The pale, sickly moon peered timidly from behind a thatch of clouds in the murky night sky above a small town. The bustle of daytime had been replaced by the sounds of dogs and cats, and the operations of seedy humans. Thieves and rogues slunk invisible in dark alleys; the open streets between the huddles of cramped, rickety houses were not much safer. Those who chose to walk them in these hours did so inconspicuously, with large cloaks to blend their hurrying figures in with the shadows.
Near the outskirts of the ill favoured town, a cloaked figure drifted with an uneasy pace. Beneath her grey hood a few strands of dirty blonde hair could be seen, hanging over frightened eyes of deep hazelnut that flitted nervously to any shape that moved within the darkness before them.
The young woman stifled a tickling cough, forcing her ragged breath to be quiet. There would be no reward for drawing attention to herself, especially one of her sex. The night hid all sorts of men, many of them with the same thing on all their minds.
On the woman drifted, like a timid ghost. Her head twitched at the slightest whisper of wind; and she did not imagine the sounds of the scuff of boots on cobbles, or the intrigued murmurs of hidden persons. Paranoia crept up on her maliciously, and in spite of her desperation to be inconspicuous, her head turned sharply with every moment to turn in the directions she had neglected to check for a while. Her tense walk was gradually becoming a swift trot.
As she journeyed on, her eyes searching ahead in hope for the place she sought, another sound came to her ears: the soft clop of hooves on the road. She did not fear the approaching rider; anyone who could afford themselves a horse had enough money not to need to thieve, or at least she hoped.
Soon, a large form slid from out of the darkness, and it seemed that the rider had already noticed the woman, for the horse had edged sideways for her to pass unhindered. She lowered her face, determined not to stare wistfully at the rider.
"This is a dangerous place for one such as you." A rugged voice murmured. The woman jerked her head upright once more in alarm. Now she looked at the man upon the horse.
"Where are you headed?" He asked softly. Her eyes quickly wandered across his figure: dark travelling garments, like hers; gloves and an ominous scabbard hanging from his belt, not like her. His face was obscured by darkness.
"I…Wesly Pawn-broker's, sir." She replied, reasserting herself. The horse flicked its head gently in impatience.
"It is close. I believe I passed a Wesly's not one hundred yards from here."
"Thank you, sir." The woman, fighting to keep her voice cool and indifferent, said.
"Take care." He added simply, and with a final nod (or at least, what the woman thought was a nod through this cursed darkness), tugged the reins of his horse. The animal resumed its languid trot, and the woman was surprised to sense a sinking feeling within her-the stranger had been safe company for the moments they had conversed. Now, fear took hold of her again, but it found a stronger mind, for the woman knew she was close to her destination.
Minutes later, she drew in relieved breath when she came up alongside a small shop with a faint light trickling out from inside the scummy windows, with a dull sign above the shop whose paint was near faded. Fortunately, a bolder sign of recognition was embellished above the door: the three circles of the pawn-broker's. The woman tried to perceive through the windows, but they were too dirty. She rapped on the door, for surely no one with sense would have left the entrance to their livelihood unlocked in this villainous place.
Footsteps could be heard pounding the floorboards within the shop, and a shadow of a face appeared at the windows for a moment, though whether the owner of the face could distinguish anything in the darkness through his dirty windows, the woman was not sure.
Metal, perhaps a chain, was being fiddled with on the other side of the door. Something clicked, and then after what seemed like an age, a crack opened between the wall and the wood.
"Yes?" A sharp voice asked. The glint of a keen eye could be seen through the crack through.
"Is this Wesly's Pawn-brokers?" The woman inquired tentatively. "See, there's something I'm wanting to sell-"
"Only one of you?" The voice cut in. It was not an unusual question; it was probably asked frequently at these hours.
"Come in then." The voice drawled, sliding a metal chain off the door and widening the crack for the woman to slip in. Once inside, she noticed that the difference in temperature was not great; a chill still pervaded the area. The light was a great deal improved, and her pupils shrunk. She stood in a shabby, musty room. The shopkeeper closed the door shut behind her, and she was instantly aware of his gaze. She wheeled around.
"I've got a trinket to sell to you-you'll take it, I hope?"
The man, for that was what he was, moved his eyes to her face, which remained part shrouded beneath the hood she had chosen to keep on. "I'll want to see it."
The woman reached into her cloak and felt for her pocket. Once she had found it, she drew the heavy object from it and procured it from the cloak.
"There's gold on this, and jewels too. And-" She pulled her hand further away from the man as he leaned forward, "-I shan't be hoodwinked. I'm not as ignorant to not know a valuable thing when I see it."
The man, perhaps in his early sixties, with a creased brow and greasy hair, eyed the large brooch in the woman's hand. It was ugly, a sure thing, but nevertheless the gold and the jewels set in it made it a valuable thing.
"If you want it, pay me now, and then give me directions to the nearest inn, if you'll be so polite."
The man raised his eyebrows, but beckoned towards the counter on the other side of the room. "Very well."
Stiffly, and not altogether relaxed, the woman settled herself in a chair beside the counter. The shopkeeper drifted over to his own chair, and brushed aside a pile of scrolls cluttering the surface of the wood. He snatched a covert glance at his customer before unlocking a draw at the desk. Inside could be heard the chinking of coins.
"That trinket of yours ought to be worth, say…six silver pieces?" He muttered, counting out money.
"Twelve, I should think." The woman replied coldly. Her maid, an old grandmother with a good deal of experience under her belt, had told her this before her escape.
A brief flicker of annoyance passed over the man's face, but he was quick to return to sedation, and he counted out an extra six coins. He held them out to her, and her arm flashed as she took them and stowed them away in a pocket out of sight. The man in turn took the brooch where she has deposited it on the counter, a pleased look about his face.
"Would you excuse me for a moment, young lady?" He left his seat and headed for another door. He disappeared behind it for a minute or so, and then returned. No doubt he had put the brooch in a place of safe keeping.
"Now, I must know of an inn where-" The man raised a hand.
"There's no need for haste; the nearest inn will be open for another hour, I believe. Come, have a drink." He said cheerfully. The woman furrowed her brow at this sudden change of warmth, but she could not decline for he was already busying himself with the chinking of a bottle and glasses, his back turned to her.
"I really must be going, sir. Thank you for your kindness." She rose to leave.
"No, no, look, I've poured out the drink already. What sane person ever said no to a good firewater?" The man returned to the counter, bearing two glasses filled to the brim with an orange-tinged liquid.
The woman knew firewater well; it had been her husband's most trusted, faithful friend. She knew it to be a liquid that corrupted both the mind and the body, but even as she felt revulsion for this proffered drink, a curiosity crept upon her. Her husband had forbidden her to have firewater, or any drink more potent than a weak champagne. Surely a sip or two could matter not?
She watched the man gulp his down with an unquenchable thirst for its taste. She took hold of hers, stared tentatively at it for a few moments, and then hesitated no more. A sip, she took, and then, finding its strange flavours pleasant, more hearty sips. It was both like a fiery whiskey, and a smooth, cool glazing of water. Beneath these two flavours was a distant taste, one that rather reminded her of some of the flowers that had bloomed in her garden. She sat there for several minutes, her tension slipping away, when something growled in the back of her mind and a feeling of wrongness overcame her. She lowered her glass quite suddenly, and the man, a different sort of smile creeping onto his face, watched her. The drowsiness came upon her with little warning, and her vision blurred. She yawned mightily, all the while desperately trying to fight against whatever her drink had been drugged with.
"Fighting it will only leave you feeling worse afterwards, pretty girl. Let sleep take you." A leering voice called, as the woman plunged further and further into an abyss darker than any night…