The Iron Road
9th Bell of the Afternoon
30th of September, 1541
The merchant's son screamed in my head, making my hangover that much worse.
Thirteen of us rode out from Waenchester's protective walls. The sun rose above the trees, rays piercing my eyes and eliciting a groan. I pulled my floppy hat further down, wishing I was back in bed. The Duke's ale was potent stuff, but I had yet to find a better remedy for the voices that screamed in my head.
After a good few miles, the reeve hailed us to a stop. Murmured curses filled the air.
The lines of iron posts branched out in a circle before narrowing again as the Road vanished into the woods on the far side. A single stone post, carved with arrows and distances, rose in the middle.
Hard to imagine this place had once been the biggest crossroads in the South, where the old King's Road met the new High Way. Before the Change. Before the Woods.
While the guards spread out, I dismounted, took off my hat and began to wave it in front of my face to create some air.
Darkness and magic haunted the world beneath the trees. Most of my companions could not help but cast anxious glances into the shadows.
A commotion. Two guards forcing the criminal to his knees before the reeve, who stared down at the man as one of his guards read out the charge.
"Hawold Kepstowe, farmer from the Blue Hills, you are accused of the murder of Master Kelwin Killingsthorne, only son and heir of Benjamin Killingsthorne, free merchant of the city of Wanechester. Will you plead?"
Hawold stared past the reeve and the soldiers. Right at me. A thousand curses sprang from those burning eyes. I rubbed a shaking hand over the back of my neck – out here, so close to the Woods, curses had meaning. I could feel a headache coming on.
One of the guards surged forward, kicking the farmer to the dust of the clearing. "You were asked a question, dog."
"I'll no plead," Hawold said.
Only the reeve’s voice saved him from another slap.
"Let him be."
Frowning, the guard did.
The reeve turned to me. "Who accuses this man?"
With a bitten off curse, I stepped forward. "I do."
"On what basis?"
"On the basis of my solemn word."
"The word of Daniel Therwood, member of the Thieftaker's Guild."
The reeve nodded, turning away from me. I wished I could turn and ride away, but I had to see this through to the bitter end.
I had been given the contract three days before. Someone had stabbed a merchant’s son in Wanechester, left him to bleed out in a pig’s pen. When the reeve’s men failed to find the culprit, the merchant turned to the Guild. Someone had seen a lost cause so they sent me, not expecting me to solve the case. I had accepted, hoping I could find the truth...
- Truth? Faw!
I bit back a sigh as the familiar voice in my head cut through the screams.
- I wondered when you would wake up , I thought back.
- Well, what time of the morning do you call this? The sun is barely up.
- The Queen's Justice doesn’t wait for breakfast, I replied wryly.
- The Queen's Justice can suckle on my…
- What do you want, Lucan?
- Want? I was sleeping comfortably until you started thinking so loud. Besides, what truth did you think you would find? A conspiracy? A threat to Queen and kingdom? You’re not working for Tess anymore, boy. And you should know by now the reason for all crimes is either money or sex.
Lucan was right, though. Once I had reaped fragments of the merchant’s son’s soul, a few days of wandering his father’s land, haunting his usual haunts and speaking to his friends, lovers and enemies brought me a soul-vision of him tumbling this farmer's two daughters. Not hard to envision the rest.
- Go away, Lucan.
He chuckled, then vanished into some distant part of my head. Lord Lawrens Lucan. The only soul I had ever reaped who had held on to his sanity.
After more questions and answers, the reeve barked a command. Two of the guards came forward, lifted Hawold to his feet and used their knives to cut away his clothes.
Once he was naked, they marched him to the edge of the clearing. Both of them paused, one of them casting a last hopeful glance back at the reeve. He stared at them, impassible. With visible sighs, both men stepped over the edge of the clearing and into the Woods.
They had to carry Hawold to the tree. They pushed him back against the trunk, lifting his hands above his head. One of them began to run a rope around and around, binding him to the bark. He wept and pissed himself, liquid splatter soaked up by the bone dry earth. I felt sick.
One of the guards pulled a hammer and nail from his pocket. I winced. I had heard about these 'sacrifices' as executions, but never witnessed one. I forced myself not to turn away as the guard lifted the rusty old hammer high above his head. A swish of metal through air preceded a hollow thump and a scream.
Blood burst forth from the man's palm, dark as old wine. It began to drip down his forearm, his chest, his legs. Blood and tears mingled with the man's piss at his feet, the parched soil drinking it eagerly.
With the ropes tied off, both men walked away, not looking back. As soon as they had crossed the iron line, the reeve guided his horse forward.
"In the name of our Queen Guinueth Thorne, and by the power invested in me by the Lord Mawthew Brandenstock, Duke of Wanechester and Warden of the South, I do sentence you to a day and a night spent in the Wyrding Wood. May the fae sound your soul and decide your guilt. And if they should find you guilty, may the Lady have mercy on your soul." The reeve lifted his hand and made the sign of the Tree.
Hawold began to scream.
The heat was unbearable as we rode back, Hawold’s screams pursuing us. Something was building in the back of my head, the unmistakeable taste of magic in the back of my throat. I tried to hurry along, but now the reeve had no further need for me I was forced to the back of the group. The wind had died, leaving us riding through air thick as treacle.
The drumming in my head built and built, so intense I could hardly see the road in front of me. Just when I thought it could not get any worse, the summons washed over me.
There were no pictures, no words. Just an absolute necessity to be with the summoner. A distinct identity marker accompanied the urge, a flurry of impressions as clear and unmistakeable as blood on fresh snow.
Tess needed me in Caerlyons. Soon.
Summoning spells take a lot of effort, blood and energy. For the person being summoned, it is like being hit by three bolts of lightning while holding an alchemycal collecting rod and standing in a pool of freezing water.
I yelled, once. Darkness swamped me and dragged me down.