She began walking towards the doorway when she heard some noises from the house she was walking past. She immediately recognised it as the Hughes’ house. She used to visit sometimes with her mother as a child, dragged there so her ma could sit and drink herb tea and chatter in the lounge while she sat under the kitchen table, taking up as least room as possible and trying not to hear them as they talked about her loudly in the other room. She hadn’t been in there for about ten years, her ma had stopped gossiping with the other ladies in the village when her pa had died, too busy working on the farm to have time for such petty things. Lahel had been glad when she stopped going, though knowing it was selfish of her. She had always hated the ladies that gathered there: the way they cackled as they talked about her, the way they expected her to serve their tea even as they called her a disappointment to her face, the way they acted like they knew everything. She found herself wondering closer to the door, drawn in even as her mind replayed those hateful memories that made her cheeks heat up with shame at her pitiable self. The colour of it was burned into her mind.
The red door. Something she used to think about often, wondering why they chose such an abrasive colour; such a dark, sticky red. A colour she had only seen in one situation in her life; the times her father used to make her watch as the sheep birthed their lambs every spring. Those times she had felt so sick she would just cry until he’d let her leave with that disappointed frown and shake of his head she had seen far too often through her life. She used to look at it and feel that same sickly repulsion but now it made her think of him. Missing him, maybe, or more likely wishing that he could have seen her now. He’d never thought she could achieve anything, he’d never said it, but she could just tell. Her parents had wanted a boy to take over the farm so badly that as soon as she was born that had been nothing but dissatisfied in her. She stepped in close to that nauseating door, glistening sickly in the dull daylight. Her forehead was almost touching it, so close she could even see the dried drips of paint that looked like they’d congealed as they slipped down its shining surface. Her fingers traced the knots in the wood as she pressed her ear against it, inhaling the bitter scent of herbs as they boiled from the steam that crawled through the cracks around the door. They were home, she could hear their chattering voices. Maureen, Norah, and, though she couldn’t hear her, she knew Einin would be there with her sister. They were always together, strolling around town in a gaggle more like a trio of witches than three close friends.
She considered knocking on the door but decided against it as her ears began to pick out their words. Maybe this was why people called her nosy but the desire to eavesdrop was irresistible to her insecure mind. Especially if there was a possibility that they were talking about her.
“…just our luck. I just can’t believe it.” That was Maureen’s dry tone, practically clicking her tongue with disapproval, as if the world had planned these events on purpose just to irritate her.
Norah answered, talking fast like she always did. She seemed to be able to put twice as many words in a sentence as any other person did, the woman could talk for the whole village, Lahel knew that from personal experience. “Poor Einin. It’s twice this has happened now. Why her? I just can’t think of a reason, she’s the quietest thing, never in trouble, never even had an enemy in her life. It’s just so ridiculous you’d think someone was planning it.”
“Maybe it is so. Why else would it choose her.” It, Lahel wondered. What did that mean? She wanted to listen in case they said anything more, but it felt wrong. Somehow, she didn’t want to know. There was something about the way Maureen had talked, that tenor that shook slightly as if she were scared; this the woman who she had never known to be afraid of anything, who had always been an unshakeable figure throughout her childhood, always just looking down at her with that all-knowing expression on her face. As she thought about it her hand raised itself to the wood. If it scared Maureen, maybe she just didn’t want to know. But she had to, if it was him, Murphy, then she had to do something, she was the only one who could do it. She tightened her fist and forced herself to knock once hard on the door, not liking the way the glossy paint felt so smooth under her knuckles.
She began opening it without waiting for an answer, before giving herself an opportunity to wimp out. People didn’t lock their doors around here, so she didn’t have to worry about that, it was more what would be waiting on the other side that she had to be concerned with. As she predicted, Maureen and Norah were sitting at the chairs around the kitchen table. However, Einin wasn’t with them, how strange to see the two without the other.
As her shoes clicked against the rough, wooden floors, the two women looked towards her. It struck her how strange they appeared, how completely different they were, both physically and as people. Maureen was tall, even taller than most men in the village, but thin and spindly rather like a spider. Her eyes were pale and narrowed, and her face was gaunt. She was currently demonstrating her infamous personality as she regarded Lahel from down her hooked nose like she was something rather disgusting that had been tracked into her home. Norah, on the other hand, though not friendly looking, was a lot subtler in her distaste. Her body was about three times that of her friend’s, making her look like some kind of lumpy caterpillar next to Maureen’s insect-like form.
“Lahel?” Norah said, both a question and a declaration, warning Maureen to stop talking. They had never got in the habit of calling her by her title, or with any form of respect for that matter. She would always be that disappointing little girl to her, the kid from the Callahan farm that caused so much trouble for her ma and who nobody much liked in the village. The outcast, if you will.
“Yes, it’s me aunties.” She wanted to be on their good sides, even if they were both leaning more towards grannies than aunties at this point in their lives. She looked around the house; its low ceilings, the beams that almost brushed her head as she walked over to them, the big, green oven that was the centre of the room, and the large, yellow-wood table in front of it that they sat around. She stopped about a metre from them, not wanting to sit down or get too comfortable so crossing her arms awkwardly instead. “I’ve come to ask a few questions. You know what about.”
They looked a little shocked. “I’m not sure what you’re referring to.” Norah said a bit breathily.
She paused, confused. “The dead man on the step?” What else could it be?
Norah sighed. Was that relief?
She could see it in Maureen’s eyes as well, though her words were cold. “We don’t talk to the Guard.” Lahel had expected that response. There was no one with less faith in the Guard than the elderly, the ones who had lived or fought through the second rebellion, ones like her pa.
“I’m afraid you have to.” Lahel said, hoping they wouldn’t question her authority to tell them so. She hadn’t exactly got permission from the General, nor had she got the authority to investigate this personally without informing him first, but they didn’t need to know that. She touched the neat brim of her hat, bringing attention to the shining badge she knew was sewn there, engraved with the three stars that marked her position as Lieutenant in the Guard. Something subtle like that shouldn’t get them too worked up. Hopefully it would remind them of just who he was now. How far she had surpassed them. That they couldn’t question her any more.
Maureen’s painstakingly drawn-on eyebrows pulled together, creating a great wrinkle in between, but she didn’t call out her gesture. “We don’t talk. My sister…” She looked towards the partially shut door leading to the living room. “…she might.”
“Einin’s here?” She said uninterestedly, wondering why they were bringing her up at all. Einin was a nice enough woman, but not exactly the brightest. She couldn’t think of anything that Einin could possibly say that could enlighten this situation. Unless she had seen something?
“Come with me.” Maureen stood up, her long body folding its way out of her chair, so she towered over Lahel’s five-foot-nothing. She tried not to look up at her, knowing all she would be greeted with was a rather unsavoury view up the woman’s considerable nostrils, as she walked towards the door and bent down to shuffle under its low frame. Lahel hesitated to follow her, waiting almost without thinking for Norah to go ahead of her, a courtesy she knew she should no longer abide to but that was almost impossible to stop now it had become a habit.
She shook her head at herself as she too ducked under into the lounge, feeling a bit stupid and young again and hating herself for it. She was so busy being angry at herself that the women had already sat down by the time she began to look around the little room. Her breath stopped with a gasp as she noticed the figure lying on the sofa nearest the window, though you could hardly tell now as the heavy curtains were pulled tight around it like black-out curtains. It was so dark, in fact, that as the door creaked closed behind them, they were plunged into complete darkness.
She had been able to see for just a few seconds but what she had seen had already etched itself onto her mind. She kept her eyes on the sofa as they adjusted to the light, not wanting to tear them away from the body that lay there, for fear it would move suddenly in the dark. It was Einin, but not the Einin she knew. A body, no, a corpse, was the most apt way to describe what lay there, so unmoving she could have easily be convinced that she was dead, save for the huge, bug-like eyes that were staring, unblinkingly, up at the ceiling. She shivered as she thought of them turning to her in the darkness, they looked too large to be human in her pale, little face. She had always had bones like a small bird, a little dove to her sister’s hawk-like harshness, but she looked even smaller now. Doll-like. It wasn’t only her eyes though, or her paleness, it was the wound that really spooked Lahel.
Einin was wrapped up to her neck in bandages, long swathes of what looked like torn up pieces of muslin cloth. They may have once been white, they still were on the ends that flicked up away from her neck, but the rest of them had been dyed a horrific colour. The red of the door. The red of the blood covered lambs that her father handed to her wrapped in towels as a child, all covered in those dark clots and bleating so desperately they sounded like they were screaming, horseflies gathering on them in sticky swarms even as they struggled to open their big eyes for the first time. What had happened? Einin was hurt? She hadn’t heard of this, did the Guard know? More importantly, did the General know?
“Who did this?” She whispered, not aware that she had spoken aloud until Norah answered in a strangled voice.
“Ask her yourself.” She sniffed. Norah was crying? Lahel gulped down the worried feeling that was beginning to settle in the pit of her stomach. Something was terribly wrong here.
She directed her voice to the white figure of Einin that was slowly revealing itself to her straining eyes. “Someone did this to you?”
The voice that answered was strange, clear as a bell. It didn’t sound like the voice you would hear from a woman who looked like her neck had been practically severed from her body. “I was attacked.” She spoke slowly, but if she was in pain, it wasn’t affecting her voice whatsoever. In fact, she sounded almost…content. Like she was smiling in the darkness.
“So…did you see anyone? You know, when you were attacked?” Lahel asked, glancing at the two women by her side to see if they were anywhere as disturbed by Einin’s attitude as she was. They didn’t though, all she could read in the furrowing of their brows and the clutching of their hands was concern for their friend.
The two women looked at the third on the bed as if expecting her to answer but she just shrugged and shook her little head ever so slightly, her brow unclouded and her tiny mouth turned ever so minutely up at the corners.
Lahel watched Maureen’s eyebrows knit together in reaction but she didn’t say anything. There was definitely something more to it than what Einin was telling her, it was frustrating, but she couldn’t say anything now. She needed them to trust her, she couldn’t have them start to put up a guard against her and she knew the sure way to do that with these three would be to start questioning their integrity. There was nothing more insulting to a village gossip than anyone doubting the truth of their information.
Luckily, her choice to not push them paid off as Maureen soon spoke up, always looking for an opportunity to criticise her younger sister. “Einin, I can’t believe how forgetful you can be. You told us that you saw a man.”
“I did?” She said sleepily, looking up at her sister with her big, bug-like eyes that looked even bigger now they were ringed with purple like she hadn’t slept in days. Lahel wondered how she could be so nice, with a sister like Maureen, who could even talk down to her like that right after she had been attacked and almost murdered by the looks of it. “I can’t remember seeing anyone.” She glanced up to the low beams on the ceiling as if trying to remember but soon ended up shaking her head again. “I don’t think I remember anything at all.” She whispered blankly.
“Anything? But you remember us. You remember the meetin- or that get-together we had that night, right? Just before you got attacked?” Norah put a strange amount of emphasis on her correction, making Lahel even more sure that something more had been going on that night than just an unfortunate accident.
Einin cocked her head and looked back at Norah without blinking. Creepy. “No.”
Norah looked as if she was about to say something back to her, but Maureen put up a long, pincer-like hand to silence her. Avoiding the staring eyes of her invalid sister she spoke gruffly towards the wall behind her. “You’ve always been such a forgetful creature. Absolutely useless.” She turned towards Lahel in a sharp movement and addressed her, talking a little faster than usual. “Sorry, it seems she can’t be much help at all.”
Lahel was shocked. For Maureen to say sorry to her was something she never thought she’d experience in her lifetime. In fact, she didn’t think that she’d ever heard the woman apologise to anyone, choosing instead to not talk to the offended party until they forgot what she had done, or they gave in and chose to forgive her rather than endure any more of her affected silence. Now she knew for sure there was something up. She was desperately sifting through her mind to find a way to get it out of them, but the two older women were already standing up and trying to usher her out of the room.
What could she say? “Now wait a minute.” She ordered them in her most commanding tone, the one she usually reserved solely for the men at the Guard office. “You said she told you she saw a man? Well, what else did she say? Tell me everything, every word she used.” It was strange talking about Einin like she wasn’t in the room, but it was clear her mind wasn’t. She was just laying there, smiling to herself wider now than she was before. Lahel shivered and looked back to the women. She wasn’t sure how they would respond to the authoritative attitude she was taking with them, they were used to young people practically grovelling to keep them happy, like she had used to when she came her. They expected respect at all times, even from the Guard and especially from her, a little girl in their eyes, their friend’s child, the kid who used to hand them their tea in silence and listen to their affected tirades about her uselessness. As they glanced at each other and walked out the room she thought they had finally decided to kick her out but, to her surprise, as she followed them back into the kitchen she saw that they had sat back down at their chairs and left one in the middle, Einin’s seat, for her. She slipped over to them and sat herself down on the tall chair with them.
Norah spoke first. “She said she saw him.”
“She just said him.”
“That’s it?” Very helpful, she groaned internally. She had already presumed it would have been a man, knowing that wasn’t going to help her investigation at all.
They looked at each other again, a deep frown on both of their faces; Maureen’s thin and deep-set within her wrinkled face, and Norah’s causing her many chins to multiply.
Maureen sighed. “She said something else.”
“What? What?” Lahel’s excitement at hearing this was undermining her authority, she tried to compose herself. “What was it?” She said more calmly after a slow breath.
“She said that he was short, really short.” She held her hand up about four feet from the ground.
Oh. Lahel’s eyes widened. It couldn’t be.
Norah continued, though the voice in Lahel’s head was already too loud to really listen to what she was saying. “The General, she said. She said that she’d heard he was short like that.”
Lahel laughed down at the floor, talking to herself more than anyone. “But she couldn’t possibly know, she’s never even seen him. None of you have. Only the Guard know that he’s that short.” But there had been rumours, she thought to herself. And these three women would undoubtedly be the first to hear them. And it was true there was no one as short as him in the village. Who else could it be? A child maybe? But what kind of child would be strong enough to do that much damage to a full-grown woman, even a rather scrawny one like Einin. The general? How could it be?
She had nothing more to say, just stood up and thanked the women, walked towards the door and opened it in a daze. She paused as she stepped onto the street below.
“One more thing.” Her voice sounded shaky even to her ears. “What was that man’s name? The one you found on the step.”
Maureen regarded her almost pityingly. “Finnegan Crowe. Poor kid.” And then she looked back down to the table before her and Lahel knew it was time to leave. As she closed the door behind her, something small slipped out the gap. A little dog. She crouched down and grabbed it by the scruff of the neck. Funny little thing, it’s eyes were gold like a cat’s. Kind of pretty. Strange, she didn’t remember the Hughes sisters having a dog. Well, she hadn’t been around the villagers in a long time, things must have changed a little since she had been gone. It was a shame, if they’d had it when she was young, maybe coming here wouldn’t have been such a detestable experience. It would have been fun to have a little animal to play with, a lot more fun than the people at least.
She smiled a little. “Don’t run away now, doggy.” She whispered, picking it up and pushing it back into the house. “Can’t have you getting up to mischief.” She patted its little head once before closing the door firmly behind her and wandering back onto the street, aimless once again, more confused leaving than she had been when she got there. What now? Back to ginger she supposed, he had given her something at least, a promise, maybe she could get something more out of him now she knew the man’s name at least. See if he felt any pity for the poor guy, after all, Maureen had, and she was about the last person Lahel would have expected to feel sorry for someone. There, she had something to work with now. Ginger would have to watch out. She smiled determinedly into the street ahead, the sun was just beginning to peek out from behind some dingy clouds that had settled around the village. She couldn’t give up like this, she wouldn’t until she stopped breathing. She would find out what Murphy was up to and prove to everyone in the Guard that she had been right all along. That she deserved this. Yes, she breathed into her hands to warm her stinging cheeks, she would never give up.