By Lorecrafter’s Guild
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.’‘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.’‘How much?’‘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.’
‘No, later today only.’‘Fine.’Before setting off for the modest market of the village and gathering the marks needed for the bag, Muirin had taken the time to craft a note. She knew of one person, and no more than that, in the surrounding areas that might both know about these strange items and be interested in buying them. A man on the outskirts of two towns over that made a modest living selling weapons. Muirin had met him before, many times, all on occasions when she had a need to sell things quickly. They both knew a coded language, as was the way, and this was how her note was written. In it, she had described what she had found, even going as far to list the individual items with modest descriptions, and what she think they might be worth.The merchant took a look at the note, which would appear meek in his eyes, and slid it into his pocket. ‘I’ll see it done, if ya get me one more bag.’‘I will,’ she promised.
Once again, Muirin had relied on the kindness of a stranger to look after her children as she made another foray into the woods. Again, they had been left to play with the baker’s own children, and she knew they would be well looked after until her return, which shouldn’t be more than a couple of hours later. The day was still bright, just past midday, and she’d marched off at about this time purposefully to keep within the sun’s light.It wasn’t difficult to find the strange bag of treasures in the woods. Muirin slid, more than fell, down the bank this time and discovered them exactly where she had found them. Sighing with something of relief for fear of the bag being found, she brought a rope to it and fastened it tight. The rope, something she had brought hidden in a sack of her own, was tied to a tree at the top of the bank and would provide the right leverage for the sack to be lifted without outright relying on her tired strength.As she pulled, she once again thought about the collection and how it had come to lie here. The most reasonable explanation she could muster was that someone must have dropped it here along the path above. The why of that though was difficult to comprehend. Perhaps it was a stranger on the run, which seemed likely, a thief who had thought to drop off the bag of loot before they were caught with it. Little good that would do them around here with laws not stretching further than a town’s boundaries.Inside, on the second glance, she had found both plate mail and a heavy looking set of greaves that seemed to radiate with holy light. Two items that, on their own, would make the bag impossible to lift, even with the aid of a pulley. Yet here she was, lifting it. They must be magical then, was her only thought on the matter, to be as light as they were now. It probably wouldn’t be a hard task to get them home either, especially if she made her way there through the beach.She had opted for the daylight over the night, as if she were found carrying the sack in the darkness, that would do nothing but rouse suspicion. At least in the day, coming from the woods she had once frequented, it might look a little more innocent.Once satisfied that the dragging bag was sitting comfortably at the top of the bank, Muirin decided to go and join it.Something was waiting for her at the top though, sitting on the edge of the bank and tentatively sniffing at the bag. Muirin saw the fir first before she knew the creature by name. It was a brown bear, a resident of the woods no doubt, and it was sitting lazily near the bag as if it thought there might be food inside. Not daring to move an inch, for fear of stirring the creature, Muirin kept her hold on the rope and hovered just a little below the creature’s eyeline.It was a curious animal. It would paw at the bag, every now and then, as if trying to guess what was inside. The minutes though paced on, and Muirin was beginning to grow more anxious about the time. The bear and the bag were sat right off the path. Any stranger walking by would have a hard time not seeing them.Suddenly, as if encouraged into motion, the bear took the bag up in its maw and began moving further into the woods. With no other choice, Muirin forced herself up and towards it. There she started shouting obscenities, screaming towards the thing, and it became confused. The bear arched its back like a scared dog, looking around for something that could explain why this fearful woman had appeared.Muirin casts her arms wide, trying to make herself as large as possible.This though seemed only to agitate the bear. It dropped the bag from its mouth and stood to its full height. There came a roar then, a deep bellied roar that would strip the skin from a stranger, but Muirin stood taller against it. She roared back, though not as loud, but enough to make the creature question her.It came upon her, and she had no choice but to run. Fortunately enough, she had a good spot to run to. Muirin backtracked towards the sloping bank, rushing towards it, as the bear paced after her on all fours. She slipped down and the creature slipped after her. Then, in the way each villager is taught from a young age, she ran down the slope while crossing over her feet, moving over one way and then the other, trying to cause the bear to spill.The wild bear tripped over its clumsy feet and fell forward into a roll. It was exactly as Muirin had hoped, but there was something wrong. She had failed to estimate her own position and found herself running in the path of the sudden furry boulder. In her younger days, she could have simply dodged to the left, roll out of the way, and probably laugh at the asinine bear as it slammed into a tree. These days though were different. In trying to jump out of the way she felt her left ankle twist in a painful way, not enough to sprain, but enough to lose her precious seconds.The pair tumbled together.Muirin hit the ground first and the bear tumbled after her. They both landed within ten feet of one another, each groggy in the head and slow to realise what had happened. Luckily, it was Muirin that came to her height first, pulling out the dagger and eyeing the bear very, very carefully. The creature came to next and gave her an equal gaze of contempt. She stared at it, and it stared at her. There’d be nowhere to run, not now they were in the thickets. If the bear chose to fight her, Muirin would have no choice but to do the same.There was a moment of silence between the pair as calculations were made and muscles were braced.The bear charged first, drawing to its full height and striking out at Muirin. Three dagger-like claws dug into the side of her head and sent her to the ground. It was like getting hit round the head by a boxer on their best day, the strike knocked the sense from her, made the world dizzy and blurred, and left her with just enough reason to brace herself after she hit the floor.Muirin brought the dagger up, knowing what would happen next. Her head was bleeding, it was coming down into her eyes, and the bear had finally decided that she wasn’t a threat, no, she was a meal. It pounced on her, maw first, and Muirin brought the dagger down.Men, woman, bears, they all could die the same ways. The point of the dagger went into the bear’s eye first, then penetrated right through to the creature’s brain. It let out a wounded howl and retreated a little back. Muirin had the sense of mind to pull the dagger with her hand as it moved away. It’s not that easily to kill a bear though, and even more enraged now, it came back upon her.Muirin brought the dagger through the other eye, which both stunned and blinded the beast. She had just enough mind left to bring the dagger to the creature for a final blow. This time through its thick skull. The dagger didn’t do much though, it couldn’t pierce the bone of the thing, and simply bounced off. It flew from her hand and into the wilderness around them. The right damage had been done though regardless. A moment after the dagger had disappear, the creature slumped and found its way on top of her.Under the weight of the dying bear, Muirin allowed her injuries to guide her into unconsciousness, sure that in addition to the blow on her head and the cuts on her face, the bear had just broken a few of ribs when it collapsed on top of her.
It was night when she finally opened her eyes. She couldn’t see much of it through the trees, but the shadows were enough for her to be sure of the fact.The bear was dead, but she was far from danger. Every inhale of breath was accompanied with a sharp pain in her chest, it hurt to breath, squashed underneath this thing, and her head was thumping like a hammer against an old board.Using her hands to help move the dirt around her, Muirin managed to pull herself out from underneath the beast. She stared at it once before struggling back up the slope. It seemed smaller than the thing she had fought somehow, more a baby than a bear. Grimacing, with her lips tightening into a thin line, she whispered, ‘Three hundred and fourteen.’The bag was miraculously still waiting for her at the top of the slope, but the combination of night and the rasping of her breath would need to change her plans completely. Muirin couldn’t carry the bag, not in its entirety, and she had to be very careful heading back to the village so as not to be seen either. Then there were her children. Whatever would they be thinking now with their mother gone so long? They’d be sick with worry, although she was sure that they were still safe with the baker. The baker was good like that.The bag would need to be taken in multiple trips, she decided reluctantly, and perhaps the next trip would need to be a few days away. Muirin’s chest was in shambles and her head was still buzzing from the bear’s mighty blow. Not to mention the blood now soaking her dress. She’d just have to risk the rest of the bag’s contents being discovered.From the assortment of items, she took the lighter items, which included a strange hood, a ring, a necklace, a sash, and finally the falchion, which she wove into the belt of her dress. Muirin kicked the rest of the bag down the bank, hoping it would roll far enough not to be seen by strangers, and then steadily made her way back.She found a large branch and fashioned it in a crutch, which she leaned on for the rest of her journey. It took her an hour to move through from the woods to the comforting sight of the sea and the sand. The sea air seemed to soothe her somewhat, but it was still a while to her cottage over the treacherous rocks.
Muirin didn’t go to her children. She found she couldn’t. They were safe enough, she reasoned, and she needed a moment to rest and to clean herself. Just as soon as the items were pushed beneath her bed, just as soon as the bloody gashes down her face were stitched, just as soon as her dress was off and thrown into a bucket of water, she allowed herself to fall into the folds of her welcoming bed and sleep.
There had been ten men with her, she remembered, and not one of them had brought a present. They had gathered about in her quarters, her most loyal servants, but they had guessed ahead of time what she was going to tell them. That’s why she was taken aback by their reluctance to bring a gift. It felt appropriate they bring a gift. Muirin couldn’t remember what had been said, but she could remember the swaying of the ship, mixed with the fresh sea air, and the sounds of the lapping waves against the bow. It was a good time to be on the sea, but a better time to leave it for the news.
Muirin woke with a start and breathed through the pain of her chest. She winced. The ribs were definitely broken and seemed unsettled. She found that she couldn’t breathe deeply without letting out a groan of pain, which meant the bones were digging into her lungs. Or at least she reasoned they were. She’d have to take it slow and make sure she bandaged the area well, which she did shortly after rising, and keep as much heat there as possible to ease the pain.With a struggle, as she found herself so weak now, Muirin placed herself in another dress and made sure she was presentable. Her wounds were still bleeding, she’d never been very good at dressing wounds, but she found that a change in her cloth bandages were enough to quell it for now. She’d need the right stinging ointment.Without even struggling through her breakfast, Muirin anxiously paced towards the baker’s house, just a little down the row, so she could retrieve her children.There was a darkness on the village today, she saw, in the form of storm clouds on the horizon. There was something else too. Something old, but familiar. Suddenly she was picking up her pace and rushing to the bakers. Muirin hurried past the intoxicating aroma of new loafs, still in the oven, and pastry goods, and rushed inside of the house attached to the shop front.She was met with an empty home. Muirin called after her children, sudden fear rising in her gut, but there was no answer. Not even the baker, who should be spending the morning preparing the meals, or even her children, answered their names when called. There was something in this, Muirin realised, but she didn’t know it for what it was until she checked the back door.A note was stuck to it with a dagger.The dagger was bloody and was hers.The note was familiar, scribbled in her own handwriting, and written in a code.
The bell rang shortly after, calling the villagers to the square. For the most part, Muirin ignored it, instead electing to go back to her home and keeping a careful watch over her back. At about the last twist of the road before she came to her cottage, she saw him, peering out from around the corner. The man who had been following her. How she hadn’t noticed him before she could only ascribe to her being sloppy.Keeping natural, Muirin entered her home, ignoring the still ringing bell, and went straight for her room. There she thought for a moment on where she’d choose to hide if needing the choice. Quietly, she reached under the bed, wincing at the pain it did her, and pulled out the falchion. She examined it only for a second before, just as quietly, climbing out of her bedroom window.She found him lurking around the corner, his eyes were square on the front door with no clue as to her approach. When she pushed the tip of the blade into the small of his back, he let out a short yelp before raising his hands like a sheepish child caught in the act of something vile but innocent. He was a tall man, gaunt, with fading hair and a smell of putrid onions. It was a wonder she hadn’t noticed him before.‘You’ve been following me.’‘I was told to,’ came his reply. ‘She told me to.’‘Why?’ Muirin asked. ‘Why me and why now?’‘The farmer’s widow went to her, told her about you.’‘What about me?’‘About your former life.’ He shrugged. ‘She thought the widow was desperate, wanted proof, but had me follow you to make sure.’‘The widow met me in my house, and I killed her.’‘I know, I saw you bury her.’‘Why did nothing come of this then?’ Muirin teased the blade in a little more. ‘When you had a reason to suspect me?’‘I told her, I did, but she said it was fair,’ replied the man. ‘The widow had gone to you, no doubt to cause trouble, and you’d killed her out of justice. She wanted me to keep an eye on you, to see what you would do next.’‘You followed me into the markets, didn’t you?’ said Muirin. ‘You saw me hand the note to the merchant.’‘He was easy to get the note off, when you didn’t show up with the rest of his marks.’‘You got the note after then,’ Muirin realised quietly. ‘And then you followed me into the woods.’‘I saw your horde of items; you must’ve been squirreling those away for years.’ He turned then, slowly, so as not to awake her falchion’s anger. He had something of venom in his voice. ‘It’s true, ain’t it? No one has a horde like that except for—’In one swift motion the falchion met his throat, strangling the next words from out of his mouth. Muirin, with no sense of sympathy, moved past him as he struggled and fell to his knees, all the while trying to hold back the tide of blood.‘Three hundred and fifteen,’ she said as she wiped the blood of the blade. Muirin turned her attention back to the village, she knew exactly where she would find children now.
There was no line of villagers patiently waiting to pay the tithing. The local guards had moved them all aside, so that the street was clear for Muirin’s entrance. She came like a legend, the sea at her back, taking each step without a single betrayal of her true condition. The village green was ahead of her, and although none of the villagers truly knew the circumstances, they seemed to know it revolved around her. They were, after all, the ones that had shared the rumours.Muirin saw them and knew them. Each of them. There was the baker, whose children played with her children. The merchant, who sheepishly looked away from her. A man she had sold apples to in the market. A teacher who taught her children. A woman who had sold her the dresses she wore every day. Men who had helped to build her cottage. A community of people that she had come to know over the last decade of her time in the village. All of them, living for the past few years, under the thumb of a cruel hag who wouldn’t even let them flee from their predicament. Not even send a note.Tayv was waiting in the village green on her gnarled throne, a grin sprawled between her ears.‘How did you manage to escape my notice?’ She said to herself, leaning forward with interested as Muirin entered the green. It was empty, except for the two of them, unless of course you counted the many statues still frozen in place as recompense for past debts. ‘How have you avoided recognition for so long?’‘It doesn’t matter,’ Muirin replied, pointing her falchion squarely towards her. ‘Where are my children?’‘You’re not looking too good.’ Tayv stood up from her throne, moved a few graceful steps towards her. She moved rather like a puppet that had lost its strings, it was unnerving to watch her. ‘Do you think you have the strength for this?’‘You know who I am,’ replied Muirin. ‘Or at least know what I am.’‘I’m starting to believe it,’ said Tayv. ‘Where do we go from here?’‘Where are my children?’Tayv clicked her fingers. Only once, but that proved to be more than enough. A guard stepped forward and revealed her boy and her girl, both tied up with rope and kept on leashes like dogs. They looked scared, Muirin noticed, they had been crying. Her falchion wavered a little. Tayv approached closer, a matter of six steps away now.‘Should I turn them to stone first?’ She asked, politely. ‘Or I guess what I’m really asking is this, would you like to watch or be watched?’‘Neither.’ The falchion dropped to the floor with a rattling clang. Muirin went down to her knees slowly but shortly after. ‘I’d prefer to make a deal.’‘A deal?’ Tayv half-laughed, almost a cackle. ‘From what I’ve heard about you, you don’t make deals.’‘Times change.’ Muirin took a deep breath. ‘Turn me to stone and let them go. I’ll go without a fight.’‘Now, isn’t that interesting?’ Tayv came closer, even beginning to pace around her like a tiger on the prowl. ‘Has motherhood really changed that much? I’ve heard things about you that make even my stomach turn. The things you’ve done for gold and treasure go beyond what earns a person an eternity below.’‘Please, just spare the children, they can’t do anything against you.’‘I’m touched.’ Tayv reached out her hand towards Muirin and she didn’t struggle against it. Her creeping fingers burned, like a scorching hot pan against her skin, and she fought the urge to shriek. Instead, Muirin shouted, screamed, towards her, as her skin began to stiffen and crack like worn stone. ‘SWEAR IT!’‘No.’Without a sense of hesitation nor intention to succumb to the burning sensation writhing across her skin, Muirin took a hold of the falchion before her knees and still within reach. It all came down to speed in the end and she found herself drawing on a past life then. Her muscles, though aching, remembered her years spent swinging the sword in a flash and a flurry. Of killing hundreds before they even knew what had happened.Tayv had seen the deception but had little time to dodge it. The falchion went up and through her chest as easily as a knife through butter. It all happened in the instance of a second and the stone veil followed after it. It crept up Muirin’s skin, flowed across the blade of the sword, and into the witch that had first summoned it. They were, both of them, becoming nothing but rock, unmoving ornaments like the others.‘What have you done!?’ Tayv squealed, her fingers grasping the blade.Muirin wasn’t concerned with her though, she was too busy looking over towards her children. The stone claimed her, as it did the witch stuck on the length of her falchion, but she had enough strength to utter one thing more before her eyes became like rocks and her smile caught in shimmering grey. ‘Three hundred and sixteen.’