Gentle Justice

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Gentle Justice

Samuel Marshall
Part 1

‘No,’ the imposing guardswoman said, staring down her nose at his drenched clothing. A flash of lightning brought her disdainful face into clear view. ‘I can’t put this any more succinctly. You’re not coming in.’

‘But I–’ he protested, his voice trailing off as the door slammed in his face.

Rain dripped from his hooded cloak, some finding its way to chilled flesh. The sky above, laden with cloud so that the current dusk was little brighter than full night, rumbled threateningly.

Sure, technically he wasn’t on his country’s official business. And sure, the diplomatic presence therefore wasn’t bound to offer him assistance. But on a night like this, and when there was nowhere else to stay…

Talaerin glared at the weather, and the night, and the embassy’s unyielding façade, and the looming banks and shops that made up this prestigious but unwelcoming street; glared and cursed the darkened buildings in every language he knew. This had been his last hope for lodging, the innkeepers in this gods-forsaken town being too twisted up in their own paranoid fantasies to even entertain the notion of housing a foreigner. It had been five years since the war ended, but distrust – at the very least – still prevailed against those who were no longer officially enemies.

He had long dark hair, which he wore braided in the fashion for men of status (a qualification which he did not truly meet), gleaming brown eyes, and six feet in height; these features marked clearly his difference from the natives here. Snivelling wretches, he thought of them, small with light hair that they cut short as if shamed, silent and poker-faced… but at that moment he would have given much to appear their like, so that an inn would admit him and a night of shivering against the storm did not seem in immediate prospect.

Glumly he surveyed the area in the fading light, wondering where best to go. Perhaps there was some unguarded warehouse or abandoned home he could find for his rest. He brought to mind a mental map of the large town, visualising the mess of roads that spread untidily from the market place. Nowhere hopeful suggested itself.

An elf child skittered across the street, hurrying from one back alley to another. Tolerated little better than vermin – though far less numerous – the race seemed to survive similarly in most cities. This one wore patched and holed clothing, its black hair shorn awkwardly to shoulder-length with ragged strokes. Its gender was indeterminate to human eyes; there was little to go on, since even adult females were relatively flat-chested, and the males had soft, rounded features.

Talaerin would normally have ignored the pitiful creature, but its presence gave him an idea. Surely these beggars had somewhere to hole up for the night.

‘Hoy,’ he called to it, ‘Elf-child…’

The elf paused and turned to regard him, coming a little closer. Its gaze was rather less fearful than he had expected, staring as it was on an armed man half again its height and at least twice its weight. He found himself a little disappointed, realising that perhaps even he was, at this moment, no less pitiful a sight than any street beggar.

‘What do you want?’ the elf asked evenly – a male, Talaerin finally decided, its voice just barely deep enough to give the clue. It - he - was observing him intently, as if to make a judgement.

He looked down, unnerved, and said more politely than he had planned, ‘I’ve nowhere to stay tonight. Do you know a place? I have a little coin…’

There was a long pause, only the incessant drumming of rain preventing it from becoming a silence. Though he wasn’t looking directly at the elf, he had the feeling he was being scrutinised still further.

‘There’s a room where we sleep,’ the elf said finally. ‘For a silver coin, you can stay with us tonight. It’s not much, but it’s dry.’

‘I haven’t got–’ he began to lie, then caught the creature’s piercing gaze once more and thought better of it. Sighing – the coin should have bought him a comfortable bed in a proper inn – he reached into his meagre pouch and tossed a silver into the elf’s outstretched hand. ‘This better be good.’

Ignoring his comment, the elf said softly, less formally than before, ‘I’m Arran. Your name is…?’

There was no particular reason to give an alias here. ‘Talaerin.’

‘Well met, then. Follow me.’

Arran led the way swiftly through a twisted maze of alleyways, ill-planned gaps between the buildings that crowded into each street. Talaerin followed, barely keeping pace despite his longer legs. Water streamed off the roofs above in small torrents, splashing messily. Numerous potholes dotted the unmade paths, hard to avoid in the dim light. In a few minutes he was wetter and dirtier than before, something he’d barely deemed possible.

‘We’re here,’ the elf announced, on reaching a spot more or less as nondescript as any other. Talaerin wiped rain from his eyes and peered around; they were standing between two solid stone dwellings, in what was probably – if you entered the street just visible ahead – a well-heeled residential area.

Arran crouched down, grabbing the bars of an iron grating that lay in the base of one wall. He strained and, after a slight grunt of effort, the metalwork came loose. ‘In there.’

Talaerin hesitated; the narrow gap didn’t look like it would fit anyone bigger than, well, an elf.

‘Come on,’ Arran repeated impatiently.

Sighing once more, Talaerin gingerly knelt by the hole (the damp made no difference to his sodden breeches) and extended one leg through it. Nothing bit, so he put the other leg in as well, balancing on his midriff about the entrance. He lowered himself onto the floor inside, carefully – but not carefully enough to avoid hitting the back of his head on the stone. Stunned, he half-fell the remaining few inches and stood there, swaying slightly.

Within, the room was almost dark; a single candle guttered and spat, providing a flickering dimness. Faint shadows stretched far across the wide area; it looked like a large wine cellar, though there were no barrels. Separate storage alcoves lined each side of the room, too dark to see within.

Arran followed behind and Talaerin turned to watch him slipping down into the cellar with what could only be described as an inhuman grace. He still held the grate and hung onto it for a second, working it firmly into place, before dropping the remaining distance.

‘Well, here’s here. You can sleep in that alcove.’ He gestured at one of the nearer openings. ‘I suggest you do so now – you’ll probably be wakened early tomorrow.’

‘Okay,’ Talaerin agreed, a little confused.

Arran turned away, heading for another alcove at the far end of the room, then looked back. ‘Just one thing. Don’t try anything foolish.’

He nodded mutely, then thought – was that a warning? Was he being warned, by this elf-child? He hadn’t been expecting a ragged beggar to be remotely this controlled and self-assured, leaving him – a strong, sometimes dangerous man – clearly taking an inferior role.

Regardless, at least he had a place to rest, and at least it was dry. He stepped carefully into his allocated place and slipped out of his cloak, which was unfortunately too wet to be of any use as a blanket; he would have to make do with the stone floor. His other clothes were actually less wet than he expected, only mildly damp. The cellar seemed quite warm, perhaps retaining some of the heat from earlier – on what was, after all, supposed to be a summer’s day.

He lay down, removing those few possessions which would be uncomfortable to sleep on, and placing his sword on the cloak by his side. The stone was unpleasant, to be sure, but he’d slept on worse.

By now the candle had guttered out and the only light was a faint bluish glow from the grating, barely enough to see his hands if he held them in front of his face. He closed his eyes, trying to relax. There were others in this cellar, he could tell from faint sounds of breathing, not just the elf. But it was all right, he told himself. He always slept softly, and would wake if anyone came too near or tried to steal from him. He was in no danger. It was time to sleep.

Dawn came quickly, bringing with it sounds of movement that echoed faintly from the street above. The grating glowed bright, filling the cellar with a low white radiance. In this light, the grey-stone walls and partitions seemed strangely peaceful; almost like one of the churches that dotted this country.

Talaerin moaned softly to himself and rolled over. The hard floor had not been good to him. He was all cramps and most parts that could ache, did. He sat up, tried to stretch, and winced.

Frozen mid-stretch, he noticed a slight unevenness in the line of his left boot. Abandoning the exercise, he brought that foot closer to check; indeed, the small compartment hidden there had become loose.

He glanced around; nobody was within sight of this alcove and he heard no movement. With the tip of a fingernail, he nudged the tiny release catch fully into the ‘open’ position. The compartment opened properly. Reaching into it, he pulled out a much-folded sheet of paper.

He hadn’t really thought that someone had managed to open the little hidey-hole in the night, with the boot on his own foot at the time, but still there was some relief. Nothing was missing. Folded within the paper rested the single gem – a turquoise, not particularly valuable – that he kept for emergencies. And the map itself…

He opened it up, spread it flat on the floor, a little larger than his hand. Its uneven lines and spidery lettering marked a route that he had thoroughly memorised, but there was no harm in checking one more time. Quietly he muttered the description from memory, tracing along to make sure he had it right.

‘Southgate… the road southwest, for about eight miles, then first camp… west through Bengrui Forest… another camp on the banks of the Ritje, by the ford…’ He paused; the marked route continued, but by his finger an X lay through its line. ‘And there the attack.’

‘Looks like a caravan route,’ Arran said neutrally, leaning close over the map.

Talaerin shrunk back by reflex, yanking the map from under the elf’s gaze. ‘What the… how did you…’ He gave up trying to form a coherent sentence and instead grabbed the pommel of his sword. He didn’t like killing, and certainly not children, but this elf brat had definitely seen too much. Maybe threats would work. He composed his face sternly, opened his mouth –

‘Don’t bother.’ Arran jerked a thumb at the sword. ‘Put that down. I can be out of here before you even have it unsheathed, and well on the way to a guardsman.’

Talaerin froze, considering. He’d seen last night how agile the elf was, and the fact that he had appeared as if by magic just a moment ago didn’t provide reassurance either. All the child had to do was run a little distance, after all. Carefully, he put down his weapon. ‘Look, child. I’m meaning no harm to you or yours. Just forget you saw that, and there’ll be no trouble.’

‘I’m not a child,’ Arran said patiently, ‘and it’s not quite as simple as that.’

Damn. Age, it seemed, was another thing you couldn’t tell as easily in that race. He tried another tack. ‘If you go to the guards, I’ll deny everything. It’ll be your word against mine. And you’re an elf…’

Arran laughed humourlessly. ‘Yes, I am. But you’re a foreigner.’

Talaerin scowled, dismayed. Elves were universally distrusted and shunned – but they hadn’t been at war with this country just five years ago. He found himself without words, outmanoeuvred by an elf who was evidently not a child. Most thought the race was far less intelligent than humans; he was no longer so sure.

‘Relax,’ Arran admonished him finally, seemingly becoming impatient. ‘I’m not going to turn you in. You’ll just need to help us a little.’

‘Help you a little?’ Talaerin echoed, not letting hope colour his voice.

‘I see you’re returning to Krynneth with a trade caravan – at least for part of the way,’ Arran emphasised, smiling dryly. ‘We’d like you to take your fiancé along.’

‘My… oh, no. Oh, no.’ Talaerin shook his head emphatically. ‘Whoever it might be, I can’t possibly take her. What kind of caravan employs guards who bring along their girlfriends?’

‘The kind that takes on guards who work without pay,’ Arran retorted. ‘Guards who only want a safe journey home for their quiet, veiled but doubtless lovely bride-to-be, who certainly won’t cause any trouble.’

‘Veiled?’ Talaerin raised his eyebrows. ‘You’ve been doing some of your homework, but I’m hardly the strict religious type.’ The Runite temple, dominant in his homeland, did have an old tradition of veiling the betrothed.

The elf smiled briefly; a genuine smile, out of place in the situation. He waved one empty hand lightly in front of Talaerin’s face. ‘There – elf dust. Consider yourself magically converted.’

Somebody smothered a laugh elsewhere in the cellar, but Talaerin didn’t bother to look. Obviously they were all in this together. He scowled, wishing he’d never thought to look for their refuge. ‘Cut the humour. I get the message. Is this really the easiest way to get somebody out of the city?’

Arran shrugged. ‘This is the first good opportunity that didn’t involve paying anyone. We’ve no money.’

‘I can see how that would limit your options,’ Talaerin muttered sourly.

He went through the scheme in his head. Since he’d already been planning to offer his services for free, in order to ensure a place in the caravan, that aspect of it wasn’t a problem; in fact, the presence of a ‘fiancé’ might make his story more convincing. He’d merely have one more thing to lie about, and lying was his forte. Just that, in order to avoid potential serious trouble from this little creep and his comrades.

‘What’s the point of this charade, anyway?’

Arran shrugged. ‘Ask her yourself. You’ll be together for a few days.’

‘Glad I’m to be well-informed,’ Talaerin sneered, eliciting no response whatsoever. ‘It’s time I went to sign on. Where is she?’

‘In the alley above. We’ll let you know when it’s clear to climb out.’

He nodded resentfully, slipped the map and gem back into his boot, and pushed closed the not-so-secret compartment. It stuck, needing a little extra force, at about the point where it had been last time; he shoved it home. Then he hooked the sword to his belt, threw on his mostly-dry cloak, and stood below the grating.

Arran whistled a couple of tones, presumably some signal. They stood waiting for a few minutes. Then, without warning, the grille was lifted loose from outside.

An elven face peered in through the gap. ‘Hurry,’ she exhorted him – the voice sounded female, this time. ‘There’s only a few moments…’

He delayed a moment to help, glancing back at Arran. ‘Not… her?’

Arran shook his head, laughing at the horrified expression.

‘Thanks,’ Talaerin muttered bitterly, ‘thanks for everything.’ He reached up to the ledge above, planted one foot on the wall, and dragged himself up.

The elf above grabbed his hand firmly and helped him the rest of the way out, and to his feet. He ended up staring at her face – not because of its softly rounded features, the unearthly large eyes, or even the streaks of mud that marred its appearance, but because she was smiling happily as if there wasn’t a care in the world.

‘In here!’ she said quickly, shoving him in the direction of a reasonably-sized alcove opposite, a little space in front of a building’s side door which would not be visible from the main street. ‘There! Don’t worry, nobody uses that door… what’s wrong?’

He realised he was still staring at her and looked down, composing his face into what was becoming a customary bitter glare. ‘Nothing much, I’ve only been blackmailed.’ But then curiosity got the better of him. ‘Why so happy?’

She smiled brilliantly, a stray shaft of sunlight momentarily flashing from one large eye. ‘I’m sorry we had to force you, really I am. But it’s such a wonderful plan, and you might not have agreed to it by choice!’

‘Damn right,’ he muttered.

‘And,’ she continued oblivious, ‘we finally get Mica free! Look, I’ve already been to get her this veil…’

‘Arran told me you people had no money.’

‘Well, I sort of stole it,’ she admitted brightly. ‘But the dressmaker won’t miss it, he’s awfully rich. C’mon, Mica, put it on…’

She handed the gauzy material (which miraculously seemed to have escaped the dirt that was liberally spattered over the rest of her) to a small, plain young woman who stood in the other corner of the alcove, twisting her hands nervously.

Mica was just as you’d expect a girl from this gods-forsaken city to be, Talaerin observed sourly. She was barely taller than the elf. Her eyes were grey-brown and narrow – the exact opposite of her enthusiastic companion, though at least Mica’s didn’t give that eerie ‘not-human’ impression. Her skin was only lightly tanned, a few shades paler than his. She had a small nose, but probably it was still larger than considered appropriate here. Freckles dotted her cheeks, and – worst of all – her hair had been brutally treated as per local custom, hacked short enough that it barely reached her neck.

All in all, her face was not unpleasant, and who was he to criticise… but he would never have agreed to marry someone who treated her hair like that! He passed a hand over his own braid (rather untidy, this morning) in comparison, wincing at the thought of its loss.

Mica had tied the veil and put up the hood of her cloak, which was a nondescript grey. She looked every bit the perfect betrothed now, exactly how some devout Runite might bring back a wife from some foreign city. (Assuming he did. Devout Runites weren’t generally much on foreigners.) He sighed internally; he only knew two passages from the Trebal’shuur Scriptures. Maybe he should practice them in case he needed some quotes.

Talaerin returned his attention to the girl. ‘Okay, you’ll do. What’s your name?’

She began to answer but he interrupted immediately, ‘No, not your real name, what are you going to call yourself?’

‘I know that,’ she said icily from behind the veil, sounding stronger than her previous nerves had suggested. ‘I’m not stupid, you know. Call me Helena.’

‘Okay, Helena,’ he said evenly, expecting to catch her out the next time. ‘I’m Talaerin. Where are you from?’

‘Ba’alesh. I was here visiting family, when I met you.’

‘Fine.’ She had thought it out; his estimation of the girl went up a little. ‘Where did we meet?’

She hesitated. ‘Have you seen the waterfall in Aishen Park?’

He nodded – he’d passed the beauty spot yesterday, although there had been plenty enough water falling from the sky so that a picturesque stream dropping two feet through a rock garden hadn’t really impressed.

‘We met there two weeks ago. I dropped a hat in the water and you climbed under the bridge to get it for me. We got to talking, agreed to meet again the next day… it was love at first sight.’

He managed to suppress an unkind snort, held it back because even though the only reaction he’d had on first sight was mild distaste, it wasn’t fair to highlight that: she was good, to come up with a convincing story this quickly. If she could remember it (he was in no doubt of his own ability to do so), and they weren’t forced to make up conflicting details, there was no reason for discovery.

‘Good. I’ll remember that. What else?’

‘You were supposed to leave with a caravan a week ago, but you stayed for me… finally you managed to convince my uncle of the marriage, which he agreed to on my father’s behalf because he knew Father wanted to get rid of me.’

She said the last part a little more vehemently than he’d expected – damn, she was really getting into it.

‘Okay. And because I’m a good Runite, I got you a veil –where did I buy it?’ He addressed the last part to the elf, who stood looking on.

She giggled. ‘From Keelong the dressmaker. Shop’s on Main Street, you can’t miss it.’

‘Fine. And,’ he turned back to Mica, ‘your uncle insisted that you travel with a caravan, not alone with me, because it wouldn’t be proper. Right?’

She nodded.

‘That’s good enough,’ Talaerin decided. Damn, the girl could lie like, well, like him – maybe this little chore wouldn’t be too painful after all. ‘Let’s get going, Helena.’

‘I’m ready.’

He looked at the elf girl. ‘Please do pass on my thanks for everything.’

At least she spotted the sarcasm; her eternal smile slipped a little. But then she stepped close to him, closer than he would expect. She put both her hands on his shoulders and stared up into his eyes, leaning uncomfortably close and trapping his gaze irrevocably.

Maybe he should have thought it some romantic impulse, but he didn’t make that mistake for a second; he was having to fight an instinct to run. Her eyes, deep green-centred saucers, seemed almost to fill his vision.

‘I’m sorry you don’t like us,’ she said softly, ‘but you will take care of Mica, won’t you?’

‘Uh- uh, yeah…’

‘Glad to hear it.’ She backed off a good two feet and smiled sweetly. ‘Have fun!’

Talaerin strode confidently along the alley and then out into the street, Mica – Helena – walking dutifully by his side. What the hell, he thought, had that little veiled threat been about? He had just been intimidated by a creature’s eyes?

She had certainly done that intentionally, must have known that there was some gut reaction in humans. And the purpose behind it… the warning… maybe it was just a bluff. Maybe. Or maybe that was a person – well, an elf – you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of.

He’d been resigned to this task anyway, didn’t have anything against the girl, certainly wasn’t going to attack her. There was no need to worry about any potential revenge for some attack he wasn’t going to commit.

Even so, he thought back to those eyes, and shivered.