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Untitled serial

Samuel Marshall
Part 4

‘Where do you intend to stay tonight?’ Arras asked, hurrying beside her as they crossed the shanty-town that surrounded Chaldon.

A ragged child beggar ran toward them, trying to catch Rowena’s eye. She aimed a half-hearted kick in its direction and the little boy backed off resentfully. ‘Outside the city. I’ll find a tree to sleep under.’

‘You mean to sleep rough?’ He looked shocked. ‘Have you no money?’

‘Mayor gave me coin, I told ye. But I’m not for wasting it on a night’s rest.’

Arras sighed. ‘I’m going to get a room at the Crown. Why not share with me? You don’t have to pay anything.’

‘I’m not in me parents’ line of business,’ Rowena said sharply.

‘I didn’t mean that!’ He turned away, red-faced. ‘Perhaps you did save my life earlier on. Call it a repayment.’

She shrugged, thought about it for a moment. She’d sleep better, and there seemed little risk from this blushing virgin. ‘If ye like.’

He sighed again. Probably had been hoping for thanks, Rowena though. Well, he’ll have to whistle for it.

They passed through the city wall, between the rough-hewn stone blocks that made the gateway. The gate itself, imposing in thick, dark wood strengthened by numerous crossbeams, towered above her. In times of peace it stood open almost permanently.

Inside the city proper, Chaldon was a neater place; fewer piles of dung cluttered the stone-cobbled streets, and impressive trade houses lined either side of the road. You could buy whatever craftwork you needed here: fine dresses, parchment, leatherwork. Weapons and armour far better than anything clumsy Voss – or his hulking master – could turn out back home.

Goods came from further afield, as well; they passed a wine dealer, his shop-front closed up for the evening, where a sign advertised stocks of the best elven vintages. The bottles had travelled thousands of miles, from the vineyards of Glyn Irneth; rather like her birth-parents. Gone that incredible distance to become a singular rarity, of extremely high price.

‘There’s the inn,’ Arras said.

Well above Rowena’s head-height, a sign swung gently on its iron fitting. A simple crown, painted in yellow on black, fairly glowed in the light of a lantern which hung from the same support. The inn had a tall, narrow street-front, numerous windows making little squares of brightness over three levels. She had to tilt her head way, way up to see the roof-edge, where it met the sky’s indigo gloom.

Beyond the Crown, crammed against it without the slightest gap, was a tightly-shuttered jeweller’s shop. And before it – Rowena glanced into a small window as they passed. Failing twilight glittered on silver fastenings and lace edging: beautiful dresses in bright colours she could barely determine, hanging neatly for display behind the clear glass. Her sharp eyes could just discern a discreet price list, and she fairly gasped – the cost was obscene.

Pretty, though… Shrugging, she hurried to catch up with Arras, running a hand over her hair to make sure it lay flat. Yes, the points of her ears were hidden – no law forbade being an elf, but she liked to remain inconspicuous.

Arras pushed open the door, letting bright light and loud chatter flood out into the street. She strode in alongside him, into the warm, smoky atmosphere of the Royal Crown.

‘I’d like a room for the night,’ Arras said politely, raising his voice just a little to be heard over the babble of conversation. ‘With two beds.’

The portly innkeeper leaned on the solid wooden bar, examining a chalked slate. ‘Ah. For you and your sister?’

‘She’s n–’ Arras began, until Rowena trod on his foot, glaring. ‘She’s staying with me, yes.’

‘We’ve a good room on the third floor for you. That’ll be thr–’ The innkeeper broke off, his eyes flickering over Arras. ‘Why’d you say you were visiting, again?’

‘I’m come to join the army.’

‘Ah.’ Some of the warmth left the man’s tone. ‘Well – that’ll be four silver. Enjoy your stay.’

Silently Arras counted over the money from a belt-pouch, and took a heavy metal key in return.

‘Last room on the right, third floor. Stairs are there.’ His gesture pointed at a narrow staircase that climbed steeply from its base near the entrance.


The innkeeper only grunted in response. Frowning, Arras started away, and Rowena followed. The cramped stair switched back on itself twice per floor, four flights in all until it eventually gave out on the third-floor corridor. A single candle guttered at the end of the narrow space, its flickering light adding shadows to the gloom.

Their key unlocked the final door on the right. Arras found a candle lamp placed on a stand just inside the room; he lit it from the one in the corridor and they stepped within. A small but pleasant room, it seemed. A bed ran along each edge of the room, leaving a narrow gap between that you could follow to the one small window. There was no sign of rats and it seemed well-cleaned, as far as you could tell in candlelight.

Rowena went to the window; its thick glass wasn’t clear enough to see through, so she unlatched it and peered down. They overlooked the street, far below; passers-by went here and there, crossing through the pool of light from the inn’s lantern. From this height they seemed like little toy soldiers, parading up and down.

‘You didn’t have to tread on my foot,’ Arras complained when she turned back. ‘Why pretend you’re my sister?’

A draft made the candle-flame dance precariously, so she shut the window at her back. ‘Some of us’ve a reputation to keep up. And if ye noticed, army men aren’t much loved round here neither. How do ye think they take to soldiers bedding young girls?’

‘It might have been five silver.’

He hadn’t meant it as a joke, but she laughed anyway. ‘Ye caught on quick, this once.’

Arras didn’t join her laugher. ‘What can the innkeeper have against the army?’

Rowena shrugged. ‘Mebbe he had trouble wi’ taxes. Or one o’ his own daughters got caught in something… How’m I to know?’

He frowned, staring past her unseeing.

‘I’ll be going.’ Rowena squeezed past him, pulled open the door.


‘To find me birth-father.’

‘It’s late…’ Arras objected.

‘Be a shame to miss ‘is dying words for a night’s sleep,’ Rowena said bluntly. ‘An’ after I came all this way…’

‘The streets won’t be safe at this hour,’ Arras persisted. ‘I’ll come with you.’

She shook her head. ‘I don’t need yer help.’

With that, she closed the door on him, feeling a little satisfaction in ridding herself of that cloying presence. She hurried down the four flights of stairs to the inn’s main doorway. A group stepped inside just then; she asked one of them, a burly fellow wearing a bright gold ring, about Threadneedle Street. Obligingly he gave brief directions, not too complicated. She nodded thanks and slipped out into the cool night air.

The route was easy to follow, taking her left away from the inn, then right at the next crossroads. She passed numerous people milling about the streets: some dressed for fancy parties, some merely headed for one of the many taverns. Nobody paid any particular attention to her. She chose a route that kept mostly to the shadows, avoiding pools of light cast by the occasional lantern.

Halfway down the second street, she became aware of footsteps hurrying behind her. She glanced back.

Arras. Damn.

‘I said I don’t need yer help.’

He caught up, breathing hard. ‘I didn’t feel right. What if something happened to you?’

‘Wouldn’t be your problem, now would it?’ She scowled, started off again. ‘Don’t go attracting any trouble.’

‘I…’ He trailed off, followed in silence.

There was Threadneedle Street, by the neatly-painted sign; a row of fancy stone dwellings, each built in its own individual style but close against the others. She turned into it, stepping over a drunk who lay sprawled against a wall.

A sudden clatter behind; Arras, clumsy oaf, had tripped over the unmoving vagrant and now lay sprawled on the pavement. He groaned.

‘For fuck’s sake!’ Rowena snapped. ‘Watch where ye step!’

‘It’s dark.’

She shrugged. There were no lanterns on this street, only bright squares of light in windows of the houses themselves, which stood a little way back from the stone-paved road. But a newly-risen crescent moon lightened the gloom. Without waiting for the idiot boy to pick himself up, she moved on, peering at the signs that stood by each gate. She had travelled a long way down the curving street when finally she found it, though even she could barely read the neatly-painted letters: ‘Nemad Hallbright, Healer.’

Rowena reached over to unlatch the little wooden half-gate, and stepped inside. A narrow path led directly to the house’s tall front door, cutting through a neatly-kept herb garden. Light shone from a front window, glistening yellow on the leaves.

She knocked firmly on the door, waited. A shuffling about, deep within the house, told her that someone came to answer. Finally the door opened, light flickering forth from a candle-lantern held by a tall bearded man.

‘Yes?’ he said, looking cautiously down at her. He was old, probably fifty or more, and well-dressed: not to match the fashionable young men she’d seen about town, but in sombre brown clothes that looked new and properly tailored. He had brown eyes, too, and his mouth was set in a stern line. Considering, it appeared; judging whether they were dangerous, or worth his time.

‘I’m Rowena.’ She pushed back her hair, tilting her head so that her pointed ears would be obvious in the candlelight. ‘I got word you’re treating me birth-father…’

‘Ah.’ There was a pause, and the brown eyes flickered aside. ‘I’m sorry, my dear. Your father is dead.’