The Brevity of Fate
“It will be another few days before the trial,” Ghislain informed Clarisse. “Sister Rosalie, the youngest member of the tribunal, asked for time.”
“She wanted to understand the old heresy better, I believe.”
“So she can better accuse my brother.” Even through the door, Clarisse’s scowl could be felt.
“Michel will receive a fair hearing,” Ghislain claimed.
“Better if you had never dragged us here,” she retorted. “We wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“You confess heresy to a justiciar, don’t complain about the consequences,” he countered. “I’ve talked with the sibyls about the charge against you also.”
“Well? Don’t keep me in suspense,” she complained.
“You’ll receive a sentence the day after Michel. I’ve been reasonably mild in my statement,” Ghislain stated. “You’ll not be punished. Much, at least. Though you should find yourself another occupation after this.”
“Or else expect the justiciar on my trail, I’m sure,” Clarisse scoffed.
“I’ve also requested that you’re allowed to be present for Michel’s trial as his only family,” Ghislain continued.
“Oh. I guess that’s kind of you.” The admission came reluctantly.
“Master Ghislain!” a voice called out indignantly. A norn came striding through the corridor. Besides the customary red robe, she also had her hair covered entirely, leaving only her face visible; it had a stern expression and a strawberry birthmark.
“Sister Jocelyne,” the justiciar mumbled. “You seem upset.”
“I have been told you are consorting with prisoners,” the norn expressed with disdain.
“Simply informing her of a few details,” Ghislain remarked, looking like a dog being scolded.
“The other one, the heretic!” Jocelyne’s face was aglow with anger. “Going so far as to advise him!”
“Same as here, just informing him,” the justiciar defended himself. “The truth will judge him, which is all I have advised him to do. Tell the truth.”
“The goddess will judge him,” Jocelyne sneered. “Through me and the tribunal. You are her hound, fetching the prey back to your mistress. Do not presume otherwise.”
Ghislain swallowed, staring at the norn. “Yes, Sister.”
“Good. I expect you will keep your distance until the trial,” Jocelyne declared. She marched away with determined steps.
“I am so relieved,” Clarisse said to the empty air in her cell, “knowing Michel will get a fair trial with her as a judge.”
Ghislain made some grumbling sounds but no intelligible reply.
Gerard left the royal palace after a fruitless conversation with the king’s seneschal. No wiser than when he had woken up this morning, the knight made his way back towards the Order keep. As was his wont, he slowed his pace to stroll through the markets, exchanging pleasantries and jests with the peddlers. He stopped in one place to buy some dried mutton, chewing on it leisurely. At another stall, he bought a white ribbon suited for a young girl’s hair, stowing it inside his surcoat after paying the shopkeeper with a smile and three petties.
The general noise of the market was disrupted by loud shrieks and people crashing into stalls. Whipping his head around and with a hand on his sword hilt, Gerard located the disturbance. A ruffian with a vicious knife had assaulted a man, slashing both his body and the strings of his coin purse. “Thief! Murderer!” and other outbursts were shouted as the assailant fled.
Without hesitation, the knight sprinted forward, pursuing the brigand through the winding paths of the marketplace. Despite his armour, Gerard kept up the pursuit, remaining less than twenty paces behind. The thief glanced behind constantly, each time finding the knight hot on his heels.
The fugitive reached the end of the market stalls and turned a corner, running down alleyways. Gerard was close by, not letting him get out of sight. As the streets grew narrow, flight became harder; the thief’s path was constantly obstructed.
Turning down a particularly dark alley, the bandit finally stopped. “Surrender,” Gerard called out, drawing his sword, “or I cannot guarantee your safety.”
The thief turned around to face the knight, holding his dagger. “I wouldn’t expect you to,” he growled. Several men appeared at both ends of the alley, all of them armed.
A sneer travelled across Gerard’s face. “I am a knight of Adal, scum,” he spat. “You best surrender now.”
The attackers gave no response to this other than approaching from both sides. Gerard swung his sword back and forth to keep them at bay; while the narrow alley made it impossible for them to encircle him, it also made it difficult for him to wield his sword properly.
The brutes eyed him carefully, exchanging nods and gestures; the knight faced three or four coming from either side. Unlike his long blade, their daggers were well suited for this fight. Only the question of who would risk the first attack from Gerard’s sword kept them back.
After long moments, one of them came within striking distance. Gerard slashed at him, and he retreated quickly, having accomplished his goal; from the other side, one of his compatriots threw himself at the knight to tackle him. Prepared for this, Gerard’s stance kept him standing, and he used the pommel of his sword to smash the bandit in the back of his head. The attacker fell to the ground with a groan, but as before, he had bought enough time. His companions swarmed forward before Gerard could bring the sword back.
The knight fell down under the sheer weight of their assault, and they pinned him down. One held his sword arm to the ground while the others stabbed their knives through the openings of his armour. “Rihimil!” Gerard called out. “Help me!” Any further words drowned in blood. When the assailants left, dark spots stained the star on his surcoat, dying the white ribbon in his pocket red.
Meanwhile, Armand assembled the courage to approach his master with a wealth of parchments and scribbles in his arms. “Master Lambert?” he spoke, clearing his throat.
“What is it, boy? Did you finish inspecting the oak?”
“Yes, master. It’s something else,” he replied nervously.
“Well, what is it?” Lambert squinted his eyes, looking at what Armand held. “This again?”
“I think my plans are finished, master. I believe my counterweight stone thrower is done.”
“You’ll need a better name than that,” the old engineer mumbled through his beard. “Very well, let’s see it.”
Armand dumped the papers onto the desk in front of the master, who picked them up, one by one. Muttering to himself, Lambert went through them all. Slowly, his expression changed from a frown to incredulity. “Are you sure these calculations are right?”
“Yes, master. I checked them, as did my wife-to-be. She has a good head for numbers,” Armand added with pride.
Lambert put the final parchment down and looked at his apprentice. “A weapon such as this would be able to throw boulders of unprecedented size across unprecedented distances,” he declared astonished.
“Yes, master,” Armand beamed.
“Have you shown these plans to anyone?”
“Only my betrothed, master.”
“Good. They are valuable. Armand, I should bring this to the attention of our guild master.”
“You think so?” Armand’s eyes widened in surprise.
Lambert stroked his beard. “This has implications that need consideration. Sign the sketches with your name, Armand, to prove ownership. I will take them to the guild master immediately, and we will proceed from there.”
“Thank you, master!” Armand’s eyes shone with delight.
“It’s nothing,” Lambert mumbled, watching as his apprentice took a quill, dipped it in ink, and wrote his name on each piece of parchment.
The Raven Court had no shrines for other deities; worshippers seeking any of the other divines would have to go elsewhere. The Order of the Dragon had a modest temple not far from the keep, allowing the Order knights and soldiers a place to seek out their patron. A handful of blackrobes maintained the place, carried out the rites, and sent messages to their superior in Middanhal about the affairs of Fontaine.
In one of the inner chambers, Godfrey sat with the high priest of the temple. His staff leaned against the wall while a cup of water kept his hat company on the table. “Who was Sir Gerard?”
“Half-brother of the marshal. Both of them were sponsored into the Order,” the blackrobe explained. “Had the wit to be marshal, many felt, but Sir Martel was chosen.”
“Not the wit to stay alive,” Godfrey muttered. “When did it happen?”
“It cannot have been long ago. One of my brethren saw them carry the body into the keep just a stone’s throw from here, and decay had not yet begun.”
“You’re certain the norns are to blame?”
“Brigands do not attack a knight,” the priest pointed out.
“Of course not, but he might have attracted other enemies.”
“Possibly, but not that we are aware of. And the timing of his attack fits with his investigations.”
Godfrey let out a sigh. “If this is true, the Veiled has gone too far.”
“Agreed. We will investigate further, but regardless, I will write to Brother Eadric,” the priest declared.
“As you wish.” Godfrey took a deep breath. “I need to speak with Sir Martel. Whether this will make him more or less amenable,” he considered, “I suppose I will find out.”
The dungeons were not the only part of the Raven Court situated underground. As the norns were in charge of seeing the dead laid to rest, they needed cold chambers to store the bodies and prepare them for burial. They might not always go through such trouble for paupers and the like, but a knight merited every final honour. Lying on a slab, Gerard’s brown skin had begun to acquire the hue of death. His surcoat and armour had been removed by the Order soldiers in the keep, leaving only the inner garments for the norns to strip. Once his body was naked, cloth and water were applied to wash his wounds clean.
“You are not on duty tonight,” Jocelyne remarked as she entered the chamber. She scratched the birthmark on her forehead and adjusted the hood that covered her hair, leaving not a single strand visible.
“I requested this honour,” Rosalie replied. Her hands pressed the cloth across Gerard’s skin with movements as soft as her demeanour. Her usual shifting about in place seemed gone in favour of focus on the task at hand. “I heard tales of this man,” she added with pity in her eyes. “I cannot fathom why he would be slain in such a senseless manner.”
“That is a lesson to us all,” Jocelyne declared. “Those seated highest among us may still fall in the most undignified way.” Seeing her sister’s slow progress, the norn grabbed some rags and soaked them in water. “Here,” she muttered almost aggressively, joining the other norn in washing the body. “Or you will never be done.”
“Working this duty,” Rosalie contemplated, “you encounter so many fates. Children, old people, rich, poor. Some die through accidents that could easily have been avoided.” Her eyes lost focus and her hands nearly came to a halt, rubbing the same spot over and over with little strength put into the motion.
“Your point?” Jocelyne asked curtly, deftly moving across the torso that held the most wounds and dried blood.
“How can it be their fate to die? If a brick falls from a rooftop and hits a man in the head, he might die. If he had paused just moments before, maybe to admire the sight of something, he would have lived,” Rosalie considered. “I don’t understand how Idisea determines our fate,” she admitted.
“You are not the Veiled Sister,” Jocelyne reminded her. “You need not know the will of the goddess as long as you follow the instructions given by her servant.”
“But I am one of her servants,” Rosalie argued. “Soon, we will sit on the tribunal to judge the heretic.”
“What does that have to do with all this talk about fate?” the other norn scoffed.
“Hraban spoke extensively about fate,” Rosalie explained. “Maybe that is what attracts people to his heresy.”
“Hraban the Mad,” Jocelyne sneered. “Do not forget that part. They were wrong to have let him live, not to mention allow any of his ramblings to survive. They should have cut him down the moment he began spouting his falsehoods.”
“But do you not find it curious that he was kept alive?” asked Rosalie. She returned her attention to the work, scrubbing one of Gerard’s cold hands. “If it truly was blasphemy when he claimed to hear the voice of Idisea, why did they not dare to see him dead?”
“It was not a question of daring,” Jocelyne sniffed, cleaning the other arm. “They were simply soft-hearted. They had no idea that this and other heresies might spread. It was only after the madness of Hraban that the office of the justiciar was created. Heretics, heathens, and frauds had free reins before that.”
Rosalie gave a chuckle. “I doubt it was quite as bad. This is the first trial for heresy in decades.”
Jocelyne turned her heard sharply to stare at her fellow norn. “Because we do not allow it to take root. Make no mistake, Sister.” Her voice had enough edge to cleave stone. “As members of the tribunal, we have a sacred duty. Washing the dead is all well and good, but that is when we will truly serve the goddess.”
“Perhaps,” Rosalie replied, shifting back and forth on her feet under Jocelyn’s gaze. She moved the cloth across Gerard’s peaceful face. “For me, I feel closest to the goddess when carrying out acts of service such as this.”
Jocelyne made a scoffing sound but no other reply, and they poured the burial oils upon the fallen knight’s body in silence, finishing the preparation.