Late the next morning, Heather dropped the leather bag of confetti in front of Sister Tanya, along with a roll of vellum. “I need your help on something, Sister,” said Heather, doing her best not to let her disdain for the woman show.
Tanya looked up from her breakfast, and fit Heather with a sour stare. “Oh, well, you know. I have some very important things to attend to today.”
“Father Keza says you don’t get your cosmetics bag back until after you’ve helped. No lipstick, no powder, no rouge, and no going out soliciting until after you’ve helped with this.”
Tanya narrowed her eyes at Heather. “How do you think the novices and squire will do soliciting for tithes without me along, hm?”
“I’m prepared to find out, and Sister Susanne’s going to be out and about with them. I’m sure they’ll do fine, she says the butcher and grocer both like her. But this,” Heather’s finger stabbed at the bag, “is important, and more importantly, Father Keza tells me you’re good at picture puzzles.”
“Oh! Well, that’s true,” said Tanya dubiously, opening the bag. “It’s all just paper bits?”
“Like pieces of a puzzle,” said Heather. “What I need you to do is put enough of those pieces together to tell me whether or not it’s the report I wrote.”
“What if it isn’t?”
“Then-” Heather thought back to the precise, identical runes of the automaton on bones. “- try to put a page of it together, and find out if it’s many identical pages, or different ones. Line up the marks across different pieces. Just do your best.”
Tanya fit Heather with a cool glance. “Hmph. I suppose it’s a better class of duty than scullery work.”
Heather gave the Circle woman a venomous smile. “Like I said, it’s important. When we’re fighting a necromancer, something like this could mean the difference in finding out whether or not you’re just big-boned.”
Tanya gave up an indignant screech, and flexed her hand as if to scratch at Heather. Heather ducked her face in close to Tanya’s, nose-to-nose, staring hard into Tanya’s eyes.
“Go on,” snarled Heather. “Try it. I’ll hoist you up by those cheap crystal earrings. In my line of work, I can afford not to be pretty, afterwards. Can you?”
The woman snarled. “You think you’re pretty now?”
“I’m way past caring whether I am or not. We’re at war now, Sister, and it’s war-time duty for all of us. We’re out there fighting for your lives. You’re done simpering around and blowing kisses at sailors, until all this is over. And if you cross me while I’m defending the faithful? I will haul you behind the coal-shed and bounce your face off more than just a headboard.”
Tanya’s lip curled, but there was a trace of fear in her eyes. Heather straightened up, and snarled: “Today, your work might just save some lives, Sister. Try to act like it.”
Heather left Sister Tanya in frustrated silence, picking listlessly at the pieces of paper in the bag, and made her way out back to the barracks to armor up. The door to Persephone’s cell was open, and Heather cast an eye inside as she walked past. Persephone was awake, her fingers picking absently at the blanket overtop of her, her eyes staring at her fingertips in the way an infant might. Helga was asleep beside her, curled in close.
She’s probably been up half the night changing Persephone’s bandages, thought Heather. She can sleep in this morning. I think she’s earned it.
Heather reached into their room and gently pulled the door shut, before making her way back to her cell. She donned her helmet and armor, and then fed her aggravation with Tanya into her armor’s runes, recharging them until they threatened to spark. Down to one fly amulet, she noted. The last had been lost along with Njorn’s leg in the blast at the cave. I’d better get a few more.
She let herself out the back gate, and made her way down the lane into Frostmoor. From the vantage point of the hill she could make out church-garbed folk going door to door in the town square below, carrying baskets for tithe and charity.
A knot of traders were complaining loudly amongst themselves as Heather made her way down into the plaza:
“Where are we supposed to take shelter? We’re not going to have any coin with the Gate down.”
“Are we supposed to just sleep in our furs on the streets? On the church floor, like a pauper?”
Heather bristled, but kept walking, content not to draw their attention and thus their complaints.
“What good’s the Inn if nobody’s got any coin to pay them, and no way to make more?”
“I’ve got four good trappers who should be here by now, and that bloody wall is blocking them out. For what?”
“I heard a rumour about bones moving in the hills.”
“What good’s the imperial fortress if it won’t open their gates for us? They’re provisioned for siege for years, aren’t they?”
The butcher’s door beckoned, and Heather let herself in, eyes scanning the damage to the building as she made her way in. The blast took a little nick out of the butcher’s wall there, and a walnut-sized hole in the stone-slate roof. He’ll want to patch that before we see more rain.
The butcher looked up from his chopping block, and smiled Heather’s way. “Ah, welcome back Knight. I’m afraid the beef and pork are gone, but I’ve still got some fresh seal, and a caribou.”
Heather stepped up to the counter. “That’s a shame about the beef. I don’t think I’ve got half as much coin as I’d like, but I thought your beef was really good for so far north. Better than some cuts I’ve had in Bastia.”
The butcher beamed, and gestured to the eye-in-sun sigil on her collar. “Well, thank you, Knight. You’re the new detective the town’s talking about?”
Heather inclined her head. “That’s right. Heather Blackthorne,” she said, extending a hand to shake by way of introduction. “And I heard that soldier Charbeau call you Maurice the last time I was here, is that right?”
“Aye, that’s right. Maurice Ghislain,” he said, as he shook her hand.
Might as well be social before I hit the man up for his entire shop’s stock, thought Heather. “That was a nice turn you did for Charbeau, with that sausage you gave him. Shame about the fortress staying shut.”
Maurice gave a humble duck of his head at her remark, and shrugged his broad shoulders. He had a ruff of curly black hair around his bald pate, and a bushy mustache that reminded her of her father’s. It made it easy for her to talk with him. “Charbeau’s a good man. Uncertain times out there, with the fortress staying shut, and then that awful blast.”
“Speaking of which, I noticed you have a hole in your roof outside, about the size of a walnut. I’ll see about finding someone to fix that. We’re going to be rounding up volunteers to do some repairs around town,” Heather said.
Nevermind that I just made that up on the spot, it needs to be done, Heather thought. Might as well grease the wheels before I start asking for the cart.
Maurice leaned his chin on his hand, with a wry smile. “Ah, and you’ll put my name on the list if I do you a good turn, is that it, miss Blackthorne?” said the butcher.
“I’ll put your name on it anyway,” she said. “But I suppose you’ve already seen us making our rounds. Rationing is being declared in the city, with the Sending Gate down and the walls up.”
“Seems to me we’d have no need for rationing without the walls blocking the hunters,” Maurice pointed out.
“I wish that was so,” Heather said, leaning over the counter to look the man in the eye. “It might not look it yet out there, but we’re already under siege. Saint’s honor. It’s no secret anymore, though I’d like to keep it quiet for now. Undead are stalking the hills around the town. A lot of them.”
Maurice paled at that, and frowned down at his chopping block. “Well, you’ve done some good around the town. I’ll hear you out. How much do you need, Heather?”
“All of it,” Heather said. “And more. You’re a butcher, and you’ve got more experience than our kitchen does in preserving meat. I’d like it all preserved, as much as you possibly can. We’ll get you any supplies you need in return, that we can provide anyway. Salt, spices.”
Maurice frowned. “And where’s all that food to go, hm? On your tables?”
“On everyone’s, Maurice. Anyone who asks, we distribute to. We make sure the children get fed first, and then the fighting men. Everything we can preserve is getting salted, dried, or put into confit. We need to waste absolutely nothing, to keep everyone alive any way we can. The Merchant’s hall’s paying the bill come spring anyway, money’s of no use with nowhere to spend it.”
Heather gestured to the front of his shop. “Making sure repairs get done in time for winter means less people freezing in the dark, or having their houses fall down when the snows come. Everyone’s going to starve some this winter, Maurice, unless a whale comes in. I just want to make sure nobody starves to death.”
Maurice looked away. “Aye,” he said reluctantly.
Heather tried on her best understanding smile. “It’s not good for business next year if half of your customers starve to death this winter, Maurice. And I’m sure I could talk with Sister Susanne about paying a few visits for your trouble.”
The butcher had the decency to blush, and rubbed the back of his head as he laughed. “I’ll see what I can do. I’ll need some help though. Confit and meat-drying take some work.”
“You’ll have all the help you want,” said Heather. “I’m sure Sister Susanne will be happy to lend a hand, or just supervise. Send a runner to the church if you need more hands, or supplies.”
“I’ll need those salts and spices, all you can spare,” said Maurice. “Anything I don’t use, I’ll make sure you get back.”
“Done. I’m in charge of the kitchens at the church, I’ll make sure you get it. Thank you, Maurice.” She extended a hand across the counter, and Maurice shook it.
“Saints protect you, Knight.”
“And you as well, Maurice,” she said, sincerely.
She stepped out of the butcher’s shop, and strode down the street in search of Sister Susanne. Let’s hope I don’t have to threaten her too, just to get her to do her job.
There was a large cart parked outside the grocer’s shop, and Sister Susanne and Squire DuChamp inside. The red-headed novice girl from the church was with them, scurrying around the store with a list in hand. The entire scene looked less like a tithing and more like a robbery. Susanne was seated on the grocer’s side of the counter, her fingers curling playfully in his black hair. She was giggling and flirting indecently with the man while DuChamp and the novice emptied shelves into bags.
Heather raised a hand in polite greeting, and immediately took a burlap bag offered by the squire. No time to afford the grocer second thoughts! Heather thought.
It would have been fun, under different circumstances, shamelessly raiding the grocer’s without a care for budget or restraint. But she was conscious of every bit of food that went into the bags, every onion and potato meaning another life saved for a day.
There won’t be enough, Heather realized. The Sending Gate only charges a pittance for food coming up here. It’s still incredibly expensive, but it meant that they wouldn’t starve through a hard winter. But everyone in town always thought if there ever was a siege, they’d be safe in the fortress, not trapped out here.
Heather slung turnips and apples into her bag, counting every meal she could make and every mouth she could feed. The count kept coming up short.
The cold realization shook her. No matter how generous they are, there just isn’t enough food. People are going to die.
The thought of Ooluk at her supper table made her heart clench. By his people’s customs, he’s already dead. He won’t eat when he finds out the living are starving. I might convince him for a while, but when people start dying, he’ll be one of the first. His food means enough for a child.
Heather wasn’t prepared for the wash of maternal worry that coursed through her. It felt too much like worrying for Anthony, and she almost dropped a fat white onion before hastily scooping it into the burlap. Squire DuChamp looked up at her, and she quickly looked away to wipe tears from her eyes. I’ll just go ahead and blame those on the onions if he asks, Heather thought.
By the time she got back outside with her bag, there was a gathering of people starting to form around the cart. They slung angry and suspicious glances at the hoard being assembled.
I’d better nip this in the bud, Heather realized, or there’s liable to be a riot.
She climbed up on the cart with her burlap sack, set it down, and held up her hands towards the growing knot of people. “We’re gathering and preserving food, and we’re asking for tithes,” she said without preamble. “Everything and anything you can spare, please bring it to the church kitchens. If you’re good at cooking and canning, or preserving food, we need you. Nothing wasted. Every mouthful is going to count if we’re all going to survive this winter. In return, we’re going to do our best to make sure everyone has a fair share. The priority is for children and fighting men and women.”
“Why fighters?” a woman called up to her.
Heather unslung her mace, and pointed out towards the wall. “The fortress is shut, and won’t let us in. Undead move in the hills. Saint-Cielle is lost. But with the wall and the vigilance of the faithful, the town is safe.
“Pray for the whalers to return, hold to your faith in the Saints, and put your trust in the Church. My name is Heather Blackthorne, and my shield and mace are here to protect you from the horrors outside. I’m also in charge of the church kitchens. Anything you bring us will be preserved and returned, or shared with those in need. The Merchant-hall will make reparations, come spring. But we have to cooperate together. If you have meat, preserve it, or bring it to the butcher. Any salt for drying meat that you have, please bring it.”
The grumbling of the growing knot of people around her wasn’t slowing. They’re frightened, and they’re frustrated. Time to give them something to do with that anxious energy, Heather thought.
“If your house has been damaged, and needs repairs, send word to the church. I need volunteers, craftsmen, people with skills in construction and masonry. If you can cut stone and mortar it or join it by magic, we need you, and this town needs you. Everyone whose home has been damaged, put your name in. We’ll make sure it gets fixed before the winter. We’re all in this together, and the Saints would sooner have us lift a hand in aid, than two hands in prayer.”
Thanks, Dad, Heather thought. They’d been his words once, and they rung true. The knot of people around the cart had subsided in their muttering, and she seized on their attention while she had it.
“Go spread the word, please. Raise hands for your neighbours, open your larders, waste nothing. All meat to the butcher, everything else to the church, and bring all your canning jars and supplies and salt. Pots and cauldrons, too, everything you can spare. Saints be with you.”
As soon as the crowd had dispersed, Squire DuChamp emerged from the grocers, with the novice and Sister Susanne hot on his heels. Heather hissed softly to the squire: “Get that cart back to the Church before he realizes how clean you picked his shop!”
DuChamp gave her a conspiratorial nod, and took up the big cart-handle. He’s going to need help getting all that up the hill, Heather thought. Quickly, she grabbed Susanne by the arm, and leaned in.
“Sister, the butcher’s agreed to be exceedingly generous, and I really think his ongoing cooperation would hinge on you being present. Even if it’s only to supervise.”
To Heather’s surprise, Susanne broke into a sunny smile. “Maurice? You needn’t twist my arm, Knight. He’s been sweet on me all year.”
Heather let Susanne’s arm go, and stepped away. “Just keep him sweet on you. We need his help desperately, and all the fat and meat he’s got in that shop.”
Susanne bounced lightly on her heels. “He’s got a heart, Knight.”
“Pardon?” Heather said, turning back towards her.
“I said he’s got a heart. Your job is to keep it beating. Mine’s to remind him he’s got reasons for it to beat,” Susanne gave a little sway of her hips, and laughed kindly. “He’s more than just a shop full of of meat, you know.”
“I know that,” muttered Heather.
“Then talk about him like he’s more than that,” replied Susanne. “Do that enough, you might not need my help next time.”
Heather grimaced. “I’ve got people to feed, Sister, and people to keep alive. I’ll leave the tender graces to those better qualified.”
Susanne gently shook her head. “As you will, Knight. I’ll go keep him company.”
“You do that,” Heather growled, and took up the handle of the cart alongside DuChamp. “Come on, squire. We’ve got work to do.”
Thirty men and women from the town descended on the church early the next morning. By mid-afternoon the entire practice yard was filled with cauldrons over cookfires, and pots of soup and stews being ladled into jars and pots. The confit jars coming up from the butcher’s were already the topic of some anticipation from the volunteers. And the aromas that rose from the church kitchen made for many mournful faces as they watched jar after jar being stowed in the church cellar.
Now, with the sun ready to set and the last of the day’s cooking done, Heather stood sweat-drenched and exhausted in the little graveyard of the church. The Guiding ceremony in the little graveyard was a somber respite from the madness of the kitchens.
Too tired to stand at attention, she leaned back against a convenient boulder, and watched the spirit-walker dance in silence.
The man who danced in the graveyard was a dour-faced figure by the name of Jiraat, swaddled in a long purple robe so dark it bordered on black. He had skin the colour of good Venician chocolate, over a sharp nose and a face that looked as if it had never known a smile. His left eye was milky white, entirely obscured by cataracts.
His dancing motions were angular, stiff and mechanical as a golem’s, all angles and lines and rotations as he cavorted. Heather wasn’t surprised by the gaping pink scar across Jiraat’s throat. So that’s how this one died, she thought. He looks the sort to have his throat slit.
He was the spirit-walker supplied by the local Mage college. Heather watched as he danced, thinking back to the Cathedral at Bastia. She’d known some of the spirit-walkers there. Larger church facilities occasionally had their own dedicated spirit-walker for Guidings, but most smaller chapels had to rely on the Mage Guild, or even wandering itinerant spirit-walkers.
Send the Major on his way for us, Jiraat, she wished. May the Pope and Saints and Alektos welcome him, before he goes to the Divine.
Only the once-dead could bridge the gap between the mortal world and the beyond, and barely one in a thousand ever did. Those that returned spoke of bargains of service, bargains of magic, bargains of their very souls struck in the void beyond. They rose from death, alive and whole, but never unmarked. It had been so since antiquity, and no few served the Church; it had been founded by a spirit-walker’s pact, after all.
Father Keza, Helga, and Ramdas stood at respectful attention alongside Heather. For almost an hour, in the cold drizzle of the evening, they watched the man move in a silence broken only by an occasional mutter or chant.
Just as Father Keza’s concern at the lack of results was starting to show on his face, Jiraat’s hands clapped together, and he gave a wordless shout. When he spread his hands again, they revealed a cupped ball of light, dim and wan, the size of a small apple. Heather’s sigh of relief echoed those around her.
Jiraat tenderly brushed Major Weathers’ soul, until it perched on the tips of the spirit-walker’s fingers. His face briefly softened, as he pursed his lips down at the soul, as if to brush it with a kiss. But instead, he whispered something to the mote of light, and then blew gently.
As if dispersing dandelion seeds, Major Weather’s soul scattered, bits and pieces whirling and dancing into the air around them, before fading away.
Bye, Major, thought Heather. Better seeing you go than seeing you die. Naked relief was painted across the faces around the grave graveyard.
Heather put her hands together in thoughtful prayer. We didn’t really think it would go any other way, what with how thorough we were in Saint-Cielle. But nobody would rest easy if the Major turned ghast, out in the lonely north. See you next life, Major. If you see Njorn and Bjorn, give their necks a pat for me. And tell Stephen and Anthony I’ll be with them just as soon as I can.
Usually a funeral would follow a Guiding, but with the body having been previously disposed of, it was moot. So Heather took a mug of beer from the kitchens and stepped back out into the little church graveyard, to watch the sun go down over the gravestones.
Helga came out not long after, and gave Heather a silent, tearful nod. She had a large slab of stone over her shoulder. The dwarf set it down in the graveyard with a rumbling thud, and let gravity and magic sink its foundation into the ground. Heather looked over the stone, hand-chiselled by Helga’s own hand.
It simply read: Michael Weathers.
That was all. No date of birth or death, no memoriam, simply a marker stone.
Heather cleared her throat. “Leaving that bare for the family to fill in, Stengrav?” she asked the dwarf.
“Aye,” Helga said, and gently took Heather’s mug from her hand. The dwarf took a gulp of the beer for herself, and then poured the rest out at the foot of the stone. Heather didn’t object. One more to keep you warm on the trail, Major.
“Wish I knew the Major better,” Heather said, after a moment’s silence. “Doesn’t seem right, having a wake without a story or two to tell.”
Helga’s head bowed. “There’s not much story to tell, dearie,” said the dwarf, as she crouched and touched the stone. “The Major was a private man. Good sense of humour, so long as he wasn’t dry. Didn’t ask many questions. Just did what was right when it was time. Reached out the faith to the northern folks here.”
“I didn’t even know his first name,” Heather said, staring at the stone.
Stengrav’s hand patted the side of the stone. “Neither did I,” she grunted, mouth twisting into an approximation of wry humour. “Turns out it’s classified. Had to ask Lieutenant Pramath. Our Major had a lot of secrets.”
“Good place to send people with secrets, I suppose,” said Heather, looking at Helga sidelong.
Helga smacked her arm lightly. “Leave off, dearie. It wasn’t as if I was an adulteress. I was faithfully married for fourteen years. And for two more years after he died. Coal gas got him, deep in a mine. Eight dead, fourteen wounded. I wasn’t the only widow grieving in that town.”
“What was his Guiding like?”
“Oh, the spirit-walker then was quite a funny fellow. He went around and talked to the families, gathered funny stories about each man who’d died. I never thought I’d go to a Guiding and have a good laugh, but I had plenty. He brought along this great stone horn, and he’d tell his stories, and play notes through it now and then. Took us awhile at first to even realize he’d begun the Guiding, he was so relaxed. Eight families and a town gathered to mourn, and he kept us smiling instead.”
“Did you see your husband’s soul?” asked Heather.
“Aye, dearie. I watched my dear Urist’s soul rise, when the man blew his horn the final time. Like a child blowing bubbles, they all just flew away at once, free. It felt good, to watch him go. Better that than another ghast haunting the mines.”
“That does sound nice. My father’s Guiding was something else. This woman showed up with big red feather fans, a costume on like she’d skinned a flock of cardinals. She danced these elaborate patterns all around the coffin.” Heather said, a gentle smile ghosting across her lips at the memory.
I had to keep from giggling, back then. Dad would have loved it. If he’d seen it he’d have sat down at the dinner table later with his big mustache puffing out with laughter. He’d put a fork in one hand and a chicken drumstick in the other, and waggle them around in imitation just to see Mama and me laugh. Then we’d all eat supper together, just like Steven and Anthony and I would have.
She held the thought like one would hold a hot pan through oven mitts, holding onto the growing warmth of it until the pain was too much to bear. And when it was, she let it go, her mind recoiling sharply back from that precipice.
Helga sensed the weight of Heather’s thoughts, or read them in the sudden tension that rolled through Heather’s face. “And what of your husband’s Guiding, dearie?”
She doesn’t know, Heather thought, fighting back the urge to snap at the dwarf.. She’s just trying to be nice. But right about now, I hate her for asking. Heather grimaced, and made the futile effort to try to draw it into a smile. “Oh,” Heather said softly. “I couldn’t be there for it.”
Helga winced. “I’m going to go get us both some more beer, how’s that sound?”
“That would be appreciated,” Heather said, turning away so she could thumb at the tears that were trying to escape her eyes. She bit her lip tight in her teeth.
I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t be there because I spent those days in a blur of weeping and screaming, in a warded widow’s cell, just to keep from lashing out and turning everything to ruin around me. I barely remember the funeral.
Heather’s hand clenched at the top rail of the fence, and sparks of wild magic fire sprung from her eyes as she stared out towards the empty harbor, and the sea beyond.
I miss them right down to my bones. I miss them so hard my heart aches up into my teeth. I miss my little boy. My husband. I miss the feeling of having a life that means something, anymore.
She felt the sob rise in her gut, and ruthlessly pushed it down.
I could go take a walk off that pier down there, right now, and be with them in my next life. But I promised. Go to the Saints without sin.
How many times have I thought about it? Every room with a ceiling joist strong enough for a belt and my weight. Every knife with an edge sharp enough to open an artery. Every skeleton that’s been slower than my training, every shambling corpse too stupid and slow to do the job.
But if I fail any further, it would just make it worse. I’d get others hurt or killed. And it’s not fair to ask them to pay the price for me. Stain my soul, hurt my karma. I’ll end up coming back a slug at this rate. I just have to hope I run into something better than I am. Something that can finally do the job.
A thought bubbled up in her: I miss wanting to live.
Helga took her time in rejoining Heather, this time with a mug in each hand. Longer than she needed to, but long enough to let the knight regain her composure. They touched mugs and drank, neither having much to say, nor the will to say it.
Ramdas emerged from the church not long after, and it was with his violin case strapped to his back. Respectfully silent, they watched as he drew out the violin with the care most men reserved for lifting their own newborn sons. His face grew focused, intense, as he tucked the violin to his cheek and put bow to string.
The song was sweet and low, the only intended audience the dead and the stars. Helga and Heather buried their noses in their mugs as the music rose around them. The centaur was a fine player, and his violin just as fine, and the music made their breaths hitching, treacherous things. Motes of grief and sadness rose around them, drifting up towards the heavens, sending their grief to the Saints and stars.
They drank, and they listened, and Ramdas played on without a word until the moon was high and the hour was late.
When the music ended, the centaur returned the violin to his case with the care Heather had once used in lowering her son to his crib. They all nodded, each to one another, and retired to their beds in silence.
There was nothing more to say, and there was much more yet to do.