The itinerant priestess found Crow Jane at the edge of the Blighted Lands. The legendary outlaw crouched beside a small campfire that did little to drive away the chill of the shadowed wilderness. The flickering light of the flames revealed the scar where Joan Roos, the renowned Andorosi bounty hunter, had once briefly caught Crow Jane before her knife had cut his noose and then his throat. The priestess's voice only shook a little when she called out from the periphery of the camp. "I claim the right of hospitality."
When Crow Jane lifted her head, the priestess could have sworn that her black eyes flashed in the moonlight, like those of some enormous predator. "Be welcome at this hearth," she said in her low, hoarse voice. It was the response that tradition prescribed, and the priestess relaxed slightly, knowing that the unwritten code of the land forbade her to harm a guest in her camp. Even so, it would be foolish to let one's guard down entirely around a woman who had killed so many for the sake of her life of crime.
Wordlessly and in keeping with the law, Crow Jane passed the priestess part of a rabbit she had been roasting over the coals. Its flesh was rich and flavorful and only a little streaked with black veins of taint. Both of them washed the meal down with cold water from Crow Jane's leather cup. The priestess spared little thought for poison or treachery. Tradition would not permit those things.
"Whom do you follow, Wandering Sister?" asked Crow Jane into the silence of the clearing.
It wasn't an unexpected question. The heavy fur cloak that the priestess wore concealed the symbols of her chosen deity even as it protected her from the winter's cold. "I serve Gandosh."
"Is that what you've come to offer me? The Father's mercy?" They both knew that the priestess's role in the age-old ritual of hospitality was now to share something of her own with Crow Jane, be it seasonings for the meal, swigs of moonshine from a flask, stories and songs, or news from the cities and towns far away.
"If it's what you desire in trade."
Crow Jane leaned forward on the fallen log upon which she was sitting. "Those are fine words, Wandering Sister. Just the kind that Gandosh would want one of His priestesses to say. Do you really think his forgiveness is deep enough to cleanse the likes of me?"
The priestess's trembling hand slipped reflexively beneath her cloak and closed around the vial of holy water on a chain around her neck. "Yes. If Holy Gandosh could forgive even the priests who drowned Him, he can forgive you, too. But His mercy only comes to those who seek it."
"And is that what you city folk think I'm after now? That I'm old and tired and looking for absolution, so they send the likes of you out looking for me?"
"It was by chance that I found you here. A tumbling die, cast from the hand of Oba. I stopped here because I was cold and hungry, not because of who you are and what you've done. I only want to give you what you are owed for your hospitality."
"And I'll accept it." Crow Jane raked gnarled fingers through her silver-streaked hair. She let out a heavy sigh as she took in the priestess's open, smooth-skinned face. "You're new to this life, aren't you? You can't be long out of your university cloister, unless I miss my guess."
"Yes. That's true."
"Then you were a babe in arms when this all began. Too young to have watched it all happen. Tell me, Sister, what do they say about me in the place you're from?"
"They say you were the heir to Barton Hollow, until you killed your father and your brother and fled the Queen's justice."
"They're not the only ones I've killed, you know."
"Well, yes. That goes without saying."
"Is that all they say about me now?"
"Of course not. But so much of the rest of it is…"
"What else am I to call the claim that you become a mindless, ravenous beast by the light of each full moon?"
"Or that I go barefoot through the Blighted Lands in all kinds of weather?" Crow Jane lifted her feet, which were clad in heavy brown boots.
The priestess's smile was pinched and brief. "As I said. The public is largely in agreement about what you did. What no one is certain of is why."
"What do you think, Sister?"
"Why should I speculate when the woman herself sits here before me?"
A log within the fire snapped loudly in two and sent a spray of sparks up into the starry sky. Crow Jane slid her hands inside her tattered coat, more patches now than woolen fabric. "I'll tell you why it wasn't," she said. "It wasn't for love. My father wasn't forcing me into a match I didn't want, or keeping me away from one I did. Anybody tells you that, you know they don't understand."
"That doesn't surprise me," said the priestess. "Was it the money, then?"
"One hundred thousand white iron crowns. An ancestor's long-lost bequest, its resting place flooded when your great-great-grandmother dammed the Crystal River. Your father had a plan to raise it from the bottom of the lake and turn your family's fortunes around. Some people say you saw those coins and coveted them all for yourself. So you shoved your father in and held him down until he drowned, then killed your brother too when he came looking for revenge."
Crow Jane laughed, short and sharp. "That never happened."
"Oh. I always thought it was the most plausible explanation."
"When it comes to the truth, plausible's got nothing to do with it." Crow Jane spat into the fire and fixed her gaze on the priestess's nervous, darting eyes. "So what if there is no 'why?'"
"How can that be?"
"What if my father slipped and fell into the lake while we were hunting a taint-maddened boar together? What if there was nothing I could have done to save him that wouldn't have doomed me as well? Everyone knew how I always fought with my father. They would have found a way to blame me for his death. What if I decided not to face the thing they call justice? And what if, when my brother came looking for me, I killed him thinking he was another bandit coming to harm me? How could I have gone back to civilization after that? Who would have believed me?"
The priestess was silent for a long time. "If that were true," she said at last, "it would change how you were judged."
Crow Jane let out another harsh bark of laughter. "Not enough, I reckon. Gandosh's mercy may be bottomless, but I know the Queen's isn't."
"Yet divine forgiveness is still yours for the taking, if you wish it."
The priestess barely saw or felt the keen, swift knife that opened her throat. She crumpled to the ground as her lifeblood soaked the snow bright red. Her lips formed a word that might have been "law." Crow Jane only shook her head. "Your death is the only thing I'll take in trade from you, sister. You were a fool to think an outlaw would hold to tradition."
Later, after the priestess's final convulsions had ceased, Crow Jane spoke again to no one in particular. "Besides, that's just another story. Who's to say it's truer than any of the others? Who's to say I don't just kill because I've got a taste for it now? Who's to say all this isn't just the price of the life I chose?"
Crow Jane reached beneath the priestess's cloak and yanked the vial of holy water from her stiffening, cooling, slashed neck. When she upended its contents into the campfire, it did nothing to quench the flames. She knew it would not. Instead she used the priestess's cloak to clean her knife and then smother the fire. She did not hesitate as she shouldered her pack and hiked back into the blighted wilderness, the same path as always leading her deeper into the dark.