The knife-edge of the plow cut through the rough topsoil, turning the underbelly of winter toward the spring sky. Riven walked the small field behind the ox-driven rig, her focus caught between steadying the wide set handles and the foreign words she clumsily held in her mouth.
“Emai. Fair. Svasa. Anar.”
Each step filled the air with the loamy scent of newly awakened earth. Riven gripped the wood tightly as she walked. Over the last few days the coarse handles had roused dormant calluses and fleeting memories.
Riven bit her lip, shaking off the thought, continuing with the work at hand. “Mother. Father. Sister. Brother.”
The thin-ribbed ox flicked an ear as it pulled, the plow kicking up clots and small rocks. They struck Riven, but she paid them no mind. She wore a rough woven shirt, the dirt-speckled sleeves rolled into thick bands. Pants of the same material had been dyed an earthen yellow. Their cuffed edges would now be too short on the man they had been made for, but on her, they brushed her bare ankles and the tops of her simple, mud-caked shoes.
“Emai. Fair. Svasa. Anar.” Riven continued the mantra, memorizing the words. “Erzai, son. Dyeda…”
Without slowing her pace she wiped a strand of sweat soaked hair from her eyebrow with her sleeve. Her arms were well muscled and still easily held the plow one-handed. The farmer had gone up to the house for a skin of water and their lunch. The old man said she could stop and wait on the threshold of the shaded forest that bordered the tract, but Riven had insisted on finishing.
A fresh breeze caught the damp at the back of her neck, and she looked around. The Noxian Empire had tried bending Ionia to its will. When Ionia wouldn’t kneel, Noxus had tried to break it. Riven continued her meditative pace behind the plow. For all the Empire’s strength, spring would still come to this land. It had been more than a year since Noxus had been driven out, and the grays and browns of rain and mud were finally giving way to shoots of green. The air itself seemed to hold new beginnings. Hope. Riven sighed as her hair’s bluntly cut edges brushed her chin.
“Dyeda. daughter,” she began her invocation again, determined. She gripped the wooden handles again with both hands. “Emai. Fair.”
“That's fa-ir,” a voice called out from the shadows of the forest.
Riven stopped suddenly. The plow handles lurched in her hands as the bony ox was brought up short by the leather reins. The plow kicked hard into a tough clod of dirt and gave a metal twang as a stone caught on the cutting edge.
The voice did not belong to the old man.
Riven tried to ease her breathing by exhaling slowly through her lips. There was one voice, but there could be more coming for her. She fought the years of training that urged her to take a defensive stance. Instead she stilled her body, facing the plow and beast before her. Riven felt too light. She held on tightly now to the plow’s wooden handles. There should have been a weight that anchored her, grounded her, at her side. Instead, she could hardly feel the small field knife on her right hip. The short, hooked blade was good for cutting dew apples and stubborn vegetation, nothing more.
“The word is fa-ir.”
The speaker revealed himself at the edge of the field, where the farmland met a band of thick amber pines.
“There is a break in the middle,” the man said, stepping forward. A wild mane of dark hair was pulled back off his face. A woven mantle was tucked around his shoulders. Riven noticed that it did not completely cover the metal pauldron on his left shoulder, nor the unsheathed blade at his side. He was of a warrior class, but did not serve one house or precinct. He was a wanderer.
Dangerous, she decided.
“Fa-ir,” he pronounced again.
Riven did not speak, not for lack of words, but because of the accent she knew they would carry. She moved around the plow, putting it between her and the well-spoken stranger. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and bent to examine the plow’s blade, feigning interest in the stone she had struck. Meant to cut through sod and clay, the blade would be more useful than the field knife. She had watched the old man fix it to the wooden body that morning and knew how to release it.
“I don’t remember seeing you in the village when I was here last, but I have been away awhile,” the man said. His voice held the indifferent roughness of a long time lived on the road.
The ever present insect hum became louder as Riven refused to fill the silence between them.
“I’ve heard that the magistrates are being called to hear new evidence in the case of Elder Souma’s death,” the man continued.
Riven ignored him and patted the patient ox. She ran her fingers along the leather straps as someone who was familiar with the trappings of horses and farm animals, batting away a gnat from the ox’s big, dark eyes. “Then again, if you are new to this land, perhaps you know little of the murder.”
She looked up at the word, meeting the stranger’s gaze, the innocent beast between them. A scar stretched across the bridge of the man’s nose. Riven wondered if the one who left that mark still lived. There was hardness in the stranger’s eyes, but under that, curiosity. Riven felt the ground tremble through the soles of her thin leather shoes. There was a sound like rolling thunder, but there were no clouds in the sky.
“Someone’s coming,” the man said with a smile.
Riven looked over her shoulder at the hill that led to the old man’s farmhouse. Six armed riders crested the little ridge and marched their mounts down to the small harrowed field.
“There she is,” one of them said. His accent was thick, and Riven struggled to parse the nuance of language she had been trying so hard to learn.
“But... is she alone?” another asked, squinting at the shadows between the trees.
A quick breeze wrapped around the plow and Riven, sliding back into the shadows of the forest. Riven looked to where the stranger once stood, but he was gone, and the approaching riders left no time to wonder.
“A ghost maybe,” the leader said laughing at his man. “Someone she cut down coming back for revenge.”
The riders spurred their horses into a trot, circling Riven and crushing the even trenches she had dug that morning. The leader carried a rigid bundle wrapped in cloth over the back of his mount. Riven’s eyes followed that horse as the others moved around her, their hooves compacting the loose earth back into cold, hard clay.
She gave the plow blade a final glance. Two riders carried crossbows. She would be taken down before she reached even one of them. Her fingers itched to touch the potential weapon, but her mind begged them to be still.
Tightness quickened in her muscles. A body long trained to fight would not surrender so easily to peace. A deafening rush of blood began to pound in her ears. You will die, it roared, but so will they. Riven’s fingers began to reach for the plow blade.
“Leave her be!” The voice of the farmer’s wife was strong from calling in errant cows and it rang out over the field, breaking Riven from her self-destructive urge. “Asa, hurry. You must do something.”
The riders halted their circles around Riven as the farmer and his wife crested the hill. Riven bit hard on the inside of her cheek. The sharp pain centered her, quelling her urge to fight. She would not spill Ionian blood in their field.
“I told you to stay in your home until we were done,” the leader said to them. The old man, Asa, hobbled through the uneven dirt. “She’s done nothing wrong. I was the one who brought it,” he said gesturing toward the wrapped bundle. “I will answer for it.”
“Master Konte. O-fa,” the leader said. A patronizing smile tugged at the corners of his thin lips. “You know what she is. She has committed many wrongs. If I had my way, she would be cut down where she stands,” He looked Riven over, then wrinkled his nose in annoyance. “Unfortunately, old man, you can say your piece at the hearing.”
While the leader spoke Riven’s feet had sunk into the moist earth, momentarily holding her fast. The feeling of being mired, pulled down, overwhelmed her. Her pulse quickened to a shallow beat and a cold sweat slipped between her shoulders as she struggled to pull free. Her mind was enveloped by a different time, a different field. There the horses snorted, their hooves trampling blood-soaked dirt.
Riven shut her eyes before more remembered horrors could bury her. She inhaled deeply. A spring rain floods this ground, not the dead, she told herself. When I open my eyes, there will be only the living.
When she opened her eyes, the field was a field, freshly turned, and not an open grave. The leader of the riders dismounted and approached her. In his hand he held a pair of shackles, swirls of Ionian metal far more beautiful than anything that would have chained criminals in her own homeland.
“You cannot escape your past, Noxian dog,” the leader said with a quiet triumph. Riven looked up from plow blade to the old couple. The lines on their faces already carried so much pain. She would not bring them more. She could not. Riven tried to hold onto the image, the two of them leaning into one another, each holding the other up. It was a moment of fragile defiance before they knew something would be taken. When the old man wiped a sleeve across his wet cheek, she had to turn away.
Riven shoved her wrists toward the leader of the riders. She met his smug grin with a cold stare and let the steel close over her skin.
“Do not worry, dyeda,” the farmer’s wife called out. Riven could hear the taut hope in her voice. It was too much. Too much hope. The wind carried the strained words and the smell of freshly turned earth, even as Riven was led farther and farther away. “Dyeda,” it whispered. “We will tell them what you are.”
“Dyeda,” Riven whispered back. “Daughter.”
For two days after the girl surrendered, there had been nothing for Shava Konte to do but help her husband slowly repair the trampled furrows and plant the field. It was a task made easier by the girl’s labors, and yet, if their sons still lived, it was one she and Asa should not have had to do at all.
On the cold morning of the tribunal, knowing it would take more time for their older bones to walk the long road into town, the couple left before dawn to reach the village council hall. “They know she is Noxian.”
“You worry too much,” Shava said, clucking her tongue for good measure. Realizing her tone was more fit for calming chickens than her husband, she gave him a hopeful smile.
“Noxian. That is all they need to proclaim guilt.” Asa mumbled his thought into the homespun wool wrapped around his neck.
Shava, who had spent the better part of her lifetime coaxing stubborn animals into the butcher’s pen, stopped short, turning to face her husband.
“They do not know her like we know her,” she said, stabbing one of her fingers to his chest, exasperation escaping through her hands. “That is why you are to speak on her behalf, you old goat.”
Asa knew his wife, and knew further argument would not change her mind. Instead he nodded his head softly. Shava gave a dissatisfied harumph and turned back to the road, marching in silence to the town center. The council hall that was beginning to fill. Seeing the crowd, she hurried into the narrow space between the benches of the council hall to find a seat closer to the front... and unceremoniously tripped over a sleeping man’s leg.
As the old woman fell forward with a weak yelp, a groan escaped from the sleeping man. Like a lightning blade, his hand snapped forward, his grip like steel, catching the old woman by the arm before she fell to the stone floor.
“You must watch your step, O-ma,” the stranger whispered deferentially, drink still heavy on his breath, but slurring none of his words. He withdrew his hand as soon as the old woman was back on her feet.
The old woman looked down her nose at the unlikely savior, her eyes narrowing. Under her scrutiny, the man receded further into the shadows of the mantle wrapped around his shoulders and face; the ghost of a scar across his strong nose disappeared into the darkness.
“The council hall is nowhere to recover from a night of misdeeds, young man.” Shava righted her robes, the disdain evident in the tip of her chin. “A woman’s life is to be decided today. Be gone before you are asked to concede your own wrongdoings before the magistrates.”
“Shava.” The old man had caught up and put a hand on his wife’s arm. “You must keep your temper in check if we are to offer our assistance today. He meant no injury. Leave him be.”
The hooded stranger offered two fingers up in peaceful supplication, but kept his face hidden. “You strike to the heart of the matter, O-ma,” he offered, humor creeping into his voice.
Shava moved on, carrying her indignation like a delicate gift. The old man tipped his head as he passed.
“Do not judge her quickly, my boy. She worries that an innocent soul will be found guilty before the truth is known.” The hooded man grunted in acknowledgement as the old man moved on. “On that we are of the same mind, O-fa.”
The old man glanced back at the strange, hushed words. The seat was empty, save the ghost of a breeze that rustled the robes of a nearby couple deep in conversation. The hooded stranger was already receding into the far shadows of the council hall.
Shava chose a seat at the front of the gathered crowd. The smooth swirls of the wooden bench should have been comfortable—they had been shaped by woodweavers to promote balance and harmonic discussions of civic duty—but the old woman could not find a comfortable position. She glanced at her husband, who was now settled patiently on a creaky stool, waiting to be called. Beside Asa, a bailiff stood and picked his teeth with a sliver of wood. The old woman recognized the bailiff as Melker, leader of the riders that had come for Riven. She glared at him, but Melker took no notice. He was watching the doors at the back of the room. When they opened and closed behind three darkly robed figures, he straightened quickly, tossing aside the bit of wood in his mouth.
The magistrates, their smooth vestments settling behind them as they took their place at the head table, looked out at the crowded hall. The noise in the great room dropped to an uneven silence. One of the three, a tall, slim woman with a falcon nose, stood solemnly.
“This tribunal has been called to take in new attestations in the matter of Elder Souma’s death.”
A hum of murmurs, like a hundred locusts, began to build from somewhere in the middle of the crush of people. Some had heard of the new evidence the judge spoke, but most had gathered at the rumor there was a Noxian in their midst. But rumors didn’t change what they all knew: Elder Souma’s death was no mystery. The wind technique, the magic that scoured his meditation hall was all the evidence that was necessary. Only one besides Souma himself could have executed such a maneuver.
A wound, unevenly healed, opened. The hive mind of the crowd coalesced in a moment of communal pain. If the elder had not fallen, they shouted to each other, the village would not have taken such heavy casualties. Shortly after the murder, half of a Noxian warband had slaughtered many on the way to Navori. So many sons and daughters had been lost in the Noxian engagement, an engagement that swelled in the distressing imbalance of Souma’s death. Worse yet, the village laid the blame on one of their own.
The thrum found a clear voice.
“We already know who murdered Elder Souma,” Shava spoke through weathered lips. “It was that traitor, Yasuo.” The crowd nodded and a biting agreement rippled through the mob.
“Who knew Elder Souma’s wind techniques? Yasuo!” Shava added. “And now Yone has not returned from the pursuit of his unforgivable brother. Most likely the coward is responsible for that as well.”
The crowd’s gnashing grew again, this time crying out for Yasuo's blood. Shava settled more easily on the bench, satisfied that the question of guilt had been pointed back at the correct person.
The falcon-nosed judge came from a long line of woodweavers, ones famed for being able to untwist and straighten even the heaviest burls. She lifted a perfectly round sphere of hard worn chestnut and brought it down definitively against its jet-black cradle. The sharp sound wrenched the crowd into silence and order returned to the hall.
“This court seeks knowledge and enlightenment about the facts of Elder Souma’s death,” the judge said. “Do you wish to stand in way of enlightenment, Mistress…?”
The old woman looked to her husband and felt heat rise in the skin of her cheeks.
“Konte. Shava Konte,” she said much less boldly. She dipped her head. The old man on the stool watched her and mopped the sheen of sweat from his own balding crown.
“As I was saying, we are here to take in new evidence.” The falcon judge looked out at the crowd for any other stubborn burls and nodded to the bailiff, Melker. “Please bring her in.”