Will’s back was hurting. Again.
Actually his whole body ached, but it seemed his back had put in extra effort to make sure he noticed it above his other parts. As it had done every night for the past week. Evenings were payback time.
After a long day of hard work down at Hinden’s south harbour all he managed to do once he got home was wobble over to his bed before he collapsed down atop it. He drew as contented a sigh as he could. Today had been the same as yesterday, which had been the same as the day before that. Three days ago it had rained. That day was the same as the others but worse. First he woke up at sunrise, ate a quick breakfast before hurrying to the foreman to get his dose of potion and his station for the day. Even though the work’s the same between the stations; unload ships that dock, load them again before they leave, everyone was clamoring to be first so they got the best ones. Stations one and nine were closest to the warehouses, so you had to haul the shortest distances. Today Will had worked station five, one of the worst ones. Tomorrow would likely be the same, if he couldn’t get some sleep soon.
All morning he'd had to unload and pull cart after cart of fish from today’s catch. Fishdays were the days he hated the most. It was the smell. Even with layers upon layers of perfume and lots of scrubbing by the well it wouldn’t come off. It wasn’t as bad now as when he first started a year ago, but he still hated it. After five hours of hard labour it was time for lunch, and a much welcome break. Lunch was also one of the major reasons people flocked to the harbour for work, despite the taxing nature of the work. It was delicious, but more importantly it was free. The other major reason the job was popularitet was that workers got their own bunk to sleep in. Some lucky ones like Will even got a whole room to themselves. Those things put together made sure that no matter how many workers had to quit working from injuries or sickness, they always had fresh bodies by the start of next days’ shift.
Will had eaten well. The potion he’d been given that morning was still in full effect, so he didn’t feel how tired his body was at all. His back didn’t even hurt. It was an easy thing to get addicted to, that lack of pain. It gnawed at the back of Will’s mind constantly. He knew that he couldn’t keep doing this, and just pretending that his body would last. Because it wouldn’t.
But what choice did he have? He didn’t have enough money saved up, and this was one of the better jobs a country villager could get in the city. Even though he knew it was stupid, he had to endure. As long as he could do that, he could keep working.
At least that was how his brain worked during the day. Now that he was home and the potion had worn off his body told him a rather different story. It hated what he did during the day, and given that he wouldn’t listen then it would make damn sure he would listen now.
Will groaned and reached for the bottle on the small desk by his bed. Alcohol wasn’t nearly as good at numbing the pain as an alchemist's potion but it would have to do. Even the diluted stuff he got in the mornings was too expensive for him to buy himself. He uncorked the bottle and swallowed several large gulps. It burned pleasantly as it poured down his throat. He fantasised about a job where he could sit in a chair all day, like the foreman. Or even better would be if he could lie down instead. A professional bed tester. Was that a job that existed?
A warm buzzing sensation began to spread through his body as he thought. He felt his eyelids grow heavier. He carefully put the bottle back and corked it. He couldn’t drink too much, it was all he had left.
For the hundredth day in a row he fell asleep without even taking off his boots.
“One gold” said the beggar. Will almost choked. He stared at the old man and his crooked nose in shock. Who’d buy something so obviously fake for a full gold coin!? An alchemist was a prestigious and blessed person. They wouldn’t have had the ability to end up a beggar on the street even if they tried. So how could any real alchemical potion end up in this man’s hands? The only options were that it was stolen or fake, and Will simply couldn’t imagine a decrepit old man like him capable of breaking in anywhere. The man smiled a toothless smile at will.
“Cheese is fine also.”
Will didn’t understand at all.
The scene shifted as if made from mist. Will found himself back in his old room in Annville. He studied the potion in his hands with a frown. He’d bought it on impulse, and was now testing it to see if it was real. That involved throwing it in a kettle together with a bunch of other mysterious ingredients.
“You’ve really hit gold here, young man.” It was the beggar who spoke. He stood next to him and also kept watch over the boiling kettle. He threw in a syrup cake and the liquid inside boiled alchemically in response. The beggar nodded sagely and made a note in his notebook. Will stepped up and poured in his barrel of fish. They fell into the good with a satisfying ‘plop’, and as he watched began to swim the opposite direction of the swirling liquid.
“Haha, what happiness this is!” the beggar laughed. He turned that toothless grin towards Will once more. A small knife used to gut fish appeared in his hand, and the smile turned wider. Impossibly wide. It stretched from one ear to the other. And he still had no teeth.
“This isn’t for you.” he said softly. Then he screamed, and threw himself towards Will with all his might. He laughed louder as they collided.
Will woke up with a start. He was back in his bed and both he and it were drenched with sweat. He took deep breaths and tried to calm himself down. That dream again. Every night since he bought that damned potion he’d dreamt that same dream. Except tonight’s had been worse. All of the others had ended with him finding out that the potion was just a fake. Never before had he ended up dead.
He tried to sit up but immediately collapsed back down on the bed again. His back screamed in agony. He’d fallen asleep without doing his stretches again.
Gods damn it. Will clenched his fists and his jaw. He almost cried when he thought about how bad it was going to get after work tomorrow.
I can’t do it. I can’t go back there again.
It wasn’t the first or even the hundredth time that thought had entered Will’s head. But this time it lingered and wouldn't go away. No matter how he tried to reason that he didn’t have any other options, that he needed the money, it wouldn’t budge. It took root inside his brain and no matter how he cut it down it grew back like a weed that had infested his brain.
He hadn’t saved up enough to quit yet. Both he and his brain knew that. But his body wouldn't listen. It had had enough. Ten hours of hard labour every day with minimal meals and a lack of sleep for months upon months was simply too much for it to bear.
As he lay there, Will came to realize that his body was right. He couldn’t draw forth the strength required to make himself go back and endure even another hour of that work. Just the thought of how it would hurt after made him want to puke. He needed to rest, at least for a little while. If he could do that then he could maybe come back to work after. He did have some savings.
And if he could manage to do something with the bottle...
Half crawling, half falling from his bed he made his way to a loose board in the floor and lifted it up. In the space underneath was all of his very few prized possessions.
Atop it all was the small wooden bracelet his mother had left him. He carefully picked it up and put it aside for now. Beneath that was his money-pouch.
It wasn’t very full despite his careful saving. Ever since he first arrived in Hinden he’d lived as frugally as he could and saved as much as possible. Apart from that one idiotic purchase of the stupid potion he’d made good progress on his goal. Will turned the pouch over. The coins clanked as they fell on the floorboards. He stacked them in piles according to value, and made some pretty unimpressive looking piles at the end.
Thirty-three silver coins. That was what he had managed to save after a full year of work. It was barely half of what he needed. If he kept this pace he’d need almost another full year before he had enough. That was simply impossible. His body wouldn’t last that long. He was already pushing it, taking constant potions for a year. Even with the potions being so diluted, he was sure the side-effects would begin showing themselves soon. When that happened he would have to work without the potion's help for a full month to detox. That was simply out of the question.
Apart from the coins there was a roll of fine quality fabric he’d managed to pilfer from an inattentive merchant, as well as a set of silverware from a different one. He didn’t know how much they would go for, but the fabric looked expensive. Perhaps if he was lucky...
As he pondered his gaze was drawn to what had been stuck at the back of the compartment. An inconspicuous brown bottle lay there. It wasn’t even very large. It almost seemed as if it was mocking him for his stupidity as it did nothing but lay there gathering dust. Again Will wondered if he’d lost his mind temporarily. What else could explain him who was hard at work saving money suddenly spending ten whole silver on this stupid supposed valuable potion from an old beggar!? A full gold coin’s worth! He’d gone and reduced his savings down by a full third in an instant. He took up the bottle and forcefully resisted the urge to hurl it at the wall with all his strength. No matter how unlikely, he couldn’t do that before he had it tested. It had seemed like a potion after all. It could be real.
The problem was that it was difficult for someone like Will to see an alchemist. They were often selective about their clientele, seeing only high society folks and some well off tradesmen. Will wore torn clothes and smelled of old fish. He probably wouldn’t even be seen by a freshly accepted apprentice. He needed a new set of clothes, and to get rid of the stench. It was strong enough it even stung his own nose.
Will sat and thought for a few moments longer, and had soon devised a plan of action. First, he would clean himself up as best he could. Then he would find a new place to live, preferably someplace cheap. After that he would go sell his stolen goods, and with his remaining money he would go buy new clothes. The money he had wasn’t going to be enough anyway, better to put it to good use.
Once that was done he would go and find an alchemist. Then they would authenticate his potion, and once that was sold he would have enough money to buy his official identity medallion.
Yep. Sounded like a perfect plan. Nothing that could go wrong with this.