It must have been in the dark after moonset that he came up the old trade road. This was in the first year the Cumbery’s waters didn’t recede, in the last moon of Glaive Alzarin’s reign, so even in late summer the road and river were one. I don’t know why he gave no direction as his horse wandered ashore and stopped to crop a mouthful of redstem, just downstream from the boulder where we of Shallowford dipped our water.
He’d come a great distance in a short time. Perhaps he was asleep in the saddle, awakening when his horse stopped moving. His steed likely tore another mouthful or two as he gazed about. He might have let the horse continue grazing had he not seen the stair leading to the terraces high on the stony slopes, above the level of the spring melt waters. But his task was no less than regicide, and those who would prevent him hunted his trail. Even so mean a village as Shallowford was too great a risk. Without ever setting boot to soil, he turned his steed back onto the flooded trade road. It was four leagues before he permitted his horse grazing, and himself a brief rest, before continuing upstream. At no other place did he come ashore. But I didn’t know that ‘til later, when it was too late.
It’s the young girls who are sent for water in the mornings, young and impressionable with their heads full of myth and romance. They passed the story first, to their friends and grannys, that the q’elpie had come out of the river in his form as a horse and that maids must be especially careful after dark. By the time the prints came to the attention of more prosaic heads, no one was listening.
Mind you, Niddy-noddy, my beloved sister, was no wiser than a girl her age ought to be. Had she not been tending our flock, she’d have been whispering and giggling with the others.
Trilla was supposed to have been with the flock, too. But, as usual, by mid-day she’d found pretext to hang about the village. I saw her sashaying disdainfully past a couple lads too young to tend the summer flocks. But she put an extra twist in her tail as she passed Shear,who was four times their age and married to her aunt.
The old lecher ducked out of sight when he realized I’d seen him watching.
She wasn’t showing, yet, and still had hopes of snaring a husband before her condition became general knowledge. Unfortunately, any viable candidates had spent four moons on the high slopes with the sheep and wouldn’t be back ‘til the shearing, yet a moon away. But no one in Shallowford works or travels in the middle of the day, so Trilla had all the excuse she needed to linger and hear the tales. And the news.
I arrived in the dusty shade near the trunk of the one sprawling oak of which our village could boast, to find my usual spot taken by a stranger. The women of Trilla’s family watched me sidelong from crafty eyes. I sat instead where Niddy would have, had she been present, delved into my sewing basket, and began to stitch together the pieces of a chemise that would be part of Niddy’s trousseau.
It is an humble art, the craft of Shallowford, but one into which all the village women are indoctrinated early. We who were gathered under the oak represented Arany Weaver in her many faces: some of us carded, some spun, and some knitted.
The stranger, after a start when she glimpsed the scarring that pulled at the left side of my face, proved too polite to stare. I sewed, as Trilla’s mother twined the stranger’s hands with crude, lumpy yarn, and wondered how I might warn the woman off her new friends.
“Think of it!” gushed Trilla. “All the way from Mirze Vale, and with a babe in arms. On foot no less!”
“Of course on foot,” sniped her aunt. “What other way is there to cross the highlands?”
“And Lord Marshal Dirk injured by an assassin!” Trilla’s mother put in, as if her sister hadn’t spoken. “How badly?”
“Bad enough that Duke Cudgel feels free to take up his old ways.”
We all paused in our labors and looked on the swaddled babe at her thigh, its misty blue eyes following the play of light and shadow among the leaves. Blue eyes were unusual, except among the nobility, and the Red Duke’s favorite prey. Had the poor thing been born before the Lord Marshal returned to take command of the Mirze campaign last spring, the child would already have been dead.
If Lord Marshal Dirk didn’t recover, this woman and her child would not be the last to cast themselves into the wilds in hope of finding a life beyond the Red Duke’s reach. King Glaive the Usurper found that sadist’s talents useful enough to overlook his excesses.
The Mirze valley seemed suddenly too near, the events of the wide world reaching out to disrupt lives even here in remote Shallowford. A breeze whispered through the leaves overhead as we contemplated the horrors possibly being visited upon our neighbors…yet again. My own parents had not dared risk the Red Duke’s indulgences, and we fled when my sister was born.
All were silent but Trilla, on whom those tales must have made little impression.
“What stories do they tell of Havoc?” she inquired instead, all ingenuous innocence, her eyes on the wool she carded.
“He’s betrothed,” said the woman, her tired face at last showing signs of animation. Every woman leaned forward to hear.
I continued stitching. What did some exotic foreign mercenary have to do with me? Or did any man, for that matter?
“Betrothed.” The woman smiled secretively. “But we think he doesn’t know it!”
“Doesn’t know?” exclaimed several voices at once. “How can that be?”
“It’s the ribbons,” she explained. “Every eligible woman on either side of the river has hung out a ribbon for him. The trees were bright as springtime! The one he plucked was hard by the convent gate, where he’d delivered a woman his band rescued. One of his men was wounded, and he took the ribbon to staunch the wound.”
Gasps and cries of sympathetic dismay for the poor nun or novice swelled the sigh of the breeze. The woman nodded. “No true suitor would so demean a lass’s favor. It’s one reason we believe he doesn’t understand. Too, he replaced it, with a fine silk one.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Trilla’s aunt, her lips pursed in disapproval. “What’s done is done.”
The stranger-woman agreed. “The trees have been bare of ribbons this past moon. Whether he realizes it or not, the women of Mirze Vale know he’s no longer to be had.”
“But surely that’s not entirely true,” Trilla protested. “Surely many a Mirze maid has known his company!”
“He’s no q’elpie, not our Havoc,” she asserted. “He treats every woman, be she granny or swine girl, as if she were a lady to the manor born. But I hear you’ve a q’elpie of your own, here-abouts.” She smiled indulgently at Trilla.
“Tell us what they say about the q’elpie in Mirze Vale!” Trilla demanded, her eyes alight and her face flushed with passion.
Struck by a sudden suspicion, I gave her a startled glance before pulling my gaze back to my handiwork. Could she have engineered the footprints to excuse herself, once her condition became known? But, no. They actually were hoof prints, and no one in Shallowford had a horse.
She’d use them, though, I knew.
The woman chuckled, a rusty sound, long unused. “The q’elpie, he comes out of the river, sometimes as a horse and sometimes as a man. He preys on young maids, and only the fairest are spared his knife. Isn’t that what you and your friends have been telling yourselves all morning?” she teased.
I fought a smile that would have twisted my scars, and I won. Few of the others made the attempt, and the laughter pattered multi-toned.
Trilla’s face reddened at the mocking edge to the laughter. “It was the q’elpie!” she burst out. “You’ll see. You’ll be sorry you laughed, then!” She threw her carding combs onto the dusty earth and stalked away, finally to rejoin Niddy on the rocky slopes of the low pasture.
Her aunt tutted annoyance. Her mother picked up the combs and tried to knock most of the dirt out of their wool mat. Neither offered a word of reproof.
Finished with sewing the chemise together, I brought out one of the cuffs I’d prepared and basted it to the end of a sleeve. I heard the stranger-woman’s gasp, and she leaned over to examine the gleaming flow of patterns on the cuff.
“Such skill!” she breathed. “I’d swear the king himself has no finer!”
“It won her a husband once,” Trilla’s aunt snarled. “But even that won’t be enough to get her another.”
I kept my face impassive; let the loose hair blow around my face. No other woman my age wore her hair so, for all were married and their hair plaited in braids. I knew the harridan to be right in that, at least. No man would have me, not with my features so twisted by scarring. It was a struggle even to speak clearly. But for all that had been taken from me, I knew my fingers to be a blessing of my goddess. So long as I could embroider, and so long as traders passed through on their way from Bitternsdock to Rose Hill town, my sister and I could have lived on my earnings.
But, at the end of shearing, Niddy would wed March. We would no longer have to rely solely on my work. What’s more, March was kind and would not turn me out in my dotage. My life stretched before me, uneventful but secure. It was more than I’d dared hope for in the seasons immediately following the fire.
By the time I’d finished attaching the cuffs, it was time to take Niddy her meal. The potted mutton had been simmering all day. The fragrance made my mouth water, and the chunks of meat broke apart as I ladled the stew into a lidded earthenware dish for the journey. I added loaves of fresh-made bread to the basket, along with ripe cheese and tart, new apples for the morning and noontide.
It was a difficult trek to the summer pasture, and at the end I was glad to sit with my sister in a browning meadow, heavy russet seed-heads bowing their grass-straws in a cooling breeze. Not so welcome was Trilla’s presence. As usual, she insinuated herself into our mealtime so ingenuously that it would have made us feel rude to request time to ourselves. But this time I thought Niddy and I could enjoy a visit without Trilla dominating the conversation.
Sure enough, when I removed the lid and the scent of savory mutton stew wafted out, Trilla lurched to her feet and dashed away.
“That was unkind, Bell,” Niddy chid me gently, her pale crimson eyes peering at me from beneath the wide hat brim that prevented her petal-white cheeks from peeling in the sun. That and hair the color of spider silk marked her a moonchild, one of Arany’s own. Moonchildren are rare, but purely of the old blood and with no taint from the pale-skinned invaders. “I understand her trying to share our meal. You are a far better cook than her mother or aunt.”
“And I would not begrudge her a portion of the food,” I agreed, “if she ever reciprocated. But it will be nice to have a visit that isn’t spoiled by her gossip and petulance.”
“Well, there is that,” Niddy agreed, accepting her bowl of stew.
“She’s more than two moons along, now,” I said, nodding to where Trilla was wiping her mouth on her sleeve after retching into the grass. “What is she going to do?”
“I caught her boiling mistletoe in my kettle, last night. It was far too strong, strong enough to have killed her twice over. I offered to go to her aunt about the right dose to abort without risking the life of a mother our age; even offered to claim it was for my own use. She ranted and cursed me, but threw out the potion. Now she claims she has a plan, and is all sweetness and sunshine.”
“Mood swings.” I sighed, passing her a fistful of loaf to go with her stew. “You watch her. We don’t want her doing herself harm over this misstep.”
“I am.” She smiled, sadly.
But the early dusk was too lovely to be lost to melancholy. Faint in the daylight sky, Arany’s egg sack trailed the sun, near full. By the next full it would be time to bring in our little flock for shearing before moving them to winter pasturage on the terraced slopes between the deep winter snowdrifts and spring floods. For now we sat in the sun, serenaded by the shrill of locusts and the conversational ‘baa’ of sheep. We scooped seasoned mutton with pieces of bread, washed it down with clear spring water, and pitched stones, awarding ourselves points for landing them on the low ridge of collected rocks that would grow to become a new terrace in her great-grandchildren’s time. We talked as we ate, sharing pleasure in her coming nuptials, and I left with time enough to negotiate the treacherous, stony path home before dark.
The following midmorning, Trilla arrived in the village wailing that my Niddy was dead.
Caring for Niddy-Noddy was what had kept me going, two years before, when the fire that destroyed our parents and their cottage took my husband as well. With Niddy now lost, nothing else mattered. I was too empty to mourn properly: no tears, no wailing, no wild curses at fate…or at Trilla, which would have been more to the point. I scooped ash from the hearth and combed it through my hair, smearing my face in the process.
“Such a tragedy,” Trilla twittered behind me as they arranged my sister’s corpse on the table my late husband had made. “And her wedding but a moon off. She said Bell had the trousseau nearly finished.”
“Shame for it to go to waste,” her aunt said through habitually pursed lips. “You were her best friend. Best you use it. Arany Weaver knows Bellwether won’t have need of it. Not with that face.”
“Poor Bell,” said Trilla’s mother, just as if I weren’t present to hear. “No point her living in this big cottage all alone. She’ll have to come live with us, now.”
“In the sheep shed!” muttered the aunt.
Trilla’s mother hushed her, but I knew it was no less than the truth.
“March will be needing a bride,” the aunt said, speculatively. “With this cottage vacant, and Trilla inheriting Niddy’s trousseau, perhaps he’d be content to wed after shearing as planned. After all, our Trilla is proven the prettiest girl in the village.”
I couldn’t listen to any more.
As her only remaining female relative, her only remaining kin, I should have stayed to help wash Niddy for the laying out. Instead I took the gown I’d been embroidering nightly for the last year, the gown meant for Niddy’s wedding which instead would now shroud her pyre, and went down to the river. At the water’s edge, on a fallen boulder, I spread the skirts of the gown and made my finishing touches in the light of day. The patterns spilled in a pale onionskin shimmer down the rosy bodice and rippling skirt, much like the fall of Niddy’s hair it was meant to represent. Niddy was a moon-child, beloved of the Weaver, and Arany’s near-full egg sack rode the sky above me, barely visible in the sunlight. My eyes burned, dry and staring, and my chest echoed, hollow, as I worked. Every silent stitch was a prayer and offering to my goddess, a plea for justice.
It was well past mid-day, with the sun glaring down to cast shards off the water. The skirts were done, and the bodice nigh finished, when I heard what I hadn’t admitted to myself I’d been waiting for: the churning of water downstream.
Around the spur of mountainside that made the river and its drowned road the only course of travel in that direction, a horse and rider appeared. He was young, perhaps no older than myself, grim and tired and determined. I knew those emotions all too well.
Please, oh mother goddess of weavers! Let this man not be who killed my Niddy!
He wore a cloak of crimson such as I’d never seen before, such as a king might wear. Though the rich madder of Niddy’s gown was as fine as anything we in Shallowford knew how to make, it could not compare with the red of that cloak.
But the sound of churning water was more than any single horse could have made, and within moments the rest of his company came into view. Hard men all, and garbed for war, they wore the raven, sigil of Cumbera.
For the first time I doubted. For the first time I reconsidered Trilla’s innocence. The Red Duke wasn’t alone in enjoying the impunity to prey on the common folk, since King Saber’s family had been slaughtered and his brother Glaive stole the throne.
Though my hands shook with fine tremors, I continued to lace my needle through the rosy spill of cloth. It was the last pattern, mirror to one already completed on the other side of the mid-line. By the time I tied off the thread and cut it, using the little crescent knife that is the symbol of those dedicated to Arany Weaver, he’d pulled up beside my rock and was waiting.
Sweat-slick and drooping, even fetlock-deep in water, the horses seemed only too glad of the rest. So did the men.
The leader’s eyes were hazel, but his hair the rich brown of new-tilled loam. His face was not weathered as dark as I would have expected. But then, he was a nobleman’s son, of the line of the pale invaders, and perhaps had not been a soldier long. If that were the case, he’d experienced a lot in his short career. His eyes were old.
I looked him in the eye, careless that my hair had fallen back from my face until his gaze sought the scarring. But I kept my chin up, and his expression didn’t change.
“My sister’s shroud,” I told him, smoothing the bodice to display my work. “Will it do her honor, my lord?”
“It will,” he said gravely, examining the embroidery with a critical eye.
“Did you kill her?”
He stared, shocked, and I heard muttering among his men.
“I did not.”
I believed him.
“Trilla says it was the river lord of legend, who came out of the water in horse-form before dawn yesterday.”
This brought even more consternation.
“Havoc’s killed a woman?” blurted one of the men. They cast surreptitious glances at one another, and shifted in their saddles. My gaze returned to their leader in time to see disbelief cross his face before being masked by professional interest.
“This Trilla saw the horse and its rider?”
“Nay, my lord. But we all saw the prints on the shore.”
“These prints were left before dawn, yesterday?” he pursued. “When was your sister murdered?”
“This morning, before dawn.”
And the men relaxed. I could see them exhaling, settling back into their saddles. Though Havoc was their enemy, none of them wanted this crime accounted his. He killed torturers, rapists, the truly deserving. Not women, nor children. Not innocents.
Another young man, the only other noble, was shaking his head. “If Havoc passed through here night before last, he’ll be in Bitternsdock by now.”
“Headed for Ravenhorst,” one of the soldiers muttered. “Wants an audience with the king.”
He was elbowed to silence by his neighbors.
Why would the Roenish mercenary be riding, alone and hunted by Cumberan soldiers, seeking Cumbera’s king?
Havoc killed torturers, rapists, the truly deserving. From the tales told even before Glaive Alzarin murdered his brother’s family and took the throne, this described our new king quite well.
At my gasp the leader shifted his perusal from his men to my face, his expression weary and troubled. When no one had anything further to say, he gazed upriver a moment and gave a sigh. “I suppose we’d best have a look, since we’re here. Where are the prints?”
I gathered the finished gown and folded it into my basket, then led the way to the now faded prints. The entire village had been to see them but had taken care not to step in their immediate vicinity.
A grizzled veteran dismounted, to examine the tracks more closely. A finger flicked out to shift a leaf, then traced an odd mark that some of the other prints did not have. “Henders’ horse,” he said. “See how the hind feet have been re-shod, while the front still sport their Mydicean shoes? It was Havoc, all right, Captain, and a day-and-a-half ago as the lass says. He’s long gone from these parts.”
“How can you know he didn’t kill my sister?” I demanded. These strangers were my only chance to see justice done.
The leader, apparently a captain in rank, must have read it in my face. I was desperate. He glanced down at the tracks, then thoughtfully up the river.
“If he’s that far ahead, we won’t catch him,” said the veteran.
“No. But we have to try,” said the captain. “On the other hand, if he’s had some part in this killing, we might learn something of use. And the horses won’t last much longer without a rest. Lead on,” he said to me, and I was more than happy to oblige.
Half the company stayed with the horses. The rest, a score in number and more able-bodied men than all the village of Shallowford could have mustered, accompanied their leader.
My cottage was at the far end of the village terrace. We collected a train on the way through. At the lintel, two of the men pushed through ahead of us. Two more followed. The rest surrounded the cottage, glowering and alert despite the fatigue I’d seen back at the river.
For all the villagers who followed us, not one thought to run ahead and warn Trilla’s kinswomen. Those worthies fled in alarm, to the corner farthest from the door, as the strangers with me invaded my home, which the women had already considered theirs.
Niddy’s pale corpse lay naked on the table. Her eyes, the blush-pink of dog rose petals, were held shut by river-worn pebbles rather than the coins I’d placed before I left. They’d washed the blood from her throat, shoulder, and gleaming, spider-silk hair, but not bothered with more. The dress that should have graced the corpse, Niddy’s best, was on Trilla. Though it shamed me that my sister’s body was shown such dishonor before strangers, it didn’t hurt as it might have. If justice prevailed, and I trusted the agent my goddess had sent to see it done, that dress would be all the benefit Trilla’s treachery brought her.
Besides, I had a better one for Niddy.
While two of the men stood guard at the door, two joined their leader in a thorough examination of Niddy’s corpse. Several small stab wounds and a gash, below her left ear, were the only flaws they found.
“No defensive wounds,” murmured the grizzled sergeant. “Whoever attacked her did so without warning, and she bled out quickly.”
“But not before she got hold of her attacker’s hair,” the captain said. Her right fist, when he pried it open, held a number of long strands that glowed red-gold in the firelight. While it was a rare shade for the dark-complexioned Old Blood, several people in Shallowford could boast that shade of locks. But only women wore it so long and, of the women, only Trilla was yet unwed and thus wore it loose.
Proof! But would it be enough?
Surely the leader had recognized the similarity. He was watching Trilla and her kinswomen as he removed a gauntlet and tucked the strands inside. But he said nothing, so I could not be certain.
The tools of my goddess continued to work. I kept silent, burying my fears with my rage, deep in my soul.
When the examination was completed, I shook out the newly finished gown and slipped Niddy’s feet and legs into it. The men helped lift her torso, and she was soon clothed for the pyre in her best, as is right. By then Trilla was snarling with envy, but the dress was safe. No one in Shallowford would have worn clothing taken off a corpse.
The men herded Trilla and her kinswomen outside, and the captain held the door for me as I followed. By then the entire village was in attendance, all who were not out tending sheep, and I fought the urge to duck my head and let the hair fall over my face. It was boldness that had won me this chance, and a show of submission at this point might undo all.
The leader paused in full view of the village folk, took his time removing the second gauntlet and tucking the pair of them in his belt as he gazed from face to face. Or maybe it was from head to head. I saw his gaze linger on each of the handful that had hair the shade of that taken from Niddy’s fist.
“A girl has been murdered,” he announced at last. He didn’t shout, but pitched his voice to carry. “Convenient as it would be to lay the crime on the hands of the visitor you had two nights ago, or on some creature of myth, neither is the case. The murderer is among you, one of your own. Tell me how the girl’s body was found.”
And all eyes turned to Trilla, who for once didn’t relish the attention.
“It was you who found her?” the captain asked. “Tell us.”
Trilla looked to her grandmother, she who’d brought up the tale of the river horse, but the beldame was silent. “We was tending the sheep,” Trilla began. “Niddy and I. On the nor’west slope three leagues hence. We’d just shifted pasture and would stay there ‘til shearing. They’s a stone hut for shelter an’ a couple of bunks, one by the door and the other across the way. I had the one by the door. Woke up during the night and had to go outside. Sheep was nervous, so I had to scout about; see what had them stirred up. After a bit they calmed, and I went back inside. Niddy never moved. Wasn’t ‘til morning I saw she were dead.”
The story had changed. Previously she hadn’t mentioned anything about a disturbance among the sheep or a trip outside. I opened my mouth to say as much, but the captain’s hand settled on my shoulder in a quelling gesture and I subsided.
“The young woman was killed with a small knife, a curved blade no longer than a thumb knuckle,” he announced, and the council of crones gasped in unison. Trilla’s grandmother eyed her as if she were something spineless and slimy that had crawled from under a dung heap, and shifted a pace away. Trilla glared at her, bewildered and resentful. Trilla’s mother hissed at the old woman like a wildcat interrupted at the carcass of a new-killed lamb.
The captain watched this exchange without a word. The entire village watched. When at length it became clear nothing further would be revealed in that quarter, he turned to me.
“You have such a knife,” he said. “Can you tell me its significance?”
Now the eyes of the entire village were on me, and those of the crones were hostile, indeed. I couldn’t betray the secrets of our rite to any man, least of all an outsider. On the other hand, if I refused to tell anything, he might leave.
“I cannot, my lord. Only that every woman in Shallowford has such a knife.”
“Every woman? Down to what age?”
“It varies, my lord. Tanner’s youngest received hers harvest last, whereas Trilla didn’t receive hers until this spring.” And I let my head tip forward, let the hair fall before my face in shame. Tanner’s youngest had another two summers to go ‘til she was old enough to wed. Trilla was of age when she was dedicated to Arany Weaver, but had been taking herbs to put off her moons. The disparity in age might not be significant to the captain, but too many of the village men might well guess.
“That isn’t helpful,” he growled at me. I kept my face averted. After a period of silence he asked, “Are they used for eating?” But I was saved from response by a chorus of outraged breaths. “Apparently not.”
“They are a sacred trust,” I said, face canted toward the ground, ignoring the crones who were hissing like a nest of vipers. “They may touch neither flesh nor blood.” And that was more than even the village men knew of the rite. I had betrayed my patron goddess, and now the council was silent in their judgment.
But he was looking at me again. Ashamed, I continued to stare down at the track, at the dung trodden to dust by the hard little hooves of the sheep, and kept the hair hanging in front of my face to hide the scarring and my shame.
His hand entered my sight, caught my chin and lifted, held it as his other hand swept the hair aside and tucked it behind an ear. “Don’t hide your pride,” he said. “It makes you beautiful.”
In shock, I stared into his eyes. No one had seen anything of beauty in me since the fire: the fire that destroyed my parents’ cottage in the dark hours before dawn, branding my face and body as I dragged my little sister to safety; the fire that took my husband as he tried to rescue my parents…as the rest of the village stood by and watched.
I could still hear the screams.
The captain released my chin and turned to the watching villagers. “Have boards and trestles brought,” he said.
I kept my eyes averted from my neighbors as his will was done. My sin was great. I would not be able to face the women of the rite again, and my future in Shallowford was more bleak now even than it had been this morning. But I kept my chin high and did not hide my scars. As I waited, the planks were lined end-to-end, forming a long, narrow table near the sheep pens.
“All of the women who carry one of these knives will line up on the river side of the table,” the captain announced. “Any such who be too aged or infirm to have made the trek to the pasture and back in the night, will stand on the side opposite.”
Those of us who were suspect were then directed to lay our knives on the table. What this might prove I couldn’t have guessed. I heard murmurs of bewilderment and discontent from both sides, so I was not alone in this. The murmurs stilled, however, when he commanded it.
And then the first of the flies arrived.
This seemed natural enough, near as we were to the sheep pens. But while a few landed here and there on the table before moving on, one landed directly on Trilla’s knife. And stayed. Then another joined it, and another.
“She didn’t clean it well enough,” he said. “They can still sense the blood.”
“No!” Trilla shrieked, backing away. But her neighbors clearly had little doubt. They moved aside from her, with looks ranging from distaste to outright horror.
“Then, too, there is the hair we found tangled in her victim’s fist,” he said, drawing the folded gauntlets from his belt. He produced the strands from therein and laid them on the table.
Trilla bolted, but the strangers had expected that. In moments she was held between two of them, who pinioned her arms and affected not to notice her struggles.
“But why?” asked her bewildered father, and I pitied him. He was a good man, and probably trapped by his wife in much the same manner Trilla’d thought to trap March.
“Because Shear can’t claim her child, having a wife already,” I said, and could have said no more.
“You told!” shrieked Trilla. “You told! You told! How dare you!” And she made to lunge for me. Her guards stood like monoliths, and she managed only to writhe as she shrieked imprecations. The three of them now stood alone in a wide clearing in the silently watchful crowd.
Trilla’s aunt shrilled just as loudly, but her target was her husband. He backed away, panicked, before bolting around the corner of a barn with his wife in pursuit
“Her child, at least, is innocent. She can’t be hanged,” observed the captain, ignoring the marital spat. The villagers only shuffled and looked to one-another.
“She wouldn’t, anyway,” I said, keeping my chin up but avoiding anyone’s gaze, as I retrieved my knife. “Anyone who does something unforgivable is banished.”
Like me, I realized, and the world swayed beneath my feet.
“Very well, then. She’ll leave with us.” His voice sounded mildly exasperated. “Let her family prepare a pack for her, no more than she can carry. We ride as soon as we’ve eaten.”
I didn’t look at him or anyone else, but turned and made my way to my cottage. Trilla and her mother screamed curses at me as I went, but once the door closed I could no longer make out by whom they where damning me or to what torments. Niddy lay as I had last seen her, and the weak triumph of seeing justice done washed away in a wave of grief.
The pack my husband used to take with him when herding the culls to market at Rose Hill town hung from its peg as it had these two years past. What would I need to survive? What could I not leave behind? The cottage was full of things I didn’t want to leave. I packed essentials first: dry food that would keep, and what little coin we had. The freshwater pearl pendant that was the only piece of jewelry our family could boast of, I tied around my neck inside my bodice. I buckled my husband’s belt about my waist, shifting the sheath and its worn but serviceable dagger, until they hung out of my way.
I added to the pack my best dress and other items of apparel, along with my newest pair of shoes. I put on my second best dress, as it would last longest for working in, and the boots my husband had given me as a wedding gift. My needles and embroidery thread I folded into my finest linen and tucked into the pack. What space remained I filled with my best work, items from Niddy’s trousseau. These I would sell to live on, and to purchase further materials.
And that was it. I settled the pack’s weight on my back and knew that, while I could carry it all day without faltering, I would not be able to do so and keep up with the horses. But I must be prepared to make a new life on my own.
With the pack resting beside the door, I piled the blankets from the beds into the open trunks I’d taken the clothes out of, shoving the lot under Niddy’s table. One straw mattress followed, while the other I threw across the door. I drew a line in oil along the walls and over to Niddy’s pyre, and lay the oilskin up-ended among the blankets. Then I stirred up the coals, lighted a brand, and went to stand in the entry for one last look.
When I tossed the brand into the oily blankets, the yellow flames lit the madder of Niddy’s gown, glinting off the sun-gold of her locks and my embroidery. Before her gown could catch fire I snatched up my pack, swept outside, and closed the door behind me. The cottage was far enough from any other to pose no danger of the fire spreading.
Half the troop was already in the saddle when I reached the river. Their leader mounted with the ease of a cat flowing onto a favored perch, and looked down at me. I gazed up, heedless of the heavy hooves dancing near my booted toes, trying to memorize his face, for I knew I would never see him again. He returned my gaze, solemn and tired…and then he leaned down and offered me his hand.
He took the heavy pack first, tossing it with one hand to a soldier who added it to the load of a packhorse. Then he leaned down again. In his eyes I saw respect and admiration, emotions I’d never expected to see directed at me again. I accepted his hand and was lifted up to sit sideways across the horse, at his back.
Far overhead and two furlongs distant, the hungry flames burst through the thatch roof with a roar, and he wheeled his steed to see. A glance at my face must have told him all he needed to know, for he asked no questions.
He looked over his men to see that all were mounted. With a weeping Trilla up behind one, and with a wave of his hand, we resumed their interrupted journey up the river.
By the time we reached Ravenhorst, the damage was done. With the aid of the servants, we took the keep from yet another usurper and presented it to the rightful king. Dirk Alzarin, formerly the Lord Marshal, never forgave Havoc for giving him the throne. But he rewarded my lord, the captain, for his loyal service with lands forfeited by traitors. In time I became personal maid to a duchess, a brave lady who does not mind that her husband gives his admiration to a peasant.