Day 56 – Beniar
This was how they came. A woman and a girl rode down towards the village in the distance. The woman was tall, thin, and her hat and dress were black. Properly so. Not midnight black or as black as sin, just black. She rode a horse. It wasn’t a racer, or a brilliant stallion. It was in fact, a mare, and perfect for travel. Her voice was slightly snappish, but efficiently so.
“Keep up, Nanette. And sit properly; you’re riding the horse, not letting it bear you to market. Don’t make a poor impression. First ones are the only ones you get.”
“Yes, Miss Califor.”
The meek response didn’t suit the woman. She glanced to one side and eyed her companion.
“Remember your manners. It goes without saying that this is important business, or else we would not be here. Some of the others will expect proper courtesy.”
“I know, Miss Califor. I’ll do my best not to embarrass you.”
The woman pursed her lips.
“Embarrassment lasts as long as I care to remember it, Nanette. That isn’t what you should be concerned about. Some of the others are older. Which means proper courtesy is required. Eloise would consider it mannerly. And the others would be offended without.”
The chatter in the young voice made the woman named Califor pause. The fear wasn’t born of nothing, nor was the seriousness with which she gave the matter thought. Her mare plodded forwards as the woman thought, then nodded to herself and replied sharply.
“Mavika, above all others. The rest wouldn’t stand on it, but Mavika would. Mavika and…be polite to her, Nanette.”
The girl nodded rapidly and her pony, snorting, decided its rider wasn’t in control. It stopped to nibble at a weed growing by the road. Miss Califor, noticing the pause, glared at the pony. The pony looked up, noticed the glare, and quickly trotted forwards so the two were side-by-side again. The girl blushed and gripped the reins more tightly; Miss Califor just sighed again.
“Don’t be worried, Nanette. You are accompanying me. Just remember your manners.”
She waited for the nod from the girl at her side. And the slight smile the older woman gave reassured the girl. If she minded her manners, all would be well. That was all Nanette had to do; and all Miss Califor had to do was be…Miss Califor.
So the two rode. The landscape was lush, fed on rainwater, and full of growth. Wild grass and wheat escaped from farms bordered by forestland not yet cleared by Humans. The woman and girl watched as they rode, seeing how far some of the tree lines stretched. You could still find places like this out here. Riverfarm was rural, but there were parts of the continent yet desolate, where Humans—or people of any kind—had yet to leave any memory of their passing.
The woman’s back was straight, her posture correct. The girl tried to emulate her, but she was young. The girl also had a hat. But it was dark blue, fresh while the woman’s was worn. And she was timid where the woman was—not so much bold, but decisive. She decided what was done, and that was that.
It was thus something of a surprise when the [Bandits] poured out of a forest not fifteen miles from Riverfarm and surrounded the two. They were a rough lot, desperados as hungry as they were greedy. Their leader had an axe and a large horse and he pointed it at the two, bellowing as they stopped at the unexpected hitch near the end of their journey.
“Don’t move! You move and you’re dead! Get out your coin and jewelry! Now!”
The woman looked affronted; the girl squeaked in horror, and scrabbled for a wand at her side. She’d just managed to raise it when the woman slapped her arm down.
“Don’t point your wand if you don’t intend to use it, Nanette.”
The [Bandit Leader] growled. He’d tensed with the others when the wand came out, never mind that it was held by a girl. He held out one hand.
“Let’s make this quick, alright? Hand over your money pouches and don’t delay! And off the horses or you’ll be two corpses.”
He might have actually been more civilized compared to the [Bandits] whom Ryoka had seen killing travellers outright on the road. Then again, the close proximity to Riverfarm and the now-infamous Darksky Riders had the [Bandits] sweating. But there was money to be made if you were quick! They spread out around the woman and girl.
The older woman with the black hat pursed her lips, looking more annoyed than anything. She glanced around at the group of armed men and women, then up for a second, and her frown intensified. The others watched her warily but confidently; she might be a [Mage], but they had the drop on her and if she so much as twitched her hands or uttered the beginning of a spell, they’d cut her to pieces. They’d killed [Mages] before.
Slowly, Miss Califor got off her horse and shoved past a rough man with a sword. He blinked and the [Bandit Leader] looked down at her as she stood on his left. The woman turned her head and called at her ward.
“Don’t get off that horse Nanette. This doesn’t require any great spell. Just consideration. Now, you. Just what do you think you’re doing? I advise you to leave us be.”
So saying, she pointed a finger up at the [Bandit Leader]. He blinked at the tone in the woman’s voice.
“What? Give us the money old woman or die. One second. Otherwise I swing.”
The woman folded her arms and adjusted her hat, not looking impressed. One of the [Bandits], looking to his right at her, was impressed. She wasn’t flinching and the axe was ready to fall. He shuffled left and the woman did likewise.
The [Bandit Leader] looked left. The group tensed—was this woman about to fight? You never knew—but the woman just shook her head.
“I don’t intend to fight, and I don’t intend to be robbed. Move your horse, young man, or you will suffer the consequences.”
This didn’t gel with the [Bandit Leader]’s disposition at all. He raised his axe and the [Bandits] tensed. The woman surely saw the imminent death as he growled at her.
“You want to die? Money and horse. The girl too. Or I’ll cut you down and take it myself. Think I won’t?”
Miss Califor sighed. She looked up at the [Bandit Leader] and shook her head.
“I think you will. More’s the pity. If you must swing, boy, swing hard. Or else—”
The axe buried itself in her skull. She jerked and the [Bandit Leader] roared as he yanked the bloody axe blade away. It came up, dripping with blood and brains. He roared at the [Bandits] on his right.
“Fucking woman! Get the girl—”
And then he paused. And the [Bandits] stared in horror. Because it wasn’t an old woman’s body lying on the ground, her head and hat cleaved in two. It was one of their own. The [Bandit] the woman had bumped into, who’d been on the [Bandit Leader]’s left—
Silently, the big man with the axe stared at the corpse. A woman with a bow lowered it, looking in horror at her leader.
“Jek! You killed Tobil!”
“I didn’t mean—I was aiming at the woman!”
“She was on your right! You were looking right at her! But you swung at Tobil!”
The [Bandit Leader] stared around at his group. Then his head snapped up. The woman with the black hat stared at him from horseback. She addressed the pale-faced girl next to her.
“You see, Nanette? A small spell works better than obvious magic. What we see and show is more important. You are not a [Mage]. Remember that.”
“Yes, Miss Califor.”
The girl replied, a touch breathlessly. Jek, the [Bandit Leader], stared at them as the woman nodded.
The two on horseback wavered, and then vanished. Jek and the [Bandits] spun. They saw two distance figures on horseback racing towards Riverfarm in the distance, and only now heard the hoof beats. Jek pointed, trembling with fury.
The [Bandits] stormed after the pair, those without horses running to catch up. Ahead of them, Miss Califor considered their lead and the approaching village with narrowed eyes. Her apprentice, Nanette, clutched her horse’s reins, white-faced.
“Miss Califor, they’re catching up!”
“Patience, Nanette—a [Witch] is always calm—”
The [Bandit Leader], Jek, had a Skill. He was riding twice as fast at the two [Witches]. And his bloody axe was raised. Miss Califor turned in her saddle. She eyed Jek balefully, and looked ahead. And up. As he drew level with her, the man raised his axe. And she said only this:
“I warned you.”
Jek hesitated. And that was enough. He looked up and spotted the armored figure riding towards him from the side too late. He turned and swung. And to be fair, he hit the armored rider. But his steel axe bounced off the armor. And the [Cataphract] swung his sword and cut across Jek’s face.
The [Bandits] halted. They saw Beniar ride past Jek, and the man fall. Then they heard the shouts. The Darksky Riders charged, riding down on the [Bandits] with roars of fury. The [Bandits] scattered, screaming.
“The Darksky Riders!”
“That’s right! You bastards thought you could hide this close to Riverfarm!?”
Beniar roared as he galloped after another [Bandit], sword drawn. Nanette, shaking, let her horse slow, and Miss Califor, her lips pursed, regarded the [Bandits] and [Riders].
“What an inconvenience. But it is a lesson. Take note of it, Nanette.”
“Y-yes Miss Califor?”
The girl was pale beneath her hat. She looked at the woman, the [Witch]. Califor shook her head briskly.
“Don’t tremble so, Nanette. We were never in any danger.”
“But what if they’d seen through your illusion? Miss Califor? Or if the adventurers hadn’t caught up—or if—”
The [Witch] sighed. She adjusted her hat and looked up sternly.
“We were never in any danger. Perhaps we might have been, but a good [Witch] does not show fear. She makes what preparations she may. And—what is my eighth rule, Nanette?”
The girl gulped. She hesitated, and then, as her lips moved, she recalled it.
“She looks up—”
She looked up at last. And then, overhead, she saw her. Alevica, her broom parked high overhead, swooped down. Nanette nearly fell out of her saddle. The younger [Witch] tipped her hat to Califor, and the older [Witch] grudgingly inclined hers an inch.
“Wotcha, Nanette! And Califor! There’s [Bandits] all about today!”
The young woman grinned at the suddenly star-struck Nanette. Califor just sniffed.
“Evidently. Thank you for your assistance, Witch Alevica, although I would have preferred a more helpful approach.”
“You were fine. And that patrol was nearby. I won’t waste more crossbow bolts or potions. Anyways, we’re all fine. Am I late?”
Califor considered the question as Alevica hopped onto the ground and the broom returned to the laws of gravity. Alevica tossed it over her shoulder. She looked at Nanette, who was still staring, wide-eyed.
“Didn’t see me, Nanette? How long’s it been? Two years? Three?”
“Three. Nanette, your manners.”
The girl started, and her still-round cheeks went red again.
“Oh! I—I greet you, Witch Alevica! I tip my hat—”
She fumbled, and Alevica laughed. The young woman strode next to Califor’s horse and Nanette’s mare and waved a lazy hand.
“You don’t have to do that with me, Nanette. I don’t stand on the old ways. Do that to Mavika. Sorry about the scare!”
“Nanette should remember her manners, Alevica. As should you.”
The rebuke made Alevica stop and sigh. The younger woman pursed her lips, but uncharacteristically, especially from what Nanette knew and had heard of her, she did stop and tip her hat grudgingly to Califor and then Nanette.
“I tip my hat to you, and I apologize, Miss Califor. And to you, Nanette. No harm done though, eh?”
Miss Califor sighed and inclined her head and tipped her hat gently.
“I tip my hat to you, Alevica. And I suppose not. And I do thank you for the aid. Shall we complete our actual task?”
Alevica bowed, only a hint mockingly. And the smile she gave Nanette was very real. Nanette, who of course knew Alevica by name if not face, and reputation, hurriedly tipped her hat and bowed in the saddle. Alevica tipped hers with a grin that made the girl blush, and Califor clicked her tongue. Her mare walked forwards.
In the distance, Beniar turned, and his Darksky Riders began to ride back. He, of course, had a lot of questions, but the [Witches] walked on, three abreast. And as they walked into Riverfarm, a cry and hue went up. Alevica looked interested; Miss Califor only waited. When she was ready, she would decide if the commotion was worth dealing with. In the meantime, she turned her head and addressed the [Witch] walking beside her.
“How was your journey, Witch Alevica?”
They headed into Riverfarm, down the main street. Beniar, chasing after them, drew up when he realized they had no intention of waiting for him. He returned to the Darksky Riders, who were checking the [Bandits]. One of the [Riders] looked up.
“What’s with the flying woman, Beniar? The two travellers safe?”
The young man grunted sourly.
“I think so. I’ll head back once we’re sure we got all the [Bandits]. Do a sweep nearby; I’ll take four that way. Then I’ll ask about those three. Some people have no manners.”
Day 56 – Prost
Mister Prost was not a happy man. He was a [Steward], a class which was, by and large, not generally happy. He accepted that. And Prost had found he was often content if not happy. But right now he was neither content nor happy. He stood in the middle of a square, in front of a pair of stocks. There was a man in said stocks.
Master Elmmet. The man didn’t look as pompous as he normally did, strutting about and sneering at Riverfarm’s people. But, incredibly, he still managed to look down on Prost with both hands and head sticking out of the stocks and his ass facing the world. And quite a lot of world was watching.
“This is a sham, Mister Prost. I’m innocent. Framed! I may have been caught by that adventurer, Beniar, but only as I was attempting to catch the [Thief] myself! This is an indignity!”
Elmmet shouted at the crowd of people who’d gathered around the stocks to listen to the trial. At his words there was a chorus of boos and shouts of outrage, but the people of Lancrel shouted at the villagers and non-Lancrel folk. Prost stared down at Elmmet and tried to contain his temper. The man in the stocks had the gall to return his look with an outraged one of his own.
“I don’t have time for lies, Master Elmmet. I’m only asking you one question. With all to see. Are you the [Thief] who’s been stealing from Riverfarm all this time?”
“I’d love to give you a straight answer, but I’m afraid to be denounced by that false truth stone you’re holding.”
The man sneered back, and with one hand he pointed at the white quartz in Prost’s hand. The [Steward] grimaced as the stone flickered, from red to blue too rapidly for anyone to see. It was a truth stone, but a cheap one. And it had two settings: red for false, blue for truth. The problem was getting Master Elmmet to speak something that wasn’t a half-lie. If he didn’t say anything that could be a ‘yes or no answer’, the truth stone wouldn’t work entirely properly, and both he and Prost knew it.
“This is a genuine truth stone, Mister Elmmet. Anyone who wants can test it out and we have.”
“Such things can be faked! People of Lancrel, listen to me! I was framed! Do I look like a young man, or the woman that people were calling a [Thief] in the street? I was set up as I pursued that very [Thief], and Mister Prost—along with his hired adventurers—decided to frame me!”
Elmmet protested, wide-eyed and innocent to the crowd. Even Prost had to admit, he didn’t look like either description. Elmmet had white hair, and he was hardly spry. But Prost knew Beniar was telling the truth.
“Any [Thief] can gain a Skill which allows him to change his face. Apparently, there’s one called [Master of Faces]. Do you have that Skill?”
The stone flickered from red to mostly blue as Prost held it closer to Elmmet. The man was sweating, for all his bravado. He licked his lips and replied hoarsely.
“If I were to answer, I believe the stone would lie.”
Red, and then a flicker of blue. The stone couldn’t process the statement. Elmmet sighed and Prost ground his teeth. he raised his voice, speaking to the crowd.
“You see your man, Elmmet. He refuses to answer one question! Is he the [Thief]? He could free himself from the stocks this moment if he answered. If he continues to refuse, I will find him guilty for the dozens of thefts that have plagued Riverfarm. All of them.”
Lancrel’s folk stared back uncertainty. Many looked at Elmmet with distrust, and Prost was relieved to see some were clear thinkers. But too many listened to the [Thief] as he hoarsely shouted.
“Don’t believe this man! This is a conspiracy! He can control the truth stone! I demand a proper trial! An impartial judge!”
“I am the [Steward] of Riverfarm. This is your one trial, Elmmet!”
Prost lost his temper and bellowed at the man. The [Thief] flinched, but he still had that desperate confidence in his eyes. As if he thought he was really going to get out of this. Prost had already decided he was not. No matter what anyone said—if Prost couldn’t get the man to admit his crimes, it didn’t matter. He was a [Thief] and Prost would make sure he was jailed. Laken could deal with him. Prost was sure driving out Elmmet would just see him reappear as the [Thief] and cause more trouble, and as for anything else—
“Mister Prost, I have to object on my Councilman’s behalf. Can we be sure that this truth stone is really as valid as you claim? Is there no possibility that Elmmet was wrongly accused?”
A polite voice called out behind Prost. The former-[Farmer] gritted his teeth as he turned. If he could, he would have thrown the smiling woman addressing him into the stocks next to Elmmet.
“Councilwoman Beatica. This truth stone is accurate. Or are you claiming that this is all a conspiracy, as Mister Elmmet says? I warn you, that is a lie I will not have repeated. Beniar has sworn on a truth stone his account is accurate, and his report is backed up by Durene, the Darksky Riders, and a dozen other witnesses. Are you suggesting everyone who claims to have seen Master Elmmet is lying?”
If she was, she was claiming there was no real authority that could be trusted in Riverfarm except her own. Prost held the woman’s gaze and saw Beatica hesitate. She smiled and spread her arms, turning to address the crowd of city folk behind her. Not the villagers.
“Of course not! I believe everyone present saw exactly what they claimed. But magic—Skills—they can fake a man’s face, can’t they? What if the [Thief] used his [Master of Faces] Skill to impersonate Elmmet? Mister Prost, can we be certain beyond any shadow of doubt that this is our [Thief] and not a wrongly accused man?”
The Lancrel crowd nodded. And Prost stared at Beatica’s smile, and then noticed the flickering truth stone in his hand. And he realized that if he answered her, the stone might turn red.
“No one can be certain of anything, Councilwoman. Which is why your question has no answer.”
Beatica’s lips pursed for a second and Prost sensed her disappointment in not luring him into her trap. She kept going, though. She probably didn’t even care for Elmmet, Prost suspected, but if the damn [Thief] was found guilty, it would throw her authority into question. Beatica spoke like a [Town Crier], and with the eloquence of a [Bard], gently persuading those undecided in the crowd.
“But doesn’t that mean that the same logic applies to Councilman Elmmet’s situation? If we cannot be certain of his guilt—”
“Are you mad, woman?”
A barking voice interrupted Beatica at last. Prost had been trying, but the woman’s [Uninterrupted Monologue] Skill had been silencing him. Not Mister Helm, though. The [Blacksmith] roared behind Beatica, slamming one fist into his palm.
“Don’t you dare try to spin it like that bastard’s innocent! He’s been weaseling out of an honest reply and there’s only one answer to why that is! Why deliberate? Why bother to ask? He’s only told lies—but me and everyone else saw him stealing with my own two eyes! We saw him get nabbed, and there wasn’t any conspiracy or someone switching faces! Isn’t that good enough? If you want the truth, use that stone on me!”
He pointed at Prost’s stone, which had stayed mostly blue during Helm’s speech. The crowd murmured agreement and Beatica’s eyes flashed. But that damn smile—
“Mister Helm, I realize you’re upset, but eyes can be tricked—”
The [Blacksmith] bellowed straight at Beatica. The [Councilwoman] froze, unprepared for that. Prost grinned. She might be a [Politician], but she wasn’t used to someone like Helm, who was used to saying what needed saying over the roar of a forge. The man strode forwards, pointing a finger.
“Stop twisting your words, woman! That man’s a [Thief] and he deserves exile, a noose, or just a few broken bones! He’s guilty and you Lancrel lot are just protecting him because he’s your big [Councilman]! As corrupt as all of you city-dwelling—”
A roar of outrage swallowed the rest of what Helm was shouting as the crowd, most of whom were city people or townsfolk, shouted at Helm. The villagers present bellowed back, and Prost’s heart sank. He saw Beatica stumbling back, looking wounded—and noticed the sly, foxlike smile too late. Of course, she wanted this. He shouted, and then used a Skill.
[Crowd Control]. Prost had to push to force everyone silent, but they fell quiet. Beatica looked uncertain as she noticed Prost using the Skill; the [Steward] was breathing hard with the effort. He looked around, and wished Laken were here. But he was trusting Prost, so the man straightened his back and did what he could.
“Master Elmmet. Swear on this truth stone you aren’t the [Thief]. Or I will consider you as such. If you believe the truth stone to be a lie, say it anyways and we’ll test this stone for all to see. But swear on it!”
He thrust the stone at the man’s face. Elmmet’s eyes darted left and right as he opened his mouth. There was silence, and into it he croaked.
“I—I—ask my wife and daughter! They’ll vouch that I’m no [Thief]! Ask them!”
Prost made a sound of disgust and lowered the stone. But Elmmet’s words provoked more shouting, and a woman and daughter were thrust forwards. The woman, Elmmet’s wife, looked as untrustworthy as he did. And the girl? Terrified as she stared at the crowd. And her father.
Prost had seen families like that before. Maybe the wife deserved each other, but what daughter stared at her father like that? He looked over his shoulder and saw Elmmet smiling desperately. Prost ached to bash the man’s teeth in. But one wrong move and Lancrel’s people might turn on him. Where was Rie? Then again, what could she do? Prost turned, thinking desperately. If he passed judgment now—
Councilwoman Beatica was drawing breath for another plea to her masses. Helm was about to make things worse, and Prost saw someone, a city person or villager he wasn’t sure—draw back a fist. In that moment he saw the future and the future was a fight where the situation would be muddled, explode with all the wrong things, and engulf Elmmet’s actual crime with too much to make sentencing him easily.
It was a trap. But before it was sprung, a woman pushed her way through the crowd, and her voice boomed like a falling tree.
“What’s all this fuss about? If the man’s guilty, let’s find out the easiest way!”
Her voice cut off Beatica’s speech. It interrupted the fight. It drew every eye, including Prost’s. He stared at the woman, and he was sure he’d never seen her before. You’d remember a woman like this.
Long ago, Humans had been hardier folk. Before they’d built cities, they lived in villages, hunted, provided for themselves with tools and technique and sinew rather than buying it with gold. The early Humans, men and women, had been strong, tough enough to face monsters on the edge of civilization.
It was from their cloth this woman had been cut, and what cloth! She was a giant of a figure, her hair full and brown, her arms as thick as Helm’s. She was tall, bold—and she had a voice that would have made her a star among opera singers in another world. But in this one, she was dressed in travelling clothes, stained, but clean. And her wide, brown hat was perfect for travelling.
She also had a presence, different from Prost or Beatica’s. She stepped forwards, and Prost only now realized she carried an axe. Was she a new arrival? One of the [Woodcutters]?
No. The woman gestured around at the crowd, and her voice reached every ear. There was no Skill in it, just volume.
“I see a lot of bother over a simple matter! You say this man’s a [Thief]? You want to know what crime he deserves? Well, I say, call on a [Guardsman]! Or failing that, call on me! I’ve seen the bad sort and good long enough. And I’ve a Skill to put all answers to rest.”
So saying, she strode forwards. Beatica opened her mouth, but Prost beat her to it.
“This trial needs to be just. If you have a Skill, can you swear it’ll bring justice? And who are you, Miss?”
The huge woman smiled down at Prost. She adjusted her hat and the axe propped carefully on one shoulder. It was iron, huge, and nicked, not exactly a woodcutter’s axe. She grabbed Prost’s arm and raised it for all to see.
“They call me Hedag, Mister [Steward]! And I solve problems of this sort! You can rest assured; my Skill only reveals the truth of criminals.”
The stone turned blue as she held it up. Incredibly, it didn’t flicker red once, even with an unintentional lie. Miss Hedag let go of Prost; he stared at her. She had a grip like Helm’s!
“What say you, Steward? Shall I use it? We’ll see this man’s crimes, right enough. If he’s innocent, he’s little to fear. Then again, I’ve yet to meet an innocent man!”
She pointed down at Elmmet, who’d broken into a colder sweat than before. The crowd murmured. Hedag’s words had persuaded them. Beatica broke in nervously.
“Hold on, Steward Prost. You’re not seriously considering letting an outsider—”
Helm shouted in Beatica’s ear, silencing and deafening her. He stared past her, at Hedag. And his eyes narrowed.
“Hedag. I’ve heard the name.”
So had Prost, but he couldn’t recall it for some reason. It was an old name, or one he’d heard…he realized the woman was looking at him and came to a quick decision.
“If you’ll show us the truth, I see no reason to object, Miss Hedag. But you have to understand, we must see the truth of it for ourselves.”
“A right answer! That’s the way we’ve always done it, in villages and lonely places! We have to see to believe! And so the truth you’ll see! All will see!”
Hedag laughed merrily. Without further ado, she reached out and grasped Elmmet’s head in the stocks. The man shouted, but Hedag held him for only a second. She bellowed across the crowd.
“[Revelation of Sin]!”
And then she pulled something out of Elmmet. Prost recoiled as Hedag yanked out something black, a shadowy thing, and hurled it on the ground. The crowd leapt back uncertainly, but Hedag just stepped back.
“What did you—”
Hedag’s one word caught Prost’s eye and turned them on the shadow. Everyone stared as, slowly, the black thing she’d pulled out of Elmmet rose upwards. A black mass rose, and formed…into a man. Elmmet. Prost stared at the man in the stocks, and then at the shadow.
It had no contrast. It was one color. But the shadow was, unmistakably, undeniably, Elmmet. You could see his face, even his smirking expression. The shadow turned, and with a careless jaunt, strolled ahead.
Prost stared. Another shadow appeared, and Prost saw a woman standing with her back to Elmmet. Real—he could see the lines in her face as she turned—and yet a shadow. The shadow-Elmmet strolled up to her and without hesitation, reached out and plucked the money pouch from her hip. Then he strolled past her, smiling, without a care in the world.
The strangled noise Prost made was the only sound in the world. Elmmet, white-faced, stared at his shadow as the shadowy-him turned a corner. Now his face was different. A woman’s face, the very one he’d stolen from. He snuck up to another man, yanked his purse away, and as the man turned and shouted, soundlessly, bounded away. The crowd backed up as the Elmmet disguised as the woman ran at them.
Only when he was far away did Elmmet’s face change back to normal. And it was a gleeful face as he poured shadowy coins into one palm and pocketed them. Prost stared. But then the man was changing faces, this time to deceive a fellow and rob him as he slept—
“Lies. That’s—this is lies. A false magic.”
From his stocks, Elmmet croaked weakly. Prost and some others looked at him, but the rest were focused on the shadow. It was…undeniable. Perhaps it was the Skill, or just the woman, Hedag, but Prost believed that Elmmet had done the very crimes he was reenacting. Stealing from a sleeping man, breaking into a house, and then the image blurred and he was slapping his wife, drunk, snarling. Prost turned his head. Elmmet’s wife had gone pale.
“Miss Hedag. What is this?”
Prost spoke quietly, into the silence. The woman adjusted her hat and spoke loudly, watching the shadows shift from crime to crime.
“Why, it’s the man’s sins, Mister Steward. All laid out for us to see. Everything he’s done. From back to front. It marks him as [Thief] and wife beater. And more, I’ll wager. Can’t you feel the truth of it? Will anyone say it’s not so? I dare you, for my Skill tells all truths and it cannot be swayed by magic nor lies!”
She looked around, spreading her arms. Behind her, Beatica choked, but even she couldn’t figure out a way to use words. Hedag had pulled truth out from Elmmet, and the hypnotized crowd watched him. Stealing from a [Merchant]. Stealing from a traveller. Changing faces. And then—
Prost heard a whisper. He looked down and saw Elmmet had suddenly gone white. The [Steward] looked up sharply and saw the shadows Elmmet and his new victim had changed. A girl shrank down, screaming silently, and the man reached out with an open hand. The man was Elmmet. And the girl—
Every head turned to the girl standing by Elmmet’s wife. The child stared with wide eyes at herself as the shadows told a story. A snarling figure reached out and beat at a shadow of a girl. And on the real girl, if you looked closely, you could see, around her neck and shoulder—
“How long ago was this?”
Prost’s hands were itching. He didn’t look at Elmmet. Hedag did. She shook her head.
“Every crime, Steward. Each one in order. Incredibly, this man has done more sinning in a day than some manage in a year. This might’ve been a week ago. Or but a few days. But the truth of it is there to see.”
She pointed. The shadowy man was still hitting the girl, curled up. Prost thought of Chimmy, and he had to force himself to hold still. Elmmet was very still as the men and women—and children—looked at him. And they had seen truth.
Into that silence, Hedag spoke. And her voice was jovial, booming. And as cold as stone.
“A poor man steals from honest folk. Poorer still beats his own child. Yet poorest of all is the wife who knows and says not a thing.”
She pointed at Elmmet’s wife. The woman started and her face went as pale as her husband’s. She opened her mouth, but no words came out. Hedag nodded.
“A woman like that’s no woman but a monster who pretends to love and care. But what of the one who raised the hand and downed the blow?”
Someone muttered that behind Prost. A hard line, and it came from Beycalt, a [Forewoman] who stared at the [Thief] with disgust. Elmmet’s head jerked up, and some of Lancrel’s folk paled. Hedag only sighed.
“Some’d say so, Miss. But it’s harder to say. The old laws change from village to village. Some would string up a man who beat his daughter half as hard. Others look the other way. But a [Thief]? There’s a penalty for a [Thief], sure enough. And it’s this.”
She strolled over to Elmmet in the stocks. And Prost saw her lift the axe. Everyone saw it. And they knew, with the clairvoyance everyone shared, what she was about to do. But the stupid parts of their minds, the parts that lied and thought reality should be a certain way, convinced them it wasn’t going to happen. She wasn’t really going to—
The axe came down and flashed past the wooden stocks with a thunk of sound. Prost stared down at the hand as it landed on the ground. A long-fingered hand, with no hair on it. Good for a [Thief]. But not so much severed. Elmmet stared at his stump of a hand in shock. Blood pooled, and then ran from the stump, dribbling down the stock. The man stared at the stump, pulled it out of the stock, put it back in. Only then did he scream.
“Potion! Get a potion!”
Prost shouted as the crowd erupted into screams. More than half of the city folk were panicking. And even the villagers, used to beheading chickens and killing animals, stared. The violence was so sudden, so quick. But Hedag just swung her axe up and bellowed.
And it was. The woman with the hat and terrible axe reached down and grabbed the stump of Elmmet’s arm. The man flailed, screaming as tendons appeared in his neck. Hedag squeezed and suddenly, the bleeding stopped. That didn’t stop the screaming, though. A blow from one hammer of a hand did that.
Elmmet’s head lolled back in the stocks and his entire body jerked. Prost sucked in his breath; he’d felt that punch! The crowd flinched, but Hedag just let the man’s arm drop.
“So that’s for a child beaten. The hand’s for a [Thief].”
“You can’t do that!”
The scream came from Beatica. The [Councilwoman] pointed a shaking finger at Hedag, and there was genuine fear and hysteria in her voice.
“You—cut off his hand!”
“And? It’s a punishment as old as time. Drakes do it in their cities. And in some cities around here it’s done. A hand for a [Thief]. A blow for a child-beater.”
Hedag replied as calmly as could be. Beatica just screamed at her.
“He was a [Councilman]! You cannot do that! You had no right! You’re no [Watchman]! There are laws—”
“Right? I have every right!”
Hedag’s voice cut Beatica’s shriek off. The woman turned, and raised her brown hat. The axe dripped blood onto her shoulder as she raised it. The crowd, horrified and silent, watched as Hedag turned. And she was in charge. The woman spoke to Beatica, to Prost, to Elmmet, and to everyone.
“This is no city, for all you folk have come here. This is a village, and what wrong’s been done is plain to see. No one appointed me, Miss Councilwoman, it’s true. But there are times, bad times, when no one’ll do what’s needed. When folk have need of me and the truth I bring. A harsh truth, and with laws far older than I am. But it is justice, as just as any law you could name. And I will not be stopped, by you or anyone else. You called for proper justice, and here it is. The oldest kind.”
She swung her axe down and some blood struck the ground, Prost’s leg, and the stocks. Prost stared at Hedag. And then he saw her head turn.
“And what’s been said and done is only part of it yet. Look.”
She pointed. The crowd turned. The shadowy Elmmet wasn’t done. Not by far. He had been a poor man, Elmmet. Prost had suspected it of him. But now, for all to see, his sins revealed themselves, one at a time. And they were worse than just striking a helpless child, incredible as that was. Oh, far worse.
“Every sin comes to life. Every misdeed, small or large. It’s a harsh thing. And I judge with such mercy as I might. But I do judge.”
Hedag’s voice was quiet in the silence as she stared at the shadows. They were enacting something far worse now. The beginning of it, at least. Prost looked around, at the women, the men—the children should not see this. Least of all the girl he saw reflected twice.
Prost tried to look away, but the truth burned him, forced him to see. Perhaps that was the nature of the Skill. The crowd tried to move, to avoid it, but it was a revelation. Inescapable. Only Hedag stared with an unmoving gaze. She looked down at Elmmet. The man was struggling, weeping, trying to say something, as his sins played out.
“If I were you, Mister Elmmet, I’d hope that this were the worst of it. The worst by far. But I don’t think a man like you deserves hope. Show me what you’ve done.”
And he did. Prost felt his stomach roil and the shadows danced. Someone in the crowd made a terrible, groaning sound and a man gagged, vomited. It was appropriate. Hedag watched as Prost turned away. She watched, with eyes as old as she was, but made older by what she’d seen. And Prost remembered her name at last. A woman who travelled the further villages, who performed that oldest task where there was no jail, no watchman, no law in sight but her.
Hedag the [Executioner]. And the woman nodded at last, as the shadows stopped for one moment. She spoke two words.
The axe swung down, gleaming dully in the midmorning light.
Day 56 – Lady Rie
Lady Rie took a long time dressing, as was her wont. In fact, it was one of her only wants, and her only vices. In Riverfarm, few amenities were available to her, and the comforts of fashion were a luxury Rie couldn’t do without.
And even then, it was a concession. She didn’t have half as many of her cosmetics, and many of her dresses and fine clothing had been carefully, discretely sold to finance Riverfarm’s needs. Most of her jewelry had gone that way, and Rie feared her current wardrobe would be worn, not to mention outdated in less than a month.
“And yet, it is necessary.”
The woman sighed to herself. She stared in the hand-mirror she carried and carefully applied a lipstick. Red, traditionally so, to fit her mood. She was not looking forwards to this morning. She suspected Prost’s trial with Master Elmmet would not be as smooth as she wanted, and she would gladly have given up all her dresses to see that man and Beatica and half of Lancrel’s elite banished for good.
“We should not have allowed things to reach this point.”
Rie sighed as she inspected her face for flaws her makeup had missed. But what could they have done? She had to admit it; Beatica might have been a poor leader in the sense of keeping her city free from Goblin attacks, but she was a magnificent manipulator. She’d turned Lancrel’s people against Riverfarm, exacerbated the already-deep rifts between urban and rural peoples. And the tensions of refugees fleeing their city and coming to live in, admittedly close to poverty.
“And yet, Riverfarm is more than that fool of a woman can understand. Riverfarm is a jewel, uncut. Or—a potato. Made of gold. Growing in the earth.”
Rie sighed. Even her metaphors were becoming farmer-like. Which was appropriate. Perhaps, if she stayed here long enough, she’d even be fine with her less-than-perfect appearance. And what did it matter? The man she wanted to impress couldn’t see her face. He could see any number of things, but physical appearance was beyond him. It was just one of the reasons why Laken Godart fascinated and attracted Rie.
And frustrated her. She had no idea what the young [Emperor] was thinking. Oh, she could guess, but the Goblins? Madness? Lord Yilton and Lord Gralton being in his company? Masterful. Durene? Incomprehensible to Rie at first. Prost? Incredibly sound despite Rie’s misgivings.
It felt like half of Laken’s achievements were down to luck or the impetuousness of youth, and the other half a product of deep thought. Either way, Rie had recognized Riverfarm and his presence for what it was: an opportunity that only came once in a lifetime. Riverfarm could be great. Unique, in fact, in Izril’s history. Or it could implode. And right now, Rie feared greatly the latter would come to pass.
“Hold the village together. Easier said than done!”
She swept out of her small house, and a man who’d been leaning against the wall silently joined her. Geram, the [Fistfighter] and former captain of her personal guard, nodded at his [Lady] and she greeted him. Manners were important, no matter how she felt. Rie smoothed her sensible, comfortable red clothing and silently wished she had a bevy of [Assassins] to kill her enemies with.
But she was a poor [Lady], monetarily that was. She had power, but it was subtle. Geram was her strongest physical asset and while the man was loyal and capable, he wasn’t exactly a Gold-rank adventurer. Although he was good.
“Where to, Lady Rie?”
“Oh, where else? The trial, Geram. When’s it starting?”
“Midday, Lady Rie. You have time.”
The bald man nodded at the sun. Rie pursed her lips. So she did. But that wasn’t a problem. She swept forwards, and within fourteen steps she had work.
“Lady Rie! Good morning to you! Can I bring you breakfast?”
“Lady Rie, will you eat with us? Our small circle is quite eager to talk with you—we represent some of Lancrel’s interests—”
“Lady Rie, a pot’s got a hole, and the [Chef]’s said he needs a new one. Only, Mister Helm’s not warmed his forge yet. Should we—”
A dozen people surrounded Rie in a moment, clamoring for her attention. Geram, a practiced [Bouncer], kept them back and Rie, sighing internally and smiling externally, sorted them out one by one. The key to good leadership was delegation. And failing that, not getting bogged down in any one complaint.
Requests for dining were easy to sort out. Rie could easily say she’d taken breakfast alone—which she had—and soothe any ruffled feathers from the women who fancied themselves fit to dine with a [Lady]. Rie wouldn’t have foisted them on Durene, who was in fact, a very careful eater. Pots just needed replacing.
As for the rest…Rie walked, speaking to the flood of people who gravitated towards her. And this at least wasn’t unusual. The volume was taxing, but Rie had been a [Lady], and thus, a leader for all her life. This was more personal than when she ruled her estates, but it could be done.
The problem was that Riverfarm lacked its heart and soul. Laken. Without him, the people who usually could manage and think independently grew dependent on Rie. She hated to admit it, but the [Emperor], who was surely lower-level than she was could inspire his people where she could not.
That hurt Rie’s pride, but again, she swallowed the feelings and only let a polite, kind, caring exterior show. She had to be beloved. The people of Riverfarm had to trust her, and not see her as another impartial [Lady], aloof and unconnected. Until Laken came back, their loyalty and trust had to be in her.
Riverfarm was a village, for all it now held enough people to be called a town. It was poor, despite its potential. Rie knew it. Her estates were far richer than Riverfarm, many times over. They were only a day’s ride away, and yes, they were small. The Valerund fortunes had declined over the last decade with the death of the family save for Rie. But even with her home town decimated by the Goblins…
Rie’s stomach clenched at the memory and all the faces she’d never see. She forced it down as she smiled at a girl offering her a flower.
“Very pretty. I thank you, Miss…Agathy, is it?”
“Yes, Lady Rie! Do you like it?”
“I’m so sorry, Lady Rie. She wanted to give you a flower ever so much. I don’t want to be a bother…”
The beaming girl’s mother apologized profusely, which was far more tiring than the flower. Rie put it behind her ear, a move that instantly won her the adoration of everyone watching. She smiled at Agathy, and that was genuine.
“I’m delighted, Agathy, and it’s no bother at all. But why not give a flower to more people than me? I’m sure they’d be delighted as well.”
Even with her home town gone, Riverfarm was poorer than Rie’s mansion. But Rie was willing to sell what was in the mansion to back Laken Godart. Purely because he was an [Emperor] and because Riverfarm was growing so fast. He could be great. He already had ideas and poise beyond his age. And his Skills were no less impressive. The simple bed Rie was using was as luxurious as the custom-built one she’d had in her mansion.
But he still had to come back. Rie’s teeth gritted as Agathy and her mother bade her farewell. Automatically, Rie went from dining hall to the river outside the village, checking on people at their tasks. There was always something to do, some minor problem to solve. It was all so trivial.
What Riverfarm needed was a grand plan, more than just housing everyone! Prost could take care of that. The man was solid, a capable steward, Rie fully acknowledged. But he could only enforce Laken’s’ ideals. He needed to be here! Durene was right, drat the girl. They needed Laken, and not just his mysterious ‘help’, whatever that was. They needed him now! What if she sent Beniar to find him—no, that was too dangerous—
“Excuse me, milady. But you’re looking rather taxed. Would you care to have a seat with us?”
A voice interrupted Rie’s flurry of thoughts. It was old, warm, and as Rie turned, the owner smiled up at her.
An old woman was sitting at a table on the side of the street. A wooden table—one of the very ones that usually lay inside the identical houses. But that wasn’t what stopped Rie. It was the scene.
An old woman gently lifted a tea pot and filled a worn, thin, but terribly beautiful cup of porcelain. A travelling cup perhaps, but an heirloom of one, sitting on a small saucer. The tea was a light green color, as clear and inviting. Steam rose from the pot and the cup—and the ones held by the three other women sitting at the table next to the old woman.
They were sitting in wooden chairs, the dining chairs that the [Carpenters] worked so hard on for all the houses. Just sitting in the shade of a house in the street, drinking tea with the morning. It was a scene you’d see in a café or restaurant in a city, but it was the first time Rie had seen the like in Riverfarm. Everyone was too busy. But this old woman, who had a grey travelling hat, festooned with fresh flowers, smiled and waved a hand gently at Rie.
“Some tea, young woman? I’m new in town, but I’ve made a delightful cup and I’d love to sit and chat with a lovely young lady like yourself. Join us?”
Bemused, Rie stared at the three women sitting around the table. One of them blinked; Rie recognized her as one of said [Carpenters]. Another was a woman—one of the hated Lancrel [Councilwomen]. The third was a mother from one of the towns. All three blinked up at her, bemused, but they sipped from their tea cups as if them being together was the most natural thing in the world.
Rie realized she was staring. Her eyes fell on the old woman, who was holding a cup up with one hand. Rie started and took it reflexively, then inhaled the aroma. A delicate green tea’s scent. An exquisite blend; Rie would have bet all her dresses. And brewed just right! And hot—how long had it been since she’d had a cup like this? Not since her mansion. She nearly sipped and then caught herself a second time. She smiled down at the old woman.
“Excuse me. I apologize, but have we met, Miss?”
The woman smiled and patted an open chair next to her.
“Not at all. I’ve just arrived in Riverfarm. This morning, in fact. And I happened to have met these lovely young women by chance. Well, there was nothing for it but to put some tea on, and the people here were most obliging. I’m told they all have work, but I wanted to chat for a moment. You look quite busy yourself, young miss. Why don’t you sit for a spell? I have some biscuits here, and they are quite fresh.”
The wooden table was bare of tablecloth or decorations, and the chair, well-made though it was, was still simple. But it called to Rie. So did the sweet-smelling biscuits that appeared out of the woman’s travelling backpack. The other women blinked and then reached for one. Rie sipped from her cup and the tea made her smile.
“I—really shouldn’t. I am busy—my apologies. My name is Rie Valerund. I am a [Lady] in service to his Majesty, Emperor Laken. And you are?”
The woman’s brows raised and she peered up at Rie when she heard the woman’s class. But then she smiled, and Rie was reminded of her own grandmother. There had been a kind woman, and this one was every bit her match.
“My! A [Lady], here? My apologies, my dear. Let me greet you properly.”
“Oh no, you don’t need to—”
Rie began, but the woman got up and curtseyed quite formally, bending her knees and moving with surprising agility for someone as old as she looked. Rie smiled and returned the courtesy. The old woman sat and nodded, patting the seat again.
“My name is Eloise. I’m a travelling trader of sorts. I specialize in teas, flowers, herbs. I heard there was an opportunity in Riverfarm, and so I made the trip. Sit, please, young lady.”
It was odd to be called ‘young lady’, but Eloise was certainly old enough to call it to all four women. Rie blinked with some concern at Eloise.
“All on your own? That’s a perilous journey of late, Miss Eloise.”
“I was just saying, Lady Rie. There are [Bandits] about. And an old woman isn’t immune to monsters, even if [Bandits] have some decency.”
The [Carpenter] leaned one strong forearm on the table as she sipped from her cup. She seemed pleased, although the bitter, refreshing tea wasn’t for everyone. Rie nodded along with the mother and [Councilwoman]. Eloise just laughed, and her laughter was as refreshing as the tea.
“An old woman can’t be afraid of monsters or men, ladies! I’ve seen enough of both over my years; don’t you worry. And it’s moving about that keeps me alive!”
The [Councilwoman] from Lancrel took a bite of a biscuit and patted her lips with a handkerchief. The [Carpenter] just used her hand. Normally that would cause some tutting on the Lancrel woman’s side, and prompt an eye roll from the [Carpenter], but at the moment the two seemed so peaceful together. Friendly, even. The Lancrel woman glanced around, smiling slightly, and looked at Eloise with concern.
“Yes, but surely there is a time to settle down, Miss Eloise? You say you’re a travelling seller. But shouldn’t your family take care of you? Your relatives? I don’t mean to be rude, but even staying in a village where you can have some help…”
“I have a village of my own, Miss Safey. No children or relatives who’d care to look after me, I’m sure, but my village is enough. As I said, I’m travelling here for a spell. Young man, why don’t you sit? You look like you could use a biscuit yourself. Don’t let your [Lady] here take them all.”
She waved at Geram. Rie turned her head and stared up at the [Fistfighter]. Then she realized half the tea was gone from her cup, she had a half-eaten biscuit in her saucer, and she was sitting down. She stared at Eloise, and then turned to Geram.
“These are wonderful biscuits, Geram. Try one, at least.”
The other women murmured agreement. Geram hesitated. He looked uneasy at being the only man present, but he eventually took a biscuit. He refused a teacup, though. Rie regarded hers as Eloise went around with the kettle. The tea was still steaming! And Rie couldn’t help but fill her cup and keep chatting. During a small break, she had to comment on the tea itself.
“This is a marvelous blend of tea, Miss Eloise. And your cups are finer than the ones in my estate. I don’t know if there’s much call for tea in Riverfarm—then again, for yours I’d happily discuss buying whatever stocks you have. But you must stay here. We can arrange a place for you to sleep, and have you escorted when you choose to leave.”
The other women nodded. The mother gestured to the house behind her.
“My family and I would love to offer you a bed, Miss Eloise. There are the barns, but that’s no place for someone your age.”
“You’re too kind. But I wouldn’t want to put you out of a bed, with two little ones and another on the way. I’m quite happy to sleep where I may, and a barn is fine enough. Come, let’s not talk about me. Tell me more about Riverfarm and this [Emperor] of yours.”
Eloise smiled and laughed again. Rie hesitated as the others at the table nodded. She glanced up at the blue sky and with effort, stood.
“I’d love to partake in this conversation, Miss Eloise. But I’m afraid I truly am busy. Your tea and biscuits were lovely, and I’m sure I will find you again. But with apologies—”
The older woman sighed, but nodded.
“There should be time for tea every day. But I quite understand. I should be delighted, Lady Rie. But take another biscuit before you go? You look like you could use one.”
Rie shook her head. But she was smiling as she stood and bade farewell to the impromptu tea circle. The [Carpenter], the [Councilwoman], and mother seemed content to sit and talk about what had brought them to Riverfarm with Eloise, and Rie couldn’t bear to order them back to work. She stepped away from the table before she was sucked back in.
She resumed her walk, blinking as she noticed a good fifteen minutes must have passed. The sun had moved noticeably in the sky! She shook her head, bemused.
“What a lovely woman, Geram.”
Geram, chewing his biscuit, choked on his reply. Rie shook her head. She even felt better after that little break. She wasn’t so flustered or worried. A few Skills, it had to be. Or just really good tea. Either way, Eloise was a name to remember.
Now there was someone Rie was glad to have in Riverfarm, never mind her age. Then again…too many old folk would be a problem. But were they going to turn away people who came to Riverfarm based on their qualifications? As Rie walked on, she shook her head, trying to get herself back in the proper state of mind, which was anxious.
In the end, she had to trust Laken wasn’t making a mistake. But he had better get here now, and those Goblins had better be worth the delay. Or else Rie did fear for the future.
Magnolia Reinhart would not sit idly forever. This trade war was only the smallest of things in her arsenal. She might be a beneficent ruler today, but Rie had seen what the Reinharts could do. And they would drag the bodies of their foes through the streets and feed them to the dogs before yielding in anything.
She’d lost time talking to Eloise. Not just fifteen minutes either. Thirty? Rie didn’t know, but somehow she’d completely missed an event around the main gates of Riverfarm. Like everything else, they were a work in progress, not least because they had to keep being rebuilt further and further out. But the village or town or even city would need walls, and the blood-stained [Riders] trotting back down the street proved just that.
Rie’s pulse quickened in alarm as she saw the blood, but the [Cataphract] and former adventurer rode up to her with a smile on his face. He saluted her and dismounted in one move. Rie stared at the Darksky Riders, who were tending to their horses, and then the three women with hats, one old, one young, and one still a child who were looking around the village, oblivious to the crowd, the riders, or Rie.
Beniar chuckled as he jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
“What happened? Lady Rie, we got that [Bandit] group we thought was waylaying people nearby! At least one of them. They were waylaying travellers on the road—those two on horses. We wouldn’t have known or gotten to them in time, but that other one—she flew to Riverfarm and told us what was happening! On a broom!”
Rie stared at the young woman that Beniar was pointing to. That jogged her memory, but before she could fix on that, the three were striding towards her. The old woman, who was wearing all black adjusted her pointed hat and looked around.
“Are you the woman in charge around here?”
The question took Rie aback. It suggested that the answer was ‘no’, and that the woman asking it was in fact in charge, but she was asking for formality’s sake. Frowning, Rie regarded her and the young girl following close behind.
“I am Lady Rie Valerund, in service to his Majesty, Laken Godart. I understand you were attacked on the road, Miss. I hope you haven’t come to any harm?”
The woman blinked at ‘his Majesty’ and frowned, but only slightly. She turned to look at Beniar, who gave her a charming grin.
“Pleasure to be of service, Miss.”
“Hm. Yes, thank you. It was an adequately quick response. Better than many estates might manage. But it was a poor thing that these [Riders] were needed to begin with, wouldn’t you agree?”
Her reply took the wind right out of Beniar’s sails. Rie blinked, but the woman was addressing her next.
“You may call me Califor. Lady Rie, is it? Where can I find your [Emperor]?”
Affronted, Rie frowned at Miss Califor.
“What? Emperor Godart is absent. And if he was here—if you have business in Riverfarm, I suggest you present it to me. May I ask who your companions are?”
Instead of being embarrassed at the rebuke, Miss Califor only raised her eyebrow and put her hands on her hips.
“If my business should involve you, I will let you know of it. This is Nanette, my student. And this is Alevica.”
“Nice to meet you!”
The young woman next to Califor waved a lazy hand. She looked friendly, but she was far too informal! The girl named Nanette started, stared at Lady Rie with proper awe, and began to curtsey. Right up until Miss Califor stopped her with one hand.
“Don’t bother, Nanette. Save it for Mavika.”
The tone and casual dismissal of Lady Rie was managing to reverse all the goodwill and calm of her encounter with Eloise. Rie’s eyes flashed and she drew herself up, glaring at Califor as Beniar sneaked past Geram.
“Excuse me, Miss Califor. I remind you that I am a [Lady] and you are in my presence.”
“So you’ve informed me. And this means I should change myself to suit you how, exactly?”
Miss Califor looked flatly at Rie. And the [Lady] was so stunned that she couldn’t reply for a moment. So the woman walked past her without a second word and flapped a hand at the girl.
“Come along, Nanette. Let’s find a place for the horses and the others. There are at least two more here. One yet to come.”
“What? How dare—come back here!”
Rie spluttered as the two walked past her with the horses, but even Nanette didn’t turn, but hurried after Miss Califor. She stared at their backs until the last of the new arrivals, the young woman named Alevica, coughed.
“Hey, is there a pub around here? Or a Runner’s Guild?”
Rie, Geram, and Beniar stared at her. Alevica looked around, her smile not bothering at all to hide her amusement.
“No? I’ll be on my way then. See you in a bit.”
At last, Rie caught herself and looked at Geram. The man moved to block Alevica’s path and the young woman stopped. Not warily, just with a frown. And her pale pink eyes narrowed as they flicked from Geram to Rie.
“Something you want?”
“Just introductions. Did Beniar say you flew into Riverfarm? You wouldn’t happen to be Alevica, the Witch Runner?”
Beniar started at the name. Alevica just grimaced.
“I prefer, ‘the only damn Runner who can fly north of Pallass.’ But sure. That’s me. I warned your militia here that there were [Bandits] attacking Miss Califor and her apprentice. No need to thank me.”
With that, she began to walk around Geram. He tried to block her a second time, but when Alevica paused, she put a hand on a knife in her belt.
“I don’t appreciate being stopped, bald man.”
Rie paused. She’d heard about Alevica, and she dearly wished she was near a city where she could pay for information about her to refresh her memory. Geram looked down warily at Alevica and stepped back after glancing at Rie for confirmation. The [Lady] chose her words carefully.
“That is Geram. My bodyguard. I apologize for his insistence, but I would greatly like to speak with you, Miss Alevica.”
Laken could use a good Runner, even one with her reputation. But Alevica just grinned.
“I’m sure. But you have to wait. Don’t worry, we’ll see each other. Soon, I think.”
Her eyes flicked down the way Califor had gone, and then she turned her head over her shoulder. Rie stared. Alevica turned back to look at her, and then nodded.
She strolled off past Geram. The [Fist Fighter] hesitated and walked over to Rie.
“Lady Rie, should I stop…?”
“No. No, let her go.”
Rie quietly fumed as she watched Alevica strolling down the street, a hand in one pocket, scratching at windblown hair. Now she understood some of the tales about Alevica. The Witch Runner indeed. And that Califor! Rie turned balefully to Beniar, but he was already back with his Darksky Riders, regaling the crowd with exploits of what had just happened.
“I’m rather peeved at the moment, Geram. But I think I’d better find Prost and make sure the trial is going well.”
After a moment, Rie decided that was her only course of action. Geram nodded, and Rie swept down the street. Just in time to hear the screaming begin. She paused, stared down the street towards the public square and stocks, and broke into a run. Behind her, Geram swore and pounded past her.
“Lady Valerund! Let me—”
He shouted, but Rie didn’t stop. If something had gone wrong, if a riot had broken out, they’d need Beniar and his [Riders]. What had happened? Had Elmmet tricked the truth stone somehow? That shouldn’t be possible at his level. Or had that Beatica managed to stir up the crowd—
A rush of people came down the street, mainly Lancrel’s people but villagers and townsfolk as well. Most of the ones in front were women, mothers, holding white-faced children. But families, single men, townsfolk, all of them were pouring away from the square in a rush. Rie halted, and Geram moved to block the crowd.
“Stop! What is going on?”
Rie shouted at the crowd, but she didn’t have a Skill to halt a crowd. And she hadn’t learned an aura Skill. She had other Skills, but for situations like this, all she had was her presence. And it wasn’t enough to halt the crush of people fighting to get away from—something.
Geram was, though. The big man halted those closest to him with his body alone, and when they noticed Rie through their panic, she was instantly surrounded by frightened people, screaming children.
“What is going on? Is someone hurt?”
Rie looked around, bewildered. There weren’t any marks of violence, but then a woman from Lancrel screamed out.
“He’s dead! Master Elmmet’s dead!”
Rie’s blood froze. Elmmet? Dead? Prost hadn’t lost his temper, had he? Or—what if he’d been lynched? But the crowd would have turned. These ones just looked horrified.
“How? What happened?”
“She just murdered a man in the street! Cut off his head just like that! With children to see!”
A man shouted his face white. Rie recoiled. A public execution? She hadn’t ever seen one. But—
“Who? A woman? Not Prost?”
The crowd nodded. One of them pointed shakily.
“She called herself Hedag! And she had an axe! And she used a Skill—”
“It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real.”
One of the women who looked like she was from Lancrel murmured through pale lips. Another man just shook his head. He looked like he’d been sick.
“It was real. Dead gods, but it was. He deserved a hundred times worse.”
Many of the people nodded. But the woman shook her head repeatedly, and her eyes were wide, wild.
“No! I knew him! He can’t have—it was a lie. It cannot be true! Cannot! It was murder all the same!”
“What we saw—”
A man began, and then there was silence. A child started screaming. Someone had to sit down, shaking. Rie realized that no one was going to make sense in the hubbub. She looked at Geram.
“I need Prost. Clear me a path. Please! Let me through!”
Geram nodded and with Rie’s calling, he forced a path through the crowd of people all rushing away from the square. Rie stepped quickly, ignoring the people trying to get her attention.
To her relief, she found Prost at the back of the crowd, shouting and restoring order. The man had a grim look in his eyes, but he wasn’t harmed either. He was shouting at the crowd, ordering them not to shove—he turned as Rie rushed towards him.
“Prost! What happened?”
The [Steward] turned to Lady Rie, and he paused. His face was pale, sweaty, but not nearly as bad as the city folk, some of whom looked like they were close to fainting.
“Elmmet’s dead, Rie.”
Prost inhaled slowly, grimacing. Rie stared at him, her heart beating wildly, but the [Steward] was slow to reply. Prost spoke quietly, half-turning back towards the square.
“It was a woman. Hedag the [Executioner]. She appeared in the trial when Beatica and Elmmet were stirring up trouble, claiming the truth stone was false. She—she used a Skill. Revealed Elmmet’s crimes. Then she cut off his head.”
“She murdered him?”
Rie was horrified. The [Steward] shook his head.
“That wasn’t murder. That was justice.”
He spat twice to get rid of the taste in his mouth. Rie stared at him uncomprehendingly. Her eyes shifted to the blood on Prost’s pant leg, and then past him towards the square. She couldn’t see the body, which was just as well; Prost knew the axe flashing down would haunt his dreams for weeks to come.
“Tell me what happened. From the start.”
Prost nodded. He and Rie turned, and with Geram’s help, they managed to calm the crowd, who really had just wanted to get away from the grisly sight. Everyone was shocked, and the children? Sick or incoherent with panic.
Again, it was the difference between city folk and villagers; the children who’d seen a butchering or lived on a farm had seen that kind of blood. Just not on a Human body.
“An [Executioner]? They’re exceptionally rare! Even most cities prefer to hire someone to do it. It hardly requires someone for that one job! And she just turned up? You’re sure she wasn’t planted by Beatica?”
Prost shook his head.
“She most definitely was not. And her Skill—”
“You’re sure it revealed Elmmet’s crimes?”
“I saw the shadow-him doing all of it. It was him. I’m certain. And even Beatica would say it was the truth. What that man did deserved the axe. It was just that Hedag did it then and there, after the hand.”
The [Steward] was shaking as he remembered what he had seen. Rie stared at him, uncomprehending.
“Where is she now? Did you arrest her?”
“Arrest her? For what?”
“Killing a man in—”
The [Lady] had to stop and take a breath. Prost was clearly shaken himself. He shook his head.
“The crowd bolted and I had to keep them from trampling each other. I’ve no idea where she is. I think she might be in the square still.”
“In that case, we need to arrest her.”
“For what? Show me a man or woman there who’ll say it was wrong. His wife won’t. His daughter?”
Prost spat again.
“If Hedag hadn’t done it, he wouldn’t have left that square alive after what I saw.”
“That’s not the point. People are panicking, and rumors will spread. Beatica will twist this, no matter what the people there saw. There must be a proper inquiry, and an announcement—Geram, find Beniar.”
“I can arrest this woman myself.”
The [Fist Fighter] looked back down the street. Rie shook her head.
“Absolutely not. She has an axe; get Beniar and some of his [Riders] to back you up. Bring her to—to the throne room. And then we’ll call an assembly of everyone we can and—”
She was fumbling, looking around, trying to figure out what they’d do exactly when the second shriek split the air. Prost’s head jerked up. He and Rie looked at each other. This time neither one wasted time asking questions. They just ran in the direction of the sound.
This was how they gathered. Staring at the cauldron of ruined soup on the ground. With a murder of crows spiraling in the air. With a woman, Rehanna, lying on the ground, clutching her ruined hand as Nesor tried to heal her. Rie and Prost burst out of the crowd, which had doubled in size and took in the moment at once. They looked at Durene, Wiskeria, Rehanna, and then up.
A…woman perched on the neatly thatched roof of the house. She had to be a woman. She had the right figure. The correct face, thin and angular, but still with its own beauty. And dark skin.
She perched like a raven. Or one of the crows circling the street overhead. And she just smiled as she looked down at Rehanna. The woman was screaming and clutching at her hand. Lady Rie looked at the bleeding, charred mess of her hand and then at the doorknob with blackened flesh hanging on the knob. Her stomach turned, but she kept control of it.
“It was a curse! She did it!”
One of the women pointed unsteadily up at the woman on the roof. The crowd, already uneasy, turned to panic as news of what had happened in the trial spread. And then the panic turned to fear. Hostility. Rie felt it gathering around her. She stared up at the woman and stepped forwards.
Rie’s shout calmed everyone for a second. They looked at her, Riverfarm folk, Lancrel’s refugees, Prost, Durene, Wiskeria, and the woman on the rooftop. Rehanna had mercifully fainted as the potion healed her hand. And in the silence, Rie pointed a finger.
“Who are you? How dare you attack one of Riverfarm’s people? This village is under the protection of Emperor Laken Godart—”
The woman stared down at Lady Rie. Rie hesitated.
“Why did you attack Rehanna?”
“‘Twas a rudeness done. An ill for goodwill. I just repaid her in kind.”
The woman answered as naturally as if Rie had asked why the sky was blue. She leapt down onto the street, landing lightly, and the crowd backed up. But it was to Wiskeria the woman turned. She nodded and reached up to her hat.
“Wiskeria. I greet thee.”
“Mavika. Why are you here? I told you, I wasn’t coming.”
Wiskeria stared at Mavika, her face pale. Rie turned to stare at her.
“You know her? Wiskeria?”
“She’s a [Witch].”
The word repeated itself through the crowd, from person to person. [Witch]? [Witch]!
Witch. And Rie focused on the pointed hat on both women’s heads. And then she had a terrible premonition. A thought. But it was nothing to the look on Wiskeria’s face. Slowly, the young woman looked around. She met Durene’s gaze, then Mavika’s, and then looked around.
“Mavika. Did the coven come with you? This is my ground. You weren’t invited! Why are you here?”
The bird-like [Witch] smiled. Bitterly, knowingly. With a crow’s mocking laughter hidden in her eyes. And a raven flew down among the crows and landed on her arm. Mavika reached up to stroke its head. And she said only this:
“It is not our coven, Wiskeria. There are six. The seventh is coming.”
She pointed. And every head turned. Silently, the folk of Riverfarm looked down the streets, towards the gates. And the last [Witch] arrived silently, and without fuss. And she was the most terrifying of them all.
Day 56 – Ryoka
After three days of running, Ryoka was relieved to see Riverfarm in the distance. She assumed it was the same village; it looked nothing like she remembered. Far too large and…but it was the right place, she was sure.
It had been a taxing run. So Ryoka smiled as she saw the village. Charlay was even more ecstatic. The Centauress let out a whoop of pleasure as she pointed at Riverfarm in the distance!
“Hah! We made it at last! I’ll race you to the gates! Last one there’s a stinky Selphid!”
She took off, racing ahead at full-speed. Ryoka blinked at her and then cursed.
“Hey! Charlay, damn it, wait—”
She charged after Charlay, but the Centauress was a horse. Ryoka couldn’t catch up with her! The City Runner slowed. She wasn’t going to charge into the village huffing and panting. She needed a plan.
She’d come here to help Laken. And to find out what he’d done with Riverfarm, who he was since she’d left. Apparently he was a ways from the village, but Ryoka had to deliver the potions to a ‘Lady Rie’. Who was a real noble, apparently. Failing that, a Mister Prost. Ryoka remembered Prost’s name, but a [Lady]? She had to tread carefully. Figure out how she could introduce herself and help. If help was what she should do.
“I have to play it cool. Charlay will help with that. I’m just a Runner—unless they’re expecting me. What did Laken tell them?”
Ryoka murmured as she ran past a forest encroaching towards a road. She hadn’t thought this through enough. She couldn’t be old Ryoka. Then again, what was new Ryoka’s game? What could she do?
Suddenly, Ryoka stopped in the road. She didn’t know why. Only that the wind at her back had gone still. It had been blowing gently behind her. But all of a sudden it died. And the young woman felt a cold chill run down her spine.
There was no reason for it. One moment she was running, the next, her legs had stopped on her. Ryoka reached for the wind, but it was gone. Not rebellious, not refusing to listen to her.
And the Runner girl realized she was no longer alone. It was a prickling of her thumbs, a tingling on the back of her neck. And as she turned, she saw them.
Dead bodies. Lying in the shadows of the trees. Men and women, hacked to pieces. Blood had run and dried, but the ground was still wet in places. And the forest held them.
It was a lovely, blue, clear, dry day. Ryoka stared at the dead bodies. A dozen had died, at least. She took a step back. She’d missed them, but there they lay. Bandits? Travellers? She looked around and felt it again.
Something was out there. The young woman reached for her belt and stopped. Her head turned. The dirt road was blank. Riverfarm seemed very far away in the distance. There was no one here.
But there was. The shadows seemed longer across the ground. The forest grew in the distance, and the branches of nearby trees reached for Ryoka. She looked around, and her skin crawled and the hairs on her body rose. Something was watching her.
Her missing fingers ached. Slowly, carefully, Ryoka let go of her belt knife and reached for something in her bag of holding. Her fingers came out holding a caltrop. Pure, cold iron. Ryoka tossed it to her other hand and reached back into her bag of holding. She came out with a cross, the tip sharpened like a stake.
It didn’t make her feel better. Something was out there, and Ryoka felt terribly, terribly cold. Too late, she remembered the run on the winter solstice. Not when she’d come to Riverfarm, but when she’d left it.
She had been in a forest then. Ryoka’s head slowly turned. The dead faces lying amongst the trees stared at her. She backed away, her heart pounding. She shouldn’t have come here. It was a trap.
Ryoka turned to run. And then she saw her. She was standing on the road in front of Ryoka, not a dozen paces away. She was so obvious that Ryoka didn’t know how she had missed her.
A tall woman straightened from one of the bodies. She wore dark clothing. Blue, no, black. Long and draping, a robe with ornamentation. But black colors upon darkness. Her hair was long. And her hat was wide enough to cast her entire body into shade. Its wide brim was ungainly but for how she wore it. And it was pointed.
The woman turned and Ryoka took a step back. Her hands were shaking. This was no specter or dream. This woman was real. But Ryoka felt it. The same feeling she sometimes got from Ivolethe. The feeling of the solstice. From Teriarch. Her fingers hurt.
The woman had seen her. She walked beneath the shade, abandoning the stain of red. Her stride was slow, unhurried. As she approached, Ryoka saw her face beneath the hat.
There was no expression on the woman’s face. Neither surprise, nor curiosity. Nor anger, not sadness. Just a blank stare. And her eyes—her eyes! Ryoka stared into them. They weren’t a normal person’s eyes.
The woman’s pupils were all wrong. She had not one, but multiple irises, each one smaller and smaller, disappearing into the center of her eyes. And in each iris, the color of her eyes was orange. A pumpkin’s color, the color of fire, carrots. Tiger’s stripes, rust. Black rings, dividing her eyes into ever-smaller irises.
Orange, glowing beneath the hat with more light than the sun had to offer.
Ryoka felt her breath coming in quick bursts. The caltrop was digging into her hand, the points drawing blood. The stake was slippery in her other hand. The woman stopped in front of her, and Ryoka realized she was taller than her. Not thin, not wide. But she seemed to block out the sun. She stared down at Ryoka. And then she inclined her head.
“Hello. A good day to you, City Runner.”
Her voice was deep. Quiet. And they had a reverberation, a subtle echo to them. But the words were normal. Ryoka started. She felt sweat running down her back. The woman stared down at her. After a moment, she looked up and gestured at the sky. She wore black gloves. No—black wrappings, a thin cloth wrapped around each finger and hand. Only the skin on her face was visible. The woman went on, staring up at the sky.
“A good day to travel upon any road. Dry. Although it should be raining. Thundering. But the skies are clear. It bodes ill.”
She looked down at Ryoka. Her tone was trying to be conversational. But there was nothing normal about her. Behind her, the bodies lay in death. The shadows seemed to slowly be moving. The woman stared at Ryoka. She glanced once at the caltrop and stake-cross. And then at Ryoka’s face as if they didn’t exist.
“I appear to be lost. May I ask directions? I seek Riverfarm.”
At last, Ryoka jerked. She stared at the woman, and the question snapped her out of her paralysis. Uncertainly, she lowered her hands. She let go of neither weapon, though. The woman was asking—? She stared past the woman at the dead people on the road.
The woman blinked slowly. Then her head turned. Ryoka saw her hair was black. She regarded the bodies as if she’d forgotten they existed. She turned back and nodded.
“They died where I found them. Recently, I think.”
Her tone was completely disinterested. As if the dead were leaves or branches. Ryoka stared up at the woman. She nodded.
“You just got here?”
“Yes. I am seeking Riverfarm. Do you know where it lies?”
The woman looked at Ryoka. The City Runner hesitated.
“It’s behind you. Down the road.”
The woman’s head turned again. She regarded the village in the distance.
“I see. It was not here the last time I visited.”
That was all she said. There was no embarrassment, no pointing out it was in plain view. The woman turned to Ryoka.
“I thank you for your help, City Runner. I must continue my journey. I am late. A fair morning to you. A pleasure to meet someone on the road.”
Normal words. But those eyes. The feeling in her bones—Ryoka shuddered. The woman was just staring at her after saying her goodbyes. And Ryoka was sure she was something beyond just Human. Something like—Az’kerash?
Part of her wanted to run. But the rest had to ask. Ryoka took a shaky breath.
“I—uh—no problem. I’m—my name is—Ryoka Griffin. What’s yours?”
She wondered if that was a mistake. But the woman didn’t react to Ryoka’s name. She just waited and then replied.
“I am called Belavierr.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“A fair day’s greetings, yes.”
The two regarded each other. Ryoka warily, Belavierr as if…Ryoka was a perplexing obstacle. She didn’t seem to need to blink except when she chose. Ryoka took another breath.
“I uh—you have business in Riverfarm? Would you like to travel together, Mis—Belavierr?”
“I do not believe that would be wise. My mount does not tolerate strangers.”
Ryoka stared at Belavierr. The woman nodded once.
“I rode here of course.”
She turned and gestured. Only then did Ryoka notice the horse. It was standing in the forest, pawing the ground and snorting quietly. It was a giant of an animal. Ryoka stared. How had she missed it? Belavierr turned and walked towards it. The animal had no saddle, but she hoisted herself up without missing a beat.
The stallion was black and huge, a beast of an animal that could put a warhorse to shame for sheer size. But the woman was tall enough herself and with that hat, she cut a dramatic figure riding on it.
“I thank you for your help, City Runner.”
Belavierr looked flatly at Ryoka and repeated the line word for word, without emotion or inflection. So saying, she turned, and the horse began to walk ahead, down the road towards Riverfarm. Ryoka thought that was it. But the woman remained turned in her seat.
Staring at Ryoka. Her ringed eyes never left Ryoka’s face. And the young woman was held by the gaze. The horse walked forwards, but Belavierr kept staring. For a minute, three, seven—until she was a distant shape heading towards Riverfarm. Only then, far, far in the distance, did she turn.
Ryoka felt the moment the woman’s eyes left her. She shuddered, and only then did the wind return, blowing against her back. She heard a buzzing sound, dodged backwards reflexively, and saw a large insect with too many legs flying towards the bodies. She smelled the scent of iron in the air, and death. Ryoka gagged, and then stared down the road.
A distant horse and rider were heading towards the village. Ryoka stared at Belavierr’s back. At the dead people. Then she looked down the road. She could run. She could leave. But—Charlay was in Riverfarm. She’d taken the request. And Belavierr wasn’t the three strangers in the forest. She wasn’t Az’kerash. Or Teriarch. Or Ivolethe.
But she was something. And Ryoka didn’t know what. But she had a guess. She stared down at her hands. Blood ran from where the caltrop had dug into her hand.
“‘By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.’ Fuck. Laken, what have you done?”
Then she ran towards Riverfarm. When she arrived, it was in time to see Belavierr walking down the main street. And as Ryoka drew closer, she felt the same presence. The same feeling that the shadows were moving around her.
Rehanna, lying on the ground, her burnt flesh on the doorknob. The blood of Emmett running down the main square of Riverfarm. A crowd, staring at the overturned cauldron. Prost, Rie, Durene, and Wiskeria, confronting the woman as crows circled overhead. This was the tableau. Only, it wasn’t a quiet stage. The people were beginning to scream at the [Witch], Mavika. Some were calling for Beniar, and he was riding forwards, escorting a giant of a woman. Multiple events, coming into confluence.
But it was Mavika’s pointing finger who drew the attention to her. The lone figure on horseback. She walked down the street calmly, sedately. But her presence drew all that had followed before her into silence.
Clop. Clip. Clop. She rode into the center of Riverfarm, down the street in the center of all of it. Belavierr rode straight for the crowd, and the people parted nervously. But the woman, against expectations, stopped. She dismounted from her horse and patted it. With everyone watching, the woman whispered in the horse’s ear and it trotted back the way it had come, to graze on some grass outside the village. Then, she turned and looked around.
Her eyes glowed beneath the hat. The people shuddered. But Belavierr took no notice. She stared through them, and her gaze focused on only one person.
Wiskeria. The young woman stood in the crowd, and Wiskeria’s face went pale. She turned away from Mavika. Durene, standing next to her, heard her whisper.
“It can’t be. Why is she here?”
Durene, bewildered, looked at Wiskeria. But the [Witch] didn’t answer. Mavika however, did.
She walked past Wiskeria, past Rie and Prost and the crowd. They sprang away from her as the crows flew low, following their mistress. Belavierr paused. And then another person stepped out of the frozen world. Hedag walked past Beniar and Geram. A young woman strolled down the street. She joined the three, making them four.
A pair followed them. An older woman and a child, who raised her pointed hat to Mavika and received the same. And lastly, an old woman, who greeted the other six with a smile. Then, all of them looked back down the street. And when they walked, it was together.
A young woman—no, a girl who might have been fifteen, wearing a dark blue hat with a wrinkle near the tip. Leading her, a stern-faced woman, her hat properly black, but a lighter shade of it, as were her robes, made for riding and travel, walking forwards without regard to whomever was in the way.
The short, smiling, elderly woman who’d been sipping at tea. Her hat appeared on her grey locks, decorated with still-fresh sunflower heats, a friendly grey hat betokened with color. She strolled along, her face wrinkled, pleasant, her gait quicker to keep up with the others.
The hunched figure who’d cast a curse. A flock of black birds circled overhead as she walked. Her hat was black as shade, bearing a crow which cawed as it fluttered its wings, dislodging a feather.
A young woman with pale, pink eyes strode forwards. She wore a purple, professionally-tailored hat, narrower and sloped, to prevent it leaving her head at speed. She carried a broom on one shoulder, and her steps were light.
Next to her strode a giant of a woman, nearly as tall as Durene and with arms heavy with muscle. Her smile like sunshine, warm and glowing, but with harsh brilliance hidden beneath. Her hat was brown and worn, a travelling companion. Stained with dark liquid in places.
And in the middle of them, the woman who did not belong. Who made the shadows twitch. Her hat was wide, blue as the depths of the ocean, so unfathomably dark as to be close to black, and old as she was. Her face was expressionless, but her eyes never left Wiskeria’s.
Seven of them. They walked down the street, small and tall, old and young, smiling and silent. Shoulder-to-shoulder. And their pointed hats marked them.
They stopped in the street, ignoring the folk of Riverfarm, Rie, Prost, even Durene. It was Wiskeria who they looked at. And each [Witch] stepped forwards, one after another from…youngest to oldest? The girl was first.
Nanette. She trembled, aware of the eyes on her as she raised her hat and bowed at the same time.
“W-witch Wiskeria? I tip my hat to thee.”
Alevica winked, and simply raised her hat an inch, grinning with amusement at Wiskeria.
“Heya Wis, I tip my hat to you.”
Next, Miss Califor, whose delivery was as smooth and precise as Nanette’s had been stuttering.
“Witch Wiskeria, I tip my hat to thee.”
After her, Hedag. The woman boomed as she swept her hat off, revealing her hair.
“Young Wiskeria! I tip my hat.”
Eloise was next. The old woman bowed as she tipped her hat, her voice kind.
“Wiskeria, a pleasure. I tip my hat to you, child.”
Second-last was Mavika. And her gaze was familiar, and she raised her hat silently, dislodging the crow.
“Wiskeria, to thee my hat I tip.”
Then it was Belavierr’s turn. She stepped forwards and all but Wiskeria stepped back. Her face was expressionless. It had not changed one whit this entire time, not in greeting the others, or before. But Ryoka, panting, standing next to Charlay in the back, saw something happen as Belavierr raised her hat. Her features changed ever so slightly. She—smiled.
“Daughter, I tip my hat to thee.”
Ryoka thought it was a smile. It was awkward on her face, and gone in a flash. But she had seen it. So had Wiskeria. The [Witch] faced the seven as Belavierr stepped back. And she hesitated. Her hand rose to her hat. Then it stopped.
“What are you all doing here?”
The [Witches] paused. Mavika frowned darkly and Eloise looked rueful. Hedag just shook her head. Miss Califor’s disapproval was written on hers. Nanette looked terrified. Alevica just grinned wider. Wiskeria looked from face to face. Belavierr’s was the last she focused on.
“This is not your ground, mother. And this isn’t your coven! This is my land! I refused to join my coven! Mavika! Why are you here? To drag me to my coven? Let alone Witch Eloise and Hedag! How far did you come?”
She stared at the two women on her left. Hedag laughed.
“Far enough that I should have brought a horse!”
Eloise just smiled and shook her head.
“We came by invitation, Wiskeria.”
“Whose? Not mine! Did the coven invite you? Why is only Mavika here? She attacked a member of Riverfarm! And Hedag—! Where’s Thallisa? Why would she allow this?”
Wiskeria turned red. She raised her voice to the point of shouting, glaring at each [Witch] in turn. Eloise exchanged a glance with Mavika, and the bird-[Witch]’s expression was dark. It was Miss Califor who tsked, looking annoyed.
“Mind your tongue, Witch Wiskeria. We have travelled far and at inconvenience to be here. I would have expected a proper greeting from you. But if you insist—Witch Thallisa will not be coming. Nor will any of your coven save Mavika. That is half of why we are here.”
For answer, all the [Witches] present looked to Belavierr. And Alevica’s grin faded. Hedag lowered the axe on her shoulder to the ground and leaned on it. Eloise lowered her hat’s brim.
And Belavierr? She lifted something up. She had not been holding it a second before, but now her hands were full. And what she held was a hat.
It was pointed. Green, forest green. A smaller hat than the one she wore, classically pointed, tied with a yellow ribbon around the base. Wiskeria’s eyes widened when she saw it.
She looked up, her face suddenly pale. Belavierr met her daughter’s eyes. Slowly, she turned the hat. And Wiskeria saw the hole around the brim of the hat. The faded, dried blood.
The street was still. Ryoka, staring at the hat in Belavierr’s hands, understood what it meant. Everyone did. A [Witch]’s hat. Wiskeria took it as her mother offered it to her, her hands shaking. She stared at the hole, and then at Mavika.
“How—why wasn’t I told? When did it happen? Who did this?”
Her voice broke on the last words. The bird-[Witch] didn’t reply. Slowly, Mavika looked up. And a crow swooped down. And dropped something into her hands.
The second hat fell slowly. And it was small. A red hat, for a smaller head than an adult would have. Red, fancy. Torn across the tip twice. Mavika caught it and held it out. Wiskeria stared at it, face now completely bloodless.
She jerked as Hedag, reached to the pack she carried and brought something out. A yellow hat, or at least, it had been, stained by many years and time. And at the end, blood. By her side, Alevica reached into her bag of holding and brought out another hat. Eloise, Califor, even Nanette, her hands shaking. And it wasn’t just one. Belavierr lifted a second hat. And then a third. She placed them on the ground; Wiskeria was frozen.
Hat after hat. Pointed, rounded, old and new. Twenty of them in the end. They sat on the ground, torn, broken, bloody. Some were in pieces, barely recognizable. Others could have been store-bought. Ryoka stared at the line of hats, neatly lined up. And her skin crawled.
Wiskeria’s lips were bloodless. Mavika was the one she turned to first, and then, slowly, to Belavierr. Her mother’s face hadn’t changed as the hats were placed on the ground, and hers had been the only one. Alevica had bitten her lip hard enough to draw blood, and Califor had drawn a shaking Nanette to her. The other [Witches] waited as Belavierr spoke.
“A fortnight past, the Marshlands Coven was called upon by strangers. Without Witch Mavika, Witch Thallisa, and Witch Wiskeria they met and were made an offer. They refused. And they died. Witch Mavika found those responsible and delivered vengeance on those who bloodied their blades. Not the ones who made the offer. That is not the business we are here for today, daughter.”
She turned her head, regarding the [Witches] on her right and left. Wiskeria stared up at Belavierr, and her mother nodded once. She turned and looked around, and her gaze found every face in the crowd.
“We call upon Witch Wiskeria to join us in a coven. And we claim the rights of travellers to stay in Riverfarm. We claim sanctuary. We shall remain here until his Majesty, Emperor Laken, may meet with us. We have matters of importance to discuss. An offer. A bargain to be made. While we wait, we shall offer our services.”
She raised one hand and a needle appeared. It was made of bone, polished and worn and Ryoka shuddered to see it. The other [Witches] nodded. Hedag with her axe, Mavika holding a bird on one arm. Miss Califor and Nanette standing together. Eloise sighing and adjusting her hat filled with flowers. Alevica winked at Ryoka in the crowd.
And Wiskeria, holding the hat, looked around, lost, and then at her mother. Ryoka saw a familiar look on Wiskeria’s face too, though she had never met the [Witch] before. But she understood the look on the daughter’s face as she gazed up at her mother.
Belavierr paused as she gazed around. She seemed uncertain for a moment. And everyone waited for something else to leave her lips. She eventually nodded, awkwardly.
“…Good morning to you all.”