Sh’ra walked. One foot, then the other. She stared at the ground. Her hands were bound together at the wrists. The rope, fastened to the horse in front of her, pulled her forward. The sharp stones along the path cut into her soles. She felt and saw but had strength for nothing else. She did not dare to raise her head. The last time she had seen his foot, the foot connected to his body, strapped across the horse propelling her forward. The body held the breath of life no longer. It was no longer him, whatever the teachings might say. Still she could not bear to look at it again, at him again. She had thought herself empty of tears, drained dry. She had thought herself courageous, but all it had taken was his foot, swaying limply with the side to side lope of the horse to start the tears again. They had lasted forever and not long enough.
The life she had dreamed of and fought to make happen, the life they had dreamed of together, was gone. Worse than that, she felt the memories draining away. She tried to tried to think of them all, to gather them in her arms and cling to them, but her mind was a leaky sieve. They drained away slowly, too many holes to plug. How many were gone already? She struggled to even remember his life filled face.
She stumbled. Pulled off balance by the rope, she fell. The horse drug her forward along the ground. The earth tore and clawed at her. The pain in her shoulders was excruciating. It was a sweet relief. She made no effort to regain her feet. The horse stopped after a few minutes. Hooves stepped into her view as she lay with her face resting in the soil. In the silence, she heard the creaking of the trees, the rustling of leaves. No birds sang. When the wracking sobs abated, she stood. They continued, Brith trotting his horse ahead to resume his position beside Lorn.
She could not keep going like this. He was dead. Shin was dead. It was not her fault. He had followed her and fought for her. He had trusted her. Now, she must fight for him. She could mourn him later.
The anger fortified her. Her legs grew steady. She raised her head, examining her surroundings for the first time. She knew these woods. These were her woods. They were fools if they thought they could keep her against her will. The goddess had chosen her, had willingly given her the stone of power. She was meant to restore the thrown and return her kingdom to the Path, to destroy those who would usurp the true goddess, replacing her with greed and murder and unchecked selfish ambition. She was the Stonebearer, by lineage and merit. She would bring justice, first for Shin, then for the thousands of others in the city who suffered under the rule of the council.
She would… what? She would not be doing anything if she did not find a way to escape these bonds and steal back the stone Lorn had taken from her. She needed to get back to the capital before these men, so her version of the story was the first people heard. After these men paraded her through the streets, pulled along behind the bodies of Shin and Teth, it would be too late. Everyone would assume she was a murderer because that is what they would see. That is how convicted murderers were brought to face justice. First, paraded through the streets, then a night in the ground where they were given the chance to end their own lives, then…
That was as far as Sh’ra dared think. She had some time, but right now was her best chance, before they reached the first village. If the people saw her being chased by these two men instead of tied to one of their horses, she might stand a chance of turning the story in her favor.
She looked at the rope binding her hands. She traced it back to the knot tied to the saddle. There would be no breaking it or cutting it. It was too thick, too well-made. And she had no knife. She would need a horse as well. If she stole the horse she was tied to, she would not have to free herself from the rope. She could leap on it from behind while the two men were distracted. Then… what? Would she toss aside Shin’s body? She would not be able to outpace the other two horses with their combined weight.
She noticed Shin's body again. What would he do? He would not have gotten into this situation in the first place. But that is not helpful to her now. How had he thought to climb the Sun wall? When everyone else took the straightforward path, attempting to power through on skill alone, he had seen a different way. It was not an easier way, but it was one that took into account his strengths and weaknesses. Instead of pitting his speed against theirs, he pitted his endurance. And he allowed himself to appear foolish. It was not hard to imagine the jeers that must have been thrown his way. He would have had to break from the pack of climbers around midday, moving horizontally left instead vertically upward. Within a few hours, he would have crested the arête, disappearing from their view. Then he would have been completely alone. She wondered if he had rested at all or climbed through the night by the light of moon while the other wall was wrapped in darkness.
She searched desperately for another way, but there was nothing. She was not Shin. She dropped her head, staring blankly once more at the pebbles, at the path, at her feet.
After three days of travel through minor towns and villages, they were nearing the capital. A small patrol of guards met them. Lorn handed over the reins of the horses carrying Teth and Shin. The guard slipped him a large purse in exchange.
“The Stone clan thanks you for your service in bringing this criminal to justice.”
Lorn and Brith turned their horses, and followed a road to the north. The guard who held the reins, signaled his unit to head back toward the city. They made it through the gate without much notice, but crowds began forming as they entered the main road and headed toward the barracks.
They rushed forward, pulling at her hair, tearing at her clothes. The guards forced them back. A week before, they had been out in droves to cheer her - the first woman competitor. As cold as the reception of her announcement had been from the other elite families, it had been overflowing out here among the commoners. Mothers had brought out their daughters, pointing to her as a symbol of hope for them all. Now those same fingers hurled stones - their hopes raised and crushed with hers. She was supposed to be more. She was supposed to be better.
She wanted to scream she was innocent, but there was no break long enough for her to get a word in. And screaming at them would have only made her seem more hysterical, more in line with their views of a murdering stone witch. She had walked through the streets with as much dignity as she could, knowing even that would be used to condemn her. She was the focus of all the repressed anger of her people. There would be no turning that tide.
“What is the meaning of this?” The guard captain roared as she rode into view, silencing the crowd.
“This woman is not yet condemned! Return to your work!”
As the crowd began to disperse, she turned to the guards.
“Untie her! Who authorized this treatment?”
She looked for an answer, but the guards lowered their heads, their haughty demeanor disappearing immediately in the presence of their superior.
“Our apologies Captain Ril’ta. This… this is how she was given to us.”
“Given to you? Given by whom?”
“Some men, outside the gate.”
“And it is some men at the gate who determine the behavior of the Stone Guard?”
The man lowered his head, in apparent deference, but Sh’ra watched a malicious grin flash across his face where the captain could not see. This was the man who had handed the purse to Lorn. He clearly did not wish the captain to know about that exchange.
Ril’ta dismounted and untied Sh’ra. “My apologies for the way you have been treated.”
Then, loud enough for all to hear, “This woman is under the protection of the Rights of the Accused. She is not to be harmed until she stands trial.”
The trial went quickly. She stood before the assembled council, priests, and elders. High Priest Ur’in spoke loudly as he read her crimes.
“Sh’ra of house K’vel, you are accused of violating the rules of the sacred competition, of speaking heresy against the goddess Lor’ah, and the murders of Shin and Teth of the Stone clan. Numerous witness have corroborated these stories. The bodies of Shin and Teth, slain by your bow were brought back with you to the city. Do you understand the crimes for which you are accused?”
Her mind flashed with the image of Teth’s suprised face, of Shin’s body toppling out of the cave, of his lifeless foot swaying in front of her.
“Yes, I understand. But I am innocent! Shin and Teth were killed by assassins from the Air clan! I retrieved the stone! The goddess herself gave it to me!”
“Enough! Do you bring any evidence to prove your innocence? Are there any witnesses who you can call to stand with you?”
She looked for her father among the faces. She looked for anyone she knew.
“I… I have no one High Priest. I was the only witness to these events.”
“Very well. I, High Priest to the goddess Lor’ah, servant of the Clans, sentence you to death, to be carried out at dawn tomorrow.”
Shin’s family were waiting for Sh’ra's entourage at the barracks gate. They had come to retrieve his body. She thought to plead with them, to declare her innocence but the story had rushed before her. One look into the cold eyes of Shin’s mother and her brother, and Sh’ra knew. She would receive no mercy from them.
After they had placed his body on the burial cart, on his side because the body was too rigid to lie flat anymore, Shin’s father stepped up to her. She raised her head to meet his gaze, expecting the same chilly anger she had seen in his mother. Instead, she saw sorrow. He whispered to her softly.
“I am sorry for what they have done to you.”
He stepped back to let his wife come forward. Her eyes held no surpises. She slapped Sh’ra hard across the face. None of the guards tried to stop her. This was the mother’s right, to give the first blow. The woman hit her again and again and would have gone on doing so but at some point her rage broke. Grief flooded in, filling the cracks the anger left behind. The woman sank to her knees before Sh’ra, wailing.
“He loved you. And this is how you repay him? He loved you. He… would… have… died for you. He… loved you. Why? Why would you do this?” Her words were broken up by heaving sobs.
Sh’ra knelt down with her, wanting to hold her, wanting to be held by her.
“I didn’t do it. I promise you. I did not kill your son. It was…”
“Stop it with your lies! Can’t you find the heart to tell the truth even now?”
She flew at Sh’ra again, but the captain stepped in and held her back.
“That is enough Iya. You will have justice for your son.”
She gestured to Iya’s sons to come get her.
Sh’ra stood, and backed away. The truth of her situation settling on her. There was no one to believe her, no one to take her side. Where was her father? She looked for him among the faces, but instead it was Teth’s parents who stepped forward. They had no other sons. Their only other child, a daughter had died giving birth, taking her child with her to the ground.
“Can we have some privacy captain? We wish to speak with her alone.” Teth’s father asked.
The captain appeared uncomfortable with the question, but Teth’s father was a powerful man. Refusing him came with consequences.
“Yes, you may speak with her in her cell.”
The captain lead them through the barracks door. They took the steps down into the cells. Empty caskets placed in recesses along both walls reminded prisoners of how close they lay to death. Each cell was a tomb, an open casket against one wall the only bed. No one stayed here for multiple nights. The captain took them to the cell at the end. Ril’ta stood, looking uneasily at Teth’s parents. He spoke first.
“We will not harm her, though it is our right. We only wish to speak with her, about our son.”
The captain nodded, appearing relieved. Pointing to a fresh set of clothes, she said to Sh’ra, “Those are for you.”
She looked from Teth’s father to his mother, clearly still uncomfortable with the situation, but having already committed herself. She walked to the door, stopping beneath the frame.
“Knock, when you are ready to leave. I will be waiting outside.”
She shut the door behind her, the lock sliding shut with a soft clank.