I knocked on the frame of the door to Rosalind’s room, carrying a tray of food. The door was open, but I knocked to announce my presence anyway. Rosalind roused from her sleep, her hair disheveled, her clothes in a mess. She sat up on her bed, which was my cue to carry in the meal I had made – a loaf of bread and some soup. Her appetite was still pretty bad, so this was about as much as she could handle. I set the tray down on her bedside table, whereupon she moved wordlessly, shifting her position such that she sat in front of the tray. Slowly, absentmindedly, she began to tear off pieces of the loaf, dipping it in the soup before consuming it. I sat down on the chair and watched her eat, taking note of the telltale trails on her cheeks that suggested she had been crying again. She ate vacantly, her eyes unfocused, as if she was not seeing anything.
I sighed. No improvement. It had been about four days since Ruth’s bloodied cloak had been brought to the town – Rosalind had not spoken a word since. I had supported her and helped her get back home, but she had entered this vacant, unfocused state of mind shortly after. I had been handling her meals and seeing to her few needs, but with her in this state, we couldn’t exactly open the tavern. The floor of the tavern was starting to collect dust – a situation unaided by the lack of a mop or broom within the premises.
I watched as Rosalind finished off the bread and drank the last of the soup, then sluggishly returned to her sleeping position, curled up tightly like an infant. I had seen something similar before, in young children who were sent to war for the first time and saw their friends die. Rosalind was far out of the usual age demographic that suffered this level of shutdown, but it was possible that losing her closest friend so soon after her parents had caused a form of mental regression. These symptoms usually passed after enough time, but there were also cases where the victim had never fully recovered. That said, considering that Rosalind had not actually seen or experienced the moment of Ruth’s death first-hand, I doubted the trauma would be that lasting. Until she recovered, however, I had no choice but to look after her; I owed her that much. I covered her up with her blanket and patted her head, but she did not respond to my attentions.
I heard knocking on the door downstairs. Picking up the now-empty tray, I hurried down to the ground floor and quickly deposited the tray in the kitchen sink, before answering the door. Standing there was one of the grocers from whom we had bought goods on the day when Rosalind had shut down. The man sighed when he saw that it was not Rosalind, but I, who had opened the door.
“She’s still not feeling better?”
I shook my head.
“She’s eating now, at least.”
“That’s good to know. Are you going to bring her to the doctor?”
“No point. Hers is an ailment of the mind, not the body.”
Medical science in this world was advanced enough to differentiate between physical illnesses and mental sicknesses, but no treatments or procedures for mental ills had as of yet been pioneered. Since most mental illnesses could not be treated via magic, most people considered treating a mental sickness to be a lost cause.
“I see… Well, I brought these for her – maybe they’ll give her some strength.”
He handed me a basket of apples, which I accepted gratefully.
“Tell her I’m wishing for her quick recovery.”
“I will, once she starts hearing me again.”
The grocer averted his gaze, then shook his head slowly.
“Ah… To think that Miss Rosalind knew the dead merchant… So soon after her parents, too… it’s… unfortunate. Give her my condolences.”
With that, he turned around and walked away. I quietly closed the door and inspected the apples – they seemed to be ripe and safe to eat. No signs of rot or insects. I smiled. This gift was the latest of many – I had to turn away the regulars with the explanation that Rosalind was unwell, and the news of Rosalind’s grieving soon spread throughout the town. Grocers and merchants had been coming to our door often to bring gifts of food or wine – Rosalind was evidently a well-loved figure in this community. It was convenient, at least. With Rosalind in this state, I couldn’t exactly leave her alone to go shopping for groceries.
As I placed the apples in the kitchen, I picked up the basin by the sink and went to the well in our yard – since Rosalind was presently incapable of using her magic, I had to do the dishes the old-fashioned way. I fetched a small amount of water, just enough to get the job done, and began to scrub the tray. As I worked, my mind drifted to thoughts of Ruth as well.
The report from the soldiers was odd. Presumably, the cart had been looted and the horses killed. There had been blood all over the cart and across the ground. The cloak had been left on the cart, but no bodies had been found. From what I had managed to get out of the guard, the amount of blood indicated that more than one person had bled – furthermore, marks on the cart and ground apparently indicated that a struggle had occurred. The guards had decided that Ruth had been waylaid by bandits on the road, and had put up a fight, but had ultimately been killed, and her cart looted. However, if that was the case, Ruth’s body should have been found with the cart. There was no merit to taking her body if she was already dead. There were two logical hypotheses that could be constructed given this information.
The first was that Ruth had been captured by the bandits and taken alive, possibly to be sold as a slave in another country or as a type of loot for the bandits’ leader. If this was the case, then they would have needed to drag her to a vehicle of some sort, or otherwise take her away in chains. The first would have left tracks on the road, or in the vicinity. The second would have resulted in a trail of blood leading away from the scene. Yet when I pressed the guards for these details, I had learned that there were no such tracks found nearby, and that while there was indeed a trail of blood, it led away from the main road for several meters before abruptly stopping, as if whoever leaving it had disappeared. Given the lack of evidence, it was unlikely that Ruth had been taken captive.
The second, infinitely more morbid possibility was that her dead body had been taken away for some purpose, possibly for the purpose of necromancy or for some mad researcher’s whims. If this was the case, they could have stemmed the trail of blood by wrapping up the corpse and transporting it like any other good; but doing so meant that they would have had to transport the rest of the dead bodies from those of their own who would have been killed in the fight as well. Doing so would certainly have weighed them down and left visible footprints on the dirt roads, but the guard had mentioned that the footprints they could find were shallow and erratic. Furthermore, from what I knew, necromancy had been attempted numerous times in the past, and was each time met with failure. There were no records of any successful necromantic spells. As such, this possibility was also unlikely.
I had considered the possibility of the guard lying about these details to me, but I could find no merit in his doing so – if he was working with the bandits, he would not have brought the cloak to town in the first place. Ruth was not a citizen of this kingdom – aside from Rosalind, she was likely to have few ties here. If the guard had not brought the cloak to this town, Ruth would have simply vanished for unknown cause, with no possibility of the bandits coming under suspicion.
In the first place, even if the bandits had somehow managed to kill her or chase her away, why had they left the cart? It would have made more sense to requisition the cart along with all its goods; this way they would have a safe way to transport their loot without leaving such an obvious piece of evidence at the scene of the attack. Yet the cart had been left there – it was a decision that made no sense.
This led to a third hypothesis – if Ruth was neither captured nor dead, it meant she was alive. It was possible that she had fought off the bandits and later escaped. I recalled the way she carried herself and the sword clamped at her hip – I could tell that her abilities were of a similar level to mine, and mine were literally god-given gifts. A horde of bandits would be of little trouble to me – and therefore, she should not have had any trouble with them either. However, the question remained: If she had managed to drive them off, why was the cart looted? Furthermore, how had she disposed of her enemies’ bodies? I had no answer to these questions.
Too many things did not add up. Something else was happening here. The fact that the cart remained, the missing bodies, my personal evaluation of Ruth’s skill – there were too many factors that prevented the construction of a complete picture. I had a strong conviction that Ruth was alive – my evaluation of her skill prevented me from believing that she could have lost to bandits. Yet if she was alive, this entire setup suggested that she had gone off the road and into hiding for whatever reason. I briefly recalled her warning us about the brewing uprising – perhaps her disappearance was linked to that. I could think of reasons for both sides to attempt to capture an outsider who seemed to have information about the uprising. It was possible she had faked her death to escape capture.
The more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed that Ruth had faked her death to avoid some sort of political trouble. If that was the case, it would cause many things to add up, especially the way the warning she had given us seemed to come so randomly and urgently. If my theory was correct, Ruth was alive. However, I decided to keep this information from Rosalind. If Ruth had indeed disappeared because of the uprising, then it might be something dangerous to probe into – and I had, after all, promised to keep Rosalind safe.
Nodding to affirm my resolve, I continued to scrub away at the tray, working through various what-if scenarios and developing contingencies in case Rosalind’s life should come under threat.