DargonZine 14, Issue 3

A Woman’s Prayer



This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series A Woman's Tale

Oriel shivered and opened her eyes. The door at the far corner of the warehouse swung open gently in the wind. She sat up, pressing herself against the wall, searching for the person who had opened the door. There was no sound except the creaking. The door swung shut in the wind, darkening the entire area. She moved away from the small hayroll she had slept in, crept towards the derelict part of the warehouse, crawled under some rafters to the other side, and banged into someone. Twin screams rent the air.

 

“Aah!”

 

“Aaaaah!”

 

“Let me go, let me go, lemme gooo!”

 

“That’s my hand!”

 

“Oww! My head!”

 

Oriel slipped underneath the rafters at once and crawled back out to the main part of the warehouse. Since she had been living there for about four days, she knew every little corner. She was poised to run, but the person had followed her and now caught hold of her arm.

 

“Let me go, let me go …”

 

The door swung open again, letting sunlight filter through and the stocky brown-haired boy standing behind her exclaimed, “Oriel!” He walked around to face her and asked, “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in ages. What are you doing here?”

 

“Briam, you saw me only last sennight. But what are you doing here? Are the others here too?” Briam and three other children, Finn, Kerith and Aren lived with a young woman named Sian who owned a house on Murson Street. Oriel played with them occasionally.

 

“Yes,” he replied promptly, looking around the room they were in. “We finished our chores early and Sian let us go out on account of Melrin. We’re playing find-the-rat. But –” his gaze stopped at the hayroll that was her bed. “You slept here!” He turned and stared at her. “Why did you sleep here? Why aren’t you at your house? How come your mother let you sleep here?”

 

The blonde ten year-old’s eyes filled with tears and she sniffed and turned away. A sennight previously, her mother Rasine had told her to wait in the warehouse for a few menes, but had never returned.

 

“What happened? Why are you crying?” Briam asked, alarmed.

 

“Nothing, nothing, nothing. Go away, go away –”

 

“I know, go away,” Briam interrupted. “I can’t just go away when you’re crying. That’s wrong, I think.”

 

Oriel sniffed again in a futile attempt to stop the tears and hiccupped.

 

“You have to stop crying. Sian says crying makes you sick,” Briam said. “Stop crying, do. But tell me, why are you sleeping here?”

 

“Because I live here. This is my house,” Oriel retorted, wiping her tears with a dirty hand.

 

“You live here?” he asked in surprise. “Who else lives here?”

 

“No one,” she said defiantly. “Why don’t you just go away?”

 

The sound of a shout from outside interrupted them.

 

“I have to go. They’re looking for me. Why don’t you come and play with us? Kerith was asking about you yesterday.”

 

“Don’t tell them I live here,” she admonished, walking with him out the door. “Is Finn here?” She smiled at the mention of his name. “Does he have any new jokes?”

 

Briam groaned. “I don’t know how you can laugh at them. They’re terrible, really, really baaaaad.”

 

They both stepped out into the sunshine. A sandy-haired girl, both younger and shorter than Oriel, came running up to them. She exclaimed, “Oriel, where have you been? We haven’t seen you forever.” She turned away and called, “Finn, look who’s here. Come out, come out.”

 

A redheaded boy rushed up, grinning. “Oriel, do I ever have some new jokes for you!”

 

Oriel giggled at that. “I can’t wait to hear them. Tell me, tell me.”

 

“See, I told you she’d want to hear them,” Finn said with a superior air. His voice cracked on the last word and Kerith giggled, earning herself a frown from him.

 

“Ha, she laughs at all your jokes, even if she hears them for the second time or the third or the tenth,” Briam retorted. “Just because she laughs at them doesn’t mean they’re any good.”

 

“Well, Sian laughs too, so there! Oriel, I have some riddles for you.”

 

“No,” groaned Briam.

 

“Yes, yes, they’re funny,” Kerith giggled.

 

“If a rooster laid a brown egg and a white egg, what kind of chickens would hatch?”

 

“I know, I know,” Kerith piped up.

 

“I don’t know,” Oriel said. “Tell me.”

 

“Roosters don’t lay eggs!” Finn crowed. “Another one?” He grinned at Oriel, who was laughing. She nodded.

 

“What did the farmer do when he finished milking the first cow?”

 

“I don’t know. What?”

 

“He milked the udder one. Get it?” When Oriel still looked puzzled, he explained patiently, “See, when they milk the cow, that’s how they milk them, using the udders.”

 

“Oh. Ohh. That’s funny.” Oriel giggled, finding it funnier as she thought about it.

 

“Me next, me next,” Kerith interrupted. “What runs but has no legs?”

 

“Oh, that old one,” Finn derided.

 

“I know: a nose.” Oriel grinned.

 

“Oh, everyone knows the answer to my riddles,” Kerith pouted.

 

“Never mind, Kerry, I’ll teach you a riddle that no one knows the answer to except me,” Oriel comforted, putting an arm around the younger girl’s shoulders.

 

“Look,” Finn said gleefully. He was standing upside down, while Briam held his feet up. “Let go, Briam.”

 

Briam let go at once, and Finn managed to stay upright for barely a moment before his feet came crashing down. Oriel giggled.

 

“I’m hungry, let’s eat,” Finn suggested.

 

“We’ll have to share,” Kerith said. “Here.” She handed the other girl a slice of bread. They settled down companionably, concentrating on the food.

 

“This is good,” Oriel murmured, munching.

 

“Sian bakes it herself,” Kerith said proudly. “She’s nice.”

 

There seemed to be general agreement on this point, even by the boys. After they had finished eating, they decided to go to the marketplace. Briam raced away, and Oriel scrambled after him. Kerith looked from their retreating backs to Finn before following. They raced each other all the way to the marketplace, and Finn won even though he had started the last.

 

“You’re taller than we are. That’s why you won,” Briam insisted.

 

“Aren’s taller than you are, Finn, and he would have won if he were here,” Kerith said loyally. Aren was the oldest of them all, and Kerith’s brother. He worked as a pot-boy at the Golden Lion, an inn in the city.

 

The four children wandered around the marketplace, laughing and talking. Oriel bought them all sweetmeats with some money she had taken from her mother’s bag earlier in the day. “Here, have a sweetmeat.” The sweetmeats were dried cherries stuck on the end of a small wooden stick.

 

“Thank you,” Kerith and Briam chorused.

 

“Thanks, Oriel,” said Finn, laughing as he ran around her.

 

“What are you doing, Finn?”

 

“See, it’s payment for the sweetmeat. Eight, nine, ten. There, I ran around you ten times.” Finn grinned down at her.

 

“That’s silly,” Briam said.

 

“No, it’s not. It’s funny.”

 

“Is not.”

 

“Is too.”

 

“Oh, do stop it. Come on, Oriel, these two will do that all day, and I want to see the festival. Ooh, what a lovely smell. Where’s it coming from?” Kerith slipped her arm through Oriel’s and dragged her away. The boys followed, still arguing.

 

“Oh, I think it’s cannell,” Oriel replied.

 

“What’s cannell?”

 

“It’s an herb that you use to make spice powder.”

 

“How do you know that?”

 

“My mother taught me.”

 

“You have a mother? Mine died. Aren and I lived on the streets, until we went to live with Sian. I like her.”

 

“My mother’s dead too.” Oriel gulped. “She left me in the warehouse and never came back. That means she’s dead.”

 

“She could have gone away somewhere,” Kerith pointed out. “Just because she didn’t come back doesn’t mean she’s dead.”

 

“My mother told me that my father went away and never came back and she said he’s dead. When people go away and never come back, that means they’re dead.” Hot tears scalded Oriel’s cheeks and she brushed them away with her knuckles.

 

“Why are you crying? I didn’t cry when mine died.”

 

“You don’t even remember her, do you? So how would you remember if you cried or not when she died?”

 

“Are you sad? Here, let me give you a hug. Sian always hugs me when I cry, and it makes me feel nice and warm inside.”

 

The two girls hugged for a moment before Kerith pointed to another stall where there were ribbons for sale. Oriel’s tears disappeared as the two girls browsed through the wares on display. The stall-owner, a plump old woman, smiled benignly at the girls.

 

“Kerith, come play catch with me,” Finn called.

 

Kerith and Finn began to play catch, running into people, getting yelled at by some and laughed at by others. Briam and Oriel laughed as Finn bumped into a tall man and got his ears severely boxed.

 

“Hey, no fair. You both have to run too,” Kerith said breathlessly.

 

“You run, Oriel, I’ll catch,” Briam offered.

 

Oriel laughed and ran away without replying and Kerith ran after her. Oriel outpaced the younger girl easily and ducked behind a stall. A huge arm slipped under her arms and lifted her; a palm clamped over her mouth.

 

“Well, well, well, look what I found in the marketplace,” said a soft voice. Oriel looked up into a pair of beautiful, silver eyes. But there was no smile on the face. Her hair was blue-black, and slicked back with oil that gleamed in the bright sunlight. She wore a scarlet embroidered tunic, and yellow-colored chains glittered at her neck. It was Jahlena. Oriel remembered meeting her one day at the marketplace. Her mother had warned her to stay away from the big woman, and now Jahlena had caught Oriel. The little girl squirmed and struggled in the woman’s grasp and tried to bite down on the palm covering her mouth. However, the woman wore rings on every finger connected by a chain and all Oriel got was a mouthful of metal.

 

***

 

“This isn’t find-the-rat, Oriel. We’re playing catch. Come out,” Kerith called. There was no answer. “Briam, I can’t find her.”

 

“Oriel, where are you?” Briam yelled.

 

“Look!” Finn pointed, almost bouncing in excitement.

 

Kerith stared down the small alley he pointed towards and saw a big woman carrying something that seemed to be moving, and one end of which gleamed in the sunlight. As they all watched, she turned into a street at the other end.

 

“Where is she?” Kerith asked in puzzlement. “I don’t see her. I only see the big woman carrying something.”

 

“It’s Oriel. She’s in trouble. Someone’s carrying her away. Come on, let’s go after her.” Finn ran off down the alley.

 

Briam followed, and then Kerith. They ran and ran. After a few turns, Kerith could not see Finn at all. Since he was the tallest of them all, he was far and away in front. She was following Briam, and he was following Finn. Kerith wanted to stop running, but she was scared of being left behind, and so she ran even though her legs started to ache and she was huffing and puffing. When they finally stopped, however, Finn was nowhere to be seen.

 

“Where are we? I want to go home,” Kerith cried. “I’m tired, and I don’t like this place. Where’s Finn?” She sniffed, tears close to the surface.

 

They looked around the narrow street. Piles of rubbish graced the edges. The walls of the buildings on either side rose dark and tall without windows. A man lay on the far side, ominously still. The street was otherwise empty and quiet, but the silence was heavy and they had a strange feeling of being watched. Kerith shivered. “Where are all the people?” she whispered.

 

“They must be at the Melrin fair,” Briam responded.

 

She shivered again and Briam edged closer to her, putting his arm around her shoulder. “Straight, Kerith, we’ll go home, just as soon as we find Oriel.”

 

“But how are we going to find her?” she wailed softly, two tears creeping out.

 

Finn suddenly appeared from around a corner. He frowned and put a finger to his lips. “Shh. I think Oriel’s here, somewhere. I saw that huge woman carrying her through that door.” He pointed behind him to a door with a faded sign hanging above it.

 

“How do you know it was Oriel?” Kerith objected, her fear dissipating at the sight of Finn.

 

“Her hair, silly. It’s so bright and yellow, nobody could miss it,” Finn scoffed. “Come on, let’s go.” He crept quietly to the door, turned and beckoned to them. When they approached, he whispered, “See, it must be the Inn of the Shattered Spear,” pointing to the sign that bore a painting of a spear broken in several pieces. He tugged at the door handle and it creaked open. Sunlight streamed in from behind them, exposing a short corridor at the end of which was obviously the kitchen; from what they could see, there was a counter set against the wall and it was stacked with pots. “It’s probably the back door,” Finn said in a low voice.

 

Footsteps sounded inside the kitchen.

 

“Hide, quick!”

 

The area near the doorway was bare and offered no shelter. They ran around the nearest street corner and watched. A big woman came out and walked toward them. She had enormous arms and legs, and was even taller than Lieutenant Darklen, who came sometimes to visit Sian.

 

“She’s coming here.” Kerith panicked.

 

“There’s nowhere to hide here, Finn. She’ll see us for sure. We have to leave, now!” Briam snapped.

 

“Straight, c’mon. Run, Kerith.”

 

They ran down the Street of Travellers, and Kerith began to puff as they passed Atelier Street. The little girl fell behind and the boys far outpaced her.

 

“Come on, Kerith,” Briam urged, sparing a glance behind him. There was no sign of the big woman.

 

Kerith took a quick look behind her and then stopped dead, weeping. “I’m tired, and I’m scared, and I want to go home!”

 

Both boys stopped and turned around. People were beginning to notice the little girl crying in the middle of the street. Briam hurriedly went to her and put his arm around her, pulling her forward. “Straight, Kerith, don’t be scared. See, the woman isn’t behind us any more. Come on, if we keep walking, we’ll be home soon.”

 

“I thought you wanted to go help Oriel,” said Finn, walking next to them.

 

“Yes, I do, but we can’t go in there with …” Briam frowned at Finn, wiggling his eyebrows in Kerith’s direction. She sniffed, trying to decipher his gestures.

 

Finn nodded in comprehension. “Ah. Hey, Kerith, why don’t you go home, and we’ll go back and –”

 

“No!” she interrupted. “I won’t go home alone. What if the big woman comes and takes me away like she took Oriel away?”

 

“Finn!” Briam exclaimed in exasperation. He waggled his eyebrows and made exaggerated faces at the other boy over Kerith’s head.

 

“What are you saying?” she asked suspiciously.

 

“Nothing,” Briam said at once. “Look, Finn, take her back home. I’ve got to go back and rescue Oriel. She’s my friend.” He disentangled his hand from Kerith’s and took off like an arrow down the street.

 

***

 

When Briam took off, Finn was poised to run behind him but Kerith grabbed his hand. “No, stop!”

 

“Aw, come on, Kerith, let’s go with him. You can’t expect me to take you back home,” he begged.

 

“I’m scared!”

 

“Look, the woman took Oriel, and she’s brave, isn’t she?” It occurred to Finn that this wasn’t logical at all, but he wanted to go after Briam very badly. “Listen, how about this: I promise I won’t let go of your hand. Will you go with me now?”

 

“Promise? Prophet promise?”

 

He nodded, and gravely sketched a semi-circle at the base of his neck, symbolizing the death of the prophet Cephas Stevene. “Noose on my neck and hope to live, I promise.”

 

“You won’t leave me alone, even for one mene?”

 

“Not even. Come on.” He dragged her and began running toward Layman Street. After running back the way they had come past several alleys, they reached the area where Finn thought he had seen Oriel. He began to search for the door he had seen her being carried through. They ran around two streets before he found it. He looked to see if they could enter without being seen, but there were people at the far corner of the street.

 

“I think they’re guards, Finn,” Kerith whispered.

 

“Hmm, what?” Finn stepped up to the door and glanced toward the people on the street. They were headed in the opposite direction and getting farther away every moment. He ignored them and turned his attention to the door, opening it with his free hand, since Kerith was hanging on to the other with every intention of ensuring he kept his promise. He listened almost breathlessly for any sound from the other side of the door, but it was quiet. Then he slipped inside, dragging Kerith with him.

 

“Well, well, well, what have we here?” It was the woman. Finn stared up at her, swallowing. He wasn’t really scared, but the woman was very big. From this close, her arms looked like the branches of the tree in their yard; her teeth were crooked, and her smile wasn’t nice at all. She smelled weird too. Her hair was bluish-purple, like the color their mouths turned when they ate too many blueberries.

 

“You let Oriel go,” Kerith said bravely. “She’s our friend.”

 

“Be quiet, Kerith,” Finn hissed, and pushed her behind him.

 

“So, my little orphan has friends, eh?” The woman’s smile widened, and her voice softened. “What shall I do about you? Young man, how would you like to cut firewood for a sennight? No? You can just work here then, at the inn. A pot-boy, or even a stable-boy. But I think I should cane you, just so that you understand not to poke your noses where they don’t belong. What do you think?” She grinned down at them. “No? Well then, I shall simply have to teach you to cut purses. Yes, that’s what I think I’ll do. You can be my cutpurse, boy.” Her voice rose just a little bit on the last word.

 

Kerith hiccupped in fear. The big woman must have heard her, because she turned to Kerith right away. “Come here, let me see.” She shoved Finn aside and stared at Kerith. “As for you, my young beauty, I have plans for you.” She touched Kerith’s forehead with one finger and let it slide down the side of her face.

 

Kerith shivered, and Finn stepped closer, knocking away the woman’s hand. “You leave her alone.” He put out a hand toward Kerith and the little girl held it tightly.

 

“Come with me, both of you.” The woman grabbed Kerith by the ear, and Finn by his arm, and dragged them up some stairs. The stairs gave onto a corridor with doors on either side, most of which were shut. Jahlena dragged her captives into the corridor. She released Kerith and used her free hand to unlock the first door. Suddenly, a short girl with curly blond hair came running from the opposite end of the corridor calling, “Jahlena.”

 

“What is it, Tira?” The big woman turned.

 

The girl gasped, “Jahlena, the cook is fighting with Jamis. You better come quick!”

 

“You two, in here.” Jahlena pushed Finn through an open door and kicked his backside. He fell forward into the room, breaking his fall on his palms. “Ow!”

 

She gave Kerith a shove, and the little girl tripped across the doorway into the room.

 

They heard a key click in the lock and twin footsteps receding.

 

“Are you all right?” A soft voice asked. Someone else was in the room! The two looked up, both rubbing their knees.

 

“Oriel! Did the fat woman bring you here?” Kerith scrambled up with the other girl’s help.

 

“Yes, she did. Where’s Briam?” Oriel asked.

 

“We have to get out of here,” Finn murmured, ignoring the girls. He was busy pulling at the door handle. He tugged and pushed, shoved and pulled. Nothing worked. His eyes went to the skylight, a tiny opening high up on the wall. He measured its height from the floor with a glance.

 

“I can’t get up there,” he murmured, almost to himself.

 

Oriel who had been watching him gaze at the skylight, responded, “No, but you can lift Kerith up.”

 

They both turned to look at Kerith. When she understood what they wanted her to do, she retreated, shaking her head. “No, I can’t. It’s too high. I’ll fall.”

 

“How about you?” Finn turned to Oriel. He knew she would do anything he suggested; also, she was not as much of a scared rat as Kerith was.

 

“No, Finn. I’m too heavy for you to lift,” Oriel said. “Besides which, I’m not sure if I’d fit through that. Come on, Kerith, you’ve got to do it. Let Finn lift you. All you have to do is jump out of the window.”

 

“Finn will let me fall,” Kerith sniffed.

 

“No, he won’t. I promise. Noose on my neck and hope to live, I promise. Now, come on.”

 

Finn boosted Kerith up, but she still couldn’t reach the window. He said, “Listen. I’m going to kneel. Oriel, get on my back and lift Kerith.” He went down on all fours, and Oriel stood on his back, palms against the wall for balance.

 

“Climb, Kerith,” Finn ordered. “Pretend it’s the tree at home.”

 

Kerith frowned, but nodded. She stood on Finn’s back, placed one foot on Oriel’s palm and stepped upwards until she stood on Oriel’s shoulders. The window was within easy reach now, and with one heave, she pulled herself up and out through the window. She stopped just short of sliding outside.

 

“Wait! What do I do after I get out?” she wailed.

 

“Find a guard. Get Lieutenant Darklen here if you can. Or that sergeant who comes by the house, Sergeant Cepero,” Finn said urgently. “Go, Kerith, now! I can hear footsteps.”

 

***

 

Kerith slipped out the window and found herself on the sloping roof. She began to slide down, gathering speed as she went. She grabbed at some of the shingles to slow her descent, with minimal success. The skin on her hands abraded, and two fingernails broke. Her hands began to bleed, and then abruptly she was falling.

 

“Ohhhhh!”

 

She landed with a thud. She was winded, and rolled over to lie staring at the sky for a mene, catching her breath. Then she stood up and brushed herself off before running toward the Street of Travellers and Murson Street. She ran as fast as she could, past alleys and side-alleys, squeezing in between trouser-clad knees and dress-clad legs, her breath coming in quick spurts. In fact she was running so blindly that she ran smack into someone; someone who stopped her, and knelt on the ground to talk to her. Kerith recognized him with a sigh of relief. It was Sergeant Cepero, a guard who sometimes came to visit Briam and Sian.

 

“Kerith, what’s the matter?” he asked. “Why are you running like this? Is someone chasing you?” He glanced down the street behind her, standing up abruptly, his hand going to his sword.

 

“No, it’s Finn, and Briam and Oriel,” Kerith wailed, the tears that had threatened earlier cascading down her cheeks. “Jahlena locked them in a room, and we have to get the guards and save them!”

 

“Slow down, Kerith, and tell me what happened from the beginning.”

 

***

 

Meanwhile Briam was busy trying to remain hidden while in plain sight. After leaving Finn and Kerith, he had reached the same door that they had found earlier. As he walked toward it, it opened to let out a small boy carrying trash. He dropped it carelessly to the side and then, with a quick look behind him, he took off. Briam crept toward the open door, but all was silent inside, so he continued inside toward the kitchen.

 

“Boy, get over here at once.” The voice was deep and gruff. When Briam looked up, he realized it must be the cook; the man had on a dirty white apron, and was chopping something. He was fat, and had the biggest stomach that Briam had ever seen. He was also almost bald, and what little hair he had was wilting.

 

“Don’t just stand there, boy. They never get me any help, and when they do, it’s a lazy boy who can’t do a lick of work.” He was chopping a very big fish, and as he spoke, his hands went faster and faster until Briam couldn’t distinguish the individual chops. “Get over here, and bring me those potatoes from the store room. Through that door there.” The man nodded toward a door on the opposite side of the kitchen.

 

Briam rushed into the pantry. After all, he didn’t want to attract any unwanted attention by denying that he was the help the cook seemed to think he was. The door from the kitchen into the pantry wasn’t in the kitchen itself; it was across a small corridor. He stared down the corridor, but it curved away to one side, and he couldn’t see any farther. The pantry was a small dark room filled with sacks and more sacks, some of them open and lying on the ground, while others were tied shut and stacked high to the ceiling. Then Briam heard a shout from the kitchen. Guessing that the cook wanted his potatoes, he grabbed a large sack lying open on the floor, about half-full of potatoes, and dashed back to the kitchen.

 

“There you are. How long does it take to get a sack of potatoes from the store? Never mind, I’ll take a switch to you when I’m done. Now, I need you to go scrub those pots over there.” This time the cook nodded to the dirty pots and pans stacked knee high in a corner of the kitchen.

 

Voices wafted in from the corridor, and two people entered the kitchen, a man and a chubby blond girl. The cook turned toward the door and began another diatribe as soon as he saw who the visitors were.

 

“Jamis, I need another helper. You can’t let Jahlena chase all the young ‘uns away like this. I told you I wanted at least three helpers. Did you talk to her? Well, did you?” He stood with one arm akimbo, waving the other still holding the knife.

 

“Of course I did, Varwedian. I told her you needed three helpers, so you’ll get at least two. What happened to the one who’s been here for the past sennight?” Jamis asked.

 

“It takes him a bell to bring me a sack of potatoes from the store. Where you do find these boys, I’ll never know. They’re all lazy, anyway, and by Nehru’s pointy nose, I’ll take a switch to this young ‘un, I will. As for you, Jamis, you’re pond scum if you think I’ll take this from that trollop, and –”

 

“You shut your mouth, Varwedian. Don’t talk like that in front of my daughter. Anyway, I need you to make some more stew for tonight. We’re expecting a large group this evening on account of the minstrel –”

 

“What? No helper and –” the cook threw his chopping knife across the kitchen.

 

Briam, who had been watching the entire exchange spellbound, moved and ducked. The knife touched his left arm and fell straight down to the ground. “Ow!” He examined his arm. There was a small cut, and it began to bleed. He pressed his hand to it, but looked up at the two men when Jamis roared, “Don’t you be throwing knives around in my inn!” He closed with the cook.

 

The girl who had followed Jamis inside the kitchen hurried out. Briam followed, peering after her, and watched her rush up some stairs. He moved closer to the pantry door and turned his attention back to the combatants. The two men were not evenly matched, since the cook was much fatter than Jamis, besides being a good six fingers shorter. Jamis, on the other hand, looked old and tired. He punched the cook in the stomach, but the cook moved his left hand in a blocking motion, preventing the punch from connecting. Varwedian looked here and there, and then his eyes widened. He reached out and grabbed a ladle from the counter, and began to hit the innkeeper with it.

 

“Umph.” Jamis let out a pain-filled grunt and then grabbed the ladle. He yanked it, and the cook let go. Jamis went staggering back, almost losing his balance. The cook took the opportunity to stretch out a hand behind him, pick something up and throw it in the innkeeper’s eyes. Then he leaned against the counter and waited, a slight smile on his face.

 

Jamis immediately began to rub his eyes, and growled, “Oh! You scumbag, misbegotten son of a weasel –”

 

“What’s going on here?” Another voice interrupted. It was Jahlena, who had entered the kitchen followed by the blond girl. Briam swallowed, recalled from his fascination with the fight. He scrambled from his vantage post and retreated into the corridor, which curved away to his left, and had doors on either side, all closed. He hesitated, unwilling to try to open them in case someone caught him, but at the same time, unsure what to do.

 

He thought about it for a moment. He knew that Jahlena had Oriel somewhere in this inn. If the blond girl had gone up a staircase and brought Jahlena to the kitchen, then didn’t that mean that Oriel was upstairs? Before he could think about it any more, he heard voices approaching from the kitchen, and his decision was made for him. He rushed down the passageway, uncaring of where it led. There was a wide open door at the far end and the din of loud conversations floated through. That must be the common room of the inn. He couldn’t go in there! What if someone caught him and handed him over to Jahlena? No, he had to find the others first.

 

Briam turned, cornered, sure that Jahlena would catch him. He returned the way he came, opening each door on the way looking for escape. The first door opened to an empty room. The second door was locked. The third door opened to a small room with a staircase! Briam entered, shut the door behind him and hurried up the staircase. He found himself in another long corridor with doors on either side. He tried to open the doors, and most of them gave onto rooms with nothing but furniture. Two were locked. There was no sound when he tried one door handle, so he twisted the other to see if that one, at least, would open.

 

***

 

The door rattled. Oriel shivered and moved closer to Finn. He straightened, waiting for it to open. Then they heard voices outside. Both the remaining children pressed one ear each to the door, trying their hardest to listen to what was going on.

 

“Ow! Don’t hit me!” The howl was loud enough for them to distinguish the individual words, the cadence and tone of the voice.

 

Finn murmured, “That’s Briam.”

 

“So, I have one more boy, eh? Well, this is good. More cutpurses.” The woman laughed loudly. “Oh, you want to open the door? Well, let me. Hmm, I need a couple of hands in the kitchen right now, so we’ll put you and the other boy to work helping Varwedian.”

 

They heard the key click in the lock, and then a flurry of footsteps again. Another voice spoke, sounding breathless, as if its owner had run up the stairs. “Jahlena, the guard is here. They want to search the inn and Father wants you down there to talk to them.”

 

“Watch this little devil. I’ll be right back.” Jahlena left, her heavy footsteps receding quickly.

 

The door rattled again, and then someone kicked it open.

 

“Aaaaaah!”

 

Finn took in the situation at a glance. A plump, blond girl was on the ground screaming, and Briam was making urgent gestures to him. “Come on, Finn, get the girls and let’s go!”

 

The three children scrambled pell-mell down the stairs, and ran smack into two men and a little girl at the bottom stair: Sergeant Cepero, another guard and Kerith.

 

***

 

“Roman, what happened? The children?” Sian’s voice rose as she saw the bedraggled group following Sergeant Cepero into her house.

 

“Everyone’s fine, Sian. It’s a long story. It seems that Jahlena nabbed this little girl here, and these boys of yours decided to rescue her. Good thing they sent Kerith to find me!” He turned to the girls. “Oriel, this is Sian.”

 

A small girl, a few inches taller than Kerith, stepped forward. She curtseyed quite prettily, notwithstanding the fact that her beautiful hair hung lankly around a face streaked with tears, dust and grime. As for her dress, Sian didn’t know if it could possibly get any dirtier.

 

“Hello, Oriel, it’s very nice to meet you,” she said gently.

 

The girl gave her a small smile and stepped back behind Briam.

 

“What in the world? Briam, you’re hurt.” Sian moved close to Briam and examined the bandage on his upper arm.

 

“Don’t worry. It was just a small cut, nothing serious. We bandaged him,” Cepero said. When she looked up at him questioningly, he motioned her away from the children with a nod and said softly, “Jahlena had locked the children in a room but she swears it was just to give them a scare because they walked into the inn through the back door. She said she’d sent Tira upstairs to turn ‘em loose. And then Tira came running down with the keys in her hand, so there wasn’t much I could do about it. But I am going to be watching Jahlena and I’ve made sure she knows it.”

 

Sian smiled at the grim way in which he spoke. “So long as the children are safe, that’s fine. But what about this little girl?”

 

“Well, that’s an interesting story. About a sennight ago we had a small fire northeast of the city — we found the bodies of a woman and a small child. The owner of the cottage, a man named Coragen, identified the bodies as his tenant Rasine and her child. He also told us that the dead woman used to work at the Shattered Spear.

 

“Now your girl Kerith tells me that Oriel’s mother’s name is Rasine and that she went away somewhere leaving Oriel all alone. I’d wager a Round to a rat that Jahlena asked Coragen to tell us the kid died because she wanted to take this child to work at the inn. But see, the odd thing is that the kid that died was a boy. I need to find out who the child was. I’ll be paying Coragen another visit.”

 

Sian sighed, sorrow engulfing her at the thought of the death of a child. She looked up at Cepero who had a determined expression on his face. She knew he was still wondering who the dead child was. For herself, she would grieve for the dead child, but it was the child alive who needed her. “What about Oriel?” she prodded Cepero for more information.

 

He continued, “Oriel’s terrified of Jahlena, and knowing her, it won’t be long before she gets the child to entertain the guests at the Spear. It’s wrong, Sian; Oriel’s just a child. I couldn’t leave her there with Jahlena, knowing what she was planning. I don’t know what to do with the child and I thought you might take her in.”

 

“But Roman, what about her father?”

 

“She won’t talk to me but Briam says she doesn’t have one. I can ask around, but until we find out if she has any family, what am I to do with her? Couldn’t you keep her?”

 

Sian nodded. “Indeed I can. But be sure to ask around because I don’t know if I can afford to keep another child. What about her though? Will she be willing to stay here?”

 

“Why don’t you ask her?”

 

She smiled at the sergeant and turned to the waiting children. She looked into the girl’s eyes and said, “Oriel, I know you’re scared of Jahlena. But you’re safe now and no one will hurt you. Would you like to stay here with us?”

 

The girl’s response was immediate. “But I have my own house to live in.”

 

“What?” Sian couldn’t understand where that had come from, and looked up at Cepero. He shook his head, a puzzled expression on his face. She continued, “I thought your mother died in a fire. Are you living with a friend?”

 

“Oh, no,” Briam replied. “She’s living by herself at a warehouse near the river.”

 

Sian frowned momentarily, shocked. She composed herself at once, and looked at Oriel. “You can’t live in a warehouse by yourself. What if Jahlena finds out?”

 

“Stay with us, Oriel,” Kerith piped.

 

Finn said, “Sian makes the best bread in all of Dargon, you know.”

 

“Why, thank you, Finn,” Sian said, smiling at the redheaded boy.

 

The little girl looked from Briam back to Sian and then said, “Does Briam live here too?”

 

“Yes, I do,” he answered. “You should come and live with us.”

 

“Aren’t you going to say yes?” Kerith asked. “Sian will brush your hair. It’s nice. Your hair needs to be brushed.” She stared critically at Oriel’s bedraggled locks, and Sian swallowed a smile.

 

“We’ll have fun. You can laugh at all my jokes,” Finn offered with a smile. “Like this one: what do you call a soldier who was born in Beinison, fought in Magnus, and died in Dargon?”

 

“That’s a new one,” said Briam. “I don’t know; what?”

 

“Dead!” Finn crowed.

 

Everyone laughed, while Briam groaned and made a face. Then he turned to Oriel. “So are you staying?”

 

She nodded. “Straight, I’ll stay.”

 

“You know what else? You can have rabbit stew every day,” Finn said, grinning slyly at Sian, who raised her hand in mock threat, upon which Finn retreated behind Kerith, laughing uproariously.

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