The body was found under the shelter of the bridge while the rain came down. Rolanda shouldn’t have been anywhere near the bridge but she was a grown up thirteen years old and determined to prove to her peers that she wasn’t afraid of the bridge. The rumours of trolls didn’t scare her. She’d met an old man near the bridge once and he hadn’t been anything like a troll.
She had been tasked with making a mark on the bridge to prove she had been there. Gorth had grinned like he didn’t believe she had the stomach to do it and that had only made her more determined. Just because he had four soul marks already, didn’t mean he was better than the rest of them, and certainly not better than her. So Rolanda had stolen her father’s best dagger and run off to scratch her initials in the bridge.
The bridge was an old thing that had seen more feet and hooves and carts and souls go across it than anyone could truly quantify. It was made of pale grey stone, the kind that was mined out of the hills to the north, and moss was trying to climb its footings bravely. Or it was sinking slowly into the ground it rested on; the difference seemed negligible. It looked like it had grown out of the road itself, or been exposed by the narrow river than ran beneath it, like a single bone in a buried carcass.
Stories said that creatures were drawn to it, the strange and twisted ones. The echoes of sound off the underside of its single, smooth arch over the water were not just echoes: the bridge’s underbelly threw back whispers and secrets. The dead lingered in the shadows in the water. It was dark enough to wash soul marks away, the stories said, to steal splinters of someone’s soul. And if you drowned there, in the shadow of the bridge, your soul might never escape its clutches and all your splinters would be drawn here to die, forever.
Rolanda didn’t believe the stories. Well, not all of them. She gritted her teeth and gripped the dagger, and carefully scratched her initials on one of the stones beside the road. She was almost all the way through the second letter when the downpour started; she was concentrating so hard that she hadn’t even noticed it getting dark with the thickening of the clouds overhead. The next thing she knew, water was beating on her head and shoulders. She almost dropped her dagger in her scramble for shelter, but the trees were too far away. The closest shelter was the bridge itself, so she slipped and slithered down the bank beside it and ducked under its arm.
The rain was like a curtain falling on either side of the bridge: beneath was a pocket of quiet, the banks almost supernaturally dry. The river was dark and deep as it flowed on through, its surface ruffled by the pounding of the rain outside. Rolanda watched it all with a thundering heart, waiting for something to leap up out of the water or chitter at her from the shadows. But there was nothing: rain and flowing water, and the drip of her own wet hair down the back of her neck.
Eventually, she calmed down enough to get annoyed. She hadn’t finished making her mark and it would be too slippery to do it even after the rain eased. Then she realised where she was and smiled to herself: Gorth would have to shut up if she put her mark down here. She would lay coins against the chance of him ever being down here before. Determined, she turned to scratch her initials on the underside of the bridge instead.
The scraping of the knife was obnoxiously loud under the bridge, where everything echoed just a little wrong. Rolanda decided that it was because of the water: the moving river and the curtains of rain made the sound reflect oddly, that was all. It had nothing to do with soul splinters trapped under the surface of the river or the unmarked gone mad from loneliness. She didn’t believe in any of those things. Who could possibly go their whole lives without coming across one of their splinters anyway?
Still, it was a relief when the carving of those three little letters was done. Turning back to face the water, she noticed an oddness to how it lapped at the stony shore just a little further along. The shadows were deceptive here under the bridge, the light thwarted and bent by the falling water. There was a lump against the pale pebbles of the riverside. Had it been there before? Had it arrived while her back was turned? How had she not noticed it until now?
Of course, now that she had seen it, she couldn’t turn away. She had to know what it was and how it had got there, but the light was so dim now with the clouds and the rain that she couldn’t make it out. Not without getting closer. Clutching her dagger, she crept towards it, trying to ignore the lap of the dark water against the pebbles and how it sounded like it was tasting the land, licking, as if preparing to ease further up towards her.
A particular gust of wind bent the curtain of rain, let a shaft of light through, and Rolanda stopped short, her breath choking her her throat. There was the black of snarled hair, slick and wet and tangled. Slashes of red, oozing. And a pale, terrible face with its eyes closed, blessedly closed, because she dare not think what might happen if those eyes opened and looked at her.
It was just a body, she told herself. She’d seen plenty, hunting with her mother. She’d even seen a dead person before; particularly after the last harsh winter. Just a body. It couldn’t hurt her, not even here in this weird pocket under the bridge.
Then its chest moved and a scream ripped from her throat, and she tore off into the rain as if it might chase her.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?”
It was the kind of question asked in hushed tones to very specific ears, in the hopes that no-one likely to panic or misinterpret it would overhear. Tennison was overcaptain to a very small town near a very creepy little stone bridge, but things like this simply didn’t happen around here. He looked at the physician in the hopes of a positive answer, but Dr Mellander shook her head.
“Never in all my years,” the physician replied, her voice likewise pitched low.
The body had not been identified but it had been brought straight into town. After, that was, the young girl’s ravings had calmed enough to make some sense and Tennison’s deputies had been dispatched to investigate this mysterious body under the bridge.
They had returned with an unconscious young man on a litter. He was quite naked and in terrible shape: it had taken the physician and her nursing staff some time to clean all the river mud off him and dress his many wounds. He had not yet awoken and, though Tennison was no expert, he suspected that the victim would not. Or perhaps he simply hoped the young man would not wake; that seemed like the kindest thing, considering.
The problem was not his comatose state, but the nature of his wounds. That was what captured the overcaptain's attention now and brought the grim, unhappy creases to the physician’s forehead as she wiped her hands dry on a clean cloth. The young man was missing sections of his skin, whole parts of it carved away with disturbingly clean slices.
“I’ve seen cutting like that before,” the physician continued, her gaze lingering on the patient lying on the cot beside her. “On rabbits and deer, when the hunts are good. Takes a skilled skinner and a very sharp knife.” She was trying to be matter-of-fact but there was an underlying tension to her voice. “But no self-respecting skinner would cut in such shapes.”
Tennison had never in his life expected to have to think so deeply about the mechanics and reasons for skinning a person. He strove to distance himself from it, to treat it as just another crime that needed to be solved, like he had when the miller’s daughter had been murdered three years ago. Of course, he had wound up drinking the nightmares away as a result.
He pushed such thoughts aside and tried to focus. “What can you tell me about the shapes? What’s weird about them?” The patient’s wounds were bound, so he couldn’t see the shapes for himself; he had to rely on the physician’s report. Which was just fine by the overcaptain.
“Well, any self-respecting skinner would start at the wrists or ankles and…” Dr Mellander made a motion up one arm, to indicate removing all of the skin from the limb. “For this young man, specific areas have been cut around and then skinned off.” She made an oval shape with her fingers over the bandages on the young man’s arm.
The poor youngster looked so peaceful in his sleep. Tennison didn’t want to think about how much pain he would be in if he was awake with those wounds. “And you can’t see or guess a reason for this type of… action?”
“None that I’m aware of,” the physician said, shaking her head. Then she stopped and angled an almost sideways look at the overcaptain. “Though what we didn’t find might suggest an answer.”
“What you didn’t find?” Tennison just knew he didn’t like this, because her tone suggested that this case was only getting weirder. As if finding the boy under the troll’s bridge wasn’t enough.
“Soul marks. Not a single one.”
Tennison frowned. “He has to be what, seventeen, eighteen years old at least. Is that even possible?”
Dr Mellander shrugged. “I’ve never seen it. Everyone I’ve ever encountered inside or outside the healing centre has met a splinter by their tenth birthday at the latest. For him to have lived this long without it is… unlikely.”
Tennison definitely didn’t like the sound of this. “‘Unlikely’. Say what you mean to say, doctor.”
“Given the size and placement of the wounds, and the otherwise un-soul-marked state of the remaining skin, it seems that someone might have…” Dr Mellander wrinkled her nose and made a little gesture with her hand, almost as if warding something off. She couldn’t even bring herself to say it.
“As if someone might have cut his soul marks off,” Tennison finished for her heavily. He grimaced and ran a hand through his hair, but that didn’t make the thought sit any more comfortably in his head. To attack another’s soul marks was unheard of, taboo, forbidden on every level. His stomach turned over at the idea of such a thing. “Other than the obvious wounds, would that have done anything… else to him?“
“Are you asking me if it’s possible to remove someone’s bound soul splinters by removing their soul marks?” The physician shook her head slowly. “It’s never been proven. You could ask the elders of the Purists or the Blackhands, if you want a spiritual opinion. I’ve seen plenty of wounds to soul-marks that have done nothing to the person’s soul itself - not the way you are asking - and I’ve even seen smaller ones obliterated by a big enough wound. But I’ve never seen anyone have one removed like this.”
Spiritual opinions. Tennison tried not to grimace again at the thought, because he knew that he would have to speak to the religious elders. He had seen people do enough strange things around soul marks and splinters to know that a person’s belief was often more important to understanding the crime than reality was.
He ran his gaze over the young man in the bed again, cataloguing the injuries, bandages, and other marks. The scrape on his cheekbone that was probably caused by him being dumped: in the river or on the riverbank. The bruises around his wrists and ankles were no doubt caused by the need to immobilise him to carry out the… removal of skin.
“Anything else I should know, Dr Mellander?” he said, suddenly feeling so very tired.
The physician looked the patient over again as if checking off her own internal list. “Nothing you can’t see. Do we know his name?”
Tennison shook his head. “No-one has recognised him. And I’ve had no reports of a young man going missing.”
“Well, his wounds are fresh. Perhaps he hasn’t been missed yet.”
Dr Mellander tilted a look out of the window as if checking the angle of the sun. “Likely done early this morning, perhaps late last night.”
Probably at midnight, into the witching hour, Tennison suspected. Not that he believed in any of that superstitious nonsense but then, he didn’t believe in cutting other people’s soul marks off either.
“Any idea when he’ll wake up?” he asked, in case there was a positive answer.
The physician’s expression remained impassively grim. He wondered if that look was part of their training or just part of the armour that those in her profession developed over time. “There’s no head wound to explain his comatose state. It could be the cold from the time he spent in the river, but warming him up should wake him soon enough if that’s the case.”
“And if he doesn’t wake soon?”
Dr Mellander met Tennison’s gaze briefly, long enough to convey just how tricky the boy’s condition was. “We’ll do everything we can,” she said, then turned away. Apparently, that was all the answer he was going to get.
“Thanks, Dr Mellander.” Tennison tugged his coat straight and nodded at her. “Splinters bless you.”
“And yours you,” she returned as he took his leave.
Outside, the sunlight seemed brighter than usual and the overcaptain rubbed his eyes as he paused on the healer centre’s steps. There was nothing good about this case, except that the lad wasn’t dead, though Tennison wasn’t encouraged by any prospect of recovery. Was it even possible to recover from such damage?
Sighing, he lifted his head and looked at the town that wrapped around him. The healing centre was on the northern edge, with its extensive herb garden reaching from its rear walls up towards the woods. He was facing towards the centre of the town, which really wasn’t all that far from the edge: Morcan was a small gathering of families and businesses, but that suited Tennison well enough. It was a good place to start his career as an overcaptain, especially if he wanted to move up into one of the cities.
He had prospects and hopes, he told himself. He wasn’t going to be stuck in this small town his whole life like his father had been. He was going to have more, do more. But first, he had to deal with this injured lad, or it would forever plague his heels, as a rumour or a failure.
“Excuse me, Mr Overcaptain, sir?”
The voice came from a small body near his waist and Tennison looked down wearily. The tousled head of the young Rolanda looked up at him, her eyes red-rimmed from crying and her voice scratchy from over-use. She was so pale that the soul mark on her neck stood out starkly against her skin: it was a bird of some kind, a splinter turned into a winged shadow of itself.
“Yes?” he asked.
“Did the trolls do that to him?”
Tennison suppressed a sigh. “No, there’s no such thing as trolls.”
Her eyes widened and shone brightly with tears not yet shed. “Did a person put him there? Why?”
“We don’t know what happened yet,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder and guiding her firmly down the healing centre’s steps. “But I’m working to find out and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“I want to help.” She was pale and tear-streaked, but her jaw was set determinedly.
Tennison couldn’t help but smile down at her. She was going to be a great deputy one day.
“You just stay safe and don’t deface any more stonework, all right?”
She had the grace to look shamefaced as she nodded. Tennison patted her shoulder before he nudged her towards her home; then he strode off to pursue his investigation.
Thank you for reading!