Untitled serial

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Untitled serial

Samuel Marshall
Part 9

Worms, wriggling and twisting through rotting flesh, bathing in a suffusion of spilt blood, slurping delighted at its bounty… and she was one among them, burrowing her way into the fetid corpse.

A wave of pure revulsion hit her, and she screamed in disgusted protest, but couldn’t stop –

– and then a hand grabbed her shoulder, shaking her roughly, until the nightmare shattered into incoherent shards. She blinked and another world came into view, a small plain room dimly lit by the pale square of light from a single window. The inn. Arras leaning over her, himself still bleary-eyed with sleep.

‘I really screamed?’ Rowena said, then coughed, her mouth dry.

He nodded.

‘Shit.’ She tried to think back, catching fragments of the terrifying vision. ‘No wonder. Shit.’

There was a knocking sound – or was that part of the dream too? – but Arras moved away from her, going to the door. Unarmed, she suddenly realised, the idiot… she felt under her pillow in sudden panic, grabbing hold of the dagger. It could be an assassin!

The lock clicked free and she sat up hurriedly in bed, twisting around to see, keeping the knife hidden behind her back. Arras pulled open the door…

‘What’s going on?’ somebody said. A female voice, soft and calm. Rowena lent sideways to see beyond the doorframe: a tall young woman stood in the corridor, wrapped in a loose, shapeless grey smock. The staff she held marked her out clearly as the priestess they’d encountered yesterday.

‘N– nothing,’ Arras stammered nervously, as if he were on trial. ‘Rowena had a nightmare.’

‘Is that so?’ The priestess peered unseeing into the shadowy room. ‘Then you wouldn’t mind waiting in the corridor for a moment while I talk with her.’

‘No, of course…’

Confused, he stepped outside, leaving the young woman to sweep politely past him and close the door behind.

‘There you are. Rowena, is it?’ The priestess moved close, kneeling neatly beside the bed so that her calm, wide features were level with Rowena’s.


‘My name’s Jenna.’ She smiled in what was evidently supposed to be reassurance. ‘You can put down the dagger now, you know.’

Sharper eyes than she pretended, this one. Rowena scowled, gripping the weapon tightly.

The priestess gave a light shrug. ‘No matter. Did the boy speak truly? You had a nightmare?’

‘Ah– aye…’ It was too early in the morning for this sort of thing. What was she getting at?

‘Because if it were anything else,’ Jenna said gently, ‘like an unwanted advance on a young girl… then there’s no need to stand for that, and no need to start stabbing anyone either. I can help you. Right now.’

Rowena blinked incredulously, then gave a sharp laugh. ‘Hell, no. Arras? He’d not dare.’ She curled her lip. ‘I’m no young girl. And I’m well beyond yer help.’

‘Then it really was only a nightmare?’ Jenna smiled. ‘Thank heavens… As for your troubles, why not tell me? I’ll do the best I can.’

‘“Trust me, I’m a priestess”?’ Rowena mocked, irritated by the woman’s manner. ‘Forget it. Never liked yer kind anyhow.’

‘As you wish.’ Jenna stood easily, shifting her grip on the tall staff. She reached back to pull open the door. ‘It will annoy you to hear, but regardless, I intend to pray for you. Be well.’

‘Ah, piss off!’ Rowena called out, after the woman’s retreating back. She kept her voice low, in some consideration of the early hour; even so, a shocked intake of breath made clear that Arras had heard clearly.

He came back inside, turned the key in the lock, and glared. ‘You swore at a priestess!’

She shrugged rebelliously. ‘And I was ready with me dagger, while ye answered the door unarmed. What if it’d been an assassin?’

‘Assassins don’t tend to knock,’ Arras said shortly, flinging himself onto his bed, which protested with a loud creak.

She scowled, for all the good it would do; he lay on the other side of the room, facing away. ‘If ye don’t like how I behave, ye can piss off along wi’ yer precious priestess. I’m not holding ye here.’

He gave a frustrated growl. ‘Forget it. Go back to sleep.’

To that Rowena had no answer. She stretched out in bed, still tingling with irritation. That damn ‘I’ll pray for you’ line… sanctimonious bitch. None too observant, either; when Diellans she’d encountered recognised she was as an elf, they usually quit talking of prayer and began describing exactly which circle of some human hell had been reserved specifically for her kind.

All bullshit anyway; oh, their god granted healing powers, all right, if you had a scratch on your finger. Break an arm and the priests would send you right back to the town healer, who might not command miracles but would wrench it back into shape and tie a firm stick to keep it that way. She’d seen it happen to Voss a few years back, watched in some glee as he fainted with the pain. But the bone had healed without divine intervention, and now he swung a hammer half his working hours. You had to place your trust in men like that healer, real people you lived alongside, not in the weak hypocrites from the priory who spent all their days counting the money they’d managed to scare out of gullible townspeople.

Religion, Voss, religion again… none of this was helping her sleep. She listened to Arras’s steady breathing, watched the small square of pre-dawn light growing gradually stronger. Twisted and turned and tried to think peaceful thoughts, anything that didn’t involve corpses or worms.

None of it worked, until the light finally brightened with the sun’s true arrival, the birdsong outside grew to a cacophony, and she gave up trying. Another thought struck: she could take the opportunity to leave early and at least get rid of one nuisance. He didn’t seem to enjoy her company in any case.

Arras slept on as she silently laced up her boots, fitted the sword-scabbard to her belt, and wrapped the cloak around her shoulders. She unlocked the door very slowly, not wanting the mechanism’s click to wake him. Hefting her pack in one hand, she crept out of the room, closed the door carefully behind, and tiptoed through the dormitory area where most still snored off last night’s ale.

There was the inn’s entryway, a few early risers milling about in awkward morning quiet. And there, robed again in dirty white, stood the tall priestess.

Rowena scowled up at the woman’s placid, dull face. ‘Do ye ever sleep?’

‘Lightly.’ Jenna smiled politely. ‘Blessings on you, this fine morning.’

‘Oh, fer…!’ Biting back another insult – she had no desire to attract attention in the busy hallway – Rowena scowled as harshly as she could manage before turning aside.

A touch on her shoulder. Slapping the priestess’s hand away half by reflex, she span around. A few people were watching, now, she noticed uneasily. ‘What?’

Jenna showed no reaction to her ill-treatment, though it had to smart. ‘Your ears,’ the priestess said softly. ‘Did you mean to keep them hidden?’

‘Shit.’ She ducked toward the shadowed wall, half-hiding behind the priestess’s much taller form, and reached up to scrabble at her own recalcitrant hair.

‘That’s good,’ Jenna nodded. ‘All fine now.’

‘Didn’t ask,’ Rowena said acidly, taking a step toward the exit.

‘Aren’t you forgetting something?’

‘If ye’re hoping for thanks, best give up now.’

‘Not that.’ There was soft laughter in the priestess’s voice. ‘Something a little more fundamental. Your travelling companion.’

‘I like to travel alone.’

‘Did you tell him so?’

‘None of yer business.’

Jenna shrugged lightly, leaning on her staff. With her other hand she pointed across the corridor. A patch of red marked her wrist, fading gradually. ‘They’re serving breakfast. You’ll feel better after that.’

‘I’ll be just as unpleasant,’ Rowena said quietly but harshly, baring her teeth in a mirthless grin that must surely unsettle the woman.

The priestess smiled mildly back. ‘Prove it.’

And swept confidently away, leaving Rowena to follow confused in her wake, seething with irritation.

Rowena took her wooden bowl of hot porridge and sat to eat it on the very furthest table from the irritating priestess, dumping her pack to one side. The first spoonful almost burnt her tongue; she sat there blowing air over a second and feeling stupid. What the hell was she doing here? She wasn’t thinking straight.

She swallowed more of the warm, tasteless oatmeal; its heat seemed to ease taut muscles, letting her relax. Why had she been so angry, anyway? If you get angry, you get stupid. She knew that; she’d used it against Voss many times, taunting him into idiocy. If your opponent gets angry, you’ve already won the battle.

Which was why she was sitting here, having decisively and stupidly lost her last one. Against some random priestess, of all people. Idiot. And there it was, full circle: she wasn’t thinking straight.

Hardly surprising, after half a night’s sleep and a nightmare like that. She ate more porridge hurriedly, distracting herself from memory with that physical action, and thought back to the less immediate past. There had been another nightmare yesterday. And the day before.

Three disturbed nights in a row would make a person tense, she thought, even if assassins weren’t chasing after, hot on the trail of some secret message she couldn’t read and didn’t give a damn about… She smiled mirthlessly, throwing a casual glance over the room. Fancy-garbed merchants, travellers, a King’s messenger; nobody looked like they were out to kill her.

And there was Arras, stumbling through the doorway. He scanned the gathered breakfasters hurriedly, searching; she bent her head, hiding her face, but the room was sparsely occupied and he found her easily.

‘I thought you’d left!’

She looked up across the table at his worried face and shrugged. ‘Meant to.’

‘You can’t stand me any longer?’

‘I don’t really care.’ She yawned suddenly, had to blink her eyes open again. ‘Thought ye couldn’t stand meself, last night.’

‘I never said that!’

Through her blurry, tired eyes he looked defensive, and she laughed briefly. ‘Get yerself some breakfast.’

He persisted. ‘Then I can still travel with you?’

‘Haven’t gone yet, have I?’

Arras went cautiously to the kitchen, where a girl ladled out porridge from a steaming cauldron of the stuff. He glanced back a few times as if to make sure Rowena stayed put. She briefly considered switching tables, just to spook him; yawned again, and decided she couldn’t be bothered.

Returning, he set his bowl on the table, dragged a stool into position, and sat facing her. ‘I had a thought…’

‘Let’s put the flags out.’

He sighed. ‘Seriously. That message, in elven… don’t the temples educate their clergy? Maybe that priestess would be able to read it.’ He saw her grimace. ‘I know you don’t like her, but at least she should be trustworthy…’

Rowena laughed hollowly. ‘Aye, right.’

‘You wouldn’t even trust a Diellan priest?’ Arras asked, surprised.

‘They spend their days idle, living off fools they can scare into paying up, like me mother. And shouting damnation at the fools they can’t scare, like me dad. What’s to trust?’

‘Well, I go to temple every week–’

‘Shocked to hear that, I am. Shocked.’

He ignored her sarcasm. ‘And I say it’s not like that.’

‘I’m not allowed a foot inside their hall,’ Rowena shot back, ‘for fear me devil-cursed body might taint their holy precincts. An’ I say it’s just like that.’

‘Oh.’ He frowned and fell silent, finishing his porridge.

She took the opportunity to glance around the small hall, chilly and less homely in the early morning. It had gradually begun to fill with tired, travel-worn faces, people speaking to each other briefly and in soft tones; for many, the morning after evidently came a little too close on the heels of the night before.

The priestess, Jenna or whatever her name had been, still sat at the opposite table. She must have eaten her breakfast some time ago, and she had no company with which to dawdle… yet there she remained. Accidentally Rowena caught her eye; the priestess smiled pleasantly, eliciting an unthought half-smirk in return.

‘She didn’t shun you as devil-cursed last night,’ Arras said finally, ‘the priestess, I mean. When she stepped in to, ah…’

‘To rescue me from ye,’ Rowena said with a dark grin.

He blushed. ‘I would never…’

‘No, ye bloody wouldn’t.’

‘Anyway… perhaps she didn’t notice you were an elf.’

‘Mebbe she didn’t. Probably took me fer a young girl.’ Rowena frowned, reached up to check her hair. ‘Think she must’ve caught on back then. She knows now.’

‘Oh? And is she avoiding you?’

‘It’s meself avoiding her,’ Rowena admitted gracelessly, scowling.

‘Come on, then.’ He stood up, shoved his stool aside. ‘Let’s go see her.’

She sat rebelliously for a moment, making him wait there; but it was the sulking of a small child, nothing more than that, so she had to give in. A morning of small defeats, this.

They approached Jenna’s table and the priestess looked up – not very far up, in Rowena’s case. Even seated, the woman came almost to Rowena’s full height.

‘Good morn. What can I do for you?’

Rowena cut across the beginning of Arras’s polite response. ‘Fuck all, ‘less ye can read elven.’

‘Proving yourself right, I see.’ Jenna’s face twitched in an amused smile. ‘Even so, you have not left your companion.’

The priestess paused, glancing questioningly up (it really was up, this time) to Arras. He said nervously, ‘My name’s Arras… and, I’m really sorry about Rowena, she’s… well…’

‘I am called Jenna – and worry not. I am hard to offend.’ She gestured across the table. ‘Please do sit down.’

‘Thank you,’ Arras murmured, settling onto a stool beside the solid oaken table.

Rowena followed suit, ungraciously. ‘Well? Can ye read elven?’

‘I must admit,’ the priestess said apologetically, ‘that in my training I avoided classes in the language. I did not join the priesthood to spend hour after hour perfecting arguments against elven theology texts.’

‘Then ye’ve nothing we need,’ Rowena said sharply, beginning to stand.

Jenna held out one hand, forestalling her. ‘I was required to study one basic class. It concentrated on a simplified religious text, but…’ She smiled questioningly. ‘Perhaps I may know enough to assist.’

Arras nudged Rowena. ‘Go on.’

She felt in the pocket of the tunic, her fingers touching the leather cylinder’s reassuring roughness. Doubts suddenly beset her: the church could be their adversary, this kind-seeming priestess might be a trained killer herself.

Both possibilities seemed vanishingly unlikely, to the point of stupidity. With a deep breath and one last untrusting glance at the gentle-faced priestess, she drew out the message tube and passed it across the table.