Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 5.



Minstrels Market is one of the myriad of trade districts that have sprang up around Emberhelm. If you wanted to hire someone to play for you, to shape a song, make music, craft an instrument or try to teach you; Minstrels Market is where you come. And it isn’t quite what most who visit expect I’d wager.

There isn’t an abundance of fanfare or flash to celebrate its presence. Most of the stonework and wooden buildings are weathered to the point that some residents have resorted to ramshackle repair tactics. Anyone expecting gilded glass windows and flawless facades might easily mistake the area for a lower district.

But one signature element makes Minstrels Market unmistakable to any other area of Emberhelm; an endless aura of music. In every manner the trade can be implemented there is always practitioners at work day or night. The streets echo the subtle sounds of song and the permanent presence of playing instruments.

Walking through the market is an experience in itself, the atmosphere ambient altering flawlessly to fit with the time of day, the weather or even the unspoken mood of the city. In a way it was an affirmation to the almost magical power music could have – especially in the skilled hands of those who mastered the craft.

It wasn’t the kind of setting you would suspect to find a formidable SpellHound, much less a Justicar. Even though I myself had discovered that this was the most likely location to contact Maeredith long ago, the mental image of a proper office or stately room just seemed more appropriate. Maybe it was just me, but I never could shake the idea that someone determining a person’s fate should be behind some desk or seated regally. Not standing serenely on some city street listening to the drifting music of the night.

But that is precisely where Maeredith Starseer was, stationed near the center of a small empty courtyard with a flowing fountain of water as a companion. Placed along the perimeter the Everlight lanterns glow only afforded a dim illumination. Even in the mix of moonlight and manufactured magical light doubted I could have mistaken her for anyone else.

A thick long braid of liquid twilight dangled behind her disturbing what little light her banded armor caught and threatened to cast back. Instead of opting for heavy cumbersome armor made from worked plates of steel, Maeredith prudently preferred the far less restrictive qualities of a composite approach. It made use of overlapping strips of metal that had been sewn onto a leather backing, along with a mixture of chainmail and studded leather to protect her from harm.

It was a part of her approach to things that I admired. She was just as capable as any male SpellHound to ever serve in my opinion, and even were she otherwise I dare not discount the danger she could represent to a foe. Only a death-seeking fool would turn a blind eye to the lethal long sword that hung ever ready at her hip. And even a fellow SpellHound would be wise to pay heed to the long hafted hammer resting before her – its head seated on the ground and its handle poised beneath her palms.

Despite her own slight size or feminine features there was a raw strength to Maeredith. She might only stand even with most men’s chests or chins at best, but I could scarcely recall another so surprisingly skilled with steel against opponents so superior in size. And yet, even as physically capable as Maeredith had proven herself to be there was no ignoring the fact that she was without question a woman.

Perhaps it was her heritage, the blended traits of both her parents but my eyes always threatened to tempt an angry response when in her presence. Even so encased in her armor a collection of curves couldn’t keep themselves hidden. Never mind her overwhelming professional persona or aura of authority. It was a different kind of nervous anxiety than that of being a recruit in the presence of someone like Corrin. Although, I can’t completely say that it was a completely separate sensation.

“With your permission, Ma’am,” I cordially started to greet her only to cut myself off short with the reminder such formalities were no longer necessary. Maeredith was no longer my superior, nor were we confined to code of conduct expected between serving SpellHounds. This only added to the awkwardness my racing pulse seemed eager to punctuate.

“Ahem,” I faltered, hoping to find some way to regain my balance. But my mind was sadly and rather determined to avoid any speech that might preserve any passing semblance of dignity. Instead it was quite content to juggle about a curious collection of chaos that resisted my attempts to organize them.

“What was my intent for seeking you out again,” someone asked aloud and then I found myself firmly embarrassed when I recognized my own voice. “Apologies,” I countered as quickly as I could and redoubled my efforts to re-organize my thoughts. When next my lips parted it was with an increased sense of self-control.

“I hope this night finds you well and that I am not intruding,” I attempted to ingratiate myself and desperately prayed my recent display might go overlooked. Maybe I had finally found some fortune since her head had yet turned towards me and therefore could still be engaged in enjoying the evening entertainment. Instantly my stomach fell from existence and left me the moment her eyes acknowledged my proximity.

Those eyes, they were like starring up into a starry sky; a deep sea of endless blue flecked with hints of green, gold and silver stars. It was always a point of contention that I struggled to contemplate; had she garnered the name Starseer for her ability to look afar into someone or quite simply for her marvelous eyes alone? I had never been able to satisfactorily decide.

My tongue decided it was a fitting time to allow my mind the opportunity to debate the issue once more before I could object. Maeredith’s eyebrow rose ever so slightly in an expression that I couldn’t determine if it meant to convey polite irritation or a patient demand for me to hurry along to whatever point I intended to make. My skills regarding women in general are lacking to say the least so I wasn’t sure which would be more likely.

Closing my eyes I paused long enough to wrangle with my words, resigned to drive straight towards my intended purpose. “I bear a law-breaker, charged with the malicious use of magic among other crimes. Justice demands she see judgment, but my conscience isn’t clear that some other force is at work. I fear her innocence is neither intact, nor is her guilt grave. She has a need of a Justicar’s discernment, and I can think of none other more apt to approach the issue without clouded contemplation.”

An extra ring of steel on stone sang to life to join the midnight melody of Minstrels Market, Maeredith’s hefty hammer rising briefly before returning to rest on the ground. Carried along with the curious chime was a growing circle of pale white power that passed beneath our feet. As it swept by, a tingle of energy crept over my skin, leaving my hair standing on edge.

And just like that, with a single tap of her hammer we were frozen in place, our feet firmly rooted statue like to the street. In the limited light available, Maeredith’s eyes were transformed and I could feel her attention pouring through the both of us. Unable to move I found myself likewise incapable of offering any objection. We were transfixed by her gaze, and as we stared into those depths I understood. For I was looking directly into the ever-burning heart of a star among endless darkness, Starseer was quite the fitting name after all.

“Tsk, tsk,” she chided me, an alien aspect present in her voice that I’d never known before. But then, I had never been on the receiving end of a Justicar like this. “I do not permit such thoughts about me by those in my presence unless I have granted permission,” she continued to chastise me. By all creation I could only wonder at what she was seeing – let alone where she was finding the images she was hinting at. All the same I could feel my cheeks beginning to blush.

“Although I do suppose it could be our little secret, perhaps I will allow you your daydreams. Maybe they will provide some mercy to this weight of worry you burden yourself with. What have you fumbled into, what are these threads that threaten to unravel I wonder?”

Maeredith’s stance shifted slightly as she directed more of her potent probe deeper into Lillian. “Hunter’s Horn,” she cursed with a sharp gasp that I felt more than heard. “Malicious magic has been worked by your hand dear lady, but there is more of its stain upon your soul. Something has had a sorcerers hand at work within you as well.”

My ability to move returned to me with a sudden staggering weight that made me appreciate the grounds consistent nature to remain beneath me. Maeredith’s demeanor had changed in the aftermath of her examination. Where a serious nature had been or even the touch of a dark humor now a glimpse of softness showed. Almost invisible in the twilight a single tear trailed down her left cheek tracing its way down a blue braid of tattooed knot work.

Even so shaken, her posture faltered none and I could not mark any other visible reaction to whatever she had witnessed. I don’t know which was worse to think about; seeing Maeredith’s response or not knowing what could have caused it. And then I remembered that Corrin and company had her cohort already in custody as well.

I could really use that drink now, I decided. And, just maybe, I could crawl inside it to find this whole mess had blown past me. I could take my purse, pay some debts and begin looking for the next client with coin.

An awkward stillness settled over us, nobody so much as moved, save for the shallow signs of breathing. Lillian herself showed little desire to speech, trembling openly from her experience. More questions began to take shape in the quiet corners of my mind and as they did I had to consciously remind them that I had decided not to allow my curiosity any more freedom over me.

It, however, had not agreed with that idea. “How bad is she,” the question shattered the growing silence like it was a fragile frost. Maeredith herself was forced to close her own eyes this time before meeting mine and compose herself. But when she spoke it lacked her usual complete confidence.

“Shards,” the valiant veteran started to explain. “Someone has used spells to shape this poor woman’s soul and left her with only pieces of herself. There is no doubt in me that she has made use of her own small talent for magic to commit crimes as she has been charged. However, there is too much of her missing to piece together more.”

My belly opted for the opportunity to reassert its return with a sickening lurch at hearing the news and all that it implied. “What could have done something like this to her, what could ravage her so without alerting anyone to the damage? How do we handle dealing with her knowing this,” a flood of fears all threatened to overwhelm me at once. Had any SpellHound ever had to face such a complicated issue like this?

Pushing the panic aside I tried to close the gap my rushing rant had taken advantage of. This wasn’t Maeredith’s fault; I couldn’t allow myself to lash out at her. It was just as likely that she also was absent the answers I was desperately demanding. “Allow me to apologize once more, I am afraid the current situation has found me on unfamiliar footing,” I stated sincerely.

Maeredith actually smiled, just enough to be noticed before her face returned to the mask it regularly displayed. Are Justicar’s even allowed to smile a part of me started to ponder, but by that reckoning I had no basis if they were permitted to shed tears either? Theirs was a task that doubtless could tolerate an abundance of open emotional displays. The thought of a figure that acts as judge and jury being seen showing anything less than detachment in delivering their sworn duty could be dangerous.

“Don’t lose any sleep over it,” I encouraged her, trying to provide a friendly grin out of genuine compassion. “Mixed blooded mutts like us have to stick together. No mention of your mere-mortality will ever be heard about from these lips.”

Maeredith’s guarded bearing didn’t seem to acknowledge my implications, but I was quite confident that she had caught my meaning clear enough. With a formal bow of her head and only a faintly hinted flourish she once more tapped her hammer against the stone. This time there was no tingling tide to wash over me. Instead, Lillian relaxed visibly and fixed her head obediently towards the form of Maeredith.

“I will ensure that the presented culprit of crimes is dealt with is a manner appropriate to her actions,” Maeredith declared automatically in her official Justicar tone. “You’re free to return to any matters that previously engaged you former SpellHound Vaen. My parting counsel to you; walk with a wary eye and mark where your feet lead you with care. Scarce courtesy will be granted you or consideration for your past service should you be found involved by others.”

“Thanks for giving the girl a fair chance,” I told her gratefully. “Appreciate the advice too; I’ll try to keep my nose clear. As far as I’m concerned my obligations to my client have been met. People have been caught, problem solved and I’ve even done my civic duty to surrender them into the hands of the authorities. Consider me as removed from involvement as can be.”

And with that Maeredith and I bid each other farewell. Lillian fell immediately into tow behind her and the pair disappeared into the night on the opposite side of the fountain. Suddenly the feeling of being alone and no longer in the company of a Justicar brought a shiver to my skin. The music of Minstrels Market becoming more pronounced as I found myself left to my thoughts.

First among them was the admission that remaining in my current surroundings wasn’t going to do my nerves any favors. I could leave the dark isolation to those with a more poetic disposition. Give me a warm hearth, friendly faces and my imagination at bay instead. It was far too easy for one’s nerves to run away with them otherwise.

Howlers Hall came to mind immediately and I was quite happy to head its way. There was the promise of payment, a well earned drink or two and a deserved distraction. If troubling times were on the horizon; let the SpellHounds handle it. My duty these days rested solely with keeping my debts paid and whoever hired me happy.