Identity Thief

“What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you?” asked Pin Wei.

Reaper leaned back against the rock and drew deeply on his pipe. He held the smoke in while he thought about it, then sent up a long plume of smoke that broke up in the breeze that was whipping over the top of the narrow gully they were taking shelter in. “I dinna ken ifn it be th’ strangest, but t’were unusual, an’ all th’ fault o’ a young minstrel what liked ta embellish me stories an’ make ’em more… palatable-like.”

Pin Wei snorted. “You’re always blaming minstrels for the way people treat you.”

Reaper chuckled. “An’ ye dinna think tis all yer fault, eh lass?”

“It’s not!”

Reaper nodded. “Mebbe ye be right.”

Pin Wei smiled.

“But then ag’in, mebbe ye be wrong. Ye tell me.” He took another pull on his pipe and this time sent a flurry of smoke rings sailing away out of the gully. “So, this were a long span back, afore anythin’ what happened in Ishmek. I’d been out an’ about in th’ world some years, mostly fightin’ as a mercenary in one war or ’nother. People was startin’ ta know me name an’ ta want th’ glory o’ havin’ killed me, but dinna yet know th’ futility o’ tryin’.”

Pin Wei snorted.

Reaper quirked an eyebrow at her but when she didn’t say anything, he kept on with his story. “I’d just finished up a contract fer a bunch o’ merchants dealin’ wi’ a nasty band o’ outlaws what had been stealin’ an’ rapin’ an’ generally makin’ nuisances o’ theirselfs in a otherwise borin’ part o’ th’ world. One o’ them merchants had herself a minstrel ta ease th’ tedium o’ th’ long nights. Th’ minstrel went an’ took a shine ta me an’ made up a whole slurry o’ songs about me awesomeness, playin’ up what a noble fella I were ta be helpin’ them poor innocent merchants an’ farmers an’ such-like folk. That minstrel weren’t bein’ strictly honest about th’ situation. He were tryin’ ta make ’is mistress look good so as the farmers wouldn’t complain too much about th’ details o’ some o’ her dealin’s with ’em. ’E were a good songster though, an’ th’ ditties caught on an’ got spread about a bit ta various other towns in that corner o’ th’ world.”

“Which corner was this?”

Reaper glared at her. “What’ve I said about interruptin’ me when I be tellin’ a story?”

Pin Wei waved a hand. “Stop leaving out details and I won’t have to keep interrupting you.” Reaper continued to glare at her and for a while Pin Wei thought he wouldn’t continue the story then she saw the corner of his mouth tremble into a small smile.

“Ye’re learnin’, lass. Ye’re learnin’.”

Pin Wei breathed a little sigh of relief. “So where did this all happen?”

“In th’ far south. I were makin’ me way ‘round th’ continent—.”

“You’ve circumnavigated the world?”

Reaper laughed. “Nah. This continent baint bein’ th’ world entire, lass. Tisn’t e’en th’ largest part o’ it.”

Pin Wei took a moment to wrap her mind around that.

“I were jus’ travellin’, seein’ what challenges th’ world had ta offer, earnin’ a few coins here ’n there by hirin’ out me skill wi’ a blade ta them what needed it.”

“Needed it? Or could afford it?” said Pin Wei quickly.

Reaper gave her a nod for the question. “Needed, fer th’ most part, but we be gettin’ off o’ our path ag’in, lass.” He said nothing more, just sat there watching her until she nodded. “A’right, where was we?”

“A minstrel had been making songs about you that stretched the truth but became popular anyway.”

Reaper nodded, drew on his pipe, and said, “Just so” with smoke leaking out of his nose and puffing out of his mouth with each word. “Wi’ th’ demise o’ th’ last o’ th’ bandits, me contract come ta a conclusion an’ I took meself back on th’ road afore th’ lady decided ta try an’ make things more permanent-like.”

“She wanted you to settle down with her?”

Reaper chuckled. “Be that so hard ta believe?” He waved her stuttered reply away. “Nay dinna answer that. Ye be young, an’ I be old, an’ ye canna believe that I were e’er yer age once.” His lips twitched about the stem of his pipe and his eyes twinkled. “Tis a’right, lass. T’wasn’t like that. Th’ minstrel were satisfyin’ all them urges t’ward familyhood what she had, an’ I doubt me there were many o’ them. Nay, she wanted me ta use me blade-skills ta make ’er queen. Nay doubt she woulda tried seducin’ me ifn she’d a thunk it’d work, but I done give ’er nay such indications, bein’ serious about me work ’n all, an’ then leavin’ as soon as it were done.”

“Why? Was she ugly?”

“Nay in any particular.”

“Then why didn’t you bed her? Isn’t that what you barbarian hero-types do?”

Reaper frowned. “I baint bein’ any type o’ hero, lass.” His voice was gentle but the frown stayed.

“Why didn’t you bed her?” said Pin Wei stubbornly.

“She weren’t after bein’ me type. T’were all about th’ money an’ th’ power wi’ her.”

Pin Wei stared at him. “So you only bed women with no ambition?”

“Nay, lass. That be not what I said.”

“Then say it clear so I can understand it, because right now I don’t.”

“Ifn ye dinna understand what I already done said, there baint bein’ a way I c’n say it no different.”

Pin Wei glared at him but he just sat there puffing his pipe and watching the way it broke and blew once it rose above the gully wall.

After a while he glanced at her. “Shall I go on, or are ye gonna sulk th’ remainder o’ th’ day?”

“I’m not…” She pulled herself up short by biting her tongue. She sighed. “Go on. Please.”

“So, I weren’t int’rested in th’ merchant but dinna want ta raise ‘er ire by offendin’ ‘er, so I up an left as soon as I had me pay. Th’ road were good, an’ travel were easy, so I made it ta th’ next town jus’ after dark an’ went lookin’ fer a place ta get me some food an’ a fire ta lay beside what I dinna hafta light meself, th’ weather bein’ much cooler in th’ south, ye ken, e’en in th’ summer. Well, I hadna been in th’ town more’n five minutes afore I were halted by th’ roar o’ an angry trog an’ saw a large man bearin’ down on me, face mottled wi’ rage an’ marked by a ‘orrible scar.”

“One of those bandits?”

“Nah, ‘e were th’ merchant’s husband what ‘ad gotten ‘isself killed by them bandits, or so th’ woman ‘ad told me. Seems ‘e weren’t after bein’ quite as dead as she’d thunk, or would’ve liked me ta believe. I dinna know this at th’ time, ye ken? I dinna discover th’ truth o’ it til later. All I’m seein’ is a big, angry man comin’ at me.”

“So you killed him.” There was bored dissatisfaction in Pin Wei’s voice.

Reaper chuckled. “Nah. He were screamin’ ‘bout bein’ Reaper Hawk an’ dealin’ harsh-like wi’ bandits like me. I figured ‘e were drunk and mixin’ things up in ‘is ‘ead. So I steps in an’ gives him a hug ta bring me outta range o’ those fists o’ his, then turned ‘im back t’wards th’ tavern ‘e’d just come outta.”

“You hugged a man you’d never met?”

Reaper shrugged. “Seemed th’ better option when th’ other were guttin’ ‘im like a fish.”

“This is the strangest tale you’ve ever told me.” She shook her head. “Reaper Hawk, hugging people.”

Reaper took his pipe from between his lips and looked at her. “Be ye feelin’ a mite left out, lass? Me ne’er havin’ offered ta hug ye an’ all.”

Pin Wei’s face took on a flush. “No!” She shifted uncomfortably and wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“Ah, so there be someun else who ye be pinin’ fer. Me condolences, lass. Tis a heavy pack ta bear.”

“Can we get off of me and back to your tale of the mutilated merchant?”

Reaper knocked out his pipe and immediately refilled it, taking his time and tamping the weed carefully into the small bowl and lighting it.

Pin Wei watched his every move but didn’t say anything to hurry him on.

“So,” said Reaper at last. “Th’ big guy done become quite personable once I ‘ad ‘im turned about an’ headin’ back inside. ‘E treated me like I were a bosom companion. Th’ people in th’ tavern were more’n a little surprised ta see us comin’ in lookin’ so friendly-like, but made no move ta stop our appropriation o’ a table. I thought they’d be glarin’ at th’ drunk an’ thankin’ me fer avoidin’ trouble, but twas all backward. They done glared at me an’ talked sweet ta th’ big man, askin’ ‘im what ‘e fancied an’ were I causin’ trouble.”

“So they knew who you were.”

“Nah. Nary a one o’ ‘em ‘ad seen me afore that night so far’s I knew.”

Pin Wei frowned. “So why were they talking sweet to the drunk?”

“Turned out ‘e weren’t drunk. “‘E ne’er touched a drop o’ anythin’ but ‘erbal tisanes, ever. T’was th’ ‘ead-wound what made ‘im crazy, nay th’ drink.”

“So he was crazy?”

“Oh, aye. Crazy as a hare in spring. All that talk ‘bout bein’ me an’ huntin’ bandits, that were real fer him. T’was while we was carrousin’, an’ I uses that word in th’ most general o’ senses, that I discovered all th’ story o’ who ‘e was an’ all th’ bit ‘bout th’ bandits a’most killin’ ‘im. Well, ‘e weren’t alone when they did their work on ‘im. ‘E were with a number o’ other folk what th’ bandits wanted ta have their way with, an’ ‘e stood up ta ‘em an’ fought ‘em while th’ others got away. Once th’ bandits were gone, they done go back an’ find th’ big lad an’, discoverin’ ‘e weren’t completed dyin’ yet, they called in a ‘edge witch ta convince ‘im nay ta undertake th’ remainder o’ th’ journey.”

“So how did he come to believe he was you?”

Reaper shrugged. “I told ye. Th’ damned minstrel did’t. “’is songs were bein’ sung in all th’ towns there ’bouts an’ th’ big man convoluted th’ shattered mem’ries o’ ‘is own fight ‘gainst th’ bandits wi’ what th’ songs said ‘bout me, an’ done come ta th’ conclusion that ‘e must be me. Th’ folk o’ that village kept ‘im round ‘cause they felt obligatory t’wards ‘im fer what ‘e’d done in savin’ their daughters an’ vittles an’ what not, an’ th’ witch done believe that a bit o’ time, an’ a bit more magic, would heal ‘im entire an’ restore ‘is full wits ta ‘im.”

“And did it?”

Reaper shrugged. “It might ’ave, ifn fate ‘adn’t stepped in an’ made th’ whole point moot.”

“Fate? Or you?”

Reaper sighed. “I done a’ready tole ye, lass, I dinna kill ‘im.”

“You didn’t tell me that. You told me that you hugged him when he first approached you. I’ve no idea what you did to him after that.”

“Caroused,” said Reaper, voice flat.

“You mean you drank bad ale and he drank drugged teas, and together you tupped every whore in the town and sang bad songs.”

Reaper quirked an eyebrow at her for the second time that night. “Seems ta me ye’ve got tuppin’ on yer mind, lass. I thinks we needs ta find a town where ye c’n be doin’ some tuppin’ o’ yer own afore ye start lookin’ ta me fer some release.”

“Why? Aren’t I pretty enough?”

“Th’ state an’ quality o’ yer beauty tain’t got nothin’ ta do with it, an’ it baint yer music none either, afore ye ask.”

“Then what is it?”

“I be bound ta another.”

Pin Wei stared at him in surprise. “Who?”

“Orlena.”

She blinked. “But… Orlena’s dead. She has been for hundreds of years. Are you telling me…” Her eyes got larger and larger as she took in the implications of his nod. “Sweet gods! You’ve not had sex in three hundred years?”

He nodded again. “There weren’t no tuppin, an’ there weren’t no ale,” he said, getting back to the story. “Th’ big man an’ I drank tisanes an’ talked, an’ occasional-like, one o’ th’ townsfolk would throw a comment on th’ embers an’ we’d go on again. We carried on like that fer days.”

“For days?”

“Talkin’ an’ eatin’, an’ drinkin’ them bloody tisanes while slow-like, ‘is mem’ry come crawlin’ back inta ‘is ‘ead.”

“This just gets stranger and stranger.”

“Why?”

“I can’t believe you spent hours, let alone days, in a tavern, drinking nothing but tea.”

Reaper shrugged. “Th’ barkeep would na serve me anythin’ else, nay wi’out me gettin’ violent about it.”

“That sounds more likely,” said Pin Wei once she finished laughing.

“Yeah, well, it couldn’t last.”

Pin Wei’s humour dried up.

“Them other merchants what had been partners wi’ th’ big man’s wife in hirin’ me ta rid theirselfs o’ th’ bandits were cognisant o’ ‘er desire ta be queen an’ believed that wi’out me ta help ‘er, she’d ne’er make it stick.”

“So they sent someone to kill you and you burned down the town.”

“Ye be partial right ‘bout that. They done send a fella ta kill me, only they dinna gi’e him a verra good description o’ me. So ‘e comes blunderin’ inta town, makin’ noise, causin’ trouble, all in ‘opes o’ drawin’ me out.”

“And did it work?” She said when he paused to puff on the pipe.

“‘E got th’ big man instead.”

Pin Wei felt a weight settle in her stomach. “He killed him.”

“Who killed who?”

“The trouble-maker killed the big man,” she said flatly.

“No.”

“The big man killed the trouble-maker?” She sat up a little straighter.

“No.”

“Then what happened?”

“They fought.”

“And?”

“T’was a good fight.”

Pin Wei sighed. “Sorry for interrupting your story.”

Reaper winked at her. “It really weren’t much o’ a fight. Th’ bounty hunter were an axman. The big man were unarmed, th’ villagers havin’ bethought it prudent-like not ta provide ‘im with th’ wherewithall fer more trouble while ‘e were still unsure o’ ‘is identity.”

“You said the hunter didn’t kill him,” said Lin Wei, voice heavy with accusation.

“‘e didn’t. Th’ hunter were gettin’ in some good licks, but th’ witch, she done like th’ big man somethin’ fierce, him havin’ saved ’er virginal daughter from losin’ that which she cherished. She done gone an’ put protections on ’im. Th’ hunter’s blades could nay cut ’im. They pounded on each other fer awhiles, neither gettin’ any advantage, but both havin’ a world o’ fun.”

“Where were you while they were having at it?”

“Gettin’ roused from a well-deserved sleep ta come an break th’ fight up.”

“You were sleeping?”

“E’en I need ta sleep once in a whiles, lass. I’m nay afta bein’ a god.”

“Alright. So you were asleep. What happened after you finally showed up at the fight?”

“Th’ big man saw me an’ got distracted jus’ long ‘nough fer th’ hunter ta get in a couple o’ solid blows ta ‘is ‘ead. Th’ big man went down like a pole-axed steer. Th’ hunter weren’t satisfied wi’ that an’ were gonna keep on beatin’ ’im til ’e weren’t capable o’ standin’ no more, but I weren’t havin’ none o’ that. I called an inquisitionin’ ta ‘im that distracted ’im from ’is purpose. ’e demanded ta know who I were, o’ course, an’ were mighty shocked ta find that th’ fella he’d just done beatin’ on weren’t th’ one ’e were supposed ta be collectin’ against.”

“Did things like that happen often? Hunters trying to collect on the wrong person?”

Reaper shrugged. “Often enough. Some hunters weren’t none too careful ’bout who they killed. Tis why t’were necessary ta take proof o’ th’ one ye’d killed back ta them what’d placed th’ bounty.”

“You know a lot about bounty hunting.”

Reaper shrugged again. “I done me fair share o’ bountyin’. Tis how I met Killian an’ Barbany.”

“They were hunters too?”

Reaper chuckled. “Nah. They were bounty.”

Pin Wei sat and stared at him, mouth sagged open in surprise.

“Th’ hunter thought I were ’nother like ’im, an’ that I were after takin’ ’is prize wi’out payin’ me dues on’t. Naturally all these suppositionings had put ’im in a right foul mood. I weren’t in any better mood, what wi’ havin’ been dragged from me sleep ta see a man what I were beginin’ ta consider a friend get laid out wi’ a blow ta th’ head what woulda killed a fella wi’ fewer spells on ’im. It did na take no end o’ explainin’ ta let ’im know how I were feelin’. I jus’ drew me swords an’ started in on ’im.”

“You didn’t shout a challenge or anything?”

“’e already knowed I were there. There were nay bein’ any point in caterwailin’ when th’ hiss o’ me blades leavin’ their scabbards spoke all th’ words needed about me intent.”

“Still…”

“It dinna conform ta ye notions o’ th’ ways a hero be supposed ta behave, eh?” said Reaper with a smile.

“No, it doesn’t. I know you’ll tell me I’m foolish for thinking that an honourable man makes sure the man he’s going to fight knows why they’re going to fight before they get down to drawn blades, that, preferably, they’ve exhausted all recourses to dialog before they have recourse to steel—.”

“Nah, I were nay gonna say any o’ that. Ye’re right. That be th’ way honourable men behave.”

“But…?” said Pin Wei when he said nothing more.

“But what?”

“There’s always a ’but’.”

“Why dinna ye tell me what t’is then.” He blew a string of smoke rings while he watched her.

She didn’t have to think long to come up with an answer. “But most men aren’t honourable.”

“Nor most women neither. Humans be some o’ th’ least honourable folk ye’ll e’er meet, th’ worst o’ ’em. Th’ best though…” He shrugged again. “Th’ best put e’en th’ gods ta shame. Th’ problem be in tellin’ which be which an’ th’ answer be not always th’ same. Humans change. Change be th’ one constant in a inconstant world, lass, an’ humans be nay any more immune ta it than any others.”

“What does change have to do with being honourable?”

“Some men be honourable all th’ time, others only when tis convenient-like ta gi’e th’ appearance o’ bein’ honourable. Others wanna be honourable, an’ think they is til temptation teaches ’em otherwise. Ye dinna ken which a person will be til ye’ve seen their true face, an’ neither do they.”

“Hence th’ change?”

Reaper nodded and blew a little puff of smoke out of the gully where it swirled for a moment then blew gently away. “Looks like th’ wind be changin’, lass. We best be on our way.”

“But you haven’t finished the story yet!”

“Did I not?”

“You were just getting to the part where you challenged the hunter who was standing over your friend having almost brained him with an axe.”

“Aye. We fought. I won. E’ryone went their separate paths.” Reaper made to push himself to his feet.

“Wait! Where was the strange bit? You said this was the strangest thing that had ever happened to you!”

“I ne’er did. I said t’were unusual.”

“What was unusual about it?”

“A man wi’ scrambled wits were goin’ about pretendin’ ta be me an ended up fightin’ off a bounty hunter what’d come ta collect a bounty on me head. That ain’t but happened th’ once which, ye canna deny, makes it verra unusual.” He smiled at her, then stood and, putting his pipe away, climbed out of the gulley.

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