Major Weathers’ mouth drew into a tight line. “And you’re sure there’s no chance beasts opened those graves?” he asked the blind elf.
Heather felt something awful squeeze her heart and the breath from her lungs. Her eyes scanned the anguished faces of the native men surrounding Ooluk. Please Saints, no, let it not be bone-robbing filth! Heather thought.
“None but the great white bears could move such stones,” Ooluk replied.
Major Weathers nodded gravely. “Will you show our knights?”
“I will take them. Gaimen ride the earth,” said Ooluk.
What does he mean by that? Heather thought.
“We’ll ride out. Two kilometers east?” Major Weathers turned to the gawking knights. “Get the horses tacked. Now.”
“Yes, a two kilometers east.” Ooluk said, and made a small gesture with his fingers in the air. The natives around him dispersed, and trudged out of the yard, though not without protest. Their lamentations carried long after they were gone from sight.
The knights made swiftly for the barracks. Heather was first to the stables. The Major pulled his saddle from the rack, and called out: “Check your saddlebags. Make sure there’s oats and salted meat. You should have four waxed pouches, that’s called pemmican. That’s your travel food. Pramath, double up on your saddlebags and water, no argument.”
Ramdas didn’t look happy to be the pack mule, but he dutifully slung a saddle blanket across his own back. He waved the squires over to load saddlebags with feed and water, and place them across his back. He set his rapier across his fore-hip, and then slung a violin case across his back. Heather did a double-take at the instrument case, but nobody else looked twice.
A fine shirt and a rapier, why not be fit for a dance as well? Heather thought. And maybe the dead will dance themselves back into their graves if we ask nicely, too.
By the time they had the horses saddled and brought out, Ooluk was gone from the yard. The mount reserved for Heather was a dull roan mare whose nightingale carried the name ‘Njorn’, tooled into the leather. She was little more than a pony, stocky and hardy. But the horse plodded where nudged, and the saddle felt good underneath her. Haven’t ridden a horse in months now, she thought. I missed this.
Helga’s pony was nearly identical, her nightingale naming her as ‘Bjorn’. Heather gestured between the two. “Definitely siblings,” remarked Heather.
“Tithes, no doubt,” said Helga, as she nudged her horse outside. The rest of the team’s horses were already tacked and ready. All of the company’s mounts were short, stocky ponies, except the Major’s. Weathers rode a tall chestnut mule, and he led them all out the gate at a stiff trot.
A cold drizzle and concerned stares followed them through the town; four mounted knights, two mounted squires, and a centaur, all armed and armored. Townsfolk stopped what they were doing to watch as they passed, concern writ large on their faces.
I don’t think the town has ever seen us mobilized before, Heather thought. Lots of eyes on us. And with the fortress shut and barred, I can’t imagine what they think.
Major Weathers put his heels to his mule as soon as they left Frostmoor’s outskirts. A kilometer out, the Major produced a spyglass from his saddlebags, and swept it across the rocky hills and valleys around them. “There he is,” he said, pointing north.
Ooluk sat atop a great round hill, his outline clear against the horizon.
“How’d a blind fellow get so far, so fast, and all by himself?” Heather asked.
“You’ll see soon enough,” the Major replied. “Ooluk’s what the natives call a Gaimen. Treat him with deep respect. He speaks for the local natives, and they respect and obey him. So will we.”
The horses’ canter took them through the valley before the large, bare hill, and up the rounded summit. The Major pulled his horse to a halt twenty feet away from the elf, and dismounted. “Company, dismount. Secure your horses. Ooluk, we’re ready as soon as the horses are tied.”
“Good,” said Ooluk. He didn’t shift from where he sat in the drizzle, his fingertips buried in the dirt around him. He looked small, and sodden. But his back was stiff and proud, unwilling to allow the weather to cow him.
Heather glanced at the set of the elf’s lips. Proud boy, this one. Wonder what makes him so special to the Major?
The treeless hill offered no timber to tie the horses to, so out came the stakes and mallet from Helga’s pack. Heather and Helga took turns hammering the wooden stakes into the earth. Major Weathers produced a flask from his pocket, took two bitter swallows, and then spoke aloud:
“Knights, I hope I don’t need to tell you all what this means, and how serious this is. Eyes sharp, check your mounts and your weapons. I want eyes in all directions on this hill. Watch for motion, watch for sign. Call it out if you see it.”
“Sir,” chorused the knights.
“Ooluk, we’re ready when you are.”
Ooluk sunk his fingers to the second knuckle in the dirt around him. From beneath their feet, came a slow, thrumming vibration through the earth. It felt like a minor earthquake was setting the ground underneath her feet to hum and tremble rhythmically. The horses frisked, and Heather curled a hand around her mount’s lead rope.
What kind of earthquake is this, Heather thought, as she shifted her balance. What’s that elf doing with that magic he’s weaving?
The magic Ooluk wove felt to Heather as if her guts were dropping out the bottom of her feet, far below the earth. Her belly was somewhere deep in the rock underneath, cramping, clamping, rhythmic and slow. It felt as if she had swollen to the size of a mountain, and was being squeezed and released by hands twice as big. It beggared belief, the sheer scale of the magic involved. Heather’s knees trembled.
How in all the Saints is he reaching so far, and so strong?
Magic was usually brief, energy flowing from source to target. Conducted by the classic mediums of fire, air, earth, water, Light, Shadow, or the many exotic sensations she could identify. If it wasn’t a fast, flowing spell, it was purely static; runes, lingering enchantments, potions and tinctures. But this, this was strange. Magic that had traded up speed for size.
Tectonic, Heather thought. It’s the only word for it.
Heather closed her eyes, feeling the powerful flow extending from the blind elf, to the earth below, and… deep. Far, far beyond her reach. She could feel a breeze coming from the east, accompanied by a vague sensation of motion.
“What in the name of the Saints…?” Heather muttered.
“Open your eyes, dearie,” said Helga.
Heather did, and at first her mind couldn’t parse what her eyes were seeing.
The great hill was sailing. Like a ship on the ocean, the landscape around the hill was drifting by. She searched ahead, to find the point where earth and the hill met, but the very ground seemed to flow around them. A copse of scrub trees parted around the front of the hill like foam on the water; yet without so much as disturbing a root. As the small trees slid by below, they gradually closed back behind them in their wake. It was as if they had never noticed an entire hill sailing through their midsts.
Heather’s jaw dropped. The entire hill. He’s moving the entire hill. No, he’s not just moving it. He’s steering it. Like a Windcaller directing a natural gale into his sails. But with the earth!
On another day, in some other occasion and circumstance, Heather would have been delighted. Jerome’s work on the Longeau had been fascinating, and this magic felt an order of magnitude more powerful, and more important. But as dramatic as it was to Heather’s senses, it could not distract her from the thought of the desecrated graves ahead, and what they might mean. The grief-stricken faces of the native men haunted her. They don’t know what to do about this, Heather thought. They’ve never dealt with a horror like this before. So they’re trusting in us.
Heather’s brooding was broken, as Helga jostled her arm. “Never sits right an elf should be stronger in Earth than a dwarf,” the dwarf muttered.
“Quiet. Mind your manners,” the Major snapped.
The horses, at least, seemed oblivious to the matter. As the faint vibration failed to materialize into a threat under their hooves, they set to grazing the scrub grasses within reach.
The breeze picked up into a steady clip. The cool wind carried drizzle through armor and into woolens beneath. Heather took shelter behind her horse with a morose stare, looking out over the ‘wake’ of the hill. The ground left behind them was seamless, earth sliding but never seeming to crack.
She wanted to ask a thousand questions. Magic conjures mass easier than energy, but surely it would have taken an incredible amount of energy to move a foothill in this fashion.
The magic she sensed from the elf seemed almost static. Just small variations in a constant, steady flow. Something else is doing the real heavy lifting, she thought. Something far below. I wish I knew more about geology, maybe I could understand how he does this.
“He use this magic anywhere near the mines, Helga?” she asked the dwarf.
“No, dearie, not at a scale like this. Why do you ask?”
“Touch the earth with me, Helga. I think it makes it easier to follow.”
Heather closed her eyes again, and her fingers reached down to brush the dirt. Her own talent in Earth was nothing special, but touching the ground seemed to help. Deep below, the elf’s magic plunged. But now, focusing, Heather could feel the loop of energy that Ooluk’s spell formed. The reach of the magic was deep, and a great deal of energy was bound up that loop, but little was actually being spent.
He’s not pushing us, Heather thought. Something deep in the earth pushes us, pressure maybe? He’s just cutting a path for it to push. He can’t use this close to the mines; it could cause a collapse, for certain. The earthquakes we’re feeling are nothing compared to what must be happening down below.
She explained this to Helga. The dwarf’s eyes widened when her hand touched dirt alongside Heather, and she stared at the ground. “I’m not sure I can follow your thinking, Blackthorne. But I think you’re right. They’re such slow flows, they can’t be working so hard on their own, can they?”
The elf’s voice raised behind them.
“I am working very hard,” said Ooluk. “Firestone and steam are far below, and poison airs are locked in stone below. A wrong flow could bring those up. Careless work could make a mountain of fire and poison arise. So I tread lightly, southerners. The northlands tolerate few mistakes.”
Right. The blind hear far better, thought Heather.
Major Weathers shot Heather and Helga both a hard glare. Both ducked back behind their horses like children caught talking in class. The elf’s voice, spoken so loudly, told her one more thing: The Gaimen was definitely young. Perhaps fifteen. It cracked when he strained his voice.
Heather spent the rest of the next few hours huddled behind her horse out of the wind, and occasionally checking her tack. The leather was worn but serviceable, and the light chain barding she’d put on the pony wouldn’t slow it down much. The land sailed by around them, fast enough that the wind and chill was unrelenting. She was grateful for the windbreak her pony’s body provided.
“Major,” Heather called. “How are their dead warded from interference?”
“They’re not,” came Weather’s reply. His eyes never moved from scanning the horizon for motion, his hands held close to the guns on his hips. “They’re buried under piles of rocks in cairns, often wherever they’ve fallen, or wherever stone can be found. You won’t find many graveyards in the northlands. The only times you’ll find graves together are where families died. The major concern is scavengers, not magic.”
Heather’s brow furrowed. “That’s just asking for trouble.”
Weathers grunted. “The northern folk concern themselves with the living, not the dead. Death’s too commonplace, up in these lands. There’s not much regard for the dead, beyond flowers they lay in passing, or plant around them sometimes.”
“So that’s how those fellows found the disturbed graves?” Heather asked.
“Yes,” Ooluk chimed in. “They follow the game trails of their fathers, and pass cairns in the hunt. To find the stones disturbed from within, an evil thing.”
“An evil thing is right,” Heather said, scowling.
The wind bore down on them all. Weathers stood and shivered next to Ooluk, drinking from the flask in his jacket in occasional sharp swallows. Helga walked down the tail end of the hill to join Persephone. They sat together where the earth flowed back to normal once more. They leaned in to speak quietly, their voices lost to wind and distance.
Ramdas’s eyes were cast forward, following the course of the hill as it rolled across the earth. Despite the chill wind, he stood facing the breeze head-on, hair whipped by the air, eyes scanning the horizon. Major Weathers cocked an eye his way.
“You look like you’re itching for a fight there, Pramath,” said the Major.
The centaur’s hand was on the pommel of his rapier, and hastily jerked away at the officer’s words.
“Si. Yes, sir,” he replied, carefully. Heather’s ears once again caught a hint of embarrassment and shame.
He loves to fight, thought Heather. But he wishes he didn’t.
“You ever had any dealings with the undead, Pramath?” asked the Major.
Ramdas shook his head. “Non,” he said.
“Well, we’ve all fought them, so follow our lead. Just remember your training. They don’t bleed, and they don’t feel pain,” responded the Major, pocketing his flask. “But they’re not smart, usually. Use every advantage you can. You fight to smash them, to disable them. I reckon your hooves will be more use than your rapier for that. Don’t let them grip you; naked bone can gouge flesh. Don’t let them bear you down. If you get pinned down, you’re dead. And don’t trust a hewn limb; they can move on their own, sometimes, and foul an ankle. Our Detective’s the specialist. Blackthorne?” prompted Weathers.
“Hips, shoulders, and head,” Heather volunteered. “That’s where you want to aim to put them down. Break the skull when you can, it’s the most common place for a necromancer to put the runes, assuming he’s a rune-layer. Most are. Break their bones, don’t cut them. Like the Major says, hacking off limbs isn’t always a sure thing. Some necromancers animate the dead with potions, or miasmas. For those ones, the bones don’t really lose their magic until they’re crushed and burned.
“Don’t get separated, don’t let them swarm you, and if you see one or two looking or doing something strange, call it out. A clever necromancer can do some scary things to a body.”
The centaur nodded, prickly pride and uncertainty warring in a frisk of his forelegs. “I do not fear them,” he said, lips pursing.
“Good,” said the Major. “But fear or not, if you wade into the middle of them they’ll gut you faster than you can shout.”
Heather nodded agreement. “Don’t get cut off from the team. Use your speed, outmanoeuvre the slow ones. Most undead won’t recognize a trap, so lure them into places where you have the advantage, and can outnumber them. Teamwork matters. Make sure-” her breath caught, and she swallowed. “Make sure you get them all.”
The hill stopped rumbling an hour later. Eight hours on horseback to get home, thought Heather, estimating the distance. Longer, we’d have to go with care over so much rock.
Ooluk rose from his squat in the dirt, his body moving with weary care. “Ahead, the stones.”
The thin, sparse scrub revealed the grave cairns. They were piles of large stones, rising four feet high. The stones were strewn in lazy disarray about fifty yards ahead of where the hill began. Dead, dried flowers had been disturbed. An old, weather-beaten sunflower stalk lay on its side, half of it crushed under a rock.
The Major nodded to Heather. “This part’s your show, Knight. How would you like us to proceed?”
Heather scowled at the stones. “Walk a perimeter from here, Major. No closer until I’ve given the say-so? I want to have a look at this without any other footsteps. The hunters back in town were wearing leather moccasins, they won’t leave more mark than scuff and rub. So it’s marks on stone different from that we want to keep our eyes out for. Bone on stone leaves marks like chalk, sometimes. Stone here is all basalt; call out if you see any sand or stones that don’t fit in. That’s all I can think of, Major.”
The Major nodded. “Pramath, with me to the left. Matthewson, Stengrav, to the right,” he ordered. As they split, walking a slow, wide circle, Heather stepped forward and followed a spiraling path in towards the cairn. Her steps were careful; spiralling three times in towards around the grave counter-clockwise. Her eyes moved between the ground and the center, scanning the paths towards her destination.
Look, Heather thought, the old voice of her training rising in her. Observe. Absorb it all. Look for what’s out of place. Imagine the dead rising, there, from those cairns. Four cairns. A famil-
Heather’s mind shied away from the thought. A group. A group there, four graves. The stones show weathering, and the biggest ones are freshly broken. They aren’t new graves. New graves would mean fresh bodies.
She looked back to Ooluk; the blind elf seated once again, fingers folded in his lap. “Oi, Ooluk. Beg your pardon. How old are these graves, do you know?”
The elf tilted his head. “Three winters ago. Ice fell and took the igloo. They died in their sleep, as the air turned sour. Mitsu found them that winter, and buried them when the snows left.”
Heather nodded. Three years. More than time enough for insects to clean the bones. Skeletons, then. She awkwardly began to crouch-walk to get closer to the ground, eyes glued to the stones.
“Why are there sunflower stalks at two of the graves?”, she asked. “No way they’d finish growing before the snow came back.”
Ooluk scowled. “They mark the graves of our children. We buy the seeds in the town, to plant on their graves. To mark that which never had the chance to blossom and grow.”
Heather sucked in a wounded breath, and swallowed it back, face crumpling as she stared at the ground. Gentle motes of light danced and flared around her mace, and she brushed them away with her hand.
No, she thought. Not now. Mourn later. Do the job, Blackthorne. Do the job. You promised them. You promised Anthony and Stephen. Keep your damned promise.
Major Weathers called out from the north side of the site, breaking Heather from her thoughts: “Tracks here. Mukluks, from the looks of it. Looks like the hunters who found the disturbance. Some scuff in some dirt here, moss kicked up, maybe a day old.”
“That’s the hunters,” said Heather, her voice strained. “These graves opened at least a week ago. Bird shit on that one, Major. Rain’s rinsed it, but not away,” she said. She pointed to one stone in the cairn bearing a streak of white. “Usually takes a week of good rains to get rid of the white.”
“How do you know that, city woman?” called the Major, cracking a smile.
“City’s got statues, Major,” said Heather humorlessly. “Statue’s got pigeons.”
Helga and Persephone circled fruitlessly. Each time they crossed over Pramath’s and Weather’s trail, they checked it before moving on.
“Anything yet?” asked Heather.
“Easy to tell Ramdas’s path,” commented Helga. “His hooves leave a good scuff. Not seeing much else yet, dearie.”
The sun rose higher in the sky, the rain faltering to a scattered, cold sunshine. Flies came out to torment them, biting at exposed skin sodden from the cold and rain. Reminder enough for Heather to refresh her wards, and the irritation of the flies provided ample fuel. Heather walked like a woman possessed; crouched in a near duck-walk, eyes glued to the stone.
“Bone, scraped here. Stone here,” Heather said. Just like on flagstones back home. “Lieutenant Pramath? Can you come here, please, and approach from the south. Help me lift and roll this big rock over,” she called, patting one of the larger, cairn-disturbed stones. It bore more bone scrapings like chalk marks.
Fingers left these, thought Heather. Finger bones. But skeletons couldn’t have moved all of these stones alone. The smaller ones, certainly, but they’d have had to work together for the larger ones, or had some sort of help. Someone moved the largest stones by magic.
Ramdas trotted over, and reached down. His hands grasped the stone, and he turned it over like a baker might toss a bag of flour. “Good lift,” said Heather. “Strong back on you, Lieutenant.”
The centaur merely glared at her and grunted. “It was easy. You are looking for something on this stone, caballero?”
Heather glanced over the smooth side of it, and shook her head. “No. Nothing. Just had to be sure.”
Before the centaur could sputter, Heather turned to the Major.
“Major Weathers? This wasn’t a total novice’s work. There’s no runes right on the stones, and they were only disturbed from beneath. So either the corpses themselves were marked before burial, or they were animated by cast spell from a distance, instead of on-the-spot. Only trail we’re finding here is bone leading away, and hunters leading towards.
“Hunters came long after this happened, so they aren’t suspect. And since the natives aren’t suspect, we should check over there, on that hill,” Heather said, pointing to a nearby hill rising from the barren plains.
“High ground to the west, about a quarter kilometer,” she said. “Good view of the valley and the gravesite, and a good place to spot surprises coming. Close enough to work magic if all you need is line of sight.”
Weathers nodded. “Mount up, let’s go.”
They mounted up their ponies, glad to be moving faster than the flies. The blind elf followed on a hillock not much larger than himself, keeping up with ease. Major Weathers took the lead, his mule picking its way through the stones with care.
They had scarcely crested the hill when the Major called out: “Dismount. Firesign, there. They made camp here. Fire’s only a few days old, from the looks of it. Looks like they lingered here.”
Heather had to agree. The signs of a camp were all around, even to inexperienced eyes: there was a fire-blackened spot of stone where a fire had burned recently. She spotted scrapes where tent pegs had disturbed gouges of lichen from the rock.
She swung off her pony, and almost immediately spotted bootprints, still relatively distinct in some fine gravel.
“Bootprints here. No northern shoes, those,” called Heather. “Tread mark on the sole.”
“No northern camp, either,” said Weathers. “Look here, everyone. The fire mark is too large. Native folk build tiny twig-fires, just enough to boil the water for tea, and cook with. Firewood is too scarce out here for anything more. No one who lives here would build a fire this wasteful, and they’d build a windstop with stones or snow around it, to reflect the heat in. Also, the camp’s facing south, but they remained elevated on the hill, exposed to the elements. This late in spring, a northern camp would be down lower, out of the wind, south-east facing to catch the morning sun.”
All four knights nodded, the squires pricking their ears from their place holding the horses. “The tent was canvas or leather. Four pegs. That wouldn’t last long out here,” commented Heather. “No good for even moderately bad weather.”
“Got something, Detective,” said Persephone, tapping the butt of her spear at a black, shiny stone on the ground. “Stone blade, of some kind. Obsidian. Broken.”
Heather’s heart clenched. “Very common for traditional necromancers.”
She strode over to squat next to Persephone, and plucked up the broken blade. Heather turned it over, inspecting the snapped dagger. “They use these to debone bodies, or to steal the magic produced by their dying terror,” she muttered. “But they’re not very strong blades. Sharp, but brittle. Looks like he broke this one dressing game, if the rabbit bones are any indication.”
“Nothing here but rabbit corpses, dearie,” Helga muttered. “Looks like braces of rabbit were all they could scrounge.”
“Good prey to set a skeleton on,” Heather said. “Skeleton runs fast, runs light. Hare can’t fly away, and can’t put up a meaningful fight when it gets caught, and there’s plenty of them. Old skeleton doesn’t smell like predator either, so the rabbits don’t get as wary.”
“No fresh water close by,” Ramdas noted.
“Send the skeletons to haul it back for you, if you’re a lazy necromancer,” said Heather. “They don’t complain, they don’t get tired. They drew water, I’m guessing-” she paused, inspecting the prominent bone marks around the stone. Look for low land and water. The glint of a slough a kilometer to the southwest confirmed her suspicion. “- over there. Boiled it here. Moved on when their job was done. Looks like they were here a day or two, judging by the amount of rabbits.”
“Blood stain here,” Weathers remarked, nudging a rock. “Not much of it left from the rain, but it’s there. Looks like more blood than a hare would have to give.”
Heather walked over, and grimaced. The blood had been mostly rinsed away by the drizzle over the week, but there were still red tinges in the crevices of the rocks. “Definitely more blood than a hare’s got,” she said softly. “Don’t think they ran down any caribou. There’d be hair, wouldn’t there?”
“Definitely.” said Weathers with a sour purse of his lips. “Whatever died here, the wolves and ravens have already dragged away the offal, whatever the bastards didn’t take.”
The memory of the two crimson cloaked fur traders leaving the town, accompanied by a northern guide, floated back up to Heather. Nothing I can prove. Could have been anyone. Can’t even prove it was human, whatever died here, she thought in frustration.
They circled the camp twice, before Heather’s eyes caught the scuff on a stone. “Trail, Major,” she called. She marched a few steps north, studying the tale of the marks left by bone on stone. “They headed north from here.”
“Then they probably mean to hide in the mountains,” said Ooluk. “There are some caves of a size large enough for hunting parties. Forgive me, I cannot follow far.”
Weathers inclined his head respectfully, but Persephone’s voice cut into the discussion: “And why not?”
The Major shot a hard glare at Persephone. Ooluk spoke evenly, but with anger in his voice: “The Gaimen do not intrude on the lands of other clans without permission. It is their earth to move, and it would be rude manners.”
“Well you can bloody well ask, can’t you?” snapped Persephone, the wind stirring up her hair and cloak as she raised her voice.
“I already did!” shouted Ooluk, and as he shouted, the earth around him gave a growling crackle. “While you were walking around in your circles. They said no.”
Persephone opened her mouth, but a sharp gesture by the Major made her jaw shut with a click. Major Weathers gestured to the ponies. “Knights, saddle up! Ooluk, is it unusual for them to refuse you?”
“No,” said the little elf bitterly. “It is not.”
Weathers touched the boy on his shoulder, and spoke solemnly. “Thank you for your assistance, Gaimen. We’ll do what we can to set things right.”
Damn right we will, thought Heather to herself. She squeezed the handle of her mace until her hand hurt. Damned right we will.
The rain continued on their backs as they climbed the rocky slope, following the northerly tracks of skeletons and southern-made boots. The sun hung somewhere high above, shrouded behind clouds.
“How long are the days here, Major?” called Heather.
“You get about two hours of ‘night’ here, Blackthorne,” replied Weathers. “Come the winter, two hours of day. High north means long summer days and long winter nights.”
“So we’re behind them. How far, a week on foot? Something like?”
“Something like,” nodded Weathers. “They’re on foot and they weren’t moving fast, judging from the stride length. They probably weren’t anticipating any pursuit so early. Uphill, they’ll be fighting the slope and the elements. So probably a day and a half’s worth of distance for us.”
Helga perked up. “Sounds like we might catch up fast.”
“Faster, if we’re lucky,” agreed the Major. “We’ll ride until light fails, and make camp. No fire tonight. I don’t want them to spot us coming.”
The rain let up hours later. When the ponies began to stumble in their exhaustion and the sky was finally promising dusk, the Major called a halt. They unslung their tents and pitched them in the southern lee of a slope, out of sight of any sentries of their quarry.
Ramdas pulled first watch, and Heather hunkered down in the little tent, squatting on her heels. No fire meant no cooking, and the rations were the previous year’s hardtack and jerky, judging by the mould spots. The pemmican was fine, if a little more bland than Heather would like.
A little cinnamon and nutmeg would go well with this, and some black pepper, she thought ruefully. Have to remember to pack some spices in the saddlebags next time.
Heather clung to those thoughts, trying to keep her mind away from the feelings this kind of hunt filled her with. Her hands throttled the handle of her mace, eyes roving restlessly to study her comrades.
Ramdas stood sentry, as close to the ridge of the hill as he could without letting his silhouette be highlighted by the horizon. He was nervous, or at least anxious; his tail swatted around him irritably. He did a lot of looking to his sides and behind him, as if uncertain from where, exactly, the dead would come from.
Heather and Helga pitched their tents alongside one another, and had immediately turned in. Persephone’s anger and the weight of Helga’s armor had tired them both out. Soft snoring came from Helga’s tent.
The major had long since drained his flask that day, and it showed. There was a certain restlessness to him, an anxious energy. He walked over, and squatted in front of Heather’s tent.
“You did good work out there, today, Blackthorne,” he said without preamble. “Impressed us a little.”
Heather shrugged her shoulders wearily. “It’s my job, Major,” It’s all I’ve got left, she thought.
“Keep doing it.”
She hunched her shoulders against the chill of the evening. “Yes sir,” she said.
Major Weathers scuffed a knuckle in the gravel underfoot. “I read your file, last night. You were done a bad turn, knight. That thing about the Venician art shipment, the warehouse, two months ago. How did that go down?”
Heather grimaced. “Intel was good, Major. It was good. Our sources said he was a reliable informant. Said the crates were fetishes for a cult. Focuses, to use to raise the dead. He was right. He just didn’t know a thing about the legitimate cargo they were shipped with.”
“And you didn’t check them before you destroyed them.”
“Ah. Not quite, Major. Got into some rough questioning. I threw a man into a couple of the crates in the course of it. Turns out later that one crate had some royal collection of pottery. Worth a nobleman’s ransom. More money than my wages make in twenty years.”
The Major whistled low, and then chuckled grimly. “Well, we catch these ones, you can throw them around on the rocks until you get your answers, Knight.”
“Thank you, Major. Should I throw them up or down the mountain?”
That brought out a short, barked laugh from Major Weathers. He shook his head with a grin, and stood up. Leaving the question unanswered, he walked off to his tent.
That night, Helga shook Heather awake to take fourth watch, sparing her from waking up screaming. Heather crawled out of her tent, and filled a feedbag with some oats, catching Bjorn’s attention.
Bjorn nosed at Heather’s shoulder gently, as she fed the horse little handfuls of oats. The breath of the horse on her hand was a welcome warmth. The night was quiet; Ramdas was asleep standing up, his cloak around his shoulders and his saddle blanket spread over his back. The rest of the knights and squires were in their tents, asleep, and only Bjorn was awake to watch the northern sunrise with her.
Her horse’s lips moved gently along her palm, and then plunged into the feedbag, which Heather dutifully held. Greedy pig, Heather thought with fond asperity. Her eyes scanned the horizon, but the only motion she’d spotted in the last hour was a small owl, hunting mice.
“My boy would have liked you,” she whispered to Bjorn. “You’re a sweet, greedy little thing. He was too.”
Bjorn snuffled into her feedbag agreeably, ears perked to the sound of Heather’s voice.
“He’d’ve been old enough to visit his Grandma’s ranch, by now. Maybe get riding lessons on a pony like you. Would have been worth a good laugh. Ma would pack him so full of ranch food at dinner he wouldn’t have the energy to get into trouble.” she murmured to the horse, eyes closing at the bittersweetness of the thought.
“He’d have loved to brush a pony like you out. He never had any pets. Never even managed a cat, between Stephen’s working hours and my own. I’m not even sure how we managed Anthony. But you,” she patted the horse’s shoulder. “Anthony would have liked you.”
But he’ll never sit on a horse again. Never get spoiled by my Ma again. Barely had any time at all in this life. And it’s my fault. I missed one, and it killed my baby boy. Stephen will never get to see him ride, never get to see him grow. He’ll never get to see anything again.
An insistent snuffling against her shoulder broke her out of her reverie, and she clapped a hand against the horse’s neck.
Heather laid her forehead against Bjorn’s mane. She sighed deeply, inhaling the good smell of a horse’s skin. “You’ve got even got your family with you, what with Njorn here.”
And now I’m bitter with envy for a horse, Heather thought, turning away.
The sun was up over the horizon, and fatigue nagged at her temples. The barren, lichen-splotched rocks had their own stark beauty, but it wasn’t the sort of beauty that held Heather’s attention for longer than a few minutes. Now and then, a bit of motion down in the valleys revealed itself; a ptarmigan, or a mouse. Once, a small gray fox skittishly stalked down towards the slough, for a morning drink.
More entertainingly, a stoat came by to inspect the camp, furtive and quick as a flash. Heather tossed it a bit of pemmican, which it fearlessly took and bounded away with. Alms for the beasts and the poor, Heather thought.
Lieutenant Matthewson periodically cried in her sleep. Every so often, Heather had to walk over and drag her father’s mace through the the ward Matthewson kept trying to form in her sleep.
Sleep it off, Lieutenant, she wished her. Just sleep it off. Whatever it is that eats at you. Maybe one day we’ll all just lay ourselves down, and never rise again. Maybe next life. But not until the weight’s all gone. Not until we make those grave-robbing bastards pay.
Saints, just let me die with my mace in their tomb-raiding skulls.