With Brinn strapped securely to his back, Sahlman climbed the rope. Occasionally Brinn would startle the warrior by jerking his head suddenly and mumbling, as if waking from a dream.
Kay pulled up the rope when Sahl reached the top. “No one saw you,” she told him. “We'd better get back to camp and see what Ardith can do.” She started to coil the rope, but Sahlman stopped her. “I am not to be climbing on a tree with this on my ride.”
”'On your back,'” corrected Kay, but Sahlman made no sign that he heard her. Kay uncoiled the rope and lowered it down the other side. Once Sahl had reached the bottom with Brinn, she wrapped the rope around her hand and elbow, and rapidly made her way down the tree. Halfway down, she heard a sound behind her, so she climbed back up onto the wall and peeked over. Members of the town guard, in groups of five, were approaching various points along the wall. Kay quickly dropped from their sight.
Ardith and Ziedon were waiting at the camp when they arrived. Ziedon looked up briefly from his book, and the flame from the dying fire flickered powerful contrasts across his pale face. Ardith rose immediately.
“What happened, Kay? When you rushed away with Sahl I didn't know what to think.”
“I'm sorry. Brinn was hurt, and he couldn't climb the rope. Then he fainted.”
“Put him down here. Let me take a look.”
Kay untied Brinn from Sahlman's back, and carefully laid him on the ground. Ardith examined Brinn, quickly noticing his foot. “Why, he's been bleeding. I'll have this fixed up before morning.”
The next hour, Ardith spent cleaning and treating the wound. Occasionally, Brinn woke, and Kay reassured him that he was okay, and made him drink water. By the time Ardith had removed the shard of pottery from his foot and healed him in the name of Andritha, Brinn was fully awake, his eyes open wide with awe.
“You did that?”
“What?” Ardith asked.
“My foot –”
“You should be able to walk again now. You might be dizzy for a while from loss of blood.”
“But you used,” and he raised his eyes to the sky.
Ardith laughed. “And you were acting like it was nothing when Andritha healed the others. She would not have let me heal you if you weren't worthy of it. Come,” she said, still with a smile on her youthful face. “Tell us what happened in Grenzig.”
Brinn, a little nervously at first, told her the whole story. In the middle of it, Ardith blurted out, “what courage and loyalty!”
Ziedon mumbled, “If he's this loyal to people he just met, I would dread to be one of his friends.”
When Brinn had told everything, up to the point where he'd seen the rope dangling just out of his reach, Ardith again admired Brinn's bravery, and commented on the usefulness of the information he'd gathered. Now, even if they couldn't trust the townsman, at least there was evidence that the people of Grenzig did.
“What interests me more,” said Ziedon from the fire, his book now closed on his lap, “is that he managed to alert the town guard. They will be watching for him.”
“Come on,” Ardith replied. “No one saw him. They just heard him.”
“All the worse. They will be watching for everything.”
“No one can watch for everything.”
“But they think they can, and that is just as dangerous. They will suspect anyone they don't recognize.”
“There are thousands of people in Grenzig.”
“And only one armed band of such unlikely mercenaries as ourselves.”
“We'll go in disguise,” Brinn suggested.
Ziedon smirked, almost laughing out of one side of his mouth. He stood up to his full height, towering over Brinn, and looked straight into the man's eyes. “I'm sure no one will think anything amiss of _you_. And him,” he continued, pointing at Sahlman. “No one will suspect anything of someone who fits in as well as that. Did we bring chalk, heifin, to smear over his face?” With that he sat back down, lifting his book into his lap. Brinn was at a loss for words, and Sahlman, although he looked for a moment as if he would react to the insult, calmed himself and sat down peacefully. There was wisdom behind Ziedon's gruff nature.
Ardith responded in an even tone, although her agitation made itself heard. “All right, then you think of something. You can't just throw out the ideas of others and think you're being helpful.”
“Where did you get the notion I was trying to help?”
Sahlman interrupted. “They were knowing spies before Brinn was their spies. We are not going by the front gate, even with disguise. They are knowing us yesterday, and they are knowing we are here.”
“Sahlman's right,” Ardith said, completely forgetting about her argument with Ziedon. “They suspected spies before Brinn snuck in. Now they're sure. We'll all have to enter by way of the tree.”
Sahlman smiled at the girl. “Yes, by the tree… We are going in two. Then we not being seen.” With some difficulty, Sahlman got out an entire plan for entry into Grenzig. Two by two, they would enter the town, at different points along the wall if possible. Hopefully, they would be harder to notice in small groups, and the detection of one pair would not compromise any of the others. Sahlman volunteered to escort the townsman personally. “I am using to deal with such peoples in the desert. Amazing, it is, that peoples from different lands can be so same.” It was left unclear as to just what sort of person Sahl referred.
“This talk is beyond me,” said Kay. “I'm going to sleep while I can.”
Ardith said, “There's only an hour until dawn, so we might as well stay up. No, not you, Brinn. You should sleep.”
“If he's going to sleep, so am I. I've been up all night, and who knows how long it'll be before the townsman decides to do anything?”
Kay laid down to sleep on the ground, paying only half a mind to what was being discussed around her. The next person to speak was Ardith.
“In general, I agree with Sahlman's plan. However, I don't want Sahl to be alone with the townsman. If he is what he appears to be, that's no problem. On the other hand, if there _is_ something more insidious going on here, then I would be concerned for Sahl's safety. I suggest, therefore, that we go in two groups of three. Sahlman and I will go with the burgher. Brinn, Kay and Ziedon will go in ahead of us and scout the town. In half an hour, return to the wall by the tree. Three low whistles means it's okay to go in. Two short whistles will mean 'Get us out!' Brinn has been in the town, albeit in the dark, but he has at least some idea of the layout. Brinn and Ziedon, do your best to look like merchants, while Kay can pose as your hired protectress.”
Sahlman was hesitant to contradict the girl, so assured of herself as she was. Indeed, he considered her wise beyond her years. Although her sense of strategy and leadership would be the death of her in the desert, she was very clever for a girl of eighteen. He decided he would wait it out and see what happened. If Ardith's plan did not seem the wisest when it was time to carry it out, he would speak up then.
Ardith continued. “So let's review what we've learned so far. The commoners of Grenzig want our townsman, but commoners have been known to pick poor leaders, so that's nothing in his favor. There are thieves and brigands against him, though, so I would want to stay on his side until we know better, but we can't trust him until we know his motives. The thieves who attacked us and escaped know our strengths, and the camp of thieves and probably the townsmen too are looking out for magic, or at least something out of the ordinary.” Ardith laughed at that. “Where I come from, the powers of Andritha are hardly unusual, but out here… Anyway, the townsmen are worried, so they'll be on their guard, but if we do the right thing, Andritha will protect us.” Ziedon grunted quietly at that last, but did not look up from his book. “Grenzig is not a stable place. The townsmen are uneasy, their hired mercenaries will only help while there's money, and the people are eager for revolt. Oh! If only I had something to write all this down!”
Ardith squeaked with surprise when Ziedon's arm shot out over her. Sahlman was up in a second, weapon in hand, and Kay, waking suddenly, raised herself on her elbows and reached for her knife. All Ziedon did, however, was drop a sheet of parchment in Ardith's lap. On it was already written every point Ardith had made in an experienced, legible hand. “Next you'll forget to bring rations,” he said, not even flinching at Sahlman's ghurka. “One would think you'd never traveled before.” He was then immersed in his reading once more, as if nothing had happened.
Brinn was the first to break the awkward silence, which had become all too common in their unusual party. “Someone in town plays a dangerous game with thieves. And if they're so nervous, why isn't the town guarded well at night? And where is our friend burgher's place in all this? I'd like to hear his side of the story before we get in.”
Ardith's eyes opened wide at the suggestion. “Speak no word of your entry into town to the burgher, nor of our reason for going in groups of three. Let him think we are merely doing our best to get him into town safely. Brinn, if we wait to hear the burgher's story, he may guess at our suspicions. We'd best talk to him as little as possible.”
At that moment, the burgher exited his tent and came to the group, making no indication that he had heard anything. He was fully dressed, and did not look the slightest bit disheveled from his night's sleep. Fearing the worst, but admitting nothing in the tone of her voice, Ardith briefly sketched out her plan to the burgher.
“A fine idea. However, I would offer a slight modification to the plan. I believe it would be more prudent to enter in groups of two.” Ardith glanced at Sahlman, who nodded at her. Still, she feared for the warrior's safety, and felt she had to object.
“But surely if we go in –”
“We will enter in pairs. He,” he said, pointing to Sahlman, “will act as my personal escort. Once I have reached my destination inside Grenzig, I will consider your service to me complete.”
Ardith was unsure whether he had listened to their whole conversation, or merely had thought up the same plan as Sahlman. Sahlman himself, though, knew the answer. This townsman, trustworthy or not, would have done well for himself in the desert.
They had a light breakfast and stamped out the remainder of the fire, the townsman saying nothing, as usual, and the rest of the party doing the same. They finished and sat around for a while, even the townsman hesitant to be the first to rise. “We go now,” Sahlman said to the townsman, and that got the party moving.
They spent a short time considering the gate, which now had six soldiers posted, and decided the tree was still their best bet. It looked larger in the day, as did the wall. Kay and Brinn climbed the tree as they had the night before, Ziedon struggling behind them until Kay climbed down and helped him find his footing. Then she descended further to help Ardith.
It was not obvious, from the inside, that the tree was an easy way in. For accidents like that, the town would have done well to have an occasional guard posted outside its walls. When all four adventurers were safely on the ground, and Sahlman had pulled the rope back from the other side, Ardith addressed the other three. “I don't care what that townsman says. We're safer in threes. You go together into the town, like we planned last night. I'll hide here, and trail Sahl when he brings in the townsman.” No one was eager to defend the townsman's strategy over Ardith's, so Ziedon, Brinn and Kay went together.
The town, as could be expected, was far busier than it had been the night before. It was a market day; local and foreign merchants sold their wares on nearly every street, and a mixture of unwrapped breakfasts, lost and spoiled goods, and horse droppings lined the streets in incremental piles, pushed as far away from merchants' stalls as possible.
As Ziedon had predicted, his presence and that of his diminutive companion, not to mention a well-armed woman, attracted far too much attention. They walked like merchants, but were more often than not mistaken for performers, and crowds would periodically gather around them, suffer a disappointment and disperse.
Able to accomplish little, but foreseeing no trouble for their companions, they gradually made their way back to the wall, gave the signal to enter, and were out of sight before their presence could be made conspicuous.
Continuing to pose as merchants under Kay's guard, Ziedon and Brinn returned to the expanded market and walked deliberately from booth to booth, examining some object or other, and discussing its quality in a way that sounded reasonable to them, but was so unconvincing to the tradesmen and merchants that they didn't even bother to attempt a sale. Before long, a pair of town guards approached the group.
“Do you suppose you could explain yourselves,” one asked, “before my friend here fetches a constable?” His 'friend' seemed anxious to do just that, hopping from foot to foot and glaring suspiciously at the group of misfits.
Brinn answered, and the guardsman had to hold back a chuckle. “We're just a pair of traveling merchants, inspecting the wares.”
The antsy guard blurted out “Who do you think you're fooling? Everyone here knows you don't know anything about no wares. You're just –”
The calmer guard put out a hand to hold his friend back. “We've been charged to keep an eye out for anything unusual, and you have to admit, you fit the mould. Now I suggest you tell me what you're really after.”
“They're after the town, that's what! These are the ones trying to take over!”
The conversation, by this time, had drawn a crowd, and merchants called out their wares all the more loudly to try and bring back their customers.
Ziedon looked at the two guards, opened his mouth as if to answer, and forced out a coughing fit. While doubled over, he chanted the complex language of a spell which would convince the higher-ranking guard that he was Ziedon's closest friend. When he was finished, he rose and apologized. “Pardon me, <cough> I must be allergic to the spices in that merchant's tent. I am afraid that you have us at a loss. We have no idea what you are talking about with this business of taking over the town. We are merely here to <cough, cough> make purchases like everyone else. Granted we look a bit strange, but that does not make us traitors.” Ziedon hoped the spell had worked. He did not want to visit a prison cell.
The higher-ranking guard answered immediately. “Of course you're not traitors. We only ask because someone is on his way right now to try and start a popular uprising, and there were spies about last night. I'm sorry if we sounded like –”
The other guard raised his eyebrows and shifted his head back and forth, looking at the crowd around them. “Are you crazy? In front of all these people? What's wrong with you?”
“We're both crazy, to accuse a fine gentleman like this of treason. Perhaps we should give them a tour of Grenzig, to make up for it.”
“A tour? What's wrong with you? We have traitors to catch, and them's the ones!”
“Look, they're not traitors. They're just here to make purchases like everyone else.”
“You don't know nothing about em. They are, and I'll take em in for it.”
“I won't have you accuse this man of treason right in front of my face,” the ensorcelled guard said, and laid a hand on the hilt of his sword.
The other guard took two steps back. “You're crazy. You're… It was him!” He pointed to Ziedon. “He's a witch! A warlock! A sorcerer, come to use his evil magic against us and put Grenzig under his power, starting with you! The black robes shoulda given him away! And there, his impish companion and a woman temptress, distracting us while the bewitching happens, just like all the stories!”
“Now look,” the ensorcelled guard said, drawing his sword and sending the crowd back several yards. “I said I won't stand for these kinds of false accusations, and I won't.”
The other guard looked rapidly back and forth, looking for other members of the town guard, while drawing his own sword. “Help!” he called, and a few of the town residents, as well as all the guards within range, turned their heads.
Brinn looked at Ziedon, then at the guards. This was not going at all as planned. He motioned to Kay, who nodded an acknowledgment, and waited for Brinn to act. This was one use of being small, Brinn thought. You could always catch people by surprise. He yelled out, and rushed at the legs of the angry guard, knocking him over. Until that moment, many members of the crowd had not even noticed Brinn, so it seemed from their vantage that the guard had simply toppled over on his own. Brinn ran as fast as he could through the most populated road he could find. Kay gave a short, apologetic look at Ziedon, and then ran after Brinn.
There were seven guards in the area by now, and four of them chased after Brinn and Kay. That would give Ziedon a chance to escape, they thought. Soon, Brinn got far ahead of Kay, able as he was to maneuver between, around and sometimes even under other people in the crowded marketplace. Kay's slim and agile figure kept her from getting too far behind.
Soon, they found themselves at a bathhouse, and they were able to pause and catch their breath. Between loud pants, Brinn said, “It's not safe for me and Ziedon to stay in this town. After dark, find Ardith and tell her what happened. I'll wait here and hope that no one finds me. Try to keep away from guards.”
“I'm Heralbid, by the way,” the friendly guard said to Ziedon. “I'm sorry your introduction to Grenzig had to be like this.” At that point Heralbid was standing in an attack stance in front of Ziedon, watching the seven… no, now eight members of the town guard who were rapidly surrounding him. The crowd had expanded outward, allowing a wide berth for the armed men.
Ziedon wished he knew an invisibility spell. Things would be so much easier if only he could find a new master to help fill up his book of magic. Ah well. He would survive this trial and keep looking.
The situation was hopeless. Ziedon was tempted to surrender right away, but perhaps a short wait would be in order. If Heralbid made enough of a scene, some of the focus might be taken off of Ziedon when the time for judgment arrived.
One soldier charged at Heralbid, who easily fended him off with skilled swordplay. When a second soldier joined the first, Heralbid had more trouble. He took a step back, almost knocking into Ziedon, and lunged with his sword, killing one of the guards. Gasps were heard all around from the crowd. “He killed another soldier?” “Who's the robed one?” “How can these men protect us if they're fighting each other?”
“All right,” the captain of the guard called. “The game is over.” Two more guards arrived, laden with crossbows. They handed one to the captain, and distributed the others around. “Heralbid, you'll be hanged for this.”
“But what about the warlock?” asked Heralbid's original companion. “He started the whole thing. I saw it with my own eyes.”
“He'll go before the judge.”
The other soldiers smiled, and some laughed.
Heralbid called out, “I'll fight every one of you. No one's going to touch this man!”
The others armed their crossbows.
“No.” Ziedon said, without any kind of emphasis. “We surrender. If the justice in this town is fair, I know I shall go free.”
Heralbid, surprised by his new friend's surrender, was disarmed and taken away by two of the strongest guards. He struggled to stay by Ziedon's side, but to no effect. Ziedon was taken by both arms, and led away, several yards behind Heralbid. He calmly allowed himself to be taken into custody.
The courthouse was large and kept in good repair. A pair of gargoyles hung over the great doorway, each holding a sign of Andritha, the Fighter on the left, the Lover on the right. The party of guards and prisoners passed through a total of four doors, rooms and hallways before coming to an old, pale and bitter-looking man who sat at a small desk. The party waited for the man to speak for what must have been hours. From time to time, a soldier would leave and a new one would enter. None of them were allowed to sit, not that there were chairs to sit on. Finally, the man spoke. “The judge will see you now,” he said, and they passed through the fifth and final door without further delay.
The judge rapidly gave the impression of being bored, tired, and totally disinterested in fair justice. But perhaps all judges give such impressions to the accused.
“So,” the judge said, and gave a long pause, reading a scrap of parchment on his enormous desk. “You've been accused of treason, manipulation of the town guard, and…” he looked strangely at the guards who held Ziedon, “witchcraft?”
“He bewitched Heralbid!” said a familiar voice. “I was there when it happened!”
“We'll have a calm demeanor in this court, and no one will speak without my leave.” The judge put no emotion in his words, seeming more interested in quoting the law that carrying it out. “The punishment for treason is life imprisonment and slow starvation, following the confession and naming of accomplices. For manipulation of the guard, a fine of two thousand silver aglars. For witchcraft, a fine of six thousand silver aglars and a public hanging.”
“If I may say a word in my defense?” Ziedon asked. The judge glared at him, and pointed to Heralbid's companion, who was anxious to speak. Heralbid himself stood in a corner, still held by the two strongest guards.
“I saw him bewitched! We were asking questions like we been told by the captain, and we saw these three –”
“Three?” interrupted the judge.
“The other two ran off, didn't want to face a fair trial.”
The judge looked to the back of the room, at the highest ranking officer present, who answered the judge's look with words. “We have men out looking for them.” The judge turned back to the soldier.
“He was there in his black robes, planning his witchcraft, and there was a woman dressed like a soldier, and a fiery imp waited for its commands.”
“Hardly an accurate description,” said Heralbid. “He was short, that's all.”
“Quiet!” the judge said, and looked back at Heralbid's companion.
“They was looking from cart to cart, pretending they wanted to buy, but then running off to the next, all the while planning their treason!”
Heralbid spoke up again. “There was no sign that they were treasonous.” The judge glared at Heralbid, and the soldier to his left jabbed a knee into his chest, forcing him to double over and stop talking.
“Then we stopped them for questioning, Heralbid too, and then he was bewitched.”
“I tell you, I was not bewitched,” Heralbid managed to croak.
“See? If you wasn't bewitched, you wouldn't have to tell me you wasn't.”
“That makes no sense. There's no evidence that this man's a warlock.” Heralbid was shut up again in a similar fashion as before.
“He took the sorcerer's side, and pretty soon he was fighting me, and all the others who came to help! And then the imp attacked me, and ran off with the woman.”
“Very well,” the judge said. “The prisoner will be –”
“Sir,” Ziedon interrupted.
The judge looked Ziedon up and down, in a none to friendly fashion. “Make it fast. It's going to be starvation or hanging, so I suggest you admit you're a witch and stick with the more merciful sentence.”
“Honorable Sir,” Ziedon replied, preparing himself for an eloquence that was rarely heard from his lips. “I frankly do not know why I am here in this court of law. I came to this town as a well-intentioned visitor. I arrived here with a few other travelers, with whom I had been traveling for security and defense. Once in your great city, myself and two others walked your streets to marvel at the wonders that your city has to offer. I do not know why I was accosted by your city guard and I do not know why my two traveling companions ran from the guard. I could have easily run as well. It is a testament to my innocence that I did not run.”
Ziedon paused to clear his parched throat and to let his words sink in. He signified that he wanted some type of refreshment to aid in his speaking, but no one seemed to notice. The judge yawned and raised his eyes to the ceiling.
“I am by profession an Herbalist,” Ziedon continued. “I carry on my person various herbs and roots and concoctions. My intent was to visit the merchants of this fair town and see if I could purchase herbs that are difficult to find. Little did I know that being a foreigner in your town was a crime. You may wonder why I am robed in black. The answer is that Herbalists of Rhongil wear black to indicate their profession. I am by no means a sorcerer who is here to corrupt your people, but an innocent pawn in some local dispute that is still unclear to me.
“I have placed myself in your custody because I know that the law is fair and just and because I have no reason to fear the law. I do not know what further I can say on this matter.”
“I would call the torturer to extract your confession,” the judge said, “but I'm tired and you annoy me. There is no evidence for treason, so that charge is dropped. You will pay two thousand silver aglars for manipulation of the guard, and four thousand for witchcraft. You will be imprisoned for a period of up to two years while you arrange for the payment. When you have paid your fine, you will be hanged.”
Despite the outrage he had just been subjected to, Ziedon maintained his respect for the law. He was willing to accept the judgment, but he hoped there was a way to atone for his crime other than lengthy imprisonment, a public hanging and a fine that was at least twenty times what he could hope to receive from the townsman. There had to be some process for appeal, or some other judge who would view his case more objectively. Though, to be honest, he had bewitched the soldier, and he was guilty of both crimes, probably the first man accused of such things with any degree of accuracy.
Ziedon was roughly pulled aside and led to the far door, behind the judge's desk. Heralbid was put in his place. “You are accused,” the judge began, “of conspiracy with a traitor, of threatening members of the town guard, and of murdering a Grenzig soldier. For the first crime, the punishment is beheading. For the second –”
The main door burst open, bringing silence to the room. A pair of high-ranking soldiers rushed to the judge, ignoring everyone else. They spoke with him in anxious but quiet tones, and the judge stood, straightened his robe, beckoned to his aides, and headed towards the back door. Ziedon was pushed aside by a soldier so the judge would not collide with him.
“What about the prisoners?” an aide asked the judge.
The judge stopped for a moment, and then continued on, walking rapidly out the door. “I don't care. Get rid of them!”
At that, the courtroom cleared. Ziedon was forcibly taken out the main door, through the four remaining doors, hallways and rooms, and thrown out onto the dusty gravel that made up the main road.
Relieved, but at a total loss as to what had just happened, Ziedon stood and dusted himself off. It was nearly evening, high time to find Ardith and the rest, and see how things were moving.