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Birdsong

Chapter Text

Prologue


The evening sky is dark, the air heavy and still. The waterfall to the east rushes fast and loud. Mother says a storm is coming, with worry knotting her brow as she mentions the leaky roof, but Father laughs merrily and pulls her close.

'Let the storm take it all,' he says. 'I want an excuse to buy you a castle.'

I have never seen him so happy, and Mother's smile lights up her eyes. She says she has no use for a castle, just a sturdy roof.

Father kisses her cheek. 'Then the castle will have the sturdiest of roofs, my love.'

I play by the fire, only half-listening to them, instead dreaming of my tiara. Mother told me that Father's discovery will change our lives. I don't know what ebony is, but I know that mines sometimes have gems, and so when Father came home that evening I demanded a silver crown of amethysts. Father laughed and said I could have a thousand if I like. Mother told him not to encourage me, but he said to her that that even halved with his friend who discovered the hidden mine with him, the profits will let us buy anything we want. I deduce that it means I will have as many tiaras as I desire and so I start to plan what I want them to look like, with sparkling gems every colour of the rainbow.

As the storm presses in, they send me up to bed. I protest, as usual, for the fire is warm and my bed is cold. Father promises me that in the castle we'll have fires in every room, and servants to stoke them. Mother sighs.

'Don't worry, you'll have as many servants as you want, too,' Father says to her. He leans in to bring his mouth to her ear, his voice very low, but I still hear. 'But you won't need a fire to keep you warm, my love.'

She pushes him away, but the smile at her lips makes her eyes smile too. She stands up and marches me upstairs to my bed, tucking me in and laying a quick kiss on my forehead. Tonight she leaves without telling me a story but I don't care, too busy imagining the necklaces and rings that will match my tiara.

As I feel myself drifting off to sleep, I listen to the murmur of their voices downstairs, punctuated with Mother's quiet laughter. Soon I hear the wet sounds of kissing. I cover my ears and am glad when the storm starts to lash the house. The thundering rain drowns everything and I listen to the waterfall, the crashing water lulling me to sleep.

Some time later, I wake up with a jolt, but it's still pitch dark and I shouldn't be awake yet. My throat is dry. The storm has calmed, the heavy rain now a soft steady drizzle, whispering on the roof above. It seems louder than the earlier torrent. I see the firelight still glowing from down the stairs, but the house is silent.

I get up from my bed, my mind thinking only of getting a drink. The barrel outside in the yard will be full of cool fresh rainwater. Storm water tastes the nicest.

The stairs creak. When I step into the main room, I see the fire dying out. The warm hazy light falls upon Mother. She lies awkwardly, one arm at a funny angle, blood oozing from a red gash at her throat. Father lies beside her. His neck bears the same wound, blood spilling over his chest, while a deep tear runs across his stomach.

'Mother?' I whisper.

The tall slender figure of a woman rises from the shadows beside Father before I can take a step forward. She is hooded and masked, with her eyes uncovered. Her deep scarlet and black clothing is splattered with blood.

'Hail Sithis,' the masked woman says quietly, her voice like silk. I see her eyes, blue in the firelight, narrowing as behind the cowl she smiles.

I can only watch, paralysed in fear, as she drops a sprig of nightshade on Mother's breast, and then another on Father's stomach. She looks at me, inclining her head. I see a few blonde strands slip out from beneath her hood.

'They're dead, little girl.' She says it like describing the weather. 'They're better that way.'

Before I can blink, she pushes open the front door and steps out into the storm. I hear the rain splashing into the barrel before she closes the door, and then suddenly everything is quiet.

I walk to Mother and Father but do not touch them, not wanting to disturb their game, knowing it must be some grown up thing. I kneel beside the dying fire, waiting for them to wake up.

At some point, the fire dies out.

I start to feel cold.

 


 

Ten years later

 

I leave at midnight. The drunk guards outside in the nearby alley are harassing a whore and haven't noticed a thing. No one heard the screams. They never do, I remind myself. How many times have people walked past this place and chosen not to hear the screams?

My fingers slippery with blood, I fumble with the lock on the courtyard gate, listening to the guardsmen slurring at the woman. It is dark, with only faint torchlight emanating from further down the street, and I have to strain my eyes to focus on the gate. Years ago, one of the other children showed me how to tease a lock with a hair pin; the girl had used the skill to get into the food cupboards at night, stuffing her starving belly with all the sweet things she could reach. I force the memory from my mind, not wanting to think about what had happened when she had been caught with sugar on her mouth.

I put the bloody handle of the carving knife between my teeth and pull a fresh pin from my hair, but my hands start to shake with the realisation of what I have done as I taste the rusty tang in my mouth. All that blood... She always made it seem like she was iron beneath the old tough flesh and impenetrable to harm. We always thought she was more like some sinewy hagraven with cruel magic in her veins. I feel a flair of satisfaction that I proved she was neither of those things. The bitch was soft and squishy and her throat cut like warm butter.

Behind me, I suddenly hear the sound of the door back into the orphanage opening and I whirl around, taking the carving knife from my mouth, fear pulsing in my stomach when I think a guard must've come into the orphanage through the other way and found the body.

'Ma?'

I breathe a sigh of relief when I see that it's only Lily. Her thin tattered nightgown flutters around her skinny legs as she stands in the doorway. Her hair is messy and her eyelids droop. The girl often sleepwalks. Or she simply believes the hazy dreams of deep night are real.

'Yes, it's Ma,' I say gently, not wanting to disturb her illusion. 'Go back to bed, my darling.'

'Are you leaving?' Lily asks, walking towards me.

'No, my love. I'm just making sure you're safe here.' I quickly crouch down and drop the knife and my satchel to the ground, wiping my hands on my dress as I straighten up, just in time before Lily puts her arms around my waist and leans into me.

'Don't leave, Ma,' the girl says into my breast.

I feel tears threaten my eyes. I blink hurriedly, careful not to touch the girl with my blood-smeared hand. 'I'm not leaving, Lily,' I say softly. 'I promise. Let's get you back to bed.'

I leave my satchel and the knife by the gate and Lily lets me guide her back into the orphanage. The dirt and grime of the younger children's dormitory is easily overlooked at night, but it's not so easy to ignore the smell. The chamberpots are overflowing, the beds stale, and dust and filth clog up the air; as I walk with Lily to her bed, I realise one of the children at the far end has been sick and left untended. It's Constance's day off, I think, remembering that was why I planned it tonight. The woman had left that morning after sitting awake with one of the ill children, her dark brow furrowed anxiously, promising the younger ones around her skirts that she would return tomorrow. With her gone, I had to wait several long hours, until the night's guest had left and the children had been sent to bed, and then I could retrieve the carving knife I had hidden beneath my mattress. I suddenly picture what Constance will find come the morning, if the children don't find it first: the old woman's body lying on her bed, her throat ripped and blood dripping through the sheets to the ground.

I wipe my hands on my dress once more and push the image out of my mind as I tuck Lily back into the bed she shares with one of the other girls. As I look down at them, I feel a cold regret wash over me. I should've done this sooner, I think, imagining all the children that had been hurt within the walls of this place. I feel a flicker of anger. I wish someone else had done this sooner.

Lily looks up at me sleepily through long eyelashes. 'Grelod will punish you if you try to leave,' she whispers.

I wonder if she is more conscious than I thought. 'She won't punish anyone ever again,' I whisper back. 'Just go to sleep, darling, and it'll be better in the morning.'

'Tell me a story first, Ma,' Lily says. 'I like your stories.'

I think of the story of carving knife by the gate, the old cruel woman bled out in the room upstairs, the guards outside in the nearby alley that I need to sneak past; the story of the young woman with a racing heart and blood on her hands from the murder she has just committed.

'There once was a beautiful princess,' I murmur, stroking the girl's hair. 'Her name was Lily. She wore the most beautiful dresses and ate the sweetest of treats and played all day with the best toys in the palace.'

'Are you there in the palace, Ma?' Her eyes close and she snuggles beneath the thin sheets.

'I'll always be wherever you are, my darling,' I whisper. 'Don't be afraid.'

Though I have told her those words countless times before, she always believes them. As I embellish the story, Lily soon drifts back into a deep sleep, her brow furrowed. I linger for a moment, my hand stroking her soft fair hair.

When I walk out of the orphanage for the last time, my eyes are wet. I take a breath and sling my satchel over my shoulder before calmly unlocking the courtyard gate. I can no longer hear the guards down the alley, nor the whore who had grabbed their attention. As I push the gate open with a long piercing creak, I grasp the carving knife close to me and wait. No one comes. Far off, from the tavern by the market square, I hear laughter and voices, but the night's revellers are too far away to see me. I walk out of the courtyard and let the gate swing shut behind me.

I take the lower walkway down to the canals. I feel my heart in my throat as I move quickly, moving between the light and the shadows, knowing the former will illuminate the bloodstains on my gown while the latter is as good as death in this city. But luck is on my side and I encounter no one as I reach an empty jetty near the Ratway gates. I hurry down the slippery wooden steps to the water, taking off my satchel and placing the knife on the ground as I drop to my knees. I lean down and splash water on my face, relishing the sensation. I cast a quick look around before I strip off my dress and wash myself clean before finding my spare clothes. I apologise in my head to Elric as I put on his stolen shirt and trousers, knowing the lad will find a way survive until one of the taller boys grow out of their clothes. Or maybe he won't, I think, and for the first time I wonder what will happen to the others left at the orphanage, whether Constance will stay or if someone else will take over Grelod's duty. And maybe it'll be someone even worse.

I can't think about them now, I tell myself firmly, knowing my priority is staying out of sight, staying alive, and staying out of jail. What do murderers get? The thought flits through my mind as I wipe the carving knife clean with my discarded dress and tuck the weapon into my satchel. That's when I notice my stained shoes and start to scrub the old leather as clean of blood as I can. Or maybe they just kill murderers and save the cell space. Grelod sometimes let us go to the executions they hold in square in front of the Keep. The people on the block or at the end of the rope were usually murderers, or thieves. Would they have executed her, if they knew what she did? The thought is not new to me. It's only now that I realise it doesn't matter. Her death is not justice, whether it comes by my messy handiwork or by the hangman's noose. It is only her end.

And my beginning. I steel myself, shaking my head to rid myself of my thoughts. I straighten up. The boy's shirt is a little tight across my chest and the trousers too short in the leg but I make do, glad to leave the stained dress in a pile of rubbish further down the walkway. That done, I stand by the water's edge, listening to the canals. The sound of water settles my heart for a moment, before I realise I am cold. The nights are mild in Riften but down here in the dark lower walkways, I discover that the air is cool and brisk. I realise I did not think to steal a jacket or cloak. Then I realise I have no food, nor anywhere to safely sleep and alleviate the exhaustion that suddenly overcomes me. I realise I did not plan beyond this moment. Free, clean, and without a clue what the hell I am supposed to do now.

I slip my hand into my satchel, remembering that I stole enough gold from Grelod's lockbox to get me to another city. But which? And then what? The questions swirl in my head as I realise the coin is not enough to last forever and that I have no skills and no idea what I am capable of doing. Except being an attraction for the old woman's guests who came and paid to touch the children, I think before I can stop myself. And now murder. I feel cold fear strike through me when the reality of my situation hits me and I realise I cannot so easily escape the horror of what is still so close behind me.

I take deep breaths as I try to get my thoughts under control. Somewhere in my panic-stricken mind, I come to the conclusion that I cannot make any decisions right away; after all, there is no carriage leaving Riften at this hour. I suddenly and desperately want to sleep, to rest in front of a crackling fire with warm food in my stomach - and with my limited knowledge of the city, I know of only one place where I can have those things. The tavern, I think. Everything else can wait til the morning. I set off back to the city groundlevel, glad to have a plan, even if it is only a temporary one.

The torches burn brighter here and as I approach the Bee and Barb I see that several patrons have spilled out into the nearby marketplace, raucously singing a tune. A small group of men stand in my path to the tavern entrance and suddenly my heart beats faster as I approach them, keeping my head down and giving them as wide a berth as possible. I pray to every god I know for them to ignore me.

The men notice me while the gods ignore me.

'Hey, sweetheart,' one of the men calls to me. 'What's a pretty little doll like you doing on your own?'

I ignore him and try to walk past, but the man steps directly in front of me, forcing me to stop.

'Hang on, I asked you a question, darlin',' he says, his dark eyes looking me up and down. 'What're you doing all alone in the middle of the night, eh?'

His other friends step up to me too. The three of them are not particularly brawny, but they tower over me and I suddenly remember how I felt the first time Grelod pushed me into the private room where one of her guests waited. I was ten, barely a year at the orphanage. He had walked up to me, a giant to my eyes, and looked down at my body; a prize won, a privilege bought.

'I think she wants company,' I hear one of them say as nausea races through my stomach with my memories.

'I don't,' I say coldly, trying to make my voice strong. I step to the side but the one on the left blocks my way.

'Then why are you heading to the Bee, hm?' he says. His hand goes to my arm, his touch making my skin crawl through my thin shirt. 'It's crowded in there. Why don't you stay out here with us?'

'We'll take care of you,' another says.

'After you take care of us,' the one in the middle says, his dark eyes glinting.

I remember the carving knife in my satchel and how it felt to push it into Grelod's throat not an hour ago. 'Don't touch me,' I say, wrenching out of his hold, the memory turning my stomach and dousing me in a cold sweat. 'I'll kill you.'

There comes a moment of silence before the three burst out laughing.

'You'll kill us?'

'With your little claws, kitten?' The one in the middle smirks, his deep eyes narrowing with dangerous amusement. 'Come on then,' he says, reaching for the neck of my shirt, whether intending to rip the garment off me or drag me closer I can't be sure. 'Let's see those claws.'

Suddenly, I feel a hand on my shoulder from behind and I feel a jolt of fear that their friend has come to join in too, but the hand pulls me firmly back and out of reach of the men before they can touch me.

I turn my head to see a tall man standing at my side, attired in dark clothing, the sturdy wool and leather jacket emphasising his broad shoulders. Auburn hair falls in waves to those shoulders, a silver scar runs down his right cheek, and my heart suddenly races faster when I see a dagger at his hip, the handle well worn. It'll cut better than my knife, that's for certain.

'This one's mine, lads,' he says, his hand moving to grasp my elbow and pulling me behind him slightly as he looks at the three men. 'So why don't you fuck off?'

'We saw her first,' the one on the left says.

A quick laugh comes from the man beside me. 'And? I saw the sky first this morning, doesn't mean it's mine.'

'Find your own whore,' the middle one spits, reaching for me again.

The red-haired man at my side pulls me back again. Before I can blink, a gold coin materialises in his hand and he puts it into my palm. 'You saw her first but I've paid her,' he says. 'Whores go where the money is. So back the fuck off and let me enjoy what I've bought.'

The men seem dumbfounded for a moment.

It is the middle one that steps forward, his dark eyes narrowed dangerously. 'Or what?' he says quietly.

The man beside me sighs. 'Or we stand here arguing and the guard that's about to walk past will take her for himself and ruin everyone's fun. Or maybe I kill you. Unfortunately for me, guard will probably be here first.'

The men look around the market. 'There's no fucking guard here,' the middle one says.

'I said about to walk past.' The redhead snorts in derision. 'Not very attentive, are you?'

I see one of the men ball their fists and the dark-eyed one is about to take another step forward when the man on the right looks over my head and elbows his friend. I turn my head too. A pair of guards step out from one of the streets and begin to make their patrol through the market square. What look like straight guards, too, I realise, noticing their posture and alert gaze as they survey the area. The night guards are more likely drunk than not, and usually consort with criminals rather than hunt them, so the presence of the two sober and vigilant guards now seems to put the men in front of me on edge.

The man in the middle folds his arms and glares coldly as he turns back. 'You with the damn guard?'

The redhead at my side laughs. 'Not those ones, anyway. Now get out of the way so the lass and I can get a drink.'

For a moment, the men seem tempted to refuse, but they must see something in the red-haired man's eyes, or maybe they spy the dagger, as finally the one in the middle turns away with a curse and the others soon follow. The red-haired man at my side keeps a hold on my arm until they have moved elsewhere in the marketplace, then he lets go of me and steps back.

I draw further away, my body tense, ready to run.

'Don't worry, lass, I'm not really looking to buy.' His voice bears a lilting accent and a pair of deep green eyes flicker over my face. 'You all right?'

'I'm fine,' I say quickly, suddenly feeling conscious of myself under his gaze. 'Thank you for... for your help.' I hold out the coin. 'Here.'

'Keep it. For the inconvenience.' His brow furrows. 'On behalf of men everywhere, I apologise.'

'Are you sure?' I keep my hand held out. 'You really don't need it?'

'No, lass, I don't need it,' he says, an amused smile at his lips.

'Then... thanks.' I hold the coin in my fist, not wanting to open my satchel and risk him seeing the carving knife beside my stolen purse.

He nods towards the tavern door. 'You were heading in?'

'I...' My words falter as I look up at him, my heart suddenly beating faster, my reaction borne of years of finding out exactly what men want. Though the red-haired man's gaze does not drop from my eyes to take in my body, that in itself unnerves me, and I still half-expect him to drag me into an alley and claim his money's worth. At his steady eye contact and careful distance, I feel a flicker of nervous anticipation in my stomach, not unlike how I felt when Grelod would open the dormitory door after nightfall, narrowed eyes searching, deciding which of us would be spending that night in the private room, not sleeping, not alone.

I mentally shake myself, to rid myself of the thoughts and my fear. Not everyone is like that bitch and her fucking guests, I remind myself. And right now I just want to eat and sleep someplace warm, preferably with a lock on the door.

'Yes,' I say finally. 'I was.'

The corner of the man's mouth pulls up in a half smile. 'Then after you.'

He steps aside to let me pass. I walk up to the tavern door and with a deep breath I push it open.