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Untitled serial

Samuel Marshall
Part 5

‘Oh,’ Rowena said. Nothing more than that. It wasn’t much of a response, was it? The healer must think her in shock. She fought an urge to giggle.

‘He died early this morning,’ the healer said in a soft voice that was obviously supposed to be reassuring. ‘I did my best, but the wounds took their toll…’

‘Can I see him?’ Rowena asked, for lack of anything better to say.

‘Of course.’ Hallbright led Rowena, and a subdued Arras, into a long corridor. The house was larger than it had seemed from the narrow frontage, extending well back from the road. Another door led out into the back garden, a sizeable plot of grass occupied by three old oaks. Their leaves glowed faintly blue in the moonlight.

A small, squat outbuilding lurked in the shadows at the rear of the garden. Stone-built, it had no windows, only a single door.

‘Hold the lantern, would you?’ Hallbright said to Arras, evidently deciding that the poor bereaved elf girl was too fragile to be trusted with it. He fumbled in a pocket of his neatly-cut brown jacket, eventually found a key. With that he unlocked the wooden door and pushed it open. It swung silently, well-maintained.

Within, there was but a single room, four yards or so square. An impenetrable gloom claimed its corners; the healer took a taper, moving around the edge of the room to light candles mounted on each wall.

But Rowena could already see well enough. A thick stone table stood central in the room, its surface no higher than her waist. On it lay, neatly arranged and face-up, her birth-father’s body. He still wore breeches, but his upper half had been stripped. Scratches marred his pale skin, the evidence of a close fight. Most notable was an ugly gash that dented his chest. Black dried blood coated the wound.

Hallbright lit the candles, but the windowless room retained its deep chill. Intentional, she thought vaguely. Else the bodies would rot. A faint smell of herbs coloured the air.

She stood there staring at the corpse, not knowing what she should feel. The eyes were closed; for a minute she wondered what colour they’d been, then remembered. Brown, though they had shifted with mood, sometimes almost matching her own green.

That aside, they shared little resemblance. Pointed ears, large eyes, small build – he had been larger than her, but there was still a wide gap of stone between his feet and the end of the mortuary table – they were both elves. That was about where the similarity ended. Especially now she was a live elf, and he a dead one.

This was getting her nowhere. She looked at the body again, long and hard. Looked at the pale, beautiful face, its expression calm in death; looked at the long, pretty blonde hair that hung over the back of the table, brushed smooth. No emotion came. No tears.

And why should they? she asked herself. Because that’s how it happens in stories? Stories are bullshit. This is a man you met twice. How could you care?

‘What happened to him?’ she asked finally.

The healer shook his head. ‘He didn’t say exactly. He was attacked in the wilds and managed to defeat his opponent, but not before suffering this wound. After he staggered to the road, a passing merchant carried him into town and thence to me.’

Who would have been the attacker, she wondered? Just a thief? More likely, perhaps, an assassin hired by some jealous husband or wife. Best not to mention it.

‘Was he carrying anything?’

An evasive look. He gestured at a small wooden cupboard, set against one corner of the chilly room. ‘Everything in there.’

She pulled open the door and looked in at the shadowed contents, taking each item out in turn. A shortsword, most obvious, and a small leather pouch. She opened that to find a set of fine metal tools: thieves’ picks. Well, well. Next, a silver pendant – no, it was a locket. She squeezed it open, saw a tiny portrait of her mother within; how sweet. If this had hung around his neck, it must have been soaked in blood. Somebody had done a good job with the cleaning.

Nothing else remained – except, wait, one last thing. She reached into the cupboard and drew out a small tube coated in dark leather. Metal caps sealed each end. She worked one loose and reached inside to find a tiny roll of paper. It bore elvish writing in a small, neat hand, probably her father’s.

That was all; she’d been wondering whether a tube like this might hold a concealed jewel, saved for emergencies. Ah well. She rolled the paper back up and sealed the tube, dropping it with the locket and picks into the pocket of her scruffy tunic.

‘Will you take the body for burial?’ Hallbright asked, too-obviously trying to change the subject.

‘No. Please handle it.’ She looked piercingly at the healer, widening her eyes on purpose. ‘What else did me father carry?’

‘Oh, nothing.’ The man looked away, the hand that didn’t hold the lantern wriggling nervously into his pocket. ‘Just the clothes you see, a water-bottle, that sort of thing. I think he’d lost most of his equipment.’

‘Money?’ Rowena asked bluntly.

‘Ah… enough to pay for his treatment, and the costs of burial.’

‘An’ the rest.’

Hallbright shrugged guiltily.

‘Say ye give me a hundred gold,’ Rowena said smoothly, ‘and we call it even.’

‘A hundred? There wasn’t near that much!’

‘Fifty, then.’

The healer sighed, reluctantly entering into the bargaining. ‘Ten.’


‘Twenty. And I’ll be sure he really does get a proper burial.’

Rowena paused. It was, after all, only the healer’s limited scruples that had got her this far. She couldn’t push the man too far. ‘Fair enough.’

‘And I thought you were a poor shocked little girl,’ Hallbright said, in the rueful honesty of co-conspirators. ‘Come back to the house, and I’ll get the money.’

They moved to the door as he pinched out the candles one by one. Pools of darkness soon swallowed the corpse of a birth-father she’d never really known.

‘Did he tell ye anything else?’ Rowena asked, counting coins into her belt pouch. ‘Or mention me mother?’

‘Nothing,’ Hallbright said. ‘I told him not to speak, with a wound like that, and he soon fell unconscious anyway. Your name, your village… that was all. I only heard of the attack from the merchant who brought him in.’

‘Who was that? Just in case.’

‘Atreus, the clockmaker. He has a place here in Chaldon.’

She nodded. ‘Thanks. Well, good night to ye.’

‘Good night.’

He showed them out of the front door again, herself and Arras, who had maintained a silence through the whole affair. That was something. It surely couldn’t last.

But he was silent as they crossed the narrow herb garden, silent as they emerged once more onto Threadneedle Street. Somehow, it was beginning to get to her. She glanced at his face; he glared back.


‘You were haggling. Over your father’s dead body.’

‘Else the healer would’ve kept all that coin to himself.’

‘How could you even think of such a thing! If my father had died, I…’

You met yer father more than twice,’ Rowena said sharply. ‘I told ye, he was my birth-father and nothing more.’

‘But to haggle…!’

He was getting repetitive. She stared at Arras, made him meet her eye. ‘Said so before, I didn’t care for him. Would ye have me pretend grief, cry false tears? Would ye?’

Slowly, reluctantly, he shook his head, looking down.

‘Well then.’

He paused, said softly, ‘Okay.’

Maybe he understood, maybe he didn’t. She’d won that argument, anyhow. And things were looking up. She was twenty times richer than she’d ever been before and that point had only come this morning.

‘It’s getting late.’ She started walking.

‘I know.’ His voice was normal again. ‘I can barely see a thing.’

Most of the windows around had gone dark, now, and small clouds speckled the sky with patches of blackness. One, identifiable by its faint glow, covered the moon. There remained enough starlight to make out her path. ‘Ye can just follow me. It’s not far to the main streets.’

‘Okay,’ Arras said, his voice on edge. Maybe he was afraid of the dark. Hah. ‘By the way, what were your father’s possessions? I saw the shortsword…’

He could hardly fail to have seen that, since she’d slipped it through a loop in her belt and the damn thing was weighing down her step. ‘A locket, with me mother’s portrait. A set of thieves’ tools–’

Thieves’ tools?’ Arras squeaked. ‘What if a guard catches you with those?’

‘I’ll tell him where I came by them, ye’ll back me up, and so will the healer if need be.’

‘Okay,’ Arras said doubtfully. ‘What else?’

‘Just a tube with a message in. In elvish script.’


‘Naught else.’

‘I mean, what did the message say?’

‘Told ye,’ Rowena said, exasperated. ‘I’ve lived seventeen years among humans. When would I have learnt elven writing?’

She peered ahead. They were approaching the junction, faint light spreading out from the other road. There was no sign of the drunk who’d been asleep on the corner. Maybe he’d finally woken up, though if a kick from Arras hadn’t achieved that she didn’t know what would –

– a flash of metal, in the corner of her eye –

– ‘Shit!’ She threw herself sideways, landing hard on her right foot, pivoting around and drawing the new shortsword all at once. Beside her Arras had reacted to her shout, backing off and pulling his own weapon. She hoped his eyes had adjusted to the darkness.

They faced the drunk, who now looked completely sober; a long scimitar curved up, glistening, from his hand. Apart from the cutting edge, the weapon was coated in black. She’d been lucky to spot it, lucky to spot the man at all as he leapt out from beside a house.

‘No need to worry yourself,’ their assailant hissed. A mask covered most of his face, black as the weapon, black as the cloak he wore. ‘You haven’t read it. That’s very good. I can leave you alive.’

‘Thanks.’ She’d meant to be sarcastic, but fear gripped her vocal cords, strangled her voice halfway to a whimper. She clutched the sword tightly, drawing comfort from its feel – deceptively light. Well-balanced. But not, she knew, enough to save her.

Her gaze locked on the man’s cold eyes. A professional, maybe.

‘Give me the message tube.’ His whispered voice grew harsh. ‘Now.’