The shout brought Leeze am Holden running from the homestead main building after grabbing her sword. The older of the two family helpers ran toward her, his right hand grasping the reins of her father’s horse.
“Where’s Father?” she screamed at the family helper, but he only shook his head, too winded to speak.
Leeze reached the horse and jerked the reins from the helper’s hands. “Quiet, Magnolia,” she whispered in the horse’s ear. “You are safe now.”
The horse trembled under her hands as she inspected its body. No obvious injuries. The saddle remained in place but no saddle bags.
She thrust the reins back into the helper’s hands. “See to Magnolia’s care but keep her saddled and saddle my horse. I will be leaving in one watch cycle with both horses.”
Leeze ran back into the main building and wrote an inscription for her mother, who had earlier ridden to a neighboring homestead. Then Leeze changed into male clothing, her father’s cut-down garments worn when practicing with her sword. At the age of 21 star cycles she knew to hide her gender if riding alone.
Shoving a waterskin into her own saddle bags, she considered her next actions. Her father had been due home this sun cycle from the capital city of Zanzica where he had journeyed to pay the annual tax allotment. Therefore he should not be that far from Holden.
Leeze recited the ancient Tartum prayer for travelers and swung up into the saddle on her own horse Fermesh. She took Magnolia’s lead from the helper and trotted toward the road leading to Zanzica.
The circling of vultures around a solitary tree at the side of the road alerted her before she reached the spot. Her fingers clenched on the reins of her horse. Did she really expect not to find this answer?
The moment the figure sprawled on the ground came into view Magnolia whimpered. Leeze slid off Fermesh and patted Magnolia’s head.
She walked toward the body lying face down, the body from whose clothes she recognized as her father. She knelt down and stared at the dried blood congealed around the stab wound in his back.
Standing, she recited the Tartum prayer for the dead.
Black fury descended into her mind. She clutched the sword she wore at her side and vowed she would find the perpetrators – she would strike them down as they had struck down her father!
And for what reason? Her father had no enemies, and surely the tax allotment had already been delivered. He would have had nothing of significant value with him. Yet, as she glanced around the ground for his saddle bags, she found no evidence of their existence.
The movement of the horses brought her back to herself. First she must needs report this murder to the closest magistrate. Then she must seek help to return her father’s body to Holden, where he would be buried with his ancestors.
She shook her head, realizing that she could not leave his body. She would wait by the road until another traveler passed.
Three watch cycles later Leeze spotted two men riding toward her, both wearing the colors of the royal courier service.
As they came closer she dropped into a curtsey, only realizing as she did so that she wore men’s clothing and should have bowed. Then, as her dark unbound hair fell forward into her face, she also realized she hadn’t plaited her hair into the male-favored single braid.
The men stopped and the younger one jumped off his horse, tossing the reins to his companion.
He looked into her face and said, “My lady, how can we help you? And why do you dress as a man?”
“I am Leeze am Holden and I have just found my father’s murdered body. I dressed this way to seek him after his horse returned without him.”
She caught her breath, determined not to cry now. “I need help to alert a magistrate and return my father’s body to Holden.”
The courier bowed. “I am Daglish and my companion is Xan. We are riding on official business to the magistrate of Healfix, which is only half a watch cycle from here. I will remain with you while Xan completes our assignment and asks the magistrate to return here.”
With a nod to Daglish, Xan took off.
“Are you far from Holden?” Daglish said.
“About two watch cycles.”
“Have you eaten today?”
When she shook her head, he reached into his saddle bags and brought out a round of cheese, from which he cut off two large slices.
“Have you said the Tartum prayer for the dead?” he asked.
When she nodded he said, “The magistrate will surely execute the law of responsibility. He will bring a map of this area and measure whose homestead is closest. That homestead must needs pay the blood guilt price.”
Leeze nodded. Paying the blood guilt price would satisfy preserving the sanctity of the land. Yet whoever paid that ceremonial price might not be the actual murderer. And only the death of the actual murderer would satisfy Leeze!
Three sun cycles later Leeze stood in court as the magistrate pronounced sentence on Tretain, Lord am Cranag. At the site of her father’s murder the magistrate had determined that Lord Tretain’s homestead land lay closest to the body of her father. The magistrate had then summoned Lord Tretain to the magistrate’s court in Healfix to answer to the law of responsibility.
The required appearance had been scheduled so that Leeze and her mother could first attend to the Tartum funeral rites after the magistrate’s people had conveyed her father’s body back to Holden. Leeze had gone through the ancient rituals consumed with the need for the blood guilt to be assuaged, and her mother could not bring herself to attend this court appearance.
The magistrate had questioned Lord Tretain as to whether he or his people had killed Leeze’s father. Lord Tretain had denied this on behalf of himself and his people nor did Lord Tretain know who might have been responsible.
The magistrate recited, “According to the law of responsibility, you must pay the sum of 5,000 coin to the family of Horram am Holden. I will expect court receipt of this coin five sun cycles from now, and we will then deliver the blood guilt price to the family.”
Tretain, Lord am Cranag glared at the magistrate, although Leeze knew that Lord Tretain had to comply or risk forfeiting his own holdings.
He touched his closed fist to his heart signifying acceptance of the sentencing, inclined his head to the magistrate, and strode from the court.
Leeze stood, swishing her long dress into place so that she would not trip over the hem. She had been able to dress in her own clothes as a family helper had accompanied her to the magistrate’s court.
But next star cycle it must needs be she who would journey to Zanzica to pay the Holden homestead’s tax allotment. She could not take a helper with her for such a lengthy journey as her mother would need both helpers at the homestead. For safety on the road Leeze would dress in male clothing with her hair plaited in a single braid. And she would always remember to bow.
She followed Lord am Cranag out of the court, standing on the road to watch him and his men mount their horses.
As he turned his horse to depart, he glanced back at her. “The coin will be paid, but that will not be the end of our association,” he said.
Leeze did not reply, her eyes fastened on the saddle bags attached to his saddle – the ones with the pattern she had carved into her father’s bags.
Tretain, Lord am Cranag had her father’s saddle bags!
Had he or his men murdered her father? If so, some day she would have her revenge – regardless of the payment of the blood guilt price.