On the run from an Empire he once served, Lord Questioner Petyr Ocyna stumbles across the mutilated body of a young woman in the middle of the forest, not far from a strange barrier known as the Fringe.
Despite the urgings of his companion Alec, Petyr chooses to risk a possible trip to the gallows in order to discover the killer.
But the truth he uncovers in the small logging town of Dunsriver might not only lead to the end of his own life, it just might lead to the destruction of the Empire.
In his service to the Empire, Petyr had seen any number of dead bodies. Most often, they had a bullet through the skull or a knife wound in the belly. He’d never seen anything like the body of the woman that hung naked from the trunk of a tree in front of him.
A pair of iron spikes held it there, driven through the body just above her breasts and just below her shoulders. A third spike protruded from her gaping mouth.
The spikes weren’t the source of the bile that threatened to erupt from his stomach. The woman seemed young, perhaps sixteen or seventeen. Her hair, dark but not quite black, fell mostly down onto her shoulders, framing high cheekbones that had once supported her eyes, and would still, but for the fact that her killer had removed those eyes leaving empty sockets.
That wasn’t all. Whatever monster had done this to the young woman had managed to pull her arms off.
Petyr had to turn away. He bent over and took a few deep breaths. They seemed to help for a moment, but the bile wouldn’t stay down. The contents of his stomach emptied onto the forest floor.
He heard footsteps coming toward him, but he didn’t turn around. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and started wiping at his mouth. I wish I had some water.
“Are you all right, Petyr?” Alec asked from behind him.
No. “I’m fine.”
Petyr finished wiping his mouth, stood up, and checked his clothes to make sure he hadn’t splashed vomit on them. When he was satisfied they were clean, he wrapped up the handkerchief as best he could so the contents of his stomach were safely inside, then turned back to face the body.
“Whoever she was,” Alec said, “I can’t imagine what she did to deserve this.”
Petyr looked at Alec. His friend’s face was pale. Apparently Alec has never seen anything to compare, either.
“She didn’t do anything to deserve this, Alec. Some of the towns on the edge of the Empire have some brutal forms of justice, but this, the Empire wouldn’t tolerate.”
“How would you know, Petyr?”
How would I know? He didn’t have an answer for Alec.
“Well, I’m going back to the carriage,” said Alec.
Petyr looked away from his friend and back to the woman on the tree. His stomach still felt uneasy, but it had quieted. For better or worse, he was getting used to the sight.
“Go on,” he said. “I’ll be right along.”
Alec turned and left. His footsteps, muffled in the soft loam of the forest, soon faded to nothingness.
Petyr moved within arm’s reach of the woman’s corpse. Blood stains descended from her wounds and empty eye sockets, the blood long washed away in the rain.
What color eyes did she have?
Her cheeks were thin and hollow, but the ghost of fullness lingered. Her nose sloped down to a petite point. From the tightness of her belly, it was clear she’d never borne children.
Petyr examined the stumps where her arms had been. The flesh ran ragged around the wounds. The holes in her chest were larger than the spikes rammed through them, the skin around the edges torn. His first impression was accurate. Her arms had been pulled off, not cut or sawn or chopped. Who would, or even could, do such a thing?
Something odd struck him. The body didn’t smell. No hint of putrefaction lingered in the air. He could smell the dampness of the forest, the aroma of the blackroot trees, the cloying scent of the moss that seemed to cover everything, but the stink of death was curiously absent. Judging by the lack of fresh blood, the body had hung from the tree long enough it should have started to decompose. It should have been ripe, crawling with bugs. But other than the wounds and the stains, it looked like a fresh kill.
He shuddered. Something or someone committed evil here. He could feel it. Something so vile, even the agents of decay wouldn’t touch the body.
He walked back to the carriage with careful steps, avoiding the shrubs and dead branches that lay across the path. Alec had already climbed up to the driver’s bench and had his head bowed down, studiously watching the pair of horses as they fidgeted in their harness. They apparently didn’t like waiting anywhere near that horror. Petyr wondered if they smelled something he couldn’t.
“Alec,” he said as he approached. “What’s the nearest town?”
“Dunsriver, I think. We passed it earlier today.”
“Take us back there.”
“Why? If we go back, we won’t make Rocktree by nightfall.”
“We’re not going to Rocktree, Alec.”
Alec jumped down from the driver’s bench and confronted Petyr. “What do you mean we’re not going to Rocktree? We have to keep moving.”
Petyr sighed. Alec was right. They couldn’t afford to linger, not with the Empire on their trail. On my trail. Is this really any of my business, anyway? If I just went on to Rocktree, who would know besides Alec? He looked at his friend. Alec wouldn’t tell anyone. If I stay and put this town to Question, the Tribune will most definitely hear.
But the vision of the girl on the tree haunted him. He had to know the truth. It wasn’t just his job.
“It’s who I am, Alec. I have to find the truth of this. I promise, no more than a day or two. It shouldn’t take long.”
They stood staring at each other for a few more moments, before Alec turned away without saying anything more and climbed back onto the bench.
Petyr opened the door of the carriage, stepped up and in, then shut the door behind him. He took a seat on the hard bench, its velvet covered cushion long since compacted to a layer that felt more like stone than anything else.
As the carriage started to move, he had a mind to lean out and tell Alec to keep on to Rocktree, but the vision of the woman’s body still haunted him. No matter how close his pursuers, he couldn’t let a crime like that go.
Instead of reversing his decision, he leaned back and worked at committing everything he’d observed to memory.
A threat existed here, and it was his job as Lord Questioner to root it out. Even if I am no longer a Lord Questioner.
* * *
Dunsriver, it turned out, lay off the main road down a thin track barely wide enough for the carriage. When Alec turned the carriage down that track, the trees crowded in brushing the sides with their branches. For several minutes, Petyr worried that a branch would break through the windows of the carriage to shower glass upon him. The scraping of the branches ceased, however, before his worry became reality.
When he looked out, Petyr saw they’d emerged into a great clearing, littered with stumps. In the distance along the wood-line, men sawed at the base of a tree. Farther along the wood-line he found other groups, also working to fell trees. He heard a shout. One towering monster slid off its stump, then toppled to the ground in a crash of branches and mud. Men quickly moved in and hacked away at its branches, beginning an apparently long process of preparing the tree for transport.
He watched them until he noticed a change in the clearing. The stumps gave way to empty, barren fields. This late in the season, he suspected the harvest was complete, and the fields would wait for winter to pass before seeing activity again.
As the carriage followed a slight bend in the track, Petyr caught his first sight of Dunsriver. What he saw surprised him. The town was fronted by a wall that stood more than two men tall. It appeared to be a recent construction and made with haste out of wood cut from the forest. The tops of the logs ended in shaped points, and the wood still looked green.
The carriage came to a stop outside the wall.
“State your business.” A gruff voice.
“My Lord Questioner Ocyna seeks entrance and lodgings,” said Alec. His voice was muffled through the walls of the carriage.
“There are no lodgings for his sort here.”
“There are always lodgings for a Lord Questioner.” Alec’s voice sounded cold to Petyr’s ear.
Petyr heard someone spit. He assumed it was the owner of the gruff voice. “We have no use for Empire… justice.”
Petyr swung the door of the carriage open, and stepped down onto the road. The mud squelched out around his shoes. He ignored it and strode, with a purpose that he’d had drilled into him during his training, toward the man blocking their way. The man topped Petyr by only a hand or so, but stood as wide as two men. Spots of gray stained the beard that covered much of his face, but his eyes tracked Petyr, bright and wary.
The gate to the town stood open, but only wide enough for him to see the crowd that was beginning to gather on the other side.
“Good sir, there is always need for Empire justice.” Petyr stuck out his hand, but the man hardly even glanced at it. He shifted his eyes to scan the crowd on the other side of the gate. “However,” Petyr continued, “I’m not here to dispense justice. I am merely passing through, and my driver informed me that we would not make Rocktree by nightfall. I’d appreciate it if you could spare a bed for myself and my driver. I have no wish to spend the night on the side of the road.”
The man shook his head. “We have no beds to spare. Sleep in your carriage.”
“There are no free beds at all?” he asked while watching a woman in the crowd whisper into a man’s ear. She was well past childbearing, and so was the man. “No hospitality for a servant of the Empire?”
The man on the receiving end of the woman’s whisper stepped out of the crowd and through the gate. He approached the man impeding Petyr’s way. “What are you about, Roderick?” he asked in a quiet voice, an obvious attempt to keep Petyr from hearing him. He didn’t seem aware it was futile. Petyr pretended to not hear anything.
“We don’t need him here, Sim. What if he finds out? We don’t need the attention of the Empire.”
“If we don’t let him stay, and something happens to him in the forest and the Empire finds out? Then where will we be?”
“There’s no guarantee anything would happen. And if we did, we could feign ignorance.”
Petyr saw anger on Sim’s face as he stood back a bit. “And have a whole company of Questioners fall on us? The truth would out, and they would hold us responsible.”
Roderick’s eyes twitched back and forth between Petyr and Sim. “I don’t like having him here. We can handle it ourselves.”
“Three dead and another missing, and you think we can handle it ourselves?”
Petyr jolted inside. Three? Maybe four? Is the one on the tree the missing, or one of the dead?
“You’re out of your mind, Roderick. Perhaps he’s exactly the help we need.”
Fury crossed Roderick’s face, but his lips closed tight. His fists clenched. Sim ignored him and spoke to Petyr.
“Lord Questioner, Dunsriver does not have an inn, but you are welcome to stay in my home. We have extra beds.”
Petyr held his hand out to the older man. “Thank you, Sim. You are most generous.” Sim took the proffered hand and shook it. “You will ride with my driver and direct him to your home?”
The crowd, sensing the excitement had ended, began to dissipate. As it broke up, Petyr noticed one blonde-headed young woman staring at him. When their eyes locked, she blinked once, smiled, then ran off into the town. She’s pretty. I wonder… No, Petyr. Think of Alura. You can’t let that happen to another.
“Come,” he said to Sim, and motioned for Sim to follow.
Petyr stepped back toward the carriage leaving Roderick fuming. He didn’t want Petyr there, obviously, but what was he worried about? Was it just the anti-Empire sentiment that sometimes ran strong out here on the edges of the Empire? Or was there more to it? Did he really think they didn’t need his help?
Petyr climbed into the carriage. The carriage rocked as Alec helped Sim up onto the drivers bench. Petyr felt sure about one thing. The town did need his help. Three dead, one missing. A wall hastily constructed to defend against who knew what.
The carriage crept forward, and he could see Roderick standing to the side of the road, anger and frustration boiling behind his eyes as Petyr rolled by.
* * *
“Carree!” Sim yelled as he opened the door to his home. Petyr followed behind the man as he entered. “Carree, come down here!”
Sim came to a stop in the foyer, and looked up to a walkway that crossed the rear wall of the room. A stairway with an ornate, hand carved rail climbed the wall to Petyr’s left. He could see into a sitting room to his right. To his left, a dining room was visible through the space between the foot of the stairs and the front wall of the house. Two other doors in the rear wall of the foyer stood closed.
Petyr set the one case he carried down on the stone floor and wondered where the wealth came from. The home was clearly among the largest, if not the largest home in Dunsriver. He kept silent, for the moment. The time for questions would arise later. He needed to get settled in.
The right-side door at the rear of the foyer opened, and a young woman stepped out. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a tail, leaving only a few strands to fall over her eyes. The eyes that had locked on him at the gate. “Yes father?”
“Where have you been?”
Her eyes flicked quickly to Petyr, then back to her father. “I’ve been here, in the back, feeding the horses.”
A lie, Petyr knew. He would have known had he not crossed glances with her at the gate.
“Oh, dear Mother. You were not to go outside this house. Why do you disobey me?”
She walked across the room to face her father. After that first flick of her eyes, Petyr thought she made a point of not looking at him. “Father, I cannot stay in this house forever. The others…”
Sim covered her mouth with his hand. “No, we will speak of this later. Would you show this gentleman to Bran’s room?” He removed his hand.
“Bran’s room? Mother will have a fit.”
“No, she won’t. It was her idea.”
Carree rolled her eyes, then looked straight at Petyr for the first time, appraising him, he thought. “Would you at least introduce us, first?” She held her hand out.
Sim sighed. “Lord Ocyna, my daughter Carree. Carree, Lord Questioner Petyr Ocyna. You will not bother him.”
Petyr took her hand, but just held it. She seemed to want a more intimate gesture, but he was not about grant her desire. Doing so might lead to places in his heart he feared to tread, despite the flutter in his chest as she made the offer. “My Lady, it is good to meet you.”
He released her hand, and a look of disappointment flitted across her face. “It is good to meet you, Lord Questioner.”
“You may call me Petyr, if you so wish. At present, I am not performing my duties, and I find it dreary to always be called by my office instead of my name.”
Sim interrupted. “Show him the room, Carree, then come down and help your mother with supper.” Petyr thought it clear Sim wished his daughter to have as little contact with a Questioner as necessary. Petyr didn’t blame him, not with the way Questioners were often portrayed on the edges of the Empire, and even sometimes near its heart. The Emperor himself sometimes played up the darker side of the Questioners’ reputation, deserved or not. If they only knew the truth.
Her eyes grew hard. “Yes, father.”
He picked his case from the floor, and she turned toward the stairs, motioning Petyr to follow her.
“This way my L… Petyr.” The way she said his name, after the initial slip, sounded like she was testing it out.
He was about to follow her, but Sim stepped in his way. “I know you think we are backward and provincial, but do not make the mistake of thinking we are stupid. My daughter is willful and headstrong and drives me to distraction. I will not, however, allow anyone to use that to their advantage. I hope you understand.”
Petyr nodded. “Your daughter is safe from me, though, she would be had you said nothing.” My memories would see to that.
“My worry is that you are not safe from her.” He laughed, then, some of the tension easing from him. “I will see that your driver has the horses stabled and the carriage stowed. You will join us for supper? I will be inviting the other Elders, though they would likely show in any case.”
“Of course I will sup with you.”
“Good, then go with my daughter and rest if you need, and we shall see each other at supper, if not before.” Sim looked at him like he wished to say something else, but whatever words he meant to say remained in his throat as he turned and stepped out into the street again.
Petyr saw Carree waiting on the second step of the stairs and moved in her direction. When she saw he was coming, she started up the stairs. He followed her up and she led him into a room at the end of the hallway.
He followed his first instinct to go to the window and look out. It let him survey most of the southern half of the town. The gate, he knew, lay to the west. To the east, the Duns River, for which the town was named, flowed past, gray and murky.
“Are you going to be here for long?”
He hesitated before answering. “Our intention was only to stay the night before moving on to Rocktree in the morning.” Smoke and soot from fires lit for heating hung low over the town.
“Then you’re not here to help us.” The sad, spurned tone she used caused him to face her.
“Help you?” He wanted her talking, revealing things before he had to ask questions of her father and the elders that he would meet at supper.
“With the killings. That’s why you’re here, aren’t you?”
“There have been killings? Murders?”
Her eyes grew watery. “Yes. It’s why my father won’t let me leave the house.”
“You did, anyway. I saw you at the gate.”
Her sad look became pleading in a heartbeat. “You won’t tell him, will you? The killings only happen when the fog comes.”
Then, they both heard footsteps coming up the stairs.
“Carree?” A woman’s voice.
Carree reached out and grasped his hand. “My mother. You will help us, won’t you?” she asked, her voice just above a whisper.
“Carree, where are you?”
“Of course,” he said, “I’ll do what I can.”
She squeezed his hand, then stood on her toes and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you.” Then she turned and ran out of the room. “Coming Mother.”
Petyr stood, rooted, the touch of her lips still lingering in his nerves stirring memories of another kiss and another time that he’d tried to expel. He brought his hand to his face and wiped at his cheek, erasing the touch. It would not do to let those memories come out and interfere. He would have to stay as far from Carree’s reach as he could.