When they came to Tilnon’s door to arrest him that cold, pale spring morning, his strongest reaction was one of relief. Of course the expected fear gripped him as well, but that concerned his family and how they would fare without him. For himself, he felt relief. It would be too horribly wrong, nearly as dreadful as all that had passed that hideous winter, if no reckoning ever occurred. Now the waiting and wondering would come to an end.
He faced two hyarmi, hard-eyed, armed with blow darts. Behind them stood a man in a silver-grey cloak, bearded and dark haired, eyes glimmering with chill light. A Council mage. Tilnon would not be permitted to decline this summons.
“Are you Tilnon of Eastshield?” the mage said. “You are commanded to testify before the Council of the Races regarding the murder of Hu-Hanik.”
Tilnon heard something thud against the floor as his wife gasped. “Murder! Tilnon, this—”
He turned, dread tightening icy fingers in his chest. They must not say more in her presence; he could not bear to see her innocence shattered. “Just an accident, dear one! A horrible mistake. I-I didn’t tell you because . . . we could barely even survive and you didn’t need more to carry.”
“Then you admit it?” the mage asked.
“I do not deny it,” Tilnon replied, shifting to face him again. “Just let me say farewell, and I won’t resist you. How long will this take? My family—”
“The trial is tomorrow,” one of the hyarmi said in the human tongue, speech blurred by his accent. “You will Travel. No long journey; no long wait for the verdict.”
Tilnon gave him a sharp nod. He understood the loathing that flattened both hyarmi’s ears and whiskers. Somehow, they knew. All hyarmi would hate him, forever.
Very well, then. Only the survival of his family mattered. After all, he had already paid that they live to see the spring. He required only that his children grow up, ignorant of the price for their lives. Should they somehow, someday learn—and despise him—at least they would be alive to do so.
“Give me a few minutes,” he said, then turned away before they could answer. His wife took his arm as he strode into the inner room. It had no window, lit only by the hearth: the room where for so many weeks that bitter winter they had lain each day and slowly starved. His dear children awaited him, his son the elder by only a year and a half, with both of them under three years of age. Still too young for names, lest they catch the stone gaze of the Lord of the Grave, forever unsated.
They blinked at him, yawning, then stretched their arms for his embrace.
“Lord of Forests make you strong, Queen of Meadows bring you bounty, Lord of Air grant you wisdom.” He swallowed, crushing back his tears, and wondered if he might ever say this parting blessing over them again. “Queen of Night soothe your sorrows, Lord of the Sea guide your paths, Lord of Light guard your spirits, until the Creator Heals the world. Farewell, dear children. Father must go away for a little, so you listen to what your mother says.”
Tilnon smiled, brushed away a tear. His daughter was still too young to understand, but perhaps she would listen anyway. He turned to his wife. “The marshland’s thawing, with plenty of rushes to dig up. So you should have enough until—”
“It was an accident,” she said fiercely. He could imagine her in the Council Hall, defiant, upbraiding the judges on his behalf. A conviction founded on ignorance. “So they’ll . . . they’ll learn the truth, and you will come home again. You will. Just a few days, Tilnon. I’ll manage. And . . . and I’ll wait as long as I must.”
Then her arms locked around him, shuddering breaths the only sign of her grief. He almost wished he had spoken sooner, but her undimmed hope as winter waned had felt as sweet and warm as the life-giving sunlight of spring. How could he stain it with his shadow?
“I will return. On foot if I must. Farewell, beloved.”
They separated, and he went out with a curt nod to the Council mage. He did not look back.
Tilnon had not been certain what to expect, Traveling being the province of mages, not mundane, impoverished farmers. It proved instant and undetectable. One moment before the door of his home under the glowering gazes of the hyarmi guards, and the next—
He stood in a disheveled clearing surrounded by pine-scented forest far lusher than the woods he had fruitlessly hunted for so many bitter days. A clouded sky blocked the sunlight, while it smelled as if winter maintained its stubborn grip on the earth. The hyarmi had not come with them; instead, another mage waited. They set out at once, one mage ahead and one behind, no explanations, no names or courtesies, just walking along a narrow, winding deer trail, with the familiar ducking of low branches and stepping across tiny puddles of snowmelt. Shrinking snowbanks hunkered in the hollows; birds twittered in the air.
Without warning they reached the forest verge, startling Tilnon with the immense spread of treeless land beyond, containing hundreds of tents, dozens of wagons, and a milling crowd of humans and hyarmi in the valley below. The Council mages led Tilnon down into that crowd, as merchants and bystanders alike cast disinterested glances after him. The merchants doubtless noticed his lack of a money bag; certainly everyone recognized the cloaks of the mages, but blessedly they had no way to distinguish plaintiff from accused.
The mages directed Tilnon into a nondescript tent, containing only two battered wooden chairs and a narrow pallet. A jug stood near the entrance, chamber pot in the far corner.
“This tent is shielded. Better you not even try to escape,” the second mage, older and grizzled, told him.
“I came willingly,” Tilnon said. “I’m to wait here until the trial then?”
The first mage frowned. “You claimed Hu-Hanik’s death happened by accident. But her brother, Hullan, would bring charges against you of deliberate murder and . . . and worse. He would have the Council condemn you to death.”
Tilnon flinched, biting back the words that nearly sprang from his lips. His family needed him to live, regardless of what he might deserve.
“I did not kill her on purpose, please believe me!” he said. “I was starving, desperate. I saw movement, thought it a deer, shot when I should have looked more closely. She had aided us. I never wanted to kill a helping neighbor. I will swear it on anything you wish!”
“Very well, then,” the first mage said. “So Garred will stay with you, and I’ll find some of the human judges. They need to know that the charge of deliberate murder—that, at least—is unfounded.” He glanced at his companion. “Should I get—”
“There’s no arguing with Hullan,” Garred said, “and the hyarmi judges are not inclined to mercy. If you’ll let us see your memories, sir, we can testify before the Council that the slaying of Hu-Hanik was unplanned and unintended. The other charges . . . can be dealt with tomorrow.”
“You’ll . . . you’ll mind-rape me to prove I didn’t murder her?” Tilnon asked, caught between dread and desperation.
“No! Hardly that.” Garred snorted. “Do you think any Council mage could do such a deed with the Defender of Life our Chief Judge? We’d not be mages any longer!”
“Simply remember what happened and let us in,” the first mage said. “There’s no pain or coercion, just a gathering of witnesses. Both of us, if we’re convinced your memory is true, will be enough to persuade the Council you did not intend to slay Hu-Hanik.”
Silence ensued. Tilnon realized that the same unease and revulsion which had gripped the hyarmi guards lay like a pall of frost over the Council mages. They would not even speak of whatever other charges Hu-Hanik’s brother meant to bring against him. Yet they still sought to uphold justice. Besides, what could they do to him worse than he deserved?
“I will share my memories. Please bring the human judges, when it’s convenient for them.”
The first mage nodded and went out. After that, waiting. It went on for hours, but at least provided a reprieve in the form of a meal. Sometime near noon another mage, a wrinkled-faced old lady, brought in bowls of bread, filled with a hearty, steaming stew. Tilnon devoured his in eager haste; never in the past year had he eaten so well. Garred appeared to notice his hunger, perhaps spoke unheard by Tilnon in the arcane magespeech, and a short time later the same old mage returned with sliced rye bread and cheese to set before him. Tilnon wished he had a satchel or bag with him, so he could stow it away, bring it home to his family. Still, by eating well now, he would need less after his return to them, for a day or two at least. So he ate it all, though his stomach groaned.
Then he grew drowsy during the long, uneventful afternoon hours, fighting against sleeping. The bustle of unseen merchants and buyers around the tent had all the soothing monotony of a waterfall. Garred leaned back in his chair and appeared to doze himself, though Tilnon had no intention of testing the mage’s vigilance. It would look ill, callous of him to be sleeping shameless as a child when the judges arrived. So he rubbed his face, yawned, got up, paced dully from one corner to the other, and waited.
They came as the diffuse light that crept through the sides of the tent began to dim. Two grey-cloaked mages with three judges, making the place quite crowded in a matter of heartbeats.
Garred stood, flexing cramped limbs. “This man Tilnon claims he slew Hu-Hanik by accident, mistaking her for a deer,” he said. “He gave Tarish and me permission to see his memories, so we can testify before you and the entire Council that his act was unplanned. Of course, that’s only if his memory convinces us.” He turned, fixed Tilnon with his bright-dark gaze. “Relax, close your eyes, simply remember.”
Tilnon swallowed, closed his eyes, then stiffened as hands clasped each of his shoulders. He found it easy to recall a memory which haunted his dreams almost nightly. It drew him back to that bitter winter evening, like so many others. Hands and feet numbed with cold despite the cloth wrapped around them, nose dripping, frost threatening to seal his eyelids together. The relentless ache of hunger cramped his belly, while dread chilled his bones. The specter of starvation dogged him, fear for his family, clinging closer than any shadow.
Then . . . there! Grey-brown motion against the tree trunks and snow shadows. Steady, silent. Too small for a fallow deer . . . a roe deer would not carry as much meat, but any mouthful and they would live longer. His hands shook as he fumbled for his arrows, breath sharp and white before his face, numb fingers groping, straining—
It stilled, perhaps heard him, soon it would be too late!
The shaft flew. He heard no sound save the crashing of his feet through the icy rime atop the snow; no motion from what lay before him. A perfect heart-shot through the flank and his family would eat well this night and for days to come.
Then he realized what he had slain. Bow tumbling from his grasp; heart seizing in his chest. That dreadful image seared into his skull, which he would never evade again. Not a deer, a hyarmi—
No denying that jutting arrow, that stillness, those half-opened, fixed eyes. And no denying that he knew her. He had met her before; she had given them food before. And there? Fallen in the snow beside her motionless form lay a basket, meant for him, no doubt. She had come to help them, but he had slain—
Tilnon jerked, opened his eyes, and ground his knuckles into them. Then he realized that he had only felt the horror of his recollections. Had the mages seen it too? He opened his eyes again, looked up.
The mages stood pale faced, looking at each other, at the judges.
“Well?” the oldest judge demanded. “Is the memory sound?”
“The memory is as clear as a vision, judges,” Garred replied, a faint quaver in his voice. “We have no hesitancy in giving our witness alongside this man. He truly took her for a deer. He truly felt appalled when he realized who he had slain.”
Tilnon swallowed, then stared down at the mud-stained floor of the tent.
“Very well, then. One of you had best accompany us to our meeting tonight,” the same judge said. “We’ll tell the rest of the Council what we’ve learned, which means Hullan will have to change his charges accordingly.” He paused. “You will testify tomorrow, Tilnon. But you need no longer fear this Council will condemn you to death. Such a sentence requires a unanimous vote, and that is no longer possible. Until tomorrow.”
The judges turned and went out, leaving him under the measuring gazes of the three mages.
“You had to fetch him, so I’ll talk to them tonight,” Garred said. “Not that it makes matters even, I know it.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Tarish’s voice held mirth. “Hullan singeing your beard off tonight could easily be as bad as me slogging through mud for two days to find this man.”
“Just place a bet,” the third mage said, then chuckled. “Because I’d wager the Chief Judge will rein Hullan in before he does too much damage.”
“Blast,” Tarish said. “Now I want to watch.”
Regardless, Tarish remained behind to guard Tilnon as the other two mages headed off. The same old lady brought them dinner: slices of venison, seasoned beets and carrots, honey-drizzled bread and mulled cider. Tilnon could not decide as he ate if he was prisoner or king. He could fast for days after such a feast. Days!
This time he made no attempt to battle his drowsiness but took off his boots and stretched out on the pallet, pulling the woolen blankets over him. Any sleep would prove a blessing, while sleep with a full stomach made a grace beyond measure. Sleep would help him forget.
Tilnon could not continue to forget that next morning, after a satisfying breakfast of flavored gruel and bread thickly smeared with preserves. Soon his deeds would be trumpeted forth to a world of horrified ears, the gruesome tale spread by hyarmi and merchants far beyond the gathering at the Council Hall.
Soon he would also find his childhood dream fulfilled, for like any boy born in Eastshield, he had longed to one day see the Defender of Life, last and greatest of the avarii. Yet this fulfillment would prove a matter of shame, for their first meeting would occur with the telling of his perverse deed. Far better to never meet than bear to the weight of the Defender’s contempt.
But he could not evade it. This very day he would stand before the Council of the Races. The world would hear what he had done alone in the dark midwinter, what he had concealed from his family, what he believed no one had seen. Yet somehow they had learned. Noticed her missing, searched her home?
Found her bones, assuredly. What he had left of them.
Though he felt both warm and replete, those morning hours stretched out interminably. Nearly as slow as that endless interval his family had lain starving together, embers on the hearth, winter waiting insatiably around the tiny dwelling. Empty stomachs and weakened limbs, no more food save the thinnest of broth, munching on pine needles. Until she aided them that first time, dooming herself through her mercy.
However many ages it felt, like all mornings it came to an end. After Tarish returned, both mages led Tilnon from the tent, between rows of wagons and larger tents toward an opening in the side of the long ridge. A clouded and sullen sky sent a faint splatter of tiny raindrops against his hands and face that felt like ice. The land hung suspended between the malice of winter and the nurture of spring . . . and the fate of his family dangled in the same balance as well. What would come to him, to them? Cold, unyielding retribution or generous mercy?
Tilnon noticed that the mages walked swiftly, postures alert, and he wondered with a flutter of unease whether they thought he would attempt to flee or feared he might be assailed. Would Hullan try to stir the crowd against him?
Then he realized that no one even saw them. Merchants continued dismantling their displays and packing their wagons; giggling bands of cubs and children bolted past without the slightest flicker of attention. Some strange power veiled them from sight, though Tilnon could see his companions and the rest of the world unhindered. Had he been so alone that night as he had believed? But no, or events would have fared otherwise. Events would have fared better.
Then they strode along the entrance passage to the Council Hall, echoes rustling and fluttering as they rounded a corner to reach the back of the chamber. It looked huge, beautiful, and cold. No sunlight poured in to illuminate the judges’ seats or brighten the great cavern; no radiance save a leaden greyness revealed the silhouette of each jagged stalactite.
Only a few dozen had already assembled as the mages led him to the front of the chamber, then sat him down at the far right-hand side. The five tall seats of the human judges waited there, empty. That location kept him further from the five benchlike chairs the hyarmi judges used, at least until he rose to testify.
Dread throbbed in Tilnon’s ears, tightened his muscles, and dried his mouth. Now time ceased to tarry, instead it seemed that humans and hyarmi flowed in like a chattering, unstoppable torrent, the buzzing of conversation shaping the contours of the cavern more keenly than the diffuse, uncertain light.
Too soon, the judges themselves advanced to take their places in the eleven seats, one by one. The oldest judges, the leaders, sat closest to the center. Tilnon recognized the three human judges he had met the previous evening, though they did not glance in his direction. The hyarmi judges paid him no notice either, for they did not recognize him yet. For that short reprieve Tilnon felt intense relief.
Then the murmur of conversation dwindled to stillness as the Defender of Life entered. To Tilnon, he seemed a king’s treasury, wrapped in secrecy, for he made no sound, the dimness obscured the rich colors of his wings, and his clothing appeared rigid stone rather than metal. Yet all the life of the world blazed in the fire of his eyes as he turned and faced the crowd. Tilnon felt a jolt of both dread and excitement sear through him as that chill gaze shifted and found him, however briefly.
The meeting began with the Defender’s voice as expressionless as his exquisite face, so that Tilnon could discern little from it. He guessed that those formal opening words made a ritual. To his surprise, one of the judges repeated in the hyarmi tongue any words said in the human speech, while another judge interpreted any remarks made in the hyarmi language.
It only took a few minutes of waiting and watching for Tilnon to realize that his testimony might be left to the end. All of the other affairs brought before the judges proved small matters, and none involved murder, however unintentional. He heard accusations of robbery and prejudice, bickering over property lines, and requests for guidance to legendary places: the Caverns of History, the home of Hu-Harek. Some voiced frustrated complaints about trade restrictions in ivory, while another desired to join the school run by the Council’s mages. No real violence, nothing even all that interesting except to the parties involved.
Tilnon felt glad he had not eaten lunch by the time the gaps between plaintiffs widened. His stomach roiled with tension, while his nerves felt wholly frayed. He would only have shamed himself by spewing out a lavish meal under the judges’ gazes.
Without warning a dark brown hyarmi strode forward, then glared at him with vivid eyes—eyes like her eyes—his hackles bristling with rage.
“I demand justice for the death of my sister, Hu-Hanik,” the hyarmi said. He spoke in the human tongue, perhaps so that Tilnon could hear his charge unfiltered by translation. “Slain by the human Tilnon of Eastshield. Slain, and then devoured!”
An immediate outburst rose from the crowd. Yet it lacked the ring of shock Tilnon had expected. Rather, he discerned anger, anticipation, and excitement. Perhaps Hu-Hanik’s vengeful brother had spent days spreading the news; perhaps everyone present already knew the accusation.
The judges waited quietly, and silence soon returned. Though Tilnon trembled with dread, he could not restrain a bitter smile. Nobody wished to miss a word. Or miss him. He swallowed, tongue dry as sawdust in his mouth.
“What reparation do you seek, Hullan?” the Defender said. “Testimony has already been given by Tilnon and confirmed by the mages Garred and Tarish, that your sister died due to an unintended accident. You can demand no verdict of death that this Council will support.”
Hullan snarled. “Death is what he deserves for his perversion. However it began, what he did to her body only compounds the evil of his crime. Flagrant and unashamed! Yet if I cannot have his life, at the least I would seek his banishment. Humans are depraved in their appetites and their ways, slaying as they will across this earth. How can we know that this perversion, committed once, might not be done again? My people are not safe with such an abomination dwelling in their midst. Drive him out, that my sister Hu-Hanik remain the only one he slays . . . and then devours.”
More angry muttering from the crowd, while Tilnon wrestled with the implications of Hullan’s desire. To move again, a second year in a row? Already so impoverished, but with two children rather than one? His family would not survive it. Even if he alone bore that judgment . . . they would not survive without him.
“Spare us your rabble-rousing, Hullan,” the leader of the human judges said, plainly aggravated. “You would have us counting our children and cubs, next. What the accused did was regrettable, tragic, and nearly inexcusable. A desperate man, searching for food in the depths of winter . . . yet that hardly makes him some deviant who relishes the taste of hyarmi flesh. If such were so, sentence of banishment would be just.”
“Then let us prove it so,” Hullan retorted. “Let him testify. Let him try to explain this abominable crime. Let him tell us why he would eat my sister. Why he would slay someone who gave him food in the heart of winter.” The hyarmi swung away from the judges to glare toward him. “Explain that, Tilnon of Eastshield!”
Tilnon gulped as one of the mages nudged him in the side. He rose, tottering forward on knees that felt stiff and unyielding as oak boughs. Closer toward the center, toward the Defender. But not too close to Hullan, who might have developed a hunger for human blood similar to the obsession he accused him of. At least, a hunger for Tilnon’s blood in particular. Some witness that would prove.
He jerked his incoherent thoughts back into reality, then removed his fur-lined hat. What should he say? “I-I am Tilnon of Eastshield, judges.”
Boos, growls, hisses from the crowd behind.
“Enough,” the Defender said. “This man stands accused, but not yet condemned. Let him testify.”
“What shall I testify, my lord?” Tilnon said, unable to meet those cold, fell eyes.
“Why did you slay Hu-Hanik?” the eldest hyarmi judge demanded.
“I mistook her for a deer when I was out hunting in the twilight.”
“Why hunt in the shadows? Why so careless? We know you had met her before.”
“The animals come out at night, judges.” Tilnon hoped his voice did not shake as much as it seemed, felt surprised they could hear him at all. “And in the evenings, it’s less cold than in the mornings. Every afternoon and evening I hunted, because my family was starving.”
“And why were they starving?” This from a human judge. “Did you prefer to idle the summer away over flagons of wine or cups of beer? We have heard no tidings of famine in northern Nestondom.”
“No, judges, no famine.” He felt relieved that his clothing supported his testimony: worn, stained, patched in many places by his wife, with his boots held together by thin rope. “Nor am I a slothful man. I worked hard, please believe me! But I had to clear the fields and build a house and start a new life, also gather wood for the winter. My wife could not help me much, with our youngest born this autumn. We simply had too little to last the winter, for all my labor.”
“Why did you leave Eastshield, then? Too many enemies? Creditors hounding you? Or did you seek to evade sentences for crimes?”
Tilnon shook his head, uncertain who had spoken. The questions felt like flung stones, slapping him from memory to memory, redoubling his shame. How he had failed them, dearest of all.
“No, you must understand. Eastshield . . . there’s no government any more. None that I’ve seen. Bandits and bullies go wherever they wish, plundering and, and raping and killing, too, I’ve heard. Thanks to my lord”—he tipped his head toward the Defender—“at least there are no dark mages among them, but . . . it’s not safe for a farmer to raise a family. So I fled east in the spring, to northern Nestondom. And lost too much time rebuilding, as I’ve told you.”
“So you came to Nestondom,” a human voice said. “Government secure, people peaceful. Were you too proud to seek aid of your neighbors?”
“Perhaps I was, judges,” Tilnon said, wringing his hat between his hands. So many deeds he might undo, could he remake his choices. Certainly he would never have loosed that arrow through twilit shadows. Survived through Hu-Hanik’s mercy, rather than her flesh.
“Perhaps I-I should have begged more. They did help at first, a little. But . . . but I think they resented us too. Because I wasn’t the only one leaving Eastshield. Those who came with me are as poor as I, so I could not ask them for help. And the others, well, I think they started hating us cutting their trees and fouling their streams and crowding their marketplaces and, and selling at lower prices because we were desperate. They weren’t cruel, but they were far from kind. Only Hu-Hanik gave us mercy.”
“And you slew her for it,” Hullan snarled, nearly at his elbow. Tilnon flinched.
“Yes, tell us about Hu-Hanik,” a hyarmi judge said. “We understand your situation now, but we cannot fathom what you did because of it.”
“S-she came, in the depths of the winter, a few weeks after midwinter, I believe,” Tilnon said. That room, those embers, that dread stillness so vivid in his memory. “As we lay starving, too weak to rise. She had seen that none of us had left our home in days, not even to fetch water. So she brought us food, oats, and rye and even honey. She saved our lives.”
“And then you slew and ate her,” Hullan said.
“Enough!” the eldest human judge snapped. “We are not about to forget that fact anytime soon. Let the accused speak.”
Tilnon nodded, unable to lift his gaze. His trembling had not lessened. “So now we had a little food again, but our only hope lay in my hunting. The ground was too hard for more pit traps, nor could I spare anything for bait. Because I could not buy wire for snares, I could only go out each day and hunt. Sometimes a squirrel, sometimes a hare, or a grouse. Enough to live a few more days. And . . . and then, I already told you. I-I killed her, by accident, as she was bringing more food.”
“So then,” the eldest hyarmi judge said, voice scathing, “you decided to treat her like just another squirrel or hare, meat for a few more days?”
Another wave of growling and muttering coursed through the audience, yet the outburst seemed muted.
“No, I would not do that, judges!” Tilnon clenched his fists around his hat, wishing he could better express his protest. “I took what she had brought us; I wept for her. But I hid it from my family. And so we lived, at least until the deep cold came. Then I could not find any squirrels, while the hares hid under the snow, the crust thick and strong and hard to break. I could not find anything. Don’t you understand? I would not have done what I did lightly, but when we had nothing else . . . I could not bear to let my children starve, or my wife perish of despair. Hu-Hanik was dead already, and I could not change that!”
How sharp the memory rose before his eyes, even while he raised his head to regard the stone-faced judges. He had hewn her body with an ax like wood for the fire, since the cold had left it hard as ice. Then he hacked away her thick, ash-brown pelt, to conceal what he brought to his family. He told his wife that he had found a deer frozen, dead of hunger. He said the flesh tasted strange because desperate creatures ate odd things, those words like bile in his mouth. They ate, they lived, and five days later the thaw, squirrels everywhere. Mere days after that the first geese arrived, heavy with meat from the marshlands and pastures of the verdant south.
“Oh, he spins a touching story,” Hullan said, words sharp with malice. “And if his family is truly innocent of his deeds, they should not pay for his evil, despite eating my sister’s flesh. I shall concede that much. But he must be banished. Consider it, that we let such an abomination happen, even in the famine of winter, and have it stand? Who else, then, might stoop to such a deed? We cannot tolerate such perversion among us, whatever the excuse. He will not die, but he must be banished.”
“Then I won’t die, maybe,” Tilnon retorted. “But my children will! To move again, when we have nothing now? Not even grain for a new crop, for we ate it. They are innocent of what I did! They should not pay the price.”
“There must be a price for what you have done, monster,” Hullan said, snarling. “My sister deserves better! She deserves justice!”
“Hullan, enough.” The Chief Judge spoke at last, quelling the accuser’s outburst. “Is more death, more hunger, the justice that would please her?” He paused. “It is time, I think, for this Council meeting to adjourn, for the judges to consider their decision. I request that everyone leave the hall, save for the accused. We will announce our verdict at noon tomorrow.”
Tilnon thought he could feel hateful glares boring into his back during the shuffling and muttering as the onlookers rose and departed. Certainly any growls, snarls, or muttered curses were aimed at him. It made him understand that, regardless of any judgment leveled against him, he would have to move south as soon as his family became strong enough to bear it. For the hyarmi would loathe him forever, and he could not risk any of them acting on that hatred. Oddly, it felt a relief, to have cause to flee a home which already carried the imprint of too many grim memories.
The following hours blurred away into a haze of exhaustion. At times Tilnon waited on the stone floor with the mages, listening to the judges argue; other times he came forward and sat on a wooden chair under their probing gazes, to endure more questions. Hullan’s absence provided his only mercy that long afternoon, though he sensed an echo of the accuser’s bitterness and malice in the questions the hyarmi judges flung at him, the harsh words they used to argue for his banishment.
He learned from the proceedings as well, to the increase of his grief. Papers were brought out and Hu-Hanik’s records read, describing her new neighbors, pitying their troubles. She had written about her delight over her few glimpses of Tilnon’s children before the winter came. Then she related her grief to discover their suffering, frustration that she had so little food laid away that humans found pleasant to eat. It felt like knives tearing into Tilnon as he listened, his own ax sundering his flesh. What a friend she would have proven, a benevolent guardian in the forest, watching his children grow. If not for what he had done.
At length, with the chamber even dimmer from coming twilight, the hyarmi judges conceded that their arguments had become repetitive. The mages led Tilnon back toward the tent, which felt a welcome haven. Again they walked unseen among those present in the valley, and he blessed them for it.
He ate, but did not remember what they fed him, slept, woke weeping from his nightmares, and slept again. At last, the morning came. Tarish joined Garred in the tent about an hour before noon, but the mages did not lead Tilnon outside. Instead, they told him to stay still.
A heartbeat later they stood in the Council Hall together. Dread gripped Tilnon at the implication that they would not even risk taking him through the camp.
“Thank you, mages,” a quiet, impassive voice said. “You may leave him with me.”
Tilnon turned, feeling the blood drain from his face as a tall, winged figure stepped out of the shadows of the passageway. He pulled off his hat. Garred and Tarish nodded, not glancing back as they strode away. They were done with him, while he did not want to imagine the stories they would tell their friends and children.
He stood waiting, found no words he could say to the Defender of Life, childhood dreams shattered within him.
“I hope you will answer my questions honestly,” the Defender said. “For I must still make my own decision. I fear this case has proven so polarizing that the Council will split by race, and I myself be left with the deciding vote.”
Tilnon swallowed, then nodded. He would not lie to the Defender, though it doomed him. Nor could he expect gentleness, after the strain his actions had renewed between the races, a misfortune the Chief Judge would be right to lay at his feet.
“Hu-Hanik befriended you, yet in my estimation she remained a stranger. So tell me this: what would you have done had you by accident slain a human neighbor instead and been driven to devour human flesh?”
Tilnon felt bile rise into his throat at the mere imagining. “I-I don’t know. If I had slain a neighbor I recognized, I would have to tell his family. They might have killed me or brought me to trial, and I could only hope my family would not suffer for my crimes. I didn’t know that Hu-Hanik had any family, and I didn’t know where she lived.”
“A stranger, then. Perhaps a lost traveler.”
“Creator have mercy on my children . . . I would have done what I did to Hu-Hanik, and fed my family on human flesh. And pray that they never learn what they had eaten. As I still pray now.”
A short pause. “Then what about myself?”
Tilnon jerked his head up, staring. Killing the Defender would doom the entire world. “No! I-I would have killed myself if I had slain you by accident. I could not have born it.”
The Defender frowned slightly. “Found me dead, rather. What then?”
He dropped his hat and ground his knuckles into his eyes, caught between the horror in his memory and the dread in his thoughts. The Defender would recognize a lie. But his answer would doom him . . . worse, doom his family . . .
“Have mercy on my children, my lord,” he said, fighting against weeping. “I would do to you as I did to Hu-Hanik, but they should not suffer for my evil. Please, have mercy!”
Cold fingers clasped his arm. “Be at peace, Tilnon. I will see to it that your children do not starve. You have proven both honest and equitable, so this is what I will do for you.”
Tilnon lowered his hands, watched uncomprehending as the Defender produced a cloak of dark grey fabric from nowhere, deftly folded it, then knotted it into a bag. Seconds later rye cascaded out of the air, until the makeshift sack bulged with grain.
“This is for your fields.” The Defender handed the bag to him. “And one more matter. It grieves me that your family and doubtless others suffered so greatly this winter, and I knew nothing of it. So take my name—it is Vrnyden—and promise me that you will summon me, should such hardship strike you again. For if you suffer hunger in the future and do not seek me, should trouble come of it, I will cast aside mercy. Do you promise?”
“I-I swear it, my l—Vrnyden. I swear it.” Tilnon stared at him, disbelieving, and clutched the grain to his chest. “For mine, and for my neighbors.”
“Let it be so.” The Defender hesitated, regarding him. Now Tilnon could see beyond the cold perfection of winter, the frosty hue of clothing, the hard, jewel tones of his feathers. Summer dwelt within, the summer of which the ballads and storytellers spoke: replete with bounty, brimful of generosity, abundant in kindness.
His dreams were not so broken after all, nor his hopes.
“I too have known starvation,” the Defender murmured, “and slain for hunger where I later regretted, though my offense was not so great as yours. So do not let shame darken all your days. I do not believe Hu-Hanik would wish it so.” He paused. “Now make yourself comfortable where you wish, Tilnon. No one will see you until I call you forward to receive the verdict.”
So it proved. The minutes crept away, the crowd gathered, and once again the judges assembled. Tilnon stood before them to accept the verdict, heard Hullan growling close behind. As the Defender had predicted, it came to pass. From youngest to oldest, the judges spoke their decisions, and each hyarmi chose banishment, while each human rejected it. So it came then, at the end, to the sole avarii member of the Council.
“I reject the sentence of banishment,” the Defender said. He raised a hand, quelling any outburst among the onlookers. “This man knows what will happen to him, should he act in such a fashion again. He should not suffer disproportionately, nor his family, as an example for anyone else. Let each be judged for his own crimes.” He paused. “You are free, Tilnon of Eastshield, and one of the Council’s mages will see you to your home. This meeting is adjourned.”
Tilnon smiled. Spring had truly come now, not winter.
And spring brings hope.