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The Mandrake Child: 2. Chapter 1
- Chapter 1 -
Seven days earlier
It was the raspy sound of her mother coughing that brought Seren out of her sleep. She opened her eyes, squinting in anticipation against the aggressive daylight; but the shutters were closed, and only a thin ray of dreary sunlight seeped from between the wooden panes. It glistened with tiny particles of dust that whirled in the draft; it was as though she could reach out and touch it, and feel the very warmth of the sun on her skin… Seren sighed. The autumn had barely begun, and already she found it stretching on endlessly.
The coughing became insistent and she threw the thin covers aside, shivering as the air of the room touched her skin and sucked out the warmth built up during the night.
"Sen!" her mother called, her voice cracking as yet another fit interrupted her, and Seren could ignore her duties no longer. She reached out for the shawl that once was her mother's, and padded to the door.
"Sen," her mother smiled from her own bed; and Seren winced inwardly at the sight of her pallor. "Darling, could you get me some water? Please?"
Her voice was dull, resigned. Seren understood that her mother's condition was grave indeed, and that she needed rest and calm. She didn't want to upset her by showing how very thin and sickly she had become. She still remembered her mother as a beautiful woman, full of life and happiness; but sometimes she wondered if those memories had been but another dream. Now Cillan was but a weary spirit trapped in a decaying body. Her smiles grew rare, and her voice faded by the day. Seren knew she was living out the very last days of her life, stretching them with what little strength she still possessed to remain a little longer with her daughter. If only they could have borrowed some time… But the healer had refused to see her. The wife of the death dealer had sealed her fate long ago, the very day she had married for love.
Seren found a pitcher and poured a glass of water. It was cold, and she cupped the glass with both hands, willing her own warmth to seep into the liquid. Cold was dangerous for her mother, she knew it.
"Give it…" Cillan rasped, reaching for the goblet with an emaciated hand, and Seren wrapped the fragile fingers around the cup, supporting it as her mother drank avidly the still icy water. The skin felt hot and dry beneath hers, like parchment that threatened to fall into pieces under her touch. She clung to that hand, pushing down the urge to raise it to her mouth and feel the life still lingering there with her lips. They had so little time…
"I will make you some tea," she muttered.
The sound of the front door creaking on its hinges told her that her father had returned. Heavy boots stomped into the kitchen and were set to rest as he grew aware of the noise. The door of the room opened, and he walked to his wife's side.
"Cillan?" he whispered.
"My love…" She smiled weakly. "How did it go?"
Seren relinquished her mother's hand to her father as he sighed heavily and pulled himself a chair.
"They said there was no work for me… No work whatsoever." He ran his fingers through his greying hair and over his face, as though trying to smooth out the unnumbered worry lines that creased it.
"Orcs do all the killing around here, lately," he grumbled. "Troubled times are no good for my trade, people care little about their own monsters with foreign ones at their doors. And they won't let me touch honest labour, either. Say I'll taint it."
Seren looked away, busying herself with the kettle and the fire. This was indeed ill news; with winter on their tail, they needed all the money and the supplies they could get, and with her mother's state their situation was all the more dire. As her father had said, their times were dark and dangerous. Travelling merchants spoke of orcs roaming the wilderness, and worse beasts prowling the roads at night. If there was no work in the village, her father would have to seek employment elsewhere…
They had said that some unfortunate travellers never even managed to reach the village.
Seren shuddered and reached for the pot that contained the tea. She could see the bottom through the thin layer of shredded leaves it contained.
"We're out of tea," she blurted out.
Her father sighed; glancing to the only chest of the house, he said: "Then I guess we'll soon be out of boots, too."
Seren trudged down the muddy road, hunching her shoulders against the raindrops that exploded from time to time on the exposed skin of her neck. The boots swung as she walked, tied together with the laces that she held in her hand. Seren was loath to touch them any more than necessary; though used to her father's trade, she knew that the boots they earned as a supplement to the pay used to have… well, feet inside them, feet that once walked and danced and then dangled from a wooden pole.
This pair was a fancy one. Embroidered, soft suede that had belonged to a rich merchant who, after a cup too many, had killed a man in a drunken brawl. Murdoch, the mayor of the village, had subsequently seized his possessions and swiftly condemned him to a long drop. The hangman had done his work, and gained the pair of boots in honour of the ancient agreement between his kind and the authorities of any village.
Yet somehow Seren doubted the lovely pair would suffice, this time. In the past, her father had sold the boots he had obtained to travellers pragmatic – or brave – enough to wear the shoes of a dead man, or merchants who cared little where their goods came from. Now the times had changed, and come to a point when a man made a better use of a sword than of footwear. Smiths strived, forging weapons, barbs, spikes and locks; but the gallows stood empty as the corpses massed along the roads.
She glanced at the precious package she carried under her other arm – her lute, lovingly wrapped in her shawl to protect it from the rain. The instrument was beyond old; it had belonged to Seren's great-grandmother, a woman who had died years before she was born but from whom, according to her mother, descended Seren's passion for music. Cillan had taken the instrument with her when she had left her family to marry below her rank, and given it to her daughter as soon as she was strong enough to hold it. Seren had plucked those strings more often than she could remember as she persisted in repeating a tune that would not ring right, oblivious to the numbness in her fingertips. The neck still wore the strings she had tied to fret it. Over the years, the lute had become a part of her – but now that her heart was breaking in sorrow, losing another piece did not hurt that much more.
Seren ducked the rivulets of water that trickled from the awning of the village shop and reached to push the door; the boots knocked ominously against the wood, as though possessing a mind of their own. The shop was dimly lit, the flames of the candles reflecting in the jars, pots and trinkets standing on the numerous shelves. The owner, an emaciated man named Blaine, glanced up from his books and frowned as he recognised her.
"Good morning, sir," Seren began, attempting a curtsey despite her loaded arms.
She wanted to appear polite and to please the merchant, hoping that he would be softened by her good education, and perhaps swayed towards generosity; but she knew all too well that Blaine was a warg amongst the wolves of his trade. He did not reply, eyeing her with open contempt, and Seren quivered under the hard stare. But she remembered her mother, struggling to breathe in her bed, and her father's weary eyes as his life and family crumbled before him.
"I have some goods that may interest you," she said, forcing her feet to move her forward. Untangling her fingers from the laces, she laid the boots on the counter, but Blaine drew back in disgust.
"Take this away!" he spat. "I want none of your scavenger treasures in my shop!"
Seren understood that he would not change his mind, no matter how nice the boots were. There was another approach to be tried, but everything in her upbringing revolted against it. Yet she crushed those thoughts, bringing forth the memories of her mother's emaciated face as a shield against her own conscience.
"They… We did not get them for my father's… work," Seren said, willing her voice into obedience. "They belonged to my mother's family… once."
There, she had lied; but what shame she might have felt was drowned by the hope that her subterfuge could work, and that she could both salvage her lute and get money for medicine and a meal.
Blaine sneered. "A gallows rat, and a liar. Now, you think I don't remember these boots, girl?" He pointed a thin finger to his eye. "Always had the eye for valuable stuff, and it's a damn shame this pair got into your kind's filthy hands." He waved her away. "It's too late… Now get out of my shop!"
Seren was horrified. What had she done? For all the contempt shown to her and her family over the years, for all the slander heard in the streets, she had just given an excuse. And for what? Her pockets were still empty. Biting back a sob of despair, she stepped forward, clutching her lute against her chest.
"I… I have something else for you."
A few minutes later she was walking out of the healer's house, a small satchel of herbs held tightly in one hand and the boots in another. Mud splashed her dress, raindrops trickled down her back and sent her shivering; but she did not feel the dirt or the cold. Seren had just surrendered the very last piece of her childhood to borrow some time with her mother. It had taken all her strength and all her love to give up this last possession, leaving her drained. She had trampled down the last protests of her deceived desires – for what were her dreams in the face of death? – and now she had nothing more to offer.
The herbs in her hand – a treasure for another – would not last long. And then, when all she had left was bone and flesh and the clothes on her back, what would she sell?
Seren passed the tavern and the seamstress' shop, not bothering to look up at the display of clothes under the awning. She was dressed and relatively warm. It had been long since she had wished anything for her dresses beside those most basic requirements. But as she walked, her shawl pulled closer around her as if to hide the sorry state of her clothing, she heard Gaid, the seamstress, speak to another woman in hushed, frightened tones.
"In the river, you say?" the woman said as she covered her mouth with her hand. "What a horrible death to meet…" She shivered, as though imagining the icy waters of the forest river closing in on her, and looked around in fear. Seren met her eyes, trying not to appear too obvious in her listening. Her mother always welcomed news from the village, even more so now that she was unable to hear them first hand.
"Yes!" Gaid confirmed, but the horror in her voice was laced with glee as she relished her role of gossip. Then, mayhap for propriety's sake, she shook her head. "Poor Marian. She never was very… sensible."
The other woman shuddered. "But still, to drown herself like that… I mean, are you sure it was not…" Her voice dropped even lower. "…a murder?"
Seren slowed down, her interest peaked. One's sorrow could be their fortune, and may the others call them scavengers. In such times, any chance of payment was worth taking, and a hanged criminal meant a warm meal.
"Oh no, she's been seen walking down there with only her nightdress on, hair loose in the wind like the wild thing she always was." This time, Gaid had not bothered to keep the disdain out of her voice. She looked up and saw Seren listening. Her face contorted into a sickly-sweet smile, but Seren heard her add to her friend: "Wild things and corpse-dealers… This is what brought us this darkness. If only we could be rid of such scum once and for all!"
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