Things got chaotic after that, with loud discussions of my guilt or not, my history or lack of it, my actions or lack of them. Jeslynn crawled on top the bar and reached over to grip my shoulder as I slumped under the pressure.
Som burst in the door, shouting for Jeslynn.
People hushed and moved out of his way.
“What the blazes is going on here? Jeslynn, are you okay?”
She nodded, her hand not leaving my shoulder. “They want to burn him.”
“What? No, no one said that,” Elder Ponmay spoke up and thumped her staff on the ground. “Let’s have some order here.”
I rubbed my face and then linked my fingers with my sister’s.
Elder Cosank explained what the elder council had come to determine.
“You can’t decide this man’s fate yet,” Som said when the elder finished. “It should be decided – whether he leaves, or stays, or whatever – with the entire village. I call for a Thing.”
Others made noises of agreement.
The elders exchanged looks and all nodded.
“Go ring the bell. We’ll have a Thing,” Elder Cosank told Som. He nodded, gave us an encouraging wave, and ran out.
The village bell, attached to the well’s pulley, rang out a moment later.
I flinched. It had run a few times too many this past week.
By that evening, the 47 villagers making up the populace of Oakvale – including the oldest of 66 (Som’s grandmother) and the youngest (Weaver Noth’s daughter of three months) – had gathered in the village square.
Elder Ponmay had me sit on the platform raised over the now dry well, positioned so that everyone could see me. She then joined the arch of people standing in front of me. Torgood, who had the best and loudest voice, read from the official Thing manifest.
“We are gathered here together to discuss the incidents of sudden drought and strange transforming of items into ash and Gestin Hospitlar’s possible connection to the incidents.”
I opened my mouth to say something about that but Elder Ponmay shook her head at me. I waited.
“I have the talking stick here and pass it first to Elder Inveer’s hands, as he contends that the accused has somehow caused these incidents. Goodwife Tiria’s involvement in these incidents is not being examined.”
I bit my lip to keep from commenting on that. I felt Tiria’s witch-y-ness or lack of it had everything to do with the incidents. I caught Wulfgit’s look from across the square. He rolled his eyes.
Elder Inveer stepped forward and took the smooth cudgel and swung it in an arc so that it whooshed near me. Torgood and I ducked back and he smiled.
He tapped the stick against his boot and began at a point that I didn’t expect.
“Gestin’s injury during the wildfire of last year caused him grave distress and muddled his thinking. It is for that reason that we’ve…” He paused and got a strange look on his face, and then he started choking. Torgood jumped up from where he was leaning against the platform and pounded him on the back. Jeslynn came forward with a pitcher of our very dear beer and poured him a small sip, despite the fact that drinking beer was prohibited during the Thing.
He waved her away and opened his mouth to say on, and coughed again.
He passed the talking stick to Weaver Noth.
“I’ve got nothing personal against the hospitlar. He makes a fine beer. However, since he made his statement at the funeral, things have gotten bad here in the valley. The gods are angry or we’re under a curse. I’m not saying it’s Gestin’s fault.”
“It’s not,” someone called from the crowd.
“It is,” someone else called.
Elder Ponmay pounded her staff on the cobbles and Weaver Noth raised the talking stick. People quieted down.
“Although it is.” He quickly passed the stick to the next person.
“Gestin should move,” Weaver Noth’s wife said, leaning the stick against her hip and bouncing her child on the other. She nudged the stick to the next person.
“Gestin should stay, and since he’s smart, he should help us figure this out,” Dasta said and passed the stick on.
The statements went on in the same manner for the rest of the Thing. No one wanted to delve too deeply into the strangeness or explain how I could have caused it.
Elder Ponmay received the talking stick finally, and offered it to Torgood, who passed. She walked to the empty space in front of me and considered the stout piece of smooth wood in her hand.
“No one has said it, but I will. These are uncanny days. I am not accusing anyone of witchcraft and I cannot say what the gods are feeling. I and the other elders have not had any prophetic dreams regarding the drought – as we did when the wildfire happened last year. Until such time, we will keep dreaming.”
Elder Cosank nodded. Elder Inveer’s mouth set into a thin line.
“Here’s what we’re going to do while we wait for direction from the gods: Gestin will travel to Crown City to report our troubles to the Grand Council. Torgood will travel with him.”
Torgood’s “What?” echoed Jeslynn’s. I had no words.