Sarra Salmalin took a deep breath, just as the healers had taught her to do when she had these episodes, and looked for things that would bind her to reality. Here was her seat, a polished wooden bench, warmed by the heat of her own body. Here was the sun disk representing Bright Mithros, gleaming with copper and gold, a representation of the domain of the god of law and justice in the courtroom. She glazed over the handful of people who occupied the rest of the stands, including King Jonathan, Queen Thayet, and her knight-master, Sir Weland of Torhelm. Focusing on the crowd would make her panic again. There were no noises to be heard but the sound of breathing, and the shifting of people unused to sitting still for long; she took those noises and bound herself to them, to ensure she didn’t forget again where she was.
Finally, she looked at her parents. Her father, the mage known as Numair Salmalin, sat on her left side. The years had tuned his hair a distinguished shade of silver, with strands of its former black remaining throughout. He wore the robe of his station, a black robe, with no ornament but for the silver and copper wedding band on his left hand. Her mother, whose only sign of years showed with the white hair that streaked her bushy chestnut curls at her temples, wore a prim blue dress, looser than fashion required. Sara couldn’t remember seeing her mother Daine the Wildmage ever looking so clean. Normally her clothes were constantly streaked with all manner of horse grime, grass stains, and other messes, no matter whether they were at their tower home by the sea, or a court dinner at Midwinter.
Slowly, as the unwieldy panic in her own heart began to reside, she looked at her own lap. Sir Weland had insisted she appear at court in a manner that befit her station as a squire serving Torhelm; she wore a tunic bearing his coat of arms, a silver eagle holding a spear on a field of red, a crisp linen undershirt with full sleeves, and formal linen breeches. Normally, wearing her knight master's colors made her sit straighter, but she hadn’t been able to muster the confidence to do so much as lift her head in three months.
The entrance of the judge, and the subsequent sharp rap of his granite ball upon the pedestal, brought the entire courtroom to its feet. Despite her careful monitoring of her emotions, Sarra’s heart began to race uncontrollably.
“Sir Ainsley of Tasride,” the judge began, his clear, cool voice ringing out in the hollow courtroom. “You have been charged with the physical assault and rape of Sarra Salmalin, squire to Sir Weland of Torhelm. Upon the examination of the evidence, and the testimony of the victim and subsequent witnesses to the aftermath of the alleged assault, this court finds you guilty.”
Sarra, knowing full well the panic that it would cause, chanced a glance at Ainsley. His perfectly-cropped copper hair shone brightly off of his pale skin. He wore the colors of his house, rust-orange and white, and looked as serene as if he were attending a picnic in the Royal Forest on a fine summer’s day.
They had been friends, once. Ainsley, two years her senior, had sponsored her through her first few months as a page at the palace. Over the next two years of their mutual pagehood, she had coaxed him through his magical theory lessons and given him pointers on his archery, while he laughed at her jokes and kept up her spirits in etiquette and history lessons. They had grown apart, as young people do, when Ainsley had become a squire. Over the years, they greeted each other politely when they saw one another, but kept to their own friends.
The winter social season had barely started when Sarra found herself running into Ainsley unusually often. They exchanged pleasantries quickly, as Sarra normally had serving duties to attend to, until one such meeting ended with a wink from Ainsley, and an invitation to go over a scroll of runes his great-uncle had come across in his library. She was startled, then flattered, and agreed.
He kissed her for Midwinter luck, shortly before midnight on the night of the holiday. Sarra remembered with stinging clarity the rasp of his beard against her mouth, his warm, muscular arms encapsulating her. She had sunk almost gleefully into his embrace, until the shock of his hand squeezing her breast startled her away from him, spitting excuses and apologies as she all but ran to her room attached to Sir Weland’s quarters. She had spent that night half in a haze of pleasure over being wanted, and half unnerved by her old, reserved friend’s unusual forwardness.
Ainsley kept a respectful distance until the holiday was over. Sarra had been returning from her parent’s palace quarters, enjoying the time her knight-master had given her off with her family, whom she hadn’t had a proper conversation with that wasn’t written down and sent by courier in six months. It was late, and Sarra meant to wake early for some sword practice, not wanting to slack during her off time. She turned a corner nearly three-quarters of the way across the palace to find Ainsley lurking in a hallway.
“It’s quite late,” he said, lazily twirling a dagger in his hands. She had taught him that trick, a memento from her father, who had once made a living juggling.
“I was visiting my family,” Sarra replied. “It’s been a while since we’ve talked. They worry about me you know, and it was nice to see Kitten again.”
“The dragon? Have her wings grown at all yet?”
“A bit, but you know she’ll still be a baby when we’re old and creaky. She won’t fly until we’re long in the ground. It’d be a sight to see at least.” She sighed, looking dreamily at the ceiling. “I know I’ve told you before, but I'd love to visit the Dragonlands some day. Even if I can’t shape-shift into a dragon, it’d be fun to fly with them, as an eagle, or something. I’d have to be fast to keep up with a full-grown dragon. Did you know that some of them can be almost a hundred feet long?”
Ainsley shifted and looked at her with an unreadable expression. Had she been a cat, her fur would have puffed out. There was something sensual but sinister in his eyes, and Sarra didn’t know what. She froze.
“You know, I’ve been meaning to catch you alone since Midwinter,” he said. “That kiss…”
She stammered, then quieted. Finally, she said “Ainsley, I really…I enjoyed it but…”
“Sarra,” he said, his voice making silk out of her name. He sheathed his dagger and closed the distance between them with long, purposeful strides. This time, his mouth was open, pleading with her lips. She couldn’t do anything but shudder with pleasure as he worked her like butter with nothing but his lips and tongue; she noticed he kept his hands respectfully on her waist, but even that felt sensual.
Finally, with Sarra’s legs quivering like jelly, he released her.
In the weeks that followed, Sarra had been hard put to describe what had happened next. Even under truth spell, she had wept uncontrollably to the point where the law-mage in charge of her questioning had put a stop to it several times to allow healers to send calming magic through her veins.
She had said no. Repeatedly. Loudly. Ainsley had already warded his room against the hearing of anyone outside of it. And she had learned of a violent side to him that she had never known about.
Ainsley had told her that he loved her.
Two days later, Sir Weland had practically broken down the door to find his squire sitting on her bed, wordless, weeping, cradling a broken wrist and covered in cuts and bruises.
The healers had called her panic attacks and aversion to any touch “the kiss of the kraken.” It was a term usually used to describe soldiers who had been so badly hurt in battle that their own bodies and minds turned against them.
She didn’t feel like a soldier, she thought, returning to the present. She felt like she had been emptied of fight.
The judge continued; “I hereby sentence you to—“
At that moment, the doors to the courtroom opened to a bright light. Sara felt her mother tense up at her right as her father lifted a hand glittering with black-and-silver magic to shield them from what he obviously thought was an attack.
A man strode in. He was stocky, heavily muscled, and barefoot. He wore deerskin leggings and a vest, both embroidered so that the patterns matched exactly the color of the leather. The sun glinted off of his skin, revealing deep green streaks, and a set of impressive antlers were rooted in his curly, chestnut-brown hair.
Daine let out a held breath, which carried the muttered word “Da.”
“Lord Weiryn,” her father said, releasing the shield as quickly as he had created it. “To what do we owe this…”
Sarra, to her own surprise, heard herself saying; “Grandfather, how are you here? It isn’t a holiday.”
Weiryn fixed her with a steely grey stare. When he spoke, his voice carried spring thunderstorms and the crack of burning wood. “I entreated the Mother Goddess for permission to carry out a role I have long left unfulfilled.” Out of seemingly nowhere, he produced an unstrung bow almost as tall as Sarra. In the stunned silence of the courtroom, he continued; “Hear this, mortals; In time long forgotten by your scholars, I was created to be the Mother’s left arm. Knowing Her consort, Mithros of the golden scales, had not yet learned to judge men fairly when it came to their dealings with women, She created me out of stag’s bones and the strings of her bow to hunt all who threatened Her daughters.”
Sarra had never heard her grandda speak with such power, or conviction. On the brief days she had seen him, always on the solstices and equinoxes, he had been a gruff but amiable presence in her life, presenting her with her first bow and ducking out of family parties to teach his grandchildren to shoot in the dark. He bickered lovingly with her mother, flirted with his wife, her grandmother the Green Lady, and almost never raised his voice within her hearing.
Ainsley, who, throughout the entirety of the court proceedings, had pled his innocence with the casualness of a man declining a glass of wine at a party, had begun to sweat visibly. His face contorted with ill-disguised fear.
Weiryn spoke as he produced a bowstring from a pocket and began to string the bow. “As men learned to respect the Mother and create order, She gave me her forests to hunt. It has been thousands of years of your time since I have had the opportunity to intervene. But once again, all men have begun to believe that they are king stags, with the freedom to mount any female they please without her consent, and without retribution.” As he finished stringing his bow, he turned to Ainsley, who had sweated through the armpits of his shirt. “I take up my bow as God of the Hunt, to restore justice and honor to my grandchild.”
He stepped forward to come almost antlers-to-nose with Ainsley, whose father and lawyer scrambled backwards away from the god. “I hope you provide a good hunt, young buck, for all your head will not grace my wall. Your antlers are no prize for me.” He stepped back and turned, walking away and towards Sarra. “You have one hour of your time to run. Then, I hunt.”
At that moment, the palace bells tolled the 8th hour of the evening. The sound only barely covered the shriek that Ainsley let out as he raced, barefoot, out of the courtroom.
There was silence for a few moments as Weiryn placed his hands on his grandchild’s shoulders. He spoke no more, but Sarra felt his anger and his grief in his gaze. She felt more rooted, more calm, than she had in months. Seconds passed as her breathing synced with his, slowly and deeply. The room faded away, but not in the ways that the world faded during her panicked episodes. There was only his eyes, and his will, as straight as an arrow from a bow, that existed for her, and that reality gave her strength.
“Lord Weiryn, I beg your pardon.” King Jonathan descended from his dais at the top of the courtroom to join them on the floor. “With all due respect, we would have tried Sir Ainsley justly, by the laws that Mithros guided us to write. His actions were dire and inexcusable, but surely they do not condemn him to death.”
Weiryn, his eyes still locked on Sarra, responded with that same powerful voice, reduced to a less threatening tone; “Your laws, especially when it comes to the men you call ‘nobles’ are inexcusably lenient. Mithros himself defers judgement to me in these matters. I know that even the People have laws determining a female’s right to choose with whom she will mate. It sickens me that men have not yet reached that level of compassion.”
Silence reigned again as Weiryn drew Sarra close, and kissed her forehead. Divine light flooded her body, banishing her fear and her pain, and replacing it with the love of a man who would never hurt her.
Suddenly, with a nod to his daughter, whose hands were clenched over her chest, he turned and strode out of the room, saying, “I hunt, king of men.”
Only Weiryn could have made that phrase sound like a slap to the face.
That left Sarra, standing more solidly than she had in her life, filled with determination and vigor, even as fresh tears streamed down her face.
She would fight.