Several of the Nighthand specialists gathered around the boy. Rienne kneeled over him, inspecting his wound. The chapel had been shut up like a tomb. Two dozen had been murdered there, struck down even while they prayed to Tric for protection. Red streaks still remained on the floor from the bodies that had been drug out by the soldiers for a proper burial. In this holy place, only one had survived. Rienne grimaced as he surveyed the boy's injury. The boy himself sat silently, his eyes pointed unfocused at the wall. His mind was not present.
"How is he?" The captain asked. "Can you get him to talk?"
It would be wrong to say that they had no concern for the boy's well being, but their primary focus was on information. The identity of the perpetrators of Vin's massacre was contained in this boy's memories.
Rienne sighed, shook his head. "He's been stabbed in the shoulder. It's not deep, but... If we had got to him sooner, maybe. It's badly infected."
"Can you save him?" The captain asked.
"No, he's got a few days at most."
"Then can you get him to talk?" The captain prodded, but Rienne didn't answer. Impatiently, the captain hunkered down and grabbed the boy's good shoulder. "Hey. Hey. Can you hear me? Who did this? I need you to talk, so that we can catch them."
"What do we do?" Rayma folded her arms across her chest. She glanced at Sherit, who was being uncharacteristically quiet. "Sherit?"
"I'm thinking," he mumbled.
"There's a first," Rienne snickered.
Sherit scowled. "Far be it from me to question the skills of our medical specialist, whose talent is unmatched by any north of Singer's Straight, but I do believe there is one option that you have failed to extend. Now that you've pressed me, I'm weighing the necessity of our mission against my own personal morals in my decision on whether to reveal this option to my fellow cadre."
"Sherit," the captain turned to him with impatience. "What is it that you suggest?"
The cavalry specialist beamed. "My captain, we could bring him to a healer."
The room erupted. Val spit onto the stone floor. "And damn this poor boy's soul? You've got a lot of nerve."
"They're not damned," Amon scoffed. "Magic is a legal issue, not a moral one."
"They're vile," Rienne sneered. "I'd sooner let the boy die than let some witch get her hands on him.
"That's enough!" The captain bellowed. "Are we likely to find a healer at Frozen Port?"
Val nodded. "Aye. They're far enough removed from the valley that I'm certain we can find one or two that still practice that filth."
"Then it's settled," the captain stood. "Rienne, load this boy onto a wagon. You're going tonight. Val, you and your volley will accompany them. The rest of us will start out tomorrow morning."
There was no further debate once the captain spoke. The Nighthands are callous, rude and often despicable. But they are also soldiers and will follow orders as they are given. That's not to say that misconduct is nonexistent. Those that practice unnecessary brutality are punished, often harshly, then placed back in line with the rest. Examples are made of insubordinates, and their punishments are often publicly displayed for the rest of the army to see.
The ride from Vin to Frozen Port is rather rough. It meanders along the coast over gravel beaches along a road that is seldom used and in a constant state of disrepair. A fierce wind bites from the west and rocky cliffs protrude dangerously on the right. Areas of the road are blocked from fallen rocks and boulders from the cliffs, with some as large as wagons. Part of the stretch is actually the historic route called the Hidden Road, which diverts into the mountains south of the Golden City. After about 30 miles it comes to a fork and separates into the Port Road, which spans another 50 miles to Frozen Port but is cut in half by the mouth of the Kauth River. A ferry is needed to cross it.
A greasy looking easterner drove the two horse wagon. Morrem and another rode horses behind them and pulled fresh ones along their side. Rienne kept a constant watch over the boy and Val kept his eyes on the road, looking out for any potential dangers.
Normally a trip along the road wouldn't warrant much precaution. They were far from civilization, but most bandits knew well enough to not hassle a cart pulled by the Empire's soldiers. The tragedy in Vin, had everyone on edge, though. Only Tric knows what could be lying in wait.
The sun began to rise as they reached the ferry. They were all exhausted, none more than Val, who had exerted himself earlier in the night, digging graves. As they boarded the ferry, he felt his legs nearly buckle.
"You should get some rest," Rienne insisted.
Val nodded and sat down by the boy. The kid looked to be around ten years old. He was tan with dark hair, though his lips were pale with sickness. Val wondered if the kid could have passed for a Brakhur. Dark veins protruded from his skin, and his wound gave off a sour odor. He slept now, his eyes flickering behind his lids with dreams, no doubt nightmares. The boy had lost his family, would likely lose his own life soon. Val tried not to think about the horrors that awaited him with the healer.
To himself, Val admitted that he hadn't really encountered magic before and wasn't sure what to expect, but rumors and gossip he had picked up indicated that it was not a pleasant experience. Distantly, he half suspected some of the gossip to be lies. Most magic was illegal, of course. Healing was the only exception to the law, though it was still frowned upon by the majority. A great stigma still remained on the entirety of magic, and had ever since Emperor Hilmes VI was killed by his mistress and another unknown sorcerer centuries ago. They had captured and killed his mistress, but she had a solid alibi which led the Tide to believe that another sorcerer was involved. Despite dozens of executions in the north and in the Hamilt Peninsula, they never found the perpetrator.
The ferry rocked rhythmically against the waves and Val fought hard to keep his consciousness. His mind pulled in all directions. The trip north was supposed to be the final stretch in a difficult war. This was to be their momentous journey home. Instead of taking the ferry to the west side of the river, he should be taking one upriver to the Capital. Weariness threatened to consume his thoughts as he pondered the changing circumstances.
He began to play out the possible futures in his mind. Frozen Port was a stepping stone. If the attack on Vin was committed by an ally, the prime suspect would have to be Cruse, the Governor of Gillian. When the rest of the Nighthand arrived, an investigation would be underway with swiftness. That's when the politics will come into play, Val presumed. The esteemed captain, whose ambitions likely extend to the stars, would use any leverage he had to increase his reach. That meant that the Nighthand would be a tool in his hand, stretching to the governor's seat if necessary.
Val felt the thud as the ferry touched the dock. He had drifted off. Blinking, he saw Morrem sitting across from him.
"How long was I out?" He asked.
"Not long," Morrem shrugged. "Fifteen minutes, maybe."
Val stood and felt his muscles tense up. "Where are the others?"
"They're liberating some food from below deck." Morrem paused, spoke the next words as if they had been rehearsed. "I'm not spoiled, High Soldier."
Val turned, startled. "Aye?"
"My father," Morrem continued. "You think I was made your Volley because of him."
"And you deny this?" Val snickered.
"Yes, and no. My father was not a kind man. I enlisted in order to escape not only him, but my predetermined destiny of being a fat priest. That's not the life I want."
"And that's not spoiled?" The others had begun to return from below.
"Is it spoiled to want to achieve more?" He asked.
"I suppose not," Val sighed. "Cheer up... there are worse things."
The easterner with the greasy hair showed an even greasier smile as he held up a basket of old cheese and hard bread. "Got some goodies for the road, Val."
Morrem scowled at him. "You will refer to him using his title, mongrel."
The greasy man's smile faded. "Apologies, High Soldier."
Val shook his head. "Not necessary, friend." Val turned to Morrem and spoke sternly. "Volley, see to it that the horses and wagon are offloaded safely."
Morrem's brows lowered, but he obeyed.
"What's up his ass?" Rienne giggled.
The easterner cackled. "That kid going to find my boot in it."
"Enough," Val barked. "Somebody carry the boy. We need to get to Frozen Port before the sun sets."
The remaining trip was mostly uneventful. Despite the name, they saw no ice or snow but the cold was quite bitter, especially with the chill carried on the wind from the sea. Frozen Port sits at the mouth of the narrow Sumni River, connected to Gillian by riverboats. A few thousand miserable souls call the town home, most of them had been involved in the trade industry between Gillian and the Hamilt Peninsula.
Prior to the war, the town had a thriving economy because of trade with the city of Il Brakhur. When the war started, commerce was ordered to cease. Frozen Port and Gillian are not officially part of the Empire, but have remained strong allies for centuries out of mutual convenience. The Nighthand would not find many friendly faces in this town, as they had personally led the siege on Il Brakhur and been responsible for cutting off and destroying any vessels attempting to supply the city.
They arrived in mid-afternoon to the dreary wind-beaten town. The grey skies cast a muted hue upon the buildings and murky waters. Broken windows and boarded up doors were found on many of the homes and shops, while those that were still inhabited seemed to carry a weight of uncertainty. The winds carried the creaking sounds of aged wood, magnified a hundred fold. The result was a ghostly howl from all directions.
Two vacant eyed hoodlums methodically threw stones in the street. Regardless of the game's outcome, neither side seemed to celebrate. A child of six flashed a vulgar hand gesture from a dirt stained window.
Half the town actually exists over water, built up on old creaky docks of rotten wood. Ships and small boats bobbed along the docks and storefronts. At the center of town, four men stood in front of the currency exchange, eying the visitors with a strange mixture of both contempt and complacency. The wagon came to a stop there and Val climbed down. None of the four men gave any introduction.
"Afternoon," Val offered without a response. "We're an advanced party sent out in front of the 4th army to make preparations and see to their safe arrival. We also have a sick child with us."
The man closest to Val nodded, but remained silent.
"And well," Val continued. "As much as I dislike the idea, we've also come looking for a healer."
To this, the four men all exchanged glances. The one on the far right finally spoke. "You want the hag down at the north end of town."
"You have my thanks. How will I recognize the home?"
The man gave a toothless grin. "It's the only one with dog shit on the walls."
The house was as described. This area of town was over the land, though barely. The ground was composed of hardened mud and devoid of vegetation. Slippery wooden planks marked a path to various homes, one of them being the place described. Rienne carried the boy, followed by Val and Morrem. The other two remained with the cart. The house was several decades behind on maintenance, compounded by the layers of feces stuck onto the walls. Val couldn't decide whether it had been decorated that way by the townsfolk's hatred for the witch or by the witch's own twisted fancy.
Val tapped the door with the butt of his sword and waited. After a few moments, a raspy voice responded. "I have no time for games, no time at all! To hell with you!"
"This is High Soldier Val Court of the Nighthand, in service to Emperor Ness. Open the door."
After a few moments, a lock was fidgeted with and the door opened slightly. A dirt-caked face with mottled hair peeked through the crack. "You real?" She asked. Val nodded. "Balls!" She cried, and then opened the door. The soldiers entered into the darkened home. Dust was an inch thick on every surface and cobwebs like sheets hung from the corners. "No mind to the clutter, though I don't think you will. Ah!" She noticed the boy in Rienne's arms. "Here, here. Set him on the table. I can practically taste the disease on him."
Val suddenly felt a strange sensation, as if something was wrong. With the house or the woman, he was not sure. More wrong than he had expected, even with his reservations about the defiled home. Rienne sat the boy on the table and the woman began massaging the boy's cheeks.
It was her. Val could almost feel it. He stared at her face, her clothes, her tangled hair. He couldn't place exactly what it was, but something felt off.
"What are you?" Val asked.
The woman stiffened momentarily, then went on. "You seek to heal this boy, do you?"
"If possible," Rienne answered. "He is a witness and we wish to speak with him. But his mind is far off, he won't respond."
"What are you?" Val asked the woman again, this time more sternly. Morrem stared at him, confused.
"Yes, yes... He is far gone, isn't he." The woman continued to ignore Val. "This wound, it can be healed, I dare say. But this isn't the source of your problems, men." She let out a guttural laugh. "No, this boy here is a dummy. Even before his wound, he spoke not an intelligible word."
"Wonderful," Rienne put a palm to his face. "That's just perfect. The kid doesn't even talk."
"Witch!" Val finally yelled. He reached out, grabbed her by the wrist.
"You let go of me!" She shouted, but something had changed. Her voice was young, juvenile. It was the voice of a girl being sent to her room.
"What are you?" Val asked her again. The others in the room now saw. Her unkempt hair was a ruse. Her smudged face camouflaged smooth skin. The wrist which Val now gripped tightly in his arm was delicate, but young.
She looked to be fighting back tears. "How did you know?" Val let her go, her disguise finally revealed.
"Woah!" Morrem cried out. "How did she? Was that all an act?"
"Hardly," Rienne concluded. "Illusion magic, combined with a healthy amount of actual dirt and disguise. Look around you, this house isn't nearly as soiled as it appeared when we first arrived. Her spell's been lifted."
It was true. The house, while not spotless, had lost its grungy appearance. The floor looked to have been recently swept and a counter was even decorated with freshly picked flowers.
"You've got skill, witch." Val smirked. "Skill beyond just healing. Now, what can you do to help us?"
"You don't know what you ask," she confessed. There was no disguise in her voice now. It was soft, almost sultry. She pouted, folded her arms across her chest. "That magic is illegal, even out here."
Val beamed. "Shall we really discuss laws, and which ones may have been broken, witch?"
"Stop calling me witch," she snapped. "My name is Aesur. And yes, I can help you. Just give me a moment."
She uncrossed her arms, placed them on the boy's temples. Her brows lowered as she concentrated. She pulled her left hand away, held three fingers in the air. The boy twitched twice, then his eyes opened. Aesur cried out, pulled her hands away and covered her mouth.
"What is it?" Val asked.
"You should have warned me!" She sat down and began breathing heavy. "It was awful."
"We need to know," Val spoke sternly.
"Death. So much death. They were praying in the chapel. They were afraid. Tilkus, the boy, he didn't know what was going on. His mother tried to shield him behind her. A sword pierced her stomach, went straight through her and into his shoulder. He saw the others die too. His father, his grandfather, his two sisters, Eda and Santali, Priest Bri, others. He hid under his mother's corpse until they left."
Val walked around the table and laid his hand on her shoulder. The other two exchanged glances. He lowered his voice, spoke softly. "We need to know who did this."
She took a breath. "Before the chapel, he saw ships arrive. Black ships, the blackest ships he's ever seen. Like they were painted by the night itself. They wore no markings, but they dressed in all black. They killed everyone in the town."
"Did they arrive from the north or the south?"
She looked up at him, tears welling in her eyes. "I... I don't know."
"Maybe he didn't know, but do you?" Val still had a reassuring voice. "Have you seen these ships, perhaps setting out from Frozen Port?"
"No!" She shouted. "Well, I don't know. I don't leave the house often. I'm not welcome around town. I only go out when necessary."
Val patted her shoulder and turned to the others. "Bound her wrists, we're keeping her for further questioning." Aesur stood, protesting but Val ignored her.
"What about the boy?" Morrem asked.
Val shrugged. "His family's dead, and he's an ignorant. Let him be. If he lived, he would only die on the streets anyway."
Rienne opened his mouth as if to complain, but reconsidered.