PRW Runner-Up Tour: The Deal by Michelle Hoehn
The young man stood in the middle of the crossroads. It was midnight, and the moon shone clearly overhead. He kept turning to face sudden noises coming from the surrounding darkness: the sharp snap of twigs, an owl taking flight from its perch, the gentle rustle of leaves. His preoccupation with the nighttime symphony prevented him from noticing that a small boy had appeared in the crossroads behind him. However, after the small boy’s sudden arrival, all noise ceased. The young man realized he was no longer alone.
The small boy called out, “Hello, Asher.”
Earlier that morning, Asher knelt near the barren patch of earth where the grass barely made an attempt to grow. The former plague pit stood far enough removed, but still in sight of, the small village it had served just five years before. Asher spoke softly, not quite to himself, but as if another were listening.
“Mother is doing well, though I don’t see her often,” he said. “Many of the kingdom’s nurses and sisters died during the plague years, so Mother is usually off tending to the sick and training more healers. She misses you. Sometimes I think that’s why she’s away so much.
“There’s to be a great festival tomorrow night,” he continued. “The queen is hosting it, to celebrate the kingdom’s health and prosperity in overcoming the plague. I suspect it’s also to find a suitor for her daughter. The queen is too old to remarry, so she probably wants to find a suitable consort for the princess. I can’t wait to go. It’ll be just like the festivals we used to go to when you…when the king was alive.”
Asher stood up, brushing the clods of dirt from his knees.
“Anyway, Papa, I have to go and do my chores before Stepfather wakes up. I’ll tell you about the festival later.”
He turned and ran off down the path that led to the village, hoping that his stepfather would still be in a drunken stupor when he arrived home.
Asher’s stepfather, unfortunately, was awake, hungover and furious when Asher returned to the farmhouse.
“Where were you?” he demanded.
Asher said nothing and hung his head. He knew speaking back to his stepfather would be considered an act of defiance, so it was best to assume a penitent stance and remain silent. The stepfather swayed uneasily. Great stains of food, ale and, Asher suspected, vomit, covered the front of his tunic.
“Get to work,” he slurred. Asher nodded and fled out of his stepfather’s unfocused sight.
Tending to the farm and household chores was nothing new to Asher. He did them every day when his father was alive, so he learned how to feed and muck after the stable animals, chop wood for the cooking fires and, when necessary, go into the village to purchase sundries. He had no difficulty doing his chores; dealing with his stepbrothers was another matter entirely.
When his mother remarried, Asher not only gained a new father, but two horrid and lazy brothers in the arrangement. They had been afflicted by the plague, but managed to survive; the only remnants of their illness were the deep pockmarks that spread across their faces and bodies. Severely spoiled by their father, as he claimed they were too fragile to work, they lulled about the house while Asher toiled, and when they weren’t doing that, they tormented him incessantly.
Asher continued about his daily tasks while his stepbrothers buzzed about him like flies. He was able to ignore their endless droning and taunting, until they started talking about tomorrow evening’s festival as he chopped firewood.
“I hear there will be fools,” one of them said.
“Of course there will,” said the other. “Asher is going to be there.”
“That’s if father let’s him go.”
Asher’s hatchet was mid-swing when his stepbrother said this. He set the hatchet down on the ground. “I thought we were all going,” Asher said cautiously.
“We’re going,” said one stepbrother. “Father never said that you could come.”
“That’s not fair,” Asher said, his voice rising. “The whole kingdom has been invited. Why wouldn’t he let me go?”
His stepbrothers looked at each other, cheeky grins emerging on their scarred faces.
“The queen gave us special instructions saying that you couldn’t come,” one of them said.
“You’re lying!” The words came out faster and louder than even Asher expected. He never reacted to his stepbrothers taunts before, choosing to ignore them rather than be baited. Asher wanted to go to the festival. What if they were right, and his stepfather would prevent him from going?
The stepbrothers stepped back from Asher in surprise. There was a loud crash as the farmhouse’s back door slammed open, and their father staggered out into the yard.
“What’s going on?” he bellowed.
One stepbrother ran up to him.
“Father!” he whined. “Asher threatened us with the hatchet!”
“That’s not true,” Asher started. “They said—”
But he did not get the opportunity to finish speaking, for his stepfather had bounded over to him, and struck him hard across the face. Asher stumbled and fell backward, clutching his fast-swelling cheek and trying to protect himself against what was coming. His stepfather continued to beat him, landing blow after blow across Asher’s face and head, while his stepbrothers watched the event with perverse amusement.
The stepfather’s fists slowed and, to Asher’s relief, finally stopped. The alcoholic reek was still on his labored breath as he towered over Asher.
“You’re lucky,” he finally managed. “You’re lucky I don’t stomp you under my boot. You threaten my boys again and I will kill you — to hell with what your mother’ll think.”
The stepfather beckoned to his sons and they went into the house, slamming the door shut behind them.
Asher lay quietly on the ground, arms wrapped around his head. He felt light-headed and sore, but other than several tender spots, nothing appeared to be broken. He sat up slowly. His stepbrothers’ prophecy had come true: there was no way his stepfather would permit him to go to the festival now.
He pounded his fist into the dirt, frustrated. How could his mother marry a man so unlike his father? Asher always tried to be kind and dutiful, but even when sober, his stepfather treated him cruelly.
He abandoned this line of thought, as he knew there was no immediate solution to it. He desperately wanted to go to the festival.
“Good morning,” called a young voice.
Asher looked up, and saw a small boy sitting on top of the nearby woodpile. He sat casually, kicking his short legs back and forth, taking in his surroundings.
Asher stood up slowly, and staggered slightly. “Where did you come from?” he asked.
The small boy smiled. “Just passing through,” he said impishly. “It’s been a while since I’ve come this way. It sounded like you were having a bit of a barney. Does he beat you often?”
Asher held his hand against his swollen cheek, and nodded.
“You’re not his blood, are you?”
“He’s my stepfather,” Asher said. “His sons are my stepbrothers.”
The small boy slid off of the woodpile, looking disappointed. “Well,” he said, “that’s a shame. I could’ve worked wonders with a blood tie.”
Asher looked doubtful. “You’re just a child,” he said.
“Don’t make assumptions about what I can and can’t do,” the boy replied. He reached up and patted Asher on the cheek. “I’m older than I look.”
Asher winced as the boy touched his face. “What are you doing, then, talking about blood ties? Do you know magic?”
“Loads,” the boy said smugly. “Among other things. But mostly,” he narrowed his eyes hungrily, “I like to make deals.”
“I don’t have anything to barter with,” Asher said sadly.
“But there’s something you want,” the boy said.
“I want to go to the festival.”
“Is that what you really want?”
Asher opened his mouth to respond, but quickly closed it. Going to the festival would be wonderful, but that would only be for one night, and everything would go back to being exactly the same: his stepbrothers would bully him and his stepfather would beat him, or even kill him. He didn’t want that life anymore.
The small boy watched Asher think, looking pleased with himself.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked.
“Well, Asher, come meet me at the crossroads outside of town. Come at midnight. I think we may have some business to discuss after all.”
Asher turned and faced the small boy from earlier. It may have been the moonlight casting shadows, but Asher thought the boy’s eyes looked darker than before.
“Have you thought about what you wanted?”
“Yes,” said Asher. “I want my life back, like how it was before.”
A flash of anger flitted across the boy’s face, but he closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, and gently forced the air out.
“I was hoping for something a little more creative,” the boy sighed.
“I don’t care how it happens, but it’s what I want,” Asher said, his voice slightly raised.
The boy’s face brightened.
“I have free rein? Permission to act as I see fit?”
Asher nodded. “I don’t know how you’ll do it. I don’t think I want to know. But I told you before, I have nothing to trade for it.”
“Nothing physical, anyway,” the boy chimed in. “I will give you what you want, in the way that I design. For what I have planned, I’ll give you…”
The boy counted on his fingers for a moment.
“I’ll be generous,” he finally said. “Ten years. I’ll come back for you after you’ve had a nice, long decade.”
“A decade of what?”
The boy spread his arms wide. “Health! Wealth! Prosperity! What ever your little head can handle. Yes, it will be a tad bittersweet, knowing that it has a time limit. But truly, given your current situation, this is a marvelous opportunity.”
Asher frowned. “And after all that you’ll come back for me?”
“Yes, though more specifically, I’ll come for your soul.” The boy stared hungrily at Asher. “That is the usual going rate.”
Asher looked down. He knew he was making a vague request – and what exactly did he mean by ‘life as it was before’? Before his stepfamily? Before his father died? Was he really willing to make such a bargain because his life wasn’t how he expected it to be?
The boy had a point: his current situation was a bad one. If his stepfather made good on his threat, Asher could die at any time. Ten years of health, wealth and prosperity, guaranteed, at the price of his young soul.
“I’ll do it.”
The small boy clapped his hands together. “Then let’s make it official,” he said. He walked up to Asher and placed his hands on Asher’s shoulders, pulling him into a hard kiss. The pact was made. When the boy pulled away, his eyes were pitch black.
“It is done.”
Asher could not recall what happened after the deal-sealing kiss. He woke up in the farmhouse the following morning. It was quiet and still, and he detected an unusual smell in the air — burning meat. It seemed to be coming from outside. He walked out the back door and found a small group of neighbors tending a massive bonfire off in a clearing.
“Stay back!” someone called to him. “We’re burning the corpses.”
Asher approached the knot of neighbors. “Is it the plague again?”
“Worse,” spoke an older man. “Your stepfather and brothers came staggering out of the house at dawn, screaming. Their skin erupted in boils and sores before my eyes.” He shuddered.
“They keeled over shortly after,” said another man. “We built a pyre. Didn’t want to take the time to bury them. I’m sorry,” he added.
Asher sat down suddenly on the ground. Some of the neighbors tried to comfort him, assuming he was overcome with grief, but he wasn’t grieving — he was stunned. The small boy actually did it, Asher thought.
More neighbors offered their condolences, but Asher couldn’t hear them. What else does the boy have in store for me? he wondered. He looked into the fire that was slowly licking away at his stepfamily. He was sorry at their passing, but he also knew he wouldn’t miss them at all.
He stood up and calmly walked back to his house. He didn’t want to waste any of the time he had left.
The plague pit had filled in with grass over the years. Asher knelt on the green turf. He had grown into a strong and handsome man. The royal uniform he wore fit comfortably across his chest, and the medals pinned to it gleamed in the sun.
“I went to the festival that night,” Asher said. “I caught the princess’ eye and we danced, but even though I pleased the princess, the queen deemed me an unsuitable match because of my station. That changed almost immediately when mother returned, and was suddenly designated the royal physician. Now I was the son of a Lady and trained as her assistant, which seemed acceptable enough for the queen, and the princess and I married soon after.
“The queen was already quite old and died shortly after we wed. My wife became the new queen and I was her consort and prince. We raised a family — two boys and a girl. I wish you could see them. The kingdom has had no wars, no sickness, only peace this entire time.”
Asher sighed. “It has been a glorious ten years, Papa. I knew it would never last, but even knowing that, this life has been a blessing. I wouldn’t change anything.”
He stood up, and lightly brushed off the grass clinging to his legs.
“I told my family that I was going out riding in the woods today,” he continued. “My goodbyes took longer than expected, but my children will have good, albeit few, memories of their father. I don’t know when or if they’ll find my body. I hope something will be left for them to bury.
“It’s time for me to go. I always wished to see you in the next life, but,” Asher smiled sadly, “I don’t think that’s going to happen. Goodbye, Papa.”
He walked away from the plague pit and headed in the direction of the crossroads. When he arrived, he found the small boy waiting for him. The boy looked exactly the same as he did ten years before.
“You turned out well,” the small boy said, looking Asher up and down. “Such a handsome devil.”
“I suppose I am,” Asher agreed, reluctantly.
“You’re a little early, though,” the boy said. “I’m supposed to come for you, not the other way around.”
“I knew you’d be here. It didn’t make sense to drag out the day.”
The boy nodded. “Pacts with my kind always receive such…” he paused, thinking for the right words, “…a bad reputation. Yes, my brothers tend to give their deals a touch of the double-edged sword, where it’s what the person wanted, but not in the way they wanted. The soul is usually damaged by the end.
“I never understood that. Why make the deal unbearable for the person who makes it? Because it’s what they expect. The taboo of giving up your soul. People just don’t understand that sometimes it’s just the best option they have. I respect that. I make sure it’s worth it.”
The boy looked up at Asher, expectantly. “Was it a good life?”
“More than I could ever hope for,” Asher replied.
The boy smiled, relieved. He held out his hand and offered it to Asher. “Are you ready?”
Asher clasped the boy’s hand. “Yes,” he said. “It’s time.”
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