The prison-pit had been an ochre mine once. In the long hours since the Brothers of Dule had sent Twistfinger down there at knifepoint, she’d explored every crevice and tunnel. Years of scavenging strange magic had given her clever fingers and good vision in the dark. A thorough search was the only control she could maintain, for now.
The pit offered little but rocks, not even an old digging-stick, and throwing rocks could escalate her situation in dangerous ways. They’d left a waterskin, a ragged bedroll, and a bundle of tasteless greens. Escape might be possible, but she’d need to pick her moment. Until then—she grimaced and chewed the last stems to a stringy pulp—she could endure anything the Brothers had in mind.
As the sky darkened, someone lit a large fire up near the mouth of the pit. They’d hold a trial before they killed her, and the fire meant ceremony. Men were talking up there. Twistfinger found a comfortable set of rocks and waited for them to deign to talk to her.
When a rope-and-wood ladder slid down into the pit, Twistfinger still had no plan, no idea how to fight for her life. Out of dignity, she climbed up anyway.
Four of the Brothers of Dule sat on split-log benches around the fire, all facing her and the mouth of the pit. They wore blood and ochre around their eyes; the whites of their eyes caught the firelight and glowed like fresh coals. The paint and the flickering fire limited Twistfinger’s ability to read their magic-warped faces, which was likely intentional.
The Brothers would deny they controlled thirty villages in the forested foothills of the Wide Antlers. Visionaries, brewers, quest-seekers, curse-weavers, interpreters of dreams, the Brothers guarded all the sacred places of their people. Each had his own carefully guarded magics as well, and each held a weapon—a high-quality flint knife or a gleaming copper blade. Their half-circle of benches blocked any escape into the woods.
One on one, at hand to hand or magic against magic, Twistfinger liked her chances. Not against four.
“Twistfinger,” said one of them, a famous young warrior named Grenn of the Rapids. “For your crimes, you will die tonight.” Grenn thought well of himself: magic had made him tall, lean, with hawk feathers in place of hair on his head and arms. If he survived another twenty winters, perhaps he’d be able to fly.
Twistfinger came forward and sat on the ground by the fire, as if she was sharing it with the Brothers at the end of a long day. Match their coldness, she told herself. Be more than a bandit. Be their equal.
“I’ll accept any judgment the four of you see fit,” Twistfinger said calmly. The fire burned low enough to give her a decent look at each man in the half-circle. There was Grenn, of course, and the quiet, flat-eyed, almost invisible hunter called Fiveclaw. Those two had brought her down in the peaks of the Antlers, dragged her here with her tongue and mind numb from bitterflower.
The other two were heavily warped elders: massive Slowscarred, whose visions had led five villages to raise the towering stones at Salt Hill, and sharp-toothed Mane. The people of the Wide Antlers sang tales of Mane’s battles. Maybe someday they’d sing of Grenn like that. For the moment, neither he nor Slowscarred was likely to accept Grenn as a leader of anything.
All four were Brothers of Dule, magicians of a shared heritage and shared interests, her enemies—and yet there might be fissures. Ways to split them, flake them away from each other like shards of flint.
Slowscarred wrapped his black-and-silver fur coat tighter around his huge body. Twistfinger was fairly sure he concealed more than the usual number of limbs under those elegant furs. His were the gnarled hands that had carved the standing stones, and his was the voice that said those stones should be raised.
The prison-pit, Twistfinger realized, had two such stones flanking its entrance. She’d missed that while being shoved off the edge. A great vision-spiral marked each stone, but deep lines defaced and broke the spirals in a way that jolted her at the core. This was a place where reaching beyond the seen-world might produce nothing, or worse. She’d planned a deep dream for tonight. The stones suggested that would be a bad idea.
“Whether you accept our judgment or not is irrelevant,” Slowscarred said. His voice surged through the night with the deep, smooth welcome of a great river. “You are snared. Your curses have no power here. Whatever justice we dispense together...” He glanced at Grenn in a way that sent a message. “...you have no choice in the matter, Twistfinger.”
She nodded. “I understand, thank you. May I ask why I’m here?”
Grenn’s hand tightened on the grip of his fine copper knife. Not so fine now; he’d bashed the knife against unyielding rock as he and Fiveclaw had fought her in the high crags. The edge had rolled, the skewed point caught the light oddly, and the whole knife probably needed to be melted down and re-cast. Brothers of Dule held knives during trials, and none of the others had loaned him a replacement. Interesting.
“Your crimes are legend,” said Grenn.
“And legends come alive,” Twistfinger said. “They grow, they spread, they take new forms we can’t control. As I’m sure you’ve experienced, yes?” She focused on the older warrior, Mane, whose face might as well have been stone for all the reaction she got. His magic, years upon years of it, had given him the hide and fangs and hunched back of a shell lion from the deep plains. Claws flickered in and out at the tips of his hard fingers; the only visible sign of agitation.
Grenn spat into the fire, provoking an indignant glare from Slowscarred. “Don’t insult us by pretending innocence,” said Grenn.
Twistfinger shook her head. “I’m not. I’m only asking what you’re bringing me to justice for, so I can explain myself fairly.” She locked eyes with Slowscarred, which felt a bit like staring down a mammoth. “Is that acceptable?”
“I’d caution you,” said Slowscarred grimly, “not to waste our patience. You have spent much of your life as a robber and an enemy of the Brothers of Dule. But yes, you will have a fair chance to defend yourself.”
Twistfinger offered a sharp-edged grin. “With words, I hope. These young ones almost didn’t bring me back at all. Or did you think I didn’t hear you after you drugged me, Grenn?”
Slowscarred shot Grenn a glare. That had been a terrifying moment: bound, barely conscious, listening to Grenn and Fiveclaw debate whether to give her this trial. If Grenn was a purging flame, Fiveclaw was a knife in the dark.
And though he’d kept Grenn from cutting her throat, Fiveclaw might be the deadliest of them and the most comfortable with a kill in cold blood. The quiet young man unnerved her—not just the way his body melded with the fire’s flickering shadows but the flatness in his eyes.
“A quick death would be more than you deserve, Twistfinger,” said Grenn, bristling under Slowscarred’s glare.
Mane stirred like a mountain shivering before an avalanche. “Enough, boy,” he said. Firelight caught in the graying golden hair that had sparked his name long before he’d taken on the aspect of the shell lion. He looked on Twistfinger without pity. “You burned Eru Green-Eyes alive. You torched his ritual lodge and barred him inside. Do you deny it?”
Twistfinger’s fear and contempt and shreds of amusement gave way to naked anger. “I carry my share of burdens,” Twistfinger spat, “but he bled that village dry and called himself its elder. If any of you take a walk up Silver Creek, you’ll meet too many girls with green-eyed babies. You, Fiveclaw—you’ve hunted mountain lions around there. You know what he was.”
Fiveclaw tested the edge of his flint knife with his thumbnail. The gleaming knife-blade was the most visible thing about him. “Yes, I’ve been through Silver Creek,” he said quietly. “I’ve heard a secret or two since Eru died. Enough to put him where you’re standing. Enough to put him in the ground.”
Mane drew himself up indignantly, but uncertainty crossed his face and stayed there. He said nothing.
“Secrets.” Twistfinger chuckled without a trace of warmth. “I’m not much of a gambler—the tossing-bones don’t like me—but I’d wager at least one of you knew how Eru used his magic. Not you, Mane. Until just now you thought I deserved death for killing him. Or were you the one who knew, Grenn of the Rapids? No, you’re off balance, just like Mane. What about you, Slowscarred? You’re a man of influence. Your dreams range wide; you learned from Dule’s own students. Maybe you’re the one who knew what Eru was doing.”
The huge magician’s furs rippled uneasily as he adjusted his coat from the inside with, perhaps, several hands. The motion seemed relaxed, but Twistfinger saw him glance at the others out of the corner of his eye. “I did not.”
Mane shook his head. “You’re baiting us, woman. But you dodge one crime, we’ll just move to another.”
Slowscarred turned away from the fire, perhaps to hide his face. “You defiled the pool under the Red Tree,” he said, emotion heavy in his voice. “You cut the chimes, Twistfinger. Smeared dung in the Marks of Dule, poisoned the waters. It was a sacred place.”
True night was coming: merciless stars, bitter wind, firelight prickling between the trees as the villages of the Wide Antlers held back the cold. Twistfinger hunched closer to the edge of the fire. “Yes, I did that,” she said. “Not my proudest day.”
Grenn snorted. “No excuses?”
She shrugged. “I was angry, just like you are angry. Will you kill me for it, Grenn of the Rapids?”
“For that,” Grenn said, “and so many other things.”
“Then tell me the other things.” Twistfinger jabbed a finger at him through rising sparks. “Why do you hate me?”
“Because you’ve spent your life making yourself our enemy.”
“Is that all?” she said. “I don’t hate you. I certainly hated Eru Green-eyes, and if I knew Slowscarred’s secrets I might hate him too, and I suppose I hate the stranglehold the Brothers of Dule have on the magic and the spiritual life of the Wide Antlers... but I don’t hate you just because we’re enemies. And I wonder, Grenn, whether you know why you hate me at all.”
Slowscarred eyed both her and Grenn with dislike but held his peace.
“The raid at Driza Cave,” said Fiveclaw without emotion. “Tell us about that.”
For once, Twistfinger hesitated. She’d worked herself up to indignation, and Fiveclaw’s question threatened to bleed that wrath away. Truth be told, if anything she’d done merited execution by the Brothers of Dule, Driza Cave would be it. She’d led a band of plains robbers to storm the tomb complex, loot the grave goods, and turn the cave’s magic against the Brothers irreparably. The raid had met resistance—one of her bloodier encounters with the Brothers. The guilt had sunk in fast and hard as a spearhead. She’d allowed the robbers to double-cross her and escape with hundreds of ivory beads, copper jewelry, fine-ground flint maceheads, and jade statuettes. Off they’d gone to be rich and left her to wander until she grew hungry enough to steal again.
“I don’t know how the story’s told among the Brothers,” Twistfinger said slowly, “but yes, I have regrets about Driza Cave.” Jagged memory cut through all the maneuvering, all the strategy. “I’ve always known I’ll never move past the guilt, not completely. There’s no...” She looked away from the warm coals.
“Seven Brothers dead,” said Mane. “Good men. I should have been there. I carried that for—”
Twistfinger shook her head. “No, that wasn’t your fault. We knew you were in the area. Younger days, Mane, but you already had a reputation. Following you, making sure you’d moved on, is why we stumbled into a situation we weren’t ready for. Some of us panicked, some of us wanted blood.”
Mane grunted. “And you? What did you want?”
Twistfinger shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”
“No,” Mane said, and Twistfinger caught a sad note under his growl. “No, it doesn’t.”
Grenn’s bent copper knife thunked into the ground. “We’ve heard more than enough. For Driza Cave alone, let’s end this.”
Mane heaved himself to his feet and tucked his knife away. “Don’t be in such a hurry to shed blood. Back in your pit, Twistfinger. There’s still a hundred crimes to go before you get what you deserve.” A condemnation, but his voice came out halfhearted.
“And more questions for you to ask,” she said, as if agreeing, and headed back down into the pit—pretending that she had a choice.
The sound of leather on stone woke Twistfinger from chilly aching sleep at the bottom of the pit. She propped herself up on her elbows and listened to whoever was making their way carefully down the slope.
Fiveclaw. “Good morning,” she said.
The last of the starlight fought to silhouette him as he reached the bottom. He’d made the climb unassisted, gripping the stone with hands and thin-soled shoes. No rope, no chance of escape. Maybe when she was his age she could have climbed out the way he’d come in, but even then she’d have found it a challenge.
He sat down at the base of the slope. He wasn’t even breathing hard.
Twistfinger extracted herself from the bedroll and arranged it against the rocks for a place to sit. More than thirty winters had left her joints vulnerable to the cold. “I was hoping one of you might come visit. I thought it would be Mane.”
Fiveclaw laughed in the dark. “Why, because he wants you? No, Mane drank himself to sleep on honey wine. You gave him too much to think about. A brave good man, Mane. Not a smart one, though.”
Twistfinger laughed under her breath. “No, not bright at all, if he wants me. You understand I’ll use all of that tomorrow. Is there a reason you’re arming me for the trial?”
“Consider it bait to catch what I’m after. I have questions for you, Twistfinger.”
“Well, as long as answers are all you’re after.” She cracked her neck. “I’m too sore for anything else.”
Again, a dry laugh. Fiveclaw seemed more relaxed, more human. Maybe he’d shared Mane’s honey wine. “Back in the peaks,” he said, “when Grenn and I made you eat the bitterflower. Grenn was tired, making mistakes, and there was a moment when I felt like you could have tried to escape. Why didn’t you? Did you want to be here?”
Amusement bubbled up, and Twistfinger made no attempt to hide it. “And why would I want to be here, Fiveclaw?”
“To divide us—a new way to be our enemy. Either that or, after the life you’ve led, you don’t much like yourself. Maybe your heart just thinks you deserve this.”
“And maybe they sent you,” Twistfinger said.
“To speak with you alone? Why would they do that?”
“Because,” she said with a smile in her voice, “you’re the smart one.”
Fiveclaw studied her in the first morning light just as the sun began to warm the mouth of the pit high above them. The dim light tried and failed to catch hold of him. “No,” he said at last. “They didn’t send me. And no, I don’t think any of my guesses were right, except—”
Twistfinger aimed for cool confidence. “Except that I did want to be here.” Which was close enough to true: once captured, she’d spotted a bright enough opportunity to take the biggest risk of her life. To go along with her own trial.
“Why?” he said, and she realized he wasn’t wearing the ceremonial face paint. A sign, perhaps, that he’d come to speak with her honestly. He didn’t seem the kind of man who’d play games with lies.
“How many rivals and enemies do the Brothers of Dule have, Fiveclaw?” she said. “Just in the Wide Antlers, the foothills, the plains?”
He shrugged. “The Myshen sorcerers, the Priests of the Passage, some wanderers like you. Enough to break us if they could unite, which they never will.”
“Which we never will,” she agreed. “Not that I’d want to. But how many of us have ever spent this much time with the Brothers, face to face? Got the scent of their magics up close? Saw how they react, what their priorities are, whether they can control themselves, whether they trust each other?”
She had the pleasure of seeing Fiveclaw blink. “You’re here to scout us? In preparation for what?”
“There’s no grand plan,” she said honestly. “When you two caught me in the mountains, I saw an opportunity, even if I couldn’t quite see its shape.”
“So you plan to escape.”
“I trust myself, Fiveclaw. I wouldn’t have let you take me if I wasn’t certain I could find a way out.” She hadn’t found such a way yet, but he didn’t really need to know that, did he? “And yes, maybe that will look like an escape, if this drags on, if the four of you can’t come to a decision that you’re all comfortable with.”
What might have been a smile crossed Fiveclaw’s barely visible face and was gone again. “Oh, we all want to execute you.”
That earned him a wry grin. “Slowscarred certainly does. But Mane’s like me: a hot-blooded killer, not a cold-blooded one. And Grenn only thinks he has the stomach for it.”
“And me?” he said.
“You’d cut my throat and sleep like the dead, friend. If you were sure I deserved it.”
“You might be right.” Looking up at the mouth of the pit, Fiveclaw got to his feet and dusted himself off. “They’re still asleep. I could let down a rope.”
“To what end?”
Fiveclaw shrugged in the gloom. “Maybe I’ve lost my stomach for judgment and cold-blooded killing. Or maybe I just want to see if you feel remorse enough to stay—and to sink a blade in your back if you run.”
Twistfinger nestled deeper into her jumbled bedroll against the rocks. “Either way, thank you for the offer, but I’m comfortable where I am.”
“Remorse it is, then,” Fiveclaw said as he began to climb. His thin leather shoes gripped the rock face in a way that made her wonder about the limits of the magic-confounding stones that stood outside. He moved fast.
“Hardly. I didn’t come here to die. In fact,” she called up after him, “though I’m a terrible gambler, I’d wager I can get the four of you to let me walk away.”
Up at the mouth of the pit, Fiveclaw laughed. “Watch yourself today,” he called back. “You’re right about Slowscarred. His mind’s made up; he’d kill you no matter what you say.”
As a matter of pride, Twistfinger kept the unease off her face until Fiveclaw couldn’t see her anymore.
They sent down the rope ladder again at noon. Twistfinger climbed up to find a bright, chilly day. The four Brothers of Dule sat on their benches around the firepit, now cold. Twistfinger chose to stay standing. Their painted faces had a hardness she mistrusted, and they held their knives at the ready. Fiveclaw’s expression had none of last night’s openness.
In daylight, she found herself reevaluating her chances of bursting through them into the woods and running for her life. Slowscarred had probably carved these stones himself and knew his way around their restrictions even better than Fiveclaw did. A curse from Slowscarred—blindness, confusion, or simple pain—might catch her before the others’ knives.
Even if she evaded the four of them, the chase would quickly get far enough away from the stones to let them send whisper-winds to Brothers of Dule from surrounding villages. The prison-pit, the old ochre mine, was in a well-settled part of the Wide Antlers. And then there’d be a hunt worth a story or two, in hills and woods that they knew better than her.
Too much could go wrong. Twistfinger held her ground.
“I assume something serious has changed,” she said at last, looking from face to face.
Grenn stood and locked eyes with her across the firepit. “We’ve talked,” he said, gesturing with his damaged knife. “Compared stories. Between the four of us and our friends, we’ve witnessed too much to explain away. Your crimes have the weight of a mountain.”
Twistfinger felt her face go cold and hard. She tucked her hands in the armpits of her threadbare coat, a slim defense against the wind. “Then I have questions for you, Grenn of the Rapids. Will you hear them, or is your decision made, regardless of whatever I say?”
Mane coughed deeply, cringed, and Twistfinger remembered that he’d been drinking last night. The cough was interesting too. At his age, one chilly night could do real damage.
“Ask your questions, robber,” said Slowscarred with an impatient sigh. “Do your best to stir division.”
Twistfinger met their eyes in turn, left to right: Mane, Slowscarred, Grenn, and Fiveclaw. With both the older men sitting together, strong but slow, if she broke left maybe she really could burst through.
“First,” she said, “does this mean you’ve decided, as one, to kill me in cold blood? Or would some of you prefer another punishment?”
“You’ve earned death,” Grenn said. “Do you deny that?”
“With respect, oh Brother of Dule, that’s not what I asked.” She deliberately looked past him, dismissed him, and focused on Slowscarred in his gleaming furs. “Have you decided on a penalty already?”
“We have not,” said Slowscarred. A gnarled limb-that-wasn’t-a-limb emerged from the furs to scratch his cheek. “But we agree that the blood on your hands deserves a punishment. Branding, cursing, death, labor, or loss of your magic.”
Twistfinger kept the fear off her face and out of her voice by an effort of will. She reminded herself that these four could debate until midwinter and never completely agree. “Thank you for explaining,” she said evenly. “My second question: why so few of you for such a complicated decision? Twice as many Brothers live within a day’s walk.”
“Because you waste time,” Mane growled. “Because you like being in the middle of things, with everyone’s eyes on you. Why give you more attention?” He coughed and spat, which reminded Twistfinger of a bush cat spitting a hairball. Daylight cut his bulk down to size. His tough hide hung loose under his arms and his jaw. A good man, maybe the only one there, and a tired one at that.
Grenn, who seemed unsure whether to sit down now that he was no longer the center of attention, took a seat at last. Quietly.
“That’s all true,” Twistfinger said, “but Mane, shouldn’t the right decision matter more than humbling me?” She held out her wrists as if they were bound. “I’m at the mercy of your justice, noble warrior.”
“Do you have more questions for us?” said Fiveclaw. His quiet, cool interjection seemed to throw them all off their rhythm. He didn’t demand attention, but he got it. For the first time, Twistfinger contemplated the possibility that the other three feared Fiveclaw. And even though she’d seen a different side of him last night, today’s flat expression unsettled her. In daylight, his body still seemed half shadow.
“Only one question,” she said at last. “I assume you’ll...”
She’d meant to pry into whether they’d lost close friends or family to her crimes, whether they truly thought they could be fair-minded. But pieces of memory, scraps of conversation, wove themselves together in her head. The unexpected shape they took offered no certainty of advantage. It was little more than a guess.
She’d cast broad aspersions that they’d known about Eru’s abuses—but only to rattle them, make them doubt each other, not because she’d had any proof. Beating the bushes for whatever prey might be hiding there. And yet her pulse shivered like a shell lion was watching from the undergrowth.
“You assume what?” Grenn growled in the silence. His hawk-feathers bristled.
Twistfinger spread her hands harmlessly. “What I’d like to know,” she said, “is whether you trust each other to try to do the right thing.”
Mane flinched, for no reason she could fathom. Grenn barked a laugh. “Meaning, to spare you?”
She met his eyes and held them until he looked away. “No, Grenn, that’s not what I mean. I want you tell me whether your fine upstanding Brothers can judge me. You men of blood—who gave you the right?”
Grenn shot back to his feet, up to his impressive height. “All you want is to divide us,” he snapped. “Twist your knife. Tear us down.”
A little more provocation here could separate him from the rest. Bad gambler or not, she took her chance. “Hypocrite,” she spat. “At least when I kill, I don’t call it virtue.”
Between one heartbeat and the next Grenn crossed the dead firepit and slammed Twistfinger against one of the standing stones. Her skull thunked against the deeply ridged surface, and hot blood trickled down her neck.
He held her by the collar of her threadbare coat, held her up eye-to-eye so her feet barely touched the ground. Where his knife had gone she didn’t know.
The two old Brothers stood painfully, Mane in a stooped crouch and Slowscarred in a tangle of unveiled limbs like tree roots. “Let her go, boy,” said Slowscarred. “She’s not the one humiliating us today.”
Fiveclaw was on his feet too, and Twistfinger wasn’t sure when he’d stood up; she could barely see him. Her eyesight—the pressure, the blur—felt like a deep swim in cloudy water.
Grenn’s hands knotted in Twistfinger’s coat, then released. As Twistfinger sank into a crouch at the base of the stone, Grenn backed away, eyes darting around as if searching for an escape.
Twistfinger touched the back of her head and flinched at the feel of an open wound. Pressure grew behind her eyes, hummed in her ears in ways that unsettled her. She’d certainly need a good poultice or more than a little magic, or her sentence might take itself out of the Brothers’ hands.
Still crouched by the stone, she mustered a shaky laugh and squeezed her eyes shut against the pain. “I don’t suppose the rest of you might call that punishment enough?”
A hand-like thing settled on her skull. The voice that mumbled a spell was Slowscarred’s. The rising pressure faded with the pain. Twistfinger’s body sank into an unnervingly deep calm. Driving her thumbnails against the insides of her fingers, she fought the calm like she wished she’d fought Grenn.
As Slowscarred backed away, Twistfinger opened her eyes and stood with a glance at the bloody smear on the glyphs. On a better day she might have found a way to use it—you could do an awful lot with blood shed by violence—but everything about the magic of this place and situation spoke to the Brothers’ power. Not hers.
Slowscarred turned and stalked back to his seat in a whirl of black-and-silver furs that scattered the firepit’s ashes. “Let’s be done with this. Grenn, that was not the action of a man.”
Grenn hissed something, but Mane grabbed his arm, crushing feathers. Mane’s claws flicked out just for a moment; involuntary, not all the way.
The two of them exchanged tense, quiet words in the silence; Twistfinger didn’t catch what they said. Grenn jerked against Mane’s grip and stalked away, head high and painted feathers bristling. The crags and stunted trees of the foothills swallowed him up immediately.
Shaking his head, Mane sat down beside Slowscarred. Fiveclaw kept his feet.
“One down,” he said, and she caught a glint of amusement in his eyes at Grenn’s humiliation. “Three to go. I assume Grenn answered your question, Twistfinger? Are you enjoying the limits of our worthiness?”
“No,” she said. Slowscarred’s healing kept her voice from shaking, and she found herself grateful for it, more grateful than she should be. “Because my question wasn’t about the boy who ran away just now. I realized,” she said, focusing on Slowscarred, “why Eru Green-eyes could do what he did for so long in Silver Creek. The magic he used to bend those girls’ dreams... a skilled Brother could use it to convince whole villages to build sacred places for his glory. Or force calm on someone who should not be calm.“
Slowscarred’s jaw knotted. His knuckles cracked as his fist tightened on the grip of his knife. Given a moment to think, he would find the words or strength or magic to silence her, or maybe he’d just use the knife.
“You use the same spells Eru did,” said Twistfinger quietly. “Don’t you, Slowscarred. And that’s why you turned away when I asked if you knew what he was doing up there in Silver Creek.”
Mane shifted around to face Slowscarred. They were sitting within arm’s length on adjacent split-log benches. Slowscarred ignored Mane and drew himself up to his massive height.
“This prattle about Eru has nothing to do with your guilt, Twistfinger. No—none of us knew about those poor girls until well after you murdered him. And he certainly never learned that magic from me, nor I from him. Grenn was right: you’re seeking to divide us, to weaken the Brothers of Dule.”
Mane took a shuddering breath. Grizzled golden hair swayed like a weeping willow. “Slowscarred,” he said hesitantly.
Slowscarred ignored him. “Twistfinger, it sickens me that you hold yourself so far above us.” He took a ragged breath, heavy with anger that almost concealed his fear. “You and all the blood on your hands.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think I’m better than you, Slowscarred. I just hate people who think they’re better than me.”
Mane growled, low in his throat. “Last night,” he said, and now everyone was looking his way. Each word seemed like an effort. “I sent whisper-winds to Silver Creek.” He looked up and met Fiveclaw’s eyes. “I couldn’t believe what I’d heard about how bad it was, not really. But last night I asked. And Slowscarred... the healer there, when she caught the first green-eyed baby, she said she came to you. You... gods help me, you knew.”
Slowscarred grabbed Mane’s shoulder with something that used to be an arm. “No, Brother,” he said, calm and smooth again, “it was just one baby then. Of course I had no way to know how bad—”
Fiveclaw’s flint knife sprouted from Slowscarred’s neck.
Twistfinger sucked in a long, shocked breath. Mane froze, face gone slack, as Slowscarred collapsed at the edge of the dead fire.
“There’s your victory, Twistfinger,” said Fiveclaw bitterly. “Take whatever joy you can.”
Success tasted like ashes. Killing always did, whether or not Twistfinger held the knife herself.
After Slowscarred’s body crashed to rest at the bottom of the prison-pit, Mane helped Fiveclaw deface the standing stones in ways that Twistfinger found fascinating. The two Brothers raised an old chant that fit the deepest rhythms of the Wide Antlers, and when the chant hammered loudest, the pit collapsed in a fountain of dust.
The standing stones tilted as if in mourning, guarding the slope that had been the mouth of the pit. Magic flooded Twistfinger’s mind: the deep, quiet thrum of the woods, and the whispered chatter of the living things that called them home. Her own magic rose to answer. Change stirred all through her body, the promise of unknown growth.
Mane had seemed to spend his last reserves of clarity and strength laying Slowscarred to rest. Age, Twistfinger supposed, and betrayal, grief, the unmaking of his simple lifelong trust in the Brothers and their work. Mane didn’t so much as glance at her—at either of them—before lurching into the woods.
“Will you stop me if I walk away too, Fiveclaw?” Twistfinger asked, and her voice embarrassed her with a note of hope. Even alone, Fiveclaw’s odds of keeping her prisoner or putting her down were better than she’d like.
His half-flesh, half-shadow face looked young and deeply alone. He made a show of looking around, up and down the slope, peering into the woods. “I don’t see anyone left who means to kill you,” he said lightly, despite the bleakness in his eyes. “Or anyone who’s fit to judge. No, go be free, if you’re capable of freedom.”
That snared her, froze her in place as she turned to leave.
“How would you have sentenced me?” she asked over her shoulder.
When she found the will to glance back, Fiveclaw had disappeared. As she hurried through the woods, she watched for him with all the keenness that magic could give her vision. But long, long after she had left the pit behind, she couldn’t decide if he was still watching her.