From the author: Answers to problems often come from the unlikeliest of places!
The door to the Dragon's Beard Tavern slammed open and wintry winds gusted within, twisting Amma's skirts about her legs like the arms of a drunken hero. Amma stumbled, sloshing ale from the tankards on her tray onto her skirts. She glared towards the door, where three men dressed in crimson-edged blacks let the door bang shut behind them.
Damn these fighters. Couldn't they just once enter like human beings? They swaggered to the far table, ignoring everyone in the crowded tavern. "Stew!" one yelled over his shoulder.
"Wench! Hurry with that ale. We're thirsty men!" a helmed man at the table before her demanded. Those around him roared their agreement.
She slapped the tankards onto their table, careful that the ale didn't slosh over so much as dance within the cups. What would their mothers think of them, acting like this? She glared at each man in turn, daring any to speak out. None did.
She turned to stomp back to the kitchen when a great hand seized her buttock. Anger and frustration engulfed her. She whirled, lifting the serving tray high and crashed it onto the helm of the damned dwarf, who sat stunned but grinning like the idiot he was. Amma fled for the kitchen's safety, her heart beating in her throat and her arms shaking, as raucous laughter rang in her ears.
Once through the kitchen doors, she slumped against the wall, letting her breathing drop its ragged edge. The rage that had fed her strength fled, and exhaustion weakened her limbs.
"What's wrong now?" Marda asked, her voice sharp. The innkeeper's wife and tavern cook scooped three bowls of stew and handed them over.
"The same. Grown men acting like boys." Amma loaded the bowls onto her dented tray, pausing as her anger bloomed again. "My six year old nephew behaves better, Marda! What's wrong with them?"
The older woman wiped her hands in her stained apron as a tired smile creased her face. Her eyes clouded with memories. "Amma. Child. They're not bad men. My Grumps was one of them for years, you know. We met at a tavern just like this one, and the men back then, they were just the same. They're only showing off for each other. It's what adventurers do."
"I wish they'd do it someplace else, then. I'm tired of it." She turned to leave the kitchen.
"You think it's better at The House of Flowers?" Marda's laugh pealed out into the front room as Amma shoved open the swinging door with her hip. No, servers at the only other bar in Milldale had it worse. At least here she didn't have to turn tricks, as they did. She carried the stew to the newcomers. They tried to impress her, flexing their mighty thews, but she ignored them.
Instead she made her way to the drafty corner table where Forgettable Fillmorr hunched alone over his tankard. The spectacled mage was the only one who treated her like a human, probably because she could snap him like a twig if she'd wanted. On the bench beside him rested a brownish lump: his long-empty loot sack. Now it sported a tiny bulge. The mage sighed as Amma neared.
"Another ale, Formidable?" she asked, using the name he called himself instead of what others called him.
He startled, then blinked up at her. "Why yes, that would be nice. Thank you, Anna."
Amma smiled as she went for his drink. He always forgot her name. But he said "thank you," and he never slammed the door.
Her smile was wiped away as the door was flung open again, crashing against the inside wall with a reverberating boom.
The night eventually ran itself down. The bard in the corner went from stomping tunes to mellow ones, then slid into melancholy ballads that salted everyone's ale with tears. When he slipped out the front door, Amma assessed the nearly empty common room: cider made a slow splat-splat-splat as it dripped onto the floor while Fillmorr nodded his head in time, his eyes owlish and unblinking.
Behind the bar, Grumps rattled the crockery as he wiped at dirty mugs with an equally dirty rag. Amma set to moving the filth around, working her way to Fillmorr's table.
"Formidable, it's time to leave."
He tilted his neck up at her and blinked rapidly. "So soon?"
He gave a little sigh. "Well, I suppose so." He placed a hand on the tabletop and started to rise, but shivered, stopped and sank back down. "Oh! But first, I need to do this." His hand went below the table, and an odd expression crossed his face, as if he concentrated hard on his actions.
Amma leapt aside, afraid he was going to urinate right there. But no. His hand reappeared holding his loot sack, which thumped when he placed it on the table. Still staring at the bag, he spoke slowly. "Tonight, Ennie, I celebrated my last day as an adventurer. I've had enough. I'm going back to Immonsville, to run the candle works there for my aged mother." He raised his eyes to meet Amma's, and they were surprisingly clear. "No one will miss me, and most probably won't remember me. I know they called me "Forgettable," and I am. But you, Essi, you always treated me kindly. To you, I'm giving the last of my adventuring treasures. I bequeath you my padded loot sack, and the last trinket within. It's not much, but its the only way I can express my thanks to you, kind lady."
With that, he rose onto unsteady feet and bowed. She backed away, afraid he might topple over, but he turned and left the inn, shutting the door silently behind him.
Amma looked from the door, back to the brownish lump of sack he'd left for her. It was padded, to mute the sounds of things clinking within. At the very least, it would make a good pillow. Once she'd washed it.
"What's wrong then?" Grumps' voice cut through her thoughts.
She shoved the bag beneath her apron, looping it through the strings to hold it in place. "Nothing. Fillmorr just told me he's leaving."
"Hunh. No surprise there. He never was the right type. Didn't have enough bravado, enough flair. His name fits. 'Forgettable,' indeed."
Gritting her teeth, Amma continued washing up.
By the time cleanup ended and Amma was safely locked within her tiny room, she was exhausted. She didn't care what the sad loot sack contained. She was tucking it away in her clothing box when something heavy bruised her knuckles. Frowning, she upended the bag. A tiny oil lamp of some foreign sort fell out, its brass tarnished and stained.
No wonder Fillmorr didn't want it. He's going into the candle business.
She berated herself for the unkind thought. It wasn't a bad gift, not at all. With a bit of cleaning, it would be fine. To prove it, she wiped vigorously with her sleeve, trying hard to bring forth the gleam of the metal.
With a hiss like sand in an hourglass, whitish smoke billowed from the spout. Amma flung it onto her bed, backing away from the cloud that formed between her and the door. She ran for the window and tried to fling it open, but the old frame was warped, and it wedged after opening only an inch.
Maybe it'll be enough to let the poison gasses out. Turning, she put a hand over her mouth and nose and stared at the shape that had formed.
From floor to ceiling, the mist congealed into the form of a burly red-skinned man. He wore outlandish purple-striped pants, and a tiny brimless hat perched on his bald head. Gold winked from both ears, and thick bands of it encircled his wrists, as well. His eyes gleamed like hot brass, not kindly at all. Amma gasped, and shrank to the floor.
"Mistress." His voice was deep, but soft. Gentlemanly, even. The genie bowed.
Amma scrambled to her feet, but remained pressed against the window.
"I come to your call. I am the genie of the lamp, bound to your service."
She'd heard such tales, of course. Working with adventurers, how could she not? But she'd never thought they were real. "You're...going to grant me three wishes?"
"My reputation precedes me. How nice." The genie smiled, but his eyes remained cruel. "This will simplify things greatly. You know the procedure, then? Standard offer--three wishes, no wishing for more wishes, et cetera."
She nodded, and moved towards her bed. "May I?" She indicated the lamp with a bob of her head. He nodded, so she grasped the lamp and placed it upon the wash basin stand, then seated herself on the woolen blanket covering her bed. She stared, silent and still, at her feet.
The genie cleared his throat. "Your wish?"
"I don't know." She shook her head. "I know better than to wish for money--it'll just make more trouble than it's worth. Or fame, for the same reason. Or a dozen other things. So, what should I wish for?"
"What is your greatest desire, Mistress?"
After her ridiculous day, his voice, so calm and cajoling, released some spring within her. She nearly shouted it: "I just want everyone in this damn tavern to behave properly for a change!"
An explosion of color, smoke everywhere, but no sound. When it cleared, Amma found herself curled atop her blanket upon her bed. She was shivering in the frigid air blowing in her window. The tiny lamp rested where she'd set it, on the washbasin stand. Just a bad dream. Then why was she disappointed?
Rising, she shut the window, blew out the candle and lay under her blankets. In moments, she was asleep.
The next day found Amma downstairs marveling at the customers coming in the door. Not one slammed it open or closed. They held the door for one another, and swept bows towards Marda and Amma, but their actions were stiff, their motions jerky. They looked like marionettes manipulated by terrible puppeteers. It was hard not to giggle.
Even Grumps, after frowning at the first few adventurers who came traipsing so peaceably within, couldn't slam the tankards down and curse out his frustrations. He was reduced to a wild-eyed rant of "My goodness, but what's come over everyone this evening?" as he paced rapidly behind the bar.
Amma was in heaven. No one grabbed for her. No one yelled at her. No one slammed the door. They all behaved like perfect gentlemen. Once she got over their odd motions, she relaxed and enjoyed the effects of her wish. She knew there was no way she could go back to how it had been.
Word got out. The next day, adventurers were daring one another to step over the threshold, and to just try cursing. The following day, they were making wagers on how long certain patrons could stand it. The crowd outside the door and at the windows became larger than the one inside. By the fourth day, no one came inside. No one at all.
Marda and Grumps summoned Amma as she floated down the staircase. They ushered her into the kitchen, which shone with the attention it had recently received.
"It's been six days, Amma. Six days with no business." Grumps' face contorted as he was forced to swallow the curses he wanted to spit out. "I'm afraid we'll have to let you go. We can't afford to keep going with no customers. Please say you understand." His face said he'd like to yell and scream and pound the table. Marda looked like she'd swallowed an overripe egg whole. She patted her husband's hand.
Amma's joy dissolved. Turning tricks would be her only option.
"Just give it another day, please," she begged them. Thinking fast, she added, "It's only polite, after all, to give an employee notice."
Marda's eyes narrowed, and Grumps was shaking his head.
"Without pay, of course," she added. "Just let me keep the room."
"Very well, then. Another day," Marda said.
Amma ran for the lamp. She lifted the heavy brass and rubbed it with her clean skirt. The genie appeared, smiling like a cat that's been in the pantry.
"All's well, Mistress? Your wish was satisfactory?"
"Yes. No! I mean, I like it, but no one's coming to the tavern now, so I'm being fired! You've got to tell me how to make this work, genie. This week has been heaven!"
"Sorry, Mistress, but I'm not allowed to interpret your wishes for you, or to tell you how to word them properly. That's against the rules."
"Rules? You have rules?"
"My life is filled with rules, Mistress." He lifted his arms, displaying the gold wristlets. They winked in the sunlight filtering through her window. "These bands mark me as a slave to the lamp, and slaves live and die by rules."
Only two more wishes, and the genie couldn't help her. He was already turning tricks.
"Can you drink, genie? I think we have lots in common, and a drink might make things seem better."
She sneaked downstairs and liberated a bottle of dragonberry wine. It was potent stuff, and soon she and the genie--"call me Gene"--were sharing stories of the ways people took them for granted, talked down to them. They commiserated over glass after glass.
"The worsht of it cometh when they prwomish to fwree me, but I know they're lying," Gene said. He stared into his glass, then upended it, draining the last of their wine.
Amma thought he might be slurring a bit, but she wasn't sure. His statement, though, was an outrage. "They lie to you? To you? You're a genie! You should kill 'em all." She waved her empty glass.
"Can't." Gene hiccoughed. "Can't hurt anyone who's owned the lamp, unleth ordered to. Even if I do get fwree."
"If-smiff," she said, swaying a little. "When I figure this out, I'll free you. I promise." She hugged him, and promptly began snoring, even before her forehead landed on his shoulder.
She woke cradling the lamp against her belly. A headache was splitting her skull in two and sending sharp slivers of agony deep within her eyes. She shut them, gulped down her nausea, and opened them again. The inn was blissfully silent.
She recalled why, and her deadline. She sat up. The room swayed, but Amma forced herself to wash, dress and go downstairs.
Grumps and Marda slumped like drunks in the empty common room. The glare they gave as Amma came downstairs spoke volumes, and Amma winced, knowing they'd never let her stay. She asked anyway.
Grumps shook his head, and his eyes held a desolation she'd never seen in him before. "No. You must go." He met her gaze and his anger flickered to life. "See what happens when you get what you ask for? Nothing good comes from being too picky. Nothing!"
Marda patted her husband's broad shoulder. "If adventurers wanted to behave like proper gentlemen, they'd have stayed home with their mothers," she agreed. "This just isn't natural."
The words snapped in Amma's head, and she knew what to do. "Alright. I'll leave. But I'll be back. I'm going to solve this riddle." She fled upstairs, packed her few possessions in Fillmorr's loot sack and scurried out the door, which swung gently shut behind her.
Outside, the night's rains had ceased, but the wintry cold remained. Not having coin for the coach to Immonsville, Amma began walking. By mid-afternoon, her hangover was frozen away.
She scurried through the wide streets of Immonsville until she came to a sign showing a robed student holding a lit candle over a book: the Scholar's Candle Works.
Squaring her shoulders, she pushed the door beneath it open. A bell tinkled sweetly. She faced a long counter, which guarded a curtained doorway. The curtain twitched aside, and a man bobbed into view, still reading the book in his hand. It took a moment for Amma to recognize Fillmorr; he'd been transformed into a merchant by the fine clothes.
"Yes," he said, looking up at last. "Oh! It's you. Ammy." His gaze traveled from her to the door, as if looking for the loutish adventurers from the Dragon's Beard in her wake.
She stepped forward and smiled. "Yes, it's me. Formidable--"
He raised a hand, wincing. "No. I'm just Fillmorr now."
"Fillmorr, then. I need your help."
He gave her a sorrowful smile, the one she'd seen from him so often. "I've given all that up now, Emmi. You know that. But I see you're using my loot sack. I'm glad."
"Yes," she said, seizing the opportunity. "That's what I'm here about." She pulled the lamp out and set it on the counter. It shone in the light streaming in the rounded glass window behind her.
Fillmorr admired it. "My, that looks lovely now that you've shined it. It is the one I gave you, isn't it?"
"Yes. But it's not just a lamp. Look." She rubbed the cold brass briskly, warming it with her hand. Smoke and Gene poured out.
Gene gave her a wincing look, then saw Fillmorr. He straightened, crossing his arms over his chest, and his voice boomed. "What is your command, Oh Mistress?"
Fillmorr's mouth gaped.
Amma smiled, stifling her laugh by biting a knuckle. "It's alright, Gene. I'm just here to get Fillmorr's help. He's the one who gave your lamp to me."
Gene eyed the former mage, taking in his merchant's garments, his thin frame, and the book in his hand. "You...you were a mage," he said at last. "You found my lamp, and you...you gave it to Amma? Freely?"
Fillmorr lived up to his moniker, at last. He snapped his mouth shut, straightened his spine to stand erect before the towering bulk of the genie.
"Yes. I found your lamp in a troll's treasure heap. And when I gave up adventuring, I gave the lamp to..." He glanced at Amma, "to Amma. I didn't know it...I mean, thought she could use it. You. I mean, that she might need it more than I." He flushed and stared at his feet.
The genie shrank to human size, his hot eyes fixed on Fillmorr. "No one has willingly parted with my lamp before, Fillmorr. You are unique. Intriguing, even."
Fillmorr burned brighter red. Amma cleared her throat. "Getting back to the situation, then." She explained the problem at the inn to Fillmorr, and how she'd been relieved of her job, and how she was determined to use her final wish to free Gene from his lamp forever.
Fillmorr listened, his face growing more intent by the second.
"So," he said when she'd finished, "you need to get your job back. Why don't you just undo the last wish?"
Amma fidgeted her feet and looked at her hands as they played with the cords of the loot sack. "Well, I like it the way it is. I can't go back to the old way. I just can't!" She lifted her head, beseeching him to understand.
They moved to the back room and Fillmorr's mother, a shawl draped over her shoulders, took over the shop. Fillmorr and Amma sat at a small table in straight-backed chairs. Gene hovered in the corner, just below the low rafters, glowing as brightly as the fire in the hearth.
"So, Gene, you can't aid Em--Amma's questions in any way, right?" he asked for the third time. He tapped a slender finger to his pursed lips, staring at the tabletop before him.
Amma sipped her tea, looking from Fillmorr to the nodding Gene and back again over the rim of her cup, her stomach clenched in hope, anxiety, and dread. She didn't want to be yet another possessor of the lamp to wriggle out on her pledge to free the genie, but it was looking more and more likely. She closed her eyes.
"But you can tell me, right? I'm not your Master, and honestly, I already gave your lamp away. So you can tell me anything."
Amma's fingers loosened on the teacup, and she nearly dropped it to the floor. She sat it back on the table with a clatter, her eyes never leaving Gene, who considered the question.
He frowned, stuck out a thick lower lip, tugged at it with a beefy hand. His golden bracelets glinted in the light, and the fire in his eyes was banked. He looked to Fillmorr, then to Amma. "I do think you're correct. There is no prohibition against it, if you're not family or romantically entangled. You're not, are you?"
It was Fillmorr's turn to spit his tea. He choked, gasping, and Amma reached out and snatched his cup away.
"No," she said. "Definitely not."
Amma and Fillmorr stayed in the back room, and the genie went to Fillmorr's bedroom; he couldn't speak knowing that Amma would hear his words directly. It slowed things down, but Amma didn't care. They would figure this out.
Fillmorr brainstormed with Amma, then carried messages back and forth. "Forgettable Fillmorr" was long gone as he bustled about, his stride long and his face determined. "The Reward Idea won't work. The gold will lure adventurers to steal it," he'd report. "But what if we...," and they were off again, plotting the next potential wordage.
Again and again, he came back, shaking his head. "No on the Muffling Spell."
"Nope. Not the Politeness Potion, either."
"The Sparkle Dust won't fly."
Amma's heart sank, and her shoulders slumped lower.
Night fell. Fillmorr's mother brought them bread, sliced pork, and cider, and now their empty plates lingered on the table beside her. The cloying scent of old cider filled her with despair.
Fillmorr burst in and threw himself into the chair beside her. "No. It won't work. It just won't," he said. He crossed his arms and scowled, his thin face sour and nasty looking.
He'd have made a fine adventurer if he wore this face all the time.
"There's no solution, Amma." He leaned forward, elbows on his knees and head cradled in his hands. "I'm not smart enough to see it, at least. So now I'm failing even you."
Her blood boiled at his self pity. He was failing? What about her? She was the one heading to the whorehouse, not him. She slammed her hand down onto the table. He leapt, cringed away and stared at her as if she were going crazy. "What--" she began to yell, but was interrupted when the door creaked open.
Fillmorr's mother shuffled in, her eyes bright. "Still up? Let me just clean away these things, then, dears. Don't mind me, carry on 'chatting.'" And she began the painstakingly slow process of removing the plates from the table between them.
Fillmorr gave her a look, begging Amma to hold her tongue and temper before his mother. Her pulse beat in her ears, a hard drum that slowed only as she concentrated on her breathing.
The old woman shuffled out at last, and Fillmorr breathed out, a deep sigh. "Thank you," he said. "Mother hates rude guests."
She opened her mouth to curse him roundly, but popped it closed with a snap.
"Your mother--," she said. And then, "Marda said adventurers would stay home with their mothers if they wanted to behave." She beamed at Fillmorr. "Don't you see? We need every adventurer's mother behind the bar. Then they'll all behave!"
The door to the Dragon's Beard Inn flew open on blustering winds, and the patrons looked up. The spring storms were bad, and rain lashed inside as two men gusted in, stomping their feet on the threshold. The newcomers looked to Amma, who had positioned herself to be seen, and both men gaped.
"Mama?" one whispered, his face slack.
"Auntie Zim. But how...," the other murmured before trailing off.
The spell engaged, Amma watched as it released them from the vision of their favorite mother figure. They shook their heads, befuddlement and wonder in their eyes, and softly shut the door behind them.
She bustled to their table with a complimentary welcome drink, which wondrously knocked the edge off their shock, and then took their order. She called the drinks out to the big man behind the bar, who wore a vest and breeches. His skin had an odd, reddish cast, and chained to his belt was a pair of thick, broken wristlets, like some foreign trophy.
She'd heard the regulars tell passers-through that if he got angry, his eyes gleamed like molten lava. But most didn't care to incur the wrath of the innkeeper, who strangely reminded each of them of his--or her--own mother. Those who didn't care for that moved to the new tavern across town, The Bad Spell, which Grumps and Marda had opened. The Dragon's Beard was a mellow place, these days, and more profitable than ever.
In the kitchen, Amma gave the food order to Fillmorr, who hummed a tune as he stirred, tasted, and seasoned the various pots. She was glad to see him so happy. "How's your mother, Formidable?"
Gene, his eyes agleam, slipped into the room on silent feet and stalked up behind Fillmorr. Amma kept her gaze directed at Fillmorr, allowing the sneaking to continue.
"I wish you wouldn't call me that," he said. "But she's fine. Loves the new shop next door, too. Says she should've moved here ages ago."
Gene threw his brawny red arms around the thinner man, who gave a muffled, high-pitched shriek. "'Formidable,' indeed!" Gene said, nuzzling his ear.
Fillmorr blushed redder than Gene, then swatted at the former genie with his soup spoon. "I should've thrown your lamp into the sea!" he scolded.
Gene laughed, a deep basso that echoed off the rafters. "Then you wouldn't be one-third owner of the nicest tavern in Milldale."
A thundering crash of the front door thrown open was followed by a bellowing voice demanding ale.
Amma sighed. "Looks like I'm needed in the front," she said. She lifted the bowls Fillmorr had abandoned and carried them through the swinging door into the common room, interrupting the bellower mid-tirade. He stared at her, mouth hanging slack, and with one thick hand, caught the door that was ready to slam shut behind him. Instead, he guided it to snik, ever-so-quietly, into place.
She beamed at him, nodding her delight. It was such a pleasure to work in a civilized place, where people shut the door properly.
This story originally appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust.