|Written by Susan Taitel / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
“That's a fine one, isn't it?” The little man points to a glass
shoe. The dim moonlight glints off its curves.
“I've seen better. The best are fur,” I reply, looking over the
trinkets laid out on his blanket.
“Pardon me, I mistook your tastes.” He scratches his shaggy
beard, dislodging a dry knucklebone. He kicks it discreetly into
the scrub. “Can't dance all night in glass shoes. You'd be all
blisters before it was half over.”
He's trying too hard. Business must be slow. Most of the
other peddlers have cleared out. I’m one of the last patrons
left in the Dusk Market. “But maybe you'd be interested in
these?” He gestures to a delicate pair of wings, transparent
except for a grid of cerulean veins. “I guarantee they're
“Replicas,” I say.
“Madam, you wound me. I pulled them off a blue fairy my own
“Blue fairies have purple veins. Besides, someone left a
thumbprint in the upper right membrane.”
“Fine, they're authentic replicas,” he grumbles. “Well, missy,
are you planning on buying anything?”
“How much for the key?” I pluck a plain house key from his
stock. The little man's eyes light up.
“That key is a treasure. It'll open any door, even the ones
without locks. Even the ones that aren't doors. I can't put a
price on that key.”
“For you, dear Lady? Six hundred.”
If it's a true Merlin key, it's worth double. I look at it closely, running my finger over the supple teeth. It's the real
“I'll give you one seventy-five.” I toss it back onto the blanket. The little man pulls an affronted face.
“Cheek,”he scoffs. “Be serious, girl.”
“Two hundred, and you throw in those sea foam bells.” I point to the string of pale green bells hanging from the
tree over our heads. They're only worth forty, but they'll come in handy the next time I'm dealing with water-
“You trying to rob me? I can't part with the key or the bells for less than five fifty.”
“Two ten for the key, the bells—and the blanket.” It's getting colder; I can use another blanket. The little man
grins; this is his favorite game, and I'm playing well.
“You're a shrewd one. I'll give you a bargain. You can have the key, the bells, the blanket and everything on it, for
only four hundred—and six of your fingers. You choose which ones.”
I laugh out loud. I'm surprised it took him this long to get to fingers.
“One fifty,” I say.
“One fifty?” he scoffs. “For a Merlin key? You're dreaming!”
“One fifty for everything.” I smile as sweetly as I can manage.
The little man screws up his face. He's getting genuinely angry.
“One sixty and all ten fingers,” he counters.
“No deal.” I turn and make to walk away.
“Wait, girly! How about all of it for free?”
“You'd give it away for nothing?” I ask. I know what he's up to, but if I don't play along, I’ll leave empty-handed.
“Not nothing—exactly. I'm proposing a little wager.”
“You answer a simple question. If you're right, you get it all, free and clear.”
“And if I'm wrong?”
“You get nothing, and I get your fingers.” He stares lasciviously at my hands. “And the toes, too.”
“Shake on it?” He holds out a hairy mitt.
“Really? You think I'm a halfwit? Just ask your question.”
“All right, I only wanted a taste. Fine, the question is: what is my name?” He smiles in anticipation. I repress a smile
of my own. Little men are so predictable.
“Bugger!” he yelps. “How'd you know?”
I don't answer. I simply remove the stones weighing down the blanket.
“Leave those be! How about another wager?” He tugs at my arm.
“A deal's a deal, little man.” I drop the key into my pocket and tie the blanket into a sack.
“Witch! Trollop! You tricked me!” He jumps and stamps his feet. When that fails to stop me, he grabs the crown of
his head and rips himself in half with one stroke. His rage isn't finished. He tears the halves into fourths, then
eighths. He continues shredding himself until he’s scattered over the ground in scraps.
I pluck a piece from the dirt. His left eye, eyebrow, and most of the bridge of his nose. It's clean; smooth and firm,
but flexible like a pumpkin shell. The eye blinks in surprise.
“What are you doing? Put that down!” the little man's mouth hollers from below.
All in all, not a bad night. The key is a nice surprise, but the eye is what I was after. I've been watching this little
man, following him from trading ground to trading ground. His goods are mostly trash, but there's usually at least
one genuine treasure in the lot. I kept my distance, watching while other curiosity-hunters walked off with prizes I'd
have paid good money for. I waited, because I had to know if it was a fluke. One night he sold a real Mab mirror—
much less ostentatious than the fakes—and the next a Mammoth-crow's skull appeared on his blanket. Most
peddlers don't have one such find in a lifetime. By the time the key went up for sale, I was certain he had the eye.
Little men are an interesting lot. They each have a special skill. Some run as fast as the wind; others spin fiber into
precious metal. Maybe one in a thousand has the eye. With it they can see anything that's been hidden. Makes it
easy to find stuff squirreled away for safekeeping. Few objects of true value are kept in the open.
Once I was sure, I had to figure out how to get it for myself. I couldn't take it covertly; he would have spotted me,
no matter how well I concealed myself. I had no desire to take it by force. Fortunately, little men have hasty
tempers, a taste for digits, and a tendency to tear themselves to pieces when provoked. And almost all are named
They choose their own name, never telling it to another soul. Keeping it secret, both because names are powerful
and because it's their trump in a high-stakes bet. Every single one tries to come up with the most outlandish and
difficult to guess name. Nearly all choose Rumpelstiltskin. Don't ask me why. Since they never reveal their names to
one another, they never know how common it is.
“Give me back my eye!” the mouth shouts.
“You threw it away; it's salvage.” I place the eye in my pocket, next to the key. It attempts to slither back out so I
clip it to my lapel with a clothespin. I turn to leave once more and then remember I've left the bells in the tree. I
unsheathe my dagger. I'd kept it strapped over my pants. I didn't want the little man thinking I was hiding
anything. I throw the knife and the bells fall to the ground with a melodious clatter.
The pieces of little man hop in fury as I retrieve the bells. The mouth hurls threats in my direction. In time the
pieces will coalesce back into a whole, but while severed they can't harm me. As I stoop to pick up the bells, it
occurs to me haven't tested the eye. I don't know for sure it was worth the trouble. I unclip it and hold it in front
of my own eye. It clamps shut.
“Hey, open up!” I shake it.
“Fat chance,” the mouth snarls.
“Look, I only need it for the night. I was planning on bringing it back when I'm finished, but only if you cooperate.”
“Give it back now!”
“Fine, you can have it—on the end of my knife.”
The eye pops open. I gaze through it at what remains of the market. An old woman selling knitted toys is wearing
rough leather shoes over a pair of enormous chicken feet. Another vendor has a basket of dead cats behind his
booth. His sign advertises fresh sphinx-kabob.
The eye is the real deal. I scoop up the bells and walk off.
“Thief! Wretched cow!” the mouth wails.
I'll bring the eye back if I can. If I can't, it'll be because I'm dead, and the eye will find its way back on its own.
Though it will take it a while to travel the distance I'm going. No matter—he has another.
The moon low in the sky, and I still have a lot to do. Procuring the eye took far too long.
I find a secluded spot, letting the eye confirm I haven't been followed, put on my twelve league boots, and set off. I
cross two mountain ranges in a few strides. A half a mile from my destination I remove the boots, arriving at the
dry lake bed, windburned but otherwise no worse for wear.
The air is heavy with magic. I've already searched the lake bed several times. That was before the eye. It must have
fallen asleep on the journey. I pinch a sliver of cheek to wake it up. It flashes me a disgruntled look.
I peer through it into the crater. The lake was wizard-made, created to barricade a tomb. After half a dozen
centuries, the water receded. The door to the tomb has remained hidden through enchantment. To my naked eye,
all I see is an eroded cliff. Through the little man's eye, the door is plain as day.
“Well done.” I clip the eye to my coat with an affectionate pat. Then uncork a bottle of preserved sylph's breath and
float safely to the lake bottom in a bubble of tangible air. Keeping the eye in front of me, I examine the inscription
over the door. There is no doubt about it: it's the crypt of the Maiden.
The Maiden, also known as the Virgin Lady, was sold in marriage to a brutish warlord at the age of eleven. Through
cunning and strength of character, she prevented the marriage from being consummated and remained pure until
her death of old age. I don't understand why she's held in such reverence. It's an admirable achievement, I
suppose, but she didn't save the world, just her virginity. If I died today, no one would write ballads about me. Of
course, an eighty-year-old virgin is more impressive than one of seventeen.
The trick to opening the door is hidden in riddles of ancient script. The key was a lucky find. I’d have gotten in
without it, but it would've taken time I don't have.
I run the key along the stone until a lock bubbles to the surface. The door grudgingly pulls open. I'm struck by the
stench of mildew and rot. Covering my mouth and holding up my lantern, I enter the tomb.
It's said that, on her deathbed, the age drained from the Maiden along with her life. When laid to rest, she didn't
look a day over fourteen. I don't know if it’s true or just a pretty legend. It certainly isn't the case anymore. The
body beneath the shroud is wasted and brittle.
I don't make a habit of grave robbing. I'll go to great lengths to recover a treasure, but I have my scruples. The
Maiden was entombed with what amounts to the treasury of a small country. There are a few items I could retire
on. That's not why I've come. I only want one thing: the horn resting in her hands. It's nothing special in
appearance. It's made of curved ram's horn with a silver mouthpiece. It's pretty; it might make a nice decorative
piece; but you can get its equal at a good market. This horn is special because of what it can do. This horn will save
the nation—maybe the world.
I was hired to retrieve it. It's our only chance of averting the foretold disaster. Most of the prophecy has already
come true. The first portent was all the fish in every river flowing toward the Capitol going belly up. The second was
the enormous rabid bull charging through the streets. It finally died with over three hundred arrows stuck in its
hide, but not before killing a battalion of guardsmen.
All that’s left is the rising of a being of immeasurable evil. And with it, the destruction of the world as we know it.
The prophecy gave us a crumb of hope. The being can be thwarted by history's greatest warrior. He's been dead
six hundred years, but it’s known he’ll return to us in our hour of need—if summoned. And what will summon him
from his slumber? Our head of state blowing on the horn three times.
According to the stories, the great hero fell in love with the Maiden the second he laid eyes on her (an old married
lady of nineteen). It's said she loved him as well, but wouldn't break her marriage vow. A holy vow is a holy vow,
even if you made it when you were eleven and your husband was forty-nine. Even if you never consummated the
marriage, you’re a wife in God's eye. That's what she believed. So despite their deep feelings, the relationship
consisted of chaste admiration.
Most scholars say it's a load of crap. They say he was a notorious womanizer, whose defeat and subsequent
disappearance occurred at least thirty years before the Maiden's birth. But they all agree, no matter how it
happened, his horn was buried with her.
I have to break a couple of leathery fingers to remove the horn from the dead virgin's grasp. I wrap the precious
instrument in soft cotton and place it gently into my pack. In a few hours—the time it'll take my boots to take me
to the Capitol—it will be over. The knight will be called, the disaster averted, and I paid handsomely for my trouble.
I'll even return the eye to the little man for good measure.
Speaking of the eye, it's straining against the clip, pulling in the direction of the cadaver.
“What do you see?” I ask. A pointless question—its ears are miles away. I should ignore it. I can't dawdle; I have to
get the horn to the Capitol. I unclip the eye.
It's found a necklace tucked under what's left of her dress. It doesn't look worth hiding. A dull green stone on a
simple gold chain. I don't have time to examine centuries-old jewelry. But it is pretty.
I set aside the eye, reach under the maiden's collar, and pull out the chain. Parts have fused to her rotted flesh.
Once it's free, I wipe it on my shirt and hold it in front of the lantern. Worthless. Leave it. Then again, who'll miss
it? I'll just slip it in my pock—no, I'll wear it.
It feels right around my neck, like it was made for me. I turn to go, but my feet won't cooperate. I stumble forward,
bracing myself on the door.
Something moves behind me. An icy wind comes from the back of the tomb, blowing my hair into my eyes. With
difficulty, I turn around. The Maiden stands before me.
I sink to the ground. Even collapsing takes effort. The lady still looks like a corpse, but not as ancient as a moment
ago. With each passing second, more life returns to her. Her skin smoothes and plumps with muscle. Her hair loses
its brittle texture and shines in the lantern light. She tests her limbs, working out the stiffness. She cocks her
head, staring at me with tar-black eyes. She's beautiful.
My mind screams to run, but my legs are useless. My arms flail, nearly snapping from the strain. My hands are
wrinkled and covered in raised veins, the skin a mottled gray.
The Maiden takes the pack from my arm. I hear my elbow crack as she forces the strap down—I barely feel it. She
holds up the horn and laughs. A lovely, charming laugh.
She smashes the horn against the wall and picks up my lantern. Her skirt brushes my face as she steps over me.
She walks into the air, leaving me in the silent tomb.
I stopped moving some time ago. I think I should be upset. Feeling anything is beyond me. My eyes are fading. The
last thing I see, before whiteness blocks everything out, is the little man's eye winking, then scuttling away.
Susan Taitel was born in Chicago, resides in Minneapolis, and lives
in stories. She recently graduated from the Viable Paradise Writer's
Workshop, and can be found online at susantaitel.com.