The first of the Burner's prisoners was a pregnant woman, though I would have thought her long past her childbearing years. She wasn't a day under fifty, and might easily have been ten years older.
Those years were heavy on her, and the short, dirty shift she wore did nothing to conceal them. Her shoulders were soft and spotted brown; her legs were puffed and lumpy as badly kneaded dough. The weight of a lifetime's grief dragged down her mouth. I couldn't imagine her as a young woman, or a smiling one.
She hardly looked like a threat, but that only made me warier. Fiends loved to prey on the vulnerable. Children and dotards were easily deceived, and strong men often hesitated before striking such helpless-seeming foes—a fatal mistake against the possessed.
This woman didn't seem possessed, but without Iomedae's magic I couldn't be sure. The Burner regarded her as if she was, or worse. Naked hatred contorted his face; his lips skinned back in an unconscious snarl.
"A fortnight ago," he said, "this woman ran from the village. We found her lying by the wardstone, naked and covered in blood. There was a dead boar with her, painted with sigils in ash. She'd rutted with it and cut its throat, sacrificing to the demon lords so they'd give her a child. A fortnight ago she was a barren widow. Now she's fat with hellspawn. For the sake of us all, you must give her to the flames."
"Do you have a name?" I asked her.
She looked up slowly. The emptiness in her face receded, and a semblance of life returned—but it was a halting, blasted kind of life. I no longer doubted that she'd seen demons; the question now was why.
"Ledsa," she croaked.
"Ledsa. Why were you out by the wardstone?"
"Have you children?"
"Then you cannot understand." Pain gave her voice a ragged edge. "Demons took my Yulin. She was six. They took my husbands, too, one by one over the years, but no man's death ever grieved me like my daughter's. I was old when I had her, and too old to bear another when she died. Too old to do anything but mourn.
"I prayed to Iomedae for a crusader to bring her back. When that failed I prayed to Pharasma to show me that her soul was at peace. The gods wouldn't answer. I knew they didn't care. I knew my daughter was in torment.
"I went to the wardstone." A flash of defiance crossed her face under the disheveled gray hair. "Yes, I went. I heard the demons singing. They crooned to me. They said they had her soul... but they could give it back. Bear a child for them, they said, and it would be my daughter clothed in new flesh. Yulin, alive again."
"She admits her guilt!" the Burner said triumphantly. "Put her to the stake."
"Is that necessary?" Adrun asked. "She has admitted to a grievous wrong, and the fiend-blooded are bent toward evil. But I have known some who rose above their blood, and if this woman acted out of love... might she not be able to guide her own child toward goodness? I'm sure the demons' promises were lies; if they had the power to rebirth a human soul, which I doubt, it would have been as a twisted and broken thing. Still... that only proves she was blinded by love. Can we not show mercy?"
The Burner bristled at Adrun. "You're a traitor to your Queen and cause."
"Speak out of turn again and I'll have you whipped," I said. The Burner subsided, and I turned back to Ledsa. "You wanted a child, and you were too old to bear one, that I understand. But why not take in an orphan?" Kenabres had few children, but many of those had lost their parents to the Worldwound's war. Valas's Gift likely had orphans too. Even if it didn't, Kenabres was only a few days away. A woman determined enough to sacrifice to demons could surely have made that journey for a child.
She recoiled as if I'd suggested taking a serpent to her breast. "Why would I want them?"
A short silence fell. Then Adrun sighed. "Why, indeed."
"Hang her," I told the soldiers. "Burn the body."
"I should have known better than to think someone who would risk all Mendev for her grief could be saved," Adrun murmured after the soldiers had gone. "There was no love left in that woman's heart. Only poison. I'm sorry I asked."
"Never be sorry you asked," I said. "If the gods grant you the luxury of time to make sure, take it. Always take it. The grave is in no hurry."
Adrun looked at me strangely, but before he could say whatever was on his mind, the soldiers returned with the next prisoner.
He was mad. Every prisoner brought in after that was mad; Ledsa was the only one who still had her wits. The others giggled, or warbled nonsense songs, or shrieked at monsters only they could see. The village headman, a gaunt-cheeked and humorless old man, patted and cooed to our boots as if they were kittens. His wife plucked the hairs from her head one by one, put them to her lips, and puffed them at each of us with a cackle of delight.
They were all peaceful, even merry. That surprised me until the Burner explained that the prisoners we saw were only a fraction of those afflicted. He'd already burned the violent ones.
"They had succumbed to demons," he said. "It had to be done."
I would have burned him too for that, but I didn't know if he was wrong. None of the afflicted souls could tell us what had befallen them. Adrun and Jelani examined them, and I did the same, but we found no answers. Several were feverish, and some trembled with palsy, but others were cool and steady. The only unifying sign was that all were pained by light. They cringed from the smoky torches indoors; the weak daylight outside made them cover their heads and weep in agony.
"It's the wrong season for accidental poisoning," Adrun said after the last prisoner had been examined. "In spring people might pick devilweed or mitepurse by accident; the plants can be easy to mistake when they're young. But never this late in the year. Anyway, if that were the cause, I'd expect to see people struck down after eating from the same pot. These victims came from all across the village. Some were afflicted in houses where other people were spared."
"I won't say it wasn't demons' work," Jelani said, "but it isn't a spell. There's no enchantment on any of these people."
The mystery was not to be solved that night. I posted a guard to ensure the prisoners didn't hurt themselves or each other, then went out to stand first watch. I walked the walls of Valas's Gift, but other than Jelani, who shared my watch, I saw no one abroad.
The aurora was gone with summer from the Crown of the World, but there was no tranquility in Mendev's night. Past the wardstones, the sky flickered red; lightning stabbed up from the Worldwound into the clouds, as if it meant to attack the heavens as well as us earthbound mortals.
Perhaps it did. I watched it, thinking about human frailty and human folly, until the midnight bell ended my shift. I found no answers in my thoughts.
In the morning, however, we learned the cause.
"It's the grain," Persil told us, red-cheeked from the cold. He'd gone out early to requisition some of the village's wheat for our porridge, hoping to save our own stores for later. While picking through the grain to get rid of loose stones, he saw that several of the kernels were bloated and split, with purplish fungus inside.
He held them out in a trembling palm. "It's gone rotten. Same as the ones I brewed up by accident—the ones that killed all those people back home. I'll never forget it."
"Did those victims show the same symptoms?" Adrun asked.
Persil shrugged uncomfortably. "Might've. I thought they were just silly drunk. Then they started dying, and I got hauled off to the dungeon. Never saw what became of the others."
"There shouldn't be any blight here." Adrun frowned. "Valas's Gift prevents it."
"Maybe not, if the wardstone is failing," I said.
"This village has been blessed since the Second Crusade."
"Blessed or not, its granary has been blighted. Can you purify the grain?"
"Some," Adrun admitted. "I'd have to spend a fortnight to do it all. My prayers are limited, and there's a lot of grain."
"We can't spare you that long." Nor could I leave the granaries to be purified upon our return, since I didn't know if we would return. If we all died out by the Worldwound, the villagers might decide madness was preferable to starvation and eat the rotten grain—or sell it to unsuspecting travelers and use the money to buy themselves safe food. Men, even good men, could easily do such things rather than watch their families starve.
"What about you?" I asked the Burner.
He cast his eyes down uncomfortably. "I have not the privilege of... of magic."
I grunted, unsurprised. There had been a true priest in Valas's Gift, but the other villagers told me that she was among the first victims sent to the Burner's stake. She'd been violently deranged by the poisoned grain, they all agreed, but I wondered whether the Burner hadn't also wanted, in some small corner of his soul, to get rid of the only voice that might have countered his fanaticism. Men's motives were often shaded by such thoughts.
That didn't answer the problem of the grain, though. If neither Adrun nor the Burner could cleanse it, I saw only one solution.
"Burn it," I said. "Adrun, cleanse what you can. We'll fire the rest when we go."
"My lord, are you sure?"
"Yes," I lied.
It was an ugly choice. Valas's Gift was a breadbasket for Kenabres and other settlements, which needed its blessed fertility to make up their own shortfalls. Without it, all those towns would depend entirely on what Queen Galfrey could spare—and, after a hundred years of war with no victory in sight, that wasn't much.
Burning the grain would force the people of Valas's Gift to winter as paupers in Kenabres, where they'd likely be resented for causing the hunger they couldn't help. Still, I saw no better choice. The villagers would have a hard winter, but life by the Worldwound was always hard. They would survive, and in the spring the fields and the blessed font would be waiting for their return.
So I hoped. But I was only human, and fallible. My doubts stayed with me as we marched from the village, a pillar of smoke at our backs.
We traveled without a guide. Past the tree line, northern Mendev was a vast and featureless land, deceptive in its emptiness; a man could easily wander a hundred miles wide of his mark and never realize it until he was dying on the tundra, days from the nearest living person.
But the wardstone of Valas's Gift was its own landmark, and from the moment we left the taiga we could see it stark on the horizon. It slanted slightly; despite the magics that anchored it and its own considerable weight, the constant wind on the tundra had pushed it to one side. In another hundred years, if the war for the Worldwound still wore on, it might topple on its own.
Ten miles from the wardstone, I sent out scouts. Whatever had damaged the wardstone might have left some clues behind, and I wanted to find them before we stumbled blind into danger. Jelani enspelled the scouts to resist the chill, laughing into her scarf as she did.
"I learned this spell for the desert," she said. "Never thought to use it in the cold."
"I don't think any of us ever thought to be here," one of the scouts replied. He shouldered a lighter pack, leaving the bulk of his equipment with us, and trotted off to the west. A moment later, the other split east. The rest of us continued toward the wardstone.
We had scarcely gone two miles before the first scout returned. His eyes were wild with terror above his scarf.
"Come," he said. "I've found something."
Coming Next Week: First steps on the long road to faith in the final chapter of Liane Merciel's "Certainty."
Liane Merciel is the author of The River Kings' Road: A Novel of Ithelas, available now from Gallery. For more information on her writing, visit lianemerciel.com.
Art by KyuShik Shin.