Liars and Thieves (A Company of Liars short story)

BOOK: Liars and Thieves (A Company of Liars short story)
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Copyright © 2014 Karen Maitland

The right of Karen Maitland to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

This Ebook edition first published by Headline Publishing Group in 2014

All characters – apart from the obvious historical ones – in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library

eISBN: 978 1 4722 2289 3

HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP

An Hachette UK Company

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London

NW1 3BH

www.headline.co.uk

www.hachette.co.uk

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

About Karen Maitland

Praise

About the Book

Also By

LIARS AND THIEVES

Sampler of  THE VANISHING WITCH

Footnote

About Karen Maitland

© John C. Gibson.

Karen Maitland travelled and worked in many parts of the United Kingdom before settling for many years in the beautiful medieval city of Lincoln, an inspiration for her writing. She is the author of
The White Room
,
Company of Liars
,
The Owl Killers
,
The Gallows Curse
and
The Falcons of Fire and Ice
. She has recently relocated to a life of rural bliss in Devon.

Praise for
Karen Maitland

‘Combines the storytelling traditions of
The Canterbury Tales
with the supernatural suspense of Mosse’s
Sepulchre
in this atmospheric tale of treachery and magic’
Marie Claire
on
Company of Liars

‘Passion and peril. A compelling blend of historical grit and supernatural twists’
Daily Mail
on
The
Falcons of Fire and Ice

‘Glorious  . . . a thrillingly horrible vision of the Dark Ages’
Metro
on
The Owl Killers

‘Bawdy and brutal’ Simon Mayo on
The Gallows Curse

‘Scarily good. Imagine
The Wicker Man
crossed with
The Birds

Marie Claire
on
The Owl Killers

About the Book

Camelot and Narigorm the rune reader return to delight fans of Karen Maitland’s classic novel as the company – in their desperate bid to outrun the plague – encounter a band of outlaws, who are making the most of the breakdown in law and order to steal from the weak  . . . and kill at leisure.

But in the child Narigorm they might just have met their match – for plague is the lesser of those two evils.

By Karen Maitland

The White Room

Company of Liars

The Owl Killers

The Gallows Curse

The Falcons of Fire and Ice

Anno Domini 1348
Rockingham Forest, Northamptonshire

There are many tales told about the year the Great Pestilence first swept across our land, of rivers turned to blood, fire falling from the sky, earthquakes swallowing churches and dragons fighting in the clouds. But the tales I know were of a strange, ragged company of travellers who together wandered the desolate roads, trying to stay one pace ahead of death.

The townsfolk and villagers slammed their gates against strangers and huddled behind their doors, but we had no homes to hide in. For until the Great Mortality infected our shores we’d each earned our living on the road, coaxing a coin here or a loaf there from the crowds at markets and fairs the length and breadth of England. There was Zophiel, a magician who performed conjuring tricks; Rodrigo and his apprentice, Jofre, musicians from Venice; Cygnus, a storyteller, who’d been born with only one arm; Osmond, an artist travelling with his gentle wife, Adela; and Narigorm, a white-haired child who told fortunes with her runes. Then there was me, a camelot, a pedlar of relics and amulets, a seller of hope in a terrified world that was sorely in need of it.

I was the oldest of our company, ancient some might say, missing one eye and with a great scar covering half my face. I was the creature that mothers threatened would snatch naughty children from their cottages if they did not lie quietly in their beds. But there is much truth spoken in lies, for there was a monster that was coming for them, a monster without a face or form that crept silently through the streets, devouring animals in their byres, children in their cots and parents in the taverns, and no one, neither noble knight nor holy bishop, could vanquish that dragon which would lay waste to all England.

It was the winter of 1348, not that the season brought any great change in the weather for it had rained every day since the midsummer of that year. Xanthus, the mare who pulled Zophiel’s wagon, which carried all of our meagre possessions, had cast a shoe some time on the previous day; but the road had been so muddy, none of us had seen it fall. Missing a shoe, Xanthus couldn’t drag the wagon over the sodden ground without risking permanent lameness or worse, so there was no help for it but to hide the wagon under swathes of old bracken and branches while Zophiel led his horse through the forest to the next village in the hope of finding a blacksmith there.

Adela and I had elected to go with him to try to buy flour or dried beans if the villagers had any they could spare, while Rodrigo, Jofre, Osmond and Narigorm would make good use of the time gathering kindling to burn and hunting for whatever birds or animals they could catch for the pot, for our supplies of food were exhausted and we had eaten nothing that morning. Cygnus was to remain with the wagon to guard it, though Zophiel protested that allowing a one-armed man to guard anything was like putting a leash on a rabbit and expecting it to hunt boar.

A bitter wind howled its misery through the bare branches of the trees and the track that coiled between them was a stream of oozing mud. In several places, icy springs gushed across it, sweeping aside any stones that might have given purchase.

Xanthus was an ill-tempered mare at the best of times, biting anyone careless enough to get within range of her teeth. She’d learned that whenever she was unharnessed from the wagon, she’d be set loose to graze, and was expressing her fury at being dragged along the track by constantly jerking her head to wrest the leading rein from Zophiel’s hand. Zophiel, equally frustrated, kept jerking her forward. The battle between them was not improving the temper of either one.

Adela, who was heavily pregnant, waddled along on the other side of the mare. She was forced to cling to Xanthus’s mane to prevent herself slipping, which only added to the horse’s irritation. I had made Adela tie sacking over her hopelessly thin shoes, but the cloth was now so heavy and slippery with mud, she could scarcely lift her feet high enough to take a step. I could see she was exhausted, but was too afraid of Zophiel’s sharp tongue to admit it.

‘Wait, Zophiel. Adela needs to rest  . . . and so do I,’ I added hastily, seeing his thin lips curling in contempt.

‘If she can’t even keep up with a lame horse, then she should rest here permanently. If we have to keep stopping for her, it’ll be dark long before we reach the next village, never mind get back to the wagon.’

‘We can’t leave her here alone in the forest. Besides, we all agreed if the villagers have any food left, they’re more likely to take pity on a woman heavy with child and sell it to her than to you or me,’ I told him.

As we caught our breath, I stared along the track ahead of us. It sloped downwards between trees and thick tangles of brambles. It wasn’t a steep incline, but a large pool of water had accumulated in the dip. I hoped it wasn’t too deep for we’d have to go through it. We’d never coax Xanthus through those thorns.

Zophiel jerked on Xanthus’s reins once more, but it took a whack from the switch to get her to move. She was plainly no more eager to wade through that icy water than we were. Though it was barely midday, under the trees and leaden winter sky the forest was as gloomy as twilight in a graveyard.

Without warning, Xanthus let out a shrill scream and one of her legs gave way beneath her. She jerked her head violently, tearing her reins from Zophiel’s hands, and kicked out. I twisted away from the flailing hoof and my feet slipped from under me. I must have shrieked louder than the poor horse as I hit the ground and felt an agonising pain shoot through my shoulder.

Winded by the fall, it was several moments before I could even think of trying to move. I eased myself into a sitting position and gingerly touched my left shoulder. It was so painful, I was convinced I’d smashed the bone, but my fingers closed over a sharp spike of metal embedded in the flesh. Gritting my teeth, I wrenched it out and felt the hot gush of blood down my back.

I stared uncomprehending at the lump of iron in my hand. My brain was fogged from the shock and pain, so it took several moments for me to register what I should have recognised instantly. It was a caltrop, a metal ball with four long sharp spikes pointing out from it at different angles, which meant that however it landed when thrown, three spikes would sit firmly on the ground while a fourth always pointed directly upwards, ready to sink deep into any hoof or foot that stepped on it.

Xanthus was standing with her front leg bent, resting the edge of the hoof on the ground. She was trembling and whinnying in distress as Zophiel tried to calm her, running his hand down her leg. Evidently one of these foul things had been driven into her hoof. Wincing at the pain in my shoulder, I tried to summon the energy to get to my feet, but I was dizzy from the blood loss and a wave of nausea engulfed me every time I moved my head. Adela waddled round and tried to squat beside me in the mud, pressing the hem of her own skirts over the wound. Her face blanched at the sight of the blood.

‘God’s teeth, what kind of man would leave those things  . . .?’ I began.

BOOK: Liars and Thieves (A Company of Liars short story)
9.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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