The Wandering Girl with Owl Skin

The Wandering Girl with Owl Skin

Prelude.

The people of Almira have many names for me.

Azra-Lera-Makai. Which means “woman of bark and bones.” It’s their name for a witch or a sorcerer. But the Almirans are a simple people—anyone who can brew a tincture or disinfect a wound is a witch to them.

Okram-Aman. That’s a slang that only the sailors use. It means “viper cunt,” more or less. I’m not very fond of that one.

Farang-a-Miren. Those words are from a song written by a poet king of the Malgrave dynasty. They mean “the wandering girl with owl skin.” He wrote them after we spent a summer together.

That is my favorite name.

I have lived on the edges of this town or that village for many years. Always, I must be moving—taking my cart and my black trade where I can find a price for it. That is no hard thing, these days. The country of Almira is burning—its seared seams held together by the weak grip of a desperate king. He cannot afford to extend the arm of justice into the edges of his realm.

The dark whims of his people run free.

And there are many who will pay for the nightmares I sell.

I wonder if I will see Almira unravel. I was there when the first Malgrave king rose to power and cut his will into the skin of these backward people.

It is only fitting I should be here when it ends.

I.

“How do I know you’re good for it?” the crofter asks me. His thick, country accent makes him sound like he has a mouthful of mud that he must talk around.

“You don’t,” I respond in Almiran. I do not have an accent. I left that in my first skin, long ago.

He snaps his jowls together, like a dog might. “Then I will not pay.”

I shrug. “Suit yourself.”

He begins to walk away from my wagon, which I have laid up beneath the shade of a willow tree. A stream babbles softly behind me. Dragonflies zip and dart past my face.

“But I would be careful from now on,” I say after he has taken three or four determined steps back towards town.

He looks over his shoulder. “Huh?” he grunts.

“Orin will have heard that you visited me. He will assume that we struck a deal. What would you do, crofter, if you heard the man with whom you feuded had paid a visit to the Woman of Bark and Bones?”

The crofter turns back around. Narrows his big cow eyes into suspicious slits. “Kill him, maybe.”

I nod.

“But you need not return to town, crofter. Let us finish our trade. Then you may continue north along the coast. Stop in the next village, stay a fortnight and enjoy yourself. When you return home, Orin will not trouble you.” I pause, and fix my pale-gray eyes on the dimwitted, brutal man in front of me. “He will not trouble anyone.”

The crofter trudges back to my wagon. “You say this, but you do not swear on it. What if I return and he is still there, but you who are gone? Nothing more than wagon tracks in the road. Orin will kill me.”

“Wait for news of dear Orin, then. It will reach you before long. My work does not go unnoticed, crofter. You have heard the stories.”

He nods slowly. Everyone has heard the stories.

The crofter takes in a deep breath, and then digs out a sack of coins. They’re old, heavy discs of silver and gold that are decorated with an intricate and ancient design. Probably been in his family for five generations. It is amazing to me, the price a man will pay to have an evil thing done. Yet good deeds—like dentistry and potion making—are rewarded with suspicion at best.

Lynching at worst.

If the ways of the world were different, who knows what type of paragon I may have become? But the world is set in her ways.

And I am…..the thing that I am.

“Do it, then,” the crofter says, throwing the coins onto the wood panel next to me. “I want to hear tales of his screams.” He pauses then, mulling over some dim idea within his thick skull. “If what you say is true—that Orin has seen me come to you—he will have men with him. Protectors.”

“Good. They will be the witnesses.”