Untitled serial

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Untitled serial

Samuel Marshall
Part 13

The Star and Dagger’s large main room was dimly lit, flickering candles interspersed with deep pools of shadow. Whispered conversations mingled in the gloom, the patrons’ shifty faces turning aside as Rowena looked their way. Glancing elsewhere her sensitive eyes saw deals agreed in the darkness, gold passing between hands. In one corner a drunk had passed out, slumped unnoticed against the wall.

It didn’t look like a haven of righteousness. She smiled darkly at the thought, glancing beside to see what Arras made of it: he looked significantly less pleased at the prospect of staying here. Jenna wore her customary unruffled expression.

A bored-looking, grizzled man sat behind the bar, wiping a dirty ale tankard. He didn’t spare a second glance for her diminutive form, nor – which assuaged her irritation somewhat – for the nervous-looking boy to her right. Instead he looked up at the priestess. ‘Yeah?’

‘We’d like to stay tonight.’

‘Oh aye.’ The bartender showed little interest. ‘Three of you, are there?’

He made a great show of getting up, easing himself slowly off the stool that bore his considerable weight. Then he reached under the bar to retrieve a slate, presumably an accommodation list. He spent an uncommonly long time running a finger down it – which, if the rooms above were as sparsely populated as this bar, was hardly necessary.

‘We’ve single rooms,’ he eventually confirmed, ‘or a four-bed.’

‘Which is cheaper?’ Rowena asked.

Slowly turning his gaze down to her, the man scowled. You could tell he thought her a child. You could also tell he didn’t like children. ‘Since ye’re only three, it works out the same. Little miss.’

‘Then we’ll take sin– oww.’ She yanked her foot away from the sudden pain. Jenna had stepped on it.

‘We’ll room together,’ the priestess said as if nothing had happened, though what she’d done was perfectly obvious. ‘How much is it?’

‘Three silver.’ He smirked, evidently approving of her intervention.

‘Fine.’ Jenna placed a coin on the bar, then turned to look expectantly at the others. With ill grace, her toes still smarting, Rowena plucked a silver from her pouch.

After Arras put in his share the barman nodded, gesturing lazily at a doorway to one side. ‘Stairs are through there. It’s the large room at the end, can’t miss it.’

‘There’s no key?’ Arras wondered.

‘Used to be. Lost it.’

Or he wanted no trouble getting in later on to rob them blind, Rowena thought.

‘Mebbe I might look fer it,’ the man said cagily. ‘If’n it were worth me while.’

‘Don’t bother. We’ve little worth stealing.’ Jenna stifled a yawn. ‘We’ll drop our things in the room. Could you get us something to eat?’

Disappointed at missing his backhander, the bartender nodded in grumpy silence and shuffled in the direction of the kitchen.

They left the gloomy room, with its sputtering candles and low conversation, behind, braving instead a rickety staircase. Jenna’s tall staff tapped noisily against each step – checking the wood hadn’t rotted through, perhaps. At the top, numerous doors opened off a short corridor.

They proceeded directly to the last one, finding behind it a small room crammed with four beds. It seemed less dirty than Rowena had expected, and the air at least tasted clean and fresh: one window-shutter hung open, admitting a mild breeze along with the starlight.

‘Well, this isn’t so bad.’ Jenna leaned briefly through the window, taking a deep breath of the night air. ‘Better than the single room I stayed in last.’

‘Why’d ye insist we share?’ Rowena scowled.

‘I should’ve thought you’d realise.’ The priestess smiled apologetically. ‘Sorry I trod on your foot, by the by… Anyway, in a place like this, there’s safety in numbers.’

‘Mebbe more daggers here than stars, ye mean?’ The elf shrugged, unconvinced. She could take care of herself, alone or not.

‘And why are we staying in this… dive?’ Arras didn’t look particularly happy about it. ‘Is there no other inn?’

‘Several, at three times the cost.’ Having shed her small travel pack, Jenna leaned tiredly against her staff. ‘I try to live cheaply. It’s the Temple’s money, not my own.’

Rowena snorted. ‘Most of yer kind take all the luxury they can get, Temple money or no.’

‘Maybe so.’ Her smile looked a fraction strained, though perhaps that was Rowena’s imagination. ‘Anyway, shall we go down? I trust you’ve left nothing valuable here…’

They returned to the main room downstairs, which had livened up only slightly in their absence: two very drunk friends were having a loud argument about money that one owed, or else didn’t, depending on whom you believed. It looked like violence might soon result, and the barkeep – while not having roused himself to intervene – was watching the pair like a hawk. Around, strangers exchanged whispered bets on the upcoming brawl.

Jenna led the way to an empty table – one of several, since the place was scarcely half full – as far from that trouble as she could manage. They sat down, trying to look inconspicuous. Rowena checked her ear-tips were well hidden.

A barmaid slouched against the nearby kitchen doorway, her posture and red-blotched face making her look at least half-drunk herself. Seeing their arrival, she disappeared for a moment and returned bearing a platter of bread and cheese. ‘Food ye ordered.’ She extracted sufficient coppers from them, then went to the bar to fetch drinks.

The bread had been cut into slabs thick enough that the elf’s small mouth could barely reach around. She had just finished her second heroic bite, licking stray butter from her lips, when a loud thud made her turn sharply. The fight had begun, both men on their feet now, one of them staggering back short-breathed after receiving that punch.

‘Outside,’ the bartender demanded, on his feet and beside the pair a lot faster than she’d have expected given his bulky frame. When they looked likely to ignore the command, he grabbed the winded man around both arms and marched him firmly to the door, shoving him outside despite his struggles. After a sharp look, the other followed – along with half the drinkers. The bar practically emptied out, spectators eager to see the action. Loud chants began, urging on one or other combatant, clearly audible through the open windows.

Shrugging, Rowena returned her attention to the mammoth chunk of bread, and the cheese she was trying to fit into her mouth at the same time. It tasted pretty good, considering. Not the hot meal that Jenna no doubt had wanted, but fine enough for the likes of herself.

‘What are you going to do next?’ Jenna said quietly, as a burst of cheering erupted outside. ‘Where will you go?’

‘Mmm grmmf mmmf,’ Rowena said indistinctly, as Arras’s gaze rested on her too. She chewed quickly and swallowed, chasing it down with a swig of ale. Now she could speak, though it seemed a wasted effort. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Don’t you want to find out what happened to your mother?’ Jenna asked, after a moment.

‘Me birth-mother,’ Rowena corrected. She shrugged. ‘Suppose that’s something to do. What do ye have in mind?’

‘The local priest will surely have seen her buried. Why don’t we pay a visit to the temple and ask?’

‘I’m spawn of all yer devils, remember?’ She gave a twisted smirk. ‘They won’t be letting my kind in.’

‘They will if I have anything to do with it,’ the priestess said emphatically, forgetting to keep her voice down. Others in the room turned from their drinks to gaze curiously, but loud whoops and laughter outside drew their attention away. Jenna moderated her tone. ‘I’ve fought that battle before, and won.’

A noisy crowd barged back into the inn, involved in animated discussion of the fight. Evidently somebody else had now won their own battle. Looking round, Rowena recognised one of the combatants, his face now streaked with blood but bearing a triumphant grin. There was no sign of the loser. Maybe he’d been killed, she thought idly, and turned back to resume the conversation.

‘Last time I’d be guessing it was those whores ye were fighting for. Yer damn book doesn’t say they’re cursed devil-spawn. An’ it says just that about meself.’

‘Rowena!’ Arras objected. To the blasphemy? Like she was going to care. She stared defiantly at him, until he looked away.

‘There are parts of our “damn book” that need to be taken with a large pinch of salt,’ Jenna said softly, fingering the staff she’d propped up against the table. ‘That’s one such.’

‘But–’ Arras started, and faltered. ‘You’re–’

‘A priestess, yes.’ She laughed. ‘Am I to take everything as written, without a moment’s thought on it?’

Rowena snorted. ‘That’s the job ye signed up for.’

‘Not I. Not ever.’ She smiled sadly. ‘But you might be right on one thing – it could be hard to convince the local priest. He’s a nice enough man, but a traditionalist.’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ The elf girl sneered. ‘Wouldn’t set foot in one of yer damned temples if ye paid me.’

‘Well, that’s what I was coming to,’ Jenna said, unfazed. ‘I’ll go on my own, first thing tomorrow.’

‘Don’t be going on account of meself.’

‘Then who else?’ The priestess laughed softly. ‘Come on, let’s get to bed. It’s been a long day.’

Rowena hadn’t really noticed the ache in her legs for a while; that returned in full strength when she tried to stand up. Wincing and leaning against the table, her gaze happened to alight on a stranger who sat alone in one of the darkest corners. He’d been there all along, slowly sipping a drink, not leaving to watch the evening’s violent entertainment outside. A nondescript man, he wore dull clothes that – within that pool of shadow – would render him near-invisible to human eyes. She herself hadn’t thought twice about him.

But now, momentarily, she caught him staring intently in her direction.

He looked away and she turned, tiredness briefly ignored, following behind the others to the stairs. As soon as they were through that doorway she raised a hand to her ear, checking.

‘It’s okay,’ Arras said, glancing back to see why she delayed. ‘They’re still covered. Anyway, there’s nobody up here.’

She followed to their room without bothering to answer, lost in thought. It was still easy to spot her as an elf, if you knew what to look for. But in an ill-lit bar? With human eyesight? If you’d likely never seen an elf before?

Only if you were looking for an elf.

Maybe she’d been stared at for another reason. She wasn’t pretty, and she certainly didn’t dress pretty, to induce any kind of attraction; but there were those who liked their girls young, and she pretty much looked the part. Or if a man was drunk enough, anyone female would do, regardless of her near-flat chest and utter lack of charm.

Except she was sure you could tell, you could tell when a man was thinking with his balls. Those eyes had been stone-cold serious.

‘I’ll lock the door,’ she muttered distractedly, kneeling beside it and pulling the tool-pouch from her pocket.

‘Good idea,’ Arras offered from across the room. He closed the shutters with a crack, wood against wood.

The room grew dim, but she didn’t need to see a lock to pick it. A minute’s work and the deadbolt slid firmly into place. It wouldn’t stop anyone getting in – one solid kick and the door’s rusty hinges would tear loose. But it might at least slow them down.

The others had already claimed beds for themselves. Of the two remaining, she picked that furthest from the door and collapsed into it, exhausted.

Then she slept. Lightly.