By Tony Steven Williams
Lunchtime. Arnold was hungry, hot, foot weary, feeling his age. He glared at what he could see of the limestone coastline, begging it to reveal the haven of Tranco. He glared at the road now a track distinguished by foot-tripping tree roots and sun-hardened goat turds. So, this was the guaranteed shortcut, eh?
He paused to recheck his map, a hastily drawn doodle on the back of a beer-stained envelope. Yesterday, he had obtained it from a shady cross-eyed villain bartering two fragrant apples purloined courtesy of an orchard. This track should get him somewhere, eventually, maybe. Muttering about the inadequacies of shady cross-eyed villains with dark cloaks and darker whispers, he continued.
Suddenly, an amazing structure, fifty metres off the track. A spiral stairway with polished chrome handrails and mahogany balusters encircled a metal pillar in a beautiful helix, reaching high into a strange stationary cloud. Very swish but in the middle of nowhere. Well, this was the land of Enchantra, where ‘the commonplace is some other place’. No argument there, and it was to see such marvels he had come. Besides a new woman that was. He didn’t know if Margot could ever be replaced since she had died as collateral damage when caught in a major mage duel crossfire two years ago.
A caramel-coated goat grazed in the tower’s shade. The black bars in its lazy yellow eyes stared at Arnold, summing him up. It gave a goat-like shrug then lowered its head back to the grass. If he didn’t get food soon, Arnold thought, he’d drop on all fours and join him.
In front of the building was a garish sign.
TEST YOUR SKILLS!
MAKE A LIFE AND DEATH DECISION!!
WIN FREE ACCOMMODATION IN TRANCO FOR THREE NIGHTS!!!
(OR DIE TRYING?!)
PROUDLY SPONSORED BY THE TRANCO CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
Arnold skimmed over a disclaimer that doubtless meant that if anything happened to him the Tranco Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t be paying. Still, twenty droubles was more than fair, and he certainly needed Tranco accommodation, plus this looked to be a lot of fun, a limited commodity right now. Arnold dropped coins into a chute. A gate slid open. He clonked his boot onto the first step and climbed. Halfway, taking a breather, he discerned the port of Tranco sprawling along the coast. It had a mighty harbour holding many mighty vessels. It was a mighty distance away. Arnold cursed mightily.
The stairway ended in a rectangular platform inside the cloud. To his left, a table set for one. A wine glass glinted in the white-grey haze, a panoply of dishes steamed and frothed in the cool, moist air. His nostrils previously filled with dust now inhaled a multitude of fragrant spices. A waitress, dressed in black robes like a Halloween witch, stood by a chair. She bowed deeply, sweeping an invitation. Her face was pretty, but pretty witches were not on his dating agenda right now. To his right, a noose dangled from a wooden gantry, its loop silhouetted against the mist through which the black mask of an executioner bulged like an ugly cameo in an oval frame. This man also beckoned.
Was his throat to be engraved by the cruel noose? Or should he go for the feast? Hmm. Seemed obvious, but perhaps this was reverse psychology where he should choose the less attractive option. Hmm. But perhaps this represented a doomed prisoner’s last meal. Whatever, he felt damnably hungry, and the aromas were overwhelming. And it was all a game. Surely. No harm could befall him. Surely.
The meal was indeed splendid. Cabian prawns, rack of klenneck and fluffy soufflé. All washed down with a venerable red. He leaned back and belched. No doubt about this land of Enchantra. Bloody marvellous. How did they do it for twenty droubles?
A sharp clap. The plates, glasses, bottle, utensils and the witch waiter disappeared. Arnold looked at the motionless executioner, arms folded, eyes glittering through holes in his hood.
‘What now?’ Arnold asked.
The executioner beckoned, bare fingertips hooking though black mittens.
‘Suppose I return down the stairs?’
The executioner produced a long, curved dagger.
Arnold sighed and struggled to his feet.
The executioner plucked a bottle from a trap in the floor. Its label screamed POISON in bold, red lettering. The executioner placed the bottle on the floor, pointed at the noose, then the bottle, and intoned: ‘Choose.’
So, this was the real life and death decision. Surely if he made the right choice he would survive. If he lost, he would be unharmed except for a lighter purse and a heavier stomach. And it was a game, wasn’t it? He wished he’d spent more time examining the fine print. And what choice could there be between poison and a hangman’s noose? Both options offered the same fatal scenario albeit with different pain thresholds.
Hells bells! Arnold shut his eyes, focused hard, scratching the black stubble on his chin. He imagined the noose and the bottle of poison in front of him. It could be that the noose was slip knotted, or the poison label inaccurate. Or? Or?
Then he had it. At least he hoped so. He looked at the executioner and said: ‘Both.’
The executioner unstoppered the bottle pouring the contents onto the noose in a steady flow, pitting the platform. The rope steamed and disintegrated. The executioner smiled and handed Arnold a voucher guaranteeing three nights free accommodation in Tranco, as promised.
‘I don’t suppose you’d know of any decent dating services in Tranco?’ queried Arnold, but the hangman had vanished, and the gallows were gone.
Arnold descended the spiral stairway, pleasantly plump, accommodation assured. But then he gazed despondently at the narrow turd-filled path. The sun was brutal. The goat appeared to be smirking. And ahead lay the long haul down to Tranco.
On reflection, what he had just achieved had been the easy bit.
About the Author
Tony Steven Williams
Tony Steven Williams was born in Penzance, Cornwall, UK (that’s right, the town with the pirates!).
He eventually saw the light and became an Antipodean, emigrating to Adelaide in the last millennium.
Tony and his artist wife now live in Canberra. Tony is a short-fiction author, poet and occasional songwriter with many published works. He writes across the genres, but SF is a frequent visitor.
Tony’s two poetry collections were published by Ginninderra Press: Sun and Moon, Light and Dark (2018) and Reimmersion (2023).