forthcoming in Survivor, ed. Mary Anne Mohanraj and J. J. Pionke, Lethe Press.
The news had come over the East Ridge that morning and spread like fire itself. The bells signaling a cave-in at the Three Fingers Mine rang out in somber tones from both temple and keep. She had risen at the noise, surprised that Zev had allowed to sleep so late. But Zev had not been in the lumber-room nor at his table, and the small brush in the center of the trestle table by the hearth was his signal to her that he’d gone out to the sauna-house to “pick the splinters out of his hide,” as he said.
Jael knew from the bells that the sauna house, as well as every other building on the Plateau, would be emptying. Three Fingers lived more on its mines more than its crops, and not a family lived there that wouldn’t hold its breath at those dreaded bells. Jael herself shuddered, thinking of the workers trapped by sudden crash of rock, surrounded in choking fumes. Red God shield them, and avert Your dread gaze, she prayed. Blue Goddess, purify their air. She had stepped out into streets, still damp and puddled from the night’s rain. Prayer would be her proper role in this, along with others who were too old or young, or crippled to help directly. She’d walked ten paces from the workshop before the mud-ball exploded against the back of her head.
“Witch!” screamed a shrill voice, quavering.
Without thinking she had turned around and raised her staff to high guard, shielding her face and body. Her left hand reached for the sodden mass that slid through her hair and down her neck.
“Who..?” she started angrily, and then realized that the voice she had heard was a child’s voice. “Who are you?” She was used to taunts and snarls, but not to violence; not for years.
“You did it!” the voice shrieked back. “You’re the only witch around here. There were fires over the mines, dan Aering said. Red crossed with blue over the mines! A killing spell!”
The earth seemed to tilt dizzily under her feet. Red crossed with blue over mine entrances. Jael didn’t know what colors were, but she knew what those two meant: The exact opposite of her prayers. Stone and fire spreading in choking clouds through the tunnels.
“But I can’t,” she heard herself say. In the stillness, she felt the attention of the other townsfolk in the street, in the cessation of their steps, in the stillness. “Whoever you are, you know I can’t. Look at me!” She brought her free hand to her face. To her mutilated eyes.
Her only answer was a second ball of mud that burst on her stick and the hand that held it, bespattering her tunic. “You’re a liar!” The voice was heavy with tears. “You sent my papa to die in the darkness.”
Jael’s horror broke into fury. She advanced, heard her tormentor backpedaling. “Look into my face and tell me how fearful is darkness,” she cried. “Look at me!” But the child’s footsteps faded around a corner. Jael turned. She could not tell how many people were in the street, staring at her. But they were there. Turning back, she felt for the door of the workshop. She knew she must leave.