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The Mandrake Child: 9. Chapter 8
- Chapter 8 -
He did not know - yet.
Seren cast a glance over her shoulder, beyond the kitchen and towards her parents' room where her father sat by her mother's bed and gently explained where he'd been. He'd taken a road around the village, preferring shorter paths to his house and avoiding the heart of the settlement; but it would not be long before he noticed the body swinging from the gallows that had not hung there when he'd gone away, and the rope missing from his chest. And, though it had always been understood that his trade would one day be hers, Seren doubted he would take lightly to her anticipated initiation.
But those concerns aside, they now had some money. As a second blessing, her father had made it home safely and even Cillan, who had been fighting for months to retain what was left of her sanity and life force, had managed to recognize her husband's face when he had knelt by her bedside; Seren knew a sign of hope when she saw one.
But despite all the good news, she could find no peace of mind.
It wasn't guilt, at least not how she knew it; but rather the uneasy feeling of having taken more than she should have and of owing more than she had given. If lives had a price, she felt that Beriadan's was gold against her own copper-worthy existence, and the difference weighed heavily on her conscience.
The rain kept on falling, but something had changed, as though the water had reached a level where it could drown out sound. The village below had fallen even more silent than it'd been on such a dreary day. Driven by a premonition, Seren got up from the porch and took a few steps down the road.
The elves were here. Even from this distance there was no mistaking the silver-cloaked procession that rode into the clearing for mortals - too noble, too proud, radiating contempt and grief from every scarce gesture. Was Beriadan's family amongst them? If they were, would they listen to her? Seren remembered Beriadan's stories about the Silmarils and the feuds they had ignited, and shuddered as she quickened her pace down the road. No matter how much she despised some of the people living here, no-one deserved to die because of her. If a sword had to fall on someone's neck, then let it be hers; today she could go with the knowledge that her family would not lack in anything in the upcoming months, and that her mother would be taken care of. She stopped to look back to her house; but her parents were not looking for her. She resumed her journey.
The mud was slippery beneath her feet, squelching and sliding under her weight and splashing onto her skirts and ankles. Someone was speaking, and she struggled to single out the words amongst the rain and the noise she was making.
"I have come to reclaim his body, as I am in right to do as his King. And, as such, I demand justice in his name, against the one amongst you who dared lay a hand on one belonging to my realm."
The elf who spoke wore a crown of vines and berries, but the fruits and leaves that once were red and golden had faded in colour, as though grieving with their wearer; they stood out, black and brown, thorns poking out from beneath shrivelled leaves, against his golden hair. He was the image of dignity and grief; he was the Elvenking, and Beriadan's liege. Seren lowered her head, unwilling to appear proud or defiant.
"It was me - I killed him."
In the silence that followed, Seren heard several of the elves exchange mutters of disbelief. The King himself did not believe her, she realized as she stole another glance of his face. He sized her up, his mouth thinning in displeasure. Seren could understand that; a few days ago, she would not have thought herself capable of it either, but need had a way of cornering people into showing their darker side. She now had proof, though – anyone had it in them to kill.
"Who are you?"
The question rang out, its underlying meaning clear. He was demanding to know why she was wasting his time; or perhaps he needed her to deny her involvement, to reassure him that the villagers did not fall so low as to have a child do a man's dirty work. Emotions ran deep in his eyes: anger, pain, but also infinite sadness and a will to understand, and this gave her the courage to explain rather than fling herself to her knees and beg for the King's forgiveness.
Seren looked into his eyes, her resolve wavering under his scrutiny. "I am the hangman's daughter."
It was his time to flinch, almost imperceptibly – no doubt he was starting to understand what had happened. She continued and as she spoke, her voice gained in strength, fed by the same bitterness and resignation that had been hers when she had pulled that lever.
"I carried out the sentence that was pronounced against Beriadan for the murder of a man. I did so in my father's stead and under the authority given to those of my trade."
The Elvenking closed his eyes, his brows knitting together in a mask of grief. "So it is true." He dismounted, abandoning the reins on the steed's neck and stepping towards Seren. He towered above her but his attention seemed to have wandered elsewhere. "He did not listen," he whispered for his people to hear. "and went against my advice after all. Reckless... and unfortunate."
"He loved Marian," Seren replied quietly. "Her death and his deeds had nothing to do with fortune." She realized her brazenness and braced herself for a sharp reply, but the King's demeanour softened at her words. He lifted a quizzical eyebrow.
"You knew him well," he said – more a question than a statement, and Seren nodded.
"We were friends... briefly, before I... before he died."
"Friends with a murderer? Why?"
If there was taunting in his words Seren chose to ignore it, for his question was one she had answered for herself some time ago. "Because despite of what he'd done he was a good person, a kind being. I could not hate him – in his place, I might have done the same thing. Justice had to be done..." She sent a pointed look towards Murdoch, who was trying to maintain his bravado and still remain hidden by the tavern's awning, "and I know his was the only way. I regret his death, if that's what you're asking, but if I had to, I'd do it again."
The Elvenking shook his head, but whether it was at her stubbornness or in disbelief, she could not tell. "Justice... I came here seeking it, but it is denied to me, for I will not exact revenge upon one so young – you are but a child..."
Seren bit her lip. "That's also what Beriadan had said." Sadness washed over her once again at the memory of his face, and she lowered hers to hide her own grief.
The King reached out to push her chin up, his gesture gentle but firm. His eyes mirrored her pain. "This I know, however – he would not have acted without reason. Tell me why he died. Tell me everything."
Seren hesitated. She had offered her silence as part of her deal with Murdoch and received payment. She longed to expose his part in the story, if only as a vengeance for the unnumbered humiliations inflicted upon her family over the years; but if she broke her word, what little honour was still possessed by those of her trade would be tarnished.
"I cannot," she said eventually, struggling to keep her gaze on the King's face as his expression darkened.
"You refuse to speak?" he asked in disbelief, "even as you claim to be Beriadan's friend? Will you not honour his memory by revealing the truth about his death?" He crossed his arms, and Seren felt the strength of his willpower as he appraised her. "If it is a monetary incentive that you are suggesting, I advise you not to play with me, child. I am disposed to show you kindness, but do not test my patience."
Seren crossed her arms in turn, seething from his accusation. "Keep your money!" she spat. "And punish me as you will, but I gave my word not to speak of what happened. Foolishly, perhaps, but I am bound to it nevertheless." She saw Murdoch nod in satisfaction in the tavern's doorway; the realization that he was getting his way stung, but she was helpless to prevent it.
"Pierce was a bastard, that's what happened."
The words, amplified by the uneasy silence that had fallen after their exchange, made Seren startle. She turned around, following the crowd's stare towards the lone figure leaning against one of the houses that lined the village centre. Dion grinned at the sudden attention. He pushed himself off the wall, winked at Seren as she gaped at him.
"You fuck!" Rhett's bellow simmered down to a growl as he met the elves' cold eyes. "I'll kill you!" He walked along at Dion's pace like a warg in a cage mirroring the captor's movements with bloodlust in its eyes and waiting for the opportunity to strike.
"Now, now." Dion smirked, walking through the crowd as it parted before him. "You might want to watch your mouth, upsetting the elvenfolk didn't turn out too well for your family."
Murdoch, red-faced and wound up with what seemed to be righteous anger, finally walked out of the tavern. He squinted in the pale daylight, shaking his head like a disappointed father before a stubborn son, but Seren sensed wariness in his demeanour as though he was testing the waters. "Why insult the dead? Pierce was your friend."
"Why?" Seren echoed his question. Dion the gallows-scum hater, the smart-mouthed, shifty sidekick had not been her first hope for backup.
He walked up to her.
"I'm not doing this for you, lass," he whispered into her ear, "and I don't care for honour, either, although..." she saw him look over her shoulder towards the Elvenking, "some reward would be welcome. No? Pity." He turned to face the crowd.
"Then I guess it is time for the final act. Pierce, our dear Pierce, was a sleazy bastard who thought with his dick – come on, ladies, you all knew it – and he forced himself upon one woman too many. The elf killed him for that. And our dear mayor here, Murdoch, hoped to silence anyone who knew so he wouldn't lose his prestige."
"Liar!" Murdoch roared and balled his meaty hands into fists that shook with rage. "Lying, filthy son of a bitch!" he hissed.
"You're right about that," Dion agreed readily, shrugging, "my mother was a whore. But I'm not the one who's got to answer to the people here. Not to mention the King." He shot the elves a look over his shoulder. "I reckon he must be pretty pissed at you right now."
"You... you have no power here!" Murdoch yelled as the elves moved to encircle him. He spun around, eyes wide with fear, swinging blindly at the cold faces that surrounded him.
"I have power wherever I am needed," the Elvenking's voice rang out. "Seize him."
Seren watched in fascination as the elven warriors took him down, their movements swift and merciful. Murdoch fought under their grip, foam at his lips as he yelled obscenities and curses. She looked up to see Rhett's face twisted in hatred as he took one step back, pushing his way through the stunned crowd, and took off towards the woods.
"My Lord?" The warrior who spoke seemed to question the King with his eyes, glancing towards the quickly fading figure. The bow he raised held a notched arrow.
The Elvenking shook his head. "He will find his just reward in Mirkwood."
"I believe you are now free from your word."
Seren felt his presence before she saw him; the power that radiated from him was not unlike the attraction she had felt towards Beriadan, a charisma that secured her trust and affection before she even thought of giving it. The Elvenking was older, though, gentler in his spells, whatever they were. She felt her mind clear as he released her from his influence.
"Will you tell me, then, of his death?" he asked.
"I would... Only there is not much to add." Seren looked towards the village where Dion was supervising the reunion of an extraordinary Council. "He got his reward, after all," she remarked quietly. "He's going to become the new mayor." She caught his look and his wink, and averted her eyes.
"Time will tell if he is worthy," came the reply. Seren almost cringed at those overused words of wisdom, until he added: "He, too, paid a price with Marian's death... He does look a little like her."
Seren blinked, looked at Dion once again. There, under his apparent carefree demeanour and the jesting lurked a seriousness she had never noticed. She found control in the seemingly theatrical gestures, sharpness in his eyes that spoke of hard-earned experience. He grinned at something someone said, and she saw Marian's face.
"I still have a debt towards you," she said. "For the life I took and the reward I collected. My life is yours, if you want it." She felt strangely calm, detached, as though the decision had released her from her guilt. What worth her life possessed she did not know, but it gave her purpose.
The Elvenking smiled, warming Seren up inside. "I accept your allegiance. I will claim it in time," he said with a nod. "One day, I will hold you to your word. But not now."
Not now... Seren nodded in turn. There were conversations to be had, tears of joy to be spilled and new paths to be taken for all of them. There were destinies to fulfil or change, and she had yet to decide where hers lay.
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