It took three days for Heather’s sense of balance to restore itself. On the second day, Ramdas shuffled in, with a large bandage bound against his side where the crossbow bolt had struck him.
“Looking rough there, Lieutenant,” Heather said, putting her notebook down.
“Si, it will pass. Doctor says the wound is clean, and the kidney will heal. And you, Caballero?”
“Spending my days being seasick on land, sir, at least anytime I do too much moving around. Can’t say I mind too much. That’s some weather outside.”
“They say the blizzard, she will last another few days. Everyone’s in safe from the cold now, though. They heard the blizzard coming, and decided not to chance the path after the hard snows come.”
“The whole town?” Heather said in gentle surprise.
“Si, safer that way. Nobody winters alone in this land if they can help it, they tell me. Room enough now in the keep for everyone, and warm enough. More importantly, food enough.”
Heather nodded her head. “They checked the food stores for poison?”
“Yes. They were unspoiled, and almost entirely untouched. There’s food enough for the entire fortress to outlast a siege through a winter. More food here than our faithful could eat in ten years.”
Heather closed her eyes, until the after-effects of nodding her head finished sweeping through her. “Okay. Did everyone else from the church make it, Lieutenant?”
Ramdas’ eyes softened. “Si, Heather. All but Father Keza. Squire DuChamp is now Knight DuChamp, as of this morning.”
“That’s as good as we can ask for,” Heather said, smiling sadly. “Good on DuChamp, though. That’s a field promotion well-earned.”
“Speaking of, Heather. We need to talk about your rank. When the spring thaws come and contact is reestablished, there’s going to be a lot of credit, and no doubt some blame, flying around. They will want to see you rise to Sergeant at least. Perhaps Lieutenant.”
Heather grimaced and slowly sat up, resting her back against the headboard of the barracks bed. “Knight suits me just fine, Ramdas. My dad was named a paladin without ever rising above Sergeant. I don’t need rank and money.” Her voice dropped, and she swallowed. “I don’t have a family to spend it on, anymore. I don’t have any use for credit and glory or any of that. End of the day, I’m a Detective. The more attention I get, the harder it is to do my job.”
“And the easier it is for someone to strike back at you,” Ramdas finished.
Heather flinched. “Read my mind, sir,” she whispered.
Ramdas laced his hands together thoughtfully. “There will be two reports of what transpired here, Heather. One for the public, and one classified, given only to the Church, Guild, and Empire. If you truly feel that way, I will omit your name from the public record. But the classified report must include your name and findings.”
Heather locked her eyes on Ramdas. “I do feel that way, Ramdas. Truly. I know you’re sensitive about being seen as a glory-hound. That wasn’t fair, that day we said that, and you showed us better then. And you’ve kept on showing us better. You led us, Ramdas, and made the hard calls. You let me do my job when that was the hardest thing in the world for both of us. So take the credit. I don’t want it, and it won’t do me any good.”
The centaur paused uncomfortably, and opened his mouth to argue, but Heather held up a hand his way to forestall him. “Please, sir? You want to go on being the best commanding officer you can be? Shoulder this for me. It’s a weight that would drag me down. But you can use it. Pressure the church to find and hunt down those responsible for all this. Convince the Guild and the Empire both to chip in on this one. I doubt that’ll be hard after the mess that was made here. You can hold your own with the powerful, sir. Me, I’d just start shouting at them within five minutes.”
Ramdas couldn’t help but laugh softly. “Si, you’ve been a good test for my temper, Heather.”
Heather smiled and dropped her eyes. “I’m sorry about that too, Ramdas. You’ve got enough pains in your side now, anyway.”
“Si,” said Ramdas ruefully, glancing back at his bandage. “But I forgive you. It is in your nature, Heather, as it is in mine, and we had our reasons. We survived together. I think that is all the apology we ever need, non?”
On the third day, Heather arose from the dead, and staggered out into the hall at the sound of Helga and Ooluk’s voices. The stout dwarf clapped a firm arm around her waist to steady her.
“Blackthorne! You’re up, thank the Saints. Ooluk’s had his people canvassing the store rooms. We’ve found flour and lard aplenty and even some frozen eggs. Tell me that’s enough to bake some decent bread.”
The thought of fresh bread after months without made Heather’s mouth water, and she swallowed. “I’m barely back to my feet and you’re sending me to the kitchens?” Heather said, but there was more amusement than asperity in her voice.
“It’s that or we ask the Circle girls to try their hand at baking,” Helga replied.
Heather shuddered theatrically. “No, let’s not go starting any more riots. Okay, okay. Let me lean on you. Ooluk, can I ask a favor of you?”
“Anything, Knight Heather,” the boy replied.
“Can you spread word and have your people join me at the kitchens, as soon as they can? Every northerner who can come, please.”
“Yes, Knight Heather.”
Heather thanked him, and then allowed Helga to steer her down the hallway, towards the kitchens. The aroma of a poorly-seasoned fish stew met her as she stepped into the fortress mess hall, causing her nose to wrinkle. Familiar faces from the town milled around in the mess hall, and no few in the kitchen in the next room.
Helga led Heather in, and together they staggered to find seats around the cauldron, where an old fisherman was working an oar-length ladle around in a cauldron big enough for a bathtub.
Suppose if you’re going to feed an army, you cook like it, Heather thought, looking around the kitchens. The oven was lit, at least, and the disorganized clatter of a kitchen around her was struggling to cohesively assemble food. In a dozen places Heather could see, someone was assembling a meal on their own, or for their family. It was chaos.
She took a minute to get her bearings, and for the ground to stop feeling like it was gently swaying beneath her, and then stood up again. Steeling herself, she held out a hand to the fisherman for the ladle, which he gladly relinquished.
“Helga, would you find me a pound of butter, and the spice rack? And six bulbs of garlic, hanging over there,” she said, gesturing to one wall overhanging the sinks. “We’re going to have to rein this all in.”
“Sure thing, dearie. And I agree. Too many cooks and plenty of spoiled broth already,” the dwarf muttered.
It took some divine intervention, but Heather salvaged the cauldron of fish stew, halibut and cod coming together in what would pass for an acceptable bouillabaisse. The aroma improved, and with it, more and more attention began to fall on her from around the kitchen. The few other skilled cooks in the room began to find their places near enough to be at consulting range. Within a half hour she had two working on dough for supper’s loaves, and another two peeling and chopping carrots and potatoes.
DuChamp flashed her a smile as he walked in, carrying a big bag of flour across his shoulders, and Heather grinned back at him. “Heard from the Lieutenant about your promotion. Well earned, Knight.”
He chuckled, and set the sack of flour down amidst the others. “Well, I still have to take the training and pass the tests yet to make it official,” DuChamp replied. “But I’ll take it.”
“How’d you do when the gates went down?”
“Four skeletons. I was clearing store-rooms on the east end. Helga mentioned one tagged you.”
Heather tapped her bandaged cheek. “Yeah. It got a good bite in before Lieutenant Matthewson got it off me. Doctor says it should heal up okay.”
“Glad to hear it. That was some show you put on. The whole town heard the smelter go. Ooluk dropped the wall the instant he heard it.”
“Well, Knight, it felt pretty damn good to see the town come swarming in and mop up. That was the highlight of my end of the show. And if you took four down, then you’ve definitely earned that sun at your collar.”
“Thanks for saying so, Blackthorne.” DuChamp stretched his back, and gestured back to the hallway. “I’ve got to get eight more of those bags in, though.”
Heather’s eyes swept up as a large line of the native northlanders began sweeping into the room. “Hold on a few minutes. I’m going to need you for something. Just stay close, okay?”
Heather’s eyes took stock of as the last of the northern People filed in. Ooluk was led up to her by an old woman, one of the two that had swept the whale from the docks in its thrashing assault. Heather gave the old woman a deeply grateful smile, and then touched Ooluk’s hand. “Is this everyone?”
“Yes. When a Gaimen calls, they come,” said Ooluk with perfect self-assurance.
“Alright then,” Heather said, and swung the ladle against the cauldron, three times. It rang out like a bell, bringing the activity around her to a stop.
“Listen up!” Heather called over the pleasant din of the fortress kitchen. By now it stuffed to bursting with volunteers willing and able to help feed all the survivors occupying the fortress. “Hey! Put that pot down and listen!”
When she was sure she had the crowd’s full attention, she began to speak, meandering about the kitchen. “Everyone’s hungry and we’ve all got mouths to feed, so I’ll try to make this quick. When you serve in the Church, you take oaths. A lot of oaths, especially if you’re going to be going to war in the Church’s name.
“You swear to the Pope that you’ll serve your community, with pride and humility. You swear to the Knight-General that you’ll follow orders to the best of your ability. That you’ll keep your weapons out of your hand until you really, really need it. There’s a lot more oaths, but, those are the ones that matter here.”
Looking up at a large man by the hearth, she pressed her lips together for a moment. “I remember you. I saw you get in a fistfight over a pot of confit. And as I recall, pot got knocked over, didn’t it? Three days’ worth of meat, just spilled out into the dirt.”
The man looked away, shame bringing a deep flush to his cheeks.
Her eyes moved to a woman by the sink. “I remember you too,” she said. “Out by the wall. ‘What choice do we have?’ you said, and you looked at the food on the Lieutenant’s back like we were thieves.”
Uncomfortable silence had fully descended around the room, now.
Finally, Heather’s meanderings brought her to a rack near the stoves, and with care she reached up, unhooked a ladle, and bounced it in her grip like it was her mace. “I swore a lot of oaths, when I joined the Church. And I’ve never broken a one of them. I don’t mean to start now. But if you all thought that you wouldn’t have to say ‘sorry’ because you’d be working the kitchens like good faithful people? No. I’m not having that.”
There came the sound of footsteps at her back, and Heather glanced over her shoulder, and hid a smile. Ooluk, DuChamp, Helga, and the silent sullen acolyte, stood in line behind her like an honor guard. Heather squared her shoulders, and lifted her ladle high overhead.
“I’ll feed you,” she declared, staring hard at the uncomfortable volunteers. “The same as I would feed myself, or my family, because that’s how I swore I’d act. To protect and aid the faithful.
“But nothing I swore says I’d have to pretend none of you said what you said, or did what you did. You all were scared. I understand that. You were angry. I understand that too. But after what you lot did to the Church kitchens and our Squire? And how ready some of you were to throw a man not yet convicted of a crime over the walls, forcing our Father Keza to give his life instead? I can barely stand the sight of any one of you. You know who you are, and more importantly, I know who you are.
“You want to make amends? Then you come to me on your own, one on one, and you look me in the eye, you make your apologies. You come to Knight DuChamp, you look him in the eye and apologize. Then you do the same for every acolyte and Circle member here, and Father Keza’s grave, and everyone who fought and worked to save your lives and protect you from harm. Once you do that, we’ll talk. Until then,” she said, stabbing the ladle toward the door, “those of you who don’t deserve to be in here, get the hell out of my kitchen. I’ll ring the bell when it’s time to eat.”
Seven shamed faces beat hasty retreats out of the kitchen, and Heather stared at their backs as they left. When they were gone, she spoke up again.
“To those of you who stayed behind, and especially those of you who came at Ooluk’s call. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. You threw down and worked hard for everyone’s benefit. You trusted us to make sure that food was safe and well-distributed. I’m sorry we failed you. I’m sorry we couldn’t do better than we did, even as I promise you, we did the best we could. You still deserved better.”
Heather’s voice hitched, and she steadied herself before she continued. “Ooluk told me most of the food that found its way to us came from his people. You took food from the mouths of your own family to give to those who’d gone to walk the snows.
“I don’t have words kind enough, generous enough, to match what you’ve done. Most of all after how many of your families and friends were lost outside the walls. It was the people of the north who first told us of the necromancers, and without their vigilance and help, we’d have been far too late to do any good.”
She glanced Ooluk’s way, to the sad, stoic face of the elf, and then back to the embarrassed-looking faces of the northern peoples. “I wish I had the words. Ooluk tells me that, in the creches and snow-houses, to welcome someone to your fire is a permanent invitation. That it’s never rescinded, that it is as true at the end of your life as it is the day you’re invited. So the only words I have worth their weight, is that promise: You, all of you here today, are welcome at my fire. Thank you. For all you’ve given, all you’ve sacrificed. Most of all, for your faith. That’s all I have to say.”
Ooluk stepped forward, and cleared his throat. “I speak now as Gaiman of the Frostmoor creche. Uuzook, of the Four Snows creche, step forward.”
Hesitantly, the crowd parted way for the fur merchant Heather hadn’t seen since he’d nearly been cast from the wall. The small man cowered in his furs, brown face flushed with embarrassment. “I’m here,” he said, with an uncertain squeak in the back of his throat.
Ooluk smiled momentarily, and then his composure returned, somber and serious. “Uuzook of the Four Snows, of the People, you gave most. Your gold you spent, and your furs you sent, outweigh the gifts of any three other of the People. You shed your wealth as the fox does snow. You did not simply give richly, you gave all you could, for those who fought for you.”
Uuzook could not cower any further from the attention, but he did bow his head shyly, doing his best to disappear into his furs.
“Uuzook of the Four Snows, you have been chosen by the People to speak, and you are asked by a Gaiman to speak, and bear the will of the People today. Do so now.”
The native man hunched further, and then very shyly stepped forward. He took a small linen bag from his pocket and held it outstretched to Heather.
Heather stepped forward and accepted the linen bag from Uuzook’s hand. As she lifted it, a little rattling sound from inside broke her heart anew.
Her mind flashed back to the disturbed cairn, the dried stalks crushed beneath the fallen rocks of a child’s grave. “We buy the seeds in town,” Ooluk had said, “to mark that which never had the chance to blossom and grow.”
Tears began to stream down her cheeks as she bowed before the man.
“The People ask,” said Uuzook, voice quavering. “That you see to our dead, as you have your own. We ask that you stand with us, when we raise the cairns. And we ask that you take these, in trust, for the first days the snow melt.”
“Of course I will,” she whispered.
Scoured clean of clouds by the passing of the blizzard, the deep, dark blue of the winter sky gave the gathered mourners one more reason for watery eyes. Heather stood, hunched in the thickest woolens and furs they could salvage. Ramdas brushed snow from the new lectern, and set his prayer-book down on it.
The last time people gathered in front of this podium, they all died, Heather thought with a chill. Or went on to something worse than death. Butchered where they stood.
Her eyes strayed to the now-sealed mine-head, the thick slab of adamant laid over the mineshaft cause enough for her to sleep easier. Neither Consul Sienna nor the Lord Corbin Goldbrace had slept easily with the mine yet uncovered, despite Jiraat’s assurances that the spirit Vital had long since fled.
In front of the podium, ball after ball of bone ash had been laid out in neat rows in front of the mourners. The front row all had names inscribed in them, marking the ones whose corpses had been identified.
Twenty rows followed, unmarked.
I spend all day cooking food and burning bodies now, Heather thought, her gaze roaming over the unmarked balls. Too many bodies, too many skeletons without a scrap of flesh left them. Piles of frozen flesh and offal, nameless, not even recognizable as having once been a person. I’m not even sure why I volunteered. Every time it just feels like Anthony and Stephen all over again.
But I’ve been through it before. And I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. There’s families here, people looking for mothers and fathers and family they’ll never see again. Better they see a ball of baked ash-clay than a pile of meat missing its bones.
Ramdas cleared his throat, and addressed the gathered mourners.
“We begin today in devotion to the Saints and Divine. We ask that the sacred pact be upheld, that in the bosom of Alektos all living things pass through, and share in the counsel of all Saints. Let us begin with a prayer for Padre Keza, and all those who lay before us today. Raise your hands, and offer your hearts to the heavens, and give magic as we pray.”
Heather slid her hands from her gloves, and raised them up in the bitterly cold air. Grief coursed through her, frustration and grief and anger pulsing through her chest, along her arms, and out of her hands. Her skin began to tingle, everywhere, as hand after hand around her rose in the air, motes of magic in every flavor and flow rising to cloud the air above with light.
Her voice joined in the familiar chant, echoed in many voices.
“The sacred pact endures.
Alektos, accept my tithe.
Alektos, keep them safe.
Bear the souls before us
from this existence to the Divine.
May they be washed clean
of all grief and strife.
May they go before the Divine
unscathed, and return soon.
May they pass gently through your bosom,
and may they return, born anew.
Nothing is lost. All things return.
Saints, guide our souls in life,
as Alektos guides them in death.
The sacred pact endures.
Accept the tithe of our hearts freely given.
Alektos, be vigilant.
Guard our dead in their manifold
paths to the Divine.
This we ask. This we give.
The sacred pact endures.
Nothing is lost. All things return.”
Heather’s hands lowered with the rest, and she half-listened as the sermon continued. Ramdas’ voice was moving, the centaur speaking with that same earnest passion that had bought the faith of the Knights around him.
He’s a good preacher, too, Heather thought in mild surprise.
Ramdas continued, loud and clear across the cold winter air. “… we stand today in memory of a thousand sons and daughters, a thousand sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers. Their lives cut short by evil and tragedy. But nothing is lost to death. All return to the Divine. And while we will miss them and grieve them in our lives, their memories will not die. Not in their souls, nor in our hearts. Their memories go to the Divine, and one day so too our own will go, and the story of a life will be complete, the sum of every fond remembrance.
“Grief is the trial we stand to offer evidence to the Divine that these souls marked our own. That the pain we feel is the pain of love stretched past the veil of life. But it is not snapped. It is not torn. The pain we feel is our own hearts pulled taut by the distance our love must travel. And it is a long way. But it is not beyond the reach of our hearts. In our hearts we make a seed from our grief, and from that seed we grow our love, and bear its fruit to those yet with us.
“Together we are an orchard. Today, we harvest that love, and we plant the seeds of our grief anew. In faith, in the light of the Saints and Divine, that those seeds will bear sweet and gentle fruit. Our dead are gone beyond the reach of our arms. But our love for them can be felt, in our hearts, in our magic, in our tears and smiles alike. Today we commit these mortal remains to the sea, but for those that await the journey home. But their souls have already gone home, and will return again, renewed.
“Alektos, ever vigilant, watch over our dead. Saints, ever vigilant, watch over our living. Faithful, watch over each other, and let us all go before the Divine in our time, and renew. Nothing is lost. All things return.”
As Ramdas spoke, Jiraat began to dance, the stern man’s face softening as his limbs moved in awkward, crazed angles. Arms and legs shifted, rotated, and swung in silence, frequently stutter-stopping or abruptly springing into motion again.
Unlike the Guiding for Major Weathers, this time the response was immediate. Jiraat had scarcely begun to move, and motes began to emerge from the earth, gathering around him. They left cobblestones and snow alike untouched by their passage. One brushed against Heather as it rose. For a moment, her skin warmed and her heart filled with a foreign mix of bittersweet resignation and hope, emotions of some other soul not her own.
Her hand lifted to let the soul pass through it, and then she tucked that hand gently into her coat. Fingertips slid across Saint Aysha’s prayerbook, to the smaller book she’d taken from the corpse of Montague, the dwarf in the mine.
I haven’t forgotten, Montague, Heather thought to herself. I haven’t forgotten anyone who’s died for us.
Her fingers brushed the linen bag of sunflower seeds next.
I promise I won’t ever forget.
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