Thomas Shopkeeper knelt on the cold stone in front of King Haralan, well aware of the many eyes on his back.
“This man,” the King proclaimed to the gathered crowd, “has singlehandedly removed the greatest threat that our fair country has known in over a century. The Beinison threat is ended, and we can at last return to peace!”
As the crowd roared, Haralan stepped back to make room for another. Sir Edward Sothos, towering over the kneeling Thomas, laid a black-gloved hand on the man’s shoulder. “Thomas Shopkeeper, you have done what neither I nor my armies could accomplish.” In a voice overflowing with emotion, he continued: “It is meet that you, therefore, rather than I, should bear the title and duties of Knight Commander of the Royal Armies.” Sothos’ brown eyes gleamed as he smiled down at the astonished man.
When the cheers had again died away, King Haralan stepped forward once more. “Thomas, for your great service to Us, We are moved to make you a Baron of Our Court. No more shall you be called Shopkeeper, but Baron Thomas — the Hero!”
“What are you still doing in bed, you lazy slug?” The cacophony of the crowd was pierced suddenly by the shrewish screams of Thomas’ wife; the finery of Dargon Keep’s great hall dissolved into the dreary, familiar scene of Thomas’ bedroom. Sunlight streamed in through a broken slat in the shutters, and as Thomas watched, a beetle flew in through the gap and hung transfixed for a moment in the beam of light.
“Nothing, dear, I was just getting up.”
“Don’t you `dear’ me, slugabed!” The swat of Madge’s broom punctuated her sentences eloquently. “It’s daylight out; you should have opened up the shop hours ago! But, no, you must lie here, wasting the best hours of the morning. Now GET” — swat — “OUT” — swat — “of BED!”
“Yes, dear,” he sighed.
Thomas considered himself as he polished the brass candlesticks for the third time that morning. He was short, portly, losing his hair; he looked, for the most part, like his own father at forty. Ah, he’d dreamed, when growing up, about a life of adventure and glory, but in the end he was only a shopkeeper, like his father, and his father’s father. Timothy, his son, was doing well at University; he might escape the stagnation which had enfolded Thomas like the arms of an old lover.
And then there was Madge. He’d loved her once, yes, but that seemed so long ago. The lot of a shopkeeper’s wife was like bitter herbs to her, souring her gradually as the monotony grew. She’d been beautiful once, he recalled; so beautiful before the despair and bitterness set in.
He’d hated himself that he couldn’t give her more in life; his shame turned him to drink. What little comfort he could have given her, he’d withheld by going instead to the tavern. At first, he’d stayed out until after she was asleep; yet he still noticed the tears drying on the pillow when he got into bed. The shame this caused him, though, would ever disappear into the bottle on the next night.
He could hardly blame her, then, that her tongue became harsh whenever she spoke to him; that the hurt look in her eyes hardened and became, when she bothered to look at him, one of loathing. Gentle, beautiful Madge became a bitter shrew, and it was all his fault.
Ah, he said to himself as he moved dishes from one shelf to another, if only things had been different. If only I’d rescued a princess from a horrible monster. She’d have rewarded me well, and I’d have been a hero. I could have –
“Thomas!” came Madge’s shrill voice, interrupting his reverie. He spun about guiltily, then flinched back when he saw her in the doorway, brandishing an iron skillet as though ready to brain him with it.
“This skillet is cracked!” She waved it furiously as proof. “I only bought it a week ago, and now it’s completely useless. You take this right back to the ironmonger and DEMAND a new one!”
Alas, Thomas mused as he left his shop, by the time you realise the damage you’ve done to someone, it’s too late to repair.
Thomas stopped in mid-stride as he heard the muffled cry from the alleyway. He gaped stupidly as his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light and reported the scene within the shadows.
A man lay on the muddy ground, the back of his blue servant’s livery stained black with blood, which pooled under him like the morning mist in a valley. Just beyond the body were two coarse-looking men, one holding a wicked dagger at a woman’s throat while the other tore a jewelled pin from her bodice.
“Here, you, take your hands off her,” Thomas cried without thinking. Both men turned towards him, the one with the knife throwing his captive roughly to the ground.
The other, bigger man leapt at Thomas, swinging with a powerful roundhouse. Instinctively, Thomas ducked, then brought the skillet around with all his might, connecting with the back of his assailant’s head. The man dropped like a felled ox.
A sudden pain made Thomas look down; the handle of the other ruffian’s dagger protruded from his chest. As he fell to his knees, he heard the man’s footsteps running out of the alley, back into the street.
“Ah,” Thomas said, his own voice seeming to reach his ears from miles away. He felt nothing, neither pain nor emotion, and his mouth kept repeating, “Ah, ah,” of its own volition. The alleyway tilted crazily as he toppled; the ground took forever to receive him, it seemed. All of his warmth spread from the grievous wound in his breast, and darkness began encroaching on the alley from the corners of his eyes.
Hands on his shoulders. The world tilting until the sky was above him. The lady looking down at him, ice-blue eyes wide in horror. She was as beautiful a woman as he had ever seen: petite, with short, dark red hair and skin as white as the driven snow. He gazed at her small mouth, the thin red lips moving, but her words seemed muffled as though she were speaking through many thick blankets.
He wanted to cry out, tell her that the red mud was ruining her expensive clothes, but he lacked the strength. He tried to hear what she was saying, instead.
“– repay you; you saved my life. Oh, please don’t –” He could see little more than her face now. Her lips moved some more, and then she said, “You are a true hero.”
“A hero,” he whispered; and then he smiled; and then he died.