The Traitor’s Trial

The Traitor’s Trial

It’s time for more Wandering Mountains! It started with Child of the Plains and continued in Man of the Mountain, then again in Legends of Old. The last installment was the Council of Silver. And now we have round five! (There are two installments left after this one.)

I got the idea for this particular story during our drive to Calgary. It was my first time passing through the Canadian Rockies and I was stunned by the majesty and diversity of the mountain faces. In fact, the more I looked at them, the more I saw faces. Each mountain looked like it’s own odd creature with its own unique characteristics.

Of course, being a writer, my mind went to work on this idea. Could these faces come from the spirits of the mountains? Or could the mountains be giant sleeping creatures? I actually have a ton of different ideas related to these concepts that might get sprinkled into a couple different fantasy worlds. As for this particular story, I think it might be the prologue for a future series.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think of the series so far!
. . .

When the riders left to search for Ruger, they did not allow Ylyea to accompany them. They did not know how far they would have to roam, how long they would be gone, or what dangers they would encounter, so the Council of Silver determined the danger too great for the woman who had become the clan’s greatest asset.

Likewise, when a party left to aid the caravan, lest they had been caught in the mountain’s rage and injured, Ylyea was only allowed to organize the rescue. It didn’t matter that she had fetched the map, or that she had more knowledge of the wagons, traders and riders who made up the caravan than anyone else in the homestead. No, she understood the secret of speaking with the mountains and, so, she must not take risks, no matter how remote.

All she could do was wait. Wait for the scouts to make their reports. Wait for the rescue party to return with news. Wait to hear what Ruger had been thinking when  he set off on his fool’s errand if, indeed, the riders were able to locate him.

Hours turned to days and days turned to months. The tasks that kept the homestead functioning no longer filled Ylyea’s head enough to occupy her. She would reach for vegetables to peel in the kitchen, only to find there were none left. She would set aside a pair of freshly stitched riding leathers and reach for the next on the pile, only to discover there were none left to mend. She folded clothing and hung new batches to dry in the balmy summer breeze, always surprised when she reached into the basket and discovered naught but empty air.

Her life felt like a dream. She wandered aimlessly through it, searching for the exit path, waiting to wake and begin moving forward again.

The rescue party returned after little more than a week had passed yet, to Ylyea, it felt like a year. She was one of the first to great the riders, waving like a mad woman until the head rider addressed her by name.

“Minor injuries,” she announced with a grin as she slid from her mount. “We patched up a few broken wagons, set a bone or two, and brought back those that no longer thought they could travel.” She jerked her thumb toward a pair of battered looking riders who seemed relieved to slide from horseback back to solid ground.

“A welcome relief,” Ylyea replied, though she didn’t quite feel it. She could stop worrying about her traders now that she knew their journey had never come to a complete stand still. And that the shake hadn’t been as bad up on the mountains as they expected it would have been. Perhaps the mountains hadn’t wanted to punish those traveling their backs. Perhaps they had considered them innocent of the homestead’s plans. Or perhaps they simply moved with more delicate grace than the plains people could fathom.

Whatever the case, Ylyea experienced one night of undisturbed sleep, so deep and peaceful she didn’t dream of Ruger and what she would say to him when he returned.

After that, the fugue did not hold as much power over her mind as it had in the beginning. She returned to her old ways, finding tasks that needed tending and making certain there were always hands to manage them. She organized the largest repairs that needed to be orchestrated before winter, trusting that the traders would bring back ample supplies to replace those they used, especially now that they were aware of the earthshakes.

One blessing they could all celebrate was the sudden and plentiful availability of sturdy wood. And there would be no need to wait for the traders to return with properly treated planks. The homestead could simply create their own, though they were careful not to take too many trees from one place.

Already, they had begun to find use for the mountain’s resources. For the rock as well as trees. And thanks to Ylyea’s conversation with the mountain sage, they knew exactly how to go about acquiring these materials without rousing the mountain’s ire. Alive they might be, but much of their exterior served as protection rather than flesh, causing no fuss to the titans if pieces of it were stripped away. So long as they never dug too deeply, or where there were no natural fissures, they should cause no lasting damage.

Yet, anxiety hung thick in the air every time they approached one of the great mountain bases. Those who ascended the paths whispered prayers and pleas of mercy and peace during their ascent. Since no one knew what Ruger had done to anger the mountains, no one was exactly sure what would cause further harm. They could only proceed with caution and wait for answers to reveal themselves.

When the scouts reported the return of the riders just shy of two weeks past the return of the rescue party, Ylyea thought certain it was a dream. She joined the crowd that waited to spot the rising cloud of dust kicked up by the horse’s hooves but, this time, she did not rush forward. The answers she needed couldn’t be granted in front of the crowd. She would have to wait until Ruger had been transported from horseback to holding cell, no matter how urgently her desire for answers threatened to spill from her throat.

Shouldering her way through the throng, she cut at an angle through the crowd, away from the horses, toward the hut behind the council tent. It was there they would take Ruger, no doubt, to await his coming trial. A decision which had never needed to be discussed among the elders.

From a distance, she watched the horses prance to a stop and their riders grin as they dismounted. She watched them drag Ruger forward, presenting him to Polasta and Ghad, who had come to make known her fate. She tried not to notice the way the crowd jeered when Ruger passed. But the anger in the air was palpable. The angry homesteaders tossed rocks, twigs and several other hard, disposable objects in Ruger’s direction as Polasta and Ghad led him forward, unconcerned with their prisoner’s comfort.

Ruger did not lift his eyes from the ground when he passed through the doorway beside Ylyea. She glared at him, her eyes silently demanding that she meet them and face the consequences of his actions. But he only squirmed, apparently eager to be locked away from the light, where none of his angry brethren could reach him.

Polasta gave strict orders to the guards before they disappeared inside, but Ghad turned his attention instantly to Ylyea. “You wish to speak with him?” he asked, as curt and to the point as ever.

Ylyea nodded once. “I must, Elder. I know the Council demands justice, but I do not think this can wait.”

“Ruger will be called to answer for his actions. We will force his tongue if we must,” Ghad replied, his tone grim. “I would urge you to wait, to learn the truth with the rest of us.” He hesitated. “Unless you feel the words you need from him cannot be spoken before the Council?”

Ylyea shifted her weight from foot to foot, carefully considering her words before she spoke them. To suggest that secrets should be kept from the Council could be a dire mistake. The plains people did not believe in this form of concealment. Truth must be known in order for justice to be preserved.

And yet, each of the Council elders were privy to trade secrets none of the others knew. None more so than Musuuk, the shaman, who tended the spiritual needs of the homestead.

“We have seen what carelessly sharing the knowledge can do,” she said at last. “Let me at least evaluate the danger.”

Thus far, it had been agreed that Ylyea should not share the secrets she had paid to procure from the mountain sage, if only to spare the Council from having to pay a similar price. Whether they drew the truth from Ruger or determined to allow her to deal with the matter, the decision would not be hers to influence. But she must make her determinations with speed if she hoped to reverse the harm that had been done.

It seemed she did not have to impress upon Ghad the gravity of the situation. He nodded and motioned for Polasta to join him.

“Ylyea believes it best if she question Ruger in private,” he told the scout master, “to prevent a reoccurrence of recent misfortunes. I need at least one other council member to agree before I give the order.”

Polasta regarded Ylyea for a moment, as if trying to look through her eyes into her soul to divine her true intentions. Ylyea met her gaze without shying away, hoping her true intentions would be easy to divine.

After barely a moment, Polasta nodded. “It seems wise. I’m sure Musuuk would agree, though we shall go and speak with him immediately.” She laid a hand on Ylyea’s shoulder while Ghad summoned the guards from the hut. “Take care that you do not shoulder too many of the homestead’s burdens, child. But know that you have our gratitude for your discretion in this matter. I can think of no one else I would trust with our fate.”

Ghad did not speak again, but he nodded, following Polasta as she departed with the guards in tow.

Ylyea paused outside the door for a moment and drew a deep breath to steady herself. When she had become the organizer of summer caravans, she never imagined it would lead to a situation like this, where the fate of the entire plains clan might well rest on her shoulders. She wondered if someone from the city faced a similar situation, or if the great chieftain had already come up with a solution to the problem. Just because they had yet to receive word from any of their neighbors didn’t mean they fared poorly. Perhaps all she needed to do was wait for a royal decree to free her from all responsibility.

But in the depths of her heart, Ylyea knew that no magic answer would be forthcoming. If the great chieftain had no access to the mountain sage, he might not have any idea how to manage the situation. Or it might be only the one homestead that had been engulfed by the travelers, which meant there would be no aid they could not secure for themselves. And she had paid the mountain man for his knowledge, so she must follow the path to its logical end, or doom another to stand in her stead.

She passed through the door into the hut and closed it behind her. The lighting was dim. Prisoners had little need to see. Ruger had been locked into a solid man-sized cage forged from steel near the center of the room. There were no other prisoners, though there were two more similarly-sized cages on either side of Ruger’s cell. At the moment, there were no criminals deemed important enough to be kept near the Council meeting place. Only Ruger had committed a crime that could not be easily punished by existing laws.

This time, he was forced to meet her gaze when she stopped in front of him. He looked rough. His hair was mussed and matted with dirt and blood. Dried blood was caked to his right cheek and fresh blood oozed from a split on his right, lower lip. His shirt was torn in several places, and he must have scratches and bruises beneath, though she saw no hint of them in the ill-illumination provided by the hut’s sparse lanterns.

He looked so sad and pathetic when his eyes met hers, that all the anger and outrage she had carried for a month evaporated. Ruger had never been the wisest herder, but he had been solid and dependable. He fought when he felt it was necessary and he paid the appropriate service when he overstepped a boundary. He had a wife and two young sons who now faced the loss of a family member, depending on the council’s decision. All three must have watched the homestead turn on Ruger upon his return, and all three must fear the outcome of the coming trial.

But this was not a vindictive or smugly-satisfied man. This was a man beaten and defeated, possibly by his own poor decision.

So instead of the lecture she had prepared for this moment, Ylyea said softly, “Why did you do it?”

Ruger looked so miserable when he opened his mouth to answer that Ylyea almost pitied him. “I only wanted things to go back the way they were. I didn’t think you would try after what the old man said, and I thought someone should. I didn’t care if it had to be me, or what I had to do, so long as it benefited everyone else.”

“That’s not really true, is it?” Ylyea snapped. “If it was, the mountains wouldn’t have moved closer.”

Ruger hung his head, but offered no response.

“How did you know what to do?” Ylyea demanded, weary now. She knew the answer, but she wanted to hear him say it.

“I pressed my ear to the door. It was a tad muffled, but I caught enough to piece it together. I thought if you paid the price, it wouldn’t matter if I overheard.”

“And the part about how great a price we’d have to pay if we angered the mountain spirits?”

“I thought it was an exaggeration,” Ruger insisted. Surging forward he grasped the bars of his cage with both hands, squeezing so hard his knuckles turned white beneath their dirty smears. “You have to believe me, Yly. I thought it would be something like war or famine. Something the plains people could overcome if we worked together.”

“Don’t call me that,” Ylyea hissed sharply. She wouldn’t be endeared to someone who had put their survival at risk. “And by all the gods, what made you think famine was a fair price for moving the mountains?”

“At least we would have had the plains back,” Ruger spat. “A famine might only last a year but the plains would be ours forever.”

“That isn’t how these matters work. You would know that if you had listened to the sage.” Ylyea caught her voice growing louder and paused to draw a deep breath. If nothing else, she had to keep calm. Anger wasn’t going to solve this situation.

“What price did they ask?”

“A life,” Ruger said softly.

“And you found a singular death to be a greater price than war between the clans or the crops rotting in the fields?” She pinned Ruger with a sharp look that made him squirm.

Eventually, he tore his eyes from her and leaned forward so that he had to stare at the ground.

“It was the life they asked for, wasn’t it?” Ylyea pressed, her tone dark. “You wanted the plains back so that nothing would have to change, but you weren’t willing to sacrifice yourself to get them for everyone else.”

“Why should someone have to die so that we can have the plains back?” Ruger countered, though he sounded miserable instead of angry. He pulled away from the bars and sank to his knees. “We didn’t ask for this!”

“Stupid brute! How many would have died if we went to war? Is it more acceptable for others to die because you don’t know their names and faces? Or was it because war and famine might have at least allowed you a chance to survive?”

Ruger curled himself into a smaller ball, burying his head so deeply in his hands, Ylyea might not have been able to hear him if he did try to speak.

Not that it mattered. She had heard all she needed to hear. His foolish behavior disgusted her, but she couldn’t fault him for the failure of his bravery. Death was the hardest of the spirits to face. None among the clans could claim they would have acted differently, though many would try.

“You do realize that the cost to set this right will be far greater than the mountains asked of you?”

Ruger loosened his arms enough for a wail of despair to escape.

Ylyea curled her hands into fists at her sides, steeling herself for what was to come. Ruger’s fate belonged to the Council. But the clan’s fate, that was hers to determine. “You almost may as well have done it,” she said softly, her tone laden with sorrow. “The Council might well execute you for what you have done.”

Ruger’s only answer was a series of ragged sobs.

Having secured what she came for, Ylyea turned stiffly and exited the hut. Swidra, the mistress of horses, waited for her outside, her face folded with concern.

“Are you well, child?”

“As well as I can be, Elder. So long as you do not ask Ruger to repeat the ritual he used to communicate with the mountains, I believe it will be safe for you to ask of him all the same information I have gleaned from our conversation. But I do not believe any of them will please you.”

“No,” Swidra agreed. She pressed her lips into a thin line, causing a series of tiny wrinkles to stand out against her skin. “I don’t suppose they will. But more pressing matter is whether or not the damage can be reversed.”

“It depends,” Ylyea replied, surprised to find her voice didn’t shake when she spoke the words, “on what we are willing to sacrifice.”

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