Authors: Ben Galley
‘Nasty little creature,’ mumbled Thialf, shaking the last drops of wine into his glass. He waved it at Darnums, who was still standing nearby with his bat. His wide eyes hadn’t left the little cage. ‘Another, landlord,’ ordered the mage.
‘I think you’d better leave,’ whispered Darnums.
Thialf turned around so he could gauge whether the man was serious or not. His ashen face and pursed lips suggested that yes, indeed he was.
Darnums pointed to the door. ‘I don’t want that
, or you, in my tavern a moment longer.’ The locals rustled in agreement.
‘It’s perfectly safe in the cage.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘All I want is another bottle and some quiet conversation.’
‘Please take it away, and yourself with it.’
Thialf got to his feet, bottle still in hand, and stood uncomfortably close to the landlord, so close that their noses almost touched. The brim of the mage’s hat tickled Darnums’ forehead. There was a nervous silence, prickly like a bramble, filled only by the muffled beating of anxious hearts.
Darnums, to his credit, stared straight back at the mage, unblinking and unflinching. Lilith, Samara, and the other men in the tavern didn’t move a muscle. ‘Please go,’ said Darnums, pointing once again to the tavern door.
Thialf spun the bottle in his hand and rocked backwards on the heel of his boot. He curled his lip. ‘Fine. I’ll do as you ask,’ he replied. He placed the bottle down on the little table and picked up his cage. It rattled once, then stayed silent. Thialf looked down at Lilith and flicked the brim of his hat. ‘Looks as though I won’t be spending the evening with you after all.’
Lilith said nothing. Samara shuffled on her knees, looking sad and a little confused.
‘Well, thanks for your hospitality,’ Thialf grunted, and made for the door with his cage hanging by his side. As he wrenched open the door, a flurry of snow blew inwards and danced around his knees. ‘Figures,’ he mumbled to himself, and closed the door behind him.
Inside the tavern, Lilith jumped slightly as the door shut with a wind-chased bang. Darnums knelt by her side and shook his head. ‘My apologies madam, I should never have allowed him in in the first place. Dangerous sorts, these mages, especially one with that much wine in him. Never mind that creature in the cage.’ Lilith didn’t reply. Instead she turned around and looked at him with a cold stare. Darnums’ smile wavered. ‘May I get you another drink? On the house again, of course.’
‘No, thank you, landlord,’ Lilith replied as she got to her feet. She passed her empty mug to Samara. ‘Stay here,’ she instructed. Samara nodded.
As she walked towards the door, Darnums quickly jumped after her. ‘Where are you going?’
Once again, the woman did not respond. Darnums put a hand on her arm and she froze, fingers hovering on the door handle. She turned and looked at the landlord’s hand as if it were a parasite gnawing its way through her fur coat. Darnums quickly withdrew it and hid it under his cloth. ‘He’s dangerous, lady, the kind of man that I expect would have no qualms about harming you and the little one. And that beast he’s got with him… I wouldn’t feel proper letting you chase after him,’ he implored.
‘He’s a fire mage. They don’t feel the cold,’ whispered one of the nearby men.
‘Wouldn’t trust a drunkard like that if I were you, miss,’ said another.
Lilith scowled at them all in turn, saving Darnums for last. ‘Where’s your charity now?’ she snapped. With a turn of her wrist and a leap she was out the door and into the gusty night, slamming the door behind her.
The cold night was murky like curdled milk, washed white and grey by the frenzied haze of snow, dyed yellow by the brave lanterns that hung from tall poles dotted along the dirty street. A row of dark, faceless buildings sat hunched in the darkness, their edges blurred by the snow. Windows glowed with the light of candles, like eyes peering. For all a stranger knew, they were giant beasts waiting to pounce. The sign of the tavern rocked back and forth in the wind. Its hinges squealed in unison with the moaning of the wind. High above the little town, a forgotten moon hung in a gap between the thick clouds, the colour of old chalk. Lonely.
Lilith held her hand up to her face and shielded her eyes from the stinging sleet. The cold was biting. It found the gaps in her clothing, the weaknesses in its defences, and crept inside. Not a soul stood in the street. Not a shadow in the murkiness. Lilith cursed under her breath.
‘I thought you might follow,’ grunted a voice, a voice mumbling around the end of a pipe pinched between lips. Lilith turned around to see Thialf sitting atop his vicious cargo by the corner of the tavern. He was attempting to light his pipe, and somehow succeeding. She walked over to him and stood close.
‘Where will you go?’ she asked.
Thialf shrugged. ‘Wherever they sell wine. And somewhere with a fire. Cold doesn’t bother me, but this little creature,’ he tapped the cage with his heel. ‘has to arrive in Krauslung safe and sound. Orders is orders,’ he grimaced.
‘I have some wine,’ Lilith smiled, looking to the other side of the street, where a smaller road peeled away into the snowy darkness. A cluster of dim lights sat somewhere at the end of it. ‘In my pack. A little bottle for emergencies.’ Thialf looked up. She could see the thirst in his eyes hiding behind the veneer of half-drunkenness.
‘Why do you drink, Thialf?’ she asked.
The mage laughed at this. He pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger and winced. Another headache was brewing. ‘Keeps the memories at bay,’ he whispered. Lilith held out a slender hand, keeping the other close to her chest. Thialf took it and got to his feet. ‘What happened to your arm?’
Lilith smiled again and held on to the mage’s hand. His hands were warm. ‘Maybe I’ll tell you over some wine,’ she whispered.
The offer took a brief moment to sink in. Thialf grinned. ‘Sounds a good idea to me. But where’s your daughter?’
‘Then lead the way, Lilith,’ the mage waved his pipe.
The woman, the mage, and the caged faerie made their way across the street and down the little road. It wandered side to side like the mage’s sense of balance. Lilith held tightly to his arm as he rambled on about nothing in particular. She smiled and nodded, giving him the occasional lingering glance, the subtle bite of the lip. Thialf’s wobbling walk became infected with a slight hint of a swagger once again. His grin became permanent.
Eventually, the stables appeared out of the snow. Their lights were brighter now. The scent of animals, of bears, cows, and sheep, flew with the wind. A few stableboys wandered to and fro, tending their furry guests and yawning.
Thialf tucked his pipe inside his cloak and rubbed his hands together. He gestured towards a little shed that clung to the side of the stables. Lilith raised her eyebrows and made an attempt to stifle a rather girlish giggle. Thialf’s hands snaked around her back and reached for the hem of her coat, but she patted his chest and shook her head. ‘Why don’t you go first, and I’ll bring the wine,’ she hissed in his ear, letting her wet tongue brush his cold neck.
‘If only I could see the look on that landlord’s face,’ chuckled the mage. He released her, winking, and sauntered to the shed. After jiggling the lock, he went inside and shut the door quickly behind him.
Lilith’s coquettish smile faded like an icicle in a fire. She marched into the stables, ignoring the curious stares of the stableboys, and made for the back of the building where her bears slumbered in their tiny pens. Waking up at the sound of purposeful footsteps, the larger of the two, an old flea-bitten sow with a notch in her ear, raised her big head and growled.
‘Silence, you,’ spat Lilith, stepping inside the pen. The bear did as it was told, letting the woman rummage around in the pack that was still strapped to its saddle. No sense entrusting an opportunistic stableboy with valuables when a bear can guard them just fine. Lilith delved deep into the bag and brought forth a slim object wrapped in a thin blue cloth.
‘Where is he?’ asked a small voice, tiny and musical.
Lilith didn’t even turn around. She unwrapped the cloth and bared the sharp blade to the light of the stable lanterns. ‘In the shed, outside.’
Samara crossed her arms and frowned. ‘How’d you manage to get him in there?’
‘Another trick for another day, child,’ answered Lilith. She turned around, keeping an eye on the stableboys, and held out the knife. Samara walked forward to take it, a blank look on her innocent little face. ‘Time for your education. Now, you remember what I told you, hmm? He’s a Written. This ain’t some bandit or slave. Quick and true, like we’ve practised.’
‘Yes, Lilith,’ replied the girl, without a heartbeat of hesitation. She held the knife low at her side, half-covered by the edge of her fur coat. Her face was expressionless. There was no fear there, nor was there excitement. Her skin was pale with the cold rather than trepidation, or worry. Her long black hair seemed to flow from her scalp like black liquid. Her eyes were as bright and twinkling as ever, though now they had something else at their core, something cold, and bitter, like the weather outside.
‘Good. I’ll be right behind you.’
The two of them used the back door of the stables. They trod quickly and silently through the mud and half-settled snow. When they reached the shed, Lilith halted a few steps behind the girl. Samara stood facing the door, knife glinting at her side. She took a breath, reached up for the door handle, and went inside.
‘Lilith?’ grunted a shape in the darkness. It seemed to be sprawling across a pile of hay. Samara shut the door quickly and melted into the gloom, waiting for her eyes to adjust. The blade felt so light in her hand. She could smell the man, his sweat, smell the wine on him. Something rattled in the corner.
‘You took your time,’ said the mage. ‘Where are you?’ Samara could see him now; her eyes had adjusted quickly. He was lying on his back. A pair of trousers lay discarded on the hay bale next to him. He groped at thin air and empty shadows. Samara circled to the side, moving as softly as a mouse.
‘I’m not one for games, Lilith,’ coughed the mage. He sat up groggily and rubbed his hands together, and a little flame blossomed in his palm like the petals of a blood-stained flower. The blade swinging through the air caught its light for the briefest of moments.
In the end, it was the wine that killed him. Thialf might have reacted in that last moment, flinched maybe, dodged, ducked, anything, and perchance saved his own life. But in his numbed state, in the darkness of the shed, expecting nothing but the taste and touch of a willing woman, he had no chance, even a mage like him. The little red flame still burnt in his right hand, and in the dying light of it he looked down in amazement at the sharp knife that had somehow punctured his cloak and slid between his ribs to stab at his heart. There was a hand at the end of the blade, and small white knuckles wrapped around a handle. His expression a mask of confusion, Thialf’s gaze followed the hand to a wrist, and then to a slender arm, up to a fur-wrapped neck, and finally to an expressionless face, a face that had barely seen nine years pass by.
‘S…Samara?’ whispered Thialf. Blood was already filling his lungs. Her blade tickled his heart and he twitched. He groped dazedly for her arm and she let him grab her wrist. But he twitched again at the feel of her skin, as though a jolt had passed through him. The tattoo on his wrist flashed with a bright white light.
‘You can’t…’ he managed, as Lilith walked into the little shed. Thialf swayed. Samara left the blade in him and stepped back into the shadows.
‘Good,’ said Lilith. She crouched beside the mage and watched as he slumped into the hay. He reached out to her with fingers bent like claws, sparks crackling at his fingers, and she smiled. ‘Your spells won’t work,’ she tapped the handle of the knife. ‘Belladonna and nevermar paste. The first you might have survived, given your Book, but the second has numbed your magick.’
Thialf bared his wine-stained teeth and let his head fall in the hay. ‘So this is how it all ends, is it?’ he coughed hoarsely.
‘What did you expect, fool?’
‘Something… glorious. Out with a flash of fire and a thunderclap… the Written way.’
‘Sorry to disappoint,’ Lilith murmured.
The mage’s eyes burnt into hers with a hatred softened only by futility. His arms and legs were numb. Something itched on his back and shoulders. It, like him, was slowly fading. Thialf shook his head and stared up at the ceiling. The flame died in his palm. ‘Stabbed by some brat and her whore mother in a stable,’ he coughed. ‘Cursed, indeed.’
It only took a few seconds for his heart to surrender the will to pump, for the poison to freeze it solid. When his lips stopped twitching and his final breath left him, Lilith curled a finger at Samara. The girl stepped forward. ‘Help me roll him over,’ Lilith ordered.
With the whisper of wet steel, Samara withdrew the knife from the dead mage’s side and used it to cut the cords of his cloak. Lilith lifted his limp arm and dragged him onto his side. She slid the keen blade up the middle of the cloak and sliced it in two. Together with the help of Lilith’s eager fingers, they peeled back the damp, blood-soaked cloth and exposed the incarnadined tunic beneath. Something flickered underneath the stained cloth, something written in white light. Lilith tapped the corpse’s back. ‘Get to it, girl.’
Samara nodded. She slid the knife under a fold of cloth and shoved it up and forwards. With a rip, the mage’s back was bared to the cold air. Light spilled out. Words written in light illuminated the walls of the shed, casting strange shapes and shadows across their faces. Lilith quickly hid her face and covered her eyes. Samara leant forward. She stared at the tattoo, the Book, with wide eyes. It was the first time she had ever seen one. It covered the man’s entire back, from the base of his spine to the root of his neck and across his shoulder blades, intricate and foreign-tongued. Its ink was jet-black when not alive and glowing. Every now and again a pulse of light would surge through a particular line or word or rune, and it would paint itself in light on the wall or the ceiling, a spasm of dying life. Samara let her fingernails wander over the words, trying and failing to mouth them. They felt hot and sticky to the touch. Her eyes tingled in their fading light. The Book was dying too.