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Chapter Eleven: Murder

"But, Father! Why can't I have a bow?" repeated Markus in a pouty voice. "Why not?"

Raylf Kirost sighed and continued walking down the empty corridor, hoping beyond hope that Markus would finally give up and leave him alone. Not surprisingly, his young son kept up with him, occasionally pulling on his sleeve to keep Raylf's attention. "I've already told you why, Markus. Don't make me repeat myself."

"But I'm seven now! That's halfway to an adult," Markus insisted. "And since I'm going to be a lord, I should be able to shoot a bow – and a gun. So how come you won't teach me to shoot your gun, if I can't have a bow? Why won't you let me do anything?"

Raylf cringed internally at the angry direction the conversation was turning. He had already tried calmly explaining to Markus that they did not have access to a proper gunsmithy or adequate supplies of powder for the gun, and thus it could only be used for emergencies. The concept had not sunk into Markus's bitter young mind, however. Raylf decided to bypass the question entirely and return to the more realistic one of a simple child's bow and arrows. Wearily he replied, "Markus, I'll teach you to shoot a bow this summer. We can't even start building you one yet, since the woods around here are too hard for the supple bow wood you'll need until your muscles grow. As I told you, come spring thaw, we'll search out the proper materials and build you one for the summer. You can hold me to that promise. I'm sorry, Markus, but you'll just have to wait until then."

"But why?" demanded Markus.

"Because I said so," snapped Raylf, falling back on the oldest parenting response there was. Markus had been pestering him all morning, and Raylf's patience was beginning to wear very, very thin. "Wait until summer."

"I don't want to wait!" Markus stomped ahead of him, then stopped dead in Raylf's path. "I've always got to wait!" he yelled. "I have to wait for the bow, and for Nelson to teach me tracking, and to use real weapons to fight with, and for everything. It's not fair! You got a bow for your seventh birthday – I saw it in your stupid books. And you got to learn to track then, too. How come I don't get to? You did!"

"Markus! Quiet down," Raylf commanded sharply. He took a deep breath, striving to remain calm. They were only a few strides away from the door to the Dining Hall, and while he did not want to upset the rest of the community with a shouting match, his son's behavior was sorely testing his temper.

"No!" yelled Markus. "I won't quiet down! It's not fair. Last winter you promised me a bow for this birthday, and to learn to track, and lots of things!" He folded his small arms crossly and bitterly complained, "If we were at Geisthof, I'd get to."

That final comment struck Raylf, for it was true. If they were still living at Geisthof, Markus would have gotten his first bow for his seventh birthday and Nelson would have taken him on a day trip to introduce him to the rudiments of tracking and hunting. It was part of becoming a man, and Raylf's heart went out to his son at its lack. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do about it. "I know, son," he said, gently placing his hand on Markus's shoulder, "but we're not at Geisthof anymore. I wish we were, but we're not. I can't make you a bow and I don't have a child's one here. And it's just not safe to send you out into these half-charted woods in winter, not like it would be at home— at Geisthof. I'm sorry, Markus, but you're going to have to wait until summer." He smiled down at the still-pouting boy and began leading him gently down the hallway to the Dining Hall again. "Come on, it won't be that long, and—"

"Yes it will!" Markus interrupted, shaking off his father's hand and stopping just outside the door. "It'll be forever until summer. And besides, you'll just get so busy you'll forget about it, or decide it's too dangerous for me, like you always do. It's not fair! I hate it here! I want to go home!"

Raylf's anger at his son's disobedience faded slightly at his last comment. "I know, son." He reached down to tussle the boy's hair as he continued. "We all want to go home, but—"

Markus ducked out of Raylf's reach and shoved open the door, screaming at his father the whole time. "Shut up! I hate you! You don't let me do anything or have any fun. And I hate these stupid caves! I want to go home!"

Raylf reached out and gripped his son by the arm firmly, trying to ignore the fact that everyone in the room had turned to see what the trouble was. A gaggle of young, unmarried women were sewing in around the fire in a corner of the room, and thus most of the off-duty hunters and men-at-arms were hanging around there. Raylf was not pleased to have his son, their future lord, throw a screaming fit before all of them. "Markus!" he snapped. "You're making a scene."

Markus only stuck his lip out further and struggled to get away.

"Don't make me lose my temper, young man," Raylf warned.

Markus had gone past the point of listening, though. "Leave me alone!" he screamed, still squirming. When Raylf, far from letting go, began to drag him back toward the inner door, Markus swung at him, connecting solidly with Raylf's belly.

That was the end of Lord Kirost's famed patience. He gave his son a glare cold enough to have frozen Hell, which the boy ignored. So Raylf lifted up the boy, flailing arms and all, and thrust him squarely against the nearest wall. "Nelson," he called over his shoulder, having noticed the man earlier, "can I borrow your belt, please?"

Sir Nelson silently came forward from the now-riveted crowd, unfastened his belt, and handed it to his lord. "Here you go, milord."

Raylf was secretly relieved to see total approval in the knight's eyes. He did not like punishing his children in front of others, but when the offense was so public, the consequences had to be as well. "Thank you, friend," he said softly. Then he turned to his still-struggling son and, in a much harder voice, asked, "Are you going to hold still, or should I ask Sir Nelson to hold you down as well?"

Markus made no reply except to straighten up stubbornly and then stand still. Raylf took that to mean he would accept his punishment as was, and not compound it by acting childishly. He let go of the boy, who remained where he was, then nodded at Nelson, who stepped back without a word. Then Raylf lifted up the belt.

Raylf had never had to thrash his children before. Maria had never needed it, nor had Sabine – yet – and even if one of them did do something worthy of such a punishment, Raylf did not think he could bring himself to administer it. A good father simply did not treat his daughters that way. Markus, however, was no pretty girl, and he was getting too old for Raylf to simply turn him over his knee. If he wanted to be treated like a man, he would have to deal with the consequences like one. Which did not make Raylf feel any better about doing the whipping, since he remembered perfectly well how much it hurt from when he had been Markus's age.

Nonetheless, Lord Kirost picked up the belt and gestured for Markus to take off his shirt and turn around. The seven-year-old was shaking visibly as he did so, but his mouth was set in a most rebellious manner. That, too, was uncomfortably familiar to Raylf. He briefly wondered if his father had felt as awful about doing the thrashing as he did now.

Slowly, Raylf Kirost began counting to ten, bringing the belt down sharply on each count. After four, Markus started crying silently, and by the end he was bawling aloud.

It took all the effort in him to keep Raylf from running to comfort the boy. Instead he kept his voice stern, "I have told you not to argue with me in public, and you should know better than to strike at me. What do you have to say for yourself?"

Markus glared at him through his tears and made no reply.

Raylf waited for a long moment, then raised the belt again, threateningly.

"Fine," muttered Markus, clearly angry. "I'm sorry."

He sounded anything but sorry, but Raylf let that slide. "And what do you have to say to everyone else who you disturbed with your tantrum?"

"I'm sorry for disturbing you," Markus mumbled.

Raylf made him repeat it once more, so everyone in the room could hear. Then he told his son to pick up his shirt and go wash off his back.

"It's still not fair," the boy bitterly complained as he was leaving the room.

"No," agreed Raylf, "it's not. But it's what has to happen. Someday you'll understand."

"No, I won't. I'll never understand you!" shouted Markus, one final spark of rebelliousness flaring in him. He stomped through the door and slammed it before his father could say another word to him.

Raylf considered following him, but finally just let him go. The boy needed time to cool off. Later that night would be soon enough to talk to him again. Until then, his mother would coddle him and his sisters and friends would sympathize as they listened to his tale, and that was needed as well. Raylf knew his son was no real troublemaker. Markus was simply bored and tired of being cooped up inside for so long with nothing to do. Raylf could not really blame him for being short-tempered and wishing for their old life back at Geisthof.

Then Raylf realized he was rubbing a sore spot on his leg from where Markus had kicked him. He suddenly felt much less sympathetic. Turning around, he handed the belt back to Nelson with a quick word of thanks.

"Not a problem, milord. And don't worry about young Markus. He's just spirited. Give him another twenty years and three or four kids – then he'll come to understand where you stand right well."

Raylf snorted and smiled slightly. "I pray every night that God send him ten sons of his own someday, each as stubborn as he is himself."

"My father used to wish the same thing upon me," Nelson admitted. "Still, I turned out alright in the end, didn't I, milord? A little thrashing once in a while never hurt a lad."

Raylf nodded, feeling a bit better at Nelson's sentiment. "Quite so. My father took his belt to my brother and me enough times as we were growing up, God knows."

"What was the argument with young Markus about, if I may ask?" inquired Nelson, clearly curious. The other men and women in the room quieted to hear the answer as well.

Raylf rolled his eyes. "He wants a bow and to learn tracking. Now."

Nelson laughed. "In the snow? This isn't Geisthof, milord. There's far too much snow for a boy his height to wander around in. Besides, this isn't exactly the tame forest just outside the walls of Geisthof, if you know what I mean."

Raylf nodded, feeling satisfiably vindicated. "Exactly! That's just exactly what I tried telling him. But boys will be boys, and nothing I've seen suggests that noble blood has any effect on that. He did not care to hear my logic." He looked around at the rest of the now-gossiping crowd and added, "I apologize for my son's behavior. I'm terribly sorry any of you had to see that."

"Don't you worry, milord," replied Brendan Sabel, the man-at-arms who was tutoring Markus in swordsmanship. "Those of us here who are men here were boys once, and those who are women mostly had brothers or boys of their own. Sometimes there's naught to do but whip the sense into 'em."

"Thanks, Sabel. Let me know if he causes you any trouble tomorrow. I know he—"

Suddenly the door to the rest of the caves banged open and a frightened-looking Markus ran in. His back was still bare and ten long, red welts could be clearly seen running down it, but what scared Raylf was his son's face. The defiance it had displayed just moments before was totally gone, replaced by terror and confusion.

"Father!" he cried out, running over to Raylf. He was out of breath from his run through the caves, but he panted out his message anyways. "I... I was in the store room. Looking for more soap. And... and there wasn't a guard there, like there... should be. So I went in and..." The boy suddenly threw himself into his father's arms and started to cry. "Father, there's blood everywhere! And... and Herr Prandt is just laying there, and—"

Raylf cut him off, though he still held him tightly to his chest. "Where? Which store room, Markus? Show me," he commanded, gesturing to Nelson, Sabel, and his other knights and men-at-arms. They were already buckling on their swords and falling in behind their lord. Raylf pointed to Sabel and two other men. "Stay here and keep the women safe." The three men nodded and began gathering the women and children together.

Raylf did not stay to watch. He and Markus led the men at a jog to the store room, where they found things much as Markus had described. When food had started running short, Raylf had placed his men-at-arms on guard duty at each of the Wehr's three store rooms, to prevent hungry commoners from breaking in and walking off with more than their share of food. He had expected thefts; he had not expected actual violence. The deep cuts and unconscious state of the guard certainly spoke of violence, however. The young man, Johannes, had clearly been involved in a scuffle outside the door, then dragged into a dark corner several paces away. He was bleeding badly from several long gashes, but was still alive. From all appearances, he had had his head knocked hard against the stone wall by his assailant. Raylf appointed one of the men to treat him. Then, after checking to make sure Markus was safely out of the way, he readied his sword and shoved the door the rest of the way open.

Josef Prandt was alone in the room, laying in a pool of blood a few strides away from the doorway, his tally-sheet on a nearby sack. One look told Raylf all he needed to know: his old friend was dead. Raylf halted in shock, then slowly stepped up to him, knelt, and folded Prandt's still-warm hands into his own. "Oh, Josef..." he whispered. "How could this have happened?"

"He must have been taking inventory again and been surprised," Nelson murmured. He gently closed Prandt's eyes, then touched the top of his head and murmured a quick blessing: "God keep you, good grandfather, and bring you safely to His Kingdom."

There was a flurry of motion as every man in the area crossed himself. Raylf set down Prandt's hands and belatedly blessed him as well. Numbly he asked someone to call for Father Gregor. A man vanished down the hallway, and as he left, Markus pushed his way in through all the adult bodies to sit next to his father. Raylf immediately wrapped his arms around the boy. Disputes about the trivial were forgotten as the two Kirost men mourned the loss of their respected friend and elder.

After a brief moment, Sir Nelson cleared his throat. "Milord," he said softly, "I don't wish to appear crass, but I think we had best check the other store rooms. This might not be the only attack today."

Raylf started. He was ashamed to realize that he had not even thought of such a plot. "Yes," he agreed softly. "Take all but one of the men with you and check them both. Split into two teams, and see if you can't track down this damnedable murderer." Nelson nodded and did so. Suddenly, Raylf felt fury raging within him. When he found the killer, he was going to rip him end from end, so that not even his widow would be able to find enough pieces to put him together for burial. He did not care how hungry the thief had been – no one could be hungry enough to make up for murdering an old, defenseless man. When he found that slimy bastard son of a demon, he would...

Markus's sniffling halted Raylf's vengeful thoughts for the moment. He pulled the boy even tighter to him, and whispered to him the same sort of calming words that his own father had said to him the night his mother had died. "Hush, Markus. It's going to be alright. God will take care of dear Josef, and I'll take care of you. Okay?"

Markus's head was pressed firmly against Raylf's chest, but he bobbed it up and down. "It's not fair," he sobbed. "What'd Herr Prandt do? He's a good man and he loves Jesus and he wouldn't hurt anybody. I like him. He always tells me stories... Told me stories..."

"I know, son," whispered Raylf. "I know. It's not fair and it's not right, and by God in Heaven, I'm so sorry you had to see this, Markie."

Markus lifted his head off his father's chest and, with wide, teary eyes, asked, "Why do they all have to die, Father? Herr Prandt and the Krebs's new baby and Father Gordan and Brent's gramma? What did they do to have to die?"

The innocence of the question broke through Raylf's reserve completely. Tears burst from his own eyes and he ended up gripping his little son more for his benefit than the boy's. "I don't know, Markus," he answered, struggling to control his grief. "I don't think any of them did anything. Sometimes bad things happen and good people have to pay the price."

"Does Jesus knows why they had to die?" Markus wanted to know.

Raylf nodded. "Yes, of course. And because they're all good people, Jesus is looking after them right now and making sure they're all happy in Heaven."

"But... But I don't want Herr Prandt dead!" wailed Markus, burying his head in Raylf's shirt again.

There was nothing Raylf could say to that. It was not right for a boy of only seven years of age to have seen so much unnatural death, but there seemed to be little that Raylf could do to prevent it. Every father wanted to raise his children unscarred, but few were able to, Raylf knew. Still, Markus had seen more of death than many children twice his age, and it had to be affecting him. Raylf did not know what to do to help him, but he knew who might.

He stretched out his mind to Gisela, his beloved wife, and reached her after a moment's effort. Love? Please, can you come to me? he asked her silently. Markus needs you.

Raylf, what's wrong? Gisela responded, immediately concerned. What happened? I was doing the washing with Tatyana and some of the women and suddenly you men rushed past like you were running to put out a fire, but no one would explain anything to us, and they just pushed us back into the laundry room and told us to stay out of the way and keep safe. Raylf, what happened?

Painfully, Raylf explained about Prandt. Please, love, I don't know what to do with Markus. And... I'd really like you here.

I've already left, answered Gisela, her thoughts still flying like little lightning bolts, one right behind the other. I'm almost there. Don't worry, Raylf. I know it's horrible, but everything will be alright in the end. Markus will be okay, and so will you.

Kirost blew her a mental kiss, then allowed the connection to fade as Father Gregor stepped into the room.

The young priest knelt down at Prandt's side and signed him in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, then spoke a few words of Latin over him. Then he stood with a disturbed frown. "My Lord Kirost, I will, of course, return to minister for Josef's soul shortly. However, there is no doubt in me that the Lord must have raised such a man as him up the instant he left us. I believe my duties as priest require me to see to the injured man-at-arms first. Young Johannes's wounds are severe, and I would feel remiss if I neglected to give him the Anointing of the Sick right away."

Raylf nodded. "Yes, of course. I was unaware that his injuries were so great. Please, tend to the poor man. I will stay with Prandt."

"Me, too," added Markus in a shaky voice. He looked up at the priest. "I won't leave him alone, Father. I promise."

Raylf saw Father Gregor bite his lip to stop his tears. "Very good, my son," the priest said in a serious tone. "I understand you found him?" Markus nodded. "It is a terrible thing to see such a thing, at any age. Will you allow me to lay a special blessing upon you, to give you strength of spirit, my son?"

Markus nodded. He bowed his head and clapped his hands together in a prayerful arrangement. Raylf followed suit and listened as Father Gregor spoke briefly over both of them and signed a cross on each of their foreheads with holy oil. Raylf's wavering respect for the conservative young priest grew tremendously when he saw the man was willing to take the time to help a boy like Markus through such a thing in what small ways he could. "Thank you," Raylf said afterwards.

Gregor nodded, his sad eyes gazing down at Prandt, whom he had gotten to know so well since the escape from Geisthof. "Of course, my lord." He tore his eyes away from the dead man and turned resolutely toward the door. "I will see to the guard now, and return later, when I can." Before he left, he laid his hand on Markus's shoulder and suggested, "Why not say a few Our Father's over his body, my son, to help him on his way to Heaven?"

"Yes, Father," agreed Markus. "I will."

"Good lad," Gregor said. Then he hurried out of the store room and around the corner to where the fallen man-at-arms lay.

Markus started reciting the Lord's Prayer in a significantly less-shaky voice, Raylf was relieved to note. It seemed that simply having something constructive to do was providing him reassurance. Raylf reached out to the boy's thoughts with his mind and was glad to see the panic fading, to be replaced with healthy sorrow. He briefly considered trying to encourage and calm the boy with his mind, but he had never been very good at doing such things subtly. Better to leave that for Gisela; perhaps it was a mother's talent, in truth. Instead, he simply joined his prayers to his son's, giving confidence in a much more ordinary, but no less profound, way.

They had only just started their second Our Father when Gisela swept into the room. Her face contorted with emotion at the sight of old Prandt laying there, though she had never been as close to the man and Raylf and Markus had. She was more stunned by the sight of the welt marks on her son's back, and shot a quick look at Raylf when she saw them. Markus she took from her husband and pulled into a tight embrace, murmuring soft words to him the entire time.

"Mommy..." whimpered Markus. He then tried to explain everything that had happened in such a thoroughly disorganized manner that, had Raylf not been there through most of it, he would not have understood at all. Raylf laid his head down on his wife's back and telepathically interpreted what Markus was rambling about for her.

"Shhh..." Gisela whispered. "It's okay, Markie. My poor little baby boy! What horrible things you've seen today. Come on, now. Let Mommy take you out of here and get you cleaned up—"

But Markus shook his head. "Nuh-uh," he insisted. "I... I promised Father Gregor that I'd stay with Herr Prandt until he could come and pray for him." The boy looked up beseechingly at his parents. "I promised!" he repeated.

He did, Raylf told his wife silently.

Raylf, he can't stay here. All the blood in this place will only upset him and give him more nightmares, Gisela argued.

Raylf frowned, seeing her point but understanding Markus's as well. Several seconds passed as he contemplated his options, during which Markus waited anxiously for his father's judgment on the matter. Finally Raylf saw the solution, and stood up. "Come on, Markus," he said softly, holding out a hand. "Let's go take Herr Prandt someplace more suitable while we wait for Father Gregor. He doesn't deserve to lay on a cold storage room floor, does he?"

"No," agreed Markus. He stood and then helped his mother up. "Can we take him back to his room?" he asked.

"I think that would be a good idea," Gisela counseled, nodding approvingly at her husband. "Why don't you two men carefully carry him down there, and I'll find his daughters and their families. They'll... they'll want to know what happened, I'm sure."

Raylf wrapped her in a brief hug, then nodded. "Thank you, my love. We'll meet you there."

As Gisela walked briskly from the room, Raylf had Markus pick up Prandt's tally sheet and cane. He himself lifted the old man in his arms and slowly made his way through the Wehr's winding tunnels to where Prandt's family slept. He lay his mentor down on an old sleeping fur in the center of the small room, then lit the room's few candles and placed them such that they shone on Prandt's still form. Then he gathered Markus into one arm, and the two began again reciting simple children's prayers over the shell that had so recently been Josef Prandt.

Gisela returned a few minutes later, trailed by Prandt's two grown daughters and their families. Raylf gently pulled Markus back a ways, to give the family room to express their grief and shock. The boy had stopped crying, but he was happy to see his mother and buried himself in her comforting arms as soon as he could. Raylf wrapped his arms around both of them and took a moment to mentally step back and try to put together everything that had just happened.

Prandt had been killed. No, he corrected himself, that was not the start. Almost certainly, Prandt's death had been unplanned; an accident. The goal of the thief – and murderer, now – was surely the food in the store room. Prandt had just been in the way. The thief must have planned to sneak up and disable the guard, break into the store room, and take what he wanted. But if that was true, how did he manage to slice up the man-at-arms so badly? Raylf was aware that his men-at-arms were only commoners, not properly-trained knights, but they had still been carefully trained for their duties. How would one thief overpower such a guard?

Unless it was more than one man, and those men were well-known to the guard. Lord Kirost shivered at the path his thoughts were taking him down. He supposed he had known all along that the thief-cum-murderer was one of their own, but the idea still stung. Prandt had surely been a surprise to the thief, but the fact that men-at-arms were posted outside the store rooms was well-known. Was the discord among the commoners truly so widespread that some would condone even murder?

After some time, Father Gregor entered the room, bringing with him that sense of peaceful reassurance that Raylf had sometimes noted in the clergy. His calm but somber manner soothed both Markus and Prandt's daughters. As he began speaking quietly with the assembly gathered, Sir Nelson walked into the room and made his way to Raylf.

"Milord," he murmured softly, "I think you had best come see Johannes. He's... not in good shape. The surgeon's been to see him, but he doesn't have much faith that he'll recover."

Raylf slumped, leaning a touch more heavily against his wife, who was listening to the knight as well. "This villain will take two good lives today, then," Gisela whispered, her soft voice taut with anger.

Raylf rubbed her shoulder in a half-hearted and futile attempt to calm her. "So it seems, love." He looked back up at Nelson. "Do you have any ideas who was behind this? What did your investigation of the other two store rooms show?"

Nelson frowned, his thick eyebrows pulling together into a solid line. "The other store rooms were untouched. I've taken the liberty of boosting the guard around them. Herr Prandt was recently killed; it's even possible that Markus's timely arrival frightened them off. Certainly, they will make no more such attempts today, now that we've found out about this one."

"So you've also come to the conclusion that it was more than one man who did this?" Raylf asked, noting Nelson's word choice.

Nelson nodded. "Yes, milord. After looking at Johannes's wounds and the blood patterns on the ground, I don't see how it could be otherwise. I'd say there were two, perhaps three men involved."

Raylf sighed. "I was afraid that might be the case." Reluctantly, he disentangled himself from his family and stepped aside. He met Gisela's gaze. "Love, I've got to go see to that man-at-arms. Take care of Markus, please."

Gisela nodded, but Nelson cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Milady, perhaps you had best come as well. Johannes is unconscious and... well, milady, it would be helpful to know his final thoughts. Your skills as a Mind-Seeker might well prove invaluable in catching Johannes and Prandt's killers, if you're willing to consider such a thing." He paused and added apologetically, "Milady, the things you might find in his thoughts will be... unsettling, at the least. If you can name another who can do such a thing – a man, I mean – it might be better, in truth. Remembrances of such a bloody battle are not such a thing a member of your gentle sex should have to see."

Gisela swallowed, but shook her head firmly. "Only Mina is as strong as I am at Mind-Seeking, and in an unsettled mind, you'll need that strength. I'll do it. Just let me get Maria to watch over Markus—"

"I'm coming with you," interrupted Markus. His voice once again held that stubborn tone that Raylf found familiar to his own as a boy.

Gisela looked about to argue, but Raylf prevented it. They could waste hours arguing with Markus on this, and Johannes might not have the time. "Alright," he agreed, "but you'll stay silent and do what I tell you, when I tell you."

"Yes, Father," Markus agreed, sticking his little hand into Raylf's big one.

"Lead the way," Raylf instructed Nelson, who did so.

As they arrived again at the bloodied storage room, Raylf saw that they had laid the injured man-at-arms on a table near where he had been found. A familiar-looking crying woman, presumably his wife, clutched his hand on one side, and Geisthof's one remaining surgeon stood over him on the other. The surgeon shook his head as Nelson and the three Kirosts approached. "I'm sorry, milord. I've done what I can, but the injuries to his gut and head are severe. Even if he pulls through, his mind will be damaged from the cuts and dents in his skull. He'll be a simpleton at best, I'm afraid, if he ever wakes."

Raylf nodded, depressed at the idea of losing such a strong, young man as Johannes. He forced himself to walk over to the dying man's wife and express his sympathy. The words felt awkward in his mouth, and he was grateful when Gisela thrust Markus at him and took over.

"Fiola," she said softly, laying a hand on the sobbing woman's shoulder. "Dear sister, I wish I could help your husband, but I don't know how. No one can undo the horrors that were done today. But I can find out who did this to him, and see that they are caught and brought to justice. I know it's hard, Fiola, but will you let me read your Johannes's last thoughts, to identify his attacker?"

The woman – Fiola, Raylf corrected himself, adding the name to his memory – nodded, though she did not stop sobbing. Gisela patted her once more on the shoulder, then moved to the other side of the injured man and laid her hands over his. She hesitated there briefly, looking down at Johannes's bruised and bloody face.

"Love, are you sure you want to do this?" asked Raylf, unhappy at the entire idea. "Perhaps I can manage it, or– what about Christian? There may be no need for you to see this."

But Gisela shook her head. "No, Raylf. You don't have the strength, and Christian doesn't have the skill, yet. It's me or Mina, and I'd rather it be me than her, the darling girl." She smiled crookedly up at her husband. "Don't worry about me, Raylf. We women are stronger than we look, in some ways."

Raylf grunted, which was as close to a laugh as he could manage under such circumstances. "I know that, love. Just... be careful, then."

Gisela nodded and closed her eyes, and from the expression on her face, Raylf knew she was already in Johannes's mind, searching for the names or faces of the men who had killed him and then Prandt. To Raylf, it seemed as if her Mind-Search dragged on indefinitely, though he knew his nervousness for Gisela's well-being was affecting his judgment of time. With Johannes so near to death, and especially with the blows to the head he had sustained, surely it would take Gisela longer than it would with a normal, healthy person, he told himself. And the fact that she had to sort through a bloody swordfight certainly would not help matters; a woman of Gisela's impeccable character would instinctively reel away from such sights and emotions, Raylf knew. Raylf was not even sure if Gisela had ever really met Johannes before, now that he thought about it. It was always harder to form a good Link to someone the first time; he should have thought about that before! As the minutes stretched on and on, Raylf became more and more sure that he should have forbidden Gisela this danger and done it himself, if no one else could have.

"Father?" whispered a scared-sounding Marcus, looking up at him with wide, frightened eyes. "What's wrong?"

Raylf blinked and pulled himself back from his worries. They were doubtless transmitting through to his son, which was the last thing Raylf wanted. He looked down fondly at the little boy next to him. "Nothing's wrong, Markie," he assured his son. "I just don't like putting your mother into bad situations. When you're older, you'll understand. We men have to watch out for the women in our lives, especially for our wives. But don't worry – she'll be fine. I'm just being nervous about nothing."

Markus nodded. "Mommy's the best Mind-Seeker ever," he declared, clearly repeating an opinion he had heard from others.

Raylf smiled at his son's blind trust. "Yes, she is." As Gisela stirred slightly and gasped, Raylf added, "And I think she's almost done with her Seeking now. Be a brave boy and be strong for your mother, alright?"

Markus nodded, but Raylf was only half paying attention to him by then, for Gisela had straightened up and was shaking her head briskly, as if by doing so, she could shake the things she had seen from her mind. She ignored Raylf, Markus, Fiola, and Nelson's worried questions and thrust herself into her husband's arms instead. Raylf cradled her there until she had calmed herself enough to stop shaking and speak coherently.

"Fiola, I'm sorry, sister, but he's gone. God in Heaven, his mind is... broken. Fading. It's..." Gisela shook herself again, took a deep breath, and pulled her young son tightly against her side with one arm. She buried her face in Raylf's shoulder and never looked up, as she continued in a much calmer voice. "His mind is breaking down, like a wooden wall that's been eaten through by termites. It looks whole until to step closer and touch it, but then it all crumbles beneath your fingers. A bad analogy, perhaps, but it's the best I have right now."

"He's really gone then?" whispered Fiola.

Gisela could only nod.

"I'm sorry, Fiola," said Raylf softly. "I wish there was something I could do..."

"Find him," requested Fiola, her voice harsh with grief. "Find the man who killed him! Milord, hang him for this, please!"

Raylf met her eyes and nodded once. That sentiment he understood perfectly well.

"Did you learn anything, milady?" Sir Nelson prodded gently. "Anything at all that might tell us who's done this?"

Gisela nodded. "Yes. Most of Johannes's recent memories are gone or badly distorted, but I was able to piece together the attack as seen through his eyes. There were three men, all wearing cloths over their faces. They—" She paused, having difficulty describing the scene, then suggested, "I can just show you, if you'd like. It might be easier."

Raylf and Nelson glanced at each other, hesitating for the same reason. Raylf broke the silence by tactfully asking his wife if she was sure she was recovered enough to even consider such a thing.

"Of course I'm recovered enough!" Gisela exploded without warning, pushing her husband away. Everyone else jumped back, except Markus who Gisela had clamped against herself. "Stop it! Stop treating me like I'm a newborn baby! I'm not a child; I'm a grown woman. I'm not going to fall apart and I'm not a fool! So just..." Her voice and anger both cracked suddenly as the full blunt of Johannes's dying emotions overpowered her. "Just... stop it..."

Raylf watched helplessly as his wife tried to cope with the not-unexpected onslaught of emotions that Linking with a dying man's mind brought. He tried twice to approach her, but was rebuffed. There was nothing to do but wait until Gisela had recovered somewhat. Sharing minds was a beautiful thing when both parties accepted it, but it could be terribly brutal when forced upon another. Raylf himself had dealt with the sickened minds of criminals, so he knew the despicable twists that living minds could take. From Gisela's poor reaction, the echoes from a dying mind were even worse. Raylf thought it possible that Markus's presence was the only thing keeping Gisela sane.

Several minutes passed while Gisela sobbed into Markus's hair and Fiola sobbed over Johannes's body. Raylf, Nelson, and the surgeon stared helplessly at the two women. Markus, confused by his mother's behavior, started to cry again himself.

Eventually, Gisela quieted enough to realize that she had scared her son. She immediately began doing all those little things that mothers do to calm their children: kissing him on the forehead, giving gentle reassurances, holding him securely, telling him not to fear. Raylf was relieved beyond measure to note that as she calmed Markus, Gisela herself settled down. The mere act of mothering was apparently enough to ground her, for which Raylf was profoundly grateful.

"I'm alright now," she said softly. "I'm sorry. He just... It was very disturbing."

Raylf cautiously moved nearer to her and wrapped his arms around her once he saw that she would allow it. "Shhh... That's okay, love. Why don't we go back to our room and let you have a nice nap until supper? Your story can wait until you've recovered a bit."

Gisela nodded, but Nelson uncomfortably cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, milord, but there's one question I feel I must ask before you retire, milady." He paused briefly, clearly feeling guilty about troubling Gisela, but pressed on anyhow. "Milady, if you could just tell me: were any of the villains you saw from Johannes men that you know from our Wehr?"

Raylf let out a long breath, but said nothing to interrupt the question. There were reasons he had Nelson at his side; sometimes the knight was simply more clear-headed than his lord could be.

Gisela frowned. "I'm not sure. I only saw one face – that is, Johannes only saw one face – but it looked a little familiar. And..." She let go of Markus and gave him a gentle push. "Go find Maria, Markie. I have to show your father and Sir Nelson what happened and I don't want you here to see it."

"But—"

"Now, Markus," ordered Raylf, sternly pointing the way.

The boy looked about to argue, but then sighed and headed out.

"Love, you really don't have to—"

"Yes, Raylf, I do," Gisela insisted, interrupting Raylf's comment. "You need to know what happened, and I want to tell you as soon as possible. Maybe you'll recognize the man, or know one of the others somehow. You men can sometimes tell each other apart from your swordsmanship, can't you? I've heard that said before. Well, I'd never live with myself if I wait until tomorrow to show you and you know the man, but someone else gets killed in the meantime, just because I waited. So let me just sit down, and then I'll show you what Johannes saw."

Nelson nodded and Raylf reluctantly agreed. He didn't like the idea in the least, but Gisela looked determined and he knew better than to argue with her then. So he spread his jacket on the ground of an out of the way alcove for Gisela to sit on, then knelt down next to her. Nelson joined them, and they all held hands to make it easier for Gisela to reach them.

Raylf knew immediately when Gisela began projecting Johannes's vision. The images were hazy and there were several outright holes in the sequence of memories, but the overall picture was clear enough:

Johannes was on guard outside the storage room, leaning against the wall on a stool near the door. Prandt arrived and spoke to him, and although Gisela had been unable to Seek out the sounds that accompanied the visual memories, the way Prandt gestured with his tally sheet made the short conversation clear enough. Prandt entered the storage room to take his inventory, leaving the door ajar behind him.

Gisela broke into the memories at that point. "Prandt was apparently in there for some time before the murderers came, and during that time, several people walked by, but Johannes saw nothing interesting. I'll skip to when the attackers came."

Now Johannes was standing, stretching his legs from his long bout on the stool. Suddenly, three men in ordinary winter's clothing came around the corner, with cloth tied over their faces such that only their eyes and noses were visible. One was taller than the others, another stouter, but none was of unusual height or build, and their hair colors were kept hidden under their hats. The tallest and shortest carried knives in their hands; the third held a club.

Johannes jolted alert at the sight of them and began drawing his sword. The broader attacker spoke a few words, presumably in response to a challenge from Johannes, then initiated the attack. He grabbed Johannes's half-drawn sword and threw it down the corridor, then slammed the young guard against the stone near the door. Johannes struck back, struggling out of the man's grip. He plowed his fist into a second attacker's face, grabbing the cloth and ripping it in the process. The exposed attacker had the typical pale skin, blue eyes, and light hair found in the region near Geisthof. His nose was stubby and his cheekbones high, and he had a small scar under the right side of his chin.

Johannes had a short view of the man's face, however. Seconds later, his first attacker grabbed him from behind and knifed him in his sword arm. The unmasked attacker followed suit with a fatal knife blade to Johannes's gut, then heaved him around and slammed him against a nearby wall, repeatedly. Johannes's last vision was of the elderly Prandt peaking out from behind the storage room door, and the third attacker, the taller man with the club, running into the room after him.

No one spoke for several seconds after the mental Link dissolved.

"Well?" asked Gisela, finally. "Did you recognize him?"

Raylf shook his head slowly. "No. No, I didn't. But there was something about the way the other man – the shorter one who attacked him, I mean – there was something about how he moved that seems... familiar, some how."

Nelson shrugged at that. "I don't know, milord. But that face... I know that I've seen it somewhere!"

"Where?" demanded Gisela.

Nelson frowned and looked unhappy. "I don't know. I can't remember. But it will come to me; I know it will."

"In any case, he's not one of ours here," declared Raylf. He felt strangely relieved at the knowledge that the attackers, at least one of them, had been outsiders. Though the concept of foreigners invading their home was troublesome, it was a problem he could more readily accept than that one of their own was a murderous traitor.

Nelson nodded firmly, clearly of similar sentiment on the matter. "That's true, milord. I know all of our men personally, and that man's not one of them."

"Just so," agreed Raylf.

Gisela shivered and moved closer to her husband. "But Raylf, if it's not one of us, then... who is it?"

Raylf could only pat her hand in response. Then, suddenly, something clicked in his mind and a detail that his unconscious had noticed in passing made itself known. He gasped and jolted into perfect posture. "Nelson! Nelson! The man, the attacker! Did you notice his hat?"

"His hat, milord?" repeated Nelson, bringing his brows together in thought.

"His hat was blue, Nelson. It was a blue and brown yarn hat!" Kirost's voice hardened as he concluded what Nelson was just now recognizing, "Nelson, I believe that we've just seen the face of our mysterious blue ghost."

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