The Mountaineer Council (novel excerpt)
They rode down into the valley, passing clumps of pole-willows and aspen that clustered in the open space like bouquets. The air was sweet with the spicy scent of the little white flowers that starred the grass, which was tall enough to close over the shoulders of the burro and tickle Shemona’s elbows.
They rode toward the buildings. One open, rough-hewn structure was obviously a stable—Shemona heard the whuffling and neighing of horses.
The men and women dismounted, handing their reign to a pair of bright-haired boys who wore matching green tunics that hung down over their hips.
The silence was thick. Shemona felt the little glances, the oblique stares of the others as they walked, wordlessly, toward the tall gabled building. Up closer, she realized that it wasn’t a simple log structure. The walls were stone and mortar, with giant logs for posts and beams. The turrets and towers were made of the same rough-hewn log.
It was even bigger than she had thought—the gables stretched across the meadow, and there was a large courtyard with several trees in front. The towers stretched into the sky. A hawk was circling one of them. The smoke plume came from the giant chimney that came up out of the middle of the roofline. It was the tallest thing on the structure—a hundred feet, Shemona guessed, craning her neck as she gazed upward.
“Heightman Lodge,” Issak said.
They entered the little courtyard. Shemona’s shoulders were so tense, her stomach so tight, she was afraid she might be sick. It smelled strange here, too—musky. Like sweat. Animal sweat.
Athena used a fist to bang on the solid-wood door. It was opened by another scrawny adolescent wearing the green tunic. “Hello, Mother,” he said. “Come in. The fathers are in the middle of the counsel, but you’re likely in time to get a word or two in edgewise.” He grinned at Athena.
Athena’s jaw dropped, and her face paled. “The whole counsel’s meeting here? I thought we were meeting tomorrow night.”
Beside her, Shemona heard Rae let out sigh.
“Saved,” Rae murmured. “It’s Luaideh’s will.” She gave Issak a smile. “You know what to do, Iz.”
Issak shrugged, opened his mouth, and closed it as Rae walked up to stand next to Athena. “The Kinmother would like to speak to the counsel,” she said.
“The womens’ counsel,” Athena corrected tersely. “We have a matter for the womens’ counsel.”
“The women are in there, too,” the boy replied. “You could still bring it before them. You ettle go in, Kinmother. Liam was disappointed when he found you’d gone off—he’s got matters need your attention.” He held the door open to let them pass.
After a moment in which several strong emotions chased themselves across Athena’s face, she finally nodded and walked in. “C’mon,” she barked, jerking her head in Shemona’s direction.
“It’s not over,” Issak murmured to Rae, who waited for them just past the doorway. “I know that look of hers. She’s still going to try. I’m going to have to be quick on my feet.”
“But how could it go wrong?” Rae shook her head. “Liam’ll see her. There’s no way Athena could—”
“Oh, she could,” Issak said. “She could have a vote, and make it a disciplinary matter, and have her,” he nodded in Shemona’s direction, “held until trial. Liam’s been trying to get back in Athena and Ben’s good graces by giving in on matters like these, and the council’s inclined to disagree owt him of late.”
“So what do we do?” Rae whispered.
“Talk faster and louder than Athena.”
“That won’t be easy.”
“No, it won’t. And Thena’s going to have me gutted for it. Not really,” he added, glancing at Shemona with narrowed eyes. “It takes a grave thing indeed to call for a sentence of opening.”
“Thanks for the reassurance.” Shemona said moved past him, straightening her back, jutting her chin. She glanced up at the large entryway space and immediately felt her bristling floes relax. It was as she had hoped. Dead wood all around—those massive beams hold plenty of empty floe tracks ready for me to pour full of my own spirit. I could pull this whole blighted place down on top of us if I needed to.
They were walking down a narrow hall, which was papered with blue scrolls, slightly dingy in places. Ahead of them, a set of double doors loomed. They were standing open, and the noise coming from within the room drowned out any other possibility of conversation. A tangle of raised voices—some irritated, some earnest, one or two with hints of genuine anger—assaulted Shemona as they entered.
Shemona paused at the doorway to take in the strangeness of the room. Two stone benches ran the length of it, and there were people sitting on them. A dozen men sat on one side, and a dozen women on the other, with their backs up against the walls, which were stone; rough hewn so that the wall surface was uneven rock. The rocks were cut to fit precisely together, so there was no need for mortar. Cut high into the walls were several slender, arched windows that let in smoky spears of light.
The beams holding up the wood of the acute angle of the ceiling were massive logs, twenty feet tall and large enough around that Shemona wouldn’t be able to fit her arms around one. They were dark with age and shiny with some sort of lacquer.
In the middle of the room was a giant fire pit on a raised pedestal, several feet off the ground. There was a hole in the ceiling above it. Smoke wound up into it, and billowed up along the peak in the ceiling as well. There was something strange about the fire; something wrong with the colors. The flames licked at the logs that fed it in pearly strands, and flamed sporadically turquoise, indigo, and yellow.
Athena entered the room, moving with a sudden dignity and grace that seemed incongruent with the impression Shemona had gained.
“Go and stand beside her,” Issak murmured.
Shemona took a step forward, reminding herself not to hunch over as if she was ashamed of her height. Her hands were clenched fists at her side. She had never been more aware of the mark on her palm.
“Go back in the hall,” Athena hissed, somehow keeping the remote, holy expression on her face.
Athena’s and Issak’s conflicting theatric stylings had fallen to waste. Nobody noticed either of them enter— there was a debate going on, heated enough that some of the men and women had begun to rise up from their seats, and were shouting across the room at each other. One man on the opposite end of the room was shaking a fistin the air. “Confound it!” He bellowed. His voice echoing off the stone of the walls in hollow tones that sounded, to Shemona, that they came from a hundred different directions.
“You’re confusing the point, Liam! We were talking about the embargos, Eglantine’s infernal embargos! We’ve got to get port of entry, or else we’ll be losing this battle! We mought’ve allowed him to bring his machines up here…digging our feet in about the mining’s the most mash-laed decision this council,” he slammed another fist to the table, “has ever made.”
“You know it would’ve been more than machines, Ben,” another voice, close beside them, responded. The tone was light, but firm—there was a sort of charge to it that quieted the room and turned all of Shemona’s senses toward it. She felt almost as if the room turned instead of her body—turned, around her, until she faced the man who sat in an oddly-squat, peak-backed stone chair at the head of the table.
He stood as she watched him, running a hand over his thatch of untidy hair—red. In the fire’s light, it glowed with the subtle highlights of a precious metal. He was tall, but nothing out of the ordinary to Shemona, who was used to the build of those in the south. His shoulders were broad, his limbs, lightly muscled; his clothes were casual and slightly rumpled. His jaw was firm and square, his face rather long, and dominated by a very odd contraption—two circles of glass, held in a metal frame that rested on the bridge of his nose and hooked over his ears.
Shemona blinked and furrowed her brow, gazing at them—the glass circles were big— too big, she thought. Like they were made for an especially big-faced man. The glasses were thick and strangely faceted; they scattered the images of his eyes in twin, blue-confetti explosions over their large, circular lenses.
Shemona hated them immediately. They made her feel strange—dizzy and scattered; like her attention was being diverted in a hundred different directions, just like the image of his eyes. She wrenched her gaze away and looked at the floor.
“It would’ve been troops, guarding the mine entrances. And our people woudlnt’ve have seen a biz’s worth of the profit. Tofts would’ve been forced away from the mountaintops, our hunting and pastures would’ve been sacrificed. It would have impoverished us, made us dependent… no, Ben. If our hills’re to be mined, we must be the ones t’do it.”
“Liam. Heightman,” Rae, suddenly at her elbow, was whispering. “Kinleader. He’s the one we’ll appeal to for your sake.”
Shemona nodded and stared at the floor, listening for her opening. She wasn’t going to wait for Issak to speak up for her. If Athena needed to be out-talked, then Shemona would out-talk her. Shemona could take care of herself.
“But what are we to do?” A woman spoke this time—middle aged, heavy-set with a coronet of burnished braids. “If we can’t get our shipments out’o Kohgin, my toft’ll lose more’n a year’s profit… we can’t feed all those male animals. We’d have to buy our feed from Soron.” She nodded at a bald, well-groomed man who sat to the left of Liam. He glared back at her with icy gray eyes.
“We’re well stocked through the winter,” Liam said, putting a hand on Soron’s shoulder for a moment. Soron turned his glare on Liam and moved slightly aside so that the hand fell away.
Liam put his hand back on his hip as if nothing had happened, but there was something suddenly grim about the lines around his mouth. “With the plans I’ve drawn up to move the villagers at port-of-entry higher in the mountains,” he continued, “and set them to work on farming and starting up some communal herds, we’ll be fine for the foreseeable future. You can exchange pasturing for a few of your animals.”
There was a long pause—a tense silence as those around the table considered Liam Heightman’s words.
Well, now or never. Shemona took a step forward and opened her mouth, about to speak, but a hand shot from behind her and gripped her forearm like a vise.
“Do not talk,” Issak’s voice hissed, “It is an unforgivable breach of order for an outsider to speak without being recognized by the counsel.”
Shemona felt her heart pound in her temples. She tugged irritably on her suddenly-unruly floes, smoothing them and tucking them back into her center. He’s not hurting you, she told herself. School your feelings. She gave a curt nod, and jerked her elbow to loosen his grip.
Issak let go. He took a deep breath, like he was steeling himself.
“It’ll be fine, Iz,” Rae said, touching his shoulder.
“You’d let us be hemmed in?” The fist-shaker at the other end of the room was shouting again. “You’d let us be cut off from the city, from the holdings, from all the trade routes? That’s taking us back three hundred years.”
Liam stood, running his hand over his beard, and turned aside, as if trying to compose his thoughts. “I know it seems bad.” He was murmuring, but somehow his voice still cut through the echoes and whispers that furred the atmosphere. “But it’s what we’re—” he stopped speaking as his gaze lit on Shemona, Athena, and Issak, standing there in the doorway.
And then everyone in the room was looking at them. Everyone—all twenty five pairs of eyes, trained on Shemona in a menacing constellation of stares.
“Welcome, Kinmother,” Liam said in a more formal tone, his glance flicking to Athena, and then resting on Shemona. “Will you take your place? I see you’ve brought a matter for the council.”
Athena’s serene, other-worldly expression had disappeared. Her dark-red brows beetled, forming a downward-slanted V on her pale forehead as she stalked down the hall between the rows. She stopped abruptly at the fire-pedestal and reached into a large, tarnished urn that rested on the stone there. She threw it on the fire and continued toward the other end of the hall to where a stone chair—identical to the one Liam Heightman had been sitting in—waited empty. The flames shot high, pale yellow, toward the ceiling, and then calmed back down to their licking, iridescent flames.
All in the room stood as Athena settled herself into the chair. “Welcome, Kinmother,” they chorused, sat, and then turned their faces back toward where Shemona stood with Issak and Rae. After the noise from before, it felt to Shemona like the air thrummed with silence.
Athena opened her mouth, and Issak stepped hastily forward.
“Issak Garland of Gyllen toft,” he said—or shouted, rather, looking a bit red in the face. “Issak—”
“We heard you, Iz,” Liam said, his tone puzzled and—Shemona thought—slightly amused. “Council recognizes you. Speak, then.”
Athena’s face flushed, a shade even deeper than Issak’s. She sat and crossed her legs, jostling her boot in an agitated manner.
“All right,” Issak gulped, nodding. “Good. Well, Li—Kinfather, I bring the matter of Shemona, the Ioseppan, before the counsel. I found her on Longarm Reach. She made an illegal crossing in an Oddyssian sail.”
Athena stood. “Is this a matter for the entire counsel, or is this only an affair of women?” She shouted across the room, her voice echoing in awful tones all over the chamber.
“No, it is not a matter of women,” Issak shouted back.
“Don’t yell, we can hear you,” the fist-shaker put in. “I taught you better manners than that, Athena.”
“By words, not example,” Athena retorted, and a hiss of laughter sounded through the room. The man grinned reluctantly, putting a hand to his beard. “You’re angling for a licking, daughter.” The tension in the room was noticeably looser; several leaned back in their seats, giving Shemona curious glances.
“Good luck with that,” Liam interrupted. “Issak, I recognize this as a matter for the counsel in its entirety. State your case.”
Watching Issak’s mouth tremble and his eyes dart wildly from Liam to Athena, to Rae, and back to Athena, Shemona was tempted to close her own eyes. This is a disaster.
Athena was speaking, something about addressing the counsel disciplinary committee after a brief hearing by the High Council.
“No,” Issak interrupted again. Shemona looked over and saw that sweat was beading on his forehead. “Forgive me, Kinmother. I feel this is an issue for our Kinfather and toftleaders to…to take. This woman came across the fjord in good faith. She’s not from this area. She wasn’t aware, perhaps, of our policies. And….” He hesitated, “And she is a healer. From the south.”
There was a hiss, a giant intake of breath.
Athena’s face was a mix of horror and reproach. Without uttering another word, she sat back in her stone throne. Shemona thought she saw Athena’s hands tremble before she folded them tightly in her lap.
Issak turned suddenly to Shemona. “Show them your hand.”
“No.” Athena’s voice cracked; there was a pleading note in it. “No, that’s a mistake, Issak.”
Shemona had to agree with Athena on this one. After what had happened on the beach—after the discussion of cutting off her hand? Show her tattoo to this suspicious group of backwards wytch-burners? She frowned at Issak.
“Trust me,” he muttered.
Behind him, Rae nodded emphatically and touched Shemona’s left hand. “Take the glove off and show Liam.”
Shemona hesitated, but couldn’t think of any other ideas. Issak and Rae obviously knew something she didn’t. And after all… I’m not going to be burnt or cut. Not while timber stands over me. Slowly, and feeling more than a little annoyed at her own ignorance, she drew off her glove and showed her left palm to the counsel.
Somebody swore, quietly.
“The prophecy.” it was a woman’s voice.
Shemona turned, frowning, and looked at the line of them on the bench that stretched along the wall behind her. She couldn’t make out who had spoken.
“Tell them why you’re here.” Issak said. His tone was a touch firmer, and he put a hand on her shoulder as if he were somehow claiming her.
Shemona kept herself from shrugging it off. “I am a Laoshan healer, from the convent of Ioseppa Proper, under Essene Madgilen. I was brought up from Ioseppa to track down the harbor killer—the one responsible for the deaths of all those men whose bodies have washed ashore these past four months. When the body-trollers found floe mutation in one of the bodies, they turned the matter over to Segneur Bellascio, who then sent to my teacher for help tracing the type and source of the mutated energy; in the hope it would lead them to the killer. Thus,” she lowered her head in a little half-bow, “I came here.”
“It’s been eight months,” Ben retorted, but his tone was quieter, and his belligerent expression had been replaced by a cautious, calculating gaze. “And nearly all the bodies’ve been our boys, coming back from the last wool and livestock shipment. We’ve assumed it’s Eglantine’s work—he blocked our trade; now he’s cutting us off at the knees, taking all our able-bodied sailors.”
Shemona turned to him. “I didn’t know that when I came to the city. Obviously, the information that we were given at the convent was false. This does not surprise me; Bellascio’s contact has not been forthcoming with any information, nor have I been given a chance to examine any of the bodies recovered since my arrival in the city.”
“That must be frustrating,” Liam’s pleasant tone was close behind Shemona.
She kept herself from whirling around to face him. “It was,” she said. “So I started getting up early in the morning, sometimes before the sun rose. I would stand on the sand point and try to sense if there were any freshly dead bodies. They make a… a sort of unique imprint on… in the…the way I can see spirit floes; they, the newly dead, are unique. The point is,” she paused to gather her wits. Why in earth’s name was she babbling on all of a sudden? “I don’t trust Bellascio,” she said finaly, “and I want to go home. I can’t go home without having found the murderer.”
“So you went looking for your own dead bodies.”
Shemona closed her eyes for a moment, composing her thoughts. She opened them and turned, slowly, to face Liam Heightman. “Yes.” Her voice was calm, but something in her gut twitched, and knotted. Her hands and feet felt suddenly icy-cold as she stared into the giant kaleidoscope of blueness broadcast from the lenses of his glasses.
“Essene Madgilen.” Liam nodded, sending reflected flames dancing along the facets. “I know of her.”
Shemona frowned. “How could you?”
Liam didn’t answer her question. He looked at her for a long moment, and then turned abruptly to face the table. “You were exceedingly foolish, bringing her here, Athena,” he said. “But I don’t blame you—Luaideh’s hand was in it.”
“She is a trespasser—” Athena began.
“This woman is a Laoshan. Do you know what that means, Athena?”
“She showed us her witchery on the beach. We had her bested—”
“It means,” Liam raised his voice over hers, “that if she wanted, this woman could pull this entire place down on top of us. And more… she could read our thoughts if she liked. To the Laoshans, spirit energy is a language. They can read it, and they can change it to their liking. But,”Liam added, whirling around to face Shemona with a grin, “Most of them wouldn’t do such things. Unlike our neighbors to the north of the fjord, the Laoshans have a sense of right and wrong. They don’t force change, and they don’t intrude into others’ systems and thoughts unless they have permission. Do I have it right?” He folded his arms over his chest and his mouth curved up in a half-smile that Shemona wanted to smack into oblivion.
“Or unless we have to,” She said tersely, “for the good of the cause. And this mission is my cause right now.” She folded her own arms. “I’ve been given sacred duties, and I mean to see them through.”
“Even if it means bashing a few heads in,” Liam nodded. He turned again to face Athena. “So you see, Kinmother, you’ve brought a real problem in here among us. A rattler, busy jangling its equipment, ready to strike. As such, I say that we take the responsibility of this case from the realm of the council, and make it a matter for the Kinfather and Kinmother to decide alone.”
The long silence that stretched out after this declaration was punctuated with shifting glances—no more bold gazes, nailing Shemona to the wall… they were all afraid of her. By the hunch of the men’s’ shoulders, Shemona could also see that it made them resent her; they did not like being made afraid of a foreigner—an Ioseppan. A ‘seppy.’ She could almost see the ephitet etched in the air. “I didn’t come here to hurt anyone,” she snsapped. “I am a healer. I have come to catch your killer. That is all. I allowed Athena to bring me before this council because I hoped I could get more information about the bodies. I’ve been told the most recent ones are from Coughnilly toft. I hope that you may let me go and interview them.”
There was a rumble of murmured conversation at this. The men glanced at her suspiciously, the women frowned and kept their eyes away from hers.
Liam’s reaction was even more unsettling. He shook his head, chuckling in an odd sort of way—almost like weeping. “She’s the one,” he mumbled, bringing a hand to his eyes, fingering the glasses. “She’s the one. Praise Luaideh.”
Shemona frowned and stepped away from him. What was this? Was the Kinfather of the mountaineers not right in the head, then?
“Liam.” Athena rose from her chair. Her voice suddenly had a soothing, almost a motherly sort of tone to it. “You’re right.” She strode across the room and touched his hair, then put a hand up to stroke it. “I was wrong to bring her here. I didn’t know what she was. Don’t get worked up over this, please, Liam.”
Liam sighed, taking her hand in his. He brought it to his lips for a brief moment, then turned back to face the men and women around the table. “Council’s dismissed.”
“Meet again Lynnsday,” Athena added. “At high sun. Abernathy’s lodge, this time.”
The counsel members gathered themselves up and filed out of the room. They kept their faces turned away from Liam, as if it were indecent to look directly at him in that moment. Athena pressed her lips together. Her eyes became steely, and she put a hand on Liam’s shoulder, addressing the people as they passed. “Good day, Neallan. Have a safe ride home, Madihlde,” her voice was firm, demanding the polite responses. The women murmured back and hurried down the hall as if fleeing a plague and the men gave curt nods and avoided eye contact.
Something’s wrong here, Shemona thought. It didn’t matter much to her, but it was something to keep track of, to keep a wary eye on.
When it was just the six of them left—Liam, Athena, Shemona, Issak, Rae, and Ben, Athena’s father—Liam lowered himself onto one of the empty benches. The fire burned brightly, silently, on the center pedestal, sending gleaming darts of colored light all along the now-empty walls and floor.
“Sit, Shemona,” he said, beckoning to her.
“Liam.” Ben’s voice, when calm, was a gravely bass. “You know the trouble you face with the council already.” he glanced at Shemona out of the corner of his eye, “It’s not a wise thing, for us to have her here. Especially right now.”
“Shemona,” Liam repeated, ignoring him. “You’ve not been in this city long, have you?”
“Three weeks. Do you need those to see?” She gestured at his face—at the thing that dominated his face.
Everybody seemed to stop moving for a moment. Issak, Rae, Athena, Ben—they all stared at Shemona, then at Liam, as if to see what he would do.
“Do I need them to see?” Liam repeated slowly. “In the sense that you mean--no. Do you want me to take them off?”
“Yes,” Shemona replied. “Please.”
“You don’t like them.”
In one fluid movement, Liam Heightman took the glasses off his face, folded them, and slid them into a metal casing he drew out of his pocket. There were marks at the top of his nose and under his eyes where the frames had rested. After he finished settling them back into his pocket, he glanced up at her. “Better?”
Shemona felt a strange pulsing in her temples and in her throat. His eyes were blue, an unusually light shade that reminded Shemona of the summer sky in Ioseppa. They looked tired; red at the corners, but alight with humor and curiosity. The shape and set of them—She felt like she had seen him somewhere before, met him somewhere.
“That’s better.” She conceded, and lowered herself gingerly onto the bench next to him. “I don’t know why, but they were distracting me. I couldn’t think clearly.”