Sunlight and Shadows – A fantasy short story about justice


Thell is awaiting the verdict to a trial that shouldn’t even be happening. Everyone in the town knows what’s happened. They always know. But Thell has the Sight and a lot more besides, and she has dreams bigger than anyone else in Silt…


It was a world of sunlight and shadows. The clouds never stayed for long and, even when they did, the sun would always find ways to bull through them, like the loudest drunk at the tavern, and make itself known. Thell would watch it for hours, the play of light over the mountains behind the village. She would marvel at how the great beings in the sky could argue for so long and never come to a resolution.

All her life she’d watched and wondered, not believing that anyone so wise could disagree for so long. Now she understood it all too well. Her and Altin’s parents had sat in the Great Hall, watched over by Councilor Feristen, and argued for three days straight.

So now she watched the door to the Great Hall with her heart sitting somewhere between her throat and her mouth, blocking all but her most valiant efforts to breathe and swallow. What was there to argue about? Everyone in the town knew what had happened. They knew what he’d done, but still there was something to debate.

Thell leant back against the grassy mound she’d made her own, and stared up at the scudding grey caps. There would be rain today, though it would last only a half span and barely wet the Earth. She knew it the same way she knew the wind would change soon after and bring a week of real sunshine to welcome in the summer.

She’d Seen since she got tits, and now she wished she’d got neither. It was her tits, full and appealing to those like Altin, that had garnered his unwanted attention in the first place. She wrapped her arms around herself and sniffed. The town called her valuable. Every spring she was paraded through the streets, garlanded with flowers and praised for making them the happiest town in all of Gatan, yet here they were arguing over guilt already proved by the blood on her sheets.

Mayhaps they were arguing over whether she asked for it. She’d seen it before, with a girl over in Hass-oer-Ralin. She’d come to stay for a couple of months, till the shame passed, and they’d spoken. Thell didn’t talk to many; something about the gift made her apart from those her age. But she’d spoken to quiet Bella, and the story was now horribly familiar.

One minute he was talking, quiet and as polite as you please, the next he was wondering what the town would think to find a boy in your bedchamber at this time of night. Then he was threatening. Then he was pushing and hurting.

She closed her eyes, but she could still see the clouds. She clambered up the mound and turned to gaze at the mountains. The shadows ran like sheep over the vast undulating meadows. The snows were all but gone, so why did she feel so cold?

She’d felt cold for a week, now, since the night it happened. Mam said retribution would warm her, but Thell had her doubts. Her maidenhood wouldn’t be returned were Astin castrated, nor the nightmares she’d carried since, be taken away.

The mountains were calling her. They’d called since she could walk, but she’d never thought of running to them, not properly. She had the Sight, the first in four generations, and the town needed her as surely as it needed the spring and the great west meadow with its yearly crop of corn and lariss.

Astin would be there now, sweating with the other men of the town to get in as much of the harvest as possible before the sun blighted it. His attack couldn’t have been better timed. No one wanted to think about rape when the harvest had come. Four days of toil, back breaking and intense, and you could be sure Astin was working the hardest.

Proving his worth. She spat sideways and turned away from the mountains. Maybe she would run, after this farce in the Great Hall was finished. Maybe she’d run and never return. But she’d see his balls on a stake first.

He’d always talked to her. When she flowered early and her legs took her higher than the other girls her age, he’d been the first to act like nothing was different. She could well remember the feeling of wobbling around on legs too tall for her, with a stomach ache that filled her entire body and made the seed’s blood that ran, a welcome relief.

Astin had made light of it, saying the others would soon come running for advice. He’d made her laugh with words muttered too soft for others to hear. Words meant for her alone. She’d never had her own words. Everything she’d said had been recorded and checked by Minister Gill, pored over for signs that she would finally pick up the gift dropped so many summers ago by her great great grandma.

But he gave her her own words, secret words that others wouldn’t hear. But she wouldn’t say that, when they called her in. She wouldn’t say any of that, because it meant nothing. Words were words and actions were actions, and anyone who’d lived through even one winter in Silt knew the two were linked only by the most foolish or desperate.

Besides, she’d given him words as well, but she’d never thought of holding him down on his own bed whilst having her way with him. Thell sniggered and rose to her feet. What kind of debate would be going on in there now if she had? He’d have risen to it, men and boys both couldn’t control those sorts of things, and she’d have stolen his virginity and innocence both.

And by now she’d be in stocks, spat on by all of Silt, Sight or no.

Thell trudged through the main street to the pump at the far end, drew a cup of the clear, fear-cold water that came down at the north end of the valley, and tried to wash her heart down just enough to eat something. But it stayed right where it was, oblivious to hungry rumbles coming from beneath.

She’d been three days away from her studies and the pang of lost learning annoyed her almost as much as the lack of justice being enacted in the Great Hall. He would pay for that, as well. She carefully bent each of her fingers, examining the fine digits for signs of the Blight.

It came quicker with the Sight, or so they were told. Grandma had never suffered and there was every chance she wouldn’t either, but still every day she checked. Once she was content, or as near as possible given the circumstances, she tied her long black hair up and marched back to the school house.

The sight of the building brought her the usual measure of calm and pleasure. The tiny doorway through which Old Nana Mary welcomed her each day quickened her step. They couldn’t stop her learning and, when they needed her in, they could come and find her.

The cool dark within further soothed her, and the spell was completed by her routine of gathering slate and chalk, and the papers Nana Mary had collected in her travels. As she opened the first, she realised with a start she must have gone to the wrong shelf, for what she’d thought were mathematik scrolls were maps.

But she didn’t put them back. She traced one long finger over paper old enough to crackle until she found Silt, buried deep in the mountains, beneath shadows and sun. From there, she traced south until the tracks met the road and the road met the King’s Highway all the way down to the coast. To Eldergard.

Nana Mary told such wonderful tales of the capital, tales that even at nineteen still held wonderment for Thell. Her gift there would buy her a house and more besides. It wouldn’t carry the empty respect of her greedy, grasping neighbours. There she could buy and sell her talent, one day at a time, and be beholden to no one.

‘Should you not be awaiting the call, ‘Ell?’

She jumped and glanced guiltily over her shoulder as the shutters behind her were rolled up. Nana Mary peered at the scroll and their eyes met. ‘Eldergard’s a long ways from here.’

‘Not so far as the crow flies.’

‘Oho, so you have another talent you’ve been keeping from us.’ The smile that accompanied it made Thell relax and feel guilty at the same time. How could she even think of leaving with Nana Mary still here? What made her stomach clench, though, was that leaving Nana would hurt far more than her parents.

But it was all pie in the sky, anyways. There was more than distance between her and Eldergard. And she had the Sight.

‘They won’t come out in your favour, you know?’

Thell wrinkled her nose as she spun on the narrow bench to look at her teacher. ‘Of course they will.’

The old lady shook her head. Her wide blue eyes were as watery as always, but there was a sharpness to them that belied her kindly smile. The gentle wisps of white hair that had escaped her head scarf shifted gently in time with the shaking. ‘Don’t play dumb with me, my girl, you know very well how this will play out. I’m just glad you’ve got the Sight, may it save you from the worst of it.’

‘But they can’t, it’s wrong.’

The old lady cackled in a voice that made Thell shiver. She’d spent every spare minute of the last eight years in this room and never heard her make a sound like it. ‘Wrong is as wrong does, and only you, the Old Man of the mountains and that good for nothing Astin know what went on in your bedroom.’

‘But I told the truth.’

‘Course you did, that’s how you were raised, but Astin was raised just the same way, so who’s the liar?’

Thell thought to complain some more, but to do so would be throwing more stones into the sea. Her words would sink to the bottom and the mighty ocean would be no different for their presence.

‘What can I do?’

‘Well, you’ve got a map, so that’s a good start.’

Thell’s eyes widened and her mouth opened and closed for a moment. ‘You think I should go?’

‘Why d’you think I’ve been teaching you all this time? You see me showing the other kiddies the maths and the history?’

She hadn’t, though in truth she’d thought it simply because they weren’t apt for that sort of thinking. There were few in Silt who knew, or even cared what lay beyond their borders, and even fewer who had the desire to find out.

‘How will I get there?’

‘Well, we’ve got Sasha, and your dad could handle losing that big carthorse of his. Not great for riding, but he’ll handle the miles.’

‘I won’t need both.’

‘So what will I ride, then?’

Thell’s eyes joined her mouth and her face became a trio of perfect O’s. ‘You’d come with me?’

‘Been a while, but I think if things come out the way I expect in this trial, I’d be best out of here, for their sakes as well as my own.’ Her eyes flashed at the last and Thell shivered. She knew Nana Mary like her own mother, or she’d thought, but twice now she’d seen someone she didn’t recognise.

Their planning got no further, for the cry of her father’s voice roused her from the seat and dragged her from the school. She raced back to the square to find everyone there. Mam and papa, watching her with narrowed eyes. Behind them were Astin and his parents, all three as smug as mice in the flour.

Councilor Feristen stood behind them, the very model of control and aloofness, but she could see it in his eyes. He wasn’t happy with what was about to be said. She’d seen him only from afar and knew not whether that boded well or ill.

‘Thell, mind your father, where’ve you been?’

‘I’m sorry, Ma, I went to school.’

As it was by mother’s urgings that she’d started, she couldn’t very well complain, but father’s scowl deepened. ‘Mayhap it’s that selfsame place that’s been filling your mind with such loose thinking.’


‘Enough. We’ve talked and talked enough.’

‘But I haven’t had my say.’

‘You don’t get your say. Astin said nothing, neither. We heard your stories enough times and it ain’t about that any more. It’s about the truth, and the truth is—’

The councilor cleared his throat and Thell’s father fell silent, glaring, she imagined, at the councilor from the back of his head.

‘The official verdict recorded in the town records is that neither party holds full responsibility for what occurred. In events such as there, and I’m sad to say they are more numerous than one would think, it is often difficult to tell where the blame begins and the shame ends. Both parties have decided that the most auspicious outcome will be the putting aside of all grievances and a river run beneath the affair. This ends it.’

Thell’s mouth hung open as her parents, and Astin’s parents, and Astin all repeated the Councilor’s final words.

‘This ends it.’

And with that, her guilt was stamped clearly on her forehead. Not that she would see it when she looked in the mirror, but every town’s person would know it was there, just as surely as if the councilor had borrowed a brand and tattooed her in black ink.

She stumbled away, catching sight of her mother’s face. There was regret there, but no more than had she spilt the milk, or lost some trifle or other. It ran no deeper than that. Nana Mary had been right. She’d been righter than right. And Thell had not even had her say.

The town laws specify that all should have their say, but it was widely acknowledged that until the formal naming at 21, youngsters could be expected to remain silent unless there were excellent reasons. The blood on her bed sheets obviously wasn’t a good enough reason. The aching between her legs had faded over the week, but the memories weren’t going anywhere.

But the memories were hers alone, and no one else wanted a part of them.

She found herself back in the school, despite the calling of her parents for her to come back. Nana Mary was waiting and offered an embrace that was both boney and awkward. She stepped free of it and nodded firmly. ‘I’m ready. When can we leave?’

‘Are you sure?’ She wasn’t asking for real, she knew just how sure Thell was. But she had to ask it, because Nana Mary always asked the questions that made you think. So Thell thought, harder perhaps than ever before. She put all the reasons she had to stay in Silt in one basket, and all the reasons she had to leave in the other and weighed them up.

It didn’t take long, since the first basket was empty. She nodded again and life sprang into her teacher’s lined face. ‘Then we leave tonight.’

They planned and separated. No one in Silt would ever expect Thell of going anywhere and no one would think that Nana Mary could. It was only as she walked back to her parent’s house – as it had now become in her mind – for the last time, that she realised she had one more thing to do before she left.

It was tricky, for the water pump was used by many, but she knew Astin’s routines and they met for an awkward exchange of glances and to fill their buckets. As always, his eyes fixed on her tits so he saw nothing of the powder she sprinkled in his water before they parted.

The three of them, Astin and parents both, were fast asleep when she visited his house. The sun was dropping and the shadows were thick. Her visit was short, brutal, and satisfying, and she didn’t look back when she left.

A few minutes later, two people wearing cloaks and hoods rode from the south gate of Silt and out onto the mountain trail. They would journey for four days straight before they reached the sky of the world and begin the long descent into the Meadow of Eldergard. It would be nearly a month before they reached the coast.

Long before then, of course, the unconscious, bloody body of one of the town’s young men would have been discovered in his bed. A bed that was now also stained with blood. His parents would have found the sack tied around their door handle also, and its grim contents.

Words would have flown back and forth, and maybe more blood would have been spilt, though maybe not. There is a chance Councilor Feristen would have stepped in and suggested that Astin’s parents accept their lack of grandchildren and consider themselves lucky.

The harvest wasn’t so good that year, and the one that followed, even less so. But the town went on, just as always, and if people spoke occasionally of the empty school house and the young girl who’d once brought them prosperity, well, they were soon hushed and learnt to hold their tongues.

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