"Clarabelle!" Her mother's manly bellow scattered the pigeons resting atop the roofs and sent the nearby cats into hissing fits as they scampered for cover.
Clara halted on the edge of the street, her face burning as the echo continued. All around her, men and women paused in their daily business. The street gained an eerie silence. In the past, she'd heard worldlier folk boast such deathly quiet could only be heard here in Everdark.
Then someone coughed, another person sneezed, and the sounds flooded back—the hum of talk, the clink of coins. A few amongst the crowd stared at her, the young woman in question, but mostly, the irate bellowing seemed to be forgotten.
She huffed, her breath faintly misting as it passed through her lips. Why does she have to yell like that? She contented herself with a roll of her eyes, wishing the heat in her cheeks would fade. It wasn't as if she was some small child. She knew her duties well. Knew the streets even better.
She shuffled her burden: bread, half a wheel of cheese, a skin of goat's milk and a tiny, dog-eared book on the world beyond. The last was for herself, literally titled The World Beyond. Beyond what, she didn't know, but it sounded intriguing.
She knew concern hadn't driven her mother's voice. Not concern for Clara, anyhow. She'd taken too long, pure and simple. It wasn't her fault the baker's son had gone missing, was it now? She'd tried her best to hasten things along, but she couldn't help his absence delaying her return. She'll find some way to blame it on me.
Her mother would have expected Clara to come running back too. Oh yes, my burden is ever so light. And if she fell and ruined everything she carried? Why, she'd be treated to one of her mother's clips over the ear.
Or worse, she could twist her ankle on the uneven stones that dared to be called a road. Nature could've made a better surface than this. She could've sworn she'd heard her mother saying they were repairing the roads.
Or had she meant the Road?
Her gaze lifted to the shadowy bulk of the Citadel, perched atop Mount Winding. In the morning light, she could just make out the three towers—although she'd been told there were actually six—rising like the points of a crown. On a clear night, when the people living within the Citadel's walls lit all the torches, the fortress resembled a mask with a giant, shadowy maw and horrible, glowing eyes.
Clara staggered, the ground underfoot feeling a lot softer than it should have. A yowl at her feet revealed it to be one of the braver cats. "Scat, you flea-ridden pest!" Watching the tawny animal streak off into the shadows, she heard a soft, slightly wet, thud. Oh no. What had she lost?
She patted the bundle. Bread, cheese… My book! She searched her wares again for the tiny tome, stamping her foot when she didn't immediately find it.
Her toe landed on something small and a little spongy. Wincing, she glanced down past her arms and caught sight of the dark edge of what her gut told her must be the book's spine. Further juggling of her load allowed her to see the soggy filth it had landed in. Blast! It had cost her a whole copper. Her mother was going to thrash her for wasting money.
"Out of the way!" a man cried, his voice cutting through the square's natural chatter. The clop of hooves and the rattle of wheels on cobblestone fast filled the sudden silence as men and women dashed to either side of the street.
Horses? Not many around here bothered with the beasts. Clara skittered towards the road edge, backing into a pole belonging to one of the many stalls lining the streets. Her burdens slid in her arms. She drew them closer, determined not to lose any more.
A black-lacquered carriage rolled by, pulled by two equally black horses and with darkly-garbed men clinging to the handholds at the back. Emblazoned on the doors, in blood red and highlighted with gold, was the Great Lord's symbol. It was meant to resemble a fire. She supposed it did, in an over-stylised fashion. Certainly more likely to be fire if it could be said to look like anything at all. Either way, it didn't stop the emblem from being a heinous thing, matching the Citadel in taste.
She shivered at the sudden coolness in the air. Without looking, she knew she wasn't the only one watching the carriage's passage. She wouldn't be surprised if all those minds were thinking the same thought. Why is it here? The Great Lords never came to Everdark and, although the village sat on the Citadel's doorstep, they rarely sent their servants.
Clara slunk further back into the shadow of the awning. Her mother hadn't been much older than Clara was now the last time a Great Lord had died and carriages had brought in the news of their current lord's succession.
At last, the carriage trundled out of sight, leaving only the hollow clatter of the horses' hooves on the cobbles.
A whisper crept into the crowd, growing louder with each set of ears it reached. Clara pushed her way back out into the street as the gossip neared her, her ears straining to hear their words despite all attempts to block out the noise.
"No, no. It's true, I swear," one man said to a nearby trio of villagers. "They's come for the women."
She shook her head and shuffled past the people. Street gossip, her mother often said, wasn't something one could take seriously and only a fool acted on gossip alone. But still… It had been several decades since the last succession. Such a sighting could grease the wheels of rumour for a week or two.
"Dead?" gasped a woman from one of the bigger groups. "Our Great Lord has been slain?"
Clara hesitated and found herself jostled closer as others pushed in to hear. Trying to get free only served in shoving her closer to the front of the crowd and further from where she needed to go. An elbow nudged her in the ribs, jigging her burden. Gritting her teeth, she clutched her wares to her chest and sought for a way home. She'd soon lose everything if she didn't win free from this press of bodies.
" 'Swat I 'eard," another man answered. Perched atop an overturned crate, he wiped a sleeve across his nose with a sickening slurp. "Came in before sunrise, that lot did. Seems the old Great Lord has gone and got 'imself killed out near Ne'ermore way."
A chorus of jeers went up, booming in her ears. Those standing behind Clara jostled her further forward. The Great Lord has been slain? It couldn't be true. No one had the power to kill someone as mighty as the man who ruled them. He was invincible.
The man shook his fist at the front arc of people, of which she was now one. "I bet anyone of yer a fistful o' coppers that 'is youngin'll be sniffin' round 'ere soon enough. He'll be after strong blood." He thumped his bare chest, disturbing a layer of dirt. "Could take any of 'em. Could take ye. Or ye." A finger jabbed out at the crowd, picking out would-be targets. The wizened arm swung her way. "Or ye."
Shaking her head, she shrank back from the man. Her foot, seeking a level patch in the street, trod on an unexpected lump in the cobblestones. "Watch where you're stepping it!"
"Sorry," Clara mumbled as she shoved her way through the throng. The mob thinned fast as she neared her street. The man hadn't been pointing at her. And the Great Lord isn't dead. Surely, if he truly was, it would be the town's criers who bellowed the official proclamation, not some near-toothless old man.
With the only sound to be had coming from the crowd at her back, Clara hummed to herself as she made her way home, the noise filling the silence and working towards soothing her nerves. The man was wrong. Would the carriage not have stopped if they were collecting young women? Surely the driver must have been taking a quick route to wherever it needed to be.
Absent of its usual inhabitants, the street reminded her of the first morning, some years ago now, when she'd set out alone into a fog-shrouded day. Although she could see the way ahead clearly enough today, it seemed no less surreal. The sun had yet to finish its task of warming the houses and spill down to chase the damp from the cobbles.
She passed the cobbler's shop, vacant apart from a few dusty pairs of shoes, and slowed. Peering at the grubby window, a smile came to her lips as she admired the way her skirts swung with each step. Simple brown linen. Exactly what she'd wanted. Yet it'd still taken months to convince her mother to make it.
No doubt her mother relented only because her seventeenth year loomed. Even so, it had taken weeks after the day celebrating her birth before her mother had gotten around to finishing the whole outfit. Clara let her gaze travel up. Yes, it did much to make her hair seem a less vibrant red. Reason enough to never stop wearing this dress until it fell apart.
Allowing herself a little, girlish giggle, she carried on by the shops and homes. The hushed pad of her footsteps gave way to the sounds of the village. She wiggled her toes, feeling the stones through the soles. Perhaps she could convince her mother to buy her some new shoes next year.
Hovering briefly on the corner of her vision sat the form of a cat before it scuttled off across the eaves. Down on the road, another slinky beast swiped at a dog in passing. The mutt, scrawny and half bald from neglect, let out a whimper as it cringed under the remains of a stall.
Hearty scuffling came from the alley on her left, no doubt the product of a hungry dog. Her gaze lingered at the alleyway's dark opening. She'd heard of other places where muggers roamed the streets, assaulting people at will then being dragged off to whatever punishment awaited them.
Nothing so exciting happened in Everdark. At least, not with the same criminal. There'd be whispers of those from afar avoiding the lord's men for days before they got caught. But not here. Not for long.
The snort of a horse brought her attention back to the street ahead. Where did it come from? Naught barred her way to the corner where her home sat. Certainly no horses. Carts rarely took this route through the village since the streets were only wide enough to allow one through and there was little need of them as transport for either people or goods.
Thoughts of the black carriage invaded her mind, followed by the old man's words.
Shrugging off the chill in her spine, Clara peered around the corner. Naught to be seen except the way home. Silly girl. She chuckled and resettled her burden. Just a little further down this end of the road and she'd be off the streets and away from the rumours. Even if their new lord was, in truth, sniffing about for whatever reason, he wouldn't be doing it in the poorer quarters. And he'd be after women like Brenna Goodheart, the mayor's spoilt harlot of a daughter.
Yes, she'd be the sort of woman any lord would fancy. Not someone like her with a seamstress for a mother. Her boot skittered a pebble across the cobblestones. Not to say she'd any desire to be taken from family and home. Still, it would've been nice to get a peek at the inside of the Citadel. If only so she could say she'd seen it.
A hoof scraped the ground behind her, the sound akin to the sharpening of a knife.
Clara froze, her heart thudding. Taking a deep breath, she stared at the empty road stretching ahead. She could even make out the doorway to home. Mind your own business, she reminded herself. She took a shaky step forward, steadfastly refusing to look behind her.
Unable to resist the cry, she whirled about to face them. The carriage, its black panels naught but a darker patch within the shadows, stood on the other side of the junction. One of the horses stamped a shaggy foreleg, the other bobbed its head as if in reply. How she hated the beasts. Unlike the dogs and cats she was more familiar with, horses always seemed to have a superior glint in their eyes, as if they were secretly laughing at everyone.
The driver gently pulled on the reins, stilling the creatures. He leant forward in his seat. Piggish eyes, dark like little coals, peered down at her. His lips twisted into a sneer. "She'll do."
Clara didn't fancy waiting to find out why she'd do and what for. Dumping her burden, she ran down the street, racing for the shadowed doorway leading to safety.
The clatter of hooves followed her. Black horseflesh ran alongside her, then fast pulled ahead to let the carriage trundle even with her.
She glanced at the shut doors and grimy windows of houses flanking her other side, madly searching for a closer haven. Sudden movement on the edge of her vision drew her attention back to her pursuers. She caught only the briefest flash of a horse sliding to a halt right in her path before crashing into the beast, forcing the air from her lungs.
Shaking and fighting to regain her breath, she clung to the horse's harness, the heavy strap under her touch strangely soft and firm at the same time. This couldn't be happening. Everdark had always been safe! She pushed off the barrelled body, gasping as her chest ached anew.
Hands grabbed her, their fingers digging into her arms. They hauled her back from the horse.
A scream ripped up through her throat, exploding out her mouth to echo down the street. Her boot heels scraped against the cobbles. They lifted her clear of the road. She struggled to break free of their grip, howling her frustration when the hands stayed fast.
Tears threatened to blind her. She blinked hard, shaking her head in an attempt to free them. This might not be the iron carriage, set to take criminals to their doom, but that didn't mean she wouldn't suffer a different fate.
Her captors, strangely silent in their movements, brought her about to face the carriage. The driver still sat atop the vehicle. A third man stood near the door, holding it open in a mockery of the mayor's footmen.
Anger, writhing hot and heavy in her veins, fast overrode her fear. She arched her back, fighting to regain possession of at least an arm. Her foot lashed out. The toe connected, eliciting a grunt from one of the men. Where was the watch? Her cries should have brought them to her aid. Why weren't they stopping this?
Clara glared up at the man holding the door, a sliver of fear stabbing her heart at the look in his eyes. So flat and dead, like a week-old fish. They halted before the tiny steps. There, the men flanking her finally released their grip, plonking her back onto the street. One of them shoved her closer to the lacquered panels.
Not wishing to suffer being shoved inside the carriage, she ascended the steps unaided, jumping as the door slammed shut. A faint click spoke of a lock slipping into place.
Clara felt her way to one of the seats, eyes straining to see in the scant light filtering through the heavily curtained windows. The carriage lurched forward as she went to sit, upsetting her balance and slamming her into the thin suggestion of a cushion.
She leant against the wall, bracing herself in the hopes it would help lessen the horrid swaying. Her hand rose to pull back the curtain, hesitating upon hearing the rustle of loose fabric coming from the other side of what suddenly felt like a far smaller space.
Her heart pounding anew, she peered into the gloom. Naught but a darker shape could be seen against the slate grey of the interior. The other woman scrunched further into her seat. Silent. As if fearful of being discovered.
Clara mimicked the action, hoping whatever was to become of them would not echo the horrors she'd heard about the past Great Lords. Rumour's only gossip, she reminded herself. And only a fool acts on gossip. But all rumours had a vein of truth somewhere. She surely wished she knew what bits to believe.