The journey from Kindair to the Nol River, where it carved a westward path through the basin of the Emerald Cup, had taken Rhialwyn two full hours that morning, moving slowly as she had been. The return journey had taken not much more than half an hour so far as she led Ange arrow-straight towards her home, the deer carcass long jettisoned. Rhialwyn ploughed ahead, heedless of branch and bough; her face was scratched, and flushed not just with effort. She had given Ange several lashings of her tongue since they had started out; she had only ceased to save her breath. She felt she could continue with her tirade for hours yet. How could the fool let me carry on when my family, my home is under threat? She tossed her head angrily, not for the first time, and Ange’s answering sigh from behind only made her up her pace even further. Of course he kept up easily.
In truth, she was more than just furious at her friend – she was terrified. Griffins? Six protect us, Nihemual guide my kin safely, she prayed. Griffins! She knew they were close, no more than a league from the rear of the town, and she restrained herself from breaking into a run. She’d be no use to anyone if she arrived home trembling from exertion and unable to think straight. Assuming the town still stood… Nihemual watch over my kin, she repeated mentally.
Breaking through the tree line, Rhialwyn was surprised by a cool breeze that pricked at the sweat drops on her brow. She found herself at the edge of a familiar dusty road that ran in a sweep along the southern edge of Kindair’s outskirts. The wall of the town centre abutted the far side of the road, great dark logs stripped of branches and dug upright deep into the soil. They were weathered, chipped, but they had stood against the ravages of time and – and, she now realised, stood still, as implacable as ever. She followed the curve of the wall round to the left, treading lightly in the thick grass and straining her ears for any unusual noises, but the twittering of birds and the rustle of branches betrayed the normality of the afternoon. She found her way to her secret entrance, a pair of logs daubed together generations ago, into which a door, just large enough for a man to pass through, had been sawed and hinges attached. To the untrained eye it was invisible when closed, but Rhialwyn knew her home better than anyone. She inched the door open, holding her breath and nocking an arrow. She could feel her pulse beating fast in the side of her neck. But as the door came clear of the wall, the noise of a bustling town pushed its way through the gap.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and wheeled, drawing her bow and loosing. The arrow whistled away into the dense forest whence she had come, and she heard a low chuckle.
“Lucky I’m quick, eh!” Ange whispered, in that infuriatingly smug tone. She swung her bow at him but pulled up short of striking him for fear of the noise it might make. Ange motioned to the door, a finger to his lips. “Me first, Rhia.” And with that, he slipped through the door and vanished from sight.
Rhialwyn set her back to the log wall and resolved to wait and count to one hundred, though she failed to make it to ten before fidgeting and losing count; she gave up waiting and drew her bow once more, turning it unflinchingly on the door. The seconds dragged by and the world faded as she focussed. Her breathing was regular again, her entire consciousness trained on the arrow tip. After an eternity there was a knock on the door. She swallowed and drew the bowstring back even tauter. The door swung open and her heart lurched, but then a familiar voice called through the aperture.
“Rhia, it’s Ange. It’s safe. I’m with your father.”
“Is it safe to come through, Rhia?” came the deep rumble of her father’s voice. There was amusement in his tone, which caused a stab of anger in her chest. Finally, she let the bow drop and returned the arrow to her quiver.
“You can come out, though I can’t promise I won’t shoot you anyway,” she said. A boom of laughter sounded through the door and Ange stepped lightly into view, his eyes watchful as ever, though he looked oddly abashed. He stepped aside to let the man behind pass through the doorway, though he had to turn sideways to fit through.
Stor Fairhaven, Duke of the ancestral lands whence came his family name, was not especially tall, though he was as broad-shouldered and solid as anyone Rhialwyn knew. He was a fearsome man to behold, with his massive girth enhanced by a great cloak of bear fur that added extra height and depth to his shoulders. His head and face were thick and flat – Rhialwyn’s more refined looks had come from her mother – with dark grey eyes set close together either side of a nose that had lost its shape from receiving several blows too many. His head was shaven to the scalp on either side, the hair on top hanging in a thick iron-grey braid to match his magnificent plaited beard. His moustaches were bound in twine threaded with dark beads, and as ever he wore his circlet of knotted rope interwoven with bright green leaves and ivy vines. On another man the affectation may have looked ridiculous, but on her father it looked fearsome, kingly even. His wide, thick hands were resting on a stretched belt through which was thrust a double-bladed axe. Ordinarily she would be delighted to see her father, but instead she glared at him, her mood darkening further when she saw how he, too, was trying to hide a grin. Insufferable men! She thought. Smirking as though I were nought but a noisome child. I’m sure all men know the depth of their condescension, but they continue regardless.
“Kindair still stands then, Father?” her tone was purposefully disrespectful.
As predicted, his badly hidden grin disappeared behind the fur of his moustaches. He glanced at Ange. “Of course, Rhialwyn.”
“I am glad. Equally so that you deem me so incapable that you send me away rather than let me assist in defending my home.”
He took a step towards her, his brow deepening. “Now, Rhia…”
She cut across him, and was ashamed to feel hot tears welling in her eyes. “That you should send me away knowing that I may return to find my uncle and my father, not to mention my home, razed to the ground, with me never knowing how or why.”
She sniffed and rubbed a hand across her face. “I suppose it doesn’t matter since whatever danger was present has clearly passed now. Not that anyone saw fit to inform me of its existence, content instead to let me hunt in blissful oblivion—“
“That is enough, daughter.” His tone was sharp and she stopped short. Stor took another stride towards her. “I have spoken to your guardsman here,” he jerked a thumb over his shoulder to a shame-faced Ange, “and he has informed me that you are under some sort of illusion – men riding griffins, was it?” He snorted. “Preposterous. No such thing happened, and you can be certain that master Di’Ange has been made aware of my tolerance for such ridiculous rumours.” Over her father’s shoulder Rhialwyn saw Ange staring determinedly at the floor, his brown features taking on a reddish tinge. “Need I make you aware of my tolerance for foolhardy and impertinent daughters?”
She kept his gaze, determined not to wilt under his gimlet stare. “No, father.”
“Good. Now can I trust you to behave inside Kindair’s walls, or must I leave you out here and fetch Master Horace?”
Rhialwyn flinched, reddening. Master Horace was the fearsome, wizened old head tutor at the town’s school, and his predilection for public dressings-down, more often than not involving a cane or belt, was legendary. That her father would use such a demeaning threat in front of anyone, even a close associate such as Ange, spoke volumes as to his impatience. Or the strain he’s under, she thought. In any case, she deemed it best to submit.
“You can trust me, Father.”
“Good.” His face softened again. “Because we are preparing a feast, and I should hate for you to miss it, cherry.”
Rhialwyn couldn’t help but cool towards her father when he used her pet name, so given for the deep red tinge to her hair when she was a girl. It had darkened enough to be barely perceptible these days, but her father persisted in using it, and she was more than happy to indulge him.
“Indeed,” rumbled Stor as he strode through the log door into Kindair and held it open for his daughter. “Master Di’Ange was right about one thing – we did indeed receive visitors this morning. Contrary to recent rumour, they did not ride in on the backs of mythical beasts, but instead journeyed on slightly more mundane horseback.” He moved on, pressing across a short footbridge over the bubbling brook that watered the town, a small offshoot of a nearby tributary of the Nol River to the north. The water passed through a series of sluices dug under the log walls, and they followed its path as it flowed clear and cold through the grocers’ and tradesmen’s squares, Stor nodding to passers-by and shaking hands as they went.
Soon enough they reached to the town centre, a modest clearing ringed by inns and graced by a stone carving of Nihemual himself, tossing his great horned head, which rose from the centre of a pool that marked the stream’s end. Stor paused to cup some water in his hands and splashed his face, the droplets streaming down his great wide face and matting in his beard. He blew water from his moustache in a great spray, a display that had delighted Rhialwyn as a child. She smiled at her father, her anger forgotten, and laid a hand on his wide arm.
“Who are they, Father? And if they posed no danger, why send me away?”
Stor cupped another handful of water and took a drink. “The two answers are linked, daughter. Androl heard of their approach through the Palms, for they have been vigilant these past weeks with the growing threat of the Madri. As they neared, it became clear that intended to make for Kindair itself, rather than skirting around, and Androl sent an envoy party to greet them and assess their motives. The envoys returned with reports that the band was composed of two noble emissaries of the Council of Anahor, sent to retrieve a fugitive fellow of theirs, and a number of merchants who had joined in the journey to pay trade visits to the outlying towns they passed on the way. They showed the envoy their writs for the man’s arrest, and the contents of their wagon – fine craft, grains and no small amount of gold.
“We invited them to rest in Kindair, for the trade will benefit the town greatly. And this brings me to the reason why I sent you to hunt in the Emerald Cup this morning, daughter.” He put an arm round her shoulders and led her towards the stairs that led to the town’s Longhall. “I have experience enough in the noblesse of Anahor to understand that merchant nobles will never pass up an opportunity. And, sadly, the age-old tradition of familial alliance still carries great weight for many noble houses. I had no way of telling the intentions of these newcomers, and I did not want to risk a greedy merchant seeking to establish a foothold in Karom by asking for the hand of a daughter of Fairhaven in marriage. Certainly not without assessing them personally first.”
Rhialwyn’s heart froze. Marriage? Her father laughed. “I somehow knew you would pull that face, Rhia. Fear not. Neither of these nobles is a suitor. There are but two – a man and a woman – and they are already wedded, to each other. In any case by their garb, travel-wear though it may be, they are not of a house of any great renown. Perhaps a new or minor house from an outlying region of Nol or Berand. Unworthy of you, my cherry.” Rhialwyn smiled at her father, taking his arm as they passed under the steepled arches of the Longhall entrance. Ange followed, close as ever. “And in any case, I doubt they would know how to deal with a wife who threatens to shoot them when she feels wronged.”
In the centre of Anahor lay the great wide expanse of the Place of the Golden Tear. It was shaped like its namesake, with the open space of the plaza forming the rounded bulb and the stone of the path that led through the north-western Arch of eirith shaped into the tapered tip of a great teardrop. Six great white arches were equally spaced around the rim of the Tear and golden filigree worked its way along the white stone from arch to arch. Friezes depicting the respective Domain were etched into the sides of each great stone column and along the arch itself. Each path was a gateway to a different district of the city; maeroth led to the market district and the Wetlands; luoreth led to the wealthiest homes and estates and the finest shops and watering holes, and eirith led up the wide steps of Carrock’s Causeway to the stables, the barracks and eventually the Capitol of Anahor itself.
The gate of aeneath led away from the place of the Golden Tear, bending in a tight rightward sweep lined with stalls that wafted the aroma of spiced meat and roast vegetables. Citizens lolled in drunken stupors where they had fallen, face-down in squalor among the gutters of the roadside, victims alike whether fortune had favoured or cursed them, yet they were ignored by the throng that pressed in both directions. The air was thick and moist here, redolent with the humour of thousands of bodies. Children ducked and weaved through the crowds, cutting a purse here or pilfering a morsel there, and slipping unnoticed to disappear into alleyways and up to rooftops to examine their spoils, hunched over to examine their loot, protecting it from other avaricious glances.
The crowd surged onwards, the lively thrum of conversation and ribald jibes floating overhead, and up a gentle incline where the road widened to embrace a great circular edifice of stone, white like the rest of the great city. The crowd spread and dispersed as citizens made for their favoured point of entry, streaming like ants through the narrow entryways and into the Grand Arena of Anahor. The roar of the crowd and the hammering of drums rumbled through the walls as though the stone itself was welcoming them, and it was a cold and passionless man whose heart did not beat a little faster as they imagined the glory unfolding ahead.
The crowds scaled wooden scaffolds built against either wall of the entryway and broke back into the warm afternoon sunshine, dust hanging golden in the glowing air, and the baying of the crowd rose to a cacophony as they made their way to sit or stand on the banks of cool white stone and turn to finally lay eyes on the wide expanse of bare, dusty ground they called the Barrow. Here, on this blood-flecked earth, was where slaves became heroes, criminals became gladiators. This was the reward for the people of Anahor who had survived the privations of the war of succession. A blood sport to siphon off any residual aggression or resentment. And, as evidenced by the packed arena, the citizens had taken to their new sport like leeches to a wound.
Unnoticed among the wooden scaffolds were more children, gaunt-eyed and feral in their rags, crammed five or ten to each crosspiece. From here they could just about see the combat as it unfolded, as long as the front rows of spectators did not cavort too wildly. More importantly for the older, more experienced children, who had enough clout to bully or threaten their way to the scaffolds on the outside with the least restricted view, they could watch the patrons in their seats. One such child, a girl of twelve, perhaps thirteen, sat easily on her narrow roost even as it shook with the footsteps of the ascending crowd, one skinny leg wrapped around the vertical strut and the other dangling free above the head of the child below. Her hair was black under a heavy layer of dust and grime, and her skin was pale despite the abundant sunshine. Her rags were noticeably less disgusting than those of her peers, though the sleeves had long been torn off, revealing her bony arms. She was otherwise distinguishable from the other ratty youths by a pair of newish leather gloves she could never have afforded by any honest means, fingerless with thin pockets on the palm and the backs of the hands.
The boy at her side jostled her and she elbowed him savagely, making him yelp. The children around squawked their laughter as the unfortunate boy wobbled and slipped from his perch, greased as it was with the fermented drippings from the crowd above. He just about righted himself before he fell, but instead of aiming a retaliatory blow at the girl, he swung instead at his neighbour on the other side. More laughter chattered from the gaggle but the girl did not move an inch. For while the others were enjoying the spectacle that was unfolding in the dusty pit, and others were now teasing the boy at her side, and others were simply enjoying the camaraderie of their peers, free of the tyranny of parents they had escaped or never known, the girl’s gaze was fixed on a man in the front rows of the stand. He was unmistakeable with his thick, hairy neck. She could see the sweat on his balding pate from where she sat thirty feet away. The cackle of her fellows rose afresh – perhaps someone had fallen, or a true scuffle had broken out – but her stare did not falter, for she was here to work. And she was in for a long night, from the smell of things.
Her eyes flicked momentarily to the clash in the middle of the pit, confirming her suspicions in an instant before she returned her attentions to her target. The two combatants were still locked in battle, though it was clear to her trained eye which way the fight was going. The favourite, Bzark, a viperish battlemage from the corsair isle of Ceut, was about to lose to a newcomer, an upstart Chim’ra who must have been in rags when he was arrested and thrown into slavery, and had apparently not managed to scrounge together any armour. That was fairly common, to be fair, as armour that fit the stocky frame of a Chim’ra was hard to find at most armoursmiths, let alone in a slave compound. They were too short and thickset for human armour to fit them, and shoulderpads did not sit easily on their thickly furred, hunched shoulders. Helmets were a practical impossibility, of course, for a race with the heads of rams, fearsome twisted horns and all.
The girl, whose name was Barley – though she could not remember being given it – allowed her attention to slide back to the fight itself. In truth, keeping her eyes on her quarry was an unnecessary affectation given her unusual skillset. She could smell his peculiar mix of stubborn, drunken defiance overwashed with a creeping panic. It wasn’t a smell, as such - not like fresh bread like she imagined her mother might have baked, or fresh shit – though ‘smell’ was the closest approximation she could manage with her young vocabulary and stunted imagination. It was, the Master would tell her, her special sense. It wasn’t normal, apparently, to sense a man’s intentions and emotions as if they had been spoken aloud. A lucky consequence of her mind being addled, scrambled, when she was too young to be Domains-touched as she had been. Others will think you strange, the Master would tell her, for they do not see as you do. Best to remain quiet. Apparently she was strange. Difficult to tell how. Most people were strange, as far as she could tell. If everyone was strange, how was she any stranger than anyone else? Still, remaining quiet suited her. Nobody notices quiet children. The Master had said that too.
She was aware that her eyes had grown unfocused and she knew how strange she looked when she glazed over. The Master had told her that, too. Apparently one of her eyes didn’t look straight. But then Vaivardi had big long ears, and Abjaht corsairs had dark skin and pale tattoos, Madri had tusks. Chim’ra had horns and fur, for goodness’ sake. She couldn’t understand how a funny eye looked any stranger than all of them. But the Master preferred when she obeyed. He knew best. Best to stay focused.
She looked to the fighters. Bzark was panting, a great wound across his chest though it knitted partially to stem the bleeding as she watched. Eirith, luoreth, urdoeth; One, Two, Six, she recognised. Intricately woven. This warrior was a talent. Ordinarily he’d have been able to scorch a path straight through the wall to freedom with his magics and no horde of clamouring plebs, as the Master called them, could’ve stopped him. Of course the arena walls were plugged up with more magic-deadening wards than any living mage could unravel. She could smell them too. They had burned her nostrils when she first came here, but she’d become used to their acridness. No – once you were in the Barrow, there was only one way out, no matter your talents. Bzark’s about to find that out the hard way, Barley thought. She giggled before stopping herself with a loud snort. The other children fell silent, and she stared around owlishly. Best to remain quiet. The children’s chatter resumed.
The Chim’ra was crouched low, a great spear with a hooked axe-blade lowered before him. He smelled calm, neutral. Chim’ra are difficult, Barley thought. Difficult to read. Inscrutable, she would have thought, had she known the word. His eyes appeared to be closed, and his chin fur was lathered with frothy spit. His barrel chest was heaving with exertion. Bzark was circling, his sword held in both hands. The Ceutan’s trademark aura, which he had used to blind his many previous opponents, was conspicuous by its absence. Such a simple defence, shutting your eyes. Of course he’s not the first to try it, but this Chim’ra is some fighter to best Bzark on smell and sound alone. Not that either of them could lay a finger on the Champion.
As she watched, the Chim’ra lunged, his black shaggy form darting with surprising speed towards his opponent, who dropped into a sideways roll, slashing with his sword at the Chim’ra’s ankles. The beast-man dived over the scything blade and skidded along the dusty earth, lashing out a thick arm to catch the corsair’s ankle – but his grip slipped. Bzark had sheathed himself in some form of magical coating that let him slide loose, though it was not enough. The Chim’ra’s grip may have failed but the magical defence could not stop the point of his spear, which he rammed upwards through the man’s dark chest. Still Bzark stood though, swinging his sword to score the ram’s thick shoulder deeply, but then he was lifted bodily on the spear and driven into the dirt. The Chim’ra bore down on top of him and finished the fight with a twist of the spear. He lay on top of the Ceutan for a moment, panting heavily, his face in the dead man’s shoulder, and as the murmur of the shocked crowd rose to a clamour, he pushed himself to his feet. The crowd greeted the underdog with wild applause, cheers and whistles. Something told Barley he might not struggle to find armour that fit before his next fight.
Her quarry had vanished; she had known he would, because he had bet heavily on Bzark and he could not afford to pay. That was why she was here. In any case she could still detect his unique flavour in amongst the milling masses; he had exited his seat as soon as the Chim’ra’s spear drove home and he was pushing his way down the wooden scaffold steps to her right. She watched, with her eyes this time, as he passed directly underneath her, his bald head sweaty in the warm evening. There appeared to be two men following him, though it was tricky to tell in the human tide they fought against in the shade of the stands. Barley slipped from her perch and clambered down the struts, grabbing her fellows’ rags to steady herself, and she dropped softly to the dusty stone floor next to the wall. She had to suck in her scrawny stomach and press herself against the wall to slip past the oncoming throng, but she had done this plenty of times before, and soon enough she was outside where there was more space. She skirted round to the edge of the wide entry plaza and scrabbled up onto the nearest stall, following her target from rooftop to rooftop. He was easy enough to keep track of, for the panic in his smell was stronger now than the drink and the defiance.
After a short while he reached the Golden Tear and turned right, passing through maeroth and starting the long walk downhill to the Hutch. She took a shortcut through the thick shrubbery between the paths and paused for a second in the thick cover of foliage to munch on a juicy peach that she had absent-mindedly pilfered from an aeneath market stall. It was warm and comfortable, birdsong beginning to die down in the growing dusk, and she looked uphill towards the Capitol where it glowed golden in the sunset. The Master would be up there, waiting for her to report back. She finished her peach and sucked the stone as a tiny lizard came to investigate the sweet aroma. She could smell its lack of fear as it flitted up her bony leg and onto her lap, tiny tongue flickering out to touch her wrist where sticky juice was dribbling. The rest of the world faded to the background and she quietly watched it. She liked animals, particularly little ones. No-one ever noticed them either. They seemed to like her too. The lizard stepped carefully into her palm and snatched up a fleck of peach flesh from her leather glove, gulping it down. She held it up to her face and regarded it a moment. The Master said it was good that animals liked her. It shows you are kind, for animals can sense malice as surely as you can sense that I am telling you the truth. He always smelled honest, the Master. Honest and… clever.
She put the lizard down and left it the peach stone, shinning up onto another roof and setting off after her target again. He was a fair way down the slope towards the Hutch and she had to hurry to regain his scent, the dipping sun warming her knobbly back. Soon enough he turned right off the main boulevard and down an alley towards a cluster of sizeable houses. Barley cut across the roofs and reached his home just before he entered. The two men with him stopped at the entrance and turned to survey the street, cudgels appearing in their brawny hands. She wasted no time in dropping off the roof to the rear of the building, hanging from the gutter by her fingertips and scrabbling for purchase on the rough stone wall with her bare toes. She wriggled sideways until she was above a narrow balcony and dropped to land with barely a noise. She didn’t bother to press herself to a wall; this balcony overlooked the gardens at the house and no-one could see her, small as she was.
She tested the windows to either side of the polished wood door – the windows were glass, which even with magical production methods was still expensive. Moreover they were locked. This man was very well off. He must have bet and lost a substantial sum, for the Master only sent her when the punter couldn’t pay. She gave up on the windows and drew a slim blade, lifting it smoothly along the crack between door and frame. The blade was Domain-forged, touched with aeneath – a particularly special gift from the Master. It sliced cleanly through the lock and latch and the door dropped slightly on its hinges, clunking loudly on the smooth stone floor. Barley froze. She listened for sounds of recognition from the interior, but after several moments it was clear no-one had heard. The quiet, but for the chirrups of parakeets, was undisturbed, the air spicy with the aroma of incense from the maeroth way markets blowing across on a lively breeze that set the thick foliage of the surrounding trees to rustling.
Barley eased open the door, just a crack, and slipped through, finding herself in a darkened bedchamber. Smooth stone blocks formed the walls and ceiling but the floor was of polished wood. The lamps around the room were unlit, the only light issuing from the windows and the archway that led through to the landing and stairwell. She could hear the murmur of voices through the opening, though she could not make out what was being said. Even in the low light she could make out the richness of the fabric of the bed hangings and the solid wooden furniture. She was sorely tempted to jump up on the bed and roll around in luxurious comfort, but she knew the Master would disapprove. Best not to leave any trace. She walked through the archway and onto the landing, which was lit by a warm yellowish glow. She peered through the ornate bannisters and just caught sight of a shining bald head disappearing underneath her.
“Hello?” came a voice from behind her.
Barley jumped, immediately annoyed at her lack of attention. She swivelled to see a young girl of about her age standing in the doorway to another bedroom. The girl was pretty, with rosy cheeks and blue eyes, thick blonde hair hanging down around her shoulders. She wore a light blue robe of silk that Barley immediately knew cost more than she would ever own. The girl eyed her dubiously, as one might a stray cat. “I don’t think you should be in here,” she said.
Barley stayed silent, staring at her hair. The girl didn’t smell scared, just unsure, a little distasteful. Barley didn’t really know what to do. The smell – the actual smell – of the girl’s hair was wonderful. Floral. For some reason Barley thought she might cry, and she never cried.
“Does my father know you’re here?” the girl asked. Barley stayed silent again, looking over the girl’s shoulder now and into her bedroom. There were dolls scattered on the floor, and thick cushions were strewn over an enormous soft bed. Other stoles and dresses in bright, pretty colours were pooled in silken puddles across the floor. The sunset was shining gloriously through the wide window, and everything the light touched looked as if it were dipped in melted gold. Barley was confused when she smelled regret and envy, before she realised with a start it was her own. She looked back to the girl, who now smelled – and looked – concerned. Her hands had risen to her chest.
“I think you should go,” she said, pointing to the room Barley had come from. “However you got in, go back the same way, please.”
Barley turned to look where the girl pointed, back into the dark bedchamber. She was rooted by indecision. The Master would be so angry with her. She knew she should do something – but the house was so pleasant and the scent of the girl’s hair was so intoxicating. She stood her ground and looked back to the girl again, and this time she knew her eyes must have looked strange, because the girl shrank back and drew a great lungful of air as if to scream – but before she let it loose, the girl’s eyes widened, looking at something behind Barley, and then everything happened at once. A great meaty fist grabbed Barley’s arm and lifted her off her feet and instinctively she kicked out, connecting with a bony heel in a man’s stubbly face. She smelled outrage as he dropped her and pain lanced in her bruised heel as she landed on the wooden landing. She slipped her right forefinger into the slim pocket on the back of her left glove and withdrew a tiny, narrow blade, which she slid across the man’s forearm. Immediately he sagged, his arm blotching an ugly purple almost instantly. He was unconscious before he hit the floor.
Now the girl was screaming, and Barley moved to grab her by the hair, dragging her upright as another man clumped up the stairs to stop before her, his eyes wide. She recognised her target’s blend of drink and panic, the latter stronger than ever as he saw the predicament of the girl Barley assumed to be his daughter. He glanced towards his fallen bodyguard and reached a hand out towards her, pleading. “Please,” he croaked.
Barley considered a moment, though again her mind was fuddled by the flowery aroma of the girl’s hair as it bobbed in front of her face. She was jealous of the girl, of course, but she didn’t want to hurt her. She let the girl go and she shot forwards as if fired from a bow, sprinting to hug her father’s knee. He soothed her, patting her head, but his eyes, glassy with drink though they were, never left Barley’s. He shushed his daughter, detaching her before pushing her behind him. “Go downstairs,” he told her. She obeyed at a run.
He appeared to realise that he was confronted with just a scrawny girl, and Barley smelt some of his fear giving way to confusion and wary confidence. He advanced a step.
“Get out of my home, girl,” he warned. His eyes darted down once more to the prone figure of his bodyguard. The panic spiked again, a funny, bright smell. She almost smiled, but said nothing. The man stepped forward again, his face ruddy and sweaty. “Go, urchin. How dare you enter my home and threaten my child! I will have you in slavery in a heartbeat if you do not leave this instant.”
She withdrew a half step, her eyes downcast, and clasped her hands in front of her legs, tucking her left forefinger into the pocket on her right glove. She knew she looked small, cowed. It always worked. No-one fears a timid child. She smelt the man’s triumph, warm and throaty in a wobbly bed of drunken confidence. He strode forward, snarling, and reached an arm out to grab her. That was all she needed. The minute blade was instantly in her left hand, and she brushed it across the main’s palm. His legs locked and he hit the floor, hard, rolling awkwardly onto his back as he began to scream the throat-tearing shriek of an animal in agony. She looked down at him as he was wracked by more convulsions. She knew his vision would be clouding as he went blind from the poison. She didn’t like this part. She sat down and hugged her knees and scrunched her eyes shut. Shutting your eyes… such a simple defence.
With her eyes shut it wasn’t so bad. It didn’t seem like long before the screams faded and he fell unconscious, and she could no longer smell his suffering. She shuffled around on her bottom, opening her eyes as she looked into the girl’s room. She smiled as she smelled the flowers in her blonde hair again.