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"Mama!" Haydon called from near the window. "There's horses on the road! Fancy ones!"
"That's nice." Arien sat at her kitchen table, trying to make sense of the drawing in the old book before she had to leave to work at the sanatorium. She'd never learned to read, but she didn't think that mattered, at least not with this book. It was full of pictures, detailed illustrations in colored ink. Even if she couldn't understand the words, she recognized the things they represented.
"Mama!" Haydon pulled on her skirt and she looked down to see him on the floor, balanced on one hand while his legs dragged uselessly behind him. "Horses, Mama! You have to come see!"
She sighed as she stood and scooped him up. "Horses come by every day, Haydon."
Haydon wrapped his hot arms around her neck. "Not quarry horses! Nobles' horses! Three pretty ones, all brushed and shiny! With fancy saddles!"
Balancing him on her hip, she pulled the curtains. Sure enough, there were three fine horses prancing away down the road. "Well, I'll be."
The three noblemen pulled their mounts to a stop and dismounted near Constable Marsden, who stood not far down the road. One was old and limped a little as he walked, but following him was a tall, slender young man with a purposeful stride. The third man dwarfed the other two combined and Arien sucked in her breath as he lumbered around the horses.
"Dien?" she whispered, leaning close to the open window.
"Who are they, Mama?" Haydon asked.
"Men from the castle," she said, watching the old man follow Calder Marsden into the ravine. The young man and Dien–she was certain it was him, even after almost six summers–stopped to talk to a nearby group of villagers and quarry workers.
"Can we go outside and see the horses? Please?"
Arien hesitated for a moment, then felt Haydon's forehead. Still too warm, but she hated to disappoint him. "Of course we can, sweetie."
Dubric knew the scent of death. He had known it for most of his life, the low stench that permeated his clothes, sometimes his very skin, settling into his pores like a thick oil clotted with grit and dust. Death's gassy breath was a stain he could never wash away, could never escape even if he wanted to, just as he could never escape his ghosts.
Below, on a flattened bit of ground, Calder Marsden, constable of Quarry Run, stood beside the burlap-wrapped remains, frowning. Marsden flicked away a swarm of flies then grimaced and spat. His pleasant face, stubbled from a long and trying day, looked slightly off color. To the best of Dubric's knowledge, Marsden had never seen a mutilated corpse before, even if it was merely a sheep.
"It's here, Lord Byerly," Marsden said, glancing at the carcass as Dubric caught his breath. "At least the part I've found. Second one this phase."
Half hidden by an elderberry bush, a sheep's rump and haunches lay mostly intact, partially wrapped in burlap and tied with twine. Some of its flesh had been chewed away and parts of its intestines strung into the brush. Maggots roiled over the exposed meat and other insects crawled over the burlap and bloody wool.
Dubric ignored his arthritic knees as he knelt beside the remains. Up close, the reek from days of rotting in late spring heat made his eyes water. Flies landed on his face and he shooed them away. "Have any more sheep been reported missing since you sent word to the castle?"
"Yes, milord Castellan. Four of them."
"And you have found several like this?" Dubric pulled a pair of thin sheep-gut gloves onto his burn-scarred hands, positioning the stitched seams over his knuckles. He prepared to dictate his findings then paused. Otlee, the boy who had taken his notes during two previous investigations, had stayed home at the castle.
"Yes, milord. Cut to the seven hells and tossed away, guts and all, but wrapped up tidy as a pin. Why, milord? If you're going to steal and butcher the lord's sheep and package it for storage, wouldn't a sane man keep the meat? I hated to bother you, milord, but I just couldn't make any sense of it."
Dubric looked up. "How well do you write?"
"Not very well, milord. I can make my mark and cipher a little, maybe read a word or two, but there's not much reason for a carpenter to learn to write. Since I became constable, I've been paying Philbe to do my official papers."
"Then fetch one of my men from the road," Dubric said.
Marsden nodded eagerly.
Dubric set to work, surveying the immediate area. He examined fallen leaves and looked under bushes and plants, but found no unexplained footprints, no knife, no apparent clues. Only the rotting back half of a sheep, partially wrapped in burlap. He wiped sweat from his brow and looked up to the arching branches of elm, sycamore, and maple. By the King. I am too old for this.
Someone broke through the brush above. "I am down here," Dubric said.
His elder page, Lars, skip-jumped down the steep slope. "I've taken a statement from the fellow who found it, sir. He was out hunting mushrooms when he stumbled over it. Dien's finishing up the spectator listings."
"That is fine," Dubric said, handing Lars his notebook. "How is he managing?"
Lars flipped through to an empty page. "He'll be all right, sir. It's just a sheep."
"I fear it is too soon to return to this gruesome type of work," Dubric said. Murders just a moon before had ravaged his team. His squire, Dien, had lost a child and young Otlee had lost his innocence. Lars had nearly died and even Dubric had . . .
Had what? he thought, pulling back the edges of the burlap and frowning at the torn flesh. Had decided that I am not yet dead and had best resume living? Dubric took a breath and let it free. The past was past. Only the now and the future mattered.
He began dictating his findings, describing the arrangement of the remains, then cursed. "It is not merely a sheep," he said, pushing wool aside to show Lars a shaved area near the spine. Two triangles were marked on the skin, one red and one black, and overlapping point to point .
"That's not Lord Brushgar's brand," Lars said.
Dubric let the wool fall. "No. It is a mage mark."
Dubric reached the road to find scores of villagers and quarry workers standing in loose groups. Most took a step back as Lars carried the sack of remains to his horse.
Dien left a woman with a little boy and walked over, raking his thick fingers through his shorn hair. Once a steady and solid brown, Dien's hair had become flecked with gray and his massive bulk seemed diminished. Dubric wondered if he ate much anymore, or slept.
Dien barely looked up as he spoke. "What are we looking at, sir?"
"Now is not the place to discuss it. We need to find the other pieces. Soon."
"Maybe I should have contacted you sooner, milord," Marsden said. "I almost did a couple of phases back when it became more than one or two at a time."
"How long has this been happening?"
"Off and on for a few moons. It started late last autumn, after the harvest. Kieran the blacksmith fattens a lamb every summer and someone stole it out of its pen. We looked high and low for it, then parts turned up, scattered around. I thought at first it was some kids causing trouble–Kieran isn't the most loved man in town and some of the lads taunt him–but it didn't stop. Couple of phases later we found a ewe without its back end, then a ram the same way. It was quiet all winter, but started up again a moon or so ago, after the thaw. Seems like every few days another one turns up, half a sheep or a whole one all cut up but still with their wool . . . So many have disappeared that folks are worried about paying their taxes and feeding their families."
"Were all of the sheep found in this area?" Dubric glanced up as Lars came close.
"No, milord," Marsden said. "They've turned up all over town."
"When was the last reported theft?"
"This morning. Woodley, a farmer up north of the pines, reported sheep missing."
Dubric added to his notes. "What did you do with the carcasses you found?"
"Burned or buried them," Marsden said. "No one wants to eat them, not after they've lain around spoiling. There's no telling if the meat's poisoned or tainted. I just can't figure out who around here would do such a thing to folks' livestock."
Dubric looked at the crowd gathered around them. "We need to speak privately," he said, "away from spectators and eavesdroppers."
"Of course," Marsden said. "We can talk in my office."
As the men turned toward the horses, Dubric touched Lars's arm. "Choose two men from the crowd to aid you. I want this ravine scoured for other parts. Tell no one we suspect a mage."
Marsden leaned forward, his arms on his desk. "You think I have a what on the loose?"
"A mage," Dubric said, shifting in his chair. "I saw a mark, two overlapping triangles, on the sheep's skin."
Dien paced behind him, muttering, "Not again. Goddess damned son of a whore, I've seen enough of this shit."
Marsden glanced up at Dien then returned his attention to Dubric. "Milord, mages are just monsters in tales parents tell their children to frighten them. Everyone knows they all died in the war."
"A few remain." Dubric flipped back through his notebook to his most recent case and handed the notebook to Marsden. "A bit more than a moon ago, we killed a mage in northern Faldorrah who murdered young men to use their blood to make dye."
Squinting, Marsden turned the book upside down, then upright again. "Dye? Like for coloring fabric?"
"Yes, dye!" Dien snapped, turning. "My daughter was murdered and good lads were raped and tortured to death. One of our pages barely survived. All for frigging dye!"
Dubric raised a hand to hush Dien. "Mages still exist and one has marked the sheep you found. I am hoping that Lars will locate the remaining pieces. Do you see the diamond-shaped mark on the bottom of the left-hand page?"
Marsden laid the book on the desk and pointed to the symbol. "This one? That looks like an eye?"
"Yes. That is a copy of the mage mark for the mage we killed." Dubric leaned forward and flipped the pages to the most recent entry. He pointed to the overlapping triangles. "And that is the mark I found on that sheep. It is a mage mark, one I have never seen before."
Looking horrified, Marsden slid the book to Dubric. "I've seen that before. On Kieran's ewe and some parts I found a couple of phases ago."
"You said these mutilations began last autumn. Did anyone new move into the community not long before then? Did anything strange happen?"
"Nothing strange, no, nothing strange happens around here, but we did have some new folks last autumn. Got a new physician, a man named Shelby Garrett. Philbe's boy married a girl from Strod, and Tupper Dughall came back."
Dien stopped pacing. "He what? I told him to stay gone."
"He's been dowsing here for moons, and hasn't caused much trouble other than an occasional fight at the Cypress." Marsden paused and looked up at Dien. "He works, he drinks . . . He keeps to himself. I haven't had cause to arrest him."
"He beat a girl nearly to death," Dien said. "Did it once, he'll do it again."
Dubric rubbed his eyes. "He completed his sentence and has earned back the right to his life."
"Anyone who beats a pregnant girl half to death with a hammer hasn't earned a thing except a trip to the noose," Dien muttered.
All three men glanced over when the door opened and Lars poked his head in. "Sir, I found your missing sheep."
Outside, Lars pointed to a muddy, burlap-wrapped parcel on his mare. At his feet, a scraggly brown pup with a sleek black head jumped on his leg, begging for attention. "It's the front half, sir. We found it next to the stream. Found two of the feet, too."
Dubric untied the burlap. "They were probably dragged off by scavengers. Did you find the head?" He brushed insects aside and searched through the wool near the exposed flesh, looking for a shaved patch.
Lars knelt to pat the dog. "No, sir, no head."
Dubric quickly found shaved areas near the spine at the neck and waist; both were marked with the same overlapping triangles. He covered the dead sheep and tied it to Lars's saddle again. "I want you to go back to the castle and take these to Physician Rolle. I need to know anything he can tell me."
"Yes, sir. Straight home," Lars said, smiling.
"Identify everything you can," Dubric said, meeting Lars's gaze. "Do you understand?"
The boy flinched then nodded. "Yes, sir."
"It'll be dark soon. Maybe I should go instead," Dien said.
"I'll be fine." Lars climbed onto the saddle and reined about. "I'll stick to the merchant roads and be almost home by dark. Don't worry. I'll be careful. See you in the morning." He gave the other men a slight wave then left, the dog following for a few steps before it stopped mid-road to scratch.
Dien clenched his fists. "Sir, he's too young . . . at night . . ."
"I seem to recall you riding alone to capture a cutpurse along the Deitrelian border at a rather young age," Dubric said.
"That was different. I was twice his size."
Dubric patted his squire on the back. "You still are and will likely always be. He is not a child anymore. Let him be a man."
The three men watched Lars ride away. "Why's the boy so glad to take a long ride back to the castle with a rotting sheep?" Marsden asked.
"Because my daughter's there," Dien said. "They've been courting a whole moon now. And they had plans for tonight."
Marsden looked over Dien's towering bulk, top to bottom. "Oh. Must be a brave boy."
Dubric smiled. "He is."
"I dunno what good it'll do you to look," Woodley said, walking across the barnyard. "It's just a pen full of wooly sheep."
"But several are missing, are they not?" Dubric asked, breathing deep. No longer a hot wind from the south, the breeze had shifted and brought cool northerly gusts with the scent of rain.
"Aye. Four of them. Since folks'd been reportin' woolies gone, I do a head count every night when I pen 'em up, then again in the mornin' before I let 'em out to graze." A compact shepherd dog stood and bared its teeth as they approached, growling like a low rip in the evening air. Woodley called out, "Down, Buck. That's a good lad."
Buck wagged his tail and sat, his tongue lolling as he watched them.
They reached the sheep pens, a wide corral with a slat roof and frame walls attached to a high fence. Scores of common black-faced sheep milled together inside. A few turned to look at the men, but most seemed oblivious to their presence.
Posted August 17, 2013
Posted December 9, 2008
Lord Dubric Byerly is a war hero who killed seventeen mages while his men slew forty more. He lives in the Castle in Faldorrah with his small group of men acting like police authorities catching criminals but his main mission remains the same: to kill mages. When he is called to Quarry Run to investigate missing sheep, he finds many of the beasts dismembered with their heads decapitated and wearing a mage mark. He also knows a man was recently murdered as the victim¿s ghost demands justice from Dubric.---------------------- The evidence points to a blood mage, a unique creature who drinks the blood of its victims, which leads to the person in thrall to a new evil master. Dubric believes the mage is hiding in plain sight yet he fails to find him or her. When his cherished Maeve is possessed by the mage he seeks, Dubric realizes who the enemy is at quite a price any direct move might cost his beloved her life and soul. He must find a way to cast themage out without harming his lover.---------------------- Tamara Siler Jones writes some of the better fantasy mysteries on the market today with her latest containing her trademark of plenty of action in a world filled with dark magic and its opposing force. The romantic subplot enhances the suspense as the hero struggles with how to save his beloved and destroy a deadly malevolent blood mage. Dubric¿s dilemma makes the tale as he is an honorable person who knows that mages must die for the better good of everyone, but to sacrifice the woman who means everything to him makes for a difficult situation. This compelling novel has cross genre appeal.------------- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 26, 2011
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