Read The Banshee's Walk Online

Authors: Frank Tuttle

Tags: #Speculative Fiction

The Banshee's Walk

Dedication

To Mom, with love.

Chapter One

If you’re a finder, you never know who might next knock at your door. People are always losing something—husbands or wives, sisters or sons. Faith or hope. Trust or money.

If you’re a finder named Markhat, well, then you’re me, and you know exactly what I mean.

It was barely sunup, and it was hot. Hot days in Rannit raise a mighty stink from the Regent’s new sewers, and since half the damned ogres this side of the Divide haul their manure carts past my door, I get a double dose of stink ’til sundown.

I resolved to just start walking north and not stop until my boots sank in fresh snow when someone started pounding at my door.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they knock. Women usually don’t do more than tap. A woman with husband troubles tend to dart up and tap twice and then turn and scurry away, as if they weren’t in any way associated with my door and its painted finder’s eye. Heavens no, I was just standing here waiting to cross the street.

But this was a man’s knock. Knock, knock, knock. Good and loud, with a pause to listen, followed by another fusillade of determined thrice-struck knocks.

I swung my feet off my desk, and Three-leg Cat scurried for the back. I got up and opened my door to trouble.

“You hight Markhat,” she said. Her words lay halfway between a question and an accusation.

I ogled.

I’m never at my best before noon.

“Well, ’ere you Markhat or ain’t you?”

“I am indeed,” I replied. I motioned her in, which was wasted because she was already stomping inside, her big blue eyes taking in my office and me and showing every sign of finding us an immediate and sore disappointment.

 

“Mama said you was a man to be reckoned with.” She spoke the words as if the statement invited spirited debate. “But I reckon she ought to know.”

She was tall. Easily as tall as me. Clad in long skirts and a high-necked, long-sleeved smock made of a coarse plain cloth with all the femininity of old burlap, if less of the comfort. The smock was belted, none too tightly, at the waist with what looked suspiciously like a length of tattered bell-pull rope. The toes of the scuffed country boots that peeped out from beneath her skirts reminded me of Army issue doggers and a second glance revealed that’s exactly what they were.

I decided she was what doting aunts tend to refer to as big-boned. Her hands, which she kept crossed over her bosom, lest, I suppose, I have a look, were large and showed evidence of hard work.

Her hair was a pleasant surprise. I imagined the tight severe bun, if released, would reveal the kind of pale gold tresses even Elves get envious over.

Her jaw was strong, her teeth were good, her nose was—

Oh Hell. Her nose, her eyes—

“Are you by any chance related to—?”

I never finished my sentence.

“I hight Gertriss.” She damned near did a clumsy little curtsy, thought better of it and dipped her head instead. “Missus Hog is my mother’s eldest sister.”

I remembered my manners, made a small bow and motioned Gertriss, daughter of Mama Hog’s eldest sister, to my chair.

“Any niece of Mama’s is welcome here, anytime,” I said. I meant it too. Already, I was thinking,
poor kid, first time in the city, must be so lost and alone

Like I said, I’m just not at my best in the mornings. That little voice wasn’t even awake yet—the one that should have not only raised red flags when Mama’s name came up, but set them afire and waved them under my nose.

So all I did was smile and ask “What brings you to Rannit, Miss Gertriss?”

Gertriss smiled. She had a good smile. I figured her for twenty, maybe a few years older, not much.

 

“I’m ready to get started, Mister Markhat.”

That little voice inside me woke up then and started screaming bloody murder.

“Started?” My smile froze on my big dumb face. “Started?”

Mama, you scheming, conniving old witch…

Gertriss nodded, eyed my office, sniffed and wrinkled her sun burnt country nose at a lingering odor Three-leg Cat must have left behind.

“Reckon where I’ll sit?”

 

“Mama!” I said, in a loud, dry whisper. “I know damned well you’re in there. Open this door right now.”

I banged Mama’s door once, just for emphasis.

I heard cussing and rattling inside, and then Mama’s bolt threw and she opened her door, just a crack.

At least she had the courtesy to keep her beady little Hog eyes on the dirty street below.

“Now, calm down, boy, it ain’t like you can’t use the help.”

“Help? Help?” I nodded back toward my place and glared, not wanting to discuss Gertriss where she might hear. “Open up, Mama. We really need to talk. Now.”

Mama grumbled, but unfastened half a dozen useless door-strings and finally ushered me inside.

Mama’s card and potion shop is a bit larger than mine, a hell of a lot more cluttered. Three-leg Cat and fifty of his rat-gobbling pals could break wind for a solid hour in my place and the stench still wouldn’t come anywhere close to matching the odors wafting from Mama’s two bubbling iron cauldrons. Mama can deny it all she wants, but I’m dead certain the lack of rats on our end of Cambrit Street is largely due to Mama’s ever-present concoctions and the pungent vapors thereof.

If Mama’s shop is a hovel, Mama fits right in. She’s every witch-woman cliché ever spoken, stitched together, peppered with warts, covered in a mane of wild white hair, given two teeth, and turned loose with a taxidermist’s cast-offs and a finely-honed cackle.

Right now, she was shuffling and hunched, putting on a doddering old lady act I knew was a lie. Mama had been among those who faced down a halfdead blood cult a few months back. Word was she’d taken down a furious halfdead on her own, with nothing but a meat cleaver and a bloody-minded resolve that impressed even the ogres at her side.

I turned Mama’s single rickety chair around and sat hard.

“Mama,” I said. “You’ve pulled some real stunts, but this—”

Mama raised a hand. “I meant to tell you sooner, boy. I swear I did.”

“Tell me?” I stared up at the ceiling. Soot-covered sigils and signs stared back. “Mama. I am the Finder Markhat, of the firm Finder Markhat. That is my business, my livelihood, my butt on the line–you don’t get to tell me squat.”

“Ask, ask, I meant ask, boy.” Mama shook her head. “When you gets to be my age, boy, sometimes things gets confused, slips your mind…”

I made a rude noise, and I swear some of the dried birds in their dusty jars turned to face me.

“The only thing wrong with your mind, Mama, is that you let it do the thinking for other people,” I said. “Me, mainly. Now Gertriss is a sweetheart, and a rare fine girl, I’m sure, but what makes you think she can just step out into the street and be a finder? What makes you think I can afford to pay her, or watch her, or…”

A sudden awful thought blossomed.

“Mama. You aren’t trying to marry her off, are you?”

Mama’s eyes went cold and bright.

“You listen here, boy,” she said. “I ain’t thinkin’ no such thing, you hear? No such damnfool thing. I sent her to you ’cause she needs to learn city folk and their ways. She needs to know what makes ’em act the ways they do, if she’s goin’ to take over for me one day.”

I frowned. Mama sounded sincere. But…

“If you want her to take over here, what’s that got to do with me? I can’t show her how to shove bats in a pot.”

Mama snuffled. “I can teach anybody to make potions and read the cards, boy. But that ain’t all of it. That there girl needs to know how to look past what people are sayin’, and see what they mean, what they wants, what they
needs
. And not just any people. These here people.”

“Mama. What I do. It isn’t always safe. You know that. Better than anybody.”

Mama nodded. “You think what I do is safe, boy?”

“Aside from the risk of succumbing to the smell, I do. You get bad paper cuts from those cards, sometimes?”

“I ought to hex that mouth of yours one day, boy.” She picked up her favorite dried owl and shook it menacingly at me, an effect largely ruined by the number of feathers it shed. “Ought to hex it good.”

A knock came at Mama’s door.

I knew the knock, so I opened it, while Mama stroked her mummified owl and glared at me.

Gertriss poked her head in, frowning.

“Mister Markhat?” she said, eyeing Mama’s grim demeanor. “There’s a woman down to your office. She’s got some troubles, so I come to fetch you, seein’ as how she didn’t want to wait.”

Gertriss looked me in the eye. She smiled. It was a big, good-hearted, smile, wide as a country lane, free of guile or artifice. It was a rare kind of smile, innocent and fragile, and easily, permanently slain.

I rose. “Thank you, Gertriss. We’d best get back then. We finders don’t like to waste a client’s valuable time.”

Mama grinned at me, triumphant.

“I’ll have ham and biscuits later,” she said. “If’n y’all finders have the time.”

I closed the door softly behind me and made a solemn vow to march toward the snowy distant north at the very first opportunity.

Chapter Two

“So who’s the client?” I said, as we marched toward my door.

Gertriss frowned. “Said her name is Lady Erlorne Werewilk,” matching my own low tones. “I reckon I ain’t no expert on city folk, Mister Markhat, but she seems a might…diff’rent.”

I chuckled. “Gertriss, there’s one thing you’ll need to learn fast, about Rannit.” We got to my door, and we stopped, and I leaned close and whispered in her ear, “We’re all a bit diff’rent here.”

I opened my door, and motioned Gertriss inside.

The Lady Erlorne Werewilk was already standing. Posed in my corner, so that the light from my bubbly glass door slanted down across her. I like a woman with a sense of drama. Especially a woman with a sense of drama who can manage to suggest all manner of things merely by leaning against my none-too-clean office walls.

“You must be the famous Markhat,” she said. Then she took a long inhalation from the tobacco stick she was smoking while she looked me straight in the eye.

“I wouldn’t have used the word famous,” I said. “But since you did I’ll be polite and agree. You are Lady Erlorne Werewilk?”

Another drag of her smokestick, another practiced exhalation. The smoke wandered lazily in the still air. At least it masked the scent of Three-leg Cat’s most recent digestive adventures.

“Have a seat, Lady Werewilk,” I said, motioning her to my famous client’s chair. I crossed behind my desk and in a stunning display of old world manners waited for Lady Werewilk to be seated before I did so myself.

Gertriss shot me a look, and I folded my fingertips together and nodded toward her as if we’d done this same thing a thousand times.

“Gertriss, bring us tea, and an empty saucer for the Lady’s ashes, please,” I said.

Gertriss nodded and stamped out to Mama’s.

Lady Werewilk turned her face to avoid blowing smoke my way.

She had a good face. Not so young as to be girlish, not so old as to remind one of grandmothers or matrons. Her eyes were the grey of boiling summer thunderheads. Her nose was long and just sharp enough to hint at a pixie or two in her ancestry. Her teeth were straight and white, and her skin was pale, but not cadaverously so. She wore a clingy high-necked black dress that reached from her soles to the top of her neck. Lady Werewilk was made for that dress, or maybe it was the other way around, but in either case her slim figure made the visual journey downright epic. Her black-veiled hat, which managed to obscure her eyes, added a hint of well-coiffed mystery.

Her flair for the dramatic extended to her makeup. Darla has taught me a thing or two about the female arts of cosmetic deception, as she calls them, and if Darla was an expert, Lady Werewilk was an artiste. Big soft eyes, high cheekbones, the almost Elvish nose—I stared until she caught me looking and then I smiled.

“I’m rendered speechless, Lady Werewilk,” I said. “But I’m sure you didn’t come all the way to Cambrit Street just to show off your good dress. What can I find for you?”

She blew smoke and lifted a narrow black eyebrow. “Peace of mind, Mister Markhat. I believe someone intends to steal my house from me. This I will not have.”

I nodded. “Good for you.” I opened my desk, pulled out the new yellow-paper notepad Darla had given me just yesterday, and found one of the perfectly sharpened pencils Darla had left right next to the pad. “Tell me about your house, Lady. You’ll forgive me if I’m unfamiliar with your family name.”

She nodded. “Few people know of Werewilk. I prefer it that way. The house is located in the Wardmoor district, south of the old wall. I believe the locals call my neighborhood the Banshee’s Walk.”

I nodded. I knew of it, though it had been years since I’d passed that way. A few old fortified manor houses were all that remained. Each stood outside Rannit’s Middle Kingdom walls. Half the old homes were abandoned, the others lost in woods and treacherous roads and bridges that the country folk often quarried for their granite stones when the Watch wasn’t looking.

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