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Untitled serial

Samuel Marshall
Part 7

Rowena pointed across the busy market square. ‘See? There’s the guard headquarters.’ Spotting something else, she smirked. ‘An’ a butcher’s next-door, if ye’d prefer a more honest trade.’

‘Right,’ Arras said, seeming preoccupied by an indifferent juggler nearby. The man had spent several minutes valiantly attempting to hold somebody’s attention longer than his brightly-painted wooden balls stayed airborne. Noticing Arras’s gaze, the performer puffed himself up to full height, threw the balls in an extravagant flourish, and promptly dropped all three.

Rowena laughed; Arras didn’t even appear to notice.

‘I’ll be saying goodbye to ye,’ she prodded.

‘No… wait.’

He turned to face her and she looked up to meet his eyes, waiting impatiently.

‘I’m not certain any more. About becoming a soldier, I mean. With everything you said about it, I just…’

‘Hell.’ She was honestly shocked. ‘Ye don’t want to be taking notice o’ me!’

He looked intently at her. ‘Then did you not mean what you said?’

‘Oh aye, I meant it.’ She hurried past that, turning her face away. ‘But it’s only what I think. I’m not… ye shouldn’t ought to listen.’

‘But I did,’ Arras said firmly. ‘And I think there’s a chance you’re right.’

One of the juggler’s wooden balls bounced their way along the cobbles. She took the opportunity to step aside, kick it back.

‘I’ll write to my parents,’ Arras persisted, ‘to let them know I’ve decided to travel a little before making a decision.’

‘An’ they’ll be after me blood.’

‘I won’t mention you.’ He stood there, perplexed. ‘Why are you so bothered?’

‘I’m not!’ Rowena spun away, hands pressed tight against her hips.

‘Then you won’t mind if I travel with you to Lancir.’

‘Ah, fuck.’ She’d raised her voice; a mother, passing by with two young children in tow, glared venomously. Like I give a shit, she thought, realising a moment too late that she’d actually muttered it.

Arras took that as assent, of course. ‘Well, thank you. There’s nobody else I know…’

‘Ye’d only trail after me anyway.’ With poor grace she stalked off, not looking back to check he followed. That, it seemed, was pretty much a given.

They bought provisions in the market after she’d calmed down, bread and cheese and early apples. After that she found a leatherworker’s shop, to buy a scabbard for her newly-acquired shortsword.

Arras had promised to help her practice; she’d not trained since lessons with wooden swords in the village school some years ago. Voss, her childhood nemesis, had beaten her often. Made up for how he could barely write. Hah.

They passed the city gate, squeezing between wagons that jammed the entryway as angry traders shouted their urgency and a pair of harassed guards struggled to maintain order. Beyond it, they took the road’s western branch, squelching gingerly through the churned-up mud. The ill-built wooden shacks that clung like parasites around the city walls looked even more squalid in the full light of day, dirt caking their walls. Most seemed empty, as far as Rowena’s idle glance could determine, the occupants having left for the day to do the worst, lowest jobs the city required. A few drunkards lazed in miserable stupor, and a child clothed in tatters hurried toward the two of them. Rowena’s glare was enough to halt that advance.

Before long they were clear of the miserable shanty-town. A light breeze freshened the air, clearing the last of its stench and relieving some of the heat. Summer sunlight shone mercilessly from a cloudless sky.

The Erfleet meandered alongside their path, sometimes coming within a few yards. Its dark expanse stretched wide and shallow across the valley floor, flecks of brown foam breaking over stones. In the far distance Rowena spotted a boatman, shepherding his craft with a distinctive tall pole. Small flat-bottomed boats, guided along the navigable channel in the river’s centre, could carry trade goods as far as the Great Lake. Which she’d never seen, of course. Maybe, soon, she could.

By the time the sun began to sink, they had left behind the hotchpotch of fields that spread across the wide valley floor near Chaldon. Wilder scrubland covered the landscape, prickly gorse and hawthorn and tough grasses, and the ground grew more rugged. The river curved away southward, forced into a narrower course that its swift-flowing waters had gouged into the emerging rocks.

The flow of travellers passing toward the city had ceased; anyone headed that way now would arrive long after nightfall. Rowena squinted ahead, shielding her eyes from the sun’s orange glow. Nobody was in sight, though that meant less here where the road switched back and forth to avoid jutting boulders and lumpy, abrupt hills that blocked her view.

‘Let’s make camp,’ she said finally, acutely feeling the ache in her legs. ‘Behind that rock.’

‘But it’s still light.’

‘Ye aren’t tired, then?’ They’d rested in mid-afternoon, sitting by a stream and cooling boot-sore feet in its waters; but that was hours ago now.

‘I am, but I thought you’d want to hurry…’

‘Then ye thought wrong.’ She turned abruptly from the path, picking her way rapidly between sparse undergrowth so that he had to scramble after.

‘Your mother could be in danger, couldn’t she?’

‘More likely dead.’

He caught his breath at that. She’d shocked him, somehow, despite all the times she’d said similar. When he took a breath to reply she cut in. ‘Ye wanted to help me practice. Now’s the time, before it gets dark.’

A sigh. ‘All right, then.’

They stood behind a giant stone, twice her height and twice that in length, a little way down from the road. Its bulk shielded them from prying eyes, or would if they lay close beside it. She threw down the heavy cloak and her small sack of possessions, left them by the rock and pulled the shortsword free of its new scabbard. The weapon came loose easily, ready in her hand. She held it in front then made a few practice swings. It felt light in her grip, responsive, ready.

‘Block my attacks,’ Arras said, dropping his gear and drawing his own shortsword. He came in quite slowly, pushing the blade directly toward her, and she met the approach with ease.

‘Good. Now quicker.’

Gradually he increased the pace, and varied the angle of attack, until before long he passed her defence more often than not. She persisted, and persisted, and persisted. The sun dipped out of sight behind the hills until eventually the sky grew dusk-gloomy, and when she fell flat on her back after failing to deflect the force of a particularly sudden lunge, standing up again seemed an impossible chore.

‘Enough,’ Arras determined, and she lay there panting for breath and soaked through with sweat, her hand slippery on the sword she still held. The tiny whisper of a breeze brought slight relief from the humid, stifling air.

Maybe she’d improved, relearning rusty skills, or maybe not. At this point she didn’t particularly care. Her legs ached like hell; now her arms too. She felt her heart pounding, one-two-three-four, and forced herself to breathe slowly and deeply until gradually it slowed.

The sky above was a deep indigo, faintly pin-pricked with the first stars. Nightfall, yet the light wind barely tickled her nose, drawing away little of the day’s warmth. Her head itched, hair sticking to it in untidy clumps. Rough grass irritated one shoulder. A trampled thistle pressed into her right arm, claiming its revenge.

She sighed and slowly sat up, loosening cramped fingers from the shortsword. Beside her, Arras stared into the east, watching the empty road until it twisted out of sight around a low hill. Against the very darkest part of the sky she could just barely make out a faint glow of city lights, shining weakly on a thin haze of shifting smoke.

Her eyes flicked left. There was food in that sack by the rock and hunger pangs gnawed at her stomach. But reaching it would require standing up, when exhaustion suffused her muscles and it was all she could manage to keep from slumping back down on the uncomfortable ground.

‘There’s bread,’ she hinted, breaking a long silence.

‘Ah.’ He didn’t turn to face her. As tired as she, perhaps.

More silence. She sat calmly, now, idly tracing in her mind the pattern of hills against the horizon. Night-birds called every now and then, few here; there would be more in the forests. Despite the humid air, her skin gradually cooled. Her damp tunic clung uncomfortably, creases pressing against her stomach.

‘It’s the longest I’ve been apart from my parents,’ Arras said eventually. ‘Four days.’

Rowena shrugged, thinking back. She’d last seen her mother two mornings ago, but before then… she could remember no longer separation. ‘Meself too.’

‘But you don’t care, do you?’

She drew breath to laugh, found she couldn’t even raise the energy for that. ‘Aye.’

‘What’s it like?’ He sounded genuinely curious.


‘Not caring about anything.’

‘How’m I to know?’ That made no sense. She tried again, half-heartedly. ‘Saves a lot of pain an’ worry, seems to me.’

‘Ah.’ He paused, long enough that she thought him too tired to argue, until he said, ‘But – are you happy?’

Happy? What a strange thing to ask… Her eyes drooped closed of their own accord; she blinked fiercely. A newly-risen crescent moon blurred into focus, low over eastern hills, and she thought about the question.

‘When I’m free to go as I please,’ she said finally. ‘Alone.’

A moment’s silence. Then, quietly, ‘Was that a hint?’

Ye’re quick catching on, was in her mind, but sleepiness was thickening her senses and even that retort seemed like too much effort. ‘Y’asked, s’all…’

‘Oh,’ he said, softly.

Enough. Somehow she dragged her eyelids open one more time, and with a supreme effort managed to roll onto hands and knees, avoiding the stubborn thistle more by luck than judgement. Like that she crawled beside the giant boulder, folded her cloak haphazardly in two, and collapsed atop it. A quick swallow from her waterskin – unpleasantly warm – was all the nourishment she required, then that was it. She was ready, done, finished… whatever.

Exhaustion claimed her.