The Cabbage Girl
The Cabbage Girl awoke, as she often did, in darkness.
She remembered that she was almost out of food again and that her last candle had burned out the night before. She would have to risk going out today.
She pulled on the coarse shift she used as a shirt and the torn breeches that were getting too small for her as she grew. A pair of boots that she had found three days before now served to replace the pair of rotting leathers she could no longer fit her feet into. The boots were too big. But they’d serve, either until she grew into them or until she found something else to fill their role.
She threw on the old cap she’d had since she was four summers old to complete her daily costume.
She grabbed a crust of bread and some crumbly cheese, the last of her food, off of a table built of old crates. She stuffed them into the makeshift pocket in the end of her sleeve, along with her old knife. She also grabbed a tin cup she kept on a rope and slung it around her body.
As she was about to turn away, she remembered that she had left her mother’s pendant on the table the night before, looking at it in the light of her guttering candle before it died out. She put the chain over her neck and carefully hid it under her shirt.
She threw two of the old burlap sacks she had over her shoulder, and then she went to the boards that covered the entry to her bolt hole. After listening quietly for a full minute for any noise, she slid the boards aside, slipped out, and slid them back into place.
Her brother, Kai, had discovered this small chamber in the sewers years ago, while he was hunting rats for meat. A collapsed bit of wall from an earlier age revealed it to him as he chased a particularly evasive rodent. It had once been a basement for a building that had been demolished hundreds of years before, built around by later builders when they were constructing the marveled sewers of Feiglingstadt. Marveled sewers that did not work anymore – with gutters clogged and water flowing the wrong directions – and they were now the home of vermin both animal and human in nature.
Of course, the girl did not know any of the history. She only knew it as a safe place that her brother had found.
The Cabbage Girl made her way through the dark tunnels of the underground. Every once in a while, she could see grey light coming through an old grate, unclogged gutter, or a small chink in the brickwork above. But she did not really need the light. She had navigated this place so many times before that she knew the way by heart. She knew to cut across here at the shallow point where some ancient causeway had once been before a century of erosion had mostly chewed it away. She knew to avoid the right hand passage and go the long way round because Gustaf the Cutter and his gang lived down that way, rapists and thieves every one.
Eventually she came to the end of the sewer; a barred outlet that once let the filth of a mighty city-state flow forth into the bay from which it drew its wealth. But things had changed over the years. And the bay did not reach quite as far inland on this side of Feiglingstadt anymore, thanks to the Dunkelgraf; just as the sewers no longer fulfilled their original purpose. So now it was one of the only ways in and out of the city of Feiglingstadt without passing under the hungry gaze of the city guard or the narrow eyes of the Dunkelgraf’s tax collectors.
Several yards of open ground, mud once covered in water but now dry and cracked and dead, ended abruptly at a tree line of blackened, twisted trees. The Cabbage Girl took a long and careful look, squinting her eyes in the light despite the heavy cloud cover, to ensure no passing guard patrol or other equally unsavory types were passing. Then she slipped through the opening in the lower corner of the grate created by a few decades of rust and lack of upkeep into the world beyond the city and lowered herself from the outlet to the ground below.
She preferred to go out at this time of morning, when most of the things that lived out in the blasted ruins outside Feiglingstadt had given up their night hunting and settled into their dens to sleep through the light of day. Supposedly the area had once been covered with farms and ranches for as far as the eye could see. Now it was only an expanse of twisted tress and vicious thornbushes, broken by the occasional ruined and overgrown building.
Her brother had once told her that the Dunkelgraf had destroyed the surrounding farmlands for miles because the city of Feiglingstadt had made him angry. Kai wasn’t really sure why, since it had all happened a decade before either of them had been born, but he insisted that it was the Dunkelgraf’s doing.
She had also heard Old Manfred once, last year at the Gurgling Goat, claiming that first fire fell from the sky for nearly half a day, burning most of the farms to ruin. And then the waters of the bay had come rushing in and drowned the fires and the farms with seawater for two days before they finally receded back, but much further from the shore than they once did – beaching a hundred ships and financially ruining three merchant houses. The Cabbage Girl was unsure if she believed this story, but she had seen the old hulks of broken ships in the mud towards the sea. And none of the other patrons questioned the old man nor did any gainsay him, which was uncommon at the Gurgling Goat, where the men were often drunk and mean and quick to both give and take offense. Most of them just stayed silent and grim while Manfred told his story.
Most of the trees in the area were indeed blackened and dead, and much of the ground now grew plant life that was unwholesome and sharp-edged.
But the Cabbage Girl had learned some secrets of her own. Once, several years before, her brother had resolved that the two of them would escape the city once and for all. So they had set off into the wilderness. But as it had grown dark, they were forced to hide in a ruined structure on a hill to escape the nocturnal beastmen that haunted this place. When dawn had broke, they found that the field abutting the ruin on the same small plateau was largely intact – and was positively overgrown with cabbages – a crop that had never been harvested and seemed to be thriving well on its own in spite of the surrounding damage.
And so the Cabbage Girl followed a faint path long worn by her brother and herself to the old farmhouse, eating her stale crust of bread and the last of the sour-tasting, crumbly cheese to break her fast.
Even during the day, this trip could be dangerous. Avoiding other scavengers – human and otherwise – was the biggest concern, usually. And, as she neared the river, she also had to be wary of the sea crocodiles that liked to swim upstream from the bay on occasion in search of easier prey.
Once she reached the ruined farm, she filled her two burlap sacks as full as possible with the cabbages she found there, using her old knife to cut the cabbage heads free and leaving as much of the root stalk as possible, as her brother had showed her. In a few months, the crop would wither away a bit for the winter, making it harder to find good heads and forcing her to use her saved pfennig coins, in addition to finding extra means (such as thieving) to support herself. But, this time of year, her harvest was easy and full.
She then made her way back to the entrance to the sewers and, carefully holding the bags out of the muck, made her way back to her bolt hole. She stashed one bag inside and took the other with her as she picked a different way through the old tunnels.
This time, her destination was much closer. A small, collapsed portion of the sewer ceiling had taken bits of the wall with it. Climbing up through the hole, the Cabbage Girl found herself in an old empty building. It had once been a warehouse when Feiglingstadt had been wealthier. But now it was abandoned, the merchant house that once made use of it being long gone – one of the victims of the Dunkelgraf’s wrath.
She pulled her bag over her shoulder and took it to a pile of weathered and broken timbers by one wall. Pulling the broken boards and trash away revealed a serviceable little wagon, into which she dumped her sack.
Then the girl took a quick look at herself in a puddle in the corner. She checked her hair to make sure it hadn’t gotten too long. She had been passing for a boy as long as she could remember – a defense (though not a complete one) against the rapists and pimps and, perhaps even worse, the city guard. Only a small handful of folk knew the truth.
She was aided by physique somewhat, being broad of shoulder and heavy of build. Her dark, coarse hair and her heavy, graceless limbs provided her a kind of double blind – at least according to Lora. Lora was a pretty prostitute that used to buy cabbages from her and her brother in exchange for helping them hide the Cabbage Girl’s femininity. She had once pointed out that the Cabbage Girl was blessed with neither beauty nor grace but with the shoulders of an ox and the face of a wolf.
Lora had always been a bit cruel when voicing her thoughts on people she found unattractive. But the Cabbage Girl had liked her nonetheless. She had always found Lora exceptionally pretty and had loved the feel of the prostitute’s delicate fingers running through her hair as she clipped it short for her.
Unfortunately, Lora’s cruel tongue eventually crossed one of the city guards. She had often played doxy to the local captains for protection and coin, but, in a lull between protectors, she had rejected one of the common soldiers for being “too ugly”. So his fellow guardsmen held her down as he raped her and cut up her face right there on the street in recompense for his wounded pride.
The Cabbage Girl remembered watching and fighting against her brother’s grip in an attempt to run to help. But he held her fast, probably saving her life. Of course, many others watched in horror that day… but no one else tried to stop the guards, either. And why would they? To do so would be a death sentence.
Deprived of her primary source of income, Lora had tried to make a living as a washer-woman. But, eventually, she threw herself into the river. And now the Cabbage Girl had to use a broken shard of glass to cut her own hair with a pool of dirty water for her mirror.
Thinking of it made her want to cry. She hit herself on the head twice and mumbled to herself to stop being stupid.
Then she took her small wagon with her haul of cabbages and wheeled her way out onto the street and into the trade district.
She stopped by her usual customers first, giving them first choice in exchange for the most consistent and well-paying business; first Romy the Seamstress then Olfin the Ferrier, as they each paid her good coin for first choice of her cabbages. Another stop at the door of the fine manse that Uta the Cook worked at guaranteed a few more cabbages sold. After that, she went to the Blacklamp Inn. A bit of haggling and she sold the rest of the first bag in one blow to old Agnethe, the Innkeeper’s wife, who had just had an influx of clients from a caravan and was in much need of materials for a fresh batch of stew to feed them all. In exchange, she got a small handful of pfennig coins and half a loaf of day-old rye bread.
She then made her way back to her bolt hole to stash her wealth and acquire the other bag of cabbages to continue her work. The sale of so many cabbages at the Blacklamp Inn was a windfall in her eyes. But the Cabbage Girl was no true merchant and did not know the value of the goods she sold. So she made only what she could manage to wheedle from her clients (many of whom had many more years of experience in counter-wheedling than she) for dealing in what was actually little more than black market produce – smuggled, as it were, into the city and bypassing the greedy eyes of the Dunkelgraf’s tax-men and the city guards alike.
Her next stop was the tavern known as the Gurgling Goat. The proprietor, Etzel the Goat as he was called, was better at wheedling than anyone – at least in the Cabbage Girl’s experience. She had once heard one of Etzel’s customers claim that the fat tavern-keeper rubbed pfennigs together to gather the copper dust from them so he could re-sell it to the Copperworkers’ Guild. She had often tried rubbing pfennigs together afterwards to see how much dust she could collect, but she never managed to accumulate any.
Etzel, one of the few people that had figured out that the Cabbage “Boy” was actually a Cabbage Girl, was sly and knew just enough about numbers to dizzy most common folk. And he used that to his advantage, both on his clientele and on his suppliers. The Cabbage Girl had figured out his scam a bit, but did not know enough about numbers herself to actually do much but hold fast to what she felt was a slightly better deal.
So, when Etzel insisted that he would only pay two pfennigs per cabbage and that, therefore, he’d only pay six pfennigs for a lot of five, she knew to haggle for nine and end up settling for not less than eight. And when they were done, he’d give her a quarter mug of ale for one pfennig back – “to seal the deal”, he’d insist.
She was fairly certain that he was still getting ahead in the arrangement, but felt comfortable knowing that she had still made seven pfennigs. Also, drinking the ale allowed her to sit at the bar and pretend to drink while she figured out which passed out patrons could be robbed for a few extra coins.
Etzel, of course, knew that this was why she hung around. He had caught her at it a few years ago. But he turned a blind eye and even started to point out people he thought were good marks in his roundabout way.
Unfortunately, though, her earlier luck did not hold, for no one was passed out today and Etzel made no suggestions. Nor was she desperate enough yet to risk pilfering from someone more aware. She was, at best, a mediocre cutpurse and felt it best not to push her fortune any further this day.
The Cabbage Girl took the remainder of her cabbages and hawked them where she could. She avoided the marketplace, for the other merchants would inform on her to the city guard to eliminate the competition of her cheaper and fresher cabbages. So she was forced to go door to door, pretending to be a delivery boy for a produce seller, or to deal in back alleys, out of sight of guardsmen.
Eventually, she pawned what she could of her cabbages and took the last two to supplement her own meager supplies. Using her accumulated pfennigs, she bought a few tallow candles, a chunk of cheese, and a jug of sour wine, saving the remainder of her coins to hide in the bolt hole. Raw cabbage, the slightly stale half-loaf she got from Agnethe, and the cheese would last most of a week at least.
So she returned to her bolt hole in the sewers under Feiglingstadt, to hide for as many days as she could from the rapists and the thieves, the pimps and the murderers, and, most importantly, the city guard who would rape, rob, and murder her with even more impunity than the common criminals.
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