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Picking through the dead man's pockets, Jennsen Daggett came across the last thing in the world she would ever have expected to find. Startled, she sat back on her heels. The raw breeze ruffled her hair as she stared wide-eyed at the words written in precise, blocky letters on the small square of paper. The paper had been folded in half twice, carefully, so that the edges had been even. She blinked, half expecting the words to vanish, like some grim illusion. They remained solid and all too real.
Foolish though she knew the thought was, she still felt as if the dead soldier might be watching her for any reaction. Showing none, outwardly, anyway, she stole a look at his eyes. They were dull and filmy. She had heard people say of the deceased that they looked like they were only sleeping. He didn't. His eyes looked dead. His pale lips were taut, his face was waxy. There was a purplish blush at the back of his bull neck.
Of course he wasn't watching her. He was no longer watching anything. With his head turned to the side, toward her, though, it almost seemed as if he might be looking at her. She could imagine he was.
Up on the rocky hill behind her, bare branches clattered together in the wind like bones clacking. The paper in her trembling fingers seemed to be rattling with them. Her heart, already thumping at a brisk pace, started to pound harder.
Jennsen prided herself in her levelheadedness. She knew she was letting her imagination get carried away. But she had never before seen a dead person, a person so grotesquely still. It was dreadful seeing someone who didn't breathe. She swallowed in an attempt to compose her own breathing, if not her nerves.
Even if he was dead, Jennsen didn't like him looking at her, so she stood, lifted the hem of her long skirts, and stepped around the body. She carefully folded the small piece of paper over twice, the way it had been folded when she had found it, and slipped it into her pocket. She would have to worry about that later. Jennsen knew how her mother would react to those two words on the paper.
Determined to be finished with her search, she squatted on the other side of the man. With his face turned away, it almost seemed as if he were looking back up at the trail from where he had fallen, as if he might be wondering what had happened and how he had come to be at the bottom of the steep, rocky gorge with his neck broken.
His cloak had no pockets. Two pouches were secured to his belt. One pouch held oil, whetstones, and a strop. The other was packed with jerky. Neither contained a name.
If he'd known better, as she did, he would have taken the long way along the bottom of the cliff, rather than traverse the trail across the top, where patches of black ice made it treacherous this time of year. Even if he didn't want to retreat the way he had come in order to climb down into the gorge, it would have been wiser for him to have made his way through the woods, despite the thick bramble that made travel difficult up there among the deadfall.
Done was done. If she could find something that would tell her who he was, maybe she could find his kin, or someone who knew him. They would want to know. She clung to the safety of the pretense.
Almost against her will, Jennsen returned to wondering what he had been doing out here. She feared that the carefully folded piece of paper told her only too clearly. Still, there could be some other reason.
If she could just find it.
She had to move his arm a little if she was to look in his other pocket.
"Dear spirits forgive me," she whispered as she grasped the dead limb.
His unbending arm moved only with difficulty. Jennsen's nose wrinkled with disgust. He was as cold as the ground he lay on, as cold as the sporadic raindrops that fell from the iron sky. This time of year, it was almost always snow driven before such a stiff west wind. The unusual intermittent mist and drizzle had surely made the icy places on the trail at the top even slicker. The dead man only proved it.
She knew that if she stayed much longer she would be caught out in the approaching winter rain. She was well aware that people exposed to such weather risked their lives. Fortunately, Jennsen wasn't terribly far from home. If she didn't get home soon, though, her mother, worried at what could be taking so long, would probably come out after her. Jennsen didn't want her mother getting soaked, too.
Her mother would be waiting for the fish Jennsen had retrieved from baited lines in the lake. For once, the lines they tended through holes in the ice had brought them a full stringer. The fish were lying dead on the other side of the dead man, where she had dropped them after making her grim discovery. He hadn't been there earlier, or she would have seen him on her way out to the lake.
Taking a deep breath to gird her resolve, Jennsen made herself return to her search. She imagined that some woman was probably wondering about her big, handsome soldier, worrying if he was safe, warm, and dry.
He was none of that.
Jennsen would want someone to tell her mother, if it were she who had fallen and broken her neck. Her mother would understand if she delayed a bit to try to find out the man's identity. Jennsen reconsidered. Her mother might understand, but she still wouldn't want Jennsen anywhere near one of these soldiers. But he was dead. He couldn't hurt anyone, now, much less her and her mother.
Her mother would be even more troubled once Jennsen showed her what was written on the little piece of paper.
Jennsen knew that what really drove her search was the hope for some other explanation. She desperately wanted it to be something else. That frantic need kept her beside his dead body when she wanted nothing so much as to run for home.
If she didn't find anything to explain away his presence, then it would be best to cover him and hope that no one ever found him. Even if she had to stay out in the rain, she should cover him over as quickly as possible. She shouldn't wait. Then no one would ever know where he was.
She made herself push her hand down into his trouser pocket, all the way to the end. The flesh of his thigh was stiff. Her fingers hurriedly gathered up the nest of small objects at the bottom. Gasping for breath at the awful task, she pulled it all out in her fist. She bent close in the gathering gloom and opened her fingers for a look.
On top were a flint, bone buttons, a small ball of twine, and a folded handkerchief. With one finger, she pushed the twine and handkerchief to the side, exposing a weighty clutch of coins—silver and gold. She let out a soft whistle at the sight of such wealth. She didn't think that soldiers were rich, but this man had five gold marks among a larger number of silver marks. A fortune by most any standard. All the silver pennies—not copper, silver—seemed insignificant by contrast, even though they alone were probably more than she had spent in the whole of her twenty years.
The thought occurred to her that it was the first time in her life that she had ever held gold—or even silver—marks. The thought occurred to her that it might be plunder.
She found no trinket from a woman, as she had hoped, so as to soften her worry about what sort of man he had been.
Regrettably, nothing in the pocket told her anything of who he might be. Her nose wrinkled as she went about the chore of returning his possessions to his pocket. Some of the silver pennies spilled from her fist. She picked them all up from the wet, frozen ground and forced her hand into his pocket again in order to return them all to their rightful place.
His pack might tell her more, but he was sprawled atop it, and she wasn't sure she wanted to try to have a look, since it was likely to hold only supplies. His pockets would have held anything he considered valuable.
Like the piece of paper.
She supposed all the evidence that she really needed was in plain sight. He wore stiff leather armor under his dark cloak and tunic. At his hip was a simple but ruggedly made and wickedly sharp soldier's sword in a torn utilitarian black leather scabbard. The sword was broken at midlength, no doubt in the long tumble from the trail.
Her eyes glided more carefully over the remarkable knife sheathed at his belt. The hilt of the knife, gleaming in the gloom, was what had riveted her attention from the first instant. The sight of it had held her frozen until she realized its owner was dead. She was sure that no simple soldier would possess a knife that exquisitely crafted. It had to be more expensive than any knife she had ever seen.
On the silver hilt was the ornate letter "R." Even so, it was a thing of beauty.
From a young age, her mother had taught her to use a knife. She wished her mother could have a knife as fine as this.
Jennsen jumped at the whispered word.
Not now. Dear spirits, not now. Not here.
Jennsen was not a woman who hated much in life, but she hated the voice that sometimes came to her.
She ignored it, now, as always, forcing her fingers to move, to try to discover if there was anything else about the man that she should know. She checked the leather straps for concealed pockets but found none. The tunic was a plain cut, without pockets.
Jennsen, came the voice again.
She gritted her teeth. "Leave me be," she said aloud, if under her breath.
It sounded different, this time. Almost as if the voice wasn't in her head, as it always was.
"Leave me alone," she growled.
Surrender, came the dead murmur.
She glanced up and saw the man's dead eyes staring at her.
The first curtain of cold rain, billowing in the wind, felt like the icy fingers of spirits caressing her face.
Her heart galloped yet faster. Her breath caught against her ragged pulls, like silk catching on dry skin. With her wide-eyed gaze locked on the dead soldier's face, she pushed with her feet, scuttling back across the gravel.
She was being silly. She knew she was. The man was dead. He wasn't looking at her. He couldn't be. His stare was fixed in death, that's all, like her stringer of dead fish—they weren't looking at anything. Neither was he. She was being silly. It only seemed he was looking at her.
But even if the dead eyes were staring at nothing, she would just as soon that they weren't doing it in her direction.
Beyond, above the sharp rise of granite, the pine trees swayed from side to side in the wind and the bare maple and oak waved their skeletal arms, but Jennsen kept her gaze fixed on the dead man as she listened for the voice. The man's lips were still. She knew they would be. The voice was in her head.
His face was still turned toward the trail from where he had fallen to his death. She had thought his lifeless sight had been turned in that direction, too, but now his eyes seemed to be turned more toward her.
Jennsen curled her fingers around the hilt of her knife.
"Leave me be. I'll not surrender."
She never knew what it was that the voice wanted her to surrender. Despite having been with her nearly her whole life, it had never said. She found refuge in that ambiguity.
As if in answer to her thought, the voice came again.
Surrender your flesh, Jennsen.
Jennsen couldn't breathe.
Surrender your will.
She swallowed in terror. It had never said that before—never said anything she could understand.
Often, she would faintly hear it—as if it were too far away to be clearly understood. Sometimes she thought she could hear the words, but they seemed to be in a strange language.
She often heard it when she was falling asleep, calling to her in that distant, dead whisper. It spoke other words to her, she knew, but never so as she could understand more than her name and that frighteningly seductive single-word command to surrender. That word was always more forceful than any other. She could always hear it even when she could hear no other.
Her mother said that the voice was the man who, nearly Jennsen's whole life, had wanted to kill her. Her mother said that he wanted to torment her.
"Jenn," her mother would often say, "it's all right. I'm here with you. His voice can't hurt you." Not wanting to burden her mother, Jennsen often didn't tell her about the voice.
But even if the voice couldn't hurt her, the man could, if he found her. At that moment, Jennsen desperately wished for the protective comfort of her mother's arms.
One day, he would come for her. They both knew he would. Until then, he sent his voice. That's what her mother thought, anyway.
As much as that explanation frightened her, Jennsen preferred it to thinking herself mad. If she didn't have her own mind, she had nothing.
"What's happened here?"
Jennsen gasped in a cry of fright as she spun, pulling her knife. She dropped into a half crouch, feet spread, knife held in a death grip.
It was no disembodied voice, this. A man was walking up the gully toward her. With the wind in her ears, and the distraction of the dead man and the voice, she hadn't heard him coming.
As big as he was, as close as he was, she knew that if she ran, and if he was of a mind, he could easily run her down.
Copyright © 2001 by Terry Goodkind