Something More than Loot Itself
Whenever the bell rang, a man died, and Muirin found herself lying all over again. This time it was in the village green, presided over by the carnations and daffodils. It was often held in the village green actually, she supposed that was for the same reason her cottage faced the sea. They stood in a line, on a dreary march, all the villagers, and Muirin kept herself towards the back. There she would count the town marks she had clumsily stitched into the folds of her dress. Three coins. Just enough to pay, but equally enough to seem poor. Of course, she’d have to beg, but in the end the coins would be enough.
The first scream came earlier than expected. It was a man, as far as she could tell, who had been in the middle of a high-pitched wail when his timbre choked out. Then it was just silent. Commotion broke out in the line, but nobody broke from the line, it simply moved forward, and everyone took a pace closer. Muirin could see the people fidgeting nervously, most with near-empty pouches, others just twiddling the lining of their straw hats.
When she came close enough to see, she saw it was much the same as usual. It was her. The woman sat in a seat of gnarled branches as the villagers approached her. Out of the corner of an eye you’d mistake her for a young woman, elegant, even beautiful, with snowy locks raining down her shining cheeks. The vision only faded when you stared directly at her, making way for something older. You couldn’t call her a woman, she was more like a creature of the dark, a hobbled over old thing with deep lines accentuating her face and a grin that was pure with malice. That laugh was what gave it away.
Muirin came into the green and saw for the first time that day, what she could see any other time she wanted, the statues. The chiselled crude stonework of people caught in the moment, half-contorted in fear, while strangled screams still wait to escape from their mouths. There had only been one addition today, which was unusual. It was an older man, Muirin recognised him as a farmer who kept a farm near the old forests. The passing winter had obviously done him no favours.
Approaching, Muirin ruffled her dress so she could place herself down on her knees. They creaked beneath her weight, as old bones were bound to, but she managed just fine. Without a word, she placed the three marks before the authority and kept her head down. It would be enough, she assured herself, but only just. Tayv, as the villagers called her, simply stared, as if trying to see some truth in Muirin.
It didn’t take long for her to reach out and snatch the coins. Not a word passed between them, a fact of which Muirin was grateful for. When it was done, she pushed her way through the forest of statues and back on the path that led home. Muirin was eager to get behind closed curtains before the sun had fully retreated.
The cork came stubbornly from the bottle, but the rum poured like a fine wine. When she had first come here, she had been content to drink from the bottle itself, but as the years had grown on her, she found she preferred a glass. Sitting on the edge of her room, rug curled up in the corner, Muirin hefted up the whining trap door. Inside, a sizeable chest, which took more than a bit of groaning to heave next to her bed.
A swig of rum and she had the key in hand. Muirin unlocked the chest and threw open the lid. There, inside, coins and jewels more than a person could ever count. Muirin ran her fingertips over the tally marks on the inside of the lid. There were three hundred and twelve of them, she had counted each mark herself. She took another solemn sip and threw the extra coins, from the folds in her dress, into the chest.
Muirin had the dagger in her hands even before the creak at the door. The boy couldn’t have been more than five, rubbing his eyes for the stinging light of her candle. With a small grin and a light chuckle, Muirin replaced the dagger in the concealed sheathe at her waist and brought the boy into her embrace. Placing the lid closed, she easily scooped the scruffy adolescent up and helped him back to the room directly next to hers.
There were two beds inside, one was occupied by a girl a little older than the boy, currently sleeping sweetly. Muirin placed him in the next bed and stayed with him a little while they glanced out of the window. Beyond its fragile panes the sea came gently in and then gently out again, leaving only an impression on the sand. That was all the boy needed to be seen off into the night, and he did so without a worry. Muirin was different.
You could hear the rowdiness across the village in the local pub. That’s how it often was on the night after the tithing. What little marks the villagers could get away with, they’d spend on drinks and jubilation and then be worse off in the months to come. Muirin had always longed to go to them, in the same way she used to. To drink the place dry, to fight until her knuckles were nothing but bloody stumps, and to shame any man who could claim she was hers.
What had she been then?
Muirin had not been to the old forests in some time and thought there not a day better in recent memory for the journey. The air was stale, yet pleasantly warm, and from here you could continue to listen to the ocean. At some moments, you could even see it. Muirin didn’t like to be out of sight of the water, and she’d prefer it if she could see the waves. The two children ran excitedly about, not a care in the world, and went at the task of finding mushrooms for dinner. She couldn’t help but smile at them, in the proud way only a mother could.
At one point, they went out of her sight, and she kept to her own basket. They followed the path right through and the children knew how to keep to it. On Muirin walked, slower than she would’ve liked to, but almost came to a stop at the sight of the woman walking towards her. Another older woman, not an uncommon sight in the village, but one she knew by name. The woman wore a sombre expression, as if tears threatened to break any moment, and walked with an imperceptible limp.
It was the farmer’s wife, the recent addition to the village green.
Like a stranger on the street, Muirin elected to ignore her, content to hold up her chin and simply stride by without a word. The widow had other plans though. As soon as she was within an arm’s reach of Muirin, she began to spit a vile string of words at her. Muirin stood there, indifferent.
‘What do you want from me?’
‘I know who you are,’ the woman snapped back. ‘I know what you were.’
The second of silence portrayed more than Muirin would’ve liked to control, but she shrugged, ignoring the irregular beats of her heart. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about?’
‘You could’ve saved him,’ she spat. ‘You could’ve saved a lot of people. Where is it now? Where is the gold you’ve taken?’
‘You’ve got me for someone else,’ said Muirin. ‘I’ve lived here all my life.’
‘The only place you’ve lived is the sea.’
Muirin had been keeping her mind on her dagger but had never bothered with her hand. People around here were fraught for justice, and in the absence of good leadership, they took it in any way they could think to. A body in the woods would bring unwanted attention. While she knew she could slit her throat, she decided against it. It would only prove there was more to Muirin than she wanted there to be.
That’s why, when the widow pushed her, Muirin fell backwards almost voluntarily.
The way down was steeper than she had expected, more of a short hill. She tumbled past trees and through loose branches, over rocks and between stinging nettles. A rough fall for what seemed a long time, before landing, twisted on her back, right at the bottom. It took her a moment for her senses to come back to her. Muirin heard nothing of the widow, but that was a problem in of itself. Had she really been recognised and how?
With a groan, Muirin pulled herself up. Aches flooded her body now, screaming at each of her joints. She’d landed roughly on her back, which was now overwhelmed with the scrapes and scores of the stinging nettles. It would be a long climb back up, if she decided to go that way, and her children would be none the wiser.
Finally, she took the moment to look around at where she had landed. It was an overgrown nightmare of weeds and branches. Roots shot out from the ground here and up the steep rise she had tumbled down. It harboured an odour as well, and she didn’t think she’d have to travel far to find a bear’s den.
Muirin caught her first glimpse of it as she found her feet. It was an easy thing to miss, hidden beneath the unkempt wilderness, but unmistakeable when you saw it. There was a woven sack, a bag, sitting there as if it had grown there. As if it were another fruit within the forest. At first, Muirin thought it might had been thrown from the path, a bag of something rotten given as a gift to the weeds. And then her curiosity came to her.
The bag was far heavier than it had any right to be. Opening it gave her an immediate sense of unease, as if she had stumbled upon something forbidden, something not meant for her eyes. There were items inside. Many items. Some looked mundane, others looked exotic, but they all felt strangely powerful. It seemed as if they shouldn’t all fit within the same space so comfortably, but they did so without complaint.
Muirin reached for a falchion, a familiar weapon in her hands, and held it aloft to the sun. She didn’t know how, and she couldn’t guess at why, but this was no ordinary falchion. Nothing in this bag was ordinary. Although meetings with magic were rare in her life, she could say with some certainty and without a lick of training that these items were magical.
Muirin sent her girl towards the village first and only approached after she was sure there wasn’t any angry mob waiting for them. Returning, they found a pleasant welcome amongst the locals. A traveller couldn’t tell that, only yesterday, most of these people had been scared out of their minds. Things had resumed as normal. Those that knew Muirin and her children greeted them amiably, but always Muirin kept her eye out for the widow. She wasn’t in the village green, near her recently petrified husband, which meant there was only one other place she could be.
The day was waning but not dark when Muirin arrived home alone. She had told her children to visit with the baker woman nearby, who had children of her own close to their ages. Muirin opened the door and was not at all surprised to find her home ransacked. The furniture had been flung in every direction, cups and plates smashes, the walls bruised and dented, and any pictures that had been hanging from hooks were now on the floor in pieces.
The widow was sitting in her bedroom, legs crossed, with a grieved look upon her face. ‘I know it’s here somewhere.’
Muirin already had the dagger in her hand, she entered slowly, cautiously. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. What have you done to my home?’
‘I remember seeing daddy when the first arrows hit.’ The widow seemed away from them now, away from the room, lost in the swirling nepenthe of her memories. ‘They stuck him like a pin cushion, then the rest of the crew. I hid beneath the netting and the crates, and I don’t think you ever saw me, or ever cared to see me. I can remember your face.’
‘I’ve seen you moving about the village,’ replied Muirin. ‘If you think something of me, why hasn’t it come to anything before now?’
‘First time I saw you I was sure,’ she replied simply. ‘Next time, I was less sure. For years this went until your face faded into the others around you. Then when…I started remembering the rumours about you. A small cottage, never bothered near the sea, with only one small orchard and a band of clucking hens to provide for it.’
‘You’re just looking for a face for your misplaced anger. I ain’t nothing to you.’
The widow stood up then. ‘You’ve hidden whatever you have well enough. Is it hidden from the prying eyes of magic though? What if Tayv were to look for it instead?’
Muirin’s knuckles went white around the hilt of the dagger. ‘Are you saying you mean to do something foolish now?’
‘Not unless my memory is right,’ replied the widow. ‘And that your ill-gotten gains are shared.’
Thinking on it for a moment, Muirin lowered the dagger and stepped aside for the widow. The woman strode confidently past her and had no way of knowing just how fast Muirin was. The woman had the widow’s forehead struggling against her hand in the next second, and the blade of the dagger running across her throat in the second after. There hadn’t even been enough time to scream. Statues screamed, Muirin thought to herself as the widow’s weight collapsed beneath her, corpses were silent.
The last strike of the shovel came some hours into the early morning. The hole in the sand was sizable and waiting for the widow. There were benefits to living in the last cottage towards the sea, it gave you an easy access to the beach and the waters below, but dragging the weight and then digging out the sand had more than tired Muirin. She worked with a sweat to get the body in and buried. In the dead of night, at least, she was sure no one would see her, the real problem would be digging it deep enough for the seagulls not to know it.
Her boy was waiting on her bed when she returned. Muirin had already retrieved the children from the baker and put them to bed, telling them with no shortage of discipline that they were not to leave the house or wonder where she had gotten to. The boy, as sleepy-eyed as ever, continued to yawn and looked on the near verge of collapsing.
Muirin put him to bed with the view of the beach beyond the window. With daylight’s approach, it was easy to see the boy off, but she still had work to do. Once again heaving out the chest, Muirin first added another tally to the end of her marks with the dagger, three hundred and thirteen now, and then dug through the coins to find the map.
Rolling it out on the floor, it presented the local area. The forests, the coastlines, and most importantly, the other villages and towns that could be reached by a few days on the road. Of course, Muirin needed somewhere along the coast, so she could keep her eyes and ears on the sea, but there were plenty of villages north. The further the better, but it would be a costly trip.
Counting out her coins, she found that she still had a favourable amount, but not nearly as much as she would’ve liked. A new cottage would be costly, supplies would be costly, money was needed for bribes and then there was the matter of living a comfortable life thereafter. Here, she had more than enough to sit well into the end of her days, but elsewhere she’d need a greater savings.
The bag was still lying in the forest, unmoved and unharmed. Apart from the widow and the former farmer who had moved along that path every day, she was sure no one would find it but by chance, like her. It had been tempting to bring the sack with her, but in broad daylight it would rouse too much suspicion. She needed to be careful with it. Especially with Tayv’s eyes everywhere and her reaching greedy fingers. Still, the solution might lie in that assortment of strange items that Muirin was sure could be magical.
Muirin would need to be smart, especially with two young children to carry, she would need to come up with a plan.
The strange bag in the woods could wait while she made the preparations. The widow was dead and buried, but she didn’t trust life enough to keep the body hidden, and if that were to happen, she wanted to be well away from the town. Muirin knew that no one would care enough to track her down, especially with Tayv watching them, but they would be hunting for a quick justice in the borders of the town’s region. Muirin couldn’t be here for that.
It was a firm leash by which Tayv controlled the town. The witch, as that’s what Muirin had always thought of her, was determined to keep the townsfolk inside and working. It was the only way to ensure a healthy stream of coin towards her waiting fingers, as well as crops and whatever else of value the villagers had. Of course, to keep the coin coming, there needed to be trade, and for trade that meant people had to be able to come and go as they needed.
The merchants were about the only people that benefited in the town, as when the month came to its end, and that wretched bell rung out, they could be miles away planning their next meal. For every other villager though, they were stuck here. Tayv made sure of that. Guards inspected everything coming in and out of the town and were even diligent enough to create comprehensive lists that were check and rechecked when the merchants moved through the gates. Smuggling people, no matter how much they paid, was difficult, but smuggling something else was a lot simpler.
It had been rumoured, although if true Muirin couldn’t be sure, that there was some enchantment on the people here that allowed Tayv to track them down if they did escape. That would be another problem to consider on another day though, if indeed it was true, right now Muirin was only in need of a merchant.
The merchant was about a foot taller than her, and three feet wider, he carried himself as if he was always on the verge of bursting into a giggling fit, and kept himself warm in a ghastly green cloak that had seen far too much of the road. Muirin knew him well, but he had never seen fit to give his name, which was understandable, as any sordid business in the village was usually done through him. She approached his stall, leading her two children by the arm, and tried her best to blend in. Today it was a bread stall, last week it was fish, next week it’ll be something else.
‘Ah, now tis a fine day,’ he said, arms wide. ‘I was gettin’ ta wonderin’ if you’d gimme the pleasure a callin’ for me, Muirin my lady.’
‘I need something from you.’ Muirin whispered it straight to the point, while gently sliding over a small bag of coins, one she had gathered that very hour. ‘I’ve procured some special items and I need you to reach out to one of my contacts.’
‘This ain’t a friendly call then?’ The merchant took the coins and briefly looked inside, then sighed with something of an exaggerated grimace. The burly gentleman pushed the coins back. ‘Not enough.’
‘I’d barely be outta town before I’d spent it,’ he said. ‘Prices go up, my costs go up, just good business.’
‘Well, another bag like that one ought to do it.’
‘Fine.’ Muirin thrust the bag back over. ‘Take half now then and I’ll bring the other half tomorrow.’
PART 1/2 !!
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