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The Quest - Chapter 1by Glen Sprigg
"Ludwig von Hendriks, you have been found guilty on the charges of murder, kidnapping, torture, robbery, piracy, and many more charges than we can list here today. The sentence is death by stoning, to be carried out tomorrow."
The hin crowd buzzed with excitement. Alexius stood near the podium, staring at his hated enemy. The sneer was gone from Ludwig's face, erased by the knowledge that his crimes had finally caught up to him. For a moment, Ludwig looked to where Alexius had been watching the proceedings, and their eyes met. Alexius permitted himself a small smile. It was, perhaps, a petty gesture, and Serrah would not have approved of it. But the Black Eagle's reaction was worth it. Ludwig turned away quickly, his face pale.
Ludwig was dragged away by the Krondar to the prison, to await his execution tomorrow. Alexius watched him go, his eyes remaining with the Black Eagle until he disappeared into the stone walls of the jailhouse. The knight then returned to the Karameikan embassy. The ambassador, Lazlo Manolescu, was waiting for him. The Ambassador was a dignified man of Traladaran descent, dressed in fine clothes.
"So, it is done," remarked Lazlo. "That didn't take very long."
"They didn't want to waste time," agreed Alexius. "Most of the time was taken with listing the charges against him."
"Were there any witnesses, or did they just pronounce sentence?"
"There were a few," replied Alexius as a servant took his blue cloak. "Mostly soldiers from the invasion. They talked about what they had seen in the Barony. Two hin who had been prisoners in Ludwig's dungeons testified as well."
"Did they exaggerate in their testimony?"
Alexius stopped and stared at Lazlo. "How could you even ask that question? You've been there, you know what it's like. Who needs to exaggerate anything?"
"I have to make a report," answered the ambassador. "There are a lot of people in the government who never visited the Barony. I want them to understand that the Black Eagle's trial was fairly conducted."
Alexius snorted. "'Visited.' You make it sound as if it's an Ierendi amusement park. And as for 'fair', who gives a damn about 'fair'? He's scum, and deserves exactly what he's going to get."
"I can think of a few people who care about 'fair', Alexius. I thought you were one of them."
Slexius said nothing, and the pair walked through the spartan hall to the embassy office. "So what will you do now?" asked the ambassador.
"I'll wait for the hin to carry out the sentence, then I'll carry your report back to Karameikos," answered the knight in a flat tone.
"And after that?" prodded the ambassador.
"I will perform whatever duties His Majesty sees fit to assign me," replied Alexius in the same tone.
They entered the embassy office, and a servant brought a decanter of Thyatian red wine. Lazlo poured them each a glass and sat down. "Will you settle down? I'm sure you could receive a grant of land. It would keep your mind off-"
"Off what?" snapped Alexius. "Serrah's death at the hands of that lunatic? Off the fact that I'm going to wake up every day for the rest of my life without her there? Off the fact that Bargle disintegrated her so that THERE WASN'T ENOUGH LEFT OF HER TO BURY? Even Sherlane couldn't do anything for her, Lazlo; there wasn't anything left for him to resurrect!"
Lazlo sat back in his seat, absorbing the lashing words. Alexius had been a haunted soul ever since the death of his wife last Sviftmont. He had begged the King in open court to declare Ludwig an outlaw, but Stefan had stalled, not wanting to stir up further violence in the wake of the horrible war that had ravaged the world. The aftershocks were still being felt, and Stefan was more concerned with cementing ties with his neighbours.
The King's disappearance last Eirmont had stunned the Karameikan government. The hin, finally fed up with Stefan's constant delays, had kidnapped him and taken him to the Black Eagle Barony, where he was forced to confront the fact of Ludwig's evil with his own eyes. Upon his return, he had revoked Ludwig's nobility and closed the Barony's borders. The hin had joyfully invaded shortly afterward, and Ludwig had been captured in a lightning strike. His henchmage, Bargle, had escaped, however.
Watching Alexius, Lazlo wondered if Alexius had been involved in those events in some way. Lazlo had heard rumours that Alexius was in Shireton a few weeks before King Stefan's disappearance. Could he have convinced the hin to take such action, letting his grief overcome his loyalty to his king? Alexius certainly had the drive to do such a thing, but it was hard to imagine him betraying his oath like that.
Without any evidence, Lazlo would say nothing; Sir Alexius was an upstanding member of the King's knights, and Lazlo's friend. But his suspicions remained.
"You need to relax," he said, causing Alexius to laugh for the first time in months.
"You're a fine one to talk of relaxing, Lazlo. You aren't exactly known for your wild parties here."
Lazlo shrugged uncomfortably. "I know I'm not as friendly as I would like. But I remember the way you used to be; you had a joke for every occasion, always able to lighten a dark mood."
Alexius sunk down in his chair. "That was a long time ago," he said. "Times were different then."
"You mean Serrah was alive." Alexius said nothing. "This is a fine way to mourn her. I may be socially awkward here, but you're making me look like that Darokinian, Donthiir.
"I never got to know Serrah very well," said Lazlo. "But I knew her well enough that she wouldn't want you to mourn her like this. If things were the other way around, and it was you who had died, she wouldn't have let it destroy her the way it's destroying you. For her memory's sake, don't act like this, Alexius."
"I'll act any damn way I please, Ambassador," stated Alexius, putting his untouched wine glass on Guldahan's desk. "I think I've earned that right. Good night."
Alexius Danellaran pulled his sword out of the strange corpse twitching on the floor. He and his companions had been trapped in this wizard's workshop for nearly a full day now, and time was running out. They had to find a way out of here.
Serinyella cocked her head to the side. "There's someone nearby," she said quietly. "They're not far."
"Your pointed ears telling you that?" muttered Garok, wiping the blades of his battle axe on a ragged cloth. The tough dwarf spoke quietly, though; Serinyella was indeed sharp of hearing, and her senses had saved the company from ambush more than once.
"Merrick, we don't have time to read old books," snapped Alexius. "Let's see who's in the neighbourhood. I have point. Serinyella, Brother Kanterius, you follow. Be ready for anything. Garok, bring the mage and watch our backs."
Alexius opened the door as silently as he could, pulling it open just enough to look through. The hallway beyond was empty. He motioned the others forward.
They stopped at a door. Serinyella nodded, indicating that someone was behind it. Alexius motioned Garok forward, and the two warriors flanked the door. The others took defensive positions further down the hallway.
After a minute, the door opened, and two cloaked and hooded figures came out into the hall. "Freeze!" shouted Alexius, stepping up and laying his blade at the second figure's throat. Garok had his crossbow pointed at the first, and Serinyella's bow was drawn and ready.
The two figures stood motionless. "Remove the hoods," ordered Alexius. "Then you can tell us what you're doing down here."
Slowly, the hoods fell away. The two figures were women, one with strawberry-blonde hair, the other with soft brown hair and matching eyes. Alexius looked at her for a moment, then slowly lowered his sword from her throat. "Who-who are you?" he asked, more hesitantly.
The blonde spoke up. "Oh, we're so glad we've found you," she said with wide eyes. We've been lost down here for days, and we so desperately want to get out. Can you please help us find the way out?"
Garok snorted. "Considering there aren't that many ways in to begin with, I'd like to know how you managed to get lost down here."
"We haven't found the way out yet ourselves," Alexius pointed out, his eyes still on the brown-haired beauty. She returned his look, and he could see the fear behind her eyes. "What's your name?" he asked.
"Oh, I'm Erren," said the blonde. "This is Serrah."
"How do you do?" asked Serrah in a quiet voice.
Alexius bowed slightly to her, his eyes never leaving her face. "Alexius Danellaran at your service, my lady."
She smiled at him in return, and Garok snorted. "If you two are finished communing with Valerias, can we get out of here now?"
Alexius looked over at the dwarf, whose arms were crossed. "If we're not going to kill them," continued the dwarf, "then let's move on."
"You're so vulgar," said Serinyella with a frown. "Can't you be a little more polite?"
"I'm a dwarf," he answered. "I don't do 'polite'."
Merrick coughed. "You do know that his Lordship will want to know what these women are doing here. He's going to suspect they are thieves intent on looting his uncle's treasures." He looked at the innocent-eyed Erren with a speculative eye. "I wouldn't disagree with him."
Erren huffed. "Well, that's a fine way to speak to a lady. We're lost, that's all. I didn't even know this was a wizard's lab."
"Who said it was?" asked Kanterius.
Erren looked at him, her voice caught in her throat. "Um, well, we saw stuff down here that looked like wizard stuff. What else could it be?"
"And how did you avoid getting killed by the guardians?" asked Serinyella. "We're a well-armed band, and we've had our hands full. Two unarmed women wouldn't stand a chance here."
Erren gave her a flinty gaze. "We're not that stupid," she said. "I have a sword. I know how to use it."
"Enough," said Alexius sharply. "We'll speak to his Lordship about it, but first we have to get out of here. We'll take them with us."
Alexius turned to Erren. "You did say you wanted us to help you out, didn't you? We're helping. Let's go." He turned back to Serrah, his stern gaze softening. "So where are you from?"
Alexius woke up, his whole body trembling. He wiped the tears from his face, trying to block out the memories that haunted his dreams. He kept hearing Serrah's final, agonising scream as her flesh was magically flayed and destroyed by Bargle's magic as Alexius watched helplessly.
He stood up, ignoring the stiffness in his joints. Ten hard years of campaigning had taken its toll on him, and the war had been truly brutal. He had seen more death in his travels during those years than he thought possible. And, according to the stories he had heard, the entire Alphatian continent had sunk beneath the waves, destroyed by the Immortals as punishment for their part in the war.
Looking outside, he saw that the sun was not yet up. He estimated another hour before dawn, and began to dress. His armour had been polished for him, and stood ready. Today was, after all, an important day, and he had to look his best.
In full armour, he went down to the servants' kitchen, where he ate a simple breakfast. He wanted to get out of the embassy early, before Lazlo came looking for him. The execution would take place before noon, and there was sure to be a big crowd; the Black Eagle had not made any friends among the hin over his long career.
He left the embassy at dawn and walked to the city gates. Two Krondar waved to him as he left the city, and he nodded in response. He went to the meadow where the execution was to take place, and waited. It would all be over soon.
As the sun rose in the sky, a large crowd began to gather. Many of the hin had thoughtfully provided their own stones, since the meadow was not especially rocky. The hin were not known for public executions, but the Black Eagle was a special man. He had always loved public trials and punishments when he ruled in Fort Doom, and the hin felt that it was an appropriate way to end his career.
Shortly before noon, a low drumming could be heard from the city. A procession of Krondar walked toward the meadow, the Black Eagle among them. He was unwashed, and wore dirty rags. His face was pale, but he sent venomous glances at the hin as he passed them. Several among the crowd shrank back from his glares, but most jeered him and called him various insulting names. Alexius merely watched.
A large pole had been stuck in the ground, and Ludwig was tied to it by a short rope that bound his hands. The Council of Sheriffs stood nearby, inside the circle of hin. Before they could proceed, however, a tall figure pushed his way through the crowd. It was Lazlo. Alexius looked at him, wondering what he intended to do.
Lazlo stood for a moment, catching his breath. "Your Honours, as the Karameikan ambassador, I must protest this treatment of one of our citizens. The trial of Ludwig von Hendriks was far too swift, and we feel it was unfair to convict him so quickly. We also believe that the sentence is unjust; there are more humane ways to execute a man than this."
The crowd began to mutter angrily, but Lazlo stood his ground, awaiting a reply from the Sheriffs.
The eldest of the Sheriffs, Multhim Greybeard, raised his hand for silence. "Ambassador, for years the hin have put up with invasions, torment, and suffering caused by this man. Your own King finally turned his back on him and did nothing to prevent us from capturing him. The Black Eagle was tried and convicted by our laws, and witnessed by one of your own." He nodded toward Alexius, who stood unmoving. Lazlo glanced over at the knight, but he knew that Alexius would say nothing to help him.
Multhim continued. "The sentence was deemed reasonable, considering the criminal's past actions. The whole of the Shires will know that justice has been done."
Lazlo stood silently for a moment, then shrugged. Alexius could almost read the man's mind; King Stefan had indeed turned his back on his cousin, and there would be no official protest from Mirros. There was nothing more Lazlo could do.
"So be it," said the ambassador. "The feelings of my government have been made clear to you." With a final look at Alexius, he left.
Sheriff Maeragh Littlelaughs, the chief justiciar of the Shires, raised her hand before the crowd could get too loud. "Ludwig von Hendriks, you have been sentenced to death by a court of law. Have you anything to say before sentence is carried out?"
Ludwig sneered at her, and spat at her feet. The crowd grew restless, and Maeragh nodded. "Spoken like the dog you are," she said firmly. The sheriffs then turned their backs on the condemned man, and the circle of hin parted for them.
The crowd grew even angrier, and the Fallen Eagle was subjected to a torrent of jeers and abuse. Then the first rock came flying through the air, followed by several more. As the stones began to strike him, Ludwig flinched involuntarily.
Then he disappeared.