Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright September 10th, 2018
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
They blindfolded them on their way through the woods, each person secured to a length of rope tied to the person in front of them. They also took their weapons. Polly kept her thoughts fixed firmly on the knife in her boot. It was well concealed in a pocket between the heel and the sole, no good in a fight but certainly reliable for an escape. The druids walked all around them. Most had taken on other forms as they entered the woods: wolves, birds, owls, deer, and a few other animals she couldn’t recognize. They were surrounded by a menagerie. None of them made a sound. It made her skin crawl.
“How much further is it?”
The halfling woman was the only one that had remained in her natural shape. She led them forward, one hand on the line as though she were guiding a caravan of mules.
She spoke back over her shoulder.
“Keep quiet. We’re not alone in these woods, you know.”
Polly dummied up and grumbled. She still wasn’t convinced this meeting was a good idea. It would have been better to take the wagon and the stove and camp out into the prairie until the spring. Foraging and hunting weren’t exactly her strong suit, but Asterious would have been able to teach them. They would have been fine. At least then they wouldn’t have gotten themselves into a position where, once again, their lives were in someone else’s hands.
She clenched her teeth. She hated this feeling, and yet ever since she came to the continent it seemed like she was never fully able to escape it. Azarelle. Nathanius. Asterious. Ellyn. Polly had come closer to feeling safe and sure among them—even in the face of danger—than she ever had before in her whole life.
She was so tired of feeling desperate.
Her foot caught on a log and she tripped, falling forward into the snow. The rope went taught and the others staggered to a halt.
The halfling woman turned.
“What’s the matter?”
Polly climbed to her feet.
“I tripped. Give me a break. We’ve been walking for hours.”
The woman came back along the line and helped her up. She looked her in the eye and gave her a little shake.
“Don’t worry. It’s not much further. Just try not to talk.”
She moved on back to the front of the line.
Polly whispered to Asterious.
“Why is it so important we stay quiet? There are dozens of people out here. What could possibly be so dangerous?”
Asterious whispered back.
“It’s tribal code. We’re not allowed to speak until we’ve been recognized. Only the chieftain can do that.”
It was another hour before anything changed. The terrain began to dip. They were moving down a gentle slope. Polly felt warmth on her face. A campfire. The woman led them around what Polly assumed was a clearing before she dropped the rope and removed their blindfolds.
They were standing in the middle of a shallow bowl in the middle of the woods. Evergreen trees stretched up into the sky overhead, drawing her eyes to the stars, while low huts made from mud and needled branches covered the ground, couched among the trunks and half-buried in the snow. Wisps of smoke emerged from tiny holes in their squatting roofs. There were too many to count. A single bonfire burned in the centre of the village. A ring of logs, hewn flat on top, surrounded it. Half-a-dozen men and women sat upon them.
They wore mostly skins and furs. Their faces and chests were painted with blue, red, orange, and yellow. The ink formed depictions of animals, flowering vines, fish, and birds. One of them stood up as their blindfolds were removed and stepped forward.
The halfling woman leaned in and whispered.
“This is Setarl, the leader of the circle. Both of them speak the common tongue, but they will not use it here. I will translate for you.”
The man began to speak.
“Did I not tell you they would come? The others only understand pain. We will kill them and send their bodies back to the city where they belong.”
Another man stood up.
“They came to talk. We should hear them.”
The halfing woman whispered.
“That is Brynn Gungandi, chieftain of the village.”
Polly whispered back.
“I thought you said Setarl was the leader?”
The woman hissed.
“Do not speak here.”
Polly pursed her lips, shaking with frustration.
The woman went on.
“The chieftain leads. The Selecahri are a faction within the order of druids. Their reach extends far beyond the village.”
“The people on the benches are the elders. They choose the chieftain at the beginning of each new year.”
Brynn turned to the elders.
“What harm is there to be found in listening? We should hear them out. Kill them afterwards if we wish.”
Setarl growled and shook his head.
“No. They stand for nothing. Their ways are evil and their tongues are deceptive. We should not hear their poisonous words.”
He put out his arms and raised his voice.
“I speak for the gods of our people. I say that no good can come from dealing with the others. We taint ourselves by suffering their filth. They must be removed and driven back: back from the roots of the forest, back from the air of the plains, back from the shelter of the valley, back even from the foam of the coast.”
He turned and faced them.
“Back into the sea that brought them here.”
A number of the seated men and women thumped their fists onto their legs and stamped their feet, murmuring approval.
Brynn shook his head.
“No. This is foolish. We attacked Hane because we saw that they would destroy us if we did nothing. If they have come to make peace, we owe it to ourselves and to them to hear them out.”
Polly jumped as the man turned suddenly to face them. The halfling woman stepped back.
Brynn extended a muscled arm, riven with scars and painted with a twisting pattern of blue and orange vines. He spoke for the first time in the common tongue.
“I recognize you. Speak plainly.”
Nathanius stepped forward.
“This is an insult!”
Setarl stormed forward.
Nathanius retreated across the clearing. The man’s reaction was not what he had hoped for.
The circle leader threw an arm around the clearing, addressing the elders.
“We give these others a chance to speak, and what do they bring us? A preposterous story! Gods? Invasion? More lies from a people of liars. This is no different than any other petty conflict among the others. I say let them fight amongst themselves. They will weaken and destroy each other, and when they are finished, we will retake the valley that is our birth right.”
Nathanius stepped forward.
“You’re wrong. The gods are here. I didn’t believe it myself at first, but I saw them with my own eyes. We fought against and barely escaped with our lives. They may seem far away now but they will be coming. They won’t be satisfied with Selapak and the north valley, and when they arrive the disputes you’ve had with Hane are going to be the least of your worries. You must listen. You must make peace now…or never.”
Silence descended on the clearing. Nathanius scanned their faces. The chieftain seemed open to diplomacy, but the faces of the elders were dark. Nathanius frowned. Edmund Giant was right. The militant faction had indeed gained power.
Setarl began to laugh.
“A fine speech, but it changes nothing. These others have offered no concessions! The villagers want to end the violence. Of course they do. They are losing! We have them on their knees! Now is not the time to turn back!”
Brynn came forward.
“We will meet with their leaders and see if there is any truth to these claims.”
Brynn turned to face him.
“I am the chieftain of this village. I act for its people. If these others speak the truth then all of us are in danger.”
Setarl stepped forward.
“Fool! This is a deception! They are at their weakest and they stall for time. They hope to last until the next dawn when it will be too late. You fall into their trap!”
“I am no fool, Setarl. If the others’ desire to treat is genuine then we must listen!”
Setarl stepped forward.
“No, we must not! Chieftain, you leave me no other choice. I call on the elders to remove your claim of leadership.”
Brynn’s eyes widened. His knuckles cracked. The muscle of his shoulders rippled as he turned to Setarl and looked him dead in the eye.
“The new year is long away, Setarl. I lead. Follow or go.”
Setarl shook his head.
He took off his cloak. A murmur rolled around the gathering as the man further removed the rest of his clothing and his weapons and threw them down before the elders in the snow.
The halfling woman gasped.
Polly leaned back.
“What’s going on?”
She whispered back.
“Setarl has offered ‘kerech.’ It means ‘the choice.’ The elders will vote. If they favour Setarl, he becomes the new chieftain; if they do not, he will be put to death.”
Nathanius leaned in close.
“Will they side with him?”
The woman frowned.
“Perhaps. Setarl is very popular, and his views are held by many.”
The first elder raised her hand.
Nathanius’s jaw dropped.
“They’re going to vote right now?! Can’t we say anything?”
She shook her head.
“The choice is a demand. To offer it means that the challenger believes the decision is clear. He would not offer it otherwise. We can only watch.”
The next elder raised his hand.
The elders voted one-by-one.
They kept going. Nathanius was not well-versed in the politics of the native tribes, but he could spot a fix when he saw one. The chieftain, it seemed, was out on an even flimsier limb than they were.
Polly tugged at his coat.
“What do we do now?”
He shook his head. The vote concluded.
Setarl took up his belongings and turned.
“The choice is made. Brynn. You are no longer the chieftain. Return to your house.”
The chieftain bowed his head. He left without another word.
Setarl turned to them.
“Put these telendi into cages. I will contact the rest of the circle. We will decide what to do with them.”
Nathanius turned to the halfling woman.
She gave a forlorn shrug.
Setarl pointed at her.
“You may wear our colours but you are not of our lineage. You are not one of us.”
He turned to the elders.
“Send out our warriors. The others will be gathered up; then we will gather our sources. Tonight, we will attack Hane and destroy it.”
They stomped their feet and nodded, standing.
Setarl turned back to face them.
“The blood of our land will be purged.”
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