The Web Of Darkness

Soledad

Chapter 024

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Chapter 24

Chapter Notes

Warning: this chapter discusses truly disturbing things to a certain extent (nothing in-depth, descriptive or detailed, but still), so it is only for adult readers.
For the layout of Esgaroth, once again, I used Karen Fonstad’s Atlas of Middle-earth. The Town Hall has vague similarities with Beorn’s house in structure but not in its final shape.
The social structure of the Lakemen is based on old Scandinavian society, although there are marked differences, starting with the Lakemen’s more peaceful nature. The Great Gathering is something similar to the thing, in which every free man had the right to participate. For the trial itself, I consulted “Life in a Medieval Town” by Frances and Joseph Gies, particularly what is said there about the legal practice of charter towns. Nonetheless, this is not a simple copy of medieval customs, just based on them.


PART 24

As living space was precious in a town as constricted as Esgaroth, the Town Hall, like all public buildings, utilized the available space most cleverly. It was surprisingly large, compared with other public places – with the possible exception of the Great Feasting Hall at the Market-Pool – about twenty by thirty-five feet, capable of taking in the entire Guild Merchant during the Small Gathering. This consisted of all those merchants and craftspeople who had been acknowledged as masters of their craft, which meant over two hundred people, after all, not counting the drakkar captains, who also had the right to participate, the Master Bowman, the captain of the Town Guard and other folk who, if not exactly burghers, were highly respected nonetheless.

To house so many people during important events, wooden platforms were raised along three of the hall’s four walls. These platforms went up in wide, steep steps as high as four levels, like some sort of wooden terrace, and on each level comfortable seats had been crafted for the respectable burghers and burghesses, carved of wood and padded with flat pillows to make them more comfortable.

The only wall left empty was the short one right from the entrance. There, on a long, narrow dais, canopied seats stood for the members of the Town Council (the ruling body re-elected every ten years, as the Lakemen believed in giving their chosen rulers enough time to prove their leadership skills), and right before the dais stood the desks of the clerks who made records of all the dealings during a Gathering.

According to ancient custom, which the Lakemen had brought with them from their home of old in the North, every free-born man and woman had the right to participate in the Great Gathering, or to witness the meetings of the town Council, which were, without exception, public. People were entitled to know how the decisions that concerned their daily lives were made. And, unlike in any other town in Eriador or Rhovanion – ever in Dale, people let their rules hold council and make decisions on their own – the Lakemen found delight in knowing what was going on in the Town Hall. Whenever their work allowed, they came to listen to the Council meetings… and protested very vocally whenever they felt that a foolish choice was about to be made.

Drizzt found this livid interest for public welfare heartening. It reminded him a little at Ten-Towns, where the settlements did not have an overlord, either, and had to settle their disputes among themselves. And while Esgaroth was a far more pleasant place than any settlement in Ten-Towns could hope for, that fact made him feel at home… a little.

“Will Master Ketill lead the hearing?” he asked his host as they were walking towards the Town Hall on the western quay.

Master Otir shook his head. “Nay, for he must make his own testimony as a witness. Besides, he is kin to Turcaill by marriage; it would not be proper for him to judge the man. His brother, Master Kolbeinn – who is the magistrate of the town – will preside. He is an educated lawperson – he was taught the laws and customs of Dale as well as those of our kinsmen in the North – and so is his son Bekan, who will represent the town in this case. A selected body of Guild heads and other respected people will serve as co-judges… including myself, as I was no witness to any of Turcaill’s actions and thus can be considered as impartial.”

“You have lawyers among you?” Drizzt did not know why he was so surprised. Perhaps because the Lakemen seemed such simple, straightforward people, with no need for help to deal with disagreements.

Master Otir grinned and shrugged his undamaged shoulder; the other one still could not do even such simple gestures well, and it was doubtful if it ever would.

“They are not well-loved, for sure,” he admitted. “People resent their pretensions, and their pedantic interpretations of our laws and customs irritate everyone,” he laughed briefly and rolled his eyes. “They insist on exact forms and formulas about just everything! But they I needed, I must admit that. They keep records of all the crimes committed, and reviewing the old cases often can help us to make the right judgement.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the bailiff who summoned Master Otir to the Hall. Drizzt was asked to wait outside ‘til he, too, was called in to make his testimony.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Under normal circumstances the Guild heads and other important people served town justice in a rotation. Only four or five of them were usually needed to judge in such minor cases as petty theft, fraud or minor assault. This time, however, they had to deal with treason, slavery and grand theft – and with even more disturbing crimes where the servant Prostr was concerned – and thus the combined wisdom of more people was required.

Those who had a testimony to make could not be chosen as judges, of course. But Esgaroth had enough wise and experienced men and women – for they made no distinction based on gender, unlike in some other lands – to choose from.

And thus there were selected: Mistress Arnthrud, the head of the Ropemakers' Guild; Saemund, the Master Carpenter of the town; Master Shaering, the oldest of the shoemakers, who was also head of the Leatherers’ Guild; Master Otir, nominally still the captain of the archers; Mistress Solveig, the baker, with her husband Thorgils Miller; Master Oddmar, the tailor (who happened to have married Thórvé Otirsdaughter); Ölmódhr, the Master Bronzesmith and Master Víglund, the barber-surgeon.

They took their places in the row of canopied seats but did not sit yet. The bailiff, who had been waiting next to the entrance, now slammed down the intricately wrought staff of his office (it was the best Dwarven handiwork, with a bronze dragon sitting on its upper end) and exclaimed loudly.

“Harken, harken!” All rise to greet Master Kolbeinn, the Magistrate!”

People rose from their seats respectfully, and in came Kolbeinn, the brother of Master Ketill, with his son Bekan at his elbow and two clerks in tow. The two lawyers had a vague similarity to the Master of the Town, although in a younger and – in Kolbeinn’s case – much more voluminous version. He was easily the fattest Man Drizzt had seen since his arrival to Middle-earth; almost bloated, in fact, which reminded Drizzt unpleasantly of the Driders of his homeland.

Barely had the lawmen entered the Gathering Hall, Drizzt was summoned already. The bailiff escorted him to the canopied seats of the judges, and one of the clerks asked for his full name.

“I am Drizzt Do’Urden, from the House Daernon N'shezbaernon,” he used the ancient name of his House, for more effect, and was darkly amused to see the clerk’s difficulty to spell it.

As polite as the Lakemen were to him, he could feel that not all of them had taken his presence in Master Otir’s house as easily as the Master Bowman’s family. They were not hostile, never that, but they were wary around him, more so than the Men of Dale would be. Apparently some still suspected that he would be some sort of Orc or whatnot, just because of his dark skin.

“And where are you from, Master Drizzt?” asked the clerk, using only his given name as was the Lakemen’s custom.

“Menzoberranzan,” replied the Drow. “It is one of the great underground cities of the Drow – the Dark Elves – in what we call the Underdark. But you need not to worry,” he added with a crooked smile, seeing their pale faces. “The way that led me here has been closed forever. No-one can come over from my world again.”

“Does that mean that you cannot return home, either?” asked Mistress Arnthrud, an iron-grey goodwife with arms that would make a grown man proud.

“Nay, I cannot,” answered Drizzt, “but that concerns me little. There is nothing left for me in Faerûn; I shall be content enough to live out my remaining years with King Thranduil’s people in Mirkwood.”

The fact that he apparently did not plan to live among them seemed to put their minds at ease.

“That will be a long time,” commented the shoemaker, a small, rotund man with a ruddy face and short-cropped white hair, almost compassionately. “You are an Elf. Elves do not die, unless slain in battle – and, hopefully, there will be no more battles for many years to come.”

“That is my hope as well,” said Drizzt. “But we Drow are different from the Elves of Middle-earth. We have a long life – four hundred years or more can we live, if we are not killed before our time – but we are as mortal as you are.”

“Are you now?” that seemed to shock Master Shaering a little, but Master Kolbeinn intervened ere he could have asked any more questions that did not concern the official hearing.

“Master Elf, we have been told that you were watching Spymaster Turcaill’s house during the recent nights,” he said. “What moved you to do so?”

“It was at the request of the Master of the Town,” replied Drizzt. “He told me that some proof had been found for the spymaster’s recent dealings with the enemy, and he asked me to watch the house, lest the spymaster tried to escape.”

“Have you seen any sign of Master Turcaill planning to do so?” asked the Magistrate.

Drizzt shook his head. “Nay; he seemed to have no idea of being suspected. He did order his servant, though, to poison the young Easterling; the one who has been apprenticed to the Master Blacksmith.”

“Why would he do that?” Ölmódhr Bronzesmith was shaken by such a cold-blooded plan. “The lad had never done him any harm.”

“But he could have done so in the future, or so the spymaster feared,” explained the Drow. “It appears that the lad saw him in Siltric Jarl’s tent once or twice. He might remember that, the spymaster said, and that must not happen.”

“Did you hear what kind of poison they wanted to use?” asked the barber-surgeon quietly. Poisons – and the possible way to counteract them – were his field of expertise, and he was always eager to learn more.

Drizzt nodded. “Something the water goblins would use, they said; and that it has no cure and produces the symptoms of a common heart seizure.”

The barber-surgeon looked at the head judge in alarm. “We must search the spymaster’s house again!” he said urgently. "If he has samples of such a poison stored away, it must not fall in the wrong hands!”

“Nonsense,” said the Master Carpenter. “There are no such things as water goblins.”

“I would not be sure,” replied the barber-surgeon, who had been called to Mistress Yrsa’s house last night to be instructed in the treatment of little Halli but sworn to secrecy until the whole truth would be revealed. “Yet even if they are but a myth, the poison apparently does exist. They intended to use it. We must find it and make sure no-one can lay a hand on it for their own purposes.”

“Agreed,” said Master Kolbeinn. “We might count on the help of Turcaill’s wife; we shall hear her next. But first tell us, Master Elf: have you learned anything else?”

“If I understood them correctly, they had some boys kept in chains among the ruins of the old town,” answered Drizzt, “to dive under the Lake and harvest the gems and gold from the Dragon’s corpse for them.”

That piece of news made everyone gasp in disbelief. The fear from the Dragon, even in its death, even so many years after the fiery destruction of the old town, was still very strong.

“What evil will moved them to do so?” Solveig Baker shook her head in exasperation. “They should know the treasure is cursed.”

“Nonsense!” said the barber-surgeon. “’Tis no more cursed than the gold we were given as reparation and to rebuild our town. Still, it is worrisome that Master Turcaill would do so. It appears that the Dragon Sickness, which caused the death of his forefather, the Master of the old town, had befallen him, too. A sad business it is; we must see to the depths of it.”

“We already have,” said Master Kolbeinn, “and terrible things have we learned. But, as the old sailor says, we must climb the mast one man after another, or the ship will keel over. If there are not further questions to Master Drizzt, we shall hear the testimony of Eydís Ketillsdaughter, Turcaill’s wife.”

There were no more questions, and thus Drizzt was allowed to find a place to sit in the Hall, while the Town Guards brought in Turcaill’s wife. She was a handsome woman for one who had three grown children (not to mention two others who had died in childhood): round and wholesome like a freshly-baked loaf and rosy with good health. Usually, she must have been a person of cheerful nature; right now, however, she seemed quite shaken from the sudden turn to the worse in her so well-ordered life.

She wore a fine dress in the best Dale fashion, but her wheat-blond hair – the kind that conceals the first grey strands for quite some time – was not properly done, just twisted into a knot in a hurry… and she was not wearing any jewellery, which, as every single Lakeman could have told Drizzt, was highly unusual. Perchance she had been taken from her home without proper time to make herself fully presentable. The hours spent alone in an empty archive chamber since then probably had not helped, either, if her tear-streaked cheeks were any indication.

But in whatever state her mind might be, she showed no weakness before the judges. She came in, erect and proud, in the certain knowledge that she could not be blamed for the actions of her husband – not willing to share the shame of a man who had not valued her enough to share his secrets with her. There could be little doubt that she would answer all questions truthfully.

Master Kolbeinn let the barber-surgeon be the one to question her, as he himself was her kin by marriage and could have been accused of being partial. While not a lawman himself, Master Víglund was an experienced man with a keen mind, used to make a distinction between truth and falseness. He would serve well as the questioner.

All his skills brought little result, though. Mistress Eydís, although she answered every question willingly – not to mention in abundant detail – clearly knew very little of her husband’s business… or any other activities of his, for that matter. At least she could tell them how often Turcaill had boarded one of his ships to travel south in the last year, or how often he would leave with a caravan of pack animals and carts, and how long he had been away. Those details given by her corresponded with the entries in her husband’s books, at least, so they had to be correct.

Seeing that Mistress Eydís would likely not be able to tell them anything of true interest, the judges released her, but asked her to stay in the Hall, in case they needed something to be confirmed. Next, the Magistrate summoned the spymaster’s only son.

Thorodd Turcaillsson was much like his father in his looks – rather on the shortish side, with russet hair and handsome features – but he had his mother’s gentle blue eyes. He readily told them everything about his father’s business… as far as he knew about it. For as much as he was supposed to earn said business one day, he seemed to know only about the legal part of it. Apparently, Master Turcaill had no thought him worthy to be trusted with the more… questionable choices.

“My father never considered me a worthy son; or my sister Arneidh a worthy daughter,” he added bitterly. “If you want to learn about his secrets, you must ask Sydne. She alone has ever been Father’s confidante, and privy to his… unofficial business.”

The judges asked a few more questions, but it was obvious that the young man knew nothing of importance. So they released him and called for Arneidh, his sister, who looked every bit like their mother – just twenty or so years younger. Her heavy sheaf of straw-blonde hair was coiled up on both sides of her kind, rosy face, and she wore simple clothes in local fashion, albeit made of fine linen instead of rough wool. She had not learned any craft on a level that would feed her, but she was known to be a passable weaver and seamstress who also did decent embroidery. What might be needed in a wealthy household, she would manage.

It was gossiped all over town that Gudhleif, the Harbour Master’s widowed son, had taken a liking to her, and that she was not unwilling to have him, either. Master Turcaill, however, had not given his consent yet, and many waggling tongues speculated that he would wish to see his younger daughter married off safely to the most promising suitor first – either to Gudhleif or to someone else, people were of two minds about that. The only thing to know for certain was that Arneidh, although seven years older, had to wait for Sydne’s future to be secured first.

If she was hurt by that, she concealed it well. She answered the questions of the judges honestly, but she could not tell much, as she had never been involved in the family business, not even as far as her brother. Unlike their mother, she did seem frightened of the future, though – which was understandable. As the daughter of a convict and a traitor, she now had little hope for a good life. Drizzt felt sorry for her; he knew how easily innocents could be swept away with the flood meant to wash out the guilty party.

Seeing that she could tell nothing useful, the judges released her, too, and called in Sydne, her younger sister, a girl of barely sixteen years. Now, this was a true daughter of her father’s, if there had ever been one, Drizzt decided, recognizing the shared features, the comely shape – and guessing a highly questionable mind within. The girl had inherited her father’s somewhat shorter stature – no doubt, the sign of an ancestor hailing from Dale – but was still tall enough to carry her graceful flesh with an ease and elegance that made her mother and sister appear rustic compared with her. Her colouring, too, was darker than theirs. She had a coiled braid of thick, russet hair, clustered in curls that framed a high, pale forehead, and dark, calculating eyes that missed nothing beneath straight brows that almost met above a finely bent nose and were darker brown than her hair.

She was wearing a dark green bliaut in the finest Dale fashion, looking flawlessly presentable, unlike the rest of her family. Despite her youth and beauty, there was clearly a dark, sinister mind working beyond the pleasant surface. Particularly her eyes made Drizzt shiver. Aside from the different colour, they reminded him of his sister’s. He pitied the man who would wed her one day, for clearly, she was born to rule whatever household would be given into her care, and rule with an iron fist.

She stood demurely before the judges, with downcast eyes, her trembling fingers tearing on the fine linen kerchief in her small hands, and answered every question with a readiness that was clearly false yet could not be proved as such. Her answers were not lies, but they revealed nothing either. She could avoid any direct question and talk around it with a skill that was almost eerie. Even her voice, low-pitched yet child-like, was meant to awake sympathy and trust… and it was fake, too. Drizzt could feel it, yet he could not quite put his finger on the actual falseness. She was like a slippery eel, winding herself out of every net, looking frightened and innocent all the time, yet knowing exactly what she wanted and how to get it.

Seeing that they would not get with her anywhere, the judges released Sydne Turcaillsdaughter and had brought in the father, for whom this whole trial had been called in the first place. They had him stand before them in chains, ‘in case he would try to do anything foolish’, as Master Kolbeinn explained. The head judge then began the questioning.

“Are you Turcaill, son of Allun, husband to Eydís Ketillsdaughter, father to Arneidh, Thorodd and Sydne?” he asked.

“I am,” replied the spymaster shortly. He did not seem overly worried – not yet.

“Have you served as the spymaster of this town for the last twenty-six years?” continued Master Kolbeinn.

“I have,” replied Turcaill.

“Have you been also doing business with the Easterlings during this time, particularly with a Khimmer jarl by the name of Siltric Silkbeard?” asked Master Kolbeinn.

“Of course,” answered Turcaill. “That was the only way to ensure the safety of my sister Heledd, and that of her son Ásgeirr. Besides, they provided me with useful information about the things that were going on in the lands of Rhûn. It served Esgaroth’s best interests. I truly cannot understand what I am accused of – and why. The merchants of Birka are all doing business with the Easterlings, after all.”

“There are many different kinds of business, not all of them honest… or wholesome for our town,” growled Master Otir. “Tell me again, how did your sister end up in Siltric Silkbeard’s court?”

“She was abducted, of course,” said Turcaill. “We have tried to buy her free for years, but to no end.”

Abducted,” repeated Master Otir slowly. “And yet both she and her son were in the position to spy on Siltric Jarl on your behalf. That is… unusual, to say the least.”

Turcaill shrugged. “She was in her master’s favour.”

“Which is highly unusual again,” pointed out Master Otir, turning to the other judges. “Based on what I know about the Easterlings – and I do know a great deal about them – a woman taken from her own people by force would not carry much favour with her owner… or have any privileges at all. She would be considered cattle; war booty, and her children would be mere slaves… or privileged servants at best, if they were pretty enough and if their mother indeed had her master’s ear. Something here does not ring true.”

“Fortunately, we have a way to achieve more clearance in this matter,” said Master Kolbeinn; then he turned to the bailiff. “Send in Master Dufgall’s young thrall.”

The bailiff nodded and went to fetch the young giant, who stood before the judges proudly, pressing his large fists to his chest as a sign of respect, in the manner of his own people. He was wearing simple clothes of good, homespun wool, and aside from his size, he almost looked like one of the Lakemen.

“Are your Geirrod, son of Gotharr Jarl, who is now a thrall of Dufnall Blacksmith to pay off a life debt to your master?” asked the head judge.

“I am,” replied the young Easterling proudly. There was nothing shameful in his current position, and he had finally understood that.

“Your father used to be one of Siltric Silkbeard’s allies, did he not?” continued Master Kolbeinn.

The young man nodded. “That is true. He was second in the Tribe of the White Kine; and I used to be his herald and his standard bearer.”

“Which means you had to enter the chieftain’s tent before your father to announce him properly at war gatherings,” said Master Otir.

Geirrod nodded again. “So it is our custom. I have entered the tent – or the cave dwelling or the ale-house – of Siltric Jarl many times in the recent year. We fought many battles on his side.”

“Then you are familiar with his court and those who visited him often, I suppose,” said the Master Bowman.

“I am,” replied the young man, “but most of those are likely dead now.”

“Likely,” agreed Master Otir, “but mayhap not all. Take a look around you and tell us: can you see here anyone who used to be a recurring visitor in your overlord’s court?”

Geirrod did as he had been asked, taking his time in order to be thorough. Finally, his bright blue eyes stopped at Turcaill’s face.

“Him,” he said simply. “I saw him several times. I was told he is the brother of Siltric Jarl’s late wife, Frau Heledd.”

“You say late wife,” said the head judge. “Is it then true that she is no longer alive? Can you tell us how did she die?”

“She has died from the dry sickness, two summers ago,” explained the young man. “Our women often die young, as they hardly ever leave the safety of the caves in which we dwell between two wars. Frau Heledd had been sickly and bedridden for years ere she succumbed to her illness. Most women beyond their first youth are.”

“Meaning that she could not supply her brother with any useful details about Siltric Jarl’s plans, the strength of his troops or anything else for quite a few years, could she?” concluded Master Kolbeinn.

“Of course not,” replied Geirrod with a snort. “And not just for the last few years. Siltric Jarl never trusted her. He suspected that she would spy on him on behalf of her brother, so he never allowed her anywhere she might overhear anything that could have been used against him. She was naught but Siltric’s pawn, so that her brother would keep supplying us with wares we needed… and with news about what was happening in Rhovanion.”

“I see,” the head judge gave the now deathly pale Turcaill a look that promised severe retributions. “What about her son?”

Geirrod snorted again. “Ásgeirr is the only one of Siltric’s get who is unworthy to be called a son… or even a Khimmer warrior. He is weak, unsteady and greedy – a good spy, but no warrior would ever follow him to battle. Siltric had many other, more capable sons from his concubines and slave women who made up his personal guards. Sigurrd was the strongest and most valiant of them… and also the most ruthless. Ásgeirr was tolerated at best and used to spy on the chieftain’s allies, but not part of his father’s counsels.”

“Was that the reason why he was captured in your father’s camp?” asked Master Otir.

Drizzt saw Turcaill draw in a sudden breath. Apparently, the spymaster had not known that his nephew was among the prisoners and the news bothered him a great deal.

Geirrod nodded. “Siltric Jarl sent him with us to spy on us. That is all he could do; not even for breeding was he good, as he would have spread his inherited weakness within the tribe. He might be a legitimate son, but he certainly was an embarrassment for the chieftain.”

“And you are certain that Mistress Heledd used to be Siltric’s legally bound wife, not just some slave woman?” clarified Master Kolbeinn.”

“I am sure,” answered Geirrod. “My father was invited to the chieftain’s bonding ceremony. She was his wife – what it was worth for him… or her.”

“And neither she nor her son has ever spied on Siltric Jarl, in order to provide our spymaster here with information?” asked Master Kolbeinn.

Geirrod shook his head. “I cannot imagine that. She did not have the means – and Ásgeirr has always tried to achieve a good position at his father’s court. He would never have undermined the chieftain’s power, as that was the only thing that kept him alive.”

That sounded convincing enough. Master Kolbeinn asked the other judges if they had any other questions. They had not, and so Geirrod was released and Weochstan, the one-eyed, greying Khimmer warrior was called before them. He knew very little that would have been of any use, but he supported Geirrod’s testimony about Mistress Heledd’s true status, and that young Ásgeirr had been very much devoted to his father and never provided his uncle with anything that could have been used against Siltric Jarl.

At this point, Master Kolbeinn asked Turcaill if he would want to add something to his previous testimony. But the former spymaster remained in stony silence.

“As you wish,” said the head judge, more sadly than angrily. “I thought you would use the chance to ease your conscience; but I cannot force you to do so. Ws shall have a break of an hour now, so that everyone can have refreshments, and the scribes can finish their documents. After that, we shall continue the questioning with young Ásgeirr.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
After the break – which Drizzt spent in the company of Gunnar Otirsson at the Market-pool, trying some of the local delicacies, which he found strange-tasting but agreeable – the trial continued. Like the onlookers and the judges themselves, Drizzt, too, was curious to see the much-discussed young man in the flesh… and was fairly surprised when Ásgeirr was finally led before the court, for the young man showed no trait of his Khimmer father at all. If anything, he came after his uncle - a great deal more than Turcaill’s own son.

The bear-sized Khimmer warriors might have found him wanting, but in the eyes of everyone else, he seemed like a compact, sound pillar of young manhood, with curly, russet hair framing his round face and dark, shrewd eyes under his heavy brows. He was still wearing the same clothes in which he had been captured: a fine, richly adorned leather tunic over the usual rough woollen trousers, and a long-sleeved shirt of fine cotton wool. His boots and his finely-made belt were crafted by a skilled leatherer, too, which fact already spoke of his position at his father’s court… both things belonging to the past now.

He could have been called a comely young man, if not for the unpleasant sneer on his youthful face. He seemed way too arrogant for someone in his current position, and Drizzt wondered whether he had been told about the outcome of the battle for Dale at all. Whether he knew that his father was dead and the war lost for the Easterlings. He glared at his judges quite defiantly, as if he would not accept their right to judge him in the first place. As if they were somehow inferior, compared with him.

Master Kolbeinn returned his look coldly. “Are you Ásgeirr, son of Siltric Jarl and the Lady Heledd, sister-son to Master Turcaill here?” he asked - for the records, as he knew all too well who the young man was.

“I am Ásgeirr Siltricsson, aye,” replied the young man haughtily. “I count no kinship to your folk of fat and cowardly merchants, though.”

An angry murmur rose from the rows of the spectators, yet it was Geirrod Gotharrsson who answered the arrogant young man.

“Fat and cowardly, you say?” asked the blacksmith’s thrall challengingly. “I saw not fat or cowardly men among those who attacked my father’s camp and captured us both. They fought bravely and well – which cannot be said about you. Who has ever seen you in battle? No-one. Small wonder, though; a ten-year-old slave girl could wield a broadsword better than you.”

Although that was most likely greatly exaggerated, the battle-hardened Lakemen laughed uproariously. Once again, Drizzt was reminded of Wulfgar’s people, who liked to playfully insult each other’s prowess with the one or other weapon. The teasing then often resulted in a serious brawl, as no self-respecting barbarian would ever has such a challenge unanswered.

Young Ásgeirr, however, apparently lacked that kind of self-respect, for he just snorted and gave no proper answer to Geirrod’s challenge. So Master Kolbeinn saw the time ripe to take things into his own hands again.

“Whether you claim kinship with us or not, youngling, it matters little,” he said. “You are kin to Master Turcaill, through his sister Heledd, who was the legally bonded wife of Siltric Silkbeard, Chieftain of the tribe of the White Kine. Or is it true what your uncle tells us: that your mother was no wife at all, just a slave woman, taken from her family by force?”

Drizzt had not expected the young man to walk into such an obvious trap so easily – yet Ásgeirr did. Either he was very foolish, or he did not consider it his duty to support his uncle; ‘twas hard to tell. Whatever his reasons might have been, he turned his back on the spymaster, and declared indignantly.

“My mother was the chieftain’s wife – married off to Siltric Jarl after long negotiations, to build a bridge between our people and Laketown; or perhaps to give her brother the supposed guarantee that he would not be slain once we take over. She was not some war booty like my father’s other women!”

Your people,” repeated Master Kolbeinn slowly. “I deem that would mean you consider yourself a Khimmer warrior.”

“Course I do!” hissed the young man indignantly.

“Sad for you that no-one else does,” commented Geirrod, grinning. “You have never been and will never be a warrior! A trader, perchance; a spy, without doubt – but a warrior? You have neither the honour, nor the strength to become one, ever!”

Ásgeirr, became chalk white with fury and would have lounged at the other young man, had the Town Guard not held him back. The audience found the bragging quite entertaining; Master Kolbeinn, however, clearly did not.

“I shall not allow any more challenges from the side,” he declared. “Any-one disturbing the working of this court shall be punished with ten lashes of the flogger, administered to their bare back publicly, so that others could learn from it.”

That, finally, brought things back to proper order, and a head judge could continue the questioning of the witness. Not that it would bring any new insights. Ásgeirr indignantly denied having provided the spymaster with any news from within the Tribe, revealing that neither had his mother ever done anything like that. She was too scared to put her privileged status at risk. He seemed to have naught but contempt towards his uncle… a statement that all people present in the Town Hall heartily shared.

After releasing the young man, Master Kolbeinn asked for the former slave Bannâtha to be called in. The man, now wearing the simple garb of the common folk of Dale, gave testimony about having seen Master Turcaill in the tent of his own master, Revyak Jarl as well as with other warriors and traders. This made it clear for everyone that the spymaster had done business with more Khimmer jarls (and lesser Easterlings) than just his brother-in-law.

“For my part, I see it proven that Turcaill Allunsson has betrayed our town and planned to sell us off to the Easterlings,” summarized Master Kolbeinn. “Does any-one think differently?”

The other judges shook their heads as one.

“If we are all in agreement, I ask you to vote,” said the head judge. “The rest of the witnesses can be released; that will save us a great deal of time.”

As it was custom among the Lakemen, the bailiff went along their row, holding out a small basket to them. One by one, the judges placed their voting stones into that basket: white for innocent, black for guilty. When all had made their vote, the bailiff carried the basket to the head judge, who then counted the stones and declared the final decision.

This time, all the stones were black.

“The decision about Turcaill Allunsson, formerly spymaster of Esgaroth, has fallen,” announced Master Kolbeinn. “We have found him guilty of high treason. However, the sentence will not be declared ere we have investigated the other crimes he is accused of: namely slavery and grand theft against the people of Esgaroth. Are we in agreement about that, too?”

The other judges gave their consent again, and so Master Kolbeinn called Yrsa Brinningsdaughter as their first witness. Yrsa explained them how the storm had caught her ship in the middle of the Lake. How they had to seek refuge among the ruins of the old town. How they had found the young boys chained to the wall, half-starved and horribly mistreated. How they had tried to save little Halli, whose leg had been bitten off by the water goblins. How the other boys had dived under the lake after the storm to bring up the bags of golden scales and gemstones Master Turcaill had forced them to mine from the rotting corpse of the Dragon.

“Are the boys still alive?” asked the barber-surgeon.

Yrsa nodded. “Fortunately, the men whom I had sent home for help made good time. And the arrival of the Elven healer saved little Halli; otherwise we would have lost him for certain.”

“Are any of them well enough to give testimony?” inquired Solveig Baker.

“Razar, who is the oldest of them most certainly will,” answered Yrsa. ”Perchance one of the younger ones will speak later. Not now, though. They do not trust easily, which is understandable, considering how they have been treated; and for them, we are all simply Lakemen, the same lot as their master.”

“But the oldest is willing?” clarified Solveig Baker.

Yrsa nodded again. “Aye. He is no child anymore, with his nearly twenty summers, and wants justice for himself and his peers.”

“Very well,” said Master Kolbeinn. “Call him in.”

The appearance of the youngling surprised everyone. While admittedly almost painfully thin, there was sinewy strength in his slender limbs; his face smooth yet mature beyond his years, his eyes dark and grave. For someone still recovering from the lung fewer, he seemed very self-confident and alert.

“Are you the young man called Razar whom Mistress Yrsa’s men rescued from the old town?” asked Master Kolbeinn.

“I am,” answered the youngling in a somewhat weak voice, caused mayhap by his recent illness. “Although my full name is Razanur. But our Khimmer masters did not like it when slaves had such long and fancy names.”

That little detail reminded Drizzt of something he had hard with half an ear not so long ago, but for the life of his, he could not remember what it had been and when.

“How did you come to the old town?” continued Master Kolbeinn.

“My Khimmer master sold me to this man eight summers ago,” said Razanur, pointing at Master Turcaill.

“Eight years!” someone in the audience murmured in shock. Master Kolbeinn ignored the comment born of honest dread. He could not get distracted during an investigation.

“What were your chores?” he asked.

“We had to dive under the ruins… under the Lake and collect the gilded scales and gemstones from the carcass of the Dragon,” answered Razanur. “A manservant of our master lived almost constantly with us, to watch us and feed us… though that was barely enough to survive.”

“Were you the oldest, then?” asked Thorgils Miller.

“I am now,” said Razanur. “Eight summers ago, when I was brought here, I used to be the youngest. The others told me that there had been more before I came. Many more.”

Old Mistress Arnthrud raised a hand to interrupt him. “What happened to the others?”

“They are dead; every single one of them,” replied the youngling. “The ‘lads’ of Master Turcaill did not live long. We had to dive twenty, forty times a day… even more as we grew older. In the last year, I had to go down every hour, from sunrise to sunset. ‘Tis hard on the lungs; sooner or later, we all developed the lung fever.”

“But you can no longer work when burning up with fever,” said the barber-surgeon, who had ample experience with illnesses.

“Nay, we could not,” agreed Razanur. “Those who were no longer of use were given to the water goblins. Dead, if they were lucky. Still alive if they were not.”

The audience shivered. They were used to the many dangers of the Wilderland, but being eaten alive… that was too much, even for the hardy Lakemen. Such things only happened in spider-infested Mirkwood, not on their own Lake.

“Who gave them to the water goblins?” asked Master Shaering, the shoemaker.

“’Twas Prostr, the master’s manservant,” said Razanur. “Master Turcaill came over every couple of days to see how we were doing. He decided who was still useful and who had to go. The ones no longer useful were bound on their ankles and wrists and thrown into the Lake. Soon thereafter, new ‘lads’ were brought to take their place.”

“Do you know where they came from?” asked the head judge.

Razanur shrugged. “Most of them were Mordvin boys, born to slavery like myself, bought from their Khimmer masters. I can remember one or two who came from this very town, though. Orphans, who had been given into the master’s care.”

“What?!” It did not happen every day that Master Kolbeinn would lose his calm, but now his face glowed in such a deep red that one had to fear he might get a brainstorm. “Can you tell me their names?”

Razanur thought about it for a moment. “I am not certain, but it seems to me that one of them was called Jefan. He had a sister he always talked about; an older sister, by the name of…”

“…Gritt,” whispered Master Kolbeinn. “By Godvik, and I sent them to Trucaill’s house myself, in foster care! He told us the children have died from the dry fever.”

“They never came to our house!” protested Mistress Eydís. “We never had any fosterlings!” She turned to her stone-faced husband, her voice rising in pitch steadily. “You foul beast! Those were the children of poor Tyra, and they were barely ten summers when she died! What have you done to them?”

The former spymaster gave no answer; he turned a cold shoulder to his wife and remained in stony silence.

“The boy came to us, but he was not used to such hard work,” said Razanur quietly. “He died after a few moons, for he was too weak. The girl… she was kept in a different part of the old town, far from our abode. In a place where Uncle Prostr always took his… his playthings. We never saw her again, not after her arrival. I know not how long she lasted; we were not allowed to move around town freely, and she was kept far enough so that we would not hear any cries.”

“You called that… that beast Uncle?” asked Solveig Baker in shock.

“That was how he wished to be called,” said the youth. “If we did not call him thusly, we got flogged… and not lightly. So we got used to call him Uncle.”

“My word, but that is awful…” Solveig looked as if she could get sick any moment.

“The misdeeds of the servant Prostr will be discussed in a different trial,” interrupted Master Kolbeinn. “Right now, we are about to examine the evil deeds of Turcaill in full depths. Can you tell me whether he knew about his manservant’s… appetites?”

Razanur nodded. “I am certain he did. He was there when Prostr took the girl Gritt to a different part of the town.”

“I feared it would be so,” the head judge sighed. “Tell us, how were you rescued from this foul slavery?”

Razanur told them the same story they had heard from Yrsa Brinningrsdaughter earlier… in considerably less detail, but that surprised no-one. He had been delirious most of the time, after all.

“Mistress Yrsa offered to take us in as family,” he finished, his eyes shining. “Most of us gladly accepted – they have no-where to go.”

“What about yourself?” asked the head judge. The youth shrugged.

“I would love to stay here with you good people. I understand that you are not like our former master; most of you are not, at least. But I must find out what has become of my oldest brother, and for that, I have to go back to Rhûn.”

“But you might get enslaved again when you return,” warned him Master Otir. The youth nodded.

“I know that. But my brother was like a father to me. He raised and protected us all, after the death of our parents: three younger brothers and a sister. I was the youngest, thus I stayed with him for the longest time, even after all the others had been sold, and I owe him to find him… or, at the very least, to try.”

“You may very well die trying,” said Master Otir.

“So be it,” answered Razanur stoically. “He is the only one I still remember; the only one I might still find.”

The judges nodded in understanding. Not having any other questions, they were just about to release him, when Bannâtha came slowly forward.

“Forgive me, Master Judge, and all you good people, but may I ask this young man a few questions?”

The head judge seemed surprised, but after a moment, he nodded… though a bit reluctantly. Bannâtha turned to the youngling.

“Can you still remember what the name of your Khimmer master was?” he asked. The youth nodded.

“Aye; how could I ever forget it? He was called Revyak – one of the younger jarls at that time, but already a particularly foul one.”

“And the name of your oldest brother?”

Razanur looked at the unknown man in suspicion… looked at him fort he first time… then his eyes widened in shocked disbelief.

“Ban?” he whispered. “Is that truly you?”

Bannâtha nodded. “’Tis truly me, little brother… ‘Tis a miracle I have long given up hope for. That we should meet as free men, under foreign stars…who would have ever thought?”

They embraced before the eyes of all, holding each other tightly, and all Lakemen plus one Dark Elf stared at them in wonder. For two estranged brothers to be reunited after so many years, in the aftermath of a bloody, terrible war, in a foreign country – that was more than anyone could hope for.

There was no need for young Razanur to return to Rhûn. Nor would he accept Mistress Yrsa’s offer, most likely. For Bannâtha had been taken in by the people of Dale, given work in the King’s own house, and a small cottage to live in, as the former inhabitants had fallen in the siege… could there be any doubt that Razanur would go with him?

For the first time in their lives, they were free men, who could choose their own fate. And that gave Drizzt hope that he, too, might find his right place in Middle-earth, now that the war was over.

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