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'Til the Morning Light

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Molly used to dream of dashing adventurers who would sweep her up in their wake and carry her off to foreign lands where they'd live fascinating, romantic lives. Her fantasies weren't clear about this. Drinking wine out of her shoe came into it somewhere. She'd made a furtive attempt to try this once and test out the theory, but all she'd had access to was old beer, and her shoe had seen better days even before it was wet and squelchy. That didn't seem very romantic to her.

Her first lover seemed dashing when she met him. He was handsome, with long, flowing hair pulled back in a rakish sweep and a gleam in his eye for the young maid she'd been at the time.

"What's a pretty lass like you doing stuck in a one-cow village like this one?"

She laughed. She'd never heard a pick-up line, and her few romantic notions hadn't included them. "I'm waiting for a handsome hero to come rescue me from drudgery."

"I wouldn't call myself heroic," he said with a grin. "But I can think of some ways we could forget the drudgery together for a while."

They hadn't rushed off to foreign lands together. The old barn next to the inn would have to do for a tumble in the hay. All her dreams had promised her soul-shattering joy, but the reality turned out to be a letdown. As he lay sleeping next to her after, Molly tried to spin her new romance into a pleasing story. This was the first chapter of her adventure, even with the village's one cow resting in a miasma of bovine flatulence in the stall next to them. The part of her that believed in romance wouldn't have it, and told her she'd just given away her chance at ever stroking a unicorn's fine white neck and whispering her wishes into a soft ear.

Her first beau ran away to another village with a different young maid. She'd cried for a while, for the loss of her hero before he could rescue her and for the cheap price she'd accepted for the loss of the unicorn. She'd languished, and had she not been Molly Grue, she may have languished for weeks, but that wasn't an option. A few hours later, she scrubbed her face until the red tracks from the tears were gone, and she went back to work.

Smith was no hero, just a grim-faced worker with iron. Her second love was better at tumbling in the hay, the intensity he spent on his own hard work matched by the intensity he visited on her later.

"We could travel," she said. "You and me, wandering the world. You're got the muscles of a Hercules. Think of all the adventures we'd have."

"Sleeping on the road? Never knowing where our next meal came from? Nah, give me a warm hearth and a sturdy roof. That's all the adventure I need."

That didn't sound like much of an adventure, but he had a point. She stayed with him for a brace of years, believing if she stayed long enough, she'd eventually become Molly Smith instead of Molly Grue. Instead, he was taken with plague before he took her to wife. She cried until she made herself stop crying. Tears didn't bring back the dead, or wash the windows, or dust the cobwebs, and he'd have been the first to say so.

She put away her dreams like putting away a fine old piece of jewelry. Neither suited her.

Cully looked the part of a dashing adventurer when he swept into her village. His men laughed merrily, boasting of his great deeds. Cully's eyes twinkled at her as she brought him drinks at the inn where she cooked and swept. "A fine woman like you isn't married?" he asked in disbelief, praising her stew.

"Not yet," she said with a smile that pained her to keep pleasant. The pleasant smile was enough to buy her way into his room that night, and onto his horse when he and his men flowed out of the village the next day. At last, her great romantic adventure was starting. True, it was a few years later than she'd hoped. Her face wasn't as fair as it had been, and her hands were thick from work, but as Cully embraced her, she felt like a princess.

Princesses probably didn't wake up with beetles crawling in their hair. They weren't expected to make stew for ten men out of one rabbit and a turnip. They probably spent more time on wild, lonely horseback runs through moonlight than in keeping the camp tidy and fetching water. For an adventure, her new life turned out to be little different from working at the inn, except that when it rained, she no longer had a roof.

Cully wasn't a good man, but he was a thief and a brigand and she'd known both when she got on his horse, and as things went, he was good enough to her. He treated her fairly, never slapped her nor hurt her, and when his tongue said cruel things, he didn't say them to hurt but only out of forgetfulness. She couldn't imagine him drinking wine out of her shoe, and she wouldn't want him to. She grew into her life with him, like a vine lashed to a frame, taking her shape from this stout man she'd bound herself to while she crawled slowly up looking for the sun above the greenwood.

Then Schmendrick came, and the unicorn with him, and Molly might have been too jaded for romantic adventures but she was damn well going to go wherever the unicorn would let her. She'd follow her on the road, follow her to a mad king's castle, follow her to death itself if the unicorn asked. She'd scrub the castle's floors and bake bread in the castle's creaky old stove, and she'd teach this wild young girl how to live as a human woman. She wouldn't even flash a jealous eye as the handsome hero wooed Amalthea. Molly was past that nonsense. Heroes were well and good, but someone needed to brush the cobwebs away and cook the meals and tend the hurts.

When the unicorn had left them to return to her forest, her parting gift to Molly had been words she'd always known and had never let herself believe. Molly stewed over those words day by day, as they stopped in villages and hamlets. Sure enough, where they rode, they found trouble. This town was beset by ogres. That one cowed under the fist of a cruel tax collector. Unknown sickness had the third in its clutch. Every time, Schmendrick and Molly looked at one another.

"You're sure about this?" he always asked.

"I'm sure," she always replied, rolling up her sleeves. There was work to do. Prince Lír might have a sword. Molly had only her own two hands and a magician watching her back.

She expected Schmendrick to leave now that he'd come into his great magic. Instead he was content to ride where Molly rode, to take up the causes she chose to fight, and to keep her warm each night. If there was a scale for measuring dashing adventurers, the magician with his goofy smile stood at the far end opposite, waving at her and dropping his juggling balls. Molly loved him anyway. Maybe she loved him more because of it. She didn't need a dashing adventurer. The unicorn had told her so, whispering to her in her dream.

"You are the only hero you have ever needed, Molly Grue."