Sunlight was touching the tops of the trees over the hills when I banged on the inn’s door. Blood squelched in my boots, trickling from my arms, legs, neck, from my scalp to sting my eyes. When the door opened it pushed me back, almost knocking me over. I swayed like rushes in a gale.
‘Let me in,’ I said, hoarse. ‘Help.’ Then the floor swooped up to grab me.
I woke up in bright sunlight. The innkeeper’s long hair brushed my arm as she sat by the bed in the narrow room, haloed by the window. I sat up, aching and scabbed. My clothes were in a bucket in the corner, the water pink. I’d been put in a brown tunic. The rush of blood sang distantly in my ears, bile rising.
‘We’ve patched you up, but you lost a lot of blood,’ the innkeeper said. With difficulty I turned to put my feet on the floor, shading my eyes with an arm. Stitches twinged in the crook of my elbow. ‘Bandits?’ she said, drawing the shutter.
I nodded. Again I heard Tom calling out for me as the man threw him to the ground, saw Milly’s limp body, saw Will drawing his sword as I was grabbed from behind. Passing out as my head hit the flagstone and Will’s sword plunged into his own belly. Smelling fetid copper breath.
‘I’m Maude. What’s your name?’
‘Serana.’ The word came out hushed. The veins on the backs of my hands were bright through pallid flesh.
Maude gestured to the plate of bread and cheese and cup of water on the bedside table. ‘You must be hungry. Try to eat something, you need to get your strength back.’
I was famished, but it was a struggle to chew and swallow past my flipping stomach and the lump in my throat. Tom, Milly, Will. I tasted bile and ashes, too tired to weep. I could see Maude looking at me, holding herself back from asking more questions. I wanted to ask her to go away but didn’t know how to go about it decently. Eventually I finished the plate. Maude asked what she could do now, and I rolled back onto the covers. She paused, then left.
For a while I watched the sunlight track along the wall, listening to the whisper of my pulse in my ears. I guessed from the banged head. After I heard Maude leave I got up, found and put on an oversized pair of shoes, and went down into the inn. Although I was wobbly, I barely hurt and the wounds looked less bad than I’d thought. I almost said so to Will, before it hit me fresh again. And that’s when the floodgates opened.
I got it back under control just in time for Maude to return, with an old man carrying a pack.
‘You must be Serana,’ he said, taking out herbs and a mortar and pestle. ‘I’m Garret. Nice to see you awake. Mind me having another look?’
‘I don’t have much to pay,’ I said, to him and Maude. ‘I imagine the goods were stripped out too, when…’
‘Forget that!’ Maude said. ‘We still believe in hospitality over here.’
‘The roads these days – well,’ Garret said. He peered at the stitch on my neck. ‘Early days, but this is encouraging. Good. Let’s just avoid infection. Deep, but narrow. Curious how exactly -’ He backed off. ‘Do excuse me, I mustn’t probe.’
I sighed, letting him apply a poultice. ‘It’s okay. After the war we joined a merchant caravan. We had trouble with our wagon, fell behind in the woods. Some thief took advantage of it. Killed my family, left me for dead. Don’t know exactly how these happened, I got knocked out.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Maude said. ‘I lost people myself, in that damn fool war. Well, you can stay here at least until the next caravan comes through. Sure they’ll take you, if you want.’
‘But you’ve got no other guests, how can you -’
‘Forget that. Just give me a good deal when you come back the other way.’
Garret finished. ‘There. Well, I’ll be seeing you. Shame we didn’t meet in better circumstances.’
‘Thank you,’ I said through a yawn. It was early, but I went back to bed. I dreamed of Tom, Milly, Will, and acrid metallic breath.
Over the coming days I got back my energy and strength, though the rush of blood in my ears continued and Garret wasn’t sure why. I found myself staying awake through the night, replaying the brief scene of the attack, dozing too much in the day. Since Maude’s work centred around the evening that was convenient, as, despite her staunch words on hospitality, I insisted on doing some work for the room and food. It kept me distracted.
Some townsfolk went to the wagon and found no trace of Tom, Milly, or Will. Barely anything had been taken, not even the silverware from Mortlake. I sold what I could, but Maude refused the money. I had to bully her into taking a few copper pieces.
When it was time, I sat outside the inn during sunset while Garret removed my stitches. As the threads came out I could faintly hear my pulse, ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum.
‘Always nervous doing that. Well, you’ve got some luck. You heal fast.’ Some of the locals in the inn cheered, banging on tables.
‘I could use some luck. Thank you.’
He rose, opening the door. Someone was leading a bawdy tavern song. Garret held the door for a moment, but I didn’t go in. Instead I walked to the edge of town, held my breath, then stepped into the forest. I went a few minutes out and sat by the banks of a bubbling brook, massaging the wound sites. Slowly tension eased from my shoulders, and after a while I realised I wasn’t hearing the noise in my ears. I felt good, and guilty for that.
I woke up and stepped outside to see the sun, deep orange in air dusty from the quarry, beginning to dip its toes behind the horizon. I’d got used to the pulsating whisper in my ears. The peace of walking in the forest at night was growing on me, calm as waking up before Will to watch the sun rise had used to be.
The thought of Will, Tom and Milly flickered on my heartstrings for a moment, but no longer shadowed the whole day. Sometimes that worried me.
I went into the inn for dinner, before the regulars would start to arrive. Maude poured the stew for us and she delved in, her arms rippling with muscle from shifting the barrels. Normally I was even more enthusiastic – she was a good cook, and all the ale didn’t hurt. But I found myself strangely full after a few bites.
‘Anything wrong?’ Maude asked, dipping a crust.
‘No, I’m fine.’
Maude shrugged. ‘If you say so.’ I got down a little more. ‘It’s good having you here. I know this… your life has been thrown off-kilter. You probably don’t want to stay here forever. There should’ve been a caravan here already, but, the roads these days. Anyway. When one comes they’ll take you, but the offer’s open to stay.’ She stirred her bowl, sheepish. I looked at the backs of my hands. Were they still paler than before?
‘That’s… thank you.’ Inwardly I bristled at this woman taking me as some sort of surrogate daughter. I’d had my own life. I didn’t need to be a pet. ‘I don’t know what I’ll do. I like it here, you’ve been so kind, after everything. But this place is too close to -’
She nodded. ‘I understand. I still don’t like when soldiers are in here. Brings things back.’ She finished eating, washed out her bowl, and kept the rest of mine for leftovers. I swept and checked the barrels.
People began to arrive, dusty and thirsty. As things got hectic the usual phantom sound picked up. Strange to think it hadn’t always been there. Old Meryl regaled some children with tales of fell creatures in the woods snatching young rascals, making them shriek in delighted fear. Someone started up a song, and I found myself quietly joining in – one Milly had been fond of, although I was, to put it kindly to myself, no bard.
Partway through the fourth verse I realised that the inn was silent. Everyone was staring at me. I blushed, stammering to a halt.
‘Don’t stop,’ one of the kids said. They looked entranced.
‘Why’ve you been hiding your bard, Maude?’ the smith said.
‘I didn’t know she could sing,’ Maude said.
‘I didn’t – I can’t -’ I said. I knew I sang like a cat having its tail pulled. Why were they looking at me like that?
I didn’t understand it, but I began to make Maude and myself a lot of money.
Maude and Garret became worried about how little I was eating, and my ongoing crazy sleep pattern. But I felt pretty good, strong, not losing weight. If I had to be active in the day I’d feel restless and itchy, especially outside. After sunset the colours seemed sharper, the air cleaner.
Before long I stopped eating entirely. I told Maude not to worry about it, and she, bizarrely, stopped mentioning it. Her food was the same as before, but something didn’t seem right about it.
A few nights later, I was in the forest when I caught a mouthwatering scent. I followed it, my stomach growling, and came upon a rabbit caught in a trap. Before I knew what I was doing I snapped its neck and tore into it, gorging myself. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted.
As I walked back towards the town I heard the rush of blood in my ears resolve into beats. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.
The sound of my pulse became infuriating. In a full inn it sounded like a cacophony, and I took more and more excuses to be out at night, wandering the woods, where it was quieter, or finally silent.
The caravans still hadn’t come. There were whispers about hordes of lawless fiends on the roads, though Old Meryl told a darker tale. My roaming, my hunting, took me further afield each time, until I decided to go back to the scene where it had happened.
A completely ordinary stretch of road, bearing no mark of the attack. I expected to feel something. Tom. Milly. Will. No, nothing. That life was over. I sat watching the moon shine over the town, musing on the change that’d come over me.
And then a horse galloped through my chest. I felt my heart writhing within me, as I fell back on the stone with my limbs thrashing. The night was so bright. Each second became a sharp blade piercing body and soul, taking a little drop of Serana each time, leaving something new in its empty wake. I felt my heart calm. And stop.
Slowly I rose to my feet. I felt for my pulse. Nothing. I knew now what had attacked me. What I had become. I’d thought I’d been the only survivor. But I hadn’t survived, not really. And now I’d been born anew.
I walked towards the town, revelling in the sensual clarity, the vigour of limb which would be mine forever. As I got close I could hear the heartbeats, the rush of blood which I’d mistaken for my own. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, sweetness and life ripe for the taking. The smell was intoxicating.
I knocked at the inn. ‘It’s me. Let me in.’
‘Heavens, come in, it’s cold out,’ Maude said, opening the door. ‘Where did you go? I worry, you know. It’s not safe out there.’
‘Maude. I need a little something.’
‘Oh. I don’t suppose you’re eating again?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m thirsty.’
‘You don’t need to ask.’ She turned to get a drink.
‘Stop,’ I said, my hypnotic influence stronger than when I’d sang badly but been thought a bard, than when I’d told Maude not to worry about my diet. She paused. ‘Stay still.’ She froze in place. She stank of fear. Her heart pounded.
I reached out to her neck, tracing the vein, feeling it pulsate as she stood there, unable to move away. Badumbadumbadumbadum.