Excerpt: The Galloway Road

We were late. The musicians were still in bed at twelve and I’d sat around for hours in the common room of the Horse’s Head. The only thing I had to stave off boredom was the bag of polished rune bones at my waist, which I’d been fiddling with for far too long. It became clear that the musicians would not be ready soon when Lond behind the bar set out loaves of rye bread for lunch. Soon the smell of soup wafted from the kitchen and I decided I’d had enough of waiting. At that point I stepped out into the mud-churned yard.

Four sturdy ponies were roped together between the stables and the propped open door of the inn. They were loaded up with packs, made from stiff leather and new silver buckles. A man stood beside them with a small metal flask in his hand. He was only an inch or so taller than me; short for a man, but heavily muscled in compensation. He had a thick black beard and barely any hair on his head. When he turned to stare at me, he had the clearest blue eyes I’d ever seen. He fumbled with the flask and cocked his chin upwards at me. “You’re Renna?” he said gruffly.

“Yes—are you the escort Lord Galloway hired? I don’t know if you know, but—”

“The musicians are still asleep. Yes, the boy told me.” He wound a rein around his fingers. “I’ve been here since ten.”

“Why don’t you come inside and have lunch? Wait until they wake up—” I suggested. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Brett,” he muttered. “And I’m banned from here after last time. Go and fetch them.” He glanced up at the sky. “Tell them if we don’t get a move on we’ll get caught in the coming rain.”

Lond warned me that the musicians hadn’t gone up to sleep last night until four in the morning. They’d taken a room together at the top of the inn, under the rafters, where it was cheapest. I still had the vestiges of last term’s University allowance from my father. True to form, it paid for a handsome room on the second floor, and a slap-up meal at breakfast. Pushing open the crooked door, back bent because the roof was low for me here, I encountered a more-than-strong smell of goats. I considered drawing back, but decided to complete the task I’d started. Determined, I managed to enter the room, hand clamped over my mouth and nose.

There were two narrow beds, separated only by a tiny table, upon which stood a half-empty wine skin and a lute with a broken string. The gut wire curled away from the dark brown wood, drifting up and down as the man in the right hand bed snored. Don was the first musician I’d met last night. They were already known well across Eastriding and rumour said Lord Galloway had asked for them personally. Someone had told me Don was a ‘genius’ with a flute, but all I’d seen yesterday had been moderate bragging and quite a lot of drinking. Beside him, brown hand stretching over the gap to rest on his partner’s upper arm, was Mal. Mal had muscles that my brother would have killed for, and played the lute and harp like an angel. I’d heard that much last night. That is, before the lute string broke and Mal lost thirty-odd cuts in an illegal bet.

I joggled Don’s shoulder and he snorted, the lute string going crazy. He moved away from me and mumbled something in his sleep. The sour scent of wine on his breath made me recoil, to step on a pile of clothes that crunched. Mal’s hand dropped off his back and he grunted as it thumped to the floor. One of his brown eyes cracked open and spotted me standing in the gloom between the door and the bed.

“Who are you?” he said, eyes narrowing.

“Sorry, I’m Renna… The Mage. We met yesterday, before you started drinking. We’re supposed to be leaving together. Well, we were supposed to set off two hours ago, but the escort’s waiting and—”

I hadn’t even finished speaking before Mal turned over and buried his face in the pillow, having decided to ignore me. I turned to Don, but he hadn’t even started waking up. I gritted my teeth and thought about going back downstairs and getting Lond up here, but Naize floated into my head.

“Just do it!” She’d found need to say that at least once a day at the University. So I manoeuvred my way over to the tiny window set into the wall and threw open the shutters. Grey light flooded the tiny room and the smell began to recede at once. Mal rolled on the bed, forgot how narrow it was and fell right off it onto the tiny sliver of floor between the bed and the window. Which happened to be where my feet were. I jumped backward and Mal swore, finally getting into a sitting position.

“Get me wine, Rita,” he groaned.

“It’s Renna. Are you sure that’s a good idea? I mean—you’ve just woken up.”

“Wine!” he shouted and I scrambled for the skin.

But Don had got up as well, pulling the sheets around him in the brisk air. “Hair of the dog. Throw me it too, Malus, could you?”

“Of course, Dontel.” Mal grinned. “Where are my clothes?” He stood up, realised he was wearing them and sat back down on the edge of the bed, fumbling beneath it for his boots.

“Do you think you could hurry up?” I said and both the musicians stared at me.

“The little witch wants us to hurry up, Mal,” Don said.

“We’ve got all the time in the world,” Mal said. “Does she not realise that the Galloway Road exists to get us where we need to go?”

“You’re saying it wrong. Round here they’re calling it the Gallow-way, not the Gaaaal-way. But you’re right. We’ll get where we’re going. You, Rita—tell the escort we’ll be down after lunch.”

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