A four-horse carriage sat in the middle of the forest road. Inside the carriage, a woman fingered her crossbow in irritation. Afternoon sun filtered emerald through the leaves of the forest overhead cast dappled light and shadow along the road. She peeked through the blinds over the carriage window, casting a critical eye on the dark blotches of shadow the trees painted on the forest floor.
That will help hide the puddles of blood, she thought. The crimson was already fading into a deep brown as it mixed with the dirt. There’d be no help for the drag marks on the sod, but she wasn’t going to lose sleep over someone tracing the bandit’s corpse back to her. No doubt the bounty on his head wouldn’t be worth her time.
A familiar cough sounded from outside the cart, and the woman’s face relaxed into a thin smile. “You’re late, Bartolo.”
Bartolo stuck his head inside the wagon, and scowled at her. “You go wade through the muck then, Silvia Rocia! Find us another path!”
She sighed, and pointed to where she’d dragged the bandit’s corpse. “Go get my bolt out of that idiot. There’s no other way through but the town?”
“None,” grunted the carriageman, as he stepped off into the bush. The bandit’s corpse lay twenty-three meters into the woods. She’d counted, and so did Bartolo. With a sigh of relief, the man bent down, and yanked the steel dart out of the dead bandit’s eye. Bartolo licked his thumb, and ran it across the man’s face.
The corpse began to melt immediately.
He climbed back into the carriage, and tossed her bolt carelessly over his shoulder, into the carriage. She leaned forward, stuck her hand through the open window, and flicked his ear in response. He chuckled, the first sound approaching merriment she’d heard from him all day.
“Senora Rocia, thank you for dragging the bandit far enough away.”
“It serves my purposes. Our host knows we’re coming?”
“Fifteen kilometers ago. He’s cast his network as light as can be over the entire countryside around here. So light I doubt any of those in the village have noticed it. Nobody spoke of it to me while I was there. So he’s sitting in it somewhere, like a spider. A rune-mage couldn’t giggle without him sensing it.”
“And here I come sailing through his fine-wrought work, like a cannonball through his web,” she said.
“Oh, he’ll know you’re coming, for certain. Is that why you dragged that wretch away for me to dispose of?”
“Mm-hmm. Better he knows I’m not coming alone.”
“I just drive the carriage, Silvia,” the carriageman said.
Silvia snorted. “So far as I know, hm?”
He cast her a grin back over his shoulder. “Si, so far as you know.”
She flicked him again, and he flicked the reins, and the horses resumed pulling the carriage. “How’s the town?” she asked.
“Small. Maybe one-hundred and twenty people. I’ve warned them away from the road. Explained. Most of them wouldn’t listen, they’ve never heard of a Negator before.”
“Well, they’re going to learn, aren’t they?” Silvia muttered, staring over his shoulder at the town ahead.
The carriage was a novelty. Horse-drawn carriages were rare enough to make the children playing in the street point and stare. Adults followed the cries, and a few of the more sensitive children burst into tears and shied away as the carriage approached.
Glimmering runes at the gate of the village went dark as they passed. A water fountain, worn smooth by three centuries of unbroken water flow, stopped flowing.
And somewhere underneath it, their sewage treatment just failed, Silvia thought with a melancholy glance at the fountain’s drains.
Townsfolk stepped out of their kitchens, exclaiming in annoyance or fright. Inside their homes, every hearth within twenty-two meters of Silvia Rocia went dark and cold. Expensive runes in the foundations and roofs of their homes failed. Lights cut out instantly as the carriage approach, and fire protection charms in their homes went inert. A woman crossing the muddy street tripped and went sprawling, as the runes in the soles of her boots failed. She toppled to the ground with an indignant squawk at the mud clinging to her newly rune-less boots and dress.
“Out of the way, out of the way!” shouted Bartolo. “Out, back, all of you.”
“What’s in there?” cried a man. “What in all the Saints name is in that carriage?”
A hovering streetlight dropped out of the sky, and shattered on the boardwalk twenty-two meters from the carriage.
“I told you people already! Unstopper your ears! Gather everything you have, magic, runes, and get it away from the road. Away!” shouted Bartolo. “There’s a necromancer in the hills. I want to know where. The sooner someone tells us, the sooner we leave, and you can go on back to your lives.”
The runed candles on the tavern’s sign blew out as the carriage passed.
An old man rose from his porch and scowled, pointing his walking stick towards the carriage. “We’ll have no business with a bone merchant.”
Bartolo pulled the horses to a stop before the man’s home. “We’re not here selling bones, old man, and we’re no friends or customers of his, either. Fifty gold crowns if you’ll tell us where.” He pulled up the pouch on his hip, and smiled at Silvia’s soft cursing filtering out from inside the carriage.
The old man scowled. “Five kilometers down the road. Farmer Tulia saw some bones on the move there, said it crossed the road going east.”
Bartolo threw the sack of coins, and they landed with a clink on the old man’s porch. “Gracia. Make sure these folks get new runes made.”
Townsfolk hovered nervously, but most flinched back as they reached an invisible point twenty-two meters away from the carriage. Some families were making the sign of the Saints and pulling children back in. Angry-looking men hovered at doorways, staring hard at the carriage, some holding newly-ruined artifacts from their homes.
Silvia loaded her crossbow. I doubt they’ll cause a fuss, she thought. But the Merchants don’t pay me to be sloppy.
“Just get out of our town, stranger,” the old man said. “And take that accursed thing with you.”
“Person, not a thing!” snapped Bartolo, and he spurred the horses on.
“Think we’ll have to find him?” Silvia called up.
Bartolo shimmied down the tree, his eyes squinting despite the deep afternoon shade of the forest. Only once he closed the distance did his eyelids relax. “No. Four bones on the move, from the north-east. Four kilometers. He’s got more scattered around. One coming straight here, three more aiming to block the road. None of them are armed.”
Silvia smiled. “You’ve got sharp eyes today, Bartolo. Our target’s in for all sorts of disappointments today, isn’t he?”
Bartolo climbed up into the driver’s seat of the carriage, and spread his hands. “I just drive the carriage,” he replied.
“And the rest is up to me. Well, you’re a fat load of help as usual, Bartolo.” She loaded the crossbow at her left wrist, and adjusted the stiff armored leather strips underneath her clothes. “You don’t really think I’ll kill him?”
He fit her with an amused look. “I think the Merchants paid us both enough to know that’s none of my business.”
Silvia smiled back, and made a rude gesture. “Well said. Give me six hours. Forty-eight more at the town, if I’m not back by then.”
Bartolo returned the rude gesture. It was as close as they’d ever get, as mercenaries, to salutes.
Silvia strode into the forest.
Within a half-hour she was being followed. A glimmer of motion a hundred meters away, a white branch in a tree too spring-green to have dry deadfall. Once, a flock of starlings burst from a tree, two hundred meters away.
“Oh no, skeletons, whatever shall I do,” she muttered in falsetto, breaking into a jog. She raised her voice: “Tell your master I’m coming for him.”
As she jogged, more skeletons loped into view. None approached closer than fifty meters, but now they weren’t playing shy. Their bones deliberately slapped against branches as they passed.
“That’s right!” she shouted. “You tell him the Merchant’s Guild wants a word.”
Three skeletons dropped from the trees around her, and lunged. As they crossed the invisible threshold of her absence of power, they dropped to the earth, dead as could be, twenty-two meters from her feet.
She pointed to them, and then to the fourth skeleton hanging back in the willows. “Take me to your master, now. Otherwise this goes from embarrassing to ugly, and I’ll find him anyway, and I’ll be upset when I find him.”
The skeleton paused, and then stuttered. Silvia noticed the difference in control immediately, as the bones began to move to the will of another. They made more deliberate motions, beckoning her forward, turning and walking slowly into the forest. She followed, twenty-five meters behind.
“Keep your distance,” she grunted. “Or you’ll be sending a replacement.”
They walked for a half kilometer, before a clearing and small camp presented itself. A young man with blond, curly hair, and a rune tattooed on his face sat sipping campfire coffee.
Silvia paused, twenty-five meters out, and folded her arms. “Stay where you are, and keep your hands where I can see them. Three steps and that corpse you’re running drops dead, too.”
The man gave an embarrassed grimace, and held up a hand. “Don’t do that. That would be inconvenient for us both. I don’t have another body that can talk within a day’s travel of here.”
“That would be inconvenient for you,” agreed Silvia.
“You’re an awful inconvenience as it is, miss. You’re a s-… a Negator, aren’t you?”
Silvia tensed at the man’s verbal stumble. Shame you didn’t finish calling me a soul-sucker, she thought. I’d love the excuse. I’d just tell them you provoked me, and so I had to destroy everything you’ve worked so hard for, Mister DuCroix.
“Yes. I’m a Negator. Now, Mister Ducroix, if you don’t cooperate I’d have to report to the Guild that you weren’t intending to honor your debts.”
The man rubbed a cold thumb around the rim of his coffee. “What makes you think I owe the Guild anything?”
“Because they say so, Mister DuCroix.” In a sudden, fluid motion, she drew her crossbow and fired the bolt straight through the remaining skeleton’s head. It dropped on the spot. Calmly, she loaded again. “Let me make myself perfectly clear. My orders are to send you a message, and if the response to that message is unfavorable, I and my team go to work scrubbing your efforts from the face of the earth with extreme prejudice. Then we find whatever hole you’re in, kill you, and bury you in it. And the only reason why that’s plan B, is because someone in the Guild thinks you might just succeed enough in your plan to pay back the Guild for all the trouble you’ve caused.”
The blond man at the campfire sipped his coffee, and set the cup down. “The Guild arranged for my parent’s death, miss. Do I get to bill that to them?”
“No,” she said, and put the second crossbow bolt into the log an inch below his crotch. She was gratified to see him flinch. “And believe me, if you want to start counting up that kind of billing, you can take it up with Consul Sienna. And I can assure you, Mister DuCroix, you’re going to find me a far less adversarial negotiator than she would be. I do quite believe she intends to kill you, given half a chance. Her and most of that dreadful little town you left in such a state.”
Daniel spread his hands. “So, what? The Guild will do business with me now? Even though I’m carrying on the works they had my parents killed for?”
“No. You’ll be billed, presuming your preposterous venture succeeds. And you somehow manage to live long enough to collect that barony you’re after.”
The man flung down his coffee mug, and swore. “So much for secrets. Is there a court anywhere, a clerk somewhere, you monsters haven’t bought?”
“No.” Silvia reloaded the crossbow again. “For your information, Hanshu has the better bidding offer, but they just plan to resell to the Thousand Kingdoms anyway. They don’t want to provoke a war with the Empire, and the Thousand Kingdoms would give almost anything to hold Ouestin. The Guild’s professional advice is that you should sell it to Hanshu, accept their offer of Barony and lands in their provinces, and never set foot anywhere the Empire can so much as sniff you ever again.”
Daniel growled. “And the Guild isn’t going to alert Fort Ouestin about our plans?”
“Of course not, Mister DuCroix. We’re impartial.” She smiled sweetly, and shot him through the neck.
He toppled. Red blood spilled out across the grass, neck thrashing around in agony as limbs paralyzed by a severed spinal cord failed to respond.
“Now then, Mister DuCroix. When you have your barony, you will be presented with your invoice: Loss of a Sending Gate, further damages to the Guild’s interests and reputation, costs of reparation, and penalties for inconvenience caused. You will pay that invoice, in full, and I will be in touch. Remember. It’s me, or we let Consul Sienna know where you are. And believe me,” she said, laughing. “You don’t want to meet Special Finances. Now, go.”
She watched until the body under Daniel DuCroix’s power stopped thrashing, and went still. From exactly twenty-four meters away, she studied the tattooed rune on his face, committing the shape of it to memory.
So far as I’ll ever know, it’s squiggles and doodles, she thought with a smile. But it will mean something to someone, you worm.
In a coffin buried six feet deep beneath Fort Ouestin’s cemetery, a blonde man turned on his side, and frowned.
Heather Blackthorne twitched in her sleep, and then let out a sob. She turned away from the light of dawn bleeding through her tiny window, and buried her head in the heavy furs keeping the night’s chill at bay.
The dream, as always, fed her sleeping sobs:
“You forgot me,” the man in the crimson cloak whispered. He kept his attention on the knife he was sharpening, ignoring the corpses of her husband and son. They sat, lifeless, slumped together like marionettes whose strings had been cut, dead upon the bed Heather had conceived and birthed Anthony on. His father, Steven, still had a protective arm wrapped around his young son. Their death-slackened faces stared at Heather.
“You missed me,” the man in the crimson cloak whispered. “Of all my comrades, killed by your hand before we could make greatness. You forgot me, and you’ll forget me again.”
She froze, the paralysis sweeping over her in an instant. The man in the crimson cloak was still moving the knife across the stone. But the tip of the blade had had its chance to weave a sign into the air. Any other time, any other place, she would have noticed the spell being woven around her, and would have countered it. Distracted by her terror, she had missed the subtle motions of his hand.
Strength left Heather’s body, and she sank to her knees. Around her, the world seemed to speed up, and yet her own body felt trapped in molasses. It took a thousand years just to raise her eyes, and see the man in the cloak raise his knife. And then it was too late to turn away.
His knife descended on the bodies of her family, and his blue eyes shone with merry satisfaction as he set to his bloody work. She could see nothing but his eyes, and then nothing but the path of the knife in his hand as it pressed into the skin of her son’s left ankle.
“You forgot me,” he repeated, as the small, chubby foot thumped to the floor. It bounced once, before teetering to a halt between her knees. “Sloppy, sloppy, Knight Blackthorne. You should have known better. Your husband and son, though, they will repay your debt. Fine, sturdy bones he has, your husband. Supple sinew from your boy.”
It took thirty minutes for the necromancer to reduce the two greatest loves of her life to nothing more than a pile of wet, glistening organs and shapeless meat. Thirty endless minutes of whispering knives, and wet, carnal sounds, as each bone was meticulously drawn free of their bodies.
The man in the crimson cloak set their heads carefully on either side of the growing pile of offal, facing Heather, their eyes wide and horrified as they gazed blindly through her. Until, minutes later, he peeled their skulls like grapes, and dropped their blood-slick bones into a sack.
As the man in the crimson cloak finished gathered up the bones, he crouched down in front of her, and touched the tip of his knife to her forehead. “You forgot me, Knight Blackthorne. But I’ll never forget you.”
And then he stepped around her, whistling a festival tune. The bedroom door clicked shut in his wake.
It was ten minutes later, when the magic binding her faded. Too late to stop him. Too late to save them.
As she did every morning, Heather Blackthorne awoke and began to scream.
Above her horror and the old, familiar terror, her mind floated, divorced from her emotions. Six screams today, she counted, as she wrapped her arms around her knees and hugged herself to them. That’s about right. A six scream morning, for the same Saints-damned dream.
Her throat hurt, and she dove for her father’s mace. She closed her fingers around familiar sharkskin wrapping and pushed her horror into the silvered steel of the mace. It sprang to life at her magic, motes of fire gathering around the points of the mace like candles. With her free hand, she poured a glass of water from the pitcher by her bed. There, not shaking too badly today. That’s good, she thought.
She gulped down the glass of water, swung her feet out into her moccasin-boots, and pulled her nightclothes tight around her. A knock sounded at her door, polite, a double-rap followed by another double-rap, the distinctive knock of the silent penitent man whose name, despite four years in Frostmoor Bay’s church, she’d never yet managed to learn.
Heather called out: “I’m awake. I’ll be out soon. Put the kettle on.”
Nobody else in the barracks checked in on her. They were all long-ago used to her muffled screams bleeding from her cell, every morning. Like the saints-damned rooster for the barracks. Sun’s up, and I’m screaming.
She dressed listlessly, shrugging on her parka over her breastplate, and hung her gauntlets and mace on her belt. She opened the door and marched out the barracks, crossing the practice yard on her way to the church kitchen. The day was shaping up to be a gray one, the waning winter lingering in the air, most of the northern sky the color and texture of old wool.
“Ooluk, you awake?” she called, as she pushed the door open to the kitchen.
The little elf raised a hand from the kitchen table, and smiled, adjusting the clean white bandages over his eyes. “Felt you walking, Knight Heather,” he replied. The fingertips of his other hand lightly tapped the stone wall.
“Well don’t get too excited about breakfast. Supply ships won’t be in for another few weeks. We’re down to jerky and oats.”
The blind elf smiled her way. “Spring traders are already arriving. Uuzook passed me a few silver from the shop to buy some cocoa and eggs.”
Heather broke into a laugh. “Ooluk, I’m not making chocolate cake for breakfast. Not even for you. How are the mountains coming along?” she asked, as she opened up the larder, and stepped around the silent penitent man to set oats on to boil.
Ooluk bobbed his head, in good spirits. “The fifth mountain is being stubborn. It moves into place very slowly.”
“Well, you’re doing a good job anyway. The wind out of the north has been a lot gentler. We’ve still got more than half of our coal stores this year,” Heather said. “You’re doing good work for this town, Ooluk.”
“Thank you, Heather. Gaiman wrestle the earth,” he replied cheerfully. “But they’d probably move it faster with some cake to look forward to.”
Heather laughed again. “When you’ve finished moving your latest mountain, we’ll celebrate. Not before.”
The silent penitent swept out the kitchen floor, and prodded an entering squire towards the kitchen table with the end of his broom. The entering knights and church staff knuckled their foreheads politely as they passed, each giving her a murmur of “Sergeant”.
Just as Heather finished chopping jerky and adding it to the oats, the door between the kitchen and the main chapel room opened. A severe-looking woman in a Merchant’s Guild uniform stepped through, her gaze sweeping coolly around the kitchen.
Heather looked over in concern. “Consul Sienna. Surprised to see you here at this hour. Something wrong?”
Sienna shook her head, and held up an envelope with a runed, waxed seal on it. “Mail call.”
The Consul herself wouldn’t come down here just to hand-deliver mail, Heather thought. Something’s up.
Heather glanced over towards the penitent man. “Take over, I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
She took the proffered envelope from the Consul’s hand, and followed her out into the hallway. Heather inspected the rune and grimaced, her hand hovering over the burning sensation that its magic left on her skin. The seal was unbroken, although Heather didn’t trust that to mean a thing with the Consul’s more discreet talents of runework.
“Orders,” Heather guessed.
Sienna nodded. “They asked, and paid, for me to hand-deliver this one,” she said, arching her eyebrows.
“Outside of the usual chain of command,” Heather said. “Flow-key?”
“Left-fire-up-light-down-water,” Sienna rattled off.
Heather trickled her emotions through her fingertips, pulling on her magic, and drew a mote of irritated fire left, then curiosity-fed light upwards, and finally anxiety-driven water down. The rune in the wax melted away, discharging harmlessly, and she opened the envelope.
Heather scanned over the orders:
At 12:00 hours tomorrow, present yourself at the Cathedral of the Saints in Bastia. Use of Sending Gate and martial fare is authorized. Rendezvous with Sister Neela Nalee there. Your command is transferred. This will be a permanent reassignment.
– Knight-Major Greene, 1st Investigatory Bureau, Bastia
“What?!” Heather exclaimed, and pinched the bridge of her nose. Her eyes stared out at the morning light outside. “They’re transfer orders. Immediate transfer orders.”
“Hm. How immediate?” Sienna asked.
Heather flipped the note around, for the Consul to read. “They’re authorizing martial fare. I’ve got four hours to be halfway around the world.”
The consul’s eyebrows climbed. “Well then you’d better get a move on, Knight. It’s been reassuring to have you here.”
Reassuring, Heather thought wryly. Because ‘nice’ is probably a stronger word than the Consul would ever have for me.
Heather suppressed a snort, and shook Sienna’s hand in parting. “Stay warm, Consul.”
“I shall. Enjoy civilization.”
It was a thought that propelled Heather back through the kitchen, and out the back door at a quick trot.
Civilization! Bastia! With only two months of winter, and decent weather, and food that hasn’t come from a boat at least six weeks journey away. Fresh fruit that doesn’t cost its weight in prime furs! The mere thought of a fresh strawberry flooded her mouth, and she hastily began throwing what few possessions she had in her cell, into her bag. Her good cooking knives, her prayer book, and a few changes of clothes, all of which were too thick and warm for springtime in Bastia.
She was halfway through packing her clothes when she thought of Ooluk, and faltered.
He’s going to be alone without me, she thought.
A quick shake of her head cleared the gloomy thought. No, he won’t. He’s Gaiman of Frostmoor, now. Hero enough for helping us against the undead, when they took the fortress. Raising a wall to protect us. He’s got Uuzook and all of his people and the respect of the town. He’ll be okay. Still. I can’t leave without saying goodbye.
She reached out to the stone wall of her cell, and knocked on it four times, quickly. Here’s hoping he’s still got his hand on the wall, Heather thought. He won’t know I’m knocking on stone otherwise.
Heather finished packing her duffel bag, carefully wrapping the prayer-book that had once belonged to her patron saint in some waxed leather. Then she wrapped the bundle into her clothes for further protection. A door down the hallway outside opened, and Heather called, “That you, Ooluk?”
“It’s me,” the blind elf replied, picking his way carefully down the barracks hallway. He came to a stop at her door. “What’s happening?”
Heather drew a long breath, and sat down on her bed, patting it. “Listen, I got a letter from the church.”
“Well, don’t ask me to read it,” the elf replied with a smile, tapping his bandaged eyes. “Your southlander handwritings are incomprehensible.”
Heather broke into a sad smile at Ooluk’s joke. “No, it hadn’t crossed my mind, Ooluk. Besides, I already read it.” Her voice faltered. “I’m being called back. They’re transferring me, for good.”
He reached out carefully to find her hands, and gave them a gentle squeeze. “You are welcome at my fire,” he said solemnly. The words were his people’s sacred promise, welcoming and parting with her now, and forever.
Heather swallowed down a lump rising in her throat, and it was Ooluk’s turn to break into a sad smile.
“Knight Heather, are you happy or sad?” he asked.
Heather shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said, in surprise. “I really don’t know. Going back is such a nice thought, but you’ve been like a son to me, and the best thing left in this town in the last few years. I guess there’s no chance I could talk you into coming?”
“No,” Ooluk said, his smile solemn and kind. “You can’t. I need to be where I can wrestle the earth, and make it behave. This town needs it. I like my little village here, with the little houses and the quiet streets. You’ve already told me how loud and big all the southland cities are, and they don’t need a Gaimen.”
Heather leaned in, and embraced the elf, and he returned the hug.
“Get fat in the autumn, okay?” he said. They’d have been strange words in any other country. But here, in the high north, the words had a wholly different, positive context. And then his voice turned shamelessly wheedling. “And please send cake!”
Heather wiped a tear from her cheek, and broke into laughter. “I will, I will. And you, you get fat in the autumn too, okay? And take care of yourself, and don’t make me worry too much, or I’ll-…”
Or I’ll worry for you like I used to for my own son, before he was butchered. The thought scalded Heather’s heart, and she drew a deep, pained breath.
Ooluk squeezed her hand again. “I’ll ask Uuzook to write to you for me. And maybe when the hard winters come, I’ll close shop, and go to hear you again one day. Can you make sure they send someone who can cook, in the meanwhile?”
Heather swallowed and nodded. “I’ll do my best, Ooluk.”
The blind elf leaned in, and touched his forehead gently to hers, his voice dropping. “Thank you for everything. You kept me alive, and you’ve been a good friend. You’re the best southlander I ever met.”
Heather closed her eyes, and leaned into the elf in turn. “You never needed to thank me, Ooluk. But it’s good to hear. And I can’t thank you enough, either, you know? You made this place a lot more bearable than it ever should have been, after what we went through, and what it cost you. I’ll keep you in my prayers, all right? And I will write, once I’m settled in.”
“Write big,” Ooluk replied, his mouth splitting into a grin at his own joke as he tapped his bandaged eyes.
Heather let out a helpless laugh. “I will.” She stood up, and hugged the elf one last time, before letting him step away in dignity. “Goodbye, Ooluk.”
In the way of his people when it came time to part, the elf gave her a final, heartfelt smile. Then he turned away, and limped out the door without a word.
Northlanders turn away, so as never to watch a friend leave, Heather thought.
Heather picked up her duffel bag, and walked back to the kitchen to announce her departure.
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