Major Weathers sat on the back step of the church, clutching a hot cup of tea. His eyes lingered on the curling steam rising from his cup into the cool air of the morning. He had a ward embroidered on his collar that kept the biting flies away, and Heather stared at it with naked envy.
The Major took a sip, and then looked up at Heather.
“Blackthorne, you’ll patrol with Matthewson today. Stengrav, you’re with Pramath. I’m assigning you to your lieutenants. Help balance out the chain of command a bit.”
“Si, Major,” acknowledged Ramdas.
I am getting one of those wards today at market, Heather swore to herself fervently. She slapped away one persistent black gnat that seemed hellbent on her cheek.
Pramath had already acquired one such ward, a handsome gold pin on his shirt that required charging every few hours. It seemed a small price to pay to avoid the biting flies. It seemed like everyone at the church and in town carried wards like those. Or often more than one. The mosquitoes back home were nothing like this,thought Heather. Even with all the marsh!
Weathers said, “Pramath, Stengrav, you’ll be out on horse today. Do a perimeter check of the town. Don’t go further than halfway to the fort. If you see any unusual tracks, or run into anything unusual, make a note and report it to me. The usual.”
Ramdas’s hand rose as if to salute, and stopped at the Major’s frown. The centaur dropped his hand. “Ah, si, sir,” said the centaur. He then looked to Helga. “Outside, in five minutes?”
“Suits me fine, dearie,” said Helga with a warm smile. She gave Persephone a glance, and then beamed at Heather. “Don’t work her too hard, Blackthorne.”
Persephone made a low grunt in the back of her throat, and made for the gate. “Let’s go, Blackthorne.”
Heather hid a grimace. Guess we’ll see how a day with Matthewson goes. Not sure if it’s a stick up her ass or an icicle. Tough to say if it would be any better with Pramath, though. At least Matthewson can keep a rein on her temper.
“Keep safe out there,” Heather replied, as she hurried to follow after Persephone.
She caught up to Matthewson in the lane. Persephone’s long strides required Heather to walk uncomfortably fast to keep up. “We in a hurry, Lieutenant?” asked Heather.
“I’m not a tour guide,” said Persephone, her eyes on the road ahead. “Stengrav has already shown you around, right?”
“Yes, Lieutenant. Nice quiet place, just like she says. Who’s trouble and who isn’t.”
“Everyone’s trouble,” said the Lieutenant. “If she’s shown you around, there’s not much more to say. So just walk.”
Heather shut her mouth and walked alongside. Her eyes occasionally strayed out towards the barren, lichen-splotched landscape beyond the walls. Wonderful, thought Heather. I’ll bet Pramath can hold a conversation, at least.
They followed the lane down into the market, passing the regular morning of traffic of miners on their to the fortress, and spouses out shopping for supper.
Everyone’s wearing heavy furs, Heather noted. They look like they never stop expecting snow. The mittens she’d purchased back in Landsdowne were stuffed into her pockets of her trousers, but they still looked insufficient compared to the furred gloves the locals carried.
“Lieutenant, any objection if I stop at the market to buy a rune? These flies are intolerable,” Heather said, as they approached a promising-looking stall. She ended up having to spit two of the little flies out of her mouth for having opened it.
Lieutenant Matthewson gave Heather a displeased look, but nodded permission. Heather trotted over, and pulled two little amulets down from the rack. She didn’t haggle at the price with the old man behind the counter, her eight silver peaks counted out as fast as she could. Every second I spend haggling is another second I’m being bitten, she thought ruefully.
Heather put both little amulets on for good measure, and sighed in relief as their petty magic took hold. The small black flies flocked away from her, off to bedevil some other poor creatures.
“I should buy five of these next time,” muttered Heather, letting her head fall back in relief.
“You should,” said Matthewson, her tone serious. “We don’t go out into the field without some spares. Black flies can kill you, here. Eat a person to death.”
Heather cast Persephone a glance. “I can’t imagine they could be that bad. They’re very small, even if they bite.”
Persephone shrugged. “The come in clouds by the millions, inland. Major says they’ll drive you mad if they don’t kill you first.”
“So it’s the cold, or the flies,” muttered Heather.
“Yes,” said Persephone. “That’s the north for you.”
They walked on, Heather shaking the last of the little flies out of her hair. They stepped in the door of the local butcher, taking place in queue.
“I don’t see why you can’t just use the salted meat for supper,” Persephone said.
“That has to last the winter, Lieutenant. This is the last of the year’s fresh pork and beef. Better use it while we can,” Heather replied. “You don’t like to eat well, Lieutenant?”
Persephone pursed her lips. “I don’t like excess,” she said.
A bell from the fortress pealed twice, and twice again. The market noise outside stilled for a moment, as heads went up towards the fortress on the horizon. A few soldiers in the market disengaged from their haggling, looking annoyed.
The soldier in front of them in the queue sighed loudly, in his discussions with the butcher on price. “– yeah yeah. Four peaks. Sorry, Maurice. I’ll pick them up tomorrow, if you’ll hold them for me?”
“For you, Charbeau? Of course,” the butcher said. He finished wrapped the steaks he’d been busy cutting, hastening to accept the money proffered by the soldier. On impulse, he reached into his cabinets and dropped a dried sausage into the soldier’s hand. “Here. For the walk.”
The soldier gave a grateful smile. “You’re a prince, Maurice. I’ll be back. It’s probably a drill, the brass out to spoil my birthday.”
Heather glanced at Persephone. “Two bells, twice?” she asked her Lieutenant.
“Low alert, recall. Calls all the soldiers back to base within the hour. They’ll sound it again every quarter hour,” said Persephone, frowning out to sea. “Might be an attack. Heathens from the west.”
Heather shook her head. “Don’t think so. Bad time of year to try to siege a fort. Still. We can take a walk up the hill, see if there’s any ships on the horizon.”
Lieutenant Matthewson nodded. Heather selected a well-aged roast, paid from the tithe bag, and bagged the meat. She followed Persephone out in the streets, as the taller woman stretched her long legs in a fast, tense walk. Heather had to jog keep up this time.
They climbed the windy hill backstopping the town. The sunlight on their shoulders was robbed of most of its warmth by the cool, cutting wind out of the north. “They’ll be tacking in if they’re sailing,” said Heather. “Wind’s out from the land, on a sunny day like this.”
Persephone nodded, leaning on her spear as she squinted out to sea. White and gray shorebirds played in the surf, and fished off the cliffs.
“No sails,” Persephone said, after a minute spent studying the horizon, and the blue-gray chop of the sea.
Heather nodded. “I don’t see any either. Let’s sit a spell, and see if any appear?”
The Lieutenant grunted, but folded her legs underneath herself. Heather sat alongside, pulled her helmet off and set it between her boots. Her dark green eyes squinted in pleasure as the wind played with her short black hair.
“Have you been here long, Lieutenant? You and Stengrav seem t-”
“A year and seven months,” interrupted Persephone, eyes not leaving the ocean. “The Major doesn’t like us talking about why we wash up here. Are you in a hurry to talk about it?”
Heather swallowed. “No, ma’am.”
“Me neither. Once you get here, there’s not much to say.”
Heather searched for grounds for a conversation. “Are you from Kamza province too, like Helga?”
This time Persephone averted her eyes from Heather, then gave a little nod.
“Is it as bad as I’ve heard, there? With the pulpit-pounding and zealo-”
“Worse,” interrupted Persephone again, and this time her voice managed to be both hard, and pleading.
Leave that topic alone, Heather chided herself. Alright, Lieutenant. Loud and clear.
“Better here?” asked Heather softly.
“Much,” whispered Persephone. She turned her head, and spat a glob of ice that clattered and broke upon the stones.
“Why do you do that?” asked Heather, pointing to the spat glob of ice. “Freeze your feelings and spit them out?”
“Ice doesn’t move. Doesn’t change. So I put how I feel into it, lock it down, and then I spit it out. Stays still, where it can’t hurt anyone,” replied the Lieutenant.
So it’s much better here, but you’re still miserable, thought Heather with a sinking heart. You do your best not to wear your heart on your face or sleeve, Lieutenant, but you wouldn’t fool a soul with the way you leak your magic. What does that make me? I don’t even try to hide it. I wouldn’t know how to start.
Persephone turned away from the ocean. “I still don’t see any sails. Must just be a drill. They’re shutting the fortress gates. Maybe siege training.” She pointed with her spear towards the fortress, and Heather’s eyes followed. The heavy adamantine doors, fifteen centimeters thick, were slowly closing. The gray metal on gray stone looked as unyielding as could be.
Heather nodded. “They do that a lot?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Persephone. “Now and then. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the bell, but they don’t usually close the gate.”
“Miners won’t be pleased,” Heather said.
“They have to come into the fortress when the bell sounds, too. Part of their contract. They’ll make their wage today all the same.” The Lieutenant turned, and headed back towards the chapel. “On your feet, Blackthorne. Almost time for prayer service.”
They made the walk back to the chapel in silence. Yup, Helga drew the more tolerable officer to patrol with, Heather thought.
A plume of smoke was rising from the chimney of the little forge Father Keza had built in the yard. Persephone’s face tightened into a frustrated grimace as she strode for the shed door. She hammered her gauntlet upon it.
“Father Keza!” she shouted at the door. “You’re supposed to be at the pulpit by now!”
Keza pushed open the door with an anxious face. “I’ve got a blade annealing right now, I can’t leave off of it. Tell one of the novices to pick a hymn and a reading!” he said.
Heather’s mouth fell open as she stared in disbelief, stunned by what she’d just heard.
Persephone slammed her fist on the door again, snowflakes flying from her mouth like spittle as she shouted: “I will do no such thing. The Major’s said you are to be leading prayer twice a day.”
“Well he’s not my commanding officer,” barked Keza, backing away from the door. “I’m a priest, not one of your squires for you to bully around. If I say I’ve got an- ow! No! Ow! This is an outrage! You are out of line, Matthewson!”
Persephone had reached into his shed, and tangled her gauntlet into his hair. She hauled him out by it, before giving him a rough shove towards the church.
“Then go tell it to my commanding officer!” barked Persephone, glaring at him.
Keza gave the Lieutenant a pleading look. “Please, Matthewson, if the blade doesn’t anneal properly, it might warp or crack.”
“Then take it out on me in penance later. But if you don’t get inside that church right now and do your duty, I’ll crack your crucible in half myself and let the Major handle the rest.”
“This is no way to treat a priest, Matthewson,” said Keza, as he reluctantly made his way for the door of the church.
“And that’s no way to act like one,” she snapped back.
Keza slammed the door shut in his wake, and Heather lifted her eyebrows Persephone’s way. “It’s that bad?”
Persephone pursed her lips. “He has a commission for a fine blade from house Oiselle, that he wouldn’t shut up about a month ago,” she said. “Swords are his favorite, so you have to encourage him, sometimes, to get back to his real duty.”
Heather spat in the dust, shooting a sour glare off at the door. “Not sure I like someone putting steel before souls.”
“I know I don’t,” said Persephone, striding for the door.
The practice yard the next day greeted them with a thin, chill rain, the sort that had the habit of trickling through one’s armor, and soaking the woolens underneath.
Heather’s shoulders hitched in discomfort. Major Weathers and Helga seemed to have no trouble with the rain, although Persephone gave a bitter sneer at the sky as she unslung her spear. Ramdas gave no outward complaint, but the set of his face was so crestfallen, Heather had to repress a maternal flash of sympathy at his miserable countenance. You’re a long way from the warmth of home, Lieutenant,Heather thought.
Only one solution, of course, to the wet chill: Exercises.
“The others have heard this before, so listen up, Pramath, Blackthorne. As some of you may be aware, portions of your various disciplines are classified internally,” began the Major. He crossed both his hands behind his back as he paced up and down their line.
“Enemies of the church, necromancers, and worse. They’d all like a crack at us and those we protect. The disciplines you have developed and trained are valuable advantages. Some we can’t afford to lose or reveal, unless circumstances are dire. You’ll probably see a few of them, and you will be briefed strictly on a need-to-know basis.”
Heather’s eyebrows climbed. If there had ever been abilities requiring internal compartmentalization within the church, she had never had the need to know.
The major’s staring eyes caught her rising eyebrows, and she flushed faintly.
Major Weathers continued. “We’ve never had a recorded sighting of the undead here, and monsters are rare. The soldiers at the fort around the mine aren’t here to police the village, so that falls to us. We’ve been asking for a detective and a duellist for some time, and I’m glad to see they’ve arrived.”
Neither Ramdas nor Heather mustered much enthusiasm in their nods. Everyone in the yard knew the North wasn’t where successful knights were sent.
“Heather, brief the group in full, please. Capacity, capability.”
Heather stepped forward, and turned to face the assembled knights. “I’ve been a detective about five years. Most of my work is procedural, observation, deduction, and interviews. Most of my work has been urban, within city walls. I can track in sod and field. But I’m afraid I don’t know much yet about tracking in the tundra.
“I’m strong in Light and Fire. I’m a Channeler, and usually push my magic out through my mace and armor. I can feel magic about four hundred paces away. More for big spells, less for small. I know some healing magic, and some standard medicine. Mostly, my training was for hunting necromancers.” The past tense tasted bitter in her mouth as she said it. She stepped back into line.
The Major nodded absently. He’d read it all in her file, of course, and no doubt a great deal more. “As Knight Blackthorne here has stated, she is primarily our detective, now. So fall out, and into position. Let’s drill formation. Detective, I’ll want your full analysis at the end of the exercise. Breaching positions! Stengrav, you’re on point, Pramath, you’re on pierce. Blackthorne, cover Matthewson, and then clear on my mark. Matthewson, you’re support.”
“Aye sir!” came the chorus of their voices.
The Major gestured to a chalked-drawn cartoon of a door upon a boulder, near the west wall of the practice yard. “Take your formations. Breach on my mark.”
Heather’s irritation at being left to guess the abilities of her newfound teammates began to smooth almost immediately. If they were drilling right that minute, she’d have plenty to see and observe anyway.
Persephone took her position, and unslung her spear from her back with one hand, while her other hand drew out a oil-cloth wrapped book from her coat. Her eyes fixed on the target, and she began to chant something in a voice too soft to be distinct, while her face came alive with determination and focus.
A subtle, spherical distortion appeared around her. Rain drops that struck the bubble fell in slow motion for a few inches, and then resumed their speed as soon as they left it again.
“Step through quickly, dearie. You’ll want your momentum to carry you through,” advised Helga. She stepped through quickly, demonstrating.
Heather lunged through the way Helga had, head-first. The wall of the bubble felt as if the air congealed around her, slowing her passage. And it was dreadfully cold. Pushing her head through was the worst part, as it dulled her wits for a moment, kicking up terrible memories of the spell the man in the crimson cloak had put her under. But she took her place, gasping, willing the shudder of revulsion down her spine and out of her thoughts.
Only a ward, Heather assured herself. Just a ward. It’s there to protect you, not trap you. Not leave you helplessly watching your family being butchered.
Heather unslung her shield and mace, and studied the bubble of the ward around them. Five paces radius, just like she said. Slows things down by about half, passing through. Permeable, but a blade or skeleton coming through gets slowed enough to turn aside pretty easy. Lieutenant Matthewson’s spear reaches just short of the inner boundary. Two paces behind us means all three of us can cover each other.
Heather hefted her mace, and let out a murmured prayer over the cold, silver-plated steel. The terror of passing through Persephone’s ward, she fed into her magic first. She followed it with her sick dread of being trapped again, of being forced to watch loved ones die. Then came Heather’s anger, raw and furious, at those who killed and raised the dead. She fed all her terror and rage into the mace in her hands, weaves of Fire and Light sinking into the silver-plated steel at the end of her mace.
The weapon in her hands lit up like burning magnesium. It was a pale, white flame, painful to stare directly at. The flames jetted from the end of each point of the mace. The flame’s touch would burn through bone, and would cast back the darkness. Heather raised her shield to cover herself and Persephone, anticipating imaginary counter-fire from the door.
Helga fought like a typical dwarf, with a wide stance and well-rooted. Her heavy hammer poised high, ready to swing with authority. The trickles of Earth magic she channeled into the hammer lent it weight. Heather gave the dwarf a grim nod of approval. What those swings will lack in speed, they’ll make up for in impact. It isn’t like a door’s about to dodge out of the way of the blow, anyway. A good Breacher wouldn’t be stopped by a door or a wall for long.
Ramdas took up position to Persephone’s left, resting his rapier across his other forearm like a man steadying a rifle. He aimed down it towards the chalk-drawn ‘door’ on the boulder.
Helga took point, her hammer raising over her head, awaiting the Major’s signal. Earth magics rippled through the adamant head of the hammer, lending the murderously heavy maul even more heft.
“Breach!” bellowed the Major.
Helga hurled her hammer, and it crashed into the adamantine rock so hard the noise hurt Heather’s teeth. Hard stone cracked and spider-webbed as the head of the hammer punched a crater a quarter-inch deep into the stone. With a dull ‘thunk’, the hammer dropped to the dirt below. Stone dust sifted into the air, and drifted to the ground.
Heather senses tracked the familiar magics the throw required: Earth magic to raise the mass and density of the hammer, gravity magic to accelerate the downward swing, and a touch of time magic to speed the throw.
Had it been an actual door, there was no question of it crumpling under the assault. The hammer carried almost as much energy as a cannonball.
The Major’s words launched the centaur to action. His hands came down from where they’d been shielding his ears from the noise of Helga’s hammer-blow. Ramdas’s rapier thrust forward, and the elegant line of the thrust was complemented by a searing-bright beam of light, shot from the hollow tip of the rapier. The beam was as thin as a pencil, dazzling the eyes, burning purple after-images into Heather’s squinting vision.
Smoke rose from the black point drilled inches into the solid rock. More than enough to punch through the first few ranks of undead filth any foe might control. Opening the path for Heather’s assault.
Heather hurled herself forward at the Major’s order, through the warding. Her mace flared for a moment, bright as the sun. In true combat, her mace would have descended upon the skull of the nearest foe in reach, but for training, the ground would serve just as well.
Saint Aysha, she cried out in her mind, furious magic curling through her being, reaching out through her. It curled around the the head of her mace as it fell, carrying one desperate thought: Cleanse!
Her father’s mace slammed into the dirt. A flash of white fire exploded outward in all directions from her weapon, accompanied by a dull roar that shocked the birds from their roost upon the steeple. They took to noisy, startled flight, crying their alarm, as the white blaze of the magical fire expanded out around her like the sun.
The flames licked the barren rocks around her, and along the bubble of Persephone’s Warding. Surprised eyes stared at her from the team behind her. Heather didn’t have to check to know why they were staring. She could feel the sunburn-like itch, and knew the tips of her black hair would be frosted white, bleached and singed. The cost of too much power, and not enough control. The itch, Heather knew, would grow later to an ache, and the tips of her hair would stay bleached until cut.
“Pushing yourself a bit hard, aren’t you, dearie?” asked Helga.
“As hard as it takes,” said Heather, fist clenching around her mace, as she pulled it from the smoking crater in the mud.
And maybe one day, a voice in her mind whispered, something will finally push back harder.
“You don’t need to be impressing us today, Blackthorne. We’ll be at this a while. Tone it down,” called Weathers. “Helga, get your hammer. Do it again.”
They practiced for an hour. Ramdas had a hard time keeping his entire bulk within Persephone’s ward. He was constantly flinching and covering his ears, unaccustomed to the crash of Helga’s hammer hitting stone.
One of Helga’s throws ricocheted badly off of the stone on a throw, missing her own left leg by a few inches. The adamant hammer skipped back across the practice yard like a stone on water, and shamefaced, she had to run to retrieve it.
Persephone’s face was constantly sour. The drizzling rain wasn’t turned entirely aside by her warding, and the Lieutenant had nothing else to do but stand in place and sustain the ward. Heather wouldn’t have been happy either, under the circumstances.
It felt sloppy, and it was sloppy.
Too much second-guessing, apathy, and irritation today, Heather thought. We’re all just going through the motions. Place this quiet, they never think they’ll have a chance to use any of this.
The Major’s eyes watched with little comment, beyond occasional calls of “Again.”
The cold drizzle kept dripping into hoods and helms, soaking and chilling them all. By the end of the hour, everyone was soaked, miserable, and aching. Heather’s skin grew red and tight from the flash of each blast. Her eyes hurt from the too-bright lines of magic shot from Ramdas’s rapier, her ears ringing from the repeated crash of Helga’s hammer.
“Enough,” said the Major, and his voice did a poor job of disguising his disgust. “Break it down for us, Blackthorne.”
Heather stiffened uncomfortably, mentally cursing as it sent a few more droplets of rain down her helmet to drip down the back of her neck. Persephone let the warding around her collapse, her hands shaking in exhaustion. The bubble around them evaporated. With it, rain that had been caught slowing in the air dropped down on them all in a small, chill splash.
The perfect accent on this entire wretched morning, Heather thought.
All eyes were turning to her, and none of them looked to be in the mood to be upbraided by the new knight.
Great, thought Heather. She decided to start with a subject that wouldn’t annoy her newfound comrades.
“That target stone wasn’t there yesterday, sir,” Heather said. “The stone is adamantine rock, with a natural seam running through the bottom third. Mass is easier to make with magic, but that’s still a lot of mass to sustain. If it had been conjured, sir, we’d all sense the sustained flows. But it hasn’t been conjured.
“The top of the stone is free of lichen, but it kicked up some dust off the top when Helga first threw her hammer. Little detail like that would usually be overlooked on a conjuring. And there’s scratch marks along the sides of it, sir. Like it was dragged here, only they’re on all the sides of the rock, including the top. That rules out it being popped up from underneath. I’d say it was earth magic that brought it here, sir, but I don’t know what kind could move it without disturbing the sod.”
“Good eye for detail, Detective. The stone was a favor, courtesy of one of our resident natives, by the name of Ooluk. You can ask him about it later. But for now, go on,” said the Major.
Heather relaxed. The title of detective had been spoken with a grudging note of respect. I’m not always bad at my job, sir, she thought. Not always. Just when it counts.
Heather gestured to Persephone. “Lieutenant’s got a kinetic warding, sir. Of a type I haven’t ever felt before. Maybe a chronal magic, there’s a little bit of redshift when your eyes pass through it. So it affects matter, and energy. About two inches deep coverage, at the bubble. But it slows anything coming in, or going out, at about equal rate. Caught my mace on it a few times, and I could feel it when I crossed each way. If it’s chronal, sir, it’s chronal right down all the way, as small as it gets. It’s awful damn cold to actually push through, but nothing actually freezes. So it’s slowing relative time within the field of influence.”
That earned her a thoughtful, surprised look from Persephone. You didn’t even know that, did you? Never had a reason to question how it worked, thought Heather.
The Major gestured for her to continue. Heather spread her hands. “Every time something breaks through the barrier in either direction, it’s wearing Lieutenant Matthewson down a bit. Air still gets through, slowly, or else we’d be gasping. But the rain adds up on her, sir. I’m guessing holding that ward in a rainstorm would be almost as bad for her as holding it against an assault. Trajectories get deflected along the ward’s curve, which affects Helga’s throw. When the head of Helga’s hammer hits the field, and slows down, but the free handle is still working under it’s own momentum. It twisted her hammer, sir, and that’s why Helga’s still got her leg.”
“You haven’t run into her type of warding before, Blackthorne, because as far as we know it’s unique to the Lieutenant. And classified,” he said evenly.
Heather nodded. “Understood, sir. Helga’s a standard Breacher, and not bad. She’s got a good weapon system in that hammer. Earth magic ups the mass just before the blow, so she gains the momentum on the down-swing. Chronal magic helps the acceleration. It’s also got a newer rune, that modifies both the gravity and density of the hammer, and that particular rune didn’t become standard issue except in the last three years. So it’s all standard issue, but her equipment’s up-to-date. Stengrav’s throw slipped because the leather on the handle didn’t have a chance to shed the water, sir.”
Helga shot her a grateful look. She knows her timing was off, thought Heather, but it’s plausible enough to satisfy. Besides, she’s throwing through that warding, that would foul anyone’s aim.
“Duly noted,” grunted the Major dryly. “We’ll see about ordering some sharkskin for your grip, Knight Stengrav. What else?”
Heather carried on: “Ramdas can’t fit the barrier well, and it’s chafing him to stand so still, sir, anyone can see that. He’s a centaur, he’s highly mobile, and his mass going through the ward probably sapped Lieutenant Matthewson more than anything else today. In the field, where possible, I’d want him running the flanking.”
Heather turned to face Ramdas. “The hollow tip in the rapier channels your magic tight, packs the energy into one thin cross-section, like a rifle. You’d punch through armor fine. Wouldn’t do much flesh-damage, but that much magic would have cut through four, maybe five skeletons. What’s your range with that?”
“About two hundred meters,” replied the centaur, chest puffing in pride.
“Enough to drop a necromancer while he still thought he was safe. It’s not a bad team, sir,” Heather said, turning back to the Major. “I’ve worked with breacher teams back in Bastia, and this is a good one. Better than I’d expected, truth be known.”
The Major’s mouth was wry. “Dunces don’t make it out to the field, Detective. But you were all sloppy. And Knight Blackthorne? You’re drawing far too much magic for exercises. You keep that up, you’ll be out of black hair by next week. Tone it down.”
“All due respect, sir,” Heather replied. “Holding back in training, that’s just training to hold back. Necromancers aren’t going to hold back. Monsters don’t hold back. Murderers don’t.”
“They don’t, Knight Blackthorne, but we do, when we have to. And in training, if I say you have to? You have to. All of you. Dismissed.”
“Yes sir,” came the chorused reply.
They filed out of the yard, Persephone’s back rigid with fury, her stride as stiff as rake-handles swinging as she stalked towards the barracks. Helga’s eyes followed the Lieutenant, and she sighed. “Excuse me, for now, dearie. I’ll go soothe her. Thanks for your kind words.”
Heather nodded, and the dwarf went jogging after Persephone’s long strides, disappearing into the barracks. Heather looked up to the drizzling sky, frowned, and turned for the church. This was a lot to take in, she thought. There’s a lot of talent here, but why? For a place that’s supposed to be a punishment post for anyone, I feel like the only screw-up in the barracks.
She walked out to the fenceline, the chill rain feeling good on her flash-burnt skin. Traders came and went by foot through the town, despite the miserable weather. Two men in red, accompanied by a native man in furs, caught her attention. She watched until she was sure she could make out the men under their cloaks. They were hiking north out of the town, trailing close behind their guide.
She replayed their names in her memory: Martin Andrews, and Daniel DuCroix. Looks like they’re heading out to trade. Good. I hate those saints-damned cloaks. Those are memories I could do without, right now.
It went on for a week, the rain, and the exercises. Moods soured, and morale dropped. The town around them grew just as unhappy and restless, as the fortress gates remained firmly shut. Weathers often spent his mornings staring out towards the fortress over his breakfast, in dour silence. It soon became clear the Major was using Heather’s cooking to cushion their misery out in the yard.
The days swiftly became an uncomfortable routine for Heather: Wake up screaming. Wash. Make breakfast. Walk the town with Persephone, almost always in uncomfortable silence. Make lunch. Train all afternoon. Pray. Cook supper. Fall asleep exhausted, and wait for the nightmare to come again.
Breakfast on the eighth morning was a silent affair. The weather was still drizzling wet and cold, and nobody was much in the mood for talking. Not even real bacon, paid out of pocket by Heather at the butcher’s down the lane, could raise many spirits. They all picked at bacon and eggs and potatoes, eyes turning towards the window and the gloomy arctic day waiting for them outside.
Their breakfast was spoiled by the kitchen door bursting open, and Squire Norris leaning in through the door. “Major. You’d better come!”
Heather looked past Norris, and spied a group of natives huddling in the churchyard under the chill drizzle. One very small man sat cross-legged on the ground in the middle of the group, fingers buried in the mud. Looks of anguish were painted on all of their faces, some human, some elven.
Major Weathers rose. “On my way,” he said immediately, and stepped out with Persephone.
Helga moved to the door to follow, and out of curiosity, Heather and Ramdas followed. Some of the native men were shouting, gesticulating in anguish to the elf that sat in the mud in their midst.
While they shouted and cursed in their inscrutable tongue with each other, Major Weathers crouched down in front of the seated figure. A collection of mud-dirtied rags covered the small elf whose fingers were sunk, tense, into the mud.
He’s blindfolded, thought Heather. And then: Not blindfolded. Blind.
The rags tied over the eyes of the seated elf were grimy and muddy bandages, and did a poor job of concealing deep, gouged scars underneath.
“What’s this all about then, Ooluk?” asked the Major to the blind elf, a cautious tone of weary patience and respect in his voice.
Ooluk raised a hand, his fingers coming away caked with the trodden mud of the practice yard. The men behind him immediately fell silent, their eyes angry, anguished. Mourning.
The blind elf’s lips moved with care, his tongue ill-versed in the language of trade. “The men went to plant flowers. To the east lie our dead. They are gone. The grave cairns are empty. The stones were moved. Fresh footsteps lead away. None lead toward.”