In which Ghost meets her Goblin again and visits town.
Just a Ghost was about to drop into sleep the shadow blade reappeared. Since sleeping with a naked blade in hand seemed unwise, she banished it and tried again, but again the blade reappeared as sleep approached. After the third abortive attempt to sleep unarmed she chose to set the blade on the ground beside her instead of banishing it. She watched it nervously for a time, but the tingling was absent, the blade seemed immobile, and she soon dropped into much-needed slumber.
When she woke she forgot all about the blade, but as she left the fenced garden where she had slept she felt the tingle return to her arm. Looking back, she saw it had vanished from the ground and surmised it worked on some kind of proximity system.
Ghost left the old man’s home in high spirits. Less than half a day had passed since she freed herself from her curse and in that time she had already tricked a poison ivy into aiding her and found a human both generous and knowledgeable. Her disguise had lasted well through her sleep, convincing her it would remain without maintenance and not betray her while among humans. There had been the unpleasantness with the shadow blade and the rosebush, by dryad minds are not suited to remembering unpleasantness and already the details of that event were slipping from her mind.
It came as a bitter shock, then, when not a hundred paces into the wood she came upon the goblin who had sold her her freedom. In the dark of the fey wilderness where she had previously seen it it had been ugly and frightening, but had fit its surroundings. Now, in the full light of an unenchanted sun it had an almost pitiable appearance. Every feature seemed purposefully constructed to be visually unpleasant, conveying neither strength nor beauty nor purpose. Ghost shuddered at the sight and prayed none of its curse ever rub off on her.
“In the forest on the far side of the human lands,” said the goblin without introduction, “turn left at the stump of a huge tree twenty-years gone and continue as far as you have come from the house this morning. Nurse the injured plants there back to health. This shall conclude your first mission.” This said, the goblin immediately turned as if to depart.
Ghost was loath to spend more time with the goblin than necessary, but the terms of her arrangement were still unclear and she was far less desirous to violate the terms unwittingly. “And if I do not find the stump?” she asked.
“You will,” said the goblin. “But to prevent you annoying me with such questions in the future, we require, beyond what we explicitly ask, only that you not intentionally avoid circumstances described. We take responsibility for our own prognoses.”
With that the goblin turned again, seeming to hunch in on itself, and vanished out of sight. The only sign of its former presence was its distinctive odor. Ghost knew it only as the smell of goblin, but would later find elements of it in poorly ventilated latrines, the under-armor padding of knights after a long summer journey, and the breath of those with particularly bad oral hygiene.
Ghost was, on the whole, pleased by this request. Helping injured trees was something she would have done anyway. She had expected a bit more time before being sent errand-running, having had the impression that her jobs would be scattered in time, but it didn’t sound nearly as awful as she had anticipated.
Shortly after this encounter Ghost began passing houses. These increased in density until she came to the town of Cordenswold which surrounded Cordenswold Manor on the banks of the Eastfork. She received much attention as she went, for even in her shapeless ankle-length peasant dress her face was arrestingly beautiful and her graceful movements, flawless hair, and smooth hands and feet all marked her as a lady incognito rather than a daughter of toil. Thus, while many stared, none spoke to her; it is chancy getting mixed up with a lady who wishes not to be recognized as a lady.
Ghost walked through Cordenswold to Eastfork, then turned north to follow its banks to the Lower Elfin. No, she corrected herself, to the huge stump. Her actions were not wholly her own and it was unwise to forget that, even for a moment.
Shortly after reaching the river bank, Ghost smelled the most wonderful smell. Turning to its source she found a baker with a dazzling array of breads and meat pies. As he clearly had more than he alone could eat, and she was beginning to feel hungry again, she decided to see if she might have some of his excess.
“Greetings, stranger,” she said as she approached his window.
“Good day, m’lady,” replied the baker respectfully. “Are you in the market for baked goods, m’lady?”
“Those meat pies smell delicious,” she replied.
“They are delicious,” he answered, “and a bargain at five pence, m’lady.” This was not technically true; he normally sold them for two pence and would have settled for 1½p if pressed, but he assumed the lady would pay much more without baulking.
Ghost remembered that she had heard that humans traded in coin and assumed that “pence” referred to this odd habit. “Alas,” she said, “I have no pence to give.”
The baker was a bit surprised, assuming ladies always carried purse even when masquerading as peasants. Still, he was loath to let aristocracy out of his shop without some gain. “If m’lady takes a pie now on the house I am certain she will most generously repay me later,” he said.
Ghost looked up from the baked goods into the bakers eyes in surprise. She had heard that in mortal realms promises bore no inherent weight, yet this mundane man was trying to catch her in an open-ended debt. Perhaps he had seen through her disguise? She felt her blade in her hand and paused long enough to banish it, hoping the baker had not seen it below the level of his counter.
“I would rather not owe a debt I cannot immediately see my way to repaying,” she said, and, to make her refusal appear final, she immediately turned away.
The baker watched her walk northward out of town in silence, for even this far from the fey lands a dryad’s glamour is quite powerful eye to eye at such short range, particularly when the dryad is emotionally focused. The baker was never quite sure why he let her walk away, but he told his wife and friends it was because she “had the carriage of a queen and was quite intimidating.”
Ghost, on the other hand, was a bit rattled by the exchange. Her disguise was evidently imperfect and even the most mundane of mortals wanted to trap her in debt. Her love of fey beauty was no longer the only reason she sought to leave the mortal lands.
Maybe outside the mortal realm her mortal hunger would subside as well.