They walk into the room at the base of Gargamel’s tower through three different entrances. It is more or less simultaneous: first all ten doors are closed, then three doors open.
One shows Francescu, wan and tired.
One shows Sophie, still ash-covered from the furnace.
Then there is Manfred, silhouetted by the light, unarmored but carrying his iron-tipped spear.
They pause there. They look at one another. There is a long silence, and suspicions grow.
Manfred’s voice is hard and bitter.
“Is it blood, then?” he asks.
Sophie looks down at the gutters along the sides of the room. She glances at the drain in the room’s center.
Calculations take place behind her eyes.
“It would be easy to clean up after,” she says.
Then in a flicker she is entirely gone. Manfred’s eyes track down to the floor. He sees a tiny speck of black. It is a scorpion and it is running towards Francescu’s leg.
He readies his spear.
“Seek her not,” Francescu says.
Manfred speaks the scorpion’s name: “Sophie.”
His spear stabs down.
“She isn’t our target,” Francescu says.
The breath leaves Manfred before his blow completes. A mist of red and purple surrounds him. His connection to the fundament and the firmament wavers as Francescu strives to banish him from the world.
“Ah,” sighs Manfred.
That is when the scorpion reaches Francescu’s leg and stings.
And . . .
Once upon a time there was a girl born to an elder thing and a human girl. The child was as pale as her father and as beautiful as her mother and her ears were sharp and her fingers webbed.
She bore the unclean destiny of the Saraman family, that runs in its blood and its ichor and exhales through its pores: that black luck that draws to the Saraman the most abhorrent of powers. So she took to herself a company of bastards, rogues, and brigands and she plagued the roads not far from Castle Gargamel.
In the power of their youth, in the might of their teenaged years, Manfred and Sophie came upon her. They scattered her company like insects in a wind. Gone was Sir Medrin, who kept the skull of a priest on his belt for easy access; gone was Sly Stephen and the other rogues; gone was Cord Glauster, the wickedest of the lot. Rachel’s sorcerer, Meagle, fled the fight on an iron gatling-bike, but Sophie followed; and Meagle hung himself, quite entirely by accident, from an improvised gallows out by Stormy Lake.
“I will die,” said Rachel Saraman, “if left alone in these woods.”
“Then follow,” said Manfred, and walked away, and she went after his echoing tread.
As one of the many twilights of his nineteenth year approaches, Manfred walks back towards his cottage at the edge of Tantrevalles.
He is walking beside Santrieste, and the woman Rachel is behind him.
I do not trust her, says the unicorn.
“I know,” Manfred says.
There is the sound and feathers and impact of ten thousand fluttering wings striking the road beside him. They are gone before he can look. Sophie is there. She is sweating.
“It is done,” she says.
Rachel looks at her.
Sophie looks back at Rachel.
“You weren’t supposed to keep her, Manfred,” Sophie teases.
“I’m Sophie,” Sophie introduces. She licks dirt and blood off her hand, rubs it dry on her other arm, and holds it out to Rachel.
“Rachel,” the woman says.
“Manfred is being heroic,” Sophie explains, redundantly. “But he needed my help, because of that Meagle.”
Rachel smiles thinly. “I imagine he’s well away by now.”
“Dead,” Sophie says.
Rachel’s forehead furrows. She looks a bit shocked. “Pardon?”
“Sophie,” rumbles Manfred gently. “I have urged you against murder.”
“I didn’t kill him!” Sophie protests.
“Come in,” he says. “Both of you. After dark, a shadow walks these roads.”
So they kick the mud from their boots and they go in and sit on the chairs in Manfred’s cottage, save for Manfred, who stops at the door and takes hold of Santrieste’s cheeks.
“I love you,” he says.
The unicorn’s eyes are unrelenting. I do not trust her.
But still he nuzzles Manfred’s shoulder and gives him there permission to go in.
An Unclean Legacy
The Shadow on the Road
Manfred lit the lights and shared out his bread.
“In the night,” he says, “you can see it against the sky.”
“I know,” Sophie says.
And Rachel nods.
Then Rachel flicks her eyes up at Sophie. Her face is set and hostile. She asks Sophie, “How did Meagle die?”
“I imagine we should take you back to the castle,” Sophie says. “There, father can work high justice on you.”
Rachel squints at Sophie.
Then she sags. “Ha,” she laughs. “Ha ha ha. That will be rich. The high justice of Montechristien Gargamel. Ha ha ha ha ha ha!”
This is a defeated and hopeless mad cackling, but it is still mad cackling; and as it grows quieter and quieter it stirs old nameless memories in Manfred’s heart.
“We don’t need to,” Manfred says.
“No?” Sophie asks.
“It wasn’t her fault she wound up with that band of misfits,” Manfred says.
Sophie’s eyes narrow.
Rachel’s laughter falls quiet. She coughs once. Then she looks up.
“I built them,” she says. “They were mine. I saved Sir Medrin from the gallows. I tempted Meagle from the gray to the black. Even Cord Glauster was just a butcher’s boy who made too free with others before I found him. Don’t take my sins from me. They’re all I have.”
For different reasons, this speaks to Manfred and to Sophie; and so rather than recoiling, they relax, each of them, in different ways.
“How will you pay, then?” Sophie asks.
“How do you make up for that?”
And there is silence for a long time before Rachel says, “Is that the price for my life?”
“Then I will find a way.”
The wind is blowing harsher now. Manfred rises to his feet.
“The shadow walks,” he says.
He goes to his window. He opens the curtains and the glass. He looks out.
There is red and black against the sky.
Who is Rachel?
Why did Manfred target Sophie?
Just how does a rapid-fire iron bicycle work?
Don’t forget to read the first eleven installments of this story, and tune in Tuesday for a shocking Unclean Legacy expose: “The Saraman Destiny!”