By the next day, Persephone’s face hadn’t set quite right. Her left eye now sat a half centimeter lower, and her nose was offset just so to the right. The thin, jagged scars made her look like she was a reflection in a shattered mirror. Recognizable, but forever distorted and damaged.
Heather found herself cursing the isolation that the destruction of the Sending Gate had wrought on them all.
If this had happened in Bastia, she’d have been under a church surgeon’s knife within the hour, with doctors and mages both attending her. You’d barely see a scar by the time they were through. Out here, it’s a marvel enough she’s breathing, Heather thought. At least she’s awake.
Heather was seated glumly on the stool at the foot of Persephone’s bed. There wasn’t much room in the cell between Helga on Persephone’s right, and Ramdas on the left. The mages and doctors of the town had quietly come and gone, finding little they could do that Persephone’s talent hadn’t already. She was whole, physically. But things weren’t all quite back in the right places, and the scarring was horrifying.
She’s been shattered, thought Heather. Physically and mentally. Once already, Persephone had attempted to say something. But all that came out was nonsense, syllables without form like a toddler’s gurgle. The only evidence of intelligence was her steady gaze tracking those around her, and the way she’d fallen to an embarrassed-looking silence the first time she had tried to speak.
Tucked up in bed, cover wrapped around her shoulders and body, Persephone looked slender, more waif than warrior. Healing had consumed her, and her eyes had sunk deep in their sockets, her cheeks hollowed out. Helga’s hand couldn’t leave Persephone’s hair alone, fiddling with the long straight hair, braiding and unbraiding, making it a nervous outlet for her worry.
Her hair’s the only part of her that looks like she used to, thought Heather.
Ramdas was kneeled alongside the bed, his four legs tucked underneath him, his hands both around Persephone’s left hand. He was praying aloud to the Saints in a quiet voice, his eyes never leaving Persephone’s. He spoke with his voice low, and his cadence steady, as he enunciated:
“Blessed Saints, guardians dear,
Who guide our path, through pain and fear.
Compassion’s light, for all our peers,
In darkest days, attend us here.
Ever this day,
be at our side,
to light and guard,
and rule and guide.”
Over and over he would repeat it, and Heather’s lips moved in silent echo. She’d spent many hours as a child murmuring that same prayer in the pews. There were other prayers the centaur might have chosen, specific Saints to call upon for succor. But this was one they’d all known since they were knee-high to their mothers. And Persephone’s lips, jagged with the scarring as they were, were trying to move too. Her voice silent, but her eyes followed the movements of the centaur’s lips.
Like a baby learning to talk again. Heather’s guts twisted at the thought.
Helga remained inconsolable, in her stalwart way. She’d poured her grief into a round stone she’d conjured, resting it on the bed between her knees. Sustaining its existence demanded constant magic,and so the grief-stone rose and fell gently on the mattress, its density changing in response to the intensity to Helga’s grief. She hadn’t stopped weeping all morning, and she hadn’t left Persephone’s side through the distant, booming noises of the wall rising.
Ooluk finished that whole wall in an hour, thought Heather. Unbelievable. Smart boy started at the east side of the town, between us and the fort. If they were hoping to catch us with our pants down, we’ve kept them from that satisfaction, at least.
Helga wiped at her face, and Heather reached out to touch the dwarf’s knee.
“Helga, will you come walk the wall with me? I need an expert to make sure that wall would stand up to cannon fire.”
She needed no such thing, but it was an excuse to get the dwarf up and moving, away from her intense well of worry and grief. Just like the Lieutenant did for me, Heather thought. Give her something to do, something to focus on that isn’t the grief and worry and pain.
Helga nodded, and patted Persephone’s arm. “I’ll be back soon, Persephone,” she whispered, taking a moment to wipe her cheeks. The grief-stone vanished as Helga stood.
Persephone’s eyes followed Helga, but she made no expression. No porcelain mask, this time, noted Heather. Just blank. Neutral.
Heather held the door open for Helga, and let it shut gently on the sight of Ramdas, uninterrupted, repeating the chant of the prayer while he held Persephone’s hand in his own.
Outside, a steady stream of people were coming and going from the church, father Keza’s strained voice filtering out the open doors. Looks like word is getting around.
The town was mobilizing, the streets filled with intermittent streams of noble house guards and soldiers moving around the town. Worried-looking townsfolk filled the streets, shouting to whoever would listen about lost fur trade and business, or travel and freedom.
As if there was anywhere to go now, anyway, Heather thought. Harbor’s going to ice back up soon enough, and the Sending Gate’s demolished. Button lips and coats, and man the walls. That’s how this thing will have to go.
Some guards stood clustered in knots of gossip and speculation, but most were busy moving supplies to and around the wall. There were barrels of arrows and bolts that wouldn’t do much to undead, ladder-axes, and medical supplies. Helga and Heather managed to evade a knot of merchants angry about their trade lines cut, headed straight for them. They ducked around the back way behind the church and made straight for the wall.
“Merchants can’t get any satisfaction with the Guild, so now they’re trying to lay their woes at our feet,” said Helga. “Saint’s blood, there’s not much for the gratitude of martyrs in this town, is there?”
“They’re scared, Helga. Some people get angry when they’re scared.”
Helga looked down at the ground. “Aye, true enough. I’m just in no place in my head and heart right now to give them the understanding they deserve, dearie.”
“Me neither. That’s what we’ve got Keza and Pramath for.”
“Aye. They’ve both been kind and patient with us all. How he hasn’t put a hoof through your teeth, dearie, it’s a bit of a wonder.”
Heather grimaced. “I’ve given him a few good reasons by now. I think he’s got a lot more reasons to hold his temper than he did before he was sent up. But at least he seems to get on well with Matthewson.”
They made it to the inner curve of the easternmost section of the town wall, and began following it north. The newly disturbed ground had little furrows dug into the stone, as if it had frozen while rippling like a pond. The upthrust stone had fresh scratch marks on it where stone had scraped against stone. It reminded Heather of the markings scrabbling bone fingers would make on the other side.
Helga wiped at her eyes, her hand reaching out to touch the stone of the wall, trailing fingers as she walked. Her wet fingers left parallel smudges through the dust on the stone.
“They’ve had the same upbringing, more or less,” Helga said. “Lieutenant Pramath got the sort of treatment he got because the priests and folk figured his kind was stained with sin. Which is how the Kamzite preachers treat everybody. Persephone’s back would look the same, if not for her talent.”
“But not you?” Heather asked.
Helga shook her head gently. “I’m all for simple, hard work and piety, but I don’t stand for all the mortification of the flesh the Kamzite zealots go through. Stone-labor’s hard enough on the body. I’d rather show my piety in my work, dearie.”
Heather nodded. “They just seem to have a connection. He arrived only two weeks before I did, more or less.”
The dwarf smiled sadly. “I think they just understand each other’s nature, dearie. I don’t know that I ever understood her. I just love her, and love’s the only explanation I’ve got for her throwing her career away for me.”
Heather paused to examine a hairline crack in the stone of the wall. This is good, she thought. Helga’s talking. Keep her talking. “So tell me how you met her?”
Helga paused in her step, and probed the crack briefly with flows of Earth and the tip of her finger. “It’s fine,” she murmured about the wall, and stepped along. A noble guard tried to approach them, but Heather’s sharp glance warned the guardswoman off.
It wasn’t until forty yards further that Helga started to talk, lips tremulous. Heather was unsure if the dwarf was about to smile or cry, or if she was trying a bit of both on for size.
“Her book got away from her once. I suppose she’d been having a rough day, or some zealot or another had found some cause to rile her up, just to get her goat. Any perceived failure of piety, no matter how slight, and they peck and jibe and snarl at each other all day long. She was doing something with the book she keeps chained to her, and the chain broke. Book flew away on a high wind, and fell halfway down the cliffs of Kamzal. I happened to be on patrol and found it before she did.”
Heather winced. “She dropped a sacred relic-book? Down a cliff?”
“No, Her gales blew it off the cliff. Her emotions got away from her, and so did her magic,” Helga pointed out, giving Heather’s blast-bleached hair a measured glance.
Yes, something I’m no stranger to, Heather thought.
Helga continued to speak as her fingers reached out to brush the wall, feeling along it, seeking any flaw that might present itself to undead or cannon. “So I found it in a back alley behind a butcher’s. Dusted it off. There’s not every day you find a book just laying around after all, dearie, and definitely not every day it’s got a broken chain attached. Opened it up out of curiosity, and that’s when I knew someone was in very big trouble.”
Heather sucked in a breath through her teeth. I know that feeling. Two million Peaks worth in rare pottery’s trouble enough. But a holy relic? A personal holy book of a Saint? There’s pricey, and then there’s priceless.
“So you turned it in, or she found you?” Heather asked.
“She found me,” Helga replied. “Came running down the cliff paths all frantic. Not hard to spot a woman tall as she is, practically bowling people over in her path. I let her sweat a bit. Anybody who’s careless with a relic like that, well, I wasn’t about to let it go entirely easily. So I let her search around the alleys a bit before I caught up with her. Handed it back. She looked so frantic and so relieved, dearie, I just didn’t have the heart to report her. Told her I wouldn’t say a word to anyone. I don’t think she’d ever had someone show her a bit of leniency before.”
Heather crouched at one section of wall, pretending to scan the foundation of the stone. Keep her moving, keep her talking, thought Heather. Keep her busy. Like nobody did for me. Idle minds are worried minds. Don’t let her think about how likely it is Persephone won’t come back, not all the way back, not after that horror. Saints know I never feel like I left mine.
Helga kicked the stone wall idly with a boot. “Wall’s plumb, dearie.”
Heather stood, and walked on. “How did Persephone react?”
“She was just stunned. She had no idea what to make of it, that I was willing to just let it go. An accident is an accident, come the end of the day. But you could tell she was the sort who’d punish herself worse than anyone else could. I don’t know if it was the kindness or the difference or just plain the relief, but she came out of her shell a little with me. Struck up a friendship. Starting saying things. Talking a little. Taking me places.”
Helga paused, and scratched her chin. “You know, dearie, come to think of it, I think I knew we were dating before she did. My husband had been dead and gone for two years by then. I didn’t mind. She can be sweet, you know? But I don’t know she’d ever let anyone else see it.”
Heather smiled sadly. “How long was it before you two got caught?”
She followed with Helga, leapfrogging their paths along the wall. The wall was clearly as flawless as natural stone could offer under the circumstance; and wasn’t about to fall to anything short of sustained cannon barrage.
“Two years,” said Helga, sounding mildly surprised. “You’d be amazed how blind a zealot can be when they don’t want to believe a suspicion could be true. I know there was suspicions by the fourth month. We got a little sloppy, a little too relaxed together. We’d touch hands sometimes without thinking, or fix each other’s hair. Little things. Eventually it came to a head.”
“Bad?” Heather murmured. Of course it was bad, she thought, but whatever keeps her mind away from Persephone lying there in the hospice bed.
“Oh, it was awful of course,” said Helga lightly. “The Abbot threatened and swore and demanded all sorts of ridiculous penance and I didn’t give them the satisfaction. I hadn’t broken any laws, and for all they thundered about sin and perdition there wasn’t a lick of Saints scripture to back it up. It was all very romantic when she came to rescue me.”
Heather stopped short. “Rescue you?” she said, voice flat.
“Oh, aye. They separated us right away. The Abbot he had me thrown in a cell in the abbey there, locked up tight. There wasn’t any laws broken, so he knew I’d get by with nothing more than a stern talking-to from my commanders for fraternizing with an officer. I think the plan was to punish me in private, without oversight and interference from my commanding officer.”
Heather grunted, frowning. “If they ever tried that in Bastia there’d be an uproar for certain.”
Helga stooped to pick up a stone from the ground, and flicked it at the wall. The stone hit the wall with a soft ‘tok!’, and the dwarf caught it neatly on the rebound. “Kamzal’s a different cart of ore,” Helga muttered.
“Clearly. So what happened next?” asked Heather.
Helga smiled, eyes bittersweet. “I’d been hammering at the door with my hands for a few hours, shouting, throwing every lick of magic I could at the wards they threw up, to no use,” she said. “And then I hear her voice, shouting to me to stand back. I hear the lock break, and she throws the door open– and she’s topless, and her back is half flayed off. They’d been scourging her right to the bone, the animals!
“She either heard my shout or one of the fools scourging her must have mentioned my name, because she left five of them bruised and battered on the floor. And so there she was, her back half peeling off, bleeding, tears and hair and snot all matted from crying. Just an absolute mess, furious as I’ve ever seen her.”
Helga paused, and her face crumpled, tears welling in her eyes. “She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.”
“Your hero,” offered Heather, voice wavering.
“My hero,” Helga said, as she paused to wipe her eyes.
Heather paused, giving the dwarf a few moments to recover her composure. Helga leaned against the wall, and closed her eyes, a few breaths hitching before she could regain her control.
“What happened next?” Heather prompted gently.
“Next? We threw a shirt around her and marched right out of the temple, zealots hot on our heels. Made it to the barracks first. Captain heard ten words of our story, asked me if I needed a transfer. I said yes.
“And the abbot comes storming in not five minutes later, threatening every pox and plague and thunder and brimstone he knew. Trying to claim command over Persephone because she served the Reliquary. Captain had already signed my transfer orders, and looked the other way when Persephone left with me.
“We were on horse and on the road before the Abbot even made it to the gate. All with nothing to my name but my clothes and my hammer.”
“And Persephone followed, with the book.” said Heather.
“And the amulet,” grimaced Helga.
“The one that saved Lieutenant Pramath, back at Saint-Cielle. That was quite a thing,” said Heather. “Quite a spell, whatever it was Tomlin was using. I’m glad she had it. But two relics? How did she have so many to begin with?”
“Well, she was the keeper of the Abbot’s reliquary. She was responsible for quite a few more than that, but the book was issued to her personally, in service and faith, as was the amulet. Technically it’s not theft. She is still in service to the church. Tell that to the Abbot, though.”
‘Technically’ is one way to put it, thought Heather sourly. I’m not quite sure they’d hang her, but she’d do some years in a prison cell for certain.
“In service, just not where she’s supposed to be,” pointed out Heather.
Helga grimaced in chagrin. “I don’t know if Captain Weathers pulled some strings or simply decided not to explain the situation to his superiors. He just let it be, and nobody showed up this spring to arrest her. I don’t know if or how much interference the Captain ran for us, but I’ll always be grateful to him for overlooking the matter. Or whatever it was he did to keep us together, even up here in this dreadful land.”
Helga’s eyes watered then, and Heather thumped a sisterly fist on her shoulder.
“She might have been safer in prison, but she’s damn well happier at your side,” Heather said firmly.
The dwarf sagged against the stone wall, eyes clenching shut. “I’m not sure how much comfort that is right now, dearie. I need to believe she’s still in there. I need to believe that. I’ve lost one good husband. But there’s worse things than death.”
Heather’s guts grew cold. What would you know about it? she wanted to hiss, biting down hard on her tongue. She thumped a fist against the unyielding stone of the wall, careful to keep her eyes pointed away from the dwarf so she wouldn’t see her expression.
They sat down together at the east end of the wall, stopping where it met the cold ocean. Waves crashed against jagged rock a little further out. Glumly, they both folded their arms atop their knees, and stared out to sea.
“I’ll tell you, Blackthorne,” Helga finally said. “I want his head. I want it under my hammer. Whoever’s responsible for this, I want his head under my hammer. So I can spare it just long enough for the hangman to have his proper due. I think that would please me very much.”
“Saints will it,” growled Heather in wholehearted agreement, “and let it be so.”
Supper was caribou bourguignon served with batter puddings, served at a somber table.
“We’re rationing meals,” Heather said to the knights and clergy as she dished out supper. “They haven’t announced it in town yet, but they will. The sooner we start rationing, the better chance we have of getting through this winter alive.”
Grumblings around the table were met by Heather’s raised spoon. “You’ll still eat better than you used to. Spices and herbs will go a long way for us. There might not be much, but I’ll try to make it good. We’re going to have a lot of destitute and starving people soon, and I’ll do my best to make sure nobody starves, but there’s only so much I can do.”
“Attend the Caballero,” said Ramdas, and the grousing around the table from the Novices came to a halt.
Lieutenant’s smart, Heather thought. Bad news should usually come from the top, but having the cook bring it up instead of the commander makes it real for them. There’ll be less grousing and begging and pawing at the larder this way. Glad he suggested it.
Heather cleared her throat. “I’m sending you all out tomorrow to help clear the markets. Perishable foods and jars, pots, anything and everything we have to make preserves, confits, jams, jellies. Tell them to bring it here, and we’ll make sure they get back all we can give. This town cannot afford a single morsel to be allowed to go to waste.
“All Novices, as of tomorrow, you’re collecting tithes or you’re helping with the canning. It’s important that you make sure that everyone understands we’re not hoarding this food. We’re preserving it, and we’re distributing it. Anyone with canning supplies or experience, round them up and ask them to volunteer. Make sure you write down what they gave you, and write receipts. Any questions?”
“What of the guildhalls and the houses?” asked Squire DuChamp.
“We’ll send notice their way, and hopefully they’re feeling generous,” said Heather. “I’m told House Oiselle is known for its piety, and House Goldbrace for pragmatism. I think we’ll see both contributing.”
“What of the beer?” Father Keza inquired. “To be rationed for soups and stews?”
“Exactly,” Heather said. “No more than a pint a day for each of us, otherwise. We’ve plenty in the cellar, but we’ll need it to stretch it out for soups and bread. We haven’t much wine, and that’s all for the meats as well. Anything stronger, reserved for medicinals. Does anybody know anything about cooking whale? I’m told that hunters are on the water for some now, and I haven’t the faintest idea what it tastes like, or how to cook it.”
“It tastes like beef. A little milder, but richer,” said Sister Susanne. “But the cooks at the Basking Seal and the Bronze Tabard both caution not to overcook the meat, or it will come out fishy.”
She sounds proud to finally have something useful to say for once in her simpering life, thought Heather. “Thank you, Susanne. So it should be cooked rare. Preserved in salt, or confit?”
“Confit,” said Susanne. “I know they serve that in the winter at the Tabard. Whale confit.”
“The natives hang whale meat with salt,” said Helga. “They dry it under skins to keep the rain off.”
“Good, both ways then,” said Heather. “Let’s pray they bring one in. Would that much meat see us through a winter?”
“Oh, three times over,” said Helga. “When a whale is landed, every village sends out sledges full to others as gifts. More there than any village can eat.”
“I will hold the fishers in my prayers tonight,” Ramdas said firmly.
“As shall we all,” said Father Keza.
Heather gathered up a tray and bowl, and loaded it generously. “Enjoy your meals. I’m going to go make sure the Gaiman protecting us has enough to eat,” she said, gesturing to the back door of the kitchen.
“I’ll join you, dearie, if you don’t mind,” said Helga.
They stepped out together into the chill drizzle of the evening. Ooluk sat out in the practice yard, legs folded, an otter skin stretched over his head to keep the worst of the rain off while he felt and listened.
He’s out here alone in the dark with the rain coming down on our behalf, while we’re inside eating supper, thought Heather in dismay.
“Ooluk,” said Heather, walking out under the cold drizzle to set the tray of food carefully in his lap. “Here. I made you some food. Do you need a lamp for some heat?”
“No, thank you Knight Heather,” said Ooluk. His voice was despondent, as he withdrew his fingers from the stoney ground and wiped them clean on the otter skin. “Nothing dead moves around the town, or outside the walls. And the rain is warm and kind tonight.”
It wasn’t warm by any decent Imperial standard Heather was accustomed to, but it said enough about the winter to come that she didn’t muster a retort. Instead, she crouched down on her heels next to him, and Helga joined them in a loose circle.
“What’s the matter then, dearie? You sound unhappy,” said Helga.
Ooluk hunched his shoulders, and rocked over his food. “Knight Persephone was hurt. In the cave.”
Helga’s breath caught, and very carefully, she picked her way through her own pain on the words: “Yes, she was.”
“I should have crushed it from here. I should crush the mines, and the fortress, and send them all into the ocean.”
Helga’s hand took a hard grip on Ooluk’s shoulder, and he yelped in surprise.
“You must not do that, dearie! You must not! Don’t ever speak that again, never once aloud, never whisper it. Never so much as think it!” exclaimed the dwarf, her voice rising in her worry.
“Why not?” retorted Ooluk. “She is your snow-wife! You should raise spears, and I should crush that place, and then nobody would be hurt or die!” The young man’s voice cracked in strain. He tried to shrug off Helga’s grip, but it was firm.
He thinks he’s to blame that she was hurt, Heather realized. He thinks he could have crushed that cave from a safe distance, but we went to investigate. He held off because of us.
“Helga, let him go,” said Heather, her hand rising to take the dwarf’s wrist. She pushed Helga’s hand off of Ooluk’s shoulder. “He did what we asked, and Persephone was hurt. Ooluk, listen to me. It wasn’t your fault. You weren’t there. You couldn’t protect her.”
The words scalded her heart like acid, but she fought to keep the feeling down and out of her voice.
Helga’s voice softened. “Aye, dearie. We don’t blame you. You’ve done so well for us already.”
Ooluk’s angry mouth turned down, and hung his head as if his blind, scarred pits could stare a hole through the bowl in his lap. “It’s the place of the Gaiman to wrestle the earth, and keep the people safe. I failed in that. Now you ask me not to do my duty, and crush all the bones I feel moving around in the fortress.”
“Not a one,” said Helga sternly. “Not a one, you must not, Ooluk. You must understand. When the Empire comes, if the mine is destroyed or damaged, they will punish us all. It is the duty of the citizens of the Empire to protect the Emperor’s property. Out here, come spring, a great armada will come. More ships than you’ve ever heard of, Ooluk, I guarantee it. Not one ship. Not ten. They’ll come by the hundreds, dearie.
“And if the fortress isn’t there? They’ll rain fire on this village and everyone left within it until all is ash and glass. And then they will move inland, punishing everyone they find, anyone with the least connection to this town, as they seek the traitors involved. They will torture and kill until they’ve found the ones responsible for its destruction.” The dwarf swallowed. “To even speak it, the way you just did? Treason.”
Heather frowned Helga’s way. “It’s really that bad, here? I believe you, but it’s not like the army to be so open about the threat. Citizens get called to duty, but that’s extreme.”
“It’s as brazen as it can be here, Blackthorne, if you talk to the soldiers, or read the standing orders posted at the fortress. It’s all there plain as day for anyone to read. Letting the fortress fall to the undead host is bad enough in their eyes, I would think, but to destroy the mine and the fortress?” Helga shook her head. “No. Unforgivable. They would not rest until anyone they could punish hung by their neck.”
“Your empire is run by madmen,” muttered Ooluk. “The mad should be driven out, or given a spear to the belly.”
“Treason again,” said Heather. “Keep your voice low, Ooluk. Don’t say things like that out loud, not about the Emperor. They really would hang you for it, and then you could protect no-one.”
The elf looked even more unhappy, and picked at his food without enthusiasm. “And you and the knights could not protect me from your southlander Emperor?”
Heather gave his back a gentle pat. “I would try,” she said softly. “But I would die, too.”
He hunched his shoulders again. “I know I am not allowed to move the earth around the mine. They told me it might hurt the miners. Not that your southlander Emperor would come.”
“It’s not a comfortable thing to talk about for anybody, Ooluk,” allowed Heather. “To admit our own leaders would slaughter us for some crimes. But in this case, Helga is right. They would. So you must never, no matter what, hurt that mine. The fortress must stand. Come the spring, the Empire’s going to reclaim it. All the corpses in the northlands couldn’t hold back the army that will come.”
He looked up hopefully from his meal. “Will they get here in time to save us, Knight Heather?”
“No, Ooluk,” said Heather, swallowing. “No, they won’t. That’s up to us.”