Friday, 18 September 2015 19:09

The Mute Girl by Bria Burton

The Mute Girl by Bria BurtonFrom the forest, Rayme heard Mother’s scream, a high-pitched squeal known to scatter flocks of birds. The sound jerked Rayme’s head up, slamming her heart to a halt. She dropped her secret project--a lost cause now that Mother had returned. She climbed down the wooden rectangles tacked to the tree housing her fort. Along the forest trail, she ran tripping and panting.

Where the trail opened into her family’s lawn, a man’s body sprawled out, his legs scissoring across the grass like he was in mid-sprint on his side. Rayme stopped short when she saw a deep gash at the man’s temple.

If she had not lost her tongue, the croak from her throat would have been a cry. Rayme slapped her hand against her mouth, sidestepping the body. The whites of his eyes stared her down. Blood splatter stained his blue tunic. One of his arms bent back, torn from the shoulder socket. A black and blue mark covered his wrist.

In the grass, Mother knelt in front of the body, covering her mouth with both hands. Her straw-colored hair was pulled back with a braid wrapped around as a headband crowning her reddening, terrified face. A tear rolled off her cheek.


Rayme squinted at Mother as more tears fell to the ground. It was sadness, not fear. Mother obviously knew the man.

Rayme’s hands trembled and she clasped them together. The sight was almost unbelievable, and she feared what it could mean. A breeze tossed her dirt brown hair around her shoulders. She felt watched, and peered up to meet the round eyes of an owl gazing down at her. If only the wood nymphs played this trick, but when she lowered her head, the man was still there covered in blood. She turned to Mother wondering what she would do.

On her knees, Mother balanced, leaning closer to the wound. With two fingers, she reached into the indented skull, plucking a sliver from the depth of the gash. The shard looked like it came from a club. “Pon?” Mother’s voice faltered as it rose in volume.

With a glance toward home, Rayme spotted the gray troll standing guard at the back door. He turned his head, took a step away from the chalet, and howled, “Mistress!” He shuffled toward them, dragging his club in the grass and through the stream encircling the house.

As Pon approached, his thick lower lip drooped. A trained troll, though smarter than others of his kind, still looked dumb as a tin cup. His boulder of a head contained a small brain. No doubt, Pon or the other troll, Mux, clubbed the man whose name Rayme did not know, though she could not imagine why. They had to have done it while Rayme worked on her secret project.

Mother shoved the splinter in his face. “This man was clubbed.” Her words shook as more tears fell. “Who did this?”

“We did what Master said!” Pon bellowed as if Mother were hard of hearing. “He wanted man dead. Now he is dead.”

“My husband made you do this?”

He nodded.

A torrent of heat rose up to Rayme’s face. She jerked back, shaking her head no. Father did not do this. He was no coward. If he had a reason to kill this man, he would have honorably dueled with him, not ordered the trolls to club him.

“Fine. Pon, do not let anyone else near the body until I say so.” Mother swiped the water off her cheeks. “If Mux confirms Pon’s statement, I have to go to the magistrate.” She pinched her skirt and trekked across the yard.

Rayme’s anger rose up like swarming hornets knocked down from their nest. What foolishness! Mother would rely on the testimony of two dimwits as the basis for publicly accusing Father? Rayme knew he must be innocent, but had no idea how to prove it.

A realization hit her, but it would have to wait. She gazed into the forest. Her secret project. She must find time to bury it later. If she was lucky, no one else would discover the truth she had intended to hide. For now, she would push that truth away from her own thoughts and focus on the immediate problem.

She ran beside Mother, waving her arms wildly. If only she could yell, “Stop! Father would never do this!” Instead, she blocked Mother’s path. Skipping backward, she jabbed her pointer finger at Mother. She knew something she was not sharing, and Rayme wanted to hear her say it.

When they reached the path to the stables, Mother halted. “What?” She threw up her arms. “Rayme! I have to get some answers.”

Rayme kept pointing, wondering what Mother thought she could hide from her now.

A fresh bout of tears poured down Mother’s cheeks. She caught her face in her hands. When Mother looked up, Rayme beckoned, hoping she would confess what was going on. “I think your father gave the order because of me.”

Rayme folded her arms. She understood a lot more than Mother thought.

“That man is a Qindersman. An enemy. But this is not the battlefield.” Mother looked at the sky, at the ground, at the house. Anywhere but at Rayme. “His name is Foster, and I loved him. I believe your father...he saw Foster and I...together.”

Rayme knew it. Mother’s tears alone gave her away.

“I hate to destroy your beautiful innocence, Rayme. You should not have to face the mistakes of your parents at fifteen years old. Your father must have been overwhelmed with jealousy to do such a thing.” The veins bulged on Mother’s neck and forehead. She dabbed her eyes with her apron.

Though Mother looked like she needed a hug, Rayme would have rather embraced Pon at this moment. Whatever Mother’s concerns, Rayme’s were greater. Mother was so ready to accuse Father when she was the one who had an affair.

“I have no excuse, but you know your father. He is never here. Business at Eddlefort keeps him preoccupied for weeks at a time. And the lords of Roweland have not declared war in over a year.” Mother shook her head, the last of her tears slipping to the ground. “I feel so foolish.”

“Mistress?” Mux plodded up the slope of their dirt driveway from the stables, a stupid troll stare plastered on his face. “Is there anything you need?”

Mother turned to face him. “I need to know, did you and Pon club a man by the forest?”

“Yes. Master said if a Qindersman came onto this land, he must be killed.”

“When did he say that?”

Mux counted his fingers. “One day before he left.”

Trolls did not lie, but Rayme glared while observing him. Such a request contradicted Father’s standing order not to kill trespassing enemies, but to alert the governor. Rayme shook her head, not believing him. Mux must be lying.

“Thank you. Will you bring my horse, please?” Mother’s single-mindedness often took over when a task stood before her. She treated this incident like cleaning up a spill in the kitchen.

Rayme stamped her feet. She pointed at the gray clouds hovering overhead, desperate for anything to stop Mother from this rash decision.

Mother untied her apron. “I will be gone for a while. Please wash this?” Mother handed over the stained garment, finally meeting Rayme’s eye. Her mouth dipped into a deep frown. “Oh, Rayme, will you ever forgive me?”

Rayme took the apron glaring, too dumbstruck to speak even if she could, the image of their happy family soon to be publicly shattered.

Mux walked a horse up the slope and handed over the lead. “Mistress, rain is coming.”

“I know.” Mother jumped onto the brown mare, kicking the horse into a gallop without another word.

Rayme felt the first hint of warmth in her nostrils and turned her head away. She threw out angry signals with her hands and clawed at the apron, so angry with Mother for leaving. The tears rolled like hot water from the mouth of a boiling kettle.

“I do not know what your signs mean, Miss Ruh-mee. But I can help with the apron.” Mux touched the soiled cloth with his gray fist. “I see how you put the clothes in the stream and they are clean.”

Rayme jerked the apron back and turned away. She ran over the footbridge and through the front door of the house. She climbed the stairs to the third floor, a small area where Father created a study. She threw the apron on the ground and dropped to her knees. The angry tears stung her eyes.

Rayme felt so helpless. She had no idea how to prove Father’s innocence with those blockheads claiming he ordered the kill. He was a good man, respected in all of Wessland.

In his younger years, Father served as a soldier, but now he strategized with the lords of Roweland at Eddlefort. He proved his prowess on the battlefield, and Rayme knew his strategies continued to grant them this year free from war engagements. Rather than criticize Father, Rayme felt grateful that he kept them safe. Like Mother, she desperately missed him, but he always came home eventually, and Mother should consider his constancy compared to her lack of it.

Rayme’s chest throbbed. She pulled herself into the chair behind Father’s desk and rubbed her fingers along the knots in the wood. He built the desk himself. At eight years old, she watched him fell the beech tree with swift strokes of the axe, and she remembered thinking he was the strongest man in the world. He did not even need the trolls to help him.

Rayme spied a scroll sticking out from behind the desk. She pulled it up, and the unbroken seal looked like the one Father used when he sent notes from Eddlefort. Someone brought it here when they should have given it directly to Mother. It had to be one of the trolls. How thick were those boulder heads? Because it rolled back behind the desk, she might never have seen it.

For a split second, Rayme considered the fact that the letter was addressed to Mother, not her. Yet she had to know if it contained the proof she needed. She broke the seal and read, reaching a point that would have made Mother stay.

Ran into an old friend. A Qindersman, so you know I am teasing. We were quite the pair on the battlefield in our younger years, and neither of us ever managed to kill the other. I am sure you cringed when you read that line, my love. It was so different seeing an enemy as an older, wiser man.

We shook hands as we passed on the road through Ritsford. It is a neutral town, so I see Qindersmen and Blarsmen there from time to time. It is amazing that fights do not break out in the streets.

You will have to forgive me, but I invited him to visit. The words blurted out of my mouth before I could stop them. Seeing someone from my younger years, enemy or not, made my judgment falter. Though he looked as shocked hearing the words as I felt saying them, he answered favorably that he would come calling. I am sure he would never set foot in Roweland, let alone come within a hundred miles of Eddlefort.

But in case a Qindersman named Foster knocks on the door before I return, prevent the trolls from alerting the governor, will you? I know you would treat him like a guest until I arrive. Perhaps bygones can be bygones, and two aging foes can reminisce about the good old days from both sides of the fence.

A sunbeam broke through the dark clouds and touched Rayme through the window. She skimmed over the sentiments from the rest of the note and pressed the letter to her chest. This was the proof she needed. She could clear Father’s name before anyone besides the magistrate heard Mother’s ridiculous accusations.

Before Mother returned, Rayme must question Mux. Certainly, Pon would provide no more useful information. Mux did lie about doing what Father wanted, but admitted to clubbing the man. Now she must figure out why. The trolls were taught never to hurt or kill unless given orders.

Rayme raced downstairs and out the front door. The dark clouds thickened overhead. She worried a storm would trap Mother at the magistrate’s mansion.

In the stables, Mux shoveled manure. “Mistress would say it is time to clean up after the horses. I like to keep things nice and clean.” Mux looked up from the pile of droppings. “If you do not want to wash the apron, I could do it.”

Rayme shook her head, unsure how to signal her questions with the dead man’s body so far out of sight.

“You are worried about that man, but you do not have to be. We killed him like Master wanted, and we are safe now.” He smiled at her with a mouthful of zigzagging teeth. “We can have no enemies here.”

Rayme motioned the swinging of a club, and pointed to Mux.

The troll shook his head. “I wish I could read your signs, Miss Ruh-mee, like Master and Mistress can.”

Rayme dropped her arms. It was useless to seek answers if he could not understand her.

When Mux dropped the shovel, he bent over and his backside climbed into the air like a giant balloon. “Ton tells us what to do. He spoke to Master.”

Rayme’s eyes widened until they felt ready to pop.


Their third troll scarcely surfaced from the underground quarters where the three of them slept. Most troll owners disposed of them once their use ran out, but Father invited Ton to stay when his age prevented him from serving the family. Ton read, as far as Rayme knew, and did little else.

On the other side of the dirt road, she saw the tunnel. The hillside rose and the troll dwelling burrowed deep beneath like a mineshaft. She never ventured near it, always a little afraid. Once, when she met a troll alone on an empty road, she lost her tongue. With no time for fear, Rayme strode straight for it.

She peeked inside, glad that lanterns hung along the ceiling to the depths she could see. She banged on the wood beam overhead. No one responded. She exhaled, and traipsed along the path. At a curve, the lanterns stopped and she faced a solid, wooden door. After three pounds with her fist, Rayme stepped back.

The door swung and she yelped, the sound like a hiccup. The troll in the doorway stood with his hand on the knob.

She noticed his sharpened teeth first. She did not remember Ton having sharpened teeth. Then again, she was young when he became a recluse in this cave. To say he smiled seemed generous considering the teeth, some pointing right at her. Rather he sneered, and his black and yellow eyes sank deep into his gray head.

“What do you want?” The rickety sound of his voice echoed off the walls. “I know you cannot speak, so you better come in and write it.”

Rayme stepped inside, feeling the wind as he slammed the door behind her. She swallowed her yelp this time.

The quarters were smaller than she imagined. The three beds took up most of the room. Ton sat at a lone desk stacked with books. A candle burned on the desk, and lanterns sat in each corner of the room except one corner with a cauldron. When she turned, she saw where the trolls laid their clothes in neat piles by the door.

As Ton stared at her, sweat gathered under her arms.

“You know ink is scarce, and there is no way we can communicate effectively unless you write down what you want from me.”

Rayme knew he read, but his vocabulary surprised her.

“You do not like us much, do you?” Ton stroked his chin. “Think trolls are useless dimwits and brutes, right?”

Rayme’s fears resurfaced. She suddenly wondered why she needed answers right now; he probably would not tell her anything.

“I have some scraps of parchment.” He pulled open a drawer and lifted a small stack of squares onto the desk. “I will agree to talk on one condition.”

Rayme waited. His return to the task at hand, to find out what she wanted, reassured her a little. She did not want to write out her feelings about trolls for him.

“You have to use your own blood as the ink.”

The razor teeth made Rayme weak in the knees this time, and she stepped back toward the door, reaching for the handle.

“Wait.” He stood. “I have the tools to make a small incision in your arm, and we will only let this much.” He held up an empty ink bottle. “No more than a few tablespoons. Nothing you will miss. I have a quill. Otherwise, you can run out the door. Your choice.”

Seconds passed as Rayme remembered why she chose to enter this cave. Father. He would have done anything for her. The least she could do was clear his name.

She questioned herself again as Ton brought a small knife toward her arm. What if he planned to kill her? What would he gain? As Ton sliced the vein inside her elbow, Rayme convinced herself he would not risk the consequences of murdering a family member.

It did not really hurt. A splash of blood landed on Ton’s brown vest. He turned her arm sideways, pressed the bottle to the wound, and squeezed her upper arm. The slow blood flow filled the bottle. He covered the cut with a cloth and told Rayme to press down hard.

Quill in her right hand, she dipped the end into her own blood. Her left hand squeezed the cloth around her elbow, which made writing awkward. She positioned her hand as best she could to scribble on the parchment.

“Remember,” Ton said, “use as few letters as possible unless you want to lose more blood.”

Rayme minimized her words. Why order trolls club man?

Ton leaned over her shoulder. “Ah!”

She looked up at his ugly features, smelling something foul and wishing trolls brushed their teeth.

“I thought this might be the reason you came.”

Rayme nodded. NOT Father’s order. Yours.

Ton wiped the blood off his vest with a rag. “I guess you figured this out all on your own?”

The lanterns flickered. Rayme jerked her head back. The sudden sensation of falling fled as quickly as it came.

“My dear, you must be thin-blooded. You nearly fainted.” As he rounded the desk to face her, Ton flattened his palms on the tabletop. His thick gray arms looked leathery.

Rayme glanced at her own arm. Blood seeped through the cloth. She pressed harder on the incision.

“I suppose you want to tell the magistrate what I have done.” Ton’s face blurred overhead, then doubled. Four rows of razor-sharp teeth. “I have spent years researching. I received hundreds of letters, books, and diaries. Do you think after years pursuing this end, I would be affronted by a young girl?”

Rayme tottered on the chair. Six rows. Sharp teeth.

“When I claimed your father ordered the kill, I became a murderer. You must think I would do it again.”

Before she could answer, the lights flickered out.


When Rayme opened her eyes, Ton boiled something in the cauldron. She sat up on one of the troll beds, wondering if he planned to throw her inside. A clap of thunder signaled the arrival of the storm.

“Qindersmen are the enemy. You know that better than anyone.” Ton stirred the broth in the pot.

Rayme wondered what he meant, and how long she passed out. Glancing at her arm, she saw a fresh strip of cloth tied around the incision.

Lifting a wooden spoon out of the cauldron, Ton took a sip. “You know a troll cut out your tongue. Yet how did he get the chloroform to knock you unconscious? The brute certainly could not read.”

Rayme gaped, shocked at his words. She never thought of that before.

“A kind of mercy followed by a barbaric act. You see, my dear, I did not simply order that man killed because he had an affair with your mother. The dead Qindersman is the same who, five years ago, ordered his troll to cover your face with a rag dipped in a certain bottle. You know what happened when you awoke.”

That moment was Rayme’s recurring nightmare. A startling emptiness in her mouth. Nothing left but a stump of her tongue, cleanly sliced. And pain. Her entire bruised body felt ripped inside out.

“When you wandered into a stranger’s coach that dreadful day, only ten years old and dropped off on an unknown road, the Qindersman knew you by the symbol on your cloak. Your father--and only your father--wore it in battle. After years of limping off in defeat, he chose to exact his vengeance against a helpless little girl. Had I discovered these facts sooner, I may have saved your mother the heartache of loving this terrible man. But she never knew; how could she? Why he seduced her, and what he planned to do to her, we will never know.”

Rayme felt a wrench in her gut and dropped from the bed to her hands and knees. She inhaled sporadically until the picture became clear. The dead Qindersman was the monster that abused her so badly, and he could never hurt anyone again. Ever. Her breathing steadied. Now Rayme knew the whole truth. She needed Ton along with the letter. Would he tell Mother and clear Father’s name?

Ton walked over with a steaming bowl of liquid. “I did not want the blame to fall on your father. Without Master’s order, Pon and Mux would not do what I asked. But with their short-lived memories, they must have failed to bury the Qindersman.”

Rayme nodded, rising to sit back on the bed. She lowered her gaze to the yellow broth.

“It is hot, but good.” He smiled. The corners of his eyes wrinkled.

She took the bowl, sniffing the scent of chicken, basil, and mint leaves. She tilted her head back. Although taste vanished with the loss of her tongue, the warm liquid soothed her throat and filled the emptiness in her stomach. Finished, she stood, setting the bowl on the desk. The ink bottle with her blood and the quill sat beside the stack of scraps.

She dipped the quill and wrote, Thank you. Saved Mother’s life.

Ton sipped the broth from his wooden spoon. “Perhaps I saved more lives than just hers.”

Rayme dipped again, using most of the remaining blood in one sentence. Tell magistrate? No harm when they know truth. Enemy on our land to hurt us.

Ton nodded. “I will come outside long enough to tell the truth, even if it means paying the consequences. I was prepared for that all along.”

The warmth of the broth rose to Rayme’s cheeks. Staring up at the large, wrinkled gray troll, gratefulness overwhelmed her.

I will stand by you.

Once the rain stopped, they emerged from the cave together and sat on the porch steps to wait for Mother.

After an hour of skipping rocks in the stream, a horse whinnied in the distance. Rayme looked up, and Mother galloped into the driveway. The magistrate rode behind her. They dismounted at the stables.

“Have Pon bring the body to us, Mux.” Mother rushed over the footbridge to the house. “Ton? What are you doing out of the cave?”

“I am here to confess.” Ton stood to his full six and a half feet.

The magistrate walked with timid steps. “What does he mean?”

Rayme stood, slipping her hand into Ton’s. He smiled down at her.

“Rayme, you hate trolls,” said Mother. “What is going on?”

Rayme lifted the scroll out of her pocket, handing it to Mother.

Ton pressed his thumb into his chest. “I am the one who ordered Mux and Pon to kill that man.”

Mother stared at him, then scanned the letter. “This is from my husband.” She pressed her fist to her breast, and showed the scroll to the magistrate. “He never ordered the kill. Ton, why would you do that?”

“I will explain everything.” He began the story as he had told it in the cave. “You remember when ten-year-old Rayme entered the stranger’s coach that dreadful day...”

The mute girl’s mind wandered while Ton spoke. She flashed back to another day when Father took his latest trip to Eddlefort. No matter how hard she tried to resist the thoughts, the memory played out before her eyes.

A closed door on the second floor. The room was never used, but Rayme heard voices. She peered into the keyhole. She saw Mother talking to a man. It could not be Father. He already left. She darted away, afraid of what it could mean.

“The chloroform knocked Rayme unconscious,” Ton continued, “but I am one of the few trolls in the world who can read.”

Another image passed in front of Rayme, and she could not push it away.

The door was closed again. She returned to the keyhole, afraid she might see Mother and that man. It was dark. She touched the knob, then turned it as quietly as she could. The door was unlocked. She peeked her head into the room. She heard breathing.

“Shh,” a man whispered. “Someone is there.”

Rayme closed the door and rushed out of the house. She did not stop running until she reached her fort.

“I finally received a letter from someone who knew the name of the troll’s owner,” Ton said. “His name was Foster, a Qindersman.”

One last memory passed in front of Rayme like moving pictures. The event happened that very morning when Mother went into town, and shutting her eyes did nothing to clear away the images.

A knock at the front door. Rayme opened it.

The man she had seen talking to Mother behind the keyhole stood before her. “You must be Rayme. Your mother told me about you.”

Rayme glared. Father was still at Eddlefort. How dare this man return?

“Is your mother here?”

Rayme shook her head.

“She told me you cannot speak.” He reached out and stroked her hair.

Rayme swiped his hand away.

“You are beautiful like her. Shame that your tongue was cut out.” A darkness lingered behind his eyes. “Because I have something planned for you and your mother.”

The words struck at Rayme’s core, and she slammed the door.

He caught it, and he was too strong for her. “Wait. When your mother arrives, will you tell her I am here?”

Thoughts flashed across Rayme’s mind. She nodded, relaxing her face to conceal her fear of him.

“I saw a bench in your yard near the forest. I will wait there.” His sneer made Rayme’s stomach churn.

She shut the door and marched into the kitchen, her hands clenched. She paced until an idea formed, though she initially decided against it. She peeked out the window to see the man sharpening his dagger with a rock. She changed her mind.

Rayme boiled water in the kettle. Sneaking out back, hoping the man would not see, she dug up a blamburst plant from the garden. The purple fruit was only fit for trolls to eat.

At the side of the house, she plucked several leaves from the low branches of the red tree.

Back in the kitchen, she chopped the blamburst fruit. Next, she ripped the red leaves into small bits, tossing everything into the boiling water. Lastly, she poured the mixture into a pewter mug.

“How thoughtful of you to bring me a hot drink on this cool day.” The man placed his dagger on the bench.

Rayme handed him the mug, smiling wide as he drained the contents.

“I have never tasted anything like it. It must be a Wessman tradition.”

Rayme eased her smile into a line.

The man dropped his as well. He coughed. Rising, he grabbed his throat and staggered forward several steps until his hand touched her shoulder.

She jerked out of his reach, rushing toward the forest.

He snatched his dagger from the bench and followed her.

When Rayme saw him drop the dagger and fall at the foot of the trail, she halted.

Foam seeped from the side of his mouth. He gurgled and spit. Eventually, he stopped moving.

Rayme stepped over him. She used his tunic to wipe the foam off his face and mouth, and then pressed two fingers to his neck.

No pulse.

She sheathed his dagger in the holster on his belt.

The wood nymphs were right. Minced blamburst boiled with red tree leaves poisoned the drinker.

“This is shocking!” When Mother’s voice interrupted Ton, Rayme jumped. Mother looked impressed rather than angry. “What made you confess now?”

Mux and Pon strolled toward them, Pon carrying the body.

“I could not let Master take the blame for my decision after Mux and Pon forgot to bury the body,” Ton explained.

“Sorry, I did forget.” Mux shrugged.

“It is better this way,” Mother said. “Now we know the truth.”

“Bring the body here, please,” the magistrate said.

Pon walked into the stream and stopped in front of the slender man.

Rayme held her breath, wondering if there was any way for someone to observe the effects of the poison.

The magistrate lifted his eyeglass to examine Foster’s head wound. “This blow certainly killed him.”

Rayme exhaled; the magistrate did not even guess at what she had done.

“I shall bring his dagger as evidence for malicious intent.” The magistrate lifted the weapon out of its holster. “You go ahead and bury him now, Pon. I must take Ton into custody.” The magistrate motioned for the troll to come down.

The short-lived relief flew back into panic. Rayme had been so worried about making sure Father did not suffer for her actions that she failed to see any danger for Ton. She wrapped her arms around his abdomen.

“But why?” asked Mother. “He saved our family from a brutal man. I should be the one taken for my infidelity.”

“I am willing to let you speak to your husband about that matter. However, I must set an example by bringing Ton before the governor. Trolls cannot be allowed to kill without direct and legal orders from their master, or what would become of the world? The governor will likely clear the troll of wrongdoing once we reveal the letters and any other proof Ton possesses.”

Rayme clung to the troll, wishing she could do something. Short of revealing what she had done--an unappealing idea that seemed impossible without ink--she had no clue how to help him.

Ton pressed her arms down. “I will be fine. Thank you for becoming my friend.” He wiped a tear off Rayme’s cheek.

No horse could carry Ton, so he walked, hands tied, as the magistrate rode.

Mother hugged Rayme’s shoulder. “The governor will see the evidence and realize that Ton prevented Foster from harming our family. Then he will send him back to us.”

The hope Rayme felt matched Mother’s. Rayme squeezed Mother’s hand and signed forgiveness with the other.

“Thank you.” A tear trickled down Mother’s face, slipping off her chin. She kissed Rayme’s cheek before heading into the chalet.

Mux waved at Ton’s back until the pair disappeared around the corner. Pon dug a hole for the body near the stables.

Rayme fidgeted with a string on her dress. The image of the magistrate leading Ton away lingered. She reassured herself that nothing could be done except to wait for the governor to clear Ton. It was better that no one knew what she did.

“It was funny, Miss Ruh-mee, how that Qindersman was on the ground. He was so still.”

Rayme dropped the string. She walked into the yard away from Mux, hoping he would think she was uninterested. Anyway, she must return to her fort and destroy the body bag--her secret project.

The wood nymphs had promised Rayme, if she could fashion a bag sewn together from the forest leaves and place the body inside, they could cast a spell to make it dissolve into thin air, leaving no trace.

She had failed to finish the bag before Mother returned and found the body. When she heard Mother’s scream, she feared what would happen to her. Would she be taken from her family? Imprisoned? Sooner or later, someone would discover she was the poisoner. Yet the evidence of a clubbing meant one of the trolls would be blamed, not her. She realized she could live with that. She could destroy the bag and bury the truth with it. Of course Father never ordered the kill, why would he? She had been right about everything.

Everything but her feelings about trolls.

“I pulled his arm to make him sit up so Pon could club him,” Mux said. “The man did not fight. His eyes were only white. I never saw eyes like that before.”

Rayme stopped walking. She turned to the driveway. No one was there. The magistrate already vanished around the corner with Ton. But they would not have gotten far.

She ran, kicking up dirt and not caring how it looked. She lifted her knees as high as she could in her dress, feeling the wind against her face. She liked the way running felt, and would not stop until she found Ton.

Around the corner, she spotted the troll plodding behind the magistrate’s horse. Not far at all.

Rayme rushed beside the troll, slowing to a walk.

“Rayme!” Ton cried.

The magistrate glanced over his shoulder, jerking the reins. His horse halted.

She panted, catching her breath. What could she do? Neither Ton nor the magistrate would understand her signals. Only Mother and Father knew them. She motioned anyway, hoping they would pick up something.

“I am sorry, but your mother will need to be here to interpret. Go and fetch her if you have something important to say,” the magistrate said.

Rayme would have to tell Mother the truth eventually. Now was as good a time as any.

“Wait,” said Ton.

She stopped on the ball of her foot.

Ton held up his bound wrists. “May I say something to Rayme in private?”

One of the magistrate’s eyebrows climbed his forehead, but he nodded. “I suppose. Do not take too long. I intend to reach the governor’s mansion before dark. If we make it, I hope he will hear your case tonight. If you are cleared of wrongdoing, as I anticipate, you can return home in the morning.”

“I only need a few minutes.”

The magistrate dismounted, untying the rope from his horse. “I am entrusting you. Do you understand?” He handed Rayme the rope, accepting her nod before walking his horse away.

She was tempted to run back home with Ton. They could never outrun a horse.

Ton knelt so that she was face to face with the wrinkled, gray troll. “Dear Rayme, I know why you ran after me.”

She doubted that.

“I saw what happened. I saw you give Foster that drink.”

She stiffened. Ton knew? But why did he allow himself to be taken?

“It is best this way. Trust me, will you?”

Rayme hesitated. She turned toward the house where Mother was probably writing a letter to Father, urging him to come home. She should go get Mother. Tell her…

“Listen, Rayme.” Ton brushed his large fist across her cheek. The rough skin brought her back to face him. “We both know Foster would have murdered you and your mother if given the chance. You stopped him. What you did was right. Let it be enough that I know the truth. There is no need to worry about me. I will not suffer. I get to sleep in a mansion tonight.” He grinned his sharp grin.

Rayme’s tears welled afresh. He would do that for her? He had already planned to take her place all this time. She wiped her eyes, feeling warm all over. Except he was forgetting one thing. She did promise to stand by him.

She signaled him to wait. He must know what hands up in front of the chest meant. She dropped the rope and ran back to the house, up the stairs, and through the front door.

Mother stood in the hall. Rayme almost knocked her over. “What is wrong?”

After the little time it took to convince Mother, Rayme shoved a dress and undergarments into a sack. She raced to where Ton and the magistrate still waited.

The walk with Ton was refreshing, the air a coolant until they reached their destination. He talked about the books he read and the stories he loved. Rayme could listen to him for hours. “I always wished I could share my love of books with Pon and Mux, but there was never much hope there.”

Rayme scratched under her bandage. Perhaps reopening the wound on her arm in front of Mother had been extreme, but Rayme did not have time to argue with her. She found a quill, wrote her intentions, and would not take no for an answer. The truth would have to come later, after Rayme brought Ton safely home. Then she would sit down with Mother and confess.

The governor’s white mansion resembled a castle. Rayme latched onto Ton’s arm as they marched inside behind the magistrate. In her hand, she carried a note with the message she had shown Ton.

Tonight I get to spend time with my friend.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Bria Burton's speculative fiction has appeared in over a dozen anthologies and magazines, such as Broken Worlds, Welcome to the Future, The Colored Lens, the Journey Into... podcast, and the Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine. In 2011, her manuscript, Livinity, won a First Place Royal Palm Literary Award (RPLA) in the Unpublished Fantasy Novel category. Her novella, Little Angel Helper, and her unpublished women's fiction novel, Sprinter, are currently RPLA finalists. While she writes, her dog and cat do their best to distract her, which is why they now star in her family-friendly short story collection, Lance & Ringo Tails. She's employed as a blogger and customer service manager at St. Pete Running Company.