4. Chapter 3
Warning: there's some stronger language in this chapter. Nothing unusual, but you've been warned.
- Chapter 3 -
Seren's arm trembled only slightly as she gestured the men to the few rickety chairs that surrounded the kitchen table. She could feel their eyes on her, their silent judging; but she had spoken, and now she had to measure up to her words. She pulled herself a chair as well and sank into it with hidden relief - it was much easier to pretend to be assured when one's knees did not tremble with nervousness. For a moment, there was nothing but silence between her and the mayor and his men; silence, and the sound of blood dripping onto her mother's table.
"Got a job for your father," Murdoch eventually said, wiping his broken nose with his sleeve; it left a long trail of half-clotted blood on the fabric, and Seren struggled to tear her eyes from the mess.
"So I understand. But as I said, he is gone for business, and I am in his stead."
Murdoch's men exchanged amused looks, clearly not taking her seriously. They were probably thinking she was playing grown-up, enjoying her father's absence to exert a newfound authority in his name; and they were only partially mistaken. Seren was playing allright. But it was a desperate gamble, a bluff she had to dare lest she wanted to see the potential pay escape her. They would eventually find someone to do their dirty work; someone with a mute conscience to off the poor man quietly. But such a decision was not right, it was not in the way of things. It was messy and illegal – and she knew Murdoch liked a semblance of propriety. But if Seren managed to convince them, both parties would be satisfied. She played along, her heart beating wildly in her chest and adrenalin rushing in her veins; she played to win, having nothing to lose.
She eyed the men with her coldest, boldest stare. "You are wasting my time. Speak or leave, and take the poor soul with you."
One of the men laughed. Another – one of the more worse for wear – leapt to his feat, his fists clenched in rage.
"Poor soul?" he roared. "I'll show you a fucking poor soul allright! That bastard killed my brother, fucking slaughtered him while he was defenceless!"
"Sit down, Rhett," Murdoch sneered, smiling mockingly at Seren. "If the lass says she can do her father's job, she will have to keep her word."
The one named Rhett slumped back into his chair, but his malevolent gaze did not leave her. Seren swallowed the lump in her throat, hiding her trembling hands under the table.
"You need a job done," she said, her voice steady, the shakiness lurking just beyond that edge of assurance.
She stole one last glance at the closed door to her mother's room, and spared a thought for her father. What would he say? And a part of her replied: what would he, if she did not manage to find some money for her mother's medicine? He had said it was her heritage, that it ran in her blood. Now was the time to live up to that destiny. She needed not know what the man had done, for justice was not her role; only executioner.
"I will do it, you pay. As always."
Murdoch grinned, revealing a range of missing teeth. "Deal. The Council will meet in two days…" He shot a warning look at Rhett, who seemed ready to protest. "…And pronounce the sentence. But don't worry, Rhett. The freak will get what he deserves."
"He better," growled the man, nursing his scorched knuckles. "He killed Pierce. He's a fucking murderer, and such death is still too sweet for him."
Another man scoffed loudly. "She's just a slip of a girl, Rhett. No doubt she'll mess it up and strangle him… It'll be a painful mess."
"Dion, Rhett, enough." Murdoch raised an appeasing, bloody hand; he seemed to be enjoying the situation, the power he possessed over his men. "In two days," he repeated, "It will be sealed. And then," he looked Seren straight in the eye, "the lass will hang him. And I, for one, want to see that."
She held that stare, quivering inside but drawing strength from the prospect of a pay, casting it into a mask of cool indifference. Some money, at last! Decent food, medicine for her mother, and maybe even wood for a fire. They would survive until her father returned. No more begging, no more humiliation.
"In the meantime, the bastard stays here," Murdoch declared, rising heavily and motioning for his men to follow. "Keep him alive – but don't overwork yourself, lass. He's a dead man breathing."
The creaking of chairs drowned out the mumbles of agreement. The man named Dion turned in the doorway, watching her with something akin to pity as he shook his head and said:
"He's in your keeping now, girl. Under your responsibility. Now…" He smiled. "We won't be all that mad if he dies here, you know – no better than what he deserves, to choke in the dirt. But if he escapes…" He pointed a finger at her. "You'll be very sorry. So no soft-hearted moves now. He's a murderer. Remember that."
"I will remember," Seren said through clenched teeth, staring back coldly. "Will that be all?"
Dion laughed. "You got spirit, girl. Too bad you're gallows scum."
And with those words he exited, closing the door softly in his wake and leaving Seren shaking with rage and nerves in the middle of the kitchen.
Seren laid a trembling hand on her mother's sweaty brow, feeling the heat that condensed beneath Cillan's skin, making her toss and turn, restless and burning. Soon the fever would pass; the last scrapes of the medicine would infuse her veins and soothe the heat and the pain. Then Seren would make her eat something – perhaps some nourishing broth, some bread softened in sauce, if she could find some. Her own stomach growled in agreement, reminding her that it had been long since she had eaten.
And then there was the prisoner to feed.
Seren had not known Pierce, Rhett's brother, but she knew the likes of them. Loud, obnoxious men who enjoyed pounding their authority into their inferiors; with words, often, and only rarely with fists – for they were seldom violent on purpose. They seemed deprived of all empathy, all sensitivity to their surroundings, trampling through their lives like a herd of horses – uncaring and free, and ripping the earth open as they went. Seren could not bring herself to regret Pierce's loss, and neither did she try to; time wasted was all it was. Therefore she neither felt disdain nor sympathy for the man who had been handed over to her; but since it was her responsibility that he be brought before justice, even if it was only represented by a noose, she would see that he was well treated before he died.
She returned to the kitchen to shuffle through the pots and shelves, gathering ingredients for the broth, and set to work. Cooking had been another task she had taken over from her mother when she had fallen ill but, unlike music, it did not come naturally. Seren had to concentrate and measure instead of the carefree sprinkling and tossing and mixing her mother had done when she still had enough strength to cook. And though the results were always less… inspired, they were nourishing enough; besides, it had been long since anyone in the family had cared about the taste.
Once her mother had eaten and Seren herself had swallowed a bowl of the heterogeneous but nameless mixture, she poured another bowl, waiting until it was warm rather than hot. She picked a wooden spoon and put a piece of hard bread to balance atop the bowl. The food in one hand and a candle in the other, she pushed the door of the cellar open with a foot and started to descend.
Darkness and silence greeted her. A draft from beneath the earth made the candle flicker, reminding Seren of her childhood fears of monsters dwelling there. The air was cold and still, and only her hesitant footsteps echoed in the confined space. Seren wondered briefly whether the man had succumbed to his injuries, and braced herself for the sight of a corpse slumped on the ground of the cellar. She had never seen a dead man up close.
But the prisoner was alive. Kneeling in the dirt, his arms tied in his back, he looked up as she entered. Seren stifled a gasp of horror, and the broth splashed her hand. His face was covered in cuts and bruises, their edges irregular and upturned; the blood they had spewed out had been smeared all over his face by the blows he had received next, and his eyes shone white in the middle of that red skin. He squinted in the light of the candle, immediately wincing as he did so.
"A child?" he rasped. "What are you doing here? Where is your father?"
The man's voice was low and melodious, but broken. He spoke with a lilting accent that Seren had never heard before, and she wondered briefly whether he was a travelling merchant. If he was, he certainly looked nothing like the ones she was used to seeing around the village. He seemed tall and lean, and even crouching in the darkness he gave the impression of bundled up strength and power. But he was bound, and Seren trusted Murdoch and his men to have tied the ropes painfully tight.
Slowly, she walked down the last few steps and set the bowl and the candle onto a crate. "My father is gone for business," she said, trying to sound confident once again. "I am in his stead."
The man frowned. "I do not understand. I was told that this was the executioner's house, and that I would be hanged."
"You are…" Seren hesitated. "Well, that is, when the Council officially pronounces your sentence."
"And who is to carry it out, then?"
The man's eyes widened and a grimace of horror painted itself upon his face. "No!" he snarled, suddenly struggling against his bonds. "I will not allow it. If I must die, then let me end it myself. I will not have a child tainting her hands with my blood." His eyes locked with hers as he lashed out once again. "Bring me a blade, little one, and leave me. I will take care of it myself."
Seren backed off in fright at his first outburst. Her feet collided with the first step and, swept off balance, she felt herself pulled downwards. Flailing her arms, she landed on the stairs; stone edges bit dully into her flesh. Crying out in surprise and pain, Seren scrambled away, eyes wide with fear. She darted up the stairs, stumbling on her skirts and reaching out for the doorway and the familiar, comforting light of the kitchen.
She turned around one last time to glance behind her, watching out against all reason for an inexistent chaser; and froze, stricken by the grief she saw in the man's eyes. He had doubled over, his blood-matted hair hanging in clumps before his face, and silent tears streamed down his cheeks. Her heart still beating wildly, Seren leaned against the doorway for support. She was feeling like an intruder, and yet unable to tear her eyes away from the grieving man.
The prisoner's shoulders were shaking lightly with stifled sobs, and his tears were washing away the blood and the grime on his face, revealing youthful features twisted by sorrow. Perhaps did he think her gone, or perhaps he didn't care – for when he opened his eyes again, raising them to the cobweb-covered ceiling, it felt as though he gazed beyond the mouldy stones. From his broken lips spilled words of a language Seren had never heard before, but one made her startle.
"Marian," the man whispered, "Marian."
Seren sagged against the doorframe, clutching the cold wood with stiff, convulsed fingers. It was a sadness she could not comprehend, a sense of loss so overwhelming that she felt her own chest constrict with it. She reached to lay a hand on her heart, gripping her dress and swallowing hard as the inexplicable sorrow rolled over her.
Suddenly the prisoner's eyes blinked into awareness, and focused on her.
"Forgive me, young one," he said. "It was not my intention to scare you, only to spare you a taint you should not have to take on." He lowered his head in apparent submission. "You should leave me. I will not disturb you further."
"You knew her." Seren's words tumbled from her lips, unbidden. "Marian."
He nodded; a shy, soft smile blossomed on his bloodied lips. "I did." His eyes glazed over but he spoke on, staring somewhere behind Seren: "I knew her well. I knew she would not want this. But there is no more Marian in this world. She is not here to hold back my hand anymore."
His features twisted into a mask of rage, white teeth bared in a snarl; but Seren was not afraid. Hypnotized, she watched him toss his hair back with one graceful movement, revealing pointed ears.
"I could not let her murderer walk unpunished."