Daniel found the boy weeping and shivering under the stairs of the ship’s top deck. That was where the ocean breeze funneled through the decking, and swept the lingering odour of rotten eggs away. The boy wore a refugee’s rags.
Three more ships had gone dark and silent when the conjuration runes he’d carved into the hulls had billowed silent gas through the cargo holds. They followed, silent sentinels in the night, now crewed only by the dead-and-risen.
“It’s okay to come out,” Daniel said softly, as he crouched by the boy’s hiding place. “You’re not in trouble. Did the bad smells scare you?”
The boy peeked out from behind black hair, and slowly nodded. “Bad air,” he whispered, staring warily at Daniel. “Mama and Papa won’t come when I call.”
Daniel’s expression softened, and he sat down on the deck alongside the hidey-hole. “Bad air down there,” Daniel said in agreement. He reached into his coat, and produced a leaf-wrapped bundle. “We’ll get you back with your mom and dad soon. Are you hungry? That bad smell made me a little too sick to eat. “
He put the food down on the deck, a few feet away. Hesitantly, the small Hanshu boy crept out of his hole, and snatched up the food. The boy gave Daniel a long, cautious stare, and in return Daniel just laughed softly. “It’s okay. It’s just food. What’s your name?”
“Seok,” the boy whispered. He took two careful bites of the rice-ball, and then with a refugee’s discipline, re-wrapped the food and tucked it into his rags. Daniel couldn’t even tell where the boy hid it.
“Call me Daniel.” He swept back his crimson hood, revealing a scruffy mane of blonde hair under the quarter-moon.
The boy crept a little further out of his hiding spot, and sat on the deck near Daniel, out of the worst of the cool wind. Daniel drew off his cloak, and passed it to the boy.
“Thank you,” Seok replied, barely a whisper.
Daniel drew his knees up, and rested his arms overtop, his eyes staring dejectedly at the horizon. “My parents won’t come when I call, either.”
Seok curled in under the cloak, clenching it tightly. “Soldiers?” is all Seok asked.
“Soldiers,” Daniel said, nodding in understanding. “Bad soldiers. For a church. That’s how I got this,” he said, tapping the rune he’d scarred into his body’s forehead. “Did you see bad soldiers before, back home?”
The boy’s eyes barely creased in pain. He simply nodded, and huddled under the cloak.
“Well, you don’t have to worry about them anymore,” Daniel said firmly. “They’re far, far away now. As long as you live, you’ll be safe from those soldiers.”
Seok smiled, just a little. “Promise?” he whispered.
Daniel watched as the boy began to slump, the shelter from the wind leaving the boy exposed to the conjured gas still slowly dissipating out of every chink and crack in the decking. Daniel had chosen it for the way it killed, swift and sure in just a few breaths. The smell of rotten eggs was a warning come far too late, for the concentrated gas numbed the sense of smell. The gas had killed the body he was inhabiting half an hour ago, but that was only a minor inconvenience.
When the boy’s eyes fluttered closed, Daniel drew the first obsidian blade from his pouch.
Children had the youngest, freshest souls, and the strongest magical potential. And guardsmen and soldiers tended to ignore well-behaved refugee urchins of any nation, so long as they stayed well-behaved and obedient.
Daniel had no difficulty ensuring obedience.
“I promise,” Daniel whispered, as his knife descended.
The nightmare, as always, ran through Heather’s mind.
“You forgot me,” the man in the crimson cloak whispered. His voice was chiding. He kept his attention on the knife he was sharpening, not turning, not bothering to look at her. In every iteration of the dream, she never saw his face, cowled in crimson and hidden from her.
“You missed me. Of all my comrades, killed by your hand before we could make greatness. You forgot me.”
Heather froze, not of her own volition. The necromancer’s magic, woven subtly, wrapped around her mind. It caught her in the unguarded moment she’d seen her husband and son slumped together, dead upon her bed. Strength left her body, as it had then, as it had every night since in that same, terrible dream. Her knees hit the floor with a thump.
It seemed to take a thousand years just to raise her eyes, to see the man in the cloak raise his knife. His eyes were black rimmed with red, like an ember gone dark in the hearth.
A knock sounded on her bedroom door. It was a polite knock, but it was firm, urgent.
“Heather?” Neela called. “Heather, I’m so sorry to wake you at this hour.”
Heather’s hands moved, and clutched around something cool and smooth between her breasts. Her locket. Her eyes couldn’t turn away from what the man with the knife was doing with her husband, and son.
But she could lift the locket, and put it between her eyes and the things happening to the meat and bones of her family. She thumbed the catch, and it sprang open, and even in her dreams she could see the drawing, fine and tender lines of graphite. The way they’d been, before she’d forgotten one necromancer among so many.
Neela’s knock came again on her bedroom door, and Heather’s eyes opened. She rose from her bed, blinded with tears, but smiling. The light through her window was a faint, dark blue, well before dawn. “I’m awake, Neela. Come in, what hour is it?”
The bedroom door opened, and Neela swept in, the only sign of the unsaintly hour some faint circles beneath her eyes, and a few sprigs of hair out of place. “It’s just after four bells,” Neela said, biting the words out around the threat of a yawn. “Your mother’s here.”
Heather opened her mouth, paused, and then let out a long breath. “Yeah, I probably should have expected that,” she muttered. “I thought she wouldn’t get the letter until morning.”
“Oh, saints,” Neela said, crossing the floor to gently touch Heather’s wrist, two fingers laid gently along her skin. “I’m sorry, someone should have thought to tell you. Our letters usually go by courier and sending circle, personally delivered.” She bit her lip, and favored Heather with a sympathetic look. “We deal with a lot of crisis, so we don’t wait for the usual mail.”
Heather grimaced, and then laughed ruefully. “She rode straight here as soon as it arrived, didn’t she?”
“That’s what the sentries told us,” Neela said. “Roland’s with her a few rooms over, seeing to her tea by now. Would you like us to ask her to wait until a kinder hour to see you?”
Heather scrubbed her fingers through her hair, blinking the numbness of sleep out of her eyes. “No. No if she rode straight here, I’d better go see her. It’s morning enough for a rancher’s daughter. Um. Thanks, Neela. You woke me up at a good time. Honest.”
Neela took her hand, and gave it a warm, reassuring squeeze. “You’re welcome. Come rescue Roland when you’re ready?”
At that, Heather barked a small, but genuine laugh. “I will. My mom’s pretty, uh…”
“Formidable,” Neela suggested, with a diplomatic twinkle of humor in her eye.
“Formidable!” Heather agreed. She drew a long breath, letting the tug of her smile linger on her cheeks as long as she could hold it.
I’m going to need every bit of cheer I’ve got for this, Heather thought. Mom deserves to see me in a better state than last time.
“Roland’s formidable too,” Neela reassured her. “Come out when you’re ready. Do you want me and Roland there with you?”
Heather curled her hand around the locket at her throat. “No. Thank you so much for offering, but no. This part feels like family business, Neela. You go back to bed, and get some sleep. Don’t stay up on my account.”
“Alright. We’ll be close by. Come knock on my door when you need us.” Neela’s eyes locked onto hers, the scent of fireweed flowers and lavender wafting her fond concern to Heather as she spoke. “Our doors are open, day or night. Anytime you need us.”
Heather bit her lip, and nodded. “I know, Neela. I promise, I will when I need you.”
She said it with confidence, and Neela smiled at her.
“Alright,” Neela said. “Left out the door, then fourth door on your right. Your mother’s in there, when you’re ready.”
When I’m ready? Heather thought. Give me a few thousand more years.
Neela let herself out, and Heather took a brief minute to comb her hair and get properly dressed. All the while, her mind raced, trying to draw back dark and incoherent memories of the days and weeks after her family’s murder.
Guards found me in the street, all the air I could burn around me on fire. It took a team of eight to suppress all my magic, they said. Then they locked me in a widow’s cell. All the iron and water I could boil, all the suppression runes I could feed. Anything to keep me away from people and their homes, as I burned.
Her fingers began to tremble, and suddenly she wished she hadn’t asked Neela to exclude herself from the meeting.
I just remember screaming. Screaming and burning and the stink of hot iron. And then when I was finally exhausted, the nightmare. I don’t even know how long they kept me in there. Until I stopped screaming, I guess. Then mom was there. And just seeing her pain…
Heather exhaled a long stream of sparks, then clenched her hands, and forced herself to suck in another breath, and hold it.
Pain burned in her heart, and behind her eyes. Soot gathered around her eyelashes, ash drifting off and down her cheeks as she forced herself to hold the magic in, and feel.
It hurts so much, Roland. It hurts so much, even now. How does anyone learn to bear this, when you can just throw it away?
Her hands clenched until they shook, and then when she could hold it all in no longer, she knelt by the hearth and coughed out a sob, and a ball of flame shot from her lips and roared up the chimney. She coughed up two more, then drew a long breath again, and held on to what emotions she could.
Where normally she could count on her mind floating above her emotions, as she’d been trained, today she found herself subsumed, overwhelmed in it again. Her thoughts came slower, fuzzy and tinged with emotion. Memories came easier.
Dad used to tell me a heart’s like any other muscle, it only gets stronger with heavy lifting, she remembered. Well I’m lifting heavy now, Dad.
She opened her eyes, conjured a light, before inspecting herself in the nearest mirror. Even in the predawn dark of her room, she could see where soot and tears had run like bad mascara down her cheeks. She stubbornly wiped it off with the sleeve of her sweater.
The walk down the hall took more effort than she’d expected. Just go back inside, chattered a frightened voice inside. Roland’s talking to her now. If you don’t show up, she’ll understand. Roland can handle it.
He would, too, Heather thought, pursing her lips. He’d have something to say about it afterward, but he’d handle it and he’d forgive me.
It was an attractive idea, letting someone else handle the work for her. But the fact that it was attractive was enough to push her the last few steps to the door Neela had pointed out. She’d never shirked work and duty before. She wouldn’t now.
If I let Roland handle my work now, she thought, raising her hand to knock on the door, I probably won’t ever stop. Which means I need to woman up and get it done.
The door flew open after two knocks. Heather only had time to glimpse her mother’s sun-beaten face before she was physically hauled inside, and gathered up into a hug. Her mother’s arms squeezed her with the strength of decades running a ranch.
“Heather Yvonne Blackthorne, I ought to turn you over my knee,” Marceline Blackthorne said, her voice thick with restrained tears.
Her mother’s hug seemed to be halfway trying to crush Heather to death, and Heather’s first attempt at a response was lost in a wheeze.
Over her mother’s shoulder, Heather looked to Roland. The impossibly pretty man raised his eyebrows in question, a silent echo of Neela’s offer of assistance. Heather gently shook her head, and then buried her face into her mother’s hair where it smelled of home.
Roland nodded and rose from his seat.
“Marceline, it truly was a joy to meet you again,” he said. “But I’ll leave you two to catch up. Ring the bell by the door if there’s anything either of you need. I’ll come back around in a couple of hours.”
“Thank you, Brother Rolente,” Marceline Blackthorne said.
When Roland slipped out of the room, and the door shut behind him, Marceline turned her attention back to Heather, her watery smile falling into a truly thunderous frown. “Four years, young lady? Four years?”
“Ma,” Heather started, straightening just enough to look her mother in the eye. “Ma, I’m sorry.”
“How could you, Heather? Did you even read the letters I wrote? I was just a few hours ride out of the city, and I had to write to my only daughter because she’d locked her door to me! Her own mother!”
“I know.” Heather let her head fall, resting one hand on top of her mother’s as she searched for the right words. It was easier to bury herself into the familiarity of her mother’s hair, than face looking at her. “Ma, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please, please listen to me.”
Her mother’s fingers reached up, and ran through them the same way they had when she’d been just a little girl. Heather could feel the effort it took for her mother to hold back, and hold her silently, and gratitude and grief swelled inside her.
Heather shuddered, and then let out a slow, careful breath flecked with dancing embers. “It was the worst time in my life, mama. And I made so many mistakes. Mistakes I’m just barely, barely starting to face. I couldn’t face you, mama. So I just… ran. I just ran,” she said again, shaking her head.
“And you couldn’t even tell me you were transferred? Do you know how I had to find out?” Marceline’s hands shook, her voice growing rough-edged. “I came round to see you, Heather, and I saw the Church’s mark on the door. I thought I had lost you too. I walked the whole way up to the Cathedral just to beg someone, anyone, to tell me my daughter was still alive.”
Heather crumpled into her mother, and the force of her sobs brought her mother’s tirade up short. Her mom’s arms slowly closed around her, and Heather hugged her tightly back.
Marceline pressed her cheek against her daughter’s. “Then I couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone where you’d went. Somewhere up north, that’s all I was told. Nobody seemed to know.”
“You deserved better than that, mama,” Heather said, her words tumbling out around her tears. “I mean it. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. But every time I saw you, every time I saw your eyes, it was just all that pain. All my pain, all over again.”
She pulled herself away enough so that she could look her mother in the eye. “Do you understand, mama?”
“I understand you were grieving, Heather, I do,” Marceline said, her hands trembling as she took her daughter’s cheeks in ranch-hardened hand. “I threw myself into the work at the ranch when your father passed, Saints keep him. It’s what we Blackthornes do, it’s how your father and I raised you. But I never let that lock me away from you, damn it all!”
“I’m sorry, mama,” Heather murmured, closing her eyes. “I am. I’m sorry I put you through that. I didn’t know what else to do, and I was hurting so much, and I know I screwed up. And it feels like I’m only just starting to get a little better, just barely.”
Marceline leaned forward, flows of Light glittering and shimmering in her tears as she rested her forehead against her daughter’s. “You’re alive. We can work out the rest, thank the Saints. I’m just glad you’re still alive.”
Heather looked up, daring a brief, trembling smile. “Ma? Could we sit down awhile, have some tea? Catch up a little?”
Marceline’s eyebrows drew together briefly, but she let out the last of her frustration in a breath of wispy, trailing streams of orange light. “Okay, honey. Tea sounds good, sure.”
Heather let her mother sit first, pouring a cup of spiced orange tea for each of them. What kind of small talk do I even start with? she thought, scraping the tears off her cheeks with the back of her hand.
“How’s the ranch?”, she asked.
Marceline smiled gently at the question. “It’s been good. Thistleback’s gone, I sold him to stud for a breeder out by Sauvelle. One of the House Oiselle folk came to buy last summer. Said they’d been told to buy a horse from us and none other, by some Lady of theirs.”
“Oiselle?” Heather repeated, eyes widening. “Oh. That sort of makes sense. After some–” Heather paused, the rune inscribed in her tongue giving her a brief cramp, warning her not to speak in detail. “– good work I did up north, I found myself in the good graces of a couple of Houses. I guess House Oiselle decided to do my family a good turn in kind?”
“Good turn is right,” Marceline said, patting Heather’s arm. “They paid my asking price outright, not even a breath of haggling.”
“That’s great, Ma,” Heather said weakly. “Glad I could help out the ranch, even up there.”
Marceline’s lips pursed. “Heather, I don’t know all of what you’ve been through, but–” She paused, searching for the right words. “You look hollowed out, honey. What happened to you up there?”
“Can’t say,” Heather quickly said, before her tongue could cramp up again. “Some of it what happened is classified, and most of it was bad, almost as bad for me as losing Steven and Anthony. And when it wasn’t bad, it was lonely up there, sometimes. I had some friends who helped me get through it, but most of them transferred out before me.”
Heather took a sip of her tea, to steady herself from the memories she had of the attack on Frostmoor. That blood-spirit in the mines, and all the dead. The Sending Gate exploding. Almost losing Ooluk to artillery. Bodies, so many bodies, and never trusting a one of them to stay dead until you’d burned them to ash.
And the less you know, Ma, Heather thought, the less reason anyone would have to target you. Even if I’m not sure if those bone-robbing bastards need reasons anymore.
“There’s a lot from that time I don’t want to talk about, even if I could . Dad used to tell me he didn’t bring his bad days home, that he didn’t want us to get nightmares. And now we’ve both had more than our share already.”
“Oh, honey,” Marceline said, tears glittering at the corner of her eyes. “You still have those nightmares?”
“Every night, Mama,” Heather said around the lump in her throat. “Just as bad as before. Roland and Neela are helping, but I don’t know. Might be a long fight.”
“They’ll help,” Marceline said, rock-solid certainty in her voice. “They were Saint-sent for me, when you were in your cell.”
“They what?” Heather blinked, puzzled. “I don’t remember them.” She rolled a hand feebly, then let it drop. “I don’t remember much at all about that time, ma.”
That cell, with those Iron walls and water pipes. Nowhere soft to lay on, nothing that I could burn. Just water to boil and iron to heat, anything to let me throw the feelings away in magic.
I remember darkness, and burning, and sometimes mom’s voice, through the door. I’d just scream until I’d pass out. Then the nightmares would be there, and I’d scream and burn all over again, over and over again.
By the time I could face the world again, they’d buried what was left of Steven and Anthony, and so I missed the Guiding, too.
“Roland would stop by, and bring me tea, or make sure I was being looked after,” Marceline said. “He’d make regular rounds there, to all the widow’s cells and their families.”
Neela mentioned she gets called to the hospital, for parents, Heather remembered. It follows Roland would too.
“Did he come to see you, about the locket?”
Marceline nodded. “He did. He came by the ranch a few months ago, with an artist. They drew some lovely pictures of Steven and Anthony.”
Heather’s hand drew out the locket from under her shirt, and silently, she opened it, to show her mother. Marceline smiled, her eyes crinkling in bittersweet pain at the sight of her lost grandson. “I wished you’d had something like that back then, Heather.”
“Me too, ma,” Heather whispered, closing it again, tucking the precious pictures back in against her heart.
“Especially when you were in that awful cell. Nothing but bare iron and pipes. Do you remember when I’d sing for you, honey?” her mother asked, eyes wet. “Outside your cell door?”
“You sang for me?” Heather said. I don’t remember, she thought. I hardly remember anything back then. I tried so hard to forget.
“Lullabies, like when you were a girl,” her mother admitted. “Brother Rolente said it might help.”
The image of her mother seated against the hot iron door of a widow’s cell, singing softly to her grief-mad daughter inside, cracked Heather’s composure all over again. She held up a hand to forestall Marceline, and drew a few breaths until they’d stop shaking in her throat.
I’d have done the same for my son, she realized. I’d have done anything, anything at all, to save him from that pain and grief I went through. I’d have sat outside that door and cracked open my own bones if it would have helped him.
“I don’t remember, ma. I wish I did. My first clear memory is waking up in Anthony’s bed, one morning, and knowing they were gone. Calendar said it had been almost a month.”
Marceline took her daughter’s hand in her own and gave it a firm squeeze. “You know, it’s not true, what you said earlier about your father. About him never taking his bad days home. Sometimes he did, and those were the times we never let you see, growing up. I wish now we’d let you see it, a little. That job could break his heart one day, and he’d still have to get back on his horse tomorrow and ride his circuit again. If he were still here, he’d know what to say to help.”
Heather frowned. “I wish I’d seen some of that too, mama. He always seemed so happy, as a Knight.”
“He was, Heather. He could have his tough days, but he loved the work, the way you did before. But he wasn’t a detective like you. Just a county Knight riding the same circuit his whole life. He knew all the neighbors, and they all knew him.” Her mother gave her a pleading look. “It was easy for him to be happy, doing that work. You could do that too, Heather. You could come home.”
And stop being a Detective, some part of Heather’s mind sourly spat. The thought of life out in the country, back on the ranch she’d grown up on, held a melancholy nostalgia for her. I loved that place, as a girl. Riding for days, out in the back-country, or following Dad for parts of his circuit when he’d let me. But…
Heather drew a breath and completed the thought out loud. “Ma, if I went back now, I’d never sleep. I’d just think about what bad business the folks who did this to me were up to. Maybe one day, I can come home. I’d like that. But not yet. Not now,” she said, her voice softly pleading. “Please don’t ask that of me, mama. They need me, right now. And –“
Her tongue cramped again, and she bit her lip in frustration until it threatened to bleed, so she finished in a rush. “– there’s so much I can’t tell you but they need me. And I think I want to keep fighting. For justice, or revenge, I don’t know, I’ll take either at this point. But I can’t stop. Not yet.”
Marceline’s brows drew together, and she leaned in, staring at her daughter’s mouth and the rune’s magic that flickered along her tongue. “Oh, Heather. What are you all tangled up in, now?”
Heather threw her arms around her mother and shook her head. “I can’t tell you, mama. I want to and I can’t. Physically can’t.”
Even revealing that shot a warning jolt through her tongue, and Heather squawked, and covered her mouth. Her mother stared at her in concern, and Heather swallowed and focused on her breathing until her tongue relaxed again.
“You know what, ma?” Heather said. “I’m about ready for some air. Do you want to get out of here for a while?”
“Whatever you want, Heather. I think we should.”
“Good, because–” Heather paused, and swallowed away the dry, dusty fear that welled up in her throat. “Because I need your help with something, Mama. I don’t think I can do it by myself.”
“Anything, honey. Whatever you need.”
Heather looked away, steeling herself. Her eyes fell on the gardens beneath the windows, the east-facing walls just beginning to grow rosy with the promise of dawn.
Then she forced herself to bring her eyes back to meet her mother’s, and her concerned stare.
“Could you come with me to visit their graves?”
If you’d like to spread the word about From Winter’s Ashes, vote for us on TopWebFiction.com, or better yet, write a review at WebFictionGuide.com, Goodreads, or Amazon. Or visit our Facebook page and share it with your friends!
Click here to read From Spring’s Storms, Chapter 10! (Password protected until 01/18/2017! Want the password? Join our Patreon, or sign up for the mailing list at the top right-hand side of this page!)