Forgolon pulled his horse up close to Sahlman's, and smiled. ”'Lord over Maelbourg will always be Morenth / the ruler of Maelbourg has always been he.' That's part of a song, for religious occasions. Not a very good one, by Maelbourg standards, but it's not far from the truth.” Forgolon laughed and shook his head, and took on an expression more natural to him. “Ok, I'll answer at least some of your questions, if only to keep you from running off, but there's not much time till sunrise.
“In Maelbourg, the people are ruled by the House, and the town is ruled by the most powerful townsmen. The only question that ever comes up is which townsmen those are. A month ago, they were Raiborder, Kal, Ulan, Worsen, Orfort and Silnquost.” Forgolon drew a dagger and spun it on a fingertip. “After your clever meddling, it's all up for grabs. Reden Orfort's in jail, and no one's heard from Raiborder in days, and of course you know about Ulan.” He resheathed the dagger, and it disappeared in the folds of his clothing. “This is all common knowledge, of course. As for your friends, Waylad and his accomplices among the town guard were jailed by Galgewe for the same reasons everyone's been jailing everybody lately. Petty crimes, treason, blasphemy, anything that will keep unwanted people out of the way. Balban's lost his chance, if you ask me. There's too much paranoia around for another party to sneak in and take over.” He paused thoughtfully for a few seconds, then led his horse on a slow trot towards the town gates. Then he stopped suddenly and turned about. “What was that last question? You want to know what I want from you? I wanted the truth, but I'm willing to settle for hearing what you have to say to your friends.” He then turned back around and headed to the gate.
Sahlman made a sound with his tongue indicating exasperation. “Hah! Galgewe is not even in ruling house but he jails my friends and guards obey him. You are wrong, Balban has not lost chance. Town is in chaos, and any strong man may seize power. But I care nothing for this. I will speak to friends now….”
Sahlman could not see his face, but Forgolon was smiling.
The faintest glimmer of dawn emerged as the two men and four horses approached the gates of Maelbourg. Forgolon rode slightly ahead to arrive first at the gates. Seeing him up close, Sahlman realized that the man had found time to cover up his clothing. He was now wearing a blanket over his shoulders and a new desert kheifa on his head, to match Sahlman's. He spoke briefly to the gatekeeper, who opened the gate and let them through.
Inside Maelbourg, there was no sound but the birds waking, but Forgolon rotated his head constantly back and forth, trying to keep his eyes on everything at once. The kheifa kept swinging over his face, so he gave up on the disguise and stuffed it into a pouch around his waist.
When they arrived at the jail, Forgolon dismounted, and kicked away a pile of accumulated snow by the wall. Then he urged Sahlman's horse right up to the building. “The window's a few inches high for you to see through, but they can hear you,” Forgolon said quietly. “Do keep in mind that you're in plain view, and, although the guard is asleep at the moment in the guardhouse next door, he won't be for long if you yell.” He then walked his horse around the corner, to a less visible side of the jailhouse.
Sahlman raised his face to the jailhouse window and spoke in an urgent whisper, “Ardith! Ziedon! Kreemon! This is Sahlman. I speak at window. Why you in jail?”
For a while there was no response, then there was some shuffling of feet, and Sahlman heard Waylad's voice. “Ziedon? Has he come here to rescue us?”
“No, I am Sahlman. I have not seen Ziedon for many days. Who is in jail. Ardith? Kreemon?”
“No,” Waylad answered. “No one by those names here. You're the southern man who escorted me here? Have you come to free us? We have to stop Galgewe.”
“Waylad. I am alone and cannot help. When I see Ziedon I will tell him you are in prison. If he loves you then he will help. I must go now.”
Trotting quickly away from the window, Sahlman said, “These are not my friends. These are fools tricked by Ziedon to fight Galgewe, and they can do you no more harm in prison. My friends are with the priestess Ardith. I think they are in Dunweig. I wish to go to Dunweig now, to stop them from more trouble. What is your plan now? Your townsman Ulan has lost his power and is hiding. I think Galgewe is now lord of Maelbourg. Will you help Ulan or help Galgewe? Or will it be Baron Forgolon! Lord of Maelbourg!”
“I guess we'll wait and see,” Forgolon replied, smiling in his usual manner. “The politics of Maelbourg are more complex than you'd expect, for a town so isolated by the Andrithan church… I think I have what I need out of you. I'll escort you to the eastern gate, and see you on your way.”
Sahlman rode Zephyr and led Ulan's two horses towards the growing light in the east which preceded the rising of the sun. Forgolon rode just beyond him, but stopped when he heard hoof beats. He held his hand up to Sahlman, indicating that he should stop as well. When two armed men rode up, one from either side, Forgolon's horse took a step back, but its rider steadied it.
“Well if it isn't our self-styled Lord Minstrel,” one of the men said. “Up and about early, aren't we?”
“Raylith, Ludboun,” Forgolon replied. “Always a pleasure,” he added with a flourish. “And look who else is here. Ol' butterball himself. To what do I owe _this_ honor?” Ol' butterball was a slightly chubby man in his sixties whose fleshy face made him look much fatter than he was. It didn't help that his overworked horse seemed to sink in its middle, or that his drooping eyes made every word and movement look slow and tired.
“You've been called worse, Forgolon, but for the sake of civility, let us refer to each other by our given names.” Butterball paused unnecessarily and took a deep breath. “You were logged as having left town quite late last night. Is this why?” he nodded at Sahlman. “Oh, come now. You can't honestly believe you are the only man who can bribe an underpaid gatekeeper.”
Forgolon smiled, his brief look of surprise completely wiped from his face. “My dear townsman Batarel,” he said, mimicking the townsman's tone and style. “I merely left to retrieve my cousin here, who has traveled all the way from Flen to visit, not knowing at what an inconvenient time he would arrive. You know how difficult it is to get in and out of the town these days. You can not blame me for taking such a trivial liberty for such a harmless cause.”
“I see no resemblance,” the townsman said. “Nor do I see the humor that you find in every action and spoken word. I know roughly how many independent farmers you have paid to keep their eyes open –”
“And I thought you were the only one to stoop to such trickery.”
”– and now I have an idea what they were looking for.” Batarel sighed, and waved a hand at one of his men. “Raylith, is this the one?”
Raylith pulled a scroll out of his belt, unrolled it and held it out in front of him. “Looks like one of them,” he said, rolling up the parchment again.
“Still serving as messenger-boy for Silly, eh? Now what would he want with my cousin here?”
“_Townsman_ Silnquost has his own reasons. Now return to your tavern and let us continue with the business of the town.”
Sahlman reacted without a moment's hesitation. Before the two men flanking Forgolon and himself could fully draw their swords, Sahl dug his heels into Zephyr's side, and charged straight for the startled townsman's overworked mount. The heavy charger struck the lighter mount in the shoulder, which stumbled and barely kept its footing. Batarel was shaken from his saddle, but his foot got caught in the stirrup as he fell to the ground. Sahlman heard a tearing sound when the townsman twisted his leg, and a cry of pain when his shoulder hit the frozen ground.
“No!” Sahlman heard Forgolon shout. “You can't – You'll have to forgive my cousin. He has a tendency to misinterpret situations like this. I'm sorry, but he isn't the brightest fellow in the barony. Are you alright, Batarel?”
By the time Forgolon got that far, Sahlman had jumped off his horse, and pinned Batarel with a dagger to his throat. Batarel kicked the ground, but on a slight pressure from Sahl's dagger, he stiffened and remained still. The townsman's men were almost upon Sahl, but they pulled their horses a step back when they saw the position their employer was in.
Sahlman snarled, his eyes cold and fierce. “Tell your men to put swords down Batarel, or you die! I don't like strangers drawing swords on me! I don't want to hurt anyone; I just want to leave town in peace. Tell your men to get off horses and walk away. I will drive off horses and leave you here. That will give me time to ride away.”
“He tends to jump to conclusions,” Forgolon said nervously. “After the wars he's been in, and –”
“Do what he says,” Batarel called to his men, who seemed hesitant to obey for fear of what Sahlman might do. but then they pulled their horses back a bit. As they dismounted, Forgolon stopped his string of excuses, drew his sword and came to the fore.
“In the name of Morenth,” he said in a stern voice to Sahlman, “I demand you release that man.”
Sahlman released Batarel quickly, stepped away, and said, “I release Batarel to show I not want to hurt anyone. Now let me leave town in peace.” He then attempted to mount and ride away with his horses, while watching for aggressive moves from Forgolon or Batarel's men.
Batarel put a hand around his own throat and breathed deeply, while scampering out of Sahlman's immediate reach. By the time Sahl was only halfway mounted on Zephyr, the townsman was yelling, “Get him! Get him!” and the soldiers were grabbing their own mounts.
Sahlman snarled in frustration. His one desire was to be rid of this cursed town and proceed to Dunweig. But it seemed that fate was conspiring against him at every turn. First he had been waylaid by the trickster Forgolon and brought into town. Then, just as he was leaving the thrice damned place, he was accosted by yet another self styled townsman. He had captured the townsman Batarel and would have easily escaped, but that rat brained Forgolon had forced his hand. He had either to murder Batarel in cold blood, or surrender. Forgolon's act had been senseless unless he was secretly hoping for the death of Batarel. After that Sahlman had gone out of his way to show these townsman that he meant no harm, but no sooner had he released their leader then they dishonorably turned against him again. He was half minded to draw his sword and kill as many of the curs as he could before they killed him. The only thing that restrained him was the most probable humiliation of being taken alive and dragged off to jail in chains. Abandoning the two horses that he had saved with such care, Sahlman rode right through the crowd in front of him, watching for Forgolon's reaction. Batarel was hurt and posed no immediate threat. The soldiers were still mounting, so they could follow him but not bar his way, but Forgolon was mounted and could try to head him off.
Sahlman's predictions were accurate. By the time the two soldiers had mounted and spurred their horses to Zephyr's speed, Sahlman was already twenty yards ahead of them. Forgolon, however, was right beside him almost immediately, and trying to get ahead. Sahl's was the more powerful horse, but Forgolon was a more experienced rider. They rode for many slow seconds in their contest to get ahead of each other, when Forgolon raised his fist as if to strike, in what seemed an extremely foolish maneuver given the circumstances. He looked back and forth between Sahlman's face and hand.
Sahl clung to the saddle, using his knees, alert for any trick from Forgolon. He was well aware that the man had a bag of physical tricks at his disposal. Sahl planned, that if the man attempted to lunge in any way, then he would swerve Zephyr away so that Forgolon might unbalance and fall off his horse. His heels drummed into Zephyr's side, his voice shouting to urge the horse onwards. His best hope of escape was to outdistance the pursuit, or for some of his pursuers to give up.
Zephyr easily outdistanced Batarel's two soldiers, but Forgolon was not to be gotten rid of so easily. The man kept his horse neck-and-neck with Sahlman's, and within two or three feet. When Sahlman turned, Forgolon matched his turn. It was as if their horses were bound together at the neck and tail.
Forgolon looked back to make sure Batarel and the soldiers were well out of hearing range, then he turned to Sahlman, seeming to have no trouble controlling his horse with his neck turned to the side. “It would be better for you,” he called, while his horse jumped over a barrel that had rolled into the street, “to give up now. Otherwise, I'll have to capture you myself, which will look much worse.”
As he spoke, Sahlman watched his pursuer carefully. Despite his almost superhuman efforts, Forgolon's horse must begin to tire before Zephyr. Soon, Forgolon must make his move. To jump, he would have to take his feet from the stirrups, and release the reins. In any case there would be a moment of vulnerability in which Forgolon would not have full control of his mount. When that moment came, Sahlman would try to swerve his mount away, widening the gap. Even if the man didn't fall short in his leap, he would lose a second or two in the chase, and once ahead, Sahl would try to use his mount's superiority to stay ahead.
“I'll give you one last chance,” Forgolon said, letting go of the reins and reaching one hand into a pouch at his belt, and the other hand behind his back, but still managing to control the horse with his legs. “You're asking for humiliation.”
At last, the moment Sahlman had been waiting for. Forgolon had released his reins and was no longer completely focused on riding. Sahlman used that moment to swerve his heavy horse into the shoulder of Forgolon's horse.
Seeing what Sahlman was up to only a bit too late, Forgolon squeezed his legs together, turning his horse in the same direction Zephyr was turning. The reduced impact was only enough to cause Forgolon's horse a single misstep. Forgolon was put a few feet behind, but he quickly made it up. “That kind of trick,” he panted, “works much better on lazy townsmen who ride only to protect their honor.” There was a twinge of uncertainty in Forgolon's voice, though. Whatever he'd been withdrawing from the long pouch on his back had been dropped in the collision.
It wasn't long before they found themselves rapidly approaching the barred eastern gate of Maelbourg. It would be at least half an hour before the gate could be left open. Forgolon pressed on, urging his horse to move faster through the widening streets.
As he drew nearer to the gates, Sahlman could not help smiling at his obvious mistake. He had not reckoned with the town gates being barred to the east. Abruptly, he slowed his horse to a stop and held his hands up to show that they were empty. “Enough, I give up,” he said.
“It's high time,” Forgolon said. He pulled a short stalk of some green and blue vegetable out of a pouch, and held it out in front of Zephyr, who ate eagerly, right out of Forgolon's hand. “Larebent stalks,” he said. “Braerer can't resist them. He likes the leaves too. Now he'll follow me, so you don't have to bother making another run for it.” He stroked Zephyr's mane, still leaning over on his horse, then quickly sat up and turned his horse around. “I don't know how I'm going to keep you from the gallows. How could you attack a townsman? Don't you know anything about politics?” He put a hand on Sahlman's shoulder, and lowered Sahl's arms with his other.
“Self defense. They drew swords on me without warning. I not kill townsman when I could. I not fight anyone, just try to escape. If truth is not enough, then what is? But you tell me. Why you stop me from escaping when I had townsman prisoner. You did not have to attack me. You could have done nothing like his guards. Why did you do this?”
“Balban's letter led me to believe you were quite a strategist; you're beginning to disappoint me. In Maelbourg politics, the most important thing is –” Forgolon stopped and listened. Sahlman also heard the rapidly increasing volume of horse hooves. “Ah. They're finally catching up. Sorry about this.” Forgolon tightened his grip on Sahlman's shoulder, and punched him roughly in the face with his other hand. He used the momentum of the blow to throw both of them over Zephyr and onto the ground.
Sahlman hid a smile as he toppled on his back. He had been expecting some such deceit. He made no attempt to resist his assailant, just relaxing his body to cushion the fall. As he hit the ground he lay still, not giving Forgolon any reason to continue attacking him. In one moment of clarity he had lost all respect for the rogue. The man was so deceitful that to make him an ally was impossible, and so skillful that it was pointless to fight. If the chance came then he would kill him as he would a scorpion. In the meantime he could only wait for a change in circumstances.
Rather than harm him any further, Forgolon merely smudged the blood coming from Sahl's nose, tore both their clothing in a few places, and wrestled with the inert warrior just enough to get both men dirty. By the time the two soldiers were in view, Forgolon had stood up, and was holding Sahlman's arms together behind his back, showing every sign that a great struggle had taken place. “It's about time you two showed up. Is Butterball too cheap to buy good horses, or has he forgotten to teach you to ride?”
Without answering, Ludboun dismounted and tied Sahlman's wrists together with hemp, and then pulled roughly at the rope, leading Sahl back towards the place where the encounter had begun. Raylith remained mounted at the lead, and Zephyr followed Forgolon's horse at the rear. Forgolon made almost constant noise, insulting the soldiers and elaborating on an entirely fictional struggle with Sahlman.
The sun was visible behind them by the time the four men arrived at a jailhouse several dozen yards from the one that held Waylad. “You,” Ludboun said to Sahlman, “will be tried tomorrow for deliberately injuring a townsman. Until then, you will be held without food or water by the custom of Morenth. Those are Townsman Batarel's instructions.”
“It's about time Butterball took some action. And I'm all for it. Family or not, I can't allow this renegade to disrupt the order of the town.”
Ludboun barely glanced at Forgolon. “You too. Townsman Batarel's instructions.”
Forgolon looked distinctly nervous. “Surely you realize –”
“Townsman Batarel's instructions.”
Forgolon raised his hands and sighed in resignation, then followed Sahlman into the jailhouse when Ludboun opened the door. The building consisted of two large cells, stone-walled with heavy wooden doors, both occupied and unguarded. The smells of sweat and mildew hung stale in the air, along with the fainter but harsher smell of covered chamber pots. A narrow, poorly ventilated hallway stood between the two cells, but had no apparent purpose, since the doors were near the entrance. Ludboun unlocked one cell, and Forgolon, making a sudden shift in character by offering his most gracious thanks to the soldier, led Sahlman into the cell with the air of a host displaying his entrance hall. Ludboun ignored his antics and left, locking the cell and jailhouse doors.
“Come look at this,” Forgolon said to Sahlman, and walked over to the far wall, appearing to inspect the stones. The other three prisoners kept their distance, and clustered at the other side of the cell.
Sahlman wiped the dirt and blood from his face and hands. He went over to the wall and inspected it from a few feet away, careful to watch for tricks from Forgolon.
“He shouldn't have done that; I played by all the rules…” Forgolon mumbled, before he spoke more directly to Sahlman. “You've caused me quite a bit of trouble, attacking a townsman and sending me to jail. You could have gone after Ludboun. He wouldn't have been much of a challenge, if Balban's letter serves.”
“Why do you show me this wall when we should be trying to escape? You know many tricks. Can you open locks?”
“If you keep your voice down and be patient,” Forgolon said quietly, “I won't have to go that far.” A light breeze entered through the high barred window, and stirred up smells in the room that Sahlman and Forgolon had no wish to identify. “Well, maybe we can do with less patience and more quiet.”
Forgolon raised his voice dramatically. “You can feel the quality of the closely set stone walls, and the hard-packed floor. The summer of 929, when this prison was built, was a particularly good year for granite. Combined with the alloyed iron bars of the ventilation window and the fire-hardened wood of the door, it has prevented unguarded prison breaks since the day of its construction. Now if you'll follow me, I'll take you to the House of Morenth and show you the prison used for religious captives.”
Forgolon walked boldly to the door, withdrawing a key-ring from his pocket. “Oh,” he laughed. “It looks like we were locked in. No matter.” Forgolon squeezed his arm between two of the bars in the door's window, and worked on the padlock from the outside. “This additional security measure,” he said to Sahlman, “has undoubtedly prevented a few breaks itself. We have jailed men who could pick locks, but none who could pick such a high-quality padlock unseen at arm's reach. Our locksmiths are devising a more complex lock that can not be reached at all, but if this one could hold them in for seventy-two years – Ah. There we go.” He pushed the door open. “On to the House.” He let Sahlman out, locked the door, and then unlocked the main door and let them both out, first looking both ways to be sure Batarel's men were gone.
Forgolon walked briskly and confidently for nearly ten minutes towards the northern side of town, which was more thoroughly populated by animals than people. This was where livestock were kept waiting for the slaughter, and where many of the less frequently used stables stood. “Now if I'm not mistaken,” he said, unlocking a stable door which had some sort of insignia on it. “There you are.” He led his horse out, stroking its mane. Then he went in and found Zephyr. “Don't think too badly of me,” he said to Sahlman, smiling with only half his mouth. “Some day Maelbourg will be a better place because of people like me. The only ways to change a town are politics and death, and even though it is hated by all, I prefer the former.”
“Think on this. To make town better, you must be trustworthy leader. No man will trust you if you are full of tricks. I can not trust you, and I am a trusting man.” With that advice, Sahlman mounted Zephyr and trotted quickly for the eastern gate, aiming to get there before the alarm was raised.
No alarm was raised, but Sahlman was still alert for last minute treachery by Forgolon. He continued at a brisk trot past the gate, making as much speed as possible without giving the impression that he was running away. That was also a good speed to conserve his horse's energy.