Author: The S PM
A patriarchal conspiracy of physical abuse toward women is uncovered in a small farming community by circuit heralds, following a murder trial at which a newly-Chosen stands accused of fratricide.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Drama - Words: 16,416 - Reviews: 14 - Favs: 6 - Follows: 1 - Published: 03-30-02 - id: 690099
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
By Asia the Invincible
Maeve sat up in bed, registering that the terrible ripping sound which had awakened her was the old quilt tearing in her frantic hands. She covered her ears against the echoes of a dead woman's screams. In her nightmare, Maeve had tried once again to birth the dead child from the crushed and bloody body of its mother.
When would the Ashkevrons send someone for an inquest? Maeve could not imagine why they would take so long in answering.
Her last two years in Highjorune bore down on her. She swung her legs out of bed and stomped around the rough wooden floor, as her rage built once again.
It was said that the Ashkevrons were a stubbornly traditional clan, having changed hardly a thing since King Randale's reign. Perhaps they, too, like Gorem, the village head man, had seen nothing wrong in a man's choice to beat his wife to death. After all, if the woman's own father had not seen fit to bring her murderer to justice, why should a bunch of men who'd never even known her care?
Two weeks had passed, and there was still no sign of Maeve's messenger. She should have gone herself, but her talk with Headman Gorem had convinced her that someone had to stay and look out for the women of this village until an authority came.
Maeve shook her head. There was no hope for it. She would have to send after the Heralds, though she doubted what good it would do.
Dressing hurriedly, Maeve tried to concoct an urgent reason for the Heralds to return in the middle of their circuit. As she would have to choose her messenger from among those in the village this time, she could hardly tell him the real reason.
Maeve ran out to the corral and whistled up her mare. She had to hurry. Gods knew what Aldek would do in the meantime, before the Heralds arrived. A man with that kind of an abusive temper was going to find another outlet, now that his wife was gone.
"I don't think Sausage can hear you, Bede. She's too busy playing at being a boy again."
Camwren continued pumping water from the well, as the boys burst into laughter. Usually, if she ignored them long enough, they would get bored and go back to torturing stray cats. Between the five of them, they couldn't think of more than a handful of insults to hurl at her.
She wasn't ready, when Bede jumped forward and gave her a vicious shove into the mud. Apparently, the cats had either learned to stay out of the boys' way, or the boys had exhausted the local feline population. Camwren brushed her bangs back to give Bede the full effect of her angry glare. The other four boys stood stock still, ready to attack or run at any moment, depending on what their leader did.
Her eyes never leaving Bede's face, Camwren picked herself up and brushed at the mud on her trousers. Sizing up her competition, she considered if it was worth a scolding to get into a fight.
As her unkind nickname implied, Camwren was heavy for a twelve-year-old girl. But, in the weeks she had been working at the smithy, much of her bulk had become deceptive muscle. She could probably give two or three of the tough boys a good ear-boxing, but all five of them together would be too much for her. As her closest available weapon, Camwren snatched up the bucket, which lay overturned at her feet. Bede took a challenging step forward.
"You there!" Six heads snapped around in unison, as the burly blacksmith stepped out of the forge. "I think your mothers be missin' ye by now. Run along, then!" Half the boys had disappeared at first sight of the huge man. Those that remained did not have to be told twice.
Camwren guessed Jorgen knew exactly what had been going on, but he did not wait around to discuss the matter. "Come on, Cammie! I'll have to start all over again without that cold water!" The tireless blows of the hammer resumed before she'd even replaced the bucket beneath the spout.
Stirring the red-hot coals, Camwren was dissatisfied with the temperature of the fire. She jumped and grabbed the rope that worked the giant bellows, putting her whole weight into it.
When she was a little taller and a little stronger, it would be easier. There were times when she wondered why Jorgen had chosen her as his apprentice, when an older apprentice, a male apprentice, could have managed these tasks much more easily. She was not about to argue the matter; that was certain. With the smithing skills she was learning, she had a chance of getting out of this tiny village someday.
Camwren wiped the sweat from her forehead and frowned. She had tried not to think today, throwing herself into her work even more than usual. Even the encounter with the village ruffians this morning had not taken her mind off of the horrible dream she'd had last night. It had left behind icy tendrils that wrapped around her throat, and, no matter how she tried, she could not remove them.
In her nightmare, Camwren had come home from the forge to find her mother's cooling corpse hanging from the rafters of their cottage. The image had been gruesomely detailed, from her mother's black, swollen tongue to the smell of burned stew on the fire. Outside the cottage, Camwren had heard her brother laughing and shouting obscenities about their mother deserving her fate. Camwren had awakened, choking with anger and tears, to find her mother sleeping peacefully in her rocking chair by the hearth.
But the dream had been too real. Since Jenna's death, Camwren had had several very detailed dreams like that, and they had all come true. She'd dreamed of Mother's thimble falling behind the apple preserves in the cupboard, and it had been there. She'd dreamed the neighbors' plow horse would throw a shoe at harvest, and it had.
But none of her dreams had been about important things. She just couldn't believe that this one would come true, as well.
A strong hand gripped Camwren's shoulder, and she jumped. "I said, 'Be ye all right, Lass?' Been right quiet all day. Somethin' wrong?"
Camwren looked up into Jorgen's eyes, which were full of concern. His face beneath the full, brown beard was rosy red from the heat, and though his small, black eyes could have made him a frightening sight together with his other features, they could not hide the kind heart that rested within his bear-like chest. Camwren considered telling him everything, but only for a moment. "No, Sir." She smiled and shook her head. "I'm all right."
The blacksmith looked doubtful, but he knew his apprentice well enough not to press the issue. Wiping sooty hands on an equally sooty smock, he turned back to the horseshoes he was making. "You can start clean up, then," he told her. "I'm almost finished here."
Shortly after dusk, Camwren was walking home, dreaming about how good a nice, cold wash was going to feel. There was nothing like a day in the forge to get one looking, smelling, and feeling disgusting beyond belief. She would have to soak her clothes tonight, as well. The mud should not be too hard to get out.
As she turned down the packed dirt road toward home, she stopped, afraid she'd heard something. Sure enough, Dek's shouting carried faintly all the way down the path, and intermittent crashes made it sound as if he were destroying the whole cottage.
Camwren broke into a dead run, her exhaustion forgotten. As her short legs ate up the distance far too slowly, she strained to hear any sounds of her mother amid the din. There were none. Camwren pumped her legs with all her might and prayed that Dek had merely knocked their mother unconscious. The crashes stopped, ominously, when she was only halfway there.
Camwren reached the cottage at last, stopping at the open doorway so as not to immediately attract her brother's attention. Dek had never hit her, but he had gotten progressively more violent since Jenna's death. Camwren was taking no chances.
Stooped over, listening to the air wheeze painfully in and out of her lungs, she surveyed the scene inside. For all the noise, there was not much damage. A few broken jars and pieces of crockery lay on the floor. The table and chairs had been overturned, but they were all in one piece. Camwren had seen their father do much worse, when he'd been alive.
Her mother huddled in the far corner of the room, blood trickling between her fingers pressed to her mouth. She was weeping silently, looking at her son with mournful, apologetic eyes.
Dek continued to rant at her. "I'll not tolerate this again tomorrow! Do you hear me? My breakfast had better be early!"
Ilyana nodded, mute, from where she lay near an overturned chair.
Not having received the full submissive response for his offended masculinity, Dek thundered across the room and yanked his mother up off the floor. "I said,'Do you hear me?',Woman!"
She cried out in fear at his bruising grip, and a mixture of blood and saliva ran down her chin.
Camwren threw herself between them. "Dek, that's enough! Let go!" She tried in vain to pry his fingers from Ilyana's arm.
At the sight of his sister, Dek awoke as if from a dream, and numbly let go. Camwren wrapped one arm around her mother's waist, and righted a chair with the other. "Go home, Dek," Camwren told him, wearily. Ilyana did not protest, as Camwren lowered her into the chair.
"You don't tell me what to do!"
Camwren faced him just in time to have a meaty finger jabbed into her chest. She could see a crazy, frightened look in his blue eyes, behind the anger, but she would have to think on that later. Quickly, she stepped back out of his reach.
"Aldek, you've drunk too much again. You don't know what you're doing." She tried to sound convincing, although she wasn't so sure it was true herself. "Why don't you go home and sleep it off?"
The muscles in his jaw twitched with fury. "I know I'm not leaving here without my dinner. And no little girl tells me what to do!" Dek smacked her hard enough to turn her head.
Camwren's eyes stung, and she didn't think her heart had ever beat so hard, though she was unsure whether it was from anger or fear.
Before Camwren could respond, Ilyana pulled herself feebly to her feet. "It's all right." She patted her daughter's shoulder, as if Camwren had merely tripped and skinned her knee. "I'll have dinner ready in half a moment. Don't you two argue over my mistake."
Apparently, that was all Dek had been waiting for. As their mother limped over to the hearth, he righted the table and calmly arranged the chairs as if nothing had happened. The scene was exactly like so many Camwren remembered from when she had been small, but it was Dek who continued on as if nothing was wrong, and not their father.
The phantom smell of burning stew prickled Camwren's nostrils, and she burst into tears. "I HATE YOU!" The volume of Camwren's yell ripped her throat painfully. She rushed at Dek's turned back, and beat wildly with her fists.
The face that turned around in surprise at this assault belonged to the Dek she'd grown up with, not the one who'd replaced him in the years since their father's death. He looked so hurt and confused, Camwren stopped for the split second it took him to grab her wrists.
"How could you hit me?" she cried. It was difficult to breathe around the hurt in her chest. What had happened to the big brother who had always taken her into the woods to play, when their father had been in a rage? The one who had stood between their parents more than once, and taken his share of beatings for it?
Dek stared dumbly back, like the big ox he was. Just when Camwren thought he might let go and apologise, their mother broke the moment. "Don't fight." She pulled gently on her son's sleeve. "Please."
Dek snarled and backhanded Ilyana to the floor. She fell perilously close to the fire.
Camwren cried out, "Don't you hit her!" and kicked him in the groin. She ran to move her mother away from the flames.
If there were any words in the primal scream of rage Dek uttered as he charged at her, Camwren could not understand them.
Shoving her mother to the side of the hearth, Camwren grabbed the cast iron poker and swung with all her might. She caught Dek straight across the stomach with a loud whack, doubling him over. Knowing she could not wait for him to recover, Camwren gave him a running push toward the door.
Unable to get his balance, as he cradled at least two cracked ribs, Dek stumbled over the threshold and fell into the garden with a leafy crash. Camwren was at the door, right behind him. "If you ever touch her again, I'll kill you! Do you understand? I will kill you!"
Out of the corner of her eye, Camwren saw lights come on at the nearest neighbors' down the road. More frightened than angry, she slammed the door and bolted it with trembling hands. It was just like the neighbors to take notice now that a man had been locked out of his family's house without supper. The cries of a beaten woman, of course, were none of their business.
Camwren remembered to wedge a chair beneath the doorknob, just before Dek started pounding on the door. For the first few minutes, as the door threatened to come off its hinges, all she could do was laugh hysterically. This couldn't really be happening. Had she really just had a fist fight with her brother? Perhaps she was mad, and this was some sort of hallucination. Since the dreams had started, Camwren had been ready at any moment for someone to tell her she had lost her mind.
Questioning her sanity, however, did not stop her from leaning her full weight against the door. Dek was strong, but the oak wood door was thick. Although he bellowed like a penned bull and continued to hammer on the door for quite some time, the door held.
When the noise finally stopped, and Camwren felt no outside pressure on the door, she ran to the window, ready for another attack. To her relief, she looked out to find only squirrels rustling through the dead leaves, gathering food. Dek had been either too drunk or too stupid to think of climbing through the large, unprotected windows.
"You should not have done that to your brother." Ilyana's speech was a bit garbled.
Camwren guessed she had lost another tooth in the beating tonight. She watched her mother hobble around the table, setting three places for dinner. Ilyana was favouring her bad leg more than usual, and one arm hung, useless, at her side. One more break to bother her in rainy season. Camwren would make sure this one healed properly.
Ignoring the urge to respond to her mother's admonishment and become angry, Camwren crossed the room and held out her hand. "Mother, let me see your arm."
Ilyana clutched her injured limb away and shook her head. "It's nothing, Pet. It'll mend soon." She moved to the hearth to check the roasting potatoes.
How her mother could live in such pain just to protect those who injured her was beyond Camwren. Ilyana had never stood up for herself. Worse, she had never even tried to defend her children from the heavy hands of her husband.
Camwren would never respect her, but she just couldn't find it in her heart to be angry at her. If nothing else, her mother had taught her never to count on another person to save her. The only person Camwren relied on was herself. Believing in heroic Heralds or righteous gods who protected the innocent was childish foolishness. Camwren understood that now that Dek had grown up to be a monster.
Her mother paused in serving the food, to stare sadly at the extra plate. "You should not have deprived your brother of his dinner. This will only bring trouble."
Camwren felt sorry for her mother. Ilyana had been an abused woman for so many years, nothing could make her see reason. Had her husband not been killed in a brawl over a gambling debt, she would have taken her imbecility to the grave by now.
Camwren crossed the room and leaned on the table, so that she could catch and hold Ilyana's gaze. "Mother, we have to go see the herb-witch." Her tone was firm. She'd found that, if she treated her mother like a child, she got better results. Her mother was used to being ordered around, and reacted to it unconsciously.
"No, no," her mother hedged. "I'll not trouble anyone this time of day. There's naught so bad that it can't wait until the morning."
In the morning, Camwren knew, she would be tending to Dek's needs again. "No, Mother. Right now." She snatched her mother's knit shawl from the back of the rocking chair and draped it, with finality, over her mother's bony shoulders. Despite Ilyana's feeble protests, Camwren succeeded in gently herding her out the door.
Maeve waited outside her tiny hut, opening her arms to the numbing chill of the night. A patient would arrive soon. She had Seen that someone would come, even before her evening meal was interrupted by a stark wave of violence emanating from the village.
If only she could See whether the Heralds had heeded her summons. Unfortunately, she had never been able to tell the Gift what to show her. How much longer could justice wait?
Maeve was surprised to hear her guests approach before she could see a lantern. The early autumn night was black, and most of the villagers held to frightened superstitions about Wyrfen Wood, which directly bordered Maeve's home.
She recognised the silhouettes of the two women before they saw her. Maeve's stomach knotted. These were two patients she had specifically prayed every night would not need her.
As she greeted them, Maeve noticed with relief that young Camwren was unharmed. She ushered them indoors and seated Ilyana in her only comfortable chair, in front of the roaring fire. "Why don't you pour yourselves a cup of the mulled wine I've saved? It's right there, at the foot of the hearth." Maeve pointed it out to Camwren.
The girl's light brown eyes were full of anger, defiance, and pain, but she merely nodded and bent to fill the wooden cups.
"I hate to bother you at this late hour, Lady, but I'm afraid my daughter did not inherit my manners. She insisted that we come right away." Ilyana's eyes looked everywhere but at Maeve. No doubt, she feared the healer, dwelling more on the "witch" than "herb" in Maeve's unearned title. It was a reaction Maeve had grown used to, if not fond of, in the weeks she had been here.
Camwren's movements in the background were wooden, as she pointedly ignored her mother's words.
Maeve knelt down in front of the older woman and began a cursory examination with her eyes, before daring touch. "It can be disturbing to consider what exactly children do inherit from their parents." Maeve's tone was matter-of-fact, and her statement was lost completely on Ilyana.
Camwren looked at Maeve in surprise, as she passed a warm cup to her mother. Did the poor child really think no one else in the village knew what went on in her home? Maeve swallowed a lump in her throat.
Of course, why shouldn't the child think that? It was easier to explain why no one reacted to the situation, if you believed no one else knew. Maeve had thought she would escape the callous side of human nature, when she left the big city. She could not have been more wrong.
As Ilyana drank her wine and began to relax, Maeve's eyes took in the scars from old burns, which ran up and down the woman's arms. Maeve felt a painful twinge in the scar across her own belly. She noticed the lumps on Ilyana's legs, where broken bones had healed the best they could on their own. One of her eyelids opened only halfway, and her nose was crooked in different directions from the breaks of days gone by. Looking at her split lip, Maeve was willing to bet there was not a tooth left in the woman's head that was not either chipped or cracked from beatings. Perhaps most shocking of all, Ilyana's hands were gnarled, not from old age, but from having been crushed over and over in a larger hand. It was a wonder she could still perform daily household tasks.
From observing the way Ilyana was sitting, Maeve could tell her right leg was injured. Maeve's breath whistled through her teeth in empathic pain, when she saw the poor creature's knee-disk was askew and had been fractured in several places. It had apparently been so for some years. No wonder she had a limp. Maeve felt sick.
Her fingers probed gently around Ilyana's ankle, searching for the recent injury. Maeve needn't have worried. Ilyana ignored her touch completely, drinking a second cup of wine. Maeve's fingers were on the inside, working down to the sole of Ilyana's foot, when she finally cried out in pain.
"Be glad it's only a sprain," Maeve warned her. Holding Ilyana's foot in her hands, Maeve closed her eyes and wrapped the muscles in green, healing energy.
"Oh my," Ilyana breathed, as the pain receded unexpectedly.
As she let go, Maeve fixed Ilyana with a dark-eyed stare. "You felt the energy I just put into your strained muscles. That energy comes from inside me, and costs me a lot. If you waste it by standing or walking around on your injured ankle at all within the next two weeks, I shall be very disappointed." Her words were calculated with just enough fear to convince.
"But..." Ilyana was terribly flustered by the demand. "How will I get home? How will I perform my daily chores?"
Maeve's answer was quick and left no room for argument. "I don't expect you to do chores at all, what with a broken arm on top of a sprained ankle. You have two able children to help you perform the daily tasks.
"In the meantime, of course, I don't expect you'll never be on your feet. I have a special boot for you to wear, to take the stress off your ankle, and you will be using a crutch to hold the majority of your weight." Maeve smirked as Ilyana registered exactly what she would look like for the next two weeks.
"But..I just can't--" she stammered.
"Yes you can, Mother," Camwren spoke for the first time since they'd arrived. The determined look on the girl's round face gave Maeve hope that Ilyana might mend properly this time. "I'll help you. Jorgen will have to do without an apprentice for two weeks."
One candlemark, some heating salve, and an arm sling later, Maeve watched Camwren and her mother make slow progress down the path to the village. She knew they would make it home safely, but felt it was her healer's duty to watch them until distance and darkness made them invisible.
In her mind's eye, Maeve could not stop picturing Camwren's surprise, when she had realised that Maeve knew about her brother and her father. Maeve was no mind-healer, but it was clear someone had to speak with the girl, and soon. No one else would be honest with her, and it was obvious no one else had ever taken the time to listen to her.
Well, Maeve would. She would wait a few days and drop by to check on her patient. While she was there, she would pull Camwren aside.
Something tore Maeve out of her planning and threw her to the ground with great force, crushing the air from her lungs. She uprooted two fistfuls of grass, as the healer in her struggled with her instinctive reaction to flip around and fight with tooth and claw.
As Maeve came face to face with her attacker, the healer won.
A tousled mane of hair pressed to her shoulder, and delicate fingers clawed at her arms. The blood rushing through Maeve's ears paused long enough for her to hear the woman's hoarse keening.
"Please help me." It came out as a whisper, for the woman had screamed her voice away candlemarks before.
The sudden realisation of what had been done to this woman hit Maeve like a brick wall. Knowing that she could not let her own panic infect her patient, she clamped down on the complete emotional breakdown which threatened.
Maeve wrapped her arms tightly around the other woman and stroked her back comfortingly, taking deep breaths to calm herself. She did not yet have the courage to try to identify which of the village women clung to her.
The woman repeated her plea for help over and over, her tears soaking through Maeve's dress. It took an eternity for Maeve to stop trembling and get a grip on her own hysteria.
With the instinct of a fellow victim, Maeve knew that this woman had been brutally raped. And it didn't take three guesses to figure out who had done it.
Mercy was finally sleeping, as dawn crept over the windowsill to torture Maeve's aching eyes. Put enough herbs in anyone, and they would fall sleep, eventually. Maeve left Mercy there on her bed and crept quietly outside to be alone with her thoughts.
Her breath blew out before her in great clouds of frost, as she sprinted into the forest. The deeper she went, the faster she ran. She stumbled and lost one of her shoes, but did not stop. Skeletal branches tore at her hair, yanking out several flaxen strands. Maeve pulled her hair back, holding it in her fist while she kept running.
Time fused into a nonsensical mush. She could have been running for moments or days. At some point, Maeve began screaming and couldn't stop. The shrill sounds burst from her lips like birds being flushed out of the trees.
She stumbled a second time and could not get up. Maeve shook her fists at the unoffending sky and sobbed with abandon. There was a knot at the back of her throat that hurt almost as badly as the searing pain in her abdomen. Memory had set Maeve's old scar aflame from within her.
Two of the boys had held her down, while the others had taken turns. While wealthy merchants played their political games over the evening meal just blocks away, Maeve's skull was repeatedly smacked into the cobblestones. Rough hands had groped and twisted, smacked and prodded, pinched and punched every inch of her body. For good measure, the last ruffian cut her gut open.
What was left of her, physically and spiritually, when her attackers fled into the night, was hardly worth scraping off the street.
As she had lain, swiftly bleeding her life away into the cracks of the alley, something deep inside Maeve had broken open. A soft, green haze had filled her vision, warming and distracting her until the Sisters had found her.
The Sisters had cared for her through a full recovery. They had not accepted Maeve's return to health as a mere miracle. They kept her with them and trained her in the healing arts.
At first, Maeve had thought the lessons were just to keep her from succumbing to the depression that walked beside her. She had quickly discovered that she was very good at herb science and healing.
The Sisters had encouraged her to go to Haven and have her Gift trained at the Collegium. Maeve could not stomach the idea of sitting in a school for years training a Gift she had already learned to handle, when there were people who needed her aid right away.
After trying to practice on her own in the city, Maeve had finally had to flee the ghosts that followed her through the streets, and left for the countryside. Running seemed to have gotten her right back where she'd started.
No, Aldek was not a gang of evildoers, and he had not stabbed Mercy and left her to die, but there was little difference in the attack itself. The mindless violence. The treatment of another human being as an object.
Maeve gnashed her teeth. Aldek had chosen to do this to the one other self-sufficient woman in the entire community.
Mercy's husband had died of pox last winter, leaving her the first woman landowner in village history. With no children to help her, Mercy had worked her small plot of land all alone, ignoring the jibes and discouraging words from her neighbors. Mercy's unceasing efforts had produced a fine field of wheat this harvest, and one of the best squash crops ever to come out of the area. Maeve remembered the looks of envy on the men's faces, as Mercy had received first prize at the harvest faire.
This had not endeared the single woman to the farming families which dominated the community, however. Mercy's farm was located as far from the center of the village as Maeve's hut was, and, like Maeve, she kept mostly to herself. But distance was not the reason women in the village refused to include Mercy in their social circle. It was merely a convenient excuse.
It must have been easy for Aldek to attack Mercy, so far away from the other homesteads. In the span of a candlemark, he had effectively destroyed this woman, and everything she had worked so hard for. There were people in the village who would have thanked him.
Murder, battery, rape. How many more crimes would this man commit and go unpunished? How far could he go before the villagers decided to take notice?
Maeve was tired of waiting. The Heralds would not come in time. That man was not going to harm another woman, while there was still breath in Maeve's body.
Two of the sheepdogs on Gorem's farm growled at one another as they consumed the raw sausage Maeve had thrown them. Fortunately, the village dogs had no care for defending the headman's big house, and Maeve had taken care not to alarm them, skirting the village on her way here. The village proper huddled at the foot of the hill which marked the start of Gorem's property.
Maeve crouched at the end of a crumbling stone wall, far enough from the trail to the village that guests leaving the gathering would not notice her. On the other side of the wall, fat sheep bleated intermittently, more interested in sleep than the presence of a strange human.
Her horse, Twilight, awaited her behind the silo, which stood a hayfield away from the house. Twilight had been happy to ignore the saddle and packs still on her back, to snuffle through the leaves for the few remaining edible grasses, while her mistress left to attend to business.
After she took care of things here, Maeve would head straight for Highjorune and her friend, Filip. Filip was a lawyer. The court system in Highjorune was much more efficient than the justice system the villagers relied on. It was ridiculous to be forced to wait a year for Heralds to ride through and settle legal disputes.
Heralds were supposed to come more often in the case of emergencies like this, but it seemed there was a waiting period for emergencies, too. Maeve was certain she was not the first Valdemaran forced to take the law into her own hands. There had to be some clause or loophole to cover a situation like this one. If it existed, Filip would find it.
Maeve waited, as the farmhands trickled out of Gorem's house. Some stumbled with an excess of ale, others counted their winnings from the weekly card games and dice throwing. The last guest disappeared from view, leaving Aldek for last.
After some moments, the door opened again, and he appeared, in the midst of saying good night to the headman. Aldek was Gorem's favourite employee, there was no disputing that. They were still close after Aldek had married and killed Gorem's daughter. It was as if her life had been a casual gift between friends. Maeve clenched her fists and drew her hunting knife.
The door closed, shutting off the window of light that protected her quarry. He stood there, smiling stupidly to himself, until a light appeared in the second storey window.
Maeve could faintly hear sounds of the headman's wife washing up downstairs. She held the position in the village of second most accident-prone. In his wife's case, however, Gorem took her to Maeve himself. Sometimes there would be an excuse for her injury, sometimes there wouldn't. The man had no shame.
Although the headman's wife would be up half the night cleaning up after the merrymakers, she was half deaf, and Maeve was not afraid she would overhear any of what was about to ensue.
Aldek shoved his fists into his pockets and headed toward the path, whistling happily to himself. Maeve moved slowly to intercept him. At the end of the wall, just before the trail, she lost her nerve and stopped. An impish breeze grabbed the hem of her cloak and snapped it, noisily.
Aldek stopped whistling and squinted in her direction. "Who goes? Jaimie?"
Maeve did not answer, her mind fumbling to work herself up to her task.
He left the trail and approached, slowly. When he got close enough to make out her general figure, he stopped, his expression turning to fear.
Whom was this man, of all people, afraid to come upon in the dark?
As he came cautiously closer, trying to discern her identity beneath the cowl, Maeve's eyes searched for a sign of the evil which lay beneath his boyish face. It was hard to put the crimes with the man.
Maeve recalled a time when she had been able to admit that men were human beings. Her hand dropped ashamedly to her side. How could she have ever thought she could take a life? She was a healer, for the goddesses' sake!
Aldek stopped an arm's length away. She saw recognition dawn just before he threw her hood back, none too gently. "The herb-witch!" His anger masked relief. "Is it your habit to keep silent, when one of your neighbors addresses you?"
He was two hands taller than Maeve and had a ploughman's musculature. This close, his size immediately intimidated her. She tried to squelch her fear before it reached her voice. "I was just...gathering some plants I needed. I didn't mean to disturb anyone." She glanced away and tried to keep calm.
Aldek's expression turned mocking. "I've been meaning to thank you for the way you helped my mother last night. I haven't visited home since, but I've been told she's quite a sight." It was clear from his tone, he'd been embarrassed by having his mother's injuries called to public attention due to Maeve's bandaging.
If it was a battle of words he wanted, she would give it to him. "Yes." Her soil-brown eyes were almost black in the darkness. They met his, challenging him. "Someone hurt her very badly."
"I heard she took a bad fall." His smile was more like an animal baring its teeth.
Maeve would not be threatened. She clutched the handle of her knife more tightly. "And what of the widow Mercy? Did she take a bad fall as well?"
"What a man and a woman do behind closed doors is none of your business!" Several sheep stirred from their sleep, as he raised his voice to just below a shout.
Maeve kept her voice low, but her tone was just as sharp. "And, when a man beats a pregnant woman--behind closed doors--so badly, she has a miscarriage and dies, is that my business?"
Aldek's defensiveness and anger fell away. He looked positively stricken.
Good, Maeve thought. He should be sorry.
His face grew red and blotchy, and he pinched the bridge of his nose fiercely, staring down at the ground to hide his emotions. When it came, his voice was a whine, and he seemed to be repeating the excuse to convince himself more than for Maeve's benefit. "Gorem says women are crafty. You've got to use a firm hand to keep them in their place. It's a man's duty."
So he knew that what he had done was wrong. It was not enough. Maeve cut quick and deep. "You mean, like your father did with you?"
"Not like my father." He met her eyes again, angry. "My father was a beast."
Maeve pressed on, feeling vicious, but unable to stop herself. "You're twice the beast your father was! His wife and children are still alive!"
Behind him, a cloud slid over the moon, casting them into utter darkness. Aldek's ragged breathing accompanied the nervous bleating of sheep in the background.
Although she couldn't see him, Maeve was not afraid. She did not flinch, when he reached out and took her hand.
His grip was gentle, pleading with her. "When I drink too much, I swear, a demon gets in me. I don't know what I'm doing. My little sister--" he struggled to get the words out,"--had to lock me out of my mother's house last night."
The moon reappeared, and Maeve found herself staring straight into the face of regret.
He squeezed her hand, pleading with her, addressing her as if she were the representative for all women. "This morning, I swore I would never drink again. Tonight, Gorem told me he wants me to manage the farm, come planting. I'm going to inherit. I want to do the best I can, better than he has, even. Do right by everyone. And I'll never touch spirits again."
Maeve shook her head. A part of her wanted to forgive him, but she simply couldn't. It wasn't her debt to forgive. "It's just not enough."
He clung to her hand, not understanding, needing absolution so badly.
"Nothing you can do will bring her back."
"Don't you think I know that?!" he burst out. His eyes were wide with terror, as he grabbed her by the shoulders.
Behind the wall, the entire flock of sheep fled his voice. Maeve held the knife out in front of her, frightened of what he would do.
"She follows me everywhere! Her eyes--always accusing me!" His eyes searched the darkness frantically, expecting his wife's ghost to materialise at any moment. "I won't stay in that house alone! I can't sleep anymore!" He was shaking her with every word, mad with fear.
"You're hurting me!" Maeve struggled to get free. The panicked sheep bleated an alarm.
Lost in his guilt-ridden torment, Aldek could not hear her. A sudden movement in the dark was too much for him. "There she is!" He threw his arms around Maeve for protection, and crushed her against him.
Hot blood sprayed out over Maeve's arm and dripped down her tunic. In shock, she let go of the knife, and grabbed Aldek, as his weight slumped against her.
He looked into her face, seeing someone else there. "Jenna," he gasped.
Maeve fell to the ground with him, unable to support his dead weight. The distressed sheep were making a terrible racket. Maeve did not stay to examine what had frightened Aldek so. She scrambled to her feet, grabbed her knife, and ran.
Camwren's mother was an irritating taskmaster. Just as she would finish one chore, her mother would invent three more, and think of something else Camwren needed to run out and collect for her. Camwren must have gone to the trader's ten times today.
Gathering extra firewood in the pitch black was the last straw. After this, she was going to bed, whether her mother liked it or not. Camwren managed to open the back door using just her knee. She dumped her last pile of wood in the nook, with the rest, and locked the door behind her.
Ilyana lay in the front room next to the fire, where she'd been all day. It had not been easy to drag her mattress out here.
Camwren cleared her throat to get her mother's attention away from her embroidery. "Can I make you some tea, before I go to bed?"
To her relief, her mother merely replied, "That would be nice of you, Pet."Camwren emptied the sleeping mixture the herb-witch had given her into the cup with the tea leaves. "You should go to sleep soon, too, Mother." Camwren hung a pot of water over the fire.
She almost burned herself, as there came a loud knock on the door. Her mother looked up from her needlepoint, apprehensive. She and Camwren stared at one another in silence. Their visitor pounded harder the second time.
"Well, open the door," her mother told her.
As she approached the door, Camwren could hear Jorgen arguing with someone outside. "...capable of no such thing. This is ridiculous!"
Camwren opened the door on four men. Her neighbor from across the road pointed, as if she weren't in plain sight, and cried, "There she is!"
Camwren backed away from the door in confusion, as Headman Gorem and Thom the Sheepherd stepped menacingly forward. The headman grabbed her roughly by the arm, and Thom moved to the opposite side and took hold of her other arm. Before Camwren could process what was happening, they began to drag her outside.
"Ye can not do this!" Jorgen blocked the door. "Are ye daft, Man? She's just a child! She could not have done this!"
"Done what?" Ilyana shrilled in the background. "What on earth is going on?" She struggled to stand, making a racket with her crutch.
The men ignored her. "I heard her say she would kill him. I heard it with my own ears," the neighbor told Jorgen.
"And she did," Gorem finished. "I hold you partly to blame in this, Blacksmith."
As they continued to argue, Camwren clutched Thom's hand on her arm. "Who's dead?" she demanded. "What's happened?"
Though a competent sheepherd, Thom's mind was slow. He was Aldek's age, but his understanding of the world was that of a small child. "Mistress Camwren, you killed your brother, don't you remember?
"I saw him outside the sheep pen, when I went to find the dogs." He shook his head, sadly. "He were all quiet, just like when I found the lambs in the snow last spring."
Camwren started to cry. Somehow, she had known the answer before she'd asked. Dek was dead. These men thought she had killed him. Her brain struggled to catch up. Someone had murdered her brother.
Camwren's fingers went numb, and she felt a deathly calm overcome her. The shouting receded, as if she were falling down inside herself. A sudden, stabbing pain shot through her temples, from one side of her head to the other. She cried out and lost consciousness for the length of time it took her to slump to her knees in her captors' grip. When she could feel her body again, there was a loud buzzing that distracted from the speech around her.
The headman shook her, mercilessly. "Your woman's tricks won't work on me, Girl. You're not getting out of this."
As Camwren looked up at him, words emerged from the buzzing in her ears.
::…filling her head with thoughts unfit for a woman, and building up her muscles…::
::…not my boy!::, a different voice superimposed itself.
Someone grabbed Camwren by her collar and yanked her back away from the two men. "Camwren, what have you done?" Ilyana turned Camwren to face her. Her mother's emaciated frame shook with grief and accusation.
::What will I do now? Who will take care of me?:::
Camwren spoke over the voice in her head, "Mother--" She reached out for comfort, trying to explain.
Ilyana smacked her across the face.
::…never have let her take me to that witch! This is what comes of private matters being brought outside the family…::
The voice continued, as Ilyana threw her crutch across the room and collapsed on the floor in hysterics. "How could you murder your own brother?!" she raved.
::…demon-child should be burned…::
::...so young and capable of…::
::…lunatic! How embarrassing…::
::Hungry. Want milk and some toasted…::
The voices swam in and out of the buzzing, performing an unintelligible gibberish-dance in Camwren's mind. Her head was starting to pound. "I didn't kill anybody!" she shouted at the voices.
"Lie all you like, you little misfit!" the headman told her. "You can tell your story a hundred times, if you like, to the walls of the gaol at Forst Reach, until the Heralds come."
Camwren glared up at him with utter hatred, and the voices receded for a moment. She considered spitting in his face.
::Gaol? My daughter?::
Ilyana paused in the midst of her fit to plead with the headman. "Please, Gorem, must you take her now?"
::…be swayed by no whiney…::
::...had enough of this!::
Jorgen stepped in front of the headman and leaned forward until he was nose to nose with him. "She'll not be going to Forst Reach," he boomed. "You've proved nothing, and I'll have no more of this talk."
The two men began a staring duel. They were matched in height, and both large in girth. Ten years ago, Gorem might have been a match for Jorgen, but it had been that long since he'd done any of his own work on his farm. The blacksmith had the advantage of youth, and he was solid muscle and bone.
The buzzing inside Camwren screeched with violence.
"No! Don't!" Camwren squeezed her aching head, feeling as if it would burst if she took her hands away.
Gorem swung at Jorgen, hitting the blacksmith at the temple. The blow had been hard, but Jorgen did not move an inch. He caught the headman's second punch in one large hand. The headman grunted in pain as Jorgen squeezed his fist in an iron grip. Gorem threw himself at the blacksmith, and the two men tumbled to the floor, where the fight continued.
Thom bent over them, looking totally perplexed. He was not sure whom to help. Ilyana scooted across the floor, away from the two men, trying not to get tangled in the brawl.
Camwren saw her chance and ran. Near blind with pain, she couldn't see if anyone noticed her escape. She had to concentrate just to leave through the door instead of the wall.
When the cold night air hit her face, and she was sure she was outside, Camwren sprinted into the darkness, trusting her feet to remember the layout of the farm and find the cover of the forest. Her vision returned, when she was close enough to identify individual trees. Camwren discovered the buzzing was gone.
She turned back to look at the house where she'd been born. No pursuing figures obscured the weak light in the distance. Camwren sighed. She didn't know where she would go now, but something in her told her she would never go back.
Once within the protection of the trees, the heady scent of pine drew her exhaustion out. When she realised her limbs could carry her no farther, Camwren had the sense to climb a tree and nestle in the highest branch that would hold her, before she fell asleep.
She awoke suddenly in that blackest part of night closest to dawn. Certain that she had heard something, her eyes searched for the source down below.
"Camwren!" There it was again, a whispered call. Were they searching the forest for her already? Abruptly, the buzzing in her mind returned.
::…smart girl. She must be out here somewhere.::
"Cammie!" a real voice interrupted. The silhouette of a hulking figure tip-toed onto the pine needle mat below. It was Jorgen! Camwren nearly called out to him, before she remembered he might not be alone. She covered her mouth with one hand, sure she would betray herself with the sheer relief of seeing him all right.
::…never think of her coming here. She'll be safe enough until the Heralds come.::
The voice in Camwren's head was loud enough to interrupt her own thoughts, but she could hardly hear Jorgen's loud whisper beneath her. "Lass, if ye can hear me, I've brought ye some edibles. I'll hang them right here on this branch." He looked everywhere around him but up. Camwren wanted so much to speak to him, but her sense of self-preservation held. His search having proved fruitless, Jorgen shook his head and began to walk away.
::…probably daft. She could be anywhere. Well, mayhap a bear will get a good meal out of this. Now to lock up and find those blasted…::
The buzzing disappeared as Jorgen receded into the distance. Now that Camwren was out of danger for the moment, her mind was beginning to work. This time, there had been only one buzzing voice, and it had sounded exactly like Jorgen. Could she have been overhearing his thoughts? You are going mad, she told herself. But she was not convinced. The voice had paralleled what Jorgen had said out loud.
Camwren got the funny tingle in her chest she sometimes experienced in Wyrfen alone. She gripped her branch, afraid of eyes watching her. But how could a forest demon mimic Jorgen's speech pattern so precisely? And what was it trying to trick her into doing? Her horse sense forced her to discard her fear along with that explanation.
Didn't Heralds have a mind-speaking power? Camwren tried to remember the stories about Heralds she had been told as a little. She had always thought it had meant Heralds could carry on conversations with one another in their heads, not listen to other people's random thoughts. Even so, that was well enough for them, but Camwren was no Herald, and she had no wish to be.
Camwren had stopped daydreaming about becoming a Herald long before the other children her age had. When she had been seven, her father had had one of his big episodes just days before the circuit Heralds had ridden into town. Camwren had secretly rejoiced at the state in which he'd left her mother and Dek, for surely the Heralds would look at their injuries and see her father was a bad man.
For the Heralds' entire stay, Ilyana had discovered chores for Dek, despite his broken nose and fingers, which kept him well out of their sight. When they finally noticed her mother's black eye and bruises, Camwren waited for the Heralds to take her father away. But they hadn't. The Queen's Heralds had accepted the excuse of an accident and had questioned no one in Camwren's family any further.
Heralds were not supposed to be just like all the other villagers. Heralds were supposed to know the truth the moment they saw her mother. They were supposed to know Dek was injured, even though they couldn't see him, and send for him. They were not supposed to fall for the same old lies. Heralds were just supposed to know. And they had not known.
Little Camwren had been crushed. She'd lost all interest in Heralds from that point on. When they had come to town in following years, Camwren had found better things to do than gather around them, as the other children did.
She had stopped expecting deliverance from them, therefore, she was not disappointed.
Her mind was moving enough now to shake off sleep, but there were many things Camwren did not want to think about just yet. She climbed down from her perch and retrieved the food Jorgen had brought. As the wind picked up, Camwren wished he had brought her a cloak or a sweater instead. She stuck her hands under her arms for warmth, and walked quickly, moving further away from the village, as the sky began its eerie glow toward sunrise.
The wind quieted, eventually, and the forest warmed up to a tolerable level by noon. When her stomach started to rumble for food, Camwren realised she was further in the wood than she could remember having been before. She knew which direction the village lay, but not where the main road was, and she wanted to be sure to avoid both. Leaning against a gigantic fallen tree, trying to picture a map of the area, it suddenly occurred to Camwren that she had no water.
She dug through the contents of Jorgen's bag and confirmed her fears. Hoping that her panic came partially from hunger, Camwren shoved the first thing she grabbed from the bag into her mouth. Goat cheese. Not her favourite thing in the world. Fortunately, her stomach did not seem to mind, and Camwren tore off a chunk of bread to go with it.
Just as eating began to distract her thoughts beyond fear and panic, a dog barked in the distance. Her mouth hugely full, Camwren looked around for a place to hide. The trees here were too tall to climb without special equipment. She scrambled over the fallen trunk behind her. Near the tangle of arm-width roots lay a hole that she might be able to squeeze into.
The barking was closer and more frequent. Camwren lay down and threw her bag inside. It was deeper than she'd first thought, as if an animal had dug out the space. She closed her eyes and crawled in, hoping she would be the only occupant. It was a tight fit, and there was a strange dip in the middle. Camwren was forced to huddle in a weird position, with her rear end in the dip and her knees almost in her face. She held still and listened. The buzzing filled her head once more.
::…they'll see, when I'm the one that finds her. Call me stupid, the…::
::…know how to slow that bitch down. There's a good one.::
Camwren listened hard, trying to see if she could tell whether it was one person or more. There did seem to be a distinctive tone to the separate buzzing, but it was so loud, it was difficult to tell. Closer still, the dog yelped sharply in pain.
"Damnit, Boy, what did I tell you about throwing rocks at the dog? She needs to concentrate on the trail!" Camwren heard the dog panting on the other side of the fallen tree, but the voice was still faint.
"That dumb dog couldn't track her own dam. She's just after squirrels." Camwren recognised Bede's voice.
::…smarter than you, old man.::
The dog they spoke of must be Red, Bede's father's dog. Camwren would never have thought Red was a tracker, either. Just to prove her wrong, the dog's glossy, sorrel snout appeared at the hole.
::Now where's she got to?::
"Don't talk back to me."
"Ow! That hurt!"
"Find the dog! Now!"
As Red's snout was quickly followed by the rest of her, Camwren concentrated on the dog, to see if she could hear her thoughts.
::…should have thrown that dog in the river, when I had the chance…::
Red crawled up to Camwren on her belly and licked her mercilessly, knowing somehow that Camwren could not push her away.
It seemed the buzzing could not be directed. That, or animals did not have thoughts, which was a rather disappointing idea.
Bede's boots stomped through the leaves nearby, and Camwren grabbed Red's muzzle to keep her from barking. The dog regarded her with frightened, dark eyes. Hearing the curses falling like rain from Bede's mouth, and knowing the things he was thinking to do to Red when he found her, Camwren could not blame her. When Bede's footsteps retreated somewhat, Camwren fumbled in her bag and pulled out a roasted chicken, which she shared with a very eager Red.
They stayed that way, eating and listening for what Camwren guessed to be at least a candlemark. The two men searched near and far for either girl or dog, and finally gave up.
"Just leave her. She'll come home when she's hungry."
::…try to tell your mother the same thing about you.::
"I won't leave her. At her age, she belongs home by the fire."
::…don't understand why that dog's allowed inside the house. He'd sooner have me sleep outside…hope she rots out here.::
"Well, I've had enough. I'm hungry."
::Go on home, you ungrateful lout.::
Camwren had been careful to take the bones away from Red, so that they would not splinter inside her mouth. When Bede's father whistled for her one last time, she and Camwren were wrestling for the last wing bone. Red won and took off for her master.
"What's this you have, then, Girl?"
::A bone. Damn, the boy was right. Good that he's gone home already, so I won't have to hear his mouth.::
"You let me down. If you'd rather eat a rabbit in the forest than help your master, to hell with ya then. No supper for you tonight."
Camwren listened to Red whine at her master's heels until they were out of range. She heaved a sigh of relief, and shook her head sadly. It seemed neither family nor cherished animal companions were safe from the anger the men in her village nurtured.
She climbed out of her hiding place and walked on. It took the rest of the day to pop her joints back into place, after sitting cramped for so long. That night, she climbed another tree and slept fitfully, dreaming of water on her dry throat.
Around mid-morning the next day, she stumbled upon a good-sized stream. As Camwren bent down to splash water on her face, trying not to think of the cold, she heard hoof-beats in the distance. The adrenaline rush that hit her at the thought of a possible capture woke her for the first time since she'd set off that morning. Looking more closely at her surroundings, she saw that what she had taken for a clear patch of forest was actually the main road. Cursing her foolishness, she dove behind the biggest bush she could find and buried herself with leaves.
The riders passed by quickly, and no buzzing disturbed her. Camwren picked herself up and brushed futilely at the bits and pieces of dead leaves clinging to her. All this running and hiding was getting depressing. She hadn't even decided on a place to go, and the forest wasn't big enough that she could walk forever. Sooner or later, she would come out on Forst Reach lands, and then what would she do? She had to gather her thoughts together and conceive a plan.
Unwilling to give up her water supply, Camwren followed the stream away from the road until sundown. When she reached what she considered a comfortable distance from the path, she decided to make camp until she could think of where to go. Dragging several large, fallen branches together, she formed the skeleton of a lean-to. After she covered it with twigs and leaves, the wind was not quite so bad.
When she was finished, it was too dark to do much else. She climbed inside the temporary dwelling and ate more of Jorgen's food. Listening to the sounds of the forest at night, Camwren shivered in the fast-cooling air. She considered lighting a fire, and then remembered she had no tinder with her.
Camwren decided she hated being cold. Whatever she was going to do, it would have to be indoors, at least until spring.
A predator's howl sounded in the distance, and Camwren burrowed into her bed of dead leaves. Now that she was full, she was too tired to make plans. Promising herself she would find a solution in the morning, Camwren curled up and went to sleep.
She awoke at dawn, the hesitant autumn birdsong making a pleasant wake up call. Camwren promised her heavy eyelids that she would go back to bed as soon as she got home from the forge. Jorgen would certainly need her today, after she'd been gone all this time, taking care of her mother.
The image of her mother, crutch, sling, and all, brought Camwren's memory back with a painful jerk. With the events of the past week returned to the front of her mind, Camwren tried to picture Dek's face, twisted with drunken anger, as it had been the last night she'd seen him. The only pictures that would come were from her earliest childhood memories. Dek bracing her, as she climbed her first tree. Dek carrying her on his back all the way to the faire at Forst Reach. Dek laughing, when he'd seen what a horrible job she'd done the first time she cut his hair.
Camwren's mind could not connect the two conflicting images of Dek the youth and Dek the man. They were two completely different people. She could not begin to imagine how anyone could think of harming the young Dek, but she had threatened to kill the old Dek herself.
The one fact these two people had in common was that they were both gone forever. Camwren swallowed hard, facing the truth at last. Dek was dead.
She felt frozen where she sat, unable to cry or even to brush the hair out of her eyes. She stared blankly at the stream tumbling by several steps away.
Finally, an urgent need to relieve herself distracted her enough from her depression. Still feeling hollow, she crawled out of the lean-to and walked to the base of a large tree which had served the same purpose the night before.
Having to urinate in the woods was almost as unpleasant as being cold. As she supported herself at an awkward angle, so as not to damage her shoes, Camwren wished that she could become a man for just a moment.
While tucking herself back together, she heard riders in the distance. Camwren ran back to her camp and scrambled into the lean-to. She snatched up her food bag and glanced around, frantically, trying to decide whether she should run or hide.
She stopped to listen. The horsemen were almost upon her. There was no way she could outrun them on foot. Camwren curled up in a ball and lay on her side, thankful that she had been unable to make a fire last night. Hopefully, her pursuers would ride on, mistaking her shelter for mere deadfall.
The horses slowed to a trot, as they neared. A single horse crossed the camp at a slow walk. Camwren watched its fine-boned, white legs pass by, and breathed a sigh of relief. When it returned a moment later, she stopped breathing all together.
The rider, still invisible to Camwren at this angle, stopped the horse between Camwren and the stream and turned his mount in a slow, searching circle. The horse stopped facing her, and Camwren gathered herself to run for her life. The horse bent one knee and poked its head in to look at her. Camwren was so surprised that the horse should discover her, and not the rider, she forgot to run. She was comforted by the fact that she had never seen this horse before. At least it had not been one of her village neighbors who'd hunted her down. The horse was very beautiful. The span of its skull from ear to ear was quite wide, confirming the intelligence in the blue eyes which peered in at Camwren. In the false twilight of the lean-to, its white coat had a silvery sheen, which flowed down its muzzle into a soft pink nose and lips. No one in the village could ever afford a horse like this one. Camwren reached out to touch the fine, dyed leather of its bitless bridle and ran her hands around to the reins, which had been embroidered, as well.
The horse startled her by leaping back out of the shelter. Curious, Camwren stuck her head out to get a look at the owner of this lovely animal. She was boggled to find just the horse, riderless, in full dress tack, breast collar, bells, and all, prancing around the clearing.
::I found you! I found you! I found you!:: A child-like voice sang in her head to the beat of the horse's hooves. The horse, a mare, now that Camwren could see all of her, bucked and trotted back and forth along the streambed, as the voice continued.
Camwren placed a curious hand to her temple, surprised that no painful buzzing accompanied this voice. Could it belong to the horse? Perhaps animals' thoughts were more gentle than those of humans. But, if the voice did belong to the horse, why hadn't Camwren been able to hear Red's thoughts two days ago? And why had the horse been looking for her?
Camwren climbed all the way out of the lean-to and approached the mare slowly. "Well, you certainly did find me," she said, more to herself than the mare.
The horse stopped her prancing and came straight to Camwren. ::Would you like to go home first and say good-bye to your family?::
Camwren was not about to turn herself over to a horse, no matter how beautiful it was. "Where's your master?" Camwren asked, stalling.The mare tossed her head and snorted indignantly. ::I have no master.::
Were horses capable of lying? What purpose could it possibly serve? Camwren felt the need to point out the obvious. "Then why are you wearing a saddle?"
::It's for you,:: the mare replied, kindly, in a manner most villagers reserved for addressing Thom the sheepherd.
The mare's attitude and utter insensitivity to Camwren's plight was making her cross. "Well, I'm not going," Camwren told her, firmly. "This may seem like a game of hide-and-seek to you, but this is my life we're talking about." She strode back to her shelter and picked up her food bag.
::Of course,:: the mare replied slowly. Camwren heard in her tone that she had hurt the horse's feelings. ::But why don't you want to come?::
"Because I didn't do it!" Camwren started to walk away. She was sorry that she had hurt the mare's feelings, but the horse obviously did not understand the levity of the situation. Before she had gone three steps, the mare blocked her path.
::Just a moment. What are you talking about?::
Camwren was tired of this, and she was getting scared that her human pursuers were catching up. "You stupid horse! Get out of my way!" She pushed past the mare and walked on.
::Wait. You think I'm a horse?::
Camwren felt a strange tickle in her mind, as the horse giggled. Bit by bit, more laughter followed, until the horse's voice in Camwren's head howled with laughter.
Behind her the mare snorted aloud with equine laughter, quite out of breath.
Angry at being laughed at by a horse, Camwren turned around. "What are you, then? A duck?"
The mare's mental laughter reached a hysterical pitch, and Camwren could not help joining in. This horse was a complete lunatic.
It took quite some time for both of them to regain control. By then, Camwren was sitting on the ground, facing the horse, who was lying down. ::I'm sorry,:: the mare apologised. ::This isn't at all how I'd always imagined this moment would go. Lets just start over again.::
She turned her head away for a moment, and then turned back, fixing Camwren with her amazing, blue eyes. ::Hello. I'm a Companion. My name is Fiora.::
Camwren felt silly for suggesting Fiora was a duck. "Oh." She thought for a moment. "Companions aren't horses?"
::Horse-shaped, perhaps, but no more,:: Fiora responded without criticism.
"I'm sorry about what just happened. But I really do have to go, before your Herald returns."
::Actually, I came here to ask you to be my Herald.::
Her answer totally threw Camwren for a loop. "What? You didn't come with the Heralds who were summoned to find my brother's murderer?"
::No.:: Fiora answered before she had totally processed Camwren's question. ::What?::
Camwren sighed. She supposed she owed the Companion an explanation for being so rude earlier. "The villagers think I killed my brother."
Fiora's answer was immediate and certain. ::But you didn't.::
Camwren was surprised at her certainty. "You believe me?"
Fiora leaned in close to show Camwren the sincerity in her eyes. ::Companions do not Choose murderers.::
It was strange that the one person, besides Jorgen, who believed in her had never met her before. Camwren started to cry. "I don't know what to do. Even my mother thinks I did it."
::What nonsense,:: Fiora told her. ::Come here and tell me what happened. We'll think of a solution together.::
Camwren crawled into the warm arc of Fiora's legs and belly and put her arms around the Companion's neck. Fiora's horsey smell was comforting, and the steady rhythm of her breathing calmed Camwren's tears. She took a deep breath, and the story poured out of her, from her father and the village bullies, to Headman Gorem and Jenna's death. She finished with the healer, and told how Jorgen had sneaked her some food.
Fiora was quiet for a long time afterwards. Camwren sat back and looked at her. The mare gazed into the distance, as if she could see something Camwren could not. She held her peace while the Companion digested her story.
At last, Fiora blinked once, twice, and stood up. ::Well, that's it. We have to go back to the village.::
"What?!" Camwren panicked. "Didn't you hear a word I said? They think I did it!"
The Companion bent her neck and looked Camwren square in the eye. ::But you didn't do it.::
::And how will they ever know that, if you don't go back and tell them?::
Camwren could tell there was no arguing with Fiora. For half a moment, she contemplated running away from the Companion. Camwren was surprised to find that she didn't want to.
::All right, now. Up you go.:: The mare offered her a stirrup. Camwren mounted with some difficulty. Fiora was taller than the workhorses she was used to.
As they set off for the road, she tried one more time. "What if they still don't believe me?"
The Companion answered with absolute certainty. :: Don't be afraid, Chosen. If anyone even thinks about hurting you, I'll stomp them flat..::
On the ride back to the village, Fiora distracted Camwren from her apprehension by making her practice speaking mind to mind. Once Camwren had gotten the knack, Fiora told her, ::It's more complicated than this, but that's for later lessons. For now, just remember that you won't have to hear anyone else's thoughts, as long as you're touching me.::
"Why only if I'm touching you?"
::Because I can't shield you from a distance yet.::
"Oh." Camwren didn't understand at all, but decided to stop asking questions. They were approaching the market square, and Camwren could hear the noise of a crowd. As they rounded the bend, Camwren saw the whole village had gathered in the square. In the center, stood a hastily-erected platform, on which two people sat behind a table. One wore the white uniform of a Herald, and the other wore the gray of a Herald-trainee. Their Companions stood to one side of the platform, keeping a close eye on the crowd.
Camwren did not have time to notice more, before someone in the crowd spotted her. "There she is!" Heads turned, all over the small square.
"Witch!" Her own neighbors were pointing and backing away from her.
"Stone her!" A deafening chaos erupted in front of her.
Camwren screamed and yanked Fiora's mane, as the mob swarmed toward them. The Companion's eyes rolled in fear, and she danced away from the threatening mob, kicking any who came too close. The first stone hit Camwren on the side of the head. Dazed, she would have fallen out of the saddle, had Fiora not shifted her weight beneath Camwren just in time. As it was, she slid off Fiora's back and landed on her feet, the Companion's body blocking her from a rain of stones.
::Save my Chosen!:: Fiora's piercing whinny shrieked for help. Several blooms of crimson sprang up on her white coat, where the rocks hit hard enough to draw blood.
Camwren heard the chime of silver hooves on cobblestone, as the two distant Companions charged through the crowd. In no time, she was surrounded by Companions, who lashed out at the crowd on all sides.
::You never could make a quiet entrance, could you, Fiora?:: Camwren was clinging to her Companion, but she still heard the teasing, male voice in her mind.
::Shut up, Rowan, and make yourself useful,:: Fiora shot back.
The Companion on Camwren's right kicked the miller's son, a particularly large, belligerent member of the mob, several lengths back into the crowd. ::How's that for useful?:: Rowan asked.
Confronted with three Companions, the crowd began to back down. They calmed enough for the Herald to shove her way through the throng. "That's enough!" she shouted. Up close, Camwren could see the Herald was a plump woman in mid-life, but no less intimidating because of it.
"No one here moves a muscle without my permission; is that clear?" A vein was standing out in her forehead, right below where a streak of gray started in her hair. She walked over to the Companion stallion whom Camwren had not heard speak. He nuzzled the Herald's cheek, and Camwren got the impression they were speaking, privately.
The Herald turned on the crowd. "You should all be ashamed of yourselves! Trying to kill a child!"
"She murdered her brother!" a man's voice yelled.
"She bewitched her mother!" This last accusation was followed by shouts of agreement.
"She drove her own mother to hang herself!" a woman's voice cried.
Camwren felt as if she'd been punched by some invisible hand. ::Gods, no!:: She buried her face in Fiora's mane. ::It can't be true!::
::Don't you listen to a word they say,:: Fiora told her. ::They're caught up in the mob fever.::
"I have heard enough!" the Herald bellowed. "I want you all to return to your homes immediately. No one is to set foot outside, unless called for questioning."
The crowd hesitated, wondering if they had to obey the lone woman. "Anyone who leaves his home, even to use the outhouse, without a Herald's permission will have to answer to me. Now MOVE!" On her final word, the two Companion stallions reared up on their hind legs and trumpeted an equine battle cry.
Most of the villagers could not get away fast enough. Two, however, remained. Jorgen ran straight toward them. "Cammie! Thank the gods you're all right!" The Companions would not let him past, and he stared at them in confusion.
The Herald gripped his shoulder and pulled him back. "Where do you think you're going?"
"It's all right," Camwren explained. "I'm his apprentice."
::He's the one who brought you food?:: Fiora asked. She was taking no chances.
::Yes,:: Camwren confirmed.
"Wait a moment," the Herald demanded, as Fiora let Jorgen by, and he lifted Camwren off the ground in a great hug. "You knew where she was all this time, and didn't tell us?!"
Jorgen let go of Camwren and turned to face the Herald. "I di'not know until this moment that you would defend her."
Before the Herald could yell at him, the headman arrived along with the Herald-trainee, a youth only a few years older than Camwren. The trainee looked very put-upon, but seemed unable to rid himself of Gorem.
"Excuse me, my lady," the headman's voice dripped poison. " But young Danforth here seems to think you meant me to return to my home as well."
The trainee's eyes pleaded with the Herald. "He won't take no for an answer."
Gorem turned on the young man. "Listen, Boy, I don't have to take orders from a stripling like you! I was head of this village before you were an itch in your father's groin!"
The Herald confronted the headman with a toothy smile. "Are you implying that the queen made a mistake, when she chose this young man to represent her? Are you questioning the trials he's endured and the rigorous training he's been through in order to wear this uniform? Or do you just enjoy spitting on the hallowed traditions of your country?"
Gorem stared at her and his face grew dark red, starting at his neck and working up to his hairline. Camwren recognised the pattern in his rising anger, and gripped Fiora's mane. ::He's going to hit her!:: she cried.
::I'd like to see him try,:: a younger-sounding male voice answered. Camwren turned and met the sapphire eyes of the stallion who flanked the Herald. The Companion nodded his head, in acknowledgement of her connecting him with the voice.
"I don't take orders from a woman, either." The headman's voice was strangled with the effort it took not to lash out physically.
"I'll wager ye can take orders from my fist in your face, you cur!"
Jorgen rushed at Gorem with said fist ready, but the Herald stopped him. Restrained, Jorgen could only shout his threat. "That's no way to speak to a lady or a Herald!"
The headman's eyes mocked the blacksmith, knowing that he was safe from attack.
The Herald addressed the two Companions. "You heard him, boys. It sounds like the headman is requesting that you escort him home."
::I think a few good bites out of his hide would work wonders,:: Rowan responded with devilish glee.
The two stallions walked forward together and stopped, one on either side of a suddenly nervous-looking headman. "If that's how you're going to be, fine." He turned on his heel, careful not to touch either of his escorts and stalked off up the hill toward his home. The Companions followed close behind. Gorem lagged once, to glare back at Herald and trainee, and one of the stallions shot forward and bit him in the arse. He did not lag again.
Camwren giggled, as Fiora snickered in her head.
After a moment of restraint, the trainee burst into laughter.
"Serves the old bastard right!" the Herald exclaimed. "But enough of this tomfoolery. Who's for some hot tea?"
"That sounds wonderful," Camwren spoke for the first time. "But what I could really use is a hot bath."
They retired to Jorgen's house, where Camwren felt infinitely better after a bath and clean clothes. Jorgen served them a hot meal of sausage and roast onions, which they all ate ravenously. After dinner, Danforth helped Jorgen with the dishes, and the Herald beckoned Camwren over to the hearth.
"I imagine you've guessed I'd have a few questions for you."
Camwren nodded, solemn. The Herald chuckled. "There's no need to be afraid. I assure you, I'm a very different person in front of an angry mob."
Camwren tried to smile, but the best she could get was a twitch. The Herald offered her hand. "I'm Marta."
Camwren shook her hand gingerly. "I'm Camwren."
Marta smiled encouragingly. "I hear you've been through a lot lately, Camwren."
Camwren nodded and burst out with the question that had been plaguing her for the last candlemark. "Is it true that my mother is dead? That she hung herself?"
The smile left Marta's eyes. "I'm afraid so. I'm very sorry."
Camwren stared at the floor and wrapped her arms around herself.
"There's no shame in crying, when you need to," Marta comforted. "I'll leave, if you like."
Camwren shook her head and began to rock back and forth.
Marta watched in silence for a few moments. "It's not her death that's upsetting you, is it?"
Camwren shook her head, and it was hard to speak at first. "Maybe I did kill her. I saw that it was going to happen, and I didn't stop it."
"Do you think you could have stopped it, just because you knew?"
Marta's voice was so kind, tears began to slip from Camwren's eyes. "That's a question everyone with Foresight has to struggle with. It's not easy, but you can't blame yourself, if you expect to get anywhere."
Camwren felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Don't torture yourself." She glanced behind her to see Danforth had joined the conversation. "It's not worth it."
They stood in silence for a few moments. "What I really want to ask you about, Camwren," Marta said, "is what you see going on in the village. Before your brother was killed, did things seem normal to you?"
Danforth pulled up a chair, and Camwren told them about the strange circumstances surrounding Jenna's death, and how Dek had hit their mother, afterwards.
"Do you know if anyone else had your brother's…problem?" Danforth asked.
"My father did," Camwren answered. "Headman Gorem's wife falls down a lot, too, but I haven't heard of anyone else." Herald and trainee nodded, as if this information was not new to them.
"Do you know the widow Mercy at all, Camwren?" There was a strained look on Marta's face, as if she were suppressing tears or rage.
"I never see her, really," Camwren answered truthfully. "I don't remember seeing her at all, since the Harvest Faire. She seems very nice."
"Did your brother know her?"
Camwren had a feeling she did not want to know why they were asking her this. "No. Most men in the village have nothing nice to say about her. Dek told me once he thought she was pretty, but he stayed away from her, like everyone else."
"One more question," Marta changed the subject, "Did you see the healer, after the night you took your mother to see her?"
"No," Camwren replied, confused. "Why?"
Just then, there came the sound of hooves on cobblestone from the street outside. Marta jumped from her seat. "If that's that blasted headman again, I'll have his hide!" Marta, Danforth, and Jorgen ran for the door, to see who it was.
"Well I'll be damned," Marta said.
"But I don't understand," Danforth said. "Why did she come back?"
"Looks as if we're about to find out," Jorgen answered.
Camwren went to see what they were all looking at. Marta and Danforth stepped out into the street, in view of the square. Peeking around Jorgen's bulk, Camwren saw the herb-witch approaching with a stranger. Spotting the Herald's uniform, they rode straight toward the smithy.
At the last, the stranger dropped back, while the herb-witch did not rein in her mount until she was right in front of Marta. Her eyes met the older woman's steadily. "You've been expecting me," the healer said. It was a statement, not a question, and clearly surprised Marta out of whatever cutting remark she had been about to make.
"Well, not exactly. To be honest, I thought we were going to have to come find you," the Herald replied.
The herb-witch blinked, keeping her eyes closed a moment longer than normal, as a pained expression crossed her face. When she opened them again, her eyes were clear. "We understand each other."
Camwren looked at Jorgen and Danforth. They didn't seem to have the foggiest what was transpiring between the two women, either.
"I think so," Marta replied with regret.
The healer turned behind her and beckoned her companion forward. The man's forehead and mouth were creased with frown lines, but otherwise, he didn't look much older than his traveling companion. "This is Filip, my lawyer."
"I see." Danforth seemed to understand now, and he did not look pleased. Marta looked disappointed.
When the lawyer spoke, Camwren was surprised by his deep, rich voice. "Maeve and I agree that a truth spell would be the most benificial here. I assume that meets with your approval?"
Both Herald and trainee looked totally surprised. Before they could recover enough to speak, Maeve said,"I want to speak to the family, first."
Filip frowned a most disapproving frown, but said nothing.
"Of course. Why don't we all go inside?" Marta suggested.
"I'll see to the horses." Jorgen walked out and helped Maeve dismount. He and Filip walked the mounts around to the stable.
Maeve looked inside and noticed Camwren for the first time. Her eyes were like deep tunnels of grief, and Camwren shrank from her stare. Maeve's chin trembled for a moment, but she clenched her jaw and regained control. "I'd like to have a moment alone with you, Camwren, if that's all right."
Camwren nodded and stepped across the threshold, outside. The healer looked meaningfully at Herald and trainee, who went back inside and shut the door.
Alone with the herb-witch, Camwren began to feel afraid.
Fiora appeared at her side, materialising like a ghost. Afraid to meet the healer's eyes, Camwren turned to Fiora and stroked her muzzle.
Maeve was thrown by the Companion's presence, but only for a moment. She sighed deeply. "Camwren, I killed your brother."
Camwren looked up sharply, and clenched her fists.
::Easy, Chosen,:: Fiora soothed. ::Let her speak.::
"When it happened, it was an accident," Maeve went on. "but I sought him out that night to kill him."
Camwren felt betrayed. "I thought you were a good person."
The herb-witch could not look at her. "As you get older, I think you'll find that even the best people are capable of the worst deeds."
She glanced up, and Camwren looked deep into her guilt-tortured eyes. She had to look away.
"Think what Aldek did to your mother, and to his wife," Maeve offered.
Camwren didn't want to agree, but she had to. She tried to make it sound as if it didn't matter. "I know."
"I'll bet there were times you could even see the good in your father." Camwren didn't want to think about that. Memories of her father were buried too deeply.
"You can't lose your faith in someone or in a group of people just because something bad happens. Because, inside, we're all the same." The healer smoothed her straight, blond hair and wiped a teary eye. "I've learned that much from this experience, if nothing else."
Maeve caught Camwren's gaze and held it. "I suppose what I'm really trying to say is I hope you'll be able to forgive me someday. That's all."
She went inside and closed the door behind her, leaving Camwren to her thoughts.
::If it helps at all, I believe she honestly regrets what she's done.::
"I know," Camwren replied. But it was little comfort. She patted Fiora on the withers and followed the healer inside.
Marta put the herb-witch in some sort of trance, where an eerie blue light shone on her face and hair, as she told what had happened. Her description of the event was exact, like a play being performed by one actor.
When Maeve got to the part about Dek resolving to change, Camwren started to cry. The herb-witch had captured Dek's earnest facial expression perfectly, and Camwren suddenly realised how much she missed him.
Jorgen wrapped one arm around her shoulders. His face was very serious, and he kept shaking his head.
While the herb-witch talked, Danforth took notes. Marta and the lawyer stood by and watched, with steel expressions. Outside, the village was so quiet, you could have heard a copper piece drop. When Maeve finished telling about her flight to Highjorune, Marta took her out of the trance.
"I trust that's enough," the lawyer said.
"About the killing," Marta answered, "yes. But I have some unrelated questions I'd like to ask."
The lawyer looked at Maeve as if to say, "I told you so."
"You don't have to answer any questions," he told her.
"Let's hear what they are, first, Filip," she replied, steadily.
He shrugged, and they both turned expectantly to the Herald. Marta asked the herb-witch similar questions to the ones she'd asked Camwren. The healer's answers were much more knowledgeable and detailed than Camwren's had been.
Marta did not flinch at Maeve's tally of all the abusive men in town. Danforth faithfully wrote down every name, beginning with Gorem. When they began to talk in detail about Jenna and Mercy, Camwren started to get sick. She slipped out of Jorgen's embrace and stepped outside.
Freezing cold air filled her lungs, making them ache. Fiora was instantly at her side. ::I'm sorry you had to hear that, Chosen. Will you be all right?::
Camwren leaned her head against the Companion's neck. ::I think so.::
They stood that way for a few moments. ::Dek hurt a lot of people.:: It was hard for Camwren to admit.
::The part of him that was let loose by drink and by anger. The part that learned from your father's example. But you know that's not who your brother really was, anymore than a wasp is just a mean insect that goes around stinging people.::
Camwren nodded as if she understood, but her mind was too full to contemplate "why" right now. She stored Fiora's words away for later.
::I believe what the healer said, that it was an accident. In her own way, she was trying to help us. I can't hate her for that.::
::That's very wise, Chosen.::
:: Fiora, what do you think will happen to Maeve?:: She was a good person, and Camwren didn't think she deserved to be put in prison.
::I think they'll take her to Haven, where she can train her Healing Gift and spend some time healing herself. She's got a lot of pain in her, that one.::
::Do you think maybe someone hurt her, when she was younger?:: Camwren asked.
Fiora pulled back and looked Camwren in the eye. ::Are you sure you're not an oldster masquerading as a twelve-year-old?::
Camwren smiled sadly and shook her head. ::Yes. But all this has made me feel a whole lot older.::
Fiora looked up at the crescent moon, which had climbed high in the night sky. ::I never did get a chance to ask you if you wanted to be my Herald.::
Camwren could feel the Companion's uncertainty. ::I used to hate Heralds for being human, just like everyone else. When I was a little, I expected them to ride into town and right all the wrongs of the world. When they didn't, I never forgave them.::
::Righting all the wrongs in the world is a tall order.::
::Especially for a mere mortal. Marta and Danforth are good people. They do the best they can with what they know. But they don't know everything.::
::No one knows everything, Chosen.::
::Now that I'm older, I realise that. Being a Herald is accepting a lot of responsibility. For people's lives. To serve justice. For children's hopes, that expect too much of you. And for your own actions, which can affect all of those and more. I don't think it's a job many would want, if they really knew what it involved.::
::I can't fault your logic.:: Fiora's mind-voice was understanding, but sad.
Camwren threw her arms around the strong neck. ::You silly horse! How could I ever give you up?::
::You're willing to accept that responsibility?:: Fiora asked.
::If I can keep what happened to Jenna and my mother from happening to one woman, I'd accept the responsibility 100 times.::
Fiora backed away and fixed Camwren with a hypnotic, azure stare. ::The queen will be so proud to have a Herald like you, Camwren. Of all the people in the world, I am proud to Choose you.::
Camwren blinked sleepily, feeling that something had been done in her that she would never quite understand.
Fiora nudged her awake. ::I'll bet I know what will make you feel young again, Chosen.::
Camwren smiled at the mischievous sparkle in Fiora's eyes. ::Have you ever ridden the wind?:: Camwren shook her head.
::Come with us,:: The two stallions appeared out of the darkness, encouraging.
Camwren had to climb the platform in the square to mount Fiora without stirrups. Before she knew it, they were galloping across farmland, the three Companions running faster than any horse Camwren had ever seen.
They flew through Wyrfen Wood, racing, the stallions right on Fiora's heels. Camwren could hardly breathe with the wind whipping her face. She screamed, half afraid, half delighted. It felt like a dream.
Camwren couldn't believe it, when they left the forest behind, whipping through fields and past farmhouses. Suddenly, the ancient walls of Forst Reach loomed before them. Fiora wasn't even sweating.
At the last minute, the stallions turned, and the chase continued back to the village. Fiora's bulk was steady beneath her, or Camwren might have believed she was flying. She squeezed tight with her legs, and threw her arms wide to the magic of the night. All doubts about becoming a Herald fled before her joy.
The Companions were breathing hard, when they stopped outside Jorgen's door. Camwren slid gratefully off Fiora's back, and gave each of the Companions a hug, before she went inside.
The adults were still deep in conversation, deciding the fate of the village. Camwren gave herself a break from weighty decisions for the night, and sneaked into Jorgen's bedroom to lie down. Wrapped tight in Jorgen's heavy wool blankets, Camwren slept the best she had in weeks. She had her whole life ahead of her.