Marjin could not hold back the crowd. A pair of healers shoved past her, their dark blue robes flapping around their ankles; both bald, but one with a long, graying braid. The apprentice healer that Robeth had seen earlier in the great hall joined them only moments later, a small torch in his hand, squeezing between the merchant with the fur at his throat and wrists and the woman who had been regaling Jessle with tales of her adventures on the Inner Sea.
Marjin called curses after the three of them — mild curses compared to what Hendrikk had once shouted — but they ignored her.
“Too late,” Robeth said, slipping his dagger back into its sheath as the two elder healers knelt beside the corpse. He cast a glance at the apprentice, who had stopped to attend to Teirkka. Her hands were still pressed against the side of her head and her eyes were screwed shut.
The crowd was getting noisier, yelling questions, exclaiming in alarm, pushing to see around one another.
And then the sounds dribbled away. Feet shuffled.
Robeth turned, watching over his shoulder as Lady Neis climbed the last step and entered the corridor. She paused there, still, hands hanging loose at her sides. She had pulled the hood up over her head and she wore thick gloves now.
Lady Neis did not like the cold.
She glided forward, her pace smooth. She stopped just out of arm’s reach, her gaze fixed on the corpse. The torches caught the edge of her hood, casting a shadow across her face.
The only sounds were the howling of the storm beyond the walls and Teirkka’s rapid, almost frantic breaths.
Lady Neis blinked slowly, then lifted her head to look straight at him, and the shadow fell away. Her gaze was … considering. Thoughtful. Controlled. As if she was waiting, and would only act when she was fully prepared, and when she did .…
He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, but it left him vaguely uneasy.
“Who did this thing?” she asked. Her voice was just as steady as her pace and her gaze.
“I don’t know. Are there any Inquirers among the Inn’s guests?”
“There are not.”
“Then the task of identifying the murderer falls to myself and Temerare Quil. Their punishment will fall to you as Lady of the Inn.”
She dipped her head in agreement. And then turned and walked away without another word. She descended down the stairs, the crowd parting for her once again. She did not turn to look back.
Robeth ground his jaw. Drawing a breath, he addressed the young apprentice. “Healer, what is your name?”
Pulling his robes out of his way, he stood, bobbing his head. “Bethlajin, sir.”
He reached out to take the torch, which the apprentice released only reluctantly. “Bethlajin, I need you to take Guardian Teirkka to her quarters. Do not ask her any questions about what happened here, and do not allow anyone else to do so, either. Treat her for her shakes as you see fit, but she must remain coherent. I will need to inquire with her shortly.”
The apprentice nodded again. “Yes, sir, Temerare, sir.”
Robeth waited until Bethlajin had assisted Teirkka to her feet, her knees trembling, before he turned back to the corpse and the two elder healers. He dipped his head, pressing his free hand to his his heart. “Lord-Temerare Robeth Eard.”
Both healers matched his gesture, but the one with the tail of greying hair who answered aloud; age spots were just beginning to discolor his scalp. “Elder-Healer Lanassha of the Order of the Black Willow. And my colleague, Healer Markkete.” The latter offered Robeth a soft, sad smile, lines of grief and compassion bracketing their eyes and mouth.
“Do either of you have experience with violent death?”
Lanassha sighed, his shoulders dropping. “Unfortunately, yes. We spent several years at the Order House in Yeilldha. We saw and treated many victims of the marauders haunting the Inner Sea.”
“I am sorry, and I thank you for the aid and comfort that you were able to offer.”
The healers nodded again.
“What can you tell me?”
Lanassha pursed his lips. Pulling on a short, thin cord embedded in the cuff of his sleeve, he snugged the fabric tight against his arm. Markkete followed suit, and they both bent over the corpse, poking, pointing, peeling away sodden fabric.
Standing over the body with the second torch, the injury was even more horrific. Robeth forced himself to breath carefully.
At a snarled curse from Marjin, he looked back down the corridor to the landing. She was flapping her arms, pushing the crowd back down the stairs. She even kicked at the merchant with the furred collar and sleeves. When the last of them finally disappeared down the steps, she swung towards him, huffing, her face twisted into a scowl.
“Carrion-sniffers,” she muttered.
Pausing at his side, her scowl morphed into a grimace of disgust. “Someone killed him with his own pentagram?”
“No.” Robeth shook his head. “He didn’t have a pentagram, at least not that I could see.”
“At all. And that’s a pin.” He flicked a finger towards the sharp glint on the back of the pentagram. It was just visible through the gore. “He would have been wearing it where it was visible. Which means that it probably belongs to the murderer. If we’re lucky, once we get it washed off, someone will recognize it.”
Marjin grunted. “That’s assuming the murderer panicked and used a convenient weapon at hand. That this wasn’t planned ahead of time and they used someone else’s pentagram to cast suspicion elsewhere.”
Robeth glared at her.
“What? I told you, little lordling, there’s a reason you’re a Temerare and not an Inquirer. Good for you that I’m here.” She crouched, resting her arms on her thighs. “The pentagram was definitely the murder weapon?”
Elder-Healer Lanassha nodded, not looking up. Instead, he pointed to the deep and jagged gash in dead Hendrikk’s throat. “Started here, on the left carotid. Punctured and completely severed. That would have been enough to kill … eh ….”
“He was known as Hendrikk before he passed into the earth,” Robeth said.
“Hendrikk. But the wound continues. The sharp point of the pentagram was dragged across the front of the neck, shattering the trachea, and nicking the right carotid. It’s difficult to be certain, but it appears to me — and I think my colleague agrees — that the murderer was standing in front of Hendrikk, not behind him.”
Markkete was nodding, light warming their bare head.
They had still not spoken, and Robeth was beginning to wonder if Markkete could or if they had taken a vow of silence. The wounds of the Hallowed Ones sometimes manifested as they walked the world, reweaving creation.
Marjin shifted closer on the balls of her feet. “So perhaps an argument gone wrong, not an ambush. Or at least not an ambush from behind.”
Suddenly grabbing Robeth’s arm, she yanked the torch closer, almost pulling him off his feet. He grunted and shifted his weight.
She pointed. “Is that honey?”
“It appears to be so, yes.” Lanassha reached into a pocket deep in his robe and pulled out a folded square of white cloth. Unfurling it, he wrapped it over his hand and gingerly tugged on one point of the pentagram.
It didn’t move.
He tugged again.
There was an awful wet sucking sound, and the pin jerked free. Globs of blood and flesh hurtled through the air, thunking onto Robeth’s leather jerkin and into his hair.
He swallowed hard. “So. We can assume that the murderer was stained with his victim’s blood.”
Lanassha pursed his lips again and held out the pentagram. “Yes. Most definitely.”
Robeth swallowed again, and began to carefully pick at the bits of viscera. They fell back onto the floor with a sickening ploop-splash. “I don’t suppose that you saw anyone on the stairs covered in blood?”
Marjin made an aggravated, annoyed sound. “No. We can start digging through people’s travel bags and trunks, but a smart murderer would dispose of any bloody clothing. If we’re lucky, maybe they got some blood on their boots, too. Get a bunch more torches up here. Maybe find a trail.” She reached out, carefully slipping her own hand under the white cloth. She took the pentagram, lifting it higher so that the light from Robeth’s torch fell on it completely.
Silver, with round amber beads near the tip of each point.
A smear of honey glimmered along one edge of the metal.
But not just honey.
Robeth gently closed the tips of two fingers over the strand of hair that stuck out from the smear. He lifted it, holding it out for them all to see.
Long. Soft. Deep gold.
“Well.” He turned the hair — no, not hair. Fur — in the light. “This could be a problem.”
“It’s not a problem. It’s a clue.” Marjin trotted along beside him, the bloody pentagram wrapped up in the white cloth and tucked inside her jacket. “There is a difference, you know.”
“You followed the wrong calling.” Robeth rolled his shoulders and flexed his fingers; he felt an irrational need to break something, and he was glad that he had left the torch with the healers. Exiting the stairwell on the ground floor, he peered into the great hall. It was empty save for one of the guardians, who was mopping the floor, a white apron with numerous pockets covering her plain black uniform. “You should have been an Inquirer, not a Temerare.”
“Pfft. Inquirers spend their lives locked inside cities and inns, solving other people’s problems. Usually the same problems, over and over again. Someone stole my bracelet. My cat ran away. My wife wants to take a second spouse and our marital contract promising exclusivity is missing. Ugh. I much prefer being out in the wilderness. I have my husbands, I have you, I sleep under the moons every night, and every day is different. Inquirer? No thank you.”
Robeth couldn’t help but smile.
Then he remembered the bear fur hidden in his pocket, and his smile went away.
“Teirkka said the cave is directly beneath the Inn. Do you suppose there’s access from up here? Somewhere?” He glanced out the large open door towards the gardens of the central courtyard.
“Maybe? I don’t know anything about the cave of the honeyed bear, but regular bears usually pick a den with only one point of entry. They don’t want a seircovra or iron-wolf sneaking in the back and eating their cubs.” She shifted closer, peering at him from the corner of her eyes. “Think the murderer was down there, and that’s how the honey and fur got on the pentagram?”
“Possibly.” He hesitated, grimacing. “Or Hendrikk was in the cave, ate some of the honey, and hadn’t swallowed it completely when he was attacked.”
Marjin’s nose curled in distaste. “If that’s the case, maybe the entrance to the cave is up on the fourth level. And either Hendrikk or his murderer was coming back from the den when the confrontation occurred.” She turned on her heel, making for the woman who was cleaning the floor. “So. Plan. Question Teirkka first. Maybe she saw something. Show her the pentagram, too. Then we talk to Lady Neis. If anyone knows about a secret entrance to the cave, she does.”
“You trust her to answer truthfully?”
“Not sure. Then, back upstairs to look for a blood trail and that maybe secret entrance.” Marjin stopped, smiling broadly at the woman with the mop. The other woman squinted back suspiciously. “Your pardon, guardian, but can you direct us to Teirkka’s quarters?”
The woman rotated the mop in her hands. She exhaled sharply, blowing a strand of hair from her eyes. “Through there.” She waved past the entrance to the hall, to a door on the far side of the courtyard. “Straight down the corridor. She lives in the second ring, bottom floor. Three doors down on the right.”
They turned away, moving across the hall and out the door into the garden. The light from the Hallowed Flame illuminated the space. A few of the guardians were still at work, but most had apparently retired for the evening. Only a handful of guests wandered the space or occupied the benches scattered up and down the walkways.
Robeth could feel all of them watching.
“And after we question Lady Neis, depending on what she says, we find that secret entrance.”
Bethlajin had tucked Teirkka into her bed, a handful of pillows fluffed up behind her head. Her braid was undone, her hair combed out and lightly oiled. A heavy quilt with a colorful image of the honeyed bear covered her to her waist. She wore sleeping clothes now, her uniform folded up and laid atop the trunk to the side; incongruously, a few handfuls of silken ribbons lay beside the uniform. She had a fat mug of tea clasped in her hands, the steam rising in a sweet-scented cloud. Her eyes were too big and slightly glassy, and she was staring vaguely around the room.
It was a small, but comfortable space. There was a cast iron stove, its grill red with flame, and a tea pot and a loaf of bread and basket with fruits from the garden. A few candles, tiny heads dancing with the lightest puff of air. Long, narrow windows high up on the wall above her bed no doubt let in light and air during the warmer months; now, they were barred shut against the winter, with thick pads of wool shoved between the metal rods and the glass to hold back the cold. Bright tapestries and weavings hung on the walls, depicting scenes of the Dellith Mountains in spring and summer, and a chair sat in the corner next to a small table with a stack of books and a vase of flowers.
Bethlajin rose from the side of the bed as they entered. “I gave her a light scalp massage to help calm her, Lord-Temerare, and a cup of chamomile tea.”
“Thank you, Bethlajin. Elder-Healer Lanassha has requested that you return to assist him and Healer Markkete.”
“Yes, sir.” Bethlajin pressed a hand to his heart, bobbed a quick half-bow, and trotted from the room.
Robeth closed the door behind him, and waited until his steps had faded to silence before he sat down on the edge of the bed. The frame creaked. Marjin wandered to the far corner of the room and poked at the vase of flowers.
“How are you feeling, Teirkka?”
She swallowed, fingers clenching around the mug. “It’s in my eyes. I still see it even when I close my eyes.”
He paused, trying to find the right words. But there weren’t really any right words. Or, if there were, he didn’t know them. Maybe Marjin was correct, and he did not have what it took to be an Inquirer, however temporarily.
Well. There was no helping it. He was here, now, and it was he whom the Hallowed Ones had spoken to, not someone else.
Kill you, I will.
Maybe they had been trying to warn him about the murder to come.
If so, he had failed, utterly and horribly.
Which meant that he had to do his best to make amends. Him. Not someone else.
“May I ask you a few questions, Teirkka?”
Her gaze finally drifted to him. Her fingers spasmed around the mug, and she nodded once, her chin jerking.
“You were in the great hall, eating the evening meal, yes?”
“What did you do when you finished? Where did you go?”
“Up.” She swallowed. “To the third level. A hallow —” inhalation, exhalation “— a hallow who is staying at the inn. I was talking with them yesterday, in the garden. They were knitting. I like knitting. Needlework.” Her eyes slid over the walls, and the bright tapestries and other weavings that hung there. “They offered to trade some of the cloth I had woven and dyed for a few bundles of silk from Chessiss. It’s the bear. The honeyed bear. The honey that it produces is in the soil, so the flowers and herbs grown here are all … better. Vibrant. The dyes they make ….”
Her voice trailed off.
“So you went to meet this hallow.”
She nodded again. “On the third level. As I was coming back, I saw … I saw Guardian Hendrikk. He was going up to the fourth level. But … but there is no one there. He should not have been going up there.”
“Did you follow him?”
A slow nod, and a slow blink. “He disappeared. I couldn’t see him. I didn’t — it didn’t make any sense. I went round and round, but I couldn’t find him. And then ….” Her breath caught. She leaned forward, nearly losing her grip on the mug of tea. Robeth caught it, setting it on the trunk next to the bed. “I heard voices. They sounded strange, hollow. And then … then … then I saw him. I saw him.”
She was shaking her head frantically, her lips pressed together.
He grabbed her hand, holding it firmly, and that seemed to steady her.
“Teirkka. Who did you see?”
Her lips worked, soundless. When words finally came, they were rough and barely coherent. “Father. I saw. Him. My father.”
Her nails dug painfully into his hand.
“Couldn’t be. Dead. He walked into — he walked into the storm and he never. He’s dead. He’s dead. It could not be. Not him.”
Marjin was suddenly at his side, pressing the mug of tea against Teirkka’s lips. She forced the young woman’s head back, some of the tea spilling. But Teirkka drank. Eventually she released Robeth’s hand, her nails leaving stinging half-circles in his flesh, and took the mug herself. She drank it all the way to the bottom, and then sat panting.
“Teirkka.” Marjin knelt down beside the bed. “Did your father have a pentagram?”
The guardian stared down at the quilt, her eyes seeming to trace the shape of the bear. She nodded. “That’s how he killed him. Silver, with amber stones at each of the five points.” She dropped the empty mug in her lap. It rolled down the quilt, ending in the middle of the bear’s chest. “That’s how my father killed Hendrikk. With his pentagram.”
And then she curled over onto her side, dragged the blankets up to her chin, and wept.
[End Part Three. Part Four will appear in the July issue of ev0ke.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]