Have you seen my sister? She disappeared four years ago. I don’t have a picture but she looks a bit like me, if I had darker hair.
Branwen Grid, have you heard of her?
I’m looking for someone. Maybe you’ve seen her – my height, bigger build, darker hair? Looks a bit like me, not really like me, but people say they can tell we’re related…
Now I’m just babbling.
“Take a deep breath,” says Ayla from the next horse over. Take a deep breath I mimic, because that’s Ayla’s solution to everything and it’s bloody annoying.
I don’t even know what she’s doing here.
“Can I kill her now?” says Ren from my other side.
“Please? I’m so bored.”
I know what he’s doing here but I’ve no idea what I was thinking, bringing him along. About the only thing he’s good for is finding Ayla even more irritating than I do and saving me the trouble of snipping at her. They’ve been at it for two days and it’s another five hot hours through semi-arid desert to Obertown.
“I can hear you,” she says in a mild tone that makes me want to punch her teeth down her throat. Snip.
“Why are you here, again?” says Ren, sounding as if he is resisting a similar urge. Snip-snip.
“I was bored.” Snip-snip-snip.
I am not getting paid enough for this.
The inn is half a mile out from Obertown on the south road, past where the dusty scrub begins to yield to vegetation. It’s not the cleanest place I’ve ever seen, not least because a large brown rat is grooming itself in a proprietorial fashion on one of the tables. And it’s the only customer.
“Don’t mind Cuthbert,” says a woman sitting to our right. “He won’t bite if you don’t.”
I try, and fail, to think of a response.
“So what brings you here?”
“I’m looking for someone,” and then, because I don’t need the distraction of wondering, “I’m sorry, why is there a rat on the table?”
She chuckles. “He just turned up one day. My wife wasn’t pleased, but he turned out to be handy in a corner. Didn’t you see the sign?”
There’s a pause during which I realise that she means for me to go and look, and sure enough there is a large sign on the door that reads ‘BEWARE RAT’. I don’t really know what to do with this.
“I don’t really know what to do with that,” I say as I go back inside.
“Most people don’t.”
Unsurprising. “So is your wife here?” It’s not just small talk. This might not end well and the fewer people around, the better.
“She’s gone to the laundry in town. We’re not on the river, see.”
I do. The way my shoes are sticking to the floor does not speak of a place with ready access to water.
“So… friend or foe?”
She wrinkles her nose. “Not really an answer.”
That’s an understatement. “Branwen Grid. I know she passed through here. Ring any bells?”
“It might. But the thing is – I don’t know you so I’m not sure I should say.”
Of course. In the rat confusion I neglected my manners. “I’m Merta. This is Ayla,” – Ayla inclines her head in a gracious manner that makes Ren and I flinch with suppressed rage – “and Ren.”
I slide the last of our gold in its little bag across the table. Tregerty pockets it and smiles. I smile back. We’re all friends now.
“I haven’t seen her but I might have acquired something of hers. Stay here,” and she disappears down the kitchen passageway.
Ayla tugs her headwrap down. She has such a sweet face. It’s hard to believe she’s such a plague.
“I don’t trust her,” she says. “Her name sounds made up, the rat story is certainly made up and I’m not sure she has a wife at all.” She gives her bare feet an unhappy look.
“It does seem… convenient,” I say.
“And there’s no-one else here,” says Ren, fondling the knife in his trouser pocket.
“Stop that,” I say. “It looks dubious.”
“To who, the rat?”
“To whom,” says Ayla.
“Oh, please let me kill her.”
“Will you shut up.” Tregerty’s coming back. The last thing I need is for her to hear them bickering.
“Here it is,” says Tregerty, placing a small wooden cube on the table. There’s a hole through the middle and it’s engraved on all sides, but it’s nothing special.
“What is it?” I say.
Tregerty makes a sympathetic face. “Her father’s ashes, so I was told.”
We look at the cube. If it truly contains the ashes of Branwen Grid’s father, he was not a big man by anyone’s standards. But I know it doesn’t.
“That can’t be true,” I say through a floaty feeling that I recognise as my courage trying to panic. “Branwen Grid’s father isn’t dead. Is he, Branwen?”
There’s a short, embarrassed pause.
“Oh, please,” I say. “Did you think it was an accident that you found out we were looking for you?”
We caught up with Ayla – Branwen – outside Sellaton. We made sure she heard of the strangers looking for Branwen Grid, the woman claiming to be her sister and the man who looked bored but carried many weapons.
“So why haven’t you killed me already?”
“I wanted to see what you would do.” This isn’t a lie. It just isn’t the truth she thinks it is. “Why did you come?”
“Wait a minute,” says Tregarty. “She’s Branwen Grid but she’s not your sister?”
“She killed my sister.”
“I – what?”
Shrug. “I’ve killed a lot of people. I don’t always know their names.”
I don’t know what I expected. She probably doesn’t even remember Annely but I remember the morning Annely told me I’m going after Branwen Grid with perfect clarity even though it was four years ago, because she never came back. I’ve been waiting and training all that time to kill Branwen and I’ve spent the last two days within stabbing distance. I’m going to fail this test if she makes me wait much longer.
“I’m here,” and she grabs the cube before anyone can stop her, “for this.” And she whips out her riding cane and plunges it through the hole in the cube. At last.
For a moment nothing happens, and then lots of things all happen at once. The cane is glowing as Branwen Grid turns, swinging it with a hand at each end and the bright cube in the middle. I freeze – I’m new to this, training notwithstanding – but I’m snapped out of it by Ren’s gutless dive for the door and I boot her in the arm as she brings the weapon to bear, just hard enough to deflect the explosion of black energy away from me and towards the back of the inn, where it takes out the back wall and most of the kitchen with it, throwing everyone to the ground in a hail of small rubble, filling my mouth and eyes with dust.
I can see Branwen Grid dragging herself upright through my gritty vision as I cough and grope for the table edge, but before she can get a good grip on the cane there’s a sudden dark rush of movement. Her mouth opens as rat-teeth sink into her neck, but her scream never makes it out and it takes me a moment to realise that it’s because his tail is around her neck. I’ve never seen someone being strangled before. She’s not looking so sweet now. I have no idea if his tail is strong enough to finish the job but I’m not about to let a rat cheat me out of this moment. Tregerty nimbly catches the cane falling from her clawing hands as I grab a knife from the floor where Ren dropped it for me – he might not be brave but he doesn’t go to pieces in a pinch – and throw it with all my rage at her heart.
The thump and the weight of the rat on her neck tip her backwards just enough to make sure she doesn’t die on her feet. I feel a vicious pleasure at that. She twitches as she dies. I’d planned to look into her eyes and watch her defeat, but now that the moment’s here I’d rather she died looking at a dirty ceiling, without being able to even see the sky.
“So that’s how it works,” says Tregerty as she emerges from under the table, eyeing the weapon with mistrust. “The riding cane, eh? Silly girl.”
I don’t reply, mostly because I’m reeling from what I’ve just done. I succeeded. It’s over.
“So you’re Merta Vale,” says Tregerty. “I knew your sister.” She looks at the body of Branwen Grid as if she might kick it. “You did well.”
“So you’ll recommend me?”
I try to smile. I feel as if a weight has lifted but a heavier one settled in its place. I never gave much thought to after. I’d do it now but I’m interrupted by a wet, abrasive sound coming from the body.
“Let go, Cuthbert.” Tregerty sounds more exasperated than disgusted. She needn’t worry on my account, he can use Branwen Grid’s fingernails as toothpicks for all I care, but he disengages his jaws and hops back up onto the table looking put out, just as Ren comes back through the door, looking self-conscious. I’ll have to remember to tell him he did well too.
I look around at the mess. “Sorry about…”
“Ah, it was time we were moving on anyway.” She looks sideways at me. “You couldn’t take Cuthbert with you? Ella, you know.”
The rat is now cleaning Branwen Grid’s blood off his whiskers. I’d rather not but I can’t refuse, can I? “Well… all right.”
“Can I have the gold back?”
She laughs. “No. But you can keep the horses.”
This cheers me up. Ren looks happier as well. They are good horses, and a spare as well, since Ayla won’t be needing it anymore.
“Come on then,” I say to Cuthbert, who jumps down and follow me through the wreckage and soon enough he’s perched in front of me on the saddle, holding the pommel with his paws, his tail looped around my forearm as my fingers tangle in the reins. I don’t mind as much as I thought I would.
“Go towards Obertown and cut across the old riverbed to the east road,” Tregerty says. “You can’t miss it. A day’s ride will get you to Pegfern. Find an inn called The Archer and tell them I sent you.”
I nod. “Thank you.”
She ruffles my horse’s mane and gives its neck a pat. “Watch out for each other.”
I glance at Ren and he glances at me. He and a rat are all I have now. “We will.”
I only look back once as we set off. It’s a long road. I can’t see the end of it.
We had to pick five characters from fifty; I used a random number generator and got the following:
The mysterious, heroic outlaw.
The agile, serene traveler.
The strong actor searching for a family member.
The unheroic impostor.
The domineering assassin looking for a challenge.