Elkansa’s speech to Edzie, begun when they were out of earshot of the platform and only completed long after they had arrived home, was an epic, righteous, redundant, exasperated masterpiece of moral instruction. At times, Elkansa seemed to swing into baffled, almost merciful leniency, suggesting that Edzie’s crime was an inevitability of youth, or that she herself had failed in raising her daughter. At other times, Elkansa agonized over Edzie’s character, as if her meanness was some sort of virus, or a crack in a wall that needed to be fixed. And of course, during some particularly vitriolic passages, Elkansa laid the blame squarely at Edzie’s feet, demanding to know why she had broken so many established conventions, and why she had dedicated her life to sabotaging her relationship with the tribe.
Edzie was fairly sure that this third attitude was the fairest one. I did that, she said to herself, and I either need to learn to control that part of me, or I need to learn to live with it. Or perhaps both.
In the gathering room, dimly-lit through the side windows, Elkansa eventually ran out of things to say, and she fell to pacing and shaking her head and sighing. Edzie excused herself, glad at least for that small consolation, and found several hours of solitude in her room, paging through two borrowed books without absorbing a word of either of them.
Through the entranceway, Edzie heard Stray come and go. She tried to keep her attention diverted, not wanting to think more about her transgression, but she couldn’t help but hear Elkansa give Stray a brief overview of the situation. He made all the expected sounds of shock and dismay, and asked if there was anything he could do, or if he should try talking to her. Elkansa told him there was nothing he could do, and so Edzie finally heard him depart, returning to the festival with a troubled and heavy heart.
When the elders finally arrived, the sun was just dipping down beneath the horizon, and Edzie was feeling drowsy. Elkansa called her out into the gathering room, and she shook herself awake and joined the small conference that had gathered there. Aside from her and Elkansa, the entourage included Elder Keldra, Elder Hylidae, Elder Amiaverta, and the Hexcalor representative, who was finally introduced to Elkansa as Ifris.
The four of them had come to a tentative solution, an attempt to spare Edzie the embarrassment of a full trial and a temporary extradition to be punished by the Hexcalor. The elders… Keldra in particular… had purchased mercy with promises, apologies, and pleas. Edzie’s status as an uninitiated daughter was a significant factor, as well, as it was considered bad form to hold a girl accountable as a fully-initiated woman.
First, the trial would be delayed by two days, so that it didn’t interfere with the festival. It would be a private tribunal, consisting of the current assembly, plus Ghada, and one additional Hexcalor woman, a close friend of Thistleroy’s family who was currently attending the festival. Depending on the findings of the tribunal, Edzie’s punishment might be as lenient as a gesture of shame to the victim, or as harsh as extended restraint and punitive branding. Whatever was decided, it would be inflicted by a member of the Hexcalor: either Ifris herself, or a fellow tribesperson chosen by Thistleroy.
The other matter, an internal consideration, was the handling of Edzie’s initiation. The council agreed that Edzie’s initiation would be delayed… that she would be evaluated the following year, and if she was sufficiently contrite and respectful, she could be initiated a year late, in the same festival as Stray.
All five of them looked to Edzie for acknowledgment, and though her emotions were a raging storm of frustration and resentment, she managed a nod, her face cast in stone. The tribal leaders excused themselves hastily, ushered off by Elkansa’s token words of esteem. The three Denorians headed for the sunset banquet, rushing to deliver the ceremonial address on time; Ifris declined to join them, preferring to take some time alone and make herself available to her own discontented tribespeople.
When they left, Elkansa and Edzie remained standing in the gathering room. Elkansa’s eyes were downcast, and Edzie’s remained focused, trained straight ahead, unwavering. At last, Elkansa spoke, breaking up the tension.
“By Dissadae, Edzie, what did you think was going to happen?”
Edzie let her eyes settle on her mother’s face. “I didn’t think anything was going to happen. And I still don’t.”
Whether she meant this as empty defiance, or as a way to downplay the punishment that had been proposed, neither of them was sure, but those words bore a portent of unrealized irony and violence… a curse whose consummation was already approaching, a shadow on the settlement’s outskirts.
The Festival plateaued late into the night, as always, illuminated by a yellow moon and a multitude of mismatched thresh lamps. The central court was a slow storm of celebration, home to hundreds of Denorians and their Concordance kin, caught up in idle conversations with old friends and new loves and total strangers. There was some troubling talk of a problem at one of the exhibition matches… an unusual injury, a possible diplomatic complication… but it was barely a flicker of concern within the vast glow of kinship that engulfed the settlement.
Boyle and Varda were standing at a table on the west side of the central court, picking at baskets of root vegetables and blusterwheat bread, when a stranger happened by them and asked them a question.
“Hey, Denorians… do you know who it was that fought Thistleroy of the Hexcalor today? I want to talk to him.”
Boyle glanced up at the stranger and immediately recognized him as an outsider. He wore something like a brivsa, except it was made of some hybrid textile that looked like muddy gray fish-scales. The scarf was down, loose, over the man’s broad, slumping shoulders, and the hood was pulled up so far it cast a shadow over the man’s eyes. On his upper body, he wore a ratty gray tunic that failed to obscure a suit of protective leather pads, belted on and fastened over his frame with a web of leather straps and tarnished buckles.
“Who?” Boyle asked.
Varda interjected. “He said somebody from the Hexcalor tribe. Thistleroy? I heard Ghada’s match was somebody from that tribe.”
The stranger seemed to perk up at the name, and he reached toward Varda in his excitement. She recoiled slightly, a vicious look in her eyes, and he withdrew his hand. Boyle caught a glimpse of something as the forearm passed… four centimeter-wide white circles, like scars, but too perfect to have been accidental.
“Ghada! Yeah, that’s what somebody else said. You know him? Can I talk to him?”
Varda’s eyes burned with suspicion, and she remained absolutely still, suddenly feeling like she was dealing with a dangerous predator. Boyle wanted nothing more than to get away from the situation, so he was quick to offer up the only information he had.
“You’re out of luck. He decided to skip the banquet, said he wasn’t feeling well. Probably at home sleeping, I think. You can probably talk to his parents if you want, but…” He craned his neck and looked around. “… but I don’t see them. They should be somewhere around, though.”
“Can you tell me where this Ghadja boy lives?” the stranger asked.
Boyle started to speak, but Varda grabbed his arm and answered for him. “No, we don’t know. We don’t know him that well. Sorry.”
The stranger remained at their side for a moment longer, looking at them from the shadow of his hood. Then he uttered a word of thanks, turned, and fled into the crowd. Boyle, always perceptive, caught sight of a flash of silver under the stranger’s tunic, and then the figure was lost.
An hour later, Edzie was lying, awake, in her bed, the covers tossed on the floor so she could feel the autumn air. She was still thinking… obsessively, involuntarily… about her transgression that day, and whether Ghada would forgive her, and what kind of a person she would be when she was finally initiated. The wind whistled by her window, but she didn’t hear it.
Thistleroy was lying awake, as well, trying to move, grunting in pain with each exertion. His back and working leg were stiff, and the headaches that had throbbed in his head all evening were not going away, and he hoped the pain would be better by morning. His mind, stretched out and worn raw by the agony, kept flirting with violent impulses… fantasies of finding the girl that had injured him, of inflicting some crippling wound upon her, even thoughts of killing her, though those disgusted him as soon as they entered his head, and he always turned away from them when they arrived.
At Ghada’s dromo, a figure moved the wooden plank aside and entered the front entrance. The interior was pitch dark, and it was clear nobody was awake and active in the household. The figure still walked quietly, but it didn’t slink like a fugitive animal… it walked purposefully, checking in one room (empty) and then turning down a long hallway. As it approached the entryway to Ghada’s bedroom, it drew a tool from the back of its belt.
Ghada awoke with a start, drawn out of an anxious dream by a flood of conflicting sensations. Something extremely heavy pressed down on his chest, and something else yanked his arm away from his body, and a hot gust of pungent breath washed over his face.
“This is for Thistleroy’s leg, you redge,” said a voice that chafed at Ghada’s ears like broken glass.
Then Thistleroy felt something drastic and unfamiliar in his hand: first a sort of folding in the crook of his thumb, and then a shooting, cutting, mind-bending agony, unlike any pain he had ever experienced. His hand couldn’t move for about four seconds, and then it was suddenly let free. Ghada, locked in mid-scream, tried to throw his hand in front of his face, but it deflected harmlessly off the vast weight sitting on his chest. Something wet splattered across Ghada’s face, and he caught his breath for a moment, and then resumed his scream.
He tried to thrash… even to breathe… but it was impossible, and he suddenly felt like he was going to asphyxiate. With some less panicked part of his mind, he felt his other arm – seized up, trying ineffectually to free itself – jerked up from under the weight, and he felt the same sensation a second time: the folding, the pain that burst into his temples and diffused through his whole body, the helpless thrashing and swinging.
Suddenly, the weight was lifted, and Ghada lunged out of bed, crumpling to the ground and trying to bury his hands in his own chest. Rivulets of blood ran down his arm, and as he jerked and screamed, they left splatters across his covers, his floor, his chest, and his face.
He heard laughter… it seemed distant and indistinct now… and he heard somebody moving toward the entrance to his room. The figure was sheathing some kind of small blade on the back of its belt, and it was tucking something else into a pocket beneath a ratty gray tunic. It wasn’t talking, and Ghada couldn’t see its face; its stride was leisurely, almost buoyant, as it left his room, his dromo, and finally the whole Denorian settlement.
“Edzie, wake up. Come.”
There was an urgent note in Elkansa’s voice, an intensity that Edzie hadn’t heard since their fight over Boyle’s parents. She blinked, shaking the sleep out of her eyes, and sensed that the air was chilly, soft with early morning light. She considered objecting to the rough treatment, but decided to wait and see what was happening.
“Come on, Edzie. Get clothes on. Your brivsa is in the gathering room. We have to go.”
“Why?” Edzie grunted, swinging her legs to the floor. “I barely slept last night. Can you please tell me what’s going on?”
“Something happened last night, and it has to do with us. The messenger couldn’t say any more. There’s a meeting with the elders in the central court.”
Edzie and Elkansa stumbled out the door a minute later, jogging side by side up the path past Boyle’s house. The fields and lots were littered with evidence of the festival, small campsites and discarded debris, but the visiting parties had been kind enough to stay off the path, so Edzie and Elkansa could safely ignore them. They reached the central court a few minutes after the messenger who had summoned them, and found that it was already occupied and buzzing.
Near the smoking remnants of last night’s bonfire, five elders congregated: Amiaverta, Warryn, Keldra, Yogo, and Hylidae. A few meters away, a small group of outsiders were gathered, conversing in low tones. Ifris was present, and appeared to be driving the conversation. Near the elders, Treya stood, attired in sloppy evening robes, holding her head in one hand.
Elkansa and Edzie approached from Treya’s side. “What happened?” Edzie demanded, alarmed by the tone of the gathering.
Hearing Edzie’s voice, Treya’s demeanor changed radically. She put her hand on her katsun handle and jerked her shoulders up to attention. “Stay away from me, Edzie,” she said, her voice raw and her eyes red and wild.
Elkansa thrust a protective arm in front of Edzie, reaching toward her own katsun with the other hand. “Treya,” she said, her tone taut with warning.
“Stop this,” Elder Warryn said, moving into the space between the three women. “Treya, don’t forget yourself. This is tribe business now.” He looked at Edzie and Elkansa, knowing they were entirely at a loss. “Ghada was attacked last night,” he said. “Somebody assaulted him in his own dromo, while his family was at the central court. We suspect it had something to do with your match yesterday.”
Treya let out a bitter laugh. “We don’t suspect… the redge said it! He said this was for the boy whose leg was cut!”
“Is Ghada okay?” Edzie addressed the question to the open air.
“THEY TOOK HIS THUMBS, EDZIE.” Treya was screaming now, as if she was feeling her son’s pain. “BOTH THUMBS. HE HAD TO WATCH THEM TAKE THEM.”
Edzie’s chest constricted, as if Treya’s words had struck her in the ribs. She had never heard of this kind of cruelty… what did it mean for Ghada’s beauty, his ability to work, his ability to fight? She almost swooned for a second, and when she recovered her senses, she found she was looking at her own hands, flexing her forearms, dizzy with the awareness of her own bones and muscles and nerves. She lost track of her hands, then, but she remembered her surroundings, and the nervous expressions on the faces of the Hexcalor tribespeople. The thought of their faces suddenly snapped her back to attention, and she looked at them with wild tears in her eyes.
“WHO? WHICH OF YOU DID IT?”
Elkansa tried to calm her daughter, and Treya simply shook her head. Edzie was already crossing the court, drawing her katsun, when Elder Warryn stepped up to her from behind. She didn’t even hear his footsteps… she only felt her head draw back, and her arms fold, and a streak of pain flash into her shoulder. It hardly took more than a touch from Warryn… Edzie crumpled in his hands, finding herself caught by the wrists and neck, unable to move any limb without some kind of pain answering in her joints.
“Stand down, Edzie,” Warryn said into her ear.
Edzie thrashed for a moment, not because she hoped to escape, but simply because there was something reassuring in the pain… an inescapable resistance, a tension that called her back into her own body, a constraint that she could test herself against, and indeed, a point of physical failure that she could fall back on. Finally, after three more seconds, she let her muscles relax, arms going limp in Warryn’s grip, breath evening out.
When he was sure she was calm, Elder Warryn released her, and the grim silence of averted disaster washed over the court. Edzie looked across the array of Hexcalor faces, wanting to meet a gaze, but she found no purchase. When the representative finally spoke, she addressed Elder Warryn, though he had already been appraised of this information.
“We are fairly certain we know who did this,” Ifris said. “Looks like it was Thistleroy’s half-brother Crastin, a thug from somewhere out east.” She paused, glancing at Elkansa, and then elaborated. “He used to be Hexcalor, but we exiled him… nine years ago, give or take… for violence and subversion. His family has officially denounced him, and we keep him out of our settlements.”
Elkansa and Treya continued glaring at the Hexcalor. Only Edzie managed to speak, looking to her own elders for answers. “So here they are, with an excuse all ready. How do they know? How do we know?”
Elder Hylidae replied with admirable, futile gentleness. “We spoke to several Denorians… four, to be more specific… who said they saw an outsider asking questions about Ghada last night, during the banquet. Their descriptions match Ifris’s description of Crastin. We also managed to follow his tracks this morning, before the sun rose… Ghada’s blood led us to his bootprints… but they disappeared along the bank of the Prospect. We think he got at least two hours lead-time on our trackers, and the darkness slowed us down.”
Edzie was still seething. “And he happened to be here, ready to attack a rival tribesman. Still seems too easy to me.”
Ifris spoke directly to Edzie now, trying to maintain some dignity. “He didn’t just happen to be here. He’s been known to come to other tribes’ festivals, specifically for the purpose of checking up on old family members… Thistleroy among them. We are ashamed that he still lurks in our shadow, and we sorely regret what happened to your friend. We only wanted a just punishment, not this bloody travesty.”
Silence held for another moment, and then Elkansa stepped into the breach. “So where is this Crastin, now that we know who he is? The longer we wait to send out a hunting party, the harder it will be to find him.”
“They don’t know where he lives now,” Elder Warryn replied. “They suspect it’s near Horizon, or further east, maybe as far as the Bhijan River. We’re scouting our territory, and sending messengers to our neighboring tribes… we sent out six parties this morning… but if he escapes our lands, there’s nothing else we can do, except send word to the Protectorate central office.”
Edzie’s face contorted with disgust. “You…” She turned her smoldering gaze on the elders. “You won’t even follow him? He can destroy one of your own children, and just walk away, and Ghada gets no justice?” She spat at her feet, and then turned to the Hexcalor. “And you… you’re willing to accept this? Your own bad blood, bringing shame to your tribe, mutilating children, and can’t spare so much as a few hunters to bring this redge what he deserves?”
There was silence in response to Edzie’s outrage, a dismal reticence shaded differently for each participant in the conversation.
“Well?” Edzie demanded.
“Edzie,” Elkansa finally said, “the elders have spoken. Their judgment is sound.”
Edzie’s eyes were red and wet as she turned from her mother to Treya. Treya met her gaze with a stony contempt. “I think you know, Edzie… we have no righteousness to stand on here. Thanks, in part, to you.”
Ifris spoke up, then, making an unexpected contribution. “Crastin’s crimes are not your fault, Denorian, and we don’t intend to foist this responsibility upon you. In light of these crimes, we hereby rescind our demand for a shared tribunal. Your elders may punish you as they see fit for Thistleroy’s injury… it’s safe to say that Crastin has undermined any moral claim we might have held in the matter.”
This did not have any kind of calming effect on Edzie, whose face betrayed her continuing anguish. “THAT is NOT ENOUGH. My slip had nothing to do with Ghada, and now he’s crippled.” Her words rushed out in a torrent, like a backup of swamp sludge bursting through a break-wall. “PUNISH ME however you want, you sluicules. When that’s done with, I’ll still be spitting in your faces, and we can get on with punishing YOU for what your huskin-cursed children did to my friend.”
Ifris met Edzie’s gaze with a spiteful eye. “I think you should pinch those lips, Denorian. We resent Crastin’s methods… we refused to tolerate them… but if it hadn’t been for your wantonness, he would have stayed in the shadows, and you would have your initiation scar by now. As it stands, you are still a child, and I am losing patience with your childish lectures.”
Edzie prepared to respond when she felt her mother’s hand on her arm.
“Go home, Edzie,” Elkansa said, calm and unequivocal.
Edzie almost refused… almost unleashed another torrent of disgust… but then she felt tears welling up in her eyes and sobs gathering in her jaw, and she made the strategic decision to turn away.