Carcas was a sleepy village in central Ealond. Nothing distinguished it from any other village in the realm except for a temporary attraction, which had set up tent south of the brook that supplied Carcas with fresh water. One after another, the villagers visited and returned to tell the others that a seeress had come to town, telling their fortunes for just a silver piece. One farmer had been told of his good harvest to come, another that his heifer would calve without complications if he spoke a spell of health upon her three times a day, and a third had bought a potion that would give him eloquence to haggle at the market fair in summer.
Some came anxiously, some came out of boredom, but regardless of the reason, most of the village paid a visit to the prophetess and her silent protector; he was a big, but seemingly docile giant of a man travelling with her. None of the townspeople had heard him speak during their visits to the tent, and they assumed he was either mute or touched.
Having been here for a few days, the fortune teller had been visited by everyone from the village with the intent to do so; early in the morning, her lackey was about to pull down the tent when one final guest appeared. He wore leather and a cloak meant for travelling, complemented by his heavy boats thick with mud; approaching the tent, he called out to the silent man outside. “Is this where the fortune teller can be found?” The big man nodded and gestured for the visitor to enter.
The tent held various pieces of furniture, including bedrolls and a small chest. Two primitive chairs could also be found, one for any guests and one for the seeress herself. She sat, waiting for her customer, wearing a red robe in the fashion of the norns though it was adorned by many strange symbols. Cloth was wrapped around her head, concealing her lower face; big silver earrings could barely be seen underneath the scarf. “Be seated,” she spoke in invitation. “What is your name, good master?” Her voice was deeper than her slender form suggested, almost hoarse.
“I thought you knew such things,” her visitor replied with a sardonic smile. He was around forty years of age with long hair tied back under his broad-brimmed hat; the tan and lines on his face suggested a life outdoors.
“I see what will come to pass,” she retorted. “Your name is of no consequence, to be truthful.”
“Unlike yours. I am told you’re the mistress Clarisse, born with the clear-sight, and you can tell me much that’s hidden from mortal eyes. Am I right?”
“You are,” she answered with her raspy voice. “What brings you before me, traveller? To call upon my sight is a great ordeal and not undertaken lightly. I must know exactly the reason for piercing the veil of the future,” she informed him, placing a hand on her forehead. “If you’ve come for other reasons, such as to cure ailments that the lay brothers or sibyls cannot heal, I have many remedies as well.”
“I have a question. Tell me if I am ever to marry, settle down, and have children,” he asked of her.
Her dark eyes scrutinised his appearance, and she extended her hand. “One eagle is necessary for the sight to take flight.”
“Of course,” he assented, putting his hands on his belt. Besides a long dagger with elaborate sheath and hilt, it also held his coin purse, and he fished out a silver piece to put in her hand.
Once payment was given, the fortune teller leaned back in her seat with closed eyes, placing her hand on her forehead again. She hummed a sound with closed lips, continuing for several moments. “I see – I see you seated in a chair like now, but with grey in your hair.” Her voice was like the growl of a beast. “You sit before a fire in the hearth. A woman’s voice reaches you, telling you that food is ready. A boy, six or seven years of age, pulls your boots to let you be comfortable.” She resumed the humming sound before finally gasping deeply. “You have your answer.”
“I have. Truth be told it was another question I sought answer to, but this will suffice,” the traveller claimed.
“If something else ails you, perhaps I can help,” Clarisse offered.
“I just needed to know if your powers of prophecy were genuine or not. You see, if they were, I would charge you with blasphemy, abusing a sacred gift.” A start went through the fortune teller, but before she could react further, his long dagger was in his hand and pointed at her stomach. “As you are simply a charlatan, that’ll be my accusation. I advise you to be calm rather than attempt to resist, flee, or command that big lout outside to attack me. I’ve already had the men in the village surround the tent.”
“You false snake,” she hissed. “Who are you to dare accuse me?”
“You’re hardly one to throw stones,” he remarked dryly. “I suppose I should introduce myself. I am Ghislain, justiciar of the Raven Court, and I place you under arrest as you have falsely claimed to possess powers of clear-sight, accepting money in return. A thorough search of your belongings and examination of you and your companion will determine if you are guilty of any other charges.” He raised his voice to call out behind him without taking his eyes off Clarisse. “You may apprehend her.” Commotion outside announced the villagers’ approach.
“Am I guilty simply on your word?” she spat; her voice was no longer deep or raspy, but sounded typical for a woman in her thirties. Some of the men who only yesterday had paid for her counsel entered the tent with chains.
“The nearest high priestess of the Raven Court will determine your guilt,” Ghislain declared calmly. “I will be a witness against you, and even without clear-sight, I think I can predict the verdict. Shackle her,” he commanded, keeping his knife ready on her while the men did as told.
Being pushed outside, Clarisse saw the justiciar’s cart; it carried a metal cage for prisoners with a heavy cloth covering to serve as a primitive roof and offer some protection from the elements. Upon the driver’s seat sat a great dog with thick fur; its size would have made it look menacing, except it sat with its tongue lolling. Next to the cart, on the ground and also in chains, sat her companion. “You couldn’t have warned me?” she demanded to know angrily.
He gave a resigned shrug. “It was too late.”
“Damn, big fellow can talk,” one of the villagers noted.
“Quiet,” Ghislain commanded, either to the prisoners, the townspeople, or all of them. He was carrying the chest from inside the tent, putting it on his cart. “Pull down the tent and gather any other belongings into my wagon.”
“Are you keeping it?” someone wanted to know with envy in his voice.
The justiciar turned around quickly with a piercing gaze. “All their items must be examined for signs of witchcraft,” Ghislain explained sternly. “You don’t want to risk bringing any such objects into your home, I can tell you that. As for the rest of their things, it is forfeit to the Order of the Raven. Steal any of it, and you steal from the goddess. I’d strongly advise you against doing that,” he said pointedly.
The village men mumbled and grumbled, but none dared defy the justiciar. Soon after, everything was packed in his cart, including the prisoners inside the cage.
Standing up on the driver’s seat, Ghislain surveyed the men that had aided him. “Remember this lesson,” he commanded them. “The gift of prophecy is a sacred blessing given by Idisea to her chosen followers. Anyone who is not a sibyl, anyone who demands payment for its use, is either a fraud or a heretic. Do not give me cause to ever return to your village,” he added with a threatening undertone. Sparing the villagers no further attention, he sat down, grabbed the reins of the horse, and set his wagon into motion.
Their progress was slow as they drove on little more than dirt, trying to reach the main roads that connected the cities of Ealond. The justiciar seemed content with this, letting the horse move to its own pace and spending his time scratching his dog behind the ears.
“Master Justice,” spoke his male prisoner. “Where are you taking us?”
“To Monteau,” Ghislain replied. “The high priestess there will cast judgement upon you.”
“If you care about our destination, you should have done something to prevent it,” the woman in the cart sneered to her shackled companion.
“Easy, Sister,” he told her calmly. “It all happens for a reason.”
“What reason?” she asked incredulously. “Are you saying it’s fated that I received the raven brand? As for you, you big oaf, they’ll throw you in a pit to turn a mill wheel for the rest of your life!”
He lowered his voice. “I am having the same dream.”
She rolled her eyes. “Not this again.”
“Several nights in a row. I am not surprised the justiciar found us.”
“Well, it would have been nice if you’d warned me,” she spoke with disdain.
He glanced at her with tired eyes. “We’ve been doing this for more than twenty years. It was time it came to an end.”
“Forgive me if I am not fond of it ending this way, being branded,” she muttered, rubbing her hand as if she could already feel the burning mark upon it. “Hey, Master Justice,” she continued with a mocking voice, “don’t your prisoners get to eat?”
“Sure,” he replied with a complacent tone, “tonight when we stop.”
“Tonight?” she whined.
“There’s bread in our bag over there,” her brother told her, nodding towards a sack lying in the cart, but outside their cage.
The woman extended her hands, but the shackles kept the bag out of her reach. “Perfect. Michel?”
The giant leaned forward and stretched out his long arms, but to no avail either. “Sorry, Sister.”
She let out a sigh. “I can’t believe this day.”
In front of them, the justiciar smiled to himself, feeding his dog a piece of meat.
Towards the end of the day, the cart rolled into a small town; its primary advantage over the villages of the land was the presence of a public house. The justiciar fished out a silver pin from his coin purse and attached it to his tunic; it was made in the shape of a raven clutching a naked sword in its talons and would be recognised anywhere in Ealond. “Stay,” Ghislain commanded his dog and jumped off the wagon, striding into the tavern while ignoring any protests by Clarisse at being left in the cage.
A handful of other people were present, mostly locals along with a portly merchant and his servants. They glanced at the newly arrived but paid him no further heed, engrossed in their own conversation. Ghislain likewise cared little for the other patrons, walking up to the tavern keeper.
Unlike his customers, the owner spotted the silver pin upon Ghislain’s chest immediately and bowed low with an anxious smile. “How may I be of help, Master Justice?” he enquired.
“I need my horse stabled and three meals. Send two of them to the prisoners on my cart,” he instructed. “If you have a bone or such to give my dog, I would look kindly on that.”
“Of course, good master,” the owner replied in a servile manner. “Anything else?”
“Some bread and food for my journey tomorrow. I’ll sleep in the common room tonight,” he added, glancing out at the room with its merry fire burning in the hearth.
“Very well, good master.” The tavern keeper turned and barked a few orders at one of his servants. “These prisoners,” he continued hesitantly, “they are not – dangerous, are they?”
“About as dangerous as one of your kitchen wenches,” Ghislain scoffed. “They are not witches or heretics, merely foolish blasphemers with little wit about them.”
“As you say,” the owner assented with another bow. “Please, take a seat.”
Ghislain nodded and sat by the long table in the middle of the room, keeping plenty of distance between himself and the other people drinking and laughing. Soon after, a bowl of stew was placed in front of him along with a spoon; the kitchen maid did this and retreated with such haste, the contents almost spilled. Ignoring her behaviour, Ghislain busied himself with emptying the bowl while staring with indifference at the empty wall in front of him.
The merchant and his men were in a good mood, laughing and eating their fill with plenty of ale as well. Their master enjoyed telling jests in particular, letting his entire barrel-shaped body roll with laughter. As he did, a strange rattling sound accompanied his mirth. Finishing his stew, Ghislain suddenly held still, listening intently. Finally, he turned his head to look at the merchant. “What have you got in that pouch on your belly?” he asked, nodding towards the item in question.
The other man took hold of the purse that hung in a leather string around his neck. “What’s it to you?” he asked aggressively, his merry mood gone. “If you’re thinking of grabbing your paws on it, best you look away, stranger.”
Ghislain turned his upper body towards the men, making the pin on his chest visible. They all fell silent, and the merchant grew pale. “I’ve heard that rattling sound before,” the justiciar explained with a growling voice. “It sounds like bones. Let me guess.” He furrowed his brow in contemplation. “The little fingers of a hanged man, snipped before dawn but after night’s end, boiled and bewitched to give you an edge over the other traders.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” the merchant stammered, sweating.
Ghislain narrowed his eyes. “Lying to me is a poor choice,” he warned the man, extending his hand. “Give it to me.”
The trader swallowed. “Yes, Master Justice.” He removed the pouch and threw it to Ghislain.
The justiciar probed the content of the purse through the leather with his fingertips. “Who sold this to you?”
“An old man, travelling on a donkey. It was weeks ago.”
“Between the road of Fontaine and Montmer,” came the hurried reply.
“What did he promise it would do?”
The merchant licked his lips. “He told me it would protect my goods from rot.”
Ghislain stared at him intently. “You fool. You invite evil into your life and carry it around your neck. Tell me this,” he demanded. “Do you feel that your strength is sapped quickly? That long journeys or hard labour leaves you quickly tired, and that your thirst and hunger have become harder to satiate?”
“Yes!” the man exclaimed. “Am I cursed? Help me, Master Justice, please!”
Ghislain turned his gaze to the empty plates in front of the merchant. “No, it’s because you eat like a pig, and you’re slowly turning into one.” Anxious laughter, suppressed in vain, erupted around the room. Ghislain held the pouch up. “I’m guessing these are chicken bones, and you were swindled from your money like the imbecile you are. But if you want to be sure there is no taint of evil upon you,” he added, “I suggest you make your offerings at the next temple of Idisea you reach. Or better yet, go to Fontaine and drink from the holy fountain. Only then may you be certain that you are cleansed.”
“Yes, Master Justice,” the merchant mumbled, glancing at his servants as they tried to wipe the smiles from their faces.
“As for this,” Ghislain continued, standing up and walking over to the fire where he tossed the purse into the flames. They happily began to devour the leather pouch. He returned to his seat, taking a healthy swig of his ale. The locals slowly resumed conversation whereas the merchant retired to his room.
“Pardon me, good master,” one of the kitchen maids spoke nervously.
“Yes?” Ghislain replied.
“Is it safe?” She nodded towards the fire.
“I doubt there is a lick of evil in those old bones,” the justiciar reassured her. “Besides, fire is the great cleanser. You have nothing to worry about.” Seeing the anxiety remain on her face, he continued. “If you wish to ward yourself – is there an ash tree in town? Failing that, an oak tree.”
“I believe so, yes.”
“Let the bones burn in the fire through the night. Tomorrow, without touching them with your hands, take the bones and bury them under the root of an ash or oak tree. That will bind any malevolence in the bones as safely as holy ground.”
“Thank you,” she smiled, adding a little bow after a moment’s consideration.
“It’s my duty,” he simply replied, returning to his ale.
Shortly after, a cup of wine was placed next to him. “From my master,” the kitchen girl explained. “As thanks for protecting us.”
Ghislain turned his head, looking at both servant and master; each of them managed to look grateful and nervous at the same time. He raised the cup and gave a nod in gratitude, emptying it. Afterwards, having finished his meal, he made a bed for himself in a corner of the common room and fell asleep mere moments after lying down.
Early next morning, the justiciar woke and gathered his belongings. Once outside, he tossed some bread and cheese into the cage on his cart. “Breakfast,” he told his prisoners. One thanked him while the other cursed him. His dog barked eagerly. “At least someone is happy to see me,” he muttered with a wry expression, scratching the beast on the head while waiting for the stable boy to bring out his horse.
Michel sent his sister a look. “What?” she asked with bread crumbs falling out of her mouth.
“I had the same dream again,” he confided in her.
“What else is new,” she grumbled.
“It was different. It feels so urgent,” he claimed.
“Quiet with such talk,” Clarisse whispered with a sneer.
They were interrupted by banging on the bars to their cage. “If you’re going to chatter away, you should prepare your confession,” Ghislain suggested. He had put the harness on the horse, and their journey could be continued. “You have a couple of days until Monteau.” He sat up on the driver’s seat of the cart.
“What if I want to go to Fontaine?” asked Michel.
His sister kicked him. “What’s wrong with you?” she hissed.
“Tough luck. I’m not driving around with you for weeks when Monteau is only a few days away.” Next to Ghislain, his dog placed its head in his lap, angling for more scratches.
“But there are certain crimes against the faith that only the Council of Three may judge, right?”
Ghislain sent a scrutinising glance over his shoulder. “What would a peasant like you know about that?”
“Michel,” his sister spoke with a warning tone.
“I know that certain heresies are considered so dangerous, they must be judged by the tribunal,” Michel continued. “For instance, those who profess the teachings of Hraban the Revered.”
“Hraban the Mad, you mean,” Ghislain scoffed, giving his draught horse the signal to start pulling the cart. “Only a halfwit would follow his crazed beliefs. I’ve met many a moron in my time, and never one followed that heresy.”
“Today is your lucky day,” Michel smiled, stroking the full, black beard on his face.
“Michel!” His sister’s voice reached a pitch barely audible to human ears.
“You see, I believe as he does. I believe that men may hear the voice of Idisea. I believe that the Order of the Raven has lost her blessing. I believe the justiciars have erred from the path of right.”
Ghislain halted the cart abruptly, pulling the reins back forcefully while the mare protested. For a moment he sat, staring emptily ahead while anger began to surface. He leapt down from his seat and walked over to stare into the cage. “I don’t know what would be worse,” he confessed; his voice was steady, but the words were spoken with an edge. “If you’re saying that as a jest, or if you truly believe it. Either way, you got your wish.” He stared with contempt at Michel. “I’m hauling you before the Council of Three where you’ll be made to repent all your errant beliefs. After that, you’ll get the worst punishment for a heretic. I hope you’re not afraid of fire, boy, because there’s a lot of it in your future.”
“Michel, what have you done?” whispered Clarisse, tearing at her hair. “You’ll get us both burned at the stake!”
He gave her a peaceful smile. “You need not worry, Sister. You’ll be fine, I promise.”
“How can you know,” she questioned. “Twenty years I’ve taken care of you, and you throw it all away!”
The cart set into motion again, turning around and going north towards Fontaine. “It’ll all be well,” Michel claimed. “We’re going where we’re supposed to go.” He leaned back into the straw that served as a rudimentary bed, closing his eyes.