us when I tell the story of the last saw in town.
© June, 2013 Frank R. Sjodin
Frank R. Sjodin a working actor in Chicago and writes in my limited free time. His most recently published story is in the current issue of Sorcerous Signals, and he has previous works published in TWIT Publishing's PULP! Anthologies, the Lorelei Signal, and once previously in Swords and Sorcery Magazine.