The rain pelted down from the clouds like tiny bullets. It ran down the leaves with a rush and swelled the tiny streams to torrents of brown frothing fury. Sections of mud gave way with a groan, collapsing into swollen streambeds. It soaked the ground, the plants, the people who trudged wearily through the verdant valley.
It was on the fourth day of the rain that Alarielle fell and could rise no more. She tried to turn, to avoid falling on little Brennan and mostly succeeded. Only the 2 year old’s lower body was stamped into the mud beneath her. The sodden men around her merely turned and stared at her, their eyes as empty as pieces of glass. Two turned away and started to move on. Older men, soaked to the skin, their clothes tattered, clutching the marine boltguns they held as though they could shoot the storm gods and bring an end to the omnipresent rain. The third, younger, started forward to help when the older of the other two caught his arm.
“We can’t! She’ll die,” replied the young man, more a teenager really.
“If that is the Emperor’s will. She has no husband. No one to protect her and help her. She could have chosen but did not. Now she pays the price for her ‘independence’. No one will help her now. She is Shunned.”
“This is wrong, Stinson!”
“It is our way! You are young and do not understand. The young are often idealistic. We will follow the laws!”
“Your laws. Not mine. This is wrong and we aren’t back in Tradeam anymore. You don’t scare me anymore.”
“You will obey or be tried!” roared Stinson.
“For what?” The harsh raspy voice was made even worse by the helmet voder the marine spoke through. He had materialized silently out of the rain, his ivory armor blending with the dull grey wet like some kind of ghost. The giant towered over Stinson and the young man by half a head. He slowly reached up and removed his helmet, revealing a withered sallow face and dark eyes that seemed to pulse with unholy power.
“It is nothing that need concern you, milord,” the village elder replied with respectfully lowered eyes. “A little thing of our village. Nothing to trouble the great Lord of the Undying.”
“I will decide what concerns me, Elder Stinson.” The man looked taken aback as the ancient marine turned to the younger man, “What does the Elder wish to try you for, Rybal?”
The young man stared fearfully upward at the marine. He gulped once, clearly mustering his courage while Liche patiently stared him down like some pale icon of an elder god waiting to pass judgment.
“He was g-going to try me for offering help to Alarielle and young Brennan, milord,” he finally stuttered out.
“A noble act, young one. Why would that merit a trial?”
“Milord,” Stinson broke in quickly, “This is merely a local matter. Nothin-” He was cut off by Liche’s armored hand in front of his face.
“I will hear this,” came the deathrattle reply. Liche turned back to Rybal, “Continue.”
Rybal looked from the marine’s frightful and inhuman visage to Stinson’s hate filled one. He visibly gathered more courage and spoke clearly, “She has been Shunned by order of the Council, milord.”
The marine’s head swung over to Stinson, the eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly. “What is this ‘Shunning’ he speaks of, Elder Stinson. I have never heard of it.”
“Really, nothing to con-” he broke off as the marine cut through his bluster like a knife.
“I asked you a question!” Stinson’s mouth worked silently. It was Rybal who finally answered.
“It is a punishment, milord. The entire village denies aid, companionship and anything else to the Shunned one. No help in the fields. No conversation. No food or medicine. To the others of the Village they do not exist. Most die within a few months, or leave the village for other settlements. Only a vote of the Council of Elders can Shun someone.”
“Why?” The marine asked, still staring at Stinson. When the Elder didn’t speak the marine turned full towards him, grasping his soggy cloak in a grip like iron. “WHY!” he hissed in his barely audible rasp with all the force he could muster.
“She disobeyed the will of the Council. Such things cannot be permitted or we would fall to Chaos and Disorder,” the Elder stammered quickly.
Rybal spoke from behind the giant superman. “Alarielle’s husband died last harvest. A very bad ‘accident’ it was said. He was working with Celoom when it happened. His body was never found. After the requisite mourning period, the Council voted Alarielle insufficiently capable of providing for her child. It was decreed that she should marry Celoom. Stinson’s son.”
“And she refused,” came a voice from behind the collapsed woman. Alarielle turned her head from the tableaux before her to see the other soldier, the man in red and white, standing almost over her. “Hardly surprising given the circumstances of her husband’s death. This Celoom I remember. Giving orders and bullying people as we loaded the transport. He tried to keep this woman,” he pointed to Alarielle, “from boarding. When I intervened he took a swing at me.”
“That was foolish,” the marine grated with what might have been a hint of mirth.
The soldier didn’t acknowledge the statement. “I laid him out in the back of the transport in an acceleration seat by the door. He didn’t make it. I wasn’t too sorry.”
“Soooo,” the marine whispered in his rough voice, “now we shall learn the truth.” He pulled the Elder closer, actually lifting him off the ground until their eyes were even. Stinson struggled and thrashed and finally went limp, his eyes locked on those of the psyker. Liche looked into those eyes for almost a minute before dropping him to the ground where he lay in a heap, gasping for breath. The marine bent down, his armored glove closing on the casing of Stinson’s bolter as he tore it away from him with a sharp snap as the sling broke. “By your very touch you dishonor this noble weapon formerly carried by 5 of 2 who was once Melantrin of Xeros. He was a virtuous marine of the Void Phantoms Chapter who fought bravely in many campaigns and died honorably saving your worthless carcass! You dishonour the battle gear of the dead, foul accomplice to murder.”
Rybal just stared openmouthed. Alarielle found strength to speak in her fury, “Then it is true,” she whispered with what little strength she could. “You and Celoom. You killed Maran! So that pig of a son of yours could take me to his bed! And when I wouldn’t do it you tried to murder Brennan and I as well with the Shunning. My your soul rot in hell!” Her last strength gone, her head dropped into the mud. Rybal watched as the soldier knelt and felt her neck.
“She’s in a bad way. Thin as a rail. Starvation, malnutrition. Probably scurvy.” He locked eyes with Liche, “I don’t think she’ll make it.”
He stood, drawing his pistol. There was a faint hum of powerup as he snapped the safety off and leveled it on Stinson. His grey eyes were as cold as ice.
“Wait, Colonel.” The Librarian hissed. “He has near killed this woman. If there is any chance for her, he should help provide it. He will help carry her.”
The Librarian turned to Rybal and presented him the boltgun. “Rybal, your actions have been honorable. Please accept this weapon and help to restore its honor which has been stained by contact with – this!”
Rybal took the gun, “I hope I’m worthy, milord.”
“Of that, young one, I have no doubt.”
While Liche bound Stinson’s hands, the Colonel and Rybal went into the brush to gather materials to build a stretcher. They quickly cut poles and cleaned them, before winding Stinson’s cloak between them as a canvas. To hold it, the soldier took a small vial from his belt pouch and ran a thin bead of liquid from it down the cloak edge, pressing the overlap to it. It bonded instantly. Rybal watched, fascinated.
“Is he right?” he finally asked.
“The Lord Liche. Is he right?”
“Oh, I’d expect so, young man,” the officer replied, “do you doubt him?”
“Oh, not to his face but-”
“But?” The older man look askance at him as he stripped off his cuirass, powerfist and red field coat. The rain began to soak his shirt as he draped the battle jacket over the fallen woman. “Get her feet there, would you? That’s a good lad. Easy now, she’s had a rough time. Up on three. One. Two. Three!” It proved to be easier than Rybal would have thought. Alarielle was as light as a feather after weeks of wasting away with barely enough to eat. The Colonel settled her, gently wiping the mud from her face and brushing her long hair out of her face. Her eyes flickered open, briefly. Her lips barely moving.
“It’s okay, lady.” The Colonel told her. “You’re gonna be fine. Relax.” Rybal started to say something but a viscious glance from the Colonel was all the warning he needed to keep quiet. Her lips moved again, and one hand caught weakly at the man’s shirtsleeve. The officer leaned forward to hear. Over the rain, Rybal could only hear the guardsman’s response. “Aye, lady. I’ll do my very best, I promise. On my honor as an Officer of the Guard and a Danikan.” This seemed to satisfy her and she slumped back down, eyes closed.
As the Colonel began re-arming, he darted his sharp grey eyes back to Rybal. Liche was out of sight, up front getting the column moving once again. “Well?”
“Do you doubt him or not?” he finished with the powerfist and began buckling his cuirass back on.
“It’s really hard to say, sir. He’s so – well – he doesn’t really seem like a man at all. Not human if you know what I mean.”
The Colonel chuckled. “I know what you mean, son. Marines are a weird bunch. They live for fighting, most of them, and don’t know anything else. A lot of them are arrogant, some are obnoxious, some seem worse than some of the things we fight against, sometimes.”
” I can’t speak for the Void Phantoms as a group, but I’ll tell you this much. As little as I know Liche, I trust the guy. I know, he looks weird. And he talks weird. Hell, he probably IS weird. But his heart’s in the right place – well, one of them anyway.” He smiled at his own joke. “You can trust him in a fight and he’s honorable. That one I know for sure.”
“If he says Stinson did something,” he got to his feet and stood over the Elder who glared up at him with eyes full of hate, “then Stinson did something.” The Colonel casually put his boot heel on the older man’s throat as though gently resting his weight on a rock and then began to exert pressure until the Elder’s eyes started to bulge out. He leaned down and said, more to the old man now rather than to Rybal with his voice dropping into an icy tone full of menace, “And Stinson ought to be damned glad that this particular Danikan didn’t get his way this one time, or Stinson’s body would be feeding the worms right now. Which is WAY better than Stinson deserves.”
He let up the pressure on the man, scooped Alarielle’s son up into his arms and said, “Recruit some help for that asshole. To carry the other end of the stretcher. If I were you I’d pick one of his best butt buddies. You decide and you watch them. Don’t let anything happen to her from their end. I’ll do what I can for her medically.”
“They’ll never listen to ME, sir!”
“Then tell ’em it’s an order from me. And if they don’t like than they can walk home on their own! This kind of crap is the last thing we need.”