Wraith by Helen Harper

For Granny

I miss you


Gabriel de Florinville, Dark Elf Diplomatic Envoy of the Realm of Scotland to give him his full title, gazed out across the shadows of the city. Other settlements in Scotland, even those whose population numbered in single digits, enjoyed electricity. In fact, they took it for granted as a basic human right. Stirling, however, was swathed in darkness, with only flickering torches and the odd gleam from buildings that boasted their own generators to illuminate the gloom. And gloomy it certainly was.

He sighed heavily and rubbed his forehead. Two full days of talks and all he’d managed was to get the Filits to agree to open up a new supply line so that ordinary citizens could at least get some real food to eat. In turn the Gneiss goblins had reluctantly agreed to do the same, although when he’d spotted the gleam in their eye he’d made sure they understood that any attempt to block, manipulate or coerce the supplies in any way would result in swift, harsh retribution. It was hardly a resounding success; everyone knew that those in power would cream off the best supplies.

‘Call that roc to fly us out of here. I can’t bear it any longer. This place is a shithole,’ Rymark said, coming up from behind. ‘Why are these people still here? Why don’t they just leave the city for the goblins?’ He shuddered delicately. ‘I was actually propositioned by a young man washing the stone stairs on the way up here.’

Gabriel tapped his long fingers against the balcony. ‘What bothers you the most? That you were propositioned or that you were propositioned by a cleaner?’

‘He wanted food, Gabriel. Not money or favours or a way out of this hellhole. All he wanted was enough food to take home to his family and he was prepared to prostitute himself to get it. How can we permit this to happen under own noses? On our own doorstep?’

Gabriel’s mouth flattened into a grim line. ‘Believe me, that argument has been repeated over and over again to the Scottish government at Holyrood. You know how many times I’ve petitioned them to overturn the law. Just because we ceded Stirling to the goblins after the war shouldn’t mean that we abandon its people to their fate like this. But no one is willing to risk upsetting the goblins, whether they’re Filit or Gneiss. The law is on their side, not ours.’ He swept out an arm. ‘Nor is it designed to help the people who live here. To answer your first question, these people are still here because they can’t leave. All those who could afford to leave did so three years ago when the Gneiss first attacked.’

‘Some of the wealthy remain.’

Gabriel snorted. ‘Only because they’re waiting out the siege so they can ingratiate themselves with whoever is left at the end. Stirling was standing a thousand years ago and it will be standing a thousand years hence, regardless of its status as a goblin protectorate.’

Rymark rolled his eyes. ‘Protectorate? That’s a joke.’

‘Keep your voice down. We’re here under sufferance as it is. You know how long it took us to get to this point, to even be granted access to the city. There’s a strong likelihood that we’re being bugged. If you’re overheard criticizing our hosts then we’ll be out on our ear before you can say “renewed hostilities”.’

‘They wouldn’t dare eavesdrop on a government-sanctioned envoy! Especially when that envoy is you!’

Gabriel gave his companion a rueful glance. ‘They’ll do anything to get us out of here. You know that.’

‘Then why are we here at all?’

The answer, when it came, was soft. ‘Because those people down there need us. Someone has to fight on their behalf.’ He sighed. ‘Even unsuccessfully.’

Rymark gave him a pointed look. ‘When all this began, it was supposed to be a good thing that the goblins were busy with Stirling and not bothering the rest of us with their petty squabbling and never-ending avarice.’

‘Nobody thought things would drag on for this long. In truth, we should be thankful that the Prime Minister sanctioned this visit and the goblins agreed to it.’ Gabriel’s expression was thoughtful. ‘There’s more to this siege than ancient rights over the city. Stirling isn’t that valuable a place.’ He looked at his old friend. ‘Three years – nobody besieges a city for three years simply for bragging rights.’

‘Goblins would. They’re tenacious little fuckers.’

Gabriel shook his head. ‘No. There’s something else going on here. I can feel it.’

‘They’re certainly doing everything they can to keep us occupied instead of investigating,’ Rymark remarked. ‘I thought that fellow with the droopy moustache was going to have a heart attack when you suggested a trip down town to see how the ordinary citizens were surviving.’

A faint smile crossed Gabriel’s mouth although there was no real humour in it. ‘We’re being shunted from one sanitised place to another. You’d think the Filits would want us to see how their Gneiss cousins are making their lives miserable. Instead they seem determined to pretend that everything is alright. Even our night out was carefully arranged so that we only saw the better part of town.’

Rymark snorted. ‘Is that what you’d call Isabella Markbury? The better part of town?’

Gabriel grimaced. ‘You can’t blame her for her actions. She thinks I can save her from all this.’

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