Once we got to the caravan, we sent the flatfeet back to the city, since we didn’t think we would need them out here. I tell you, the next half hour was one of the longest of my life, and I know that Dorf felt the same way. The time just seemed to drag and drag. It’s a good thing that Ivana was busy preparing Madam Darya’s body for burial; otherwise, I’m sure the fiery half-Orc would have been insulted by how both my partner and I kept pulling out our pocket-watches, making sure that they were wound tight and displaying the correct time.
We really didn’t have a chance to talk quietly, but I’m sure his thoughts were mirroring my own. Fact one: we found Natalya, who claimed to be the only survivor of the ‘bright man’ hypnotizing the rest of the caravan and taking them away to be voluntarily slaughtered. She was dressed in the style of the Ronan, seemed to know her way around the caravan, and knew where things were that led us both to believe that she belonged there. There were no other Ronan children that we found, which definitely gave weight to her story. And, she seemed to share facial features with the woman she claimed as her mother, which also lent truth to her words.
Fact two: Ivana, who was the second in command (as it were) of the original caravan, had led the splinter faction away after Madam Darya had had a vision foretelling all of their deaths at the hands of the ‘bright man’. The older woman had referred to her as a spiritual daughter and was very fond of her. Ivana had a Ronan parent and an Orc parent, unsure of the genders. All of the other Ronan seemed to be quite familiar with Ivana, so it was obvious that she had been with them for quite some time. She also dressed like them, and spoke their language very well.
Fact three (and I’m glad I was listing these in my head, since this would probably spook Dorf badly): from what I knew of ghosts, they were incapable of maintaining a solid form for long periods of time, and they were also unable to venture out from the place that they were haunting, which was usually (but not always) the place of their death. So, the chances of Natalya being one were practically nil, since she had helped prepare the bodies with us and had ridden in Dorf’s car back to Aerendor, all without fading away or disappearing. Plus, she knew all of the funeral rites…unless they had been wrong.
So, Dorf and I made sure that we participated in Madam Darya’s funeral. As we stood there, hands joined amongst all of the Ronan, Ivana let her head fall back and began singing a song. Although Dorf couldn’t understand the words (since they were in Ronanese and he didn’t have a permanent translation spell for their language on him), we both recognized the tune. It was the same wordless melody that Natalya had sang with us those few nights ago when we buried the murdered Ronan.
There was only a few conclusions we could draw from all of these facts. Either Natalya was lying, or Ivana was. Nothing else could explain how both of them seemed to be telling the truth, yet both of their truths were contradictory. Personally, even though both of my heads were drawn to the beautiful half-Orc, I hoped that she was the one who was lying. Otherwise, we left someone who was potentially very dangerous with Gregory, and that was beyond unacceptable. And, since we hadn’t taken Dorf’s steam carriage, it would take us the same amount of time to walk back into Aerendor as it did to walk to the caravan, around thirty minutes. Never thought I would see the day where I actually missed that death machine, but today was it.
After the ceremony, we were given leave to mingle amongst the Ronan, who were talking quietly of the life that Madam Darya had led and what kind of person she was. I pulled Dorf aside and I shared with him all of the facts as I saw them and we compared notes and thoughts. “Talk to Ivana, try and see if you can get her to trip up about anything,” I concluded. “It can’t be me, partner. We can be like fire and ice, and she’s just as likely to pour her heart out to me as she is to try and stab me in mine.”
He chuckled softly. “Yeah, I can see that. Either you two will be madly passionate about each other for the rest of your days, or you will both despise each other so much that neither would walk across the street to piss on the other if they were on fire.” I chuckled as well, since that was a pretty accurate description of how I viewed our brief but turbulent relationship. “But no problem, I will just use my natural charm to try and see if she’s hiding something.” Personally, I thought the phrase ‘natural charm’ had never sounded more out-of-place, but I held my tongue. “What are you gonna do in the meantime?”
“I’m going to walk around and talk to people, tell them about the slaughter that happened to the rest of their caravan by Aerdale…and then bring up how a little half-Elven girl dressed like one of them helped us out. See what kind of reaction I get from that.” He nodded his acceptance and then we split up to go see what kind of trouble we could stir up, him walking up to Ivana and patting her shoulder in consolation whilst I went up to the nearest Ronan I could see, an older man dressed in a yellow shirt, green breeches and a black leather vest.
“That was a beautiful ceremony,” I told him softly, speaking his language. He looked up at me curiously and nodded once while he cradled a small ceramic cup filled with, judging by the smell, some kind of fruit wine. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Yes, well, thank you Detective. I had heard that her vision came true, that the rest of the caravan was killed, every man, woman and child. Well, not children, because even those parents who scoffed at Madam Darya still sent their children with us. The older ones took the younger ones deeper into the woods until we gave the signal, and then they emerged to help with the ceremony.” I hadn’t noticed them returning, being deep in thought, but I did see that there was quite a few children who joined hands with the adults and sang Darya’s spirit away.
“I’m just glad that your future is intact. However, there was a little girl who survived, a half-Elven Ronan girl named Natalya.” I watched him as I said this, and the confusion and ignorance in his eyes was real.
“That doesn’t make any sense, Detective. Our caravan had no half-Elves, whether children or adult, and that name doesn’t ring a bell. I’m afraid you must be mistaken.”
Smiling as if embarrassed, I patted him on the shoulder. “Of course, that must be it. This has been a very troubling day, and I am probably mixing things up with something else I had heard. Please, excuse me.” The older man nodded to me and gave me a small smile before I turned away and walked across the caravan to another Ronan, this one a younger woman dressed in a red short-sleeved blouse, a brown leather belt, and a purple floor length skirt. After expressing my condolences to her about their matriarch’s untimely passing, I went into the same spiel that I had used on the older man; the results, unfortunately, were the same. I thanked her and left her behind, seeking out another person to approach.
This went on for about twenty minutes or so, as I made sure that no one I walked up to was near anyone else I had already talked to, just in case they could have overheard and had time to prepare themselves to lie to my face. But, not a single one knew anything about anyone matching Natalya’s description or name, and I was just about to give up, thinking this had been a waste of time. We could have already been back in Aerendor by now, and if our delays cost Gregory his life, Dorf would never forgive me. Hells, I would never forgive myself.
Then I spotted an older woman, probably close to Madam Darya’s age and garbed almost identically to the deceased matriarch, skulking out of one of the wagons. Every instinct I had screamed at me that she was hiding something. So, I made sure to make a beeline over to her, but around the wagons so she wouldn’t see me coming. As she turned to try and leave the caravan, I was standing right there. She almost let out a scream, but covered her mouth at the last minute and kept it in. Now, I wasn’t trying to frighten her, since she didn’t seem the type to be bullied into admitting things (you learn to get an instant read on people after doing this for a number of Cycles), but if that little bit of fear helped loosen her tongue, I wasn’t going to apologize for it. “Good day, madam,” I started with.
“Good…good day, Detective. Lovely ceremony, wasn’t it? If you’ll excuse me, I need to go give the children the all-clear signal so they can come back to the caravan. We sent them away for their safety, you understand.” She stammered and stuttered like she couldn’t keep her thoughts in line, and it made me all the more confident that she was trying to flee before I had a chance to talk to her.
“Oh, that’s OK, madam. They already gave the all-clear and all the children are back in the caravan, safe and sound. They also participated in the ceremony, which you would have known if you had been out here along with all of us…but you weren’t, so you didn’t know that.” I smiled down at her, and she gave a little squeak. Sometimes, having my height towering above others is a definite advantage. “So, where were you really going?”
“I, uh…I didn’t know that they had let the children back. I am sick,” and here she fake coughed so badly I expected an actor to pop out and berate her for her lack of skill, “and that’s why I didn’t participate in the ceremony. Madam Darya was my cousin, so I’m sure she understands why I wasn’t there.”
“Hmmm, I see,” I said, as I tapped my forefinger against my lips. “Although, there was one child who wasn’t with the others. Maybe that’s who you were going to find. Since, you know, she can’t hear the ‘all-clear’ signal like the other children can.” The look of terror on the older woman’s face let me know that I was right. “I believe her name is Natalya, about 10 Cycles old, blonde and a half-Elven/half-Ronan girl. Does that sound about right?”
She hung her head down, and I knew she was defeated. “All right, Detective, what do you wish to know?”
“You can call me Detective Jonas, and I want to know everything, Madam…”
“Alisa,” she supplied quietly.
“OK, Madam Alisa, I wish to know everything. Because right now, it seems like you are the only one here amongst your surviving caravan who knows of this little girl. So, for your sake and for hers, don’t hold anything back. Are we clear?”
“Perfectly, Detective Jonas,” she responded. “But, can we do this in my wagon? I really don’t want to have this conversation out here, out where anyone could walk by and hear.”
“That seems reasonable, Madam Alisa. Please, lead the way.” I gestured in front of me, and even though I could tell she wanted to flee, she shuffled away and we went into her wagon, where I hoped to finally get some clarity to all of this confusion.