A slight ray of sunlight peeked through the shutters that had been nailed down for the harsh winter. Irulen gathered his wits, rolled out of bed, stood up tall, and stretched while letting out a bestial yawn. He took the fact that no one had come banging on his door in search of his testicles as a sign that Farah had slipped back to her room undetected.
Once ready, he nodded to Max who then flew to his rightful place upon his friend’s shoulder. Irulen opened the door and stopped just short of walking into a wrinkly old man, who was short of stature and bereft of hair.
The old man walked with an obvious gait. He leaned on his left leg while waiting for his bum right leg to catch up.
Was that him near the door last night?
“Did you enjoy your night?” A slight hint of suspicion pressed at the old man’s eyes.
“I spent the night in comfort, thank you. I’m sorry, but what is your name?”
“I’m Samford, proprietor of this public house.”
Irulen thought he saw dust emit from the man’s mouth as he spoke. “Oh, well it’s a pleasure, thank you for your hospitality. I must be—”
The old man thrust a brown package into the wizard’s hand.
“Some salted herring for your travels.”
“Many thanks. I must be on my way to meet—”
“They are waiting by the front entrance,” the man said.
Irulen walked down the hallway waving goodbye to the innkeeper. He felt the tingle of the man’s glare as he walked away. There was no audible movement from where the innkeeper stood. The uncomfortable feeling of being watched burnt hot on his back.
When Irulen entered the tavern area, he found a group of men sitting around the table closest to the entrance. William and Jorin Steadfrost, the friend, Brom, and the gatekeeper, Lew, were all present.
The early morning did no favors for Lew’s complexion and general appearance. His fat sagged, bags hung around his close-together eyes, and his posture left his back bent in the shape of a “C”. His hefty head hovered inches above an empty bowl of mashed oats, offering only the subtlest resistance to the force of gravity.
In contrast, William stood tall, his pride and rigid masculinity represented by his erect spine and broad stature. Brom was much stouter than Irulen remembered, and the comparison between Jorin and his father was remarkable. He was a slightly scaled down version of the barrel-chested brute. All of the men had black hair, although Lew was bald in the middle.
They were all outfitted with gear and looked ready to travel. Even though he was on time by his reckoning, Irulen realized they had been waiting for a good while now. Their bowls were empty.
“My apologies, gentlemen, last night was the first I spent in a real bed for some time.” Which one of them sent the innkeeper with the fish? Irulen hated fish, especially dried fish. And he hated Lew, or at least disliked him intensely, and the man’s voice, especially this early in the morning, grated on his nerves.
“We hope you enjoyed your rest,” Lew rasped. “There is much work to be done before this day is through.”
“I am more than happy to get to it, but we can’t all go. Too many feet to further disturb the scene.”
Obvious discontent etched in their frowns.
“I’m sorry, but I have a set of rules for what I do—a system. I need Brom, since he’s the one who found her. I’ll take one more, and even that person has to wait away from the actual kill site.”
Lew volunteered to stay behind and watch the gate. Jorin and William walked outside and talked privately.
Max stirred on Irulen’s shoulder and faced backward. Irulen fished into his pocket and held a rag under the raven’s rear-feathers. Max lowered himself and evacuated his vent.
Lew and Brom looked on with disgust as Irulen folded the rag inwards.
The wizard shrugged. “Better than the alternative.”
A breeze blew in as the front door swung open. William approached Irulen with quiet purpose, “Jorin will go.”
Irulen bowed his head slightly in acknowledgment of the decision. He fell into step behind Brom and Jorin as they exited the tavern.
The swinging of the door startled a rogue dog outside the tavern. Irulen viewed the town differently by the light of day. Walkways intertwined neatly with blocks of housing. The roofs of their homes were formed by interlacing thatch packed with mud and were supported by wooden walls. A few dwellings of stone, likely belonging to the elders of the community, held positions of prominence. Although a few hogs slept in stalls, probably being saved for festivities, these people survived the winter mostly on dried meat and grain.
Some children ran past him, playing. They weren’t wearing as much as he thought a child should, but these were stout people. Stout. The word fits them well.
Soon they passed through the gate and began putting space between them and the town. The sled Jorin dragged to retrieve Isabel’s body left a trail in the fresh coat of snow. As usual when traveling this area, Irulen took notice how the village was but a small speck in a vast wilderness.
They didn’t go far on the road before Brom veered into the woods. They found themselves in a grove of pines. The ground’s snow was littered with brown needles that had been cast off by the conifers above.
Brom turned back toward the men. “Not far to go, the place is at the end of this grove.”
Max, spreading his morning wings, flew from Irulen’s shoulder.
Brom flinched at the sudden flight, and Irulen caught a flash of metal as the brute’s brown cloak flew back.
Probably an axe. He didn’t find it suspicious in this region, but Irulen always kept a map of weapons and their owners in his head. The perpetrator could be anyone. Jorin, as yet, seemed unarmed.
Just when the wizard thought the whiteness at the end of the grove was a mirage, Brom stopped and waved Irulen to him. “It is straight away. There,” he said, indicating with a finger. He started to walk forward, but Irulen grabbed his arm.
“I need to go on alone. I’ll call for you when I’m ready.” He whistled for Max to rejoin him, and the raven obliged.
The area Brom pointed out was a small clearing that met with the edge of the pines. There was a refraction of intense light as the sun pierced the canopy and hit the white ground. Small snow crystals floated in the air, a byproduct of the swinging of the nearby trees. The glare was almost blinding as if some unseen force was illuminating the way for the wizard, or obscuring it.
In the middle of the clearing, on top of a boulder the size of an altar, lay Isabel. Her body was wrapped with snow except for her face. Her face peeked out, crystallized and sparkling. It was one of the most angelic faces Irulen had ever seen. He pushed the wind with a sweep of his right hand.
Max flew into the air, startled for a moment.
The gust blew the freshest layer of snow away from the body and surrounding area.
As Max returned to his shoulder, Irulen winced, taking in the scene. The body was eviscerated, her rib bones poking out, having been opened with the clean cuts of a sharp blade. The older, more frozen layer of snow around her was blood red.
The wizard spent a little more magic heating the snow around her, ever so gently, so to tamper with the blood splatter as little as possible. The ice melted, except for one piece inside the cadaver’s gored-out cavity. Irulen went to remove it by hand and noticed something strange about it. He cocked an eye.
What he pulled out was not ice at all but a crystal stained with blood. The splatter on the outward facing part of the crystal implied that it had been implanted before the blood flow stopped, before Isabel’s death.
He had seen a scene similar to this before.
He slung his pack around and rummaged through it for a good ten seconds before removing another crystal with a slightly trembling hand. He held it alongside the one he’d just found. They looked almost identical. He pulled out a rag and polished the bloodstained one as clear as he could, then held both up to the sunlight. At the center of each was a telltale black blemish, larger in the newer one. The crystals appeared to be cut from the same source.
This killing wasn’t by wolves, as many at the tavern thought. Not only did wolves lack the thumbs to place a crystal into the body, there was little evidence of actual predation. Although some of her entrails had been pulled from her body, they seemed mostly intact. Maybe Brom came across a wolf investigating the corpse. Maybe he didn’t.
Irulen put both of the crystals away and turned his attention to the footprints on the ground. There might have been too much foot traffic to determine which were the culprit’s, but then again, maybe not. He identified about eight different sets of tracks and gently warmed a few prints from each. On the third set of prints, his patience paid off. Blood drippings, just far enough away for an arm to have hung. The evidence suggested the perpetrator had walked away with at least one bleeding hand.
There was little bathing to be had this time of year, so the dried blood might still be present on the assailant’s body and clothes, maybe even his hands and fingers, though this would be doubtful. Fingernails. Irulen pulled out a little flag from his kit and staked it next to the footprints.
He spun back toward the corpse, lifted her hands one at a time and examined them. Bruises circled her wrists. Pieces of skin remained beneath some of her fingernails, specifically, large chunks under the three fingers in the middle of her right hand. Whoever was responsible for this crime had been marked by his victim. They might suspect someone would be hot on the trail.
Irulen glanced back, half expecting Jorin, Brom, or both of them to be bearing down on him with axes flailing.
There was no such conspiracy.
Irulen pulled out a fresh rag and walked back to the suspicious set of footprints. He brushed lightly around the inside of one of the prints, removing the fresher layers of snow. The amount of frosted snow at the bottom of the print indicated that the track dated back to the night of Isabel’s disappearance. He placed the rag over the most well-preserved print he could find and pushed down, gently lining the inside.
Afraid of low heights, Max flew to a nearby branch to look on while his friend worked.
The wizard took out some ink and a brush, then proceeded to outline the inside of the boot print. This task complete, he let his work dry and then collected the outline of his suspect’s boot.
Satisfied with the evidence collected, and finding little else, Irulen signaled to his companions that they could come and prepare the body to be transported. They set to performing the grim task while Irulen investigated the suspicious footprints.
His raven fluttered from branch to branch behind him.
The killer had walked out the far side of the clearing where the terrain sloped downward. Irulen stood and listened to his own breathing and the labor taking place behind him. Just above the rushing of the blood through his ears he heard the rushing of a river below. The prints headed in the same direction, as he figured they would. Every killer washes somewhere. He relished the thought of the perpetrator freezing his testicles splashing around in a winter stream.
As he approached, Irulen noticed a disturbance along the riverbank. Sure enough, there was a burnt out fire pit. It was here that Isabel’s blood had been scrubbed from skin and sent into nature whence it came.
Irulen recalled crossing a small creek on his way into town. Gauging from the direction this water ran, the creek he was looking at was the same one he passed on the road. The killer had scrubbed down and walked back to the main road, using the rocks in the shallows to conceal his tracks. Once on the main road, the path of the killer’s prints would be concealed by the increased traffic.
The sophistication of the murder, the body’s positioning on an altar of stone, embedding of the crystal inside her chest cavity; this killing was a premeditated ritual, perhaps with a metaphysical relation. In Irulen’s mind, something had been worshipped here. These sorts of rites were usually carried out by overly superstitious people who feared gods, demons, and the supernatural. Angus instantly became a primary suspect in the matter.
Still, something was missing—something basic—he was sure of it.
The way back was marked by crunching snow and Max circling silently overhead. Flurries of snow peppered the corpse bearers. The hike wasn’t a long one, and soon the walls of Frostbridge appeared.
The creaking of the large gate lingered in the air as the town swallowed the travelers and their package. Irulen found something symbolic about the gate, but the thought was fleeting.
Inside, the inhabitants had emerged from their dwellings and now stood solemnly out in the cold. The mob’s collective breath blew hot across the air. William Steadfrost stood at their head with his wife, Ophelia, a lady whose long jet black hair was matted with snow and whose face was frozen with tears of ice.
Max rejoined Irulen, and they jointly stepped to the side. Rituals had to be performed and mourning needed to take place. A mercenary-investigator had no place in these things. He found himself looking for Farah but to no avail.
Absent beauty, his gaze played over the crowd until it fell upon Angus.
A black eye from the night before had settled on the lanky man’s face. His eyes were averted, mostly he looked down. Irulen had seen guilt before and was certain that Angus was somehow involved in this case.
Irulen was startled to find Jorin beside him following his scrutiny.
Max snapped at the air in between them.
The muscular young man tensed. “What are you surprised for? I’ve had all morning to sulk in my grief. The taste of vengeance is so much sweeter.” Jorin stepped forward while reaching for a weapon under his cloak.
Irulen grabbed him best he could. “Wait. Wait!”
Surprisingly, the bull acquiesced.
“You may have grieved, but they have not. Angus isn’t going anywhere; let me conclude my work. I need to be certain.”
Jorin stayed put, but the rage on his face wasn’t easily subdued.
Like a stranded field mouse, it didn’t take Angus long to sniff out the murder felt in the air. He looked up and saw Jorin’s contorted face. Like any paranoid animal in the face of certain death, he took off running.
Jorin leapt between the man and the freedom of the open gate.
Max cawed loudly as he flew off Irulen’s shoulder.
Angus turned back to the crowd, grabbed a young boy, and put a knife to his throat.
None of this stopped the storm that was William Steadfrost once he realized what was happening. If Jorin was a beast then William made beasts flee in fear. So intensely did he descend upon Angus that the man froze like a rabbit hunted, the knife falling out of his hand.
William threw him to the ground with his arms pinned behind his back, Angus writhing and cursing. William grabbed his wrists and pulled upward. The skinny man cried out in pain as both of his shoulders dislocated.
He flipped onto his back. “Stop, stop!”
William, deaf to words, raised his mammoth fist with the intent of caving the wiggling worm’s face in.
Irulen wedged himself between the men. “Let me do my job!”
Jorin pulled Irulen away and spoke with menace. “You have. This man killed our Isabel!”
“No, no I didn’t!” Angus cried.
“Regardless, I have evidence to test,” insisted Irulen, shaking free of Jorin’s grasp. “I’m taking this man into my custody. Please see me to a room or house where we can be alone.”
The older Steadfrost, who had regained some semblance of composure, heaved in a deep breath. “Very well, bring him hither.” He gestured to two men. “Lead them to the stable.”
Irulen was soon set up inside a stable with his captive while William looked on. Max waited outside.
Interrogator and suspect sat across from each other on large log cutouts. “Please remove your shirt and boots,” Irulen commanded.
Angus hesitated, weighing what little options he had, then obliged.
Irulen worked silently. The boot matched his print. Scratches and signs of struggle peppered the man’s arms. Irulen caught his gaze, held it. “I know you were there, and that you were involved. But I don’t know why, and I don’t know who you were with.”
The silent behemoth behind Irulen shifted upon hearing the wizard speak about the possibility of an accomplice.
Angus remained still.
The inquisitor continued, “Isabel had badly bruised wrists. Bruises caused by human hands holding her wrists. She was restrained by one person while another took her life. Only one person was splattered by blood, one trail leading to the creek below. I was unable to identify which set of prints belonged to the second person. So tell me, who was it?”
Angus sniffled as snot dripped from his nose and down his lips. He spoke through the slime. “You don’t understand. He has their souls. I was trying to help release them. He has my Claudia, Igrain, others…”
Deafening silence filled the room.
“I plunged the dagger into Isabel’s heart… and Igrain’s. But I was protecting the town and the soul of my daught—”
“This is lunacy!” William spouted as he drove his fist into a nearby support beam. The beam splintered inwards without fully cracking.
Angus cowered as he spoke. “He came to me, after my daughter’s death, and told me that she couldn’t go to the other side, that her soul was constantly being torn asunder and put back again, that she was in perpetual pain. He had immense power. I struck a bargain to keep the town safe.”
“A bargain of sacrifice? Why didn’t he take the girls himself?” Irulen asked.
“I don’t know… It had something to do with the ritual and the crystals.”
Irulen moved in close to Angus’s face. “What do you know of the crystals?”
“Nothing.” He shook his head, pleading with his gaze for understanding.
“Who is he?”
“He has been among us for some time but not always as the same person. Most recently he was Lew.”
“Shit.” Irulen stood abruptly and turned to William. “Stay here. Don’t hurt him.”
“Lew!” Irulen roared as he ran across the town to the gate. He found it closed and locked, the ramparts appearing vacant. The wizard went inside the tower, against the wall, and climbed to the gatehouse.
He looked out over the wall and noticed a pile of something peculiar. Irulen scrambled down with the last of his breath and pushed at the gate. It didn’t budge, locked somehow from the outside.
His hands heated with rage as he applied them to the solid wood. An outward explosion tore through the gate, blowing it to smithereens.
He ran through.
To the left of the road near a lone tree, a pile of bodies marked a grisly scene. Two watchmen lay face up in the snow. And Lew’s long-frozen corpse was propped up against the tree. The chubby man had an eerie smile on his face, his arms frozen and outstretched. At the end of his limbs, his middle fingers were displayed in a crude gesture.
Irulen had fallen for the darkest of jokes.