‘What do you know about my father?’ I lower my hood and glower at the stranger. ‘Tell me. Now.’
He picks up the spent plug of tobacco between finger and thumb and appears to take sudden interest in it. I’m not in the mood for games, and patience has never been my strong point. I can sense the red mist beginning to gather on my mind’s horizon.
He doesn’t answer, not at first. Instead he gets out his pouch, pinches another clump of tobacco and spends at least a minute plugging his pipe with it. He lights a long taper from the candle on the table, then leans back, puffing contentedly. I try not to imagine what he would look like with his pipe sticking out his jugular.
He exhales a cloud of smoke so thick it almost thuds to the floor. ‘I knew your father,’ he says at last. ‘He and I fought together in the Goblin Wars.’
Now I know he’s lying. That particular conflict, bloody as it was, took place relatively recently. Long after my father was taken from me.
‘That’s impossible,’ I say, baring my teeth. ‘Now, if you don’t stop wasting my time, you’re going to make me really angry, and you will live to regret that. Briefly.’
‘Jacob had a temper too.’ There’s a smile in his voice. ‘Looks like the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.’
‘Look.’ I raise my voice. The other bar patrons look up, then make a big deal of doing their best to ignore us. ‘Jacob — my father — is dead.’
‘Alas, this is true. Would that I had been able to save him from the goblin menace.’ His tone changes, drifting away in a cloud of melancholic pipe smoke. ‘I was with him at the end, you know.’
I lean down, growling at him so only he can hear. ‘Listen. My father died when I was a child. There’s no way he could have fought beside you in the war. You’re a liar.’ My nails dig gouges in the table.
‘You saw your father die?’
‘I … I was young.’ I was just a girl, happier and more innocent than I am now. Not yet exposed to the horrors of the world, believing that people were people — and not capable of transforming into monsters. I remember the morning that all changed: the day my mother came into my bedroom, face soaked with grief. ’My father … was taken by wolves.’
The stranger lays down his pipe and exhales the last of the smoke. ‘Scarlett,’ he says. ‘Your father did not die that fateful night.’
‘How do you know my name?’ The red mist is nearly upon me. ‘Tell me!’
He reaches inside his tunic. My hand instinctively shoots for my shotgun. He doesn’t stop; instead he takes out a yellowed sheet of paper, folded in half. ‘Because,’ he says, ‘your father made me promise to give you this before he died. It’s for you.’
I snatch the paper from his hand, unfolding it and smoothing it on the table. ‘One false move,’ I say, not looking up, ‘and your brains will be decorating the walls.’
He doesn’t say a word; he sits back in his chair, waiting. I focus on the paper, on the words written upon it. The words written in my father’s hand. And the red mist disperses, like a drop of blood in the ocean.
Dearest Scarlett, it reads. I know this will seem strange to you, but please know I have written this letter with nothing but love for you in my heart.
I am sorry, dearest daughter. Sorry for making you believe I was lost to you, taken by the wolves. It was the only way, my darling. The only way to protect your mother — and to protect you.
I have never been honest with you, Scarlett. I am not the man you and your mother believed me to be. It is to my eternal shame that I have lived this lie all these years, and only pray that one day you will understand and be able to forgive me.
My time, I fear, is running out. My one regret is knowing that I will never see you again, never meet the strong and wise woman I know you must have become by now. I know you would make me proud beyond compare.
My throat feels as though invisible jaws are clenched around it; my chest is tight, the blood pumping through my veins. The tavern has melted away: it’s as though I am a little girl again, carried through the orchard on my father’s shoulders, laughing happily with the sun on my face.
Scarlett, the letter continues. The time has come for you to know the truth. That you are not the daughter of a lowly farmer. It is time for you to claim your birthright. To inherit that which belongs to you. To embrace your destiny. To —
And there it ends. I turn over the page, scouring the blank paper for more. ‘What is this?’ I say, waving it in the stranger’s face. ‘Where’s the rest of it?’
‘There is no more, alas. I was with him when he wrote it. With him when the goblin chieftain broke into our tent and … ‘ His voice trails off, no doubt wishing to spare me the details.
‘And what? I am not a child any more.’
‘… And took your father’s heart.’
The red mist returns. Not, this time, directed at this mysterious stranger in front of me, but at my father’s inhuman murderer. My growl turns into a whine, and then into a howl of grief and rage.
‘There is one more thing I must tell you, Scarlett.’ The stranger lowers his hood. The sight of his face causes my cry to die in my throat. Scarred, ravaged, deep gouges scoring his skin from forehead to chin. And his eyes: like two saucers of milk. I realise with a start that the stranger is completely blind.
‘Wh—what is it?’ I sway on my feet; the room begins to spin.
‘Before your father died, Scarlett…’ says the stranger, fixing me with his haunting, sightless eyes. ‘Your father changed.’
‘What do you mean?’ I lean on the table, trying to steady myself. ‘Changed how?’
‘Your father was not killed by wolves,’ says the stranger. ‘But moments before the goblin chieftain took his heart, your father became one.’