An odd noise crept into Crow’s ear. She opened her eye, wincing, suspecting it to be the sniffing or scratching of a rat or dog. She saw nothing and sat up, scanning the narrow street. At the far end a wagon rolled past, the clop of the dray horses’ hooves and the rumble of wheels blotting out the sound for a moment.
She listened again, wondering if it had been a half-dream or real. She heard gulls crying by the river and the distant horn of a boat on the water.
And then she heard it again.
Words she could not quite hear.
Turning her head, she tried to locate the source of the voice. It didn’t come from the sparse windows above, and there was not an open door to be seen. Moving along the street a little way, she found no cellars open, but came upon a side alley between two teetering slum blocks. It crooked hard to the left after a few yards, so that she could not see further.
The voice – it was definitely a voice – seemed louder. There were distinct intonations, changes of pace, but the meaning was lost on her. It sounded nothing like English, nor the scattering of Hebrew, French or Flemish she had picked up hanging around the East End.
She took a cautious step, ready to turn and flee at the slightest hint of danger. Holding her breath, staying close to the wall, Crow peaked around the corner.
The alley had brought her to a sort of courtyard, surrounded on all sides by high walls, the alley being the only way in or out. There were no windows and the sky was only a grey square four storeys above. A few pieces of torn sacking and other bits of rubbish filled the corners, but otherwise the isolated space was empty.
Except for the slight gleam of something in the dirt on the uneven flags.
Thinking it might be a jewel, she hurried forward and fell to her knees, clearing away the weeds and muck with her hands.
It was not a gemstone, or a gold ring, or anything like that. It was a line drawn into the flagstone itself, a slight indentation beneath her fingers filled with a faint green gleam.
Crow followed its course, pulling up more weeds, sweeping away dirt until the entire symbol was exposed. Standing up, she realised is was half a dozen yards across, like a vast brand that had been burned across several flags. It was a circle, mostly, but appended with all manner of strange geometrics and bizarre shapes.
It throbbed once, accompanied by a quiet hiss like wind on reeds, and Crow retreated quickly, stepping out of the circumference of the main design. She glanced toward the mouth of the alley, judging how quickly she could escape.
Do not leave me.
It was the first time the words had made sense and she stiffened.
Do not go.
The voice was louder, ringing back from the walls though it seemed concentrated inside her head. The urge to flee grew but she was rooted to the spot, as thought he voice’s command was impossible to resist.
She could not ignore it, even as every fibre of body and soul desired to get away from this place. Her limbs trembled, the instinct of fear fighting against the compulsion of the voice.
Do not be afraid.
It seemed counter-intuitive, and the words meant to assuage her dread simply fueled it. Even so, she could no more move her foot than she could push down one of the warehouses on Shad Thames. Invisible hooks kept her in place as surely as the bindings of the inmates at Bedlam.
I will help you.
The offer seemed sincere. Crow swallowed hard, still afraid, but her curiosity was piqued. Her voice was barely a whisper, more a breath passing over tongue and lips to make the hint of a sound.
I will help you if you help me.
‘How?’ she managed again. Coughing, she cleared the fear from her throat. ‘How can you help me?’
Riches. I will give you what you desire if you give me what I desire.
Crow thought about this. She didn’t want to ask ‘how?’ again, and she was not sure she trusted the voice, or didn’t know what it was. She suspected that it would not answer if she inquired. Against her better judgement she found herself asking a different question.
‘What do you need?’
The single word sparked revulsion in Crow and she spell was broken, the bond upon her shattered by a sudden impulse of terror.
Wordlessly, she fled.