The dungeons in the Raven Court were austere as could be expected, though this was not due to animosity against those awaiting trial; they were simply cells like any other in the temple, except their occupants were not any of the sisters, but prisoners. In fact, the rooms were clean and free of vermin. Compared to sleeping in a tent, it was almost hospitable, as Michel related to Ghislain. The latter was standing outside, looking in; the only difference between this cell and those used by the norns was that a window had been cut into the wooden door to allow supervision of the occupant.
“In short, Master Ghislain, I am being treated well, yes.”
“Good,” the justiciar muttered. “Your trial is in a few days. I have been considering your defence.”
“My defence?” Michel’s voice was amused. “You are a witness in the case, Master Justice, not my counsellor.”
“I know,” Ghislain grumbled. “I just think you should be prepared.”
“That is kind of you.”
“The good news is that the tribunal haven’t burned a heretic in more than a century. I don’t think they’ll start now.”
“That is good news,” Michel agreed with a wry smile.
“The Veiled is a sensible woman. Not the sort who wants to see crowds whipped into a frenzy.”
“Sister Rosalie is kind-hearted,” Ghislain considered, “and I don’t think it’s in her to condemn any to death. That leaves only Sister Jocelyne,” he continued darkly.
“She is less friendly?”
“She is – stern.” The justiciar chose his words carefully. “Some call her Sister Strawberry,” he added with a sudden chuckle. “Not because of her disposition, but the birthmark on her face. In any case, she is only one voice out of three.”
“I am sure it will be fine if I simply tell the truth, Master Ghislain.”
“Of course, of course.” The other man nodded to himself, leaning against the cell door. “Still, I will search the archives to see what might be gleamed.” He glanced through the bars at the prisoner inside. “The outcome of previous trials may sway the tribunal to be lenient.”
“Do as you find best, Master Ghislain,” Michel smiled.
Far above the dungeons, the Veiled had passed on the sacred words of the goddess to the latest supplicant. She signalled through the curtain for a pause before the next visitor; the guards, seeing the shadow of the hand gesture, left the room.
As she was alone, the woman on the other side of the divide stood up. She was wearing the patterned robe of a high priestess. Although grey was sprinkled across her hair, she did not seem hindered by age. She moved with ease out of the hall to enter the chambers behind. The scattered belongings revealed the area to be her personal quarters. On a desk lay another robe with a threaded needle as a sign of interrupted repair work. Hanging on a nail above was a veil of the sort any woman concerned with modesty might wear. A few books lay stacked on a stool by the simple bed with one of them opened up. There was no mirror of any sort.
Sitting down by the desk, the norn pushed her un-mended robe aside to reveal strips of paper below. They were messages from her sisters in other cities or from here in the temple, bringing her attention to matters deemed important. She picked one up which had Belvoir written upon its back to signal its origin. The notice was sparse, simply informing the Veiled that the duke was on the march.
Crumbling the note in her hand, she closed her eyes, lost in thought for a while. “Grant me strength,” she whispered, “to see your will through.”
“Veiled Sister?” A voice rang out from the hall.
Quickly snapping to attention, the high priestess grabbed the veil hanging on the wall and adjusted it over her face. She walked out of her chamber to enter the bigger room, still holding the crumbled note in her hand. “What is it?”
The shadow of a robed figure met her from beyond the curtain. “If you have time, I would like to speak briefly with you, Sister.” The words were spoken with a servile attitude.
“For goodness’ sake, Sister Rosalie, step around. I have enough conversations through that piece of cloth.”
The other norn dutifully moved past the divide to look at her superior’s veiled face. She was perhaps a decade younger with a face where laughter easily found a home. “Forgive me, Sister, I know how little time you have between the worshippers seeking the wisdom of the goddess.”
“Yes, yes, out with it. Is this about the tribunal?”
“No, Veiled Sister, though I suppose we should speak about that as well. I have never participated in the trial of a heretic before,” Rosalie admitted. She shifted her weight back and forth, never standing still. “I am unsure how to proceed.”
“We ask questions of him and any witnesses and cast our judgement based on the answers,” the Veiled replied curtly. “What else?”
“There is a story that the Archon sent you a message,” Rosalie explained with hesitation.
“You listen to stories?”
“Of course not, Veiled Sister,” the norn quickly expressed, swaying in place. “A guard was concerned and told me.”
“That was not his place,” the high priestess spoke sharply. “This message, if it was genuine, was not for his ears to hear or his tongue to speak.”
“I told him as much, Sister,” Rosalie nodded. “I only wonder what would cause the Archon to issue a warning.”
“That is not your concern.”
“Of course, Veiled Sister,” the younger norn admitted with deference. Her shifting from one foot to the other intensified. “I am just worried. If you require aid of any sort –”
“I am aided by Idisea,” the Veiled spoke with the curt tone of voice so natural to her. “What else could I need,” she asked without needing an answer.
“Of course,” Rosalie repeated. “Forgive me for intruding upon your reverie.” She nodded in farewell and left. The Veiled turned around to stare at the small fire that heated the chamber; the crumbled note in her hand was thrown carefully into the flames to be devoured within moments.
Regardless of the season, the markets of Fontaine were busy affairs with countless peddlers and buyers alike. The latter consisted usually of servants to the wealthy, children sent on errands, housewives needing sundries, apprentices fetching material for their master’s craft, and so forth. One of the exceptions to this list was Sir Gerard, who was a common sight at the markets surrounding the Order keep. Being a knight and handsome in appearance, he drew gazes easily and rewarded them with smiles and laughter. He rarely bought anything other than a strip of dried meat or piece of fruit to chew upon, maybe a draught of ale to drink, but his congenial manner made him a welcome sight regardless.
At times, he walked with men of the garrison; on other occasions such as now, he walked alone with only his sword for company. Given his training as a knight, few would find fault in his confidence; if there was a disturbance somewhere, often his very presence was enough to cool heated heads. As chance would have it on this outing, Gerard became alerted to tumultuous behaviour. Barrels of fruit and fish were overturned, hens flew frightened to all sides, and outbursts of indignation followed the trail of commotion.
Tracing the movements through the market with his eyes, Gerard moved swiftly to stand in the path of the disruption, which soon came into view; a young girl, aged twelve or so, was bolting through the crowded square. Constantly, she knocked people and objects over; behind her, an overweight man in wealthy clothing was in pursuit while yelling curses.
The fugitive was running at all speed, looking only a few paces ahead. This became her undoing; when she noticed the knight in front of her, it was too late to evade. Gerard’s strong hand shot out and seized her by the arm. She struggled and kicked, spitting out unintelligible words to little effect; neither her small fists nor her shoes could land any kind of blow to trouble Gerard in his armour, and he simply grabbed hold of her other arm to keep her still.
Soon after, her pursuer caught up to them. “Thank you, sir knight,” the big man spoke, panting and wiping sweat from his brow. By his looks and clothing, he was a merchant of Alcázar and among the successful kind.
“It was no trouble. Master…?”
“Master Hamid, at your service,” the merchant spoke with a bow. He spoke the language with a strong accent, but easily understandable. “Thank you for catching the thief.”
The girl was still struggling, but it was a token effort by now. Gerard glanced down at her. “She is no street urchin, by her attire, unless some kindly shoemaker has taken up residence in Fontaine.”
“Ah, no, she is a servant in my household. She stole,” Hamid added with a harsh glance. “My wife says I am too soft with servants.”
“I never heard of a successful merchant with a soft heart,” Gerard remarked brusquely before breaking into laughter.
Hamid joined him. “Very true, sir knight, very true.”
“What did she steal?” asked Gerard, looking at the girl again. She had become still, glancing back and forth between the men with enmity in her eyes.
“What did the girl steal? It must have been significant to cause her to flee from you,” the knight reasoned.
“Jewellery from my wife. It was already found, so the damage is limited, thank the gods,” Hamid told him.
Gerard looked down on the girl, turning her around so she faced him. “Is this true?” he asked sternly. “Did you take your mistress’ valuables?”
The girl sneered back at him. “She does not speak the northern tongue, alas,” Hamid explained. “There is no need to question her, sir knight. I will bring her home and deal with her.”
“Petty theft is one thing, but stealing items as expensive as jewels is a severe matter,” Gerard frowned. “Guards!” he called out, alerting some men from the city watch. Still holding the servant girl in a firm grasp, he changed into the trade language of Alcázar, speaking with a heavy dialect. “Is it true you stole your mistress’ jewellery?”
The fugitive’s eyes widened. “You speak real words,” she stammered.
“Do not evade my question, child,” Gerard told her with his stern voice.
“Master Hamid said none here would understand me,” she continued.
“Sir knight,” Hamid interjected in Mearcspeech, “there is no need. I have not actually lost any property. I do not see the need to question her.”
By now, the local guards had reached them, looking questioningly at the knight. He gestured for them to have patience and turned his attention back on the child. “I understand you well, girl,” Gerard told her. Noticing something with a frown, he pulled up the sleeve of her dress to reveal a badly bruised arm. “Were you beaten because you stole from your master,” Gerard asked her, crouching down to look her straight in the eyes, “or for another reason?”
“Good sir knight,” Hamid tried to intervene again.
“What does that matter?” the girl asked confused.
“The law protects servants from being beaten by their master unless they are breaking the law,” Gerard explained in the tongue of Alcázar.
“But I am my master’s property,” the girl protested. “How can the law protect me when the law says I belong to him?”
Gerard’s eyes widened in realisation. He stood up, staring at Hamid. Vague words of protest issued from the latter before he simply turned around and fled. “Guards,” the knight called out, pointing at the heavy man, “seize him!” They followed orders without delay.
“What’s going on?” the girl asked confounded.
Gerard crouched down before her again, wearing a smile. “I am guessing your master bought you on the markets of Alcázar and brought you with him to this city?”
She nodded. “The mistress needed a girl to tend to her needs.”
“But you were not happy in his household.”
“The master is not a bad man,” the girl spoke cautiously, biting her lip.
“But your mistress is not kind, and you wanted to run away. What is your name, girl?”
“Very well, Najat. Master Hamid must have – hidden certain truths.” The words in the trade speech came haltingly from Gerard’s tongue, but his smile compensated. “The laws in Adalmearc, where you are now, are different from Alcázar.”
“Since the foundation of our realms, it has been the law that no man, woman, or child who sets foot upon the soil of the Seven Realms may be a thrall,” Gerard explained; it took him a while to manage formulating the full phrase.
Najat frowned. “What does that mean?”
“Your master bought you as his slave in Alcázar, but such is outlawed here. The moment you arrived in Adalmearc, you were free.”
Confusion was etched on the girl’s face. “I am free?”
“You may go anywhere you wish. If you are smart, you should go with me.”
The girl almost scowled at him in suspicion. “Why?”
“Because Master Hamid will be made to pay punishment,” Gerard explained, working his way through the words of the trade speech. “Some of which will be your coin as – as a way to make right what happened to you. Come with me, and we will make a statement to the servants of the Kabir of this city.”
A careful smile crept onto Najat’s face. She poked her little hand into Gerard’s, looking at him with eyes as dark as his. “I don’t think I mind this place is so cold,” she considered, “if people are as nice as you.” The knight laughed heartfelt in response.
In the afternoon, the Veiled concluded another session and sent the supplicant on her way. Rather than admitting the next one, one of the guards approached the curtain. “The chief justiciar seeks an audience, Reverend One.”
“Send him in and leave us.”
The guards both nodded, walking out of the chamber. A moment later, a man in plain clothes entered; only the sword and long dagger, meant for fighting rather than any innocent purpose, distinguished him from the people seeking the Veiled’s counsel. On his chest was the raven pin that all justiciars wore, except his was made of gold rather than silver, signalling him to be their leader. He knelt before the curtain. “Reverend One,” he greeted her.
“Master Ivo. You may approach,” the norn granted. The justiciar stood up and walked around the divide to be faced with her veiled appearance. “What is it?” she enquired.
“The knights are investigating.”
“Us or the king?”
“Both, in a sense, considering Duke Belvoir’s movements are connected to both,” Ivo explained.
“What have they learned?”
“Nothing substantial, I believe,” the justiciar replied. “The very fact that they are chasing two trails that overlap should confuse them. Long enough for our plans to conclude.”
“If you did not consider them a threat, you would not have brought this to me,” the Veiled pointed out.
Ivo spoke with hesitation. “There is a chance they uncover our intent and warn the king.”
The norn walked a few paces to stare into the small fire in the chamber; her veil hid the expression of contemplation upon her face. “We cannot take that risk.” She turned back towards the justiciar. “We must intervene.”
“Is it necessary?” asked Ivo. “They are knights of the Order. Good men.”
“You knew this was the outcome when you brought this to my attention,” the Veiled reproached him. “Besides, I am not speaking about the marshal. That would be too bold even for us. Simply target the man conducting their investigation.”
“His brother,” the chief justiciar clarified. “A sworn knight.”
Behind the veil, the norn’s eyes stared at Ivo. “His fate is necessary. It is no different than if he died in battle protecting this realm. Idisea will look kindly upon his sacrifice.”
“Of course, Reverend One.”
“See it done.”
“At once, Reverend One,” the justiciar declared.
Fontaine was littered with taverns. At one of these establishments, a short and dour-looking fellow sat with a mug of weak ale. “What do you want?” he muttered as a man joined him at his table.
Putting his hat down, Godfrey smiled at his companion. “Always such a cordial welcome from you, Garrick.”
“You want courtesy, you pay coin.”
“In that case, we can dispense with civility. I have a task for you,” Godfrey informed him.
“I don’t imagine you’d be here otherwise.”
“This might take a year or two. You will be paid throughout the duration.”
“Dangerous?” asked Garrick.
“Of course,” the surly man repeated.
“The assignment is in Alcázar.”
Garrick’s response was to raise one eyebrow. “You want to send me half across the world to the savages?”
“No more savage than Herbergja or Fontaine, I assure you,” Godfrey stated. “The task is easy. You will collect information from others of my associates and pass it on.”
“You mean I’ll be your spy.”
“If that is what you wish to call it,” Godfrey admitted with a sly look.
“That’s going to get me killed, I wager,” Garrick claimed.
“The pay is equal to the dangers involved. It is a fairly simple task, though. You will simply hear what some people have to say and pass it on to the blackrobes in Alcázar.”
“I wondered when they would get involved,” the stocky man snorted. “You’re always tangled up in their business.”
“We have mutual interests,” Godfrey admitted. “In this case, we both know you and find you a reliable choice.”
“If I wanted to take marching orders from the blackrobes, I’d still be a temple guard.”
His taller companion glanced at the mug of diluted ale. “You are not in need of coin, then.”
“Not that much,” came the grumbling reply.
“A shame. It was ten silver a day merely for asking a few questions in the right places.”
“Places where the only answer I get is a stabbing.”
“The job requires someone who can handle a blade,” Godfrey granted. “The pay reflects that.”
Garrick wetted his lips. “Ten silver a day, you say?”
Godfrey nodded. “Indeed.”
His companion emptied his tankard. “I’m not paying for the trip myself.”
“Of course not. It will be arranged.”
Garrick sat staring down his empty mug. “Himil’s balls,” he finally exclaimed. “Fine. I’ll do that.”
“Excellent.” Godfrey smiled and withdrew a letter from an inner pocket. “Some instructions for you. When you are ready to travel, seek out the blackrobes here in town.” He pulled out a small rod with runes inscribed upon it. “Hand this over, and it will explain everything to them.”
“This better not be a message that gets me into trouble,” Garrick mumbled.
“Nothing you can’t handle, I’m sure.” Godfrey grinned and stood up, placing his hat on his head. “A pleasure as always.”
“Pleasure’s all yours.”
“You won’t believe what happened today, my dearest,” Armand declared as he entered the small room he shared with his betrothed.
“What happened?” asked Nicolette. She was busy as usual working at the loom.
He grabbed a nearby pitcher and drank some of its content. “Gods, it’s getting warm already. I wish Laugday was soon. Anyway,” he continued, sitting down on their bed. “Master Lambert went to Master Hamid’s house today to discuss the warehouse plans.”
“Did he suggest you oversee the construction?” Nicolette asked eagerly; her hands stopped their work as she turned to stare at him.
Armand shook his head. “You won’t guess the truth. When the master went there, Hamid was not at home. His wife explained he was conducting some business in town, so Master Lambert waited. Suddenly, Hamid burst into the house, frightening all.”
“Why?” Nicolette’s eyes were wide with wonder.
“He garbled away in Suthspeech with his wife, so Master Lambert understood nothing until a guard patrol arrived moments after,” Armand related.
“The city guard?”
“The same,” Armand nodded. “Though somehow the Order is involved. A knight showed up at some point too.”
Nicolette stared at him. “How come?”
“Apparently, Hamid brought slaves with him to Fontaine,” Armand revealed dramatically.
“What, really? Slaves?” Nicolette shivered.
“Poor sods were free the moment they arrived in Ealond, but he obviously kept that from them,” he continued, telling the story with relish. “That sly peddler kept them working for free. Some of them had bruises from being beaten, but not by Hamid,” Armand revealed with a dramatic whisper, “but from his wife!”
“No!” Nicolette gasped. “What a shrew!”
“Indeed, unlike my sweet, dear betrothed,” Armand grinned, pinching her cheeks.
“Armand!” she chided him, pushing his hands away. “What about the warehouse?” she abruptly continued.
His merry demeanour changed. “Probably not going to happen. Hamid will be facing a large geld, and his trading privileges may get revoked.” He gave a little sigh. “There’ll be other opportunities.”
“Of course there will, my dear,” Nicolette told him, turning back to her loom. “You should show Master Lambert your plans, by the way.” She gestured to the pile of parchments lying on the table.
“Not until I have them completely done,” Armand declared.
“I finished them,” she informed him as her hands deftly began to weave.
He frowned, staring at her back. “You – finished them?” Standing up, he crossed the small space from the bed to the table to examine the illustrations of his stone thrower with a counterweight.
She nodded, turning to look over her shoulder. “You asked me to look at your calculations, remember?”
“I did, but…” His voice fell quiet as his eyes glanced over her changes.
“Your arithmetic was correct, so I went through everything else. I compared the numbers written on your drawing. The angle and placement where the logs attach, the different weights and so on.”
Armand returned to staring at her. “You went through everything?” he reiterated in disbelief.
“You have to adjust the angle, lengthen the support beams, and make the chains for the counterweight run this way,” Nicolette explained with a smile. “See? This should transfer the strength of the falling counterweight much better.” She turned her eyes from the plans to her companion. “Am I wrong? I tried about ten different combinations until I got it right. I think I did,” she added, pointing out the last set of figures scribbled down.
Armand spread out the parchments almost feverishly. His hands flailed around, comparing notes and runes. “You’re right,” he muttered. “We’d have to build a model to test it, but I think you’re right.” He raised his head to look at her with shining eyes. “You’re right.”
She smiled. “I’m very glad, dear. I enjoyed the challenge.”
“I’ll take this to Master Lambert tomorrow,” Armand declared. “But I can’t tell him about you, or he’ll sack me and make you his new apprentice,” he laughed. “If this works, you’ll never have to spend a moment at that loom again!”
“Until then, I better finish this shirt,” Nicolette said sensibly, returning to her work with a satisfied smile.
In the evening, the last remnant of traffic hurried towards the gates of Fontaine to enter before they were locked for the night. Duke Belvoir and his retinue were an exception; his followers numbered in the hundreds at least, and finding lodgings in the capital would be an arduous task. Instead, the duke commanded his small army to make camp one last time on the road between Belvoir and Fontaine.
“Tomorrow morning, send a messenger,” Gaspard informed one of his aides. “Tell the king that I await his summons to present myself to him.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Dismounting, he left his horse in the care of an attendant. While his men raised his tent and set up camp, the duke stared at Fontaine. To one side, the distinct towers of the Raven Court greeted him; to the other, the royal palace met his gaze.
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; certain tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.