Cleaved Maiden #2 - The Knife

With a deft flick of the wrist, the knot was pulled tight, and the chickens were dangling from the roof of the shed. Murdra emptied the bloody pail of chicken heads over the fence and picked up the butcher's knife she'd left on a barrel, wiping it clean on her apron. She heard the door to the store room behind her clunk shut. Damn that boy, Murdra thought. Always slammin' that door! She stuck the jug of milk into the pail, picked the lot up and angrily trudged across the courtyard.

As she approached the store room door, Murdra heard something shuffling to her left. Ha, she thought. Lazin' around again, is 'e? She peered around the corner, determined to drag the boy back into the taproom by his greasy hair - but he was not to be seen. To her disgust, Murdra saw the figure of a man lying under the store room's window. He was enveloped in a black hooded cloak and reeked of mead.

"Sleepin' in the yard instead o' payin' for a room", Murdra raved. Should wake 'im up with a jab or two, she thought, fingering the butcher's knife, or with a kick! But she did nothing of the sort.

That's what the 'usband's there for. Let him take care o' it!

Murdra went back to the door, put down the pail and jammed the knife in beside the jug. She pulled on the heavy double doors with both hands. "That vagrant will get what's comin' to him when the 'usband finds 'im", she mumbled, plodding into the store room. After a few steps, a thought struck her: What if he wakes up an' guzzles the milk? First the milk, then the 'usband, she decided, and turned around.

Her heart skipped a beat.

The picture shows a traveller at his arrival at the "Cleaved Maiden". This artwork gives you an impression of rain and storm during an unfriendly night on the Southern Islands.

All Murdra saw was a brown leather jerkin and the hands going for her face. Innos help me! she thought and tried to scream, but a strong hand pressed itself against her lips and cut her off.

"Hush!" her attacker hissed. He shot a nervous glance at the double doors, then turned back to Murdra. She recognized him now. It was Gonter, the hunter from the Valley of Blood.

Murdra's fear quickly gave way to anger. "Hands off!" she growled through his fingers. Gonter's hand didn't move. "You're not going to scream, are you?" he asked suspiciously. What does he think, Murdra thought and replied with an angry snort. Gonter hesitated. "I must speak with you - alone", he said, and carefully lifted his hand from her mouth.

Murdra thanked him with a slap in the face. "'ow many times do I have to tell ye? The store room's off limits!" she spat. Gonter rubbed his cheek. Murdra would have loved to kick him out on the double, but she was curious. "What do ye want?" she asked, crossing her arms.

"I wanted to ask you for a favor - you and your friends from the merchant's guild."

Murdra grimaced with disgust. "No favors", she said. "No money, no deal."

"All right, all right", Gonter acquiesced. "Forget the favor. I'm in need of your services."

"Aha!" Murdra said. "That's better!"

"Have you heard about Ethorn?" Gonter asked.

"The 'igh lord", Murdra answered and nodded enthusiastically.

"Then you are for the war?"

"War?" Murdra was appalled. "Nobody wants a bloody war!"

"Have you listened to your patrons?" Gonter replied. "Every single one of them is for the war", he added, pointing to the door to the tap room.

Nitwits, the whole lot o' them, Murdra thought. When the mead runs dry 'cause the 'igh lords are bashin' each other's 'eads in, they'll be whinin'! But she kept her mouth shut. "What kind o' service are ye talkin' about?" she asked instead.

"Ethorn of Setarrif has left his hiding place", Gonter said. "He's preparing to face Lord Tronter to end Myrtana's hold over Argaan once and for all. It is rumored that Ethorn wants to challenge the dead king's governor when he travels to Silverlake Castle to deliver the taxes to Thorniara.

"Ev'rybody knows that!" Murdra snapped, although this was news to her. "What business o' yours is this? Or the guild's?

"The lords of Stewark want to join Ethorn in battle. The hunters from the Valley of Blood will be at their side."

"We're merchants - not warriors!" Murdra interjected.

"You're not, no", Gonter admitted, "but the Paladins won't suspect you. A few weapons, hidden under your friends' goods… You could smuggle them into the Valley of Blood. This would do Ethorn of Setarrif a great service - a great service for Argaan's freedom!"

"No service for the guild!" Murdra hissed, spitting on the stone floor. "War in the Valley o' Blood, the mountain pass to Thorniara and Setarrif blocked! How are we supposed to trade then?"

"There has never been a more opportune moment", Gonter said, taking a step in Murdra's direction. "Rhobar II is dead, slain by a brave soul willing to fight for freedom. A man named Lee is said to lead the Paladins now, but his influence is limited to Vengard and a small part of Myrtana. The rest of the country will soon go up in flames. Just look at the Northmen: they are tearing each other apart. Varant has many kings, each determined to rule supreme. If we take up arms now, there will be no one to run to Lord Tronter's aid. The dead king's governor stands alone! Believe me, Murdra - the war over Argaan will be decided quickly. You'll hardly have anything to lose. On the contrary: you'd have sided with the winners - think of the profit!"

Murdra stubbornly shook her head. "No deal!"

The hunter grabbed Murdra's arm, pulling her to him.

That does it, Murdra thought and gave him a solid kick between the legs. Taken by surprise, Gonter groaned and fell to his knees. Got what he deserves, Murdra thought smugly and gave him another kick. Turning away, she headed for the door to the tap room, from which muffled laughing and bawling could be heard. Murdra slammed the door open. The noise from the tap room engulfed her. She squeezed through the customers and headed for the kitchen.

"Belgor!" And again: "Belgor!"

The patrons fell silent. All eyes were laid on Murdra now. The boy was staring at her open-mouthed.

Belgor came through the kitchen door, scowling. "What's the fuss?"

"Gonter's bein' a nuisance!" Murdra shot back. "Grabbed me in places, the dog. In the store room."

A shadow fell over Belgor's face. He rolled up his sleeves and brushed past Murdra. Maybe he's good for somethin' after all, the 'usband, Murdra thought. But two men are better than one. She grabbed the boy by his collar and shoved him in Belgon's direction, following the two of them into the wine cellar.

"Made a run for it", Murdra heard Belgor say as she stepped through the door. he was standing in front of a wine barrel, fists on his hips. There was no sight of Gonter.

"There 'e is! In the courtyard!" the boy yelled, peeking through the double doors.

"Gonter, ye dog!" Belgor thundered, storming outside. "I'll pound ye to a pulp!"

As Murdra followed him through the doors, she nearly stumbled over the pail. Dammit, she thought, flailing around with her arms. The jug struck the side of the pail with a clang, spilling milk all over the floor. Something was wrong. Once Murdra regained her balance, she realized what: the knife was missing.

"Uh, oh", she said, looking around.

Belgor was standing in the middle of the yard. His rage seemed to have evaporated. "Gonter?" He sounded worried. The hunter was lying partly under the shed Murdra had used to hang up the chickens. Something was jutting out of his back. Murdra trudged over. She could already see the wooden grip of her butcher's knife. Belgor kneed down at Gonter's side and put two fingers on his neck. He turned around, eying Murdra.

"A good beatin' would've been enough", he whispered.

Thinks it was me, Murdra realized.

She stared at the knife's handle and the wet, dark spot on the jerkin. Chicken blood was dripping down on Gonter's back, mingling with his own. For the first time in her life, Murdra was at a loss for words. She could hear footsteps and voices behind her. Curiosity had driven her patrons into the yard.

"There's someone runnin' over there!" Elgan yelled, pointing over the fence with his pipe.

Murdra looked up. The man running over the meadow was heading right for the Orc Forest, and he was wearing a black hooded cape. "Well I never", she said. Wasn't sleepin', the pig, but eavesdroppin'! She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. That's what the war brought 'im, Murdra thought, staring at the wooden grip jutting from Gonter's back. Then her gaze drifted to the man in the hooded cape, watching him as he vanished between the trees...

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A very early scribble of the gallery above the stables of the "Cleaved Maiden". Scribbles like this are used to create a first feeling for the art department.

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