Untitled serial

↖ Stories

Untitled serial

Samuel Marshall
Part 11

Rowena slid the bolt free, without the expected screech of rust; somebody must keep it oiled. She pushed open the wooden gate and stepped through. Immediately she felt a change in the air, though it took a moment to realise why. Of course – the high wall around this place kept it sheltered from the wind.

The cemetery lay before her, shrouded in fading light. Gravestones jutted higgledy-piggledy from the grass, spreading haphazardly across the wide area right up to the opposite wall. There seemed little in the way of organisation, beyond a few well-trodden paths marked out with stones along their edge.

She shivered in cool air that, increasingly damp, tended toward mist. A quick glance behind reassured her that Jenna and Arras had both followed; the priestess closed the gate after herself, pushing the bolt home with a solid clack.

Nightfall, almost. Great time to investigate a graveyard, she thought – but didn’t say it aloud. Firstly because coming here had been her idea, secondly because it would sound like a desperate attempt to pretend she wasn’t scared. Which she wasn’t. Much. But for once she was at least a little glad to have company, particularly the unshakeable priestess.

‘I saw a clear area toward that end,’ Jenna said beside her, pointing ahead. Past-tense, that comment, her calm voice belying the obvious fact that mist had quickly thickened into a dense fog. ‘New graves would probably be near it.’

‘Aye.’ Rowena forced herself to set off without a pause. What was there to be afraid of, here? Nothing but bones and –

– rotting flesh, she thought, last night’s dream returning to haunt her thoughts. She shook her head angrily, striding onward to take the lead even though the path had room for two to walk abreast.

‘There are tales,’ Arras said nervously, behind, ‘of the dead climbing from their graves, to attack the living… Do they really?’

He was asking the priestess, obviously, it being her business to know such things. Rowena peered ahead, trying to ignore the conversation. She followed with her eye the twisting path until it disappeared into greyness, fading barely thirty yards ahead into the fog. So much for sharp elven eyes; no doubt the humans saw just as much, or as little.

Tombstones, grey themselves, stood beside in uneven ranks. She glanced at the nearest and could barely make out the family name that headed it, never mind the indecipherable carvings that summarised two generations.

‘Not of their own accord,’ Jenna said finally. ‘It would take the curse of some powerful sorcerer. I see no reason for such a thing to happen here.’

‘Nor me,’ Arras agreed, too quickly. ‘But even if it did, you’re a priestess – couldn’t you do something?’

Little use pretending not to listen, Rowena thought. ‘Run,’ she suggested dryly, glancing back at them.

A faint smile flickered over Jenna’s face, but the gloomy, cold atmosphere didn’t seem conducive to humour. ‘We are trained in undoing such wickedness.’

Careful with her words, Rowena noticed. ‘How much practice have ye had?’

‘None,’ the priestess admitted softly.

Putting that out of her mind, Rowena stared ahead, sensing a slight change in the distance. There, finally, was the clear area Jenna had mentioned. And a glance at the graves before it revealed newer carvings, dates that gradually reached the present. The tenth year of Astes; fifteenth, nineteenth, twenty-fifth; that was the last row, and this year the twenty-seventh. But the gravestones only began at the path, running at right angles away from it, bordered on one side by an expanse of empty grass.

They must have sheep in here from time to time, Rowena thought, or goats; something to keep the grass short. She glanced up to see the others looking at her, realised she was only wasting time. This was the point where they left the path; the point where, in those tales Arras had mentioned, everything began to go wrong.

She stepped abruptly beyond the path’s edging stones, moving quickly along the row of graves. Nothing happened, of course. She sneered silently at herself for wasting half a thought on such foolishness.

One of the ancient yews she’d seen from outside loomed darkly ahead, its huge trunk forcing the line of graves to curve widely around. The tree’s faint scent reached her nostrils, its reddish bark a distinct colour in the mist. Something else caught her eye; a white twist of ribbon, tied around a lower branch. Yews this old were said to be sacred, to protect their surroundings. No doubt somebody had offered up that little decoration in return.

She would have scoffed, normally. But, pausing momentarily by the uneven trunk, she did feel somehow comforted. Perhaps the tree’s permanence reassured her; it had lived here many hundreds of years. That, or – her ears caught the beginning of a light, all-encompassing hiss – or the way it kept the rain off.

‘Well?’ Arras asked. Taller, he had to bend slightly to avoid branches overhead, as did Jenna beside him. The priestess shivered slightly, rearranging her thick white robes and pulling tight the belt.

‘Aye, hold yer horses.’ A strange reluctance had crept over her; somehow she didn’t want to leave the safety of the tree, its dry circle of old fallen needle-leaves. Stubbornly, she forced herself out into the drizzle.

They had come almost to the end of the row, where it left a ten-yard gap from the tall, weathered stone wall. Room for more burials, this year or next –

– and she froze, reaching up a hand to brush a droplet from her eyes. Knelt down on the sodden grass to see more clearly, sending a chill of damp through her legs. The inscription before her was fresh. Clear. Simple.

Died this twenty-seventh year of Astes King:

Brynne of Irneth

Her mother – birth-mother – lay dead, lay under this very earth.

There was a silence behind her, strong enough to cut through the rain’s growing hiss. The two humans stood there, she knew, wondering what to say. While she knelt here, wondering what to think.

She felt nothing, of course, not even shock. Her birth-parents would not have separated by choice, and in such circumstances death was the most likely reason for it; if not here, then somewhere else.

A light touch settled on her shoulder, through layers of clothes. The priestess, offering comfort…

Anger built suddenly within her and she twisted around, shaking loose Jenna’s hand and glaring up at the woman – far up, from this position. She clambered to her feet, spitting defiance. ‘Told ye. Told ye I don’t care.’

The priestess actually crouched to match Rowena’s eye level, holding firm to her staff for support. ‘And,’ she said mildly, ‘do you think that’s a good thing?’

‘None of yer fucking business!’ Rowena span on her heels and stalked off, seething in mindless rage. She found herself crossing the open, grassy area, the uneven wall a pile of jutting stones on her right. Rain beat down around her, blurred her vision, ran down her cheeks, dripped from her hair. It had grown much stronger, and she hadn’t put up the hood of her cloak. Stupid. Because she was angry. And she didn’t even know why, beside that the priestess irritated her. Stupid, again.

She pulled on the hood, closing that particular barn door well after the horse, and peered ahead through the driving rain. There was something ahead, at one edge of the wide field; a wooden shack leant against the graveyard wall, water splashing in little waterfalls from its tilted roof.

Shelter from the storm. Suddenly calm, she hurried purposefully toward the little shed. Conveniently, the door was placed in the centre of its right-hand wall, the one nearest her. Finding no latch, she shoved at it… but the door resisted. She wiped the rain from her face and looked again, finding this time what she’d missed before: a large keyhole. It was locked.


Swearing, again, in a graveyard. It was supposed to be unlucky. Arras would probably be terrified at her foolhardiness, if he heard… On that thought she glanced back, but saw no sign of the others, nor much else; the rain fell in sheets, a constant battering of water.

And she stood there in it, doing nothing, one hand uselessly resting against a locked door. Stupid, in a day of stupidity.

A locked door… the thieves’ tools, she remembered suddenly, and reached a hand within her cloak, fumbling for her tunic pocket and the small pouch within. Leaning against the shed to shield it with her body, she loosened the drawstring and took out the bent rod for twisting, the largest pick to push the tumblers.

It was six years since she’d last picked a lock, but the knack remained. She turned it as far as it went, applied moderate pressure; felt each tumbler and eased them one-by-one into place. A solid click, and it was done. Much easier with proper tools, she thought, shoving the door open to reveal musty darkness.

She stepped inside, leaving one gloom for another, and turned to close the door. It was only then that she noticed Arras and Jenna, standing hunched against the rain. They must have approached while she remained engrossed in the lock.

‘Well? Get yerselves in.’

They did as she said. Jenna, last, pushed the door shut; leaned against it, to hold it tight.

‘You’re not angry?’ Arras asked.

She shrugged. ‘Keep yer priestess from chattering, mebbe I’ll stay calm.’

‘I am not his priestess,’ Jenna said quietly.

‘Aye,’ Rowena muttered, feeling suddenly tired. Though they were sheltered from the storm’s violence, rain still drummed fiercely against the wooden roof. Drips fell irregularly through cracks in whatever sealed it.

She gestured at a pair of solid-looking trunks, opposite each other along two walls. ‘Sit yerselves down… if ye put that sack against the door, it’ll hold firm enough.’

Jenna peered around, shrugged helplessly. ‘I cannot see a thing. Where…?’

‘Oh, fer… Ne’er mind. I’ll do it meself.’

A good principle, that.