Season One, Episode Four
“The Crowd Roars”
It’s cold down here. Colder than it should be for someone recovering from a knife to the stomach. If she’s going to recover.
‘She’. The healer wouldn’t use that word. He’d exclaimed when he’d pulled back her lids to check how her pupils responded to light. He’d staggered back. He’d called this woman, this woman who saved Boone’s life… The healer had insisted on calling her ‘it’.
He had refused to treat her at first. The King had to insist. And for a terrible moment, Boone wasn’t sure he was going to. His father had looked so uncertain, so unlike the man Boone usually sees at the far opposite end of the dining table. Always so wise. Always the lines on his face are creases of reassurance, deep thoughts etching deep lines on the face of their leader, Boone’s father, Boone’s… constant in the world. Until this past evening, Boone thought there was nothing in the world his father couldn’t do, and no problem he couldn’t think to a solution, to the right solution. But in that moment, as his father had stood over the ferawicce and the healer spewing his hatred of ‘it’… Boone wasn’t at all sure his father was going to do the right thing. He wasn’t at all sure his father was going to be able to crease his brow, and think the deep thoughts that cause those deep lines, and come to the only possible conclusion:
How can it be the right thing, to let this woman die?
How can they do anything but their best to heal her?
How can they do anything but thank her?
Boone knows it isn’t that his father doesn’t love him enough; he knows his father is distant in the way you admire the very best and beautiful things from afar, the way you never touch a masterpiece painting, the way you can only awe over a sunset from far enough to see the horizon in its full expanse… No. His father’s hesitation was not because his love for Boone is pale, and so therefore his gratitude is likewise sallow. His hesitation was the very strength of his hate. A hate that rivals even his love for his son.
Now that is a hate. A deep hate. A born and bred hate. A taught by tutors, and by the fire, and on your father’s knee kind of hate.
Boone had been getting a taste of that hate himself, hadn’t he?
He has heard the tales of the ferawicce. His tutor included these bloody parables in his history lessons when Boone’s gaze began to wander. His personal guards had once told a racy, gruesome story passed down through their ranks, faces deep in leaping shadows around Boone’s bedroom hearth, trying to scare him. His father…
His father told him, proudly, how it was Boone’s very own great-grandfather who executed the last known adult ferawicce. Boone hadn’t gotten the whole tale, an epic, his father had told him, a journey of a lifetime and a King’s own quest. But Boone had gotten the conclusion of the tale, told in his father’s so soothing baritone, lulling him to sleep one night. King Sephaur withstood a siege on their very city, so the tale concluded. And the ferawicce shook the city and rose the oceans and many men died, and many more burned as she called out to fire to lay her enemies to ashes, but King Sephaur and his knights rode out to meet the beast while she was distracted by her own carnage. They braved the heaving oceans to make land on the border with the northern kingdom and with hardy northern steeds, they circled back down through the woods to come up upon the ferawicce undetected…
And cut her down.
She was bloodied and broken and drugged insensate with herbs from… a healer… and she never woke again. They hung her unconscious. They couldn’t risk her waking. And yet, they could not deny the people of Pöeddae the justice for which they hungered. There was cheering in the streets such that they shook once more.
And the final ferawicce was hung, and quartered, and the pieces of her thrown into the sea for the creatures of the Waterwei to feast upon.
Since then they have killed the ferawicce before they may grow to monsters. Though, Boone supposes, many people would argue with that sentence. The assumption being, of course, that ferawicce are born monsters. Boone just can’t see it. He remembers being small, small enough for his mother to carry without his legs dangling down to tangle awkwardly with her own. He remembers the pure marvel of the world then. It is still a marvel, surely. But back then nearly everything he saw was the most beautiful thing he ever saw… because he had seen so little. He was so filled with surprise and fascination as he toddled about through his earliest years that he had no room at all for dark thoughts or dark intentions. How could a babe, even a ferawicce babe, be evil before even their awe of the world had worn off? How could you have learned to hate, before you even learned the word for it?
Here lies proof that perhaps it is not a monster from first breath, a ferawicce, but only a monster men have carved with swords and screaming for a hundred years. This ferawicce, this woman, risked her life for a stranger. This woman took a knife to her stomach so that Boone would not take a sword to his head. This woman reached out her hand, clutching Boone’s tokre like it was something precious, and she cried out for him and…
Well, he’s not sure exactly what happened then. Waterwei magic, which should be impossible for a ferawicce, he believes. And yet there was no mistaking that part. The waters rose and eddies and shallows became deep and heaving and rapids reached out raging hands that struck down Boone’s captor when the ferawicce’s own hands were in fact too far to save him.
Boone does not believe, cannot believe, after this past day, that ferawicce are born monsters. Boone believes men have made them into monsters. Boone believes, perhaps, that men are the monsters.
Could it be that Boone is the ‘it’ to this woman?
And yet, she saved him?
Here they are. She’s lying on a dirty cot with a haphazard bandage begrudgingly wrapped around her stomach, and Boone simply doesn’t know enough about herbs to judge if whatever the healer put in the salve will help her or harm her, and the whole scene is accompanied by the high squeaking melody of the rats and the steady beat of water running down the dungeon walls.
This is how men repay a kindness?
If this is what it means to be a ‘man’, Boone might have to rethink all his aspirations.
The first thing Boone feels is relief… But there’s something off about the way the knight is standing.
“Garrik?” Boone asks. What he means to ask is, Why is your face so drawn? Why are your lips pinched like you ate something sour? Why do you stand with your weight steadied against your back foot, ready to flee, but poised to attack? Why are your eyes so unnaturally wide, like you may have been able to affect innocence in the past, but you have forgotten the feeling by now, and so you have also forgotten the expression?
“My Lord.” Garrik bows to him. Too low. Garrik doesn’t usually bow at all when they’re alone. He’s known Boone since Boone was only a rounded stomach and a woman’s secret smile. He addresses Boone, scandalously, only by his name, when it is just the two of them. When he does bow, as a show for company, it is informal, it is only a dip of his head and a slight bend at his waist; it says to those others ‘This is my Prince and it is affection as much as duty that draws my sword to his defense. Be wary.’
This bow says, ‘Here is only a boy. Just a boy. And I will put on a show for him this time.’
“My Lord,” Garrik husks again, as though only now gathering his thoughts, only now thinking to appeal to him, “you have spent many long hours in this dungeon. Surely you are tired. Surely this damp and dark do you no good. I understand that you feel an obligation to this creature. I do not pretend to understand the emotion; I would have the creature killed. But it is your emotion, and I honor it above my own. Allow me to relieve you of your vigil. I will guard the creature in your stead, and you may return when you are rested.”
A lie. His father may not be able to think any problem to its just and right solution, and his most beloved knight is capable of lying with a pretty tongue and a direct gaze. He would betray Boone’s trust and he would murder this woman with one fell swoop of that carefully shined and sharpened sword of his. Well, these are the days, apparently, for heroes to tarnish…
“You will have to remove me forcibly from this room, if you wish to have her,” Boone tells Garrik. Bitterness tastes a bit like pure cocoa, he thinks to himself. No wonder it comes out sounding dark and spat as much as spoken.
Surprised. Garrik is surprised, though Boone can’t tell if the surprise is more at the fact that Boone saw through his ruse, or that he was so rude as to point it out.
“My Lord,” he tries once more. He tries to regain his pretty tone, but clenching his teeth makes the notes hit sharp. “I - ”
“Wish this woman ill,” Boone finishes for him. “And you wish that I would leave you to it.”
He is done with lies. And he has decided, quite suddenly, that he has no use for the men who speak them. Garrik. Where is the Garrik who was so brave, who shone so brightly as he charged into battle against any man at all who would take the challenge? Who is this man who is such a coward he would murder an injured woman, rather than face an unknown future? Garrik. Boone feels, a little, like someone has died.
Heroes may die, Boone is realizing, even if they make it to the end of the story. Perhaps more likely then, as we would see them go on to live their lives. We would see the mistakes they must all make, eventually. The little, petty moments. The fears even their sharp and shiny swords cannot best.
Boone draws his own sword now. It is only a practice sword. It is made of wood. And yet he feels more of a man, gripping this silly wooden sword, than the man in armor standing a pace away.
“I will not let you harm her.”
So the words are still high-pitched because he is many years away from his voice breaking. So they are breathless with his own fear, that Garrik will harm her anyway, that Garrik will harm Boone, even, to get to her…
But they are still a man’s words.
A good man.
Maybe the sort of man that might redeem the word.
Garrik glares at him. It’s still a look mostly comprised of the exasperation with which a parent might view a child, but there’s a hint of real anger there too, a man across the cell from a challenger.
“I believe I could best you,” he drawls with his hand on his own hilt. His real sword. His metal and biting sword.
“Yes,” Boone agrees. “But you would likely harm me in the attempt, if I really make a go of it. You might harm me more than you intend. It might even be a tragedy. Or treason.”
Something strange flickers in Garrik’s gaze then, some other sort of heat Boone is not versed enough in men’s faces to recognize. But whatever it is, it flickers away as quickly as it came…
And Garrik takes his hand from his hilt.
He looks at Boone with an appraising gaze, like maybe he can see the first hints of a man before him.
“As you wish, my Lord,” he finally murmurs. “But you should know the King meets with his advisors even as we speak. And what he commands, I will do, regardless of your pointed stick.” He scoffs at Boone’s practice sword, still raised, shaking though it may be.
Boone’s whole body is shaking actually. So much so that he only nods to dismiss Garrik, doesn’t utter a word as he watches the knight and his glaringly clean armor, ambling back down the filthy dungeon corridor. He’s afraid, if he speaks, his voice will be shaking too. He doesn’t want to hear it himself. He doesn’t want Garrik to hear it.
To the woman on the bed though, he doesn’t mind if she hears the tears he’s only just holding back. He doesn’t mind if she can tell that it’s only a boy speaking, only a boy playing pretend at being a man. She saw him bowed before a brigand with a sword. She cried with him then.
“You saved my life,” he whispers his teary whisper to her. “It only seems right that I return the favor.”
And so he resumes his post, pacing at the foot of her bed.
He leaves his sword unsheathed.
‘Reasonable’ is a word she sees no reason to acknowledge, apparently.
“Kaia,” Abelard sighs.
But that’s all his wife allows him the chance to say before she explodes with full the same force as the heavy wooden door which banged against the wall so spectacularly when she made her dress-billowing entrance…
“I can’t believe you’re even discussing this!”
“I can’t quite believe we’re discussing it either,” Abelard agrees. He should have let Garrik strike the killing blow in the forest. He has risked every last man, woman, and child in his kingdom by letting the ferawicce take even a single breath beyond the long exhale that followed her insensate body to the ground. But Kaia had refused to let the woman from her arms. With a strength surely bolstered by magic, Abelard’s wife had retaken her saddle and ridden the entire way back to Pöeddae, cradling the ferawicce like a child, cooing down at her even, when the creature had made sounds of pain as the ride jostled.
His son had kept Luonn between Kaia and the entirety of the Guard the entire way back. All the Guard saw was an injured woman, a strange sight, surely, that she was riding across the Queen’s saddle, but that’s all. That’s all Abelard intends them to know at all. Still, there are already murmurs in the castle, murmurs that filtered in from outside the castle. Peasants pass stories through their generations as well as Kings. This city is composed of the grandchildren of the men of Pöeddae who perished at the hands of the last ferawicce, just as Abelard is the grandchild of King Sephaur himself. The villagers remember that the last time the city shook apart it was a ferawicce. It is only natural that they should look around at this same destruction now and wonder… Fear is a lubricant to wondering. They see and they wonder and they fear and so they are almost certain…
“A ferawicce?” they whisper to one another. And nod. And jump at the shadows starting to grow long with midday.
So the Guard has begun to murmur, because the people are murmuring. The men guarding the dungeon are eyeing the door. The men guarding the wall are looking behind them as often as they’re looking out, as afraid of what is inside the castle as what may be beyond it. Abelard has buried the monster in the very heart of his city. There will be rioting and a storming of the castle if anyone decides they know for certain. The guards may well turn against their post. Though he didn’t have much of one, Abelard wonders now if he made the wrong choice.
He brought the beast back because Kaia sometimes is very much like the ocean; she makes a decision and seems to pull the whole world along with her, every man in her wake caught by her currents. He brought the beast back because his son was crying and he tied his tokre where the beast had wrapped it around her palm and insisted he would not take it back until the creature was conscious enough to give it back. He brought the beast back because he was exhausted, and he wasn’t thinking clearly, and if he had been thinking clearly he would have intended to let the people have her for their justice, hang her and quarter her just as they did the last time Pöeddae shook and shuddered.
But this? Everything that has happened since the gates opened and the castle welcomed its King? Abelard intended none of this. Not that his wife and his son would beseech him for a healer. Not that they would watch over the ferawicce while the poor man worked. Not that they would sleep together in the dungeon, rather than leave the beast to fate and the ‘accident’ that surely would have befallen her by morning…
Abelard prides himself on being able to see at least a few weeks ahead of him; how on earth could you possibly lead others, if you do not know yourself where your next step will take you? But he hadn’t see this coming. None of it.
Observed though he was, at least the healer was a wily man, at least he managed to slip into his salve that which might seep the ferawicce’s strength as well as her infection; at least he managed to give her a draught that would prolong her sleep even as it hastened her healing. Abelard may yet have time to correct his foolishness, he may yet make a wise decision, no matter how his heart cries at his wife bursting into his council, at his son, bursting into tears…
“We must kill her before she wakes,” one of Abelard’s advisors speaks for him.
But yet another, a foolish man, perhaps, or foolhardy, or only brave, or overly pragmatic, or simply a younger man in every sense and young enough that he has not heard the tales of the ferawicce directly, only a generation removed… He says, “We should speak with her first. We must learn from her what we can before we give her to the waves.”
“I agree with Tolkeinn,” Abelard voices over his young advisor’s glare, over his wife’s brow furrowing, thunderclouds billowing across her face.
“This is the woman who saved your son’s life not more than twelve hours ago!” Kaia cries.
“She is not a woman, Kaia,” Abelard tries, he tries reason. “She is a ferawicce.”
“Close enough to fool the healer!”
“Until he saw her eyes,” Abelard points out. Calm, reasonable.
“Until he saw her eyes.” Kaia echoes, not at all reasonable. “Yes. Until he saw her eyes. Her damn eyes. Is that all that makes a man these days? Is that all we are to judge him by? Only the color of his eyes? Do actions count for nothing in our reckoning of a man’s soul? Only the color of his eyes?”
Tolkeinn answers again, as Abelard would, if he could speak past the strange hesitation, like a dry itch in his throat. “When the color is gold, yes.”
Defeat is such an unnatural expression, on Kaia’s face. It twists her beauty from a peach to a pit, from soft, round lines glowing a pale pink-orange, to hard edges and a withered expression. Hidden truths in her face now, hard truths, break your teeth on them truths. “You’re letting fear make your decision for you!” she accuses Abelard with that hard, dark, buried kind of honesty. And then her conclusion, the dark sprout that might sprout from that seed. “You are the monster in this story!”
Abelard feels that the fable might be so. Abelard feels like a character in a tale that might teach how wisdom sometimes seems foolish, but so too does foolishness sometimes masquerade as wisdom. Perhaps Abelard is only the cautionary King, a King to be told in tale to future Kings, to warn them what happens when a man takes too much pride in his own wisdom.
“What of the peoples’ justice?” one of Abelard’s other advisors finally breaks the silence that has fallen, heavy and halting.
“What of it?” Tolkeinn challenges.
“The villagers deserve recompense for the lives the beast has taken. They deserve to take her life in payment for their grief.”
Tolkeinn only nods after a long moment. A solemn, single nod. “I have no objection to that, my Lord,” he turns to Abelard now. “I assert only that the beast never turn her golden eyes to our beautiful kingdom again. If the people should like to hang her as our forefathers did the beasts of old, let them have that small recompense. Let them grieve to the sound of her neck snapping, and her limbs torn asunder.”
“You must at least give her a chance to defend herself!” Kaia tries, one last time. “Please, speak with her. Doesn’t any accused deserve as much? No matter their crime, you would give even the most dastardly villain a chance to defend themselves!”
“There is no defense against an offense of birth,” Tolkeinn hisses. He has lost his patience, old man. But Abelard has lost his too. He gives his advisors leave to speak openly, leave to speak, even, above Abelard himself. Many a spirited argument has filled this room and many times Abelard himself has been the one opining his views to little regard. It is, after all, an essential component to any true wisdom: that there are many voices heard and that no one voice may silence any of the others. Let what is true rise to the top like cream, let it curdle with time and a little vitriol, and let the world feast upon it paired with a fine wine. This is how Abelard convinced a dozen Kings of a dozen kingdoms to stop fighting over goods they might share. This is how Abelard helped the fishermen of Pöeddae design and build the world’s only roadway of shallow-water docks, strong enough for heavy wagons to pull right up to the ships in the deeper waters. This is how Abelard… runs his kingdom. With peace and an honest desire to learn from any man who might speak.
But, “Enough.” Tolkeinn is not King. And it is not his wife he has chastised like a child. “Tell the people they shall have their hanging at dawn,” he says to Tolkeinn’s relieved face. And to his wife’s hunched shoulders and wrung fingers: “Though I will speak to the beast, should she wake before.”
“Should she?” Kaia echoes, pulling a suspicious gaze from the floor. “Why shouldn’t she?”
Kaia is smart enough to know that she didn’t recognize all the herbs the healer put in his salve, no doubt. Abelard has no response, nothing to negate the guess growing in her gaze.
Of course, he needs none when one of the Guard bangs the council room doors open much as Kaia did earlier, when the poor, terrified man whispers, as a child whispers of his most horrible nightmares and midnight monsters: “The beast is awake!”
The healer sputters from his shadowed corner of the room, and Abelard wonders: If his salve didn’t keep her sleeping, will it keep her weak?
And then he wonders: If he races down to the dungeons right now, is it already too late? Can he kill her now? Will he still be able to kill her in an hour? In a day?
And: Will he have to speak with her now? Will he have to hear her defense? Will he have to hear the details of how she survived these past odd years? Will he have to listen to his wife and his son speaking with her too, asking her questions, treating her like a woman instead of a ferawicce? And how long can Abelard himself listen before he forgets again? Before he too sees a woman, the way he saw a woman when she was lying still, with her eyes closed, cradled in his wife’s arms and laid across her saddle…
How long will she be weak enough to kill?
And how long will Abelard be strong enough to kill her?
There is a small boy by her bed when she wakes.
There is an old man.
Or, perhaps not old, only aged by too little sleep and too many hours spent worrying on matters he cannot change, complications no amount of wisdom can foresee as men stumbled and stagger drunk through their lives and their passions and their strange, fickle natures… They bet when they should hold. They hoard their money but fling their morals to the beggars. It is… the King, the ferawicce remembers. It is…
The little blond boy.
“You’re alive,” she breathes the words, the surprise, the heavenly calm that settles deep in her joints at the sight of him, softening her entire body as it has not truly rested, never fully supine, for nearly a half-year.
The boy’s laughter is a barking of surprise, a noise it is apparent even he did not know he could make, if the wide eyes and the petering of the sound is anything to go by. “You’re alive,” he finally breathes back.
Indeed, she is. Although…
She can still feel the phantom sensation of the knife slicing through her innards. When she shifts it is the same sharp pain that rips through all other thoughts to leave the full of her focus on: It hurts. It hurts. It hurts. There is something festering and molding atop her wound; she can feel the putrid plants sinking beneath her skin, slowing her thoughts, making her limbs heavy and her head light. A salve, she realizes, that is doing her more harm than good, slathered beneath the bandages she can feel wrapped like tentacles around her middle, no doubt fully intending every ill effect. But beneath the salve, there is also the white powder remains of the fir tree’s healing sap, buried in her as deep as a sword thrust, cut to the bone. The sap burns bright as white fire, harsh and glaring as unflinching truth, searing away the infection in her wounds and the muddying of her thoughts.
It’s enough that she can take stock of sensations beyond her stomach: the quiet ache in her legs that whispers memories of vistas and valleys, the loving murmur of… silk… wrapped around her hand like someone has entwined their fingers and refused to let go… the cold petulance of… steel… like an angry grip, bruising very different set of fingers in a permanent purple bracelet around her wrist…
It’s the boy’s tokre, tied across her palm, and his father’s shackle, encircling her wrist.
“If this is how you repay service to the crown,” she jingles her chains for the King, “it is a miracle you have a kingdom.”
The boy glares at his father; he has a temper. But the King is infuriatingly calm.
“The chains are for our protection.”
“The chains are for show,” the boy counters.
“Boone!” the King calls him, the King chastises him.
“If this woman shook Pöeddae as you told me,” the Prince counters his King, “then those chains will do nothing to hold her here, or hold her from us.”
What the King opens his mouth to say, what the King does not say, does not admit is: The chains may not hold her, but her wounds might, the poison I have had put on her wounds in place of medicine, that might hold her. The chains are only the explanation that is less complicated to explain. She is held by chains, not treachery. That is what we tell everyone who looks upon this scene. So they do not suspect treachery elsewhere.
What the King does say is: “They are better than nothing.”
A select truth, the ferawicce supposes.
“Boone,” he finally sighs, when his son shows no signs of accepting half-truths for more than their half-worth, “I need to speak with our guest.”
The ferawicce couldn't have said it better herself. The boy got the incredulity of the tone just right.
“Our prisoner,” the King finally relents. But he parries, “She killed three dozen of our people. She needs to answer to me, and she needs to answer to the people.”
“Will you, or the people,” Prince Boone asks, “hear her answer?”
“Will you hear her answer?” the Prince insists.
The King does pause, does seem to honestly intend: “I’ll try.”
“Then I would like to hear her answer too,” Boone asserts.
The King smiles then, lays a hand on the boy’s shoulder and seems to admire that the boy has a hand on the hilt of his… wooden sword. Her fierce protector, the ferawicce thinks to herself. She hears an echo, a memory of the boy whispering to her in a teary voice that she saved his life, and so he owes her the same in return. Though she did not save him for a mark, for a favor… It is nice to think there is one sword, even if it’s only a wooden one, that is raised in her defense, instead of against her.
“You are still a boy,” the King sighs down to his son, “no matter how you have grown in the last day, and no matter how you may wish it isn’t so. There are some discussions that will be in a foreign tongue to you still, my son. I believe this is one of them. I do not want you angered, or frightened, by an inaccurate translation.”
“You mean, you think I won’t understand what you’re talking about?” the boy asks his father. The King nods, but the Prince shakes his head with more wisdom than his father. “Then there is something wrong with what you are saying, or what you are not saying. When a man says ‘duck’, he should mean ‘duck’. When a man says ‘peace’, he should mean ‘peace’. I think it should not be so complicated.”
“Perhaps you will make it so,” the King murmurs, “but not today.” The hand he places on his son’s shoulder is gentle, but it is also a large hand, on a small shoulder, an old hand, on a young shoulder. “As your father, I am asking you to leave. As your King, I will have to insist.”
“One day I will be King,” the boy intones.
“One day you will,” the King agrees.
The boy gives the ferawicce a long look and when she holds out her hand so he may retrieve his tokre, he only slides his hand into hers. The silk, she realizes, was a pale comparison to the reality of this boy from her dreams trusting his fragile little hand into the care of her worn and weary paw. He squeezes her hand once, short, hard, heartfelt.
“You keep it.”
To exchange tokres with another is a betrothal. But to give your tokre away with nothing gained in return is the highest sign of esteem: that you would give to this person what you have built of your heart so far, what experiences you have tied to your sleeve, all that has made you the man you have been in every moment up until this very one… And you will start over. You will build anew. Because you want to give to this person all that you are and all that you have. Because your gratitude, your admiration, your affection for this person cannot be adequately expressed with any lesser token.
The ferawicce’s own tokre was a gift, but that was an exchange, though the ferawicce and her beloved blond so long ago… They were too young to know the meaning, too young to understand really what forever meant, what… love meant. That little blonde had proven only months after the exchange, in fact, that she didn’t know the first thing about love, or at least didn’t love…
Didn’t love her.
It still hurts the ferawicce just to think it, to remember.
No one has ever given her their tokre with nothing to glean in return.
The boy is doing it partially as the final word to his father, as a stubborn stomping of his foot in a far more graceful gesture. But his clear-stream eyes are earnest too. His smile is trembling. His little brow is furrowed with worry for her.
So the ferawicce only nods, and curls her fingers around the silk and a fist, when her hand is empty once more.
The boy leaves, and the King turns.
He does not prevaricate. The ferawicce can see why she has heard, already, the guards reassuring themselves that their King is ‘wise’, that he must have reasons for his actions, reasons beyond their ken, reasons that will make even his strangest decisions come right somewhere, down the line, when a dozen more moves have been played, by a dozen more players. The King looks the ferawicce in the eye, and he asks the only question that probably matters, really: “How are you alive?”
It’s a complicated question, with a seemingly simple answer, “I have lived for many years,” the ferawicce tells him, “in the Red Woods.”
The King eyes her as though she and the trees might be in league together. The Red Woods are creeping, you see. And they devour men. But the ferawicce is full as full of rage as they, and so they leave her be. Perhaps the trees know she would taste of bitterness and bile.
“Why did you leave the Woods?”
So many questions he might ask, but he chooses, by instinct somehow, the one that would reveal the most. The ferawicce could lie, of course. Or she could end this farce of civilized conversation, scream at him and demand her freedom, or else cry and play at the wounded woman. But the truth is, she’s relieved. She’s grateful even. The boy is alive and she has slept for the first time in months, drugged though she may have been. This man is somehow tied to her dreams and strange, twisted fate. So she tells him the truth. What good could it do, to do otherwise?
“I had a dream. Of Boone,” she tries his name on her tongue for the first time. It tastes like… sunflowers. Like the seeds. Like walking along on a summer day, eating the shelled meat directly from the roasted bloom. “I dreamed of Boone’s death. Repeatedly. I was clearly meant to stop it. So I started walking south, to where there were men with rusted swords and gleaming greed. To a place where a boy’s life is worth the price of his horse, and the coin in his pocket.”
“You dreamed? Of Boone?” the King asks. But the ferrawicce knows repeating the words won’t make it any easier to believe. So she says nothing. And the King nods, and says, “I believe you,” perhaps because she has been silent, and has not tried to gild her tale. “But just because you saved his life, it does not excuse the lives you took.”
“And the fact that I took those lives only in defense of my own? And unknowingly?”
She doesn’t know why she’s arguing. She was condemned hours ago, years ago, the very moment she first blinked her eyes to open. This man may be a King, he may even be ‘wise’, but he is still only a man. Still, it is something, she supposes, that he tries to explain, that he sounds apologetic even as he murmurs, “Neither of those facts will comfort the bereaved. And nothing you say, nothing I say, will change what they hear when they hear the word ‘ferawicce’.”
An interesting distinction. They. “And you?” the ferawicce has to ask.
“I was fascinated by the ferawicce as a child,” the King confesses. “I read everything I could get my hands on.”
He pauses for so long, and looks at her with such honest consideration, as though he really might spare her life, as though he could, even if he wanted to, and his villagers would not revolt and kill her anyway, that the ferawicce has to prompt him: “And?”
“Ferawicce were not born monsters.” This time the confession is strained, the whisper lowered, just in case the guards beyond the door can somehow hear through two inches of wood. It is a secret worth the whispering, a truth only a handful of scholars and the ancient tomes might know. And no one would confess. The ferawicce could tell you, certainly, that she has rarely felt monstrous urges. But even she could not be sure. For would a monster know himself a fiend? Would you recognize your urges as monstrous, so long as they were yours? The ferawicce thinks not, and so she has always wondered, beneath her explicit denial, if it isn’t all true, if she isn’t exactly what they say. But this? That she was not born a fiend and so still might not have a monster’s soul festering in this fleshy shell? What a whisper! What impossible words! What maddening words! And then the King says in eerie slant-echo: “But they went mad.”
His words have pulled her from relief, to rage, to bleak dread. “They all went mad,” the King continues his quiet, cutting words, wincing like they cut him too. “Some of them were warriors. Some of them were heroes. Some of them did great things. But they all, all of them,” he stresses, “did terrible things. No matter how great, or how good they were, they all went bad. They all went mad.”
“You do not kill a man for crimes you see in his eyes. You kill him only once he has committed his atrocities. But you would kill me for the possibility that I may go mad?”
“I will kill you because I am certain you will go mad. And the atrocities a ferawicce can commit are greater than the wildest atrocities in even the most evil man’s gaze.”
The ferawicce sighs. So tired. So hopeless. So scared. She has done what she intended to do, and perhaps it is her reward that she will never have the opportunity to go mad. Hasn’t she felt the first stirrings already? Hasn’t she tasted the golden -
The King interrupts her thoughts. He is a King and wont to interrupting anything he pleases. And he is a man tasked with a greater task than any one man should undertake. So many lives he leads, to prosperity, or to ruin.
“I am gambling my entire kingdom,” all those lives, “on the belief that you can’t shake us to the ground just now, nor call to the seas, nor fire.” He gestures to her bandages, to the sneaky, fermenting leaves someone has trapped against her skin. “But from everything I can tell,” he muses, pauses, marvels, “you haven’t even tried.” He seems honestly perplexed and in this moment he reminds the ferawicce, just a little, of his little son. They have been talking a very long while, and he has been distressingly frank, so she supposes it only makes sense for him to wonder: “Why?”
It’s not enough. It’s not enough that he wonders. It’s not enough that she can see that the little blond boy’s goodness, curiosity, willingness to look and see and believe things for himself rather than what he has been told for seven years… All of that is as much a product of this man as the beautiful woman she remembers only as a fleeting specter in her memory of the woods. Still, all of that, none of that… It is not enough to erase her shackle, nor the fact that it is this man who placed it on her and insists it not be removed. If he ever had full the same earnestness as his son, he has since outgrown his wide open heart and mind.
“I try to remember that men are born innocent creatures,” the ferawicce spits her bitterness. “It is only by other men that men are corrupted.” Clear in her gaze which men, which men. “I try not to take innocent lives.”
A strange twist of fate, that the lives she will not take are the same lives that would take her life. Perhaps such unbending morals are a kind of foolishness. Perhaps they are an idealism best left to children. And beasts. Ah, and therein the rub. She is no longer a child, as she is full grown among men. But she is also half beast, so they say. And the beasts know nothing of grey morals, know nothing of compromise, know nothing of twisting their beliefs and the words they say to match their actions to whoever they purport to be and whatever they purport to believe in. What an animal does, you can be sure, is a full honest expression of what he thinks and feels in any given moment. He bites when he is angry, or scared. He whimpers his fear. He will kill without hesitation or remorse if it is to feed himself or his family. He will kill in ways that look like tragedy, because he knows it is really only life, continuing its endless cycle.
Maybe she didn’t feel this way as a child - She can’t honestly remember that she did. - but the ferawicce has since spent a decade living in the woods, with only the plants and the beasts for company and… She does indeed feel fully as much a beast as a man these days. In this moment she feels, in fact, that she is grateful to be perhaps more beast than man.
Though, of course, there is still that damned man, that piece of her that is whispering:
It isn’t all for morality, is it? Her reluctance to kill every man, woman, and child in this city. It isn’t only that she balks at the bloodshed. It isn’t only that killing a hundred thousand men is too much to eat and therefore too much to kill. It isn’t even, the darkest parts of her smirk, that she balks at killing the boy, that she thinks it would be a tragedy as though the sun went dark, to see the lives of the Queen and her little Prince snuffed out.
Oh, it is a beast’s immediate terror, for that is all he knows. But it is also a man’s scared wondering, staring up at the dark sky and unable to sleep even as midnight moves to dawn because he cannot stop the way he shivers at his own scary story, whispering in his head:
Perhaps he is a monster.
At least, the ferawicce imagines, this is what men who are not fully monsters yet must ponder. And the ferawicce is not free of this affliction of men. She is, quite simply, scared. She is scared that if she destroys this city she will be the monster men cower before now. There will be no way to justify, even to herself, that her one life was worth more than these hundred thousand.
And she is scared that, if she destroys this city, she will be the monster men cower before now. Not to her own mental figurings, but to the cold light of day, to undeniable reality, to every day lived past this one lived… as a ‘Ferwicce’. The way the word is whispered. The way the stories of such creatures are passed down, as important as the stories of nations at war, ships lost at sea, plagues wiping out entire villages… Because the ferawicce killed fully as many as these tragedies. They were their own form of warfare, raging nature, plagues… all by themselves. The King is right. The tragedies wrought by the ferawicce made mad men look sane and gentle by comparison.
There is madness threaded throughout that golden power. There is a craving the ferawicce feels for that golden stream, that vast network of endless power stretching between us all… She feels a soul-deep hunger to sip that golden nectar even now. Not only that she wants to live, not even a craving full as deep as her hunger to see tomorrow’s sun, but something… deeper, darker. It is not only her own craving. It is as though she can feel the hunger of every ferawicce that ever lived before her and how they, all of them, must have felt this same craving for more, more, more of that golden river that extends to the ends of the earth and connects you on the most fundamental level with every single life that swims or crawls or sways its branches…
Did the other ferawicce simply fall to their craving?
Has this whole history of bloodshed been one long, species-wide addiction?
When Abelard murmurs the words as the only explanation, as the explanation given only because there is no other explanation to give, is he absolutely right?
They went mad, he says, as a catch-all answer.
But maybe he’s right.
Maybe all the ferawicce who came before, maybe they really did go mad.
There is madness crawling through that golden stream. Rage. Where Waterwei training always includes meditation techniques and ways to access your inner peace for it is that calm and still and deep within you from which you will pull the power to put behind your Waterwei whisperings… Perhaps the source of ferawicce magic is rage. And perhaps when you pull your magic from an emotion as akin to fire as the Waterwei peace is akin to it’s element… Perhaps you run the risk of that fire raging beyond the confines you have set. You have tried to build a bonfire in the woods, but an ember has jumped the circle of your rocks, has landed beyond the land you cleared to dead dirt, has lit at first only a single leaf on fire, but then it crackles in the underbrush until the hedges catch, until the trees are burning men around you, screaming as they fall.
The ferawicce is terrified that if she uses that endless golden magic to perform feats that require endless magic…
She might not escape the rage this time.
Perhaps she is not so noble that she would not condemn the entire world to burn, if it was to save herself.
But she is scared that she will burn with the rest.
She is scared that the ferawicce of old were only ashes on the marionette strings of that very same rage, echoing down all the generations to now, here, maybe even to this single moment in time and this one decision:
“Even if I could, I would not raze a city for my own life.”
The ferawicce realizes that this decision might be both fatal and the first step to being a being worthy of this life…
But the King only sighs after a hard moment, and a hard look. His back is straight, but his shoulders are stooped, looking for all the world like this pains him though it is he that speaks the condemnation, and he that walks free from this cell.
“I don’t believe you.”
She cannot simply stand back and listen to the silence. Not again. Most people would probably say it is the screaming that wreaks havoc with one’s peace, and surely it is still the screaming that Kaia hears echoing in every moment when it is, in truth, silent. But the moment, the feeling, that haunts her every moment of every day whether it is silent or loud, whether she is still or dancing, no matter where she goes or what she’s doing or how much wine she drinks… It is the moment of silence that haunts her. Elois stopped screaming and Kaia knew she was dead. Kaia knew she had killed her. Kaia knew she would never love anyone in this world, not ever, the way she had loved Elois. Kaia knew the rest of her life was the hell she must live in penance for destroying not only a life, but that most precious thing that makes life worth living. Elois’ beautiful eyes so filled with love. Elois' beautiful eyes clouded with confusion. Elois’ beautiful eyes, filling with hurt as she cried out after Kaia, as she wailed after her, “Where are you going?”
Away. Away. Away.
In some ways Kaia feels like she has been running away every waking moment since she first turned to flee the forest that fateful, bloody morning. There was screaming, and then there was silence, and then there were water noises whispering the secrets of men’s souls in Kaia’s ears. And she didn’t want to know. She didn’t care about anyone’s soul but the one she had lost, the one she had snuffed to silence. She has felt, forever since, a little bit empty, a little bit like, for all there is an ocean in her chest, for all the crashing and wailing of waves, it is… Only half an ocean, only the ‘call’ of a ‘call and response’. When the waves crash in Kaia’s soul, there should be the sound of receding waves, whispering away from the sand, whispering in someone else’s soul.
Abelard was the closest thing Kaia had ever found to a bearable soul to stand beside precisely because the sound of his soul is silence and so at least Kaia can pretend, when she stands in his arms, and hears nothing, that it is only the silence of his soul, and not all the empty spaces in her own.
But now this.
All of a sudden it is the waves crashing in another soul and the whispering of the waves racing away from the sand, whispering in Kaia’s soul.
She has found her soul’s echo. She has found the soul that sounds so closely like her own that she is not sure it is an echo at all. She wonders if it is her soul that is the echo. And she cherishes the thought.
Would that she were an echo. Would that she never has to live another moment of ponderous, tragic silence because if the crashing waves of this soul are silenced, Kaia too will simply cease to be. For without the sound of origin, there is no echo, no echo, no echo…
The sound does echo when she drops the keys at the end of the long dungeon corridor, however. Kaia stands a long, frozen moment outside the barred wooden door, terrified, trembling, thinking up a thousand excuses for what she’s doing down here, each more stupid than the last. Thank the stars the guards don’t come. Thank the stars they are terrified of the ferawicce, and a bit too fond of fermented beverages, and the combination has led them to a fraught overindulgence this evening, carousing earlier, and now making just as much noise snoring and grunting in their sleep.
Kaia picks the keys back up. Kaia sticks the shaking keys into the infuriatingly still lock, so hard to steer shaking hands and shaking keys to a stationary point. But she manages it. She even manages to turn the key, manages not to flinch at the deadbolt’s screeching recession, manages to step through the doorway on the first step of many, she’s sure, to the full trappings of treason.
Abelard may have no choice but to hang her for this.
He has told Pöeddae they will have a hanging.
The village will not settle for less.
That their Queen should deny them the grisly victory they have been celebrating in the streets since night fell?
Well, she will not deny them.
She will do perfectly fine as an understudy, she’s sure.
Her neck will snap as prettily.
That she is mad enough to set a ferawicce free?
Then she is as mad as a ferawicce herself.
Sound, and echo, Kaia reminds herself as she walks across the stone floors, as she kneels by the bed and the chains and the thick, rusted shackle… Sound, and echo…
Kaia does not want to live the rest of her life as what remains of an echo when there is no sound. She has been a ghost of a girl for a decade now. She cannot lose herself any further, she cannot live with a still smaller portion of her soul intact, she cannot spend one more moment of one more day haunted by silence, or she will start screaming.
So she reaches for that shackle, and she brings the shaking keys she has stolen, once more, to a still -
To a lock that moves, quicksilver, as a slender hand reaches out and forms a living shackle around Kaia’s wrist.
The grip bruises, and the ferawicce glares.
And then -
The strangest thing.
The golden eyes lock with Kaia’s own gaze and -
The ferawicce stares.
The golden eyes widen, and her eyebrows rise, and her mouth falls open, and she stares.
When she finally does blink, it’s not a natural, unconscious gesture, but a deliberate choice, eyes squeezed tightly shut, perhaps hoping, when she opens them, that she will find Kaia was only a hallucination. Leastwise she seems surprised to find this is not the case when she eventually does open her eyes again, when they see just exactly the same sight that was before them before they closed. She shakes her head, and she looks at Kaia sideways, as though the angle of the view might change what she’s seeing.
Finally, the ferawicce swallows, and she licks her lips, and she coughs past something heavy in her throat.
Whatever it was Kaia was expecting, it wasn’t her name. Of all the words the ferawicce could have whispered just now, Kaia’s name was not one she would have predicted. How does the ferawicce even know her name?
Did Abelard and Garrik speak her name in the woods?
They must have.
It’s a breach of protocol to call Kaia by her first name rather than addressing her by her many and ridiculous titles, no doubt. But then again, Kaia kneeling on the floor of the ferawicce’s cell in the middle of the night… That’s a very definite breach in protocol. So she supposes she shouldn’t be a stickler for the rules just now. Not that she usually is. And… not that she minds. Or, at least not because it’s a breach in protocol. The ferawicce’s voice is thick with sleep, low and raspy, and the sound of Kaia’s name, growled so in that sleepy voice… It makes her feel warm. It makes her shiver with some sort of primal fear that has nothing to do with being in a dungeon committing treason. And yet, just hearing the ferawicce speak somehow feels fully as dangerous as all the wildly more dangerous things Kaia has done this evening. Hearing her name, hearing it spoken by a ferawicce, and feeling heat, and shivering at the blaze… That feels very, very, very dangerous. The fact that one word, one whisper, makes it seem to Kaia, suddenly, as though treason was a wonderful idea? That she is too terrified to even contemplate.
It has apparently taken Kaia a very, very, very long time to answer to her name because the ferawicce doesn’t look shocked anymore when Kaia looks back. She doesn’t look anything anymore. Composed. Hidden. Whatever it is that goes down behind a man’s eyes when he wishes his thoughts to remain hidden? That invisible wall that closes in his gaze? Kaia has never seen any so thick as the walls very clearly bricked behind the ferawicce’s golden gaze, when Kaia finally gazes back.
“Yes,” she answers, or asks, she’s not sure. She’s embarrassed to hear that her own voice is very nearly a growl. So she clears her throat too. “Good evening.”
What an idiot. Good evening? Like they’re at one of the interminable balls Abelard seems to throw every couple of months as a ‘gesture of goodwill’, he calls them, bowing to the vanities and petty amusements of their neighboring kingdoms because a scholar must also be a diplomat to rule in a world overrun by warriors. Kaia has said just that same polite, vague, ‘Good evening’ to a thousand dignitaries in the past eight years. Even when the eastern kingdom’s glamorous Queen sneered at Kaia the first time, because she had said it a touch too eagerly perhaps, or because she was wearing a shade that did not perfectly compliment her skin tone, or because her posture was just a touch lax… Kaia has never felt so foolish before.
She clears her throat again.
“Sorry.” She shrugs. She is a Queen and she is not used to giving explanations anymore, because she owes them to nobody; she may do as she will. But still she hears herself murmuring, “I’m a bit out of sorts.”
“A bit out of sorts?” the ferawicce echoes. “Are you mad?” she asks the most obvious question. And: “What are you doing here?”
Kaia jangles the keys still in her hand. “I came to set you free.”
“You came to set me free.”
The ferawicce repeats the words, but her tone is… no tone. Monotone. Disbelief and something darker. She tries the words again. This time with a touch of hysteria. And the inflection rises at the end.
“You came to set me free?”
“Kaia,” the ferawicce whispers and it’s there, something, some real emotion roaring beneath her whispered words, nearly to the surface, straining the levees… “Why would you do that?”
Something about the way the ferawicce says Kaia’s name is… intimate. Perhaps simply the touch of emphasis she places on it, as though the question was not so much why would anyone set a ferawicce free, but why would Kaia set a ferawicce free? They’re both good questions.
The answer is: Because Kaia doesn’t follow the same reasons as other men. She doesn’t care for logic or practicalities or social convention or rationality or even sanity. She is a slave to her own tides. She will not fight the inexorable pull of her own ocean. Even half an ocean… What man would stand a chance against the waves and the undertow?
But the answer Kaia gives is simpler, and not even a lie except that it is only one reason in an ocean of reasons: “You saved my son.”
“You would risk the entire world for gratitude?”
And to sooth her most painful memory. And in homage to a love she will never feel again. And as a foolhardy attempt to salvage at least the half of her soul she has left. And… because she shivers when this ferawicce speaks. And no one has made her shiver from heat since she was twelve years old and hardly knew what it was.
“I would have you live.”
It’s the simplest truth Kaia can think of right now. There are too many other reasons to list, and most of them wouldn’t make sense to anyone but Kaia.
Or, at least it seemed a simple answer.
But the ferawicce repeats the words like Kaia has insulted her, like somehow even that very simple sentiment has been skewed in translation somewhere between Kaia speaking the words, and whatever the ferawicce has seen in her eyes and the way she cringes back from her own memories, her old hurts, and her new, alarming cravings to be close to a woman she knows only as ‘the ferawicce’. She does not even know a name to put to this person, this, frankly, beautiful golden gaze, this raspy, growling voice that makes her shiver…
Too much. Too little spoken and too much Kaia is trying to hide and somehow she has insulted the ferawicce when all she intended was to unlock a shackle and flee herself.
“You would have me live,” the ferawicce spits at Kaia. “How can you say that to me?”
“Because it’s true?”
The ferawicce’s laughter is damnation. Kaia stays on her knees, drops her hands to the floor in alarm as the stones begin to shake once more. Was it really only yesterday morning that this same woman shook this entire city to its knees? Kaia hadn’t really forgotten the danger, only, thought it didn’t apply to her somehow.
The stones are roiling very much like waves again, very much like yesterday and then - Yes! - there is the shouting coming down the hallway again, men running to arms, though they will do no good against the sky falling and the earth opening up to swallow them.
“Kaia,” the ferawicce says her name again. And that same strange emphasis. Like there’s a much deeper message there than four letters and two syllables. And the woman growls it again, “Kaia.” And then, still more emphasis, like Abelard when he’s chastising her: “Kaia!”
She doesn’t care if she’s scared anymore. She’s more exasperated than anything. It’s hard to be really, imminently frightened when you know you’re only an echo of another soul’s sounds. She is a ghost of a girl. She is the waves receding from the shore. Away. Away. Away. How can she be appropriately scared of death when it is only a little further ‘away’?
So, for emphasis, and to fully echo the ferawicce’s exasperated tone, she repeats herself too.
What a strange creature. When Kaia told the woman she wished to help her live through the night, the ferawicce took the words as an insult. When she yells at her with all of her own bottled exasperation, the woman seems to calm. The roiling earth simmers and then settles.
The guards burst through the doors with their swords raised, but Kaia is between them and the object of their wrath, and they would not risk harming their Queen. And they know she is right when she says, “You should get the King.”
So he can tell them how to kill their ‘guest’, the proper timing and method to make this ‘justice’ and not ‘murder’.
The guards turn to run back to their King, so like little boys Kaia has always thought. Easy to lead. Eager to please. Stubborn and shallow, though their hearts are usually in the right place.
Kaia stands and tries to pretend she isn’t still shaking.
“This is your last chance to leave,” she warns the ferawicce. They can probably still get her out. If they run. Now.
The ferawicce… Her gaze is just tired now. Wounded. Her many bandages are reflected in her gaze, and perhaps many more wounds you cannot see…
“I’m not leaving,” the ferawicce finally whispers. And then, the strangest thing, she adds, “Not with you.”
She thinks she’s going to get a better offer?
Heaven knows, she’s not going to get a better offer. But there is no way, not even at the cost of her life, that the ferawicce is following a step behind that woman.
Kaia doesn’t even recognize her.
The ferawicce didn’t recognize Kaia at their first meeting, fair enough. But that was in the shadows of night, in the forest, racing to save a young boy’s life and then fainting from blood loss. It’s understandable. Even a ferawicce has her limits. And she was so angry at their first meeting as Garrik argued like an idiot to take them in precisely the wrong direction. And she was so relieved that Boone was capable of crying in his beautiful mother’s arms when they found him. And…
She would have never thought.
Not that she would ever meet Kaia again.
But she will never, ever forget those eyes.
She can stand in a forest with a knife wound, weak with relief and lost blood, and awe over the gentle beauty and quiet strength of a Queen holding in her arms a boy the ferawicce has somehow learned to love in dreams… and she can fail to see. But up close? Looking into those eyes as the woman kneeled at her side and gripped in her shaking hands the ferawicce’s shackle and the keys that would save her life?
That moment and that woman the ferawicce could not fail to see.
For they have lived a moment very like this one before. It was ten years ago and the only thing chaining the ferawicce then had been her foolish love for a foolish girl who didn’t know the first thing about how to love her back but… Same eyes. The ferawicce’s eyes had turned golden in the night. Kaia’s were still that beautiful, ocean blue, and the ferawicce had watched that morning too as they darkened from their happy sky-pale shade to the deep blue-green of storms and swells.
Kaia had run ten years ago though.
This time she’s standing close enough to touch as the guards run back into the room, as the King wheezes to a stumbling stop behind and calls out to her, “Kaia?”
The ferawicce realizes Kaia isn’t only standing close enough to touch, but the ferawicce has, in fact, failed to let go of the Queen’s wrist.
She drops it like it burns.
Embarrassment heats her face and even so her fingers tingle at the memory of the touch, clench because she refuses to reach back out, no matter how her hands suddenly feel empty, no matter how they shake because it has been ten years since last they touched that skin, that woman, that soul that has always called out to the ferawicce and she has always, always answered, always came running, always willingly stumbled behind when Kaia pulled her on adventure, always pulled the other girl to safety when those adventures took a turn into a fright… How many times did the ferawicce and Kaia stand together just like this as children, holding hands before an angry Lord, or an angry bear, or a swell that would surely sink them?
It doesn’t matter, the ferawicce reminds herself. It doesn’t matter how much she loved Kaia when they were children. It doesn't matter the hundreds of times they saved each other, or held each other, or stood trembling before the world but their grip between them steady because they knew no matter how to world raged around them they would always, always have each other…
It was all lies. Every time she’d held Kaia’s hand before this moment. Every time Kaia had met her gaze with sky-happy eyes instead of her stormy-seas sorrow. Kaia destroyed ten years of memories with one moment. The ferawicce can never look into her eyes again and forget how they darkened when they met her gaze that morning, how they grew wide with fear, and then narrowed in disgust as lips the ferawicce had been ready to kiss only a moment before, had grazed oh so lightly with her own, pursed now with an entirely different intention, turned down at the corners where they had been curled up before, blew out an angry breath as Kaia pushed herself to standing…
And ran away.
And then the Waight brothers were wheezing to a stop before her and hands that had handed her sugar cubes and the reins of her favorite horse were suddenly thrusting knives at her, curled into fists that knocked her free of her shock and straight into the desperate terror of fighting for her life. And she was failing too. Until her father finally found her. Until the man laid down his own life so the ferawicce could run.
This time Kaia came. This time Kaia told her to run.
It doesn’t matter. Kaia will never matter to her again. But it does make her wonder:
What on earth could have changed Kaia’s mind so drastically in the past ten years?
Is this the madness of motherhood? Is she really so grateful for Boone’s safe return that she would, truly, risk the entire world for the sake of her gratitude? Is there something more to the story? Scenes, a traitorous voice in the ferawicce whispers, that perhaps she has not been privy to, revelations in chapters the ferawicce has not read? Is it possible for a foolish girl to grow into a wise woman? Is it possible for a shallow, scared girl to grow into a brave woman with a soul that seems as deep as the ocean in that same-shade gaze?
It doesn’t matter.
In the time it has taken the guards to run and fetch their King, in the time it has taken their grey-haired monarch to run down the many stone steps to the ferawicce’s little cell, in the time it has taken the ferawicce to let go of the girl she loved once, a very, very, very long time ago…
They can hear the entire city of Pöeddae outside the castle walls. The sound is muffled by stone and a hundred feet of dirt, but it’s unmistakable just the same. It is a mob. It is the sound of an entire city, bent on the destruction of a single soul. It is a tone heard, usually, only in the tales a troubadour might tell, when the city came for the beast, when the men banned together and killed the villain and the heroes were saved. Except, from the perspective of the villain, it doesn’t sound like a happy ending. Just the opposite.
Yet another guard joins the merry band in the ferawicce’s cell to mutter, “My Lord, there are villagers at the gate.” But it’s hardly a surprise. They hardly needed the words.
The entire village, it sounds, is at the gate.
“Kaia,” the King tries to call to his wife.
But Kaia jerks back from the sound and says the most ridiculous thing the ferawicce has ever heard, words she would have paid her soul to hear a decade ago, but they are worthless to her now: “I won’t leave her.”
“You won’t have a choice,” the King finally barks.
And it’s true. Anyone who stands between a mob and their victim, anyone at all… The only reasonable outcome to expect is that they too will be victim to the mob. Mobs do not stop to discuss their reasoning. They do not listen to entreaties. They do not step back to judge a picture with the full context of distance and a clear head.
They are no longer men, not really; they are a beast, altogether. All the worst of men rolled into a single, amorphous beast; all the best of men drown out by their own hollering.
The ferawicce shook Pöeddae once more in her anger.
She woke the beast.
The ferawicce pulls her chains free from the stone, just because she can, just because she gets a twisted spike of satisfaction, watching the guards tremble before her and watching even the King’s eyes wide with his surprise. No matter what he’d said, the King really had expected that the chains would hold her, or the poison in her ‘salve’ would slow her, or her own wounds would tie her to this bed. Fools, to think themselves safe. Fools, to think they could best her.
No man has ever bested her.
And yet, now, she looks to the woman grown from the girl she loved and…
She is bested.
She will not shake this entire city to ruin. She meant what she said.
She will not take the hand, even now, that Kaia has extended towards her.
If it’s die or accept Kaia’s help, she’d rather die.
And, alas, these seem like her only choices.
Some higher power with a cruel sense of humor sent her recurring dreams of Kaia’s son. Of every little blond boy surely running around this world, that one, that boy was the boy the ferawicce must save. And so she did. So she came. So she fell in the forest and so she was chained to this bed. And now the only choices left to her are to take Kaia’s hand, or shake the entire city to ruin, or… die.
It’s enough to make her almost believe in the Waterwei goddess the people speak of.
She seems like a bitch.
The ferawicce clasps her shackled hands before her because she’s not even tempted to take Kaia’s hand. She smirks as she walks forward and the loose chain drags on the floor behind her and the sound reminds these men that this is a choice she is making, that they are not in control, no matter how they shout and swing their steel and shackle anything and everything in this world that they do not understand and cannot subjugate.
She stands before them, meekly, only because she is choosing not to snarl and show her teeth. She walks behind them, the King leading her by her chain as though she truly is a beast, only because she chooses not to yank on that same chain and drag them all behind her instead. She chooses to leave Kaia behind this time, crying out after her, “No! Wait! Please!”
It is, all of it, her stubborn, sad choice.
Death seems the best of her very, very, very bad options.
A night-hanging is unusual. But the crowd doesn’t care.
The crowd wants blood to appease their blood.
The crowd roars when it sees the ferawicce and does not seem to mind that she is walking to the gallows on her own, albeit shaking, legs, does not seem to think it the least bit odd that she has a shackle only on one wrist, and the chain hangs loose and scrapes ominously against the wooden platform with each step closer, closer, closer to the noose…
The crowd presses closer as the rope is fitted over her head, as the ferawicce is turned to face them so they might look upon her golden eyes once more, so they might scream and spit at her on more time, while there is still the satisfaction of seeing her face reflect her fear…
When the ground trembles beneath them once more, the crowd doesn’t even seem to notice…
Perhaps they think it is only their own thundering hearts, their own feet stomping to the beat of the gallows drum, their own cheering, shaking the streets as it did in tales of old…
This is their victory over every terror, every unknown ‘thump’ in the night. All of the world’s uncertainty and tragedy and cruelty took form in this one woman and this one life they may take easily enough and tonight they might sleep full through till morning.
The noose fits, rope itching firmly about her neck.
Though her entire body trembles in fear, or the tears streaming down her face, and though the entire earth trembles likewise…
The ferawicce holds her position.
With her hands chained.
And the rope about her neck.
And her gaze wet but steady.
The trap door opens, and the ferawicce falls, and there is a loud snap that echoes out over the courtyard as a sound that can be heard even over the rousing and screams of an entire village.
Whether that is the sound of the rope pulled suddenly taut, or the sound of the ferawicce’s neck snapping…
No one can tell.
No one seems, even, to wonder.
The crowd roars.