2008-the-woodcutters-hutBlood dyed the snow. More snow fell on the blood and on the woman lying in the red lake of it. Her white face was upturned to the drifting flakes, her expression shocked, her lips parted as if to speak a final word. Her hair lay like a shattered web, merging with the darkening blood. The forest around the woman was silent, filled with snow hush and deepening twilight. The house that grew from the forest was silent, though occupied. Scant minutes after the woman’s death, the door of the house had opened, and warm golden light had poured across the snow, across the cooling body and the steaming blood. And then, the silence had been broken.

Inspector Fox arrived from the City in a fast black coach, having left behind a cozy dining room with a succulent roast on the board, and he was uninspired by the beauty of the winter forest. He had hoped never to be required to leave the City walls, yet here he was in the Wild, squabbling with a village peacekeeper and a sinister-looking Prince’s deputy for dominance over the gruesome corpse. Constable Peter Moon was gigantic, with the build of an ox and an expression as imperturbable. The Inspector didn’t like the look of Moon’s enormous hands, which opened and closed as though the constable were imagining an act of strangulation.

The deputy’s air of dangerous quiet was worse. Dressed entirely in black, Gideon Crowe was lean and lithe as a shadow, made hard by years in the saddle. He moved briskly about, taking in the scene from all vantages and striding out into the darkening trees before returning to the body. Occasionally, Crowe scribbled something on a scrap of paper and smiled to himself. He did not share his thoughts as he filled vials with bloody snow and plucked bits of hair from the dead woman‘s torn clothing. Outside the crimson boundary of the crime scene sat a lacquered box into which went every labeled specimen. Fox sighed. He’d have all of that before he left, Prince’s man or not.

“Come away from there, Crowe,” he said. “You’ve trampled everything to Hell and gone. Has anyone spoken to the witness?”

Moon cleared his throat and growled, “Her name is Tanis. She’s in the cottage, waiting for you. I told him to wait until a thumper showed up.” Moon indicated Crowe with a contemptuous glare.

Inspector Fox cringed at the slang term for the City police. Perhaps it was true that the ways of the City changed slowly, if at all, but he hoped to conduct his investigation using shrewd observation and intelligence, and without recourse to skull-cracking. This savage place, with its shifting realities and strange allegiances, was nothing like his last post. There was still an outside chance he could go back, if he did well. He very much wanted to go back …

“Daydreaming, Inspector? If you have no interest in questioning the hag in yonder hovel, I’ll be happy to have a word with her.” The lantern light lay like glowing embers on Crowe’s dark chestnut hair. The deputy grinned and cocked an eyebrow.

“You may accompany me, Mr. Crowe,” Fox said, his voice sounding peevish to his own ears, “but keep a rein on your tongue. We are still within the jurisdiction of the City.” He turned to Peter Moon. “Please wait here, Constable, and watch over the body. Night is falling. There may be beasts.”

“Aye,” said Moon. “There may be, at that.”

The big man looked into the darkness gathering beyond the meager light of the lantern, and the thick placidity of his face curdled into something like fear.

To be continued…


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