There was stunned silence from the crowd around the gate. Heather, Lord Goldbrace, and Consul Sienna’s blood-sodden appearance had made it hard to be sure they were alive, or even human, until Heather’s voice had spoken up.
“Get your Don Goldbrace safely back to his home!” snapped Ramdas, jolting shocked guards into motion. “Consul Sienna, take her to the Merchant Guild, get them both healers immediately. Caballero Blackthorne, your wounds?”
Guards rushed forward, reaching to help the three bloodied heroes to their feet. Shouts of amazement, worry, and horror competed to be overheard over one another as the guardsmen scurried to obey.
Heather staggered, tried to rise, and fell gratefully onto the shoulder of a stout guardsman who rushed in to catch her. I’m staining his tabard, some addled part of her mind noted in dismay, at the long crimson smear she left on his linens.
Lieutenant asked me a question, she reminded herself.
“Concussion. Some fractures. I’ll live, sir,” she said, reeling upright on the helpful guardsman.
Ramdas stepped towards the wall. “Good. Go to the barracks, be healed as swiftly as is safe, we need you. Gaiman Ooluk. Open the wall. Close it behind me.”
It took Heather three heartbeats to formulate her confused objection: “Sir? No, sir, there’s… bones out there… bad. Skeletons.” The words stumbled from her mouth, and she pinched her eyes shut as a wave of dizziness rose up from her toes.
Concussion’s worse than I thought? Wait, no, that’s Ooluk’s magic underfoot.
“Si,” said Ramdas, as the rocks began to split, opening just wide enough to let him pass. His face was as grim as his voice, as he drew his rapier. “I am overdue, Caballero, for one of those outbursts of emotion we spoke of.”
He stepped through the gap left in the wall, and Ooluk’s fingers flexed upon his little hummock in the dirt. Heather left the side of the guardsman, and staggered over to Ooluk.
“Can you lift us up, Ooluk? I need to see. Lieutenant’s going to get himself killed.”
“I can,” Ooluk said, wrinkling his nose at the slaughterhouse stench coming from Heather’s clothes and hair. Underneath them, the hummock of earth rose higher, and Heather clumsily dropped to her knees to avoid pitching off the edge as Ooluk brought them towards the wall.
“He’ll be fine,” said Ooluk. “He’s an angry man given purpose.”
Heather tried to cast a glance his way, but turning her eyes so much made the dizziness well up in her again. “You’d know about that, Ooluk?”
Ooluk couldn’t hide the hint of an abashed smile. “I would, Knight Heather.”
So she rearranged herself with her chin on her knees, looking out at the barren stones around the camp. A few of the skeletons had doubled back from their retreat, as they realized someone had emerged from the walls. Heather frowned as she struggled to keep the count in her mind.
One… pair… so that’s three, four, five. Five skeletons. Five to one. About a hundred yards apart. If he engages them fast, he might be able to take them on, one-on-one or two on one.
“Don’t get hurt, Lieutenant!” yelled Heather. “We need you!”
The centaur raised his rapier towards Heather in solemn salute, and then turned to face the first onrushing skeleton. The skeleton loped across the night-lit stones, bones glowing when the moonlight found them, or vanishing when it ran through cloud-cast shadow.
Ramdas stood in a patch of moonlight as if it were his home, the light gleaming from his barding and rapier. His stripes lent contrast to the ghostly white glow of his hindquarters. She could feel the flows he was containing, like standing too close to a bonfire, a wash of heat carried through her skin as if borne on the wind. Red, fiery motes sparked off of him, and every exhalation swirled them through the air like sparks from breaking embers.
Guards rushed up onto the wall, shouting for bows and quivers. As if arrows will do the slightest bit of good, thought Heather. “Hold fire,” she called. “Hold fire for now.”
The orange motes around Ramdas bled out with each breath, clinging to his hair and clothing. It made him a bright, unmistakable target for the rapidly closing skeletons. The first skeleton dove at Ramdas from almost twenty yards away in a long, flying leap. In the skeleton’s right hand was a steel short-sword, cleaving forward in an overhead swing that leant momentum to it’s jump. Heather silently began to pray.
Saint Aysha, protect him, guide him in his anger away from danger-
In a smooth motion, Ramdas parried the slash, deflecting it to his right. His left hand shot out, gauntlet wrapping tightly around the skeleton’s neck bones. Then, like a lion cracking an ostrich egg, Ramdas leaned in and bit the skull of the skeleton. With a loud, sickening crack, he jerked the top of its skull free with his teeth, and spat it out in disgust.
It’s got another cog-top, like the ones in the cave! Heather realized. It’s definitely the automatons doing the enchanting, not the skeletons.
“You kill the faithful!” the centaur roared at the limp skeleton in his hand.
A loud cry of surprise went up from the guardsmen atop the wall, and then a muffled, uncertain sort of cheer. Ramdas dropped the abruptly lifeless skeleton from his hand, just in time to meet the second charging set of bones.
“Watch out, there’s more!” called a Goldbrace man.
The second skeleton had a spear in hand, and lunged for the middle of Ramdas’ chest. The centaur deflected the spear with a tight, sharp parry of his rapier, and then lunged forward to plant his fore-hooves atop the skeleton’s feet. Before it could retaliate, Ramdas’ mouth opened wide.
Heather expected another monstrous bite, but instead, Ramdas roared.
A greater cheer rose from the wall, as a jet of flame shot from the centaur’s mouth. Ramdas roared out a nine foot jet of flame, the fire burning white-hot like the heart of Father Keza’s furnace. The skeleton shook and flailed briefly, before an orange spider-web of heat-blasted fracture blossomed across its skull. It fell like a blown-out candle, the neck-bones smoldering and glowing like a wick.
“You kill my comrades!” Ramdas bellowed, flames and sparks shooting from his mouth with every word, the stones about him reflecting back firelight. More and more fiery motes surrounded him, igniting the tips of the hair of his tail, flame and sparks guttering with every angry thrash.
The guardsman at the wall-top were crying out, cheering on the centaur now. Their celebration sounded uneasy, cowed by the sheer force of fury Ramdas was letting loose.
“Two more, Caballero!” Came the next call, this time from an elf in House Oiselle livery. She pointed a Venician-bronzed hand towards the pair of skeletons advancing on Ramdas.
The skeletons were undeterred by the swift dispatch of their kin on the ground. They were weaponless, naked bone clacking and chattering as they sprinted for Ramdas. He sheathed his rapier, to the consternation of the watching crowd.
Heather swayed, and ended up leaning awkwardly on Ooluk’s shoulder. The elf make a little discontent sound, but allowed himself to be a steadying shoulder for her.
“He’s putting his weapon away, Ooluk,” said Heather, blearily realizing the elf couldn’t see the battle. “Why’s he-“
The skeletons leapt upon Ramdas, and clambered atop his back. Their fingerbones clawed and dug into chainmail barding, as they tried to bite and scratch at him through the steel chainmail. Ramdas caught them, one in each hand, and wrestled them around in his grip in front of him. One swiped at his face, stone-sharpened finger bones missing only by a lucky reflexive jerk by the centaur. As one lunged to bite at him again, Ramdas fed the skeleton his gauntleted hand, gripping it by the jawbone like a fisherman handling a recalcitrant fish.
When he had a grip of both skeletons by their heads, he brought them together sharply, three times, each impact sounding out with a high-pitched Tok! On the third impact, the skulls shattered apart, and Ramdas ripped the jaws off of them, and lifted the bones into the air like trophies.
“You threaten the innocent!” he roared at the bested bones. Flame shot from his nose and mouth on every breath, his hair and tail aflame, eyes lost behind a haze of orange firelight.
There was pandemonium on the walls. Guards bellowed their approval from on high. Motes of pride and excitement rose around them, anticipating the last charging skeleton’s demise. The smell of burning hair rose up on the wind, and Heather grimaced.
He’s going berserk, Heather realized. On purpose. He’s putting all his anger into this now. He’s burning himself, and just letting the pain make him angrier. Drawing more than he should, he’s not keeping enough control-
The irony wasn’t lost on Heather. With a croaking cough, she raised a shout for her comrade’s benefit: “For Weathers, Ramdas! For Squire Norris!”
Her words provoked a new eruption of flame and motes from Ramdas, and he broke into a galloping charge towards the final skeleton. His hooves struck sparks from the stone underfoot as if running through a bed of coals, flame puffing from his face on every breath as the centaur raced to close the distance. He met the skeleton head-on, bowling it over in his charge. Sparks and flame flew on impact, and the skeleton went skittering and skidding along the rocks.
Twenty pounds of desecrated skeleton, meet eight hundred pounds of angry centaur, Heather thought with a smile.
He wheeled back towards the fallen skeleton, his upper torso bending to swoop down gracefully, sweeping up the skeleton by its left leg in a rush of fury and flame. When the skeleton tried to reach for him, Ramdas gave a tight spin on his hindlegs that forced the undead horror’s hands helplessly high and out of reach. He then grasped the skeleton by both ankles to get a sure grip, and hoisted it up high, presenting the helpless, but hostile skeleton like a trophy. More cheers rained down from the guardsman atop the wall.
“More come,” called Ooluk. “Towards the ocean! I feel their feet upon the stone!”
Too far for the archers to respond in time, a pack of five more skeletons bolted from the cover of darkness, drawn by the motion and light of the burning centaur.
“Lieutenant!” Heather bellowed in warning, as a sick feeling began rising up in her stomach, heat flushing her face. She gripped Ooluk’s shoulder tightly, as much in her tension as to fight back the wave of dizziness sweeping over her.
She needn’t have worried.
Ramdas turned, and he swung the skeleton in his hands like a cudgel, directly into the charging pack. They scattered like cats doused with a chamberpot, bouncing and rolling and scrambling for purchase as the furious centaur fell upon them like a firestorm. His hooves lashed out with all of the devastating kicks of a well-trained warhorse, but aimed with human intelligence and martial training.
Hooves lashed out, kicking skulls from necks and shattering pelvises or spines. The instant the remaining three skeletons regained their footing, Ramdas swung their comrade at their legs, shattering shin bones and ankles. Chips of bone went flying and clattering across the rocks.
The final skeleton, still struggling in his hands, was the last witness of his kin to the centaur’s furious roar: “For Saint-Cielle!”
Ramdas bucked, swinging the skeleton high overhead in the moonlight. His feet cleared a man’s height off the ground as the centaur leapt, and then kicked out his hind legs. Ramdas transferred his momentum and his fury forward, flame climbing up the skeleton as he swung with all his might, dashing the burning bones to the ground.
The skeleton exploded, shattering into countless, flaming pieces. The fragments sparked and bounced like a firework detonated too early. A celebratory roar echoed out to the walls, and the guards and townsfolk who’d climbed up the steep stairs to see the spectacle began shouting their enthusiasm. Cheers and bursts of magic erupted into the sky over the battlefield, lighting the panting centaur.
“I see blood on him, ” Heather said. “He’s bleeding from his face.”
Ooluk turned his head her way. “There are no more dead moving. He is safe, Knight Heather. He’s won.”
“I know he’s won!” said Heather. “But I need to know at what cost.”
She rose to her feet, and stepped towards the gate, only to have Ooluk’s hand shoot up and grip hers.
“Hey, what’s the big idea, Ooluk?” said Heather, swaying.
“Knight Heather,” said Ooluk. “You almost fell.”
Heather turned her head, a movement that sent regret and nausea welling up inside her. Vertigo overwhelmed her, as she realized nothing but thirty feet of air lay beneath where she’d been about to step. “Oh Saints. That’s- I’d forgotten-“
“I’m going to lower us down,” Ooluk said, his voice carrying an equal weighting of concern and patience. “And I will ask them to bring you to a healer.”
Heather swayed, and then sat bonelessly back down. “Okay. I’m not arguing. Not today,” she said. “Bring on the burly – burl– bring the guards.”
I think I’m dying, she thought giddily, as she was carried to the church on a stretcher. She beamed up at the stars overhead, as the sound of Ramdas returning to the town was met with cheers for their newfound hero.
Wait for me, Stephen. Wait for me, Anthony. Mom’s coming home. Blood and arsenic and broken bones. Something finally did it.
I think I’m finally dying.
“I wish I was dying,” moaned Heather, clutching her head. “What bilge does the doctor scrape that stuff out of, that he mixes in his potions?”
“I’m sure I wouldn’t know, ma’am, but he says it works,” replied Squire DuChamp.
Heather dry-heaved over her pillow, and closed her eyes again. Not looking around helped the dizziness. “Of course he’d say that. Feeds it to anyone, and if they don’t survive, they can’t complain. If they survive, he pronounces them cured,” she muttered.
“My mother always told me that good medicine should taste like it was scraped off a dragon’s back end,” DuChamp replied cheerfully.
Heather laughed, and regretted the decision almost immediately, as barely-knitted ribs stabbed her in protest. She gasped, and clutched her pillow tighter. “Don’t make me laugh yet, Squire. It’s too soon for that. Ow. Oh, Saints, ow. How long was I out?”
“About ten hours, ma’am. Doctor came and went in your sleep.”
“How’s Lieutenant Pramath?”
“Medium-rare, but please don’t tell him I said that ma’am,” DuChamp said. He poured and passed Heather a glass of water, which she swallowed immediately.
“Hmph. I won’t. Is it that bad?”
“It’s bad enough, ma’am, but he’s up and walking. Bone shards cut him a few places, nothing serious, they’ve healed him up fine. His hair and tail are going to need a trim, but I think that’s really the worst of it. All his burns are superficial. Did he really take down ten skeletons on his own?”
Heather replayed the memory of the prior night, counting. “He did,” she said after a moment’s thought. “It’s the first time we haven’t been on the defensive, or caught off-guard. Proof enough we can do some damage when our spirit’s in it and we’re prepared.”
“Saints will it so,” said DuChamp. “I’d like to crack a few skulls myself.”
“You’ll get all the chances you can stand, Squire,” said Heather, her voice turning hollow and weary. “All the chances and more. They’re not likely to let us turn this tide. I don’t know how many skeletons that blood-beast thing shattered, but I doubt it could be enough to stop the threat entirely.”
“Blood-beast?” asked DuChamp.
Heather waved a hand weakly. “I’ll explain at the debrief, when my brains stop weaving around in my skull. Tell me the news, what’s happened since last night?”
“Well, word from house Goldbrace is they want every fighting man and woman ready, and they’re writing script to cash for pay in springtime for everyone who shows up. The guildhall is writing receipts to everyone who can’t fight to make armor, every scrap of leather or metal they can call in. They say they’ll pay premium for it all, if it goes for the defense of the town.”
“Easy to write a cheque you aren’t sure you’ll be alive to see cashed,” said Heather with a grimace. “But good on them. Even if that blood-thing tore down half the skeletons those bastards have behind the fortress walls, they’re still going to be an overwhelming force. And they’ll only get stronger, while we get weaker. What about the fortress gates?”
“Sealed shut again, from the looks of it. They haven’t opened again since last night.”
“Doesn’t mean much,” Heather muttered. “They were getting into and out of there before without opening the gates. They probably have a tunnel dug, or they’re just going over the wall on the backside of the Fortress where we can’t see.”
The squire lifted the bowl of oatmeal off of her end table. “You’re sure you don’t want this ma’am?”
Heather opened a bleary eye. “Only for a cast for my ribs, Squire. I can smell the burn from here. Saints above, what did this kitchen do before I arrived.”
“A lot of us ate elsewhere,” DuChamp admitted. “But now with rationing ongoing, I don’t think we’re going to get to cook much fancy feasts like you’ve made again.”
“We’ll do okay, Squire. Herbs and spices can stretch a thin meal well. Keep spirits up when the food is thin. That way at least even if there isn’t much of it, it’s still good.”
“As you say, ma’am.”
“Any other news overnight?”
“A few people asked for you, but we’ve kept them out so you could rest. House Goldbrace and the Guildhall both sent invitations, and the Spirit-walker for the Major’s Guiding says he wants to meet with you on something. Lieutenant’s orders are bedrest until your head is clear.”
Heather hugged her pillow tighter. “I’m not going to argue. How’s Persephone?”
DuChamp frowned. “Lieutenant Matthewson’s in a bad way. All she does is look around silent as an owl, with eyes just as big. Stengrav won’t leave her side. Lieutenant Pramath said I’m to leave them be.”
Pulling the pillow over her eyes blocked the light from the lantern, and helped the fading pulse of her headache. “I should go see what the spiritwalker wants,” said Heather.
“Ma’am, I’m under strict orders from the Lieutenant that I’m to force-feed you the rest of that doctor’s medicine bottle if you try to get up before your head is clear.”
Heather snorted. “Fine. Can you bring me my paper and pen?”
“That I can do, ma’am,” said DuChamp.
Heather turned away from the lantern, and laid her head down. DuChamp set her notepaper down in front of her, and then gestured to the bed. “You want your pen and inkwell here, ma’am? Might spill the ink.”
“Good point,” Heather murmured. She picked up a piece of paper in her hands, and ran her thumb across the grain of it. She frowned, and stared at the paper. Something about the smell of the sea, something about this paper, she thought. A memory, a link, was trying to surface in her mind, but her head was throbbing around her concussion, and her thoughts confused, and whatever it was dangled out of reach.
Might as well borrow a trick. If it works on bone, maybe paper?
She summoned her irritation at the throb of her head, and let it flow into a single mote of fire on the edge of a fingernail. The little speck of heat throbbed in time with the pain and her annoyance at being bedridden a while. Dragging the speck across the first piece of paper burned a neat hole straight through, and Heather made an annoyed noise, and withdrew the mote.
Focusing was difficult. At times the little red mote bloomed and cooled into a little brown spot on the paper, but within a few minutes she had the hang of it. Like a mage scholar, don’t they use this sometimes? What school was it? I should look that up later.
The first few lines of her notes were clumsy, the lines often fading or blooming, and a few pin-point holes burnt through the paper. DuChamp looked on with mild interest. “Make sure you don’t set your bed on fire while we’re cribbing tricks, ma’am.”
“That’s what you’re here for, Squire, in case I fall asleep while writing,” Heather replied. “Hush now. I need to think.”
The words sprawled out on the pages, and Heather gave up a grim smile as she found how quickly the mote scrawling across the page could write, at least thrice as fast as by her hand. I think I’ll do my case notes like this from now on, she thought.
Ten minutes into writing, she paused again, and sighed. “Squire?”
“Yes, ma’am?” replied DuChamp.
“Does everyone know who accompanied me on that mission? Is it still a secret?”
“No, ma’am. Enough folks overheard the Lieutenant, and both Lord Goldbrace and the Consul’s injuries required them to be born away on stretchers.”
Heather grimaced. “Shame it worked out that way. I think they’d have preferred not to be connected with the venture.”
“Nothing to be done for it, ma’am. We’re all in this together, Lord and commoner alike.”
She ran the paper along her thumb, appreciating the lack of ink smudge the mote-burned lines had left on the paper. This feels like good practice, weaving a tiny bit of magic so finely. Doesn’t take long to forget about the motions of writing and just let the words appear. Doesn’t quite feel right cribbing a trick from a necromancer, but who says bastards are the only ones who get to be pragmatic?
The mote winked out, and with a frown of irritation she lit it again between her fingers, and finished the report. Heather’s eyes drifted shut, and she finally set down the growing stack of papers.
Digging up those memories just makes my head throb, she thought, frowning to herself. At least I don’t remember my nightmares last night. Didn’t wake up screaming. That’s a nice change. Maybe I should get concussed more often.
She kept her eyes closed, and listened to the sound of the barracks. The wind outside was carrying a bit of rain, the distant patter of thin drizzle on the roof explaining the damp cold of the air outside her sleeping furs. Now and then a little bit of noise would filter through the barracks, a door opening or closing, or Helga’s voice carrying indistinct words of comfort for Persephone.
Squire DuChamp’s attention was on his own reading, and so the only sounds he offered up was the occasional flip of a page, or a murmur about cavalry tactics.
With her head throbbing, Heather let her mind drift, replaying the report and the events in her memory. Links nagged at her. Loose threads, impressions. The smell of the paper of her report, the smell of the sea air through the town. Red cloaks, old nightmares, a face she could never quite remember, hiding in a red cowl. Tools at the bottom of a crate.
The connections between them were lost to her, in the throb of her head and the welcoming dark of her eyelids.
The dream, as always, was waiting.
The house smelled of blood. It stunk like the floor of an abattoir, the stink of blood gone old and rancid, in filth and misery. The silence was broken by the occasional distant drip, a whisper filtering in from the city night outside her windows. There was a stillness to the air, uncomfortable and stagnant.
The ride had been long, in from afield. She was bloody, and the wounds the skeleton had left in her arm were still weeping blood. Her mace dripped on the floor. She hadn’t bothered to wash the brains from it in her haste to be home.
And now she was home, and something was very wrong.
The smell of the house seemed to clench around her nose, pulling her forward, drawing her towards the bedroom. The back of her mind whispered at her to be free, to flow, to dribble and drip and drain and slide into that room where her hell waited.
Heather tossed in her sleep, crying out a mother’s grief. She knew what came next, in this nightmare. She fought it in her sleep, and lost.
A sound caught her ear, next. The sinister sound of a butcher’s back room, the hiss of thin steel being drawn against a whetstone, the steady tapping of drops of blood landing on the floor.
Her hand clenched around her mace, as her training wrestled with her panic. Her foot nudged open the door. Her husband and son were seated upon the bed next to one another. They were limp and motionless, their dead eyes staring through her, past her, into somewhere far away. Blood welled in her son’s eyes like tears, and ran down his cheeks.
In the far corner of the room, an older boy sat smiling. Blood drizzled in a steady stream out of his mouth, layers of it surrounding him, cowling him in clot and ruin. He’d smeared blood across his face, streaks and layers painted on until it had caked all over his skin. His wicked, bloody knife rasped softly across stone. As he spoke, his vengeful smile split his dry, cracked lips, and dribbles of blood joined the mess upon his face.
“You forgot me,” the man in the crimson cloak whispered. “And you will forget me again.”
His knife touched her son, and an eruption of blood swept her world away.