This week’s prompt for Paired Prose is “avaricious.” Be sure to ceck out Aaron’s entry, “Trust!“
Mor stalked up the cobbled road that twisted through the village. Night was falling and lanterns flickered to life in second story windows all along the winding way sloping gently towards the town center. When Mor reached the fountain on the square he stopped and caught his breath. It had been a long day’s travel, and a long week before that. Only a few stray coins snatched on the road had sustained him this long. The weary feeling in Mor’s bones was growing stronger, and he could feel his sallow skin becoming tight and brittle. The song of gold was ringing in his ears now, and it didn’t take him long to locate its source.
The path continued up the hill to a large house on the summit, no doubt the residence of the headman, or the meister, or the mairie, or whatever title the man had. It didn’t matter. Mor took a long drink from the fountain to wet his parched lips and continued walking. The water did little to slake his thirst, but it felt cool on his tongue and that was better than nothing.
The villagers gave him a few askance looks as he passed but none stopped him or asked questions. The hood of Mor’s brown and travel-worn cloak hid most of his face from view, but it could not obscure the short sword hanging in a scabbard on his hip. Most took him for a mercenary or soldier and steered clear.
His heart was thudding when he reached the headman’s door and gave it three sharp raps. Presently a woman with wide hips and ruddy cheeks answered the door. She seemed startled to find a stranger calling, and her eyes narrowed when she noticed the sword.
“What is it?” the woman asked. “Who are you?”
“I’ve a message for your husband,” said Mor, his voice little more than a raspy whisper from his dry throat. “Is he at home?”
She hesitated, fear evident now in her furrowed brow and tightly drawn mouth. “Yes, he is,” she said. The woman inhaled as if to say more, but by then Mor had raised both arms and shoved her bodily back into the house. He stepped over the threshold into the front room of the house where a table had been set for supper. The smell of chicken and potatoes spiced with herbs and salt wafted to his nostrils, but Mor’s belly held no hunger for food.
The expected commotion arose at once. The wife tripped from his shove, toppled over, and began screeching. Further voices could be heard within the house, as well as footsteps rushing towards the front room. Mor shut the door behind him before producing a crossbow from within his cloak and carefully nocking a bolt.
The song was louder than ever now, reverberating in his skull. The ache of its closeness threatened to overwhelm him, and his eyes watered from the effort of fighting his perpetual fatigue. Soon enough, he thought. Just a bit longer.
It wasn’t long before the headman, a stocky older man with a white mustache and bald scalp, appeared, followed by a slim girl in a green dress, no doubt his daughter. Mor leveled the crossbow at the pair, stopping them dead in their tracks. The wife by this time had scrambled backward away from him and climbed shakily to her feet. Mor lowered the hood of his cloak, revealing his gaunt, skeletal face to the family, his sunken gray eyes and thin flaxen hair. He looked like a shambling corpse, and they recoiled from him.
“What’s the meaning of this?” demanded the headman.
“Gold,” hissed Mor. “You have some, I think.”
The headman inhaled sharply and adopted a hurt and humble expression.
“We are a simple village. We have no riches for you to plunder. You had best be on your way, stranger.”
Mor let out a rasping laugh which turned into a hacking cough halfway through. “Very forthright and earnest, aren’t you? No, you’re no humble peasant. Somewhere in this house you’ve hidden a box of gold. Maybe you lifted it from the village coffers a bit at a time or maybe you saved it yourself year after year. It makes no difference to me how you came by it, only that you have it.” He broke off talking and concentrated for a moment on the song. “Under the floorboards, I think. Beneath the table. Get it for me, won’t you?”
The headman’s face twisted in fury and he bellowed ferociously, launching himself at Mor. The crossbow twanged and the bolt punched a hole in the man’s right thigh, spinning him through the air to crash in a heap on the floor. The women screamed as Mor calmly knocked another bolt.
“That was foolish,” hissed Mor. He pointed the crossbow at the downed headman, groaning pathetically on his back. “Tell your wife to bring me the gold box or you’ll get the next one through your eye.”
“Do as he says, woman!” shouted the headman.
The wife, sobbing, rose to her feet. The daughter stood stupefied, but the wife grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her into attentiveness, and together they grabbed either end of the table and slid it aside. A flagon of wine tipped over as their nervous hands shook the table, and the red liquid had soon soaked into the wood and commenced dripping in short intervals onto the floor, burgundy beads joining an ever growing puddle. The wife ignored the spill and went to the floorboards where the table had been. Her hands quickly found two loose boards and lifted them aside. From the earthen foundation beneath she drew up a small iron strongbox.
“Open it,” ordered Mor.
“Please,” said the wife, bursting into a new round of quaking sobs. “It’s everything we have.”
Mor aimed the crossbow at the slim daughter’s chest. “Surely your family is worth more,” he hissed darkly. “What’ll it be, the gold or a bolt between your daughter’s breasts?”
“Give him what he wants!” cried the headman. The daughter stood stock still, her breath stuck between mouth and lungs. The wife simply nodded and produced a small brass key that hung from a slender chain around her neck. With a soft click she unlocked the box.
“Now back up, all of you,” ordered Mor. The song was everywhere now, a choir a hundred strong bellowing in his ears. It was all he could do to keep his hands from shaking as he waved the crossbow at the family menacingly. The wife and daughter helped drag their injured father back against the wall, his blood coating the floor thicker than the spilled wine.
It took all of Mor’s willpower not to dive on the strongbox. He took measured steps forward and knelt down in front of it, careful to keep the crossbow pointed at the headman’s family. With his free hand he opened the lid of the chest. Inside was a small fortune in gems and precious metals, but Mor only cared for the gold. His eyes glittered yellow, captivated by the hymn resounding from each fat coin, and he couldn’t resist clutching a handful and lifting it to his face.
The family watched transfixed as the gold in Mor’s hand lost its luster, faded to a dull brown, and finally crumbled like dirt. His features suddenly took on a flushed vitality. The taut skin of his face slackened and his sunken eyes rose up in their sockets. Even his hair, like brittle straw before, softened to silky blonde. Mor let out a shuddering sigh of satisfaction as the remnants in his hand turned to sand and slipped between his fingers.
“What are you?” asked the daughter in a hushed and awed whisper.
“Just a thief,” said Mor. His voice was stronger now, no longer serpentine but a commanding baritone. “As common a brigand as the come.”
They wouldn’t understand, he thought. They never do. He’d given up trying to explain his affliction. It was useless describing the song’s resplendent harmonies to anyone who’d never heard it. None of it mattered, anyway. All that mattered was finding enough gold to sustain himself before the curse overtook him entirely and he crumbled away like tilled soil.