Free Short Story

As promised, though very late, a story starring Justice Thalia.

Happy Holidays!

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Murder Most Fowl


Chief Justice Thalia of Orrin couldn’t believe her ears. “A chicken?” she asked to be sure.

“Actually, a rooster,m’lady,” Arianna DiTerra said. Bare feet shuffled against the marble floor of the Temple of Balance from the direction of the accused’s box.

“But you killed Connor over a chicken?”

“I didn’t kill him!” the defendant wailed.

“She's lying!" From the creak of the peacekeeper’s bench, Magistrate Fernando DiMara had risen to his feet. “We found her standing over Connor’s body with the bloody knife in her hand. And Connor had scratches on his face, neck, and chest, like those of a woman fighting him.”

The truthspell is holding firm, Brother Kam of Light said through silent speech.

I don’t doubt you. If there was one thing Kam excelled at, it was definitely spell work, but the suspicion Thalia was missing something itched under her skin. Ferdy is working too hard to prove he can handle a murder investigation.

Politics or do you think he had something to do with Connor’s death?

It had been fifty years since any report of demon activity. Many people believed the Demon Wars were over. As a result, they questioned the need for the Temples. The latest was the civilians’ demands that they handle their own law enforcement.
Which was fine when talking about petty theft or a drunken brawl, but when it came to the more serious crimes, the magistrates often didn’t have any magical talent to do a thorough investigation.

Ferdy would be hardpressed to find his balls under the noonday sun, much less murder someone in cold blood. And for all we know, the damn chicken could have scratched Connor. Thalia turned her head in the direction of the peacekeeper’s bench. “Sit down, Magistrate.”

“B-but—” Ferdy sputtered.

“You’ll have your turn to testify. Do not interrupt me again.” She added a little magical amplification to her voice.

From the groan of wood, Ferdy had resumed his seat. Whispers from the gallery bounced from the marble walls and dome of the Temple of Balance’s courtroom.

Thalia slammed the pommel of her sword against her wooden podium. “Silence!” The murmurs died abruptly.

She inhaled deeply and released the breath. “Let us start over. Arianna, did Connor ask you to borrow your chicken?”

“No, m’lady, he asked to borrow my prize rooster,” Arianna stated firmly. She definitely wasn’t fighting the truthspell.

“Did you allow him to borrow your prize rooster?” Thalia continued.

“No, Lady Justice, I did not.”

“Is this prize rooster the chicken you claim he took?”

“Yes, m’lady.”

“When did you discover the rooster in question was missing?”

A sob came from the direction of the accused’s box. “S-second Day. Th-this week.” Two days ago. That wasn’t even enough time for Ferdy to question potential witnesses from the neighboring farms.

Thalia squelched the urge to reprimand Arianna. The farmer was obviously more distraught over the loss of her fowl than she was the possibility of her losing her head.

“How do you know Connor took the rooster?” Thalia asked.

“I-I don’t know for sure. He offered me ten pieces of silver for Dawnbreaker to…service his hens for a week.”

“Why not use Connor’s own rooster?”

“We’ve had an issue with a fox killing poultry in our area,” Arianna said. “I’ve lost two hens myself. Connor lost his rooster, as did our neighbor Simi. We petitioned the Temple of the Wildling God, and they dealt with the problem.”

Is it just me, or is this getting a tad ridiculous? Thalia asked Kam.

Except we have a corpse sitting in Death’s morgue.

“What evidence do you have Connor took your rooster?” Thalia asked.

Arianna gulped. “I told him I wouldn’t let him touch Dawnbreaker for a piece of gold. When he didn’t wake me up on Second Day, I ran out to the barn, fearing he was ill. I found two gold pieces on the box where I store the chicken feed.”

That was an inordinate amount of money, even for a prize-winning rooster. Thalia frowned. None of this was making any sense.

“When you say he didn’t wake you up, do you mean Dawnbreaker?”

“Yes, m’lady.”

Thalia really didn’t want to continue questioning the defendant, but this was a capital trial, and she needed to be thorough because it was becoming more and more obvious she didn’t have Connor’s murderer in her courtroom.

“Is Dawnbreaker the name of your rooster?”

“Yes, m’lady.” Another sob.

“What did you do when you found the two gold pieces?” Thalia asked.

“I put them in the pocket of my apron and marched down the road to Connor’s house. I-I found the bloody knife amidst chicken feathers in-in his y-yard. They were the same red color as Dawnbreaker’s plumage.” Arianna loudly wept for a moment before she added, “I feared Connor had killed Dawnbreaker out of spite.”

“What did you do next?”

“I-I picked up the knife, went to his door and b-banged on i-i-it.” Arianna’s stammer grew, but it wasn’t because she fought the truthspell. The experience had so rattled her she would need the services of Child to regain her emotional equilibrium. “I-it flew open. And-and h-he lay there on the floor. Blood was everywhere!”

“Was he dead when you arrived?”

“I don’t know.” More sobbing. “Before I could do anything, the peacekeepers arrived.”

This whole situation was becoming more illogical and bizarre by the moment. Both Arianna and Connor’s farms were outside the city gates. The names were familiar because of the property transfers from so many deaths when the black plague swept through the queendom of Issura last year. Both of them had lost their spouses and children, so Connor had no one at home to raise the alarm.

Or did he?

“Arianna, did you see anything to indicate someone else could have been at Connor’s home?”

“I don’t know, m’lady.”

“Did you harm Connor in anyway this week?”

“N-no, m’lady.”

“That is all the questions I have for you right now, Arianna.”

The tingle against Thalia’s soul faded as Kam dissolved his truthspell. Reaching out with her magical senses, she turned toward the only female warden in the courtroom. “Warden Gray Dove, would you return Arianna’s belongings to her and escort her to our guest quarters to clean up?”

“Yes, Chief Justice. This way.”

More sounds of bare feet shuffling against marble, but they stopped abruptly to Thalia’s left. “B-but what about my animals?” Arianna’s tone was thoroughly confused.

“I’ll make arrangements for their care, but for now, you need to remain here,” Thalia said.

“Why?” Arianna and Ferdy said at the same time.

“You may not have been involved in Connor’s death, but you are a key witness,” Thalia said.

“B-but—”

Thalia turned her head toward the peacekeepers’ bench. The stare of a blind woman was disconcerting enough for the magistrate to drop his objection. Once the two women had left the courtroom, Thalia asked Kam to truthspell Ferdy.

“Magistrate, when was your office alerted of a problem at Connor’s farm?” Thalia went through the standard questions, even though he’d included the facts in his report.

“Early Second Day, Chief Justice.”

“Who alerted your office?”

“Widow Hunter’s eldest girl Redbird. Their farm’s across Ripple Stream from Connor’s and Arianna’s.”

“When did Redbird make her report to your office?”

“Less than half a candle mark after First Morning.”

“What did Redbird say?”

“She said the sounds of men fighting woke the family up about a candlemark after Third Night. Her mother waited until false dawn before she sent the girl into Orrin. Redbird said her mother didn’t want her tripping in the dark, but I think she was worried about the girl running into whoever they heard over at Connor’s place.”
“Wait a moment.” Thalia ran her fingers over the peacekeeper report her court clerk had translated to the raised symbols of Balance. “According to your written account, you did not mention the gender. If Redbird said she and her family heard men, how could you have suspected Arianna of being involved?”

“When I questioned Widow Hunter, she said she wasn’t sure because at first the other person sounded male, and then female.”

“That doesn’t answer my question. Why did you suspect Arianna?”

“Well, I, uh, thought she had been seeking revenge for Connor trouncing her suitor.”

“Suitor?” Thalia frowned in the magistrate’s general direction. “This is the first I’ve heard about a party beyond the decedent, the accused, and the reporting witnesses.”

This time, leather scuffed against the marble floor.

“Um, I, uh—” Ferdy cleared his throat. “Widow Hunter’s youngest isn’t more than knee-high and still learning his words. He said he saw a chicken man at Arianna’s farm a few nights recently.”

Thalia’s blood thrummed through her body at the urge to punch the magistrate herself.

Easy, love. You don’t want to be doing something that gives the civilians another reason to dislike the Temples.

At Kam’s silent reminder, she squeezed the pommel of her sword lying across her podium and relaxed her fingers.

“Please explain your logic to me, Magistrate DiMara, because I really don’t understand why I should execute anyone on the word of a toddler.”

“I, uh, I can’t.”

“Have you even questioned Arianna regarding this alleged suitor?”

“She claims she doesn’t have one.”

“So why wasn’t any of this included in your report?”

“It seemed irrelevant considering we found her with the murder weapon.”

“I can deal with Arianna acting stupid and picking up the knife, but has it occurred to you we can’t trace Connor’s killer because you didn’t get me involved in this investigation sooner, and now the knife is contaminated with the essences of everyone who has touched it?”

“No, m’lady.”

Thank Balance for her hood covering her face. No one else in the courtroom could tell how much the magistrate was angering her at the moment.

“Brother Kam and Chief Warden Hogarth will accompany the magistrate and me to the Ripple Stream area for additional research in the matter of Connor DiToscana’s death.” Thalia rose from her stool and pounded her sword against the podium. “Court is adjourned until tomorrow at Second Morning.”

* * *

Within a candlemark, Thalia was in her saddle and heading toward the farms that were at the center of this case. Hogarth rode at her side while Ferdy and Kam followed them. The magistrate had wisely kept quiet as they left Orrin.

Warmth from overhead caressed the right side of Thalia’s face. The noise of people in the city faded behind them, and bird calls replaced the cacophony of humans. Even the clop of horse shoes softened as they turned right from the National Road onto a soft dirt track that led to the farms lining the southwestern edge of Pana Valley. She pushed back her cowl and enjoyed the late spring weather.

The pleasant scent of new plant growth after a horrid winter improved her mood until Ferdy grumbled from behind her, “I still don’t understand why you don’t believe me.”

“Because you, your peacekeepers, and Arianna only know your individual bits of the story,” Thalia replied. “This is why you should have summoned me when Connor’s body was discovered.”

“But the evidence was clear—”

Thalia reined Soena to a halt, forcing the rest of their party to stop. “Then where’s the damn rooster, Ferdy?”

“You will address me by my title,” he said haughtily.

She turned Soena to face toward him. “You do not outrank me, Fernando DiMara. Over half of your kin would have to die for you ever to hold a noble title, and even then you would not outrank me. And worst of all, you wanted me to execute an innocent person. You’d better pray to the Twelve I don’t find out you had something to do with Connor DiToscana’s death.”

Though Thalia never raised her voice, Soena’s back tensed beneath her thighs. Chief Warden Hogarth’s mount tossed his head at the tension from the jingle of his tack.

“Y-you think I had something to do with Connor?” Ferdy choked out.

“If I used the same flimsy logic and evidence you have, I could have simply executed you back at the Temple of Balance.”

“But justice wouldn’t be served…” Maybe his brain was finally processing how and where he had failed.

“This is the reason for the years of training at the home Temple of Balance in Standora. For my sisterhood to be evaluated by Child for hidden problems long before we ever sit in judgment of a fellow human being. We have to understand the costs of our mistakes, and we must strive not to make any. Chaos would reign if we act arbitrarily.”

“Yes, Chief Justice,” Ferdy murmured. The magistrate actually sounded contrite, so maybe there was some hope for him.

Thalia signaled Soena to turn around, and they set off at a brisk trot.

* * *

The excited shouts of three separate children and the frantic barks of two dogs signaled they had arrived at Widow Hunter’s farm. Hogarth helped Thalia from her horse, and guided her a few steps toward the madness.

A feminine voice shushed the children and dogs. The pounding of feet halted in the vicinity of the voice, but the barking continued. From the rustle of fabric before her, someone curtsied.

“Welcome to our humble home, Lady Justice.” The woman’s voice was low and melodious, and somehow, it cut through the clamor of the dogs.

Thalia crouched and held out her bare hands. The canine warnings stopped at her friendly gesture. Two cold noses sniffed her palms before she was beset with warm fur and canine kisses all over her face.

She laughed as Hogarth pulled her to her feet before the dogs could knock her over. “A pleasure to meet you and your household as well.”

“How may we serve?” There was an edge in Widow Hunter’s tone underneath the traditional greeting.

“Forgive me for interrupting your day, but I have some questions for you and your children—”

“If it’s about Connor’s death, we’ve already given our statements to the magistrate.”

Not that Thalia expected obsequiousness, but the farmwoman’s attitude was downright rude. Before she could address the issue, Ferdy spoke.

“Chief Justice Thalia noted some missing pieces in my investigation, Zenja,” he said. “You don’t want a murderer in your area of the duchy going free, do you?”

Zenja sighed. “Of course not. I never believed Arianna was capable of that type of violence. Do you mind if we talk out here? We’ve been fertilizing the herb garden, and we’re a bit of a mess.”

“Not at all,” Thalia replied, a little glad the smell was explained. Image was important, even when one couldn’t see.

Hogarth wrapped her left palm around his elbow and led her forward. The dogs brushed against her legs as if they’d found a new best friend.

“Stop,” Hogarth murmured. “There’s a log with the top planed for seats in front of you.”

She reached down and wood smoothed from years of use met her fingers. She pivoted and sat.

“Redbird, would mind sitting next to me?” Thalia patted the wood with her right hand.

“How did you know I was here?” the girl said in a voice filled with awe.

“I’ll tell you my secret.” Thalia couldn’t help smiling. “But I need to ask you some questions under truthspell first.”

“Will it hurt?” Redbird asked shyly.

“Only if you try to lie to me,” Thalia replied.

“I don’t lie.” The girl actually sounded offended as her footsteps approached, and the log shifted as she took the place Thalia indicated. From the source of her voice, she was quite tall for her age.

“No one says you did or you will, Redbird.” Thalia leaned toward the girl’s voice and brushed her shoulder against Redbird’s. “But not everyone I meet is as forthright as you, so Brother Kam makes sure they can’t lie to me.”

After a moment, the girl said, “All right. I’m ready.”

Magic tickled Thalia’s mind as Kam laid the truthspell. “What was the noise that woke you on Second Day?”

“It sounded like a very angry bird and a very alarmed human man.” The girl paused and giggled. “Like when Father accidentally disturbed a gull’s nest when we were clamming two springs ago, and the gulls chased him down the beach.” Her voice dropped, no doubt from the memory of her dead parent. “Except the bird sounded more like a chicken than a seagull.”

“Chicken man!” The high-pitched exclamation was followed by clapping.

“Hush,” Zenja ordered.

“What happened after you heard the bird and the man?” Thalia continued. Hair whispered against cloth next to her.

“The chicken went quiet, and a second man argued with Connor.”

“How do you know one of the men was Connor?”

Redbird’s shoulder against Thalia’s lifted and dropped. “He and Father used to call to each other across the stream. I didn’t recognize the second man’s voice though.”

“Did you hear anything they said?” Kam interjected.

“The other man called Connor a thief, and Connor was calling the other man a fraud and sick at first. Then Connor called the other man a bunch of words Mother doesn’t like to hear.”

The toddler belted out an obscenity.

“That was one of them,” Redbird muttered.

Kam silently laughed inside Thalia’s head. From the look on the widow’s face, she’s not happy her youngest heard the exchange at the other farm. I’m going to take a look at something.” His familiar tread headed away from her.

“Are we done?” the girl asked hopefully.

“Not quite,” Thalia replied. “What happened after your mother and siblings awoke and heard the exchange?”

“Once it was quiet again, Mother told us to go back to bed,” Redbird said. “I was almost asleep when I heard someone cry out in pain.”

“What did you do?”

“Mother told us to go to the barn and hide in the hay mow.” The girl’s voice trembled. “There’s not much hay left up there, but enough for a comfortable sleeping place, and it’s warm. Father put a lock on the door to the ladder because my baby brother Squirrel likes to climb. Mother locked us in.”

“Did you get anymore sleep that night?”

Redbird moved, but she didn’t say a word.

“Child, yah need to use yer words,” Hogarth said. “Justices can’t see you shake or nod yer head.”

“I’m sorry, m’lady,” the girl said contritely. “No, I didn’t sleep anymore. My siblings did. And Mother sent me to Orrin as soon as it was light enough to see.”

“Did Connor quarrel with anyone else besides Arianna recently?” Thalia asked.

A sharp intake of breath came from a few steps away, but Redbird answered clearly, “Connor quarreled with everyone since his wife died from the plague, including Mother, but everyone chalked it up to him still grieving.”

“What specifically did he quarrel with your mother about?”

“Redbird, no!” the widow cried.

Thalia held up her hand. Hogarth’s sword hissed against its scabbard. One of the younger children started crying, which set off the dogs again. The cacophony drowned Redbird’s words.

“Silence!” Thalia added a bit of command magic to her voice. She hated using that aspect of her talents, but sometimes, it was necessary. “Please repeat your answer to my question, Redbird.”

The girl whimpered before she said, “H-he wanted to marry Mother, and she said no.”

Thalia laid her own truthspell on Widow Hunter before she could run. While all the Temples could, in theory, perform such a basic spell, Thalia’s tended to be like using an anvil to kill an ant.

“I have a hold on her,” Hogarth said.

“Let me go!” Zenja protested.

“As soon as you answer the chief justice’s questions,” Hogarth said.

This was probably nothing, but after chiding Ferdy about his lack of thoroughness, Thalia could not be lax in her own investigation. “Did Connor ask you wed him more than once?”

“Yes,” the widow murmured.

“How did he take your rejections?”

“Not very well.” Zenja sucked in a huge breath and let it out gustily. “His wife was pregnant with their first child when she died last year. He wanted that baby so much. He wasn’t thinking straight when he requested my hand. I suggested he court Arianna. She’s young and strong and kind, but he claimed she was with the red-headed Wildling priest.”

“Do you mean Brother Elan?” Hogarth said.

“Yes,” she answered. That was an interesting tidbit.

“Did you harm Connor in any way at any time this week?” Thalia asked.

“No, Lady Justice.”

“Did you recognize the voice of the man Connor argued with?”

Zenja gasped as if in pain, and the truthspell on her went from a tingle to needling sensation to Thalia. “It was…Brother Elan.”

“Magistrate DiMara says you also heard a woman’s voice. Do you know who it was?”

“No, m’lady. That one was far less distinct than the men’s voices.” No hesitation or fighting the truthspell this time.

“Are Brother Elan and Arianna keeping company?”

“I don’t know beyond Connor’s gossip,” Zenja stated.

Kam’s heavy tread came closer and stopped. “I think I see why the Hunter family heard more than Arianna that night. Ripple Stream is fairly placid here, and I can see Connor’s house and barn clearly. Sound’s going to carry across the water. However, there’s a thick grove of oaks between Connor and Arianna’s farms, and her property is at an angle from the Hunters’. Want to test my theory?”

“Definitely.” Thalia stood. Experience working with Kam over the last year said there was something he didn’t want to discuss in front of the civilians. “Magistrate, would you please stay here for the moment?”

“Of course.” Ferdy didn’t sound happy about being excluded on the trip to the other two farms though he’d been wise enough to remain silent while she questioned the Hunter family. Thalia would prefer not to alienate the magistrate further, but he’d placed her in an untenable situation in regard to Arianna. Hopefully, he’d learned from this experience.

“The road hits an easy ford a quarter league northeast of here,” Zenja offered.

“Thank you.” Thalia bowed. “You shall hear us shortly.” She held out her left hand. Hogarth wrapped her fingers around his elbow and led her to Soena.

* * *

Thalia waited until she heard the distinctive trickle of shallow water over stones before she said, “What was it you didn’t want to say in front of Ferdy?"

“You’re not the only one wondering about the disappearance of Arianna’s prize rooster,” Kam said.

“Did Ferdy say something to you after you went down to the bank?” Hogarth asked.

“No, he didn’t, but what if Squirrel is right, and there was a chicken man?”

Thalia mulled Kam’s words. “You suspect Dawnbreaker was a Wildling, or someone with Wildling talent?”

“As insane as the idea seems, it’s the only solution that makes any sense considering Widow Hunter identified Brother Elan as arguing with Connor the night he was killed.”

“Why would someone with a second form masquerade as a farmer’s rooster?” Thalia asked. Water splashed as Soena followed Hogarth’s mount across the ford.

“Good question,” Kam answered. “Especially since none of the Wildlings assigned to Orrin take the form of a domesticated animal.”

“Brother Elan’s second form is a red-tailed hawk,” Hogarth added.

“Even I know there’s a difference between a rooster and a bird of prey.” Thalia laughed.

“Could be someone who’s neither Temple or registered,” Hogarth ventured. They veered to the left, putting the sun on their left from the shift in warmth.

“It still doesn’t answer why anyone would pretend to be a woman’s rooster,” Thalia protested.

“Heads up, you two.” Kam rode up to Thalia’s other side. “There’s a person at Arianna’s farm.

Thalia reached out with her magical sense. A woman. Non-talented.

Yes, he answered. She doesn’t seem concerned about being caught.

Then let us find out who she is.

Hogarth grunted in agreement. Poor man. The warden found silent speech very uncomfortable, but sometimes, it was necessary.

They rode silently a bit farther.

A woman is feeding the chickens in Arianna’s yard, Kam reported.

The poultry squawked, alerting the woman to the horses and riders’ approach.

“Brother? Chief Justice?” She sounded surprised by their presence. “How may I serve?”

“Arianna DiRoma was concerned about her animals,” Kam said. “Chief Justice Thalia promised we would come out and see to their care, but you seem to have already dealt with the chores.”

Hogarth helped Thalia dismount Soena. From the creak of leather, Kam also climbed down from his horse.

“Who may I thank for the service to Arianna?” Thalia said.

“Simi. Simi DiTerra,” the woman answered. “I farm the land to the northwest of her. H-has she had her trial?”

“You’re a friend of hers?” Thalia asked.

“Yes, m’lady. Everyone along Ripple Stream heard about Connor and Arianna.”

“None of you came to the trial this morning.”

“We’ve all got our farms to take care of,” Simi said matter-of-factly. “We can’t even take off Rest Day because animals need to eat and there’re fields to care for.”

“To answer your question, Simi, I have reason to doubt Arianna is responsible for Connor’s death.” Something rubbed against Thalia’s shin, and she tensed.

Cat, Kam informed her.

“Oh, thank the Twelve,” Simi breathed. “She’s such a sweet, kind woman. I couldn’t imagine her doing anyone harm.”

“Do you know anything about Connor asking Arianna to borrow her rooster?” Thalia asked.

“Yes.” Disgust tinged the farmer’s tone. “Mind if we go inside the barn while we talk? I need to check on a ewe.”

“Of course.”

Hogarth led Thalia. The warmth of the sun cut off abruptly. Dust from hay and straw tickled her nose.

“We had to get the Temple of the Wildling God out here to deal with a fox,” Simi continued. Her voice rose and fell as she worked. “Damn thing nearly took out my own flock, and it got at least one chicken from everyone along this section of Ripple Stream.”

A thump and a bang followed her words.

“Arianna’s been letting me borrow her rooster to restock my flock.” Dry straw rustled nearby. “But three weeks ago, the hens stopped producing. We thought we’d been overworking the poor fellow. Connor had to push things though.”

“Did you witness a fight between them?” Thalia asked.

“Yes, but I wouldn’t call it a fight so much as she got tired of him pestering her. He kept offering her more and more money, and she told him she wouldn’t let him touch the rooster for a gold piece.”

Thalia pursed her lips. They weren’t getting any closer to an answer concerning what happened the night of the murder. “Has anyone been to Connor’s farm?”

“His cousin Bhreac collected Connor’s animals and belongings. He’s the last of Connor’s family.” More thumps as Simi moved around the barn.

“Did Bhreac happen to find Dawnbreaker’s carcass when he was claimed Connor’s property?”

“What are you talking about? Dawnbreaker’s right over there.”

The sensation of Wildling magic prickled Thalia’s skin. A rooster’s crow turned into a hawk’s cry. The flap of wings. A blast of air in her face. Hogarth shouted a wordless warning. She cast a freezing spell.

Silence fell inside the barn. Thalia released the breath she held. Could she retrace her steps to the doors to trap their unknown Wildling inside without killing herself on a farm implement?

She chuckled at her own question and pivoted to face what she prayed was the opposite direction. Six paces, but nothing met her outstretched hands. She couldn’t have gone through the doorway accidentally. The sun would be warming her skin on this side of the barn.

Sidestep to her left. Still nothing.

Another sidestep. The back of her fingers struck wood. Carefully, she explored the item. A scythe hanging from a peg. It was a good thing she hadn’t hit it harder. She could have sliced off her own head.

But finding the wall was reassuring. She inched her way right until she found the doorjamb and hinges, but she’d have to step into real time to pull it shut.

Thalia hesitated. The caster breaking the plane of the wall she used as a focal point would shatter a time freeze spell. Could she bend it just enough to grasp a gap or knot on the door?

She felt along the jamb, mentally stretching as if this were a physical warm up before weapons practice. Her spell shivered when her hand reached the gap between the jamb and the door, but the magic held. Her fingers touched a bolt in the crossmember. She pulled as hard as she could, but the angle of leverage was wrong.

Balance help her, this would have been much easier if she were an object mover.

The door moved a bit, and she dared to reach out with both hands to yank it. It swung toward her and vibrated slightly when it struck the doorstop. The noise of the wood banging together would sound inside once she dropped her spell. She knelt and shoved the bottom peg into the threshold hole.

One door closed.

Using the left door and the threshold to align herself, Thalia crossed to the right door and repeated the process. She straightened, stepped to the seam between the barn doors, and released her spell.

Two loud bangs reverberated against the rafters. Feathers smacked her in the face. She grabbed the bird and fell forward on it. A hawk cried out, but it was more a sound of surprise than pain. The animal contorted and shifted beneath her, and feathers receded into skin until she definitely held onto a human.

“Let me go!” a man shouted beneath her. He began to struggle in earnest.

Strong hands lifted Thalia away from her target. “Hogarth has him,” Kam murmured in her ear.

“What the demon do ya think you’re doing, Brother Elan?” her warden asked.

“Better question is how do you shift into two different creatures,” Thalia said as she straightened.

“It…I…it’s a long story,” the Wildling priest said forlornly.

He’s missing quite a few chunks of hair on his head and body, Kam added silently. That might be where the feathers in Connor’s yard came from.

“Brother Kam?” Thalia didn’t have to say more, aloud or through silent speech. The Light priest’s truthspell settled on Elan. “Why are you pretending to be Arianna’s rooster Dawnbreaker?”

“Because that damn fox killed the real Dawnbreaker,” the Wildling priest said. “She adored that rooster. I couldn’t bear to break her heart.”

Thalia rubbed the spot between her brows where an ache was developing. “How did you mimic her rooster?”

“I-I’m not sure. One instant I was in my hawk form, and the next, I was a rooster.”

“You-you-you—” Simi couldn’t seem to find an insult worthy of the deception until she spat, “—demon! Arianna let me borrow Dawnbreaker. No wonder my chickens stopped laying eggs three weeks ago!”

“I’m sorry,” Elan murmured. “I didn’t mean for things to go so far.”

An awful thought occurred to Thalia. “Did you bring Arianna eggs so she wouldn’t know things were amiss?”

“Yes,” the Wildling priest admitted.

“What has your high sister said about being gone so much from your Temple?”

“She thinks I’m entertaining a lady outside of the city.”

This whole situation could be turned into a farce by a mummer’s troop if a corpse weren’t lying in the Temple of Death’s basement. The ache between Thalia’s brows grew sharper.

“I can’t condone a member of the clergy defrauding anyone, Brother Elan,” she said sternly. “Even if he was trying to spare the feelings of a woman who lost nearly everything she cared about.”

“Fraud?” Shock laced Elan’s tone. “I wasn’t trying to cheat anyone!”

“Really?” Soft, rhythmic thumps against the wooden floor indicated Simi was tapping her toe. “What about my wasted time and lack of eggs? I want to press charges, Lady Justice!”

Thalia held up her hand. “I understand your feelings, but I have more questions for Brother Elan. Did Connor take you from Arianna’s barn while you were in chicken form prior to First Morning of Second Day this week?”

“Yes.”

“When did Connor discover his mistake?”

“When he pulled me out of the bag he’d stuffed me into.” Anger replaced the priest’s remorse. “I scratched at him to get free, and that demon spawn pulled out my feathers! I had to shift to human form to keep him from hurting me further.”

“Where did you scratch Connor?”

“His face, neck, and chest. I put some good rents in his tunic.”

“How else did you harm Connor?”

“I socked him in the jaw once I regained human form.”

“Did you stab Connor?”

“No!” Elan shouted.

Thalia didn’t need Kam to tell her the truthspell was holding. “What did you do after you decked Connor?”

“I…lectured him about how wrong it was to steal from his neighbor, and he replied that it wasn’t stealing if the animal was a Wildling in disguise. I told him he was an idiot, and if I caught him doing anything to Arianna again, I would report him to you, Chief Justice.”

“What did you do after you threatened to report Connor’s actions to me?”

“I walked back to the Wildling Temple to take care of my wounds.” His voice dropped. “I couldn’t fly with missing tail feathers.”

Thalia tilted her head. “Why did you come back here?”

“When I heard Arianna’s trial was today, I know you would find her innocent, and she would need Dawnbreaker for comfort. Plus, I was concerned about her animals being fed, but apparently, Simi had the same thought. She arrived shortly after me. I shifted to rooster form to hide from her. You arrived while she was in the middle of the chores.”

"Did you leave the two pieces for Arianna?"

"Yes, since Connor knew about me, she would need the money."

“Did you kill Connor?”

“No, m’lady.”

Thalia shook her head. Despite the insanity she’d discovered, she was no closer to finding Connor’s murderer than Ferdy was.

“Simi, if you still wish to press charges for fraud against Brother Elan, come to the Temple of Balance at Second Morning tomorrow,” she said

“What—” The farmer cleared her throat. “What do I have to do?”

“Brother Kam will truthspell you, and I will ask you questions regarding the times you borrowed Dawnbreaker while Brother Elan was pretending to be the rooster.”

“Um, maybe we should let this matter go,” Simi said.

“I cannot simply let the wrongs in this case go without consequences.” Thalia frowned, trying to figure out the sudden reluctance of the farmer after her intense anger a few moments ago. “Brother Elan’s actions caused harm to Connor and Arianna, in addition to yourself.”

“By the Twelve,” Elan swore. “You weren’t joking about taking me home if Arianna was executed for Connor’s murder.”

“I was just talking to myself while I worked,” Simi snapped, but her panic washed over Thalia’s psyche.

In that instant, she saw what the farmer planned to do. Kam often accused her of precognition, but Thalia believed it was more an intense understanding of now.

Hogarth kept a hold on Elan so he couldn’t move to intercept Simi in time. The farmer didn’t believe Thalia was threat because of her blindness. That left taking Kam by surprise and bowling him over before darting out one of the barn doors before locking it behind her.

Thalia drew her sword as Simi started her motion, pivoted, and slashed back. Leather skidded on the wooden floor, and a body landed hard on the planks. The other woman cried out.

“I have her,” Kam said.

“H-how…” Simi said softly.

Kam chuckled as Thalia sheathed her sword. “Anyone who’s sparred with the chief justice has been trying to figure that out for years.”

The tingle of magic grew as he laid a truthspell on Simi.

“Did you kill Connor?” Thalia asked.

“Yes,” the farmer spat.

“Why?”

“Because he stole Dawnbreaker. When I confronted him, he said he’d killed the rooster. I thought he’d stolen mine and Arianna’s livelihoods, so he deserved what he got!”

* * *

A rewind of time spell at Connor’s farm verified the events to which Elan and Simi had testified during the investigation. There was no out for Simi. She protested she did the wrong thing for the right reasons all through her trial, and she kept shouting her own version of the truth up until Thalia executed her.

As the bells rang First Night, Hogarth escorted Kam to Thalia’s office. The Light priest brought a bottle with him.

“Damn Balance,” Thalia muttered after Hogarth left. Kam poured the wine. A good Pana red from the scent. “Times like these are when I hate my position the most.”

“I know.” Kam placed a cup in her hand and gently clinked his cup against hers. “But you didn’t execute an innocent. And Arianna forgave Brother Elan for being a young, na├»ve idiot so things ended as best they could.”

Thalia took a sip, but the excellent wine sat uncomfortably in her stomach. “I’m not going to be eating chicken for a while,” she muttered. “I’m afraid I'll accidentally eat a Wildling.”

“How about a trip to the Siren’s Song tonight for dinner?” Kam offered. “Clams are in season, and I know you can be bribed.”

“The clams are not why you want to go to the Siren’s Song.” She smiled. Kam would do his best to make her forget about the last two days.

And she was willing to let him.

1 comment:

Angie said...

That was a fun story. :D Heck, anything that starts with a chicken is probably going to be fun. Some nice twists, and Thalia was appropriately badass.

Angie

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