"Words Like Coins" is a short story in which Robin Hobb returns to the world of the Farseer, and it is one of the short fiction pieces which will comprise the forthcoming A Fantasy Medley, an anthology edited by Yanni Kuznia.
From the Subpress website:
A Fantasy Medley features the superlative storytelling abilities of four diverse authors:
In “Zen and the Art of Vampirism,” Zoe Takano, the only vampire in Toronto, a city filled with supernatural creatures of Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld, finds her place in the hierarchy threatened by two interlopers.
“Riding the Shore of the River of Death” returns us to the world of Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars. Kareka, daughter of the begh of the Kirshat, hunts to take a man’s head. It is her last opportunity to prove herself as a man or else she will find herself restricted to the role of woman and wife in the clan forever.
Robin Hobb revisits her Farseer world in “Words Like Coins.” Mirrifen, a failed hedge-witch’s apprentice who has married to find security finds that threatened by a severe drought and the appearance of a pregnant female pecksie.
C.E. Murphy takes us to frozen Moscow in “From Russia, with Love.” Baba Yaga’s daughter is a barmaid at a dive when Janx and Eliseo Daisani walk in. They discover, as they compete for the girl’s affections, that Baba Yaga has plans for Janx and that her beautiful daughter had merely been the bait.
To learn more and/or to pre-order the anthology, click on this link.
“First came drought. Then rats. Now it’s pecksies.” Jami spoke into the darkness of the bedroom.
“And that’s why you’re afraid to get out of the bed to get a drink of water?” Mirrifen asked. Her sister-in-law’s restless tossing in the bed they now shared had wakened the older woman.
“No,” Jami said, with a strangled laugh. “It’s why I’m afraid to get out of bed and go to the backhouse.” She shivered. “I can hear rats squeaking in the kitchen. Where rats go, pecksies follow.”
“I’ve never even seen a pecksie.”
“Well, I have! Lots of them, when I was little. And I saw one today. It was under the front steps, staring at me with its horrid yellow eyes. But when I crouched down to see it, it was gone!”
Mirrifen sighed. “I’ll light a lamp, and go with you.”
Swinging her feet out of the bed and onto the floor in the dark still put a shiver up her spine. Mirrifen wasn’t sure she believed in pecksies but she did, emphatically, believe in rats. She tiptoed out to the banked fire in the kitchen hearth and lit the lamp from its embers. The moving flame painted shifting rat-shadows in every corner. The night before last, Jami had stepped on a rat when she got out of bed for water. Jami’s feet were already swollen from her pregnancy. A rat bite could have crippled her. Mirrifen hurried back to the bedroom. “Come on. I’ll walk you to the back house.”
“Mirrifen, you are too good to me,” Jami apologized. Privately, Mirrifen agreed, but she only grumbled, “Why Drake and Edric had to take the dog with them, I don’t know.”
“To protect them when they camp! All sorts of men are on the roads looking for work. I wish they’d all stayed home. I’d feel safer.” Jami sighed as she touched her stretched belly. “I wish I could have one solid night’s sleep. Did your hedge-witch ever teach you how to make a sleep charm? If you could make one for me—”
“No, dear heart, I couldn’t.” They moved slowly through the darkened house. “My training only included simple things. Sleep charms are complicated. They have to be precisely keyed to the user. Even so, they’re dangerous. Witch Chorly once knew a foolish hedge-witch who tried to make a sleep charm for herself; she finished it, fell asleep and starved to death before she ever awoke.”
Jami shuddered. “A pleasant tale to sleep on!”
The kitchen door slapped shut behind them. Overhead, the light of the waxing moon watered the parched fields. Mirrifen inspected the outhouse to make sure no rats lurked inside, and then gave Jami the lantern. Mirrifen waited outside. The clear, starry sky offered no hope of rain. By this time of year, the crops usually stood tall in the fields. Without them, the wide plains of Tilth stretched endlessly to a distant, dark horizon.
No one could recall a worse drought. Thrice the men had planted; thrice the seeds had sprouted and withered. With no hope of a crop, the two brothers had left them, going off in hopes of finding paying work. They needed to be able to buy more seed grain in the hopes that next spring would be kinder. Mirrifen reflected sourly that their husbands would probably have to go all the way to Buck to find work.
Jami emerged from the backhouse. As they shuffled back toward the farmhouse, Jami spoke her darkest fear. “What if they never come back?”
“They’ll come back.” Mirrifen spoke with false confidence. “Where else would they go? They both grew up on this farm: it’s all they know.”
“Maybe away from it, they might find easier ways to live than farming. And prettier girls. Ones that haven’t been pregnant forever.”
“You’re being silly. Drake is very excited about the baby. And your ‘forever’ is nearly over. The full moon will bring your baby.” Mirrifen stepped barefoot on a pebble and winced.
“Is that something the hedge-witch taught you?”
Mirrifen snorted. “No. What Chorly taught me was how much water to mix with her rum. And I learned six different places to hide from her when she was drunk. My apprenticeship was the most worthless thing my father ever bought.” Chorly should have taught Mirrifen a hedge-witch’s skills, how to make potions and balms, how to sing spells and how to construct charms to protect crops from deer or make hens lay more eggs. Instead, the hedge-witch had treated her like a servant and taught her only the most trivial charms and tinctures. Mirrifen’s apprenticeship had been spent cleaning the old witch’s ramshackle hut and soothing her disgruntled customers. The old woman had drunk herself to death before she had completed Mirrifen’s training. Chorly’s creditors had turned Mirrifen out of the tumble-down cottage. She couldn’t flee back to her father’s house, for her brothers had filled it with wives and children. She had thought herself too old to wed, until her brother’s wife had told her of a farmer seeking a wife for his younger brother. “Don’t have to be pretty, just willing to work hard, and put up with a man who’s nice enough but not too bright.”
Edric was exactly as described. Nice enough, and kind, with the open face and wondering mind of a boy. Being his wife and helping on the farm had been the best year of her life, until the drought descended.
“A pecksie!” Jami shrieked, jostling her.
“Where?” Mirrifen demanded, but when Jami pointed, she saw only the swaying silhouette of a tuft of grass. “It’s just a shadow, dear. Let’s go back to bed.”
“Rats bring pecksies, you know. They hunt rats. My mother always said, ‘Keep a clean house, for if you draw rats, pecksies will follow.’”
Something rustled behind them. Mirrifen refused to look back. “Come. We’d best sleep now if we are to rise early tomorrow.”
But when the morning came, Mirrifen rose alone, slipping quietly from Jami’s bed. Since the men had left, she had demanded Mirrifen sleep next to her. Jami was barely nineteen, and sometimes it seemed that her pregnancy had made her more childish than womanly. The blankets mounded over her belly. It couldn’t be much longer. Mirrifen longed for the birth as much as she dreaded it. She’d never attended a birth, and the closest midwife was a half-day’s walk away. “Eda, let all go well,” she prayed and drew the door closed.
The rat invaders had left their mark on the kitchen. Pelleted droppings and smears of filth marked the rat trails along the base of the walls. Mirrifen seized the broom and swept the droppings out the door. She stingily damped a rag with clean water and erased the rat tracks. Jami was almost irrational about rats now.
Not that Mirrifen blamed her. The creatures besieged them. No door could be shut tightly enough to keep them out. The ravenous rats gnawed through pantry doors and chewed open flour sacks. They ate the potted preserves, wax seals and all. In the attic, they scampered along the rafters to get at the hanging hams and bacon sides, spoiling what they didn’t eat. They attacked the sleeping chickens on their roosts and stole the eggs.
Every morning, Mirrifen discovered fresh outrages. And every morning, she struggled to conceal from Jami how precarious their situation was becoming. When the men had left, Drake had quietly told her the stored food should sustain them through the summer. “And by fall, Edric and I will be back, with a pocket full of coins and sacks of seed grain.”
Brave words. She shook her head and let her work routine absorb her. She woke the fire and fed it. She set a pot of water to boil, filled the tea kettle and put it on the fire. She now stored the porridge grain in a big clay pot on the kitchen table, with the chairs pulled away from it. She’d weighted the pot cover with a rock. The rats hadn’t gotten into it, but they’d left their ugly traces on the table. Grimacing, she scrubbed them away with the last of the water in the bucket. She left the porridge simmering while she went to her chores.
She counted the chickens as they emerged from the coop. They’d all survived the night, but there were only crushed shells and smeared yolk on the straw inside the nesting boxes. She stood, fists clenched. How had the rats got in? She’d find their hole later today.
She milked both cows, and gave each a measure of grain and a drink from the covered bucket outside the stall before she turned them out to find whatever grazing they could in the dusty pasture. Every day they gave less milk, poor creatures.
The well in the yard had a good tight cover. She unpegged the wooden hatch in the top and swung it open. Dark and the cool of water greeted her. She scowled to see that the edge of the hatch had been gnawed. The rats could smell the water. If they chewed through and drowned in the well, all the water would be spoiled. What could she do to stop them? Nothing. Not unless she sat on top of the well all night and guarded it. With a sinking heart, she knew that was exactly what she would have to do. The creek had gone dry weeks ago. The well was their last source of water. It had to be protected.
The bucket dropped endlessly before she heard the small splash. She jogged the rope up and down until the bucket tipped and took in water. Drake had promised to put up a proper windlass for the bucket, but for now, it was hand-over-hand to haul it up and. Every day, its trip was longer as the water receded. Her straining fingers nearly lost their grip when a small gray face suddenly peered at her from the other side of the well cap. Its staring eyes were the color of verdigris. The hands it lifted seemed disproportionately long. The creature cupped them, begging and bared pointed teeth as she mouthed the foreign word. “Please. Please.”