Untitled serial

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Untitled serial

Samuel Marshall
Part 8

She plunged the sword deep into his back, blood oozing messily from the wound; twisted it fiercely, laughing as he cried out in pain. He turned to face her but she kicked him away, watched him crash lifeless to the ground. Long, blond hair spread around the corpse like a halo, spattered and ragged with blood. It twisted around his pale, pointed ears.

Her father, of course.

She drew the sword from his back, delighting at the rough feel of it, the gore that clung to its blade. A scream rang out behind her and she spun to face her birth-mother, apoplectic in grief. The maddened woman charged at her unarmed. Rowena’s face widened in a grin–

‘Wake up!’ Arras demanded as her eyes blinked suddenly open. His face loomed blurrily close and his hand clutched her shoulder, halfway through shaking her.

Shit.’ The dream flickered in and out of her memory, leaving her almost sick with disgust. ‘Hell.’

‘Would you stop swearing?’

‘Not swearing. I’m finding meself headed that way.’

‘Hey…’ Confused, Arras let go of her, backed away and sat beside. ‘I just saw you twisting and turning. You looked awful. I thought you were having a nightmare, so…’

‘Aye, that I was.’ She twisted around to see a pale, clouded sky; stretched, finding the points where some little, barely-noticed stone or twig had rubbed painfully against her all night. ‘Ye just stopped me killing me birth-mother.’

He gasped audibly, fell silent for a moment. Then, a little coldly: ‘Is that a nightmare? I understood you didn’t care for your parents.’

‘Doesn’t make me a murderer,’ she said, and immediately thought: though, since the night before yesterday, I am…

‘Sorry,’ Arras muttered contritely, though she hadn’t really taken offence. She wasn’t yet awake enough for that, though thankfully the unsettling dream faded with each moment of discussion.

Hunger pangs stabbed through her and she forced herself to sit up, breathing deeply of the fresh, cool air. It was barely dawn, the sun’s weak presence a line of brightness that struggled just over the eastern hills. Rowena’s senses gradually returned to alertness as she munched on a chunk of yesterday’s bread.

They set off soon after, the rising sun casting two faint shadows ahead that grew gradually shorter and more defined through the morning. A heavy wagon rolled slowly toward them, ringed by jumpy guards; brandishing weapons, the men forced Rowena and Arras to step aside into the scrubland while it passed.

She stood by a waist-height slab of rock, glanced casually down at its uneven surface –

– and blinked fiercely, suddenly fearful that the unsettling nightmares had spilled over into daylight. Maybe she was going mad… but no, when she opened her eyes, it remained. A faint, dark-brown handprint on the rock. Long-dry blood.

The print was of a small hand, narrow, with relatively long fingers… she stared, and even dull Arras eventually noticed, following her gaze. His eyes widened. ‘Your father’s?’


The wagon had rattled past a minute ago, its guards glancing suspiciously back at the pair of them. She threw a dismissive glare in that direction, then knelt carefully down, examining the short, stubby grass that grew around.

‘You can track?’ Arras asked.

‘I’ve got me two eyes,’ Rowena said acerbically. ‘An’ if it was me father, crawling injured, I don’t hold he’d be taking care to tread softly… hah, there.’

She inched forward, staying low in an ungainly crouch to follow a trail of broken grass that led clearly across dry earth. Arras followed behind. Back on the road, a passing traveller threw a curious glance from beneath her hooded cloak, but didn’t stop.

Splashes of dried blood lay scattered across a rocky slope, and she had no trouble following her father’s track. It dropped sharply, away from sight of the road, into a small sheltered valley. Trees clustered tightly in a copse at the valley’s base, around a tiny stream that trickled through…

…and she began to notice the smell, a stench of rotten meat that tainted the clean wilderness air.

‘He must have camped down here,’ Arras said, oblivious. Then his face wrinkled, and she knew he’d caught it too.

The trail led between trees on a narrow path. She could follow it without checking for signs of passage; the cloying stink led her directly through, a few short yards to where a grassy circle opened up beside the stream.

Arras gasped beside her, colour draining from his face, and turned away. Lowering her eyes, she saw the same: a man’s collapsed, broken body, half-shrouded in a black cloak tattered and torn by cuts. A dark-coated scimitar lay discarded beside. Her eyes focused on the assassin’s face, misshapen and gouged; maggots crawled and burrowed, writhing obscenely around the blackened wounds.

She gasped, catching a stronger breath of the putrefying corpse. Gorge rose up within her and she span around, fleeing the clearing at a run. A few minutes later she stood on higher ground, panting for air in the fresh, cool wind. Somehow she managed not to throw up, though the revolting sight sat fresh in her memory, leaving her queasy.

‘Another assassin,’ Arras said unsteadily. ‘Just like the one who attacked us.’

No doubt that corpse would have been discovered too by now, its stench unavoidable… She shook herself, pushing away that thought. ‘Mebbe we might find who’s behind them… they’ve a distinctive style.’

‘Maybe.’ He still sounded shaken. Hardly surprising; so was she.

‘Let’s get on.’

She climbed the last few feet of the rocky slope, glancing back once to the cluster of trees that hid their ill-omened secret. One more shudder; then she headed resolutely to the road, striding across the rough grass.

They stopped mid-afternoon for another hour’s sword practice, angling half a mile off the road to an area sheltered by bushes where they could spar unobserved. High cloud tempered the sun’s rays, and a light north wind left the air cool, resulting in perfect weather for such exercise. The exertion kept Rowena’s thoughts off the events of recent days, violence and untimely death; easy normally to be cynical about such things, harder when she was actually involved or seeing the results firsthand. There would be more nightmares, she thought darkly.

After resting they returned to the Lancir road, merging with a small group of travellers – merchants, a man visiting sick relatives, a young priestess wrapped in dusty white robes, a soldier in no particular hurry to reach duty elsewhere – who’d bunched together for safety. Rowena took care her ears were hidden and said little beyond her name, when conversation was attempted; Arras might naturally have been more talkative, but he deferred to her reticence.

As dusk fell, the road twisted sharply around a towering, rocky outcrop, and a large house came into view a short way ahead. It had been extended, its long wings sprawling over quite some distance. Welcoming light spilled from its downstairs windows. A stable block stood beside, and a low wall surrounded the complex.

‘That’s the Halfway Inn, at last,’ one of the merchants proclaimed, evidently having taken this journey many times. He grunted in satisfaction, shifting the weight of his large pack. ‘So called because it’s halfway between Chaldon and Lancir.’

‘Original name,’ Rowena muttered under her breath, eliciting a chuckle from one fellow traveller. The soldier, she thought. She didn’t bother to look around and see.

‘Thank heavens.’ The priestess leaned heavily on the tall staff she bore. ‘Oh, my feet…’

‘Sounds like you need some tender loving care, sister,’ somebody leered – definitely the soldier, this time. The young woman didn’t bother to dignify his comment with an answer.

They trudged the last of the distance in silence. Though Rowena had sneered at the priestess’s complaint, she too felt tired and footsore; they’d taken several breaks, but had still walked most of the day. As night set in, some of those around tripped over stones and ruts unseen in the starlit gloom; the air, cool all day, took on a decided chill. When they eventually passed through the inn’s porch into the bright-lit warmth within, Rowena’s spirits lifted despite herself.

It didn’t last long. A fat middle-aged woman came bustling up to meet them in the entryway. ‘Welcome to the Halfway Inn! Or if you’re heading away from home, the Halfway Out, I always say!’

She went on despite Rowena’s incredulous groan, asking what rooms they all preferred. You could sleep in a common dormitory, for but a single silver piece; the priestess took that option, evidently sure of her own safety despite the muscled, uncouth soldier who would be sharing that accommodation.

Rowena would have chosen it, too, not being a profligate spender; but Arras nudged her silent and handed over five silver for a separate room. Maybe he worried about more assassins, she realised suddenly. Perhaps he was right to do so. She shivered.

The room they shared was on the ground floor, first on a small corridor that led out of the dormitory. It had two beds and a door you could lock, and was otherwise bare. They stowed their gear, such as they had, and returned to the main area.

Travellers crowded around solid oak tables, seated on low wooden stools. Red flames flickered in the large fireplace central to one wall, and candles everywhere kept the night at bay. Conversations mingled into one another, a constant babble of noise that all but drowned the desultory attempts of an unfortunate harper. Rowena and Arras found themselves a place on the corner of one large table otherwise occupied by merchants who ignored them entirely, busy with an animated discussion of this year’s demands for cloth.

Barmaids hurried back and forth, bearing tankards and platters of food; Rowena managed to attract one’s attention long enough to order ale and hot food. It arrived surprisingly quickly, a thick stew that had obviously been prepared in huge quantities. She set about it greedily, hungrier than she’d realised.

‘Ears,’ Arras said quietly, pointing at his own.

She reached up, smoothed her hair carefully over the points; it must have fallen aside when she bent over her bowl. ‘Thanks.’

‘Think anyone noticed?’ He looked around nervously. ‘We don’t want to attract attention.’

‘Then ye’d best stop staring,’ Rowena said pointedly.

‘Sorry.’ He took a gulp from his tankard, hiding his discomfort.

She shrugged. ‘If anyone’s truly looking fer an elf, they’ll spot me. Me eyes are different, see…? But elves aren’t known round here, and folks don’t find what they aren’t looking for.’

Licking the wooden bowl clean, she swallowed the last of the stew and washed it down with ale; revolting, in her opinion, but then she never liked the stuff. It was cheap and safe to drink, which last was more than you could say of water in some places. And not too strong. She’d seen some of the stupid things people did when they were less than sober; she’d never been drunk in her life and didn’t plan to start now.

Even so, finishing just one pint left her warm and sleepy. She burped, and yawned hugely. ‘Tired…’

‘I see.’ Arras wrinkled his face in distaste. ‘Come on, then.’

They made their way back to the room, treading quietly through the shadowy dormitory where just a single candle burned and a few people already slept in narrow, close-packed bunks. Better than the floor, which was what you got in many such places.

She gave a cursory glance to their equipment, which seemed untouched, then closed and locked the door, leaving the key in place. Arras blew out the candle and they clambered into their respective beds. She snuggled under the ample blankets, one advantage of her small stature.

‘Goodnight,’ Arras said.

It felt like she should have some smart retort, but nothing offered itself. ‘Night.’