Alleyway Murder by Michael Gardiner

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Ward remained motionless for a long time, breathing slowly in the frigid winter air. Steam blew out his nostrils with each breath and briefly swirled around him, only to be carried away by the merciless wind that whipped back his cloak to reveal the hardened leather armour underneath. The alleyway was silent, the thick layer of snow on the ground muffling all sound. To Ward, it felt that he was alone in the world. Alone, with only the corpse in front of him for company.

It was a child. A pitiful small thing, curled up on its side as though sleeping. Ward couldn't determine the age or sex at first glance; a more thorough inspection by the local mortuary would be needed. What he could see, plainly, was that the murder was brutal. The corpse lay in a sheet of frozen blood, which had spattered for a distance of no less than two metres in every direction. The wounds on the lower half of the body were terrible; deep open wounds, as though scored by a blade. It was an unpleasant sight, even to eyes which have taken in all measures of human nature.

It wasn't the first child corpse to turn up in the mazelike confines of the Duchy Warrens, and the trend was beginning to unsettle his superiors. The nobility would be asking questions of the Constable, who was already applying pressure on the City Watch to find the killer. He wouldn't be happy about the latest find.

Ward never involved himself in local politics and could care less about how the Constable appeared to his betters, except to note that they had the same goal. It was their motives though, that could not have been more different - Ward lived two hundred metres away from the Warrens and knew firsthand the effect the discovered corpses were having on the locals. Aside from the deaths themselves, a culture of fear was beginning to permeate through the neighbourhood; people were staying indoors and inns and merchants were doing bad business. The Warrens could ill afford to slide further down into poverty, given how far they had already fallen in recent years.

It was the second body Ward had personally found, the first turning up less than a month ago in a similar alleyway five minutes walk from where he now stood. As before, his cursory examination saw no evidence remain that could help him, and glancing around at the frosted and barred windows, he guessed there would be no witnesses either. Still, he would talk to all the residents in the area, just as he had last time. Perhaps he might get lucky, though he doubted it.

The sound of distant footsteps brought him back to the present, and with it came a searing pain from his leg where he had forgotten to take the weight off in his thoughts. It reminded him that he hadn't applied a salve upon waking, and would need a hot bath tonight. He turned awkwardly, hand lowering to the hilt of his short sword in a reactive movement. His eyes took in the intruder for an instant and he relaxed.

‘Ward, that you?' huffed the figure as he pushed through the knee deep snow at the mouth of the alleyway.

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