by Epidiah Ravachol
Chapter 1: The Justice of Multheri
Two flightless birds of orange and purple plumage danced around each other atop a rope web strung by the citizens of Multheri over a narrow and deep chasm. Each unsure footfall — graceless under the weight of their riders — vibrated through the taut netting. Both riders clutched their fowl’s reins in their left hands and supported a glass-tipped lance with their right.
The birds were brothers and near identical to those that sat on the cliff edges. The contrast in the riders, however, was visible even to the spectators below. The plaintiff, garbed in rough leathers ill suited for her size, hunched against her bird, making as small a target of herself as possible. The defendant sat rigid in his resplendent armor, an heirloom dragged from his father’s halls for this ignoble event. Even their lances differed in length, the glass tip of hers only two-thirds that of his — both gifts of his father purchased from Master Selu Fyrmyor in the interest of a sure and fair trail.
Among the audience below, the defendant’s father stood beside Master Selu Fyrmyor clasping the merchant’s hand in stony grip. The father watched the trial unfold, each wide swing of a lance, each faltering step of a bird, and each vertiginous sway of a rider. Master Selu Fyrmyor watched his porters who quietly prepared his caravan for swift departure.
The gathered crowd was a barely staid collision between those thirsty in justice’s long absence and the family and sycophants of the defendant. The birds squawked, the combatants grunted, but the audience held their tongues, fearful of what the merest gasp might ignite.
The birds lurched together and the plaintiff ducked inside the shallow hook of the defendant’s lance. It was a maneuver born of panic that left both combatants surprised. The defendant yanked back on the reigns, but his warfowl only pivoted, driving him into the plaintiff’s lance, shattering the tip and driving slivers of glass deep into his shoulder.
The high angle of the sun obscured the moment of judgment from the audience below. They saw the silhouettes of both riders fall from their warfowl into the webbing as glass shards glittered down into the shadows of the ravine. Instincts broke the father’s grip on Master Selu Fyrmyor as he reached up to catch his son who hung now in the rope a hundred paces above.
Master Selu Fyrmyor slithered into the crowd, never wasting a moment to look up or back, even as the crowd broke its reverent silence.
The caravan rode hard and late that evening. Master Selu Fyrmyor made no guarantees for his instruments, but this did not stop the occasional customer from trying to extract one should justice not favor them as kindly as they had hoped. The stars rose over the night road and Master Selu Fyrmyor busied his mind tallying the risk of a father’s vengeance against the cost of hiring caravan guards — a species of laborer that overvalued its skill and worth. He cursed his haste. Had he only remained long enough to see if the son had indeed been found guilty or at the very least plummeted to the hard-packed chasm floor where he would meet a fate no reasonable soul could hold Master Selu Fyrmyor accountable for. Perhaps he could send a scout back to Multheri. Someone swift and deft enough to spy on the father and return with news in time to make preparations. If he sent someone now, he could minimize the delay.
Every day dallied upon the road cost him. It cost him in wages, in the feed and care of his horses, in the intangible costs of lost opportunities, in compounded delays if he did not reach the coast before the monsoons, and in exposure to other vengeful relatives of the guilty. Master Selu Fyrmyor’s abacus rattled in time with the creaking wagons and plodding beasts of his caravan as he tallied the known and estimated against the prizes and sales that lay ahead. Chief among these prizes was the hoard of Yengra, which dwindled with every passing hour.
Chapter 2: The Justice of the Cavefolk
The witch Yengra languished in her prison of stone and darkness, well below the sunbaked sands of the Shrinking Desert. Her people, millennia ago, fled that desert for the cool, damp caves beneath, where generations unwitnessed by the sun were birthed and put to ash. They fed themselves on pale, luminescent fungi; cave shrimp fished from cool, clear streams; and the milk, eggs, and meat of the same dynasty of goats and fowl that fled with them from the heat thousands of years ago.
In recent generations, as the dunes ebbed away and newly fertile lands brought trade routes across the Shrinking Desert, Yengra’s people had been discovered by the flourishing kingdoms of the coast. The bloodshed when these distant cousins were reunited nourished the storytellers and priests who spun grand tales of cannibals and monsters with translucent flesh that await the unwary and misguided in the dark.
Heroes of some renown in three successive generations set forth to cleanse Yengra’s people from their subterranean homes. Thrice they were rebuffed by the cavefolk, whose intimacy with the dark left them unmatched in their starless world. Yengra herself drove the third party out into the desert sands where she watched as the survivors froze to death in the silver light of the moon.
But it is said that War and Trade, born of different fathers, are twins weened from the same mother. Even as some strove to rid the land of the cavefolk, others sought to profit from them. The cavefolk were formidable glassworkers who crafted delicately textured vessels that moved as water and the sand trapped within them shifted and percussive instruments that rang in alien tones. Such wares were soon prized all along the coast for their beauty and craftsmanship as well as for the novelty of their monstrous creators.
Divorced from the sun and its seasons, the cavefolk painted time in broad, uneven strokes. They ate when they were hungry, slept when they were tired, and sated their desires when they arose, uncaring of dawn, dusk, winter, or spring. They had no sundial or zodiac to mete out the calendar. They grew old, withered, and were cremated with the years unremarked upon. History was no more than an account of who was alive and who was not, a line set across the present to divide what is from what is no longer.
This was the conundrum for Yengra — war hero, witch, thief — jailed within the timeless cave, the length of her sentence to be served within seven returns of Master Selu Fyrmyor, whose caravan carried the cavefolk’s glassworks north into the ranges, southwest over the mountains, into the city of Lep, and eastward along the coast before returning. An imprecise and unreliable measurement to toll away her perdition for having secreted away coin and goods from hundreds of other visiting caravans over the years.
Chapter 3: The Justice of the Rrinni
In the valleys of Rrin, true theft — that theft which is perpetrated on physical goods by physical means — is punishable by removing one or more of the guilty party’s fingers. The number of fingers removed depended on how many times the accused had to count through their remaining fingers to calculate the value of the goods stolen. False theft — that theft which is perpetrated by means of deception or misrepresentation — is punishable by public lashing so that all may have fair warning of the guilty party’s wandering tongue. After such a display, the fault of further transgressions often rested upon the shoulders of the incautious defrauded.
So as to lay no undue burden on the good people of Rrin, the costs of the punishments were paid by the guilty and their kin. Here Master Selu Fyrmyor found a ready market. He brought instruments of justice from every kingdom and hold upon and beneath the world for the citizens of Rrin to peruse on a warm summer day. Knowing their legacies and the predilections of their offspring, many familial heads sought to purchase protections against likely future infractions.
On a wicker mat, Master Selu Fyrmyor presented a procession of whips and lashes. To his left, the most economical options: thick lengths of rope, masses of twine knotted around river stones, and simple leather straps. To his right, the more costly whips designed to catch the eye and haunt the mind of any loved one possessing ill thoughts: whips of patterned leather, lashes barbed with ivory and obsidian, and a gold chain ending in three ruby hooks. Before him, a favorite among his customers: a long lash woven from the amber and violet tail feathers of Multheri fighting fowls. They were delicate instruments that rarely survived a couple years of disuse, but they were beautiful and had become something of a fashion among the wealthier Rrinni. Prominently displayed over a hearth, they assured visitors that the family was serious about its honor without risking their tender backs should a misunderstanding arise.
A matriarch garbed in thick furs arrived with one of her husbands carrying her purse — for in Rrin it was unseemly for the head of a household to handle the money. Master Selu Fyrmyor, noting that she was clearly a woman of distinction, made a show of not presenting the products on his left to her. They were beneath her. Instead he turned her attention to the products on his right. She, in turn, feigned interest in the artistry and detail of one or another of the more sinister looking whips. There was a joke, made if not by her then by Master Selu Fyrmyor, about disobedient children or ne’er-do-well in-laws. The laughter played out into silence as the matriarch pretended to weigh the options before her. Waiting, motionless as a jaguar, Master Selu Fyrmyor’s thews tensed for the moment his prey’s impatience betrayed her. And then, in the breath before she spoke again, with an effusive apology, he declared all those he had just shown clearly unfit for her station and presented the Multheri feathered whip as if he had just remembered he had one in stock.
And so it progressed, matriarch after matriarch, family after family, sale after sale until the long shadows overtook the Rrinni bazaar and the sputtering torches were lit. Master Selu Fyrmyor amassed such a sum that he began weighing the costs of remaining into tomorrow against the potential sales. More feed for the beasts, yes, another day’s wages, and there was the wine and the music of the Valley of Rrin that even now called to his roustabouts. And yet, it had been a fine day, one that Master Selu Fyrmyor would see repeated.
He would have stayed that night, enacted a curfew on his crew in the form of a rotating guard, and saw his stock exhausted had not his road-weary scout arrived with tidings from the west. The Multheri father rides out and he does not ride alone.
Master Selu Fyrmyor broke camp, gathering those porters who had not already succumbed to wine and song. He sent his two most trusted into the valley to gather the rest. They were also pressed with the task of seeking out a handful of Rrinni who bore only seven or eight fingers each — for those, he wagered, would not shrink from the grim toils often required of caravan guards. Any more fingers and they would not be desperate enough to leave Rrin for the pittance he could spare. Any fewer fingers and they would be too set in their thieving ways. He would leave tonight and hope that what remained of the hoard of Yengra would offset this tragic loss of another day of sales.
Chapter 4: The Justice of Master Selu Fyrmyor
That light was not permitted in Yengra’s cell did not trouble her. The cavefolk do not live without light, but they are as family to the darkness. She had time to learn the full nature of the cool, unhewn stone the held her captive. Stooping, she had room enough to pace. The only entrance was a natural chimney four times her height that she could climb, but the guards posted at the egress would see that she found no profit in it. When she asked for it, food would be lowered and waste removed through the same chimney. Water dripped from a lone stalactite and would disappear through cracks in the floor had she not been left a glass bowl to collect it.
This was how she measured her deal with Master Selu Fyrmyor.
That silvery night as she watched the heroes bleed out and freeze upon the sea of sand, Yengra swam in a thrilling vertigo. The stars and moon cast above her, she had never laid eyes upon anything so far away before. She sat there long enough to witness that, ever so slowly, they moved, arcing high across the sky. She could not discern if they fell toward or away from her, or if she fell with them toward some glass bowl at the bottom of the universe.
Out here there was no rough cave wall lean upon, nothing to cling to. A dreadful frost spread from her stomach and chilled her more deeply than the sandy winds. She felt her mass and strength shrivel. Her limbs were as brittle as newly formed ice as she crawled back to the caves.
There, in the close darkness, with a ceiling above her and a floor beneath her, her guts righted themselves. She felt, once again, whole and solid, properly fixed within the world.
And yet, from then on, in moments when the peace of sleep enticed her, her restless mind would turn back to the infinity she witnessed and she would dream of casting her unmoored body out among the stars. So she plotted to leave the caves.
There were two types of strangers in the world beyond: those that brought wealth with them and those that brought swords. It was clear which of the two Yengra wished to walk among. So she employed her witchery to inveigle the merchants who traded with the cavefolk.
At her bidding, the darkness would confound visiting caravans, leading some among them deeper into the caves. There, in the timeless black, she would offer to guide them back to the warmth and light. Grateful caravan masters would present her with trinkets for her aid.
A pattern arose that first instilled Yengra with a sense of the unceasing pressures of time. The caravan masters would grow agitated and offer her more the longer she kept them below. Experimenting with the correlation, unsure of the cause, Yengra found that the strangers of the world beyond were plagued by urgency, a condition which befuddled them.
To best understand their state, Yengra placed a small glass bowl beneath a stalactite. As she led the caravan masters through the labyrinthine caverns, she repeatedly returned to the bowl and tallied the number of times it filled up. By this measure she could best estimate when the caravan masters had reached the peak of their generosity and lead them to the sun.
Afore long, the sum of the caravan masters’ generosity had become more substantial than even Yengra knew. Had she not herself caught the outsiders’ urgency and become careless in her choice of victims, she may would have be able to count herself one of the wealthiest women in the fledgling kingdoms. But in her newfound haste, she coaxed the darkness into befuddling Master Selu Fyrmyor’s caravan on two consecutive visits.
The cavefolk, embarrassed by Yengra’s actions before Master Selu Fyrmyor’s rage, granted him justice by sentencing her to a period of imprisonment meted out over the course of seven returns of his own caravan. Unabated by the gesture, Master Selu Fyrmyor sought Yengra out to demand a justice more tangible, one paid in coin.
In the throes of urgency, Yengra made a deal with the caravan master’s greed. Secreted away, guarded by spell and stone, her hoard awaited his return. She would, in her generosity, split it with him. Many times more wealth than he had stolen from him. Indeed, many times more than he had ever carried across the Shrinking Desert.
But she would not have her urgency toyed with as she had toyed with so many others. He would find no greater reward by dallying. Instead, she counted the passing in her water bowl. Each time it filled, she would deny him one more share in seven thousand.
Six returns and six thousand shares have since passed, but a handsome sum yet remained.
Chapter 5: The Justice of the Father
Since Master Selu Fyrmyor turned from the road three days ago, the caravan lost two horses on the rocky ground and their burdens now fell to the porters, who were already displeased about the decision to bypass the fabled ports of the Opal Coast and the pleasures that awaited them there.
It was not a choice Master Selu Fyrmyor wished to make. The wealth of the ports offered ample opportunity. But he sought to outpace the Multheri father that dogged him even now. And perhaps more pressing, he knew his Rrinni guards had already begun to thieve from him. He suspected they plotted to strip him of all his worth as well as his very life by the end of their first evening on the Opal Coast.
So Master Selu Fyrmyor led his caravan over an untried route to the Dominion of Hatarne. He comforted himself with assurances that this new path would return him to the hoard of Yengra all the sooner.
The massive iron gates of the Dominion, said to have been erected by cyclopean slaves, stood so tall over the plain that the caravan spotted them half a day before reaching them. Within these walls lived a vigilante and fearful people who held no compassion for the criminal or corrupt. Here Master Selu Fyrmyor intended to sell the remainder of his instruments of justice before rushing to the Shrinking Desert and his reward.
Here, also, he intended to surrender his unwitting Rrinni guards, who would surely pay for their thievery with every finger they had left as well as more vital protrusions. Few sentences in the Dominion did not result in death and and fewer accusations were found wanting.
It was a pleasant day for Master Selu Fyrmyor. Rarely had he such time to cast his mind from his figures and encroaching enemies towards the more immediate pleasures availed to one who makes a living under the open sky. But that half-day’s approach to the gates of Hatarne was accompanied by a sweet wind and shadows of clouds that darkened only enough to ease the eye against the brightness of the day. He was, upon his horse, unaware of the aches bought by decades spent in the saddle, pondering ways to spend the hoard of Yengra that profited him only leisure and opulence.
In this balmy haze, he paid little heed to the six swordfolk that rode out from the gates to meet him, escorting a father born of Multheri who carried grave accusations on his lips.
Chapter 6: The Justice of Yengra
Still as stone, Yengra lay upon the cool floor. Through the dark, her eye studied the faint edge of the glass bowl and the meniscus it bound. A gravid drop gathered upon the tip of the stalactite above her, preparing to plunge to the end of a journey that began thousands of years ago atop a lush mountain ridge far to the north. From there it condensed, fell, flowed, and seeped over and under the landscape in a circuitous course to meet with Yengra before Master Selu Fyrmyor could make his appointment.
There was no patience left in the witch who was no longer innocent of the ceaseless pressure of time. The caravan master’s greed was not so great that it could draw him back a seventh time. Whispering into the still darkness, Yengra set about making deals with devils more reliable than Master Selu Fyrmyor’s greed to assure his obedient and impossible return.