Magistrate's Daughter, Chapter 3

Another part of the story by Tess Snider a.k.a. Malkin.
See here for chapter 1 and here for chapter 2

"It was necessary," I said, bluntly.

"Necessary?" the fox narrowed his eyes.

"He was killing our young," I explained.

The fox growled, "'Twas men what killed your kit, old man. Are you going daft?"

My jaw clenched tightly, and I felt the bile rise in my throat. I forced my words out, "I'm not speaking of her. I'm speaking of the children in my town."

"Pah. They're not your skulk. If they were yours, you wouldn't need to run from them, now, would you?"

I began to grow frustrated, "You -- you don't understand why I might seek to destroy a thing that devours children?"

"I assure you that I understand completely, but you do not. The Council will take into consideration your ignorance of the circumstances, but there is nothing to mitigate the crime of the vixen. Arsand's mark upon her shall stand."

"Circumstances? What circumstances? What are you talking about? And what do you mean by..." My voice trailed away, as the fox began to dash away. "Wait!"

"If you are wise," the fox said, its voice now seeming a mere whisper in my mind, "you will part with the vixen. She will bear you no litters. She will bring no warmth to your den. She is marked, and no good will come to her."

"But I don't care about her scars," I said as much to myself as to the fox.

"There's more to see than what your eyes reveal," the fox whispered, and then he was gone.

"Damn thing," I muttered under my breath. I ached all over from sleeping against the tree in the cool night air, and my shoulder was wickedly painful. I winced as I rose to my feet, and surveyed my belongings, looking for something that might serve as a suitable pillow or a blanket. I was an idiot to forget my cloak, especially with autumn so fast on our heels. Eventually, I curled up with my head upon my pack, and no blanket to speak of. I lay on my side, upon my good shoulder, but I couldn't find a comfortable position for my other arm. I hadn't had a chance to really look at it, but it felt as though it needed more than just banadaging to heal properly. I sorely missed Argin, my old battlefield surgeon. I had confidence in that man. If a fellow could be put back together, he was the one that could do it. I found myself idly wondering where old Argin might have ended up after all these years.

I needed to get to a city. That much was for certain. I needed to go somewhere where someone could tend my wound properly, and I could find something to dull my pain for a few days. Dull senses weren't going to serve me well if I was on the run, though. I wondered how far the people of Dardun would be willing to hound us. For that matter, were we going to have trouble from the spirit beasts? What on earth did the fox mean?

The nearest large city was Ritaria. It was probably a week away on horseback, if we didn't want to kill the horse. Why hadn't Amina wanted me to bring a second horse? Perhaps we could yet acquire a second one, along the road, I mused.

So, I had chosen my identity, but what was my story? Why was this wounded Maridan soldier and his footman (squire? son?) travelling across the countryside? More to the point, how dare he openly wear the Maridan crest?

My mission had to be one of diplomacy. I mulled over possibilities, as I drifted off to sleep again.

I woke sometime after the sun, shivering and ravenously hungry. Curiously, I found my blanket draped over me. I leaned up on my elbow, looking about into the misty air. Amina was nowhere to be seen, but the clothes she had used as a pillow were all packed away.

"Amina!" I called out, a few times. No answer came. I began to become truly worried, until I noticed that the horse was still there. She might have been willing to leave me my blanket, but if she were going to take off, she'd have taken her horse with her. Of that much, I was certain.

I rose and stretched, instantly regretting emerging from under the blanket. I surveyed the site for a good fire spot. It was a damp morning, and I did not look forward to fighting with my flint, but I had neglected to fetch an ember on our way out from the house, and we might need one, come sunset. Patiently, I began gathering kindling, when I heard a stirring in the woods.

I crouched low, and set my kindling down gently beside me, taking care to be quiet. I was a few feet from the camp. I prepared myself to bolt for my sword if I needed to. I quickly relaxed, however, when I spied Amina's freshly-cropped head bobbing through the trees. I gathered up my kindling and straightened, "Amina."

Amina startled, bringing an end to the unfamiliar tune she was humming. "Oh!" she exclaimed when she saw me. "You nearly scared the ghost out of me." She carried a makeshift sack made from some of the fabric from her wedding robes.

I smiled, "What's in the bag?"

"Peas, wormy apples, acorns, and some blackberries that are probably all mushed now. There's wheat all growing wild in the fields. We could make porridge if you wanted."

"How long has the sun been up?"

She looked upward at the milky white sky, "About two hours, I reckon."

I puzzled at this a moment. I usually woke up at dawn. Had the events of yesterday so worn me out as to make me oversleep? Perhaps it was my injury. Or, perhaps it was the bad sleep. "Porridge would be a good bit more filling than nuts and berries, but we need to get back on the road soon."

Amina sat down, opening up her sack on a flat patch of ground, to inventory her collection. The blackberries were, indeed, reduced to juicy pulp, staining the fabric a deep purple-red. She held up one of the knobby apples, and I took it in hand, studying it dubiously.

"Sorry I don't have a rabbit or a pheasant for us. If we had more time, I could catch some fish," she said.

"That's okay," I said, against the noisy protestations of my stomach, "We'll get some good food when we're in a proper town where there is still some life." I bit into the apple, and found it mealy and unpleasant. Still, I was so desperately hungry that I could probably have eaten an entire basket of the things.

Amina popped the cap off of one of her acorns, and cracked the shell with her teeth. She carefully picked out some of the nut meat, and put it in her mouth. She wrinkled up her delicate features, mightily, "Ugh!"

"Bitter, eh?" I asked, with a faint smile.

She tried to remove the bits of nut from her mouth as well as she could, without seeming too terribly rude. "I thought people could eat acorns."

"That depends. What kind of an oak tree did you get those from?"

"What kind of oak tree?"

"Yes. Was it a black oak?"

"Not sure I know the difference. My father was a forester, long before I was born, but he has never had the occasion to teach me anything."

"Well, the black oak has pointy leaves, and the white oak has rounded leaves. If you watch the squirrels, they always favour the nuts from the white oak. You don't want the ones from the black oak. They make you..." I smiled again, "Well, you will tend to make a face like you did just now."

Amina frowned with consternation at the array of food she had spread out on the stained fabric. She picked up the acorns, one-by-one, and pitched them as far as she could, "Stupid things."

"Food for pigs," I said, with a faint smile.

Amina worked at a couple of peapods, her eyes averted from me. Eventually, she stopped, and looked up at me. "I have been trying to figure out how to ask this..."

"What?" I asked, looking puzzled.

"Who were you speaking with last night?"

I exhaled. I could lie to her. But what if she had heard some of the actual words? No, it was safer to tell the truth. "There was a spirit fox."

"And you didn't wake me?"

"Apparently, I didn't have to."

"I couldn't hear what it said."

"Then it didn't want you to hear."

She scowled, "Well, that doesn't mean that you can't tell me."

I wasn't entirely certain how to explain what the fox had _aid. After a moment's thought on the matter, I crouched near her, and said, in conspiratorial tones, "He came to accuse us."

"Accuse us?"

"Of Arsand's death."

Her expression turned blisteringly cold, "We had every right."

"I don't know if they see it that way."

"It was by their own rules. How dare they question?"

I shook my head, "I don't know. There's something... I don't think I have all the facts. There seems to be more to all this than meets the eye."

Amina's eyes widened fractionally, "What do you mean by that?"

I was a little annoyed by her question. I was about to say something snide, but restrained myself, "I'm not sure. I was hoping you might have some idea."

She shook her head, but said nothing. She dropped her bean pods on the fabric, and sat there in silence, her hands clenched. She breathed a little more deeply than usual, perhaps trying to calm herself.

My legs starting to ache, I shifted my crouch into a sitting position, "Amina?" She did not respond. I exhaled, looking down at the ground, "I am willing to be patient with you, in many respects, but if we come to harm because you have withheld something from me..."

"I had every right!" she interrupted, angrily.

"Then what is troubling you?"

"I'll tell you. I promise that I will tell you. But I can't yet."

"Why not?"

"We need food and someplace warm to sit for a while. We're both edgy right now, and I don't think what I have to tell you is going to help matters any."


"I know," Amina frowned, apologetically.

"You're not going to tell me."

"Not here. Not now. We need to be where other people are. Not in the realm of the beasts."

"Their eyes are everywere, Amina. The dog in the alley. The cat in the stairwell. The mouse in the cupboard. You can't hide from them."

"I know, but I'd feel safer."

"Let's pack things up, then," I said, with resignation. "We need to go." I felt sour and angry. How dare she keep something from me? What had I gotten into?

As we left the area, I took the remaining food from the cloth, and lay it at the foot of the statue of Riese. It was a meager offering, to be certain, but I had little else to give her. Amina did not deride me this time, instead choosing to look the other way in silence. I whispered an old soldier's prayer, under my breath. I imagined that it must be desolate, being a god whose followers were all gone. One day, perhaps, a god might simply fade away into oblivion, lost to the memory of man. Had that not already happened to the gods of the Cemaen tribes, centuries before? One must wonder why we, or the gods, try to accomplish anything at all, when we continually fumble backwards, losing ground. What foundation had I ever laid that could be built upon by those that came after me? What had I ever accomplished that would be remembered beyond my death? Like Riese, I was without a legacy. We had both lost our progeny and our life's work. We stood at the end of the road together, god and man, our lonely fates irrevocably bound to one another.

"Keep me alive, Riese," I whispered. "Keep me alive, and I will keep you alive."

As is often the way with gods, Riese remained silent.

We made our way on the disused road eastward, the clouds taking on a distinctly greyer cast as we travelled. Ballard was the next town along the road. There was a good chance someone would be looking for us there, but I did not fancy the idea of sleeping out in the rain. We would have to take that chance.

The sky began spitting cold rain on us about an hour before dusk, and I had still seen no signs of Ballard. The untravelled road had become quite overgrown in some places, slowing our progress considerably. I was weak from hunger, and desperately wanted to get off the horse.

"We should've gotten there by now," Amina said, in a near-whisper.

"I hadn't realised it was this far," I answered.

"It isn't," she said.

"What are you saying?" I asked.

"I think we ended up on the wrong road, somewhere. This isn't right at all." Her voice was a little higher pitched than usual. She was worried.

"Why didn't you say something sooner?"

"I wasn't sure."

I pulled reins, and exhaled slowly. I lifted my face to the sky, and closed my eyes, allowing the rain to spatter my eyelids.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"Do you have any idea where this road might lead?"

"If we're going north, it may head to Bunder. South, there's nothing but Dardun, and we'd have reached it by now."

I steeled myself, and carefully climbed off of the horse. I took a few steps, relieving the aching in my legs, and pressed my hand against the bark of a large tree, carefully studying its surface. Down beneath the trees, it was already growing too dark to see well, but I had to do what I could. I stepped around the trunk, comparing the thickness and robustness of the moss growing there.

"What are you doing?" Amina asked.

"Something your father should have taught you."

Amina scowled, "What?"

"Moss grows lushest on the south side of a tree," I said, "where it gets the most sun."

"Um," she said, "I always heard it grows on the thickest on the north side, where it's protected from the sun. It gets dried out, otherwise."

I squinted into the gloom at another trunk, and then said, "You know, I think we're both wrong. The moss just seems to grow everywhere down here."

"Well," Amina said. "The road must go somewhere, mustn't it?"

"It could just lead to another Vanders," I said, returning to the horse's side.

"I think we're going to have to take that chance. Backtracking is just as bad."

"Well, then," I said, reluctantly re-mounting the horse. "You better start praying to Amaya there's some food at the end of this road."

During its peak, the Maridan Empire controlled vast, and far-flung trade routes, all the way to the coast, and out over the sea. Important routes were marked with milestones, and some parts of them, near cities, were even paved with stones. Most of these were not set down by the Empire, originally, however. Some roads were set down by the Tangrid and the warring tribes of the Cemaen. Some were goat trails and dried river beds. Some had been fur trading routes of the Andarsit. Still others dated back to the days of the warlord Angmen, and before, into times that are remembered only in legends. Some of these older roads were paved, too, though no one remembers by whom.

This was not one of those roads. It was a dirt road that appeared to have last beeen used around the time of the plague in Vanders. It would not lead us to some vast, forgotten, ruined city. It wouldn't even lead us to a long-abandoned Maridan logging town. Sometime about two hours after the sun went down, we reached Bundur, a miserable, isolated farming community on the edge of a large, grassy expanse that at night, under a cloudy sky, simply looked like more darkness. There was no wall, and there didn't appear to be a night watch. We steeled ourselves, and headed for the first house with the glow of firelight in its window.