“Look closely and tell me what you see,” said the nun.
I licked my dry lips. “Blood.”
“And what else, child?”
“Bone,” I said, though at twenty-six I was far from a child, even if I was still a novice. However, my mistress, Mother Frey, was approaching eighty winters, and so was permitted to treat most people she met as children. “At least, I think it’s bone. Pieces, anyway.”
Mother Frey sighed and straightened. She was weary and sore from the long wagon ride along the trail that wound through the mountain passes, over questionable bridges, and up a series of switchbacks that brought us to the pine forests just below the snow line. This was not the farthest point in the province of Sunderland, but it was far enough. Eighteen days of travel by horse, foot, and cart, and that was after three weeks crawling up the river on a leaky fishing boat that belonged to an order of monks who had—Lady Siya help us all—oyster wine. Frey had never been to this part of Zehria, but I had and she had asked me to come along as servant, apprentice, and bodyguard. It was my eighth outing with her.
Frey pursed her lips as if inspecting a hairy bug she had discovered on her pillow. I squatted beside the corpse, mindful not to let my shadow fall on the dead man.
“Miri,” she said after a very long time, “you’ve had as much time to examine the body and the circumstances as I have. You know my methods. Tell me what you see. And if you say blood, or bone, or even brain tissue and leave it there, I will do my best to throw you down this mountain.”
She smiled, but I never assumed Mother Frey was joking. If she were younger, she might even have attempted to carry out her threat. The novices all tell stories. So do some of the older nuns and the staff at the convent. Mother Frey was deeply and widely respected, she was trusted and she was depended upon, but she was not very well liked.
I, however, did like her. And although I was old for a novice, having entered the sisterhood after my parents died in the second of the Plantation Wars, I was still a novice, and therefore her servant as well as her assistant. I waited on her, cleaned her clothes, prepared her food, tended to her medical needs, read to her, listened to her. And I also talked with her. Most of the other novices think that strange, but they are young. They don’t yet appreciate the depth of knowledge Mother Frey has acquired over the many years of her life. None of those years, as far as I can determine, have been idle ones. She once told me that she has a ferret of a mind, constantly hungry, constantly agitated, always digging deep and chewing her way through. The food that fed that mind was knowledge.
I have education, having been to the best schools in Nehemite and Argon, and even a school of literature at the Temple of Dawn on Skyria. As an orphan, it was expected that I would enter holy service to one of the Gardens—the churches of the Faith of the Harvest Gods. It was and is a demanding life of detail-oriented scholarship, but it suits me better than had I followed the clerical path. My family were from Tull Yammoth and the worship of Mother Sah, Father Ar, and their celestial children is not as common there. I keep my own faith to myself, though, and if I feel called to pray to our Dreaming God, Cthulhu, I do so in private. Openly I am a devout daughter of the harvest.
Until I met Frey, I had always taken some pride in my knowledge of the great books, of the plays and dialogues of antiquity, of the metaphors spun by poets and the allegories in the historical epics. I can name a goodly number of the stars in the sky and speak well in three languages and passably in four others. In my own way I, too, possess a mind that enjoys ferreting out the tiniest and most obscure bits of information.
But it is difficult to take pride in one’s intellectual accomplishments in the presence of Mother Frey. She came from a family whose fortunes had been destroyed by the Plantation Wars. Her brothers and uncles had all died in those wars, and the death taxes on the estate stripped it to nothing. Her mother and two of her sisters had been killed when the Ghemites from Tull Belain raided their rice farm. Another sister had been taken as a slave and took her own life. Frey offered herself up to Lady Siya and was accepted as a novice. There are legends about how much she infuriated the older nuns and confounded all of her teachers. She was beaten frequently but in vain. Her brilliance shone so brightly that wiser sisters took notice and she was moved from the Office of Culture to the Office of Miracles, and there she found herself.
“I’m waiting, Miri,” prompted Frey. “Or are you waiting for the corpse to suddenly begin speaking and tell you all?”
“Sorry.” I refocused my thoughts on the body.
“First,” said Frey, “describe what you see. Omit no detail.”
I cleared my throat and pivoted on the balls of my feet to face the body. “We have a dead man of about forty,” I began. “He is above average height, thin, well groomed, wearing traveling clothes. The clothes are cheap and show signs of wear. They are not very clean.”
Frey sniffed. “Go on.”
It was always impossible to tell if I was making errors. Not until I finished, so I plunged ahead.
“He has a beard, which means he is not a nobleman. He has no tattoos, so he is not a guild trader.”
“Is he a laborer?” asked Frey.
“I . . . don’t think so.”
She made a small sound of irritation. “I did not ask what you think, girl. Tell me what you know.”
I studied the body, trying to apply the tricks of nitpicking observation Mother Frey was famous for. I bent close to study the man’s hands and even lifted one to look at his palm.
“I don’t—I mean, no. He doesn’t have many calluses on his hands. They’re dirty but the fingers aren’t rough and his nails are in good shape. They’re not thick. Not like a farmer or mason. He doesn’t have the scars I’ve seen on the hands of a carpenter or metalsmith.”
“And . . .? Come on, you’re showing some promise, Miri. Don’t disappoint us both now.”
I licked my lips. “His fingernails are bitten down to the quick.”
“Which suggests what?”
Frey gave a tiny, frugal nod of approval. “Tell me about the wound.”
I got up and moved around to the other side of the corpse. He wore a wheat-colored long-sleeved shirt in a coarse weave, belted around the waist with cow leather. In the exact center of his chest was a ragged hole so large I could have barely covered it with the mouth of a wine cup. The cloth was shredded and there was a patch of dried blood that was flecked with shards of white bone.
“He was stabbed, I think,” I said.
“And there is that word again. Think.”
“But I can’t quite see the wound to know for sure,” I protested.
Frey walked in a slow circle around the victim, hands behind her back, her robin’s-egg-blue eyes shaded by the wide brim of her straw hat. Neither of us wore wimples. Those were only required inside the convent and on holy days. For field investigations we were allowed to wear ordinary clothes. Both of us wore simple cotton dresses—deep summer green for her, spring green for me—with bib aprons embroidered with the symbol of our order, a crescent moon shining its light down on the pages of an open book. Frey stopped beside me, dug into a pocket on her apron and removed a small knife, which she handed to me. “Then cut it open. We are not here to investigate the ruination of a shirt.”
I felt my face grow hot as I took the knife. There are times I would love to hasten Frey on her way to her reward in heaven with Father Ar and Mother Sah. I doubt many of the senior nuns would punish me too cruelly.
I kept my face as composed as possible as I used two fingers to pluck the shirt away from the man’s chest and then cut it open. I cut in at an angle, making sure not to damage the hole in the shirt nor the dead flesh beneath. I peeled the cloth back to reveal a gaping wound. The flesh around it was badly torn and bulged outward in a grotesque fashion.
“He was stabbed with great force,” I said. “From behind, I believe.”
“Was he? With what kind of weapon?”
“Something round. An arrow, perhaps.”
“An arrow?” asked Frey, raising one eyebrow skeptically. “You’re quite sure, are you?”
“Well, no. The wound is round but it’s much thicker than a regular arrow. Too thick for a crossbow quarrel, though; it looks thicker than that.”
“A spear?” suggested Frey, though it was clear she was baiting me. Testing me.
“No,” I said decisively. “A spear would create a broad wound, flat on the ends, and be round in the middle.” I considered, then added, “A sharpened pole might do it.”
“Tell me why that guess is wrong,” said Frey. “Look at the chest and then turn the body over, and then tell me.”
I spent a few moments assessing the wound, and then hooked my fingers under the man’s hip and shoulder and, with great effort, rolled him into his side.
“He has been dead for days,” I grunted. “The death paralysis has come and gone. And he is beginning to stink.”
“Some of that is the onset of decay,” agreed Frey, “and some is because his bowels relaxed as he died. He has soiled himself, and from the smell we can infer than he ate a diet rich in spices, particularly garlic and wild onion.”
I gagged and tried to concentrate on the matter at hand. Once the man was on his side I did a cursory examination of the wound on the other side. The cloth was soaked with blood and teeming with maggots. I brushed those away and studied the back of his shirt, and then cut it away to reveal the wound. It was much smaller than the opening on the other side and a silver dime could have hidden it. The edges of the wound were ragged, but only a little.
“It was definitely a sharpened pole or a spear with a tapered point,” I said. “It definitely isn’t a military spear, because they all flare out to the side in a broad leaf pattern. This is more like a plain pike.”
“The local constable reported that this man was stabbed with a spear from the front and that the size and ferocity of the chest wound was because the barbs of the spearhead tore the flesh as the weapon was pulled out. What do you think of that?”
I was shaking my head before she had finished.
“Go on, Miri,” said Frey, “speak your mind. Why is the constable wrong in his assessment?”
“A leaf-bladed spear has a flatter point, like an oversized arrow. The wound on the front is nearly perfectly round. And here, on the back, the wound is also round. A barbed spear would have torn a broader, flatter hole on the way out.”
“Good. Give me more.”
I hesitated, reassessing what I saw. “The blood . . .?”
“Yes,” Frey said patiently. “What about it?”
I chewed my lip for a moment. “There is too much on his back and not enough on his chest. If he had been stabbed from behind there would have been a burst of blood pushed out as the spear tip tore through the chest. But there isn’t.”
She positively beamed at me, doing it in exactly the same way she beamed at her terrier when he fetched a thrown ball. I hoped Mother Frey would not toss me a dried goat treat.
She did not. Frey leaned a hand on my shoulder and bent very carefully to study the wound. I heard her give another grunt, this one of surprise. “Very interesting.”
“What do you see?” I asked.
Instead of sharing her own observations, she said, “Tell me about this wound on his back. Forget what the constable reported. Use your eyes.”
“Well . . . it appears as if the spear—”
“The weapon,” she corrected. “We have not determined that it was a spear, have we? No. Observation requires precision, not prediction or preconception.”
“The weapon,” I said, leaning on the word, “entered his back, not his chest. The edges of the wound on his back are torn and pushed slightly in, suggesting that is where the shaft of the, um, weapon entered. However, this injury is very much smaller than the exit wound, so I judge that the victim struggled or began to fall and that increased the damage.”
“And the weapon itself? By your assessment it went in and went through, but where is it? Was it pulled out the other side?”
I looked around. “How could I tell that?”
“Surely you’ve seen a wound from a crossbow bolt. They sometimes pass straight through a body. What do we find on the ground on the side opposite from the point of impact?”
It took me a few moments to figure that out, then I stood and looked at the ground. “There should be a spent bolt.”
“And . . .?”
“Blood,” I said quickly. “There should be blood spray from where the passage of the bolt pulled it from the body.”
“Do you see that?”
I walked around the body and knelt by a patch of tall weeds. “There’s some here.”
She joined me and with my help knelt to look past the weeds to the body, which lay twenty-five feet away. “It would be a powerful quarrel that could fly so straight for such a distance. But we’ll come back to that. Now, tell me, girl, how quickly did this man die?”
“Almost at once,” I said. “He did not bleed very much except what leaked down from the wound after he’d fallen. This was near his heart and it would have pumped vigorously had he lived for even a few seconds.”
Frey nodded and then lapsed into a moody silence. She went back to the corpse and spent five long minutes studying the wounds, and twice had me roll the body over so she could compare the path of destruction. She held up each of his hands and examined each finger, then bent close to look at the tanned and dirty skin of his face. Without saying a word, Frey turned and walked away from the corpse, stopped, studied the body from a distance, and then walked in what appeared to be a random pattern around the scene. She finally stopped by a small milepost eighty feet from where the dead man lay. Frey bent and peered at the post, grunted again, then straightened and walked back to me.
“We are swimming in very deep and very dark waters, my girl,” she said as she sat down on the trunk of a felled tree. I fetched a skin of water and encouraged her to drink.
“Was I right in my reading of the murder?” I asked as I sat beside her.
Frey gave me a sidelong look of cool appraisal. “You are not as dull as most,” she said. “You have moments of insight, Miri, and your skills of observation are improving.”
“Then I am right?”
“Hm? Oh, no, you were incorrect in virtually everything.”
I sagged, hurt and embarrassed. Frey chuckled and patted my shoulder.
“It’s not that bad, girl. I know senior investigators for the Office who would have seen half of what you thought you saw and understood only half of that.”
“But—what did I miss?”
“Let me tell you first where you showed promise,” said Frey. “You correctly observed that this man is not a laborer or craftsman. That much is obvious, not merely because of the lack of calluses on his hands but by observing his knuckles—which are not swollen from the damage of prolonged and repeated hard labor—and from his calves and feet, which are fine-boned. His spine is also very straight and his chest and arms are not heavily muscled. This man did not spend his life doing heavy labor.” She paused. “You correctly noted that his lack of tattoos meant that he was not in any of the trading guilds, and you were correct in that he was of a nervous disposition by noting his habitual nail biting. In each of these things you were mostly correct. However, your assumptions faltered when you said that he was not a nobleman.”
“But the beard?”
“Beards are out of fashion with the noble born, girl, but those of high blood can still grow them. No, Miri, what we have here is a nobleman of some kind who has grown a beard in order to pretend he is something other than what he is. That is very curious. Under what circumstances might a highborn wish to disguise himself as a commoner?”
“Perhaps he was disgraced and lost his fortune. Or he could have fallen in love with a serving girl and left his family and wealth behind so they could be together.”
“Bah, you watch too much theater. Don’t disappoint me like that, Miri. Try again.”
“He could have been stripped of his station and forced to work the fields. Wait . . . no, he would have been branded on the back of his hand.”
“That was a better attempt, girl. Keep trying.”
I pondered it for a while. The day was hot and the body stank. Above us, carrion birds kettled in the endless blue. The lady of the moon was visible in the daylight, half hidden by trailing wisps of cloud. I muttered a silent prayer for her to provide me with clarity of vision and insight.
“A spy, perhaps?”
She nodded. “We don’t yet know if that is the answer, but it fits the information more closely. Let’s keep it as a possible lead, but don’t stop there. Consider his fingernails.”
“He was frightened and bit them down.”
“No,” she said, “his nervousness was habitual. If you examine the flesh around the stubs of the nails you’ll see that there are layers of growth. That suggests that he has been biting his nails for a very long time. Nervousness is common to him. The beard is two or three months old and has been roughly cut. However, the ends of the beard are uniform in several sections. He had a longer beard and recently hacked at it, perhaps to give the impression that he is an unkempt commoner.”
“But he had a longer beard before?” I asked.
“Clearly. There are hairs caught in the threads of his shirt that are quite long. Those examples indicate the length of his beard prior to the recent roughening of his appearance. His clothes support this. They are filthy and they are stolen.”
“I can see that they are dirty,” I said, “but, Mother Frey, how can you know that they are stolen?”
“Because they are a local weave. See those faint red threads in the blend, here and here and here? That is an impurity of the cotton plant. All along the slopes of these mountains there are cotton farms, and the variety of red stash is considered something of a weed. The natural color of that variety weakens the overall yield. It is time consuming and expensive to sort it out, so the best-quality cotton is pure white. However, it is cotton and therefore worthwhile, so it is blended in with the second-best harvest for use in making clothes for farmers who work the lands. Now, we know that this man was not a farmer and these clothes are locally made. Given that he has recently roughened his appearance and is dressed in well-used local clothes, it is not too much of a reach to suggest that these clothes are stolen. If you were to canvass the farms you would probably find someone very upset that a shirt and trousers went missing from a wash pile or a drying line. And see there? Some of the dirt on the trousers and shirt is rubbed in, not earned through sweat. This man took rough clothes and dirtied them up to either disguise them or make them look authentic, or both. My guess would be both.”
I shook my head and grinned. “When you explain these things it always seems so obvious, and yet . . .”
Frey stopped me with a shake of her head. “Oh, dear little Sister Miri, my eyes see nothing that yours do not. But it is my habit to observe and consider, and then to extrapolate along lines of common sense and likelihood. My thoughts are theories, which I must always remind myself to accept as such rather than settle onto firm belief in the absence of absolute knowledge. A rush to judgment is a quality of a weak mind, and it is as great a fault as casual observation.”
We sat quietly for a while. Birds chattered and gossiped in the trees and butterflies danced from flower to flower. It was always a marvel to me how nature continued to move forward and to be about its work of growth and beauty even in the presence of gruesome human death. I have walked through battlefields and picked flowers on the sides of mounds beneath which are the buried hundreds of butchered dead.
“When will you tell me why we are here, Mother?” I asked. “We could not have come all this way for a single murder. And even if we were summoned to investigate this man’s death, it could not be the reason we were sent. He has been dead only a few days.”
Frey took another sip of water before answering. “That is correct, though it took you long enough to think of it.”
“No,” I said, “I knew right away that this isn’t the murder we were sent to investigate. I can infer that there was another one, but how are they connected? Was the first one another noble disguised as a commoner?”
“Then who was killed before? And why call us? Shouldn’t the town constable be handling this? Or, if he was a spy, then the army’s investigators. Why contact the Office of Miracles? What is miraculous about this?”
Frey gave my knee a squeeze and stood up. I could hear her knees pop as she straightened. She blew out a long breath. “Ach, there are bones buried in the ground younger and fitter than mine,” she muttered. I watched her walk once more over to the stone wall and examine it. Then she took a small metal pick from her pocket and scratched at the wall for a moment. I got up to see if I could help, but as I approached she shoved her hands into her apron pockets. “What is miraculous, you ask?”
I glanced at her pocket but she pretended not to notice.
“As you rightly observe, my girl,” she said, “this is not the first such murder. It is, in fact, the fifth.”
I gasped. “The fifth? How is it no one has heard of the others?”
“They have,” she said. “Of course they have. The constable of this town and the constables of two neighboring towns know of it. They were the ones who began this investigation, but they turned it over to the beadles in their parishes, who poked their own noses into it and no doubt polluted any useful evidence from the previous crime scenes. But at least one of them had the sense Lady Siya gave him to pass a request up the line to the regional council of priests, who in turn evaluated it and forwarded it to us. Politics.” She spat on the ground as she always did when that word soured her tongue. “And fear.”
“Fear of what? A killer running loose?”
Frey snorted. “In these times? We are engaged in two wars and five border disputes, which collectively chew up the lives of ten thousand fighting men each year, and twice that many women and children who are caught in the middle of all that male greed and bloodlust. No, Miri, the Garden council would never have appealed to the Office of Miracles for anything as simple as common murder.”
“Then why are we here?” I asked.
She took her time answering. “Because,” Frey said at length, “the priests in the church and the headmen of the villages are afraid that something else has come to strike down the wicked.”
“Why should priests be afraid of something that targets the wicked? Shouldn’t it be the guilty, the sinners who need fear?”
She looked at me strangely. “That is exactly why the men of power are afraid, my girl.”
“What do you mean?”
“They fear the wrath of the gods, my girl. They fear punishment. They believe that this man and the others have been struck down by something beyond normal understanding. In the report forwarded to the Office by the council of priests they described these murders in an odd and telling way. They said that they believe the victims were struck down by the hammer of god.”
“No,” she said, “that is not the question we should ask. It is not which god that need concern us. We must ask ourselves which hammer.”
We rode in silence into town. The local Garden had no convent, so we stayed at a small inn. Because the Garden was paying for it, we found ourselves in a mean set of dingy rooms with one narrow bed and a stray mat on the floor. I had to chase a family of mice out of the fireplace and then lit a fire to scare the cold and shadows out as well. We ate in a corner of the common room, and I was aware of the stares we received. It was uncommon for women to travel alone, and rarer still for a pair of nuns to be abroad without a guard. Frey never appeared to be unnerved by the attention. I knew that she had several knives secreted about her person, and not merely the ones she used as tools. And there were lots of old stories about her, some of which were clearly tall tales while others had a ring of authenticity about them. I’ve seen her with a hunting bow and a skinning knife, and I’ve known her to walk into a crowd of men and stare them down, the smarter ones dragging the dullards out of the way. I’ve seen old soldiers assess her and then give her small, secret nods.
Not that I was a fainthearted heroine from some romantic ballad. Even though my family fortunes crumbled when I was orphaned, I am a daughter of one of the old families. We’re taught sword arts, close-in knife fighting, and poisons before we’re taught to embroider and recite classics. And my own knives were within reach. One sharp for slicing and the other laced with the venom of the rose spider. It was rumored that Mother Frey had been a midwife before taking holy orders, and that she helped birth Lady Marissa Trewellyn-Vale, the Poison Rose, Blade Mistress of the Silver Empire—the most feared knife fighter of the age. There must be ten thousand girls like me who worshipped the Poison Rose and kept a seasoned blade hidden in our skirts.
We ate in peace and the men, sensibly, left us alone.
We had finished a meal of roast finch and were starting in on the cheese board when a fat man in green came in. He had a beadle’s badge hanging from a cheap chain around his neck. He glanced around, spotted us, and hurried over, and after a quick evaluation of us addressed his remarks to me.
“Mother Frey, I presume?”
“You presume much,” I said. “I am a novice in the service of Frey, senior investigator for the Office of Miracles. Kindly remove your hat.”
He stiffened, colored, and snatched a felt cap from his head as he swiveled toward the hunched, withered old woman beside me. I looked noble born, and Frey did not. It was not the first time she had been mistaken for my maid or a chaperone. The man sputtered an apology, and I saw the amusement twinkle in Frey’s blue eyes.
“Sit down,” said Frey, kicking a chair out from under the table. “You’re Nestor the Beadle?”
“I am, and again I offer ten thousand apologies for my—”
“One will do,” said Frey, “and you’ve given it. I’m too old to listen to the other nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine.”
He tried to hide his confusion behind a fake cough. “I heard that you went out to where the man was found dead. I’m surprised you did not stop in town first to let me know you had arrived. I would have taken you out there.”
“And done what, Nestor?” interrupted Frey. “Shown us the body? We managed to find it without wasting the time to come all the way into town.”
“I’m pleased that you at least posted a guard at the foot of the road leading up to the murder scene.”
“Of course, I—”
“And you followed my instructions to leave the scene itself intact.”
“About that. You sent those instructions weeks back,” said Nestor quickly, racing to get the words out before he could be interrupted again, “but this man was only killed a few days ago. How did you know there would be another death?”
“Because there were others before it,” said Frey. “It’s reasonable to assume a string of murders might continue. Just as it is reasonable to assume that we have not seen the last of these killings.”
“You can’t know that,” protested Nestor. Then he leaned close. “Or have you consulted an augury?”
I saw Frey’s mouth tighten. Unlike many in the Green Faith, she did not put much stock in any kind of spiritual predictions. Not once in the time I’d been with her had she consulted a seer, practiced sortilege, or participated in hepatoscopy. “Crime and murder in this world is best solved by science and investigation,” she once told me, “and not by mucking about in the entrails of a goat or throwing chicken bones on the ground.” Frey was often criticized for this, and more than once in her life she had been forced to defend herself from accusations of agnosticism and heresy. Those accusations, and the accusers, had been dismantled with cold efficiency by the woman who sat beside me.
Does it mean that she believed? I don’t know; nor do I know if she doubts. What I know of her is that when it comes to matters of the physical world she relies entirely on things that can be observed, touched, weighed, measured, and tested. An odd practice for a nun, perhaps, but I long ago learned that the task of the Office of Miracles was to disprove claims of miraculous occurrence rather than the opposite. Only in cases of absolute failure to disprove the presence of the divine was our Office willing to ascribe an incident to the larger world of the spirit. Magic, after all, was illegal in the whole of the Silver Empire.
“I prefer to consult my own perceptions,” said Frey coolly.
The beadle opened his mouth, paused, thought better of what he might have said, and snapped his jaws shut.
“Now,” said Frey, “what can you tell us of this matter? Start at the beginning, please, and leave out no details.”
Nestor steadied himself with a deep draft of the beer the barmaid brought over, and then he launched into the account.
“As you know, there have been several strange deaths here in these mountains,” he began, his voice hushed and confidential, “of which this is the fifth in as many months. It began with the death of Jeks Kol, the town’s blacksmith. He was a good and righteous man. Levelheaded and fair, and very well liked throughout the region. A widower, but not bitter. He had quarrels with few and was a pillar of the community. In fact, he—”
“When you say he had quarrels with ‘few,’” interrupted Frey, “do you speak with precision?”
“Well, almost everyone liked and respected Kol.”
“Again, I must press you on this. You say ‘almost.’ Was there anyone who did not like Kol? Anyone with whom he had a dispute or a fight?”
“Not a fight, as you might say,” hedged Nestor, “but there was no love between him and the evangelist.”
“Which evangelist? His name, Nestor. And of what church?”
“Dimmerk is his name. He came here to Zehria three years ago. His family were merchants trading in all manner of goods, from fireworks to iron ore and other bulk metals, but they lost their estates and all their lands during the treaties at the end of the first Plantation War. That whole region was ceded to the Khaslani. Dimmerk lost everything, down to the last stone of the family house, and they’d lived there four hundred years and more.”
Frey nodded. It was a sad and troubling part of history that this region had always been a point of contention and contested ownership. Although part of the Silver Empire, Zehria was bordered on the north by Bulconia, an independent and acquisitive state; to the east by the lawless Cathedral Mountains, and a cluster of small city-states of shifting allegiance. It was also some of the most fertile rice-farming lands in the east. When the first Plantation War ended the politicians used it as a bargaining chip and ultimately turned it over to the Khaslani in exchange for three islands where certain rare spices were grown. It was a bad deal all around, because the Khaslani drove out many of the families who had lived there for centuries, and slaughtered many others. And it turned out that the spice-rich islands had been farmed to exhaustion. This led to vicious political fights and then, inevitably, to the second and current war. The Khaslani had fortified the northern border and now held onto it with ferocity, repulsing many attempts to retake it.
“I’ve been all through this region and do not know the name Dimmerk,” mused Frey. “Is it his birth name or family name?”
“He is one of the Fells. Last of them, except for a few cousins,” said Nestor.
“Ah,” said Frey. “They were a contentious lot. The men, at least. And unlucky. I remember when their fireworks factory blew up and took half a mountain down with it. They say that debris was thrown half a mile in every direction. Thirty-eight dead and a hundred wounded. One man had a human shin bone pass straight through his stomach with such force it killed him and his wife, who was seated behind him. The Fell family had to sell nearly half of their holdings to satisfy the damages. They were always involved in lawsuits and disputes.”
“That’s them,” agreed Nestor. “And this one is no different than the others. Every bit as quarrelsome. When the first war ended and their lands lost, Dimmerk Fell dropped his surname completely.”
“Ah,” she said. “Was there ever violence between Kol and Dimmerk?”
Nestor sipped his beer. “Hard words only, as far as I know,” he said.
“What was the substance of their dispute?”
“Well, Dimmerk is on the glory road, isn’t he? When his family went to ruin he took to religion, joining the Church of the Crucible, and you know how they are. All fire and brimstone, death and damnation. Not that I can blame him, of course. His whole family was torn apart by the Khaslani and they were cast out as beggars. When he came here to Zehria he had nothing but the clothes on his back and he’s been preaching hellfire ever since.”
“I thought the preachers of the Crucible were supposed to forswear all earthly pleasures and live in poverty and humility,” I said.
“Poverty? Aye, Dimmerk lived that part of it straight enough, but humility? Well, that’s a different kettle of cod, isn’t it?”
Frey twirled her fingers, encouraging him to continue his narrative.
“Well, Kol was a religious fellow and a deacon of the church—the church of Father Ar and Mother Siya, you understand. But Dimmerk was beginning to draw quite a crowd with his Crucible rantings and with displays of fireworks that are supposed to be symbolic of the furnaces of hell. You know how that is, telling people what they want to hear so they get riled up. He was filling them with talk of fiery vengeance raining down on the Khaslani and on the politicians from our side who agreed to give away all that land. Retribution and justice can sound mighty appealing when you’ve lost a lot, and we have a lot of refugees here in town, as all towns do, I suppose. War’s like that.”
Frey and I nodded sad agreement.
“At first, Jeks Kol and Dimmerk would nod to each other if they met on the road or in town, but over time Dimmerk tried to convert Kol to his way of thinking. He thought that a blacksmith should devote some of his time and resources to making swords, shields, and armor instead of only ploughshares and door hinges. He said that a righteous man had an obligation to support a crusade against the pagans.”
Frey sighed very loudly and heavily. Nestor, though a servant for the church, nodded agreement.
“Fanatics never help, do they?” he asked, which drew a faint smile from Frey. I could see her warming to the beadle.
“Go on,” she encouraged. “When did things go bad between them?”
“Well, it was when Dimmerk began showing up at prayer meetings Kol was holding in a little arbor behind his cottage. It wasn’t much, just some families in the neighborhood who liked to get together and talk about scripture. Harmless stuff, good for everyone who was there. And Kol wasn’t proselytizing, I can assure you.”
Frey nodded but made no comment and the man continued.
“Dimmerk would come to those meetings and begin shouting Kol down, arguing with him on points of faith, handing out broadsheets and religious tracts to the people there, and demanding to know why Kol, a blacksmith, could possibly fail to recognize the god of the holy crucible to be anything but the one true god.” Nestor paused. “Now, understand, Kol was a good man but not a patient one, and he did not suffer gladly any attacks on his friends or himself. After one of the meetings he took hold of Dimmerk by the collar and the seat of his pants and actually threw the preacher out of the arbor. Some say he threw him into the pond, but I think that may be embellishment. In any case, it was the last time Dimmerk intruded upon one of those prayer meetings. But here’s the odd thing, Mother Frey—a few weeks later Dimmerk came to Kol and apologized—very profusely I’m told—and begged forgiveness. Kol, being a good man, was swayed by this and went so far as to embrace Dimmerk. From then on they became friends. I won’t say fast friends, but close. And Kol even let Dimmerk work for him at his smithy in exchange for food and a bed.”
“Kol seems to have been a good man,” I suggested.
“He was that, and he was a rock who kept many people hereabout steady in these troubled times. What happened to him was a tragedy,” said Nestor.
“What happened?” asked Frey.
“It was the strangest thing you ever saw,” said Nestor, his voice even more hushed. “Kol was making a delivery of a new set of gates to one of the houses in the hills. He had taken the gates down and set them in place and was shaking the hand of the man who had hired him when he suddenly cried out and staggered, his chest bursting open as if he had been stabbed, but there was no one else there. Only the old man who had hired him and his two sons.”
“They were questioned?”
“Indeed. The constable had them go over it a dozen times and I went through it twice as often. The story was always the same. One moment Kol was alive and the next he was dead, struck down by some otherworldly force.”
Frey gave him a shrewd look. “Where was Dimmerk when this happened?”
“He said he was working at Kol’s forge, and when the constable went to interview him—for of course he was suspected based on the hard words of earlier—there Dimmerk was, hammering away on the anvil.”
“And it is your opinion that Dimmerk was not involved?”
“No . . .” Nestor said slowly, “but the man makes me nervous. Since Kol’s death he has returned to his fire-and-brimstone ways. He still lives at the blacksmith’s place. Kol had no family and besides, Dimmerk insists that the blacksmith had promised him a permanent place there. And since he is also a skilled metalworker, he has kept up with all of Kol’s business commitments and has turned the income over to the dead man’s family. However, he has begun using the arbor to hold his own meetings, and they are full of anger and yelling. He says that his friend Kol was a good man but one who was misled and who suffered punishment for it. He says that the Red God of the Crucible struck him down as a warning to all who refuse to see the truth.”
“Ah,” said Frey.
“He said that Kol was struck down by the ‘hammer of god,’ and that everyone needs to heed the warning in order to escape a similar fate.”
“And yet there have been other victims,” said Frey. “Were they associated with Kol or Dimmerk?”
“With Kol? No. But at least one of them knew Dimmerk. I don’t know his name, but he came to town looking for Dimmerk, claiming to be a friend from the old days before the first war. Someone in town gave him directions to the Kol place and the man was later found dead on the road, struck down in what appears to be the same manner. No arrow, no spear, just a chest burst apart. His money belt was even on his person. When we questioned Dimmerk he claimed not to have seen the man, and it was so dry we could not determine if the stranger’s horse had ever reached the Kol place or not. The horse was found wandering in the forest, and its flanks were streaked with blood, so the stranger must have been in the saddle when the hammer of god struck him down.”
“And the others?”
“All strangers to these parts,” said Nestor. “Two were killed on the same day only seconds apart. They were diplomats from the Office of Treaties who were on their way to the capital after having a series of meetings with our enemies among the Khaslani. Rumor has it they were close to signing a treaty that would have ended the war.”
“I’ve heard those rumors, too,” I said. “The talk was that, had they lived, the diplomats would have arranged an end to hostilities that would have ended the conflict but left the Khaslani in possession of even more land.”
Frey nodded. “Their deaths were a blow to the diplomatic process. The Khaslani apparently believe that a cabal within our own government executed them for agreeing to a deal that favored our enemies.”
“Is that true?” I asked.
Frey didn’t answer, and Nestor picked up the thread of his narration. “The ambassadors were killed on the open road that runs past the village, struck down amid a retinue of forty armed men. The soldiers scoured the hills but could find no trace of Khaslani spies or assassins. The deaths were impossible to explain. So, it was because one of these men was very important that we sent a request to the Office of Miracles.”
Frey touched my ankle with her toe, sending me a message that I did not quite understand.
“And now we have this latest one,” said Nestor. “A man who is a complete stranger and clearly no one of importance.”
“Of no importance?” echoed Frey. “Everyone is important.”
“No, I did not mean they were unimportant in the eyes of Father Ar and—” began Nestor, but Frey waved it away.
“Important to the investigation, I meant. We were not able to examine the other corpses.”
“Oh. Of course.”
“First thing in the morning I will go speak with Dimmerk,” announced Frey. “Please provide Sister Miri with directions. That will be all for now, Nestor.”
“I hope I have been of some assistance in this matter,” said the beadle.
Frey offered a cold smile. “More than you know.”
That evening, as we settled down to sleep—Frey in the bed and me on the floor—we talked about all that we had learned. Or, at least, Mother Frey had me go through it all, point by point.
“And what do you think about all of this, my girl?” she asked. “Have you formed any working theories?”
“I am lost,” I confessed. “The evidence is so frightening.”
“In what way?”
“Well, this ‘hammer of god’ appears to be exactly what Nestor and the others in town believe it is. It seems as if this Dimmerk is quite right that his god has struck down those who deny his reality.”
I heard a very long sigh in the dark. “So after all that you have seen and heard today, you feel that this is an act of some homicidal god?”
“No other theory suggests itself?”
“What else could explain it, Mother?” I asked. “Witnesses saw men struck down by some invisible force. We saw firsthand an example of such a wound, and no arrow or sword would do damage of that kind.”
“And a god is the only other possible answer?”
She chuckled. “Perhaps a good night’s sleep will sharpen your wits, girl.”
And with that she fell silent. After a few moments I heard a soft, buzzing snore.
We were up at first light, washed, dressed, and out the door, eating a light breakfast of cold game and cheese as our cart rumbled out of town. Nestor had offered to accompany us, but Frey declined and we followed a set of directions that took us out of the cluster of buildings that formed the village and back into the mountains. Kol’s smithy was five miles up a winding road, and we rolled through morning mists past groves of nut trees and farms crowded with sheep. The sun had not yet cleared the mist when we reached a gate hung with a sign proclaiming: home of the righteous.
Frey studied that sign with cunning old eyes, then she turned and spat over into the shrubs beside the gate with excellent accuracy and velocity.
There was a turnaround in front of a modest house with a thatched roof. There were a half dozen smaller buildings—sheds and barns—scattered among the trees. At one end of a clearing was the brick smithy and beyond that was an arbor made from spruce trunks and covered with pine boughs. Two dozen mismatched stools and benches filled the arbor, but it was otherwise empty. We sat on the wagon for almost two minutes, allowing whomever was home to make themselves proper before opening the door. No one did.
“There’s smoke,” I said, nodding toward the chimney above the smithy.
I helped Mother Frey from the wagon and she leaned on me as we walked to the clearing. There was a sound of clanging from within and I had to knock very loudly before the hammering stopped. But it was nearly a full minute before the door opened and we got our first look at Dimmerk. He was not very tall and had narrow shoulders, which seemed at odds with his skills as a blacksmith. His arms were strong, though, and he had fresh burns on his hands, wrists, and right cheek. Gray eyes peered at us from beneath bushy black brows and he wore a frown of suspicion and annoyance.
“Who are you to come knocking so early?” he demanded, standing firm in the doorway, blocking us from entering.
Mother Frey introduced us both, and that seemed to deepen the man’s frown.
“What business have you here?” he asked. There was a sneer of contempt on his face and in his voice, and he emphasized the word you as he looked at us. His distaste for nuns was evident, though it was unclear whether his displeasure was at our being from the Church of the Parents of All or because we were with the Office of Miracles.
“We are here to discuss the murders with you, brother Dimmerk,” said Frey.
“Murders?” He barked the word out with a harsh laugh. “There have been no murders that I know of.”
“You stand in the smithy of a murdered man.”
“I stand in the smithy of a sinner struck down by the hammer of god,” he growled.
“Kol was your friend. He took you in, gave you food and shelter, accepted you into his household.”
Dimmerk nodded. “Aye, Kol did all that, but if you think he did it out of the kindness of his heart, then you are as great a fool as he. Kol hoped to convert me, to encourage me to stray from the path of righteousness.”
“If he was so great a sinner, then why did you come to live with him? Why do you stay here and continue his work?”
“I came because my god demands of me that I accept all challenges to faith, old woman,” said Dimmerk. “A man like Kol was a special challenge because he was influential in this town. He corrupted many with his false prayer and false teachings. He led good people astray with lies and witchcraft and kept them under his spell, drawing them to the edge of doom. Countering the secret evil of his heresy was a special challenge. The Red God of the Crucible does not call on its ministers to preach to the faithful but to spread the word of truth to those who do not believe, and to save the souls of those who had been corrupted by false prophets.”
“I see,” said Frey.
“Do you? Or are you such a one as Kol, who comes with smiles and open hands to lead the unwary to their damnation?”
“It is not my practice to proselytize, as well you know.”
“You are from the western slopes of the Cathedral Mountains, Dimmerk. Your family name is Fell, and the Fells were always of the Faith of the Harvest. How is it you are now on the road of fire?”
I saw the changes on the man’s face as Frey’s words struck him. The light of righteous rage seemed to slip and fall away as if it were nothing more than a mask worn by an actor. Beneath it was something colder, more calculating. Every bit as hostile, though, but without the wildness of religious zeal, and that made him dangerous in a different way.
“You know my family?” he asked, his voice oddly calm.
“I knew your grandmother. A good woman. Known for her silver jewelry. It was quite lovely.” Frey touched his arm. “I was sorry to hear that she died.”
Dimmerk’s gray eyes seemed to fill with shadows and then he abruptly turned away and walked inside, leaving the door open. Frey winked at me and we followed him inside.
The smithy was a large room with a high ceiling that tapered upward to a broad smoke hole above the furnace. There were sturdy worktables and anvils, heaps of scrap metal, a hundred projects in various stages of completion, ranging from a ploughshare to a full set of ceremonial armor. Most of the stuff was covered with a light coating of dust. Dimmerk picked up his hammer and spent a few moments banging at a piece of iron that had clearly already gotten too cold to work.
Frey stopped at one table on which were several long metal poles. She bent and studied them, and I followed her example, and was surprised to see that the poles were hollow. What the purpose was for these metal tubes was beyond me. Frey picked one up and scratched the curved edge with her fingernail.
“Steel,” she murmured.
It was steel, and finely made, but why roll it into tubes? The narrow opening would not reduce the weight of each pole enough to make the process worth the effort.
On the edge of the table was a slatted wooden bucket filled to the brim with small round lead balls. I picked one up and was surprised by how heavy it was. Frey took it from me, nodded to herself, and put it back. Then she ran her finger along the top of the table and showed it to me. There was no dust.
Dimmerk threw down his hammer and came over to us. He glanced at the table and its contents and then at Frey.
“That’s nothing,” he said quickly. “A commission. Something ornamental.”
“I see.” Frey looked around, then crossed to another table on which were rows of small tubes made of paper. She picked one up, squeezed it gently, sniffed it, and handed it to me when I joined her. To Dimmerk she said, “Still making fireworks?”
“Yes,” he said guardedly.
“They’re awfully small,” I remarked. “Are they firecrackers?”
He didn’t answer but instead took the firework from my hand and placed it back on the table. “What is the purpose of this visit?”
“We are investigating the deaths of Kol and four other men,” said Frey, “each of whom died in the same strange way.”
“It isn’t strange,” replied Dimmerk. “They were struck down by the—”
“Hammer of god,” Frey interjected. “Yes, so I’m told. You seem certain that this is why Kol was killed, but what about the other four? Were they also heretics?”
“They must have been,” Dimmerk said. “Why else would they have incurred the wrath of god?”
“One was a countryman of yours, I believe. From the foothills of the mountains.”
“Heresy is like a weed; it can grow anywhere.” Dimmerk grunted. “Look, old woman, I’ve already given my statement and told that fool of a beadle everything I know.”
“People say that but they are often wrong. There is always more to be said on any important subject, wouldn’t you agree?”
“No. And I don’t have time to stand here and gossip with a couple of useless and nosy women.”
If I expected Frey to take offense, she did not. Instead she wore a placid smile as she began strolling once more around the smithy. She peered into buckets and bent close to examine items on tables while Dimmerk watched her with a disapproval that—for all the world—looked like an even mixture of contempt and fear. I could understand the former, but not the latter. Frey stopped by a table all the way in the back and lifted a piece of polished wood that looked somewhat like the stock of a crossbow. She turned it over in her hands and then glanced back at the table on which the heavy metal tubes lay. And now I saw some of that same fear on her face. And some of the same contempt. She set the wood down at the end of a long row of identical pieces.
“Hatred is a poison,” she said.
Dimmerk said nothing.
Frey stood in the shadows at the far end of the smithy, her back to us as she ran her fingers over the lines of carved wood stocks. “In these times, with war tearing apart nations and breaking families, it is so easy to give in to hate.”
“Hatred is a weapon,” countered Dimmerk. “Without it we become soft. Without it we cannot hope to fight back, or to take back what was stolen from us.”
“Is that what your god tells you?” asked Frey without turning. “Is hatred the arm that raises the hammer of god? If so, how does its fall serve the will of your god? How does that kind of hatred build your church? How does it serve any church or any god?”
Dimmerk said nothing.
Mother Frey turned but stayed on the far side of the smithy. “Philosophers say that the gods do not bother with the petty affairs of mortals, particularly in matters of governance. In theory the gods should not even favor one nation over another, because if they made the world then they made all of it, and all of us.”
Dimmerk said nothing.
“And yet here, on this mountain, there has been a remarkable number of miraculous deaths whose nature seems to argue for a god very much interested in politics, and in the political survival of one nation in particular. It could be argued that this god has gone so far as to intercede on behalf of a single family who, admittedly, was badly treated by both sides.”
Dimmerk said nothing.
“The two diplomats who were struck down would have settled a treaty that would have reinforced a grave wrong done to that family. Their deaths prevented that from happening, which leaves it open for you to make a claim on those lands should our side win the war.”
Dimmerk said nothing.
“I keep thinking about the death of your countryman,” said Frey. “I can’t help but wonder what he was doing in these hills. It couldn’t be pure chance that he would come here, so far from the mountains. Was he, perhaps, searching for you? What drew him here, I wonder? There would have been just enough time after the death of Jeks Kol for the news to spread. Might he have come out of some interest in that good man’s death? Or in how he died?”
And still Dimmerk said nothing.
“And then there was the death of a man pretending to be what he was not.”
Dimmerk stiffened. “What do you mean by that?”
“The body in the hills,” said Frey. “We examined it quite closely. He was dressed like a local farmer but I believe that he was a Khaslani spy, and one who had recently come from the mountains.”
“You couldn’t know that,” barked Dimmerk.
“Could I not? Then let me explain. His face was ruddy and weathered. The winds touch a man’s face differently here in the mountains than they do down by the ocean. His eyes were green, and green eyes are rare among the mountain farmers, where brown and blue eyes are far more common. I perceived a pale band around his thumb. It is common for Khaslani landowners and their elder sons to wear their signet rings on their thumbs. He had taken his off but had not yet tanned enough to cover it. He was not a serf and not a soldier, that much was obvious. Was he a spy? Perhaps, but not a government agent. He was not clever enough in his disguise for that. No, this man was a young nobleman or an elder son of a noble house of Khaslani who came here on a mission to discover something of great importance. Something he feared to find and perhaps feared not to find. His nervousness was habitual and longstanding, suggesting that he has been dreading something for quite a while. Long enough to drive him to take a terrible risk. To make him want to grow a peasant’s beard and infiltrate the lands of his nation’s enemy. Why would a man of that kind take such a risk? Could it be because his family now lives in estates once owned by a family that had been driven out and destroyed? What could he have found in the mansion or castle that had been abandoned in such desperate haste? Was there a forge there, I wonder? Were there remnants of things being designed or manufactured which filled his heart with a great dread?”
Dimmerk’s eyes seemed to glow with as much fiery heat as his forge. “You are only guessing, you witch.”
“I never guess,” Frey said quietly. “I observe and look for evidence that supports a likely conclusion. Inductive reasoning is more precise than mere guesswork.”
Dimmerk took a few steps toward her. I slipped my hand beneath the folds of my apron and closed my fingers around the hilt of my poisoned knife. He was bigger than I, but I was quick as a scorpion and always had been. I think Dimmerk saw my hand move and guessed the danger. He smiled and stopped by the table with the long steel tubes.
“You are trespassing here,” he said calmly. “You are unwelcome. Please leave.”
There was a quality to his voice that carried a greater menace than I had expected from the man. Frey felt it, too. Even she.
I crossed to her and walked with her to the door, but on the threshold Mother Frey stopped and turned.
“Listen to me,” she said in a voice that was surprisingly gentle. “I understand what you are doing, and my heart breaks for you. It breaks for all that you’ve lost. But you are going down the wrong path. You want people to believe that it is the hand of your god reaching down to strike at the heretics, but we both know that is a lie. That is blasphemy, though I doubt you care about such things any more than I do. This was never about religion. You are using god as a shield and from behind that cover you are striking out with something the world has never seen. Something new and terrible. Could it be that Jeks Kol saw what you were making here and understood its implications? He was a simple man, but from all accounts not a stupid one. The potential of that thing is too great to comprehend. Even now the thought of it fills my heart and mind with black horror.”
“Get out,” he said, but she was not finished.
“I implore you, Dimmerk, destroy what you have made. Do it now before the rest of the world learns of it. Do it before politicians and soldiers and generals learn of it. Do it now before you drown our country and every country in a tidal wave of blood. Perhaps you have been driven mad by what you’ve lost. If so, I pity you. But mad or sane, I beseech you to step aside from this course.” She pointed a withered finger at the table of metal tubes and then at the wooden stocks. “Melt those and burn them. Make sickles and scythes. Make swords if you must make weapons for killing, but do not allow the hammer of god to be known to the world. Do not let that kind of horror be the last legacy of the Fell family. I beg you, do not do that.”
Dimmerk snatched up one of the metal poles and brandished it like a club. My dagger was in my hand, but Frey stayed my arm.
“Get out and be damned to you,” roared the man.
And we women, too wise to fight this fight, withdrew.
Outside, Frey turned and fair pushed me toward our wagon. “Hurry, girl. In the name of Mother Siya, hurry.”
I helped her up and before I could even take the reins Frey snatched them and snapped the horses into startled movement. She flicked a whip at them—something I had never seen her do before—and drove them mercilessly down the mountain road.
It was when we were nearing the bottom of the winding way that something strange happened. The cold lantern that hung on a post at the corner of the wagon suddenly exploded as if struck by a club. Pieces flew everywhere and we had to shield our faces with our arms.
“Ride!” screamed Frey, whipping the horses anew.
We flew down the hill and were soon deep into the forests and the farms.
Frey said nothing more until we were back in our room at the inn with door bolted and shutters closed. The old woman looked positively ancient and frail, thin and deathly pale.
“What is it, Mother?” I begged. “Tell me what you meant. What evil thing did Dimmerk invent? Was it some magic spell? Has he conjured a demon?”
She took so long I did not think she was going to answer. Then she dug something out of her apron pocket and held it out to me. I took the item and held it up to study by candlelight. It was a lump of lead that was round on one side but badly misshapen on the other.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Do you remember the bucket of lead balls?”
“I do. Oh!” I realized that this was exactly the same size as the others, though they were all perfectly round.
“I took this from the wall near where the Khaslani was killed. If we had been able to examine the spots where the diplomats and Jeks Kol were killed, no doubt we would find others like this.”
“What does it mean? Are you saying these small lead balls did the damage we saw on the spy? How is that possible? What sorcery is this?”
Frey said, “Have you ever seen fireworks?”
“Ever seen what happens when too many are set off at once?”
“Once. A barrel of firecrackers blew up in the town where I lived with my husband. Killed the firecracker salesman and his horse.”
“Did you actually see the blast?”
“Then you understand the force that is released,” she said. “Explosives like that are most dangerous when confined. A hundredweight of firecrackers lit in the middle of the town square is an amusement. That same amount in a barrel is deadly because the force is gathered together. It is like fingers gathered together into a fist. You understand?”
“Yes. But . . . are you talking about banefire?” I asked.
Banefire was an ancient weapon created by alchemists long before the rise of the first Silver Empress. We were all told that the secret of making it was lost and all attempts to recreate it forbidden. However, Frey shook her head.
“No, this is not something from the ancient world, my girl,” she said, a nervous little tremolo in her voice. “I fear this is something new and perhaps even more terrible.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Fell family suffered a dreadful tragedy when their factory exploded, destroying all the property and killing so many. The fireworks were probably in cases, stacked and bunched together. Are you following me?”
“I am, but what does that have to do with this?” I held up the smashed lead.
She chewed her lip for a moment. “I am going to trust you, Miri. I know I treat you like a girl but you are a woman who has seen some of life. You have education and you are not a fool. One day you will take over my responsibilities and to do that you must be wise and you must have an open mind.”
I nodded slowly.
“The Office of Miracles was never intended as an agency for proving the divine. Others in our church do that. It has always been up to us to search for the truth, often in dark and ugly places,” said Mother Frey. “There are many people in this world whose hearts are filled with greed, with avarice, with hatred. I see that in Dimmerk Fell. Maybe he was once a good man and has had his heart broken, but I suspect that he was always like this. The war has simply honed and refined his hatred . . . and his greed. But he is also very smart. You saw those tubes? Now imagine if you filled one end with a paper firework like the ones we saw, and then rolled a lead ball down its mouth. If you could block the end with the firework, say with a heavy wooden stock, but leave a hole for a candle wick, what do you think would happen when you put flame to the firecracker?”
I had to think about it. All of that explosive force behind the lead ball would need to go somewhere. If the whole thing did not explode, then it would push that ball down the tube and out.
Frey watched me and I could tell that she saw the moment I understood.
“Not a crossbow,” I said softly. “And not the hand or hammer of god.”
“No,” she said. “Now imagine a thousand soldiers with weapons like that. Put them behind a wall and you can march all the armies of the world against them and what would be the result? A mountain of the dead.”
“Is it even possible?”
“You saw it firsthand, Miri. The spy. His chest. The ball went in small on one side and the lead, soft as it is, must have hit bone and flattened as it came out. It smashed a much bigger hole on the other side. Nestor described the same thing with Jeks Kol and the diplomats. And we saw it happen to the lantern on our wagon.”
I sat there, frozen by the horror of it. Immediately my mind was filled with terror at the scene she had described—men with firework weapons that could spit death—and the damage they could do. The battles they could win. The kingdoms they could topple.
“Now,” said Frey, “imagine if those weapons were in the hands of both armies. Imagine if every murderous fool could hold a tube of steel and kill from a safe distance. Imagine what this world would become. Imagine what it will become. Imagine that, Miri, and you will be inside the head of Dimmerk Fell.”
We sat there, staring at each other, surrounded by shadows that now seemed filled with legions of ghosts waiting to be born in the fires of wars to come.
“What can we do?”
Frey took the lead ball back and placed it on the night table. “I don’t know that we can do anything,” she said sadly, her eyes flickering with frustration. “If we file a report then the world will know that this weapon exists. Even if Dimmerk hides his handiwork, the concept will be out there.”
“Fireworks are common. Won’t someone else think of this?”
She looked older and sadder. “In time. Yes. All we can do is pray that Dimmerk comes to his senses so that such a horror will not be shared sooner rather than later.”
“Pray, Mother? I’m surprised to hear you advocate that.”
Frey shrugged. “What other course is left to us, girl?”
There was more to say, and we talked for a while, but then we settled down for the night. I was agitated and Mother Frey fixed me a sleeping draught. I drifted off and my dreams were haunted.
Once, deep in the middle of the night, I dreamed that the Red God reached out of the clouds and smote the mountaintop with his burning hammer. But it was a dream, and I slept on.
I woke in the cold light of morning to find Mother Frey’s bed empty. It looked like she had barely slept in it. My head was fuzzy and I wanted to scold her for giving me too strong a draught. I washed and dressed as quickly as I could and stumbled down the stairs to find her in the common room. She looked older still and worn to almost nothing, hunched over a mug of broth. Her face was smudged with soot and her clothes were dirty.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Were you out rooting with the pigs?”
Frey touched her face, looked at the soot that came away, shrugged, and sipped the broth.
I noticed that the common room was completely empty except for the landlord, who was standing in the doorway looking out into the street. “Where is everyone?” I demanded.
He turned and gave me a quizzical look. “Up at the smithy, of course.”
“Why ‘of course’? What’s happened?”
“Bless me, Sister, but did you not hear it all last night?”
“Why, the world itself seemed to roar.”
“I don’t understand what that means,” I said.
He pointed toward the hills and I came over and looked past him. There, up high near the snow line, a dense column of black smoke curled its way into the morning sky. It rose hundreds of feet above the mountaintop.
“Father Ar only knows what happened,” said the landlord. “But the whole top of the mountain blowed itself all the way to heaven’s front yard. Lucky there ain’t much up that far ‘cept the smithy, and that’s gone, of course. Poor Dimmerk never did have the luck. Sour scripture-thumping son of a . . .” He paused. “Pardon me, Sister Miri, I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead.”
I stared at the smoke and then turned toward Mother Frey. She peered at me with her bright blue eyes in her soot-stained old face. She lifted the mug of broth to her lips and took a sip.
She said nothing at all.
After a while I came and sat down with her.
I had a cup of hot broth, too.
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