In the twilight hours, Kendra came upon a sleeping village. Hoping to creep around it she skirted southwest, below hollow windows and darkened doorsteps and through a field on the outskirts of town. Seemingly back in the wilderness she quickened her pace through some brush and in her fatigued daze, she stumbled and fell. When she rose, she saw two male figures through the trees poised and alert and staring right at her.
Were they? No. They were staring in her direction, because of the noise she’d made. She was masked from the moonlight by the trees above, they couldn’t see her if they had been upon her. They were frozen in place, the lankier one’s gaze darted from one end of the forest to the other. She could hear that they were whispering, but not what they said. The lanky one held a lantern, the other a shovel. As she took in the clearing where they were standing, she saw rises every few feet that were marked with different signifiers. She realized that she’d stumbled upon a graveyard. The men were standing next to an open grave, with a large tarp beside it. Rather than grave robbers, they seemed to be gravediggers. She waited to move until they’d given up, assuming the noise had been a forest animal.
As she began to silently slip past them in the blackness, she couldn’t help but wonder who they were burying at night and why. It was a bright night, if one wasn’t hidden in the brush. The moon was shining pleasantly and bringing almost as much light as their lantern. Still, it would be easier to bury their dead during the day when the village could be present. She mused that perhaps the deceased person had not been well liked, or had been ill in some communicable way. Still.
After pausing at the outskirts of the clearing for some time, trying to will herself to move on, she turned back and began to creep up on the grave site. She was hoping to see a glimpse of the face, thinking that she may recognize a reason behind this dark ceremony. But she came too close and the stronger man slipped a dagger from the sheath at his belt and rounded on her. If she hadn’t been fatigued from her journey she might have disarmed him. Instead he lifted the dagger to her throat and she pinned herself against the trunk of the nearby tree. His lanky son – she presumed from his boyish face – raised the lantern to their faces and the three of them stared at each other for a moment.
The father’s face was brushed with gentle lines at the sides of his eyes and his forehead. His skin was painted with sweat over a deep tan that could only come from outside work. The boy was pale and dirty from digging, but his white collar and neat coat suggested that this was not a typical outing for him. His pale blue eyes still darted to and from Kendra and his father before the older man spoke.
“My lady,” he whispered, recognizing the flash of her sase immediately, “please forgive me. I thought you meant to rob us.” He dropped his dagger and the boy visibly relaxed.
“Do you have anything worth taking?” she smiled begrudgingly.
“No.” The man answered plainly, “My name is Vincent Ford. This is my son James. I’m a grave digger by trade; James was helping me with some overdue work.”
He nodded to the body, still neatly tied up in the tarp.
“Do you always bury the dead at night?” she asked, still pinning her wounded arm behind her so that he could not see it.
“Rarely,” Vincent answered, “this woman was the lover of a married man in town. She died in his bed, birthing his illegitimate child. As you can imagine, the details are rather complicated. He was hoping to save his wife the pain and knowledge of the tragedy.”
“Do you charge extra for midnight burials?”
“Yes.” He answered, again, plainly.
“Where did you get that scar?” James asked, speaking for the first time. He had a deeper voice than she’d expected. At his question she went to raise her hand to her face unconsciously and then stopped, wincing.
“It’s not a scar, James.” Vincent answered. “It’s a sase, a mark of the Guardian covenant. This woman, whatever her name is,” he looked at her pointedly, “is a Guardian of the crown. Though I’m not familiar with the color of the mark so I cannot tell you which type.”
Again, he looked at her pointedly, clearly expecting information about her in exchange for that that he’d given about them so readily.
“My name is Kendra. I’ve come from the north just now. The rest, is better if you don’t know.”
“You’re injured.” Vincent said, his eyes landing on her right arm. “My wife is a nurse, if you’d take our care. We have food and a warm place to rest. Though no stable for your horse.”
“My horse was separated from me.” She said, and took a deep breath, “I’m alone.”
“Well, you can’t say that anymore.” Vincent said without smiling, though his eyes did. “Follow me."