Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Kings Justice

To say that my first case as a Justice didn’t go so well is a major understatement. I had just taken my final exam with my master two days ago, and had, in fact, just recovered from celebrating the successful conclusion of said tests. It was early morning, and I was eating in the common hall of the castle where we Justices meet when not on the road eating breakfast when my master came to me.

“Justice Relar,” he said, using my full name. Most of my friends just called me Rel, but my master insisted that as a Justice, I should always be referred to by my full name. “I have a job for you.”

The smile he had on his face made me uncomfortable, but I swallowed the last bit of eggs I had and followed him outside.

“Yes, master?” I asked.

“It is Justice Kord,” he corrected. “You are no longer an Arbiter, no longer my apprentice. We are equals now, Relar.”

“Yes, ma… Justice Kord,” I replied, catching myself in the familiar phrase. He smiled again, but this time it was far friendlier.

“I have your first assignment,” he said. “It is simple, and even you should be able to complete it quickly and without too much difficulty.”

I nodded. Kord liked to imply that all of the Arbiter’s under his tutelage couldn’t find their ass with both hands and a mirror. I learned that it was best to simply ignore him. He handed me a scroll, the official charge for my mission.

“You are to travel north two days to the small town of Greenrock. There, you are to find and get the status of another Justice, Vorik. He was sent up there as part of his normal rounds, but disappeared about a month ago. We have not heard from him, and that is odd, especially for Vorik, who is known for sending reports when none are needed.”

I nodded again. I knew Vorik. He was older than I was, and had been a full Justice for two years now, but he was a former Arbiter under Master Justice Kord, just as I was. It was highly unusual that no one had heard from him, especially as Justice’s had a magical means of communication. We each of us wore a special brooch, a bronze eagle holding a scroll clutched in both talons. When we touch it and speak a word of power, it will come to life, and our message will be scrawled on its parchment. It then flies back to the castle to deliver the message, and waits for a reply for up to a day before returning atomically. It greatly improves the speed upon which Justice’s can communicate.

“If I find that Vorik is in some sort of trouble?” I asked.

“Aid him in any way you can,” Kord replied. “Remember that Vorik is the lead Justice there, so follow his orders, but remember also that you are a full Justice, and not an apprentice.”

I nodded once again. Kord then did something I’ve never seen him do before. He gripped me by my arms and looked me straight in the eyes.

“Good luck, Relar,” he said in all seriousness. “Take care of yourself out there.”

Then, suddenly, he stood up straight, saluted me, and walked off to his other duties. I looked at the scroll in my hand and opened it up to read it. It mostly said what Kord already said to me, but it also had a recommended list of equipment. So, I took the scroll to the quartermaster, who gave me a pack with the requested supplies. I decided to not wait and went to the stables to get a horse. If you’re wondering why I didn’t wait, it’s usually not a good idea for a judge to hold back on a mission. Plus, I had a two-day journey by horseback, and wanted to get started right away.

I rode out that morning and was about half way there by early evening, when I spotted a roadside inn. This road must have been better traveled than I thought. At the moment, though, I was grateful, because sleeping outside was not one of my favorite things to do. I bought a room for the night and had some dinner, which consisted of some dried roast, a few dry potatoes and carrots and a rather watery ale. Still, it was better than the hard tack in my travel pack.

The next morning I decided against breakfast due to the smell, and ate some of my bread as I rode on. It really didn’t take me long to get to Greenrock that day, and I arrived late after noon. However, when I arrived, I was exhausted, and just wanted to sit and get something cold to drink. Thankfully, there are a few advantages to being a Justice.

“M’lord,” a young guard said as I pulled up to the town walls. I wasn’t really surprised to see the walls, given that Greenrock was near the border of the Wildlands. They probably had issues with goblins.

“Justice,” I said to the guard. “I am not a knight, nor a noble. I am a member of the King’s Justice. You can refer to me as Justice Relar, or as Your Honor, if you must.”

In all honesty, it never mattered to me that people confused Justice’s with knights, but it bothered the order in general. We were not nobles, and in fact our membership was mostly taken from the fourth or fifth born children of the poor. A Justice riding into a town or village alone was often beset by parents wanting a better life for one of their children. I myself was such a case. My parents approached Kord, and after questioning me and finding a sharp, inquisitive mind in my ten year old body, paid my parents and took me away. I haven’t seen my home in all that time, and even now have only been back once. Such is the life of a Justice.

“Yes, m’…” he stopped, catching himself. “Yes, your Honor. We don’t get Justice’s out this way often, and now we’ve had two in a single year. Is there something I might help you out with?”

“Yes,” I replied. “First, I would like to know the name of a good tavern, where I can get a cold drink. Then, I wish to speak with your captain.”

“Of course, your Honor,” he replied. Apparently, he didn’t like the idea of using my actual name. “You’ll be wanting the Happy Bull. They have the best drinks in town, and are the only place that can afford ice. I’ll send a message to my captain that you’ll be waiting for him there.”

He then gave me directions, which amounted to just heading straight down the road until I see the tavern’s sign, and I sauntered off. The tavern was by far nicer than the one on the road, and the food here smelled fantastic as soon as I walked in. The bartender saw me and motioned for me to take a table by the hearth, clearing a lone patron there before I could even protest. I was told that the first round of drinks was on the house. I thanked him, said I wanted something cold, and ordered a plate of whatever was making that wonderful smell. Just as my food was arriving, a man walked into the tavern in a chainmaile shirt and a cape. He was older, with salt and pepper colored hair, and had a scar running down his left cheek. This must be the captain of the guard.

“Your Honor,” he said as he came up to me. I motioned for him to sit. “I’m Captain Tarbel. This is an unexpected pleasure. We don’t get many Justice’s here, but…”

“Yes, two in one year,” I replied, completing his sentence. “I’ve heard.”

He looked slightly embarrassed. “I see.”

“Actually, that’s why I’m here,” I said, trying to relieve some of the tension this man was feeling. “The other Justice who was here, his name was Vorik. He hasn’t reported in for quite some time, and I’m trying to find him and make sure he’s okay.”

The captain’s jaw dropped. You might think I just kicked his mother from the look on his face.

“You mean to say, you don’t know?” he asked.

“Know what?” I said.

“Justice Vorik. He’s…” he hesitated for a moment, took a deep breath, looked me right in the eye, and let it out. “He’s dead, your Honor.”

“Dead?” I asked. “How?”

“He was killed,” he said, no hesitation this time. “It was Kaken. Justice Vorik, he was here to pronounce Judgment on Kaken and his band of thugs, at the request of the Count. Kaken has been taken advantage of us for too long, so the Count figured a Judge could get rid of him for good. Turns out he was wrong.”

“And you never sent a message to the Justices?” I asked in surprise. “How were we supposed to know he was dead?”

“Well…” the captain, obviously caught off guard by the question. “We thought you would just know. You know… magic.”

Right. I shook my head in frustration. This was a common misconception about both Justices and magic in general. While it’s true that Justices are taught a small bit of magic, it’s mostly for things like communication or faster travel. We’re not mages. That’s left to the Brotherhood of the White Tower. But, even at that, members of the Brotherhood are not somehow connected to each other. They can’t read each other’s thoughts, never mind that of anyone else, and they don’t instantly know when something has happened to one of their membership. And neither do Justices. Yet, for some reason, this belief continues to exist in the minds of most people in the empire.

“Okay,” I say, deciding to just move on. “Let’s just ignore that and keep going. This Kaken guy, you’re sure that it was him that killed Vorik?”

“Well,” he replied, feeling more comfortable to be doing something more in his line of work. “I don’t have any hard proof, but no one else here has the balls, never mind the ability to kill a Justice.”

I nod. While we’re not trained heavily in magic, we are trained heavily in combat, and are the equal of any knight out there in single melee. Not to mention we get some very good equipment, some of which is magical. Taking down a Justice is no small feat. Add to that the fact that killing a Justice is tantamount to attacking a member of the royal family from a legal standpoint, and it’s not something that a lot of people even contemplate. The fact that this guy, Kaken, had done it made me nervous.

And with Vorik dead, it fell to me, as a Justice, to find Kaken, judge him and deliver my verdict. Alone. I was not looking forward to this. I realized at that moment that I had been quiet and not looking at the captain. When I looked over to him, he seemed to have a worried look on his face. Damn, I must have looked as scared as I felt. I straightened up and tried to look authoritative. I would need to do something. I just wasn’t sure where to start.

“I assume that you still have Justice Vorik’s body?” I asked.

He nodded. “We didn’t bury it, assuming that one of your… er… another Justice would arrive and take him back for a proper burial.”

“Indeed,” I said. This was, in fact, how things were done. It would be another duty of mine. “I’ll need to see him. Perhaps there is some evidence there I can use to convict Kaken.”

“Sure,” he said, standing up. “Right this way.”

I grabbed another bite of food and then followed after him. Looking over a body isn’t at all as romantic as one might think it is. For one thing, they stink. For another, decay is a real issue, and it having been a few months, Vorik’s body was starting to decay already. Which really only adds to the smell. However, this was definitely Vorik. I looked over the body while holding a corner of my cloak over my face. The captain was doing the same thing. At first, I found nothing that would really provide me any evidence. Well, beyond that he was killed. Brutally, too. There were multiple stab wounds, and his hands had rope burns, indicating that he was tied up at the time he was killed, and there were several people doing the stabbing.

It was in looking at his hands, however, when I found something. It was silver and clenched in his fist. I started prying open his fingers to get to it. The captain noticed what I was doing, and started helping. It took some doing, but we eventually prided open the hand. The prize, however, surprised me. It’s a solid silver broach in the shape of a crown with the scales of justice behind it. The badge of office for a Justice. I absently fingered my own badge, worn on the vest I wore underneath my cloak. I stood up and looked down at Vorik. Just as I had expected to, I saw Vorik’s badge pined to his chest, right where it should be.

“Why was he carrying a second badge?” I asked to myself.

“An extra?” the captain asked. I looked up to him, surprised. I hadn’t quite realized I was speaking out loud. I shook my head.

“No, we only carry the one. They’re rather expensive,” I said. “In fact, I wonder why he had his still. Normally, on the rare occasion a Justice is killed, the killer takes the badge. Being solid silver, it’s worth quite a bit of money.”

“More than I see in a year, I’d wager,” the captain said.

“Whatever this means,” I said, “it’s important.”

I looked over poor Vorik once again. I then reached into my pack and pulled out one of the magic items we are given. It’s not one I enjoy using, even to this day. It’s called a preservation sack, and is designed to store a dead body, so that it is preserved for a proper burial. I handed it to the captain and told him to have Vorik’s body placed inside it. He looked at it with a questioning look, but nodded and passed the task onto a subordinate.

“So,” the captain said, turning to look at me, “what now, your Honor?”

What now indeed. I had no idea where to go from here. “Tell me everything you know about Kaken, and what happened when Vorik came to town.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding as if he expected that. “Let’s go back to the tavern. I’ll buy you a drink and tell the tale.”

And it was quite the tale. No one is really sure where Kaken came from, but about ten years ago, he arrived in town wounded on a half dead horse. He was obviously a warrior of some sort, for he wore the remains of a suit of chain, and carried a broad sword. Beyond that, no one could tell anything. The town took him to Brother Rav, the leader of the local church of Juntar, who nursed him back to health with a little magical aid. Kaken refused to talk about his past, only to say that he had escaped it.

For a while, he was welcome addition to the town. He worked hard for Rav, helping to build the addition to the church where the new priest would stay when he arrived. He worked for the town in other ways, too, mostly in physical labor ways. He would help at the various taverns, tending horses and fixing things as they broke. He helped the old man Til’s farm after it burned down. He became known in town as a handy man, the guy to call when you needed some carpentry done. This all lasted about five years, when Kaken’s past caught up to him.

See, throughout all this time, Kaken had been holding back. He was a very angry man and everyone in town knew this. Though they all generally liked him and welcomed his help, they were all also afraid of him. They had seen his temper get the better of him on occasion, which resulted in a dead horse and a broken bar table. So, it came as no surprised that one-day he just snapped.

A man arrived in town that day, a mercenary near as anyone could guess. He seemed to know Kaken, and Kaken seemed happy to see him. The captain didn’t know what happened for sure, but there were rumors that went around. Something about Kaken lying low, and the man surprised that he was playing the good little townie. He and Kaken laughed a lot, and started hanging out at Kaken’s house alone. Kaken started to skip on responsibilities, stopped going to the church, and in general started making everyone nervous. Finally, Brother Rav went to see him to find out what was going on.

All anyone knows for sure is that the Brother said something that angered Kaken, and before anything could be done, Rav was dead and Kaken and his friend left town. Only, it turns out, they didn’t really leave, they just headed out to the hills. They took up residence in the small, abandoned loggers village that was out there. It had been abandoned a long time ago when the tress started to run out in this area. Apparently, Kaken had been planning this for a long time, and it wasn’t long after the death of Rav that a lot of other mercs started appearing at the logger village.

The captain and his guards tried to arrest Kaken, of course, as soon as they knew he was still there. They were driven off by the mercs, who numbered about twenty at that point, killing two guards in the processes. Since then, the captain has just tried his best to keep the walls ready and the few guards he has prepared in case Kaken tries anything. For the most part, they left the town alone. Every now and then, they would arrive and tear through the taverns and leave. No one was brave enough to stop them. Last year, however, they started stealing cattle, and when old man Til confronted them about it, they killed him and took all his cattle. That was when a message was sent to the Justices.

Justice Vorik arrived and the town let out a collective sigh. Vorik did some questioning and brief investigation before he decided he had all the evidence he needed. A few days after arriving, he left for the logging village alone, despite the captain’s protests. The next day, Kaken and a few of his mercs rode down to town and threw the Justice’s body at the town gate. That was two months ago, and everyone in town has been terrified of Kaken ever since. He practically owns the town. Anyone that can kill a Justice is too much for this small town to take on.

“And that’s where I come in,” I said.

“I don’t expect you to do anything,” the captain said. “If you take Justice Vorik and leave, I’ll understand. I’d do the same. I just ask that you see if there’s anything you can do to aid us. Send help.”

I looked sharply at the captain. “Of course I’ll help,” I said. “I’ll take down Kaken. It’s my sworn duty, and I owe it to Vorik.”

The captain looked me up and down. Then, he nodded. “I’ll help you in anyway I can. Most of my guards are too afraid to face Kaken, but there’s about four or five of us that want to see something done. Don’t be like Vorik and do this alone. Let us go with you.”

I nodded. I hadn’t planed of facing Kaken alone, but to have the voluntary help of the guard was greatly appreciated. I had the beginning of a plan in my head. First, I needed to know the layout of the logger village. Captain Tarbel provided me with a few rough maps, as best as he could do from memory. He estimated that the mercenary count was up to about one hundred now. I poured over the map and consulted the supplies I had been given before leaving on this mission. I made my plans, consulted with the captain, and wrote a letter to the Castle. I sent off my eagle broach to deliver it, and went to bed that night. The plan would start tomorrow first thing. No need to wait and let Kaken learn that a new Justice was in town. The captain notified me he would gather up his volunteers and meet me at the town gates at dawn.

I was up well before dawn, making my own preparations. I clasped in my hand the Justice badge that I had pulled off Vorik. I wondered at it once more, then threw it into my belt pouch and finished packing for today’s adventure. I was at the gate a full hour before dawn, only to find that Captain Tarbel and four guards were waiting for me. We nodded at each other silently and no introductions were made. None were needed. We all knew this was a potentially suicide mission that could have disastrous consequences for the town if we failed. And so we would not fail.

We left on foot towards the logger village. Though it would take us longer, we would keep the element of surprise this way. We came up to the old tree line and saw the small village. It really wasn’t more than a dozen low buildings, all about the same size. One room shacks for the loggers to sleep in. There was an additional building, larger than the rest, which was likely the hall where the loggers would gather for meetings and probably drinks and food at the end of the day. It was pretty obvious at first glance that the place was crawling with mercenaries. There were about thirty visible from my vantage point.

I could see why Kaken wanted this place. With the trees gone, there was nothing blocking the line of site to the village. The guards that were placed all over it would see us coming before we were even half way there. That was perfect. I nodded to the captain, and our men split up, two of them circling around the camp at the extreme edges of the hill it was built on, while the captain and the rest followed me in the opposite direction, to the far side of the camp. The mercs didn’t seem to have any patrols out this far, trusting for the line of sight to warn them of any coming attack. I just hoped they would fall for the diversion we were setting up.

I practically held my breath while waiting. I had given clear instructions on how to use the stuff I had given the guards, but it was tricky, and with the sun not fully out yet, there might not have been enough light to see. Just as I was getting anxious and wondering what was happening, though, I heard to fizzle and pop of the alchemical mixture I had been given at the castle go off. As we watched, a sparkling firecracker went flying into the wall of one of the log huts, carried by an arrow, which struck home. A few seconds later, the firecracker went off, causing the hut to catch fire almost instantly. The fire spread faster than I had expected. These log buildings must have been really dry. Those firecrackers were meant to be signal flares, not to start fires, never mind to engulf a building all in one go.

The distraction had the desired effect, however. The two guards that fired the arrow could be seen fleeing. The camp broke out in chaos. The men inside the hut ran outside, while several others ran to the hut trying to find water to put out the fire with. Someone threw a tankard of ale on it, which of course only caused a small explosion and sent sparks to the neighboring hut, which also caught on fire. Most of the other men went chasing after the guards. These men were every bit as undisciplined as I had expected, which was good, because even a slight amount of discipline would have torn this plan to shreds.

The four of us rush across the field to the nearest house, one that the men inside vacated as soon as the fire started. We managed to make it across without being spotted. Now comes the hard part. We had to find Kaken quickly and extract him from the mercs before anyone noticed us. The fire was proving to be perfect for this. With two buildings burning now, the whole group was out centered around them, trying to put them out. I scanned the crowd looking for the obvious leader when the captain tapped me on my shoulder. I turned and looked where he was pointing. This had to be Kaken. He wasn’t very tall, but he was a solid mass of muscle. His face was hard, but handsome under the stubble and dirt that currently covered it. It was as if he were a good looking man trying to make himself ugly so as not to stand out in a crowd of ugly men. Which was a pretty accurate statement. He wore a shirt of chain, and wore it comfortably, and carried a broadsword on his belt. I signaled, and the action began.

We ran across the field, and I pulled out the second preservation bag I carried. Before he spotted us, we were on Kaken. The captain and the two guards threw themselves on him, tackling him and pinning him to the ground, while I threw the bag over him as quickly as I could. Sadly, that was as far as we got when I heard someone step behind me and demand that we let go of Kaken. I turned and saw a group of about ten men, all armed with swords and spears, pointing the sharp ends at us. I stood, my arms upraised, and faced them. When they saw my badge, some of them spit at me.

“Take them to the hall and tie them up!” Kaken shouted behind me, extracting himself from the bag. “We’ll deal with this fire first, then take care of them.”

Well, I thought, this was it. I was about to die, on my first mission. This couldn’t get any worse. Little did I know, it could. The guards were simply tied to chairs, including the captain, and placed in a corner of the hall. I, however, was tied to one of the posts holding the roof up. There, the ten men that brought us here all took turns beating on me. First, they limited themselves to my stomach and chest, and I knew that after a few moments of that, I had a cracked rib, at least, and internal bleeding. I would need a priest after this for sure, assuming I survived. I think at some point, they realized this, because they then moved to my face. By the time they stopped, I couldn’t see out of one eye, my lip was cut and bleeding, and I had lost at least two teeth. This was the worst job any Justice had done on any case, ever. I was convinced.

The worst part was the looks on the guard’s faces. They knew the stories about how hard it was to kill a Justice. They thought for sure I was invincible, or had some magic up my sleeve or something that would protect me from such a beating. The truth was, all I had was my chain shirt, which they had taken off me, and a necklace that provided me some small protection from piercing weapons, but they had taken that as well. They had even taken my badge. Badges are special, each one is unique to the individual Justice. They don’t offer any real magical protection, per se, but they do allow us to focus what little magic we are taught. I knew a Justice while I was in training that could actually focus enough magical energies through his that he could throw lightning bolts from it. The best I was able to do was camouflage myself, which only really worked in a jungle of forest. I had been aiming at invisible for a long time, but I never quite had it. Kord always told me that one day I’d get it. Now, however, was not that day.

I watched through my one good eye as Kaken entered the room. He shooed the men away from me and grabbed my head roughly in his hand. As soon as he touched me, I felt something start to burn at my side. At first, I thought it was my ribs, and tried to ignore it.

“So, the Castle is still trying to get me, are they?” he said. “Well, they’ll need to do better than a Justice just come by his scales.”

How could he possible know that? Who was this man? He roughly threw my head to the side, causing a new bruise to spring up on my chin. The pain in my side got worse, like a fire burning at my side. Then, I realized it was the wrong side for my ribs. It was coming from my pouch. But, there was nothing in there but a firecracker and… the other badge! It all came to me in a flash.

“And what about you?” I asked through a mashed mouth. “How long ago did you get your scales, Kaken?”

He turned slowly and looked at me, then laughed. “You’re the first Justice I’ve killed that knew that. Are they finally telling you who it is you’re after? Yes, I used to be a judge. I got my scales fifteen years ago, until the day those bastards at the Castle betrayed me. Now, I plan on raising an army and returning to the Castle, where I am going to burn it to the ground and destroy every last Judge in the kingdom.”

“You don’t really expect to get away with that, do you?” I asked. It seemed absurd. The burning at my side was getting hotter, though, it I was having trouble focusing. He continued to talk, but I wasn’t listening. Instead, I was going back to my exam, to my studies, something I had learned about punishments for renegade Justices. They were branded, on the forehead, with their own badge. Then, I remembered. Heating the badge in fire didn’t do it; that would melt it. It was a magic in the badge itself. This really was Kaken’s badge in my pouch. Vorik must have got it from him when he was here, before he died.

“You’re not listening, boy,” Kaken said, slapping me across the face to bring me back to attention. “Didn’t your teachers tell you that it’s impolite to ignore a ranting villain?”

He laughed again, and I took advantage. I spoke a word. A magic word, one that was taught to me when I first became an Arbiter some ten years ago. One that most Justices forget, I now realized. Kaken hadn’t forgotten, though, for he recognized the word. I spoke it again, and he backed up. The fire at my side intensified, and I felt my belt pouch start to burn. Kaken took another step back, and, raising my head, I shouted the word. The badge at my side finally broke free of my belt pouch and flew across the room. It immediately struck Kaken in the head, and the smell of burning flesh filled the room.

“Justice Kaken, you are charged with treason, murder, and the breaking of your vows as a Justice,” I said, staring coldly at the man before me, who was now on his knees, screaming. “You’re sentence is: Death.”

The fire from the badge intensified, until the man fell to the ground. His face was a bloody pulp, and I turned my face from it, lest I ruin the moment by throwing up. I looked around and saw nothing but startled faces. I faced the men that had been beating on me.

“Untie us right now,” I said. They moved quickly, and in moments the four of us were free. “Now,” I said again, “leave this place. Never return to this town, and you will not be arrested by me. Stay, and you will join Kaken in his punishment.”

I didn’t have to speak twice. All ten men looked down at their former leader and quickly fled. I heard them screaming at the rest of the mercs, who also all beat a hasty retreat. I stumbled then, and held myself up with a chair. Captain Tarbel came to my side, a huge grin on his face.

“You had this planed all along,” he said. “You let them beat you to lull them into a false sense of security, so you could judge Kaken. You sly dog… your Honor.”

I smiled at him weakly and nodded. My brain was too addled at that moment to try and explain to him the truth. Besides, what harm would it do to allow my reputation to start building here? Little did I know that the answer to that question was one I didn’t really want to hear.

But that’s a different story.

The End

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