© R. Hans Miller
Darra looked at the small group of coins in the palm of her hand and counted them carefully in her mind. Four silver stars, two copper bits, and one half of a gold tip. Not much, but sufficient to get her on a ship to the port of Delsoy. The only problem was that it wouldn’t cover the cost of food on the trip. Three weeks at sea with no food wasn’t an overly appealing proposition, but it wasn’t like she could stay in Port Acnoy.
Bracing herself for an unpleasant conversation, she walked downstairs from her small room above the tanner’s shop. She’d already paid off the rent she owed him, but she knew he was unhappy to be losing the income he’d gotten during her two year stay. She felt bad. After all, he’d been kind to her and it wasn’t his fault that she had to leave. True, she wouldn’t miss the smell of tanning chemicals that permeated almost everything she owned, but she would miss his smile and breakfasts she often shared with him and his apprentice, Kalen. It would take a while for someone to agree to rent the room above the smelly tannery, and the tanner would skimp on his own meals in order to make sure Kalen ate well.
“Oh, well,” she thought. “Nothing for it, but to go ahead and get it over with.”
The steps to Darra’s room ran down the outside of the building to the front of the shop, which had no walkway in front of it. A small courtyard filled with stretched hides stood in front of the place instead. Most of the pelts were rabbit this time of year, though one bright red fox stood out from among the rest.
She paused for a moment when her feet hit the cobbled surface of the courtyard, and did the usual morning checks most do when leaving the house. She’d tucked her purse into her blouse after counting the coins within. Then she reached into her travelling bundle to make sure her spare clothes and her mother’s shell necklace were where they ought to be. Finally, she checked to make sure the dagger Kalen had given her as a going away gift was on her hip. She’d need it. It was dangerous to travel between continents. Especially for a woman.
The sun hit Darra in the eye as she looked up. It was just cresting over the top of the eastern wall of the courtyard. She needed to move it, if she was going to get on a ship to Delsoy this morning, especially if she was going to find a ship that not only had space for her, but work she could do to earn something to eat along the way.
She knocked on the shop door. Nobody answered.
“Come on Tekker. I need to get going. Open the door.”
Still nobody answered. Tekker was either more upset than she thought, or he’d overslept, which he sometimes did. He wasn’t as young as he used to be.
Darra banged on the door again, much harder this time. So hard that it almost hurt her hand.
Still no answer.
Concerned, she tried the handle to the door and quickly yanked her hand away. Something wet and sticky was on the handle. “Gross,” she thought. “Why do tanners always have to be so gross?”
She wiped her hand on her dress and used a scrap of cloth from the nearby wash bin to try the handle again. The door opened with a slight creek on its brass hinges.
Now, Darra was really concerned. It wasn’t like Tekker to leave his door unlocked at night. Both she and Kalen had keys if they needed in for any reason, and he lived alone, his wife having passed away thirteen years ago from Consumption.
Afraid for her friend, Darra pushed the door fully open and stepped into the dark interior of his workshop.
Something crunched under Darra’s shoe as she stepped in, and she looked down. An awl was under her foot, and she was lucky she hadn’t run its curved point into her foot. It poked out from the sole of her shoe at an odd angle, having just barely missed the arch of her foot. She bent down, and pulled the tool from her shoe, and took another step into the building.
At once, she knew something was horribly wrong. Several other tools lay on the floor, akimbo. The leather bits Tekker used to make necklaces were strewn about on the floor amongst them. The trade counter that took up the majority of the front of the building was completely empty, most of the leather goods that were usually displayed there lay in a heap at the far end. Most importantly, the cash box lay on the floor, its lid pried open with some crude implement and only a few small coins on the floor.
“Tekker,” she called.
No response. “Tekker, are you home? Are you ok?”
Still no answer. Darra picked up the few coins she could see, and walked towards the door at the back of the shop.
Her hand was almost on the doorknob when two wiry men burst through the door and grabbed at her. One of them covered her mouth with a foul smelling cloth while the other pinned her arms to her sides. She struggled for a moment, then the world began to slowly fade away. Her eyes fluttered and the last thing she saw was a scraggly black beard and green eyes with a diamond tattooed between them.
Eventually, she came to. She was surprised to find herself alive, and more pleasantly surprised to see Kalen’s form seated at the table next to her bed. She was back in her room, lying on her bed. She moved to sit up, but dizziness overcame her, and she lay back down.
She must have made a sound, because Kalen quickly moved to the side of the bed. “Here, drink this,” he said, and put a cup to her lips. Something hot and bitter ran down her throat as she drank. At first, it was repulsive and she nearly gagged on it, trying to spit it out. Kalen was stronger though, and made her keep drinking. Soon, the horrible residue in her mouth was rinsed away and she could taste the hot chocolate with mint. A few minutes later, her head settled down, and she was able to sit up.
Kalen had sat back down, still holding the cup and looking at her.
“They’re gone,” he said, finally. “Not sure how long it’ll be before they come back, but they’re gone. I chased them off before they could…um…”
“You know.” He looked away, embarrassed.
“I know,” she said. “Thank you.”
Silence for a moment while she let her head clear.
“Who were they?” she finally asked.
“I’m not sure. They been by the tannery a few times last couple of days. Not sure what they wanted. Tek would send me out to scrape hides whenever they was around, but he was always nervous after they went. I guess I know why now.”
It finally occurred to Darra to ask, “Wait. Where’s Tekker? Is he…”
She didn’t need to finish the question. The look on Kalen’s face answered it before she was finished saying the old tanner’s name.
Tears streamed down her face. She kept picturing the last conversation she’d had with Tekker, and wishing it had gone differently. He had been upset that she was leaving, and hadn’t thought a spoiled affair with a rich man’s son was reason enough to leave a city as large as Port Acnoy. There were plenty of people here. She was a pretty one, he’d said, and surely she could find a good man to settle down with here. He’d meant Kalen, but Kalen was too young. She’d lost her temper and told him that if he thought Kalen was so damned wonderful, maybe he ought to marry him.
Kalen opened his mouth to say something, but a loud knock at the door interrupted him. Startled, Darra shrieked and jumped up, running to the other side of the room.
Kalen motioned for her to be quiet and drew a dagger from his belt. “Who’s there?”
“It’s the constable. Open up,” a voice from outside commanded.
Looking relieved, Kalen opened the door, peeking out first to make sure it really was the constable.
Two large men in red and green uniforms walked into the room. Both wore bronze badges on their left breast and carried cudgels and long knives on their hips. They stopped when they saw Darra, back to the wall, holding an awl in her hand that she’d apparently never dropped, blood on her right hand and her skirt.
Eight weeks later, Darra and Kalen disembarked from a ship in Port Delsoy. The left side of Darra’s face bore a skull brand, barely healed and glossy in the afternoon sun. A guard stopped to question them. Kalen did all the talking. After seeing the papers with the Port Acnoy barrister’s seal on them, he’d let them go, advising them to stay at an inn on the edge of town.
Soon, they were in a small room with one bed.
Kalen offered to sleep on the floor. Darra took a breath, looked as if she was about to protest, then simply nodded and laid down with her scar against the cold pillow.
Kalen looked at her, lying there. For the millionth time he wished he could say something that would make a difference. There was nothing he could say though. She’d been accused of murder, and the evidence had been damning enough. She’d had blood all over her hands from opening the door, a bloody awl in her hand that was just the right size and shape to make the puncture wound that had killed Tekker.
The worst part though, was Kalen’s own testimony. He had been as honest as possible. He’d told them that he came into the workshop and seen three figures in a struggle at the entrance to Tekker’s private quarters. One of the figures had fallen while the other two scrambled to get around him and out the door. He’d been surprised to find Darra there, and had taken her up to her room. Shortly thereafter, she’d woken up and he was just telling her what had happened when two guardsman came in. The physical evidence pointed in her direction, and he hadn’t seen enough to verify that she’d just gone into the shop.
The two gem dealers that she’d struggled with both claimed that they had shown up to find her over Tekker’s body. They said they’d come to pick up some cargo the tanner had asked them to take to relatives he had inland, near the capital.
Darra had been convicted and branded. It didn’t help matters that her former lover was the judge’s nephew. A nephew that was close to his uncle and was not the type to let an insult go unpunished.
Darra had been put in jail and was awaiting the quarterly slave auction when luck struck.
One of the constables hadn’t believed any of what was said in the trial, and had kept a close eye on the gem dealers. Two days after the trial ended, long enough not to arouse suspicion and soon enough to be a pragmatic escape, the two had booked passage on a ship headed southeast. During their testimony, they had both said they were leaving for the capital in the near future to finish a large transaction, so the constable had thought their change of plans odd.
A quick search of the traders’ personal belongings later, and the truth came out in the form of six leather masks and a pile of coins. The leather masks were worn by a cult on the southern continent that was banned in Port Acnoy. The coins contained the one that Tekker used to stamp all of his work.
Darra was released the next day, and Kalen had brought her back to her room. He owned the shop now. Tekker and his wife hadn’t been able to have children, so he had left the shop to his apprentice.
Darra refused to speak for the first two weeks. After that, she mostly spoke just loud and long enough to get her point across. Otherwise, she was silent, and kept her face hidden, ashamed of the mark on it.
The city had paid her two gold tips for her trouble. That was all. That was the standard. Branded a murderer and a few coins and a bit of salve to reduce scarring was all she got.
Kalen had done well in the shop for the first few weeks. The novelty of a new tanner soon wore out and the lack of opportunities to see the murderer of tanner’s row soon put a stop to that though. Darra wouldn’t come out of her room and Kalen wasn’t as skilled as some of his neighbors. Once Tekker’s work was mostly sold out, there was little business to be had.
Soon after, she’d talked him into leaving town with her. He sold the shop to the neighbor’s senior apprentice, and they’d brokered passage on a ship to Port Delsoy. He needed to find a new master to finish his apprenticeship with. She needed to leave town to find some way to move on with her life. None of the tanners in town needed an apprentice, and the pain of the place was more than she could overcome.
So here he stood, looking at the back of her head, wishing he could tell her everything would be alright, but knowing nothing would ever be alright again.
Darra walked towards the cottage that she and Kalen called home. They had been in the town about a week before Kalen found employment. He wasn’t apprenticed to a tanner, but he’d been hired on by a local tanner to haul in pelts from the nearby village of Brownhaven. In exchange, the tanner allowed them to stay in the cottage that had belonged to his deceased brother.
Upon entering the cottage, Darra set down the pile of clothes she had brought home to wash and set the bucket of leather scraps down by the small loom she used to make them into pot holders. These and other odd jobs allowed her to contribute to the household finances. It had taken her quite some time to get clientele, but after she had taken extra care in trying to save the blacksmith’s wife’s favorite dress, folks had begun bringing her work, and spreading word of her story of false conviction.
They had been here just over seven weeks, and the place had really begun to feel like home. She had even begun to see Kalen in a different light. He wasn’t the fifteen year old kid she’d met three years ago. He was kind, thoughtful and intelligent. He took care of her, and let her enjoy the quiet that she needed to heal from the events of the past few months.
She sat down and began to cut onions at the small table in the middle of the cottage, and was thinking about how she might feel toward Kalen when she remembered that she needed to get Matron Gavay’s dress hemmed before she started dinner. She reached into the bundle of clothes to feel for the silk cloth, but instead found something firm and rough in shape. Curious, she pulled the unexpected object out of the bundle.
Kalen arrived home late that evening. He was pleasantly surprised to see that the door to the cottage was still open. Darra left it open during the day, but often shut it at night because the cold air made the scar on her face hurt. He’d usually worked outside, or in a shop with one side that opened completely during the day, so a cloistered cottage made him slightly claustrophobic.
“Darra? You here?” he called, as he approached the entry. “I’ve brought fresh venison for dinner.”
He stopped solid when he entered the cottage. Darra sat on the floor in the corner, hugging her knees to her and hiding her face in her skirt. A black cultist mask with a green gem in it lay on the floor by the table. Bits of onion were strewn about the floor. A Port Acnoy constable’s badge, stained with dried blood, lay on the floor next to Darra.
Darra apologized to Matron Gavay the next day for the delay in hemming her silk skirt. The old lady clucked at her and told her not to worry about it.
“After all, m’dear. It is quite a scare to get that sort of thing dropped in your lap. It isn’t every day one gets a threat from the cult of the god of woe delivered with the linens.”
Of course, everyone knew what had happened. Port Delsoy was a large town, but it was also a very quiet town. The men all worked on the docks or in the market square and the women all worked in the market square or in the house of the local lord. As a result, gossip travelled faster than a catamaran in a hurricane.
Kalen had fetched the local authorities. They went by sheriff here, rather than constable. The uniforms were yellow and red, and the badges a simple black iron circle on their left breast, but that was the only real difference. They asked Darra several questions, demanded to see her letters from the barrister in Port Acnoy again and questioned the townsfolk that had given Darra work that day. All of them had been properly astounded that the cult was active in their peaceful town, and shocked that such a sweet young girl as Darra would be involved in something so adventurous.
The sheriffs had chalked it up to a practical joke, and told Darra to contact them if she noticed anything else that seemed threatening. Kalen had stayed home from work the next day to help her weave leather, or so he claimed. She knew he was there to make sure she felt safe.
She was fine with that.
Two months later, Darra had begun to feel safe once again. No further tokens of animosity had shown up and she had begun to think that maybe the guards were right. Maybe it had just been a bad joke. The gem in the mask wasn’t even real. Just a piece of green glass that Kalen had easily crushed under the heel of his boot.
Today, she had spent the majority of the day with Matron Gavay, helping her with her fall cleaning. Darra was walking home with a lighter step than she’d had in a long time. Matron Gavay was a bit eccentric, insisting on worshipping nature spirits, no matter how many times the local priests knocked on her door to extoll the new gods. Frankly, Darra thought that was half the reason Matron Gavay kept at it. She was a bit on the lecherous side and the priests were easy on the eyes.
Today they’d been cleaning the cobwebs from around the chimney on the second floor when three of the priests had stopped by to drop off scriptures and medicinal tea for Matron Gavay’s arthritis. They’d left an hour later with scowls on their faces and the scriptures still clutched in their arms. Matron Gavay had smacked the last one on the rump as he walked out the door and said, “Try again next week honey.” Darra hoped the priests hadn’t heard the belly laugh she and the Matron had shared before finishing up the day’s chores.
She was a few blocks away from the cottage when she thought she heard something behind her. She turned to look, but the street was empty except for a dirty white dog gnawing on a stick. She turned around and began walking again, stepping up the pace, if only to work off the nervousness that had begun to creep into her bones.
Suddenly, she was lying on her back with cobblestones pressing painfully into her back and a heavy weight on her chest. She struggled to rise as she felt something warm and wet begin to work its way through the cloth of her blouse, soaking her stomach in slimy warmth. Some sort of thick canvas covered her head, and she began to smell something familiar when she lost consciousness.
She awoke in her own bed with Kalen again sitting by her bedside, hot chocolate at the ready. Matron Gavay was there as well, and the two of them were speaking quietly. Darra heard something about cult masks before they both realized she was awake and stopped their conversation.
After her head cleared, she began to piece together what had happened. Kalen had gotten worried when she hadn’t returned home by sunset and had gone looking for her. He had found her near the cottage with a green and black canvas bag tied over her head. The body of a white dog had been tied to her with leather cords and a pungent smell hung about the bag on her head. According to the sheriff that had come to help him when he called, if Kalen hadn’t found her, Darra would have eventually died from the chloroform and other inhalants the bag had been dipped in.
Darra didn’t leave the house for nearly a month. For almost three months, Kalen had to accompany her whenever she couldn’t see the front door of the cottage. Eventually, she began going to Matron Gavay’s home on her own, but she always changed her route, and she never went without her knife.
It was quiet for a time. The sheriffs kept looking for Darra’s assailant for quite a while after the attack. After all, in a town as quiet as Port Dorsey they didn’t have much else to concern themselves with. Then Darra was attacked twice.
The first time, two shadowy figures stepped out from behind a building wearing the masks Darra had come to fear. She screamed and pulled her knife. The two men just stood there, looking at her for a few minutes. Then they dropped an object on the ground that hissed and smelled of rot. Darra ran back to the cottage and Kalen and sheriff Mullay had begun taking turns walking her to Matron Gavay’s home, where she was now working on an almost daily basis.
The final attack was much more blatant and much more painful for Darra. It was nearly two years after she and Kalen had moved to Port Dorsey and it was time again for Matron Gavay’s fall cleaning. Kalen was away getting a particularly large order of pelts from a trader a few days travel from the port and Darra had been invited to stay with the Matron while he was gone.
“No need being alone when your husband is gone, dearie,” the Matron had said. “Not when there’s an old woman who would enjoy your company and share her cookie recipes with you.”
Darra had just set the last batch of cookies to cool, and had turned down the flu on the oven when she heard a screeching sound and a heavy thunk from Matron Gavay’s private room. Concerned that the Matron might have fallen and hurt herself, she’d rushed upstairs to help her friend.
As she approached entered the room, she saw Matron Gavay sprawled on the floor, red fluid leaking from a large knot on the side of her head. Before she could get to her friend though, something heavy hit her on the back of her head, and all she knew was blackness and pain for several seconds.
When she awoke, the candles had burned themselves out and the room smelled of iron and death. Bits of sunlight streamed in from a cracked shutter, and Darra watched dust motes do battle with beams of light for a few seconds before she realized where she was.
She was lying on Matron Gavay’s bed, something cold lay in her right hand, and her hair crunched with dried blood when she looked to see what the cold object was. It was Matron Gavay’s hand, cold and stiff with rigor mortis.
Darra lept up off the bed and realized her mistake too late, her eyes rolled up into the back of her head and she fell to the floor.
When she regained consciousness, she stood up slowly. The house had warmed up and the smell of death hung heavy in the air. Matron Gavay lay in her bed with a black dress on. Her head was wrapped in bandages with a green and black leather mask strapped on over the top. Her throat had been slit, but not side to side. Whoever had killed her had cut just the left side jugular vein, lengthwise from chin to sternum. Strangely, there was no blood.
Darra sank to her knees on the edge of the bed and cried. Who would believe that the girl with the murder brand on her face hadn’t killed the old woman? More importantly, how could she bear the loss of her one confidant besides Kalen?
Eventually, she went to fetch sheriff Mullay. She figured that he would listen to her story before jumping to conclusions.
Darra was right. Mullay and his superior both listened to her. After some discussion, she was surprised to learn that she wasn’t considered a suspect in the crime. The knot on the back of her head was proof she’d been attacked, and the absence of blood in the Matron’s body and in the room, except for a small stain where her head injury had bled onto the floor showed that Darra couldn’t have done it. Besides, Matron Gavay was a large woman and there was no way that Darra could have lifted her onto the bed on her own, and her only possible accomplice was away on business.
Darra went home, and didn’t go further than the outhouse for the next two days. When Kalen got home, she simply said, “We’re moving. I can’t stay here.”
Two days later, they had packed up their belongings on an old mule they’d bought. Darra finished cleaning out the cottage, making sure it was ready for the new tenant, a young man that Kalen had helped find to replace him. Soon, they were on the road, heading inland to a village that Kalen thought might be remote enough for whoever was harassing Darra to have a hard time tracking down. He had made a few acquaintances there, and thought he might be able to get on as the local tanner’s apprentice and that Darra might be able to find work in the local inn.
The village was named Morana, and it was far to the west of Port Dorsey, in the foothills of the nearby mountain range. There were more goats and oxen than people, and Darra thought that might be exactly what she was looking for.
As they walked along, Forney the mule trailing slightly behind them, Kalen talked about their new home.
“The best part is, the only people that visit there are the trappers that come down from the mountains and the traders who want their furs. Nobody will mess with us, and we can just live in peace.” He smiled.
“Maybe we can even start a family?”
Darra blushed. She hadn’t thought about having children in years. Not since she’d called it off with Lord What’s-His-Name back in Port Acnoy. She had been too worried for her own safety, and then the safety of those she cared about. She was grateful that Kalen had never been attacked. Travelling for work had always kept him safe, and she always counted it a blessing that he hadn’t found truly local work in Port Dorsey.
The young couple travelled in peace for three days, making plans for the future. They had talked more about children, and decided to begin a family once they had been in Morana for a year with no intrusions from what they were walking away from.
At noon on the third day, the road forked and they took the path to the right, heading toward the mountains. The road started to slope upwards, noticeably but not so steeply as to challenge them as they walked. By the time the sun was setting, Darra was having to slow her pace as the air had become slightly thinner than she was used to and the scar on her face had begun to burn a little. Fortunately, after using different salves for the last couple of years, the scarring was mostly faded, but the skin was still very sensitive to temperature changes.
They rounded a bend in the road, Kalen promising that a good campsite was just a few more minutes up the trail, and stopped short.
Three men in gray uniforms stood in front of them. Black leather masks covered their faces. None of them spoke. They simply stood, blocking the path.
Darra and Kalen both drew the knives from their belts while Forney stopped between them.
“Finally decided to quit hiding, I see,” said Kalen.
The figure in the middle nodded slightly.
“Good. Maybe we can just finish this tonight?” Kalen continued. “I think we’ve all had enough of this game.”
Darra stood, staring at the three men. Each of them seemed familiar somehow, though she couldn’t place them. If they’d just take off their damned masks, she knew she would know each of them.
The two men on either side drew their blades. Short swords. The moon shone off the blades as they each took a few steps to their respective sides to give themselves more space to fight.
The man in the middle stood still.
Darra couldn’t take any more.
“Who are you,” she said. Her voice was calm, and that surprised her. She had expected a scream of rage, but after a second, she realized that she was just too resigned to the situation to muster up that kind of energy.
The man in the middle cocked his head off to the side, his mask showing a bit of beard underneath.
“You mean you don’t know?” said a familiar voice.
The man reached up and casually took his mask off. Tekker’s face lit up in the moonlight, especially where he’d applied white makeup around his eyes to make them stand out under the mask. “I’ve been following you for two years. I would have thought you’d have at least guessed at my identity by now.”
Darra stood in place, stunned.
“I mean, my girl, it only makes sense. I introduced you to my second cousin, and you rejected him. I offer you my apprentice, so that I could keep you around. I did everything I could to have you living well as we brought you into the fold, but no. You decided to leave. To leave me and my friends here…”
“Oh. You don’t remember them either, do you?”
“Gentlemen, please illuminate the poor girl.”
The sword wielding man on the left pulled off his mask and Darra felt sick to her stomach. Her former lover from Port Acnoy looked at her, a smug grin on his face. He was always smug though. That was one of the reasons she’d left him. Well, that and his loyalty to his wife, but she supposed that last one was as much a redeeming quality as he would ever grasp.
The man on the right removed his mask as well, and his face took a moment longer to recognize.
“Hello miss. What can a constable do for you today?”
It was the constable that initially arrested her. A contemptuous sneer on his face told her exactly what his interest in her was. He wanted revenge. She’d had the dumb luck to look guilty on his shift, and he’d looked like a fool when she was pardoned.
So many feelings rushed through Darra’s chest that she didn’t know which one to focus on. Finally, she found one.
Its name was Rage.
Darra leapt forward, her knife slashing back and forth wildly. She heard screaming which might have been her own, but she couldn’t be certain. The only thing that mattered was killing the man who had tortured her these last two years.
The three men were stunned. None of them had expected the tiny woman to fly into a murderous rage. Until now, she’d always broken down and clung to Kalen in fear.
The element of surprise was just what she needed. The dandy and the constable both dodged to the side, staying clear of her blade. Tekker wasn’t so lucky. Before he could even pull out the blade he hadn’t drawn, she was on top of him.
Her first slash went across his right shoulder, cutting through the fabric there and allowing blood to squirt out, splashing her white blouse with red splatters. Her second caught him just under the left eye, from cheekbone to lip. The killing blow was a stabbing thrust just below the sternum, up into his left lung. He fell to the ground, a gurgling sound escaping coming from his throat as he struggled to breathe but drowned in his own blood.
A moment later, a blade pierced her heart. It came from behind her. A long dagger, its sharp edge severing tissue as a deft hand peels the hide off a rabbit. The last thing she saw was a satisfied smile on Tekker’s blood-flecked lips.
Kalen stood over Darra’s corpse, blood dripping from his blade. Finally, he saw the peace on her face that he had thought lost forever after the events at Port Acnoy. These last two years had been filled with despair, loss and pain for the two of them. But no more for her. She was home now. He had done his priestly duty.
Forney brayed and wandered to the side of the trail to begin nibbling grass.