He turned and walked away from the cliff and, as before, she weighed her options, then followed, calling as she went. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Names are powerful. We will discuss them once inside.”
He was leading her towards a strange building that seemed half natural and half built. As they grew closer, people began to appear from a central opening, peering towards them uncertainly.
He kept walking, moving straight through the group as if they weren’t there, weren’t bowing their heads or tugging their forelocks as he passed. She tried to do the same, eyes darting from side to side as they gaped and murmured.
Just as she was stepping over the threshold, one of the older women spoke up. “We don’t know you.”
Claudia looked back, then forward to where the god had disappeared, confused. He reappeared, frowning.
“This year’s sacrifice is a bride from away who became a widow in short order. Your families are nothing if not selfish.”
He looked at her. “Come, this lot will waste the rest of the day with pointless questions about people who abandoned them to death and I am short of patience.”
The group shifted uncomfortably, looking at their feet or hands, Claudia sighed and turned to follow again.
“If you don’t like them sacrificing people to you, then why don’t you tell them to stop? You just said that nobody else does it.”
His shrug looked irritated and she sighed. “Look, I’ve agreed to come here and I appreciate you not leaving me to die but this whole situation is ridiculous. You’ve got all these people living here-“
“They don’t live here.”
He turned off the corridor they’d been walking down and started up a flight of stairs. Great, more climbing.
“They don’t live here. They come here whenever they hear I’ve gone to collect a sacrifice, to see whether it’s one of their family, then leave.”
“Where do they live then?”
“Nearby villages and towns. One or more will take the new arrival, once they’re healthy enough to be moved and sooner or later, they’re set up with some job and home in some community that doesn’t believe in throwing away its frailest members.”
“And they stay here in the meantime?”
He looked around, brows raised in question.
“You said ‘once they’re healthy enough to be moved’.”
“Oh, yes. A few of them have taken to healing and the like, they stay, treat their patient until things start to come right, or they die, and then they all leave me in peace until the next one.”
“Which brings me back to my earlier point. Get them to stop.”
“And what do you think they’d do to those people then?”
Claudia’s jaw dropped. “You care. You actually care.”
He scowled. “I told you, they’re my creatures, much as any other. I find cruelty distasteful.”
He opened a door at the top of the stairs and led her into a wide, bright room. “This will be yours while you serve me.”
She slowly walked to the windows on the far side. It was huge. Bigger than the entire cottage she’d been living in with her husband and his parents, and she’d thought that spacious after the tiny apartment she’d grown up in.
He closed the door as she explored and took a seat on a comfortable-looking padded bench, near the fireplace at one end of the room. He leaned back and watched her wander. “Now it is safe for sharing names. Mine is Viridios. You should address me as Master or Lord but since I doubt you will, you may use Dios.”
That made her smile. “Thank you, my name is Claudia.”
“No family name?”
“None I wish to bear.”
“Fair point. Now, to your duties. They are likely to be unusual, and sporadic. There are times I require products and such that I cannot create or harvest from the forest. You will travel to a suitable town nearby and purchase them. Similarly, I require information. You will use these trips, and possibly others, to gather information on human activities and plans that may have a bearing on the wellbeing of my forest. There are times I will require your company on trips and visits of my own. I trust you will be capable of fulfilling these duties?”
Claudia took a seat opposite him. “So no cleaning or cooking?”
“Do you wish to?”
“No. Although, what do you eat?”
“There is a couple here who tend my house and host my visitors. They’re not from your village, they begged a home from me after fleeing feuding families in the city, and we have come to a comfortable arrangement. You will meet them shortly.”
She nodded, mind finally at rest, if only for a moment and the full trauma of the day finally hit. It was hard to breathe and she tried to keep it from showing. She’d forgotten about her thoughts though and, through the grey haze, she heard Dios calling for someone, he didn’t sound terribly concerned, or surprised. It was probably yet another way the mere humans were a little silly.
She felt a warm, concerned presence at her side as an arm came around her shoulders and a voice began speaking in low, soothing tones. Gradually, her breathing eased and she sat a little straighter, still fighting residual dizziness. The voice continued its comforting monologue.
“That’s it my dear, you’re all fine now, we’ll be taking good care of you. You’ve had a terrible day, and I’ve no doubt a bad time leading up as well.”
She forced herself to respond. “It was strange, I didn’t know what they were planning, I thought it was simply going to be that they wanted me to go home to the city.”
The woman tutted. “Well best not knowing in some ways, but more of a shock to the system in others. I’m impressed you took this long in holding off the reaction. Most people his lordship brings are incoherent on arrival. Normally takes hours to get any sense out of them. Not that I blame them of course, disgusting way of treating your family and neighbours.”
Claudia looked around, the woman, soft and smiling, with silver hair and lines that spoke of many other smiles nodded encouragingly. “Now then, I’m Mary and you’ll be meeting my husband Stephen over dinner. We look after the household here.”
“How long have you been with him?”
“Oh, nigh on forty years I think, raised three children here, and they’re now off making their own ways in the world.”
“He said you were running from feuding families.”
“Oh yes, I’ve all but forgotten these days. Least I had until out eldest, Thomas, decided to find out more, then decided to do something about it. He’s rather determined about such things and he says he’s put a stop to all the nonsense from both families and is running both of them, so if we want to retire in the greatest of luxury in the city we grew up in, he’ll make it happen. He’s a dear boy.”
Claudia’s jaw dropped. “You’re High Lord Thomas’s parents?”
“Why yes, never say you’re from Aphrey.”
“I grew up in the tailor’s district, then married the blacksmith’s son from, well, that village. He died in an accident and here I am.”
“Any chance you can sew then?”
Claudia snorted. “Gave up a promising career in dressmaking for the high and mightys, including your daughter-in-law, to marry that man. Yes I can sew and have had precious little chance to work at anything past darning in the past few months.”
Mary laughed at that. “Well I’m no hand with a needle and would deeply appreciate a bit of help with some of our basic mending. It’s not much though, and I’m sure if you enjoy the work, we can arrange for materials so you can get your hand back into the fancy stuff.”
“I’d like to, but the cost… and what would I do with whatever I make?”
Dios spoke up from where he stood by the window. “Cost is no matter and you can either use the items yourself, or send them to the city to sell.”
“I, well, yes, please. I’d love to sew again.”
Dios strode across the room. “I’m going to see why that motley lot are still milling about my door.”
Mary huffed. “They want news of home of course. For all they were badly treated, there are still those they love within the village.”
Claudia sighed and stood. “I’d better go and talk to them then.”
“Eat first.” He disappeared out of the door on that order and Mary shook her head fondly.
“He’s gruff and autocratic but he does care and it will be good for the sacrifices to spend a little time talking with him first. It means they won’t mob you when you do appear.”
“Last year’s one brought news of a bride from outside and a couple of imminent births. They’re keen to know about the babies in particular.”
“Especially if they’ve worked out by now that I’m the ‘bride from outside’. What a strange way to phrase it.”
“It’s how that place sees the world. Them on the inside and everyone else out.”
“I wonder how long it would have taken before I was no longer seen as outside.”
Mary said nothing and Claudia sighed. “Never. Of course. I hate to say it but this has probably been a stroke of good fortune for me. Sandor changed after we moved away from the city, became angrier and I was afraid for myself at times. He only beat me once. He died the next day, but it was enough that I lost his baby as a consequence of his fists. I should have left immediately but his mother took it so hard, I just couldn’t abandon her and then this stupid sacrifice rolled around.”
“You should tell the villagers that.”
Mary looked serious, her expression reminded Claudia of High Lord Thomas in the Public Judgement Hall. “They need to remember the place they came from was no blessed fairy land. Some know and are glad to be away. Others romanticise the place and their lives there.”
“Why doesn’t he make them stop?”
“Beliefs are hard to change, and the older they are, the harder it is to get out of the rut. They’ll find ways to justify the practice.”
Claudia frowned. “There’s going to be a way, I know it. I just have to work it out.”
Mary shook her head then flapped her hands in Claudia’s direction. “Enough of the serious talk, eat! He’ll be coming back up to find you otherwise. Those villagers grate on him very quickly.”
“I’m not surprised.” Claudia applied herself to the tray Mary had brought with her and a short time later, made her way back down the stairs to the entrance.
Dios was standing just outside the opening, arms crossed and frowning as he listened to one of the group speak. The man was very animated, voice rising and falling, arms waving, Claudia wondered what was so exciting. He fell silent as soon as he saw her standing in the doorway and the whole group turned to look.
A comfortably curved woman with a child on her hip spoke first. “Would you be Sandor’s bride then?”
Claudia replied. “Yes. I moved to the village with him just over ten months ago.”
The man from before asked. “Then why are you here?”
Claudia took Mary’s advice. “He was killed in a rockfall the day after he beat me badly enough that I lost our child. I stayed to care for his mother and was repaid by being tied to a tree and abandoned.”
The group looked away and around and feet shuffled as they absorbed her bare, brutal words.
The man spoke again. “They never would take to outsiders, they’re turning in and in and sooner rather than later, they’re going to run out of scapegoats to tie to that tree. What then? Will they start ambushing travellers? They need to stop.”
It was strange hearing her recent thoughts echoed so loudly. Claudia nodded in agreement. “But how? How do you convince them to stop?”
He looked mullish. “By punishing them every time they did it.”
Claudia looked at Dios, who shrugged. “I tried that once. They just kept tying more people to the tree. They even sacrificed a baby. It died before I arrived.”
The air punched out of her. “What?”
The woman sighed. “I was still there then. The Lord’s reaction was such that even the most hide-bound of the village elders knew to never do that again.”
“What did you do?”
Dios looked away. “Put a tree down on the chief elder’s house with the baby’s body in its branches. After that they chose people who were likely to still be alive when I arrived.”
The woman smiled. “A massive Ironwood tree, the nearest of which grows ten miles from there, and the elder’s cottage was in the middle of the village, nowhere near the treeline. The cutters blunted every last axe and saw and wore out every sharpening stone in the village trying to clear the thing.”
The man snorted. “Of course they then decided it had been a gift. Ironwood sells well in the city. It’s good for construction. Of course they’d cut it too small for real value but they got a bit for it.”
Claudia pinched her nose. “I see what Mary means. There has to be a way though. We’ll work it out.”
Dios snorted, then waved her towards the group. “Well, get on with telling them what that tedious lot are up to and who’d likely to be next on the tree, then they can stop cluttering up my front door.”
Claudia looked at the group uncertainly. “I wasn’t even there a full year, so I’m not going to know many of the details you might want, but I’ll answer any question as well as I can.”
With that, the group surged forward and the air filled with questions, she stepped back and raised a hand. “Please, one at a time, I can’t hear otherwise.”
The group settled and looked to its oldest member, an upright woman with a tall oaken staff and the tale of hundreds of smiles, frowns and tears in her face. “You arrived only shortly after they put Timothy to the tree, so you’ll know most of what’s changed between then and now. What news of births, deaths, marriages and anyone leaving the village?”
Claudia started on a litany of events that had livened the village routine in previous months, adding detail when asked and finding out more than she’d ever known about her former neighbours in the process. After an hour or so, her part was played out and the villagers were discussing among themselves who was likely to be the next sacrifice, and whether to reveal their survival to the young couple who’d left the village for the city, or keep it quiet, as they had done with Claudia’s former husband.
“We knew he’d go back you see. Wasn’t one to take well to city ways, not for the long term. Those two though, they might just manage it, depending on how well he copes. It’s always harder for the boys.”
Claudia snorted. “Only because they don’t get pandered to all the time in the city. Sandor hated having to treat women as equals, he disguised it well enough, but it became very obvious when we moved.”