The next morning saw Heather at the kitchens, making breakfast. Eggs were perishable, and so in they went with hashed potatoes.
With how much cooking we’ll be doing for the next few days, I want a meal I can make in my sleep, she thought. With the morning’s potato peeling done, she set the sullen acolyte to sweep the kitchens. Judging from the set of his brow, he was no doubt cursing her name with each stroke of the broom.
Just because the Captain’s dead doesn’t mean your penance is over, boy. Least that anger does you good when you’re washing the pots, Heather mused. Long time since I’ve seen anyone treating burned-on crust like a mortal enemy.
Ooluk sat at a little table, pushed up against the back kitchen wall, with his hands folded on top. Now and again, his head moved in birdlike way, tracking each new sound made at the stove.
“What are you cooking today, Heather?” he asked.
She didn’t mind the first-name basis she’d fallen into with Ooluk. “Scrambled eggs and hash,” Heather answered. “Crack open a bunch of eggs, mix them all up, a little milk, some herbs. Easy way to feed a lot of people, scrambled eggs. Need to use them up, since they won’t keep.”
“Ah. And what is hash?”
“Potatoes, chopped up fine, fried. Goes good with eggs. Easy on the acolytes too,” she said, glancing over toward the penitent.
“Nice thing about it, Ooluk, is it doesn’t matter how well you peel the potatoes. You don’t even have to at all if you want. You can just cut them fine, into little sticks. Cut up some onion the same. Put down some butter in the skillet, fry them with a little salt. Pepper if you can get it, and may as well use what we’ve got.”
“Ah,” said Ooluk, in the faint voice of someone content to take Heather at her word. “What is pepper?”
At that, Heather had to pause for a second. The question, in all its guileless curiosity, reminded her too much of her own son. Her heart clenched. It’s like back before Anthony went to school. He’d watch me in the kitchen, asking all his little questions. What’s that, mama? Why that, mama? What’s a cheddar?
“It’s a spice,” Heather managed to say. “Hard to get most places, except out closer to the Thousand Kingdoms. It’s a little berry, you dry it out and grind it up. Gives a little bite to food you put it in. Hard to explain without tasting it.”
It seemed to be enough for Ooluk, who lapsed back into a contemplative silence.
Heather’s heart squeezed, her mind filling the silence with a thousand curious questions from the son she’d once had. But as much as the questions pained her, they were still a familiar thing, a noise as welcome in the kitchen as the sizzling of eggs and potatoes. That is how a kitchen ought to sound, she thought, frowning at the potatoes and onions in their skillet. People talking, food cooking.
Ooluk held his tongue for a while, and just as she’d glanced his way to check on him, she heard his voice rise above the sound of sizzling eggs and potatoes.
“What’s a Detective?”
Heather paused for a moment, wooden spoon hovering over the pan. They’ve been throwing the word around while he’s in earshot, she thought, stirring the pan. Makes sense he’d ask, sooner or later. How would he understand what I do?
“They look closely, listen hard, and pay attention to everything. Because sooner or later, you’re going to need to piece a story together, and follow where it leads you. Usually to someone who committed a crime.”
“Like the hunters. But you track no game. You track stories?”
“The truth, Ooluk,” Heather said, levering out a quartet of fresh, long rye loaves from the pans. “Unless we’re working from the truth, we might end up punishing the wrong person for a crime.”
“If the spear is thrust into the wrong belly,” Ooluk said, “it would make all the tribe weaker. And the killer would be free to kill again.”
That brought her up short. “More or less, I guess,” Heather said.
Heather directed the sullen acolyte to take up the bread and butter, and she loaded her arms down with the bowls of egg and potatoes as she continued the explanation: “Imperial laws cover a lot of ground, and in cities they’ve got their own people to handle the day to day stuff. A Church detective usually concentrates more on things like ghosts, or horrors, or when the Guard calls us in for certain crimes, usually necromantic. Here, though? Knights do the Guard’s work, too.”
“What happens when the ones who raise the dead are caught?”
“Only one answer for that crime,” Heather said, her voice low and furious. “You hang the son of a bitch. You hang them by the neck where everyone can see, so they know exactly what happens. And then you burn them to ash and bless the hole you dump them in.”
Heather placed the bowls down at the meal table, and closed her eyes, dismay washing over her. “That’s a magic that poisons the soul, Ooluk. Pulling up the dead. Nobody who starts using it stops all the way. They’ll just get worse and worse, until–”
Until you miss one. And they come back, and they take away all the best parts of you. Hurt you in ways you never thought anyone knew to hurt you. And then they laugh. And whistle a festival tune on their way out.
“Until what, Heather?” Ooluk asked.
It was enough to snap her out of her reverie, and she shook her head.
“Eggs are getting cold,” she replied, before pushing the door open to beat the meal chime.
Heather brushed off the dusting of frost that clung to her meal chime, and cracked a wide yawn. Her sleep had been fitful, equal parts nightmares and cold. Piling on yet another fur over her shoulders as the night’s chill had deepened hadn’t helped enough, and the chill still clung to her arms that morning. It’s only going to get colder from here, she thought sourly.
The training yard hadn’t yet filled up with housewives and chefs from the village homes and inns. But it would soon enough as the frantic preservation of food continued. A few old women were already beginning to set up cookpots over conjured stoves. She scanned the dawn-rosied horizon and the far distant grey line of the fortress, and frowned. Something had changed in the night.
Atop the distant walls, sentries stood once more. A thin plume of blue smoke was rising from the ocean-facing side of the fortress. Heather’s frown deepened. Well that’s new. Must be fifty of them up on the wall alone. Armored, leather at least. Morning sun would reflect if it was metal or bone. Not sure if that’s good.
Ramdas called her into his office as soon as she stepped back inside.
“Lieutenant?” she replied, as she stepped in.
The Major’s little office had been haphazardly cleaned. Some of the piles of paper that had filled the space had been burned, or stored up on higher shelves, making more room for Ramdas’ body. He’d pushed the desk forward, giving him enough space to stand and face both desk and door.
“Come in, close the door, take a seat,” he said. His tone carried a grim urgency, and Heather didn’t hesitate.
“Is this about the sentries, sir?”
“Yes, Caballero. Three o’clock in the morning, they appeared upon the fortress walls. The sentries on our walls saw them file out, and take position. Looks normal from this distance.”
“Hm. Three o’clock.” Heather tilted her head back in her chair in thought. “How far west is Venicia? How many hours do you lose between home and here if you took the Sending circle, Lieutenant?”
“About five, Blackthorne. Why do you ask?”
“Maybe nothing. But maybe if I’m a thoughtful necromancer, I sleep on it before I do anything rash. Or maybe I’m just lazy, and leave it for the morning. So up goes our wall, and he plays it cool, resolves to leave it until the morning. Only with the sun being so long in the summers here, you don’t trust to the sun for waking or sleeping. So you find a dark room, hole up, go to bed, wake up. Maybe have a leisurely breakfast, and then do what you’ve resolved to do. Just a theory, right now. Eight o’clock in the morning starts the workday for most, right?”
Ramdas grunted. “You think this necromancer is Venician, then?” He glanced towards a stack of the warded scrolls, and tugged one out slowly, toying with it.
“Well I do now, Lieutenant,” grunted Heather. “The gates first closed right after what would be the siesta hour in Venicia.” She arched an eyebrow towards the scroll in his hand. “Something in there you want to share with me, sir?”
The centaur turned the scroll around in his hands. “Yes,” he said finally. “But I’m not cleared to. Need-to-know. Right now I share your suspicions, Caballero, but I can’t confirm or deny them. Besides. What land he’s from doesn’t matter much at this point.”
Heather fitted the Lieutenant for a glare, but he met it with the helpless lift of his eyebrows. He made a gesture of crossing of his wrists. Hands are tied, Pramath? What else was the Major keeping secret?
Heather drew a breath through pursed lips, and replied: “No sir, but knowing what land he’s from gives us a good idea of his usual waking and sleeping hours. That’s important. A sleeping necromancer will leave standing orders with his undead, usually. But changing those orders requires him to be awake. Sure, if he’s clever, he’ll have a skeleton come wake him or bang an alarm, but I’ve heard of more than one coven falling because of carelessness. Amateurs might only order one skeleton of the bunch to sound the alarm. Pick it off, and the rest might fight, but they’ll never think to wake their masters.”
Ramdas leaned forward at his desk, eyes incredulous. “They overlook something so basic as alarms for the sentries?”
“Sometimes. You’ve got to remember sir, your average necromancer’s a mage, usually without much military training. Or at best what they’ve gleaned from books. And even necromancers tend to forget that their corpses and skeletons aren’t people any longer. No common sense, they’re just following simple orders. So if you tell your skeleton to wake you up if it sees anything unusual, you’re going to get woken up every two minutes because it can’t tell a ‘usual’ rock from an ‘unusual’ one. If you tell it to kill anything that moves, you’ll find it in the morning tangled up in a tree, trying to kill the leaves blowing in the wind. Tell it to kill any person that approaches, and you might walk by it under a long sheet, so long as it can’t tell that you’re a person.”
Ramdas just blinked, and started shaking his head, chuckling grimly. “If I hadn’t already fought them at your side, Caballero, I would think you make them sound farcical.”
Heather shrugged her shoulders. “They more or less are, sir, on the defense. Their disadvantages are all strategic, and their advantages all tactical: Speed, endurance, fearlessness, mobility. But they’re dumb as dust, Lieutenant. What bothers me is what we’ve already established: whoever this necromancer is, he’s not average.”
“He’s thinking with a military goal in mind,” agreed Ramdas grimly. “Supply lines, targets of opportunity, recruitment. He’s not wasting his energy or troops throwing them at our wall. He appears to be as content to sit behind his wall as we are, ours. Worse yet, it’s demoralizing to the town. I expect today to be a parade of the sharp-eyed coming around to ask why we aren’t opening up the wall once more, believing that those are still people in that armor.”
“And we’re sure they’re not?”
Ramdas snorted. “I’ve not been asleep at the post, Blackthorne. Si. My first order for our lookouts was to report the first time one of the fortress sentries moved from a post, or was relieved. So far, nothing. Do you know a soldier of any discipline who’ll hold a sentry post without being relieved, on a morning so cold? Do you know fifty?”
Heather grunted. “So the fighting men here will have put it together, but not the common folk. They see figures on the wall, and they assume the best, while we deduce the worst.”
“It gets worse,” Ramdas said.
“Of course it does,” Heather said around a groan.
“They’ve restarted the smelter.”
The Lady Oiselle had no business atop the wall, but her men weren’t about to gainsay her. She stood rigid as a post atop the rough stone of the wall, her dress whipping about in the cold wind like a pennant.
Her two bodyguards, Pierre and Faruza, were discreetly arranged alongside her. The bodyguards had their shoulders staggered ahead and behind of the Lady to ensure she could neither topple forward nor back, despite the wind’s best efforts.
Dangerous game to play in these winds, m’lady, groused Heather silently.
The wind off the ocean was fierce that afternoon, and cold. Little flakes of snow were melting before they hit the ground, but they could see it come and go in the gusting winds, and the day was cloudy and grim.
“Fifty sentries there on the wall, m’lady,” said Heather. “They’ve not moved since three bells this morning. They’re definitely not people anymore. The guards of your house, and Goldbrace, are rotating every half hour in this chill. Those are the forces of the undead watching us, for certain.”
“Then I want them to see me, faithful knight,” replied the Lady, nonplussed. She spoke with the perfect self-assurance only a Noble could muster. A slip of a girl, surely no older than nineteen, carrying her chin high in the wind as though she were a queen who could stare down winter itself.
“I want them to see that we see them, that we know them, and that we are not afraid. If they are the Emperor’s men, then surely they will recognize me, and a messenger will be sent to inquire. Perhaps they believe us to be the undead, and have barred their gates from us for the same reason?”
Heather grunted, and produced the Captain’s (now Lieutenant’s) spyglass from her coat pocket, and passed it up to Pierre. He passed it dutifully to the Lady.
“Oh, what’s this?”
“Watch their faces, m’lady,” said Heather.
The Lady fussed preciously with the brass and glass, and then made a pleased noise. “Oh! See? Knight Blackthorne, they’re perfectly normal! I can make out their faces. Those aren’t undead at all. What a happy mistake. They’re alive! Helloooo!” she called, waving her white gloved hand high overhead.
“Keep watching,” Heather said.
The wind gusted over the cliff-tops, and raced over the walls, whipping pennants atop the imperial fortress hard. Lady Oiselle twittered on: “That’s the Sergeant Cousteau, and I think that’s the fellow who carves the ice swans at festival, what was his name, Pierre?”
“Private Emerson, m’lady.”
“Private Emerson, yes, thank you Pierre,” she said, as she squinted into the spyglass. A puzzled frown troubled her features. “Why, they are all wearing veils? Why are they wearing veils? Ah–”
A nauseous sound lurched out of the Lady Oiselle’s throat, and she let out the softest little “Oh!” from her painted lips.
Heather had made a sound much like it herself some hours before, when the wind had first struck up. The spyglass had shown her what the Lady Laurette Oiselle was seeing now: Those weren’t veils, moving in the breeze.
“Knight?” The Lady Oiselle’s voice fell quiet, leached of the good cheer it had carried not moments ago.
“Yes, M’Lady,” Heather replied.
“Their faces, Knight,” the Lady said, slowly lowering the spyglass. “Their faces are flapping.”
“Yes, M’Lady. Sewn into their helms, I expect,” Heather replied.
To the Lady Oiselle’s credit, she allowed herself only a slight tremor, before she neatly collapsed the spyglass, and handed it back to Pierre, who passed it to Heather. The Lady’s head took a thoughtful tilt, and her lips moved in silence as if picking and choosing the appropriately ladylike words to respond with. Then she turned towards Heather, and curtseyed down neatly to be closer to Heather’s eye level.
“I want you to destroy them all,” she growled.
“That is the idea, M’Lady,” Heather answered. She found herself fighting the urge to step back from the Lady’s venomous eyes. You’ve got some sharp teeth tucked in behind those honeyed lips.
What the hell is that? Heather thought as she approached the wall, scratching at her upper arm. For the last five minutes, the gathering magic had been an active irritation. Like someone blowing air through a pipe across my arm. Spotting the Lord Goldbrace and his man Ambrose atop the wall, facing the fortress, her irritation rose a fraction.
“M’Lord?” she called up. “Want to tell me what you’re planning on doing up there?”
“Not particularly!” the Lord called down, teeth flashing in his smile, “But since you’re here, Detective, you might as well come up and see for yourself.”
As Heather made her way to the top of the wall, a distortion in the air in front of Ambrose caught her eye. The man was staring intently towards it, his brows furrowed in concentration while his hands flicked across his abacus.
The light’s not right. That’s flows of air magic he’s sustaining, and he keeps looking up toward the fort. Her eye followed his line of sight, and she spotted the next distortion in the air, and the next. She counted seven spells hanging in the air, lined up in a series of progressively bigger lenses.
By the time she got to the Lord’s side, she had a fair idea what was happening. “You’ve got good help there, M’Lord. That trick beats the hell out of a spyglass for reconnaissance.”
“I’m told one can judge an officer by the quality of those he keeps around him,” Corbin said, his easy smile twisting wryly. “I like to think I deserve Ambrose’s service regardless.”
The Lord Goldbrace clapped his hands against the dusty stone palisade, “So then, Detective Blackthorne. I confess I’m in a bit of a quandary. How long is it that you’ve graced our illustrious shores?”
“Almost three weeks, M’Lord.”
“Not quite three weeks,” Corbin confirmed. “And your Lieutenant, perhaps twice that. Your Major was a good man. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he was a village fixture.
“But he’s gone now, Saints keep his soul, and your Lieutenant is in charge. And now we have an analyst for him to depend on. Do you understand my concern, Knight?”
Heather was careful to keep her glare pointed at the ground. This is because I’m new? Does he think I can’t do the job? Is he questioning Pramath’s leadership too? And will he become a problem if something goes wrong?
She waited until her glare faded, and let the motes of her anger loose behind her back, where she hoped the Lord Goldbrace wouldn’t see.
“You don’t like unknown quantities, my Lord,” Heather said, choosing her words with exaggerated care. “You don’t know either of us, so you don’t entirely trust us. And with the usual calibre of church help sent here, you’re cautious about putting your faith in our people.”
She pointed towards the fortress. “But you don’t have the experience with this kind of problem to feel confident taking charge, either. You know what militaries would do, but you’re not sure how far that extends in fighting the undead.”
Saints help me, she thought. Does this have to be perfect and bloodless from here on for us to rely on the support of his house? Without all our forces aligned, we don’t stand a chance. I’m not sure we stand a chance as it is.
“Very astute, Detective. And since we’re short on time and options, perhaps you’d like to put some of my concerns to rest. I and my House value merit and competence.” He looked her in the eye, and a wide grin split his face as he performed a reasonably good impression of a Bastian dockside accent: “So show me you can fish, not just cut bait.”
All right, Heather thought, heedless of the sharkskin handle creaking as her hand gripping her silvered mace. You want me to prove I can do my job, my Lord? Take a seat. You asked for this. Drawing in a deep breath, she locked eyes with him and launched into her report:
“Your man’s a Logician, and his eyes can’t be sharp enough to see the fort with any detail. His spectacles aren’t runed, so he’s looking through those lenses of compressed air he’s got in front of him.”
“Detective, perhaps we sh–” Corbin never got a chance to finish protesting the out-loud analysis of his majordomo’s methods, as Heather continued talking over him.
“And since you asked, M’Lord, given there’s an adamantine-rock pebble about the size of my thumbnail resting on the wall in front of his eyes? I believe he’s planning for it to end up in someone’s head. Sound about right, M’Lord?”
“Yes, thank you, Kni–”
“Begging your pardon, M’Lord, but I wasn’t done. The lenses keep shifting. He’s looking through them now, but he’s a Logician, M’Lord, and any good Logician is a stickler for efficiency. A military-trained sniper’s first order of business is reconnaissance first, and target elimination second. Not to mention material damage. He’s searching for the necromancer through the windows, and coming up fruitless.”
“So he’s going to pick a target at your request, and once he’s got his calculations done, he’ll pop the pebble into the first lens, and let it sit there until the wind’s right. Then the lenses collapse, and all that compressed air propels the pebble in sequence, each lens further accelerating the pebble. They drive the shot on target. Judging by the baffle-vents on the seventh lens, it will be used for noise control, to make determining the origin of the shot more difficult.”
“The distance from here to the fortress would probably hide the sound of the shot entirely. So that suggests you have sensible reasons to worry about agents of the enemy present in the town, who might report on snipers taking shots at the fortress. Plus it would prevent pointed questions by Detectives and rival House guards about your business up here on the wall, if nobody happened to hear the shot.”
Heather fell silent, holding her gaze on the Lord Corbin’s eyes.
“…Thank you, Detective,” Corbin said after he was certain she was finished, his mouth twisting as though he’d bitten into a young lemon. “That was indeed quite a thorough analysis.” His eyes betrayed some amusement, despite his expression.
“And now if you’re both finally done,” said Ambrose, startling the both of them. “Maybe you can both be kind enough to stop talking in my ear while I’m trying to work?”
I just dissected his entire technique right in front of his face, Heather thought, clearing her throat. If his look could kill, I’d probably be nursing at least a bruise.
“Ambrose has a point,” Corbin said, gesturing down the wall. “Let’s give him some space to work, why don’t we.”
“Yes, M’Lord,” Heather said, falling into step behind and beside the Lord Goldbrace.
They turned to watch in silence, as Ambrose ran another calculation on his abacus. He flicked a runed bead over, and a lens shifted slightly. Ambrose’s hand deftly plucked the pebble up and pushed it into the center of the first lens, where it hung suspended in the pocket of conjured, compressed air. He began muttering to himself about Coriolis forces.
Corbin leaned his elbows on the top of the parapet, straining his eyes towards the fortress in the distance. “Wind’s out to sea, Ambrose. Fire when ready.”
“Yes sir. Firing state ready and primed. It’s up to the wind, now.”
They held their breath, and a few seconds later, the pebble vanished with a sharp snap.
From their side of the magical sound baffle, the sound of the lenses collapsing was uncomfortably similar to the sound the bombs had made in the Sending tower, if quieter. Ambrose raised a hand, making a signal that Heather wasn’t familiar with. Corbin nodded in satisfaction at the gesture.
The Lord looks like a cat in cream. Ambrose must have hit the target dead on.
She counted the distant silhouettes atop the wall, and counted one less than before. “Which one did he fire on?”
“Furthest to the south, on the corner. So the impact would knock the skeleton off the wall to the outside of the fortress, hopefully,” said Corbin. “Less chance of anyone immediately noticing that way.”
“Cunning. So what now, M’Lord?” she asked.
“Now, we wait a time, and then do it again. See how long it takes for them to notice. If we’re lucky, we might drop ten or twenty of them over the next couple days. Attrition, Detective,” he said, clapping Heather’s pauldron. “The best strategy for an inattentive enemy.”
The blue-gray gleam of an adamant barrel emerging from a gunport on the south-eastern corner of the fortress caught her eye, and she frowned. “Are you sure they’re inattentive, sir?”
Next to her the Lord Goldbrace tensed.
“M’lord?” called Ambrose. “Time to get off the wall. Right now.”
The stairs weren’t far away, and Ambrose wasted no time in guiding his Lord’s path. But before Heather could get past the first step, the wall bucked beneath her. A sharp slap of sound ruffled her hair, and fifty yards away a home tumbled to the ground in pieces. The sound of tortured, shattering stone ricocheting off of rock and wood clattered in her ears.
Heather narrowly managed to avoid being pitched off the side of the stairs. A loose stone turned underfoot, and she slammed her shoulder into the adamantine wall, hard enough to draw a curse. A little wave of nausea slipped through her. Distantly, she heard the far-distant boom, deceptively quiet, of the noise of the cannonfire catching up with the shot.
About five seconds difference between the shot hitting and the sound arriving. That cannonball was going fast. They punched through twenty feet of adamantine rock. That house is gone. It’s just pieces. Please, Saints, tell me there was nobody inside.
Soldiers from around the wall were already springing into motion, shouting and running for the hole in the wall. Heather glimpsed the first five on the scene using hasty flows of Earth to fling rubble back into the gap, as she and the Lord Goldbrace and Ambrose all broke into a run towards the ruined home.
Punched through it like a rifle through old wood. Entry penetration is easily two metres deep, before the rock gave way. Exit wound in the wall is almost three metres wide. That’s a lot of rock shrapnel to go through a home.
By the time they’d sprinted to the scene, the House soldiers were already performing triage. A young woman, eyes rolled into the back of her head and blood trickling from her nose, was being carried out gently by two soldiers. An ugly red mark marred the front of her face, and bits of rock shrapnel had opened minor cuts across her arms.
Heather’s eyes scanned over the woman as she ran past: Still breathing, concussion, probably impact trauma. No serious bleeds. Leave her for the doctor.
Two children, blond-haired and weeping, came out of the wreckage next, carried by more Goldbrace soldiers. Heather stood back, and averted her eyes, pouring her anger into her mace until it throbbed red-hot in her gauntlet.
Both children are awake, and conscious. No big screams. Hurt, but nothing critical. Thank the Saints, oh Alektos, thank the Saints and Divine for me.
Corbin’s voice was quiet and devoid of its usual humour, as he spoke: “Seems they’re ready to use adamant cannonballs and cannon after all.”
Heather nodded grimly. “Anything else for cannon would have exploded, firing at a velocity like that.”
I want to be furious at the Lord, for going ahead with that idea, but what can I say? I’d have done the same, if I had the tools. The necromancers will be keeping themselves out of the line of sight, at least, Heather thought.
Ambrose folded his arms, surveying the wreckage of the home. “Single shot, extremely high velocity, extremely high density, to get through that stone and not bounce. There’s some spalling splatter in the wood, so it hit hard enough to liquefy the metal, sir. Definitely adamant. Too fast for powder. Definitely magically accelerated.”
Heather turned her head, and frowned. “So, magic. That usually would mean a person fired that, not a skeleton.”
Ambrose nodded. “Yes ma’am, must have been.”
Heather drew a breath. “Not certain about that,” she said softly. “But it won’t change anything right now. What I want to know is, why aren’t they firing again?”
Ambrose looked at Corbin, and the Lord pursed his lips. “Could be a one-for-one,” he said.
Heather glanced between them, and then pointed at the ruined home. “I need to know if this can happen again.”
“It can,” said Ambrose flatly. “And it could have from the moment they gained control of the cannons. They could be raining shot after shot down on us now, but they aren’t.”
“So it’s a message,” Heather growled. “We can, but we’re not.”
“Exactly,” said Corbin, thumbing the tip of his nose in thought. “I think they want detente. Stalemate. If they have the numbers to attack, they would attack. If they didn’t have the numbers to defend against a counter-attack, they wouldn’t provoke us with the cannonfire in return.”
“Could be a good thing,” pointed out Ambrose. “If they’re not certain about attacking, then that means the walls count for something, and keeps our people alive.”
“It’s not a good thing,” growled Heather. “It’s just time for them to build their army.”
The ground underneath Heather’s feet gave a subtle tremor, and it felt to Heather as if her guts were once more dropping out of her boots. Here comes Ooluk, she thought, swaying a bit as her sense of balance skewed with the magic of his approach. He’s mad. And he’s got Lieutenant Pramath right on his heels.
The little elf came ripping around the corner of the lane, his little hillock underneath him bowling bystanders out of the way. It would have been comical to watch, another time: Like a mouse under a rug, knocking over beetles. Ramdas followed at a fast gallop, his boots softening the drumming of his hooves on the flagstones.
“Slow down, Ooluk! Lieutenant!” Heather called. “They’re already patching the wall. There won’t be another shot on the wall!”
I hope, she silently amended.
The little elf zoomed by, a tight look on his young face. The ground around the wall rumbled as great columns of stone began to rise, reinforcing the damaged section. Soldiers cried out first in surprise, and then cheering, as the little elf’s magic pushed recalcitrant rock back into place to refill the gap.
Ramdas surveilled the scene, and then cantered up to Heather and the Lord Goldbrace. “The fortress fired upon us?” he said.
“Yes sir. Three injured, already being seen to,” reported Heather. “House Goldbrace soldiers are already bringing the wounded to the Doctor. The injuries didn’t look critical.”
The centaur put his hands together in brief prayer. “Saints praise and mercy for that, at least,” he said. He looked towards Corbin. “Don Goldbrace, thank you once more for your assistance in seeing to the faithful, with your men.”
Corbin inclined his head fractionally. “Least I can do, Lieutenant. Your Detective here has a keen mind. Good company to keep.”
“I think we should leave the scene, m’Lord,” suggested Ambrose. “Not much more good we can do here.”
I’m not sure you’ve done any at all, thought Heather peevishly, as she watched the retreating soldiers carry the wounded family up towards the Doctor’s home.
“Reluctantly, I have to agree, Ambrose,” said Corbin. “I think it’s best if we don’t mention our personal involvement, but we’ll spread word across the forces that snipers are not to fire on skeletons. Should we take a shot on actual bodies, Detective?”
Heather chewed on that thought, before answering. “I’m not sure, sir. They can raise corpses just the same as skeletons, and they might use them for decoys. Tempting as it is, a necromancer is far more likely to present decoys than to let himself be targeted, especially once he knows you’re sniping at him, m’Lord. And for all we know they may be holding onto living human hostages.”
“Then until we can positively identify a living necromancer, we hold fire,” said Corbin. He looked towards Ambrose. “Pass the order down the line, and instruct our men in the same, and I suppose a letter should be sent to House Oiselle on the matter.”
“Yes, m’lord,” said Ambrose.
They said their polite goodbyes, and departed up the lane, back towards the curve of the hill leading to the Goldbrace compound.
Ramdas glanced Heather’s way. “The fortress fired upon us in retaliation?”
“Yes, sir. Lord Goldbrace and his man set to testing our necromancer’s vigilance. Turns out he’s plenty vigilant.”
Ramdas folded his arms. “I question why it was necessary to test a fortress full of artillery cannons.”
Heather shook her head. “I don’t like gambling with lives either, sir, but I’m actually on the Lord Goldbrace’s side on this one. I stood by while he ordered the shot. We needed to know if our necromancer was paying attention. He was. He had that cannon ready to fire long before we took the shot. It fired back only seconds after they dropped a single skeleton. So he’s paying close attention, and he was already ready to fire long before we did.”
She turned to watch as Ooluk’s pillars of stone continued to rise, blocking in the damage done by the cannonball’s impact. “That cannonball was magically propelled, sir. Ordinarily, I’d say that meant our necromancer had fired on us himself.”
Ramdas grimaced. “But we are long past the days of ordinary anymore, si?”
Heather nodded. “Yes, sir. I’m heading back up the wall, Lieutenant,” she said. “I want to see if anything changes, now that they’ve shown their hand.”