Chapter 1: The Saturday Morning Post (and the Benefits of Steady Employment)
Bong! Bong! Bong!
Thistle jerked awake, kicking spastically against a cocoon of blankets. The vestiges of a nightmare retreated back into her subconscious, details forgotten almost immediately and apprehension left in its place. She couldn’t remember how she ended up here, sitting in a comfortable bed that was, quite frankly, tempting her back to sleep when yesterday she’d been out on the streets.
The bell rang three more times as Thistle stretched. Her head throbbed with each beat, her muscles aching in protest. Her mind was still in a dull fog as she rubbed sleep-crusted eyes, and she felt strangely hollow—a sign of heavy magic expenditure.
She was hungry, too, and her throat ached with thirst. Her whole body was clamoring for attention, but most of all Thistle was tired. She allowed herself to fall backwards onto the tangle of sheets and raked clawed fingers through her hair. Six o’clock was still early. Surely she could afford to sleep in a little longer…
Thistle froze, fear coiling in her belly. Ten sharp nails dug deeper into her scalp, her hands ungloved and her hood nowhere to be found.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Thistle jumped out of bed, exhaustion forgotten. Her feet scarcely hit the floor before she was pointing at the door with a spell on her lips. The curtain to the room’s one window was already drawn closed, but Thistle wasn’t about to take any chances. In seconds she had activated every ward and disillusionment charm she knew. It was impolite and sometimes even criminal to use so much magic in a public space, but someone might have seen.
The blind panic faded into a more manageable hum of vague unease when Thistle found where she’d thrown her shirt. Hastily she he pulled it back over her head, her face once again lost to the shadows—
where you belong, you beast, you freak of nature
—and her personal safety secured. There was still a chance that there was a trap laid out for her the moment she left the room, but she didn’t think so. People didn’t tend to think rationally when brought face to face with a monster, and if someone was going to attack they probably would have done it while she was still asleep.
An involuntary shiver went down Thistle’s spine. She was in a city full of mages and soldiers who were more than capable of hurting her, with an actual job with people who could find out her secret at any time. She would have to be more careful.
Thistle plopped on the edge of the bed and massaged her aching head. The memories of the previous night came trickling back: the Drath; Grand Master Wu; what she, Orrig, Brent, and Lyra accomplished together as a team. This time when Thistle’s heart beat faster, it was with excitement. Everything worked together in the end, even though she hadn’t been strong enough to save the professor herself.
It had been a long time since she’d been able to sit next to someone and feel truly comfortable, but last night next to Orrig, Brent, and Lyra she’d done just that. One day wasn’t enough to assuage the corrosive doubts that ate at her constantly, but it did relieve them somewhat. A wave of the hand undid her hurried spellwork, and Thistle left her room wondering if the inn provided breakfast.
Orrig sat at one of the common room’s long benches, hunched over large stacks of paperwork. He was one of a half dozen people awake, and the only one Thistle recognized. She inched towards him, for the first time missing the weight of her bag on her shoulder so her hands would have something to fidget with. The taciturn orc acknowledged her presence with a nod.
Thistle couldn’t tell if it was an invitation or a command so she treated it as the latter, planting herself in the seat opposite him. Orrig scribbled a few more lines with an oversized quill that still managed to look too small in his massive hands before setting the paper aside and looking at Thistle directly. She could scarcely see his eyes beneath the horned brow his race was known for, but she got the impression he was studying her. The scrutiny made her uncomfortable, and she found it easier to look at the grain of the table than return his gaze.
“Sleep goot?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you,” Thistle said. “You didn’t have to get me a room—“
Orrig cut her off with a wave of the hand. “Is better dis way. Team should stay close. Vill be getting new job soon.”
“Already?” Thistle asked, surprised.
“Is adventure season. Ve take vat ve can get.”
This statement did nothing to lessen Thistle’s confusion. Something that was almost a grimace passed over Orrig’s face, and he scratched his cheek. “Ah, sorry. Is forgetting you is new. Summer busy season for mercenary guild. Monsters hibernate in vinter, people not travel so much, is no vork.”
Suddenly Orrig’s preoccupation with payment made more sense. “And what do you do during the offseason?” Thistle asked.
“Go home. See vife,” Orrig said warmly. He went silent for a moment before letting out a contented sigh. “But dat months away. Now, ve take jobs, get paid. Is simple.”
Orrig glanced surreptitiously around, but the inn itself still seemed half-asleep. The orc reached into a bag set beside him and pulled out a bulging moleskin pouch. He offered it to Thistle and said in a low voice, “For yesterday.”
The weight of the coins felt heavy in her hands. Master Wu made sure they were handsomely rewarded for their efforts, but this…this was too much. Thistle said as much to Orrig.
“Is fair price,” Orrig said. He shuffled through his papers and pulled one of the advertisements that had attracted Thistle to him in the first place. “See here, hiring bonus if keep past one job. You do vant to stay for more jobs, ya?”
“Yes,” Thistle said, her voice small.
“Goot. Also, performance bonus. Brent and Lyra vill get same,” he said as Thistle moved to object. “Some vork more dangerous than others, is my job as boss to take care ov employees.”
He said it solemnly, the same way someone might utter an oath. Thistle remembered reading about Orcish culture, where honor and keeping face were just as important as status. To argue with Orrig over payment would insult him by implying she didn’t think he knew what he was doing.
Besides, all her money was currently lying ruined in a puddle of acid. She needed this.
Brent came down soon after, dark circles under his eyes and a surly expression on his face. Even without the Echo haunting his every thought, Thistle guessed he hadn’t slept well. The persistent, niggling voice in the back of her head was quick to tell her that if she had just forfeited her moral outrage for just one moment she might have prevented the professor’s possession to begin with, and by extension Brent’s suffering.
This was ridiculous on several levels, and while she knew that intellectually it was difficult to convince herself it was actually true as Brent sat next to Orrig with a dull thud. He was dressed casually, his sword nowhere to be found. Even without the weight of his armor his shoulders slumped wearily.
“Good morning,” Thistle ventured. Brent grunted in response.
Well, at least she tried.
They did not have to wait in awkward silence for long before Lyra descended to the common room, looking well put-together and not at all like she had battled unholy monsters from the Pits of Hell the night before. She returned Thistle’s timid greeting with a smile—a genuine smile, not a condescending smirk or a polite courtesy.
“As shy as ever, I see,” the elf drawled as she slid next to Thistle, nodding in the general direction of her hood.
“Leave her alone,” Brent snapped.
“Oh, shut up. I’ve not even had a drink yet,” Lyra said. She rolled her eyes to Thistle. “I was just giving you a hard time. I couldn’t care less about the whole ‘mystery mage’ thing.”
Thistle forced herself to relax. It wasn’t that she disbelieved Lyra, but most people did care. “I really am just that shy,” she said. “It’s…it’s easier this way.”
“I totally get it,” Lyra said. Even Orrig glanced up from his paperwork to give her a quizzical look, and Lyra laughed. “Good mages are in demand, right? If people knew your face they’d never leave you alone. Better off anonymous,” she said authoritatively. “And seriously, where are the drinks?”
“No drink until after business,” Orrig said. “Receive new post dis morning.”
“Already?” Brent and Lyra said in unison, and Thistle had to stop herself from giggling at their twin looks of disgust.
“You’d think we earned a day off,” Brent said.
“We haven’t even gotten paid for the last one,” Lyra muttered. She was cut off when Orrig passed her a sack of coins in the same discrete manner he had Thistle. “Holy $#!^. Never mind then. What have you got lined up for us, boss?”
He held out a sheet of paper for their inspection. Lyra and Brent crowded around, leaving Thistle little to see except for the mercenary guild’s official insignia stamped at the top of the page. With a small sigh she leaned back and waited her turn.
“The client’s going to pay for us to travel all the way to the Salt Rock Hills?” Lyra asked. “The guild doesn’t have anyone closer?”
“Dis…different from other posts,” Orrig explained. “Ve replacement for previous party.”
Brent’s scowl deepened. He studied the paper, his mouth moving silently as he read. “What, did they quit before they finished the job?”
“Sounds like a good way to lose your reputation and your license,” Lyra said thoughtfully. She propped her head on one hand and slid the post over to Thistle once Brent was finished. “It doesn’t look too tough.”
Thistle inspected the document carefully, reading each line twice. She blinked, confused, and looked back to Orrig. “Something’s killing winged horses?”
He nodded. “Town go to guild to find out vat. Party go, end up dead. Now, monster back, and more hoses dead. Ve go, ve find, ve stop. Get paid.”
“Is simple,” Brent finished sarcastically. “Do they even know what kind of monster it is?”
“No,” Orrig said.
“And you want us to march out to the Salt Rock Hills to find out,” Lyra said incredulously.
“And how much are they paying us again?” Lyra said, snatching the post from Thistle’s hands. She let out a low whistle. “Travel expenses included. Wow, they really must be desperate.”
“Town ask for us specifically. Vhy, I do not know,” Orrig said. “I understand ve just came off hard job. I vill give choice: Ve go, or ve find small jobs close to home.”
There was a brief silence as the three remaining members looked at one another for confirmation. Thistle got the impression from Lyra and Brent’s expressions that their employer didn’t often give them a choice.
“If there’s something that can catch a winged horse, then the townspeople are in danger,” Brent began slowly. He raised his head for the first time all morning. “It needs to be stopped.”
Lyra snorted and leaned back in her chair. “If they’re paying we might as well go check it out.”
Three pairs of eyes turned to Thistle, and she shrank down. Dead horses and dead mercenaries were hardly more appealing than Drathmakal summoning, but what choice did she have? There were no moral objections to raise, and, besides, Brent was right: anything fast enough to catch a winged horse was dangerous to the people who lived in the area. She just hoped…
and so the monster goes chasing after monsters. irony that thick deserves to be cut with a sword. hypocrite, coward, greedy
…The moleskin pouch full of blood money burned cold against her side, like ice and fire, and Thistle realized she didn’t know what she was hoping for. At least this way she would have some savings built up the next time she was run out of town. Bowing her head so no one could see the conflict in her eyes, Thistle said what had to be said, and she thought she might hate herself for saying it:
Chapter 2: On the Road Again (and the Difficulties of Socialization)
Orrig gave them the rest of the morning off to prepare for their journey. It was two days to the Salt Rock Hills, and there was no telling how long it would take to find what was killing the winged horses. After a rushed breakfast. Thistle, Lyra, and Brent all went their separate ways with the strict instruction to meet back at the inn by noon. Orrig stayed behind to finish his report on the Drath attack.
Despite the early hour the streets were busy with activity. At the corners two-bit magicians plied their craft for a coin or two. A dwarf woman selling jewelry chatted with the keeper of a vegetable stall about the intricacies of beard fashion while her son played peekaboo from behind her skirts. There were city elves in carriages, their heads held high and proud; orcs walking towards the site of the Drath attack carrying shovels and planks of wood; human children darting underfoot in an impromptu game of tag. Birds sang in the morning to the steady beat of hooves against cobblestone streets. In the distance, a dog barked.
And to think, it could have all been destroyed. Thistle wondered if the people she walked past knew how close they had come to losing everything. She hoped beyond hope that the possessed professor was safe, and prayed he had someone to help him through the aftermath of his ordeal. That was a burden no one should have to carry alone, regardless of his mistake.
She was shaking her head of those unpleasant thoughts when she found a store with several handbags proudly displayed in the window. Thistle sighed as she entered. It was a disheartening to have to buy two bags in as many days, no matter how necessary the purchase. The woman manning the shop was a natural-born salesman who took great joy in lavishing all manner of attention on Thistle. She left half an hour later holding a sturdy leather bag with twice the normal amount of pockets, both flattered and a little embarrassed at the woman’s kindness.
The rest of the morning was spent in much the same way, and the only thing she didn’t manage to replace before returning to the inn were a few seed varieties—impossible to find in the city—and her journal. The latter was not for lack of availability. It was difficult to describe how she felt about the loss of her journal. On one hand, it was full of incriminating information that would be devastating if discovered. On the other, it held the only thing Thistle kept with her as she went from one name to the next. Bits of Rose and Dahlia and—
foolish, sentimental child. it’s your own fault things turned out the way they have. if you had just listened none of this would have happened
—all the rest had been left between those pages, and now that it was gone Thistle felt like a small part of her was gone along with it.
“Is that all you’re taking with you?”
Brent’s voice jerked her back into reality. He was crouched outside of the inn, double checking the contents of a large rucksack that had seen better days. Thistle could see the corner of a pauldron sticking out of the top, while his sword was once again at his hip. With a low growl Brent shoved the piece of armor in with the rest and fastened the flap down over the top.
“Yes,” Thistle said, noticing he was less pale than he had been at breakfast. “I always pack light. You know, magic,” she added, with a little wiggle of the fingers.
“Lucky you.” Any further attempts at conversation was interrupted when one of his ties came undone. Brent spat a series of curses and attacked his bag like he was trying to pummel it into submission. Not sure if she should help, Thistle took a tentative step forward. A warm hand clasped around her shoulder.
“I wouldn’t,” Lyra said, her grip like iron. “You’ll just wound his manly pride.”
“Um, okay," Thistle squeaked.
Lyra flashed a crooked smile before heading on her way, and for the first time Thistle was struck by how strong she was. In retrospect it seemed obvious. A big bow like the one she had slung across her back would be hard to draw, and Lyra had said she was a martial artist. Thistle tucked that tidbit of knowledge away while absentmindedly rubbing her shoulder.
“Carriage vill be leaving soon,” Orrig said. “Ve will go to Crossroads today, vinish rest of journey tomorrow. Everybody ready?”
“Sure thing, boss,” Lyra said.
“Yes, sir,” Thistle added.
“Frigging mange flies.” Brent came jerkily up to his feet, swinging his rucksack over his shoulder. “Let’s go.”
It might have been possible for all of them to fit into one carriage, but with the client paying Orrig opted for two. By some unspoken agreement Brent and Lyra simultaneously headed in opposite directions. Orrig followed Brent, leaving Thistle with Lyra by default. She settled next to the outspoken elf, placing her bag between them as a paltry barrier of protection. A familiar tingle of nerves raced up and down Thistle’s spine, but Lyra was already leaning back with her eyes shut and arms crossed, obviously in no mood to chat.
There were so many questions Thistle wanted to ask. She wished she could have gotten a seat next to Orrig. He seemed like the type who would fill her in on what she needed to know, and without any of Lyra’s…prickliness.
“So did you pick up anything interesting?”
Thistle almost jumped out of her seat. Lyra’s eyes were still closed, her lips barely moving as she spoke. Still up in a tail, her voluminous red-blonde hair was compressed awkwardly in the confines of the carriage, but if Lyra was uncomfortable it didn’t show.
“You mean today?” Thistle said. “Um, not really.”
Lyra smirked. “You’re smarter than I am, then. I blew through my first payout the same day I got it. Would have had some left over, except I had to pay damages.”
The elf shrugged languidly. “Some jerk at the bar wouldn’t keep his hands to himself, but since I threw the table I had to pay for a replacement.”
For a moment Thistle considered asking if Lyra had thrown the man through a table or a table through the man, before deciding she’d rather not know. The pair lapsed into silence, but it was a comfortable one. The carriage jerked into motion, and they were on their way.
As they made it further down the high road out of town, it was impossible to tell if Lyra was asleep or simply resting. Thistle leaned back into her seat, but she wasn’t able to relax enough to do the same. She had picked up a book to read in her spare time, but the sway of the carriage made it difficult to concentrate. The noise of horse’s hooves mixed with the city likewise kept her from dozing.
What am I doing here? Thistle wondered. But wondering only invited heartache. She didn’t need anyone to tell her what she was doing was the epitome of stupidity when Thistle did a perfectly good job telling herself over and over and over again.
Thistle pushed away the flap covering the window of the carriage and watched as the city passed by in a whirl of shapes and colors. If someone had asked what she was thinking, Thistle would not have been able to say. Despite all her book-learning, she wasn’t sure that the feeling rising in her chest had a name. It was something stronger than yearning, but neither did she dare hope her future held anything greater then what she’d experienced in her bleak past.
Old wounds, reopened and deepened with each rejection, ached. It had been a long time since she felt quite so lonely. Thistle liked Orrig’s little band of adventurers, but what sort of relationship could she expect to have built on masks and shadows? And if they found out…
Thistle leaned her forehead against the window and closed her eyes. They couldn’t find out. She would make sure they didn’t.
She must have fallen asleep, because the next thing Thistle knew she was being shaken gently by Lyra. “Hey, we’re switching out horses. If you need to pee now would be the time.”
“M’kay,” Thistle said groggily. She stretched, feeling each and every vertebrae when arching her back. When Lyra exited the carriage, she did the same.
They had stopped at the edge of a sleepy little town. Thistle heard their driver tell Orrig that they were another three hours to Crossroad. It would be a couple of minutes before the horses could be taken care of, so she decided to stretch her legs.
Tall grass flourished on either side of the road, green and lush after a recent rain. Thistle ran a finger over the blooming flower of bishop’s lace. The cluster of tiny white flowers looked as fine and dainty as its namesake, but Thistle knew you’d be hard-pressed to find a more hearty plant. With a whispered word, Thistle called upon her magic to coax some seeds into the palm of her hand.
“Maybe I’ll call myself wild carrot next,” Thistle said under her breath. There was the sound of boots scuffing against the packed dirt road, and she turned her head to see Brent coming her way.
“Hello,” Thistle said. “How are you feeling today?”
The question seemed to take him aback. “Er, good. I’m good.” He scratched the back of his head. “How ‘bout you? All the mages I’ve ever met were useless the day after doing a lot of magic.”
“I’m fine. I’ve slept most of the way so far,” Thistle said.
“Me too,” he admitted sheepishly. With a quick glance behind him to make sure no one was waiting, Brent said, “Hey, um, listen…let me know if Lyra’s bothering you, and I’ll make sure she stops.”
Brent’s face flushed beet red, and he shoved his hands in his pockets. “I don’t think she means it, but sometimes she can get kind of….” His voice trailed off, and he cleared his throat. “I mean, she’s so…you know intense, and you’re…you’re…”
weak, spineless, craven
“Lyra hasn’t given me any problems,” Thistle said quietly.
“Oh good.” Brent’s relief was almost palpable. “You’ll get used to it, though half the time I still feel like punching her in the face.”
“And the other half of the time?” Thistle asked.
Brent grinned. “She’s alright. Just don’t bet against her in a drinking competition.” He took a deep breath. “Suppose we should head back?”
“Just a minute.” Thistle opened her bag and carefully placed her new seeds inside. Brent looked down at her curiously.
“What good is a bunch of weeds? Do you always use plants when you fight?”
Thistle almost said that she didn’t have much experience fighting, before realizing that probably wouldn’t inspire much confidence in her ability. Instead, she said, “The roots of bishop’s lace are edible, and it can be used to treat indigestion and bladder infections.” It was also a popular contraceptive in some areas, but she didn’t think he would want to know that. “I try to keep a variety of plant seeds with me all the time.”
“Oh. So your bag is kind of like your mage kit? Rufilio kept a suitcase with him like that—had it spelled to shock anyone who touched it,” Brent said. “Not that he told anyone ahead of time.”
Thistle winced. “Kind of. Mine’s not enchanted.”
“Heh, well, that’s good I guess.” In the distance Lyra was gesturing at them impatiently. Brent rolled his eyes and hollered, “We’re coming!”
They were on their way again in minutes, traveling at a steady pace along the packed dirt road. There was no chance of Thistle falling back asleep now, so she settled back and prepared herself for a very bumpy and uncomfortable three hours. Beside her Lyra was using her belt knife to cut a slice of hard cheese.
“Do you want some?” Lyra asked when she saw Thistle looking. “Orrig sent enough for the both of us.”
Thistle was hungry, but she shook her head. “No, thank you.”
“Suit yourself.” She stacked the cheese between two slabs of bread for a crude sandwich and took a large bite. “So did Brent give his little warning?”
“What?” Thistle yelped.
“Oh, please. It was obvious what he wanted to talk to you about. Did he try to warn you of big, bad, scary Lyra?”
“Um…” The last thing Thistle wanted was to worsen the already-delicate relationship between her two teammates. “He said you could be, uh, intense, and not to let it bother me.”
Lyra stared at her while the words sank in, before she burst out laughing so hard she choked. Thistle smiled awkwardly in return, but of course the elf couldn’t tell. In fact, Thistle wasn’t sure she would have noticed even without her mask. Even their driver, who until this point hadn’t given either of them a second glance, turned to see what was the matter.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Lyra got herself back under control. She slapped her knee. “Well, he’s not wrong.” Lyra had to pause as another wave of laughter overtook her—less violently this time, much to Thistle’s relief. “Gods, he’s such an idiot.”
Her tone made the insult sound almost like a term of endearment. Chuckling to herself, Lyra took another bite of her sandwich and didn’t say anything more on the matter.
Another hour passed in easy silence. Lyra didn’t seem the type to force conversation just to fill the quiet, and after her dramatic outburst Thistle didn’t have the courage to speak. There wasn’t much to see out the carriage’s small window. The farms they passed were small, the soil rocky and unsuitable for most crops. Trees were few and far between. They were delayed once to let a herd of goats cross in front of them, causing Lyra to grit her teeth in frustration.
“I hate traveling for a job.”
Sensing an opening, Thistle asked, “Have you been to the Salt Rock Hills before?”
“No, thank the gods,” she said sacrilegiously. “I’ve gone to Crossroads once or twice, though, and saw signs for it. It doesn’t sound like there’s much there.”
Except for what’s killing the winged horses, Thistle thought.
“Orrig generally doesn’t like traveling far,” Lyra said, sneering at a goat that walked too close. “Can get twice as many jobs done close to home in the same amount of time, and with the ruins so close we’re never hurting for work.”
“The request said they asked for Orrig specifically,” Thistle said.
“Maybe someone he knew moved there, or we were referred.” Lyra shrugged. “Impossible to know for sure. Orrig’s been in the business a long time.”
Thistle was still processing this when the last straggling kid passed, and the carriage lurched into motion once more. The rest of their journey passed peacefully. Still, Thistle was glad when they finally arrived in Crossroads, a small city built around the intersection of two roads that connected north, south, east, and west. The sun shone a brilliant orange as the first hints of dusk cast long shadows over the town.
Brent, Lyra, and Thistle lingered near the road while Orrig inquired about the nearby inn and arranged for travel for the next day. The Salt Rock Hills were another twenty miles north, their final destination a small settlement tucked in a dale at the base of the hills.
“Your price too much,” Thistle heard Orrig say.
“And I’m telling you, I don’t go to the Hills. If you want transport, you’re going to have to pay extra.”
“Perhaps I find new driver. You lose business.”
“Then I wish you luck, orc, and bid you goodnight. You won’t find a better price anywhere in this town. Nobody goes that far north if they can help it.”
Lyra and Brent shared a look, but neither made a move to intervene. A few moments later a beleaguered Orrig joined them. He ran his hand over his head and sighed. “Let’s go to inn, get food. Vill talk more there.”
Rosemary’s Garden was a handsome little establishment, its walls coated with fresh whitewash and slate shingles catching the light of the setting sun. It was the middle of the supper rush when they entered, and Thistle found herself being herded to one of the last open tables.
“I didn’t like that @$$^#!*s tone,” Lyra said. “He drives us out to the middle of nowhere and then decides to up his price?”
“His business, his right,” Orrig said. “Ve need to get to destination. Sooner is better. I vill pay.”
“What did he mean no one comes that far north?” Brent said. “There are plenty of cities farther north than this.”
Thistle was gathering the nerve to add her piece when somewhere behind her a man bellowed, “ROSE!!” She almost jumped out of her chair, and her heart started to race as she turned around. The crowd was too thick to pick out who had spoken.
They couldn’t have found her already. Not here, after what had happened with Ned…
“Where’n the world is our beer? Rosemary, you’re losing your touch!”
A plump woman stepped out from behind the bar, shouting, “Don’t get your panties in a twist, James! I’m comin’ as fast as I can!”
A blond man sitting at the table behind Thistle grinned, and the man next to him told a lewd joke that earned him a playful slap from Rosemary as she passed. “What would your wife think of such talk, Theodore Cobbler? Shouldn’t you be at home instead of drinking away your wages?”
This was apparently an old joke, as the whole table roared with laughter, Theodore Cobbler loudest of all. Thistle forced herself to relax. They weren’t talking about her. No one knew who she was.
“Hello, earth to Thistle!” Lyra said loudly. “Are you even listening?”
“Sorry. I thought…”
don’t tell them, you idiot. are you so thickheaded to actually say you thought someone call your name? are trying to invite suspicion, or are you just stupid?
“…never mind,” Thistle mumbled, hanging her head.
Thistle thought Orrig looked at her a shade longer than was normal before he cleared his throat. “I vas saying dat post is vague. Tomorrow ve need to find out vhat monster is killing horses. Ve vill plan more then. Tonight, I get two rooms. Brent, you vit me, Lyra you go vit Thistle.”
Thistle felt herself go cold. “We’re sharing rooms?”
“Is dere problem?”
Never in her life had Thistle been more aware that she was being stared at. She had drawn too much attention to herself already. It was her own fault for assuming that they would get their own lodging for the night. She was working in a group now; she would have to think ahead.
“No, there’s no problem,” Thistle said faintly, and at that moment their food arrived. Despite not having eaten since noon, Thistle suddenly found that she wasn’t hungry.
“You’re not going to sleep in that, are you?”
Thistle sat at the edge of the bed, and couldn’t bring herself to answer. From the corner of her eye, she saw Lyra frown.
“That can’t possibly be comfortable.”
“I was planning on staying up to read,” Thistle said, desperate to avoid the issue entirely. She pulled her book out of her bag as proof. “Unless you’re bothered by the light?”
“Light doesn’t bother me,” Lyra said, crossing her arms, “but you do know that I don’t give a #@&* about what you look like. Right?”
Thistle shook her head stubbornly, the muscles in her back tightening under the elf’s scrutiny.
“You can’t wear the same change of clothes all the time,” Lyra said, impatiently now.
“Magic,” Thistle managed to squeak. “It won’t bother you, I promise. I…I really am just that shy.”
The furrow between Lyra’s eyes deepened. Her glare seemed to bore a hole in Thistle’s back, and a painful silence stretched almost to a breaking point. Finally she said, “If you want to be miserable all night, that’s your choice. I’m going to bed.”
Lyra had no way of knowing what affect her words had on Thistle, but as she stared at the page of her book it was all she could do not to cry.
Chapter 3: A Mage Named Mum (and Other Unfortunate Events)
It's rare to meet someone who, after making their opinions known, does not feel the need to belabor them, but Lyra seemed to be the exception. Thistle was terrified that the elf would bring unwanted attention to her “shyness”, but she made no mention of it at breakfast. Thistle’s heart almost stopped when she noticed Lyra pull Orrig aside for a private word, but their conversation was brief and nothing came of it.
Nevertheless, the silence as they traveled was not as comfortable as it had been the day before. There was an air of cool formality between archer and mage that Thistle did not know how to overcome. It was frustrating to see what little progress she made vanish, always going two steps back for every step forward, but what else did she expect? Lyra was confident and outspoken, with no uncertainty of where she stood in the world. Thistle was none of those things, and never would be.
It did no good to dwell on her own shortcomings no matter how true they were, so Thistle focused instead on the job at hand. The post offered little insight into what they were going up against. Winged horses were notoriously difficult to catch in the wild, and there were only a few domesticated breeds in the known world. There were precious few things that could keep up with, let along kill, a fully grown winged horse.
From what little reading she’d done on the subject Thistle knew that - like most magical beings - winged horses were smarter than their mundane counterparts, although they lacked the true sapience found in dragons, phoenixes, or unicorns. Herds were small, usually consisting of a stallion, three to four mares, and their offspring. Their feathers, hair, and blood held magical properties that were occasionally used in potions and the crafting of magical items.
Anything capable of killing a winged horse would almost certainly have to be capable of flight itself. Not many predators would take their chances against a horse’s hooves and teeth. That wasn't even counting the fact that whatever it was had also been able to kill a team of trained mercenaries hired to hunt it down.
Perhaps there was more than one monster? Could a pack of beasts be roaming the Salt Rock Hills? Thistle worried her bottom lip, sharp teeth cutting into the tender flesh. The more she thought, the less she liked what they were up against.
The journey was uneventful, and they made it to their destination before noon. The carriages drove into a small town boxed in on two sides by the hills and guarded on a third by a small river. The Salt Rock Hills looked more like mountains to Thistle’s untrained eye, stretching thousands of feet high with peaks obscured by low-hanging clouds. The grey stone was swathed with stripes of green where trees and scrub brush were able to take root.
The Hills overshadowed a tiny settlement, which by Thistle’s estimate was less than one thousand strong. As they entered town she counted three houses that appeared to be abandoned on the high street alone, and several others that were in dire need of new thatch and a fresh coat of paint. They stopped abruptly in front of the town hall, a three story building made of pale red brick, and were given a curt order to get out by the driver.
They’re staring at us, Thistle noted immediately as she stepped out of the carriage, cringing a little at the unwanted attention from the townspeople. She gave an unsure nod towards a barber who was standing in the doorway of his shop, razor still in hand. Or are they staring at me?
“Ugh, hicks,” Lyra said with disgust. “You’d think they’d never seen a woman wearing pants before.”
“Um…I don’t think…”
Thistle was cut off as she felt Orrig’s looming presence behind her. “Ve talk to mayor. He one paying, is boss.”
They were saved the trouble of looking. The words were scarcely out of Orrig’s mouth when the doors of the town hall burst open. A dignified man with a sour expression strode out into the street, trailed by a tall, lanky youth of about sixteen years of age.
“Are you the mercenaries?” the older man said, brown mustache twitching with disapproval as he gave them all an appraising glance.
“Yes. My name Orrig, dees my employees.”
“Orrig?” the man asked. “But I thought…well, never mind. I suppose it doesn’t much matter. My name is Everett Stone, mayor of the Salt Rock Hills. I’ve been expecting you.”
He stuck out his hand, and Orrig shook it. The mayor was the stiffest person Thistle had ever met, and he moved like he were carved out of a block of wood. Watery brown eyes scanned the street, taking note of each of the dozen people who were watching them.
“Let’s move inside, shall we? There’s no time to waste. Carson was just telling me he’s found another one.”
“Another one?” Brent parroted. “How many horses has this thing killed?”
The mayor’s head swiveled, meeting Brent’s look of indignation with cold displeasure. A shiver ran down Thistle’s spine. She’d met dragons with friendlier dispositions.
“It’s impossible for us to search all of the Hills, good sir, but we’ve found three dead in the last fortnight, and five more within the last three months. The beast is escalating, and I fear that it will not content itself with horseflesh for much longer.”
“Do you have any idea what kind of monster it is?” Lyra asked. Mayor Stone paused at the doors of town hall, his back to the adventurers. For a moment Thistle thought she saw his shoulders slump. The hand that held the doorknob trembled.
He’s afraid, Thistle realized. He’s afraid and trying to hide it.
“Why don’t you come inside,” the mayor said. “We can discuss matters in the privacy of my office.”
“I will need to verify your credentials before we get started.”
Orrig nodded and reached for his pack, while Lyra bit back a groan. Thistle shrank back as the mayor’s piercing gaze turned on the elf. “Is something the matter?”
Thistle wished that Lyra would just be quiet, but knew that wasn’t in her nature. Instead, Thistle turned her attention to the mayor’s simply decorated walls, pretending she were anywhere else but here.
“You’re the one who said there was no time to waste,” Lyra said bluntly. “If the living bean pole’s found another dead horse then we should be investigating it, not sitting here twiddling our thumbs.”
The mayor shook his head. “I have to make sure you are who you say you are. It’s standard procedure.”
Carson shifted his feet. Lyra’s unflattering description fit him well, and now that they were closer Thistle could see a few tufts of dark fuzz on his upper lip trying valiantly to pass for a moustache. “The lady has a point, sir.” His voice seemed too quiet for such a big body. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard. “We can’t even show ‘em the rest ‘cause scavengers got to ‘em first.”
“It would help if we knew what we were fighting against,” Brent added.
“There are rules…”
“Vhy don’t you tell vhat you know,” Orrig interrupted. “Then ve decide vhat best.”
A flash of indignation flashed across the mayor’s face before he slid heavily into the chair behind his desk. “You might as well sit down,” he said irritably, gesturing to the seats on the other side of the room. There were only four, and Carson was forced to remain standing.
“As I said, this whole business started about four months ago,” Mayor Stone said. He pulled out a map and unrolled it, each movement made with automation-like rigidity. “We didn’t think much of it at first. Most folk haven’t had anything to do with the Hills since the mines closed. They’re prone to rockslides and…well, they’re dangerous. Carson is the only one stupid enough to climb them day after day.”
The boy grinned sheepishly, but didn’t argue.
“The winged horses are attracted to the underground springs found throughout the Hills, the nearest being here, where the last three killings have all occurred,” he said, pointing to the map. Thistle leaned closer and frowned. It was less than two miles away from town. “The springs bring minerals to the surface and create natural salt licks. The winged horses aren’t the only beasts that use them, but their ability to fly means that they can access certain ones more easily than even the most sure-footed goat.”
“I like t’ watch the horses,” Carson explained. “I was nearly scar’t t’ death when I saw the first one dead. Ain’t never seen anything able to catch a winged horse afore.”
“I was first notified of the deaths two months ago. One dead horse is an anomaly, two is a coincidence, but three signifies a pattern.” The lines in Mayor Stone’s face deepened. “I never personally investigated any of the killings, but the reports I received suggested an unusual amount of violence, even for a wild animal. A meeting was called, and the town voted to bring in someone to take care of the problem. A price point was agreed upon, and with the monies raised a mercenary by the name of Marco Rosso was hired.”
“Never heard of him,” Brent said.
“Nor will you. After several days of investigation and two more deaths it became apparent that the attacks occurred during the night. He and his team decided to watch the salt lick where most of the horses had been found,” he pointed to a spot higher up in the hills, near the entrance to the abandoned mine. “When the sun rose again he was dead.” The mayor looked up at Orrig. “The corpse of the beast wasn’t found, but all indications were that Rosso's team had dealt a mortal blow before succumbing to their wounds. For more than a month things were quiet, but now, in the last fourteen days…” His voice trailed off into nothingness.
Nothing more needed to be said. Orrig’s face took on a pensive look, eyes hidden under the shadow of his horns. “If attacks only at night, ve should go and see dead horse. Sooner is better. You no know vhat kind of monster doing killing, ya?”
“Not in the slightest,” the mayor said.
Orrig nodded decisively. “Then settled. Boy vill take employees to dead horse vhile I do papervork, see vhat they can find. I join vhen finished. Vill return to town before dark vit report. Is goot plan.”
The orc’s steady confidence seemed to sooth Mayor Stone’s frazzled nerves. “If you think that’s best. So long as everything is made official I have no objections. My people don’t have much money to give, and this is the second time we’re paying for the same job.”
This seemed to take Orrig aback, though Thistle didn’t think she would have noticed his surprise if she weren’t sitting right next to him. “Hmm. Ve vill finish job, or no pay. I give my vord.” He gave Lyra, Brent, and Thistle each a look in turn. “Go vit boy. No fighting. I vill follow soon.”
“Carson, if you would,” Mayor Stone said.
“Yessir.” He waited for the rest of the group to stand before leading Thistle, Brent, and Lyra out of town hall and into the street. “Give me a minute.”
Carson jogged over to the barber shop door and called to the man Thistle had seen earlier. “Hey Horace, tell my Pa that I’m gonna be late to work tonight. Gotta show the mercs th’ horses.”
The exchange took less than a minute, but Brent and Lyra were already growing impatient. As Carson led them out of town Thistle took it upon herself to ask, “You work?”
“My Pa owns the tavern up the street,” he said, jerking his thumb behind him. “He wants me t’ take it over someday, so I gotta go in and learn the ropes.”
Lyra’s ears perked at the mention of a tavern, and her expression was suddenly much more charitable. Brent rolled his eyes and said, “Do you know anything about what’s attacking these horses?”
“No more ‘n what the mayor said. I didn’t usually stumble over em fresh, you know? Thought they’d just died natural and some scavenger got to ‘em first.” He let out a heavy sigh. “You’ll see when we git there.”
“And you were always the one who found them?” Lyra asked.
“The ones up in the Hills, yeah. Got a buddy who found the first one by th’ spring. He didn’t want t’ admit it at first, ‘cause he’d gone out to go skinny dipping.” Carson stopped abruptly in the middle of the path.
“What is it?” Lyra demanded.
The boy brought a finger to his lips for quiet. “Look out yonder.”
Thistle followed Carson’s gaze and couldn’t stop a small gasp. About a quarter mile away where the valley met the base of the Hills was a mare standing over a young foal. Their dappled grey coat and wings were almost the same color of the surrounding countryside. The mare took a step forward as she grazed contentedly, and her wings shimmered with the movement as if they were made out of graphite.
“Y’all ain’t never seen a winged horse before, have ya?”
“They’re hideous,” Lyra said.
Brent nodded in agreement. The horses were smaller and more portly than most equines, with short, bristled manes that stood straight up. In fact, they looked more like winged donkeys than horses, though Thistle never would have said so aloud. Instead of being offended by Lyra’s statement, Carson only chuckled.
“Tha’s what most people say, but I love watchin’ them, ‘specially when they’re flyin’.”
He started down the path again, and Thistle had to hurry to match his long strides. They followed the stream for nearly two miles, and by the end of it Thistle was fighting a stitch in her side. The vegetation thinned the further down the path they went. At first it was hardly noticeable, but once they were nearer their destination it was easy to see where great swaths of dirt had been scraped away, revealing the stone that lay beneath. What trees managed to take hold had their roots exposed open air after years of erosion. The path the group walked was one of many coming from all directions. Some were wide enough for two men to walk abreast while others were narrow bands of earth, but all were packed flat from a thousand footsteps and led to the heart of the springs.
“It’s th’ lick,” Carson said without prompting. “Just ‘bout everything that lives in th’ Hills come down for the minerals th’ springs bring to the surface. They dig up the ground t’ get it.”
“There’s nothing here now,” Brent said under his breath. “Gives me the heeby-jeebies.”
Lyra chuckled. “You scared?”
Thistle found herself agreeing with Brent. The spring was silent save for the bubbling water and their own footsteps. She noticed for the first time that there were no birds chirping insects buzzing or any other noise that she’d long learned to associate with wild places.
“An’ here we are,” Carson said quietly. “Now if you ‘scuse me, I’m gonna step back for a bit afore I get sick.”
Thistle couldn’t blame him. Before she even saw it the stench almost made her gag. Tucked behind a large boulder, just out of sight from the main path, were the remains of a winged horse. Blood pooled under the carcass, bloated and rotting in the midday sun. Thistle noticed immediately that the poor beast’s wings had been torn off and were nowhere to be seen.
Lyra paused and took a deep, steadying breath. “Well, time to earn our money.”
Brent nodded, and Thistle had to force herself to take a closer look. The horse’s throat had been slashed all the way to the bone. Another deep laceration stretched from sternum to groin, like it had been attacked by the world’s largest dissection scalpel. Either wound would have been fatal, but here were more crisscrossed along its back and hindquarters, over a dozen in total. Some were shallow, hardly more than scratches against the horse’s tough hide. Others pierced through thick belts of muscle and bone.
“Doesn’t look like it put up too much of a struggle,” Lyra said thoughtfully. She walked a slow circle around the dead horse. “I’m not seeing any sign of an attacker.”
“Where’d the wings go?” Brent asked.
“They’re gone?” Carson called from where he was standing. He sounded surprised.
“Where they here earlier?”
“I…I dunno,” Carson said. “I didn’t get a good look. When I saw him lying there earlier I bolted.”
“Her,” Thistle corrected softly. “It’s a female.” She took a few tentative steps forward, careful to avoid the worst of the blood, and pulled back the horse’s lips. They were worn and yellow. “And old,” she added, pulling her hand away as quickly as she could.
“An old horse isn’t going to be able to fight back,” Brent said. “A lot of predators go after weak prey.”
“Whatever it was, I bet they had claws,” Lyra said. “It looks like it’s been butchered.”
Thistle was examining the wounds on the horse’s back. As Lyra said, they were deep and clean. Almost too clean. Surely there should have been more blood coming from them? She was about ready to voice he observation to the others when a dark shadow passed overhead.
“What the…?” Brent’s curse was cut short as he looked up. His jaw dropped with an almost audible thud.
The dark shadow swooped over them again, closer this time, and Thistle grabbed her hood as a stiff breeze threatened to blow it off. She heard Brent draw his sword, and then the harsh cadence of Orcish.
Lyra whistled softly. “Now there’s a #^$&!@ winged horse.”
Thistle raised her head and gasped. Not fifteen feet away a large stallion stood, pawing impatiently at the ground. Its mane and coat were a dull red, and its wings glittered like copper in the sun. On its back sat a scrawny orc, who almost seemed too small to be seated on such a huge creature.
“Who the &*!! are you?” Brent demanded.
The orc slid off the horse’s back and landed nimbly on the ground. He was only a few inches taller than Thistle and extremely thin for his race, though his skin was the dark green of a pureblood. He addressed Brent in the same irate tone, again in Orcish.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Brent said. “You’re going too fast. I have no idea what you’re saying.”
“Brent speaks Orcish?” Thistle whispered to Lyra.
“A little,” she answered. She didn’t take her eyes off this new intruder, her bow ready in hand. “Hey Bean Pole, do you have any idea who this chump is?”
Thistle had almost forgotten Carson entirely. A quick glance told her that he was just as befuddled as the rest of them. “No, ma’am. Ain’t got no orcs ‘round these parts.”
The orc let out a frustrated growl that made him look strangely petulant. Thistle guessed he was younger than Brent. “You no belong here,” he said, enunciating each word carefully to compensate for his heavy accent. “Not your job.”
“Like &*!! it’s not!” Brent snapped. “I don’t know who you are, but we’ve been hired by the city to find out what’s killing these horses.”
The stallion tossed his head, his ears pinned back flat. Thistle didn’t know if the smell of blood was bothering it or Brent’s tone, but she wasn’t about to take any risks. “Maybe we should—“
She was cut off by a resounding crack and a blinding flash of light. Thistle’s skin tingled with the outpouring of magical energy. The winged horse let out a shrill whinny and reared up on its hind legs. The young orc ducked around hooves the size of dinner plates to grab the beast’s reigns, and when the dust cleared there was an elf and a human standing in the clearing.
“What the ever-loving %&#* is going on?” Lyra demanded, her bow raised. “Identify yourselves!”
“Watch your tone, girl,” the elf said. He was an attractive man, tall and broad-shouldered with hair the color of corn silk, but a sneer twisted handsome features into something hateful and mean. He wore leather armor with a house crest stamped over the chest and metal bracers on each wrist. Twin knives hung from his belt, not yet drawn from their sheaths. “You address Rhys Taliesen of the mercenary guild. Now lower your weapons before I report you for interfering with my hunt.”
“Your hunt?” Lyra said incredulously even as she lowered her bow. “Orrig was hired for this job. We’re his subcontractors.”
Carson stepped forward, his hands raised in goodwill. “Er, the lady’s right. Their boss is with the mayor now figurin’ out paperwork.”
“And who might you be?” Rhys asked, turning piercing green eyes on Carson. “The local color?”
“For your information, he’s our guide and consultant for this case,” Lyra said. “So you can go suck an egg.”
The third member of their party laughed silently behind a hand. He was the most unassuming of them all, a human of average height and build. He had a round, pleasant face that wore an expression child-like innocence – an expression that was magnified a hundredfold by the widest, bluest eyes Thistle had ever seen.
He was also the one to cast the difficult, energy-intensive Teleportation spell. The air was so thick with residual magic that Thistle could almost taste it, with the mage at its center.
Rhys shot him an ugly glare, before forcing a look of nonchalance. “I should have known better than to expect civilized conversation with an ouvrière.”
The significance of the word was lost on Thistle, but clearly it struck a nerve. The color left Lyra’s face, and she stiffened as if she’d been slapped. Tense seconds passed, and Thistle waited for her to shout or storm off or to let the temper get the better of her. But for the first time since they’d met, Lyra was speechless.
“As I was saying,” Rhys continued, his lips curling into a victorious smirk, “this is our hunt. There was an administrative error, and the request was sent to your leader instead of me. My team works out of Crossroads, and if we had made it two days ago as we ought this would not have happened.”
The elf gestured vaguely to the mutilated horse before turning his attention to Carson. “I apologize for my tone,” he said, bowing slightly, “but correcting this error has been most vexing. I would be much obliged for your cooperation going forward.”
Carson looked from Rhys to Lyra and back again. “Uh…”
“Hold on!” Brent interrupted. He stepped in front of Lyra, as if shielding her. “You can’t just waltz out here and tell us what to do. We answer to Orrig, so why don’t you get off your high horse and wait for him to get here.”
While he spoke, Thistle inched closer to Lyra. She wanted to say something to comfort her, but she didn’t know what to say that would help.
“Poor choice of metaphor, half-breed” Rhys said. Sharp eyes assessed Brent from head to toe, his gaze lingering on his scuffed, well-worn armor. “I’ll say it once more to get it through your thick skull: You have no right to be here. Mum, the requisition please.”
Lyra was trembling, but it wasn’t with fear. Her face was contorted in barely-suppressed fury that somehow went beyond her normal outbursts of temper. Every muscle was coiled tight, like a panther waiting to strike, and she had a white-knuckled grip on her bow. A cold sweat broke on Thistle’s forehead when she realized that Brent wasn’t protecting Lyra from Rhys, but Rhys from Lyra.
She didn’t know what would happen if Lyra attacked a sanctioned member of the mercenary guild, and she got the feeling that she didn’t want to find out.
With a snap of the fingers, the mage Conjured a piece of paper that Rhys snatched out of thin air. Even at a distance Thistle could make out the guild’s insignia stamped at the bottom of the page. “Now if you would please exit the premises, my team has quite a bit of work to do before dusk.”
“Lemme see that,” Brent said, stomping over to Rhys’s group.
The air crackled with power. Thistle’s head snapped up in alarm. “Brent, wait!”
It was too late. Rhys crossed his arms in front of him as Brent approached. Runes etched in the bottom of his bracers glowed red. There was another thunderous crack, Brent was thrown backward, nearly landing in the dead horse’s blood.
The noise spooked the crimson horse, and the young orc was once again preoccupied with keeping his stallion under control. He shouted something in Orcish that was ignored while the mage only looked amused. He stood unaffected by the force field, his hands in his pockets.
Lyra let out a string of curses so foul that Thistle was embarrassed for her. She threw her bow aside and coiled to leap at Rhys, pushing Thistle away when she tried to stop her. Thistle stumbled into Carson while Brent sat up, rubbing his forehead.
“That was ^$&*@#& uncalled for!” Lyra shouted. “He wasn’t going to attack you, you *&@#*(@, but you better believe I &$^#@+& will!”
“Lyra, stop!” Thistle said desperately. She disentangled herself from Carson and planted herself in front of the enraged elf. Her heart pounded in her chest when Lyra glared at her murderously, and she wanted to melt into a puddle under the sheer intensity of her rage. It seemed like a tossup whether Lyra would bull through Thistle and attack Rhys or not, but if there was even the tiniest chance of getting her to stand down then Thistle owed it to her to try.
“Fighting isn’t going to solve anything,” Thistle said, her voice trembling only a little. “I-I know he’s a jerk, but we are on a job. Orrig told us not to fight, and I know he meant you and Brent but I think this fits under the same general principle. He’ll met us out here once he gets things figured out with the mayor. We’ll sort through everything then.”
Thistle knew she was rambling, but Lyra didn’t move so she must have been doing something right. She made herself to look Lyra in the eye. There was anger there, yes, but Thistle thought she saw hurt as well. There was something familiar in that. Lowering her voice so only Lyra could hear, she said, “Don’t let him win.”
“I would listen to the girl,” Rhys said, a dangerous note of warning in his voice. His arms were still crossed, and a pale red force field formed a protective bubble around his body. Even if she wanted to, there was no way for Lyra to land a hit.
Lyra ground her teeth even as the fight left her body. “Fine. But I &$^#@#&+ swear that I see his punk @** when I’m off the clock…”
Finally assured that Lyra wasn’t going to do anything foolish, Thistle ignored the profanity filled, anatomically impossible tirade that followed and rushed over to Brent. He was still rubbing his head, and she could already see a bump forming just below his hairline. A tremendous amount of energy had to be stored in those bracers to throw someone of Brent’s size like that. The spell was similar to the one she had used against the Greater Drath, with an explosive component that added offense with defense.
That was a lot of spellwork for steel to hold. More likely than not there was a gemstone in the bracers to store the extra energy until it needed to be released. Even if it was only a semi-precious stone the cost of crafting alone would have been at least thirty gold. If Rhys had that much money to waste on magical bracers then there was a good chance that his daggers were enchanted as well.
“Are you okay?” Thistle asked quietly.
“Yeah, but what the &#!! is wrong with that guy?! I just wanted to look at his papers!”
“What is the meaning of this?!”
Thistle felt her blood curdle in her veins while Brent scrambled to his feet. Approaching them was Orrig, and he was as angry as Thistle had seen. But he wasn’t the one who spoke. That honor went to the one walking beside him, a human woman that Thistle guessed was in her mid-thirties, with grey streaking her black hair and a sharp, almost haggard look to her features. She walked with a pronounced limp, and leaned heavily on a dark wooden cane with each step.
Rhys lowered his arms, and the force field flickered out of existence. “I am trying to investigate what is killing the winged horses of the Salt Rock Hills. I take it you’re Orrig?” he asked, ignoring the woman entirely. “Remove your employees immediately and I won’t report you to the guild for interfering with a sanctioned hunt. Or better yet, fire them. I could find better in a gutter.”
Orrig’s expression never changed, but it was as if the temperature dropped twenty degrees. Either Rhys didn’t notice or he didn’t care. He lifted his head haughtily. “And I think an apology is in order. Your mutt as good as attacked me, and the elf would have had the hooded one not voiced sense.”
Though she wasn’t the one being insulted, Thistle couldn’t help but wince. Brent bristled indignantly, and if not for Orrig’s holding her back Thistle thought Lyra would have launched herself at Rhys, regardless of consequence. The seconds stretched out painfully as Orrig gauged the situation. Finally he nodded.
“I agree.” Orrig turned to the woman with the cane. “I very sorry. Vill leave immediately. Ve not here to stir up problem.”
“No offence taken,” the woman said faintly. Her gaze was fixated on the dead horse, and she had gone very white.
“Hmm. Brent, Lyra, Thistle, ve go now.”
There was another pause when no one seemed quite sure what they were supposed to do next. Rhys’s mage was the first to realize that the elf was not going to get his apology, and his shoulders shook with suppressed laughter. A pink blush dusted across Rhys’s cheekbones, and his fists clenched. It was through gritted teeth that he said to the woman, “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of an introduction. My name is Rhys Taliesen, licensed mercenary. These are my subcontractors, Mum and Rizaek.”
“What the ^$&# kind of name is Mum?” Lyra muttered sullenly.
She didn’t mutter quietly enough. Orrig shot her a sharp, disapproving look, and Thistle was sure only the presence of outsiders stayed his tongue. Worse yet, a smug, supercilious smile spread across Rhys’s face.
“I personally think it’s perfectly fitting for a mute, not that it’s any of your business.” He turned again to the woman who had arrived with Orrig. “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, I am the one who was hired to hunt the beast that’s been terrorizing your countryside.”
Through the exchange the woman’s lips had pursed into an almost invisible line, and her slate-grey eyes were as hard and cold as ice. Thistle could sense a power in her, much fainter than what radiated from Mum, and was certain that she was also a mage. “It’s not my countryside. My name is Isla Clark, and I worked for Marco Russo. I’m here to help find the monster that killed him.”
Chapter 4: Lost Causes (and the Fighters Who Champion Them)
It was a quiet walk back to town. Both Brent and Lyra tried to explain what had happened, but Orrig silenced them both with a grunt. Thistle thought she understood his reasoning: They had already embarrassed themselves in front of a fellow guild member, a citizen of the Salt Rock Hills, and the one surviving member of Marco Russo’s team. It was an enormous loss of face, and Orrig’s reputation would suffer if their gaff were ever made public.
Thistle couldn’t help but think it was somehow her fault. She should have noticed the magic in Rhys’s bracers sooner, or gotten Lyra to calm down faster, or done something to prevent the situation from getting so out of hand. They had gone out to the scene of the attack representing Orrig and failed – she had failed, and Orrig would have no choice but to punish her for her mistake.
—i don’t know what you expected. good for nothing, insolent brat, i’ve told you that time and time again. maybe orrig should fire you—
The voice, always so close, was relentless in its attack. The scene replayed in Thistle’s mind dozens of times, hammering home each and every one of her inadequacies until they were all she could remember. She’d let Lyra be humiliated and failed to protect Brent from harm. A furtive glance revealed that the bump on his head was now the size of a goose egg. She hadn’t even had time to rule out a concussion.
Dread and shame made Thistle’s belly twist into knots. She wanted to apologize to the others so badly it hurt, but with Orrig’s embargo on conversation she didn’t dare. The burden of her guilt felt heavier with each step, and by the time they reached town Thistle was almost drowning under the weight of it.
“Ve go to bar,” Orrig said.
“I don’t suppose I’ll be allowed to drink?” Lyra said sarcastically.
Orrig grunted. “Ve not on job now.”
The concession caught Thistle by surprise, and when Lyra almost tripped over her own feet she guessed that she wasn’t the only one. Surely Orrig wasn’t going to pretend that their disgraceful behavior hadn’t happened? Or maybe he was trying to soften the blow of their punishment, whatever that may be?
For the first time Thistle wished that her employer’s thoughts weren’t so difficult to discern. There was a certain amount of comfort in the knowledge that Orrig was level-headed and almost supernaturally stoic no matter the situation. He was the anchor to Lyra and Brent’s raging storm of emotions – unmovable, dependable, and unfortunately unreadable beneath unsounded depths that Thistle had not yet learned to navigate.
He led them down the street Carson had pointed out earlier. Orrig had to duck his head to fit through the entranceway of the tavern, and none of the seats had been built with an orc’s girth in mind. While it was too early in the day for most business, there was someone manning the bar nonetheless.
The man eyed the mercenaries suspiciously as they took their seats. “Are yeh buyin’? I ain’t got time for loiterers.”
“A pint of whatever you’ve got that’s good,” Lyra said.
“Same for me,” Brent added.
Thistle looked fretfully from the hematoma on Brent’s forehead to his vacant gaze. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Pfft, I take harder hits than that all the time,” Brent said. “I’ve got a thick skull.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” Lyra said under her breath.
Brent shot her a glare, but didn’t say anything. Thistle screwed up her courage to speak up again, “I, um, I’d like to take a look anyway. I might be able to get rid of the swelling. That is, if you don’t mind…”
“You can heal?” Brent asked.
Heat flooded Thistle’s cheeks, and she managed to nod. “A little.”
“Huh, I didn’t know that. Well, if it makes you feel better, I don’t care.”
It was embarrassing how relieved Thistle was not to be brushed off or be dismissed as needlessly worried. She could feel Lyra and Orrig watch her as she put Brent through a basic concussion protocol – which despite a little wooziness he passed with flying colors. It was only after she made him follow her finger with his eyes, tell her his birthday, and test his hand grasps that Thistle called on her magic.
The hematoma, though unsightly, was not dangerous. With so many blood vessels in the scalp even a minor trauma could turn into a large bump, and running face first into Rhys’s force field was not minor trauma.
Thistle frowned to herself. Even removing the fact that Brent could have been seriously hurt in the explosion, Rhys should have realized he was risking the integrity of the scene by activating his bracers. Thistle was troubled that the elf would escalate the conflict like that. It wasn’t as if Brent had been charging him. He hadn’t even been holding his sword at the time.
“It’s cold,” Brent said when Thistle touched his forehead.
“If it’s uncomfortable I can stop.”
“No, it feels good. Like when you pop a really big zit and all that pressure’s gone.”
Thistle had to choke back a giggle, almost causing her spell to fail. Their drinks had been brought over sometime during Thistle’s assessment, and Lyra made no effort to hide her disgust as she took a long draught.
The spell was a simple one. Thistle had learned it out of necessity the first time she’d been chased by angry villagers armed with stones. In seconds the bump was gone. Smiling she leaned back, unduely pleased with her handiwork. “Alright, one last check to make sure everything’s okay…”
Thistle placed a hand on Brent’s temple. The ethereal blue of her magic brushed against his skin, and even wearing gloves Thistle was acutely aware of the intimacy the gesture implied. His eyes fluttered closed, and the hair near her hand stood straight up, innerved by an unseen energy that seemed to Thistle both unknowable and unquestionably right.
“What in the world…?” Thistle said as her magic brushed against something that felt alien to her senses.
“What is it?” Brent asked. “What’s wrong with me?”
“Nothing’s wrong with you,” Thistle said. “It’s just…I can’t believe it. That mage put a bug on you!”
Once, when Thistle had been very young, she’d heard of a mage being tried in the realm’s highest court for casting a spell on a boy that made him forget the death of his mother. The newspapers caught wind of the case, and it became so infamous throughout the country that it was rumored a Wizard had been called into help with the proceedings. At the time she hadn’t understood what the mage had done wrong – Wouldn’t the boy be happier without such a painful memory weighing on his heart and soul? Hadn’t the mage cast his spell in good faith? Why were they being treated like a criminal when the end result was a blessing and a mercy?
It was on that day that Thistle learned that there were lines that magic should never, ever cross. Years of hard experience only reinforced the dangers even the most well-intentioned magic had on the mind.
The spell Mum had cast on Brent wasn’t quite to that level, but it was close. It was subtle and insidious, as finely woven as a gossamer thread. Thistle never would have noticed it under normal circumstances, and the part of her that wasn’t indignant was amazed at the intricacy of the spell.
“What?!” Brent exclaimed. “What he’d do to me?”
“It’s an altered communication spell used to spy on people…a metaphorical fly on a wall." Brent's face screwed in confusion, and she clarified, " They can hear everything we’re saying."
She scooped the delicate matrix of spellwork into hands that glowed blue. It reacted to her magic, shimmering with golden light. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
This last exclamation was addressed to whoever was listening on the other end of the spell. Disgusted at the mage’s lack of ethics, she forced her hands together the same way she would shut a badly-written book. The spell shattered, and an unpleasant jolt of energy shot up her arms.
“Are you sure it wasn’t Rhys?” Lyra said darkly. “It seems like something that’d be right up his alley.”
Thistle shook her head. The bug had the same fingerprints the Teleportation spell, which had undoubtedly been cast by Mum. And while she couldn’t rule it out entirely, Thistle was almost sure that Rhys had no magical talent. Why else would he have expensive enchanted bracers?
“When’d he *#$@!$ cast?” Brent asked. “He never moved!”
“You have to be close for something this fragile,” Thistle said. “It must have been right before Rhys, er…”
“Knocked you on your @$$,” Lyra finished for her, seething. She slammed her drink down, and seemed on the brink of another tirade when Orrig raised his hand.
“Stop. I vill send complaint to guild. They vill take care of mage. Dis not our job”
This reassurance did nothing to assuage Lyra’s temper. “And that’s another thing! What the $&#@ do you mean, this isn’t our job? We were asked for specifically! You said so!”
Orrig sighed, and reached into his bag to pull out the requisition form. He pointed a thick finger to a number printed at the top, one that Thistle had failed to notice when she read the listing for the first time.
“What’s your license number got to do with this?” Brent demanded.
“Vas copy error. My number similar to elf’s, vas sent to wrong place.”
“So we’re just gonna leave?” Brent said. “We came out all this way for nothing?”
Orrig nodded. “Vas mistake, ve technically not hired. Against guild rules to interfere.”
“Goddamn it. I’m going to need another drink,” Lyra said. “And if I see that pretty-boy’s face again I’m going to break his nose.”
There was a hearty hear-hear from Brent, and the group settled into an unhappy silence that was only broken when Lyra called for another pint. The bartender – who Thistle realized belatedly must be Carson’s father – sauntered over to them. He was a portly man with a receding hairline and a scruffy brown beard. While he had not been blessed with his son’s height, Thistle could see the familial similarity in the shape of his nose and the line of his jaw.
“Coin first,” the bartender said. “A silver, if it pleases the lady, ‘n I’ll get yer beer.”
“A silver? For a pint? That’s highway robbery!” Lyra exclaimed.
“An’ I’ve got a business t’ maintain,” the bartender said flatly. “Not that an outsider’d understand, runnin’ around chasin’ phantoms. Between you lot an’ the cripple, you’ve done nuthin’ but fill my son’s head with crazy-talk and waste my hard-earned money huntin’ a monster that don’t even exist. I got every right to throw you out on th’ street. A silver or nothing.”
A muscle in Lyra’s jaw twitched. She shoved a hand into her money pouch and pulled out the coin. Carson’s father snatched it greedily out of her grasp before handing over a fresh drink.
It was only then that Lyra snapped. She rose to her feet, and in one fluid motion she flung the contents of her mug onto the bartender’s face before slamming it back on the table. Before anyone could react she shoved away from the group and stomped out the door.
“I’m going for a walk.”
Thistle was frozen in place, torn between horror at what Lyra had done and pity for the events that had driven her to that point. Carson’s father sputtered with outrage, beer dripping down his face and staining his shirt.
At this rate they were going to get chased out of town. Thistle brushed her hand across the bartender’s shirt, a small surge of magic drying the fabric instantly. She left the stain untouched – he had basically goaded Lyra into retaliating by massively upping the price after she’d already drunk one pint, and was lucky she hadn’t thrown him through a table.
Orrig, Brent, and Thistle made a hasty exit after that. Further down the road Lyra was turning a corner and disappearing out of sight.
“Should we go after her?” Thistle asked anxiously.
“Good luck with that,” Brent said.
“I think it best if ve leave,” Orrig said. Thistle thought that he looked troubled. “Lyra need space. I vill try to find vay to Crossroads today.”
“We can’t just do nothing,” Thistle said.
“Hmm. You and Brent go find vhile I get vay home. Vill leave as soon as possible. Is better that way.”
“She could be anywhere by now,” Brent said. “We should split up to cover more ground.”
Bad things seemed to happen when they split up, but Thistle nodded anyway. She and Brent started in the general direction Lyra had disappeared to, and with a final grunt Orrig ducked back into the bar. At first Thistle wondered if he might have gone to issue an apology, but for some reason she was reminded of their interaction with Grand Master Wu. Orrig had only intervened when Lyra stooped to crude insults and had never once asked Lyra to apologize for shouting curses at a Wizard capable of turning into a dragon. It seemed like he let his employees speak their mind, up until a certain point.
Thistle wasn’t sure if Orrig’s leniency was always a good thing, but right now she was grateful for it. She could imagine all too well what Lyra was feeling right now, after being insulted and humiliated by Rhys and then being discriminated against by a bartender they didn’t even know.
“So, do you want to go left or right?” Brent asked, drawing Thistle from her thoughts.
“Do you have any idea where she might have gone?” Thistle said.
He sighed. “Not really. I mean, usually I’d say check out the taverns or the bars. I know a couple of her haunts back in the city, but out here? Who knows.”
Thistle thought for a moment, hesitating. “Brent, do you know what that ouvrière means?”
“It’s Elvish,” Brent said. “I think it’s a rude thing to say to a girl who wears pants and works? You hear it from the more stuck-up city elves every once in a while. Usually Lyra brushes stuff like that off, no problem. I think the @$$&^* just caught her by surprise.” He rubbed his neck. “Anyway, we should get looking. I’ll go left you go right?”
Thistle walked slowly, trying to process everything that had happened. Off of the high streets the buildings grew even more delapidated, many with sagging roofs or stucco walls covered with mold and dirt. She had traveled enough to know the difference between a small town that was thriving and one that was not, and the Salt Rock Hills had the feel of a town taking its final, tortured gasps. There seemed to be little diversity among what was left of the population, and each person who stopped to stare at Thistle was human.
Struck with inspiration, Thistle gathered every scrap of her fraying courage. Scanning the street she found an unassuming old man sitting in front of a butcher shop. He looked neither suspicious nor afraid of her, and Thistle clung to the strap of her bag to keep from fidgeting and approached him carefully.
“Excuse me, have you seen an elf come this way?”
“Sure did.” He smiled at her, exposing a set of false teeth that appeared to be made out of wood. “Tooted up the street not too long ago spoutin’ all sorts of wickedness that ought not be repeated in mixed company. She a friend of yours, stranger?”
“Um, yes.” I think. “My name is Thistle, and we came up to figure out what was attacking the winged horses, only there was a mistake and the job went to someone else.”
The man nodded sagely. “I see. Well, it ain’t ev’ry day we get so much excitement ‘round these parts. I think I’ll treasure the look of Minnie Baker’s face when she heard yer elf friend for the rest of my days.” He stuck out a hand. “Name’s Frank. I used to be the butcher, but I can’t do much cuttin’ these days.”
Thistle clasped fingers gnarled with arthritis. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Frank chuckled. “Trust me, stranger, the pleasure’s all mine. Can’t say enough how much I ‘preciate you all comin’ out here to catch the monster in th’ Hills, even if it ain’t yer job. Are you gonna stay for a bit? Maybe the other mercs will let you join th’ hunt.”
“My boss is actually trying to find a way to Crossroads today.”
Disappointment flickered in his eyes. “Ah, well, don’t know what I was expectin’. Not enough money for two teams, I suppose. Tell yer boss to talk to Jacob. He’s th’ owner of the tavern down yonder an’ oversees the stables here in town. It might cost a pretty penny, but it’s the best way if yer lookin’ t’ leave on short notice.”
“Oh.” Thistle’s stomach sank. “I think we might have met.”
Frank’s wizened face twisted into a grimace. “Shoot. I don’t suppose Jake's made a right fool outta himself? Was he the one who sent your elf friend in a tizzy, spoutin’ his usual garbage?”
Thistle didn’t answer, but her lack of response was enough. Frank spat in disgust and rose unsteadily to his feet. “Go find your friend, stranger. I’ll see if I can talk Jacob into seeing sense. Th’ monster is real, and something’s gotta be done afore someone else gets hurt.”
“I don’t want to cause any trouble,” Thistle said.
“Ha! You’ve done nothin’ but entertain these old bones through another day of drudgery. ‘Sides, Jake’s got the only rooms in town to let. If you can’t get him t’ help you leave, then yer gonna have t’ spend the night.”
Frank tipped an imaginary hat and set off from the shop in a slow, shuffling gait, his shoulders stooped with the weight of age. It didn’t seem right for him to get involved with the dispute, but Thistle got the impression there was nothing she could say to stop him.
He didn’t make it more than a few steps when someone called his name. Both Frank and Thistle turned to see where the voice had come from. A woman waved at him from across the street before jogging over. She wore a long white coat over a simple plaid shirt and held a heavy back bag in one hand.
“Hullo, Doctor,” Frank said respectfully. “To what do I owe the pleasure? I was just gonna go give Jacob Swinehart a piece of my mind.”
The woman brushed away a strand of curly brown hair that had fallen out of her plait and smiled enormously. “Whatever keeps you young,” she said blithely. “I was just wondering if you’ve seen Isla come this way. I was expecting her in the surgery over an hour ago.”
Was it Thistle’s imagination, or did his expression darken? “Can’t say I have, Doctor.”
The doctor’s face fell. Thistle took a half-step forward. “Excuse me, but do you mean Isla Clark? I saw her earlier today with the mercenaries investigating the winged horses.”
“By the spring?” the doctor asked, almost disbelieving. When Thistle nodded, she threw her arm up in the air in exasperation. “Did she walk all that way? No, don’t answer that. Of course she did, despite my explicit warning against pushing herself too far.”
The doctor took a deep breath and let it out slowly through her nose. “Well, that settles that. Frank, why don’t you tell me who your new friend is?”
“Her name’s Thistle, and she’s just passin’ through. ‘Parantly there was some mix up with the mercs an’ her group is lookin’ to get outta town afore dark,” Frank said. “Thistle, this here is Doctor Maureen Malady. You won’t find a better sawbones anywhere in the world.”
“I don’t know about that,” Doctor Malady said, the lines framing her eyes and mouth crinkling with suppressed mirth. Hers was a face made for smiling, and there was something about her demeanor that put Thistle instantly at ease. She adjusted wire-framed spectacles before extending a hand. “I’m sorry your stay at the Hills will be cut short.”
“Actually,” Frank said while Thistle shook the doctor’s hand, “she were just lookin’ for an elf that was travelin’ with her. I expect she wants to get back to searchin’.”
“I see,” Doctor Malady said. “I’d check the general store just over yonder.”
Thistle perked up at this. “Really?”
She nodded. “Ooohh yes. There aren’t many elves that come this way. Is yours rude and too pretty for their own good?”
“The general store,” Doctor Malady said with a sympathetic smile. “It’s just up the way, you can’t miss it.”
Thistle reluctantly turned in the direction she indicated. It seemed wrong to let the slight on Lyra’s character to go unchallenged, but she’d wasted too much time here already. She waved goodbye and jogged up the street, and before long came to her destination. Everything from spools of ribbon, penny candy, canned goods, and cigars decorated the storefront window, while a pair of tethered horses (of the mundane variety) pawed impatiently at the ground.
It seemed like an odd destination for Lyra, but Thistle braced herself nonetheless. It was entirely possible that Orrig had already found a way back to the city and was waiting for them to rejoin him so they could leave this place behind. Cheered by this thought, Thistle strode boldly – or as boldly as she could manage – into the store.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t got any crates. Need to go to the lumberyard for that,” the man at the register said irritably. The bell over the door alerted him to Thistle’s presence. “Can I help…you?”
He stared dumbfounded at Thistle, but for once she didn’t notice. She stopped dead in her tracks as Rhys Taliesen leaned back from the counter, an eyebrow raised.
“I didn’t expect to meet you here,” he said mildly.
“I, er, neither did I,” Thistle said.
Shouldn’t he be at the springs investigating the dead horse? How had he made it back to town so quickly, and where were Mum and Rizaek? Her thoughts shifted to Isla Clark, who by Dr. Malady’s reaction shouldn’t be making the long walk from the springs to town at all. Had he left her behind? Thistle drew her hands to her chest and took a tentative step backwards.
“Please don’t go,” Rhys said. “I would like to speak with you.”
“Yes,” he said with almost boyish earnestness. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name before. Mum said you found his spell. No one has ever done that before.”
“You knew he put the bug on Brent?” Thistle asked. “Why didn’t you stop him?”
His eyes flickered to the storekeeper. “Why don’t we take this conversation elsewhere? There are matters that I would like to discuss with you privately.”
For a moment Thistle was frozen. Rhys’s presence alone was enough to disarm her, and now he was sounding polite and reasonable? Was this the same person who had attacked Brent without provocation and insulted Lyra because she wasn’t wearing a skirt? Thistle’s clothes were baggy, but there was no mistaking that she was also a girl who, as Brent said, wore pants and worked.
A spark of anger thawed her indecision. Thistle barely knew Orrig, Brent, and Lyra, but they had been nothing but kind to her during that short period of time. Lyra especially had apologized for her part in their disastrous first meeting, and then put up with all Thistle’s weird awkwardness while traveling to the Salt Rock Hills.
Thistle crossed her arms. “I’m sorry, but no. That spell Mum put on Brent was unethical – if not illegal.”
Irritation flashed across his brilliant green eyes. They were the color of bottled glass…or poison. “Look, I didn’t realize that Mum had cast the spell any more than you did, and I certainly didn’t tell him to do it. You were there. Did you see me do anything untoward?”
Yes, Thistle thought stubbornly. “When did you find out?”
“When you broke it.” A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “I’ve never seen Mum jump so high. He’s a talented mage, you know.”
Thistle’s heart beat faster as Rhys took a small step forward, but somehow she managed to stand her ground. Her pleading look to the storekeeper was useless. He was too busy pretending she and Rhys didn’t exist to interfere.
“I’m surprised you associate with that lot,” Rhys continued, a note of reproach in his tone. “I made inquiries when I learned of the clerical error for this job. Orrig seems like a decent enough fellow, but there’s no denying he’s a little long in the tooth, if you pardon my phrasing. The mercenary guild is no place for old men.”
“Excuse me?” Thistle said.
“It’s obvious that he’s already lost control of his subcontractors, yourself excluded.” Another step forward, this time blocking the view of the shopkeeper entirely. Sometime during the exchange Thistle had backed herself into a corner, and Rhys had her completely boxed in as he continued, “And even if he hadn’t, the orc will be retiring within the next season or two. When he does you’ll be out of luck.”
“A mage of your skill shouldn’t be wasting their time in a position that soon won’t even exist. And even if the orc doesn’t hang up his axe this time next year, do you honestly believe you’ll get anywhere with his crew of miscreants?
“What are you getting at?” Thistle asked quietly. She thought she knew where this was going, but a part of her couldn’t believe what she was hearing and wanted Rhys to say it for himself.
“I appreciate talent,” Rhys said. His voice was low, intense, persuasive. “I saw it in Mum when no one would hire a mute and he was on the street peddling for coin. I saw it in Rizaek when he was mucking stalls for a pittance. And I see it in you.”
“I couldn’t possibly…I mean, I work for Orrig. He’s the one who hired me,” Thistle said.
Rhys nodded. “Loyalty is an admirable trait, but it will only get you so far in this line of work. I don’t need an answer now,” he said as Thistle stiffened, mistaking her indignation for something else. “Just promise you’ll think it over. I’ll be staying at the tavern owned by Jacob Swinehart if you change your mind.”
There were a great many things Thistle wanted to say, first and foremost being that Rhys had to be out of his mind to think she would want to work for him, but it was as if the surreal nature of the conversation had jammed the gears of her mind to a grinding halt. He left the store a moment later, leaving Thistle gaping after him like a fish out of water.
Is yours rude and too pretty for their own good?
The fact that she had mistaken Lyra for Rhys would have been funny if she weren’t so mortified. What would Orrig say when he found out rival mercenaries were giving out job offers? What would Brent say if he found out she had let Mum’s disgusting invasion of his personal privacy go unchallenged?
“Er, ma’am, are you alright?”
“What?” Thistle said, jumping at the unexpected voice of the shopkeeper. “Oh, yeah. I’m fine. I…I was just leaving.”
The shopkeeper gave a wary appraisal of Thistle’s unusual appearance. “Alrighty then. Have a good day.”
“You too.” Her voice sounded distant, as if someone other than herself were saying the words. Thistle left the general store, fighting to maintain a façade of normalcy over her growing anxiety. It was a losing battle. First the dead horse, then the debacle with Rhys and Jacob, and now this? Thistle wasn’t sure how much more she could take.
always were weak-willed. never had the stomach to speak up…you ought to be ashamed of yourself
She didn’t need the voice to tell her that. Shame came as easily to Thistle as breathing. Once again she hadn’t been able to speak up against Rhys’s vicious slander. Thistle couldn’t believe he had gone so far as to attack Orrig, who seemed to her the epitome of professional competence.
but what if it’s true? what will you do if orrig retires? you have no references, and no one would speak for someone so ungrateful. where will you go when they finally see you for what you really are?
mercenaries hunt monsters. your hood is the only thing separating you from whatever is killing the winged horses. once they see that for themselves, they’ll hunt you too.
Thistle felt ill as she wandered through town. The faces seemed less friendly, the air colder. She could see town people’s suspicion, imagined she could hear their thoughts as they moved out of their way to avoid her. The anxiety was giving way to panic. Even if Thistle knew where Lyra was, she didn’t think she could manage a conversation. Instinctually her feet led away from town – away from the wary strangers and their unforgiving eyes.
The only good thing about the Salt Rock Hills was that it was tiny. It didn’t take Thistle long to reach the outskirts of town following the road that she guessed led to the abandoned mines. She remembered Mayor Stone saying Carson was the only one who went to the Hills voluntarily, and he was probably back in his father’s tavern by now preparing for the evening rush.
Thistle was alone.
Taking a cleansing breath, she found a bit of broken down fence that had once marked the boundary of a large pasture. The field was long-since abandoned, overgrown with knee-high grass, half a dozen different wildflowers, and countless weeds. There was bishop’s lace, ragweed, yarrow…and thistles.
Her heart was heavy as she cupped her most recent namesake with her hand. There were no blooms, but a small spark of magic changed that. The thistle’s flower unfurled, purple and perfect and beautiful.
“What am I doing here?” Thistle asked herself. She pulled away from the plant and sat on the fence, staring out at everything and nothing. As before, there was no answer.
She sat until the knot that had been growing somewhere under her breastbone loosened, and long enough for her to wonder if Brent had had any more luck with their mission. Dwelling on her most recent failure made a melancholy feeling sit heavily in her chest, but melancholy she could manage.
It was no use continuing to look for Lyra when she’d most likely already been found. Resolving herself to face Orrig knowing her disgraceful interaction with Rhys was the most difficult thing she’d done since arriving at the Salt Rock Hills, and despite her eagerness to leave she was in no hurry to see her employer again.
Swallowing her reluctance, Thistle hopped off the fence and made one last, sweeping glance of the pasture. It really was quite peaceful out here, and she could understand why Carson wandered out this way. Farther up the road there was even someone resting up against a lone fencepost…
Thistle did a double take, but there was no mistaking that red armor. “Lyra?”
The figure startled. “Thistle? What are you doing out here?”
“Looking for you,” Thistle said. “Orrig wants to go back to the city.”
“Oh thank the gods. How long have you been standing there?”
As Lyra approached, Thistle noticed she’d applied a fresh layer of makeup. “Not too long. I thought Brent would find you first.”
“Ha! Brent couldn’t track himself out of a wet paper bag. Is Orrig seriously leaving today?”
“If he can get transport,” Thistle said, taking some joy at the way Lyra’s face brightened. “Apparently Jacob owns the only stables in town.”
“Who’s Jacob again?” Lyra asked.
“The, well…He's the owner of the tavern.”
There was a beat of awful, terrible silence. “Well %*@#.”
“He also owns the only rooms to rent, so if we can’t use his horses we’ll have to pay him to stay the night.”
“Double %*@#,” Lyra said, scrubbing her face with her hands. “If he expects me to apologize he’s got another thing coming. Charging a silver for a pint of beer is a %*@#!+& joke, especially out here in this country backwater. Most the people here probably haven’t seen a silver in their life. You don’t suppose that orc will let us use his flying horse, do you? I bet we could fit all of us on that thing and make it to Crossroads before dark.”
“Rizaek?” Thistle asked. “I don’t speak Orcish, but I got the impression he didn’t want anything to do with us.”
“Hmph. I wouldn’t trust anyone who works with that pretty boy @$$&*^# anyway. I was serious when I said I’d break his nose if I ever saw him again.”
Thistle didn’t have a response for this. The fury in Lyra’s voice was almost a palpable thing. In Thistle’s limited time with her, Lyra’s anger had burned hot, fierce…and quickly. Rhys’s words must have struck a nerve.
“It’s not worth fighting about,” Thistle said, trying to convince herself what she was saying was true. “Not if we’re leaving today.”
Lyra leaned over the fencepost and stared out at the hills. In the distance a winged horse had taken flight and was soaring higher and higher into the air. “You’re wrong,” she said. “@$$#*&% like Rhys live their whole lives thinking they’re better than everyone else just because they have more money or connections or something extra dangling between their legs, and if no one ever proves them wrong they’ll keep on thinking it for the rest of their lives. I’m tired of it. He can call me whatever stupid name he wants, but I’m not afraid of him and I’m not going to back down. No one’s going to fight for me, so you’d &@#% well believe I’m going to fight for myself.”
She brushed her bangs out of her eyes and offered Thistle a crooked smile. “Sorry for the speech, but I’ve met too many Rhyses in my life to given two $&%!$ about this one. If I give up an inch he’s going to take a mile and come back looking for more. So yeah, I’d say it’s worth fighting over.”
“Even if you don’t win?” Thistle said.
Lyra laughed. “Oh, I know I’m not going to change his mind, but if I can make him think twice before spouting slurs to strangers who might take offence, then, well, that’s a win in my book.”
Thistle thought about this for a moment. She could see where Lyra was coming from, but there had to be a better way. Or maybe there wasn’t, and she was just too much of a coward to admit it. Thistle spent the majority of her time trying to help people, and to date she’d still never been accepted by anyone who knew what she truly was.
“What does ouvrière mean?” Thistle asked before she could stop herself. Her throat tightened when Lyra gave her a curious sideways glance that she could not decipher. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. I’m sorry I brought it up.”
“I’m more surprised that you don’t know,” Lyra said. “It’s Elvish for ‘worker’.”
“That’s it?” Thistle said.
“That’s it,” Lyra said wryly. She propped her chin up with a hand. “That’s what I hate about Elvish. It’s got no real curse words, and everyone is so %*@#!+& obsessed with high society and being polite that they have to come up with creative ways to insult those they think are lower than they are.”
“But how can calling someone a worker be an insult?” Thistle asked.
“Oh, it’s not the word we use for someone who’s respectable,” Lyra said. “It means someone who does dirty work, common work, or a girl who doesn’t have a husband or father or brothers to take care of them so they go out in trousers and a shirt that they can actually breathe in, walking the streets without a chaperone and likely getting themselves into all sorts of undesirable situations with all sorts of undesirable folk for a little coin.”
“That’s…that’s terrible,” Thistle said.
Lyra shrugged. “It’s just a word,” she said flatly. “And like I said, it’s not even a proper curse. Now Dwarvish has some fantastic swear words. I picked up a bunch from a chatty drunk back in the city. Maybe I should throw some of those in Rhys’s face before I break his nose.”
It was a poor attempt at a joke, and they both knew it, but Thistle forced a chuckle anyway. “Do you suppose we should head back? Maybe Orrig’s found a way to Crossroads.”
“Gods I hope so,” Lyra said. She slid off of the fence and glanced at Thistle again, this time a sly grin spreading across her face. “So if you didn’t know what ouvrière meant then that means you’re not an elf.”
It was as if someone had snatched the air out of Thistle’s lungs. If Lyra had already figured out she wasn’t a city elf, how long would it take for Brent to realize she wasn’t human, or Orrig to see her for the monster she truly was? Thistle had known them for all of three days, and they were already starting to guess at her identity. They were mercenaries, professional monster hunters, how long would it take for them to see through the mask and shadows…
Lyra doubled over and laughed a laugh that sounded more like the maniacal cackle Thistle had once heard from a villain in a play. “I can’t believe it! That’s fantastic!”
“I bet Rhys is the type to think elves are the best mages in the world. I would pay good money to see the look on his face when he realizes his pet spell slinger was schooled by a human girl!”
Lyra’s laughter drowned out Thistle’s weak protests, and she was still laughing when they found Brent and Orrig sitting outside city hall. It was just as well that she was in a good mood, because no amount of coin that would convince Jacob arrange transport to Crossroads, and there was no one else who could assist them on such short notice. They were stuck in the Salt Rock Hills for the night, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Chapter 5: The Curse of the Salt Rock Hills (or Lyra Submits Her Thistle Theory)
“Where were you guys?”
Lyra smirked. “Getting the %$!! away from you,” she said, laughing when Brent made a rude gesture in reply. Fortunately neither seemed inclined to bicker as they usually did. Thistle was quietly amazed that they were even sitting next to one another on the steps outside of City Hall while Orrig conferred with Mayor Stone.
“Do you think we’ll have to sleep outside?” Lyra asked. “That Jacob guy seemed pretty mad.”
“He wants us kicked out of town,” Brent said. “When I couldn’t find you I circled back and heard him telling the mayor that we’re menaces to society.”
He gave Lyra a pointed look. Thistle was beginning to feel the urge to pace, but managed to limit herself to fidgeting with the strap of her satchel.
“If Mr. Swinehart has the only rooms and owns the stables and the tavern, then he’s probably one of the wealthiest men in town,” Thistle said. She’d learned that people tended to listen to the people who had money.
“It also means that pretty-boy Rhys and his band of merry men are probably staying with him,” Lyra said. “I’d rather walk back to Crossroads.”
“Speak for yourself,” Brent said.
There was heavy silence. Thistle gave up fidgeting and stood up under the pretense of stretching her back. It was late enough in the day that people were starting to finish up their work and go home. The high street of the Salt Rock Hills was as close to bustling with activity as it would ever be. Children with bare feet ran up and down the street, while tired men coaxed small herds of goats or locked up storefronts. Women worked around pigs or chickens or the occasional cow to bring in laundry or get supper started.
The stooped figure of an old man shuffled through the crowd. Thistle brightened when she recognized Frank’s wizened face, now drawn into a sour expression.
“Hullo, stranger,” he said to Thistle as he approached. “I see you found your elf, plus a little bit extra to boot.”
“Oh! This is Brent, and you already know Lyra. Brent, Lyra, this is Frank.”
“We’ve met?” Lyra said suspiciously.
“After a fashion,” Frank said. “I was laughing too hard after you told off Miss Minnie Baker to offer a proper introduction. I’m not sure she’ll ever forgive me.”
He shook their hands in turn. “I don’t suppose Jake’s changed his mind?”
“I’m afraid not,” Thistle said.
“Figures. He’s more stubborn than a donkey when he sets his mind t’ somethin’, if you catch my drift.” Frank’s hand rasped against the stubble on his chin. “I don’t suppose you found a way t’ Crossroad tonight neither?”
“Nope,” Brent said.
“I see.” Another pause, more rubbing of the chin. Frank gave them each a long, steadying look before resolve settled into his deep-set brown eyes. “Well, it prob’ly ain’t the accommodations yer used to, but I’ve been living alone since m’ wife died. It’d be a tight squeeze, but I think I could fit y’all in.”
“Anything’s better than a ditch at the side of the road,” Lyra said brightly, “but our boss is in talking with the mayor now. We would have to run it by him first.”
“Ain’t got nothin’ but time. I can wait.”
There was no bench outside of city hall, and Frank waved off Brent when he offered to move. He leaned against the pale brick wall, and struck up a friendly conversation with Lyra. He seemed to find her an endless source of amusement without an air of patronization, while his impression of the much-maligned Minnie Baker elicited a sharp, barking laugh in return.
They made an odd pair, but the levity seemed good for Lyra. Lines of tension left her face, and the defensive walls that had been in place since they first exited the carriage lowered, if only a little. Finally Brent scooted away from the two of them and wandered over to Thistle. He glanced at her sidelong.
“I’m never going to let her hear the end of this,” he said gleefully.
Before Thistle had a chance to ask what was so funny, Orrig was ducking out of City Hall, trailed like a shadow by Mayor Stone. He stopped when he saw their unexpected company, but half a glance was enough to tell him that no one was shouting, fighting, or otherwise causing more trouble than they were already in. He nodded once, as if in approval.
“Yer Orrig, eh?” Frank asked. The stoop in his back made it difficult for him to look up, and he was forced to take two steps backward to look the orc squarely in the eye. “Ye gods, you’re even bigger ‘n I imagined. Dunno if I’ve got a bed big enough for you.”
“Orrig, this is Frank,” Thistle said hurriedly. “I met him earlier today, and he’s opened up his home to us tonight. If that’s okay,” she said to the mayor.
“There have been complaints,” the mayor said. “I don’t want any rabble-rousers in my town. I agree with Mr. Orrig’s assessment that the mercenaries leave tonight. They may use my horses if need be.”
“It’s too late for that, Everett,” Frank snapped. “They won’t get anywhere afore dark. If th’ monster’s been stalkin’ the spring then who’s to say it won’t take a quick jaunt up th’ road? I don’t want any more dead adventurers on my conscious. Do you?"
Mayor Stone’s already perfect posture went ramrod straight. “Of course not.”
“Then get your head outta yer butt and act like it! Jake’s just throwin’ a hissy fit ‘cause for once he didn’t get his way.”
“Jacob Swinehart isn’t the only one who’s upset!” Mayor Stone snapped. His face and neck had flushed a dark puce, his whole body swelling with indignation. “The team that was actually hired will be able to work much more efficiently without their investigation being constantly interrupted by…by…” Words seemed to fail the mayor and he gesticulated at Thistle, Lyra, and Brent.
“By professionals who’ve been tryin’ to get outta town all afternoon t’ keep somethin’ like this from happenin’ but couldn’t ‘cause Jake decided now were the perfect time to start throwin’ his weight around,” Frank said, crossing his arms. “Who’s in charge here? You, or him?”
Mayor Stone opened his mouth several times in quick succession, but no sound came out.
“I thought so,” Frank said. “Now I’m takin’ these fine folk to my house for th’ night, just to be hospitable. I swear on my wife’s grave that they won’t cause no more trouble. Got a problem with that?”
“No,” the mayor said through clenched teeth.
“Good. G’night, Everett. I’ll see you tomorrow. Assumin’ th’ offer of yer horses still stands?”
“Of course,” Mayor Stone said stiffly. “I’ll have Jacob bring them back the next time he goes to Crossroads for business.”
“I do not vant to start trouble,” Orrig said.
“Nonsense,” Frank said. “Everett’s good people. This business with th’ winged horses is messin’ with his head is all. And he ain’t the only one. If I were a younger man I’d beat some sense into Jake myself. There’s no excuse for actin’ the way he is.”
Frank led the group down the street from the butcher shop. He stopped in front of a small, squat house with peeling yellow paint and a slightly overgrown lawn. A handful of chairs were set out on a sagging porch that was held up on one side by a pile of bricks. Thistle tried to imagine what it would have looked like new. It would have been a cozy little home – the sort of thing that was perfect for a young family just getting started with life.
“I only got two bedrooms,” Frank said apologetically. “If you split two apiece then I could sleep in my rocker. I do most nights anyway, my back bein’ what it is.”
“Thistle need own space,” Orrig said.
“She does?” Brent and Frank said simultaneously.
“I do not!” Thistle said, horrified. She shrank back as they turned collectively to stare at her.
“Are you sure?” Lyra asked. “Because last night—“
“I don’t need my own room,” Thistle repeated. “Our arrangement last night worked out just fine.” She glared at Lyra, trying to get her to drop the matter through force of will. She couldn’t believe that she had told Orrig about her supposed shyness after all, and couldn’t believe that Orrig was bringing it up now when they were lucky to have shelter at all.
“I don’t get it,” Brent said. “Did something happen, or—?”
“Shut up, Brent,” Lyra snapped. “Thistle says she’s fine, so she’s fine. Frank, we’d be happy to share a room. Would you care to show us where we’ll be staying?”
There was a formal lilt to Lyra’s tone that Thistle had never heard before, an exaggerated carefulness to change the subject as quickly as possible. Frank chuckled awkwardly and shuffled up to the house. “I’d hate t’ keep a lady waiting. Welcome t’ my humble abode.”
Thistle let out a sigh of relief and trailed behind the rest. A firm hand clasped on her shoulder.
“Ve talk later,” Orrig said.
Thistle somehow managed to nod even as a pit formed in her stomach. Ever since Orrig had agreed to hire she’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop. The events leading to her becoming a mercenary for hire had been nothing but a stroke of luck, and no one knew better than Thistle that luck didn’t last. This last outburst proved what she’d been told time and time again: There was something fundamentally wrong with her. Failure and disappointment were in her blood; there was no escaping it.
And really, wasn’t it better to get it out of the way now, before she fell into the lull of routine and deluded herself into thinking she was safe. Useful, even. Before she allowed herself to become attached to Orrig, Brent, and Lyra…
Thistle heard Lyra laugh as Brent punched her in the arm, and her heart sank.
it’s really quite pathetic how quickly you’ve given yourself over to them. perhaps you’ll finally believe me. you are unwanted. unwanted, unloved, and most of all undeserving of the trust that’s been given to you
And perhaps that was true, but there was nothing Thistle could do about it now. She slid in behind Orrig, shoulders slumped, as they filed into Frank’s house. The parlor was small, and made to feel even smaller by what appeared to be half a century’s worth of clutter. There was a cleared pathway from the entranceway to a wooden rocking chair placed in front of a fireplace, unlit in the summer heat. A small table was overrun with dirty plateware, carved wooden trinkets, and yellowed pages of parchment that appeared to be legal documents of some kind. There was a bucket half-full of water placed under a leak in the roof, and the house smelled faintly of mildew.
“Like I said, it ain’t much, but it’s what I’ve got,” Frank said as a hush settled over the party. “This way. I’ll show you the bedrooms.”
Thistle tried to make herself as small as possible as she trailed behind Orrig, careful not to touch anything as she navigated the cramped confines of the house. Like the rest of the Salt Rock Hills, there was a feeling of decay, of a place that had once seen better times but was unable to hold onto them, slowly but steadily losing the battle against the ravages of time.
They passed by the fireplace. Above it rested a mantle place. A thin film of dust settled over the various knickknacks and novelties – winged horse carved out of wood, a glass bauble with a red and orange design blown into its center, a woman’s necklace. Thistle smiled at these, but paused when her eye caught two portraits that were the centerpiece of the entire room.
One was obviously of a much-younger Frank standing next to a woman that had to be his wife. Frank’s likeness almost looked uncomfortable in a heavy dark suit, but the woman was radiant. She clutched at a bouquet of flowers with a smile spread ear to ear. It was a beautiful wedding portrait, unfaded by the sun and its frame polished until it gleamed.
The second painting was of a young man, perhaps twenty years of age. The painter was less skilled than whoever had done the wedding portrait, but there was no mistaking the boy had his mother’s golden hair and his father’s square jawline. There was no dust on the portrait of Frank’s son, no fingerprints on the glass. Together the two paintings were by far the nicest things in the parlor, the heavy rocking chair being the only thing that came close.
Thistle hurried after the rest, feeling as if she’d intruded on something deeply personal. Frank stopped halfway down a narrow hallway, his hand lingering on a tarnished brass doorknob.
“Lyra, Thistle, you can sleep here,” he said. “It’d prob’ly be better for the boys to stay in th’ master. It’s got a little more wiggle room.”
“Thanks,” Lyra said.
“Aw, it’s nothin’. After all, you folks have entertained these old bones through another day of drudgery.”
Frank shuffled his way down the hall, leaving Thistle and Lyra to get themselves settled. Thistle entered the bedroom not sure what to expect. It was kept in perfect order, as if the detritus that had taken over the rest of the house was stopped by an invisible force field at the doorway. The sun shone through a lone window, highlighting motes of dust, and the air was strangely stale. Lyra wasted no time marching over to open the window, allowing a delicious breeze to air out the room.
“So,” Lyra said with that task accomplished. “Do you want to arm wrestle for the bed? I assume you don’t feel comfortable sharing.”
“I’m fine with the floor.”
Lyra brushed away a stray strand of hair, and for a moment Thistle thought she looked frustrated. “It’s okay to say what you want. If there are…I don’t know…things you need, we can work with you. You don’t have to be a martyr about it.”
There was nothing Thistle could say to that. She set down her bag near the small clothes chest at the foot of the bed. “Frank doesn’t talk about his son. He talks about his wife, but not his son.”
“Are you changing the subject?”
“It’s awkward, sleeping on his bed,” Thistle said quietly.
“You don’t know this is his bedroom,” Lyra said. “ *%!!, how do you even know Frank has a son? You’ve known him for, like, an hour.”
“The portrait,” Thistle said. “Besides, can’t you feel it? No one’s been in here for a long time.”
Her fingers traced along of the edge of the chest, drawing small furrows in the thick layer of dust. If the rest of the house was in a slow state of decay, then this room was stuck in stasis, a hidden memorial to a bygone era that was never to be seen again.
Lyra sighed. “Fine. If that’s how you feel then I’ll take the bed. I still think you’re making a huge assumption. It’s not as if you know something bad happened. Not all kids get along with their parents.”
Thistle touched a small wooden ball setting on the chest. It was obviously a child’s plaything, scuffed with hard use, its once-bright paint almost completely worn away.
After they were settled Frank shooed them back outside. His house was no place to socialize, he said, and besides, a neighbor would be bringing over dinner any moment. He was a better butcher than cook, and he shamelessly admitted there was nothing he could make that would be able to satisfy an orc.
The wooden planks of the porch groaned as they settled into the chairs. Brent brought out the heavy rocker from the parlor so that Frank could join them, and Thistle whispered a quick spell when he wasn’t looking so that they wouldn’t fall through the floorboards. Frank laced his fingers over his stomach and rocked contentedly as he looked out to the lowering sun.
“If this ain’t luxury, I don’t know what is,” he said.
“Is goot house,” Orrig said. “Strong roots.”
“Aye, that it has. My granddaddy moved up here when they tried t’ reopen th’ mines.” Frank’s eyes went distant. “You shoulda seen us then. Real boom town it was. Bigger ‘n Crossroads at th’ time. Even recruited a coupla orcs to work six months outta th’ year. Almost had ‘em convinced t’ move up fulltime, but it’s darn near impossible t’ get an orc t’ leave where their family’s at. Can’t blame ‘em, really. Real family men, those orcs were.”
“What happened?” Brent asked.
“It were the blasted mages, weren’t it?” Frank said bitterly. “Come here all high ‘n mighty, they’re th’ reason the mine closed. Still plenty of copper there t’ be had.”
“Wait, those are copper mines?” Thistle said. “I guess I assumed that you were mining salt.”
“No, th’ licks are just regular minerals brought t’ the surface by th’ springs,” Frank said. “’Course the dwarves were the first t’ mine here, but they abandoned th’ place over two hundred years ago. Ev’ry one thought they’d sucked it dry ‘cept ol’ Thaddeus Blackwood. He were the one who founded th’ town back in the day.”
Frank reached in his breast pocket and found his pipe. He fumbled with a packet of tobacco and went silent while he lit it. He leaned back in his chair. “Met him a coupla times when I was a boy. Weren’t never the same after the mages came. Like they sucked the soul right outta him.”
“What did they do?” Brent asked.
“Tha’s just it, no one knows for sure. Granddad said the mages were here t’ check the copper, ‘cause it was supposed to have magical properties or some such nonsense. They went in with Blackwood, and when they came back out he had the whole operation shut down. Just like that, everything he worked for was gone. Folk were upset of course, wanted answers. But he took his secrets with him to th’ grave.”
Frank puffed thoughtfully on his pipe. “’Course the orcs were the first t’ go. They had families t’ see to. But folk kept leavin’, little by little, and now they’re nothin’ left t’ make ‘em stay. Some call it a curse, and I’m inclined to believe ‘em.”
“The mayor said the first dead horses were found by the mines,” Thistle said.
“Might be something nasty in there. There are plenty of monsters that live that long, or it could be something that managed to breed,” Lyra said thoughtfully.
“Never thought of it that way, but I doubt it. Th’ mines closed a long time ago, and there ain’t never been any problems with it all this time,” Frank said. “No one ever were killed when they was open, no serious accidents that I can recollect, either. Blackwood just…decided no one were gonna mine any more, and that that was that.”
“Oh,” Thistle said quietly.
“Not that it matters to us, because we’re going home tomorrow,” Lyra added.
Frank chuckled, and the conversation shifted to stories of some of the jobs they had taken on over the year. Lyra and Brent argued over details of gremlin infestations, who had killed the bigger rous, and other day to day dealings of a licensed mercenary while Orrig interjected from time to time when he thought they were both wrong. Thistle was surprised to hear how mundane most of it was compared to playing guard duty during a Drathmakal summoning or hunting monsters in exotic locations.
There was some relief in knowing that, in many ways, being a mercenary was just another job. Thistle was content to listen, for of course there was little she could add to their anecdotes and it seemed unlikely that Frank would want to hear about her misadventures as a mage.
They must have been talking for half an hour when a young woman emerged from the house next door, followed by half a dozen children between the ages of ten and fifteen year sold.
“Franklin Cunningham, get your lazy bones over here afore the food gets cold. I got a stew goin’ and ain’t in no condition t’ be bringing it over t’ you when you’re more ‘n capable of gettin’ some yourself!” A hand went to her extremely pregnant belly, and there was a playful smile on her face.
“Anne Marie Baker, you’re gettin’ to be soundin’ more like your grandmother every day. If you ain’t careful you’ll sprout bat wings and a devil tail,” Frank teased. He doused his pipe and rose to his feet before turning to Orrig. “Come on, time for some chow. It’s never good t’ keep a Baker waitin’.”
The fact that Frank was neighbors with the Baker family should not have surprised Thistle as much as it did. Mrs. Minnie Baker was a prim, proper woman who took one look at Lyra and sniffed with disapproval before retiring to her bedroom, claiming she had a headache.
Anne Marie was much more hospitable. She barked orders like a general to the young cousins and village children who’d come with the hope of catching a glimpse of the infamous adventurers, and within moments they were being served hot bowls of stew, fresh-baked bread, and strong black tea.
The dining room, while bigger than Frank’s, was too small to comfortably house them all, and they were once again relegated to the porch. Thistle carefully balanced her food on her lap and was waiting for the others to join her when she noticed four pairs of eyes staring at her from the doorway.
It was the children, and for all their shyness they looked more curious than afraid. Thistle waved at them (lucky they can’t see what’s hiding under your gloves, you freak of nature, you monster) and smiled. “Hello. What are your names?”
The bravest of them stepped forward. He was a boy of about fifteen with a wild cap of curly black hair, and smelled faintly of goats. “I’m David. This here is Roy, Edith, and Amanda, but e’ry one calls her Maddy ‘cause otherwise they’d get her mixed up with Amanda Pierce who lives on th’ other side of town.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Thistle.”
The youngest girl, Maddy, ducked behind Edith’s legs, but the others waved from the safety of the doorway. David in particular seemed emboldened, taking a step out onto the porch. “Is it true you used magic on Mr. Swinehart?” he asked, barely able to keep the excitement out of his voice. “Carson said you magicked his shirt dry after th’ elf threw a tankard at ‘em.”
“You know Carson?” Thistle asked.
David bobbed his head enthusiastically. “He’s my best friend! He said he took you t’ the springs afore th’ other elf showed up. Was there really an orc with a flyin’ horse? My Da says it’s impossible to train a flyin’ horse ‘cause they’re too smart for their own good an’ too stupid t’ know it. I heard th’ elf’s got a mage with him, too. Does he dress in a funny hood too?”
“Um, no, the other mage wasn’t in a hood,” Thistle said.
“Oh.” This seemed to perplex the boy. He squinted his eyes at Thistle. “Then why’ve you got one on?”
“She’s eccentric,” Lyra said from just inside the house. She forced her way past the boy and took the seat next to Thistle. “Don’t you have anything better to do than watch people eat?”
“What’s eccentric?” David asked.
“It’s something mages get around their third year of schooling that makes them want to live in abandoned towers, speak in riddles, and wear funny clothes. Now beat it.”
Lyra didn’t quite glare at the children, but the look was enough to send three youngest running into the house. David was undeterred. He tilted his head, and studied Thistle as if she were a newly-discovered insect. “It’s not catching, is it?”
“Eccentricness. Can you catch it?”
“More like it catches you,” Lyra said, grinning while Thistle buried her head in embarrassment.
“Sounds like my uncle,” David said. “He moved out t’ the middle of th’ Hills three years ago, ain’t seen him since.”
He paused while Brent, Orrig, Frank, and Anne Marie filed out of the house and took their seats. All conversation paused as there was the clatter of spoons, bowls, and the breaking of bread. Thistle felt her cheeks flush, wishing that David would stop looking at her so she could eat. It felt like it had been an age and a half since her last meal. The stew smelled delicious, and the bread was still warm.
Thistle had a few workarounds for situations like this, but they all required magic and David wasn’t the only one who was staring. Frank’s eyes never left hers as he ate, his expression inscrutable, and it was obvious that he had heard the exchange between David and Lyra. Intellectually Thistle knew that Lyra meant, and, quite frankly, being called eccentric was perhaps the kindest way of describing her…particularities in appearance.
At the same time, Lyra was not quiet by nature, and age had not dampened Frank’s sense of hearing. David’s incessant questions might have been taken as hearsay, but Lyra had declared to the heavens that Thistle was a mage in front of a man who hated them.
After a few minutes David’s curiosity struck again. “D’you wear gloves like that ‘cause you got claws?”
“David!” Anne Marie said in a scandalized tone while Thistle’s bowl slipped out of her fingers. She didn’t notice. Every instinct was screaming at her to run, but fear had frozen her into place.
“The crippled mage has claws,” David said. “Da saw ‘em when she went missing. Said she were covered in hair like a werewolf--ow!”
Anne Marie’s grip on his ear did not loosen. “Your da needs to learn how to button his lip! Miss Thistle is my guest, ‘n if you’ve forgot what that means you can just go home!”
“Owowow! Sorry! I said I’m sorry, now lemme go!”
“Apology accepted,” Thistle said numbly.
Finally Anne Marie relented. David scooted to the door frame, rubbing his ear piteously. He wilted under her thunderous expression, and she said, “Go make yourself useful ‘n bring out another bowl. An’ don’t even think about runnin’ off before cleanin’ up the mess you made.”
It was then Thistle realized she had broken the crockware bowl into half a dozen pieces and splattered stew all over her pants and the porch. She felt like such a fool for overreacting, and was befuddled by the accusation that Isla Clark might be a werewolf.
“I don’t need any more,” Thistle said. “Let me fix this.”
Across from her, Brent frowned. “But you didn’t--”
Thistle shook her head sharply, cutting him off before he could speak. There was a flash of confusion in his eyes, then worry. He elbowed Orrig surreptitiously, whispering something to him while Thistle gathered up the broken pieces of the bowl.
Once assembled, Thistle sat on her haunches and drew a series of sigils in the air over the bowl. A line of pure magic followed her finger, glowing like blue fire. A whispered word completed the spell.
There was a brilliant flash of light and the grating of ceramic rearranging into its original shape. A swipe of the hand gathered the spilled stew into the air, and a flick of the wrist sent it flying into the midden heap.
“See,” Thistle said, a little breathless. “All better.”
No one seemed to know what to say. Anne Marie, Frank, and especially David were all awestruck at the elementary spell. Orrig seemed to sense the growing awkwardness and grunted. He finished his stew, somehow managing spoons made for human hands. “Vas goot. Thank you for generosity.”
“Oh, it’s nothin’,” Anne Marie said, still staring at her newly-repaired bowl. “Had a hankerin’ for stew for days now. You were a good an excuse as any t’ finally make some.”
“M’ wife got cravings for apple pie when she was in the family way,” Frank said distractedly, less concerned his meal than Thistle. She squirmed under his appraising gaze.
“Vife vanted spicy food. All spicy food,” Orrig said.
“Heh, it’s funny how that works,” Frank said. He leaned back in his seat, and with a deliberateness a man who desperately wanted to change the subject turned his attention to Anne Marie. “Do you think that man of yours is gonna be home for th’ rugrat’s arrival?”
Anne Marie grimaced. “It’s not up t’ him. If he works hard he’ll make journeyman soon, ‘n he’s trying t’ save up for a house in Crossroads.”
The lines in Frank's face deepened. “And what’s your grandmother think of that?” he asked.
“She’s welcome t’ come with us, but there ain’t enough work t’ keep us here,” Anne Marie said.
There was an unhappy lull in the conversation, and Orrig rose to his feet. “I vill go walking. Thistle, please come vit me.”
Thistle followed Orrig down the narrow road away from the Baker house. Orrig didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry to get anywhere, wandering aimlessly towards the outskirts of town. Thistle felt like she ought to apologize for how over the disastrous way the day had gone, but found she couldn’t find the words for it. It would have been so much easier if Orrig would just yell at her; at least then she would have known how to react. Orrig didn’t even look upset.
“I sorry,” he said after a long silence.
Thistle stopped in the middle of the street and gaped at him. “What? Why should you be sorry?”
“I make mistake.”
Thistle’s eyes fluttered closed, waiting for the death knell for her latest ill-advised attempt at normalcy. She steeled herself, promising herself that she would not cry no matter how much it hurt. This was, after all, her fault. Orrig couldn’t have known how much of a liability she would be when he hired her.
“I keep forgetting you is new. You did goot with Lyra. Not many stop her when she groznyy.”
Orrig sighed. “I should have ask if you vant own room. Is liking privacy, ya?”
“Yes,” Thistle said, feeling as if she were two inches tall and about ready to be stepped on.
“Cannot promise, but vill try on future jobs,” he said solemnly. “Okay to be vit Lyra until den?”
“Goot.” Orrig smiled, and he patted her on the back hard enough that Thistle almost fell down. “Vas bad job. Should not have taken, vas not enough information. Is my fault. Vill be better next time.”
Thistle knew she wholly undeserving of his apology and didn't know how she was supposed to react to it. She looked down at a clump of dirt on the ground and mumbled, “Rhys offered me a job.”
The smile vanished from Orrig's face, and Thistle said hurriedly, “I said no! It’s just, well, I don’t think he listened.”
Orrig muttered something in Orcish under his breath. “Am not mad at you. Dat elf…I vish to have vords vit him, but I fear not end vell.” He sighed. “You talented mage, are free to take any job you vant. But…I ask you give me varning. Vould be hard to replace on short notice.”
“Am glad you no vant to be vit elf. He give mercenary bad name. Vill write complaint later.”
“Will the guild be able to do anything?” Thistle asked.
Orrig shrugged. “Can only do vat I can do, ya? Let others take care of rest.”
There was nothing more to say on the subject, and Thistle had no desire to dig herself in deeper by trying. Orrig began walking once more, and together they circled around the block until they were back at the Baker household. David had pulled out a set of pipes and was making a decent tune while Anne Marie sang and the littler children danced. Lyra seemed positively bored by the spectacle, but Brent was tapping his toes to the beat.
Doctor Maureen Malady had joined the group while they were gone, and was sitting in Thistle’s chair. She perked up when she saw Orrig, the smile that seemed to suit her so well spreading across her face.
“Ah, look who’s back. Miss Thistle, it’s a pleasure to remake your acquaintance, and I take it this is Mr. Orrig of the mercenary guild?”
Another round of introductions were made, and then Dr. Malady said, “Horace said you all were planning to stay the night at Frank’s house?”
Frank bristled. “Now listen here, I don’t care what Jake says, they’re my guests ‘n you can’t make ‘em leave.”
“I would do nothing of the sort,” Dr. Malady said. “But I think we all know that your home is a little on the small side to be hosting a group of adventurers, and I have an extra bedroom that’s currently unoccupied.”
“You haf room?” Orrig asked.
“Not for all of you, but if you were willing to split up, I’d be more than happy to open my door.”
Orrig considered this. He glanced sidelong at Thistle, a silent question in his eyes.
He was giving her a choice. Thistle wanted nothing more to stay with the people she was at least beginning to know, but the idea of having a night free of the worry that Lyra would somehow find out what she was was a tempting one.
Thistle’s eyes flickered to Frank, but he remained unreadable. She didn’t think he would do anything to her because she was a mage, not after promising on his wife’s grave that there would be no more trouble, but if her absence would make him more comfortable she owed it to him to leave.
Lyra probably wouldn’t take offence to having a room to herself either, and Thistle couldn’t fathom why Brent would care one way or another. She gave Orrig a small nod, which he acknowledged with a grunt.
She would spend the night with the doctor of the Salt Rock Hills.
Chapter 6: Long Nights (and the Nightmares that Accompany Them)
So I’d just like to say thanks for all the support I've had for this crazy little fic that has spun wildly out of my control. There’s a scene in this chapter that literally gave me the idea for this entire story. I'm proud with how it turned out, and I couldn't have gotten here (especially not this quickly) without y’alls encouragement.
So thank you, and here's to hoping I don't screw things up too badly down the road.
Thistle had just finished gathering up her things when Orrig stooped through the door way of the spare bedroom. She tried to peer around his massive shoulders, but didn’t see any signs that Lyra or Brent had followed him. Almost unconsciously Thistle tensed. They had already had their talk. She couldn’t imagine what else he wanted with her.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” Thistle said.
“Goot.” Orrig paused, uncharacteristically unsure of himself. “I must be asking, can you be doing spell like mage put on Brent?”
“You...want me to bug someone?” Thistle said nervously.
“No. I mean can you do spell so ve can talk if problem? I no like you going by self.”
Meaning he didn’t trust her to go out by herself. “I can do a communication spell.”
“Distance is no problem?”
“Not so long as I know where you’re at, I should be able to send a message,” Thistle said.
Orrig nodded once, satisfied with this answer. “Okay, is goot. I vant you to send message if any problem. I no care what time it is, if something happen I vant to know. I vill come.”
Thistle supposed this was supposed to be reassuring, but instead her imagination supplied her with dozens of situations where she would be forced to call upon Orrig for help, and one nightmare scenario where she wouldn’t be able to depend on him because he was one of the ones trying to hurt her.
With these unpleasant thoughts on her mind, Thistle said her goodbyes and followed the doctor down the dusty streets. Dr. Malady’s home was across town from Frank’s, which meant after gathering her belongings they doubled back to the high street and walked perhaps ten minutes in the opposite direction. There were two buildings on the property, Dr. Malady’s house and the building she used for her surgery. Both were a sort of faded grey that would suck the cheerfulness out of anyone who looked at them too long, but were in otherwise good repair.
“I usually keep a couple of rooms open in case I have patients who need a little extra looking after,” Dr. Malady said as she ushered Thistle through the front door. “Isla’s been staying in one, but you’re more than welcome to the other.”
“Did you ever find her? Is she doing all right?”
The doctor let out a noise that was almost a sigh. “That depends entirely on your definition of ‘all right’. The elf’s mage made sure she didn’t have to walk back into town, if that’s what you mean. Oh, would you look at this.”
Dr. Malady picked up a bucket of green beans that had been set on the inside of her doorway while Thistle tried to calculate the energy it would take to Teleport from the springs and back multiple times in the same day while carrying an extra passenger. Either Mum had astronomical reserves or he shared his employer’s irresponsible use of magical resources.
“Anyway, I encouraged her to rest her leg when she got back in,” Dr. Malady said. “You don’t look the sort to tromp around making much noise, but I do ask that you keep things to a dull roar. Your room is next to hers, and she doesn’t sleep well. Come, I’ll show you.”
If Frank’s home had been overflowing with the stuff of life, Dr. Malady’s looked hardly lived in. She set the bucket of beans next to a small dining room table, sparing a moment to stop up a bottle of ink and close a leather-bound journal. A wrought iron candleholder holding three fat, dripping beeswax candles completed the image that she used the table for a desk more often than its intended purpose.
The walls were bare except for a faded portrait of a man and a woman and, strangely enough, a small black feather mounted in a glass case. Dr. Malady saw Thistle’s gaze and smiled.
“My parents,” she explained, “and the feather of a winged horse I came across almost twenty years ago. Had some snob offer me five gold pieces for it once. I almost had it made into a quill just to spite him.”
“Five gold pieces for a feather?” Thistle said.
“Oh, sure. They keep forever if properly preserved, but unless you manage to pluck it off a horse directly they tend to break, or get their vanes stripped, or otherwise damaged by the elements. I musta found this one right after it came off.” Her smile turned self-deprecating. “I’ve been told that it has magical properties, but no one will tell me which magical properties, so I hung it on my wall and hoped for the best.”
Thistle peered closer at the feather. It was a perfect glossy black and reminded her of an opal, reflecting with sparks of green and blue and orange fire depending on how the light struck it. “It’s beautiful.”
Dr. Malady chuckled, and together they went from the parlor down a hallway. There were two doors halfway down. Dr. Malady stopped at the first and knocked. “Isla, are you in there?”
There was no answer. A small crease formed between the doctor’s eyes, and she knocked again. “Isla? I’ve got someone here I want you to meet.”
“Excuse me a moment,” Dr. Malady murmured before stepping into the bedroom. “Isla? Are you feeling well…?”
Dr. Malady’s voice trailed off into nothingness, and she reentered the hallway a moment later. The sound of the door clicking shut punctuated the heavy silence. “She’s still not in.”
“Do you think she’s okay?” Thistle asked, remembering how pale she had been out by the springs. “Should we look for her?”
She shook her head. “No. I know for a fact she made it back to town, and someone would have found me if something had happened to her. Isla is an adult and capable of making her own decisions. Whether they’re in the best interests of her health is beside the point.”
Doctor Malady reached for the second door and pushed it open. “This is where you will be staying. Take all the time you need to get settled, I’ll be out back snapping beans if you want company.”
“I know a little healing magic,” Thistle said. “I can look at Isla's leg if she wants me to.”
There was sadness in Dr. Malady’s smile. “That’s very kind of you, but I don’t think magic is the cure for what ails her. But never mind that. You get yourself settled in, and if you want this country bumpkin’s company you’re more than welcome to it. If not, I’ll try to have breakfast ready before you leave in the morning.”
She clasped Thistle on the shoulder in a kind, almost matronly way and went back the way she had come. Moments later Thistle heard the back door open and close, and she was left alone in an empty hallway, standing between two empty bedrooms situated in an empty house.
Thistle adjusted the strap of her bag, missing her destroyed journal more than ever, and went into her designated bedroom. Her stomach protested loudly, and with a furtive glance to make sure no one was looking she reached into her bag and found a handful of rather squashed mushrooms that she had hidden away in case of situations like these.
It was hardly a filling meal, but it would last her until morning. With that pressing need taken care of she sat down on the narrow bed and surveyed the room.
There wasn’t much to be surveyed. The bed and a small end table were the only furniture in the room. There were no decoration on the walls, although Thistle knew some who would have considered the hand-stitched quilt a work of art. It wasn’t uninviting, per say, just barren, and it almost made Thistle miss having Lyra for a roommate.
It made sense to Thistle that this was a room meant to take care of the sick and injured. She had no doubt in her mind that Dr. Malady would have taken efforts to make Isla’s room more homey after it became evident that she would be staying for a long period of time. Still, she worried about Isla Clark’s continued absence, and wondered what it would feel like to come back day after day to a room that wasn’t her own after experiencing the trauma of losing her teammates. Thistle had only just met Orrig, Brent, and Lyra. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose them during a mission.
It was an uncomfortable thought, but one that demanded to be considered. From the stories Brent and Lyra told, mercenary work wasn’t quite the illustrious, adventuresome career stories made it out to be, but there was danger. Thistle had witnessed Orrig nearly get absorbed by an abomination of goats, Lyra risk her life to make rude gestures at a Greater Drath, and Brent inches away from being dragged into the Pit by the legions of the underworld.
All in the same day. All in the same afternoon.
Thistle rubbed her eyes. She didn’t have the energy to deal with this now.
As promised, Dr. Malady was out in her back garden snapping beans. Thistle hovered anxiously in the back doorway of the house, not sure if it would be better to go out with her or spend the evening in by herself. Thistle didn’t particularly want to be alone—it was a nice garden, with neat rows of herbs that would be useful in the doctor’s work and a patch of flowers that were just this side of being untamed—but neither did she want to be an annoyance.
The thought of somehow making the day worse by intruding on Dr. Malady’s privacy made the decision for her. Thistle let out a wistful sigh and turned to retreat back to the bedroom unnoticed, resigning herself to finally cracking open the book she had brought along for the trip. A board creaked under her weight, and the doctor looked up for the first time.
“Well hello again. I was hoping you’d come out to join me.”
The words were so warm, so genuine, that not even the mean little voice in the back of Thistle’s head could turn around their meaning into some sort of hidden insult. Thistle found herself drawn out of doors before she was aware her feet were moving, and she settled next to the doctor on the back porch. A cat emerged from the shadows to hiss at her.
“Oh, hush,” Dr. Malady chided, never once breaking her rhythm of her work. “Thistle is a guest, and if you can’t play nice you can just leave. I haven’t got anything for you tonight anyway.”
The cat, a gangling black puff of fur with a small white bib, was little more than an oversized kitten. He gave Thistle a long, hard stare with piercing golden eyes that she was sure could see past the magical darkness of her hood to the monster that lay beneath. His tail twitched, as if in warning, before trotting away with the dignity only a cat could muster.
“That’s Salem,” Dr. Malady said. “There are a coupla strays that come around on account of the fact that I was stupid enough to start feeding them my leftovers. I don’t usually name them, but he’s taken quite a liking to Isla. She says it means peace in one of the old languages.”
Somehow the knowledge that Dr. Malady was a cat person put Thistle more at ease. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“With this?” Dr. Malady said, gesturing to the bucket. “No, don’t worry yourself. I’m just sorry I can’t give you my undivided attention. With my schedule I have to stay on top of my chores when I can. Some of my patients can’t pay me in coin, and their pride doesn’t allow them to see me for free. It works out most of the time, although heaven only knows what I’m supposed to do with all this garlic.”
There was indeed a large pan of garlic cloves, as well as a heaping pile of potatoes and some carrots that might have come from the doctor’s own garden. Rosemary, sage, and basil were drying from the rafters, while Thistle noticed foxglove and cone flowers among the flowers blooming out in the yard. Every plant had a use, either for medicine or consumption—or in this case, both.
“Have you thought of emulsifying?” Thistle asked. “I read that there’s a chemist who found out how to hide the taste of medicine by putting into gelatin capsules, and garlic is good against colds. It might be useful to some of your patients who can’t get enough into their diet.”
Dr. Malady raised an eyebrow. “You seem awfully well-informed.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to presume…” Thistle shrank down in her chair. “I mean, it is a lot for one person…”
“Don’t apologize for a good idea. I was just surprised. Most mages don’t bother with the more mundane aspects of medicine. They seem to think all they have to do is twiddle their fingers to magic the world’s woes away.”
Dr. Malady winced. “I’m sorry, that came out more cynical than intended. When I was in training I saw healers do things that I could never dream of. People ‘round these parts would call them miracles, but what they don’t understand is that there’s a limit. A limit, and a danger.”
“Aren’t there any mages in the Salt Rock Hills?” Thistle asked. In her experience even places that weren’t near an academy had their fair share of mages—tradesmen or hedgewitches or even whole families of spellweavers who had passed down their knowledge for generations. Those who had received a standardized education usually looked down at such practitioners, who often lacked any formal training whatsoever, but Thistle had learned more from small-town mages than she ever had in a lecture hall.
“If you want to get real technical, at the moment there are three: You, Isla, and the mute,” Doctor Malady said. She finished working through her bucket and set it aside. “Otherwise no. Most were run outta town when the mines closed down, and the rest died off without passing on their craft. Even now there’s a distrust of magic among the older generation. I suppose the mystery of it is what drives the younger folk toward it, and away from here.”
“They were run out of town?” Thistle asked. She wondered if that distrust was the reason the mayor had neglected to mention Isla's existence during their first meeting. “Is the because of the curse?”
Dr. Malady peered at her over her spectacles. “Where did you hear that from? No, wait, don’t tell me. I suppose it was Frank, wasn’t it?”
“Of course he would,” she said, leaning back heavily in her chair. “I love Frank dearly, but there’s no proof of any curse in the Hills. It’s not often I agree with Jacob Swinehart, but I once heard him say people use the curse as an excuse for anything bad that’s ever happened to this town, when the truth is that life is full of bad without needing any magic to help prod it along. Which is saying something, considering what that man's gone through.” Dr. Malady paused, lips pursing together in an unhappy line. She seemed to gather her words carefully before speaking again.
“Frank has endured more ‘n his share of loss. He’s one of the few who still remembers when the mines were open. What this town was and what it could have been. Then the year before I left for training his son died unexpectedly, and his wife never recovered. When I came back, it was as if she were a different person. Meloncholia had a death-grip on her, and when she got sick with influenza she had nothing left in her to fight back. It was the first time I’d ever seen anyone die of grief.”
“That’s awful," Thistle said quietly.
“It is, and if thinking that his wife and son died because of some curse is what helps Frank sleep at night, I’m not going to tell him otherwise. The thing is, everyone in this town has lost someone. It ain’t no secret that we’re dying. Maybe not this generation or the next, but sooner or later the Salt Rock Hills will be nothing more than a forgotten memory.”
Thistle very nearly asked who the doctor had lost, but managed to stop before she made a fool of herself. She was about to change the subject to a different—hopefully happier—topic when she heard someone enter the house by the front door. Dr. Malady rose to her feet.
“Excuse me. That might be a patient.”
Doctor Malady brushed her hands on her skirt and went back into the house, leaving the screen door open. That was enough for Thistle to hear her take a sharp intake of breath, and then a low, “Oh, Isla…” while sincerely wishing she hadn’t.
“Sit down and I’ll get you some ice,” Dr. Malady said. “I think I have some cabbage leaves that you can wrap it in tonight.”
"Yes, because cabbage is going to do any good," Isla said scathingly. "Just...leave me alone.
Thistle heard heavy, uneven footsteps as Isla Clark made her way slowly up the hallway to her bedroom and slam the door behind her. There was dead silence, before Dr. Malady made her way back outside. The lines on her face were deeper than they had been a moment ago. She looked careworn and tired, like an old shirt that had been washed one too many times and was starting to come apart at the seams.
“I’m sorry,” Thistle said.
“Don’t apologize for something that’s not your fault. Isla’s not the first patient to take her frustrations out on me, and she certainly won’t be the last. It comes with the territory.”
“Are you sure there’s nothing I could do?” Thistle asked helplessly. “I could at least look at it.”
Dr. Malady drew her head over her forehead, her expression pained. “Isla’s already been seen by a qualified healer. Whatever happened out in the Hills can’t be undone. As her doctor, I can’t say any more than that without her permission. There are enough rumors out there as it is.”
Dr. Malady’s tone indicated the subject was closed, but Thistle burned with questions. There were few acute injuries that were considered untreatable by someone who knew what they were doing. Thistle couldn’t imagine an injury so horrific that it would leave Isla in such a state after being treated by a healer.
“In any case, it’s been a long day,” Dr. Malady, forcing a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, “and I need to be up early tomorrow for my rounds. Forgive this thoughtless host, but would you mind it terribly if I retired for the night?”
“Of course not,” Thistle said. “I understand completely.”
“You’re a blessing. Everything in the house is open for your use, should you find yourself needing something. As you’ve seen, I have plenty of garlic to spare.”
Thistle laughed, because she knew that was what was expected of her. The twinkle returned in Dr. Malady’s warm, brown eyes, and she shook Thistle’s hand. “I don’t know how much we’ll see much of one another come morning, but it’s been a pleasure meeting you. Should you find yourself in these parts again, my house is always open.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
“Good night, Thistle. I hope you rest well.”
Thistle had once heard that the difference between a true mage and someone who simply practiced magic was curiosity—curiosity for how the world worked and the insatiable desire to pick apart the underlying forces that drove it invariably onward.
Thistle was curious about the Salt Rock Hills. Nothing about it made sense, from the monster that chose winged horses for its preferred prey to the sudden closing of the mines all those years ago. Was there a curse, or did the belief of one contribute to the misfortune of the people? If the curse didn't exist, what had wiped out Marco Russo’s team of mercenaries, permanently maiming the one survivor?
No sound came from Isla Clark’s room, and Thistle found that troubling as well. It seemed odd to her that Isla would spend more than a month in the town where her teammates had died, especially considering that everyone had thought that the monster of the Salt Rock Hills had been killed.
Unless she had nowhere else to go.
Lyra would have accused of her of making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. Perhaps Isla stayed because she thought she could find work in the town that had no mages. Thistle rolled over on the narrow bed, unable to get comfortable and wondering what happened to a subcontractor if the one who hired them left the mercenary business—willingly or otherwise.
Which, of course, got her thinking about Rhys Taliesen and his offer. Thistle had absolutely no interest in working with someone who held anyone he perceived as lower than himself in such obvious disdain, but she did have to consider the possibility that Orrig might die, retire, or—more likely—fire her for incompetence. Thistle had spent too long wandering from place to place with no plan other than surviving another day. She couldn’t keep living on a hope and a prayer and expect not to be found.
The very thought sent a chill down her spine.
Thistle dreaded nights like these, when a dozen worries and anxieties tumbled in her mind with no resolution. It didn’t matter how many breathing exercises she did or how many imaginary pixies she counted on the ceiling, she could not sleep. Her mind was an overturned wasp’s nest of unpleasant thoughts and worries. It was so frustrating and so stupid to know that she was keeping herself awake fretting over things that could not be solved, which only served to make her worry more, starting the cycle anew.
Thistle couldn’t even peel off some her more obtrusive layers of clothing. Not only would have it been extremely rude to place wards in someone else’s house, there was a chance that Isla might sense the outpouring of magic and get curious herself.
From the parlor, the grandfather clock struck twelve, and Thistle groaned into her pillow. It was going to be a very long night.
Thistle was walking the boundary between sleep and waking when someone knocked sharply at the door. She bolted upright and tried to stumble out of bed at the same time, momentarily disorientated in the unfamiliar surroundings.
“’m up,” she said, biting her tongue to keep from crying out when she barked her shin against the end table. “I’m coming.”
The door opened a fraction of an inch, and Thistle’s perfect night vision could see one of Dr. Malady’s bespectacled eyes looking back at her. “I’m sorry to wake you, but Anne Marie has gone into labor,” she said in a hushed voice. “It’s still in the early goings, but it’s her first and she’s got no one but her grandmother to help her.”
If Thistle hadn’t been awake before, she was now. “Does she need help? I could—“
“I’ll see to Anne Marie and the baby,” Dr. Malady interrupted soothingly. “I’m just telling you so you didn’t wake up to an empty house and wonder where I’ve gone to.” She hesitated a moment. “And I know it isn’t fair of me to ask, but would you keep an eye out on Isla while you’re still here? This business with the winged horses has brought up every memory that she’d rather forget. I’m worried that…well, I’m just plain worried.”
Thistle didn’t know how she could possibly be of any help, but it was obvious Dr. Malady’s concern went deeper than that of a doctor and her patient. Thistle nodded, before realizing that Dr. Malady probably couldn’t see. “I’ll do what I can.”
“Thank you, Thistle. You have no idea what a weight that takes off my shoulders. Godspeed.”
“Godspeed,” Thistle murmured as the doctor latched the bedroom door closed. She waited for the sound of Dr. Malady exiting the house before walking slowly back to bed. She sat for a long time after that, head propped in her hands, wondering if the doctor had any idea how contagious worry was.
The clock had just struck three when Thistle was roused from a light doze by a noise from the room next door. Floorboards creaked under uneven footsteps, each one punctuated by the clack of a cane against the wooden floor.
Thistle rolled nimbly out of bed, her sensitive ears picking up a muttered curse as Isla passed by the doorway. Her heart thrummed in her chest along with a sense of unease.
this is none of your business. there’s nothing you can do, you’ll only make things worse. what do you think you’re going to accomplish meddling where you don’t belong
Thistle pushed open her door just enough to slip through. Keeping near the walls where the floorboards were less likely to creak she trailed Isla like a wraith through the night. There could be a perfectly innocent explanation why Isla was up at this time. Perhaps she was thirsty, or she needed the privy. There were dozens of reasons to get out of bed at three o’clock in the morning that had nothing to do with anything.
Isla was moving more slowly than Thistle remembered, her limp more pronounced. Once in the hallway between the bedrooms and the parlor she had to stop and lean against the wall, letting out a noise of frustration that was almost a sob.
When she finally made it to the parlor Isla called light to her hand. Thistle had to scurry back to avoid being seen, but Isla was in no state to notice her clumsy attempts at stealth. She scanned the room, and Thistle could see the lines of tension in her shoulders. The hand that gripped her cane trembled.
“Where is it?” Isla said, her voice thick with pain. “@$#&*%$, where’d she put it?”
Thistle's stomach clenched, and she couldn’t stand to see anymore. Slowly she crept out of the shadows, and in a timid voice said, “Do you need something?”
Isla swore and tried to spin around. Her feet got tangled with each other, and she crumpled in a boneless heap. The light coming from her hand flickered and then vanished as she broke the concentration needed for the spell, purging the room into complete darkness.
“Who is it?” Isla demanded. She scrambled for her cane and held it defensively in front of herself. “W-who’s there?”
Thistle rushed forward to help. “Oh my gosh, I am so sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Who are you and what are you doing in Dr. Malady’s house?!”
She looked and sounded absolutely terrified. Thistle stopped dead in her tracks and called soft blue light to her hand. She leaned down next to Isla. “I’m so sorry. I heard you, and I thought…”
Her voice died as utter confusion washed over Isla’s features. “You’re…you’re the mercenary from the springs. What are you doing here? Where’s Dr. Malady?”
“Um, well, about that. The doctor opened her house up since we didn’t have a place to stay for the night. I’m in the room next to yours. And the doctor went out to help deliver a baby.”
The cane lowered a fraction of an inch. “Are all of you here?” she asked.
“Just me. My teammates are staying with Frank Cunningham.”
Slowly the panic left her, leaving exhaustion in its place. Isla scrubbed her face with her hands. “If the doctor’s out on call, then her bag’s not here.” She swore again. “I am such an idiot.”
Thistle offered a hand. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
For a moment it looked as if Isla would refuse her assistance, but she reluctantly clasped Thistle’s gloved hand with her own. Thistle helped her to her feet, momentarily bearing the majority of Isla’s weight when while she regained her balance. Even in the harsh light Thistle could see that her complexion had taken an unhealthy greyish pallor, her face drawn tight with pain.
“I know a little bit of healing magic,” Thistle said quietly, almost embarrassed. “Is that why you’re looking for the doctor’s bag?”
Isla’s shoulders slumped. “I shouldn’t have snapped at her earlier. She was just trying to help. That’s all she’s ever done.”
“I can at least help with the pain,” Thistle said.
“I don’t have any coin to pay you.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
Isla looked surprised. Her gaze flickered down to her left leg and then back up to Thistle, eyes searching. Thistle could tell that she wanted to refuse, but necessity won out over pride. Isla turned away from Thistle, ashamed, and nodded her head.
Thistle wanted to offer some word of comfort, but Isla pulled away from her and snapped her fingers. A thin line of magic bridged the distance between her and the small dining room table fast as lightning, lighting the three candles without so much as a glance before taking her slow, plodding steps to towards the nearest chair.
It was by no means an impressive display, but fire was one of the hardest magics to control, its very nature wanting to consume and destroy. To light three candles from across the room in the dark while in so much pain took a level of finesse that many mages never reached.
Isla slumped into her seat. “Are we doing this or not?”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
Thistle hurried over while Isla extended her leg with a grimace, faltering when she saw her foot for the first time. Isla’s ankle was swollen to twice the size it should have been, and was mangled by what appeared to be a single, massive bite wound.
“Just hurry up and get it over with,” Isla said through gritted teeth. “I don’t care if you have to numb the whole leg, anything’s better than what I’m feeling right now.”
Gently Thistle touched the ankle, feeling the warmth of inflammation even through her gloves, while her toes were cool to the touch. The swelling was to the point it was interfering with circulation. Frowning, Thistle called upon her magic and prodded on different pressure points in the foot.
The hind foot consisted of the ankle bone, heel, and two of the seven tarsal bones, while the ankle joint also included the tibia and the fibula. Thistle was sure that every bone in the lower leg and foot had been broken or somehow displaced by the bite, and that wasn’t counting the damage done to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that held them all together.
There was far too much damage for it to have healed by itself within a month; in fact, Thistle was certain without magical intervention Isla would have lost the foot entirely. The problem was whoever had done the healing had botched it. There was too much scar tissue, too many calcifications in the bone that limited flexibility of the joints. At its worst, there were tissues that had been knitted back together wrongly, and there was no way to repair the damage that had been done without first taking everything back apart again. Thistle sensed bone rubbing against bone, spurs irritating the Achilles tendon, and one instance were two muscles had somehow fused together into one.
Thistle blinked back tears at the twisted, mangled mess that was Isla Clark’s leg. She couldn’t imagine the agony she experienced walking across the room, let alone the two miles to the springs. “I am so sorry.”
Isla looked down at her anxiously. “Can’t you do anything? I…I know it can’t be healed. I just want it to stop hurting so I can sleep.”
“I’ll do my best,” Thistle said. “Just give me a moment to think.”
Thistle sat back and pondered the best way to approach the healing. The first and greatest priority was to get the inflammation down and lesson the swelling—a relatively easy fix all things considered. What Thistle really wanted was to somehow keep such a severe response from happening again, hopefully enabling Isla to live a more normal life.
It was a problem of circulation, exacerbated by excessive amounts of scar tissue forming adhesions within the foot. She could separate the adhesions, but chances were they would reoccur with time as repetitive motion injuries degraded what little function she had left.
The only permanent solution was to somehow replace the scar tissue with healthy, normal growth. Thistle pulled her hood farther over face so Isla couldn’t see her eyes. She didn’t have enough knowledge about the anatomy of the foot to heal it completely, but she could do more than mask the excruciating pain Isla had to deal with on a daily basis.
“Okay,” Thistle said, almost to herself. “Grab onto my shoulders. You’re going to need to brace yourself.”
Isla did as she was told, eyes wide with fear and uncertainty. Thistle was amazed that she trusted healers at all after what had been done to her. Either she was incredibly forgiving or incredibly desperate, and Thistle thought she knew which.
“On the count of three,” Thistle said. “One, two…”
Blue fire blazed from Thistle’s hands before she got to three, catching Isla before she had a chance to tense. Isla bit back a scream, fingernails digging into Thistle’s shoulders as magic forcibly tore through damaged cells and tissues, breaking apart scars and erasing solid calcifications of bone.
Thistle didn’t stop. She was too far into the spell, whispering encouragement to her magic even as Isla let out a broken sob. She forced the rapid growth as quickly as she dared. Take too long and Thistle would put her system into shock.
The entire spell took maybe thirty seconds, but it felt like an eternity before Thistle pulled away. She waited wordlessly while the final spasms worked themselves out before loosening Isla’s vice-like grip on her shoulders, sure that there would be bruises in the morning. Sweat poured from Isla’s face, her haggard features almost gaunt after such an invasive healing.
“I’m sorry,” Thistle said. “It was the only way.”
Isla’s breathing came out in sharp, ragged gasps, and she seemed beyond words. Thistle bent back over her foot and tested the flexibility of the ankle. The range of motion was maybe half that of a normal person, but that was still leagues better than what it had been before.
Behind her Thistle heard the quiet plodding of feet, and turned to see that Salem the cat had somehow managed to get inside the house. He meowed softly before jumping on Isla’s lap, and began purring when she held him close.
“Whoever did this to you ought to be ashamed,” Thistle said. “What they did…that wasn’t healing.”
“No one did this to me,” Isla rasped.
“I can tell someone used magic to try and heal the bite.”
“No one did this to me,” Isla repeated. Shadow and candlelight danced across her face, deepening the hollows under her eyes. She looked up at Thistle for the first time, but her gaze was unfocused, haunted by something only she could see.
“I did it to myself.”
They were still sitting at the table when the clock struck four. Isla had washed her face and made a circuit of the parlor to test the new capacities of her ankle before Thistle suggested that it would be better to let it rest. Neither had been terribly keen on going back to bed, so Thistle filled two cups with water and sat with Isla in a silence heavy with secrets and grief. They sat so long that Thistle was beginning to wonder if Isla realized she was still there, when suddenly she spoke.
“I wanted to be a healer when I was a girl. It’s what I went to school for. I thought I could change the world, that I could use my talent to help people and that it would actually matter.”
Isla looked into her cup as if wishing it were something else. In her lap the cat continued a slow, steady purr. She spared him a small glance, some of the harsh lines in her face relaxing. “I didn’t make it very far in my studies, but I did learn some. The healer they called in from Crossroads said I’m lucky I didn’t give myself a tumor.”
“I don’t understand. What happened?” Thistle asked.
“I don’t remember much of of that night,” Isla said. “But when that thing up in the Hills attacked me I panicked. It was so dark…I think I tried to call light, but I went unconscious before I could shape the magic.”
“A death spell,” Thistle breathed.
Isla looked up at her. “So you’ve heard of them. I never had.”
Old books called it a mage’s Final Glory, while newer research had spawned the term spontaneous dweomercraft, but regardless of the terminology one used the end result was the same. It was the natural phenomenon that occurred when a mage failed their spell in the worst possible way.
Once raw magic was gathered in preparation for casting, that energy had to go somewhere. Should an experienced mage change their mind mid-cast they had the choice of either regathering the energy or leting it safely dissipate into the environment.
The problem came if the mage was untrained or had mistakenly gathered too much magic and lost control. More rarerly, a mage might became incapacitated before being able to safely disperse it. The end result was often dangerous, usually tragic, and always unpredictable. A death spell was, in the purest sense, a type of wild magic born of a mage in distress.
And it sounded like Isla had been in more distress than most.
“I saved myself from bleeding to death, but the healer thinks I lost ten years of my life in exchange. I expended so much magic I was unconscious for three days.” Isla tugged a lock of greying hair disdainfully. “You’d never guess I’m only twenty-four years old.”
“But you survived,” Thistle said.
“And my teammates are dead because of my mistake,” Isla said harshly. “I thought…when it turned out the monster was still alive I thought maybe there was the reason I made it when Marco and Lucian didn’t, that what I had seen would help this new team kill the thing once and for all. That’s why I walked out to the springs today.”
For the first time Isla’s composure cracked, and she rubbed her eyes angrily as tears streamed down her face. “I thought wrong. The elf wouldn’t listen to a word I said. I might as well have died for all the use I’ve been.”
Thistle didn’t know what to say as Isla wept, silently and bitterly. The cat climbed from her lap to her shoulder, and Isla clutched it like a drowning man did a piece of driftwood. They were practically strangers, but Thistle’s heart hurt for her. No matter what she said, Thistle refused to believe Isla was at fault for any of this.
There had been many, many times in Thistle’s life where she’d wished for someone who would just listen, and perhaps right now that was what Isla needed most, more than platitudes or the empty promise that tomorrow would be a better day.
Eventually the sobs slowed, and when Isla finally released the cat Thistle was there with a handkerchief. Isla accepted it gratefully and blew her nose.
“I’m sorry,” Isla said, sounding small and defeated. “I thought I’d have run out of tears by now.”
Thistle’s reply was interrupted by a sharp knock at the door that made them both jump. “Who could that be at this hour?” Thistle asked.
Isla shrugged. “Dr. Malady gets calls all hours of the night, though usually they don’t knock before coming in.”
There was another rap at the door, this time louder and somehow more irate. Thistle got to her feet. “I’ll see who it is.”
It felt strange answering the door as a guest in someone else’s house. Thistle took a moment to straighten her hood and her gloves before opening the door to Rhys Taliesen, Mum, and Rizaek. Rhys did a double take while Thistle felt her throat tighten. Both blinked stupidly at one another, and it was impossible to say who was more surprised to see the other standing there.
It was Rhys who regathered his wits first. “I thought your group was staying at the old butcher’s house?”
“The rest are,” Thistle said before she realized she probably shouldn’t be telling him anything at all. “Dr. Malady only had room for one.”
“Separating yourself from them already?” Rhys said, eyebrow raised. He had the gall to smile approvingly, as if she were a slow student who had finally grasped a rudimentary lesson. “Good for you.”
“What are you doing here?” Thistle said.
“Oh, forgive me. I was wondering if I might speak to Miss Isla Clark?”
“What do you want with her?” Thistle asked, wary of the gleam in his brilliant green eyes.
“That’s none of your concern.” He craned his head to look over her shoulder. “Where is the doctor by the way? I would have thought she would be the one answering the door.”
“She’s out seeing a patient,” Thistle said. “What do you want with Isla?”
Rhys let out an annoyed puff of air. “I won’t ask again, may I see Miss Clark? I know she's here. It is of vital importance that I speak with her.”
Perhaps Lyra was beginning to rub off on her, but Thistle felt a sudden and intense desire to slam the door in Rhys’s face. Her patience with his condescending manner had worn thin, but before she could answer Isla appeared behind her.
“Is something wrong?” Isla asked. Her eyes were still puffy and red-rimmed from crying, and when she saw Rhys she stiffened, clutching her cane so hard her knuckles turned white.
“Ah, there you are,” Rhys said. “I would have liked the doctor to be in since she’s been warding you since the incident, but I suppose someone can inform her later.” He cleared his throat, and his voice was insufferably smug whenever he said, “On behalf of the peace keepers of the Salt Rock Hills, I formally arrest you for the illegal poaching of a protected species. Come with us peacefully and no harm will come to you. Resist and I won’t hesitate to use force.”
“What?!” Isla exclaimed. “I didn’t kill anything, let alone a winged horse!”
“You’ll find that I have proof otherwise, as well as the blessing of the local authority to bring you into questioning,” Rhys said, holding up a signed warrant of arrest. “Please don’t make this any more difficult than it needs to be. You’ll only make a fool out of yourself.”
“Are you serious?” Thistle said. “You…you can’t just take her away!”
“I can and I will,” Rhys said. “Nor will I allow for anyone standing in my way of bringing this debacle to an end. Should Miss Clark continue to claim innocence she will have her day in court, but I think once she sees what we’ve discovered she’ll choose to confess to her crimes.”
“This has to be some kind of mistake,” Isla said numbly. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“As a word of advice, Miss Clark, I would save my excuses for someone who actually cares,” Rhys said. “Now hurry up. You’re wasting my time.”
Isla looked at Thistle, confused and frightened, before Rhys grabbed her roughly by the elbow and pulled her forward. She stumbled, but managed to keep her balance as she was forced out of the house.
“Stop it!” Thistle cried. “You can’t treat her like that. You’ll hurt her.”
There was nothing but utter distain in Rhys’s gaze. “Choose your next actions very carefully, or you’ll find yourself joining her for interfering with a lawful arrest.”
Mum smirked, and Thistle saw him subtly adjust his posture. He would fight magic with magic, and Thistle didn’t want to trade blows in close quarters with a mage with as much power as Mum. Not when there were innocent people at risk.
“Smart girl,” Rhys said when Thistle froze in place. “And in case you’re wondering, my offer still stands.”
Thistle watched impotently as Rhys took Isla away. As soon as they were out of sight she rushed back into the house and called upon her magic. A small blue sphere formed in her hands, and in her mind’s eye Thistle imagined one exactly like it springing into existence in the master bedroom of Frank’s house. For all the nightmare scenarios she had imagined, the reality was somehow worse
“Orrig? Orrig, are you there?” Thistle said, for once in her life not hesitating. “Something’s happened, and I need your help.”
Chapter 7: In Which Some Questions are Answered (and Others Aren't)
It wasn’t long after Thistle ended the spell with Orrig that she began to have second thoughts. She was absolutely convinced that what Rhys had done was wrong and certain that Isla was innocent. What she wasn’t sure about was if there was anything Orrig could do about it, or even if he would want to. This wasn’t their job, and they were scheduled to leave once it got light enough to travel. Rhys even had the local authority backing his actions.
It was truly none of their business, but Thistle couldn’t forget the way Isla looked at her as she was being drug away with all the care afforded a sack of potatoes—like she were some kind of monster, and not a person. Just remembering it made Thistle furious, but it was an impotent anger. For all her magic she was powerless. Powerless, and weak, and useless…
Thistle waited for Orrig from the porch of Dr. Malady’s house. The sky was beginning to stir with soft, pre-dawn light, bathing the landscape with pockets of shadow and bleaching the rest of its natural color. Thistle saw best in true darkness or complete light, and this in-between made her eyes smart. Or perhaps it was the lack of sleep. She rubbed her eyes as a hulking figure crested of the hill leading to the house, trailed by two smaller figures.
None of them were properly dressed. Orrig wasn’t wearing a shirt at all, while Brent’s was on inside out. Lyra almost looked presentable, but her hair was struggling more than normal to escape its tie. They had come as quickly as they could, leaving everything except for their weapons behind.
“Hey Thistle are you—“ Lyra yawned enormously. “—Are you okay?”
Their thoughtfulness made Thistle feel even more worthless. “There’s been some sort of mistake. Rhys arrested Isla Clark. He says she’s been poaching winged horses.”
“The mage from the dead mercenary team?” Brent asked.
“He just took her away without listening to what she had to say. I saw her leg, and there’s no way she could have gone to the Hills and back all those times,” Thistle said frantically. “I-I know I should have waited until it was properly morning, but Rhys was hurting her. She wasn’t even wearing shoes, and when I tried to stop him he said he’d arrest me too.”
Lyra’s expression hardened. “He what?”
“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” Thistle said. “He had Mum and Rizaek with him, and a warrant for Isla’s arrest. He can’t do this, can he? The guild doesn’t have the authority to put people into prison?”
She looked up helplessly at Orrig for answers. He’d not said a word except to say he would come to Dr. Malady’s house. Her confused rambling made his mouth drew into a tighter line. “You did goot to call. Did elf say vhy he arrest mage?”
“No, he just said that she’d confess once she saw the evidence he had.”
“You walked with Isla out to the Hills,” Thistle said. “You don’t think she could go out to the springs for weeks to kill winged horses, do you?”
Orrig sighed heavily. “Nyet. Vas…painful vatching.”
“This doesn’t make any &$#% sense,” Brent said. “Rhys could get in a lot of trouble for arresting the wrong person. *#&@, he shouldn’t be the one arresting her!”
“Well, I’d say it’s because she’s a mage,” Lyra said. “Do you think a bunch of backwater hicks who’ve never seen any magic in their lives would want to try to apprehend a mage without any firepower of their own? Rhys has got those &#*@#&! bracers plus a pet spellslinger of his own. If he’s smart he’ll charge a little bit extra for doing something outside of his initial contract, but I’m not so sure he’s got two good brain cells to rub together.”
“But why go through all that effort? You saw the horses out here. They can’t be worth that much,” Brent protested.
“Five gold pieces a feather,” Thistle said quietly. “Do you remember? The wings were missing when we got there.”
Lyra let out a surprised hiss, and Brent winced. Together the three of them looked up to Orrig for his verdict. Though his face was unreadable as ever Thistle found herself ready to trust whatever he decided. The feeling surprised her, but she quickly buried it.
Slowly Orrig nodded. “I vill talk to elf. Ve wait here until full light. I agree dat mage probably not one killing horses, but maybe elf have proof. Need more information. Until den, ve rest.”
“You expect us to just wait?” Lyra said.
“I expect to be smart,” Orrig said, his tone brooking no room for argument. “Elf has job, ve intruding. Make mistake and mayor vill throw us out on zhopa. As is right.”
Orrig leaned his axe against the outside of the house before ducking inside, stopping only to give Thistle a reassuring pat on the shoulder. Grumbling, Lyra followed, while Brent fumbled to unbuckle the sword from his hip. He set it next to the axe before turning to Thistle, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Are you okay? You, um, look kind of stressed out.”
Thistle’s shoulders slumped. Was it that obvious? “I guess I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“Did you really look at that mage-chick’s leg?”
“Yeah. It wasn’t pretty.” Thistle shook her head. “I don’t understand, that bite is proof enough that there’s something in the Hills. Does Rhys think she killed her teammates too?”
“Dunno, but Orrig’s going to find out.” Brent held the door open for her. “If you didn’t sleep good that means you need rest most of all. I think we’re all going to need a clear head to figure this one out.”
Thistle went to the parlor, now empty and forlorn. The three beeswax candles burned brightly, dripping wax onto the wrought iron stand. There was no need for them with dawn quickly coming, and with a snap of her fingers Thistle doused the flames.
A small black mass stirred from the chair that had until recently been occupied by Isla Clark, and Salem blinked his golden eyes as the ripple of magic passed overhead. He looked at Thistle and meowed, as if in question.
It was only in stories where witches befriended black cats, but it seemed like this one had taken quite a liking to Isla. Thistle wandered over and patted his head. “I don’t know, but I promise that I’m going to find out.”
It took a few minutes to figure out where everyone was supposed to go. Despite suggesting rest, Orrig insisted that he was fully awake and settled at the table, deep in thought. Lyra went to Thistle’s room to freshen up while Brent dozed in the parlor. Thistle knew she ought to do the same, but she was full of restless energy and found herself drawn to the back garden.
The sun was just beginning to crest over the horizon as Thistle slumped into the chair Dr. Malady had used the day before to snap beans. The bucket had not been touched, and Thistle used her magic to set it over near the heaping pile of garlic.
For a moment she allowed herself to just sit, taking deep breaths of the crisp country air. Her eyes fluttered closed, so heavy with sleep that Thistle wasn’t sure she’d be able to pry them open again even with the image of dead horses and malicious mercenaries were tattooed to the back of her eyelids.
Orrig would sort it, and Thistle trusted his judgement. There would be plenty of time to question the wisdom of that decision later, but seeing how Rhys treated employees and employers alike had made her realize how lucky she’d been to end up with this group of mercenaries, flawed and dysfunctional as they were.
It was strangely comforting to know that she wouldn’t have to solve everything by herself. Thistle drifted into an uneasy slumber that was only broken with the return of Dr. Malady.
“Well hello there. I wasn’t expecting you all quite this early.”
Thistle jumped out of her seat and rushed into the house as Orrig replied, his voice too low for her to pick out. Dr. Malady stood in the entranceway, a bemused smile on her tired face. The white coat that marked her profession was creased, with a dark stain on the cuff of her left sleeve. She shrugged it off after setting down her heavy black bag. “Oh, things went quite well. Healthy mother and baby, and I’ve time for a nap before setting off on rounds. I terribly sorry, I’d planned to have breakfast ready before you left.”
The doctor’s smile faltered when she saw Thistle. “Is everything all right? You look exhausted.”
Thistle glanced at Orrig, who gave a subtle nod. She swallowed hard, and sent a quick prayer that Dr. Malady would forgive her for failing to protect Isla before telling her everything that had happened in the night.
Dr. Malady’s anger was a quiet and terrible. She listened to Thistle’s disjointed tale without uttering a single word, except to occasionally ask for clarification on an unclear point. A steely glint entered her eyes, and her lips pursed into an increasingly thin line. When Thistle was finished she strode over to her small kitchen and put on a kettle of water to boil.
“I’m beginning to think that elf doesn’t know his head from his @$$,” Dr. Malady said darkly. “He wouldn’t even been in this godsforsaken town if it weren’t for Isla, and he’s going to accuse her of killing the winged horses?”
“What do you mean?” Thistle said.
Dr. Malady leaned against the counter, her back to Orrig and Thistle. Her hands clenched into fists, each tendon stretching taunt against her skin. “You have to understand, we thought that the monster was dead. The search team that found Isla, Marco, and Lucian never did find a body, but there was the matter of the missing sword. Everyone assumed…” She sighed, and began pulling mugs from a cupboard. “Does everyone like tea?”
Thistle felt Brent come up behind her, and a moment later Lyra emerged from the bedroom. On some unspoken cue they joined Orrig at the table.
“It vould be much help iv you tell us vat you know,” Orrig prompted.
“And what are you planning to do with the knowledge?” Dr. Malady asked. “What happened in the Hills that night has been subject to enough rumor to ruin Isla’s life without me spreading tales I only half understand.”
“Look, we’re just trying to help,” Lyra said, not unkindly. “We can’t prove Rhys wrong without evidence.”
Some of the defensiveness left Dr. Malady, but she remained guarded as she said, “Isla doesn’t remember everything that happened during the attack. I’ll I can tell you is guesswork and hearsay.”
“That’s better than nothing,” Brent said.
Dr. Malady considered this as she polished her glasses. “Do you really think you can help Isla?”
“We can try.”
Thistle was surprised that the words came from her. She’d been content to let the others speak for her. There was less chance she’d mess something up that way. Dr. Malady returned her glasses to their rightful position and studied Thistle as if she were one of her patients and she was contemplating the best course of treatment for a deadly disease.
Finally she came to a decision. With deft motions Dr. Malady filled five mugs with steaming hot water and set them before the adventurers. “Before the town voted on whether to hire a mercenary team Mayor Stone had me conduct a post-mortem on one of the horses Carson found. I’d never seen anything like it before in my life.”
She swirled the contents of her mug and took a bracing sip. “At first I thought it’d been ripped apart by scavengers. Then I seen its heart. It…I don’t even know how to describe it. Exploded, I suppose, blown apart from the inside out until only shreds was left that held it together.” Dr. Malady let out a humorless laugh. “For a time I didn’t even recognize it was a heart.
“That convinced most of the town that the monster was real, though a few argued otherwise. It almost came to blows, but the vote settled it. Everyone contributed as their means allowed, and Jacob Swinehart was commissioned to hire a team out of Crossroads.”
“Vhy Jacob Swinehart?” Orrig asked.
Dr. Malady shrugged. “His business takes him to town quite often. Suppliers don’t come this far north, so he has to go south. If anyone would know where to go to hire out a team, it’d be Jacob.”
“Even though he doesn’t believe in the monster?” Lyra said.
“He wasn’t too happy about having to give up his hard-earned coin, but by the time he came back from Crossroads he'd come around to the idea” Dr. Malady said. “In any case, Marco Russo specialized in tracking and trapping monsters. He brought Isla and an elf by the name of Lucian with him, but weeks passed and even he couldn’t figure out what was doin’ all the killing. He had me exhume the one I’d examined for clues, but no such luck.”
“So he decided to wait and see if they could catch the monster in action,” Thistle said.
“Just so,” Dr. Malady confirmed. “When they didn’t return the next morning a search team was formed. They found Marco with his throat cut out, while Lucian had been thrown against a boulder with enough force to crack open his skull. Isla was unconscious in a pool of her own blood. They brought her to me, but whatever magic she’d done had already closed the wound.”
“I heard she had claws,” Brent said.
“People need to learn to keep things to himself,” Dr. Malady said with a beleaguered sigh. “But it’s true. Her finger- and toenails had grown out like talons, and her hair had grown and greyed. People thought the monster had possessed her—some still think the monster possessed her. I didn’t know what had happened, and she wouldn’t wake up. I had to call every favor ever owed to me t’ get a proper healer to look at her, for all the good it did. I was told the hair and nails was a side effect of the spell that Isla did on her leg--some sort of rebound if I understand correctly--and that she’d either wake up or she wouldn’t. There was nothing that could be done.”
Dr. Malady sighed again, the lines in her face deepening. “The search team scoured high an’ low for the monster but didn’t find a thing, and later someone realized that Lucian’s sword had gone missing, too. A couple days later Isla came to…I had to tell her what happened. She blamed herself for everything, said it was her fault the monster attacked them.”
There was uncomfortable silence, and an involuntary shiver went up Thistle’s spine. She couldn’t imagine how horrible it would wake up and realize your coworkers were dead, or what it would be like to have to break that news.
“Did she give reason?” Orrig finally asked.
“No. Isla didn’t say anything at all except to say the last thing she remembered was Lucian charging the monster. So the question was, if he attacked the thing, where’d his sword go?” Dr. Malady shook her head.
“Enough time passed that everyone figured that Lucian managed to land a death blow before succumbing to his wounds and the monster went off somewhere to die. No one except Carson was willing to go far into the Hills, and his father wouldn’t let him past the abandoned mines. The matter was settled, and as the one surviving member of the team Isla got the bounty.”
Something told Thistle that this was important, and she remembered Orrig’s look when Mayor Stone said that his people had paid twice for the same job. Luckily Lyra asked the question she was thinking. “Wait, Isla got the entire payout?”
“Who else would it go to?” Dr. Malady asked. “Marco Russo was licensed—the guild has got benefits for surviving family in the case of something like this, and according to the records we were given Lucian had no next of kin. We didn’t even have a place to send the body. I think he’s the only elf in our cemetery.”
“But the monster wasn’t dead,” Brent said.
“No, but the books were closed on it as if it were,” Dr. Malady said. “We had to submit a completely new request once this new round of killing started, but since it was a confirmed man-killer it was considered a more dangerous job.”
“More expensive,” Orrig said
“Exactly,” Dr. Malady said. “We could barely afford Marco. There was no way we’d be able to afford a more expensive team, except Isla give over every penny she had to make up the difference. I tried to talk her out of it. What she had would have gone a long way for a prosthetic leg, but she wouldn’t hear of it. I’m telling you, there’s no one who wants to the monster killed more than Isla Clark.”
Dr. Malady looked nearly sick with worry while the rest processed what she said. Orrig drank his tea in one gulp before rising to his feet. “Thank you. Is very helpful. I vill tell elf vat you tell me.”
“And if he doesn’t listen I’ll punch him in the face,” Lyra added.
“No,” Orrig said. “I vill go by self.”
“No but. Go find Isla, ask vat happen. Maybe she know more than she think.”
“How’s that gonna help when she doesn’t remember anything?” Brent said.
“She remember elf attack monster. Go see vat else. I vill take care of Rhys.”
Orrig’s voice took on a particular tone when he was giving orders, an unmovable authority that had come to a decision and would not be swayed off course. It was a subtle change, but one that Thistle was beginning to recognize. She hurried to her feet, her tea untouched. “Um, I need to get something. Just give me a minute.”
Without waiting for an answer Thistle hurried down the hallway and entered Isla’s bedroom. Silently apologizing for the invasion of privacy, she scanned the room until she found what she was looking for. In less than a minute she was back in the parlor where Orrig, Brent, and Lyra were readying to leave.
“What was that all about?” Lyra asked.
Thistle almost died with embarrassment under their quizzical stares. “Rhys didn’t give her a chance to put on her shoes,” she mumbled, holding the sturdy boots to her chest. The left was bulkier than the right, some sort of leather brace giving extra support for her bad ankle. The healing Thistle had done had helped, but Isla would still need to take precautions to avoid injuring it any further.
Lyra shrugged, while Orrig gave an approving grunt and Brent nodded. Thistle let out a small sigh of relief at their non-reaction, only to realize that Dr. Malady was still staring at her, utterly dumbfounded.
It took her a moment before Dr. Malady could speak again, and when she did her eyes were shiny with unshed tears. “I’ll leave things in your capable hands. I’m glad that Isla has someone like you on her side.”
Chapter 8: The Case Against Isla Clark (and the Trouble with Remembering)
I had some very nice reviewers who helped inspire me to bust out this chapter sooner than intended. If anyone says that reader feedback isn’t helpful, tell them that they are full of lies.
While it was easy enough to find the local jail, it quickly became apparent that getting inside would not be quite so simple. Rizaek barred the entrance, scrawny arms folded across a chest puffed out in a failed attempt to appear intimidating. His winged horse was nowhere to be seen, and without it he just seemed…young.
“Go avay,” he said in his thick Orcish accent. “You no belong here.”
“You know, that’s the second time you’ve said that in as many days,” Lyra said dangerously, strolling forward with a panther’s grace, and just as eager to pounce.
Rizaek frowned, shifting his weight uneasily. It was only a guess, but she got the impression that out of Rhys’s team Rizaek was the most inexperienced. Perhaps that was something they could use to their advantage.
Thistle nudged Brent. “Tell him why we’re here.”
“What? Why me?” Brent asked.
“You’re the only one here that speaks his language,” Thistle said in a low tone. “The only way we’re going to figure this out is if we can actually talk to one another.”
“I don’t know that much Orcish,” Brent protested. “I’ll just screw things up.”
“Vat is it?” Rizaek snapped. “Vhy you talking?”
Brent looked like mouse that had been cornered by a hungry cat. Thistle offered him a smile that he couldn’t see, causing his cheeks to darken with embarrassment. He cleared his throat and said something in halting, broken Orcish, gesturing first to the shoes in Thistle’s hands, and then to the jailhouse.
Rizaek cocked his head as Brent spoke, listening carefully before giving a sharp, barking answer.
“Yeah, like your accent’s any better,” Brent growled. “Are you going to let us in or not?”
Rizaek snorted, lifting his head in challenge as he replied. Thistle thought she heard the word ‘berserk’, but Brent’s indignant reply was cut off as Rizaek drew himself up to full height. Even standing on the jailhouse stairs he barely reached eyelevel with Brent, but that didn’t keep him from launching into a vitriolic speech that quickly became too much for Brent’s limited linguistic skills.
“I have no idea what he’s talking about,” Brent said. “He asked if I was going to go into a rage if he didn’t let us in. That’s ridiculous.”
“True. It has been, like, three days since the last time you lost control,” Lyra said sardonically.
Brent’s entire face flushed scarlet, and Thistle couldn’t tell if he was more angry or embarrassed. “That was unkind,” she said.
“It was a joke,” Lyra said dismissively. “Now is this pipsqueak going to let us in, or are we going to have to start breaking things?”
Thistle felt her stomach twist into knots. Was she so incapable that she couldn’t get into a simple jail? There had to be a way out of this that didn’t end in violence, but everyone in the Salt Rock Hills was too busy being angry and defensive that no one would listen to anyone but themselves. She turned back to Brent.
“Could you understand anything else? Did he tell you why we can’t go in?”
“Not really,” Brent mumbled. “I think Rhys told him not to, but I didn’t catch a reason.”
“Can he do that? Legally, doesn’t Isla have the right for representation?” Thistle asked.
Lyra laughed, “Oh, so we’re her lawyers now? That’s rich.”
“I’m saying that there are limits to what Rhys can and cannot do,” Thistle said, her temper quickly fraying. “He’s a mercenary for goodness sake, just the same as we are! We’re not trying to interfere with their investigation, we’re trying to prevent an innocent person from being accused of something they didn’t do.”
There was a beat of silence. Brent scratched the back of his head. “Yeah, I’m not going to be able to translate all that.”
“And to be honest, we kind of are trying to interfere,” Lyra added with a crooked smile. “You just want to do it the nice way.”
“Well, that’s better than hitting people in the face, and I’m not hearing any better ideas.”
Thistle regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep or the mounting frustrations of the past several days, but she wasn’t able to censure herself like she usually did. But once said, the words couldn’t be unspoken.
disgraceful. stupid, acting like a child who hasn’t got their way. what are you trying to do, convince them that you’re just another arrogant mage? dirty words from a dirty, filthy monster
“I’m sorry,” Thistle said, taking a small step backward for added protection against the inevitable blowback. “I…I didn’t mean for it to come out like that.”
Rizaek, perhaps upset at being ignored, added one, final remark that made Brent spin around with his teeth bared. The pupils of his eyes dilated until there was only a sliver of hazel left, his jaw jutting out to accommodate expanding canines.
Rizaek stumbled backward, tripping on the top stair of the jailhouse and falling on his backside. He looked Brent in the eye and sneered, “Typical skotina.”
“I am not…!” Brent ground his teeth together, shaking with the effort to keep himself under control. “I’m not the one arresting people in the middle of the night! What kind of person drags someone out of their house without letting them put on their %&$# shoes? We’ve played along with your stupid games long enough, and if anyone around here’s acting like an animal it’s your %&#!@&# boss. We’re not the ones running around attacking people and we’re not the ones calling people dirty names. So before you go talking about things you don’t understand, you should ask yourself why you’re working for a jerk who doesn’t care for anything but his own big, fat head. ‘Cause if I were you, I’d be wondering how he’s gonna react when he finds out you let us through that door.”
Brent stomped over Rizaek’s prone body and threw open to door of the jailhouse. Thistle looked to Lyra worriedly, but the elf only shrugged. “Not exactly a masterclass in rhetoric, but if it works, it works.”
They followed the path that Brent had blazed, Thistle sparing half a glance as Rizaek struggled back to his feet. He muttered something under his breath, and she thought she saw the telltale golden shimmer of Mum’s magic.
Thistle hurried inside and shut the door behind her before placing the palm of her hand against the rough wood. She forced herself to take a deep breath, focusing her senses to their sharpest point. Suddenly Thistle could hear the rats scurrying under the floorboards and could make out every detail in the worm-eaten wood. The air smelt of dust and alcohol…but also of rot and bitterness and anger that had seeped into the very foundations of the building, and she could taste the claustrophobic feeling of confinement. Beneath her fingertips she felt law imposing its will over chaos and evil, but not always succeeding. Once this had been an important place, but lately it had been left empty save for the same few vagabonds and scoundrels that existed in every small town.
All magic existed in this space beyond the senses, and superimposed over the very essence of the jail Mum had laid his work, concealing his magic within the nooks and crannies of the metaphysical world. The same delicate webs that had made up the bug the day before crisscrossed in an intricate lattice, layering into a complex spell that Thistle had never seen outside of books.
A cold bead of sweat formed on Thistle’s forehead. She had known Mum was powerful, but it seemed like she had underestimated his technical skill. It was one thing to lay wards to prevent Isla from escaping, it was another to be able to hide them so thoroughly. It would take time to pick apart such a sophisticated spell, and Thistle wasn’t sure if there was any amount of raw power that would be able to overcome it.
If Mum had taken the time to lay such a complicated spell, it stood to reason he would have included some way to monitor it while he was away. Thistle had to assume that he could see and hear everything they were saying and doing.
The thought made her knees want to turn into jelly, but Thistle made herself join Lyra and Brent. Let Mum hear. There wasn’t any law that said they couldn’t talk to Isla about what had happened.
“You okay?” Lyra asked.
“I’m fine,” Thistle mumbled. “Just don’t touch the bars. It’ll make Rufilio’s mage kit feel like a tickle.”
Lyra’s eyes widened. “You’re kidding.”
“I wish I was. And thank you for trying,” Thistle said to Brent. “I didn’t think he would go off on you like that.”
“Don’t thank me. I didn’t do anything except yell at a kid.”
Brent hung his head despondently, and Thistle wanted to say something, but this didn’t feel like the place or the time. Instead she turned her attention back to their mission at hand.
Despite being its only occupant, Isla Clark had been put in the jail’s smallest cell. It was bare save for a rough wooden bench that ran across the back of the tiny room and a bucket that served as her toilet. She sat in the farthest corner, half-hidden by shadow. Her short, greying hair was uncombed, and for the first time Thistle noticed how she’d let her bangs grow long, partially obscuring her vision. Dark circles from a sleepless night framed dead, unblinking eyes, and she was still wearing the loose-fitting shirt and trousers she used as pajamas.
“Isla, are you all right?” Thistle asked, before realizing that was a wholly inadequate question. Of course she wasn’t all right after everything that had happened. “Did Rhys do anything to you?”
Isla turned her head, as if seeing her three visitors for the first time. She made a noise that was almost a laugh. “You mean besides arrest me? Why are you here?”
“We, uh, brought your shoes,” Lyra said helpfully.
“Fat load of good they’ll do me here,” Isla said. “As soon as arrangements are made Rhys is going to have me Teleported to Crossroads. I don’t expect I’ll be allowed my own clothes in the prison there.”
“He’s going to take you all the way to Crossroads?” Thistle said.
“Don’t have the resources to keep and trail me here,” Isla said. She spoke with an eerie calmness that bordered on unsettling. “Shouldn’t you be on the road by now?”
“We were worried about you. Dr. Malady is worried about you,” Thistle said. Isla flinched at the name. “We’re trying to fix this, but we need your help. Please, can you tell us what happened the night you were attacked?”
“I told you and I told that elf, I don’t remember,” Isla said, voice as sharp as a knife. “Don’t you think I haven’t tried? If I knew what came out of the mines I wouldn’t be sitting in this cell. Those horses wouldn’t have been killed, and Marco and Lucian wouldn’t have died for nothing. I just…I can’t.”
“So you’re just going to sit there and let Rhys get away with this?” Lyra said.
Isla looked up at Lyra, utter defeat in her eyes. “I don’t know what else I can do but stand trial. When I didn’t confess Rhys threatened to bring in a truthseeker, but I refused.”
“Truthseeker?” Brent asked, looking towards Thistle for an explanation.
“A mage specially trained to look into a person’s memories,” Thistle said, a pit of unease growing in her stomach.
“If they can see your memories that would clear everything up, wouldn’t it?” Brent asked. “I mean, they could tell you’ve not gone out cutting up winged horses.”
Isla’s expression hardened. “It will be a cold day in hell before I let anyone in my head.”
“Truthseeking isn’t a very exact magic,” Thistle added. “They might have a hard time finding the memories they want, and if the subject fights back against them, even subconsciously, it could cause a lot of harm.”
“How much harm?” Lyra asked.
“People have died,” Thistle said, “others left in permanent vegetative states. There are laws against using mind magic against someone who hasn’t given their expressed permission.”
What Thistle didn’t say was that judges and investigators might assume the guilt of anyone who refused a truthseeker, especially if they didn’t understand the risks of the spell even under ideal conditions. Memory was a fickle thing, and there were some mages who questioned whether such evidence should be admitted into court at all.
Even when one ignored the technical flaws of truthseeking, there was the ethical question of whether anyone had the right to delve into the mind of another. Thistle certainly didn’t want anyone mucking about her memories, digging at things that were best left forgotten. She could understand why Isla might feel the same way.
“Okay, so truth magic bad,” Lyra said. “Why in the world does Rhys think you did it in the first place?”
Isla smiled, an automaton trying to replicate human emotion and not quite succeeding. Her demeanor had shifted from unsettling to almost scary. It was the look of someone who knew they had lost and didn’t care. Thistle found herself wishing that she would cry, or yell, or do something to prove there was still something left underneath her emotionless mask.
“It’s simple,” Isla said. “The horses were killed by a mage and I’m the only mage left in the Hills.”
“We didn’t see any proof that they were killed magically,” Brent said, brows furrowing together in confusion.
“You saw the cuts, didn’t you?” Isla said. “According to Mum they’re uniform. No jagged edges, each one perfectly clean. That includes the laceration to the sternum and that had to work through the breastbone. Either someone was able to wield a broadsword like it were a scalpel or magic was involved.”
Isla rested her head against the wall of her cell and sighed. “I thought he didn’t listen when I said there was something different about these most recent killings, but I guess I was wrong.”
“So you’re saying it wasn’t you?” Brent asked. He yelped when Lyra elbowed him sharply in the ribs. “What, I’m only asking! You have to admit it looks pretty bad.”
“I didn’t kill anything,” Isla said flatly, “but I can’t figure it out. All the horses I saw with Marco and Lucian had been torn to pieces, not cut. If the wings really are missing maybe someone is poaching them, but I can’t imagine how they’re catching the things. Winged horses are smart animals.”
Silence fell like a lead blanket over the jailhouse. They had more information, but the only thing they’d succeeded in doing was to further muddy the waters. Thistle drew her hand over her mouth, thinking hard. “You said whatever attacked you came from the abandoned mines. How do you know?”
“It’s around there where most of the horses were dying and the only thing we hadn’t explored,” Isla said. She closed her eyes as a pained expression passed over her features. “You’re not going to let this go, are you? I don’t understand why you’re still here. There’s nothing in it for you.”
“You said you didn’t do it. That’s reason enough for me,” Thistle said.
“Yeah, I’m not that nice, but someone’s got to make sure you get a fair shake,” Lyra said while Brent nodded in agreement.
Isla snorted, and for a moment there was a spark in her icy grey eyes. It quickly faded. “Marco was the same way. He helped me out of a dark place, you know. Offered me a job, let me stay with him and his wife while I got my life pulled back together. He was newly certified when he hired me, and neither of us knew what we were doing. Made lots of mistakes, learned a lot along the way.” She picked absentmindedly at the hem of her shirt, preferring to look at a rust stain on the floor than meet their eyes.
“Lucian was newer. He’d been a life-long subcontractor and made quite a name for himself, but left his old group after a disagreements split the party apart. I didn’t know him as well. He didn’t talk much about himself, but he knew his way around the business. This was our first big job together as a team. Marco could barely contain himself when we landed the contract. It felt like things were finally starting to go our way.
“Marco was an expert trapper, and after leaving the Academy I specialized in runic magic. Lucian was our heavy-hitter. It seemed like a good balance for a job like this, but every time a horse was killed we couldn’t find a single sign of what had done it. No footprints, no snapped branches, no bits of fur or blood…nothing.” Isla looked up at them, searching. “What kind of animal doesn’t leave behind a single trace of their presence?”
Unfortunately, they didn’t have an answer, and after a moment Isla continued her story.
“Anyway, the locals didn’t want us going into the mines, and Marco didn’t like the idea of chasing after something in its natural habitat when we didn’t even know what it was we were chasing. So he had me spell some spectacles for night vision, stuck each of us at different points around the mine’s opening, and set up a watch to see if we could identify the thing.
"I don’t know how to describe what happened. Sometimes I think I imagined the whole thing, or that it was all a dream…I was unconscious for so long, I don’t know what’s real and what’s just in my head. Sometimes it feels like it’s right there, just out of reach. Sometimes I think I want to remember, but other times…I don’t know. What’s there now is bad enough. I’m not sure I could take any more.”
Thistle inched as close as Mum’s wards would allow. “I know it’s hard, but anything you could tell us would help. If it gets too painful we’ll understand.”
“There’s nothing you can do,” Isla said hollowly, as if she’d memorized the words by rote. “There’s nothing anyone can do to bring them back.”
“No, but if Rhys is right someone has been poaching the winged horses they died trying to protect.”
Slowly Isla nodded, and Thistle waited while she gathered herself once more. Thistle could almost feel Lyra and Brent’s impatience, but this wasn’t something that could be rushed. If Dr. Malady was anyone to go by, they were about to hear something that Isla had never said aloud, a loadstone that she’d carried for the long, lonely months since Marco and Lucian’s deaths.
“It was about midnight when I first felt it,” Isla said. “It came on me so slowly I didn’t notice until it was too late. I just knew. The monster was there, and it was going to kill me.”
“Did you see it?” Lyra asked.
“No, I felt it. I was being hunted.” Isla shook her head in frustration. “I’ve been a mercenary for almost five years, and nothing has ever scared me as bad as sitting out in those Hills did. I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t hear anything, but I swear it was there watching me. Waiting for the perfect time to strike. I…I panicked.”
Isla went silent for a moment. “I started running when I heard the chains. The faster I ran the louder they got, until I couldn’t hear myself think. I used to think I knew what fear felt like, but until that night I’d only had a taste. I couldn’t see where I was going and tripped on a patch of loose stone. I knew it was going to attack me, so I kicked at it to protect myself. That’s when it got my foot.
She hugged herself. “It had blue fire where its eyes should have been, and its body was made out of shadow darker than the moonless night. I wasn’t thinking when I tried to call light. I wasn’t thinking anything at all except that I was going to die.” Isla’s shoulders slumped, and she ran her fingers through her hair. “I must have done something, because it let go. I heard Marco…or maybe it was Lucian. The last thing I saw before passing out was Lucian jumping on its back.”
“With his sword drawn?” Brent asked.
“I think so, but sometimes I wonder if that’s just what I want to remember, or if I only remembered after being told Lucian’s sword was missing. I honestly don’t know.”
“But if you called light then you must have been able to see more than just the blue fire,” Lyra said.
“The only thing I saw was a shadow,” Isla insisted. “At first I thought it was a great hulking dog monster, but other times I remember wings like a bat. Mostly…mostly there was just shadow.” She shuddered. “I didn’t need to see it to know it was a monster.”
“Thank you for trusting us,” Thistle said. “I know it’s not easy.”
“It’s my fault Marco and Lucian died,” Isla said quietly. “If I’d kept a clear head…”
“Then it might have killed you anyway,” Brent said interrupted forcefully.
Isla laughed that same humorless, dead laugh. “Maybe. I can’t help but wonder, though, if maybe all this isn’t the gods evening the scales. Do whatever you want, but there’s no changing that they’re dead and I’m not when it should be the other way around.”
Chapter 9: Fact and Impossibility (and the Confusion Thereof)
I must again apologize for a transition chapter that is about half as long as I originally intended. We have influenza in our building at work again, with lots of sick and dying residents that has made it difficult to find motivation, and I’m starting a stretch where I work seven of the next eight days. It was post now or probably wait another two weeks.
As a general FYI, there will be world building elements in upcoming chapters that I am taking directly from Patreon, so if there are things that pop up in the comic later that seem familiar, yes, I did steal them from Meg (but only with her permission).
There was little to do after that except give Isla her shoes, which thanks to Mum’s wards was trickier than expected. Neither Thistle nor Isla could get close enough to the bars to simply hand them over, and any attempts at using magic would read as an escape attempt. In the end it was Lyra who made two lucky tosses into the cell itself. Thistle felt a sense of relief that Isla would be allowed at least that modicum of dignity, but found herself getting angry all over again when she rose unsteadily to her feet.
“Where’s your cane?” Thistle asked.
“Confiscated,” Isla said bitterly. Moving gingerly she bent down to pick up her boots, pausing do adjust the brace that supported her ankle. “Said I couldn’t be trusted with any enchanted items.”
“You enchanted your cane?” Brent asked.
“It’s hardly a Wizard staff, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Isla said. “I just etched a few runes to help with stability. I…I fell a lot after I first woke up. It helped when I was getting used to all this.”
Isla made a disgusted gesture at her bad leg and hobbled back to the bench at the back of the cell. “I never did thank you for looking at it,” she said quietly. “It doesn’t hurt nearly as bad today.”
“Oh! Um, you’re welcome,” Thistle said, blushing furiously. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.”
Isla shook her head ruefully, and seemed to be ready to say something before stopping herself. “You should get out of here before the orc sics his horse on you.”
“She’s right,” Lyra said. “We should try to find Orrig and see what he’s found out.”
The trio were filing out of the jailhouse when Brent said, “How d’you think Rizaek got a winged horse anyway? It doesn’t look anything like the ones out here.”
“It’s probably a domesticated breed,” Thistle said.
“It’s a $&#*@!$ warhorse,” Lyra said. “Not even gelded. Can’t imagine how much upkeep costs.”
She made a good point, and Thistle was reminded of Rhys’s expensive enchanted bracers. Either Rhys’s team was doing extremely well for itself or they had some very generous patrons backing their work. Thistle was about to point out this fact when she saw that Rizaek was no longer guarding the jailhouse by himself.
Mum wiggled his fingers in greeting. He managed to drape himself artfully against the railing, and seemed perfectly at ease despite the fact that Rhys was glowering with displeasure not two feet away. Rizaek stood apart from them both, glancing at his employer uneasily whenever he thought Rhys wasn’t looking.
And Orrig…Orrig was as stoic as ever, seemingly neither happy nor upset at the morning’s turn of events. He beckoned to Thistle, Brent, and Lyra, and suddenly the two rival mercenary groups were all together again for the first time since their disastrous meeting the day before.
“Whatever he says, I didn’t touch him and I didn’t lose control,” Brent said defiantly.
It was amazing the effect two simple words could have. Relief washed over Brent, leaving him momentarily unguarded and vulnerable. He quickly regathered himself, trying to copy Orrig’s effortless serenity and not quite succeeding.
An unnatural hush fell over the front of the jailhouse, the air thick with tension. The animosity radiating between the two groups was nauseating, and Thistle wished she could be anywhere else. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a housewife staring at them through her kitchen window. They were being watched, and whatever happened here would spread like wildfire through the Salt Rock Hills.
Almost unconsciously, Thistle straightened her spine. She was afraid, the gods only knew how much she was afraid, but this was bigger than herself. Thistle didn’t know if she’d be able to live with herself if she failed Orrig again after he had placed so much (undeserved) trust in her abilities.
She felt Lyra on her other side, poised and confident and ready to fight if the need arose, and relaxed. She wasn’t alone in this. By herself, Thistle knew she was weak—
foolish girl. only digging yourself in deeper. useless, nothing you can do. why even try, you don’t even know if you’re right
—but right now she wasn’t by herself. Orrig, Lyra, and Brent were all at least willing to entertain the notion that Isla was innocent, and that made all the difference.
“It has become evident that, despite all evidence in my favor, you are going to pursue this matter until the very end,” Rhys said, his tone icy cold.
“*@$& straight,” Lyra said, only to be hushed by Orrig.
“Your doubts have reached the mayor’s ears,” Rhys continued, glaring daggers at Lyra. “He has decided to allow you to stay and conduct your investigation, should you choose to do so. However, by this evening arrangements will have been made for Miss Clark’s incarceration at the Crossroad’s jail, and she will be formally charged with poaching. The only thing you can hope to accomplish is to waste my time. I implore you to bring this charade to an end. Go home, catch a few rous or whatever it is you people specialize in. You’re hunting a monster that doesn’t exist.”
Orrig leaned against his axe, a small twitch in his jaw the only thing betraying his irritation. “I come to you because dere facts you not know about case. Ve try to help.”
“Yes, yes, you’ve already mentioned Miss Clark’s financial contribution,” Rhys said dismissively. “It’s obviously a bluff. One horse would more than cover the cost of hiring a mercenary team, and the girl’s killed three of the beasts—and that’s only what we know of. It’s her own fault she deluded herself into thinking she wouldn’t get caught.”
“But nothing!” Rhys snapped. “There is exactly one mage that lives in this miserable pit of a town. One. Unless you’re able to convince me that the monster suddenly changed its means of killing then your protests of motive are irrelevant. It is impossible for anyone else to have done the deed. Miss Clark proved of her own accord that she is physically capable of walking to the springs. She has repeatedly refused in the strongest possible language my generous offer for a truthseeker. She, and she alone, has the ability required to mercilessly butcher a magical creature, and what’s more, has in the past has displayed deep failings of character that inevitably leads down such an abhorrent path.”
Rhys trained his brilliant green eyes on Thistle, his look just as venomous as the words that came out of his mouth. He laughed a mocking, hurtful kind of laugh. “Oh, did she not tell you? I could see why she would choose to leave it out of the little sob story she’s woven. Allow me to enlighten you: Miss Clark didn’t leave the Academy, she was expelled for major violations to the school's code of conduct.”
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly through his nose. “I’ll admit that I was surprised when I discovered the truth, but just because the facts are inconvenient doesn’t make them any less true. Not all monsters live in caves. Now if you excuse me, I’ve work to do. Rizaek, come with me. Mum will stand watch until I can make final preparations.”
Rhys swooped away with the terrible grace of an avenging angel, a more reluctant Rizaek trailing after him. Thistle stood spell-shocked as they disappeared into the town.
did you ever consider the fact she might be guilty? jumping to conclusions without proof, why am i not surprised? how could you let your emotions cloud what little sense you have? see, this is what happens when someone actually qualified investigates
what if he’s wrong? what if there’s another solution we’re not seeing?
that doesn’t mean you’re the one who will find the answer! how could someone so incompetent hope to discover the truth that has eluded everyone else! you’ve done nothing thus far, and that won’t change!
“Ve go now,” Orrig said quietly.
“What? We can’t leave,” Lyra protested. “I mean, this looks bad, but…”
“Ve go now.”
Orrig was staring down Mum. The mage was smiling innocently, still leaning lazily against the railing. When he noticed Orrig his grin widened. He brought a hand out of his pocket and made a little shooing gesture. He didn’t need to speak to make his message perfectly clear.
Wary of their previous interactions, Thistle extended her senses in search of hidden magic. Not finding any, she followed Orrig. It quickly became apparent that they were making the short jaunt back to the house of Frank Cunningham. The old man was out on his porch smoking his pipe thoughtfully, the crow’s feet that framed his eyes deepening as they approached.
“Didja find what you was lookin’ for?”
Orrig shook his head. “Am very sorry, must ask for hospitality for little more time.”
“You can have it, but I were told the elf already caught who done it. Can’t say I’m surprised—that girl always had a shifty look about her. She shoulda known a mage has got no business up in the Hills.”
“Something weird is going on here,” Brent said. “I mean, yeah, Rhys has got a point with that magic stuff, but…I don’t know. It just doesn’t sit right.”
“I want to know how he found out she was expelled,” Lyra said. “Even if Isla was stupid enough to declare it in her papers, there’s no way Rhys should have access to that kind of information.”
“She could have just told him,” Brent argued.
“That would be even stupider,” Lyra said as she began to pace. “She didn’t look the type to make that kind of mistake.”
“Either way, it doesn’t matter so long as the horse was killed with magic. Do you think his mage was wrong? Would there be any way for a normal person to cause those wounds?” Brent asked.
“I don’t think so,” Thistle ventured. “I…I didn’t get a chance to say it at the spring, but I thought it was strange that some of the wounds didn’t bleed. There wasn’t enough time to get a good look, but they were clean.”
Lyra frowned. “No blood means the horse was cut up after it was dead. Maybe to distract from the missing wings? Stinks like a cover up.”
“Or a set up,” Brent muttered darkly.
“Now listen here!” Frank cried. “You got no right t’ come around shoutin’ foul play when there ain’t no evidence.”
“That’s just it though,” Lyra said, “no one has even looked for any evidence. Rhys was so gung-ho about arresting her he’s ignoring some really obvious possibilities. Even if Mum’s right and the horse was killed with magic doesn’t mean it was a mage. There are all sort of enchanted weapons that could do the trick, or maybe it is the monster. What Isla said about it sounded like magic to me.”
“Explain,” Orrig said.
Lyra and Brent explained Isla’s story in turn while Thistle thought. She hadn’t even considered the possibility that someone was framing Isla for the crime, but had to admit it made a certain amount of sense. As an outsider and a mage Isla would have been an easy target, but who would have the resources to pull off such a sophisticated trick? And why?
Or perhaps the most obvious solution was the correct one, and Isla was guilty. As much as she hated thinking about it, Thistle had to at least consider the possibility.
No matter how Thistle looked at it, it was beginning to feel like an impossible question. But the impossible couldn’t have happened--either Isla was walking out to the springs on a mangled leg to imitate the killings that led to the death of her teammates or someone was making it look like she was. Thistle had to figure out how the impossible was possible, in spite of appearances.
It took Thistle a moment to recognize that silence had fallen over the group. She jerked to attention, hoping she hadn’t missed anything important. Frank had gone pale, pipe hanging from limp fingers, forgotten.
“Ye gods,” he breathed. “I ain’t never heard of nothin’ like that.”
Orrig rubbed his chin. “You sure had blue flame eyes?”
“That was the only thing Isla was sure of,” Lyra said, with Brent nodding in agreement.
“Hmn. Get ready to go to mine, bring weapons. I know vat monster is.”
While Lyra, Brent, and Orrig prepared for battle, Thistle was anxiously waiting out on the porch. She had no armor to don and no weapons to equip, and her satchel was already as organized as it would ever be. She double and triple checked it anyway, but there were only so many places one could look for wear and tear on a brand new bag, and she could have rattled off her collection of seeds in her sleep.
Frank watched her out of the corner of his eye, and Thistle sincerely wished he wouldn’t. It was bad enough to be on the brink of a monster hunt. Being alone with a man who hated magic was somehow worse.
“D’you really think the girl’s innocent?” he asked, genuinely curious of Thistle’s opinion. “It’s no secret she ain’t got no money an’ no prospects. The payout for one job wasn’t gonna last forever, an’ nobody in their right mind’d hire a merc who can’t walk. What trade does she have t’ fall back on? How’s someone like that gonna survive?”
Thistle bit her tongue. There were dozens of opportunities for someone who practiced runic magic that didn’t require physical exertion. If anyone in the Salt Rock Hills had bothered to learn how magic worked instead of driving their mages away then maybe they would understand that.
It wasn’t Frank’s fault—it wasn’t any one person’s fault—but the collective, willful ignorance of the people in the Hills was mind-boggling. A part of Thistle wondered how much of his story about Thaddeus Blackwood was true, and how much was simply the townsfolk turning on their mages as a convenient scapegoat.
“I find it hard to believe that Isla would kill winged horses after her teammates died trying to protect them,” Thistle said.
Grimacing, Frank leaned back in his rocking chair. “I suppose that’s true, but the girl knew she weren’t wanted here. Why stay all this time?”
Again Thistle forced herself to remain silent, but there was a part of her that thought she understood. Isla believed, wholly and firmly, that she ought to have died with her team. Maybe enduring the scorn of the people was her idea of penance, or perhaps she had just given up on finding anything better. Thistle had experienced more than her fair share of dark days, when it was difficult to find the energy to simply exist. Healing—mental, physical, and emotional—did not happen quickly.
She was saved from having to speak by the timely arrival of Orrig. He wore a single piece of armor strapped to his right shoulder, and carried his axe easily in one hand. Thistle did a small double take as she noticed a subtle change in his posture. She was so used to seeing him bent over a piece of paperwork or beleaguered to the point of exasperation that she was surprised to see that he seemed eager for the hunt. After sparing Frank a perfunctory grunt he came to Thistle.
“If I right, dis monster is bad match for magic,” he said. “Do you know other vay of fighting?”
liar. you’ve ten daggers for fingers and a hideous mouthful of fangs
“Hmn. Den you vill be support only. Understand?”
“I understand,” Thistle said dejectedly.
“Not all jobs goot for all skills,” Orrig said. Thistle nodded half-heartedly, but he repeated in a more forceful tone, “Not all jobs goot for all skills. Vill need communication spell in mine, also backup if things get bad. Ve team. Vill work together to get job done. Understand?”
The thing about Echoes was they could only repeat what had already been said, and the dark, hateful voice had no riposte to Orrig’s argument. A feeling that was dangerously close to confidence warred against her nerves, and she gathered the strength to meet his gaze.
Orrig was smiling. At her. And she hadn’t even done anything worth smiling about. Thistle’s brain almost broke itself trying to reconcile this information when Lyra and Brent came out to join them, both armed to the teeth and eager to start their hunt.
“Everyone ready?” Orrig asked.
Three heads nodded the affirmative, and with a final thank you to Frank for the use of his house Orrig set off, leading them all to the Salt Rock Hills.
Outside of town, just a bit further down the road from where Thistle had had her conversation with Lyra the day before, was the town’s cemetery. Thistle shuddered a little as they passed the rows of headstones and monuments. She wondered what it would have been like to be a miner to walk on this road every day they went too and from work.
“Well that’s not creepy at all,” Brent said sarcastically.
“What, is Brent afraid of a few skeletons?” Lyra teased, giving him a playful push. “Do you need me to protect you from—gods what is on your shirt?”
“What are you talking about? I washed all my stuff before we left,” Brent said.
“It’s on your armor too,” Lyra said, poking at a spot behind his right shoulder. “Oh my gods, it’s $^#@!&# blood. Didn’t you check your equipment last night? You’ve got dead horse blood on your clothes.”
“Of course I did!” Brent said. He tried to crane his head back to see. “There’s hardly anything there. I’ll take care of it tonight.”
“You’re disgusting,” Lyra said.
He made a rude gesture, and Thistle got a sudden, almost uncontrollable urge to giggle. Here they were going out in search for an incredibly deadly monster, and they were acting like children. Which, now that she thought about it, was an insult so some of the children Thistle knew.
Thistle didn’t think her commentary would be appreciated, so she kept her thoughts to herself as they left the cemetery behind, desperately glad for the company she was being allowed to keep.
There was no need to maintain the road to the mine after its closure, and as they made it into the Hills proper the path became uneven and narrow. There were places where it disappeared entirely, whether from erosion or rockslides or simple disuse, and the footing was deceptively treacherous. It was also chiefly uphill, and by the time they climbed to where they needed to be Thistle’s legs were burning with exhaustion and she was struggling to catch her breath.
She expected to be teased or worse, but not even Lyra felt the need to point out her slowness. Orrig held up a hand to stop them, and the group gathered in a semi-circle around the gaping mouth of the mine.
“Okay. If monster attack at night, most likely sleep in day,” Orrig said. “But no guarantee. I think is shapeshifter dat can make spells. Brent, go find sturdy branch. I vill carry torch.”
“We’re using torches?” Lyra said. “Why not just let Thistle call light?”
“Magic attract monster. Thistle vill cast communication spell and vait for signal. If I vong, vill need to come fast.”
“Wait, Thistle’s not coming with us?” Brent said incredulously. “She just killed a bunch of Drath and you’re not gonna let her fight?”
Thistle squirmed uncomfortably, but a small part of her was secretly glad Brent wanted her to go into the mines. Orrig only shook his head.
“Less magic is best. Ve don’t vant fight—best to catch sleeping. Now go, ve have little time.”
Still grumbling, Brent wandered off in search of wood that could be used for a torch. Disheartened by her own uselessness, Thistle found a rock to sit on and waited for his return. After a few quiet words with Orrig, Lyra came over and clapped her on the back.
“Bad luck. You’ll get your shot next time.”
“Doesn’t make me feel any better now,” Thistle said. Her tone was dangerously close to whining, and she added hurriedly, “Sorry, I don’t want to mess things up. I’ll do what Orrig says.”
“We’ve all got things we can’t do. There’ll be times Brent or Orrig will have to stay behind because whatever it is we’re chasing slithered someplace too small for them to fit. It’s just part of the job.”
“I bet you never had to stay behind,” Thistle said.
“No, but that’s because I’m awesome,” Lyra laughed, before a more serious expression came over face. “We wouldn’t have gotten this far without you, you know that right? It sucks you can’t catch the monster, but you’ve got to leave something for the rest of us to do.”
Lyra flashed an encouraging smile that was not reciprocated, and soon Brent was stomping back to the clearing with four sturdy branches in his hands.
“I didn’t know which one was best,” he said.
It all happened very quickly after that. Orrig gave out his final instructions while Thistle prepared and lit the torch—making sure it burned only by non-magical means. After handing it over to Orrig she whispered the words to the communication spell and watched as they descended into the depths of the mine.
Waiting was torture. Thistle returned to her seat and tapped her foot anxiously until she realized what she was doing and made herself stop. She could hear the cavernous echoes of the mine and the few hushed words between Orrig, Lyra, and Brent, but as the minutes stretched painfully there was no sound of the beast they hunted.
It was difficult to tell how much time passed before Thistle began to pace, the restlessness almost unbearable. She made a circuit around the mine’s entrance, pausing to touch the plants that managed to take root in the rocky soil. Mentally she named them all, rattling off every scrap of information she knew of each species, no matter how obscure.
Behind her, a branch snapped.
Thistle spun around ungracefully, calling magic to defend herself on a moment’s notice. It was a testament to how frayed her nerves were that she almost discharged a spell before recognizing Carson’s lanky form.
He yelped and flung his hands in the air. “Don’t hurt me! I didn’t mean t’ scare ya!”
“I—what are you doing here?” Thistle said as her heart pounded in her chest. Slowly she let the magical energy seep back into the ground, causing the grass under her feet to spring up several inches. “I could have killed you!”
“Vat going on?” Orrig’s voice came out of the small blue sphere at her shoulder, and Thistle jumped again. “Is you okay?”
“Nothing, Carson just came up for…what are you here for?” Thistle said.
“I were just goin’ for a walk ‘an I heard somethin’. Thought I should check it out,” Carson said.
Through the spell, Thistle heard Orrig sigh. “Vat a mess. Make sure boy stay put.”
The line went quiet, and Carson said, “I’m not a boy,”
Thistle ignored him. She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding and adjusted her gloves to hide the fact that her hands were shaking. When she felt like she could speak without having her voice crack, Thistle said, “Why are you really here?”
“I were just walkin’, honest,” Carson insisted. “I came up this mornin’ after I heard the news about Miss Clark. I needed t’ think.”
“Think about what?” Thistle asked.
“Lot’s o’ things,” he said defensively. “Got a lot on my mind, what with Pa sayin’ we’re movin’, an’ now everyone thinkin’ Miss Clark were the one killin’ the horses. I wanted t’ clear my head a bit.”
Carson looked absolutely miserable as he plopped himself on the ground, resting against the sign marking the mine’s entrance in a tangle of arms and legs. “He hates it here. He’s hated it ever since Ma ran off when I were a baby. He only stayed around this long ‘cause of his brother—my Uncle Lars were born simple,” he said, tapping his temple for emphasis. “Never learned his letters or his numbers, let alone to how manage by hisself. But he died last year, and since then Pa’s been itching at the bit t’ go.”
“A year’s a long time to wait,” Thistle said.
“He’s been getting’ his affairs in order,” Carson said dejectedly. “I thought I could convince him t’ stay, but this whole business wit’ the monster’s been the last straw. Says he’s never gonna throw away his hard-earned coin for nobody ever again. Says winged horses and monsters is none’ve our business, and it’s our own fault for interfering and gettin’ those adventurers killed. He’s glad Miss Clark was arrested.”
Thistle took a couple of steps closer and sat down so she wasn’t towering over him. “And what do you think?” she asked, curiously.
“Tha’s just it, I dunno,” Carson groaned. “The Hills is my home. I love th’ horses an’ goin’ explorin’ an’ the people…they’re my family, just as much as Pa is. But I love him too, and if I stay it’d break his heart. How can someone love two different things that’s at odds at one another?”
“I don’t know,” Thistle said.
“I talked to Miss Clark sometimes,” Carson said. “I’d be comin’ out t’ the Hills and she’d be at the cemetery. I think one of her teammates were buried there. She kept to herself most of th’ time, but once she tried t’ explain t’ me how the horses fly. Didn’t understand a word she said. I thought maybe she’d be able to explain it again when she weren’t feeling so sad all the time.”
“You really like the winged horses, don’t you?” Thistle said with a small smile.
Carson bobbed his head. “I’d hunt the monster myself if I could. Pa says magic's all hogwash and fairy tales, but I don't see how that ken be when I see it ev'ry time a horse flies. Tha's prob'ly why he wants t' get outta town so bad, so I can concentrate on learnin' the family business.” He offered Thistle a lopsided grin. “Sorry. I don’t expect you care much t’ hear me ramblin’ on.”
They lapsed into silence, and without the distraction of conversation Thistle quickly found herself fretting. She stood and resumed her catalog of the local flora, keeping half an ear on the floating blue orb, waiting for, well, anything.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the spell flickered to life. “Thistle, please come.”
“Yeah, you’re going to want to see this,” Lyra added.
“Where are you at?” Thistle asked as she rushed to the mine’s entrance.
“Follow main tunnel. Vill find no problem.”
There was nothing to suggest they were in danger, but Thistle hurried as fast as she could without actually running. An old rusted track led the way down the main shaft, the wooden planks long-since rotted away.
Her eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness, and it wasn’t long before she saw the orange glow of Orrig’s torch. He, Lyra, and Brent were standing over something, and none of the appeared to be happy about what they saw.
“What’s going on?” Thistle said as she approached.
“Jeez, did you run all this way without any light?” Lyra said.
Thistle froze, her mouth suddenly dry. Of course they didn’t realize that she could see in the dark. “I, um, well I thought I wasn’t supposed to use magic,” she stammered. “The communication spell was enough to see by.”
“I sorry, should have said vas okay,” Orrig said. “Please call light.”
Swallowing hard, Thistle did as she was told. Orrig tossed away the now-useless torch and ran his hand over his head. Thistle followed his gaze, her stomach squeezing uncomfortably at the large black mass that lay at his feet.
Its form was vaguely dog-like, but no one would mistake the monster for any natural canine. It was much larger than even the biggest wolf, with disproportionally long limbs that tapered off into appendages that could be called neither paws nor hands, and Thistle got the impression it could stand on two legs just as easily as two. Thick fur the color of midnight covered its head, shoulders, and upper torso, but the rest of its body was hairless, its skin leathery black. A reptilian tail almost as long as the beast’s torso wrapped around a body frozen in the rictus of death. Two large, unseeing eyes stared at Thistle, blue but no longer burning.
There was no question of the cause of death. A blade buried nearly to the hilt pierced just behind the shoulder blade.
Thistle brought her hand to her mouth as her stomach rolled. For once her books failed her, and somehow she asked. “What…what is that?”
She looked up to Orrig, her mind taking precious seconds to realize that he was answering her question, not saying something in his native Oricsh. “But I thought kludde only lived near wild magic…”
Thistle’s voice tapered off, until suddenly, all at once, understanding hit her like a brick wall. Carefully she went over to the nearest wall and placed a hand against it. The sensations came more quickly than they had at the jailhouse, and a thousand times more powerful. A line of her magic forced its way through a microscopic crack in the stone like a tree root in search of water. Thistle’s magic was drawn into the very heart of the Hills, and like every heart the Salt Rock Hills had its own beat, each pulse driven by a large pool of pure magic.
The wild magic was alien and unknowable. It was governed by neither morality nor ethics, nor was it beheld by anything as mundane as the laws of nature or time. It rippled outward, a siren’s song that called to anything who knew how to listen. Like attracted like, and magic attracted more magic.
The source was deep underground. Those that couldn’t reach it—such as the winged horses—stayed on the outskirts to feed on what little they could. But down farther, beyond what even the dwarves had been willing to mine, was a writhing mass of magical creatures, monsters and beasts and everything in between.
Thistle tore herself away from the cavern wall before it could coax more of her magic from her. She staggered away from the kludde before anyone could ask what she was doing until she was once more hidden in darkness. Then she tore off her mask and vomited copiously onto a pile of rocks.
“Thistle, are you okay?”
She wasn’t sure which one of them spoke, but she managed to shout, “Don’t come near me! I-I’m fine.”
“You sure? You don’t sound fine.”
Thistle replaced her mask with trembling fingers, her tongue stumbling over the words that would throw a sphere of magical darkness around her. It was an unnecessary precaution. Lyra, Brent, and Orrig kept their distance.
Thistle took a shaky breath, the sour taste of sick still in her mouth. The air was too dry for her to call water, and she didn’t know the spell to create some out of nothing.
disgraceful. so little control, no wonder you’re always revealed for what you really are
Slowly, Thistle returned to the group. Brent was struggling to dislodge the sword out of its back, but stopped when he saw her. “You okay? What happened?”
“I think…I think I understand why they closed the mine.”
“No kidding,” Lyra said. “I’ve never actually seen a kludde before.”
“They’re thaumnivores. Magic eaters,” Thistle said. “They use magic, but can’t produce it themselves so they either have to live near a source of wild magic or steal it from other creatures.”
“So it’s a parasite,” Brent said. With a final jerk he pulled the sword free. It was shorter and more narrow than his own but held a wicked edge that shimmered in the light. He whistled softly. “Gilded with silver. I’d like to afford a monster-killer like this someday.”
Thistle shuddered at the thought. “Dr. Malady and Isla said the horses they saw had been torn to pieces, but what really happened was they had their magic forcibly taken from them. Magic keeps creatures like winged horses together in the first place.”
“And it’s why it attacked Isla first. It sensed her magic,” Lyra said. “And if she had used magic against it, it probably would have made the thing ever stronger.”
Or maybe take ten years off their life, Thistle thought, remembering what Isla had said the night before.
“Kludde use magic fear in prey and can change shape,” Orrig said. “Hides, den makes prey run vit terror. Spell only break in vater. Remember, kludde always have blue flame eyes, no matter shape.”
“Duly noted, boss,” Lyra said. “Now can we get out of here? This place gives me the creeps.”
That, too, was an effect of the massive source of wild magic. The same force that attracted so many magical creatures was repellant to anything non-magical. It was little wonder no one wanted to have anything to do with the Salt Rock Hills, or that the town was dying. It was a minor miracle that there was a settlement this close to something that most instinctively shied away from.
Yet Thistle was reluctant to leave. It was apparent now that Lucian had managed to kill the monster before dying himself, and with that knowledge their most promising lead was gone. Thistle still didn’t want to believe that Isla was poaching winged horses for their feathers, but she had no idea where to go from here, and they were running out of time.
Kudos to NJNerdQueeen for successfully guessed what the monster is. This is especially impressive when I had never heard of it until I started researching for this story, and in fact never intended to identify it at all (or if it was dead or alive. Such spoooky ambiguity. Glad I came to my senses).
I will acknowledge I’ve taken some liberties with the mythology, but that’s half the fun of fanfiction
Chapter 11: The Missing Link (or Brent Has a Bright Idea)
Alright folks, if you have any theories of whodunit now would be the time to submit them. We'll be wrapping this up next chapter or the one after that. With maybe an epilogue, I've still not decided.
By the time they exited the mine Thistle had forgotten about Carson entirely. The look on his face when Orrig emerged dragging the enormous beast behind him would almost have been funny if not for the circumstances. His face lost all its color, eyes bulging with astonishment and disgust while his mouth opened and closed wordlessly at the hideous sight.
“We found your monster,” Lyra said. “Problem is he’s been dead for a while.”
Carson hurriedly made a sign against evil across his chest. “Whu-what is it?”
Lyra explained the kludde while Orrig drug it out of sight. Thistle flinched as she heard the swing of his axe and the sickening squelch of the blade cutting through flesh.
“Thistle, please come,” Orrig called.
Somehow she forced her feet forward, her stomach rolling at the sight of Orrig placing the kludde’s head in a sack. “Please burn rest,” he said. “Dis proof enough.”
Thistle took a deep breath and tried to swallow her discomfiture. Every book she had read were in agreement: Kludde were non-sentient creatures, dangerous and savage hunters whose ability to consume magic made them an even greater menace to society than most monsters.
Of course, these same books treated cave elves in much the same way. That didn’t mean it was true.
Reluctantly Thistle Levitated the kludde, and a burst of magical fire finished the job. She told herself it was a matter of necessity—any reluctance to destroy the body would be suspicious and lead to questions she dare not answer. Besides, this kludde had been terrorizing the Salt Rock Hills, abandoning its source of wild magic to prey on winged horses, leading to the death of two people and the devastating injury of another.
blood always tells. its only a matter of time before yours shows itself in the same way
When Orrig and Thistle returned to the group, Carson was examining the recovered sword. “Yeah, this is th’ elf’s. Miss Clark said it were silver, an’ she’d carved a mark wit’ her magic.”
He pointed to a small rune that had been engraved on the pummel, barely visible unless you knew what you were looking for. “Gods, they really killed it, didn’t they? That means Miss Clark really is th’ one poachin’ the horses.”
If she didn’t know better, Thistle would have almost thought Carson sounded betrayed. With a small sigh, Orrig handed the sack carrying the kludde’s head to Brent and gave the boy a bracing pat on the shoulder. “Let us go. Ve finish here.”
“Yessir,” Carson said quietly. “Pa’ll be wondering where I’ve gone to anyway.”
The walk back to town was subdued. Thistle paid little attention to what little conversation there was, lost in her own thoughts. She had been so sure of Isla’s innocence, but now found herself questioning her own judgement. As long as there had been a chance the monster was alive there had been the excuse of plausible deniability, but the kludde was dead, and for all Lyra’s insistence they had no other suspects.
At the same time, Thistle couldn’t help but wonder. If the motive was simply money, there were plenty of other, less risky ways for Isla to earn coin—legal or otherwise. To go after winged horses when her teammates died hunting the monster that was killing them took a level of callousness Thistle had a difficult time believing Isla possessed. Whether Rhys’s assertions on her personal failings were true or not, it was plain that Isla held Marco Russo in high regard. For her to blatantly disrespect his final actions for monetary gain didn’t seem right.
Even if Isla were the one killing the winged horses, why pay for a second team of mercenaries to be brought in? She had the perfect excuse not to; Dr. Malady herself said she had tried to talk Isla out of turning over her earnings. Thistle was no expert in criminal psychology, but she knew that the thing to do when suspicions were raised was not to bring in more people snooping for the truth.
But if Isla wasn’t the one killing the winged horses, then who? And how? To frame her for poaching went beyond the simple distrust the people had against mages. It took genuine malice to systemically destroy someone’s life after they had already been hurt so much already.
Thistle wasn’t sure what to think about any of it. Both options seemed too awful to contemplate, and her feelings were confused by the weight of worthlessness and inadequacy. Nothing she had done since coming to the Salt Rock Hills had done any good whatsoever.
Thistle pulled her hood down further as they passed by the cemetery where Lucian was buried and walked into town. The streets were empty, and a smothering sensation of disquiet had settled on the town like a lead blanket. Orrig came to a halt and scratched his chin.
“Well, I best be off,” Carson said. He swallowed hard, Adam’s apple bobbing. “Is it…is it okay if I tell my Pa what happened? Or is supposed t’ be a secret?”
“Does not matter,” Orrig said. “Vill be found out soon.”
“Even so, I were just thinkin’ maybe it’d be best if folk didn’t find out till the mercs took Miss Clark away,” Carson said. “People is mad enough as it is. I seen what happened at th’ last town meeting when we had to pay for th’ second round of mercs. Folk might storm the jail if they new th’ truth.”
At that moment Carson sounded much older than his sixteen years, and Orrig nodded thoughtfully. “Is your choice. Must do vat think is right.”
“Yessir,” Carson said in his too-quiet voice. His mouth twitched in something that was almost a grimace, and he began striding towards the tavern, slowing only to give them a half-hearted wave.
They watched him disappear down the street, before Brent asked, “Where are we going now, back to Frank’s?”
“Hmn. Should tell elf vat find, but…” Orrig mulled it over, and Thistle imagined him methodically thinking over every possible option. “Do not vant argument now. Vaste too much time. Ve go to doctor house.”
“What’re we going to do there?” Lyra said.
“I vant to see mage’s room.”
Decision made, Orrig began walking purposefully down the packed-dirt street as if he hardly realized he was carrying the head of a beast. Lyra looked at Brent askance, but he only shrugged. What Orrig hoped to find was as much a mystery to them as it was to Thistle.
Dr. Malady was neither in her house nor her surgery, but she kept her door unlocked. Orrig set the bloody sack to the side of the house, tastefully out of sight from the main road before asking Thistle to show him where Isla slept.
Thistle was uneasy about searching through Isla’s things when Dr. Malady wasn’t home, and without the doctor’s steadying presence the house felt even more sterile and unwelcoming than it had the night before. She led Orrig through the parlor and down the hallway that housed the spare bedrooms, feeling like an intruder as she opened the door to Isla’s room, never mind the fact she had already invaded her privacy earlier that morning when she was looking for Isla’s boots.
The room wasn’t really big enough for the four of them to be looking around at the same time, but somehow it was Thistle who stepped in behind Orrig as he ducked through the doorway. Thistle watched anxiously as he examined the room, black eyes missing nothing as they drifted to the unmade bed, to the sheets of crumpled parchment on the end table, to the heap of dirty clothes thrown haphazardly into a wicker basket for washing.
“Mayor give us permission to investigate,” Orrig said. “Ve investigate here.”
He picked up one of the pages of parchment and smoothed it out, while Thistle hesitantly began picking through Isla’s clothes. Each item was sturdily made, designed for function over fashion, and she noted several seams that had been either reinforced or fixed. The stitching was serviceable but not elegant, likely done by Isla herself.
“You know a Sophia?” Orrig asked.
“No? I don’t think so,” Thistle said.
“Hmn. Come see.”
He offered the sheets of parchment for Thistle’s examination. They were unfinished letters, written in a spindly hand and addressed simply to Sophia. No last name present.
I must first apologizing for taking so long to write. There is so much I must
apologize for I don’t know where to begin
The rest was illegible, blotted out by hasty scribbles. Frowning, Thistle checked the next page, and then the next, but they were much the same. There were six in total, the longest two paragraphs of rambling apologies that didn’t make any sense at all, until a single sentence caught Thistle’s eye.
You and Marco showed me the greatest kindness during my time of need, I am so sorry I was unable to repay you properly.
“I think these are to Marco’s wife,” Thistle said. “Isla said they let her stay in their home. It sounded as if they were close.”
“Is alvays hard to find vords vhen friend die,” Orrig said, a tinge of sadness in his voice. He set the letters aside and continued looking.
The only other thing of note was Isla’s mage kit, a small wooden box shoved so far under the bed Thistle almost missed it. Like most kits, it was spelled against tampering—a series of runes carved into the handsome hawthorn lid that Thistle was almost sure she could break—but unlike most kits it also had a complex lock built into the box itself.
“I’ll need the key if I’m supposed to open it without breaking anything. I don’t sense anything dangerous,” Thistle said.
“Vould like to see inside,” Orrig said.
Thistle bit her bottom lip. It was rare to find a mage who put both magical and non-magical protection on their kits. The box was not extravagantly carved and lacked superfluous decoration, but there was beauty in its simplicity. It would be a shame to have to destroy such craftsmanship.
An idea came to mind, and suddenly Thistle grinned. She brought her hands over the mage kit, forming a circle with her fingers while chanting softly under her breath. A faint blue light shimmered between her fingers, forming a lens with her magic that when peered through from above could pierce through the contours of the box and reveal what lay inside.
Orrig’s eyebrows raised. “Did not know you could do dat.”
“I’m not very good at this spell. I can only keep it up for a minute or so,” Thistle said bashfully.
A minute was more than enough. Isla’s mage kit contained several chisels, a small hammer, and various materials that she could use to lay down her runes. Thistle wasn’t nearly as knowledgeable about rocks as she was plants, but she could identify several of the polished stones as well as the majority of the smaller crystals that any mage would find helpful, regardless of specialty. There was nothing to incriminate her for the poachings.
“Dat enough,” Orrig said, and Thistle released her spell. He took a deep breath and rubbed his hand over his head. “Have seen vat I need to see. Let us be going.”
They found Brent and Lyra looking at the feather Dr. Malady mounted on her wall.
“It’s nice enough, I guess, but I wouldn’t pay five gold pieces for it,” Lyra said thoughtfully.
“It doesn’t make sense, though, if the mage-chick killed three of the horses for their feathers, where’d she put them?” Brent asked.
“Maybe pretty-boy Rhys and his band of merry men found them while we were out at the mines,” Lyra said. She turned as they entered the parlor. “Hey, find anything interesting—Thistle, are you okay? You’re not going to get sick again, are you?”
Thistle had frozen in place. The feathers. It was so obvious, why hadn’t she thought of it before?
“Brent, you’re a genius,” Thistle breathed.
“I am?” he asked.
“He is?” Lyra said simultaneously.
“We’ve been thinking about this backwards the whole time!” Thistle exclaimed. “Where did the feathers go?”
“Yeah, that’s what I was just asking, but I have no idea,” Brent said. “None of us do.”
“But if we found them, we’d find out who the poacher is,” Thistle said. “There’s no way of proving for certain who killed the horses based on the evidence at hand. It’s too circumstantial, and I think whoever did it planned it that way. I mean, just think of what we know so far.”
Thistle reached for her satchel, instinctively reaching for the journal that wasn’t there. She grit her teeth in frustration, “Do any of you guys have any paper? I didn’t pick up anything to write with before we left, and I think it’ll be easier if we can make a list of what we know for sure.”
Orrig, Brent, and Lyra all shook their head, equally befuddled.
“I knew I should have gotten a journal,” Thistle berated herself. “So stupid…”
“Uh, it’d be helpful if you explained what you were talking about,” Lyra said.
“Okay, just hear me out,” Thistle said. She was almost breathless by this point. “Dr. Malady told me feathers off winged horses, if properly preserved, will keep their magic forever. But feathers aren’t the only part of a winged horse that has magic in it—why else do you think they were torn to pieces when attacked by the kludde? It was so horrible a trained doctor couldn’t recognize one of the horse’s hearts.”
She went over to Brent and pointed to the small, rusty stain on the back of his armor. “There’s magic in their blood, too, and I think I can use one to find the other.”
Tracking magic wasn’t Thistle’s specialty. Like many things, she understood how it worked in theory but had never found the need to actually put it into practice. The euphoria of having figure out a way to solve the mystery of the Salt Rock Hills was soon taken over by nausea fueled almost exclusively by self-doubt and anxiety.
Orrig agreed almost immediately after Thistle explained the spell, and the group went to Frank’s house so that Brent could change his undershirt—Thistle would need the one soiled by the winged horse’s blood in order to track the feathers. The short walk felt like a journey of a thousand leagues, Thistle’s imagination doing a more than thorough job thinking up of every possible way she could fail.
This was their last chance, and they all knew it. Sooner rather than later Rhys would finish his preparations to transfer Isla to Crossroads, and once that happened there would be nothing more they could do.
A small part of Thistle was worried that they would find definitive proof that Isla was guilty. A greater part of her was worried they wouldn’t be able to find that she was innocent. It was a subtly that made all the difference, and the corrosive worry was eating away at Thistle’s resolve.
Frank had wandered away from his front porch, a tiny blessing that Thistle was immensely grateful for. She leaned over the unsteady railing and took a deep breath, holding it for ten seconds before releasing it slowly through her mouth. She repeated the breathing exercise until the tremors in her hands stopped.
don’t overthink this. it’s a simple spell. so easy an idiot could do it
unworthy chit, getting worked up over nothing
just stop. there’s nothing you can do
are you going to cry when you inevitably fail? gods, i don’t understand you when you get this way
“Hey, I got the shirt.”
Thistle’s grip on the railing tightened, but she forced herself to sound cheerful as she said, “Thanks a lot, Brent. I wouldn’t have thought of it without you.”
Brent’s cheeks flushed a bright red, and Lyra snickered into her hand, which only caused his blush to deepen. He muttered, “It was nothing.”
Instead of continuing a conversation that was quickly becoming awkward for the both of them, Thistle turned to Orrig, “I’m going to go around back. I’ll need a little bit of space.”
She had hoped that they would have left her alone to work, but Orrig, Brent, and Lyra each followed her as she went to Frank’s slightly overgrown back yard. Thistle gave them a nervous glance before laying the bloody shirt out on the ground, carefully smoothing it of its wrinkles. Then she walked in a slow circle, carefully laying the magic that would be the base of her spell.
She should have used a physical medium—salt was always popular for circles—but technically it wasn’t required. With enough focus most magic could be done through strength of will alone.
Someone had once told her that anyone who knew how to worry knew how to concentrate, and no one worried better than Thistle. The trick was meditating on the right thing, and once Thistle sank into the depths of her magic everything else melted away. It always frightened her after the fact how easily magic came to her, but in the moment there was nothing that felt more right.
Once the circle was complete she turned her focus on the shirt itself, focusing on the small smear of blood. Like attracted like, magic attracted magic. The same essence that made the winged horse’s feathers flowed in its veins. All Thistle wanted to do was reunite them.
There was very little residual magic in the blood, so Thistle charged it with her own power, strengthening the connection between it and the missing feathers.
Magic to magic. Like to like. Blood to feathers. Returning what has been stolen.
Thistle opened her eyes and gasped. Where Brent’s shirt had been was now a smoldering pile of ash. She failed. She knew she would, and she did, and now it was ruined, and it was all her fault, and…
“Oh no,” Thistle moaned, slumping to her knees. “Nononono…”
“What the ^$*# was that?” Lyra said. “Thistle are you okay?”
A shadow loomed overhead, but Thistle couldn’t bring herself to look at Orrig’s disappointment. After everything that had happened, she couldn’t believe that she’d ruined it. There wasn’t even enough to salvage for a second attempt. She was so frustrated she could cry, but that would only make her look even more pathetic.
“Thistle? Hey, look!”
It was Brent, but for some reason he didn’t sound angry. He was sifting through the flecks of ash and burnt, fraying cloth that had once been his shirt, an enormous grin spreading across his face. Thistle didn’t understand. She’d failed, just like she always failed, and now there was nothing they could do to help Isla.
“Sorry?” Brent laughed. “What for? Look, you did it.”
Thistle blinked and looked down at the small scrap of cotton in his hand. She’d burned the blood black, and blue lines of magic, each as thin as a capillary, glowed softly. Carefully Thistle gathered it into her hand, the magic of the spell humming pleasantly against her palm. She turned around and the cloth turned with her, the blood pointing like a compass that would hopefully lead them to the poached feathers.
Chapter 12: The Truth of the Matter (or Not All Monsters Live in Caves)
52000 words. 101 pages. 1 more chapter to go.
Whew, I am exhausted. This chapter was written basically in one sitting and not edited as it probably should. I’m just too excited to hold off. I do plan on giving this chapter and the ones previous a bit of polish before posting the epilogue.
Thanks for all you guys for supporting me with this. I honestly can say I don’t think I could have finished without you. Many guessed different pieces of the mystery, but to my knowledge no one put it all together, which I suppose means I was clever or not very good at laying out the clues. You can tell me which.
The spell worked.
It worked better than Thistle ever could have expected. She had hoped against hope to find the truth of the matter, and with the help of Orrig, Lyra, and Brent, she had. The only question remaining was what were they going to do with the information.
The safest bet was to simply turn it over to the authorities in Crossroads, but by then it might be too late. Without saying it aloud, each agreed that this was something they needed to take care of themselves. They had come this far. There was no turning back now.
All that was left was to tell Rhys what they had found. Thistle walked slowly to the jailhouse where he was getting ready to transfer Isla. She was alone, and already missed the steadying presence of her team at her back.
Rizaek was standing watch outside, but he was paying more attention to his massive stallion than any passersby. As she got closer, Thistle could hear a steady stream of Orcish as he checked his tack, laughing as the horse snorted in his face. Rizaek patted his neck and fished out an apple from inside of his fur-lined coat. It was much too warm to be wearing something so heavy. Thistle could only assume that he was getting ready to fly.
The horse bent to take the fruit, but jerked its head when it saw Thistle. Rizaek spun around, his smile twisting into a more familiar scowl.
“Vat you vant now?” he asked.
“Um, hello there. I, er, need to talk to Rhys about something. Is he around?”
Thistle’s eyes widened as Rizaek’s winged horse walked towards her. It was even more imposing up close, powerful muscles rippling with each movement. The horse fluttered its wings, each coppery feather glittering as light reflected off them. Thistle wasn’t sure what to do as it stood right in front of her, forbidding her from passing. It seemed to be deciding what to do with her, keen intelligence in its ruby-red eyes.
The horse nickered, lowering its head for closer inspection. Hesitantly Thistle offered her hand for a curiosity sniff, which was ignored in favor of rubbing his velvet-soft muzzle against her chest. Thistle giggled, stumbling as the friendly gesture caught her off balance. Rizaek hurried to lead the horse away.
“No, Aegis!” Rizaek chided the horse in Orcish, before turning back to Thistle, a puzzled expression on his face. “He like you. Here, think he no get breakfast.”
Rizaek offered Thistle the apple, which she in turn gave to the horse. Aegis accepted the gift with regal grace, before nickering softly. Rizaek smiled, rubbing the horse’s nose. “No more. Vill get fat. How vill fly den? Hmn?”
Aegis swished his tail in annoyance and wandered back to the jailhouse. Rizaek watched him fondly, before turning back to Thistle, wariness in his expression. Without the lines of anger or annoyance he looked like a completely different person. He shoved his hands in his pockets, his shoulders rolled inward defensively like a dog that had been whipped one too many times.
It was enough that Thistle began to feel sorry for him. “Um, Rizaek, I know we haven’t gotten along the best, but there’s something you need to know—“
“What’s going on here?”
They both jumped as the jailhouse door was thrown open. Rhys descended down the stairs to the street, ignoring Aegis when the horse turned his ears back and tossed his head in displeasure. Rizaek sprang away from Thistle as if she were on fire. “I no know vhy she come,” he said.
“The correct phrasing is I don’t know why she came,” Rhys said, his brilliant green eyes trained on Thistle as he approached. “How are you supposed to speak with potential clients when basic Common is beyond you?”
Rizaek’s expression hardened, and he stared resolutely at his feet. “I sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, be better,” Rhys said coolly. “Now, to what do I owe this pleasure?”
There was a prolonged silence before Thistle trusted herself to speak. She could barely think over the thunderous pulse in her temples. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been so angry at another person, and it took every bit of her self-control not to give Rhys a piece of her mind.
Remember why you’re here. Don’t screw this up, or it will all have been for nothing.
“I just wanted to tell you that we found the monster,” Thistle said stiffly. “It was a kludde. We found the body in the mines. It seems that Marco Russo’s team did manage to kill it. Orrig retrieved the head, as well as the sword used to kill it.”
Rhys’s eyebrows rose a fraction of an inch. “Did he now? Thank you for informing me. I’ll have Rizaek take them with us to Crossroads. It could be important evidence. Where is it now?”
“Um, Dr. Malady’s house, but…” her protests were cut off as Rhys gestured at Rizaek to leave.
The young orc took the hint and trotted off in a huff. A smile curled on Rhys’s lips, and he glanced at Thistle sidelong. “It’s a work in progress, but I’ll civilize the runt yet. Did I tell you how I found him?”
A cold sweat broke out on Thistle’s forehead. This wasn’t part of the plan. “Uh, no…?”
“It’s quite the story. I’d been looking into purchasing a winged horse for quite some time, but it’s nigh-impossible to find one broken enough for this line of work, even among the domesticated breeds. They’ve a mind of their own, and quite particular on who they allow to ride them. I was fortunate, really. Rizaek had no prospects with his kind—you know how orcs are with anyone who can’t smash boulders with their bare hands—so he struck out on his own.” He nodded in the general direction of Aegis. “This brute here was rejected by his mother, and born undersized. Rizaek worked night and day to ensure the horse lived, and now it minds no one else.”
Rhys’s smile turned cruel. “Of course Rizaek doesn’t own the thing, and he didn’t earn enough to pay for its upkeep. A horse bonded to a person unable to pay for it is no good to the owner. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t stepped in?”
“You bought Aegis?” Thistle said.
“And an apprenticeship for the boy,” Rhys said smugly. “It’s an investment that will pay for itself ten times over. It’s a shame about the kludde. It’s not often a hunt of that nature comes along, I would have liked to see how he handled himself.”
Thistle was horrified. If experienced mercenaries stood little chance against a monster as conniving and powerful as the kludde, then what hope would Rizaek have had? Her own weakness still rankled, but Thistle was glad Orrig made an effort to protect her against something she wasn’t equipped to fight.
“There was something else,” Thistle choked out. “It was about your, er, offer.”
Rhys’s eyes glittered like emeralds. “Have you reconsidered? I was beginning to wonder about your priorities when you were so set on defending Miss Clark.”
“Yes, well, I have questions,” Thistle said.
“Of course, that’s only natural,” Rhys said. “I could arrange a meeting when your team reaches Crossroads, if that would be agreeable. Unfortunately I don’t have much time at the moment, but there’s no need to travel with your current team any longer than necessary.”
“I, actually, I was just wondering how you chose what jobs, and wanted to make sure you had enough work for two mages on your team,” Thistle said desperately. “I get the impression you’re, er, selective with the posts you’ll accept.”
Rhys nodded. “Quite right. I’ll be quite frank, if money interested me I’d have become a lawyer like my mother wanted. I have no interest in wasting my time on frivolousness, which is what makes this job so vexing. Mum thought it looked interesting the first time it was posted, but I’ll not accept anything less than a Class Three listing. If it had been advertised appropriately, I might have had a chance at the kludde myself.” He almost sounded whiney.
“In any case, you’ll have no shortage of opportunity or challenge while in my employ. It’s true I don’t have the years of your Orrig, you’ll see I’ve a wealth of connections, as well as funding for any projects that might interest you.” He held up his braced arm, and Thistle saw what appeared to be a real diamond set into the metal. “This was crafted by one of the finest elven enchanters in the capital. It collects the kinetic energy from every time I move my arms and stores it into the gem for later use. It was a gift from a patron for taking care of a troublesome griffin. I could help you set up a lab, introduce you to my contacts at the local University. I know master mages who have trained under Grand Master Wu himself.”
“So it was Mum who brought this job to your attention?” Thistle asked quietly.
“Yes, and I should have listened,” Rhys said. “Mum has been invaluable to me. I’ve always said a good mage is worth their weight in gold, but more difficult to find. It might be a good idea for you two to be formally introduced. He’s out on an errand now, but he should be returning to the tavern shortly for our final departure.”
Rhys led Thistle away from the jailhouse towards the tavern owned by Jacob Swinehart. She allowed herself to go a few blocks before pulling away.
Thistle had to swallow against the bile rising in her throat. “Actually, I’m afraid I can’t work with you.”
Rhys blinked, confused. “Excuse me?”
“I-I never said I would work for you,” Thistle said. “I said I had questions, and you’ve answered them.”
Confusion shifted to anger. “What’s the meaning of this? Did—did that orc send you here? What game are you playing at?”
“His name is Orrig,” Thistle said. “My teammate’s names are Orrig, Brent, and Lyra. They’re people, and you should treat them like people!”
“You are wasting my time,” Rhys growled, turning away primly and stalking back to the jail. He paused, before turning his head back at Thistle. “You could have had the world, but it seems you’re content to play in the gutter. Run back to your precious Orrig and tell him to cease this ridiculous farce.”
Thistle stood her ground. “I have one more thing to say: My team was able to trace the blood from the most recent killing, and Isla is innocent.”
“Don’t be stupid. Of course she’s guilty, she’s the only one—“
“Isla Clark isn’t the only mage in the Salt Rock Hills,” Thistle said. Anger overpowered her natural timidity, and she stared Rhys squarely in the eye. “Technically there are three, and I didn’t even know this town existed until earlier this week.”
In the time it took Rhys to understand what she was saying, the hair on the back of Thistle’s neck prickled. The air swelled with magic, and there was a thunderous crack accompanied by a flash of golden light.
Thistle grimaced as Mum appeared out of thin air. As she thought, he had been listening to every word.
There was no time to think after that. Before the dust had even settled Mum was gathering his next spell, and if Thistle hadn’t instinctively thrown a force field the moment she sensed his magic she would have been blasted by golden lightning.
The innocent smile was nowhere to be seen. Fiery determination filled his eyes, and Mum tried two more lightning bolts, each stronger than the last until Thistle’s field was vibrating with electric energy, threatening to overload the spell.
Thistle lowered the force field and settled into an unfamiliar fighting stance. Somewhere on the edge of her vision she could see Rhys had been knocked off his feet and was struggling to stand back up.
“What is the meaning of this?!” he shouted. “Mum, what in the world are you doing?”
Irritation flashed in Mum’s eyes, and without further warning he slung a gale of wind that hit Rhys at his knees. A second spell locked his arms to his sides, preventing him from either activating his magical bracers or breaking his fall. He landed hard, head cracking against the packed dirt road before Thistle could intervene. He made no further attempt to stand.
Much better, a voice said in her head, masculine and soft. Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to do that?
“You can mindspeak?” Thistle said to Mum.
First spell I ever learned, my faceless friend. You really ought to be more careful what you let inside your head.
Thistle’s heart skipped a beat, the accusation hitting too close to home. Mum noticed, and slow, hyena-like grin spread across. He rolled his shoulders to loosen them, bringing his hands out of his pockets for the first time.
Long fingers wrapped around a large piece of clear quartz. The remains of Brent’s shirt that Thistle had hidden in her glove hummed, recognizing the stolen magic stored inside. Crystal held less power than a gemstone, but the theory was the same as the magic that fueled Rhys's bracers. In the palm of Mum’s hands was the secret of his ability to Teleport, the power behind Isla’s wards, and likely the source he used to slaughter other winged horses.
The air crackled with magic. Somewhere behind Thistle a penned pig squealed, while someone shouted from the relative safety of their home. If Thistle wasn’t careful, innocent people would be hurt.
You should have just left well enough alone. Thistle couldn’t tell if the voice came from Mum, her Echo, or some unholy combination of the two. Now be a good girl and tell me how you figured it out, and where the ugly green one and the rest of his lackeys have run off too. I’d like to finish this quickly.
Thistle had never been good at snappy comebacks or witty one-liners. She let her magic speak for her, preparing herself for anything he might throw. Mum tutted in silent disapproval.
Suddenly a dark shadow came screaming in overhead. Thistle risked a glance, and saw the reflection off of copper wings. Rizaek bellowed a wordless battle cry as Aegis charged directly for Mum. Thistle’s scream for him to stop was lost in the wind, and there was a flash of golden light.
And then, after that, the world descended into madness.
“You did it,” Brent repeated gleefully as Thistle showed off how the spell worked. “Where’s it pointing?”
Thistle smiled shyly at the undeserved praise. “I’m sorry for ruining your shirt.”
“Totally worth it. Look, it’s pointing back towards town.”
Lyra came up behind Thistle and said, more practically, “We need to be careful. It could be a trap. Someone’s gone through a lot of effort making sure they weren’t found out.”
“Ve vill deal ven we get dere,” Orrig said. “Now, ve find feathers.”
Looking back on it, Thistle realized they must have made an odd spectacle, four mercenaries huddled close together as they walked through the heart of town, with Thistle at their center. For once she did not notice the lingering glances or the hushed whispers they left in their wake from the few people doing their business. She was hyper-focused on the task at hand, eyes never wavering from her cloth compass.
Their journey was fairly straightforward, although there were a few hiccoughs as the spell did not take private property or the town’s layout into consideration, instead directing them as the crow flew. As they got closer to the source of the magic the cloth began to quiver, as if it could barely contain its excitement.
They walked past town hall and the general store, where Frank was situated playing a checkers out in the sun. He paused as they walked by but said nothing, shaking his head before returning to his game.
The blue veins of magic woven into the cloth pulsed with light when they reached the tavern, and the quiver escalated to a nearly audible hum. She looked up at Orrig, both hoping she was right and not understanding what she was seeing.
As they approached Mum exited the tavern. He tilted his head quizzically, raising his eyebrow in silent question.
Instinctively Thistle brought her hands to her chest and shrank back, wishing she could melt behind the wall Orrig, Lyra, and Brent had formed. They at least had the courage not to back away, and met his questioning look with cool stoicism or outright defiance.
Mum shrugged, and with a sarcastic bow continued on his way. As he passed the scrap of cloth in Thistle’s closed fist went ballistic, the magic within vibrating so intently she could feel it in her bones. Thistle bit back a gasp and turned wildly towards Mum, only for Orrig to stop her.
“Remember vhy we here,” he said in a low voice.
“But…!” Mum disappeared around the corner and Thistle unclenched her hand and held it up for Orrig to see.
She expected it to be fixated on Mum.
She didn’t expect the cloth to spin rapidly between two directions—the tavern in front of them and Mum’s path down the street.
“What the actual ^#&@,” Lyra said. “Did he break the spell?”
Thistle hadn’t sensed Mum casting, but then again she hadn’t noticed it when he put the bug on Brent either. Quickly she extended her senses, she searched for the hidden signs of Mum’s magic.
“No, there’s nothing here,” Thistle said as panic rose within her. “I-I don’t understand, it was working so well.”
“It mean two sources,” Orrig said. He adjusted his grip on his axe. “Leave mage for now. See vat he leave behind.”
“But what if he Teleports,” Brent said. “We can’t let him get away with this!”
“Qviet,” Orrig hissed. “Mage dangerous, but does not know ve have spell. Must find proof before he hide. Be fast, before comes back.”
“What if Rhys and Rizaek are inside,” Thistle whispered.
“Vill figure out vhen ve get there,” Orrig said. “Now go.”
The more distances Mum put between himself and the bloody cloth, the weaker the signal became, and the it settled once again on the tavern. With a last, hesitant glance to make sure Mum wasn’t going to come storming back, Thistle led the group inside.
Carson was sitting dejectedly behind the bar while his father was working on his books. They both startled as the sight of Thistle, twin expressions that quickly departed into one of welcome and one of anger.
“What’re y’all doin’ here?” Carson said. “Didja need the other mercs? The elf ‘n orc are at th’ jail, and you just missed th’ mage. He went off on some sort of business for his boss, I think.”
“Ve not here for dat,” Orrig said gravely. He turned to Jacob Swinehart and said, much more politely than Thistle could have managed, “Ve must be looking through tavern.”
“Whaddya mean, you’ve gotta look through m’ tavern?” Jacob said harshly. “You ain’t got no right. Now if you ain’t here on account of Mr. Talisen then you ain’t got no reason t’ be here at all. Now scat, afore I make ya.”
It was a bold, if ultimately useless threat that made Carson groan and Lyra laugh. The lines around Orrig’s face deepened. “Mayor give us permission to investigate. Ve investigate here.”
“A pox on th’ mayor. He’s gone sentimental ‘n soft in th’ head. I knew you was trouble the moment I seen you. You shoulda been gone long before now. I’ve got my own business t’ attend to, an no time t’ watch over busybodies and rabble-rousers.”
Orrig drew himself up to full height and took a step towards Jacob Swinehart. To his credit, the tavern owner did not flinch, and he didn’t back down. He pointed to the door. “Git outta my tavern.”
“Pa…” Carson said slowly.
“I said. Get. Out.”
For a moment the only thing Thistle could hear was the sound of her own frantic heartbeat. Then Orrig said quietly, “Thistle, vhere ve go now?”
“Um, it’s uh…” She consulted the cotton square. “It’s straight ahead, in the back storage room. I think.”
Orrig nodded once, and began walking. He ignored Jacob’s sputtered protest, pushing his way—gently, for an orc—into the store room. Once again the spell began to vibrate, but much less forcefully this time, and it let Thistle through the storage room and out the back door of the tavern.
“That was a lot of hassle when we could have just walked around the building,” Lyra said wryly.
“Sorry,” Thistle said. “It points the direct way, not the best.”
“And where’s it directing now?”
Thistle walked slowly to a locked cellar door. “Here,” she said softly.
“What in th’ blue blazes do you think yer doin’?!” Jacob bellowed. “What d’you think you’re gonna find there? Huh! Answer me! I’ll not be ignored by th’ likes of you!”
Orrig spun around, using his axe to point to the cellar door. “Thistle say horse feathers in dat cellar. You open door, or ve vill break.”
All the color left Jacob Swinehart’s face. He trembled with indignant rage, but when he spoke it was with deadly calm. “Are you accusin’ me of somethin’, stranger?”
“I accuse nothing. I tell you: Open door, or ve vill break.”
Carson slid in behind his father, confusion and helplessness plaguing his features. “Pa, wha’s goin’ on? Why’re th’ mercs wantin’ in our cellar for?”
“They’re meddlers, that’s why,” Jacob spat. “Lookin’ for any bit of coin they can lay their grubby hands on at th’ expense of hard-workin folk like you ‘n me.”
“I don’t think tha’s right…Pa, I think you should just open it,” Carson said. “We ain’t got nothin’ t’ hide.”
Jacob Swinehart stiffened.
“Pa, we don’t got nothin’ t’ hide, don’t we?” Carson said pleadingly.
“Carson, could you please bring out the key?” Thistle asked.
Carson’s face crumpled into a picture of abject misery. “Yes’m. Jus’…jus’ give me a minute.”
Jacob stood stone-faced while his son hurried back into the tavern. Thistle risked a glance back at Lyra and Brent. There was a coldness in Lyra’s expression that was somehow more frightening than her fiery bursts of temper, while Brent stared agape, as if he didn’t comprehend what was going on any more than the rest of them.
Carson quickly returned and handed a brass key to Orrig, who made quick work of the lock. Finally Jacob spoke.
“You won’t find nothin’.”
He almost made it sound like a threat. Orrig indicated for Lyra and Brent to stand guard while he and Thistle descended into the cellar. The air was cool and dry, the ceiling low so that Orrig had to duck his head. Thistle called light in her free hand, and checked for every sort of magic she could think of.
Mum had been here, but any spells he may have laid were gone, leaving only the faintest residual that would soon fade completely. There were racks of wine and barrels of alcohol, but at first glance Thistle saw nothing out of the ordinary.
Frustration bubbled within her. There had been at least three horses poached since Lucien killed the kludde. Even if the wild winged horses of the Hills were smaller than the domesticated breed Rizaek rode, that was a lot of feathers left unaccounted for. So where were they? Had Mum Teleported them away to gods knew where? Had she been too slow?
As if he could read her thoughts, Orrig said, “Vat does spell say?”
Thistle’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment. She had almost forgotten. She held up her palm, the scrap of cotton vibrating—weakly, but enough to give Thistle hope.
She followed where it indicated, and was forced to get on her hands and knees as it pointed underneath an ancient wooden shelving unit. Carefully she reached, and she was rewarded as her fingers brushed against an object hiding just out of sight.
Thistle pulled out a single feather. It was three finger widths across and the length of her hand, dull grey in color and lacking the innate luster she had come to associate with the feathers of a winged horse.
It had also been bled dry of its magic, leaving only the faintest remains behind in its core. By all rights Thistle shouldn’t have been able to track something so minute, but it seemed that when she had put enough power into the spell to make up the difference.
“Let us hear vat Jacob haff to say,” Orrig said. He patted Thistle’s shoulder. “Goot vork.”
The emerged to the sound of Lyra arguing with Jacob Swinehart, while Carson set off to the side with his head buried in his arms. Brent elbowed Lyra sharply, cutting off a scathing remark that made Thistle glad she had gone down with Orrig.
Thistle held the feather up for their inspection. At the sight of it Jacob’s face went from beet red, to white, to sickly grey. “Where…how…?”
Carson was equally taken aback. “Pa, I don’t understand. Why’s a feather in our cellar?” He turned towards his father, eyes shiny and bright. “What did you do!?”
Jacob swayed unsteadily while his mouth moved up and down, but no sound came out. Carson threw himself away from his father, tears streaming down his face. “How could you? Do you know what you’ve done? We…we gotta stop those mercenaries. They’re planin’ on takin Miss Clark to Crossroads any minute.”
Orrig grabbed the back of Carson’s shirt before he could run off. This was the impetus Jacob Swinehart needed to snap out of his reverie. His face twisted with pure hatred. “Serves her right,” he said scathingly. “Serves her right for fillin’ your head with lies. That &#@*$ was a poison. &$*# that mage, he said he got rid of the last of them.”
A growl escaped from Lyra’s throat, and Orrig was forced to release Carson to hold her back. “Tell us truth,” Orrig said, an unspoken threat in his voice. “Now.”
“I ain’t no rat,” Jacob said.
Carson moaned with despair. “Pa, tell them th’ truth! Tell me! Is this why you was goin’ to Crossroads so much? Is this why you’re runnin’ outta town?”
“I ain’t runnin’!” Jacob shouted. “This were all for your good. Everything I ever did was for you, you’ve just been to blind t’ see it! That mage were tellin’ tales of magic ‘n she wove her spell well enough, why else would you want t’ stay in this dung heap? T' hell with all you mages,” he said, voice tightly controlled fury as he spat at Thistle’s feet. “You're all the same—“
Jacob was cut off by a hard blow to the jaw, courtesy of Brent. The tavern owner crumpled in a boneless heap, a knot starting to form before he hit the ground. Carson and Thistle were paralyzed by the sudden violence, while Orrig sighed.
“I wanted to do that,” Lyra said sullenly.
“Brent, why…We still needed more information from him,” Thistle said.
“He spat on you,” he said simply. “Besides, he wasn’t going to tell us anyway.”
“What in th’ nine hells is goin’ on?” Carson whispered, his eyes wide and frightened. “Does that mean Pa were th’ one killing all those horses? But he don’t got no magic.”
“No,” Thistle said quietly as she stared at the feather in her hand. “But I know who does.”
The fight was not going to plan. Rizaek and Aegis barreled towards Mum at full speed with no regard for their own safety. Mum was caught just as off guard by their sudden arrival as Thistle, and he only managed to loosen one bolt of golden lightning that missed wide of its target. He barely had enough time to throw up a shield, but it wasn’t enough to stop two thousand pounds of angry horseflesh.
Mum was thrown backward, and Aegis took back to the air before he could recover. Seizing the opportunity, Thistle reached into her satchel and threw a handful of seeds at Mum. Vines of ivy and creepers burst to life and wrapped themselves around his arms and legs. If she could just get him to let go of the crystal…
Thistle heard someone moving behind her and ducked on instinct. One of Rhys’s blades cut in the space her head had been a moment before. She over balanced and stumbled, clumsily avoiding another strike of his knife.
“I’m not the one who attacked you,” Thistle cried, somehow managing to roll to her feet. Rhys blinked blood out of his eyes that flowed from a cut near his temple. He swayed drunkenly, not yet recovered from his fall. It was probably the only reason why she wasn’t dead.
“Y-you did this!” Rhys said, panting hard as he swung an arcing cut that Thistle had to jump backwards to avoid, falling hard on her backside. In her mind she could hear Mum cackle as he broke free of his restraints. “What did you do to my mage?!”
Rhys’s head shot up suddenly and he brought his arms in front of him just as an arrow whistled overhead. It exploded as it hit the force field, and Thistle ducked her head to avoid the shrapnel.
“For &$*# sake, Thistle, move!” Lyra screamed. She swore as Mum threw lightning at her, throwing herself away from where she was perched. It hit the house behind her, which blew apart as thunder boomed down the empty street.
Thistle scrambled to her feet and ran. She knew exactly one spell to put out fires, a simple cantrip meant for hearths and other small blazes. Thistle shouted the words of the spell, putting all her soul and focus into preventing the house from going up into flames.
It worked, at least well enough for Thistle to turn her mind onto more pressing matters. Aegis swooped down where Lyra lay moaning, rearing on his hind legs as Mum stalked forward. Rizaek shouted a warning in Orcish, eyeing the ball of golden light Mum held in one hand.
The mercenary guild is no place for boys, Mum said, projecting his mindspeak so that all could hear. Go back to your stables, little runt, before I’m forced to hurt you. He chuckled. I might anyway, for that stunt you just pulled.
Behind Thistle, Rhys had stopped attacking, staring slack-jawed at his mage.
Rizaek held tightly onto Aegis’s reigns. “You kill horses. I vill kill you”
You’re welcome to try.
This time Thistle was ready for the lightning. At the first spark she clapped her hands together to form a solid barrier between Mum and Rizaek. As the bolt struck, she directed it harmlessly to the ground.
Lyra was slowly standing, hands clasped over her ears. The blast wave had done more damage then then lightning itself. Lyra was strong, but strength meant little if the thunderclap had burst her eardrums.
Silently apologizing for the indignity, Thistle Levitated her onto Aegis’s back. The horse startled, but didn’t spook or buck. “Get her out of here!” Thistle shouted.
Aegis unfurled his wings, and Thistle stopped two more lightning strikes as Rizaek guided him safely away from the fight.
Mum scowled his displeasure, sparks crackling at his fingertips. Thistle was beginning to wonder if lightning was the only battle spell he knew, to have tried it so often without success. It made sense. He seemed to specialize more in subterfuge than war, and relied on stolen power to fuel his spells.
“You can’t possibly hope to get away with this,” Thistle said. “Even if you win this fight, you can’t hide what you’ve done.”
I beg to differ. It’s a simple enough thing to improve upon the facts. You said it yourself, there are three mages in this town—so what, the cripple didn’t do it. Who are people going to believe more, a faceless upstart or a respected member of one of the most promising up and coming mercenary teams? You’ve proven you have some skill. All I have to say is you made me do it, whether through threats or magic, and I’ll be free as a lark. After all, no one would ever suspect a mute.
For a moment the look of boyish innocence was back, beguiling blue eyes wide and frightened. The effect was so startling that Thistle flinched. Then Mum grinned.
See? You have your mask, and I have mine. We’re all monsters of a sort. I’m just honest about it.
“There’s nothing honest about what you’ve done here,” Thistle said through gritted teeth before shoving her hand into her satchel.
Ah yes, more weeds. Truly frightening.
“I would be more worried about what’s behind you,” Thistle said.
Very funny. The sparks in his hand grew into a ball of lightning, the gold of his magic tinged with black. Now let’s finish th—
He turned just in time to see Orrig and Brent hurdling towards him in a berserker rage. Thistle threw her seeds while he was distracted, calling upon her magic once more.
Only this time instead of ivy there was briars, and creepers had been replaced by nettles and rose thorns. Mum’s mouth opened with a silent scream. He managed to throw up a hasty shield against Brent and Orrig, but lost control of the spell gathered in his hand.
Thistle saw it in slow motion. There were precious few mages who could manage two spells at the same time, and Mum was not one of them. As he drew the sign that raised a magical shield she encased as much of the uncontrolled lightning into a force field of her own. The explosion would have otherwise killed Mum instantly was encapsulated and driven to the ground, where the power seeped harmlessly into the dirt.
At the same time Orrig cut through Mum’s shield as if it were wet paper and struck him in the ribs with the broad side of his axe. Mum was knocked to the ground, landing in even more thorns, and Brent wasted no time stomping onto his wrist.
The sickening crack of broken bone filled the air, and the quartz crystal rolled onto the ground. The golden light of Mum's stolen magic faded, and his head slumped back in defeat.
The fight was over.
Adrenaline left Thistle’s body as fast as it had come, and she plopped to the ground, exhausted. She scarcely noticed Orrig securing Mum in manacles, broken wrist and all, or Aegis trot up the street, Lyra and Rizaek on his back and Isla limping slowly by his side.
“Took you long enough,” Lyra said. She held a bloody hand over her ear, while the other was holding onto her seat with desperate strength.
“I would have worked faster with my tools. Runes take time,” Isla said.
“Sorry, can’t hear you,” Lyra said.
Thistle hurried over Aegis and helped Lyra back to the ground, before starting her healing. Once she was sure Lyra’s tympanic membrane was intact and she hadn’t taken any other damage, she asked, “Runes?”
Isla nodded towards Brent and Orrig, “I etched something that could cut through his magic. It won’t last long, I’m afraid, It was only a surface-level marking. It will wear off as the rune fades.”
“It worked just like we planned,” Brent added. “The moron left the key to her cell in the jail when he went to talk with you. We were able to get her out no problem once you lured him away.”
And towards the town, Thistle thought. Stupid, you should have taken him somewhere where no one else could get hurt.
“We should check if anyone was injured from the lightning strike,” Thistle said softly.
“What about him?” Lyra said, jerking her thumb where Rhys stood, frozen in place. No magic had been placed on him, but there might as well have. He didn’t seem to notice the blood that flowed freely from the cut on his temple, or anything at all for that matter.
A cold look came on Isla’s face. She limped towards him slowly, still in her night clothes, greying hair in a mess of tangles and dark circles under her eyes. She stopped about two feet away from him, every harsh, angular line in her face made sharper by her anger.
“I don’t understand,” Rhys said numbly.
“That’s because you’re an idiot,” Isla retorted. She swung her cane, sending a whisper of magic down the length of the wood and into the metal ferrule as it made contact with his leather armor.
Isla couldn’t throw lightning bolts big enough to blow up houses, but she could send enough electricity through her cane to blow Rhys off of his feet. She turned to the rest, daring them to speak against her.
As usual, it was Lyra who broke the silence.
“I know I said I wanted to break his nose, but that was awesome.”
Chapter 13: Odds and Endings (or Thistle Gets a Chance to Think)
This is officially the longest story I've ever written. I'm still working on editing through previous chapters, but I didn't feel like holding off on this until I'd finished. Thanks again for all your support through this monster of a project.
After arresting Mum with his own magic stopping manacles the group spent the next several hours explaining, reexplaining, and explaining yet again to a gathered crowd that made the majority of the town why one of their (thankfully abandoned) houses had been blown to smithereens. There was some yelling, some shoving, and the occasional curse among the people, but cooler heads prevailed and Orrig was able to tell the mayor who was killing the winged horses and why exactly one of their more prominent citizens now had a broken jaw.
It didn’t hurt that Orrig volunteered his services in the clean-up effort, free of charge. Thistle would have helped anyway, seeing how the destruction was partially her fault regardless of what Lyra and Brent said, and was secretly pleased to not have to come up with an excuse to do so.
Rizaek was sent post-haste to the mercenary guild in Crossroads, with hopes that backup would be able to arrive the next day. They would need help transporting Mum and Jacob Swinehart for trail, and no one was quite sure what they were supposed to do with Rhys. As far as anyone could tell he hadn’t broken any laws, but Thistle heard the phrases ‘reckless endangerment’ and ‘criminal negligence’ and agreed it was better to be safe than sorry. Lyra cackled as Orrig drug him into the jail cell previously occupied by Isla until someone better versed in law could decide, and then it was back to work.
When the sun began to dip behind the Hills and the shadows grew long they stopped. Thistle walked with Orrig, Lyra, and Brent back to Frank’s home, utterly exhausted. It was a good sort of exhausted, and the voice in her head was as quieter than it had been in a long, long time.
“How did you convince Rizaek to help you?” Thistle asked.
Brent and Lyra shrugged, and pointed to Orrig. He seemed embarrassed by the attention, rubbing the stubble on his jaw before answering, “I tell him truth and give proof. Vhen mage attack…vat else need to be said? Boy small, not stupid.”
“Kid’s got balls of solid brass to stand down a souped-up mage,” Lyra said. “You going to offer him a job?”
“She’s just asking because she wants to ride his horse again,” Brent whispered to Thistle conspiratorially.
“Yeah, I don’t think it counts when you’re bleeding out of both earholes. That hurt like a ^$&#*.” She elbowed Thistle in the ribs. “Thanks for fixing that, by the way.”
Orrig shook his head. “Rizaek have much thinking now, must decide if even vant to be mercenary. Needs time and qviet.”
There was a sadness in the way he spoke that Thistle wasn’t sure she would have noticed before coming to the Hills, and with that understanding came a sense of belonging that she soaked up like water in a desert, dry and yearning for more. Thistle allowed herself to giggle at Brent and Lyra’s teasing, and danced out of the way when the fight threatened to get physical. She ended up walking next to Orrig, ducking her head instinctively when he looked down at her.
“You did goot job,” he said quietly. “Am very happy.”
Thistle almost allowed herself to believe it.
Dr. Malady was exiting Frank’s house as they arrived. An irrational burst of fear made Thistle tense, until she saw that the doctor’s soft smile.
“Just finishing my rounds,” Dr. Malady said. “The world doesn’t stop spinning just because someone tries t’ blow up the square.”
All of them began to speak at once, but the doctor just held up her hands and chuckled. “I kid, I kid. I heard the gist of it from Isla earlier today, although I was hoping Thistle would be able to give me more details. That is, assuming you didn’t have other sleeping arrangements for tonight?”
“Oh! I, er, that’s…” Thistle glanced up at Orrig, who nodded his approval. “That would be wonderful. Thank you.”
The evening was spent peeling garlic.
Thistle couldn’t remember the exact words she used to convince Dr. Malady to let her help. There had been quite a bit of inelegant blabbing trying to explain that, really, it was no trouble at all and there was nothing she would rather do with her time. Eventually Dr. Malady felt sorry for her, and the two were settled on the back porch.
Thistle realized belatedly that she would not be able to take off her gloves for the task, so instead she used magic peel and flick the cloves into a growing pile. Dr. Malady watched for a moment, spellbound, before declaring it the most charming display that she’d ever had the pleasure to see.
“How is Isla doing?” Thistle said. She had meant to ask Isla herself, but she had left the cleanup efforts early, her magic ill-suited for the physical labor.
“Resting with that cat of hers, thank goodness,” Dr. Malady said. “I’ve offered her sleeping draughts in the past, but she’s never accepted before today. I think your gift overwhelmed her.”
She spoke of Lucian’s sword, which Orrig had presented to her along with the kludde’s head as proof of their findings. The head was burned, but with no known next of kin it was decided that the sword would stay with Isla until further notice.
“I’m sorry, we didn’t mean to—“
“You’ve done nothing to apologize for,” Dr. Malady said gently. “In fact, you’ve done more good than the rest of us put together. I still can’t believe Jacob would do such a thing. Is it true that he’s the one who hired that mage?”
Thistle hesitated, not sure if she should be talking about the case to someone who wasn’t technically involved. “Is that what Isla told you?”
“Not in so many words,” Dr. Malady admitted. “But I did have a word with Mayor Stone, and he filled in some of the missing pieces.”
If the mayor didn’t feel the need to keep it a secret, than neither did Thistle. “Mr. Swinehart and Mum aren’t talking, but we did find some evidence at Mr. Swinehart’s house that makes it look that way. Orrig thinks Mr. Swinehart met Mum when he was sent to Crossroads the first time, but the job ended up going to Mr. Russo’s team instead. It was only later that they planned the poachings. Mum was capable of Teleporting to and from Crossroads and had the magical ability to kill the winged horses, and Mr. Swinehart would hide the feathers until a buyer came available.”
“And Jacob got his moving money,” Dr. Malady said with a sigh. “It’s nothin’ but foolishness and greed. He’s had plenty of coin t’ settle elsewhere. Has for a long time. But you have to understand, Jacob grew up with nothing. He started working at that tavern to pay his daddy’s debts, and I think he ended up buying it out of spite. Then again, Jacob has always had a good head for business. It doesn’t matter how poor people are, folk will find the money to drink. Jacob understands that better ‘n anyone, and it’s made him a wealthy man.”
“Then why do it?” Thistle asked. “If he was so unhappy here, why not just leave?”
Dr. Malady leaned back in her chair. “That’s a difficult question, and one I’m not even sure Jacob knows the answer to. He took care of his brother from the day he was born, but Lars died about a year ago.”
“Carson told me about him,” Thistle said.
“Lars worshiped Jacob and would have done anything he asked, but living in the city would have been hard, even if it were a small city like Crossroads. Lars was safe here. As for why Jacob stayed so long after his death…I can only guess, but Jacob hates being looked down on. I can’t imagine the prospect of starting back over again after spending a lifetime climbing out of the gutter had much appeal. If he was going to move, it would be on his terms.”
There was a knock at the door, and Dr. Malady excused herself. Thistle absentmindedly peeled a few more cloves, pondering the doctor’s words. She could see how there might be some truth to Dr. Malady’s theory, but it still felt incomplete. Jacob Swinehart might have killed the winged horses for the money, but it was hate that led him to framing Isla for his crimes. He had spoken about Isla with a disproportionate amount of vitriol, considering that the only thing Isla had done was talk to his son about magic and winged horses.
Maybe that was all it took.
Low murmurings filtered from within the house, and soon Dr. Malady returned, accompanied by Carson. Carson was obviously distraught, wringing his hands while hovering anxiously near the doorway. “I don’t mean t’ intrude. I just was wonderin’ if Miss Clark were around? I wanted…I wanted t’ say I was sorry. For everything.”
His eyes fell to Thistle, and he gulped.
“Take a seat,” Dr. Malady said, pulling up an old, worn rocker up to where they were working.
Carson sat, his back ramrod straight and his hands forming stranglehold on the arms of the chair. “I didn’t knew you had company, Doctor. I didn’t mean t’ intrude.”
“Nonsense. Thistle was just helping me as a kindness. She’ll be staying the night.”
“Oh.” Carson’s posture relaxed marginally, but Thistle still got the impression he would bolt at the slightest provocation. “I suppose I should be sayin’ sorry to you, too. I didn’t know that Pa had…that he’d…”
His voice cracked, and he couldn’t continue. Thistle had already given her handkerchief to Isla the night before and didn’t have another, but Dr. Malady generously offered her own as tears slid down Carson’s cheeks.
“I didn’t know he’d done it,” Carson said plaintively. “I never would’ve let him if I did.”
“You don’t have to answer for what your father’s done,” Dr. Malady said.
“But he said he did it ‘cause of me,” Carson said. “Pa said he were killin’ winged horses for me.”
“Carson Swinehart, what your father did was nothing but selfishness,” Dr. Malady said sharply. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If Jacob had your best interests at heart, he would have let you choose for yourself whether to stay here or go with him to Crossroads. He would have talked to you like the man you’re gonna be instead of trying t’ bully you into doin’ what he wanted.”
Thistle wondered if Dr. Malady knew that she slipped into her natural drawl when she got upset, because she took a deep breath to collect herself, and when she spoke again the educated polish to her dictation had returned, “This isn’t your fault. No one thinks it is. Not me, not Thistle, and certainly not Isla.”
“But why? Why’d he do it?” Carson said desperately.
Dr. Malady’s expression softened. “There’s nothing wrong with being angry, Carson. Just make sure you’re angry at the right thing, and don’t let it fester into bitterness. Bitterness is drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” She paused, as if unsure of her next words, before saying softly, “Your daddy is a bitter, angry man. It ate at him until there was nothing left. Don’t let it eat at you, too.”
“I tried my best t’ make him happy,” Carson said, his voice broken. “I wasn’t ever good enough to make him happy.”
Dr. Malady sighed. “That’s not your fault, either.”
Carson nodded half-heartedly and rose to his feet. “It’s gettin’ late. I should pro’bly go. I told th' orc he could use th' stables for his horse for as long as he wanted. Gotta make sure everything's ready when he gits back.”
“My door is always open if you want to talk. Don’t forget that," Dr. Malady said.
When Carson was out of earshot a flinty spark of anger flashed through Dr. Malady’s eyes. “Gods forgive Jacob for what he's done to that poor boy, because I don’t think I ever will.”
“Do you think he’ll be okay?”
“Time will tell,” Dr. Malady said. “His mama ran away from her problems and Jacob’s let his fester and rot. Maybe Carson will learn from their mistakes. I’ll keep an eye on him. It’s hard at first, when you realize someone you love wasn’t who you thought they were. It hurts more than you think hurt can hurt, until you don’t think you can bear any more. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in my years it’s people can bear more ‘n they think.”
“That doesn’t make it any easier,” Thistle said.
“No. No, it doesn’t,” Dr. Malady agreed. “I remember how hard it was to say goodbye to my sister. They say time heals, but that’s only partially true. There are still days it cuts as deep as if I’d done it yesterday afternoon.”
“What happened?” Thistle asked.
“Oh, nothing near as dramatic as this,” Dr. Malady assured her. She brushed a stray hair out of her eyes and resumed her peeling. “My sister was my best friend as a girl. She hated the Hills with a passion, but it wasn’t till I started showing an interest in medicine she saw her way out. My predecessor agreed t’ help fund our schooling so long as we used our learning to help the people here. Mary never intended t’ come back and ran away as soon as she could. She thought I’d come with her—I thought I’d go with her, but I couldn’t.”
“What made you stay?” Thistle said.
Dr. Malady peered at Thistle over her glasses. “I promised, didn’t I? Besides, if I didn’t come back then there’d be no one here to take care of the sick. The Salt Rock Hills can be a hard place to love, but abandoning it just didn’t feel right.” She went silent for a moment, and when she spoke again her voice was heavy. “Mary never forgave me for it. Her oldest boy writes on occasion, but I’ve not seen her in over thirty years. I don’t regret the choice I made, but sometimes I wonder…what if.”
“I’m sorry,” Thistle said.
“Carson can heal. I know he can,” Dr. Malady said, and the sad smile returned to her face. It was clear that the events of the day had taken a toll, exhaustion hidden in the lines under her eyes and the creases around her mouth. But there was strength there, too, a steadiness from someone who had endured her own share of suffering and managed to make it out the other side with her sense of optimism intact.
Dr. Malady noticed something in Thistle’s expression, and the smile widened. “Let’s leave the rest of this for now. Tomorrow will be here soon enough, and Isla isn’t the only one who needs her rest.”
It was barely light when Thistle woke, but she felt both rested and restless as she snuck out of her room and out the back door of Dr. Malady’s house. The air was crisp and pleasantly cool, with a heavy morning dew glittering like diamonds under the light of dawn. Thistle walked slowly among the rows of plants, letting her fingers brush across the leaves and yearning for the freedom to take off her shoes and let her feet sink into the soft earth.
But there were some things Thistle simply could not do, so she settled for strengthening each and every plant in Dr. Malady’s garden, protecting them from insects, disease, and the sun’s scorching rays. She could feel the flowers sing their appreciation, and it took a small force of will to convince the onions not to ripen a full month before they were supposed to.
Quiet—true quiet of the mind, soul, and body—were was a rare thing that Thistle treasured more than almost anything else, so of course it could not last. There had been so little time to think since approaching Orrig about his post. The two jobs she had done as a mercenary were hard, stressful, and dangerous. The margin for error was razor thin, and, if Thistle were honest with herself, she had scraped by on luck, rather than any skill on her part.
She was thankful that Orrig, Lyra, and Brent were nothing like Rhys and Mum. She was terrified that she was one mistake away from ending up like Isla, Marco, and Lucian. A small part of her wondered if she were simply like Rizaek, and they were tolerating her only for her magic. Thistle didn’t think so, but she couldn’t be sure and wouldn’t blame them if they were.
we’re all monsters of a sort. you wear your mask, and I wear mine
Mum’s words haunted her, more true than he ever could have realized. The game Thistle was playing, this façade of normalcy and belonging, was as dangerous as anything that might be lurking in the abandoned mines.
It was so tempting to fall into the trap of believing that circumstances were different this time around, that Brent, Orrig, and Lyra would accept her for who she was and. Thistle knew better. She knew what happened to monsters. She knew, but yet she still hoped…
you do goot job. thanks for the healing, by the way. the spell worked, that’s incredible
…Thistle couldn’t let herself hope. Not after being burned so many times before.
Somewhere in the back of her mind Thistle heard the back door open, and turned to see Isla limp out to the porch. She was still groggy and scowled at the general direction of the sun, as if she found it personally offensive.
“Good morning,” Thistle said.
“It’s morning. I don’t know about the good part,” Isla said as she slumped into a chair and rubbed her eyes. “You couldn’t sleep either?”
“No, I’m just a morning person,” Thistle said. “I was just getting in my last view before leaving.”
And it was quite the view. The Hills sat atop a backdrop of pink and purple and blue, highlighting the rugged beauty of their rocky slopes. Birds sang in the morning, and wind whispered through the garden. There was no denying that the Salt Rock Hills held a particular charm, and it was easy to forget the dark danger that lay just beneath their feet.
"Lucian was the same," Isla said wistfully. "He said that getting to travel was one of the best perks of the job."
"Huh. I'd not thought of that," Thistle said. Seeing Isla's quizzical look, she added, "This is my second job. I only joined Orrig a few days ago."
"No kidding?" Isla said. "What was your first mission, dragon slaying?"
Thistle laughed. "Close. Drath summoning gone wrong at the Academy."
Isla's eyes widened, and what little color she had left her pale cheeks. "I thought the Academy covered summoning at the beginning of the semester."
"Wait, you know the Academy teaches about the drath?" Thistle asked.
"Know about it? I was expelled because of it," Isla said, disgusted. She jabbed her cane in Thistle's direction. "They changed the curriculum when I was trying to train to be a healer. Basic Summoning was added to the list of Gen Eds required to graduate, with a required practical exam added to the unit on the Drathmakal. Before they just explained the theory and gave a written test." She shuddered. "I refused to do it. The whole thing made my skin crawl. I wanted to heal, not stuff demons into corpses."
"They expelled you for that?" Thistle said.
"Well, technically it was for breaking the student code of conduct, but I only cussed out the Board when they wouldn't let me do an alternate assignment," Isla allowed grudgingly. "I was young and stupid, and didn't really understand how much trouble I was in until it was too late. I would have just taken the failing grade, but they structured the program so you had to pass Basic Summoning to graduate, and you had to do the practical to pass the class."
"Grand Master Wu didn't say anything?" Thistle said.
"Grand Master Wu was on the other side of the continent," Isla said darkly. "The whole thing was kept very hush-hush, and besides, I very much doubt a Wizard has time to keep track of every third-year student who can't keep their nose clean." She chuckled humorlessly. "I tell you what, though, every other student who had second thoughts about the Drath learned to keep their mouths closed."
Thistle leaned back on her heels. What Isla described teetered dangerously on the edge of conspiracy. But even if true it would be nearly impossible to prove, especially so many years after the fact.
Isla let her head fall back against the back of her chair. "Drath summoning...talk about a trial by fire. Brings back memories. I was such a mess when Marco hired me and let me stay in his home. He didn't have to do any of it, but he always said a dwarf managed their affairs so they could afford to be generous when the need arose. He saved me then, too."
She rubbed her eyes. "Gods, I miss him. You'd think after three times I'd be better at starting over."
Thistle was silent, looking back out at the Hills, bathed in all their glory by the rising sun. There were some things that never got easier, and rebuilding a life that had been destroyed at its very foundation was one of them.
"Was it worth it?" Thistle asked, giving voice of her deepest fear to perhaps the one person who could understand it.
The question took her by surprise, but without a second of hesitation Isla said, "Yeah. Yeah, it was."
They both left the statement for what it was. An understanding passed between them that went beyond words, and Thistle found herself retreating back to the same question that had roused her at this early hour. Isla had found her place in the world after enduring extreme hardship and injustice, only to have her health and her friends cruelly snatched from her by something beyond her control. Yet Isla still believed that the time spent with Marco and Lucian outweighed the cost of losing them.
It wasn't a direct comparison. Isla was perfectly human, while Thistle knew she was little more than a slavering beast wearing a cloak of civility. Neither the kludde's attack nor her expulsion from the Academy were Isla's fault, when Thistle bore the entire blame for her failings. Isla didn't have to live her life in constant fear of having her true identity discovered, or worry about being attacked by the general populous for the crime of being the wrong species.
But for all the differences, Thistle couldn't overlook the similarity in their experience, and Isla's simple affirmation shook her to the core.
“So you are off today, then?” Isla asked after a long while, breaking the reverent silence.
“Assuming Orrig has everything in order,” Thistle said, remembering the literal mountain of paperwork she had last seen him filling out. “What about you? Do you know what you’re going to do now?”
A muscle in her cheek twitched at the tactless question, and Isla said quietly, “I’ve not decided, but I think…I think it’s time I’ve left. Past time.” She looked out at the Hills, ghosts in her eyes. “I wish I could pay Dr. Malady back for her kindness, but I’ve hidden long enough. I owe it to Sophia to explain in person what happened to Marco, and I need to find out for certain if Lucian had no family. His sword should go to them if they’re willing to take it.”
The back door opened for a second time, and Dr. Malady said, “Isla Clark, the best way you can pay me back is by living well, wherever it is you decide to go. Now come inside and eat something, the both of you.”
“Yes, Doctor,” Isla said with a hint of sarcasm that Thistle suspected had been part of her long before arriving to the Salt Rock Hills. As Thistle neared Isla touched her on the arm. “Hey, you’ve got a good team. Can you tell them thank you for me?”
“I will,” Thistle promised.
“Take care of them,” Isla said.
“I plan to,” Thistle said, realizing she’d made her decision even as she spoke. There would be time to regret her irrational attachment to anyone who showed her basic professional curtesy later. Instead Thistle ate a quick breakfast, and after saying her final goodbyes managed to slip into Isla’s room and laid what was left of her cut from the Drath job on the bed. She didn’t know if it would make up for what she had lost paying for Rhys’s team, but it would be close, and Thistle had the feeling Isla would be needing the money in the days ahead.
She arrived to the sight of Frank cradling a baby.
The tiny scrap of humanity was wrapped in so much swaddling Thistle could hardly tell what it was. Frank sat in his heavy rocker with Anne Marie was hovering in the chair beside him. The old man was so absorbed he scarcely noticed Thistle’s intrusion of his living room, softly cooing while the babe sucked on his pinky finger.
“Hullo, Thistle,” Anne Marie said. She looked new parents often did: overwhelmed and exhausted and radiantly happy. “The others was just gettin’ ready ‘round back.”
“He’s beautiful,” Thistle said. “What’s his name?”
Anne Marie blushed. “Named him Joseph Franklin, after his daddy ‘n th’ man who might as well be his granddaddy.”
“Nonsense,” Frank said without taking his eyes off the newborn who wore his name. “I’m just the old codger who lives next door. An’ I suppose I owe you an apology. Seems you was right about that Clark girl. It were a mage after all, we jus’ didn’t have th’ right one.”
“Don’t you think you should go a little bit easier on the poor woman?” Anne Marie said. “You’re startin’ t’ sound like my grandmother.”
“Anything but that,” Frank joked. He glanced up to Thistle. “I heard th’ mayor wants t’ block the entrance t’ the mine. D’you know if it’s true?”
Thistle nodded. “It’s the only way from keeping any other monsters from getting out.”
Frank sighed, looking every one of his years and more. “Tha’s what I thought.” The baby began to squall, and carefully he handed young Joseph Franklin Baker back to his mother. His eyes were bright with unshed tears. “Sometimes it’s better to let the past die.”
The return journey was uneventful. Thistle suffered through the intense interview with the officials of the mercenary guild at Crossroads without too much stuttering and managed one more night with Lyra that somehow wasn’t terrible. When they arrived back to the city Orrig gave them a day off, their pockets heavy with compensation for their recent troubles and the assurance that there part of the Salt Rock Hills job was finished. Lyra let it slip that she heard that the guild was trying to figure out whether or not Mum had magically influenced Rhys or if he was, in Lyra’s words “really that much of a &^#%@$$.” Either way, his position within the guild was questionable and his reputation in tatters.
“Serves him right,” Lyra said, before going out to her favorite bar.
Thistle only had one thing she needed to buy, and she found it quickly. She spent the rest of her afternoon reading, and it was early evening when she heard a knock at the door.
“Come in,” Thistle called.
The door creaked open, and Brent shuffled awkwardly between the threshold of her room and the hallway. “Um, hi.”
“Hi. Um, how are you?” Thistle asked.
“Well. I’m doing really well.” One of his arms was held conspicuously behind his back, and for a moment Thistle had the irrational fear that he was clutching a knife. Brent followed her gaze, and his cheeks reddened.
“Igotsomethingforyou,” he said, all in a rush, before thrusting a small parcel wrapped in brown parchment paper in her hands.
“You…what?” Thistle said.
“It’s actually from all of us,” Brent said. “Well, it was my idea but Lyra and Orrig helped choose, and anyway it’s you’re welcome present. So, uh, welcome aboard!”
Thistle looked a Brent’s flustered, sweaty face to the gift in her hands. It was clumsily wrapped and tied off with simple twine, but she could still feel the familiar contours of a book. Slowly Thistle undid the ties to reveal a handsome leather cover. She flipped through the empty pages.
“A journal?” she said.
If possible he got even redder. “You said you didn’t have one, so…yeah.”
A lump formed in Thistle’s throat, and she was so touched by the gesture she wasn’t sure she could speak. Worry plagued Brent’s face at her lack of reaction, and he said, “It’s okay, isn’t it? I can take it back. You didn’t already buy one did you? Gods, I’m so stupid…”
“It’s perfect,” Thistle blurted suddenly. She stared at him in wonder. “It’s absolutely perfect. Thank you.”
“Oh.” A loopy grin spread across his face, exposing oversized canines. “Good. I’m glad.”
Thistle reached for her one purchase of the day, feeling stupid that she hadn’t gotten it wrapped yet before handing it to Brent. “I got something for you to.”
“A shirt?” he asked quizzically.
“For the one I ruined. Sorry.”
Brent laughed. “Don’t worry about that. I’ve got plenty, and it was worth it." He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "You know, no one’s ever called me a genius before. I could get used to that.”
“Well, it was your idea,” Thistle said.
“And your magic that figure it all out. We couldn’t have done it without you.” He held up the shirt up for closer inspection. “I’m gonna see if this fits, if that’s okay. See you at supper?”
Thistle smiled, grateful to be included even though she knew in her heart of hearts that he would reject her should he ever found out about the monster she truly was, just as she had been rejected by everyone who had come before him.
“I’ll be there.”