The Farmer’s Goat
By EM Malachi
The winter winds slammed shut the heavy wooden door, and Dr. Cat looked up from the glass he was cleaning. A bewildered young man in a straw hat had entered the Cat’s Lair Tavern, and the bartender knew he wasn’t one of the regulars. Dr. Cat smiled and set the glass on the bar in front of an empty stool. The young man’s shoulders relaxed, and he sat down. He dropped a worn bag that clinked on the bar and asked for ale.
After he’d poured the drink, Dr. Cat picked up the stranger’s coin purse from the bar, “Let’s see. By look and weight, you’ve got twenty-seven gold pieces, ten nails, and a fine apple.”
“One of my many skills. However, I’d suggest you take better care with your things. Some people may take more interest than they ought.”
“What do you mean?” asked the young man.
“I love this city. It has good music, food from across the Kingdom, and more people than anywhere else. Some of those people are the soul of Compassion, but others… less so. I’ll give you an example. Mind if I borrow those nails for a demonstration?”
When the young man didn’t protest, Dr. Cat took out the nails and set the ten out in a row. “The game is Nim. We take turns picking up one, two, or three nails. Whoever picks up the last nail wins the round. You can go first.”
“Seems easy enough.” The young man removed three from the row.
Dr. Cat took a single nail. “Easy isn’t always enough.”
The stranger took another two nails, and Dr. Cat took two as well. Taking the last pair, the young man seemed happy. “I won!”
Dr. Cat nodded and set up another tenfold row. “Let’s play a couple of games with me going first.”
They played a few more games with Dr. Cat winning and his opponent growing more frustrated. At last, the young man put down the nails in his hand and conceded. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
Dr. Cat smiled and refilled his patron’s ale. He dropped the nails back into the bag. “You didn’t do anything wrong. The game’s not fair. Games like this exist to pull people in and separate them from what’s theirs. Let me tell you a story:
A few years ago, a farmer from Skara Brae came to town with a full cart pulled by his pet goat. It had been a wonderful harvest, and he planned to use the extra money to help his cousin buy a farmstead. It didn’t take long for him to sell all that was in his cart, so he decided to take a walk and see what Britain had to offer.
The farmer and his goat eventually came upon a man playing this very game against whoever would try their luck. The gambler already had a pile of winnings: a few coins, a bag of onions, and a giant parsnip. The farmer tried his luck, and the gambler let him go first. The farmer won that first game and the next few. He was so happy he fed the parsnip to the goat.
The gambler asked for a chance to win back his losses, unwrapping a glittering pile of coins. Since it was greater than the value of everything else, the gambler asked if the farmer would also wager the goat. Seeing a chance to get that farmstead for his kin, the farmer agreed. I guess the goat knew the huckster was dishonest, since it tried to eat the stones they were playing with!
The farmer graciously let the gambler go first, and you can guess how that turned out! The farmer, being a good sport, gave the goat a pat behind the ears and handed the rope over. He walked back to his cart and left town.
No sooner had the farmer left than the goat got stubborn, refusing to move. Threats and carrots wouldn’t change its mind. The gambler tried to drag the goat across town to the butcher’s shop, but that ornery beast was having none of it. It kicked the huckster as hard as it could and ran off. With the gambler at its hooves, it crawled into the sewers under Britain, and the gambler sure didn’t want to follow.
I don’t know what happened to the goat in those murky tunnels, but it’s still alive. Maybe it was possessed by a daemon or changed by some potion mix from the Sorcerer’s Delight. Some say it crawls up out of the sewers at night for all manner of mischief: chasing down cheaters, kicking in the doors of dishonest merchants, trampling the flower beds of mean landlords, or stealing stale bread that no baker should dare to sell.”
Finished with his story, Dr. Cat handed the coin bag back to the young man. “Anything else I can help you with?”
The young man considered for a moment. “I’m looking for work. I have a bit of experience as a carpenter.”
“I know Arty down on the docks is hiring, if you are interested in building ships. The Cavalry Guild also needs a new fence. Whichever you choose, tell them Dr. Cat sent you.”
The young man pulled a coin from his pouch and tried to pay for the drink, but Dr. Cat refused. “Get yourself all set up, and come payday, swing by and have a meal here. We make a mean meat pie.”
Later when he was pouring the wash water down a drain into the sewer, Dr. Cat spoke through the grate, “I helped that young man, so I hope you won’t be giving me any trouble tonight on my walk home, Krampus.”
In the murky darkness under Britain, something moved.