Chapter 22: Trail of a Witch
Lieutenant Declan had seen death many times before he donned the Lafeara knights’ uniform. Three years ago, he’d been just a regular soldier and experienced his share of battle and killing. But he would never forget his first brush with death at just ten years old when he watched his mother burn at the stake—a witch.
Declan was not in the habit of wandering anywhere near Canary Street or Pimp Street as the locals called it. Most knights were under strict orders to steer clear of the entire east slums and the cutthroat gang that ruled it.
Which only made him question his purpose for being here at all.
Add in the priest from the Holy Saint’s Church who had arrived behind him, and something about this reported murder of a noble just didn’t add up. If a knight was a rare sight in the slums, the priest being here was akin to a miracle.
“It’s Lieutenant Declan, isn’t it?” the priest asked as he followed at Declan’s heels.
Declan turned and observed the holy man closely. The priest’s beige brown hair, cut close to his scalp, framed a long face, and drooping hazel green eyes. Even beneath his holy robes, Declan could tell he was physically weak and more accustomed to books than physical labor.
The sound of the priest’s heavy breathing as he attempted to keep up with Declan only enforced this assessment. “Have we met?”
“I was present for your promotion and blessing last spring,” the priest answered, looking pleased to have been addressed.
“Sorry, don’t remember you.”
He seemed too young to be a priest, which told Declan all he needed to know. Either the holy man came from nobility, or a family member had bought his position and garments. Though why anyone would pledge themselves to a life of celibacy was beyond Declan.
He focused on the alley as he stepped over shattered crates, human waste, and an abundance of broken glass. The smell was ungodly, and he hadn’t even gotten to the corpse yet.
Two junior knights stood on guard ahead, their faces tense and pale. But it was the sight behind them that commanded Declan’s full attention, and he knew exactly why he was here.
The body hung suspended from two wire ropes tied to rafters attached to the alley walls. The headless corpse swayed with his arms spread wide. His neck a purple hardened stump upon which a crow was already feasting.
“Light of the Saints,” the priest gasped. “Where is his head?”
A knight turned and gestured to a crate set up below the body upon which rested the dead man’s missing head. A rat had been stuffed ever so poetically into his mouth.
“Someone’s sending a strong message,” Declan said as he drew closer.
“You’re the corpse reader,” observed a voice from behind them.
Declan turned and saluted the knight captain who approached the scene in full chainmail armor, chest plate, and an officers’ cloak, which he wrapped around his left arm to keep it from trailing in the filth.
“Captain Sloane?” the priest greeted.
Declan was mildly surprised the priest recognized Sloane but chalked it off to the captain’s reputation. Sloane was an easily recognizable figure no matter where he went. He liked to say it was because the ladies were a sucker for blue eyes, but he knew as well as anyone that it was his missing left ear and the disfiguring scar he hid beneath his ash blonde hair that made him easy to identify.
“Morning priest,” Sloane replied without sparing the holy man a glance. “So, tell me, Declan, what do you make of this display?”
“I’d like a moment to observe the scene more carefully first if you don’t mind, Captain,” Declan answered respectfully.
Sloane waved his hand permissively and turned to the priest. “Why are you here?”
“My superiors sent me,” the priest replied. “Father Alden, at your service.”
Sloane grunted in response as Declan knelt before the crate. He sniffed the head curiously. Beneath the faint aroma of decay, he caught a whiff of jasmine and another scent he could not identify. Declan pulled off his glove and touched the dead man’s cheek. It was stiff, which was to be expected, but also surprisingly cold. The eyes, in particular, he found strange. The green irises and shrunken pupils were clouded over with a subtle blue mist.
“Do we know who he is?” Sloane barked.
“This was found beside the head when we arrived,” answered one of the junior knights as he produced a silver pocket watch.
“Lincoln Turnbell,” Sloane read aloud. “And there’s an address. The boy must have gotten himself drunk and lost a time or two.”
It was a common enough occurrence. The young lords of nobility were often gifted similar accessories by which to identify and safely transport them back home. Before his promotion to Lieutenant, Declan had escorted more than his fair share of the soft, entitled lightweights.
“Did we send a death notice?” Sloane asked.
“Yes, Captain, first thing after we found the watch.”
The priest wandered over beside Declan as the lieutenant rose and stared at the suspended body.
“They call you a corpse reader?” Alden asked curiously. “Did you study medicine?”
“No,” Declan replied as he dropped his gaze back to the severed head. He leaned down, placed his hand on either side of the dead man’s face, and picked it up.
Alden gagged and covered his mouth. “What—are you—looking for?”
“This,” Declan replied as he flipped the head over and offered the priest a view of the glistening flesh around the cleanly cut spine. The rat fell out of the dead man’s mouth and plopped onto the priest’s boot.
Alden kicked the rat aside and stumbled away to vomit against the wall.
“Was that necessary?” Sloane asked as he moved closer with a dissatisfied glance at the head in Declan’s hands.
“He asked,” Declan replied with a shrug.
“And what is it you’ve found?”
“This—” Declan ran his gloved finger around the front of the man’s neck. “—see the discoloration?”
Sloane leaned closer, the disgust visible on his face. “Looks like a clean cut.”
“Not quite,” Declan replied. “This man had his throat cut before he was decapitated. It’s minimal, but the flesh along the front of the neck shows signs of a previous laceration. The initial cut was also cleaner, made by a sharper blade, probably Vetrayna steel. ”
“Are you trying to tell me this noble cunt had his throat slit by some Vetrayna assassin? You do realize how ridiculous that sounds.”
“That’s not the only thing that’s strange. Look at his shirt,” Declan urged. “Where is the blood? Whether the deceased had his throat slit or head decapitated, he would have bled out a significantly.”
“Okay, so maybe he was killed somewhere else and brought here,” Sloane suggested.
“Even if that were true, we’d still expect to see a significant amount of blood on his shirt and jacket.”
Sloane frowned as he studied the dead man’s clothes. “Alright, I’ll give you that. So, where is the blood?”
“Still in the body, I expect.”
Sloane’s baby-blue eyes cut Declan with a sharp glance. “What?”
“Bizarre as this may sound Captain—”
“Can’t be crazier than your Vetrayna assassin theory.”
“—I believe his body was frozen just before the point of death,” Declan explained as he set the head back down on the crate.
“You’re not making any sense, Declan,” Sloane muttered.
“Can we take down the body? A quick examination should prove my theory.”
“We have to cut it down eventually. Any objections, priest?”
“None,” Alden said, approaching cautiously with an intrigued expression.
“Alright, cut him down.”
With the help of several stacked crates, Declan and the knights managed to cut the cords from the rafters and lowered the body to the ground. They carefully laid the dead man out beside his head. Black blood oozed from the neck’s stump into a thick, dense puddle.
The junior knights murmured ominously. “Is it supposed to keep bleeding like that?”
“Right again, Lieutenant,” Sloane observed with an unhappy sigh.
“He’s only been dead maybe ten or so hours,” Declan commented as he knelt over the body.
“That matches with the witness’s testimony,” answered the junior knight.
“Witness?” Declan asked sharply. “What witness?”
“A coachman,” replied the other junior knight. “He’s the reason we came out here. Reported a noble young lady as missing. Said something fishy happened to him while he was waiting on her. Some chap, a nobleman he thinks, came up and talked to him, asked about his passenger all real friendly-like. Even gave the coachman a drink of spirits. Next thing the coachman knows its morning. Chap’s gone. He has no idea where his passenger is, and he’s hungover even though he swears he only had a few sips.”
“And you think they are connected?” Alden asked curiously
“Seems to be.” The junior knight shrugged. “We came out to do a one-mile perimeter search, and here we are.” He gestured to the body. “Coachman even identified the head as the suspicious chap who came sniffing after his passenger. Creeper said she was his sister if you can believe it.”
“Is the witness still around?” Declan asked curiously.
“No, the rat and all shook him up, and he had a weak heart. We took his statement, collected his address, and the bottle that creep gave him, then sent him home. I can have someone bring him to the compound later today if needed.”
“Let’s do that. See when he can make himself available. Did he give you a description of this missing girl?”
“Only that she was young, he guessed sixteen or eighteen. He couldn’t tell us much cause she wore a mask over the top half her face and kept her hood up. She paid him more than double his usual fair to come out here and wait for her. Said she was nice and well mannered. He was rather broken up that something happened to her on his watch.”
“Two nobles on Pimp Street,” Sloane muttered. “One goes missing, and one ends up dead. Can’t be a coincidence.”
“Most likely not,” Declan agreed.
“Well, a sixteen-year-old girl didn’t do this,” Sloane snapped as he gestured to the body and head.
“Perhaps this is the local gang’s form of justice?” suggested the junior knight.
“No, this is a cover-up,” Declan firmly replied. “The beheading, the rat, the theatrical display—” he shook his head, “—it’s all to distract us from what actually happened.”
The junior knights exchanged mystified stares while the priest studied Declan curiously.
“Well?” Sloane growled. “If you’re so certain, what did happen?”
“Look for yourself,” Declan said as he leaned over and yanked the corpse’s shirt open.
A black mark originated from the dead man’s heart, spread across the pale chest, and faded gray as it reached his shoulders and lower abdomen.
The junior knights flinched away as the priest silently blessed himself.
Sloane took one look at the mark before he muttered, “Witchcraft.”