Not long after the argument ended, Ramdas came through the door. Without a word, or even looking his way from the window, Heather lifted her duffel to show him it was already packed.
“Gracia, Blackthorne,” he said, trotting over to the cauldron. He served himself up a bowl, and began eating hastily. “Call in Stengrav to my office, and join me. Lieutenant Matthewson can stand to be unattended for a few minutes.”
“Yes sir,” said Heather. “You don’t want me to break the news?”
“No, Blackthorne. Bad news should come from the top, si? And for the better or worse of it now, I am it.”
“If it helps, sir,” said Heather softly. “I think you made the right choice, in there. I’m just not sure how much I like it.”
He paused over his eating. “It does help, Blackthorne. I feel the same way. I would not want a comrade or the faithful to go to their deaths in my stead. We take our oaths, and we stay loyal to the faithful.”
“Whether or not they’re faithful to us,” Heather said, a waspish tone creeping into her voice.
“Si, Blackthorne. They took no oaths for our sake. We took ours for theirs. So, we’re going. Meet me in my office as soon as you’ve fetched Stengrav.”
“Yes, sir. You’ve seen Squire DuChamp anywhere?”
“He’s making the copies of your report, in the barracks. He’ll be staying behind.”
“He won’t like that, sir.”
“He won’t,” agreed Ramdas, “But that guilt is not his burden to bear. He’s not yet a Knight, so he may remain, under my order. He’s the closest thing to a trained fighter of the undead the people here will have. Let’s hope he’s been paying attention, si?”
Heather nodded, and made for the door. The path between the church and the barracks building was clear, but the lane was already full of people, uneasily staring anytime someone entered or left the church. The sun was only just beginning its descent into the afternoon, but already Heather could count the frightened eyes, the angry faces. Some of those eyes glared at her, but more were pointed at other scowling faces. Sparks of magic hung around their heads, conflicting emotions swarming around them like angry bees.
They’re a wrong sneeze away from brewing up a riot, Heather thought. Between the loss of the whale and now this, the town would tear itself apart if we don’t go. They might, anyway. Those bastards in the fortress know exactly what they’re doing to the town, putting us in the pinch. Where the hell is Father Keza? He should be out there talking these people down.
She cast a sharp glance at his little forge. The door was closed, and no smoke trickled from the chimney, but the little bit of wet that his booted feet had tracked in from lichen to stone betrayed that he’d been inside recently. Heather spat, and strode into the barracks.
Persephone’s condition was unchanged. She was awake but listless, her eyes attentive but without any other reaction to Helga, who was seated beside her on the bed. Helga held Persephone’s hand in her own, and occasionally stroked Persephone’s hair.
Heather knocked on the open doorway. “Lieutenant Pramath wants us both in his office, right away.”
She looks as tired as I feel, Heather thought. Helga’s blue eyes were wet, and her weeping motes made the bottoms of Heather’s feet itch.
Helga nodded slowly. “This about the hullabaloo at the wall, dearie?”
Heather nodded. “Yeah. DuChamp already tell you?”
“No. He wouldn’t say a word to me, that boy. Lingered at my door looking awful, then buggered off, said he had paperwork to do.”
Heather grimaced. “Yeah. This is one that should come straight from the Lieutenant.”
“Well. I’ll get my armor on, then. It must be bad, Blackthorne. I’m used to seeing you looking angry, or sad. But you’re looking at me and Persephone with pity. Is that it, are we to be pitied now?”
Helga’s voice didn’t change, but the itch under Heather’s feet turned into a steady, buzzing tremor. She’s pouring it all into the earth, so it doesn’t show, Heather realized.
“No.” The word was firm from her lips, solid, Heather squaring up her feet and shoulders. “I’m worried for you and Matthewson. That’s all. For good reasons, that are the Captain’s to explain. And I’m pissed as hell at Keza because the sot is hiding in his forge again when there’s apt to be a riot outside.”
Helga’s voice dropped so low and soft, Heather almost missed it: “It must be bad, lass, if you’re saying out loud you’re worried for us.”
Heather didn’t have an adequate response for that. She grimaced, and swallowed. “Yeah, well. It’s bad. Come on. You can help me drag Keza out on our way by.”
It didn’t take long for Helga to heft on her armor, Heather lending a hand in re-seating the heavy plates around the dwarf’s shoulders, her hand pouring concern into each rune. They were full enough, but Heather charged them until they sparked back at her, leading Helga to watch in deepening worry.
“They’re attacking us, then?” asked Helga, gesturing to the spot the rune had sparked back at Heather.
“Worse,” was Heather’s only response. “Come on, let’s go.”
“What about Persephone? I don’t like to leave her unattended, Blackthorne.”
“You’ll be coming back to get her right away. Come on.”
Reluctantly, Helga looked over her shoulder at Persephone. “I’ll be right back, sweet-peak. Be good while I’m gone.”
They trotted out the barracks, Helga’s armor giving a solid metallic clank with every step. The sound must have warned Keza to their approach, because he emerged clutching a bag of coal just as they reached the door of his little smithy.
“Knights! I was just fetching this for your supplies, what can I help you w-“
“Shut up, Father, and save all your sweet words for the riot brewing out in the lane,” Heather snarled, interrupting him. “Not another word to me, not one. You march your ass out there and you do your job. Don’t think speaking out for us today in there earns you a pass.”
“But they’re all angr-“
Heather’s gauntlet slammed into the door of his forge. “NOW, Father! Your job today is to preach, not pound iron.”
Helga leaned in close, glowering. “You’d best do what she says today, Father Keza. I think she’s in a rare mood.”
You don’t know the tenth of it, Stengrav, Heather thought. And once you know the whole of it, I don’t know what to expect from you.
Keza straightened up, and met Heather’s eyes, frowning. “Take your damned coal then, Blackthorne,” he said, thrusting the bag into her hands. “Saints know you’ll need it. Saints be with you.”
He tried to push her out of his way and stride towards the crowd, but Heather refused to yield, forcing him to walk around her the few extra steps. He made his way across the practice yard, towards the lane and the people milling beyond.
“What do we need coal for now?” asked Helga.
“Nevermind,” said Heather. “Lieutenant’s waiting.”
Ramdas had just finished his meal by the time Heather and Helga strode into his office. Without preamble, he handed them each a large stack of scrolls in a bag. “Destroy these while we talk. Flows for destruction are simple: Fire, to the seal. Nothing else, else you’ll trigger the defenses on them and we’ll all have a more interesting day than we need.”
They took the scrolls and sat where Ramdas indicated. The first scroll Heather picked up sizzled a warning through her hand, a low-key charge of electricity that was just enough to buzz and numb her hand. With a grunt, she touched her thumb to the runed seal and pushed a mote of her irritation into it. The scroll went up in her hands like flash-paper, the runes discharging against each other and cancelling out in a bright flash and a pop. For Heather, it felt like being slapped with a stiff piece of paper. Harmless, but energetic.
Helga followed suit, every few seconds another puff of a scroll going up, leaving nothing behind in their hands but a bit of paper dust. “There a reason we’re burning all the files, Lieutenant?”
“Captain’s orders,” said Ramdas. “There’s no kind way to say this, Helga. We’re leaving, all of us. Just the knights.”
“What?” blurted Helga.
“It’s that, or the undead attack and sack the town. That’s their terms. Exile for us, and they spare the town.”
“That doesn’t–” Helga’s eyes widened in horror. “Nay, you don’t mean Persephone too?”
Ramdas’ face crumpled, and he swallowed and nodded. “Si, I do,” he breathed. “I’m sorry, Stengrav. I made the decision, and I’m giving the order. It is upon my conscience. But we’re leaving. You, me, Matthewson, and Blackthorne.”
“Surely they won’t– they can’t–” Stengrav stood bolt upright, her hands shaking, and tears filling her eyes. “Lieutenant! It’ll be her death out there! She cannae even fight, she can’t help how she is right now!”
“I know that,” said Ramdas. “I know. But we’ll be there to protect her.”
“From the winter, Lieutenant? You think you’ll fight back the first blizzard? The deep cold? You haven’t been through a winter here yet! You haven’t the faintest idea what it is you’re asking. You haven’t seen dead men frozen after a storm, just feet outside their house, men who lost their way in a blizzard going just from outhouse to home. That’s here, sir. That’s real. It’s not the boney bastards out there I’m worried about. It’s the chill coming, the terrible cold and the dark. That’s no way for anyone to die, least of all my Matthewson!”
Ramdas stepped forward. “I have a plan, Stengrav. But it’s not much of one without your help. Shelter and heat we’re seeing to. But we must be out of the town by sundown, and sooner if we can. The townsfolk are in arms. Some don’t want us to leave. Some do. And they’re going to tear each other to shreds if we aren’t out soon.”
Helga turned to look at Heather. “And you, you’re for this plan? Turn us out into the cold like beggars before first frost?”
Heather met Helga’s eye. “I am,” she said firmly. “I’m with the Lieutenant on this. Our lives before their lives, remember? If this is how we protect the faithful, then this is how we do it. Lieutenant’s making the call so the people don’t have to. And they would.”
The bag in Helga’s hands exploded in a violent puff of paper dust and ash, as she triggered them all at once. “That’s Saints-damned terrible! Bad enough it’s our lives. What’s those boney bastards got to care about my Persephone, laid up in bed like an invalid?”
“Plenty,” said Heather, breaking in before Ramdas could respond. “They’re raising the dead, and using their skills and knowledge and magic. Think of all that Lieutenant Matthewson knows. Would you risk that kind of toolset, that sort of power, falling into their hands? They know how many are in our company. If we don’t leave, they shell the town and then they mop up what’s left. Us included. The better case in that scenario is that we all catch mortar shells in our teeth, and don’t leave the bastard with enough to learn from.”
Heather blew out a breath. Saints and Helga forgive me, for what I’m about to say.
“If they catch us out there, Helga, and it’s hopeless? Someone needs to be there for her. To keep them from– to keep her knowledge out of their hands. She can’t do it herself.”
An icy silence descended over them, as Helga’s eyes widened, and then narrowed. Just as Heather was certain Helga would stride over and hit her, Ramdas intervened:
“If it should come to that, Stengrav, I would bear the sin. I would not ask that of you.”
Helga rocked back on her heels as if struck, her eyes waging a war between fury and gratitude, staring at Pramath. Tears spilled from her eyes. “Give me the other bag, dearie,” she whispered.
Heather quickly passed it over, and Helga blew the files apart in another loud bang.
Heather opened the door to the pantry, and frowned. The larder was stocked with row upon row of jars, preserves of all kinds the town had spent their last few days focused on making.
“Should we even bother to take any, Lieutenant?”
Ramdas looked to Helga, and then back to Heather. “We’re not planning on laying down and dying. So we will take some, a modest amount, less than our fair share perhaps. Anything more would be in bad faith. Anything less would be willful suicide, non?”
Heather nodded slowly. “Leave more for the faithful. Aye. I’m not sure I’m big on whale meat anyway.” She began to fill a leather bag with fodder, focusing on high-fat foods, confits, grains. Whatever builds the fat and keeps the chill at bay. We’re going to have to eat like the Northern folks do. I still draw the line at tea in my stew, though.
Helga stepped in to help, and they loaded two large leather bags full of jars, and hefted them on their backs. Heather’s guilt warmed her hands around the bag. Feels like being a burglar, a little. Take what we can carry, but it won’t be enough to live off of. This is a few months starvation rations at best.
“You had us burn an awful lot of those scrolls, Lieutenant,” said Helga. “Most of that office’s worth.”
“Si,” said Ramdas, as he transferred jars to the saddlebags they’d strapped onto him. “There’s a great deal I never had a chance to read. What I did read, tch. We can discuss outside the town.”
“Whole bunch of need-to-know coming down the pike, sir?” asked Heather.
Ramdas shrugged. “Much that must be preserved. Much more was lost with the Major’s death, Caballero, intelligence we may never recover. If we make it through the winter, I may face a court martial for destroying it, or disclosing it with you both.”
Helga tried to crack a weak smile: “Won’t that be a nice problem to have then, dearie?”
“Si, I suppose it will,” Ramdas said. “I’ll take a stint in jail next summer if it gets us all through the winter.”
Gallows wryness didn’t suit him well, and Heather cleared her throat to dispel the awkward gloom settling over them. “Saints will it so,” she said.
“I suppose Persephone and I are overdue there already,” said Helga. “What’s one more charge?”
They finished loading jars into the six saddlebags until they could hold no more, and then they marched, jars clinking and armor clanking, through the kitchens and into the barracks. The church commons were nearly deserted.
I suppose right about now everyone associated with the church is feeling the pressure to be out of sight, Heather thought. Just because it’s only us going to exile, doesn’t mean people won’t worry that it might not be enough. Others will worry for them, and come to their defense, and that’s when the fighting begins.
As it turned out, as they stepped into the practice yard, the fighting had already begun. Keza stood with his arms out, trying to keep two combatants apart in the lane, while at least six more men and women fought, rolling around on the ground and shouting, punches and kicks mostly ineffectual through thick winter clothes.
Their shouts carried through the air. Heather ducked her head, trying without success to tune their shouting out.
“– who’ll protect us–“
“– let them stay–“
“– we’ll all die you fools–“
“– what choice do we–“
“– there they–“
“– saved this town–“
“– Saints help–“
Helga hesitated, but Ramdas gently tugged on her pauldron. “The sooner we are gone, Caballero, the sooner they lose any cause to fight amongst themselves. Every moment we stay is another punch thrown, another wound to their spirits.”
The dwarf nodded, her lips tightening in grief, and she hurried to follow after them as they strode into the barracks.
Loading Persephone onto Ramdas’s back the second time around was no easier. With saddlebags loaded only modestly with food and coal, it was clear that the centaur was foundering a bit under the weight of both cargo and passenger. They stripped their beds, and laid six more blankets over Ramdas’s back, and then three atop Persephone.
“Sorry about the weight, Lieutenant,” murmured Heather. “But the wools and furs are worth their weight in gold to us.”
“I will endure,” Ramdas said. “Just ensure that Matthewson is comfortable, yes?”
Helga worked with rigid body language as she strapped Persephone in atop Ramdas. Tension drew her brows together until her eyebrows nearly touched, and her face was a constant grimace of concern. She carefully tightened leather straps around Ramdas’ girth and fussed over Persephone the entire while, talking softly to her, asking her if she was comfortable, assuring her that she’d be safe with them. Persephone watched Helga attentively, her lips moving like an infant suckling at a teat that wasn’t there.
Heather looked away, and focused on balancing her own load for the march. Between shield, mace, armor, and coal, she’d be hauling sixty pounds. “Should we take her armor and spear?” she asked.
Ramdas thought about it, and looked to Helga. “You know her better than I. Stengrav?”
Helga reached up to stroke one of Persephone’s hands, and then enfolded it in a squeeze, her eyes staring up into Persephone’s vacant gaze. “If she’s ready to fight when the fight comes, she’ll conjure what she needs. She might let her heart get away from her, but s-she’s sharp–“
She broke off, weeping, and Heather quickly finished buckling the last strap.
“We’re ready to go, Lieutenant,” Heather said.
“Not without my violin, Caballero. We’ll need something to pass the time, si?“
“I’ll grab it,” Heather said.
When the violin had been fetched and strapped to Ramdas’s upper back, and Helga had fetched the relics Persephone had carried, they headed for the door.
Helga didn’t bring anything for herself, Heather noted. I guess under the circumstances they left under, Persephone’s the only treasure she had a chance to bring.
Heather banged on DuChamp’s door on her way by. “We’re leaving, you’re staying!” she called through the door.
“Like hell!” shouted DuChamp, swinging open his door.
“That’s an order, Escudero,” said Ramdas. “Stay alive. Report everything. Get Blackthorne’s reports copied and into the hands of the Houses and Guild and everyone who can make use of it. If we die out there, it won’t be in vain, not if those reports survive. They’ll know what they face, and how better to fight it.”
DuChamp squared his shoulders and stared hard at Ramdas. “Sir, it’s not right. I can’t stay, half the town assume I’m close enough to a knight to count for exile.”
“You have your orders, DuChamp. Your greater duty is here. Survive.” The centaur gave DuChamp a pained look. “If our lives buy anything, it will be because you followed your orders and not your heart, today. We go by choice.”
“And what makes you think they’re going to let me stay, Lieutenant?”
“Throwing on a Novice’s uniform for the time would be a good start. I’ve left a writ of promotion on my desk for you, DuChamp. If you survive to the summer, you’re a knight then.”
“That doesn’t mean much if I’m thrown into the barrens now, sir.”
“Non, but then there’s nothing lost by staying until they do, instead of going with us now. I do not imagine there is anywhere we could go that Senor Ooluk would not find us. If you’re cast out, ask his guidance. But for now, stay.”
“Every minute we’re waiting here, Squire, is another punch thrown out in the lane,” said Heather. “We have to go, now. DuChamp, guard that pantry as long as you can. Try to make sure the families with kids get the first crack at it. Don’t be afraid to get a little rough, but chances are one way or another these folks will come at it hard. Do your best, and know when to fall back.”
DuChamp kicked the doorframe, but that exhausted the length of his defiance in the face of Ramdas’ steadily sharpening stare. “Damn it. Good luck out there. Stay alive.”
Only if the bone-slinging bastards aren’t good enough, thought Heather. “You too,” she said, and it was echoed by Ramdas and Helga. They hefted their packs and bags, and made their way out the door.
They emerged to find the practice yard full of earnest-faced people, frightened, angry, fearful. Some were sporting fresh black eyes and split lips under hard glares. The hubbub of conversation cut to a halt as the door swung open, Ramdas stepping out. He paused, and swept a single glance across the gathering.
“We’re going,” he said. “For the sake of the faithful. We put your lives first. Remember us. We go to die for you.”
In the sudden silence, his words carried, and the eyes of the people around them filled with grief, or relief. Murmurs of protest, of argument, began around him. But he turned without another word, and led the procession of knights and townsfolk away from the church, and down towards the western side of town.
Their pleas and protests died away as the walk turned into a funerary march, weeping faithful and guilt-wracked townspeople following in their wake.
Heather’s eyes swept over the town, doing her best to ignore the stares of townspeople, looking up from their chores and repairs and knots of worried discussion. Gray, fluffy clouds rolled low over the fortress on the cliffs, and the ocean was as gray and dismal as their moods.
It was a somber procession, as people gawked in the streets or through windows and doors. Heartbroken eyes followed the knights. Some looked accusatory, believing they were being abandoned to die, and others believing the same about the knights. Some, no doubt, believing both.
I can’t say I’m going to miss this place, Heather thought. But it’s a damn sight better than what’s waiting for us out there.
Ooluk sat waiting at the wall, his hands buried in the dirt of the cobblestones. His ears pricked as they approached, and he lifted his chin.
“You walk the snows now, Knight Heather?”
“We all do, Ooluk,” Heather replied quietly. “For the children, right?”
He smiled sadly up at her. “For the children,” he echoed. “You don’t deserve the pain of planting any more sunflowers, Knight Heather.”
Heather leaned down, and wrapped the elf in a tight hug, motes of fire erupting from her hair and clinging to her back, warming her as she fought down a sob. “Keep them safe, Ooluk,” she whispered. “We’ll do all we can.”
“I will. Not one child,” he whispered, as he returned her squeeze.
“Never a child,” she replied, and straightened, wiping tears from her eyes, ignoring the smell of strands of her hair burning as her gratitude and grief warred in motes around her.
The wall parted in front of them, great slabs of stone prying themselves apart just wide enough for Ramdas to pass. Motion atop the wall caught Heather’s eye, and she looked up to see Sienna staring down at them. There wasn’t a wave, or a smile, or a shed tear on her face. Just a steady stare.
Heather locked eyes with her, and the Consul didn’t flinch. You think you’re doing the right thing, Consul. Doesn’t mean you have to like it. Welcome to my world, Heather thought.
“Follow the dancing stones north,” Ooluk said. “I’ve opened a few caves.”
“Thank you, Ooluk. But be careful. We know they’re watching from above, like eagles.”
Ooluk beamed at her. “The eagle doesn’t see all, and he doesn’t see through stone. Trust in me.”
“Alright. Protect yourself, Ooluk.” Heather said. “They’ll be hunting you too.”
He continued smiling. “Death waits everywhere, Knight Heather. I won’t let it have me yet.”
“Come, caballero,” said Ramdas. “It’s time.”
The afternoon sun was still a long way from the horizon, but that suited Heather fine. I don’t want to be out in the barrens when the sun goes down.
As soon as they were clear, the stone walls slid back together. The last thing Heather saw before the stone closed was Ooluk, his grubby hands buried in the ground, his face set hard in focus beneath his bandaged eyes.
They turned north, putting the town to their backs. In the distance, it began to snow.
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