The Village was deathly quiet. Even with their slow progress on account of Narratus being unable to walk quickly, they did not see anyone besides themselves. Glaciem and Bick were kept up front. Their hands were bound and they were blindfolded so as to prevent them from struggling or retaliating. They were not permitted to talk.
Bick stumbled as he walked, but Glaciem found with her eyes covered she could feel the ground beneath her more clearly, as though her feet were seeing for her. She walked deftly across the upturned soil and around determined roots that threatened to trip the others.
The group turned from the fields onto the main road. Here, the ground was less disturbed; the Trees had not bothered to work their way up through the cobblestone. The moment her feet touched stone, Glaciem found it more difficult to walk, but if she focused she could still ‘see’ the ground, even if just barely.
At length, she could sense they were near the Great Hall and soon she could hear the Hunter’s boots clapping against the hardwood floors. They had arrived. Glaciem and Bick were roughly forced to their knees as their blindfolds were ripped from their heads. They blinked away the grime from their eyes before looking around. Tables were upturned and there were still puddles of water everywhere. A gigantic tree had wrenched its way through one of the windows, its branches clinging to walls as it remained frozen. The room still smelled of scorched wood and flesh. The aroma was sickening and it filled Glaciem with dread. She willed her breathing to remain steady.
Perhaps we were fools to come back here.
They saw the living Elders standing before them, the coffin still unscathed behind them on the table as it had been left. The body of the First Elder had not been moved. Glaciem could see the pool of red left by the wounds she had inflicted on him. His face was turned away, but even through the blood, she could see the bright blue stone against his back, its chain having twisted around his neck as he fell. She peered closely, trying to see if his chest was moving, unable to tell one way or the other. Glaciem swallowed hard and glanced at Bick. He was also staring at the body, his eyes locked on the blood seeping out from beneath his father. Even when she tried to catch his eye, he would not look at her.
Alexandros was leaning against the table near the coffin. His thigh had been thoroughly wrapped, the white gauze only slightly marred by a few stains of blood. His hands were also bound, his palms pressed together, tightly wrapped in rope and resting against his good leg. His eyes locked on hers as soon as she saw him. She stared at him intently, but could not read his expression.
On the table next to the coffin Glaciem could see the stones of the Elders who had been killed; the Sixth, Eighth and Ninth. The green stone of the Sixth Mulier shone in bright contrast to the metallic stones of the Eighth and Ninth. The remaining Elders gazed silently at Glaciem.
The Second Mulier sat in the middle, the dead Elders’ stones in front of her. On her right, sat the Third and Fifth Hominem, their stones Red and Grey, and the Fourth Mulier with her stone of yellow. They were the Keepers of Sickness, Death, and Healing. On her left sat the Seventh Hominem, his stone brown, the Keeper of Libraries. Narratus slowly walked forward to join the remaining Elders. The Second Mulier looked at him with surprise, but her expression quickly changed, first to disgust and then to anger.
As soon as Narratus reached his chair he sat down heavily, groaning from the exertion of the walk. The Second Mulier rose to her feet and the Elders, save the Tenth, rose with her. They formed a seemingly impenetrable shield of black, all studying Glaciem and Bick. Glaciem gazed at the Second Mulier, who looked back, unblinking. Finally, the Second Mulier broke the stare and turned to Alexandros. She raised an eyebrow, motioning for him to stand next to Glaciem and Bick. He limped towards them and stood next to Glaciem, towering over her.
All was quiet. Neither Hunter nor Elder said a word. It made Glaciem nervous and she shuffled awkwardly on her knees, which were starting to bother her. Bick jabbed her as best as he could with his elbow, signaling her to stop moving. She ached to jab back, but forced herself to remain, choosing to ignore him instead. After several minutes had passed the Second Mulier cleared her throat.
“Daughter of Elements,” She began, her voice was ragged and cracked, every word filled with pain. “You have drawn blood of the Village. You have taken the life of my husband, the First Hominem. You have led my son and your betrothed down a path that is in direct conflict with the Laws of the Village. You have called the Forest to our doorstep and It has become hostile towards us. What was meant to become a unifying event between us and the Forest has now been brought to complete and utter ruin. These are the charges I bring before you. How will you respond?”
Glaciem looked the Second Mulier in the eye and replied with as clear a voice as she could manage. “I am guilty of the charges you bring before me.”
The Second Mulier’s jaws clenched and she swallowed hard, her eyes narrowing. Glaciem could not tell if her answer had been expected or if it had taken the woman by surprise.
“I am guilty,” Glaciem repeated, louder this time. “I have done these things and it has caused great harm to those I hold dear, and to those with whom I have lived these ten years. I submit myself to both the judgment and will of the Elders according to the Laws of the Village.”
Alexandros looked down at her, confused. The Elders murmured to each other and Narratus nodded for her to continue.
“I only ask that you would hear what the Tenth has to say in regards to the events that have passed tonight, and I ask you to show mercy towards Strong Heart and my intended, Alexandros of the Northern Waters. Their crimes would not have happened had it not been for my actions. They protected what they had been commanded to protect; Me. They should not be punished because I failed to be worthy of their protection.”
All looked to the Second Mulier as she glanced at Narratus. “What have you to say?” She asked him with cold eyes.
Grief and heartache had taken its toll on her gentle spirit and she now spoke harshly towards him, her nostrils flaring ever so.
Narratus bowed his head. “My lady, I must ask your pardon in not rising, I fear the walk here has robbed my legs of their strength.”
“Seeing as you were supposedly on your deathbed I am surprised you are here at all.”
“Mother, please.” Bick begged quietly.
The Second Mulier looked at him sharply.
“Listen to him. Hear what he has to say.” He looked up at her from his knees.
“Your father condemned you with his dying breath, and still you presume to ask things of me?” She asked after a moment.
Tears welled in her eyes, which were tinged with a wildness wholly uncharacteristic of her usually controlled and demure countenance. Glaciem tried to comprehend the torment the Second must have been feeling. It was the Second Mulier’s duty to obey the Laws of the Village, but what her husband had declared was to reject the most precious thing to her and everyone who heard the verdict knew it. Bick was her beloved son; she had almost lost him once in infancy and now she was expected to willingly lose him one more.
“I only ask that you listen to Narratus.” Bick repeated to his mother.
The Second Mulier ignored Bick’s use of the Tenth’s given name. Though mother and son did not speak, Glaciem could see them communicating through their eyes. It was a language known only to she who had borne him and to him who had been born. Bick pleaded with his mother silently as she ran a finger along the coffin, staunchly refusing to listen. At length, the Second spoke, her voice quiet and low.
“To think, all of this on account of an ugly piece of stone.” She murmured wincing slightly, her other arm going to her stomach. “I have never before seen your coffin.” She said, looking at Glaciem, her pupils dilating as she focused on the Elemental. “I was content to let it remain in the Forest, where it belonged, and yet here it is, before my eyes, its very existence the cause of our damnation.”
The Second winced again and clutched at her black robes, her knuckles going white. She closed her eyes and bowed her head as she continued to run her free hand along the smooth stone. The Fifth reached out an arm to stay the Second, but she shook her head, indicating for him to remain where he was.
“My lady?” Alexandros broke the silence, voicing the concern they all felt.
He had remained standing on account of the bandage wrapped around his leg. His face was still white, though Glaciem saw that he looked remarkably stronger than when he had left to return to the Great Hall.
“Silence!” The Second Mulier spat, her head snapping back up to look at Alexandros. “You have no right to speak! The only reason why you are still alive is because you had yet to be sentenced with your cohorts!”
“Mother!” Bick exclaimed, surprised by the foulness of her voice.
The Second did not respond, but rather cried out in pain, buckling as both hands went to her stomach. She turned away from the outstretched arms of the Elders beside her. When she regained herself, the wildness in her eyes was unmistakable.
“I will not listen to this… this treachery!” She seethed. “I have suffered the presence of that thing for too long!” She spat as she pointed an accusing finger at Glaciem’s figure. “I have watched my son grow more and more attached to an inhuman creature who should have died with the rest of her kind when the songs said they died!”
Another wave of pain washed over the woman, taking with it her last bit of reasoning. The grief of her husband’s death, the anguish at seeing her son and the anger she felt towards Glaciem were all too great for her to withstand. She swayed, momentarily unbalanced, before her hands went out and landed heavily on the coffin. She balled her hands into fists and began to beat down on it with every word she spoke for emphasis, using the coffin as both a support and a platform for her fury. Her eyes locked on Glaciem once more.
“Because of your actions I am now a widow! Our beloved Village is lost, and all I have left of my legacy is a traitor son.”
Her voice lowered to a growl, her teeth grit in pain. “I will see to it that you are both made to be public displays of the wrath of the Laws of the Elders! I will see to it that your fool betrothed is sent to the Mountains and his family stripped of all titles and wealth!”
Glaciem sucked in her breath as the Second dug her hands into the coffin, blood seeping from her fingers as she clawed at the stone.
“You will rue the day you were ever discovered, Glaciem, Ice Child, Blessed Daughter of the Forest.”
As the Second Mulier raised her arms one last time, black blood began to drip from her nose, splattering the grey stone beneath her.
“May you be damned in the sight of all men.” She snarled.
She brought her fist down to strike the coffin, screaming wildly. Her hands hit the stone with such force that the bones of her fingers cracking could be heard throughout the entire Great Hall. Glaciem winced as the other Elders backed away, unsure and frightened. Narratus tried to stand as he watched the woman, his blue eyes flashing with alarm.
The Second did not even notice as she brought a broken finger up to point at Glaciem, her index hanging at an odd angle as blood continued to stream out of her nose.
“You think you shall always be protected, Daughter, but you do not know the force you have trifled with. You do not know the pain you shall feel. You do not know the torment you shall cause to all those around you.” Her voice gurgled in her throat as she spoke, a sticky black substance escaping from between her lips in small droplets on the floor.
The Second Mulier pushed down on the coffin with her broken fingers, the sound of her bones scraping against the stone as she dragged her cracked nails against it rang heavily in Glaciem’s ears. Blood began to seep from the woman’s eyes, mingling with the oozing black substance from her mouth as it ran down the sides of the table. The muscles in her throat began to bulge from the strain of her pushing.
“Please, stop this now!” Glaciem cried, trying to push up against the Hunter behind her.
The Second started to laugh wildly as she began to rake her fingers across the top of the coffin, leaving black and red lines in her wake.
The Hunter forced Glaciem back to the ground, but she could feel that his touch was lighter. He was unsure what was happening and she could sense him weighing his options.
The Second continued to laugh, the sound unearthly and wild, her fingers still scraping across the coffin uncontrollably. Her spine curled forward as her eyes began to roll into the back of her head.
“Mother!” Bick shouted, panic evident in his voice.
He began fighting against his captor as well and the Hunter relented. Bick straightened and ran headlong for his mother, his hands still bound.
Glaciem called out in alarm and forced her head back into the Hunter’s knees behind her, trying to catch him off balance. The Hunter smacked her ruthlessly on the top of her head with his fists. Stars shot through her sight.
No! She cried out in her mind. Stop him!
Alexandros was no more able to move with his leg, but shouted all the same for Bick to stop.
Bick would not listen. He ran around the table, fighting past the Elders who were now glued to their spots in fear. He lunged towards what was left of his mother, his hands resting on her back. When she felt him she stopped and stared at the wall across the room, her eyes blank.
“Mother?” Bick asked quietly, swallowing as his gaze dropped to her mangled hands, the fingers little more than broken stubs.
The Second smiled briefly before abruptly ramming her head into the coffin, the sound of her skull cracking against the stone enough to make the Hunter behind Glaciem flinch.
Bick cried out in alarm and tried to stop his mother, grabbing at her wildly, trying to pull her away from the table as she began to ram her head into the coffin repeatedly.
“Stop!” Bick yelled over the sound of the Second’s bones crunching. “Stop this now!”
The Second stopped.
Though there was nothing left of her face, Glaciem could feel the woman staring at her with the caved in bone and cartilage.
How is she still alive? Glaciem wondered, her stomach churning at the sight.
Protect. The boy whimpered in Glaciem’s mind, though she could sense his terror.
The Second opened what remained of her mouth.
“So……” She hissed, drooling blood and bone. “You are the human chosen by the darkness.”
Glaciem looked back at the Second blankly until she realized the woman wasn’t looking at her at all. She was looking at Bick, her hands creeping up to his throat as she spoke.
Without warning, the Second pounced on Bick, gnashing at him with the few broken teeth still intact. Glaciem watched in horror from the ground as the two rammed into the coffin, the force of the Second’s attack far beyond what should have been possible.
The coffin slid from the table, breaking into pieces as it hit the floor, the Elders crying out in fear. Narratus lost his balance and toppled to the ground, groaning as his hip hit the floor. The light Glaciem had seen emitting from the coffin in her vision now floated away from the remains of the broken stone. A shrill scream filled the room, coming from every direction, the echoes of its cry rebounding back into itself, giving the impressions of many voices. The terrible sound grew louder and more piercing with each passing second.
Alexandros cried out in agony and clenched his eyes shut as he tried to cover his ears with his bound hands. He fell to the ground, his back arching against the floor, the sounds permeating through his body. The Hunter who had been holding Glaciem down let go and collapsed, clawing at his ears. Blood poured from his nose. Glaciem watched in wild confusion. Only she, Bick, and the Second remained unaffected from the sound.
As quickly as it had begun, the screaming stopped. Silence filled the room. Alexandros groaned as he coughed up blood. He spit it out of his mouth while pushing himself to his knees. All who had fallen tried to pick themselves up and began wiping away the blood that had escaped from their eyes, nose, and ears.
The Second continued to claw at Bick, his face now red from both his own blood and hers. Bick had gone silent, his teeth grit as he tried to fight off his mother, her lips curled into a grisly snarl. He slipped his foot against her chest and pushed, throwing her body over his and onto the floor in front of Glaciem.
Glaciem gasped as the Second stood, the force of the throw barely registering. Her attention was now on Glaciem. Before Glaciem could react, the Second surged towards her, her mangled hands wrapping tightly around the Elemental’s throat. The Second breathed in wheezing swallows, black ooze pouring from her mouth and onto Glaciem.
“Now you shall see the power of the Shadow’s Forest.” The Second gasped, her grin crazed. “Your time has ended, Daughter of Kings.”
The Second squeezed harder, the bones of her fingers breaking Glaciem’s skin. She leaned closer, her throat gurgling.
“Umbra sends his regards.” She whispered.
Suddenly, the Second shrieked wildly and pushed herself away from Glaciem, releasing her grip to claw at her back. She alternated between trying to grab at her back and hunching over to hack up blood before turning around in shock.
The First Elder, shaking and bent over in pain, held tightly to the now bloodied knife in his hand. The same knife he had intended to kill his son with. The Second snarled and staggered to face the tall man.
“This is my doing.” The First said in a raspy voice. “Let it be me who undoes it.”
He raised the knife high and drove it down into the chest of his wife. She shrieked in pain and dropped to the floor, the knife embedded in her heart.
The Second turned and twisted on the ground, screaming as she flung thick drops of black blood in every direction, spattering those unfortunate enough to be close by. She looked at the First Elder standing over her and with a final cry launched herself at him, sinking her broken teeth deep into the tall man’s neck. The two figures toppled over and were still.
“Move! Go to them now!” Narratus barked from the ground where he had fallen, breaking the stunned silence of all who looked on.
He used the chair to pull himself up before he limped his way over to the figures.
The Second Mulier was dead. Her eyes lifeless and half open, the rest of her face too bloodied and disfigured to see properly. Bick ran to her and dropped heavily to the floor, crying in anguish as he lifted his bound hands around her neck to cradle her head. He wept into her limp body. Alexandros had managed to get himself back up in spite of his leg and limped over to Glaciem, pulling her from her knees where she had remained, still too much in shock to have moved on her own. She stared unblinkingly at the First Elder, his breathing strained and shallow. Blood seeped both from the many wounds he had sustained from her and from the wound on his neck, caused by the creature who had possessed his wife.
“You need to get up.” Alexandros urged quietly. “Glaciem!” He took her arm in his hand and pulled.
Numbly, Glaciem stood up and stumbled over to the First Elder, whose eyes locked on hers as soon as she was in view. She bent down, silent and slack jawed, in a trance. They stared at each other, their eyes never wavering. The Elders were quickly moving around them, pouring water over the First’s wounds, wiping blood from his eyes, desperately trying to save him. Alexandros placed a hand on Bick’s shoulder, knowing no words could comfort him.
The Hunters had left as soon as they were able to stand again, unwilling to insist on payment from such a cursed place. They would have rathered taken their chances with the Forest.
“I did not mean for this to happen.” The First Elder choked to Glaciem between deep, desperate breaths. “I did not mean for this. I did not mean for this.”
Glaciem shook her head, tears spilling unbidden onto her cheeks. She had no words for the man.
“I did not mean for this…” The First Elder’s eyes flickered and moved to his wife’s body beside him, panic spreading across his face.
He tried to move, but his body would longer respond to his commands. Narratus, seeing him struggle, kneeled down and picked up the First Elder’s limp arm. He gently placed it over the Second Mulier’s shoulder.
“Be at peace, Leader of the Village UnNamed.” Narratus whispered. “Go to rest now with your wife and forefathers. We will not let this injustice to your house go unpunished. You are not at fault for these happenings.”
The First Elder looked first at Bick, then Narratus, and then lastly at Glaciem. Confusion and pain clouded his stare.
“Forgive me.” He whispered.
Terror passed over his face before his vision faded and his eyes closed, his life ended.