Authors: D.P. Prior
Tags: #A Maresman Tale
A MARESMAN TALE
Copyright © 2014 D.P. Prior.
All rights reserved.
The right of D.P. Prior to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All the characters in this book are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not be, by way of trade or otherwise, lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form, binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed upon the subsequent purchaser.
Table of Contents
MAP OF AETHIR
HE CHILL IN
Davy Fana’s bones had little or nothing to do with the wind. That much he knew, and no one was gonna tell him otherwise. It was blustery, right enough, the usual night swirls coming down from the Farfall Mountains, but the sea spray had no bite to it like it did in the winter. Could’ve been hunger, he supposed, thinning his blood or whatever happened when you didn’t eat for days on end; could also have been his mind playing tricks on him again, like most everyone in town told him whenever he said a word. He knew he wasn’t right—hadn’t been since the wolf pack came more than a decade ago, maybe even before that—but all the same, it felt like something was about to happen.
Only the two smaller moons lit his way to the high street from the cove; Raphoe, the biggest of the three, had sunk back beneath the horizon, and that meant it was just a few more hours till daybreak. It couldn’t come soon enough, given the prickling ice running up his spine, the gnawing in his guts. Last time he’d eaten anything other than crabs out of the rock pools was three days ago, when Maisie had saved him some leftovers from the Crawfish’s kitchens.
The Night Crew were huddled over their brazier like they felt the cold, too. Nothing unusual about that; they’d been gathering round the flames as long as Davy could remember, back when he was a kid, when he still had his sister Ilesa and the… progenitor. It was the best word he’d come up with—well, he hadn’t come up with it, that writer-man had: Nils Fargin. Davy never forgot a name. Said he’d traveled with Ilesa for a time, and came to Portis to get his facts straight for a book he was putting together.
Davy drew as close to the brazier as he knew the Crew would allow. They’d lulled in their singing, but the instant they spotted him, Mik Varney struck up the bass with a cycle of “Doo-be-dums”. Tel Arnol crowed some “wah-wahs”, and Pit Gar crooned a melody. It was like they’d been waiting for an audience; either that, or they thought no one was awake, so there’d be no danger of losing their reputation for singing all night long.
A couple of others were with them tonight, men Davy didn’t recognize. It happened often enough; itinerants came down from the city and stayed till Sheriff Tanner moved them on. Portis could barely tolerate its own beggars and simpletons, so there was no way in the Abyss they’d put up with anyone else’s.
One of the newcomers was seated cross-legged on the ground, gutting a rabbit. The skin was mostly off, hanging in broad and bloody strips from the carcass. Davy didn’t reckon the man knew much about skinning, and he was in too much of a hurry to tear off chunks of meat and pass them around to be skewered and roasted over the flames. Had to admit, though, it sure did smell good. Good as Tizzy Graybank’s haddock pie, even, and that was saying something. His tongue ran along his lips as he imagined tasting the grease, the saltiness, the fat. He took a step toward the brazier. Perhaps if they knew how long it had been since his last meal, they’d take pity. A few more steps, his mouth filling with saliva.
“Back off, loony,” Pit Gar said. Seemed rabbit flesh was more important to him than singing. “We earned it; we’re eating it.” He turned to the man doing the skinning. “Ain’t that right, Roc?”
“Aye. Earned it with your voices, and a right neighborly offer of a place at the fire,” Roc said.
Davy stood his ground. He knew they’d likely beat him if he didn’t clear off, but it smelled so good.
Mik Varney’s bass ended on a long drawn-out note that had the sound of a death-knell about it. Tel Arnol rubbed his fist against his palm and stepped away from the brazier. Davy’s heart was fluttering round his ribcage, but he couldn’t will his legs to move. It wasn’t fair, is what it was. All he needed was a bite of food.
The air grew heavy around him. The sky was a murky ceiling, pressing down on him, making him stoop. Fangs dripping blood flashed behind his eyes, and screams tore through the night—another night, far off, but always in his dreams. Then he was little again, barely in his sentences, and the progenitor was unfastening his britches.
“Told you to sling it,” Pit Gar growled. He ripped off a strip of rabbit meat with his teeth and brandished the skewer like a dagger.
The newcomers just looked on as Varney, Arnol, and Gar narrowed the gap between them and Davy. The look in their eyes told him he was less than the rabbit in their minds. He was next, he knew it. They were going to cook and eat him.
A door opened behind him. He craned his neck to see light cracking from the entrance to the Crawfish. Maisie stepped outside carrying a pail in both hands. She noticed the men and Davy, but quickly looked away like she always did. But it was enough. The men turned back to their brazier and halfheartedly struck up a new song as Roc handed out more meat. Maisie slopped the contents of her bucket into the gutter and was halfway back inside when Davy found his voice.
“Got any leftovers, this morning, Miss Maisie? I’m famished, I am.”
Her eyelids fluttered, but she didn’t look any higher than his bare feet. Davy was suddenly aware of how filthy they were.
“I’m, sorry, Mr. Davy,” she said in her twangy way. “Miss Sadie fed them to Old Man Tavvy’s pigs. I’ll see what I can find at supper time.”
Without looking up, she slid back inside and latched the door.
The men at the brazier had already forgotten about Davy, and were singing with gusto in between bites of meat. The noise echoed down the high street, but no one hollered for quiet. The singing was so much a part of the townsfolk’s’ lives, they’d most likely grown used to it; probably even found it soothing.
With a heavy heart and a griping stomach, Davy turned toward the alley, meaning to head back to the upturned boat on the shore he called home. Dark clouds raced overhead, bringing with them the threat of rain. He waited a moment to watch them, and when he saw a glimmer of red amid the blackness, his spirits lifted. Dawn was on its way, and that meant at least a chance of pastry scraps from Tizzy Graybank’s shop, assuming she was in a better mood than the past few days. Only, it wasn’t the light of the rising suns, he realized. It was a crimson glow coming from within one of the clouds. As he stared up at it, the red cloud broke away from the others, drifted against the wind, and dropped down at the top of the high street.
Davy’s eyes flicked to the brazier to see if anyone else had noticed, but the men were lost in their food and their song. The thought struck him then that he was seeing things again. He blinked half a dozen times and focused back on the red cloud. It was still there, rolling down the high street toward the Crawfish, and as he watched, a black face formed within it, ram’s horns curling away from the temples, eyes of scorching fire glaring straight at him.
“L-l-look,” Davy cried to the singers. “Look!”
Silence fell, and all five of them turned in the direction he was pointing.
There was nothing there. The street was empty.
“What?” Mik Varney said, a sneer in his voice.
“Yeah, what is it, freak?” Tel Arnol said.
Davy was shaking from head to toe as he stared at the spot he’d seen the face. It was a demon from the Abyss, he knew it. Come for him. Come to take him to the flames for what he’d let the progenitor do to him.
“A face,” he said through trembling lips. “I saw a face coming down the street, I did.”
“What’s that, then,” Pit Gar said, “your imaginary friend?”
“Maybe it’s his sister,” Mik Varney said. “Killing her pa weren’t enough for her; now she’s back for the rest of her stinking family.”
Davy’s fists clenched so hard, the nails bit into his palms. The stinging brought tears to his eyes, tears of anger he was afraid to let go of; tears of… He didn’t know what else. All he felt was a growing void in the center of his guts, begging more than just food to fill it.
Ilesa’s loving face sprang to mind, making him growl with rage. It was a lie, the way she used to look at him. It was all a lie, everything about her. Said she’d protect him; said she’d come back for him, but she never did.
Davy turned on his heel and ran into the alley.
EBEDIAH SKAYNE LEANED
back in the saddle, short rein keeping the colt’s head up so he didn’t get thrown coming down the scree. Half-sliding, half-stomping, Tubal reached the gully at the base of the mesa and whuffed his displeasure.
The shadows coming off the Farfall Mountains made it black as night at the bottom, even though both suns were high. Clouds scudded overhead from Qlippoth, too fast for a windless day. Didn’t surprise Jeb none. Nothing good ever came across the mountains; clouds were no different to every other incursion from the land of nightmares.
Tubal nickered and raked his front hoof in the ocher dust, so Jeb slackened the reins and gave him his head.
Blood trail was strong again, that much was clear. Stronger than it had been in days, and leading toward Portis, unless he missed his guess. He’d lost it the best part of a week, and was starting to worry he’d have to turn back to Malfen and report a failure—his first, but maybe still his last—when the colt had started neighing and Jeb got that icy tingling just beneath his skin. Tubal had a nose for evil, and Jeb had a sixth sense for it. Always been that way, least as long as he could remember. They said he got it from his mother.
One hand on his saber hilt, other on the reins, he spurred the colt along the gully till it opened onto a sandy flat. Water glimmered in the stark light, reflecting the cobalt skies. Brine was thick in the air, and gulls cried as they climbed the thermals or dived beneath the waves.
Jeb rode along the coast a spell, and Tubal seemed glad for the soft sand. Lathered in sweat from the long haul, the colt grew playful as a foal and kicked into a canter. Jeb tightened his grip on the reins, let go his saber to hold onto his hat. Tubal surged into a gallop, eating up the shoreline in thunderous strides. When he finally tired, Jeb got down and led him the rest of the way. Time they reached Portis, the suns were dipping below the mountains, and a scatter of stars had come early to sprinkle the gloaming.
The sheriff was there waiting on the edge of town, crossbow slung casual-like over one shoulder, weedstick smoking out the corner of his mouth. Big man, except for his height: barrel-chested, thick of neck, even thicker of mustache. As he drew near, Jeb caught a glimpse of chainmail beneath the sheriff’s coat, the pommel of a broad sword at his hip.