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The Mandrake Child: 7. Chapter 6
- Chapter 6 -
"Did you know her well?"
Seren shook her head. "Not really. We have met on occasion, but never talked… I regret it now."
The elf – Beriadan – watched her with his head tilted to the side, perhaps wondering whether she was sincere or simply saying what she thought he wanted to hear. There was still wariness between them, as peace was fresh and conceded over a sacrifice of pride.
Seren gave a half-shrug at the thought. She hadn't mentioned all the rumours she had heard about the young woman; the slander and mockery she had witnessed. She had never given them much credit, if not because of her distrust of the villagers then out of lack of interest for anything that did not immediately concern her own troubles. Thinking about it now, Seren realized that there must have been something special about the young woman that had led an elf to love her; that her life must have been filled with magic and moments that most people – including herself – could not even begin to imagine. Perhaps Seren, too absorbed into her own problems, would have benefitted from a glimpse of that world, and from the presence of Marian in her life… Maybe they could've even been friends. Now she would never know.
"She must have been a good person," she said. The words seemed too plain in comparison to what she imagined Beriadan's feelings to be; but to say more would have been hypocritical.
The conversation seemed to dwindle into silence and Seren used the occasion, once again, to steal a glimpse of the elf. He was incredibly handsome by her standards, even with the numerous cuts on his face and the black eye. He was dabbing a cloth she had found in a basin of cold water, wiping away the blood marring his skin. The gashes beneath only seemed deeper and more painful; but not once did he wince.
Seren shifted on her feet. "Can I get you something else?" she asked, attempting to rekindle their conversation and wondering what she could possibly offer to a condemned man. This was no tavern she was running, she reminded herself, and the little hospitality she could display would undoubtedly be tainted by the prospect of the rope; but to at least ask seemed appropriate.
"I have more than I would have hoped for," he replied with a small smile. "Except for your forgiveness. I…" He hesitated, tilting his head to the side. "I had not realized. How sick is she?"
Seren startled; the expression on her face must have been terrible, for Beriadan pressed his eyes shut in what Seren recognized as an inwardly chiding, something she had inflicted upon herself more often than she could remember. His lips formed a word she could not understand, a hissing, annoyed sound she guessed to be a curse.
"I see that I have caused you distress, I apologize." Beriadan's voice was slow and soft, as one would speak to a frightened animal. "I did not mean to eavesdrop, but your voices carried to the cellar." He seemed genuinely puzzled at her reaction, eager to appease. He pressed the cloth against his heart and then hastily dropped it as he realized it was still soaked. "I did not realize that the concept of privacy may be different between our two people. Please forgive me - I could not help it."
Seren noticed that his tunic now wore a dark stain where the water from the cloth had seeped into the fabric, and that his face was still dripping from his attempts to wipe the blood away. A confused Beriadan was a strangely endearing sight, but she suddenly remembered what had triggered the scene: the mention of her mother's illness, the anticipation of seeing pity in his eyes and the sharp reminder that despite their truce, all was not well in the world. The realization sobered her up.
"I forgot the stories about the elves' superior senses," she said in a controlled, deliberately measured voice, trying to overcome the embarrassment at the thought of him hearing her every move around the house, as one listens to mice scuttling in the walls. "I did not realize you could hear us so well… From now on, I will do my best to speak more quietly."
"No! No, it is I who am sorry."
He wiped his face on his sleeve, then picked up the now dirty cloth and tossed it back into the basin in a dejected gesture. They were going round in circles, Seren realized; both apologetic and clumsy, and both tired of being either. She watched him retreat into his corner of the cellar, shoulders hunched and knees drawn to his chest; surrendering most of the territory of the small room as if to amend for the involuntary intrusion into her private life. The misery conveyed by the submissive posture, so unfitting of him, brutally reminded her of his own situation, much more deserving of wallowing in pity than hers.
"She will make it, I know it," Seren said quietly, looking away. With feigned calm she wiped her hands on her skirt, took the time to examine and smooth out the wrinkles on the dirty fabric. "She… she has been ill for a while now. Things have not been easy, but… you know… We always pull through." She looked Beriadan in the eye, smiled even - though it cost her considerable effort with the lump stuck in her throat. It was a wonder she was not trembling in exhaustion, she thought, as the mastering of her demeanour cost her every ounce of self-control she possessed. Somehow she needed to appear unbothered right then, unshaken by the knowledge that he knew, that everyone knew how dire their situation was.
"I would help," he offered. "I know little about healing, but what knowledge I possess is yours."
"Thank you," she replied with all the dignity she could muster, "but there is nothing you can do. Only her remedies can help her..."
The implication of the words hung in the air between them – the price for the medicine, and the means to secure it.
"You must do what you can," he said. "When the time comes, do not speak for me. I will face my responsibilities, and you must face yours." His sad smile softened the severity of his declaration. "Is she getting better?"
Seren nodded and looked him in the eye: "Yes," she lied.
Her mother was not getting better. At the very best, her state could be described as stationary, but Seren knew deep inside that the episodes of harmless madness and delirium had become increasingly frequent over the last weeks. There was no gratitude in the moments they shared, no recognition, only the ever-enduring sense of duty that she somehow managed to make last. Seren cried that night, after she had gone to bed and tucked herself in under the tattered covers. For the first time in a long while she felt tears burn their way to her eyes and let them go, smothering her hiccups with a mouthful of fabric so that neither her mother or Beriadan could hear her.
She was so tired… Worn-out, diluted, like the greenish volutes that faded out into a watery tea from the few last leaves she shook out of the pot. She made promises to herself – that today she would eat her fill, that she would sleep enough to feel rested, that she would catch a moment of free time to do something she liked… But she always ended up postponing those small rewards; there was always a better use for food that had to be rationed, and free time that should be spent by her mother's side. She would rise in the morning with the fear that Cillan had gone during the night, sometimes waking up while it was still dark just to listen to the raspy, uneven breathing.
But what she did was not working. The tea, the warmth, the cool cloth on a sweaty forehead and the constant surveillance; Seren had done it all as instructed. She had to be going about it all wrong, only no-one would point out where she was making mistakes, and she did not have the luxury of learning on the job.
And there it was again, the heart-wrenching coughing sound, and the broken voice that called her name. She contemplated ignoring it; for once, just staying in her bed and pretending she couldn't hear - out of strength, out of ideas. Her mother did not see her tears as Seren went to sit by her side. She stroked Cillan's skeletal hand in silence, squeezing in rhythm with the coughing fits, waiting for the night to dwindle into dawn and for the daylight to bring her courage.
"What is it?" her mother whispered suddenly, eyes opening in surprise. "Can you hear it?"
Seren nodded. From the depths of the cellar, rising from beneath the ground, drifted a song. Cool like fresh water and flowing like a steady wind, it filtered through the holes between the planks and relieved the smothering silence. It soothed; it mended. From his makeshift cell, Beriadan was helping the only way he could.
"Sleep, mama," Seren whispered and smiled, sliding to the floor and resting her head on the edge of the mattress, "it's only the wind."
"It's beautiful," Cillan marvelled tiredly and closed her eyes.
"Yes," Seren agreed quietly. "Yes it is. Now sleep. The dawn is still far away."
The lullaby trickled on.
It was another cold, damp day announcing the coming of winter. The small, worn-out patches of grass that had not yet been trampled into the mud were soaking up the puddles of murky water. The stems were yellow, swollen with liquid; Seren could not dismiss the resemblance to many a man's end on this very place, in the middle of the village, at the hand of her father. The gallows themselves stood lonely in the middle of the desolated clearing, empty but ominous.
She winced as the cold water found a hole between the sole of her boot and the tired leather and poured in. Wriggling her toes in an attempt to get rid of the unwelcome trickle, she skipped over yet another puddle as she made her way to the gathering. Her stomach growled at the smells wafting out of the tavern, where everyone was getting ready to welcome the village elders and most important members after their duty on the day's Council was done. The tavern owner himself would be attending, as his establishment served as the second most important meeting place in the village thanks to the frequent visits of the mayor and his friends.
There would be fires, roasted meat, and ale - Seren had never drunk any, but the appreciative sighs of the men returning home from the tavern made it seem a drink worthy of kings. She sighed quietly, turning her eyes away with reluctance for fear that her wistful look was seen. It was like when she was little, sitting on the platform under the gallows and staring at the lights, imagining that she was seated at a table inside and waiting to be served, that the sumptuous meals were meant for her, and would arrive anytime now. That the wood beneath her was cushions and the mocking stares looks of admiration.
She snapped back to the matter of the trial as Murdoch walked to the centre of the village and up the stairs of the gallows, turning his back to the horizontal beam that loomed above the platform to look at the small crowd gathered below. His big, strong hands clasped a crispy parchment, so brand new that Seren could swear the ink was still glistening. He unravelled it and, squinting, read out:
"On the matter of Pierce Sallow's murder," Murdoch proclaimed, "committed before witnesses," he read out a list of names, "and the subsequent trial of the murderer, er... an elf of name unknown, those in favour of justice by hanging raise your hands."
The crowd moved with unease, bodies huddled together, shameful eyes darting towards the woods that lay in the distance; fearful mayhap that the fate decided here seemed above their station or authority; or perhaps was it a faint regret that something so beautiful had to be destroyed. Hands rose to the sky and, from her position at the edge of the clearing, Seren saw Rhett cast her a venomous look, his own arm extended and steady.
She shook with repressed rage. It had all already been decided before the farce of a Council had even started; perhaps it had been discussed around a mug of ale, bought with coin or slammed along with someone's head against a counter in a darkened shop, but no-one dared leave their hands at their side or speak in Beriadan's favour. Marian's torture would remain unearthed.
She could feel her self-control straining. She imagined their faces if she could speak and tell what she knew; if she could call for him to testify. There would be shock, there would be horror and anger and blood. And justice would be done. She remembered Beriadan's request - but still, what a sweet dream...
But then, what of them, the righteous but poor family of the jobless hangman? What of the proverbial boots they would not earn, not to mention the money? Seren clenched her jaw, grinding her teeth together until the muscles in her jaw hurt.
The moment was gone.
The people scattered about and she stayed, casting the few remaining men a reproachful glare. Rhett grinned, a malevolent grimace in a joyless face; Dion nodded, as though they were meeting under civilized circumstances not involving gallows and rope in any manner, and only Murdoch had the grace to appear troubled.
"A job well done," she said quietly as he walked past her. "An example, surely, for all other villagers aspiring to unblemished justice."
The acid was as much for her own compromising conscience as for theirs, and for Beriadan's selflessness. If only he had been detestable, angry or ungrateful... She could have remained silent with her heart at ease.
"What's this about?" Murdoch hissed. "We have an agreement. You do your job, you have your money. Or does the elf claim he's innocent? There are witnesses, in case you haven't heard."
"Pity they didn't see everything," Seren said. "Like what really happened to Marian."
Murdoch rubbed the bridge of his nose with a hairy hand. "The girl drowned herself."
"Pierce raped her, for the Powers' sake!" Seren glanced around, but no-one seemed to be curious of their conversation. She and Murdoch were the only ones still standing outside, aside from the welcoming lights cast by the tavern onto the blotchy grass of the clearing. "She killed herself in horror!" She shook her head. "He was your friend... You must've known. But don't worry," she added with a sour smile, "I will not speak up, and play my part in this as planned. I just hope your friendship was worth it."
Murdoch shook his head, but the gesture seemed more like wariness than disdain. Seren could not pity this man who could so conveniently turn a blind eye to the wrongdoings of his minions and still have the guts to reclaim justice when they got what they deserved; but she wondered, for the first time, what he had felt upon understanding how far Pierce had gone. Did he question, at least once, whether it had been his own tyrannical authority that had led the man to believe he could take what he wanted?
"Look. What's past is past. What do you want to trouble the dead for?"
"The elf's still alive," she pointed out.
"Not for long," he deadpanned. "Think of the living. You and your family are in dire need from what I gather. Say what," he said, fishing into his tunic for a purse, "I give you now an advance for the job. Get what you need from the shops, grab a little something from the tavern – I reckon there's plenty to go around."
Seren stiffened when he reached out to awkwardly pat her shoulder, withdrawing his hand with an embarrassment that showed how much he had hoped for the gesture to appear sincere. The pouch in his hand looked heavy with coin.
Beriadan would approve. Only, would Mother, if she knew?
But you'll never know, Seren thought as she stepped towards the lights of the tavern. This secret will be buried with Beriadan and with me. We will take it into our graves, sooner or later.
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