The two men were large. Bulky and heavy with thick roped muscle and so unusually tall that their feet hung off the edges of the tables they were placed on. I tied them down as a precaution, then placed my hands on the first man's forehead. He had a shock of sweaty, red hair, but his skin was lukewarm.
Tentatively, I reached towards him with my power. If the man was as dead as he appeared, nothing would happen. It would be like hitting stone…which is exactly what happened. I tried again with the other man, blond and freckled, just in case but got the same result.
"Dead," I said, opening my eyes. "Let's get them undressed."
Rayn froze midmotion as he untied the men. "Undressed?"
I nodded. "If there are bruises on the neck, there may be some elsewhere as well." I kept my voice even. All Guilded Healers were trained in the art of studying the dead – it was how beginners learned the body – but I had never enjoyed the process. Nevertheless, right now, it couldn't be avoided.
I placed my hands on the necks of each men in turn. "Hands sizes on the strangle marks appear to be the same size. Fingers are thick, thumb appears shorter than average."
Rayn wrote silently as I spoke, quill flying across the parchment in well practiced shorthand.
"This man," I indicated the red haired attacker, "has been cut several times on the side and once on the calf by sword. I assume by your men. None of these would be fatal, at least not immediately. He was definitely killed by strangulation."
I moved to the blond man and found his body to be similarly affected. He had been injured by Rayn's guards in the attack, but wasn't killed by the Guards. "I'm sorry," I said as I moved across the room to grab sheets to cover the men. "Other than the hand fact that they were clearly strangled, I can't find anything else that might be–"
My voice caught in my throat. When I'd turned back to the men with the sheets, my eyes had landed on an area of the body I hadn't thought to inspect.
"What is it?"
I dropped the sheets where I stood and dashed the few steps to the blond man's table… to where his feet hung off the edge of the table. "Look," I commanded, lifting the man's right foot. "There's a mark. A tattoo of some kind."
There, in bright purple ink, were six circles, trapped inside one large triangle, trapped inside a square. The lines of the square carried past the corners towards the very edge of the man's feet but stopped before they would have wrapped up around the sides, toes, or ankle.
Rayn reached forward. "Is that–"
"Don't!" I slapped his hand. "A death curse, yes. Don't touch it. They take time to wear off."
Rayn frowned and rubbed his hand where I'd hit him. "A trap…."
"But for whom? It's not in a spot where your guards would touch it accidently. If whoever cast it wanted it to serve as a trap, it's not well placed."
"You're assuming the target of the trap is a guard," Rayn said seriously. The dark focus in his eyes nearly made me shiver. "Who would look over the body, Esti? Who would find the curse on the bottom of a foot?"
My body went cold. "A Healer."
"And who did they attack? Not the Guards. We were here only because of Marcus' warning. Who were they looking for?"
"Us. Keagan and me. They wanted to kill us."
Although my body felt stiff, I forced myself to walk to the red haired man and gently, carefully, lifted his right foot. The tattoo curse was there too, circles within triangle, within square. I left the foot drop from my trembling fingers.
"Where's Rose?" I asked in a whisper. "They should be back by now. Even for the Guild, this is slow…"
Rayn drew his sword. "I'll send some of the men to look for her and Yesera. Go sit with Keagan and Samuel again. Get out of this room. My men will join you shortly, and we'll set up a full guard until we figure out what's happening."
Numbly, I moved back into the recovery room and sat heavily on the bed next to Keagan.
"You a'right, Healer?"
I blinked forcefully and forced my stuttering mind to focus. Samuel stood next to me, concern written plainly on his weather worn face. "They meant to kill us," I murmured.
He nodded. "'Course. Thought you knew that. They attacked you in your home clear enough."
"It could've been a fluke. They could've wanted our supplies…thought we had money…." I swallowed hard, my throat dry. "I was trying to tell myself it was a mistake. They didn't really want us dead. We were just a convenient target…."
"Well that's a fair bit o' foolishness," Samuel said, off-hand. "Someone hits you in yer own house, then I hate to tell you, but it ain't no mistake. 'Course, I ain't never heard of attacking a Healer, but mayhap they have work that needs done and don't find themselves highly interested in yer Guild's fees."
I shook my head. "No. They wanted us dead. The two dead attackers, the ones I looked over with Rayn, they were a trap. An active death curse."
Silence settled over the room as I remembered Marcus' warning. He said they were coming for me. For me. Not for the Healers, not for Keagan. Not for Rose or Samuel or Rayn and his men. For me. I choked back a sob.
"Ay now, Healer. You don't need ta' fret. Your Guardsman and his friends will keep you safe. And hey," he tipped my chin up to look at him. "I'm sure this'll come as a surprise ta' a lady such as yerself, but a man such as me don't mind a good fight. They went down easy enough. Reckon as long as yer willing to stitch my fists up again, I'd be more than happen ta' break a few bones."
"They're coming for me."
"They came fer you both."
"No. Marcus said they were coming for me. And in the fight, they turned to grab at me when they saw me. 'Get the girl,' they said. They didn't mean Rose. They wanted me."
Samuel silently rose and retrieved the dagger from where I'd dropped it earlier. "Where's your dark skinned friend? The fire mage? We may have need of her."
As if on queue, Rose slammed through the front door. Her golden hair was frazzled and loose, the way it always was when she'd been pouring fire and heat. "Esti!" she shouted before her eyes found me. "It's Yesera. We need you."
Two men carried Yesera through the door. Their eyes were frantic and Yesera was unconscious and bleeding from a deep wound above the heart.
"We were hit from the shadows," the man on the right said as Rose grabbed the injured woman. "Four of them. They came out of nowhere."
I slid Yesera's arm around my shoulder and helped carry her into the Healing Room. "Move these men to the other recovery room," I ordered. "Don't touch their feet. Don't even come close to their feet, but get them out of here."
More of Rayn's men, concerned for their comrade, quickly obeyed my command and moved the men.
"Esti, what's on those men's feet…?"
"Later," I said sharply, deflecting Rose's question. Yesera was bleeding out fast. There just wasn't time. She'd lost an incredible amount of blood already, and there were remnants of a shattered sword imbedded in her chest.
I placed my shaking hands on Yesera's forehead and got to work. My power surged into her, pulling together torn skin, binding severed veins and one dangerously thin artery. That came first. I needed to stop the blood loss.
Keagan's teaching, long since familiar, came back to me now. When overwhelmed, remember damage control. Stop the blood. Stop the infection. Mending scars and making things pretty comes last.
With one final deep breath, I began doing just that, gently removing shrapnel, repairing veins that had been sliced clean through, and pulling together torn skin. The body beneath my hands shuddered beneath my fingers, but the magic was taking hold and the woman was healing.
"Where are the Guilded Healers?" I was exhausted, and my arm throbbed. It was sticky with blood seeping through the bandages Samuel had wrapped. My legs felt heavy. I needed rest.
"We never made it," Rose said. "We've been fighting since we were out of earshot from here. Thank goodness Rayn sent his men."
I set my teeth grimly. Nevermind the way my head swam. I needed to get Yesera stable. I poured my power into her, even as it began to lose its golden sheen, fading to more of a silver, and her body began to heal. The artery still flashed angry and red, but it was no longer an open wound. The shrapnel was slowly worked out of the guardswoman's chest, and left behind angry, ugly scars. Not my finest work, but that wasn't my concern.
When I could do no more, I pulled my power back and opened my eyes. Yesera was breathing harshly and the scars around her heart were red and puckered, but she was stable. I stumbled back against the wall and slumped back to the floor, holding my knees to my chest. My body trembled and the room spun and I blinked rapidly, but it did no good.
"Is she alright?"
I started, and forced myself to focus on the blurry image of Rose. "Yes," I croaked, then cleared my throat. "Yes. She'll need a follow up, but she's stable. She can be moved to the recovery room, but we'll need to watch her for signs of fever."
Rose nodded and left the room, but returned almost immediately with three Guardsmen. The guards gently picked up Yesera and carried her out.
"She'll need some sunshine tonic, when she wakes up," I told Rose who was crouched in front of me again.
Rose nodded. "She'll get it. How about you?"
I blinked sluggishly. "What about me?"
"You need to sleep," she said. "And probably some food, I'd expect."
My stomach grumbled in agreement. "Food would be great."
"And sleep," she said. "No, don't shake your head at me. You can barely open your eyes. And your arm…."
"It'll heal," I said with a yawn. "I want to sleep in the recovery room."
Rose grabbed my hand and pulled me to my feet. "Don't want to be alone?"
I nodded, too focused on keeping my balance as the world swirled around me.
"Probably for the best." Rose wrapped an arm around my waste and lead me to the recovery room. "Easier for the Guards to protect us if we're all in the same place."
Easier for them to attack us at the same time, I thought as I lay on the bed across from Keagan. Despite my worries and unease, I drifted off almost immediately. Rose woke me up with a plate of sliced apples, but as soon as they were finished, I slept again, unable to keep my eyes open a moment longer.
I woke the next morning with Keagan at my side, his hands on my arm. His golden power flowed into me and as the skin began to knit itself together, the throbbing pain began to dull.
To my right, Yesera was sitting upright, a bowl of strawberries in her lap. "Good morning, Healer Esti. I understand you got me through the night." It was clear Keagan had already seen to her this morning.
"She got us both through," Keagan said as he released my arm. It still ached, and I knew the bone wouldn't truly forgive the trauma for a few days no matter how good Keagan's healing was. Nevertheless, a small scar would be the only thing that remained.
"That's what we do, right?" I shrugged in false nonchalance. "Where's Rayn and Rose?"
"Rayn is in the kitchen with Rose." Keagan rose to his feet and moved to the door. "I'll tell them you're awake. Are you hungry?"
Keagan laughed. "I expected so. I'll bring you some breakfast."
Yesera and I made small talk until Keagan returned, followed by Rose, Rayn, and Samuel. I beamed at the man. "Samuel! I'm so glad you're still here."
"'Course." He pulled a stool up to the end of my bed and took a seat. "Didja know you snore, tiny Healer?"
"I do not!"
"Well ya' did last night. Miss Rose heard it too, I'm sure. Lass rarely left yer side."
"You did," Rose said with a smile.
"Esti." Keagan's voice was soft. "Even I heard you, and I was drugged."
It felt good to laugh after the night before, even if I was the brunt of the joke. Together, the six of us ate a breakfast of smoked fish, bread, and strawberries.
After finishing his plate, Rayn rolled out a roughly sketched map of the area around the Healing House and brought out his notes. "My men spent the night trying to retrace the steps of our attackers. As best we can guess, they came through the fishing district. We lost their trail near where we found Marcus the other day."
"What caused them to lose the trail?" Keagan asked.
"Someone set the Leaky Beak on fire. My men lost them in the chaos."
"And you're sure it was intentional?"
Rayn nodded at Keagan. "A number of witnesses saw men in black wearing gold cloaks set fire at the rear. It seemed they wanted a distraction. And it worked. I'd like to take a tour down there with my men later today, but for now, we have more pressing matters."
"Like how they keep getting through my wards," Rose grumbled. Her mouth set in a firm, angry line and she gripped her cup with such force, her knuckles were white.
"Exactly," Rayn said, and dug into a belt pocket. "Esti, after you were finished with Yesera, I went back to look over those two men. Something was itching at me, like I'd missed something, so I went back to them."
He placed two silver rings in the center of the table. "I pulled these off their thumbs." Each ring was etched with small, swirling symbols that didn't resemble any language I'd ever seen before. Five small emeralds were fitted on the inside of each band, evenly spaced.
"You think these are how they got through the wards?" Rose tentatively picked up one of the rings between her thumb and pointer finger. A deep frown creased her forehead. "It's possible…"
"Were the other men wearing them too?" I asked.
Rayn nodded and reached into a separate pocket. "Here are the others. They're all the same, all worn on the thumb. I sent one back to the Guardshouse and asked that one of our mages take a look. Rose, do you see anything?"
"They're enchanted for sure," she muttered, now holding the ring in her palm. "But I"ve never seen the likes of it. May I keep this for now? Maybe I can find a way to strengthen my wards against it."