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Cover Design: Melchelle Designs
Published by Dragon Wealth, LLC
Copyright © 2017 Chris Weston
All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
About the Author
Warden Zaka traveled all night to look at two dead bodies. The report he was given was short, but now it makes sense. The lord of Levon called upon him and his unit for justice for his son. And what nobility wants, nobility gets.
Warden Zaka rubs his head to prepare him for that stink hole of a morgue. The sensation of the glove's hide over him keeps his mind off the smell of the room. The stench reminds him of his time packed into the Lion’s Valor. It’s going to be a long night. All the candles in the room don’t do much for the heavy and still air. Clean air or no, it doesn’t excuse his loitering. Inside two bodies lie on slabs: a man and woman. The coroner waits for him to speak. The Warden conceals a yawn with his fist. Best get to work now.
The Warden asks, "How long have they been dead?"
The coroner, with the few strands of brown hair sticking to his head and gap in his teeth, says, "Five days now. We sent word to the wardens when he was found on the road. I have to say, Warden Zaka, we were a little surprised you came. Warden Brooks is supposed to patrol this region."
Warden Zaka walks around the table and inspects the corpse of the man. His body is strewn on a stained wooden slab. Young, red hair, somewhat fat. Zaka touches his clothes and feels fine silk; a noble's attire. The Warden takes a closer look at the body of the knight. Multiple punctures to the chest, lungs filled with blood. His throat is sliced open; stopped him from screaming. The back of his head is caved in from a blunt object. Rock, maybe a hammer of some sort. It was heavy and unwieldy, so a jealous mistress is ruled out.
The Warden gets back to the question. "I'm afraid Warden Brooks was reassigned elsewhere. My regiment is in control of this region from here on out. Tell me, what was the site of his death like?"
"What do you mean?" the coroner asks.
He looks at the girl's hair, wrapped up nicely in curls of gold. The Warden moves over to the next table to inspect the girl’s stab wounds. Multiple puncture wounds around her neck, meaning the attacker was fended off or startled. He looks over the palms of her hands. There are lacerations from the base of her hand to between her fingers. This surprises Warden Zaka. The girl must have seen the blade and grabbed it with her hand. Not a well-planned attack.
"I mean the context," Warden Zaka says. "Was there a crowd present? Was a public event taking place? How long did it take you to find the body, and what was the condition thereof? Details."
"No such events, sir. It was a rather busy day, and the crowds were bustling from the recent trade route made by King Pieter. Lars is the—was the knight of the town. Comparatively, one of the best. The other knights are abusive to the people, but not Lars. He was well-liked."
Well-liked? Warden Zaka has had to meet his fair share of people in Valsair since he moved to this country, and he has more fingers than people he likes here. "Time of death?" the Warden asks.
"We expect later in the afternoon or evening, as he was found in the night by the tavern keeper near in the alleys. He was already dead for some time. She was found by the river."
So, they were separated. "Is the river a secluded spot?"
"That's the thing; it isn't. Their bodies were in plain view. He was left on the ground, and she was not hidden in a shallow grave, nor thrown into the water to let the current take her away. Nothing."
The Warden mulls over the details. Just because Sir Lars was ‘well-liked’ doesn’t mean a crime of passion out of possibility. The fact that nothing was done to conceal he act makes the Warden think the murder was impulsive.
The blunt wounds on Sir Lars and the carrying of the girl requires strength, while the lethality of their wounds indicate they needed to be killed as quickly as possible. Had to be one attacker with some training. That hardly narrows anything down. "Let me ask you something about the bodies."
"What is it?"
The Warden points over to Sir Lars. "His attack points are fatal. Chest, neck, head. All would have killed him. If what you say is true, and there is no ill-will to Sir Lars, as the other knights have cultivated, why would these wounds be calculated? Who would have hated Sir Lars so much as to inflict this, and not hide the evidence?"
"I don't know."
"Someone who enjoys it, that’s who. Return his body to his family, so that they may bury him in their estate. The girl to whatever family claims her. I have seen everything from them that needs to be seen. Then I want you to prepare a list of known associates of Sir Lars so me and my men can interview them."
The coroner nods, and Warden Zaka leaves the room and the stench that lingers in it. He makes his way outside. The Warden focuses his sight on the nearby buildings, all stone and all of quality. The night is brighter than the morgue with all its candles. The Warden takes a deep breath, letting all the clean, crisp air into his lungs. His guards stand awaiting more orders. The second-in-command walks up to him.
"What is the situation?" Ellard asks.
Zaka comes to a slow stop and takes in the fresh air. "A nobleman's son is dead, Sir Lars. Apparently, the town was busy, so no one saw him murdered. He and his woman."
"Could it be upset townsfolk, or the father of the jilted daughter perhaps?"
"No, the coroner told me he never had that sort of reputation. Get this, he told me Sir Lars was even well-liked. He was killed brutally, and with no apparent suspects, it indicates something dangerous is lurking around these parts. I doubt this girl was even an intended target. I imagine she and sir Lars were to share a special night together; she had dressed herself up for the occasion. It was an ambush."
"How dangerous are we talking about?" Ellard says. "Should I put the men in pairs of two and three while maneuvering through the town?"
"That would be the wise decision. I have a feeling our killer is trained and knows how to strike with precision and quickness. It may be another knight; a noble's worst enemy is another noble. They would have the training to do what I saw was done. Let’s gather a list to inspect, but make sure to check the upper-class families, and anyone else up to discretion."
The Warden watches as his young guard relays the order throughout the unit. Each member is put into pairs and advance to their locations within the perimeter. In minutes, the town of Levon is secured.
Levon is also home to the nobleman's manor. This thought puzzles the Warden as he gazes into the night sky. There are more knights and guardsmen stationed here than any of the towns and villages in the area. This isn’t a community with isolated fields, where a silent murder can be performed, and vigilante wrath is bound to take place. Here, the law should have responded to the crime and sealed off entry to the city quickly, yet the killer slipped away.
His attention is broken when Ellard comes back. "Sir, some of the men went around town once we entered, and found a possible lead."
"What is it?" The Warden says.
"Not long ago, our knight in question had an encounter with a passing woman. A tender woman with gray hair. Our witness says he recognized her, but she doesn't belong to the town."
"Did he tell you where she is from?" He makes eye contact with Ellard.
"Yes. They did some more questioning and there is a lead to a forest. A week's ride from here. What do you want to do?"
This night is more intriguing than he imagined it would be. "Have half the unit stay here to continue the investigation. I don't want to pass over anything. Lots of snakes live in these exquisite dens," he says. "The other half will go with us to the forest."
"Should we expect trouble?"
The Warden smiles at him. "We are the trouble."
Outside low open fields fade away to sparse trees and vegetation, and the forest comes into view. The morning sun rises, showcasing the vibrant colors of the country. Tyyr sits in a familiar carriage, run by a familiar carriage boy, to a familiar destination. She brushes her gray hair aside as she looks out through the small window. She hasn't come back this way in some time. In the carriage, she turns to her sole companion.
Kaleb is dressed in his black attire: black jacket, gloves, pants, and boots. He always looks good when it matches his hair. Kaleb came on his own to take her to her safehouse. Once he drops her off, he’ll leave to meet with his pack.
Bringing back a topic that hasn’t stopped since they left Bramol, she says, "Kaleb, I can stay on my own. I don't need to be holed away in some burrow."
Kaleb sits back on the purple leather interior and lets out a heavy sigh. "You're being placed in a shelter, not a hole in the ground. The Houses believe this will be the best place for you to recover, and I think so too."
A bump in the road causes her arm to tingle. It still hasn’t healed properly since Lemava’s Sanctuary. "My place in the forest is secluded. I was there for months and never turned any whisperings of evidence of Elerian infiltration. Nothings happens there; it will be the safest place I can be."
He responds, "Since we've been on this trip, all you’ve tried to do is convince me otherwise. After the run in you and Balen had with the rogue Magi, both the House of Ravens and Wolves find it best that you recover. Fully recover," he says. "I had a talk with Balen about this already. A place where others can keep an eye on you is for the best. You know these people; you'll be a natural fit."
She disagrees with his opinion that Rek and Ferra won’t mind her living with them. "The last time they saw me, I broke into their house in the middle of the night. I can’t imagine they think I'm pleasant company. A hole in the ground I can sit in would be preferable than the house with them."
He shakes his head. "You're not going to be put at the border alone. The decision is final. Here is far away from any sort of danger, and close enough nearby where you can be checked on. This is for the best."
The carriage boy stops the horses at the edge of the forest. Kaleb exits the compartment first, carrying several bags. They had paid the fare upfront, so as soon as they disembark with their luggage, the boy starts off back home.
Tyyr follows Kaleb into the forest, trusting him to know the way. She should lead, but her body is still broken and sore. As they walk through the tangled roots and obtrusive branches, Tyyr falls short of Kaleb's pace. The back of her throat feels sore. Even though she carries only a single bag over her good arm, her right arm has not had proper time to heal. The healer told her if it was just snapped, it would recover faster, but because it was wrenched out, it was shattered in multiple spots. The Houses healers did their best to mend it together, but time is the only cure.
They move out from woods and brush and arrive at the clearing. The house sits in the center of the circular expanse. It reminds Tyyr that this house is nestled away from the rest of the world; hidden from view. Tyyr wipes away the thin line of sweat from her brow. Kaleb holds open the fence door for her; a kind gesture if she didn't know it was meant to lock her away. He paces ahead and knocks on the door.
This feels strange. She doesn't remember taking the front door last she was here. Tyyr looks around to the outskirts of trees and remembers the reason: the damn hand cannon Rek shot that day. She thinks back to how deafening it was to fire. His shooting caused her to go around the house, entering through the back door. No, that’s wrong. She did break in through the front door. It looks much different in the day.
The door opens, and a small man stands on the other side. Rek. It's unusual to see him again; she can't think of meeting most people more than once. The beard hides his age well, but the skin around his eyes shows its tolls. Not bad for a middle-aged dwarf.
Rek says, "Kaleb, what a pleasant surprise. I feel as if it's only been days since you last arrived here."
"It has," Kaleb responds.
"Well." Rek laughs by himself. "Time flies when you’re not keeping an eye on it.” He turns his attention to Tyyr. "Now I know we haven't had a run-in together for quite some time. Almost didn't recognize you in all this daylight. Come on inside. Ferra has made some food and drink for your arrival."
Kaleb interjects. "Thank you, Rek, but I'll be leaving right away."
Rek does his best to pull Kaleb in by his arm. "Why, you two have only just made it here. Surely you can take the time to enjoy a good meal and rest for a moment."
Kaleb smiles at him. "You know we don't tend to be that fortunate with our duties. I have associates waiting on me, and it will take days to reach them. I can't let them have the luxury of lethargy; they might become accustomed to it."
Rek laughs as he puts his hand on Kaleb’s back and slightly pushes him through the front door. "How about you take Tyyr's things to her room, and I'll have Ferra wrap some food for you. I think that's a fair deal."
Kaleb relents and walks with Rek. Picking up her bag, Tyyr follows them inside the house. The house is as she remembered it. She can see the cherry red chair in the living room from when she first met this family. She accompanies the men up the stairs to the first room. Her chest starts to feel heavy, as if bricks were laid on top of her. I don’t want to be here.
"Here is your room," Rek says. "We didn't have much in it, but when we heard you'd be staying with us, we furnished it as best we could in the time we had."
Tyyr walks in to see a finely made bed in front of her. The sheets of the canopy are made of beautiful maroon fabric that drape down the four pillars. Cream-colored bedsheets contrast nicely with the white pillows and golden sheets. A full-sized dresser in the corner, with two nightstands on each side of the bed. In the corner, an immaculate mirror stands tall. The clarity of the reflection catches her off-guard.
Rek says, "We did have it brought to us quickly. If it's not to your liking in any way, we can have some of those royal traders bring something else. It'll do them some good to get out of the cities more often."
"It's wonderful," she says. And it isn't a lie. She doesn't know any other response to the gesture.
"That's good to hear." He looks to her and Kaleb. "I'm going to see how Ferra is doing with dinner. Should have been finished by now." Rek shuts the door behind him as he leaves the room.
Tyyr looks to Kaleb, her thoughts beginning to clear since entering the house. "So, you know Rek and Ferra well?"
"Hardly. I went over security details on where you should rest and gave this place a visit," Kaleb says. "He contacted the Ravens when you broke in to his house in the middle of the night. It left quite an impression; they seem to like you."
Tyyr’s gaze falls to the ground. "Now I know you're the one who is confining me here."
"Don't think of it as confinement. It’s a piece of land where you’re free from the Houses for the next few months. I spoke with Rek and Ferra, and they're good people. You're making your incident with them a bigger issue than it actually is."
Tyyr says, "I'm not allowed to leave the property and am constantly under their watch. You may call it safekeeping, if you feel that's a better word."
He rubs the back of his neck. "And I do. This is for your own protection. Listen, we don't know if there are lingering remnants of the mercenary brigade or if the Magi had any more accomplices who know about you. The last thing we need is some revenge filled mage hunting you in your condition."
"I would be safer—"
"Please," Kaleb says. He grabs her hips and pulls Tyyr close to him. "Can you please stop fighting this? I need you here. I can't pull you out of a situation where you are broken and limp again. That was the scariest moment of my life. Unsure if you would ever wake up. Here is safe. Here is where I can reach you if anything were to happen. I know this isn't the best solution, and it's not going to be easy, but it's the best I can do to stay near you."
Tyyr stops talking and looks at him. He’s worried, and deep in her chest, she doesn’t know what that means. "You can't promise me you'll always be there for me."
"Let me worry about what I say."
Kaleb's lips touch hers; her arms wrap around him. She feels weightless in the moment. Her hands hold tightly to his sides as she loses herself in his warmth. If she can just grab him and throw him on that bed—
He pulls back and looks into her eyes. "Are you going to give this place a chance?"
She rests her head on his chest and keeps holding tightly to him, unsure of the next time they'll be together like this again. He's worried; he keeps repeating himself. She’s pleased that he is, but she knows it's not right. It feels good to know she's on his mind.
She doesn’t want to be here. It’s not her home, and not her people. But Kaleb is worried. Maybe he should be. Seeing him like this makes her wonder if all her protesting was worth it. She can't let him leave like this. Tyyr looks at him and lies, "I'll stay here and get better."
Blaine wipes the sweat from his brow. The sun is hot and the air heavy. The barn he is in rests in disrepair. Equipment is thrown about or steeped in dust and rust. He sets down the planks of wood from his shoulder. Blaine's first days were spent cleaning the spiders and vermin who took refuge in every conceivable corner, and they were none too pleased at being kicked out.
The owner had come down with a long-term sickness, and had not been able to perform manual labor for months. With only his wife and daughter, the labor has fallen on him alone. This was not troubling work for Blaine. The work is difficult, but honest. It afforded him some sleep, but could not rid him of the dreams.
He sits down on an overturned bucket he uses as a chair. The sight of the barn appears improved from when he originally looked upon it. "It's getting there," he says.
His senses pick up a disturbance in the grass; someone is coming towards him. He looks to see the owner's daughter, Lissa. Must be late. He looks up to the sky. Is the afternoon that far passed?
In his previous life, the first thing he would have thought of is getting those clothes off her. It’s not as if she isn’t attractive, those freckles on her face drive him crazy, but that man he was is gone now. That’s an old ghost that only serves to make him grit his teeth in remembrance. Not many people from the village visit the farm, and less talk to him, but his mind is still troubled that they’ll find out about him.
He says to her, "For a small farm, there is no shortage of work to find. Cleaning will be the easiest part. There's still broken hinges, walls in need of repair."
"The place has gotten so much help since you've shown up." Lissa smiles. "And to think, Father almost turned you away when you came to Garric looking for work. We wouldn't be in half the state we're in without you, and he knows it."
The other people in the village. No one else gave him a job. Only Samuel Treece needed the work bad enough. At first, Blaine was glad, but as time went on, he worried that old life of his would return to bite him in the ass one last time. He sighs. "He was cautious, that's all. Anyone would be with a complete stranger, especially one looking like this." He motions to his scar that crosses his face.
"No one wanted to bring up the smell either." She laughs. "So, are you ever going to tell anyone what happened to you? Some in town talk."
"Let them talk. I pay them no mind, and you should follow the same. I feel it wouldn't be right to say anything to them. Stranger in town, you taking me in, attending the village . . ." Blaine sighs. "All this wood has to be put away. Some of it is salvageable for later, but most is rotted and warped. It's of little use. It should be used for firewood, or just burned to be rid of it. There's no reason to keep it around."
“I'll leave you to your work. Remember, supper will be ready in an hour. Stop by and grab some for tonight."
"I will, I will."
Lissa walks back to the house. He watches her until she nears the door, another moment and she's inside. The barn needs to be finished, but there is much left to do. Blaine has done much on the surface level, but the foundation is rotted from weather and disuse, as is the tendency of these structures.
He is in the ideal season for the repairs. Summer is ending, leaving the burning sun on the horizon, and winter is encroaching, yet not arrived. To Blaine, a living did feel like its own reward. He gives a soft smile, and begins to prepare for tomorrow's obligations.
The tools and supplies are put inside, away from rain and dew. He closes the barn's door partway, as it will not close fully yet. "Tomorrow," he mutters. "The door will close then."
Samuel's estate is near a small pond; more of a big hole in Blaine's eyes. The size of the hole doesn't bother him now. He stops at the water's edge, ready to splash his face. The man looking back stops him, the foul scar running from forehead to jaw serving as a painful reminder. With a swipe of his hand, the man disappears into the ripples, but the fragments keep watch. Blaine dips his head in. Such a restorative feeling as the beads of water drip down on him.
After he finishes up, Blaine makes his way back to the farm. The sun has not started to dip yet, but he knows he can't work at night. Even by lamp and candle, the inside is treacherous, and an injury will only serve to delay him. The Treeces have already given him plenty. He did not want to deepen the debt, for their sake.
Upon reaching the front door, a sudden realization hits him. "Damn rope." He forgot to go into Garric and acquire fresh rope. The rope for the pulleys had decayed on him. It’s impossible for it to properly function. He’ll need it sooner rather than later, so he makes a quick trip to Garric to finish for the day.
As he enters Garric's boundary, the same sets of eyes overlook him. The folk of Garric are not particularly fond of him. They are a close-knit community, and his presence is a disturbance to them. Not all of them. Just enough to make sure he knows his place in the village: an outsider. Thankfully, the shopkeeper and his wife do not look down on him with disdain. They like the fact someone is helping Samuel and his family.
Blaine finds the shop, with its stone walls and thatch roof. Inside, the shopkeeper's wife is behind the counter.
Blaine asks, "Where is Derrin today?"
Corainn answers, "He's out with the Bowdles. Thinks he can get some of their goods for free for some favors."
"I have to hand it to him, being able to come here and find everything I need is convenient. It would help if he was here most days."
"Then he wouldn’t have his junk. He's a hoarder. The reason he makes money now is because I forced him to sell or get rid of his trash. Can you believe he talked to me about moving to Bramol?"
He responds, "If you forced him to sell his goods, yes, I can see why he'd want to go to the capital."
"That's not the point." She folds her arms across her chest. "This is our land. We don't leave home. I've heard of other families picking up and leaving where they lived for generations, and I think that's downright—"
A villager bursts through the door. Jeryl runs past Blaine, taking up the front of the counter. Sweat runs down his red face, his breath coming out short. "Corainn, where is Derrin? This is urgent."
"He left to help the Bowdles fix their wagon. I don't think he'll be back before sunset.”
"Jeryl," Blaine says. "What's the commotion about?"
He looks over, unaware that Blaine was standing there the entire time. Jeryl catches his breath before answering. "Stanley Colden's daughter hasn't been seen all morning and afternoon. A terrible storm he's cursing away. I know Derrin is about the village in every conceivable corner. Maybe he's run into her, so Stanley will calm down."
"A mean temper whenever he doesn't get his way," Corainn says. "I feel for her that that burden falls on her alone."
Something about the situation feels wrong to Blaine. In a place like Garric, this shouldn't happen. By the look on Jeryl’s face, he’s serious. It may be nothing, but Blaine wants to get to the bottom of it. "What was she up to, last he knows about?"
Jeryl says, "Mae went to the Trews on an errand. They had some potatoes to trade for whatever Stanley has."
Blaine looks out the window. "Daylight will be going soon. Say, Jeryl, let's stop by the Trews place and see if she's still there," Blaine says.
"I appreciate what you've done for Lissa and her father, we all do, but are you sure you want to put yourself in the middle of this?"
It doesn’t seem like Jeryl wants Blaine’s company, but he also seems like he doesn’t want to deal with this alone. Blaine insists, "We'll be fine. A quick walk back and forth, should be back before dark."
They leave, heading into the direction of the Trews farm. Jeryl had never been one to make him feel unwelcome, but he was never at ease when around him either. Since they had left Garric, he hasn't spoken to him. Blaine knows he is the one to rid the tension.
He asks, "Mae, she has the fair hair?"
"Fair skin, fairer hair. That's right," Jeryl responds.
"Yes, I'm recalling that I would confuse her and Lissa from a distance at first," Blaine says. "Scared her once when I came up to her. She didn't say anything, just looked at me with giant eyes."
"Their mothers were confused as sisters when we were younger. You never see hair that light. Outside of our elders, of course."
"It does give that impression, doesn't it?" Blaine smiles at him. To his surprise, Jeryl gives a silent chuckle. he’s relieved somewhat.
The day is growing old. Shadows begin to appear and expand in the distance, as an auburn glow washes over the field they walk in. Little bugs in the air stir in front of Blane's vision. What they can be, he does not know. They are less than flies, and more than dust. He swipes them away in vain.
This land calms him, and he takes peace in it. Years of memories come back to him, images, sounds, sensations; all impressing a hollowness. If he could have been born here . . . Blaine stops walking. Something breaks his concentration, but he can't pinpoint it. It takes Jeryl a few moments before he realizes he's walking alone. He turns around. "Why'd you stop?"
"Wait, hold up for a moment," Blaine says.
It's not the wildlife, as there is no deer to be seen. No sounds, as it isn't what it appears to be. A pit fills in his stomach; it's something he knows, but can't quite place. He walks forward, searching each part of the landscape for what called out to him. Blaine soon finds it in the ground; a white ribbon.
A dirt patch has been disturbed with lines and prints. The nature of them are what captured Blaine's attention, so small, yet noticeable. He kneels and traces with his finger the outlines of the disturbance. They curve and race until reaching a completed destination— a hand print.
"Jeryl, we have to run back to town and gather a hunting party," Blaine says.
He stands up and turns to him. "Mae was abducted."
Elle has been sitting in this carriage for four days. It just goes on and on, and on. By the second day, her frustration set in, but now she’s resigned herself to waiting. On her last stop, Balen joined the ride with her. He’s said nothing since arriving.
Her legs yearn to touch the dirt, and the rocks, and the grass, but she is stuck here. Balen is sitting across from her, scribbling on some parchment he can barely see. He had told her they were going for a quick ride. Now she wishes she had asked for the length.
"Where are we going?" Elle asks.
Balen stops his writing, brings his eyes up to her, and goes back to the parchment. Several minutes pass before he stops again.
"We are traveling to a town north of Valsair's border, to Karis. That is where your trial will be held."
"You haven't told me anything about the trial yet."
"There is no great rush. Karis is still some distance away. You do need to understand the situation you are in however, so now is as good a time as any," he says. "Do you know the roles of the Houses?"
She pushes on for conversation. "The Houses kill people for the King. They answer only to the King."
"I figured you didn't know much. Don't worry, take that as a compliment. We have time and there is plenty to talk about." Balen sets his parchment aside and sets his sights on Elle. "Tell me about yourself. Tyyra knows you, but I don't, not really. We may potentially be around each other for a very long time. With the distance still left to cover in this carriage, how about we start right, exchanging a few things between each other."
"There's not much to say. I've been living a new life as of lately."
"A new life? I'm not so sure about that. Most Wolves and Ravens can say that when they joined, they cast off whatever previous life they had and start anew. You, you're a special case that doesn't have that kind of privilege. This will only work if you allow it to work."
Elle tries to shuffle her feet against the ground. The carriage interior doesn't allow much room for comfortable footing. She clears her throat. "My mother became sick. One day she was very hot, and then she was dead in the morning. I was with her the entire night, but when I woke up, she never did. We were out wandering from village to village, selling what we could to have enough supplies, or surviving off the land as best we could. Capability is not in question. The Murotsy train all its members, to women and children. I don't believe there's anything of value I can give you by talking about the past."
"Murotsy? That is interesting. More interesting in why would one leave the tribe." Balen leans forward. "I've occasionally had meetings with the tribes. They are certainly easier to approach than some of the more barbaric nomads. Still, with no central leadership to talk to, meeting with each group is a new exercise."
"We don't meet with outsiders.”
"They do, you just don't know it. The Murotsy, real tricksters. Selling trinkets and jewels and other rubbish to unsuspecting dimwits. The real wealth comes in through your fast hands." Balen pinches the air. "How many nobles have found out their valuables are missing, or have been replaced with fakes far too late before they can do anything about it, because as soon as they realize it, the tribe has already moved on.” Balen leans back. “It's my role to know these facts. What I hope is that you still possess those traits: they'll prove useful for what's to come, and for whatever House you may be placed in, if you are accepted. This conversation on your past can rest until that point. As you said, this is the start of a new life."
Elle wraps her hand around her star necklace. "What will be the difference if I am placed in one and not the other?"
"The House of Wolves and the House of Ravens are separate entities, both run by their governors. We work together by order of King Pieter, but we are not one organization. Both Houses specialize in their respective crafts, and coordinate for the good of the kingdom. This is who we are in entirety."
She had known there was a distinction, but by the look on Balen’s face and the tone of his voice, she realizes how serious the organization in Valsair is. She presses on, "You and Tyyr are Wolves."
"No, we were, several years ago. A failed mission took place, and the Wolves and Ravens were ravaged. Our numbers were cut, the Wolves more so than the Ravens, but that is the nature of things. To keep the balance of power, the governors traded members. As the best of the Wolves, we were tasked with the majority of the work within the Ravens. It's the curse of being the best."
Elle says, "I've met several within the city, and I cannot tell the two apart."
"That's a true observation. It’s certainly not a physical trait between us. The deviation is who is where, and doing what. The House of Wolves acts as their counterparts in the wild. Tracking, hunting, leaving nothing left, and always on the move. We are called on to take the physical route when dealing with Valsair's enemies. As such, the life of a Wolf is one of survival, and the worthy grow up from the cubs.
“The House of Ravens watch, and learn, and act when there is no other option. Everything the King hears comes from the Ravens, and the orders from the King go to the Wolves. It can seem safer, but when a Raven disappears, they're often never found. Where they go, we may never know."
She remembers Tyyr and Balen in Lemava’s Sanctuary. They left a lot of bodies in their wake. "But I've seen you kill."
"Even a bird can be vicious."
Elle looks through the window. The setting sun casts a gleam on the forest. There is nothing much to see, except the twisting of the trail and the long range of the dirt road. The path extends as far as she can see, until the dense trees cover it again. She knows once they clear the forest, and the path disappears, she won't have a way to return. "What is awaiting me in Karis?"
Balen says, "Your trial. The deciding factor on whether you turn out to be a Wolf or a Raven."
The Warden and his guard entered the forest late at night, which was a good decision, as the morning's rays are blocked by treetops. The amount of green is a welcome sight. Healthy growing grass, the trunks of trees higher than he has ever seen before. With this amount of vegetation, the Warden concludes water must be around to have the area flourish as it has, and his assumption was correct.
As they maneuver over large roots and numerous hills, great saucers of lakes are before them. The company stops to refresh before moving on. The Warden dismounts his horse by the water and walks to his lieutenant. The Warden takes a drink from his flask, and he pours the little water that remains on his horse's head. It sighs in relief. He rubs the droplets through the coat so it reaches the skin. The travel has taken them several days through the western plains where water can be scarce.
"What do you think of the area?"
Ellard says, "It's beautiful, sir. Our suspect must have enjoyed her life here. It's secluded, has fruit, can grow vegetables, and plenty of good clean water to drink. I wouldn't mind staying here myself."
"Secluded is a good word. This land is new, part of an expansion in Eleria. Well, Mizurist, before Eleria conquered them. Not many people are allowed the opportunity here. Where did our lead say our woman is living?"
"Near a gigantic tree. Said we wouldn't miss it."
Just a big tree in a forest of big trees. The Warden closes his flask and puts it away. "As long as it's apparent, we shouldn't spend days searching a forest for a tree."
After the company has rested, they climb back on their horses and continue forward into the grove. It isn't long before outposts start to spring up, although scarcely. The buildings are few, and the people fewer. The Warden knows they are several miles before they reach the border, but the architecture gives him a moment of pause, until he sees the Valsairian flag waving in the air. The last thing he wants to do is cross into hostile territory.
The sun briefly dips in the sky, or at least, that is The Warden's first assumption. When he focuses, the top of the biggest tree he’s ever seen is what partially blocks out the sun. With a destination in hand, he makes his way to it. The workers in the outposts watch from a distance, wondering what is going on in their woodland. He can see them looking in their direction, and when catching notice of the Warden, swiftly going back to their business.
It is an enormous tree, older than he can correctly place. Hundreds of years is an understatement, likely thousands. The seed placed in ancient dirt, surviving the tread of animals, the erosion of time, and the saw blades of man, until the behemoth could no longer be conquered. No, its days are numbered, like the rest of the world. The King can fashion tables, and houses, and give dignitary gifts from a wonder of his world. The Warden sighs.
The house they were told of is beside it; they simply had to travel around the tree until it was found. It's a small Elerian house, of course it would be, the entire forest was annexed from Eleria. The Warden makes sure to take that into account, as he's sure Ellard will bring this fact to him.
The Warden dismounts his horse and walks in, the contents inside falling in line with his expectations. Furniture is scattered across the room. Signs of little to no home life. There looks to be a bed made of pillows in the center of the room, so someone was sleeping here. His soldiers come in and start inspecting the interior.
The windows shine ruby-red from the sunlight beaming in. The Warden never liked Elerian decorations. Pompous, just like its people. The place isn't left in squalor; it's not tidy, but whoever was here made sure to take stock of their belongings. He has a hunch they've walked into a dead end.
"Not much here," Ellard says.
"It will most likely stay that way. We're close to the Elerian border; only outposts from here on out. No one is risking a valuable settlement for the time being."
Ellard walks over to a nearby desk and wipes his hand over it. "Dust," he says. "Could we be dealing with an Elerian spy, given that we are so close to the border and a knight is dead?"
"It's a possibility that we shouldn't ignore, although it appears our woman did not come back here after the murder took place, if she murdered him," the Warden says. "These are uncertain times. The shadows move all around us, and it can be difficult to know who to trust."
"What are you thinking about?"
"I'm not. Nothing is going in my mind. It's a feeling, intuition. A spy or an assassin, too easy of a fit. We have a clear motive and goal with that line of thought, but it doesn't sit right with me."
Ellard places his hands on his waist. "The pieces seem clear to me. She came through, gathered intelligence on our nearby townships, and set out to hurt our power."
"Then our Elerian assassin is a fool. Killing a soldier and a girl doesn't make sense. Now killing a commander, that disrupts an enemy. It's basic warfare. No, this girl doesn't make sense yet, but she will in time. Let’s keep looking around; make good use of our time."
Ellard looks around the room. "I'm partial to the spy theory, personally. The attack of mercenaries recently would provide plenty of cover to go on the offensive. You don't think so?"
"What I have is the outline in place, and a spy doesn't fit the shape. You’re working backwards from your first conclusion. I'm not dismissing the notion; I'm wondering what’s taking place, as if this had never existed. We are on to something, so you are correct about your belief."
The belongings are scattered, but nothing is in disarray. The Warden assumes if this was a spy with serious plans in Valsair, the whole house would be torched at this point, or finely clean, or damaged. To him, it’s as if the owner left one day and decided not to return. "The woman who lived here is dangerous, there's no doubt about it. She was also alone: no indication two or more people stayed here. Look at the state of this bed. All this space and not enough for two. So, what is a woman doing out here by herself, for months at a time?"
"I'll have the men start searching around. Gather some information on who she was."
"Absolutely, get to it."
The Warden waits outside as his men search the area. He observes the forest in its quiet solitude. Ellard's intuition is correct; the contents of the house suggest that a scout of some kind lived inside. He knows there's not a scrap of evidence to be found. What doesn't make sense is why an Elerian agent would murder a knight and a young girl in such a brutal fashion. If Eleria was going to attack, they would bring in a real force, not one woman to kill a noble’s son. This woman is becoming more mysterious as time passes on.
It's a false trail. He bites the inside of his cheek. This house won't tell them anything. There is an answer somewhere in this meadow, yet it's scrubbed clean. The Warden wants to crack open someone with a punch; to pin them against a tree, to—
"Who goes there?" a voice calls out.
The Warden turns to see an old man walking along with his cane. Perhaps this happenstance is what he needs. He clears his voice. "My name is Warden Zaka, I've been charged as the guardian of this region. I am here to inquire about a woman with fair-hair, almost gray."
"I couldn't help you with that," the old man responds.
"But you must, as you see, she lived nearby. With features like that, she would be difficult to miss."
"For me, that is quite easy." The man brings his face into the light. His eyes are badly damaged.
"My mistake," the Warden says.
"Is she important to you?" he inquires.
"Finding her is important for me. It is why I'm wondering if you have heard anything about a woman matching her description."
"Well she is not here. My sons would have told me. I would ask, but they will be working in the forest for the next week."
"Do you hear much from them?"
"I hear a lot."
"I bet you do." The Warden furrows his brow.
"There has been some news, although I do not know if it concerns your matters. Your account of this woman reminds me of it."
The Warden leans in closer to the old man. He figured there was a reason for him to show up. The man may be blind, but not dumb. It may lead him to the inkling of his suspicions. Not a believer in coincidences, the Warden hears him out. "Tell me what it is."
The old man says, "A man who lives here, nice and kind, heard from his cousin that a girl has been murdered. A sweet girl, with fair-hair, almost white, or gray, or the difference between the two. Garric is a few days’ travel in the right direction and conditions."
"It’s certainly worth a look."
The Warden thanks him for the information and the directions to Garric from the forest. Gathering his company, they ride off. It may just be his imagination, but the distance doesn't make a difference for the old man. The Warden knows the man can't see, but he can feel his eyes through the back of his head, following and calculating their distance. The Warden brushes this feeling aside. They're the byproduct of his mind trying to figure out where these threads are leading him, and what caused them to be spun in such a manner.
Kaleb and his pack traveled to Alemst to close off their investigation on Tyyr. This order came from the governors themselves. They want to ensure nothing else comes to pass on their most prized agent. At the same time, Kaleb and his pack can hunt any remaining mercenaries stuck in Valsair since the borders closed.
Alemst is one of the towns benefiting from the steelrider construction. Each building has a fresh coat of paint, and the town council keeps the area clean. It’s a hub for traders and merchants, allowing all sorts of people to make a living. One of the last locations from Tyyr’s report is the inn she was attacked in.
The group stops outside the inn and peeks inside. There is only a middle-aged, lanky man with no upper lift. The innkeeper, as the report said. The sight of no one else bothers Kaleb. He looks around outside; it’s mid-afternoon, but the inn isn’t busy. Must be the reputation of this place after the attack. His pack wait until the innkeeper goes to the backroom before they interrogate him. Once the innkeeper leaves, they follow in.
Swiftly, they corner him and close the door. The investigation can begin