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It was late and most honest citizens in Marshend were abed. In fact, it was so very late that most dishonest citizens were probably abed as well - doubtless hastened on their way by the cold, damp mist that had risen from the lake to hang about the low wooden houses of this part of Marshend.

Fogs were prevelant here - the silver fogs of summer days , the heavy grey blanketing fog of colder nights. When the smoke of the woodfires met the lake fog, the two mingled to form a yellow dense cloud that could hang around for days, the colour of pale chicken soup and - the inhabitants of Marshend said sourly - pretty much the consistency too.

On nights like this, the fog showed a dull dirty brown in the lights of torches, should any be rash enough to venture out, and even to walk across the street was to ensure that one was covered by a heavy sprinkling of flakes of soft, black soot, like an inverted snow.

Real snow would be here soon enough, the old ones said, and it would be a wicked winter. That would banish the fogs ... but until then, the inhabitants of Marshend coped as best they could, and rarely left their homes after nightfall.

But someone was abroad - a small someone - a boy of no more than ten who slipped between the low wooden houses, his face muffled with a heavy scarf wrapped around the lower half, a thick cap pulled down over his ears and, between cap and scarf, a pair of serious eyes, looking around for a particular house.

Then he was running across to one house in particular and tapping on the wooden shutters.

"Yuanna!" His voice was a little hoarse. "Yuanna - is Gabriel with you?"

After a long minute, a small light appeared through the cracks in the shutters, and the door opened just enough to show the form of a scrawny young woman. She was young, but stress and heavy makeup made her look much older. She was shivering, wrapping a heavy cloak around herself. Her feet were bare, and she hopped from one to another in the wet chill.

"Gabriel's asleep," she hissed quietly. "Just got to sleep- and he's in a foul mood tonight. It had better be good!"

"It's old Bartic," the boy whispered back. "Septon says he's dying ... an' he's asking for Gabriel."

Old Bartic was not much likely to be missed. He lived alone in a cottage at the very end of the town - half-hidden by the reeds. The children of the village told each other he was an ogre and dared each other to run past his tumbledown cottage at night or - if they were especially bold, to run forward and peer through his shutters. When Gabriel was young, if he had heard them, he would rush out with a bull-like roar of rage, waving a thick cudgel at them as they scampered to safety. But for the last five years, no-one had seen him venture out of doors ...

The girl closed the door- there was no question that she would let the boy in. A few minutes later the door opened again, and a man emerged. He was of average height, and so bundled up it was hard to tell any of his features.

"You sure about this, boy?" he asked, his voice raspy. "Asked for Gabriel?"

The boy began to nod and then hesitated.

"He didn't say - not by name. But it was you he meant, right enough!"

The hesitation suggested that old Bartic had referred to Gabriel not by name, but by his position - or lack of it.

"You'll have to hurry," the boy went on. "Septon says he bain't got along for this'n world."

"All right," the man said. "A moment."

He went back inside, and a few minutes later came out with a lantern to light their way in the mists. "Lead on, then," he said. "And if you got me out of bed for nothing..."

The boy shook his head - he knew better than that.

And so they set off, making their way along the muddy and rutted lane that led out of Marshend, past old Bartic's cottage. Recent rains had made the way difficult - the ruts had filled with water and at each step the heavy clay mud of Marshend clung to their boots and splashed up their legs. As they approached the cottage itself, they could see a single light burning in a lower window.

"That'll be the Septon," said the boy. "He said he'd keep watch."

The man called Gabriel walked up to the cottage, but suddenly froze; he thrust the lantern in the boy's hands, then turned around to look off in a particular direction. Whatever he thought he saw, or failed to see, in the mists, he eventually relaxed.

"Come on, then," he said gruffly. "Let's see what's more important than a warm bed and a willing girl on a night like this."

The cottage was mean and shabby, with a strong smell of mildew. There was a low bed made up of hairs and rags to one side of the fire, and here old Bartic was lying, his eyes half-closed and his breathing. Beside him stood the Septon, Graymuss, his head buried in prayer, the silver hammer of the Smith swinging on its chain at his throat. But he looked up swiftly when Gabriel and the boy entered.

"Ah ... good, Gabriel. You've come. He seems to be dozing at the moment, but we have gone hope he'll rally by and by."

Before he could say more, there were steps on the path outside, a knock at the door, and then a woman's voice spoke out, strong and free.

"Hello? Is anyone within on this damp night?"

There was a gasp from inside, and the unmistakable sound of someone moving to the side of the door on the inside.

"Yes, there is," the voice from the cloaked man said. "A better question, though, is what manner of man or creature is without?"

Catriona let out a low, throaty laugh. "Last I checked I was no man nor creature, but a woman. A very damp, chilled woman with sore feet from travelling, at that, who would prefer a warm fire to this dank fog."

The Septon looked up from his vigil beside the dying man, and shot a questioning glance at Gabriel. He seemed content to leave the decision on whether to answer the door and admit the woman in his hands.

The door opened. Up close, the man was hardly more remarkable than he was from afar. Middling height, dark hair, and sharp features that were easily forgettable. His eyes were dark.

He looked Catriona up and down. "Weary traveler, maybe, but this isn't a good place to rest your tired feet. There's a death watch in here."

Catriona's face peaked out from beneath her hood, a loose wisp of red hair dangling over her forehead. "My apologies for intruding on the dying, sers. Perhaps you could direct me to a place where I might be less intrusive?"

Page last modified on December 23, 2005, at 10:53 PM