A Lion’s Tears
The morning sun filtered through the leafy canopy, dappling the forest floor with a shifting pattern of light and shadow. Colorful birds called to each other across the understory, their shrill cries warring with the scream of a distressed macaque. A breeze wafted through, rustling leaves and drying the dew as Irovel made her way down the valley.
She was tall, with sun-browned skin. Her hair was unbound and reached past her shoulders, an unruly brown cascade that shone red in the pockets of sunlight that made it past the towering ceiba trees. She wore a simple suede vest over a linen shirt, and her breeches were tucked into her knee-high boots, mountain fashion.
She had been walking for hours – since nightfall, or not long after – and she was only halfway to her destination. It had been a long time since Irovel had gone down to the city. Two years, or thereabouts, since Jia died. It hadn’t been safe in Yonden Hithis then. It probably never would be, for someone like Irovel, but if she was careful, she could be there and gone before anyone realized what she was.
Irovel crouched at a little pool to refill her water gourd, leaving footprints in the soft moss that carpeted the ground beside it. The clear water welled up from an underground spring with hardly a ripple. As the gourd filled, tiny motes of light danced above the surface of the pool, and Irovel watched, amused, as the featherflies flickered from red to gold to blue and back again. They spun around her fingers, drawn to her, and she withdrew her hand hastily. You could never tell when they were just featherflies and when they were something else that could mimic their appearance. It was always best to be safe, in the Rainwood.
Irovel took a sip from her gourd, and paused, listening. Something was wrong – the birds had gone silent. Abruptly she stood, spilling some water in her haste. She stoppered the gourd and began to lope through the trees with long, ground-eating strides.
It could just be a lion, she reasoned to herself, loosening the sling and bag of stones tucked into her belt. Lions did prowl these woods on occasion, though they were much more common down in the hills. They never lasted long up here. More frightening things than lions called the Rainwood home.
The wind, rustling through the trees above, grew louder. Irovel hopped across several large boulders that lay like stepping stones across the path. She was sure-footed now, as she hadn’t been during the night, but now she was beginning to regret not keeping a quicker pace before.
She glanced back, and thought she saw an indistinct form shifting through the darkest shadows of the trees behind her. The rushing sound of wind echoed through the verdant cathedral, but the leaves above her were too still to make such a din. Breaking into a full run, Irovel thought she saw a gap in the trees up ahead. If she could make it that far, she should be safe.
Behind her, the shadowy form resolved into a creature out of legend, a grey-furred wolf with long, shaggy fur. It seemed able to avoid the patches of light that shone through the canopy. It ran at an incredible speed, as if it flowed on paws made of the wind itself. Between leaps, it seemed to flow, like mist or smoke, solidifying whenever its feet touched the ground.
Irovel wasn’t going to make it to the treeline. She ran downhill as fast as she could, but the edge of the forest was too far away. Putting on a last burst of speed, she sprinted through the underbrush, but made the mistake of turning back to look again. She saw the wolf, its angry yellow eyes boring through her, its jaws gaping in a snarl, but she didn’t see the branch that caught her foot and sent her tumbling through the leaves.
She rolled, managing not to break any bones as she tumbled down the slope and came to a stop just shy of sunlight. The wolf leaped over her, landing in the clearing. By the time Irovel stood up, its misty form had evaporated in the sun, revealing a man: solid, dark, and very, very angry.
“Why did you run?” he growled in a deep voice. “Did you want me to kill you?”
Irovel started brushing the leaves from her clothing. “You wouldn’t have,” she said, with more confidence than she felt. “You need me too much, Aniver.”
Aniver scoffed, shifting the long knife at his belt as if it had slipped out of place. “Don’t count on it. You know how I get when I’m hunting.”
Aniver was of a height with Irovel, maybe a hair taller, and had ebony skin like most city folk. Not that Irovel thought he had ever lived in a Yondani city. His tightly-curled hair was twisted into short spikes that stuck out every which way, and he was bare above the waist except for a sleeveless leather vest. Even had he dressed as a Citizen, however, Irovel doubted he would fit in there. No one could miss the way bits of him seemed to get wispy when he stepped into shadows.
“So you say,” Irovel said, skeptically, walking down the hill past him. “Maybe you’re just exaggerating, trying to scare the young ones into obeying you.”
Aniver grabbed her arm, bringing her to a halt. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Irovel shrugged her arm from his grip and took a step backward. “You know without asking, Aniver.”
His expression darkened, brow furrowing. “And you know I can’t let you go down there. It’s not safe.”
“I don’t remember asking for your permission,” she said, annoyed. That was why she had snuck out at night, after all. She could have told him she was going hunting, but he was too intelligent for that.
“That’s half the problem,” Aniver growled. “If Dagoth were here…”
“If he were here he’d go himself, and you know it,” Irovel countered angrily. “But since he can’t, and you won’t, somebody has to.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Aniver growled and pulled his long knife from its sheath, fingers shifting on the handle as if he intended to use it.
Irovel gave Aniver a flat stare. “Put that away. You can’t scare me into obeying like you do those frightened cubs Dagoth keeps bringing home. Admit it; you want somebody to go. To see justice done.”
Aniver’s hand slid the dagger into its sheath almost against his will. He seemed startled to find it there. He looked up at her, his angry glare flavored with annoyance. “Don’t do that,” he growled. “Don’t use your voice on me.”
Irovel sighed. Their conversations always ended this way. “You know I can’t help it, Aniver.”
He nodded once, then eyed her suspiciously. “So you say…”
Irovel hid a smile. The fact that Aniver could doubt her words meant that they had less power over him than he suspected. Unless she spoke a direct command, he could resist just about anything she said.
She was swaying him, however. “It’s just one day. One visit. I won’t even spend the night down there; I promise.”
“If it were anyone but you, I’d haul you back there myself.” Aniver said, shaking his head. It gave his mouth a bitter twist to admit that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, force her to stay.
Irovel reached over and laid a hand on his arm. He didn’t flinch away, as she expected him to, but he did look at her reproachfully.
“I’ll be fine,” she said, quietly. “They’ve finally caught the man who killed her, and nobody down there knows me. We’ll both sleep better knowing he can’t hurt the rest of us.”
Aniver huffed, but didn’t object again. He shifted uneasily, looking downhill as if into the pit of despair. “Don’t get involved,” he growled, then turned and walked away. Irovel watched him shift into mist and bound away once he reached the treeline.
Irovel hiked down the mountain past the orchards that dotted the foothills, reaching the road into the city by mid-morning. It ran straight as an arrow between square fields filled with burgeoning wheat and adlai. They seemed unnatural to her, all those straight lines. She resisted the temptation to slide into the fields on one side or the other and tramp through the grain.
She could see the shining white walls of Yonden Hithis from almost a mile down the road. Some of the buildings were two stories tall, like houses stacked on top of each other, and rose above the cobbed stone of the wall.
A trader – marked by his ox-cart and the pale blue sash slanted across his robes – passed her on his way out of the city. He stared at Irovel, probably marveling at her fair skin and her outlandish clothing. There was a time when she hadn’t believed that anyone could be as dark as these northerners; it was probable that he’d never seen a Bajani before either.
The sun was still short of its full height when Irovel passed through the wooden gates, drawing scrutiny from the grey-clad Guardians on the walls. Nobody stopped her, but she could feel their eyes, and hear the whispers of the people she passed in the streets. Their gazes made her uncomfortable, and she turned onto a narrower road that paralleled the main one, trying to avoid notice.
The street was dusty, bare earth relieved only by the line of trees and shrubs running down the center. Jia had told her that during the dry, the trees were watered by hand each day. Houses lined both sides of the street, wooden frames with flat roofs and a gap between the foundation and the floorboards, for when the river flooded. Curtains flapped in the windows and doorways, woven from dyed linen or aromatic vetiver grass. At the outer edge of the city, each house had its own yard in back, divided from its neighbors by walls of cob or brick. Near the center of the city those yards shrank or disappeared completely.
Irovel knew generally how to get where she was going, though she had never frequented Yonden Hithis even when Jia was alive. It helped that all of the city’s major roads led to the Oval Plaza, where the execution would take place. Traffic slowed as she neared the center of the city, even on the side streets, and Irovel had trouble making her way back to the thoroughfare.
Vendors hawked wares from tables in front of their homes, most being ignored by Citizens eager to reach the plaza. The crowd pushed at Irovel, most not even noticing her fair skin now. She found herself struggling to breathe, and quickly backed out. She had no idea there would be so many people. She returned to the side street, but even that filled up quickly as noon approached.
The sun baked down on her. As she looked up to gauge the time, the empty rooftops beckoned her. She pursed her lips thoughtfully, working her way down the little alley that ran behind the last row of houses. There were people here too, hoping to at least hear some of the proceedings if they couldn’t make their way through. Irovel searched for a roof that looked sturdy enough, and found one. It was sloped more steeply than most, designed to channel the rain, and she could just reach the top by climbing up the barrel that collected the water.
From the roof, Irovel could see the entire plaza. It was filled to bursting with people, most swathed in brown from shoulder to knees, others with robes of pale red, yellow, or any of a dozen other colors denoting their guild affiliation. Gray-robed Guardians had the center of the plaza cordoned off, surrounding a wooden platform that rose a meter off the ground.
A bell rang several times, quieting the crowd. Down the road nearly opposite Irovel, a dozen or so Guardians marched with their prisoner between them. They were led by a woman with a broad red stripe across each grey sleeve – an Aulen’s Hand. She alone of the Guardians carried a spear; the others were armed only with short, bronze-tipped clubs called dekerri. The two men on either side of the prisoner were soldiers, robed in grey but wearing wooden masks which hid their faces.
Barjuk himself was bound and blindfolded, kept from stumbling only by the hand of a soldier on each arm. His hair had been cut short, removing the braids that marked his rank, and he wore brown laborer’s robes; the Metalsmith’s guild had probably disfellowshipped him as soon as they’d heard about his arrest. It was hard to say for sure, but Irovel thought he had more grey in his hair than when she had last seen him.
The Guardians spread out around the platform when they reached it, only the Aulen’s Hand and the soldiers with their prisoner climbing up. One of the soliders removed Barjuk’s blindfold. The prisoner’s flinty black gaze darted wildly around at the crowd, then at the soldiers, and finally settled on the spear which reached above the head of the woman who held it. Irovel felt a certain measure of satisfaction when she saw the fear in his eyes.
The crowd grew steadily louder, some speculating on what was going on, others passing on what they had heard as truth, whether it was or not. The Aulen’s Hand held up her hands, and somebody rang the bell again. Once it was quiet, she began to speak. “The man Barjuk, formerly of the Metalsmith’s guild, has killed a fellow Citizen with his face bared to the world. Now he must die, according to the laws laid down by the First Aulen.”
One of the soldiers, with the red hair of a hillman, stepped forward. The Aulen’s Hand handed him the spear and continued speaking as the other soldier forced Barjuk to his knees. Irovel couldn’t hear her over the rising murmurs, but she imagined the woman was enumerating his crimes, or maybe giving a lecture about the perils of disobedience to the law.
Before she was through, she was interrupted by a shout from someone in the crowd, about halfway between Irovel and the platform. “Those weren’t Citizens he killed! They were Changelings! They didn’t deserve to live!”
A murmur ran through the crowd, and another voice, deeper and closer to Irovel, called, “He did us a favor, getting rid of those monsters! He should be thanked, not executed!” Black-braided heads bobbed, some in confusion, some in agreement. A third voice, even with the platform, cried, “If the Guardians won’t protect us from them, who will?”
The crowd was agitated now, many of them echoing the words among themselves. The Aulen’s Hand tried to get them under control, but the first voice, a woman’s, was whipping them into a frenzy. Irovel crouched lower on the rooftop, suddenly feeling exposed and very alone.
A sound caught her attention and she turned to see somebody climbing up the rooftop just next to her own. He had on dark brown robes and a mask that hid his face, just like a soldier. In his hand was a hunter’s bow. Irovel panicked for a moment, thinking he had spotted her somehow, guessed at what she was, but his attention was focused on something down below.
Irovel took a deep breath and followed his gaze with her eyes. He was focused on the stage, where the Aulen’s Hand was trying to regain control of the crowd, the bell ringing wildly. The masked hunter drew an arrow to his bowstring and began to take aim.
Don’t get involved, Aniver had said. But Irovel couldn’t just let him start shooting at people. If the hunter killed the Aulen’s Hand, or one of the soldiers, Barjuk might escape in the confusion. She drew out her sling, set a stone in it, and faster than a rabbit could bounce, she spun it and loosed at the masked man’s elbow.
Her stone hit just before the archer released. The arrow sprang from the bowstring and flew toward the platform, burying itself into the wood just inches from the high-ranking Guardian’s feet.
Screams rang across the plaza and fingers pointed, and the Guardians rushed to protect the Aulen’s Hand, shielding her with their bodies and rushing her and the prisoner back the way they’d come. The archer whirled on Irovel, murderous fury burning in his black eyes, which were the only part of his face she could see. She fumbled another stone into her sling, but the archer had already nocked another arrow. He drew back and launched it straight at her.
Fire blossomed in her shoulder as the arrow hit, knocking her backward. She cried out in pain and clutched at the roof beams, scrabbling for a handhold as she slid toward the edge.