Posting chapters from NaNoWriMo will hopefully introduce some accountability. Hey! Catching up to speed, almost.
STAR-CROSSED AND HELL-BENT
Kelle was bored.
It surprised even her. A trial for witchcraft aught to excite, but after breaking the legs of Ulvis and his witches, after the hours of torture that got their confessions out of them, a trial lacked excitement.
They were in the Great Hall again. Egille and her carpenters were busy at the Great Wheel, re-erecting the great platform she had so recently torn down. If not for that delay, Kelle figured they would already be out at the Wheel, tying Zia up and breaking his legs. Quicker would have been better: Zia was a friend of hers, more or less.
Ulvis Handler had been an odd duck. He and his two witches that scarcely left their dyer’s shop. Every two or three weeks, one of the two witches could be seen riding an ox slowly out of town, laden with wares for the big city. Two weeks later, she would return with some silver and a lighter ox. The next day, the other one would set out. Ulvis was seen next to never. Occasionally, when walking home from the pub some night, Kelle might chance to spy one of the three heading out to the Blue Wood to pick some substances, but it looked to her that they got most of what they needed from their trips to the city.
Zia often snuck out the Wood before daybreak as well. He was gathering ingredients too, so his were for Matron Marrow, who was an Elder if not a very respectable one. That was interesting. Four witches, all of them sneaking out to the Wood under darkness. Kelle wondered if that was important. No matter. If it was, the Faith would smell it out.
Matron Sybil was trying Zia today. It was a rare treat to have to Matrons of the Faith in a small provincial town, and with all the witchery at home and gossip of idolaters afar, Kelle counted them all lucky for it. Who knew what evil might have gone unspied and untried without them?
She tried to stretch her muscles as well as she could without anyone noticing. It was the third hour of the trial, already three hours too long by her guess, and her left leg was falling asleep like it always did. She was standing to the left of the dais, her mace in her belt, her buckler strapped to her left arm, and her new stone hammer slung across her back. The hammer had been given her just before the execution, but she had come to love it. She had practiced slinging it around each evening before bed, longing for some dangerous threat to invite it. Perhaps Ulvis’ ox was evil too. What had happened to the ox? One of the Elders had claimed it, no doubt. She hoped they kept a close eye on it, whoever had it now.
Standing to the right of the dais was Sara, the drunkard. Even by her standards, Sara had been remarkably pissed of late. Like Kelle, she had assisted in the torture and execution, and just had not been the same since. Normally a tall talker, ready to interrupted and outshout anyone, Sara had become very quiet. The lack of talking left freed up her mouth for drinking, Kelle supposed. Glancing over, Kelle saw that Sara did not have her knew knife in her belt. In fact, she was not even wearing her mace. Her eyes were bloody red, and frequently closing. No doubt sleeping off a drunk. Sara was an odd duck too, Kelle supposed. She did not get it. Luckily, her job did not require her to get anything.
The Hall was filled again. It made sense, she supposed. This trial was not as big a concern as the last, but Zia was a born and bred local, and better known than Ulvis Handler, though not especially loved. Matron Marrow was loved enough, but she was nowhere to be seen, oddly. You might think she would want to defend her apprentice, or make sure everyone knew she had nothing to do with his evil. Either way, being absent seemed a shade suspicious. Still, that was none of Kelle’s concern either.
Matron Sybil was still talking. She had been demanding the secrets of Healing from Zia: what plants had what properties, why certain roots and such had to be pulled at certain times, and how these differed from the demonic compounds found in the dyer’s shop. Zia was incredibly close-mouthed, insisting that ten years of study had taught him nothing of herbal properties, that all he ever did was follow Matron Marrow’s orders. They had spent a good hour running round that merry chase. The next hour was spent pressing him about his night in the graveyard. He had been more forthcoming there, but insisted he just had a yen to dig up a corpse. Then they went back to the issue of herbal properties. Now, they were again discussing the grave robbery.
“But I robbed no graves,” Zia insisted yet again.
Yet again, Matron Sybil pointed a thick, accusatory finger at him. “You dug up the corpse of Ulvis Handler!”
“And I put it right back!”
Several in the Hall stifled laughter. This was not the first time Zia had said this, and repetition of these ridiculous back-and-forth was robbing the event of its tension. Not for the first time, Sybil glanced at Kelle and her stone hammer. Zia was not a child, but he was still an apprentice, and it might go ill if he were tortured, especially in front of a crowd. The Matron was making every effort to intimidate a confession, but it was not working.
Matron Sybil was a jowly, compact woman. Her stole, today a red one, brushed lightly on the floor as she hobbled back and forth, but Kelle had long stopped worrying that she might trip over it. Zia, meanwhile, was bound to a small wooden chair by leather straps. A short, plain-faced young man, his round eyes and sloppy, greasy hair made him look a boy, though the was actually a sun or two older than Kelle herself. Stuck in that little chair with a prefect on either side of him, he looked especially childish, especially vulnerable. But here he was after three long, boring hours, still refusing to give in. It was frustrating.
The Matron rubbed at her square jaw a moment. “You say you know nothing of herbs or Healing, that for ten long years you have done nothing but follow Matron Marrow’s orders.”
“And yet four nights past, you suddenly took it in your head to dig up the corpse of Ulvis Handler. From whence did this impulse originate? What did you want with him?”
“I told you,” Zia said, frustration adding the slightest spice of rudeness into his voice, “I thought he might have some purple on him. Purple’s extremely valuable.”
“And yet you do not call this grave robbing…”
“Well… he didn’t have any purples on him.”
“And how can we be sure of this? How do we know you did not simply pocket the purple before you were apprehended?”
This was a new line of questioning, and everyone in the Hall woke up. It seemed that, if Sybil could not convict him of witchcraft, she meant to sincerely condemn him for simple grave robbing. After all, as an Elder among Elders, Sybil might have claimed any vial of purple for herself.
Zia took a moment. “Well… Alma took me. She searched me.”
“Did she?” Sybil pointed to Sara, saying “Prefect, summon Alma here at once.”
Kelle swallowed a groan. Why could not she be the one to go on an errand and stretch her legs. For her part, Sara seemed to sleepwalk out of the Hall, barely aware of her actions. Not for the first time, Kelle wondered what these trials had done to her.
Sybil had ceased her questioning. Everyone was sitting in awkward, uncomfortable quiet as they waited. Except Kelle, who stood in awkward, uncomfortable silence. It seemed unfair that Zia was allowed to sit while she had to stand, but then Matron Sybil had to stand as well.
Alma arrived with Sara, looking as though she had been pulled out of bed, despite the late morning hour, insisting she had searched the apprentice quite thoroughly. Something about her words invited a small snicker from someone in the crowd, and this proved to be the last that Matron Sybil would endure. “Out,” she barked. “Prefects, clear the Hall.”
Kelle unslung her stone hammer and held it before her menacingly as the three of them ushered everyone out. She tried to hide her excitement behind a veneer of stoicism, but Sara looked positively terrified, of what who could say. Kelle caught her eye and offered a reassuring grin, but she responded only look of contempt.
The Hall was cleared in less than a minute. Kelle took a quick glance outside and saw half the village milling about, still staring at the Hall. “Clear off!” she bellowed. “About your business.” She closed the door and barred it.
Sara and Alma were both back at the dais. Someone would be expected to guard the door, and Kelle was not about to be stuck with more standing. “Alma, mind the door,” she said as she climbed up onto the dais.
“You are not my commander.”
“You’re not on duty, so you do as I command. Mind the door.”
Before Alma could respond, Sara hopped off the dais and nearly flew the door, where she stood staring at nothing. Alma settled to Zia’s left, Kelle to his right.
Zia’s ratty tunic, the only one she had ever seen him where, was soaked in sweat. Sweat had poured down from his head as well, coating his face in greasy miasma that made him look half-dead. She was sure he had not slept much in the recent days either. His teeth were remarkably white, though. Kelle wished she had a smaller hammer to knock them out. She briefly considered running to the smith to get one, but who knew what she might miss in the meantime.
Matron Sybil was staring him down. Even strapped to the chair, the small apprentice was at eye level with the stocky old woman. “Now,” she croaked, “are you more willing to speak truth to me, boy?”
“I told you everything already!”
Kelle took a step forward, hefting her stone hammer.
“I told you! I told you! I told you!”
Sybil stopped her with a gestured. “There is no need for that just yet, Prefect. Put it away.”
She sighed audibly as she slung the hammer back up across her back.
Sybil crept forward until her nose was almost touching his. Between her age and his imprisonment, Kelle wondered whose breath smelled worse. “You have nothing more to say?”
Still, Zia volunteered nothing.
Still staring Zia full in the face, she said “Prefect, ready your mace.”
Kelle lit up. She could it in her head, the sparks and pops of violence coiling like a viper. As her fingers settled around her mace’s handle, it seemed to transform into an extension of her arm. It was a part of her, and like the weapon, she was a tool built for a purpose. And like the weapon, she was only truly fulfilled when serving that purpose.
Sybil backed away, still staring at Zia. “Which do you prefer, boy? Your arms or your legs?”
Zia clenched his eyes shut.
“Would you rather I make the decision for you? I intend that two of your limbs be broken. Without your legs, you cannot walk to the Blue Wood, but then without your arms, you cannot gather roots for Marrow. It would seem that, either way, your work is done. Unless of course, perhaps we might break one of each. Then you could hop to the Blue Wood to clumsily yank roots whilst praying no wolves set upon you. Does that sound pleasant, boy?”
“I told you.” Zia was whimpering, and his tears mixed with the slimy sweat on his face. Kelle found herself unconsciously leaning in. She imagined herself as a wolf, teeth bared, readying to strike. All she needed was a single word from Sybil, and red purpose would be hers.
The Matron turned away and raised a hand as if to signal.
Then, a great banging was heard at the door.
“Let me in,” an old woman shouted. “Let me in, you savage fools!”
“Get rid of her,” Sybil growled.
No sooner had Alma unbarred the door, than a woman in black robes barged in. It was Matron Marrow, here at last. “What is the meaning of this madness?”
“Matron,” Sybil answered in a deceptively calm grumble. “It is good of you to join us, though the hour is quite late. Where have you been these last two days?”
“In the Wood,” Marrow snapped. “I am a tired old woman, and gathering roots takes time. I would send a younger one to do it, but some panicky, superstitious fools have stolen away my apprentice, so sadly I must do the labor myself.”
“Your apprentice is guilty of—“
“Spare the theatrics, Sybil, that boy is no more magical than a stump, and you know it.”
“Then perhaps you can enlighten us as to his motivations,” she growled. “What was your apprentice doing, digging up the corpse of Ulvis Handler?”
“I told him to do it, obviously.”
A smile grew on Sybil’s face, thin as paper but a mile wide. “Prefects, arrest Matron Marrow.”
“Give your swollen head a rest,” she shouted, easily shouldering away from Alma’s half-hearted grasp. She marched, weary but determined, down the aisle toward the dais. She was not a tall woman, but stood straight enough to look Sybil in the face. “If your fool head grows any greater, Sybil, it shall fall off your shoulders.”
“I am a Matron, Matron Marrow.”
“And so am I, what of it? If I spy a fool, I am duty bound to call her what she is.”
“And I am duty bound to arrest witches.”
Marrow laughed, long and loud. “You name that ignorant swamp boy a witch?”
“I name you a witch!” Sybil howled, “and you have here admitted as much. Whence came that tattoo on Ulvis’ breast, if not from magic?”
“You examined his corpse, after the boy had already put him back in the ground? It sounds to me you are a grave robber as well, Sybil.”
“You will call me Matron.”
“I will call you anything other than an idiot and expect thanks for it. Now what tattoo is this?”
“I know that you’re an idiot to try that boy for witchery, and here you are doing just that. Tell me of the tattoo.”
Kelle was rigid. Never in her life had she heard anyone speaking to Matron Sybil this way, nor any Matron. Perhaps Elders spoke in this way behind closed doors, and Sybil did not seem overly surprised by Marrow’s tartness. “It was a rusty red,” she answered, “graven in the shape of a woman’s face.”
“Any woman we know?”
“No foreigner, I expect.” She hesitated before saying, “It may have been one of those princesses from the city.”
“May have? Which one?”
“Cityers look the same, who can say?”
“Didn’t you say one of them was terribly pale?”
“Ay, and so was Handler’s flesh, him being dead. It was a tattoo in blood, Marrow, not a painting.”
Marrow had not response to that. “Then, you allege that my witless apprentice dug up Handler’s corpse in order to imprint his decaying breast with an outline of some foreign woman’s face? Has my apprentice even met these cityers?”
“He was not at the execution, true, but they did not leave right away. He could have spied them before their departure.”
Marrow seemed only satisfied with that. “So, Zia is guilty of digging up a man he probably never met, in order to ink a face he has never seen onto his dead breast, in blood, so that he might… what? Traffic with some devil?”
“Why else was he there?”
“For moon’s sake, Sybil.” She rolled her eyes. “I sent him there, more or less. I said in passing the man probably had some dye still on him that you vultures had not gotten, and what a shame it was to bury him with it. No doubt Zia meant to find some and please me. Call it grave robbing if you like, but there was nothing to rob I wager or you would already have killed him. You and the other Matrons have already made more profit off Handler’s corpse than Zia could hope to.”
Matron Sybil crossed her sturdy arms. That was a bad sign. For Zia, at least. For Kelle, it was cause for hope. “He has still broken our laws. He must be punished. Anything less than execution, and he will be a daily reminder that the law means nothing.” She was absently stroking her red stole as she spoke.
A cunning grin crossed Marrow’s face. “What about banishment? He’ll not remind anyone of anything then, no?”
Sybil glowered in suspicion. “Banishment? You would give up your apprentice like that? At your age? You will never train a new one in time.”
“You’re older than I am, Sybil,” she spat, “but never mind that. I have a use for Zia, and I think you might, as well.”
Marrow beckoned Sybil away to whisper and bicker at the pews. Kelle listened intently, but all she could figure was that she was not going to get to break any bones.
Soon enough, they parted, and Matron Sybil looked up at Zia. “I suppose the boy does look repentant. You are repentant, are you not?
Zia nodded furiously.
Matron Sybil rubbed her hands as though washing them. “So be it. Bring the boy to me this evening, and we will sort everything out.” She waved a dismissive hand to no one and everyone, then hobbled out the door.
Alma was already unstrapping Zia as Matron Marrow ascended the dais to grab him. Kelle was almost breathless. “But… but… but… he is a grave robber!” she insisted.
Marrow smiled a yellow smile and gestured at his face. “Look at him, Kelle, does he not look penitent. I’m sure he feels quite bad about what he did, don’t you Zia?”
Again, the seemingly mute apprentice nodded emphatically. Marrow led him by the hand like a small child, and they left the Hall. Sara was already gone. Alma offered a blank look before leaving as well.
Feeling bad was a remarkable trick, Kelle thought. You could do whatever you wanted, no matter how horrible, then just feel bad afterward. No punishment, and oftentimes no scolding. And if you felt bad long enough, then you yourself could decide your contrition was over; it was all up to you. Some folk seemed to feel bad for an awful long time, but it certainly beat execution or torture, she thought. She wished she had the knack for this feeling bad business, as the wiser folk did.
Minutes later, Kelle found herself standing outside the Great Hall. There were still a few folk standing around, but no one of consequence. Tilfer Bower was standing about, but he had been without work for many weeks and so had nowhere to go. A handful of children were running around as well, but even Alma had already vanished. It was almost noon. She wondered if Sara might be found at the tavern already.
Everyone was moving quickly from one place to another. They looked nervous, or angry, or something else Kelle did not especially care about.
The tavern was empty when she arrived, with the stools shoved under the tables. Bags was cleaning out mugs from the morning. There Sara was, at the bar, hunched over a large mug of ratberry. “What’s wrong?” Kelle asked, taking the stool next to her. Sara did not answer. “You been real quiet lately, Sara. What’s going on?”
“She was going to torture him.”
Bags gave Kelle a look, but she waved him off. “Torture who? You mean Zia?” Still nothing. “He’s a witch, right? Right?” Sara shrugged. “He dug up a body and try to make magic with it, right?” She nodded. “So… we had to get a confession, right? Right?” No answer. “I don’t understand you, Sara. The devil worshippers have to be stopped, yes? Yes?”
Sara did not answer.
“Are you going to be all right?”
Sarah shrugged. “Yes.”
“All right, then.” Kelle slapped the bar. “Maybe stop drinking ratberry at noon, huh? You’re circuiting the town tonight, right? Sober up before nightfall, huh?”
Kelle wandered over to the Great Wheel. She felt lit up by lightning, full of energy, with nowhere to point it. There was Egille and her carpenters, still putting up the platform they would not be using. She called out to them.
Egille wiped a brow with a broad arm, then wiped the arm on her leathers. “Is it done?”
“It’s done all right.” Kelle spat, away from them. “The boy’s being let off. They’re going to piss him out of the village or something. You just did all this for nothing.”
The carpenters stared, two burly men with heavy brows and sour dispositions. They were head and shoulders above Egille, but Egille was all muscle and no humor, and had ten years’ experience on the two of them put together. Her lack of humor was especially evident at the moment. “They’re lettin’ a grave robber go? And a witch, to boot? After what you lot did to Ulvis and them?”
“The Healer’s got something to do with it. She just nattered with Matron Sybil for a bit, and now he’s off clear.”
The carpenters all spat. “She the one who sent him out there to begin with?”
Kelle’s eyes lit up. “Yeah. Yeah, she is.”
Egille nodded, spat again, and looked up at the Great Wheel. “I think I’ll keep this thing up for bit this time.”
Kelle’s hand settled on her mace. “Good idea.”