Untitled serial

↖ Stories

Untitled serial

Samuel Marshall
Part 6

‘H– hold on,’ Rowena stammered. She reached awkwardly into the pocket with her left hand, her right occupied by the newly-acquired shortsword. As she fumbled for the message tube her fingers felt stiff, unresponsive. Panic. Staring an assassin in the face does that to a girl, she thought, and had to fight the urge to giggle.

She could hear the man’s breathing; short, controlled, tense. He watched her intently as she finally retrieved the leather cylinder. Her hand shaking, she held it out. The steel end-caps glinted faintly in the starlight.

‘I’ll throw it to ye.’ Her voice had recovered now, the initial shock fading. She stared at her unsteady hand, forced it still. ‘Aye?’

‘Fine.’ The assassin’s voice hissed unpleasantly through the mask he wore.

Carefully she tossed the small tube, watched it follow a smooth arc through the air towards the assassin’s waiting hand–

–until Arras lunged at the man, his shortsword tracing a narrower path to their assailant’s chest.

The reaction was instant. Before her companion had reached half way, the assassin spun to face the obvious sound. His black-coated scimitar blocked Arras’s weapon, sending the shortsword skittering aside in a squeal of metal. Then he was on the attack, slashing through the air in fast, wide curves that surely heralded the boy’s doom.

And she would be next, was her first thought, at least after incoherent swearwords that never reached a pronounceable whole. She stood in stunned silence, waiting for the inevitable.

But, somehow, a fast staccato crash of metal proved that Arras was blocking each lightning strike. He moved faster than she could possibly have expected, responding to each move as it happened and occasionally even daring a valiant stab in return. The assassin grunted in frustration, equally surprised by the fierce resistance.

Which gave them a chance, she knew suddenly. She crept rightwards, her balanced step light as air. Aside from the clash of weapons, a soft hiss covered any noise; rain, she realised, feeling a dampness on her cheek, though she had barely noticed its onset.

The battle continued unabated, though Arras had fallen back a few paces into the gloom. She stood silently opposite, at the assassin’s back. He gave no sign of noticing her presence; whether it was her stealth, the unexpected resistance, or he’d simply disregarded the terrified, compliant young girl…

Hah, she thought – and soundlessly leapt forward, gripping her short sword in both hands. The glittering steel blade broke easily through the assassin’s light armour, through his back, and out the other side. She gave it a vicious twist.

He tried to scream, but it came out as more of a blood-flecked gurgle; turned frantically and swept the scimitar in her vague direction. She jumped backward easily. His attack curved down, down, down until he smashed into the stone paving with a final jangle of weaponry. The hilt of her sword still protruded from his dark-cloaked back.

All of a sudden Rowena’s knees wavered. She sat down with a heavy thump on the rain-damp road. ‘Shit.’

‘Are you… okay?’ Arras still panted with exertion. He stood over her, looking down.

‘Aye, fine,’ Rowena said automatically. She shivered violently. The rain, damnit, the rain. ‘Help me up.’

He took the proffered hand and pulled her to her feet. She stood unsteadily, listening to the rain’s gentle hiss, peering upward at the few stars she could still make out through the mist of droplets. Gradually her heartbeat slowed, her mind regained some of its usual sharpness. It took a full minute before she felt totally in control.

‘We need to hide the body,’ she said finally. ‘Afore somebody comes upon us like this…’

‘They’d barely see us in this murk,’ Arras muttered. He glanced in her vague direction. ‘I can scarcely see you.’

‘An’ if the moon comes out again?’

He sighed. ‘Why couldn’t we just tell the city guard? We’ve done nothing wrong.’

‘Then we’ve a better story, if we get caught.’

Rowena looked down at the corpse and bent to take hold of her shortsword. She drew it out, scraping against bone and dripping with gore. Unable to suppress a shudder – the last one, she promised herself, the last one – she wiped the foul stuff away using the assassin’s torn cloak. It came off easily, leaving the weapon shiny once more and glittering in the faint starlight. As if the killing had never happened…

Slipping the sword into her belt, she took hold of the corpse by one arm. Reluctantly, Arras took the other – she had to guide him to it – and they dragged the body into the alley between houses, from which the assassin had originally lain in wait. A trail of blood now marked his passage, a dark stain on the darker stones. Even her eyes found it hard to spot. With luck, the rain might wash it clean.

Holding back her distaste, she checked around the corpse’s waist and cut free the discoloured money-pouch she found there. Coins rolled quietly onto the dirt; she collected them, a few gold in total.

‘Want the scimitar?’

‘No, thanks,’ Arras muttered.

‘Then let’s go.’ It was probably worth something, but might be hard to sell; and she still felt a little tense, anxious to be elsewhere.

They left the alleyway and she paused; the message tube that had begun all this lay innocently on the stones, undamaged and beaded with rain. With that in her pocket she felt a little better, as they walked slowly back toward the main street. She focused on the rain: it fell softly, almost a caress. The steady hiss soothed her nerves, brought back some kind of calm.

Arras cleared his throat and she glanced sideways at his face, unreadable in the gloom. ‘Two corpses you’ve looted, in one evening.’

‘I didn’t want to kill him!’ Damn it – why was she sounding defensive? ‘Would’ve given up that message, whatever it says – not worth me life. Nor even yer own.’

‘Your father thought it worth his,’ Arras said evenly.


It was a poor retort, unthinking. He didn’t even bother to respond, and why should he? He’d won that round. By being right.

She was losing her touch, to be out-argued by this reckless youth. Or else it was just nerves. Of course, that was it, after a day filled with such shocking events. Her mother complained of it all the time. Nerves.

The rain continued to fall. She put one foot in front of the other, and listened intently to its soothing whisper.

They reached the Crown without arousing any particular attention; many had stayed out late, most returning just as damp. Four flights of stairs seemed an impossible ordeal, now that exhaustion seemed to gnaw her legs; somehow Rowena achieved the top and staggered into their room. She sat on the bed… unlaced her boots… threw her cloak at the peg – missed, hell… lay down. Arras, locking the door… collapsing onto his own bed… then nothing.

She awoke in bright sunlight to find herself curled into an uncomfortably tight ball, stiff with cramp because of it, and loaded with a residual feeling of dread. A nightmare, surely, though she remembered nothing of it. Wonderful.

The warm light that streamed through the window went some way toward evaporating those night-time fears. She uncurled herself, stretched, and found to mild surprise that all her muscles seemed to work properly.

Standing gingerly in her stocking feet, she opened the window and leaned out. A stiff breeze brought fresh air to cover the city’s more unpleasant smells; she breathed it in deeply, enjoying the sensation. To judge by the sun’s position, it was little short of midday. No wonder she felt well-rested.

She turned her attention inside, where Arras still snored lightly on the other bed. He slept on one side, his face turned toward the wall; she leaned over to look, finding his expression perfectly smooth. How sweet, she thought, only slightly disappointed to find no thumb in his mouth.

Should she take the opportunity to get away from him? No – it didn’t matter, the idiot would be signing up as a soldier today anyhow. But still… where would she go? There didn’t seem any point in heading home, now that she could afford to stay away for a time.

Last night, she thought. The message-tube… but that drew unwelcome memories. So she pushed them away, sat on her bed, and put all her concentration into lacing her boots.

Arras woke, annoyingly cheerful. They got ready for the day, eating a decent porridge ‘breakfast’ downstairs in the inn’s main room. An hour had passed before they finally left the Crown, wandering slowly down the busy street.

Gods.’ Arras stared into the window of the dress shop she’d noticed last night, mesmerised by the price list. ‘Look at this…’

‘Aye, I know.’ She glanced in again anyway, admiring the brightly-coloured dresses. Finely-woven cloth, silk, and velvet; silver clasps, lace frills. ‘They’re like me mother used to wear.’

‘Really?’ He glanced rather obviously at her diminutive figure.

She glared back. ‘They’d not suit me, I well know!’

‘Sorry.’ Arras made a point of looking away as they walked on. ‘But… do you know where she is?’

Rowena shook her head. ‘Surprised she wasn’t with me father. And why’s it your business?’

‘I was thinking. About the message you carry.’

‘Aye.’ Thoughts flashed through her mind; the message-tube spinning through the air, weapons clashing, her own hands forcing a sword through the assassin’s vital organs, twisting it… The memory sickened her and she forced it aside, concentrating on the sunlight that warmed her bare arms, the breeze that teased at her cloak.

Arras was in the middle of a sentence. ‘…might know about it. Even if not, she could read the language.’

‘Mebbe.’ She looked down.

‘Even if you don’t care about anything,’ he said, voice rising in exasperation, ‘I thought you’d at least be curious!’

‘Well, ye thought…’ She paused, looked about them. Sun shone down on the busy street, making everyone’s clothes brighter – fancy dyes or no. Passers-by walked with a jauntiness in their step, enjoying the day. Out of sight nearby, market traders shouted their wares confidently, as if the weather alone made people more likely to buy.

Somehow the scene lifted her spirits, just a little. So she swallowed the automatic retort, took a deep breath, and admitted, ‘Ye thought right. I am.’

A small crowd stood at the edge of the town’s main square, clustered around one of the solid stone buildings that bordered a noisy marketplace. Rowena’s heart sank.

‘I suppose that’s our destination,’ Arras said, with a sigh.

She nodded. They’d asked directions to the clockmaker’s workshop, intending to find out where he – and, presumably, her father – had been travelling from. Perhaps her mother was still there. It was the best idea she could think of. But now…

‘There’s a couple of soldiers standing outside,’ Arras reported, as they reached the back of the crowd. Rowena couldn’t see anything herself, of course, unless she fancied pushing through to the front.

She tapped somebody on the shoulder, waited for the woman to turn and look down. ‘Excuse me. Isn’t that Atreus the clockmaker’s? What happened?’

‘Oh aye, ‘tis,’ the middle-aged woman said with some relish. She looked Rowena over with an appraising glance. ‘But he won’t be needing an apprentice boy now, if that’s what you’re after.’

Short-sighted as she is fat, Rowena judged unkindly. She put on a polite, questioning face. ‘Aye?’

‘Found dead, he was! Just this morning. Been that way since last night, they say. And with all the guards around… Ye can bet ‘twas no accident!’

‘Ah,’ Rowena muttered, failing to sound surprised. It looked like their would-be assassin had taken a victim earlier last night. She took half a step back; it didn’t seem there would be any more useful information here.

‘If ye ask me,’ the woman said, lowering her voice and bringing her chubby face a little closer than Rowena found comfortable, ‘it’s foreigners’ work! Him three days back from Lancir and all.’

Gold! Rowena thought – it was an expression of her father’s. She almost said it, too, but managed to restrain herself to a mumbled, ‘Aye? Well, must be getting on.’

‘Ye heard that?’ she said to Arras as they moved away.

‘Oh, yes. She mistook you for a boy.’

‘Not that, idiot.’ She punched his arm, and he laughed; the first time since she’d met him. ‘Lancir.’

‘I heard.’

A city she’d never seen, fifty or a hundred miles distant… suddenly in her mind the world seemed to open out ahead, as if seen from the very summit of the hill near town. She could travel into it, with a purpose, and why not? There was gold – gold! –in her pocket, and no cares to hold her back.

The breeze blew lightly about her, ruffling her short hair. To her, in that moment, it tasted of freedom.

Well. That, and horse shit.