Untitled serial

↖ Stories

Untitled serial

Samuel Marshall
Part 3

The two outlaws approached more cautiously now, big men with unkempt, bearded faces that bore threatening snarls. Each held a sword at the ready. The blades were notched and discoloured, evidence of heavy use.

‘Get back!’ Arras ordered her, brandishing his own weapon in defence…

…and, in the sudden irritation thus brought, sanity returned.

Run, fuckwit!’

Without waiting she sprinted into the forest once more. The momentary pause had given her new strength, or maybe it was panic that drove her. Regardless, she surged between the trees at full pelt, picking her way frantically through the forest gloom. The beechwood was easy territory, but if she were to come up against thicker undergrowth or more difficult ground…

Heavier feet pounded close behind. Arras, hopefully, but she dared not look back. An open area came into view ahead, startling light shining past the trees. Perhaps another clearing… she dashed for it, half-blinded by the brightness, and only just saw the near-vertical slope that fell sharply away in front.

Too late to stop, she could at least control her fall. Branches and leaves rose in a confusing blur. Her bottom crashed jarringly against a rock and she sprang away immediately in a scattering of loose pebbles. Another bump and she was sliding down the slope, stones and sharp grass scraping against her abused backside. A boulder ahead… and she jumped once more, falling the last couple of yards. The ground smashed painfully into her feet, shock jarring through her body even as she collapsed into a crouch. Her knees crashed deep into the soil.

She was down, and – through lightness and agility – not seriously hurt. A sudden weakness shivered through her legs but it was no more than shock, a delayed reaction. Wilfully she ignored it and stood on shaky feet.

She found herself on the bank of a stream, where it curved about. Ahead, the wood continued on this lower level. Behind – small stones rattled down the slope, one bouncing painfully into her cheek, and she turned –

– to see a dark shape falling toward her, then it hit, crashing into her with a force that drove all the air from her lungs, throwing her onto her back in the mud with a crushing weight –

It groaned, and sense returned. Arras, thank the gods.

‘Get the–’ hell off me, she meant to say, but still found no breath. He rolled off anyway and she gasped air, testing arms and legs. Everything seemed to work, somehow, though it hurt. She forced an effort, twisted over and scrambled to her feet.

‘Come on!’ Her breath returned.

‘They… won’t… come down that…’ Arras objected. He crouched nearby, still panting for air.

‘Ever heard o’ bows?’

She jumped the stream, almost misjudging it, and swayed badly on the other side. Shock, still, weakening her muscles. Regardless, she staggered into the welcome forest shelter, veering a little to the left. North, as she judged it, from the afternoon sun that slanted in sharp beams through gaps in the tree canopy. The direction they’d been headed, and the quickest way out of here.

Eventually the trees began to thin out, leaving frequent patches of sunlight. Rowena stepped around their low branches, picking her way constantly northward. She reached up to brush a droplet of sweat away from her eyes. Her clothes were drenched and her short hair itched.

Since falling down the cliff she had gradually lessened her pace, until it was no more than a hurried walk that she could keep up indefinitely. Arras had stayed with her, and they had seen no further sign of the bandits.

This was the forest edge, now, and beech saplings grew among long grasses. Older trees dotted the landscape, lonely individuals standing tall and proud. Ahead, the ground rose gradually, reaching a summit high above. There was a fair view, and nobody else in sight.

Without speaking she waded through the grassland, avoiding the thorny or stinging plants that lurked for the unwary. It was slower going but not difficult, and away from the trees the gusting wind made up to some extent for the sun’s unyielding heat.

Gradually they climbed the slope, glancing back now and then in case of a pursuit that now seemed unlikely. The wind grew stronger and the vegetation less, merely tough short grasses and the occasional windswept rowan, its graceful shape all lopsided.

Finally they reached the summit. A small rocky crag jutted from the hill here, and Rowena scrambled up to perch on its solid bulk. The land opened up below in wide swathe of forest and hills; she could see for miles all around. They definitely weren’t being followed. She allowed herself to relax with a sigh of tired relief.

To the west, far below, she could just make out the dirty brown line of the road they’d left – and there was a cart, in fact, travelling southward. There seemed to be a few men with it. Guards, hopefully, Rowena thought. If there’s anything worth taking in there, anyhow.

‘We’re safe,’ Arras said, settling down beside her.


‘Why did you stop me fighting back then?’

She snorted and imitated his voice. ‘Y’mean, “Thank you for saving my foolish hide, Rowena.”’

‘But–’ he persisted, until she cut him short.

‘Two battle-trained men. What did ye think of the chances?’


And another half-dozen just a minute distant.’

That shut him up, if only for a moment. Eventually he said, more quietly, ‘I’m heading to the city to become a soldier, and I thought…’

‘None too hard.’ She sighed. ‘Gods save us.’

He flushed, embarrassed but no longer able to argue. ‘So why are you headed to Chaldon?’

‘Got word me birth-father’s ill there. Dying, most like.’

‘Oh. I’m sorry…’

‘Stop that,’ Rowena scowled. ‘Told ye already. I don’t care a bit. Wouldn’t be here except for the mayor gave me coin.’

He was shocked to silence for a brief while. Then he said cautiously, ‘Don’t take this wrong, but you don’t come across as very nice…’

‘Ye catch on quick.’ She stretched out her legs, hopped to the ground below. ‘Funny thing to say, though, fer a soldier.’

He tried to reply, but it vanished in the gusting wind as she pressed forward across the summit. She left him scrambling to catch up in all senses, clearly outwitted in each verbal exchange.

She wasn’t sure why, but the satisfaction this brought seemed a little hollow.

Dark clouds built on the eastern horizon in stark contrast to a bright western sky, tinged yellow as the sun dipped lower. The wind had picked up, ruffling her short hair and cooling the air even now they had left the heights. She trudged along the road’s edge, her limbs aching after the day’s exertion.

An ox-cart laden with hay rumbled towards them, the beast’s large feet plodding stolidly step by step through the dirt. She gave it wide berth, but Arras dutifully moved close to warn the driver of bandits ahead. Wasting time, she knew: who would be driving hay through a dangerous forest in dead of night? Sure enough, after the wagon had creaked to a halt, a brief exchange confirmed that its journey led only to a nearby barn.

A little way ahead, she waited impatiently while the two men exchanged pleasantries. At least it gave her a moment’s rest. Then Arras gave a cheery smile, the driver waved, and the cart rolled gradually into motion once more.

He caught up then, fell in behind once more as she resumed her own pace. If she weren’t so tired, this would be almost pleasant; a walk through rolling hills and patches of cultivated land. Even with a stronger breeze, the summer evening remained mild. The sunset spread its golden orange across the west. Birds twittered and chirped happily to each other, perching among trees that marked field boundaries or clustered in little copses. Apart from birdsong and the hissing of wind, everything remained quiet, peaceful.

‘That’s why,’ Arras said, jerking her from pleasant contemplation, ‘I want to become a soldier.’

What’s why? So ye can collect tax and scare a few kickbacks from the likes o’ that farmer?’


‘Well, what’d ye think soldiers do, when there’s naught to fight? Hasn’t been war in five years.’

‘I meant–’ his voice rose in exasperation – ‘to deal with the outlaws.’

‘If ye’ll only get annoyed, don’t talk with me,’ Rowena said shortly, looking pointedly over the path ahead.

Arras sighed sharply. ‘Sorry.’

She shrugged. ‘I’ll just tell ye: there’s bandits still, after five years to handle their like. Don’t doubt they pay the same bribes.’

‘I’m to be an officer–’

‘Truly? I’d never’ve guessed.’

He flushed at her sarcasm, but went on. ‘And I certainly mean to stop that kind of thing.’

Rowena threw an incredulous glance sideways, so he’d get full benefit of her raised eyebrows; it worked, too, causing a momentary pause in his step. That gesture accentuated her large eyes, seemed to trigger an involuntary reflex in humans. Fear of difference, perhaps. Humans were good at that.

He fell silent, anyway. A squirrel caught her gaze, bounding across the path ahead; it landed on an oak, then ran directly up the trunk without a second’s pause.

‘What does your father do?’

‘Me birth-father?’


Interrupted, she’d lost track of the squirrel. No, wait – there it was, balancing on a branch that swayed back and forth, surely too flimsy to carry the extra weight. ‘Well, me parents call themselves entertainers…’

‘You mean they dance and sing?’

‘That too.’

Though she wasn’t looking, she could almost feel his confusion, like a palpable force beside her. To match it the squirrel finally jumped, vanishing deep within the gloom of a second tree’s leaves, and she turned her attention back to Arras.

‘They spend most o’ their time,’ she said bluntly, ‘flitting from one noble’s bed to another. Separately or together.’

He actually gasped. ‘You mean…’

‘Oh aye. Pays very well, so I’m told.’

‘Then that’s why…’

‘Why they left me? True. No room in that life for a mewling baby. They could fuck as many humans as paid, and never a risk; but wi’ each other they got careless once. And that’s me.’

He blushed redder than the sunset, as they crested a low rise. Finally in sight, the city of Chaldon stained the northern sky with its smoke; points of bright light flickered against the dusk, and a sea of wooden roofs spread higgledy-piggledy across the plain below. The wide river came in from the east, a thick black ribbon that cut the city in two. An ugly mess, this place. But the atmosphere bore a certain excitement, the hint that anything could happen.

‘Chaldon!’ Arras exclaimed unnecessarily; taking the opportunity to change subject, she rather thought.

Not bothering to reply, she started downhill, half-slithering down the steep slope that bypassed a zigzag in the road. Close below lay the ill-built shacks and tents that clustered like parasites on the sprawling urban edge; and between them ran the same track they’d followed all the way, now grown straight and wide. It led into the centre.

Into the city.