Aurei hurriedly took her seat against the back wall of the Muddy Boot, still wearing her chainmail and swords as she wiggled between the table and posts to take her position. She wiped her sweaty brow, hating to have to sit in judgment dressed in her gear after a long practice session, but she was running late and today was the afternoon she heard the criminal cases from the previous week.
It was often not pleasant work, and she had tried to help ease the tension in the session by convening it in the great room of the Muddy Boot. She had thought that most of the sessions would be very lightly attended, but instead it was packed with townspeople wanting to see the proceedings.
Sitting down, she glanced over to her right, where a group of 4 strangers sat drinking ale and glancing all around. Probably guards in a caravan that had just arrived, she theorized by their dusty studded leather armor and rather scruffy looks. For some reason she kept glancing over to them, an uneasy feeling about them coming over her, though she had no reason to suspect anything from them. Of course her position, wedged in a corner of the Inn made her feel somewhat caged, but it was the only spot in the Inn where she could see most of the room while seated and so she had thought it would be the best place to sit when acting as judge.
The docket was not large this week – a few minor assaults (mostly young people fighting over some silly affront), a couple of property disputes, four cases of public drunkenness, approval for a change in a will and a case of theft (one of the Multon boys allegedly stole a bucket of apples from Famer Hazzle’s orchard). These were the usual fare. But the final case was the main reason the Inn was nearly full and everyone had a serious look on their faces.
It had occurred the evening before, just outside of town. A group of men had broken into Lidon Felter’s cloth merchant shop and was smashing open his large strongbox when Lidon and his wife Zarah surprised them. There was a scuffle and Lidon was stabbed through the heart as Zarah screamed at the top of her lungs. Fortunately for her, the Town Guard was within earshot and rushed to the sound, encountering Zarah running up the road in hysterics.
When the guards rushed into the business, they found that the bandits had fled the scene with the exception of one, who was bent over the body of Lidon with a bloody long sword still clutched in his hand as he rummaged through the man’s clothes for a key to the strongbox.
The thief had known he was outnumbered and had thrown down his sword and had been taken in shackles back to the Keep’s dungeon awaiting trial the following day for murder. He had not spoken a word except to insult the guards and they did not know his name or where he was from. Now Aurei was faced with her first murder trial – of an outsider, but still it was rather sobering to her. Of course the whole town had known about the murder by this morning and so the proceedings were packed.
Aurei plowed through the other cases easily enough, all the while wondering if perhaps the murder trial should be held at the Keep for security reasons. She kept eyeing the group of men seated to her right – but that was not being fair to them, as there were a number of Inn patrons that she did not know seated in ‘the court’ today and the four men sat quietly drinking their ale. Besides, with the Inn full of probably 60 people, what trouble could they cause?
Still, she could not feel comfortable about the four men, so as the other guards were bringing the murdering thief from the Keep’s dungeon for his trial, she motioned for Brolen and the guard hurried up to her.
"I’m nervous about those four men seated over there – perhaps it's nothing but I’d watch them."
"Don’t worry, I was watching them as well, I’ll have four of our guards to stand near them. Pectros will have three around the thief; we’ll be ready for anything."
Brolen went back and spoke to the handful of guards that were stationed around the Great Room of the Inn. Four of them moved discreetly around the four men, who just gave them a casual glance as they went into position.
Just before Pectros and his guards brought the prisoner into the Inn, a few patrons hurried in to see the trial, including a stooped-over old man wobbling on a staff. Aurei hated the circus-like atmosphere of the rather grim proceedings, but at least for today she could not change them.
Finally the murdering thief was brought in, wearing leg and arm shackles. He was a young, angry-looking young man with a scraggly blonde beard and piercing blue eyes. He came in with his head held high, looking down on everyone in the crowd including the four men in the corner who returned his gaze with distain. Pectros and his men brought the shackled man across the room to stand in front of the table where Aurei sat.
"M’Lady, this man who refuses to give his name is charged with-"
"I did it!" he interrupted with a proud grin, "I’m guilty as charged you fine-looking red-eyed little she-devil!" He puckered his lips and made kissing sounds aimed at her until Pectros smacked him in the stomach with the butt of his spear.
"I’ll get you for that, mate." the man growled to the guard as he got back to his feet.
"Since the defendant has readily admitted he killed Lidon Felter yesterday evening, I find him guilty of murder and condemn him to death by beheading to be carried out tomorrow morning at dawn." Aurei found the man glaring at her, but the look was one of contempt mixed in with a bit of amusement. He straightened up and then did a mock bow to her which seemed to amuse some of the witnesses to the proceedings.
The old man with the cane who came in just minutes before was now standing nearby, an ear-horn held in his ear as he wobbled forward, calling out loudly, "Eh? What did they say? Is he guilty? Are they going to give him the axe?"
Brolen went over to the man to stop him from proceeding any further, and he held his ear-horn right under the guard’s chin, "Sonny, what was the charge against him? Are they going to give him the axe?"
Before Brolen could answer, the condemned man spun around and yelled at the old man, "I’M GUILTY, YOU OLD FOOL!!! WHY DON’T YOU GIVE ME THE BLOODY AXE YOURSELF!!!"
As the other guards went in to restrain the murderer, the old man suddenly straightened up, whipping his cloak off of him as he slammed the brass ear-horn into Brolen’s face.
"Here you go, mate!" he said, in a voice no longer elderly, and in a flash had pulled a wicked looking axe from a strap on his back and thrown it, handle first, to the convict who caught it. At the exact same moment the four suspicious men in the corner exploded into action, tossing the table end over end at the guards standing nearby and pulling out swords, as the Inn erupted into chaos.
Pectros and his three men lunged at the axe-wielding criminal, but he whipped his shackle chains around quickly, tripping the captain as he rushed forward. Pectros crashed to the ground, knocking two of his guards down with him as he fell over a table, the chains of the killer wrapped around his ankle. Aurei jumped to her feet, pulling her short sword free from her scabbard, but already the man was moving, with a flash of metal he brought the axe down on the end of one chain, cleaving the shackle in two with a loud clang. Spinning around, his feet now free of the shackles, he quickly grabbed the edge of Aurei’s table, and with a roar, pushed with all his might, sliding the heavy table back several feet in an attempt to pin her against the back wall. She was forced back as his companions battled the guards and the townspeople raced to get out of the way. Her chair saved her as it wedged between the table and wall, giving her about a foot of space. But the killer did not pause at the setback; instead he raised his axe and savagely swung a massive overhead chop aimed at her head. She jerked backwards, the blade nicking her nose as it went deep into the table, sending up splinters of wood. She had no where to dodge on either side or behind her. The murderer yanked the axe free and quickly reared back for another swing, this one certain to connect with her.
She had no choice left and so she leaped up onto the table, using the wedged chair as a step, and dove at the man, who was now bringing the axe down. He wasn’t expecting a frontal assault but he tried to shorten the stroke of the swing. Yet she was too close and before he could draw it in, she had slammed into him with all of her might. The impact knocked him backwards over another table, Aurei carried along with the momentum.
Quick as a flash she thrust with her sword as the man tried to roll aside and her blade bit deep into his upper shoulder. Yet he wasn’t stopped, for using his arm shackle chains, he swung them at her, knocking her off of him with the blow. She swiped at his legs, but he dodged her blow, and then gave her a massive kick to the stomach which took the wind from her. But her chainmail saved her from serious injury and he cursed and screamed, hobbling on sore toes as he now bolted for the door.
Aurei tried to yell out for someone to stop him, but her breath had not returned to her yet, and the Inn was too chaotic for anyone to have heard her anyway. She forced herself to her feet as the convict raced for the front door and as he ran he gave a loud, shrill whistle which apparently was a signal to his men, for they all seemed to break off their battles and join him in a rush to the door.
One of the four men who had sat in the corner pulled something out from a belt pouch and threw it down on the floor. There was a loud *BOOM!* and a flash of bright light and then smoke, stunning everyone for an instant while the men escaped.
"After them!" Aurei yelled as she blinked away the after-image, crashing forward blindly, determined to capture them all.
Into the late afternoon sunlight she went, barely able to make out their fleeing forms in the brightness. They had horses waiting for them and were mounted and galloping toward the town gate before Aurei had reached the street.
"GUARDS!!! CLOSE THE GATE!!! CLOSE THE GATE!!!!" She screamed, racing down the street. She heard others running behind her and knew without looking that it would be her guards.
Up ahead the gate guard on-duty was racing across the parapet, trying to get to the lever that lowered the portcullis before the horses raced through. Aurei was hopeful that he would succeed, but as they neared, one of the riders aimed a crossbow and let fly with a bolt, hitting the guard in the upper leg and sending him down. The horses raced through.
As Aurei reached the Keep’s stables she heard the twang of a bowstring and a whinny of an injured horse. "Get me a horse!" Aurei said to two of the startled stable hands, breathless from running down the street in her chainmail. The boys at once ran into the stable, returning a moment later with her own horse, much to her relief.
The boys were racing to find her saddle, but she didn’t have time and to their astonishment, she gracefully leaped up and mounted the horse, putting her heels into his ribs. He took off at once, Aurei bending low on his back to stay on. She nearly ran down Brolen and Pectros as they ran into the stable.
"Follow me, I’m going after them!" She called to them, and they yelled back for her to wait, but she was determined to stop the band of outlaws and she flashed through the town gate at a full gallop, the horses of those she pursued already disappearing over the hills south of town.
"AUREI!!" She heard a small, yet very powerful voice yell to her from the parapet, and she knew this to come from Pete Blunderfork, the oldest son of the Halfling family. She had no time for conversation, so without turning, waved her hand to indicate she heard him.
"AUREI!!! I HIT THE LAST RIDER’S HORSE WITH AN ARROW, HE’S STRAGGLING BEHIND THE OTHERS A BIT, JUST OVER THE HILL! HE’S CARRYING TWO RIDERS, YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO CATCH HIM!!"
Again she waved to indicate she heard and then leaned over the neck of her horse, whispering to him, "Come on Vanyasulie!!! Faster!" The horse, a young stallion descended from a long line of racing champions that her father had owned, seemed to understand her and burst forward in a surge of speed. Aurei could not help but grin, loving the blur of speed from the back of the thoroughbred.
On the opposite side of the hill, Alis and four of the younger adult men from town were being trained in horseback combat by the very handsome half-elf Blood Knight, Aeric. Alis was finding it hard to concentrate on what the Paladin was telling them to do, when suddenly from out of nowhere four horses blasted through the midst of them as if an angry dragon was behind them. A moment later a fifth horse, this one carrying two men zipped by, with an arrow sticking out of its flank.
The students all looked over at Aeric, who seemed equally as surprised.
But before anyone could say anything, another horse blew over the hill. It was a majestic, large thoroughbred, muscular and gray with a long flowing white mane. ‘Vanyasulie’ was his name, Elven for "Fairwind" and the steed was running flat out. But more amazing to Alis and the others was his rider. She was down over his neck, a beautiful feminine form clad in silver chainmail riding bareback, a wide grin on her black face, her red eyes shining brightly in the afternoon sunshine as her long silvery-white hair flowed behind her like a flag in a gale. They all stared in amazement as she flew through the middle of them, her eyes focused on those ahead of her.
As she passed Aeric, she leaned far over the horses’ side, reaching out for a rack of lances that the Knight had placed on the practice field for his students’ convenience. To even the Knight’s amazement, the Drow girl, reached out her hand like an eagle diving for a fish and without slowing at all she snatched up a long lance by its end and lowered it as if preparing to joust.
"Unbelievable!" Aeric said in admiration at her agility, then to his students, "The Duchess is in pursuit! Horsemen! Follow me!" The knight spun his horse around and grabbed up a lance then galloped off after Aurei. Alis glanced to her fellow students, shrugged, then, tightening her hold on the lance and shield she had been practicing with, gave her own horse the spurs and was off after them. A moment later the other students followed the half-elf, joined right then by Pectros, Brolen and half a dozen ducal guards, all at full gallop in an attempt to catch up with the duchess.