Wilhelmina dismounted her horse and held a handkerchief to her nose. The sulphurous stench of exploded gunpowder hung heavy in the air and mixed with the rot of corpses.
“What regiment was your brother in?” Walter asked as he dismounted himself and raised his bandana over his mouth and nose. Walter had the look of a fox in a wiry human body with sharp, darting eyes and a nervous energy to his movements. He wore the black trousers and royal blue rider’s jacket of a provost but also carried a number of leather pouches and vials strung in belts across his chest.
“12th Regiment of Foot.” She said, peering through the failing dusk light at the countless bodies strewn across the sand.
“Hmmm. The Wittelburger regiment. Accounts say they were one of the last to cross the river. If he’s here, he’ll be close to the water.”
The two began searching the fallen. Walter had been kind enough to lend her a pair of leather gloves but the task was still stomach-churning. The bodies of the Weslanders were strewn across the field, saber cuts or bullet wounds having stained their creme coats with dark crimson blood.
“Family must have been proud when he joined up.” Walter said, his tone neutral and detached, his focus on his work.
“Very” Wilhelmina lied. Father wouldn’t have approved even if he were alive and Mother had died bringing Johann into the world. Wilhelmina’s own reaction had been cool at the time. She’d expected him to bungle joining the army like he had his many other schemes and enterprises. When she’d received his letter boasting in his poor school-boy’s hand writing of his promotion to corporal, she assumed it was a joke.
“What’ll you do if you find him alive? The war is far from over.” Walter asked.
“I’m not leaving him behind.” WIlhelmina answered, the iron determination in her voice caused Walter to stop from his task for a half a moment. He had agreed to help her look but he was still a provost. Wilhelmina didn’t care. She was going to find Johann, no matter what.
Walter turned bodies over onto their backs before reaching into his pack and producing a leather pouch filled with some kind of dust. He threw a handful of the fine powder over the bodies and watched it intently.
“What’s that for?” Wilhelmina asked, unfamiliar with the practice.
“Checking for magic. Any present and the powder will glow blue.” Walter said, still focused on his task.
“You can’t be serious.” Wilhelmina said. Walter threw another handful of the powder over a patch of corpses.
“Army regulation since Henry IV. During his Eastern campaign, a necromancer was following behind. After a battle, he’d do gods-know-what and before anybody knew what to do, plague was spreading across the countryside. Corpses standing in their graves” Walter explained. With mechanical efficiency, he made his way through the bodies, spreading measured portions of the strange dust into the air, never to any effect.
A breeze of cool autumn air came rustling through the few trees that stood along the riverbank and their leaves rustled. The stench of the dead returned with terrible strength and Wilhelmina gagged.
“You’re sure you didn’t see him in the camp?”
“I think I’d remember if I had” Wilhelmina retorted, somewhat irritated at the question. She’d spent hours searching the faces of the wounded and forlorn soldiers on the other side of the Bana. The few she could find from her brother’s regiment were so disoriented that none could remember seeing him or if he had even crossed. She left the sands of the riverbank and stepped into the fields that flanked the dirt path that led to the ford. There were more bodies strewn through the grass along with felled horses and the faint smell of burning wood. In the darkening twilight, she could see the glowing cinders of hastily constructed barricades and cover. The smell of fire was a welcome reprieve from gunpowder and charred skin.
More bodies, though here she found Bolthar riders as well as her own countrymen. The foreigners were easy to identify by their burgundy tunics and thick mustaches though only a few were present. Perhaps it was possible that Johann had been captured by the barbarians, she thought to herself. She had checked every sandy-haired body she could find but none had her brother’s face.
“Stop.” Walter commanded. She turned to face him and saw him, crouched on one knee as a wisp of vibrant blue swirled in the breeze. He unslung his carbine and followed the blue light in a low crouch. Wilhelmina followed behind him, a cold fearful sweat breaking out across her body. Magic was something only demented hermits tried to practice far away from civil society or was the subject of dry and sleep-inducing lectures.
Walter sprinkled more of his powder on the ground and the blue light radiated even brighter than before.
“Spell was cast here. A body was here and was moved. Blood on the ground but not much.” Walter said, examining the site. After a moment, he produced a torn piece of fabric. A ball of ice formed in Wilhelmina’s stomach.
It was the stripe of a Weslander corporal.