The noble house guards hadn’t had much to say to Heather, once they had cleared the home. They’d left looking grim as pallbearers, with two bundles, one small, one large, carried out wrapped in bloodied sheets.
Heather did her best to avoid looking. She fought to hold in the hysteria that popped and sparked out of her mace and fingertips, little motes of flame that threatened to leap free of her with each tear.
That’s what they did, to my husband and son. Carried them out, wrapped in sheets, because they were j- just- m-m mea-
A sob wracked her, as her mind skipped and sheared away from the thought and memory. She curled up and laid her forehead flat to the wall, and held herself as she began to sob.
Some kind soul came and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, and thrust a mug of stew-like tea into her hands. She hadn’t had the appetite to touch it, but the warmth of the mug in her hands gradually brought her back to the present. Looking up and down the street had shown two more people like her, haunted-looking, grieving, frightened. The natives were going around with furs and steaming mugs, handing them out to guards and anyone else who needed them.
When she could think again, she folded the furs and set them down on the stoop, and the mug beside it. The walk home was a lonely thing, with the sun setting over a wounded town. Undead in the hills, catastrophe in the plaza, and I melt down. So much for doing my job, she chastised herself. There was a small knot of angry people still shouting at the Merchant Guild’s doors, but nobody was brave or fool enough to press the issue past words yet.
The little wooden gate at the Church had broken at a hinge, hanging askew and out of the way of the steady traffic coming and going from the chapel. Noble house soldiers came and went bearing armfuls of supplies, medicinal and otherwise. Families were streaming out, leaving for the evening. Some were tearful, others relieved.
One man noted the eye symbol on the sun on Heather’s collar, and pointed to her insignia. “Pardon me, Knight, you’re a Detective?”
“Yes,” Heather said, pausing beside the gate, out of the way of the churchyard path. “My investigation’s barely begun. I’ve been pulling bodies and healing wounded all day.”
“Well when that’s over, march down to the merchant’s offices and arrest those Consuls. My daughter is dead, Detective, and someone’s responsible.”
Heather inclined her head. “And it’s my job to find that someone, if I can,” she said. “If I can prove someone is responsible for this, I’ll arrest them.”
“If? If? My daughter’s blood is all over the road back there, Detective. There’s no ifs about that.”
“And I promise you, I’m going to do everything in my power to do my job. Saint’s honor.”
She locked eyes with the man. I could tell you off a dozen ways, but you don’t deserve it, she thought. Today’s the worst day of your life.
She stepped forward, and took the man by the hand, giving it a hard squeeze. “Your daughter. What was her name?”
“Penelope,” said the man, grief hollowing out his voice.
“Then I know who I’ll be swinging my mace for.”
The man’s face became a mask of fierce anguish, as he nodded. He choked, and sobbed once before he could form the words. “Swing hard.”
Heather embraced the man, and then stepped away before she could get caught up in the tendrils of more grief and questions. Tomorrow I can do something for them. Tonight, I don’t know how I’ll make it through, myself.
Maybe I’ll finally get different nightmares tonight, she thought, her lips twisting bitterly.
She stepped inside the church. Many pews were occupied, with Father Keza and Mother Tanya making their rounds together, person by person, touching shoulders and joining them in prayer.
Heather made her way through the chapel offices, towards what had once been Weather’s office. The sound of frustrated Venician from Ramdas filtered through the open door, and she veered away.
She coughed and waved to the centaur on her way past the door. Probably not the best of times to be around him, she thought. Dad used to say it was in tough times like these the best knights kept themselves at hand but out of the way.
Ramdas didn’t look comfortable in Weathers’ office. He’d shoved the desk up against one wall to make room for himself, and pushed the chair out from underfoot, judging by the new marks in the wood. The sounds of papers rustling and occasional profanity in foreign tongue rose from the centaur as he briefed himself. He looked up at her cough, returned the terse nod, and his eyes dove back to the scrolls and papers in front of him.
The kitchen was empty, and Heather’s heart sank. A barracks and chapel full of injured people, and nobody so much as started a pot of soup? Saints help me, I’m about ready to boil a pot myself I’m so angry.
The first novice unfortunate enough to pass through the door found herself grabbed by the cowl of her robes. Her shaking hands full of bloodied dressings were forgotten the instant she saw the blazing fury in Heather’s eyes.
“You. Novice. You spread the word, right damn now. Any novice or squire not otherwise seeing to their duties or the wounded is going to run, not walk, run here, and start preparing supper. We’ve got wounded and heartsick people here,” Heather said.
“Y-yes knight!” squeaked the girl. She shook the bloodied bandages in her hands. “What should I-?”
“Throw them in the hearth, right now. Wash your hands, then go find me some able bodies. Where’s Lieutenant Matthewson and Stengrav?”
“They headed for the barracks as soon as they arrived, Knight! And Squire DuChamp is still dealing with the horses,” stammered the girl. “I saw him just as I was coming in.”
“Tell him the instant he is done that he’s to report in here. Go.”
The girl fled, tossing the armful of bloodied rags into the hearth on her way out the door. Heather gathered her anger in her hand, and threw it into the hearth with a snarl. The little ball of fire exploded around the rags, sending fire and smoke rushing up the chimney. Blood and kindling, Heather thought. Fine. All the better. Save me from burning any precious wood or coal tonight.
The rest of the bandages went up in flames when she touched her mace to them. Heather threw the rest of her anger into heating the hearthstones, letting up only when she feared she might crack them. With fury and flows leaping from her hands and through silvered steel, her anger poured into rock, leaving it glowing a dull orange. When she’d spent the best of her anger, there was nothing left to do but cook.
The back door swung open, and Squire DuChamp stepped in, along with the silent penitent acolyte.
“Knight Blackthorne, what’s the matter?” asked DuChamp.
Heather paced down the kitchen row. “I’m hungry, I’m tired, I’m angry. And if I have to suffer another bout of burnt oatmeal, Saints help us all, I will put my mace through the kitchen table,” she replied. “DuChamp, you get that penitent a knife and a few pounds of carrots. We’ve got hungry people to feed, and too many for me to do it all tonight. You’re on potato duty. Don’t bother peeling, just wash and chop. Slices thin as your smallest finger, got that?”
“Yes ma’am,” said DuChamp. He gave a glance to the silent, dour-looking penitent. “You heard her. Move.”
Reluctantly, the penitent did.
Heather’s hands searched the cupboards and larder automatically, leaving her mind to fume. Carrots, onions, potatoes, beets, lentils, rosemary. All destined for the pot, and two good sausages for flavor. Her hands worked as her mind dwelled on the unknown number of undead in the hills.
In her mind’s eye, she imagined them swarming in the hundreds, ready to descend upon the town. What then, if they have the numbers? We number four knights and a squire, now. Noble soldiers don’t have a clue how to fight those horrors. For every skeleton they smash, they’ll lose two or three men, easily.
We’ve got a thousand men or less in the mine garrison. They’re trained fighting men and women, at least, but they’re not trained to fight undead, to fight necromancy. Killing the living isn’t nearly as difficult, she thought.
Her knife clattered in irritation as she cut onions, her eyes locked on the cutting board. Lieutenant Pramath hasn’t said a word about Saint-Cielle yet. Probably wants to avoid a panic. Doesn’t want to spread word, not yet. Not sure that’s the right choice. If these people are to have a chance, we can’t wait. We don’t know what’s coming.
Her knife rattled and banged along on the chopping block. The penitent at her side edged away as her knife chattered faster on the wood, mincing through the onions like they were responsible for the day’s horrors.
She shot him a look. “Just hurry up with the carrots, lad. We’ve got people to feed. If I can still work for the faithful after the day I’ve had, so can you.”
He swallowed, and ducked his head back to his duty. Squire DuChamp face softened like he wanted to smile, but couldn’t summon the expression after the day they’d shared.
Heather’s mind worked as her hands chopped onion. The blast at the Sending Gate bothers me. Something about the noise. It crackled and rumbled, like thunder. I don’t think it was a single blast. That would have been a shorter, sharper sound. So that rules out a conventional bomb. There’s not a chance in the light of the Saints that they fouled the Sending Gate with just magic. The wards are extreme; anything powerful enough to pierce them, everyone in town would have felt, even the rudest hedge-mage peasant.
She added a gallon of beer to the pot, and another of water, and gathered the rest of the ingredients. In they went into the pot, along with the sausages. The iron lid banged loudly as she set it down on the cauldron, and then she pushed the iron pot over the hot stones.
“There, that’s supper on the go for everyone,” she said to DuChamp. “Get a headcount from the barracks, find out how many bowls we’re bringing out. Same for the chapel. Soup should be ready in an hour or so.”
The squire made himself scarce, and the penitent slipped out the instant Heather’s back was turned. Once more, she found herself pacing in the empty kitchen, mind churning as she digested the horrors of the day. There’s at least a dozen places around town where they could have been watching for the Gate to activate, or for a church member to approach it. The timing is too good. There’s no way we can pretend it’s a coincidence. They wanted to cut us off, and they wanted to kill one of ours. Keep word from spreading, maybe.
Heather opened the window, for a few breaths of night air. The night’s chill promised the ice wouldn’t be far off.
Cut off, she thought to herself. This could be state-sponsored. Hanshu, maybe, starting up another war. Might even be one of the Thousand Kingdoms got its act together. Maybe part of their war effort, to cut the Empire off from its adamant source.
But the Empire has stockpiles. The western war’s going badly, but not badly enough to make cutting off the adamant mines relevant. And the garrison’s going to button down the fortress, for sure. They’ll let this town burn and starve before they’ll let the Emperor’s adamant fall into someone else’s hands.
Squire DuChamp stepped out of the barracks, and called to Heather through the open window: “Looks like seven overnight, Detective. Everyone else has been seen to and sent home. It’s just the bad ones now. Everyone’s got a bed to themselves.”
“Good. Did anybody bring by any bread for the tithe box today?”
“Yes, Detective. Baker sent up a big box of buns.”
“Saint’s praise. We’ll serve that with the soup then. How are you holding up, DuChamp?”
“Truth be told, Detective,” said the squire striding up to the windowsill. He pushed some of his thick, curly brown hair out of his face. “Not well. Horses spooked pretty bad. It was two hours before I could get them all rounded up and back here.”
“Any injuries on them?”
“Bjorn took a cut to the ear. It’ll heal. Nothing else but the hooves. They’ve all taken a beating.”
“Well, hopefully we won’t be riding far for a while. Trim them up tomorrow, duties allowing, and we’ll see about horseshoes if need be.”
“Yes ma’am. If you don’t mind, Knight, I think I’ll turn in early. Long day ahead tomorrow, right?”
“That’s true. And squire? Until we know otherwise, assume Norris got through. Help is coming.”
He’s seen the confetti on the ground, too, Heather thought.
Michael gave Heather a pained look. “Thanks for saying so, ma’am. Goodnight.”
Nobody’s much in the mood for pretending or hope right now, she thought, as she went back to the pot to give it a stir. Lieutenant Pramath hasn’t said anything to me since he left for the fortress. That can’t be good.
Heather opened the tap on a keg, and allowed herself half of a mug of beer, staring at the stones as they glowed in the hearth. Thinking, as she waited for the soup to simmer. A necromancer’s got no use for adamant. They deal in bones. Attacking here just doesn’t make sense, though. A smart necromancer doesn’t build an army, that draws too much attention.
Arrogant gobshites, on the other hand? They would want an audience. They want to see people grovel. They always burn out fast, bring on too much heat on themselves. That’s not what this is, either.
There’s not enough people in this whole land, fortress included, to build a meaningful army out of. Nothing they could field against any nation or empire. So it must be about the adamant. Unless they’ve decided to aggressively corner the northern fur market.
Heather toyed with the idea, and filed it away. Not likely, she concluded. But there’s real money there. Nine to one odds on the adamant versus furs. Don’t know how they plan to make thirty or forty skeletons matter against a fortress, winter or not. Even if they did the same to this entire town, the odds still favor the fortress.
You could have an undead army siege the place indefinitely, but they’d have to know that reinforcements would come in the summer, for certain. So it might be a play to deny shipments, but it would be futile. They’d have to know that. And the fortress was buttoned up, even before the Gate failed.
She mulled over her beer, and stared out the kitchen window at the lane and town beyond. Townsfolk were coming in ones and twos up the road to say their thanks. Fortunately it was Father Keza who was intercepting the thankful at the gate and accepting their thanks for the salvation of the town. Better public face than any of us would make right now, she thought bitterly.
The beer in her mug was thick, and hugged her tongue as her mind worried over the facts of the day. They want us cut off, whoever they are. Maybe they’re still here, maybe they got out before they destroyed the Sending Gate. If they got out, then they left their little pets behind, biding their time in the hills. If they’re still here then they’re stuck here with us, just as we are with them. So they could be hiding among us in town, still.
Or they made their getaway and left presents behind. As soon as that Merchant’s Guildsman is recovered, I need to know who used the Gate today, and how many.
Heather blew out a frustrated breath. Curse of the Detective. I’ve got more questions than answers.
A voice spoke up from the yard, the young, high voice of the native elf Ooluk, filtering in through the open window. “I hear the wind of your lips, Knight,” he said. “Did the hunt fail?”
Heather startled. That little earthen hump of his is quiet, she thought. “Not exactly. Ooluk, right?” she called, before stepping out the door and onto the stoop.
He rode into view, seated atop a little hillock of dirt. The elf’s fingers were plunged in the earth once more, sunk to the second knuckle. Up the path from the gate he rode, as slow as a stroll. When he arrived at the stoop, the little hump of earth sank flat, leaving the cobblestones around him undisturbed.
“Yes. And you are Knight Heather Blackthorne,” he said. His head was at an oblique angle, the tattered bandages around his eyes filthy and showing scuffs of dust and dirt. He favored her with his right ear. “Weathers did not return.”
She let out a frustrated grunt. “Word get around already, Ooluk?”
The elf shook his head. “Knight Helga moved a great deal of stone. And I know the feel of his horse on the earth. It did not carry his weight.”
“You can feel where our horses are through the earth?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied simply.
Heather ran fingers through her brittle, magic-bleached hair, feeling the ends that would need clipping. Every expression reminded her of the tightness in her skin from the flash burns of her own magic. Her lungs ached, her legs hurt from days riding, and suddenly it was all too much that the Major had died screaming.
She buried her mouth into her mug, and gulped at her beer, her free hand clenching until her knuckles popped. Finally, she set the mug down, and rose to her feet, pushing open the kitchen door. “C’mon. Supper’s on, anyway. Tell you all about it in there. I’m not supposed to talk about it, but I think Pramath won’t mind since you were the one who set us on the trail.”
The little elf reached out a grimy, dirt-encrusted hand, and touched the wall of the church. He followed the lines of the masonry in towards the door, and stepped through awkwardly. Heather’s fingers lingered on the door. Ooluk felt his way to a table, and sat facing Heather expectantly.
“Well, you’re here, might as well feed you. It’s what we’re supposed to do here, supposedly. You’re not much of one for charity, are you, Ooluk?” she asked. She walked back to the kitchen pot, taking out two wooden bowls from the cupboard.
“Charity keeps me alive, Knight Heather,” replied the boy. “The northlands has no use for the blind. Even as Gaiman, I should have walked the snows. Instead, I was asked to come here. Weathers asked me, two years ago.”
Heather lifted the lid on the pot, stirred the soup, tasted it. She added some salt thoughtfully, and a dash of pepper. “Walked the snows? Go out into the winter? What, alone?”
“Yes. To die,” he said the words in a calm voice, without weight or rancor. “My food would feed two children. Better to go.”
“That’s crazy,” Heather said. “So how come you’re alive? You survived the journey here by yourself?”
“A Gaiman was needed at the creche, at least until my replacement was trained. So I lived, a while. When my replacement was trained, and my time came, Weathers asked me to come here.”
Heather gave the spoon an irritated clang of wood against the pot. “Are you telling me your own family would have turned you out to die? They didn’t tell me the blood ran cold out here as well.”
He favored her with a patient smile, and a ready explanation: “Others of the southlands have asked me the same. The life of my people does not afford much pity, nor charity. They would not have needed to ask me to walk the snows. I would have walked them, without waiting to be asked.”
“Why would you throw your life away like that?”
“My food would have fed two children, Knight Heather. But I was asked here, instead, by Weathers. So I eat enough to survive, and I keep the firestone far beneath the mines, and send the poisoned breath of the earth away.”
Heather considered that, and relented. “Take only what you need? Well, that’s the right way of it. We’ve got some charity to spare. Doesn’t do any good to fight for folks if you can’t keep them alive in the first place. Here. Eat up.”
She filled a bowl, and then set it down in front of him and a wooden spoon. He tracked the sound and immediately set his hand on the utensil. The blind elf set to eating swiftly, gulping at the broth, chewing each carrot and scrap of meat with animal intensity.
Heather sat down opposite him, amused. Eating like that, he didn’t look like the young man who’d sat in leadership over scared and anguished northern hunters. He looked like a hungry boy wolfing down soup, in need of a bath and a bed. He had neither the softness of a child of privilege, nor the hardness of face she’d seen of street urchins in Bastia who had to fight and steal for their supper.
“Slow down, Ooluk. There’s more in the pot. You look like you haven’t eaten in days.”
“I haven’t,” he said between frantic bites. Heather was two mouthfuls into her own bowl of soup, and he was done, holding out the bowl for more.
“What? Nobody fed you while we were gone?”
He shook his head once again without rancor, his manner matter-of-fact. “The soup line doesn’t eat when Weathers is gone. Father Keza is kind, but he works his forge, and Mother Tanya and Mother Susanne are always busy with their work with the miners.”
He wrinkled his nose. “Weathers used to make the squires cook. They did not like the task, I think.”
Aghast, Heather rose and took Ooluk’s empty bowl back to the pot to refill it.
Heather thought back to the burnt porridge that had greeted her, on her first breakfast here. Do a job badly enough, they might not ask you to do it again, she thought with a flicker of irritation. She ladled Ooluk another helping, and returned to her seat, sliding the soup towards the elf.
The novices she’d called earlier entered and ladled out seven more bowls. At Heather’s direction, they took out trays with bread and soup for each of the injured. “Leave the food for the Knights, I’ll take that myself,” Heather said.
When they’d cleared out, Heather turned her attention back to Ooluk. “I’m sorry you went hungry, Ooluk. A lot of folk here need to get their priorities straight. Myself included,” she said, blowing over her spoonful. It needed oregano and thyme, but it was miles better than the execrable porridge. “You knew Major Weathers two years, then?”
“Five,” he said. “He would ride out on patrol. His was the first horse I ever felt on the earth. Their hooves drum down deep.”
The warmth of the food and a full belly seemed to have loosened his lips, because he continued: “We could feel him for miles, each time he would come. Spring and autumn, he would check on us. Ask about monsters, walking dead, bad magic. Talk to us about the Saints.”
Ooluk’s sad smile went further to making him look even younger than his years. “I’m sorry he died. Was it bad?”
Heather looked down at her bowl, and nodded. And then she realized the gesture was lost on the blind, and spoke up: “It was bad, Ooluk. It’s still bad. Evil men murdered, and then raised the dead. For that family grave you first asked us to look after, I think we put a few of the family there at rest. But Saint-Cielle is all gone. Everyone there is dead, raised, and laid to rest again.”
Ooluk processed that, finally pausing in his ravenous eating to frown in grief.
“We put the bodies there to rest, Ooluk. But it cost us. We did our best. We did everything we could. But the chapel was so full, and we had no room to move. No way to get him back to safety. I wish there had been. I wish we could have saved everyone.”
The little elf’s head bobbed solemnly. “His food will feed three children,” he said, and his tone carried a note of gratitude within it that stilled Heather’s breath.
“That’s all there is to it for your folks, Ooluk? Someone dies, it’s all about how many more get fed?” She couldn’t keep the heat out of her breath, but she tried.
To her surprise, it was Ooluk’s hand that reached out and touched hers over the table.
“He was my friend, Knight Heather. Three will be fed, and they will know by whose death they eat. They will go to bed with their bellies full and they will pray their thanks to him louder in their hearts. If the Saints hear our prayers, then he is their Saint. He fought, and died, so the dead could rest and so they can eat. So their children can eat.”
Heather sat back in her chair, and blinked off a tear, lifting the bowl to her mouth with her free hand. “Now where the hell did you learn to sermonize like that, Ooluk?” she muttered, when she was sure she could keep a steady voice.
The elf shrugged, and smiled uncertainly, gently retracting his hand. “Weathers believed in our ways. Said they were the ways the Saints wanted for a land this hard. Death waits by the water, here. In the hills. In the snows. Life has to mean something.”
Heather smiled sadly. “Now you’re repeating him, right?”
Ooluk broke into a boyish, embarrassed grin. “A little, yes.”
Heather swallowed, and patted his hand. “You’re trying to cheer me up, kiddo?”
“Myself, too. I will cry for him tonight. He was very kind to me.”
“I didn’t know him well,” Heather admitted. “Hardly been here long enough to know anything about him, but that he had a lot of secrets. He seemed to like you, though. Respected you, for sure. So I’ll let that count for something.”
Replete with beer and soup, she sat back in her chair, and told him the story of all that had happened since they had left him at the slopes.
Mid-way through the tale, Ramdas entered the kitchen. He glanced towards Ooluk, then to Heather, and silently made his way to the cauldron to help himself to a large bowl of soup. “May I join you, Gaiman?” he asked Ooluk.
Lieutenant asks the native if he can join him at his own chapel’s table? thought Heather, fighting to hide her surprise.
“You are welcome at my fire,” Ooluk said with care. “As Weathers made me welcome at his before.”
The words were spoken as if it were ritual, and Ramdas cleared his throat. “Thank you, Senor Gaiman Ooluk. You are ever welcome at my fire.”
Heather’s eyes cast back and forth between them at the interplay. But it seemed to be the end of the discussion, as Ramdas folded his legs underneath himself at the table, and proceeded to dine.
The centaur ate quietly, his eyes hooded, and Heather returned to her story. Ramdas didn’t say a word about her speaking of the matter to Ooluk, and only nodded his assent as he ate. Occasionally, Heather would catch him staring at her, and look away every time she acknowledged his stare.
Wonder what he’s read about me in the files, Heather thought. Going to have to get used to someone else knowing what’s happened, I guess.
When the story was done, Ramdas excused himself from the table, and made his way out the kitchen door, towards the barracks.
“I think I will rest as well, Knight Heather,” said Ooluk. “Thank you for telling me. I will tell my people of his kind bravery.”
“Ah, could I ask you not to do that just yet, Ooluk?” said Heather. “I think Lieutenant Pramath would prefer that we not spread word about what happened, especially Saint-Cielle. Wait at least a few days, kindly? You can tell them that we put their dead to rest, that much we can say.”
I hope we did, Heather thought.
“I will do as you ask,” said Ooluk. “But my people must know. Dangers lurk, and the hunting season is important. The caribou are our lifeblood, here. If we cannot hunt, we will all starve.”
“I understand, Ooluk. Good night.”
Heather banked down the kitchen fire, and ladled out two last bowls of soup with a thoughtful frown. Squire DuChamp packed it in before supper was ready. Can’t blame him, we’re all exhausted. Stengrav and Matthewson haven’t come in to eat. Better make sure they’ve got something in them.
Ooluk had gone to bed a half-hour before, and Heather had ensured that Father Keza and the acolytes had been fed. Mother Tanya and Mother Susanne were both out on “dates” for supper. A situation which Keza assured her was perfectly normal, especially given the usual quality of fare at the table.
She’d hovered over the dour, silent acolyte, ensuring he did the proper share of the dishes. But she ensured he was fed well too, and the bobs of heads in thanks around the table as hungry mouths had buried themselves in her cooking made her feel a little better.
Heather found herself gazing out over the dinner table, caught by the unexpected warmth of the moment. Feels good to feed the hungry. Major’s death is hanging over this table, but bellies are full of good food.
Her fingers traced over the handle of the mace on her hip. I miss Dad dropping by to surprise me, and spend the afternoon cooking with me. He’d have loved this. Smiling over the pot as he told me all about his circuit ride, leaving out all the monotony and pain and sorrow. He’d probably go and start an incident by ruffling Ooluk’s hair, or something, and then smooth it over by making everyone laugh.
Heather said her goodnight to the last, lingering acolytes, and pushed open the door out to the practice yard with her elbow, both hands holding the tray. Into the stables/barracks she walked. It was Matthewson’s door she came to first, and thumped her elbow against the door. No answer.
She’s probably sleeping by now. Heather moved on, and repeated the gesture on the next door, where the chalk was marked “Helga Stengrav”. Her elbow bumped against the door. “Helga?”
The door wasn’t quite on its latch, and swung open at her nudge. She caught motion as Helga swiftly stepped away from Persephone, and nearly dropped her tray. They had been in each other’s arms, kissing. Or almost. Embarrassment flushed over her face. Helga and Persephone stepped swiftly apart. Persephone’s face was mortified, and Helga’s wincing in embarrassment.
“Pardon, dearie. I should have bolted the door,” said Helga.
Heather fumbled, lamely holding up the tray of stew. “I’m so sorry, I had no idea, I didn’t mean to-”
“It’s fine, dear,” said Helga. But the words weren’t for Heather’s sake, they were for Persephone, the dwarf’s hand rising to hold Persephone’s arm. Persephone was looking back and forth between Helga and Heather with stark, naked panic on her face.
It clicked. Every glance Heather had watched them share, the way they’d talked, supportive, comfortable, familiar.
It was Persephone’s voice I heard crying, my first morning here. But she’d been crying in Helga’s quarters. This is why Weathers kept Helga out of Persephone’s chain of command. Helga and Persephone are lovers.
And they’re Kamzites. Socially conservative. Damnation and perfidy all the way. They don’t hold to the Saint’s positions in matters of marriage. No wonder they’re up here. Two women in love is barely worth the batted eyelash in Bastia, but out in Kamzite province? Ruin of their careers. So they kick their ass up north, hush it up, hope they never show their faces again.
Heather drew a breath, and weighed the stares the women were giving her. Can’t pretend I haven’t noticed anything. They aren’t stupid. Pretending would just be awkward, and it would linger over us all, unsaid. I have to put this to bed now before it can fester. Saints know we have enough on our plates.
She steeled herself, stepped in, and set the tray down on the little utility table by the bed. “Dinner’s ready,” she said, willing some warmth into her voice. “Thought I’d make sure you both got some food in you tonight. I don’t sleep well on an empty stomach.”
Or ever, anymore, she thought.
Persephone was trembling again. Heather took a breath, took the bowls off the tray and set out the utensils, and then looked Persephone square in the eyes.
Read it clear as day, now, Lieutenant. You keep that mask up because you had to. Last time you let it show, it ruined your life, didn’t it? It runs right into those Kamzite teachings, Kamzite customs, Kamzite culture. Last time you got caught like this was the worst day of your life. That’s what they sent you up here for.
Heather gestured between Persephone and Helga. “Lieutenant? This is not a problem. Saints never cared about the details, only the hearts. So if that’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.”
Helga nodded gratefully, some tension gently releasing from her face. “I told you, dearie,” she said to Persephone, and patted her arm. “She worries so, Heather. They were very harsh with her. With us both, when it came down to it.”
Persephone practically lunged from where she sat at the foot of Stengrav’s bed, the seat by the table clattering as it came to a halt, while the Lieutenant snatched up the bowl. A furious blush colored her past her eyebrows.
Helga gave Heather a significant glance. “I can tell you the story later, dearie.”
“I think I’ve got it,” said Heather, leaning back against the doorframe. “You lost your husband. You met Persephone. Something felt right, and then one day it all fell apart. And you got kicked up here like yesterday’s trash for it.”
“More than that,” said Persephone, her voice a guilty whisper. “I deserted my post for her. To come here.”
The misery in her tone spoke volumes. A winter here, and another on the way, with undead in the hills and rescue and reinforcements out of the question. And nothing waiting for her but a court martial, if she were ever sent back home, thought Heather. Damned no matter where she is. At least here, she’s with her love.
Heather reached back to let herself out the door, and looked between them both. “I don’t hold with Kamzite ways. Hearts are hearts. But I do hold to duty. Lieutenant… no. Persephone. I need to know, out in the field, that you’re my Lieutenant first, and her lover second. And that if push comes to shove out there, you’ll put your duty first.”
Helga nodded, evidently expecting Persephone’s agreement. But the Lieutenant only glued her eyes to the bowl of stew, and stirred it with her hand. A few heartbeats of pregnant silence passed.
Can’t expect much more from a woman who already deserted, I guess, thought Heather angrily.
“Enjoy your meal,” Heather muttered, and shut the door firmly behind her.