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Sacrilege

Notes: another chapter I enjoyed writing immensely. Please enjoy.

Time for Assemblies and Farewells

‘I thought Erwin would’ve put up more of a fight! If I knew he was going to fall like autumn apples I wouldn’t have let it hold me up for my meeting!’

The fat, boisterous man finished his sentence by thumping that burly dining table with his goblet. Mikel Portat, mayor of Gleanne, was always the life of parties. Tonight was no exception. He had done enough drinking, eating and laughing to match all his guests put together. Even Wallace Baldrim had to be content with second place as Mikel moved to his third bottle.

‘Dad, what did I say about drinking?’

Mikel’s enthusiasm seemed to have faded somewhat under the stern gaze of his daughter.

‘Last bottle, darling,’ he chuckled awkwardly, ‘I swear by the Lady.’

‘You are hopeless,’ Anna gave a shake her head and snatched the treasured bottle of foreign wine, ‘if only mum was here to see this.’

Mikel exchanged a weary glance with Nileas as he watched Anna leave, no doubt to hide his bottle in a stash he’ll never find.

‘That girl knows this house better than I do,’ conceded the mayor, ‘her mother would be very proud to see what a tight leash she has put on me.’

‘Love of a daughter,’ said the old Master, laughing, ‘right, Rose?’

Rosalind had to suppress her amusement by quickly occupying her mouth with chunks of steak. To her left and right, Wallace and Boris both took to emulating her effort, though with less success; the fat knight had long since ran out of meat and Boris had to reach for the napkin as food threatened to make an exit through his nose. Even the stoic Cain Edgeworth smiled. Oh, if only the poor father knew how Anna had been ‘hiding’ his liquor.

‘Oh well, for all it’s worth,’ laughed the fat mayor, ‘take my blessings, the town’s favourite fatso.’

‘And where does that leave me?’ interjected Wallace, drumming his belly with fingers the size of small carrots.

‘Fat, I suppose,’ Rosalind sank her elbow into the man’s gut, ‘never knew you to be an attention seeker, sir.’

The fat knight chuckled in good nature. ‘It’s a pity the Watch doesn’t take women. We could use someone of your skill.’

Upon this statement, Cain’s hard eyes shot daggers at Wallace. ‘You will not claim her, knight. She is ours.’

‘Cain,’ reprimanded Nileas, ‘please.’

‘If I had it my way, all those boys in the morning would be reading up on the Arcane Craft instead of playing with sticks,’ continued the Director, no doubt spurred on by alcohol, ‘for the past three years, we have claimed multiple medals in provincial tourneys, but not turned out a single Adept until Rose came of age. What does that tell you? We, the people of Gleanne, have become muscle heads!’

Cain got to his feet and departed at a frenzied pace. Then, as if he had forgotten his coat, the Director turned his heel at the door.

‘Congratulations, Rose,’ his lips, after much twitching, squeezed out what little smile there was, ‘you’ll make an outstanding addition to the Society. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.’

With that, Cain Edgeworth gave a final wave of the hand and disappeared. Anna returned moments later, having ‘hidden’ her father’s liquor down the drain, holding plates of pudding. Wallace welcomed the dessert with two spoons and looked about for seconds. Anna, the ever well-prepared hostess, slipped him another serving.

‘Well,’ declared the satisfied man, ‘Rose, congratulations. Everyone knew you’d make us proud. That’s it for me. Good night to you all.’

‘We better leave too,’ said Rosalind, who then whispered to Boris, ‘let’s go egg Erwin again.’

The smaller boy nodded.

‘You two go on ahead,’ said Nileas, ‘I have things to discuss with the mayor.’

During late hours, scattered pairs of Eyes wondered the streets of Gleanne, more occupied by chatter than patrolling. Any man with a bird’s eye view of the town would suggest that its true guardians were the tall, black lampposts that kept the shadows confined to its corners.

Rosalind was in a good mood. She lifted both hands in the air and spun about with the grace of a dancer. The moon, stars and cool breeze made this town much more agreeable than it was in the morning. Seeing men of the Watch, the girl waved at them, smiling.

‘Hi guys,’

‘Hi Rose,’ replied a man, shouldering his staff, ‘knew you’d make it. Congratulations!’

‘Thank you!’

Not far behind, Boris watched her, entranced, enchanted. The moonlight, bouncing of her hair, gave Rosalind an almost unearthly radiance. He would’ve caught up to her had his ragged pockets not been laden by eggs. Though Rosalind suggested that they would pelt Erwin together, Boris knew he would simply end up supplying the girl with ammunition. His hands, as they were, would not allow much exertion, and he doubted whether he had the heart to face the large man once Rosalind left town.

They found their victim tied to the back of the fountain statue. This punishment was both boring and uncomfortable, a combination that drove Erwin cursing so poetically that Rosalind had to collude members of the Watch into taping his mouth shut. For the afternoon, his muffled anger served to attract record crowds as the local band was made to play their third encore.

Presently, a young woman stood looking up at Erwin. While her dirty overalls were nothing to boast over, she had the physique and a well-rounded face to turn more than a pair of eyes. Her blond pigtails, under the watchful moon, were like two lanterns. Just moments ago she had tried to untie the man only to be stopped by an Eye. Unable to free Erwin, she was resigned to staring at his sorry state.

‘Can you at least remove the tape from his mouth?’ she asked the man guarding Erwin, ‘I need to speak to him.’

‘Sorry, but doing so would invalidate this duel.’

‘Alright,’ the pretty girl threw up her gloved hands, ‘Erwin, mum wants to know if you can come home for dinner. Can you come home soon?’

The large man shook his head. He also made an audible struggle against the tape but came off second best in the contest between lip and rubber.

‘No, he can’t,’ Rosalind answered for her prisoner, ‘he is to be tied till midnight. That was the penalty for defeat.’

‘Oh, hello Rose,’ smiled the girl, ‘is that the Order’s badge?’

Rosalind nodded.

‘Congratulations.’

‘Thanks Jane,’ Rosalind pulled her into a hug, ‘what brings you here?’

‘Well, Erwin didn’t come home for dinner so mum sent me out to look for him,’ said Jane, ‘and I honestly did not expect to find him here. Why is he up there anyway?’

‘I fought him in a duel and won,’ explained Rosalind, ‘Boris, show Jane what he did to your hands.’

Jane, a gentle, caring girl, gasped when Boris rolled up his sleeves. She wrapped the hands in her own and whispered soft apologies to the young man.

‘And that’s why I put him up there,’ Rosalind shrugged her shoulders, ‘sorry to waste your time, Jane.’

‘I’ll tell mum Erwin got in trouble again,’ Jane then turned to shake her head at her brother, ‘oh Erwin, sometimes I think you’ll never grow up.’

Her head down in shame, Jane departed. Once she was out of sight, Rosalind gave Boris a nod, upon which the boy produced two eggs. She took them, juggled them as if they were rocks and smiled ever so maliciously at Erwin.

‘I feel sorry for Jane,’ Rosalind’s hands arced with such force that it became a blur, ‘she works day in day out and has to take care this big baby. You’d be forgiven for thinking she was the older child.’

Erwin closed his eyes as he braced himself for the next egg. He needn’t have, for it did not find his face. The projectile struck his groin so hard that Rosalind thought he might break free. Mercilessly, she gestured for more ammunition from Boris, her silent accomplice.

‘This is fun, Boris,’ cried Rosalind, laughing, ‘pity they hurt your hand. You should really give this a go sometime.’

Having covered Erwin with what might’ve been tomorrow’s breakfast, the two continued homeward. She saw Boris to his home. The boy, quiet as a cat, pushed aside the wicket gate without so much as making a squeak. He lifted his injured hand halfway, as if caught between detaining the girl and waving good-bye.

‘Rose,’ said Boris, ‘thank you.’

‘For what?’

‘For being a good friend.’

‘Oh stop! You know I’ll hurt Erwin with the slightest excuse.’

Boris laughed. Neither spoke for some time. All that could be heard was the softly buzzing lamp standing outside the Hardend Craft House. Rosalind, expecting Boris to bid her good night, found this silence rather disconcerting.

‘Boris, what’s wrong?’

‘Oh, uh…it’s just that you’re going away,’ he smiled sadly, ‘I –’

Frowning, Rosalind shot a finger at Boris. ‘Don’t cry on me.’

She then softened, and gestured for him to approach. Boris, somewhat hesitantly, made his way to the fence. He was understandably nervous as Rosalind had a habit of pinching him on such occasions. Without warning, she threw her arms around him, smothering the smaller boy. It took him a moment to realise what had happened and to respond in kind.

‘It’s not like I’m going away for long, you stupid mule,’ said Rosalind, ‘besides, I’ll write to you. Does that make you feel better?’

Boris nodded. ‘Good night, Rose.’

‘Good night.’

Rays of sunlight had leaked through her drapes by the time Rosalind opened her eyes. Yodelling a nameless tune, she descended and greeted Nileas. The old man was in his favourite chair, browsing the latest issue of the Dominion Weekly.

‘Good morning, Rose,’ said Nileas, ‘Agatha came over earlier.’

Rosalind felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up.

‘She wants you to join her for breakfast,’ said Nileas, ‘go on, I told her you’d be there shortly.’

‘Why can’t I just have the usual here?’

‘Because she insisted,’ Nileas went back to reading, ‘and there are no polite ways to turn down an old woman’s goodwill.’

‘This is Mrs Birdbrain –’ Rosalind quickly corrected herself. ‘Mrs Lanrook doesn’t like me.

‘Nonsense,’ said Nileas as he brought the pages against his face to better examine the crossword puzzle, ‘why would she invite you over for breakfast if that was the case?’

Rosalind shuddered as she stepped inside the Lanrook front yard. She was dressed her best. Her ensemble of pleated skirt, summer blouse, round hat and gloves made her feel ridiculous. Surely there were better expressions of feminine modesty than wrapping oneself up like a box of candies to be given away. Don’t break anything!

Tentatively, she knocked, having not touched the woodwork for five years. Agatha admitted her quickly. The Lanrook home has not changed much. Being a fastidious cleaner, Agatha had tasked herself to make everything appear as if they were installed yesterday. Everywhere she turned, Rosalind found spotless rugs, shimmering floorboards, snow white drapes and shining wall paper. She half-expected the clocks to be still, too.

‘Sit,’ said Agatha, ‘I’ll heat it up for you. In all honesty I cannot see how it is possible to sleep in on such a beautiful day.’

Rosalind dared not even respond to Agatha, fearing whatever she said may trigger another lecture on the makings of a proper lady. She sat fiddling her thumb, waiting. Moments later, steaming hot omelettes slipped onto her plate. The scent of lean beef, pepper and onions caused Rosalind to desert all manners. Agatha frowned, but for some reason, refrained from commenting.

‘Do you like it?’ asked the old lady.

‘Yes,’ managed Rosalind between bites, ‘it’s good.’

‘I can only imagine how you and Nileas get by,’ Agatha sighed, ‘he’s a man of science and you’re more likely to wrestle your dinner than put on an apron.’

Rosalind, embarrassed, managed a weak smile. This certainly was better than whatever an Eltridge could put on the table.

‘So you’re in the Order,’ began Agatha, ‘I heard from Nileas.’

‘Yes.’

‘You must be seventeen then,’ said Agatha, ‘how time flies. When you first turned up at my doorstep, you couldn’t even reach the door handle.’

Rosalind knew better than to speak up. The elderly have a habit of drifting off into meaningless monologue.

‘It’s good to see that you’ve grown into a charming young lady, at least when you choose to be.’

The old woman went away, returning with tea and cookies. She set down the tray and offered Rosalind a cup.

‘I was never lucky enough to have a daughter,’ Agatha sighed, ‘I had three boys. They are now three heartless men who do not even think to pay their mother a visit on her birthday.

‘In a way, Rose, you brought hope and joy into my house when you first showed up at my front yard. I thought of you as the little girl I never had. But you were difficult, much more difficult than I ever expected. I introduced you to Anna, to no avail. The moment I finish my lesson I would find you tearing out Erwin’s hair. Every afternoon I see you covered in mud and bruises. It got worse when that oaf Hardend decided to give you a crossbow. The Lady be praised that the only thing you shot was poor Jerry Senior!’ She laid down her cup and stared Rose straight in the eye. ‘That’s when I gave up. You weren’t my daughter and whatever you did was no business of mine. If Nileas tolerated your behaviour then who am I to oppose?’

‘You’ve always been good to me,’ Rosalind said slowly, her eyes downcast, ‘I’m sorry I repaid you so poorly. I liked Jerry too and I’m really sorry I…’

‘Jerry Senior was a bird,’ said Agatha, ‘and birds are poor substitutes for sons, no matter how broad their vocabulary. It was foolish of you to think that I would stop loving you over such an accident, and even more foolish of me to have done so. If you weren’t heading off, I may have never realised it.’

Rosalind stared up at the cage dangling by the window. Jerry hopped around, chirping. He grew louder and was at last supplied with water.

‘I have something for you, Rose,’ said Agatha, ‘here.’

The old woman removed her necklace. Rosalind knew what it was.

‘I can’t take that!’

It was a greenstone, shaped like a teardrop. Transparent, it encased a feather. To those initiated in the Craft, there was no higher prize. Notwithstanding the girl’s protest, Agatha laid it in her hand and closed them around the medium.

‘It may surprise you to know that I too, was once an Inquisitor,’ said Agatha, ‘this is the Amber of wind. Use it well.’

‘You should give it to your children,’ pleaded Rosalind, ‘I can’t claim this.’

‘My sons are even more hopeless than that Hardend boy when it comes to the Craft,’ Agatha laughed dryly, ‘and I haven’t used it once since I had Jerry. It should have no problem accepting you as its new mistress.’

‘This is worth more than a hundred gold!’

‘All the more reason that it should go to worthy hands,’ Agatha was firm, ‘I won’t hear any more objections. Your path is a perilous. It never hurts to be well armed when you’re a member of the Order.’

Rosalind stood, her lips quivering with emotion. ‘I…I shall cherish it!’ exclaimed the girl, fearing that her voice might fail her. ‘Thank you, thank you so much!’

Rosalind got up bright and early on the day of departure. She must’ve cried out all her sorrow after the encounter with Agatha for she felt cheerful today. Nileas, accompanying her, offered to take her backpack. This Rosalind allowed, for she travelled light. Together, they bounded for the train station, located just outside of town.

Anna came to deliver her ticket. Soon, the entire Hardend family turned up with the noted exception of Boris. Wallace Baldrim and his boys of the Watch too, joined in. By the time they had reached the station, almost half the town had gathered to see her off. The last to join this assembly was Jane, who came running.

‘Has anyone seen Erwin?’ cried the girl, ‘has anyone seen my brother?’

‘What’s wrong?’ asked Rosalind.

‘He left us a note saying he was going away,’ said Jane, trying to catch her breath, ‘but he’s never been gone for this long. I –’

Wallace took Jane aside. ‘He might’ve left town. Nobody has seen him for the past few days. Don’t worry, I’ll write to our neighbours. If they see him, they’ll let us know.’

‘If I find him,’ Rosalind made a fist pump, ‘I’ll send him back.’

‘Thank you, Rose.’

Rosalind, giving the town folks one last wave, made her way to the counter and presented her ticket. She was promptly admitted inside. The platform was an open court surrounded by tall grass. On it, a lone traveller sat under its derelict shelter, outnumbered by red sparrows. She recognised him in an instant.

‘Boris, what are you doing here?’

‘Rose,’ the boy looked up, beaming, ‘I’ve decided. I’m taking up an apprenticeship at my uncle’s Craft House.’

‘That doesn’t explain why you’re here.’

‘I’m going to Trisblanc.’

Rosalind contemplated the news for a while before sitting down next to Boris. She wore a large grin as she pinched his shoulder. The boy flinched. When laughter ceased, Rosalind tried her best to put on a straight face.

‘I want my hug back.’

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The Joy of Revenge

Rosalind was glad Nileas was not home when she got there. She could hide crossbows or anger, but never both at the same time. Besides, lying to the old man always left her feeling guilty. She sprang up to her room, gave her mirror a flip and removed the backboard. Inside, strapped to a leather holster, slept her faithful companion.

Carefully, she caressed its cool, dark forearm. Of all the presents she had received over the years, this was her favourite. Unlike ordinary toys or jewellery, Hawkeye was tough; not even dropping it three times as she scaled slanted rooftops could put a scratch on its gilded body. It was small and light enough to cling to her thigh. Despite its size, it had enough firepower to punch arrows into boulders.

But what Rosalind really loved was its precision. Ever since this crossbow landed in her hands, the girl had not missed a single shot. At times she had to wonder whether it was Hawkeye or her hands that had guided those arrows.

She joined Boris in the backyard. She found him under a canopy of vines. The boy sat on a wooden stool and laid out half a dozen arrows on the table. He looked about him nervously, as if afraid to move. Rose shared his reservation about moving around this patio. After all, Nileas was a prolific gardener.

The lawn, regularly attended, was free of weed. Its green contours marked out borders with cleanly trimmed edges. Roses of every colour were in full bloom. Still more pots of flowers sat in disciplined array. Trees, well pruned, stood like silent gentlemen wearing round hats. Red sparrows hopped in and out a majestic birdhouse which Nileas crafted by hand.

Rosalind bent down under the table and dragged out a wooden post. She allowed it to lean against the sturdy fence. This was her target.

‘Arrow, Boris.’

The young man hurried to hand her an old arrow.

She began cocking the bow. With each movement, Rosalind felt pulses of rage bursting through her fingers. Nothing angered her more than those that picked on the weak. She levelled Hawkeye, stared down its scopes and pretended that it was the bullies that stood before her.

‘Rose, I don’t think –’ began Boris.

‘Hush Boris,’ Rosalind lifted her hand quickly, ‘be quiet.’

As she took aim, she felt her full fury converge upon the blunt tip of the used bolt. The picturesque garden vanished. All that remained was a piece of wood riddled with holes. Her hand, ever so experienced, shuffled about the forearm, making subtle corrections. She took a deep breath, and fired.

Rosalind could not wait to retrieve the arrow. It had landed exactly as she had expected. She repeated the test a few more times.

‘Good!’ concluded Rosalind, smiling, ‘now Boris, what were you going to say?’

‘I…I don’t think this is necessary.’

‘Oh come on, I’m not really going to shoot them,’ said Rosalind, ‘it’ll be fun. That’s why people take revenge.’

‘You might get hurt.’

‘As if those bungling fools could even touch me,’ snorted Rosalind, ‘look, just let me do it my way. You can lecture me afterwards.’

Boris sighed. Their disagreements always ended with him resigning. He could never win an argument against Rosalind. In ominous silence, they marched back towards the square. Rosalind was fully armed. Under her skirt, she had Hawkeye strapped to her thigh. On her back was her own quarterstaff which was more like a spear with metal tips on both ends. She looked ready for war.

The sun was up now. Under its blazing force, the distant air shimmered. Rosalind stared up at the blue sky, her profile full of misgiving for the glowing fireball. Irate hands swiped perspiration from her forehead.

The fat knight had released the boys for school. He was now marching between the men, occasionally stopping to demonstrate quarterstaff manoeuvres. Some of the fighters, as if to defy the sun, had removed their shirt. This was not lost on passing women.

Activity had picked up since Rosalind last visited the square. The baker’s boy was busy bagging bread for a man tapping at his watch. The fishmonger was haggling against a mother who had two little girls tugging at her skirt and pointing at a shop across the street. They were looking at Mr Pontix, who was being swarmed by children demanding ice.

‘Hey Boris,’ Rosalind handed him two copper coins, ‘could you run down to Iceman for me?’

‘Sure.’

‘Oh, get something for yourself.’

‘Thanks.’

Rosalind shook her head. Had she not told him to do so, Boris would’ve definitely returned to her with change. Even after all those years, the mule did not realise that the extra copper was not the evil of bad arithmetic.

Now that Boris had joined the line of screeching kids, Rosalind began looking for Erwin. She did not find him. Irked, Rosalind slipped in amongst the men and made her way towards Wallace Baldrim. The sea of sweaty, shirtless bulks of muscle, made the squeeze nauseating.

‘Sir,’ called Rosalind, her feminine voice immediately drawing eyes, ‘have you seen Erwin?’

‘Haven’t seen him,’ the fat knight formed his sentence as languidly as he strutted about, ‘knowing that boy he’s probably at the tavern.’

‘Thank you!’

Accompanied by Boris, with a cone of cream in hand, Rosalind made her way towards the local tavern, aptly named ‘The Ripper’ by its founder, Mr Ripland. The pub was a place of great diversity; it would not be unusual to hear folks conversing in foreign tongues between rounds of beer. It was also a sanctuary for delinquents during the mornings.

Rosalind heard Erwin even before she stepped inside the tavern. Hurriedly, she finished her cone and pushed aside the door. The sudden burst of chilling flavour joined hands with the sun to give her a swoon so bad that Rosalind had to stop and lean against the wall a while. Her vengeance was off to a rocky start.

Erwin looked up at her and laughed aloud.

‘You do that when you leave, Rose.’

Around the table, his two cronies joined in the chorus of derisive laughter. Accompanied by the stench of alcohol and tobacco, this made for an unpleasant entry. To the left sat the freckle-faced Ingles; his orifices were structured in such a way that Rosalind thought him more weasel than man. Next to Ingles was Marlo whose presence always puzzled Rose. The smaller boy looked so out of place sitting next to his friends. He was distinguished by three moles forming what Rosalind liked to call the ‘Ugly Triangle’. Together, they were the Three Brothers, a notorious bunch in Gleanne.

To Erwin’s right was a pretty girl. She regarded Rosalind with cool contempt.

‘Who is she?’ asked the woman with a heavy foreign accent.

‘She’s a good friend of ours,’ said Erwin, ‘aren’t you Rose? Say, would you like a drink? Hey Ripland –’

Rosalind bent down, lifted her skirt and unveiled Hawkeye. The entire tavern froze. Erwin swallowed at the glinting tip of the arrow. He knew better than anyone else the mayhem that she was capable of. His friends too, stared at Rosalind in alarm.

‘Scram,’ Rosalind motioned at the foreigner, ‘next time, try growing some eyes for men.’

The woman marched out on Rosalind with her head held high. Erwin’s smile faded the moment his girl exited The Ripper. He stood and so did his brothers. Ingles still wore his imbecilic grin and Marlo was having trouble holding his liquor.

‘Now that I got your undivided attention,’ Rosalind lowered her aim. Shooting people in broad daylight was never a good idea. ‘What did you guys do to Boris? Lie, and by the Lady I will put one of these through you groin.’

‘It was nothing,’ said Marlo, quickly, ‘we were practising, that’s all.’

‘Yeah, it was just good fun,’ joined Erwin, ‘he wanted in and got hurt. Nothing malicious, I swear.’

‘Just because your brains are made of cow dung do not assume that I belong to the same class of idiocy,’ Rosalind sneered and levelled her bow at Ingles who was trying to weasel his way out the rear door, ‘where are you going? I haven’t heard you lie yet.’

‘We didn’t do anything,’ blurted Ingles, ‘really, we didn’t do anything.’

‘Perhaps you could look Boris in the eye and say that,’ said Rosalind, then yelling, ‘Boris, get in here!’

Boris came in slowly. The Three Brothers leered at him. Boris felt his knees wobble. It was the sight of Rosalind with Hawkeye in her hands that gave him strength to stay on his feet. Still, the extent of his courage would only allow him to stand a few paces behind Rosalind and stare at the ground.

‘Boris,’ said Rosalind, ‘show everybody in this tavern what these three goons did to your hands.’

‘We didn’t do anything, did we, Boris?’ there was an edge to Erwin’s question.

‘No…it was –’

‘Oh blind the Lady!’ Rosalind swore, lifted his hands and pulled down the tattered sleeves for all to see. ‘Is this nothing?’

‘If you play with swords, you should be ready to get hurt,’ said Marlo, suddenly sober, ‘isn’t that right, Boris?’

‘It was an accident, I merely…’ he trailed off when Rosalind glared at him, ‘Marlo told me to help out in the armoury. Ingles and Erwin were already there. They locked me…inside and gave me a blunt sword. When I didn’t pick it up, they started to –’

‘Boris you little rat!’ Erwin would’ve jumped over the table had Rose not pointed her bow at him.

‘They shouldn’t have…shouldn’t have called you that, Rose,’ for the first time, Rosalind felt anger surfacing from Boris, ‘they shouldn’t have called you that. I…wanted to make them…pay.’

‘There, you see,’ Rosalind patted him on the back, ‘isn’t it nice to get such things off your chest? Just out of curiosity, what did they call me?’

‘Don’t you say it Boris!’ roared Erwin, ‘say it and I’ll kill you!’

‘He called you Plague Girl.’

In the blink of an eye, the world before Rosalind disappeared. All that she could see was Erwin. The table was the first to feel her fury. The Three Brothers scrambled for safety as her staff descended upon the woodwork which exploded into a flurry of splinters.

‘I’m sorry Mr Ripland,’ said Rosalind with an eerie calm, ‘I’ll pay for it.’

‘Just make them pay their tab,’ scowled the stout man from the safety of his register, ‘we’ll call it even then.’

Rosalind lifted her bow and made an eye. ‘You heard the man. Spill it!’

Ingles and Marlo, cowering, dug into their pockets as they stood. They made their way towards the counter, never taking their eyes off the arrow.

‘Crawl!’ ordered Rosalind, thumping the floor with her staff, ‘like the cowards that you are!’

The trembling boys obeyed. Laying down their coppers the two fled The Ripper. Erwin made to follow them but was detained. Rosalind reserved her darkest stare for him.

‘I challenge you to a duel,’ said Rosalind, ‘midday, town square. Don’t – be – late.’

With that, she holstered her bow, shouldered her staff and exited. An uncertain Boris followed her out. She marched quickly without obvious purpose, slowing with each stride. At last, in an unpopulated back alley, Rosalind sank down against the wall. The cool touch of granite did nothing to assuage her pain. Hands wrapped around her knees, she cried.

‘Are you alright?’ asked Boris.

‘Just leave me alone.’

Boris settled down next to her and patted her shoulder. She slapped away his hand without looking at him.

‘I said go away,’ she managed between sobs, ‘didn’t you hear me?’

The boy did not budge.

‘This is just stupid Rose,’ said Boris, ‘we all know you’re not Plague Girl.’

‘What if I am?’ Rosalind looked up at him with large, watery eyes, ‘what if I am?’

Rosalind could not sleep that night. Nileas was coughing so profusely that it sounded like the drums played in carnivals. The little girl ventured downstairs and found her father hunched over the kitchen sink.

‘Dad, I can’t sleep,’ complained Rosalind, rubbing her eyes, ‘can you please be quiet?’

‘Oh Rose,’ Nileas suppressed another cough, ‘sorry, but it seems like I have a cold.’

A sudden fit assaulted the man. He sputtered, fell to his knees and vomited blood.

‘Dad!’ screamed Rosalind, running to him, ‘what’s wrong?’

Nileas did not respond. He tried to stand but his legs were shaking too violently. A second fit came on and Nileas collapsed.

The vivid recollection renewed tears that Rosalind thought she had forgotten.

‘Is that all you’re worried about?’ Boris shook his head at her, ‘do you know any demons of misfortune as brave and kind as you?’

Rosalind was too sullen to answer.

‘Who was it that ran out in the middle of the night to find Vincent even though she didn’t know the way?’

‘I knew the way,’ pouted Rosalind, wiping away tears, ‘it was just too dark for me to see the signs.’

‘That’s my Rose,’ smiled Boris, ‘the Plague Girl is just a story. We all know that. I mean…I was angry too, but really, it was just a rumour some housewives started long ago. Nobody thinks of you that way and you know it. We love you.’

Sniffing, Rosalind got to her feet. She grabbed her staff and gave it flourish. All of a sudden, she felt better.

‘Thanks Boris,’ beamed Rosalind, ‘now let’s get Erwin. He won’t look the same once I’m done with him.’

The town square of Gleanne at midday was full of life. The local band had taken their place in a shaded corner of the courtyard, tuning their instruments. Men of the Watch lunched around tables, occasionally stopping to flirt with passing waitresses. The Iceman said farewell to a horde of crying children, promising to be back in the afternoon.

Rosalind sat herself down by the fountain, next to the fat knight. She watched, somewhat incredulously, as Wallace scoffed down two roast fowls.

‘Sir Baldrim,’ she spoke up at last, not wanting to interrupt the man’s meal, ‘I need a man to officiate a duel in less than ten minutes. Do you think you could do that?’

‘Duel, huh?’ Wallace eyed her suspiciously, ‘what did Erwin do this time?’

‘He was just being himself.’

‘That bad,’ Wallace erupted with laughter, ‘perhaps you can whip some sense into his sorry excuse of a noggin. Your staff can teach many men a good lesson.’

Erwin arrived moments later, accompanied by Ingles and Marlo. Wallace gave them a sidelong glance before standing. Walking to the square centre, he gestured for the two parties to come forth.

‘Good folks of Gleanne and beyond,’ boomed Wallace, ‘today we have two warriors who will pit their skills against one another for our enjoyment. To my right is Erwin Pontix, a skilled volunteer of the Watch. To my left is our local darling, Rosalind Eltridge. Now fighters, as per tradition demands, a duel bestows upon the winner the right to punish the loser.’

The entire community of Gleanne swarmed over at the spectacle. Wallace waited for the gathering crowd to settle before carrying on, gesturing at Rosalind.

‘Well young lady,’ announced the knight, ‘since you proposed this affair you are to name the punishment, bearing in mind that you may be subject to it should you lose.’

‘I was going to have the loser run naked three laps around town,’ said Rosalind with a malicious grin, ‘but knowing you Erwin, you’d probably enjoy that.’

The audiences exploded into fits of laughter.

‘I have a better idea,’ Rosalind waved to the supportive crowd, ‘the loser is to be tied to the fountain till midnight for our enjoyment. How does that sound?’

Erwin swallowed. He could already see a few men rubbing their hands in eager anticipation. This was not going to end well.

The Girl from Gleanne

Rosalind found herself studying her figure in the mirror. Today, she was going to be a good girl. It meant tying her auburn hair into a stern, professional ponytail; it meant wearing a skirt rather than shorts; it meant concealing her impressive cleavage in a proper blouse under insufferable summer heat; most importantly, it meant no crossbows. Rosalind felt lonely without it strapped around her leg. It was sacrifices like these that made being a good girl difficult.

‘Morning dad,’ Rosalind greeted Nileas from over the stairwell, ‘what would you like for breakfast?’

Nileas looked up, smiling. He was always smiling. Over the years, Rose had learnt to decipher the meaning hidden behind each one. ‘Good morning, Rose. Toasts are in the oven, milk is –’

‘I know I know,’ Rosalind interrupted the old man, ‘you’re over sixty, dad. Why not sleep in for once? You never let me cook.’

‘I’ve seen that enough times to know it’s a bad idea, sweetie,’ laughed the old Master, then coughing briefly, ‘besides, I thought I should spare you the trouble on your big day.’

There was wheezing in her father’s cough that Rosalind did not like. She descended, kissed his wrinkles and made for the kitchen.

‘You should really go see Vincent about that,’ said Rosalind between gulps of bread and milk, ‘you weren’t this bad last summer.’

‘Vincent has more important things to take care of,’ waved the man, ‘I know these old bones better than any doctor. I’ll be fine.’

Rosalind chose not to voice her worries any further. Nileas may be kind but he was stubborn. She thought of visiting Vincent on her own to see if she could bring the man down but decided against it; the last time they met at the markets it took a good minute to exchange pleasantries. I’ll write to him, she decided.

She scoffed down the last morsel of bread and bolted out the door. The morning air was still brisk and cool. It was Gleanne’s way to deceive its residents into a false sense of security before unleashing the full fury of the sun onto the town. It made Rosalind sweat just thinking about it.

Their next door neighbour was seated in her yard, stroking a parrot perched on her hand. Espying Rosalind, Mrs Lanrook stood and made as if to hide her precious bird. She backed away from the girl and stared at her through narrowed, suspicious eyes.

‘No crossbow today, dear?’ A hint of bitterness tinged her voice. ‘Crossbow, crossbow, crossbow!’ echoed the parrot.

‘No, Mrs Lanrook,’ Rosalind wondered whether she came off as polite or aloof, ‘how is Jerry Junior?’

‘Jerry’s fine, thank you,’ Mrs Lanrook turned her back on Rosalind, ‘you just stay away from my children!’

This exchange has gone on for five years. It became somewhat of a tradition after that unfortunate accident in which Jerry became Jerry Senior.

Rosalind closed her book in alarm. The racket next door was most distressing for a girl her age. She poked her head out of the attic, and to her horror, saw a tabby pushing its paws against poor Jerry’s cage.

‘Swift as arrows; sharp as swords.’

She uttered these words just as the knights in the stories did before going to battle. She had always loved Jerry; the bird was so clever that it learnt her name in but one evening.

Hurriedly, she loaded her crossbow with a round-headed bolt and scrambled on to the slanted ceiling.

Swish went the arrow. The scared tabby made a quick exit, fearing for its life. Jerry’s squawking ceased. Rosalind covered her mouth in terror. The bird fell dead like a ripe apple.

Agatha would frequently gather girls for tea. After that incident, she made sure Rosalind was never invited. No amount of apologies could change the old lady’s mind.

‘Have a nice day,’ said Rosalind half-heartedly as she watched the woman disappear her house, then added in a much smaller voice, ‘you senile, birdbrain witch.’

Rosalind headed off, determined not to let this encounter ruin her day. The crisp sound of clashing weapons roused her attention. Excited by the prospect of action, she raced down the streets slashed by shadows of tall lampposts.

The Watch had already occupied the town square. Volunteers, better known as Eyes, were busy with their quarterstaffs. To one side were the boys, standing in circular formation. Overseeing their training was the Gleanne knight, a stout man by the name of Wallace Baldrim.

‘One!’ boomed the knight who was seated by the fountain, ‘two! Three!’

‘One!’ echoed the boys, ‘two! Three!’

To the other side of the fountain were older men. Their training involved various forms and combat exercises. One of the taller youths, spotting Rosalind, slipped out of the ranks and made his way towards her. She shuddered. It was Erwin.

‘You in a skirt,’ he laughed, ‘I thought I’d never see the day. Quite the lady you have become.’

‘Hello Erwin,’ Rosalind breathed frost, ‘shouldn’t you be training? I heard the Eyes of the Watch were diligent men.’

‘And indeed we are,’ Erwin gave his staff a twirl, ‘see?’

Rosalind managed a cool, formal smile.

‘You don’t believe me,’ the man stared down at her with such a foolish grin that Rosalind wished she could slap him across the face, ‘then let me show you.’

Erwin made for the ring and voiced his challenge. Rosalind rolled her eyes. Given equal skill and weapon, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Erwin was easily the biggest man of this group. A stray blow to the gut was all he needed to floor his opponent. Laughing aloud, he helped the man to his feet.

‘Any other takers?’ yelled Erwin, ‘come forth!’

The show made Rosalind gag. There was nothing harder to stomach than Erwin’s arrogance. When no challengers came forth, he saw it fit to taunt the onlookers before returning to her triumphantly. That only made things worse.

‘Best hand with the staff in Gleanne,’ he grinned, ‘as you can see, I’m not the boy you floored so many years ago.’

And I can floor you again! But Rosalind restrained the urge to snatch the nearest staff and dislodge his front teeth. Today, she was a good girl; good girls do not try and best other men in combat, however tempting that may be.

‘Where’s Boris?’ asked Rosalind, ignoring the boastful man, ‘I heard he volunteered to be an Eye a few weeks back.’

‘The Watch doesn’t need losers like him,’ guffawed the big man, ‘even the fat knight said so. Couldn’t even take a smack to the wrist and he calls himself man.’

‘Is he hurt?’ asked Rosalind, concerned.

‘What’s it to you?’

Rosalind glared at him.

‘Of course not,’ said Erwin. For a moment, he saw the angry girl that put him in Vincent’s ward for a week. Her hard eyes made it seem like it happened yesterday, ‘he’s fine. I saw him outside the Bar on my way here, not that he has any business being there –’

‘Blind the Lady,’ gasped Rosalind, ‘I’m late!’

Without saying goodbye, Rosalind ran off. Erwin however, called after her, much to her disgust.

‘You can always do better, Rose!’

She ignored him. Just as she expected, she found good old Boris standing outside the Bar. That mule! Just seeing his familiar profile brought a smile to her lips.

‘Hi Boris,’ Rosalind ran to him, ‘sorry to keep you waiting.’

Boris Hardend was a year her senior, but was the smaller of the two. Today too, his shirt had a hole in it. Trousers, a few sizes too big, were tied to his hips with rope. His ears, large and triangular, ruined what would otherwise be a fine profile. A small but deep scar decorated his cheek. The line fell just short of his large, uncertain eyes.

‘No…I ah,’ stammered Boris, ‘I just…I just got here too.’

‘That’s good.’

‘You look wonderful.’

Rosalind blushed. It was strange that such a plain compliment coming from her childhood friend would delight her.

‘Thank you.’

‘No crossbow today?’

Rosalind laughed.

‘I was so happy when I heard you made Adept,’ Boris went on, ‘I knew you would. You were always strong and smart.’

‘It was nothing,’ said Rosalind, ‘did you make it?’

Boris shook his head.

‘There must be some mistake,’ Rose felt outraged, ‘you were doing perfectly before you –’

‘Rose,’ Boris smiled sadly, ‘I knew I would fail. The only thing I’m good at is failing.’

‘Don’t say that,’ Rosalind pressed his hands, ‘don’t you ever say that, Boris Hardend. You fletch the best arrows of the Dominion and you know it. I’m sure if you try again you’ll make it.’

‘Thanks Rose,’ Boris retracted his hand, wincing, ‘but honestly. Take a look at me. I’m as slow and ugly as a mule. Every time I try to invoke the Craft my brothers fight for the nearest exit, for a good reason too!

‘I mean, I mean…I just can’t do this. I don’t have the strength or skills for an Adept. I’m…too…too much of a coward for the Watch. If one day my arrows happen to make you a heroine, then I’ll die a happy man. That’s all I ask for…no, that’s all I can ask for.’

‘Boris, that’s not true,’ these words cut Rosalind deeper than they did Boris, ‘that’s not true at all. Whatever the other boys tell you, whatever your father says, none of it is true. I know you Boris. You’re kind, compassionate and thorough.

‘So maybe you’re not so good at battle Crafts, and maybe you’re not as much of an overgrown wart as Erwin, but you have good hands. I know it. It’s no accident my arrows always find their target. It’s because of you Boris.’

‘You’re just a good shot.’

‘I think Mrs Birdbrain will have something to say about that.’

Boris laughed. He hadn’t felt in such good spirit for quite some time.

Together, the two friends entered the Bar. Though often mistaken for a tavern by people outside the Dominion, the Bar was by no means a place of entertainment. It was a modest hall of business. To the left were boards pinned full of small, colourful cards. On a busier day, it would be swarmed by Inquisitors and Adepts.

To the right, under small windows and rays of sunshine, were three sets of tables and chairs. To the centre of each was a hole that accommodated half a dozen quills. They too, were unoccupied. This was where Order members would often sit writing up reports.

‘Rose,’ a young woman greeted Rosalind, ‘you’re a bit early. The Director will be here soon.’

‘Hi Anna,’ Rosalind responded in equally good nature.

‘Hello,’ chorused Boris, in a smaller voice.

Anna rushed to give Rosalind a tight hug. She ran so fast her waves of brown curls could barely keep up with her.

‘I’m so proud of you!’ squealed Anna, ‘an Adept, look at you. You look splendid!’

‘Anna,’ giggled Rosalind, ‘you’re embarrassing me.’

Anna did not appear to hear her.

‘This calls for celebrations,’ she turned to Boris, as if noticing him for the first time, ‘got a moment, Boris?’

‘Of – of course,’ said Boris.

The two ducked out of the hall and into the storage room. There was hardly any space between the shelves of paperwork to stand; they were so close to each other that Boris looked away, feeling uncomfortable.

‘Bring Rose to my house at nine o’clock sharp,’ whispered Anna, though there was little chance of them being overheard, ‘she must suspect nothing. I’ll gather the folks while you keep her occupied for the day.’

‘I can…I can do that,’ said Boris slowly, ‘it shouldn’t be…too hard.’

‘Good!’ smiled Anna, ‘now get going. Go, what are you waiting for?’

By the time they returned to the hall they saw Rosalind being accosted by a lanky man. The Director, Cain Edgeworth, presented her with a flower-shaped badge and the Runeseer Order Handbook.

‘From hence forth,’ said the Director with a sombre tone, ‘you, Rosalind Eltridge, are an Adept of the Runeseer Order. You’re hereby entrusted with the powers of the Arcane Craft and the duty to uphold the Runeseer Code. Bring glory and honour to our Society.’

‘Thank you, Mr Edgeworth,’ said Rosalind, ‘I shall do my best. Am I the only one who passed?’

‘Sadly, yes,’ Cain’s lips twitched, ‘the quality of candidates were very low. Thank the Lady that you came. I doubt the town of Gleanne can suffer such humiliation three years in a role.’

Rosalind blushed, not knowing what to say. Cain went on without due ceremony.

‘You have three days to prepare. An assignment has come. It requires an Adept and Inquisitor. Have Anna organise your travels. You are going to Trisblanc.’

Cain disappeared into his office without saying another word. The three youths in the hall were left looking at one another. The surprise wore off and was quickly replaced by jubilation. Anna again, caught Rosalind in a hug. Rosalind herself however, still thought this too good to be true. For someone expecting local jobs for a good few years, this was certainly a welcoming, if not overly generous opportunity. She wondered whether Nileas had anything to do with it.

‘You hear that!’ cried Anna, laughing, ‘you’re going to the central branch on your first assignment!’

‘I guess,’ she played along, making a mental note to speak to Nileas about the matter.

‘I’ll schedule your journey right away,’ said an excited Anna, ‘come back on the day and I’ll have it laid out for you.’

Rosalind went out into the streets, accompanied by Boris. Together, they left behind the stone roads and wooden houses for the boundless, furtive greens. The tall grass waved greeting at their visitors as a warm breeze passed by. Riding the lush blades, golden waves of sunlight raced one another to the end of the horizon. Off the beaten tracks, by pristine ponds clear as glass, were red wildflowers that set the landscape ablaze.

She couldn’t wait. As she ran, Rosalind tossed away her boots and stocking. Impatiently, she dipped her feet into the waters she knew so well. Boris, collecting her items along the way, struggled to her side. She giggled at his awkward figure and handed him flower badge.

‘Here,’ she smiled, ‘would you do the honours?’

Boris nodded. He struggled to ping the white rose on her chest. At first, she though Boris was savouring the touch of her breasts but realised she was mistaken; under his ragged sleeve were many layers of bloodstained dressing. When finished, Boris looked up at her, smiling.

‘Now you’re an Adept, in name and looks.’

Rosalind was not as jovial.

‘Boris,’ said Rosalind, ‘show me your hand.’

‘It’s…it’s nothing.’

‘Show me,’ demanded Rosalind, firmly, ‘go on.’

When he didn’t respond, Rosalind gave a sigh and rolled up his sleeve. She gasped at the horrendous sight. It was no wonder that Boris didn’t join the Watch this morning.

‘Boris, were you fighting with blunt swords?’

‘I don’t…I don’t remember.’

‘In the name of the Great Lady, tell me!’ Rosalind became angry, ‘did you fight with blunt-edged swords?’

He nodded.

‘That’s crazy! Did Sir Baldrim allow it?’

‘No…I –’

‘Have you seen Vincent about this?’

‘Yes…’ answered Boris timidly, ‘he said…said to…give it some time.’

Rosalind released his hand.

‘Who did this to you?’ asked Rosalind darkly.

‘I don’t…know.’

‘Do I look stupid to you?’ Rosalind yelled, ‘Boris, tell me!’

‘It was…it was them.’

Rosalind didn’t need names. For once, she was glad the Society forbade its members to use the Craft against civilians.

‘Boris,’ said Rosalind, ‘get me some arrows.’

Being a good girl was just too hard.

 A/N: people have claimed that my dialogue have been punctuated incorrectly. I’m however, still in search of an authority on that matter. Please help where possible.