What had she done?
There were a hundred faces now turned on her, their eyes wide with confusion at her outburst. And in truth, she was as confused as them. Why had she said that? She most certainly had not made the decision to act and she wasn't even aware that she had wanted to act. But here she was, having outrightly defied the Tiger Lord’s brother, with the brunt of his mighty anger now directed straight at her.
She wanted to cower like she had done as a child in her earliest memories. Before the Tiger Lord had beaten that tendency out of her.
"No?" The Tiger Lord’s brother fumed. "Are you a defender of magic, girl?"
It made her bone-chillingly angry every time he called her girl. He'd never used her name, ever, and when he used girl it was always to demean her, like there was something so disgusting about being a girl.
"Of course she isn't," the Tiger Lord said in reply.
Arianna avoided twisting her head to look at the Tiger Lord for reassurances. She’d injected herself into this and now, with the whole council watching, she had to get herself out it. Otherwise, she’d be perceived as weak. The brother would not waste the opportunity to paint the picture of her to the council. Once he’d planted that seed in their minds it would be difficult to get them to take her seriously in other situations. Which it was already difficult to do.
His brother frowned. "Then why would she be against my plan to protect our community?”
"Because it's obvious she is not a witch. Just a simple herbs lady. You can tell from her hands. They bare the scars of garden work."
Everyone leaned in to see, which forced the brother to take her hand and hold it up.
Arianna's heart was now beating wildly inside her chest. Her veins were pumping blood at a powerful pace and she was blasted with the alert it put her on. Though she had no idea why she was on alert.
This woman did not concern her. She had merely acted accidentally and was now having to back herself up. The woman’s safety was not her concern. Her own safety was.
"Witches are ladies of herbs. This only adds to her guilt."
"If she were magic, wouldn't she have cursed you by now? Since you have put her under such threat I would imagine her life would mean more to her than protecting her secret of magic. Wouldn't you agree, brother?”
There were a nods in the crowd from the men who hadn’t reacted with outrage at the mention of magic. Even those who had been outraged were forced to nod.
The Tiger Lord’s brother visibly sizzled with rage, so much that Arianna thought it might burst through his skin and become a fire all of it's own.
Then all of a sudden a strange sound filled the room. It was a guttural noise, whose pitch shifted backwards and forwards. They all started. Until they realised it was coming from the old woman. She had started rocking backwards and forwards on her heels, pointing at Arianna, her eyes overflowing madness.
It eventually dawned on them all that the sound was a laugh.
The brother smacked her hard around her face.
The sound of her head snapping back made Arianna jump.
She raced over to catch her before she hit the ground.
The woman was impossibly light in her arms, lighter than a child. This confused Arianna. She tried to explain it that the woman probably hadn't had a good meal in months, hence she had lost a lot of body mass. Yet the excuse didn't sit well with her. Why did she weigh so little?
At the connection of their skin some kind of sleeping snake started hissing within her. Gently, but as quickly as she could, she stepped back from the woman.
Again, the whole room had their eyes on her.
“What are you doing?” the brother spat.
“There was no need to hit her like that!” Arianna argued.
"Brother, you cannot allow this woman to go free when she threatens us all with her barbaric ways!”
The Tiger Lord was silent, his head bowed as he did when he was thinking through a decision. When he looked up, his face was pinched. Age lines were showing under his eyes and around his mouth. It hadn’t occurred to Arianna that he was getting old, mostly because she thought of him as a constant. If the Ship survived, then so did he, such was his intertwined destiny with this place.
"I will not let this woman go free,” the Tiger Lord finally announced to the Circle.
The brother clapped his hands with satisfaction.
"But," the Tiger Lord started before his brother could speak again. "I do believe the story that this woman is a simple herb keeper. For her insolence here today, I will sentence her to imprisonment. But her life, or what is left of it, will remain hers for now."
The brother went to protest, storming towards the Tiger Lord. He squared up to him in an obvious act of defiance, one which even a brother had no place to do in front of all the council members. The air grew startlingly cold and Arianna felt the hairs on her arms jerk upwards.
But the Tiger Lord simply laid a hand on his brother's shoulder and nodded.
"I understand you disagree with my decision here today. However I ask you to respect the decision I have made, in order to protect the rest of our brothers here with us, as well as the people within our community.”
"You are wrong. She should be wiped from this earth. All of magic should be destroyed!”
"And I have no doubt that you will succeed in that destruction if and when you find magic. But since we have not definitively found it here, let us leave this assembly and continue with the days work."
With that, the brother and everyone else was dismissed.
The Tiger Lord made his move to leave. Slowly, the council members followed.
Arianna waited with the woman. She didn't particularly want to touch her, but she felt she should do it to enforce the Tiger Lord’s will, even though he hadn't set her this particular task.
Thundering footsteps headed towards her. The brother grabbed her by her tunic collar and pulled her up to his face, lifting her from the ground.
"Next time you cross me, consider your life the forfeit."
Arianna scrunched her nose in disgust. ”I would never let myself be killed by someone so ugly. And with such bad breath."
His grip on her collar tightened.
"Now you listen here you little runt, the only reason you haven't been turned into dog meat is because my sentimental brother, for some unknown reason, did not slit your throat the moment we found you. But know this, girl. If anything were to happen to my brother and he weren't around to ensure your protection, I would execute you first. Second would be that witch."
Arianna hadn't realised she'd been holding her breath the entire time and that it was only when he dropped her, that her lungs reminded her they needed air.
The brother charged out of the circle like a riled up bull ready for a fight. Some poor soldier was going to cop it, she thought. He usually went to spar after events like these. And when he didn't get his way, there had been more than one occasion where a soldier’s death had been anything but accidental.
When she'd regained a steady breathing process and the fear had dissipated from her cheeks, she lifted her head.
The Tiger Lord was watching her.
His wide green eyes were impenetrable, so she couldn't read his thoughts. She hated when he did this. Which was more often these days, she had noted. Why that was she didn't know, and didn't dare ask.
The Tiger Lord’s thoughts were his own, and he had much to think about. Arianna didn't want to encroach on those private concerns he must have, and more importantly perhaps, she didn't want to share in them. There were decisions he had to make that Arianna wouldn't have wanted to make as long as she lived.
She wasn't keen on being a leader. Of any kind. It wasn't about others. She only wanted to be the best at what she did.
Today, however, his guarded persona annoyed her.
She had many questions for him.
Did he see the confrontation that just happened between her and his brother? If so why did he not step in? And what had he thought of her outburst towards that old woman? Arianna couldn't explain it herself, which is why on some level, she hoped he would be able to help her understand her behaviour.
But there is was, that almost imperceptible head shake.
He was disappointed in her.
She glowered. What was his problem? She'd done nothing and if anything she had upheld his values. To kill in the circle would have gone against one of the Tiger Lords principle rules; no blood, even if it contained magic, would run on the earth within the circle. "To prove we are less barbaric than the kingdoms who rule around out community,” he liked to say.
Despite doing nothing, she knew she was in for one hell of a telling off.
So she went to him to get it over with.
"I'm not sorry for what I did."
"I know," he said back.
There was silence.
Arianna felt the urge to fill it. "And don't ask me why I did it because I have no idea." It was the truth. Before the thought had caught up with her, she was shouting.
"Yes. It's a flaw of yours." She thought she heard a hint of humour in his words but she couldn't be sure, not with him so guarded. So Arianna continued with the conversation as it was, until he invited her to join his amusement.
"And there was no way she was a witch."
"You know several witches to compare with?" He said with a raised eyebrow.
"Of course not. It just would have been needless to kill her that's all."
"Needless killings, we've been doing a lot of those of late."
In that moment his mood opened up and the vibrancy of the green in his eyes grew more sombre.
Arianna wanted to reach out and offer some comfort for his worry. But she wasn't very good at constructing comforting sentences, let alone actions.
In fact, the only person she had ever embraced with the intention of comforting was Mags, his wife. Mags was all softness and sweetness when she hugged. Arianna was sure she was all hard muscle and sticking out nails.
So they remained this way for a while, until the Tiger Lord chuckled.
"Aaron looked different to when he set out?"
Arianna ground her teeth. "He got what he deserved."
"And who passed that judgement?"
By way of answer, she clenched her fist in front of him.
He wanted a full account of the job, always focusing on the details of how many men they left and where they had run off to and asking his usual questions about whether any of their victims had been following and were they diligent enough to throw them off the scent.
Once he was satisfied, he dismissed her.
Arianna didn't quite know what to do with herself. The events of the circle had left her shaky. Her feet were doing their usual step, step, step, but her weak knees were making it an uncomfortable process.
And then there was the matter of her heart. It was still doing weird and wonderful flips like a monkey beating against metal bars. All in reaction to that look the woman had given her. It was so strange. A cross between pure shock and delight, and then there was the matter that she felt like the woman was peering deep into her soul and passing through the labyrinths she had created for her secrets.
Today had left her exhausted, she realised.
After the adrenalin rush of the hunt, the pride she felt at the Tiger Lords appreciation of their collection, the woman and then her run in with the Tiger Lords brother, all she wanted to do was go to her tent and crash.
But it was mid afternoon now and that wasn't going to happen.
So she instead went to the one place she could be as close to herself as possible; a place where she didn't feel the need to put on the formalities and just do and say whatever she wanted. Without the fear of being judged for her appearance and the fact that she was a girl. Hunting in a man's world.