Talon Locke gazed intently at the candidates. He summoned all of his perceptive powers, scrutinizing each one carefully, his eyes sweeping slowly over them. He folded his arms in front of his and creased his brow, attempting to further intensify his concentration. He knew that his decision was critical. Indeed, his life might depend on it. His pointed ears, heritage of his elven mother, twitched as he thought, and his pursed mouth made his blonde van dyke beard point towards the objects of his intense scrutiny.
Surely one of these peaches was mostly free of mold.
He stood next to the fruit cart in Falcon’s Hollow’s Low Market, trying to decide which of the eight peaches on the cart had the greatest percentage of healthy color to it. Finally he settled on one, paid for it, lifted it, and sighed when he saw the white fuzz and green splotches that had been artfully hidden. He should have known when the seller manning the cart had forbidden him to touch them.
“Outwitted by fruit, Monsieur Locke?” A musical voice called to him from a two-story building that faced the market. A lady leaned slightly over the balcony, her low-cut gown now doubt revealing something glorious to any passing birds. Talon had been into the Rouge Lady several times, but Gwynne Belfleur, owner and madam, was still an unattained prize for the poor lawyer. Talon smiled and doffed his hat.
“My dear Miss Belfleur.” Talon replied. “This is indeed a pleasure. An early morning for you, I see.”
She favored him with a slight smile. “An exceptionally late night, as a matter of fact.” She covered a small yawn with the back of her hand. “I am about to turn in. I don’t suppose I’ll find you with enough coin to be interesting when I awaken?”
Talon felt some heat rise in his cheeks. “As it happens, my day is young. Say that I live in hope, my lady.” He gave her a slight bow and replaced his hat to shadow the red in his face. She turned with a laugh and walked back into the brothel.
Talon spun on his heel and headed towards the ramshackle inn across the market square. Perhaps Jak would let him mend a chair or two in exchange for some cinnamon pancakes. The slight point on his ears pricked up out of his mop of hair when he heard a voice calling his name.
“Mister Locke! Mister Locke!” Talon turned to see Gavin, one of Magistrate Harg’s clerks, dashing towards him. “Mister Locke,” Gavin said as he halted his run, gasping for breath. “Magistrate Harg asked that I run and fetch you immediately. Said to tell you he may have instruction for you.”
Talon pitched the moldy pear behind him, his stomach protesting even as his brain chided his stomach. “Well, let’s not keep the Magistrate waiting. Lead on, sir.”
Gavin first started off at a run again, but stopped, waited, and walked when he saw that Talon was not going to sprint alongside of him. The two of them entered the Hollow Tribunal, whose name was often used ironically in this town, which was owned, body and soul, by the Lumber Consortium. Talon knew that Harg, along with the justice system in the Hollow, was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Consortium and its ruthless Gavel, Thuldrin Kreed. Still, he had seen the halfling Magistrate periodically attempt to run a fair court in cases that didn’t concern the lumber industry.
Talon’s mind raced with possibilities as they ascended the central staircase to the second floor, where the offices and law libraries were maintained with mostly benign neglect. The clerk knocked twice on a pair of double doors that bore two sets of handles, one only reaching Talon’s knees. A voice from inside called out, “Yes, yes. Come in quickly now!” The clerk opened the door and gestured for Talon to enter. When he did so, the door shut behind him.
Vamros Harg sat at a human-sized desk that looked practically unused, as the Magistrate could barely reach to the midpoint of the desk and the Consortium was not about to lay out the coin for a properly-sized one, especially since Kreed likely thought the sight was funny. The halfling lifted a small stack of papers from his desk, whispered something to them, and they floated to the far side of the desk and came to rest.
“Take a seat, Mister Locke.” We’re being formal. Is he being watched? Talon considered as he walked to the desk. “The papers are for your case. You are hereby instructed to review the statements and be prepared to present a pleading in one hour.”
Talon’s eyes went wide. “One hour? My Lord, I can hardly…”
Harg looked at the young half-elf sharply. “One hour, Mister Locke. Master Quinn was quite adamant in his demand for a speedy trial for his employee. She is entitled to such under law and she shall receive all that she is entitled to. I’ve instructed the clerks to lay out your robe in office number four.”
Talon’s mind raced to keep up. Quinn was the master of a carnival that was set up almost a day away from Falcon’s Hollow. That meant that the case involved at least one person who wasn’t an employee or slave of the Consortium (the two descriptors often overlapping). It also mean, Locke considered, someone who could pay. But one hour…
“May I meet with my client, at least?”
Harg shook his head. “No time for that, I’m afraid. The Sheriff just brought her to town this morning and she’s being allowed some time to refresh herself before being brought to court. Just review the statements and be ready. Mister Harms from Oregent is the Consortium’s barrister-in-residence and will be handling the case on behalf of the government.”
“How can that even be legal?” Talon’s question escaped his lips involuntarily and earned him a sharp look from the magistrate. “Begging your pardon, My Lord.” Talon looked at the papers in his hand, took a slow breath, and then stood. “I’ll see to it then.”
Magistrate Harg nodded. “See you in an hour, Mister Locke. Try to be entertaining. I’m up rather early for this.” Talon nodded absently and walked out of the office. He did not notice Harg’s eyes follow him out, or the worry embedded there.
Talon walked the wooden interior balcony that formed a U-shape overlooking the entry to the Tribunal until he found the door with a small brass number four hammered into it. He walked in to find his robe draped over a chair, slightly dusty, and some ink, paper, and quills laid out on a plank table. He tossed the papers Harg had given him to the desk and paced the room for a few minutes.
“One hour? For a case I know nothing about against a Consortium barrister? And here I thought we had reached some minor accord." Talon picked up the first statement. It was from the accuser, a lumberjack named Gustav Stevens. He was accusing the Carnival fortuneteller of witchcraft. She, according to the statement, was a Varisian named Leonora Barandyai. She had apparently predicted bad times were to come for the man, and she had not been wrong.
Understanding began to dawn on Talon. While the Gavel was a brutal man, he had a strange reaction to lumberjacks who appeared to be the victims of bad luck. His generosity to those lumberjacks was all out of proportion. On the other hand, Talon reasoned, if he perceived that some Varisian from the carnival had cursed one of his men, his wrath would likely be fatal. Harg was trying to get the case in and out of court before word reached the Consortium offices and Kreed sent his henchman, “Payday” Teetum, down to tell Harg how to rule, regardless of what might be presented in court. Talon also considered that Harms himself would have had little more warning that he did about the case, which mean it was going to come down to arguments made in court.
“Well,” Talon muttered as he began rapidly reading the other papers. “Let’s get started, then.”
The courtroom was packed, but quite clearly bifurcated into two camps. On one side were a score of lumberjacks. Most of them were of indeterminate race or age, as they were so covered in grime and dirt that determining their actual feature was practically impossible. They did, however, demonstrated the thick arms and broad shoulders of their profession. Talon noted, with some trepidation, that a few of them still had axes in their hands.
The left side of the court could not have been more different from the gaggle of lumberjacks on the right. First of all, they were something of a riot of color. For another thing, it was certainly a far more diverse group, with humans making up a majority, but not nearly as absolute as the woodsmen. They were surrounding the woman in the dock. Talon looked at his client for the first time. She was clearly dressed as a Varisian, but looked as if she was 18 going on 80. She wore a scarf draped over her head, which only exacerbated the look of age that her outfit presented. Talon nodded to the young woman, who only gazed at him impassively. Behind her and to her left, a red-haired half-elf nodded to him. Talon was slightly taken aback, as Sheriff Baleson was the only other half-elf he had regular contact with. Talon returned the nod and then faced the court, the bailiff calling all to order.
Magistrate Harg had a special walkway and high seat constructed that allowed him to peer down from the elevated bench at the far end of the courtroom. He banged his gavel several times and asked Mister Harms to begin.
Harms, a priggish man whose robes were far less dusty than Talon’s, stood. “My Lord, I call Master Gustav Stevens before this court. The gaggle of lumberjacks seemed to undulate like it was a singular creature until it disgorged a small man at the low fence between the crowd and the barristers. He was dressed as all the other lumberjacks, but the grime was unable to hide the scratches and bruises on the man’s face and hands.
“Mister Stevens,” Harms intoned gravely. "Would you please relate for the court the events that transpired this Sunday past?”
Stevens gaped at Harms for a moment, then nodded. “Some of the boys and me went up to Quinn’s Carnival. We were just there for…umm, for no harm or nothin’. While there, I went to…” he glared at the Varisian girl in the dock, “…to Madam Barandyai’s to get my fortune. She told me I had a bad time ahead of me.”
The Consortium barrister nodded. “And then would you please relate the events of yesterday afternoon and early evening?”
Talon’s jaw clenched. He’s clearly had some time with this yokel. Talon stepped out to take a long look around the chamber. No sign of any of the Consortium higher-ups. No doubt they were still in their beds. He did a double take at the gallery, however, when he saw Ralla Hebbradan sitting in the front row. As was often the case, she looked stunning, in a fragile sort of way. As was also often the case, this image was magnified by the rather glorious bruise forming along her left jawline. Talon tore his eyes away to listen to Stevens’ clearly rehearsed answer.
“Sir, yesterday afternoon, my friends and I were seeking some drinks for the evening. As we sallied up to the bar at the Sitting Duck, I realized that I had been robbed. When I began demanding that someone return my money, a goblin of some sort struck me across the knee. With that…” the lumberjack gulped, “…a larger fight ensued and I was very badly beaten.”
“Mister Stevens,” Harms said, slowly stalking towards the dock. “Had you ever been assaulted in the Sitting Duck before?”
“I…uhh…” Stevens looked perplexed. “I been in a fight before there, yes sir.”
Harms glared at the man. “But never one without some manner of provocation? Never where you were simply assaulted at random?”
A light seemed to dawn in Stevens’ eyes. “Oh! Oh, no sir. Never without reason.”
“And have you ever been robbed while a citizen of Falcon’s Hollow?”
“No damn fool would rob a lumberjack, ‘less they weren’t from around here.” This brought a rumble of approval from Stevens’ side of the room.
Harms made a weak attempt at feigning surprise. “Why, Mister Stevens, you mean to say that, in your time in Falcon’s Hollow, you have never met with such dire circumstances as you did this past evening? How can that be?”
Stevens pointed a shaky finger at the dock. “She cursed me, sir! She pronounced a doom upon me and now I am ruined!” The lumberjacks roared in approval and anger. The bailiff seemed to be ready to go for his sword, while Harg banged his gavel on the table to try and quiet the would-be mob.
Harms turned smugly to Talon. “Defense?” The lumberjacks made vague threatening noises as Talon stepped towards the center of the court, facing away from the crowd in thought.
“Mister Stevens,” Talon began, “If I am given to understand you correctly, you sought out Miss Barandyai of your own accord, yes?”
Stevens glared at Talon. “Sure,” he spat.
“Now,” Talon asked, “I have been to the Carnival and I recall that the lady’s wagon has a sign over it. Do you recall seeing this sign, Mister Stevens?”
Stevens scrunched up his face, as though he were either thinking very hard or straining something. “Uhh….yeah?”
“Do you recall what that sign says, Mister Stevens?”
“It’s got her damn gypsy name…”
“Objection, My Lord. The accused’s ethnicity is not on trial here.”
Harg cleared his throat. “The witness will refrain from casting aspersions on the accused that are not material to the case.”
Stevens stared at the halfling dumbly.
Harg rolled his eyes. “Her being Varisian has nothing to do with whether she used witchcraft.”
Stevens looked shocked. “The hell it doesn’t. They’re all a pack of devil-worshipping witches.”
Harg folded his hands. “It does not, and you’ll stick to facts or we can end this right here.” The magistrate then gave a pointed look to Talon.
Talon stepped in, “What else does the sign say, Mister Stevens.”
Stevens looked back to Talon, confused for a moment, then stared into that place in the sky where he kept his memories. “Uhh…’Fortunes Foretold.’”
“Precisely!” Talon gestured to the dock. “You asked to have your fortune foretold and did she not give an accurate foretelling? She gave you a grim prediction and grim tidings befell you. Are you accusing her of hexing you or simply being an accurate forecaster?” He winced slightly as the words left his mouth. Never ask the next question, his rhetoric professor had advised. Leave that as a doubt in the ears of the audience. Don’t give your interlocutor the chance to explain. He had given Stevens a chance to explain…
“But my life’s never been that bad before. She done hexed me to make sure her foretelling came true! I got my coins stolen, my leg busted, and I woke up outside the Duck the next morning and I could barely walk!” The lumberjacks shouted again, louder than before, and would not be quiet this time until the bailiff had drawn his sword.
Talon was losing ground fast and he could see that the magistrate was looking at him to do something. He looked at the woman in the dock, then back to the gallery. Ralla was looking directly at him. He was used to that from girls – he had a healthy enough ego – but he’d never paid for a night with Ralla – she looked too much like a child. So why was she…
Talon looked back at Stevens and his eyes narrowed. “Mister Stevens, you say that you woke up outside the Sitting Duck, is that correct?”
“So, then you were knocked out in the altercation that followed the attack from the…goblin.”
Stevens suddenly found that his memories were embedded in his shoes. “Uhhh…yes, sir.”
Talon felt a slow smile coming on. “Mister Stevens, I’m sure a man of your stature, your…prowess, gave as good as he got, right?”
Stevens was now up to doing a small soft-shoe dance routine, shuffling his feet. “Well, not as such…” Harms was now watching keenly. You’ll never find out everything in an hour’s time, barrister.
“Mister Stevens, did you get knocked out as the fight began around you?” Now the crowd amongst the lumberjacks looked confused as well.
“I did, sir.” The lumberjacks looked at Stevens, though his friends were glaring at Talon. Harms finally stood up. “My Lord, is this relevant?”
Talon raised a hand to Harms. “It is, and I shall demonstrate how, sir. Mister Stevens, if you were assaulted and immediately or shortly thereafter knocked out…” Talon walked to the bar and put his hand next to Stevens, “…how did you hurt your hand?”
Stevens made a face. “I hurt that…somewhere else, sir.” Talon watched Stevens as a thin sheen of sweat broke out on his face. He was clearly not ready to discuss this bit.
“Somewhere else, Mister Stevens?” Tread carefully, Talon, he thought to himself as he stepped away and looked pointedly to the gallery, drawing the crowd’s eyes towards Ralla. “Mister Stevens, you ended your night in Sitting Duck, but you did not begin it there, did you?”
Stevens would not raise his head now, even as the sheen of sweat began to form droplets. “No, sir.”
“Mayhap you did a little gambling? Maybe…danced with a girl?” The question, along with the purple field across Ralla’s cheek, had a strange, but immediate, effect on the lumberjacks. Those who accounted themselves Stevens’ friends looked at him. Those who did not began to back away, with a few gripping their axes tighter. Ralla was easily the most popular whore in the illegal brothel in the back of the Rouge Lady. Stevens had just gone from persecuted lumberjack to a guy who hits pretty girls.
But Talon knew his client wasn’t out of the woods yet. “Mister Stevens, you claim that a goblin hit you in the leg, is that correct?”
“Well…” his hesitance brought a cry from the lumberjacks and the first murmur from the far more colorful side of the audience.
“Or was it, perhaps, someone near goblin size? Someone short…short and angry?” Everyone in town knew that Ralla had a kid brother with a temper and a general hatred of all things Falcon’s Hollow. “Mister Stevens, I think it may be safe to say that Miss Barandyai did possess the wisdom and vision to see your future, but only a man of your singular wit and bravado could have seen its realization.” Harg snorted and covered his mouth. “Mister Stevens, did you see who attacked you in the Duck?”
Stevens shrugged. “I…I don’t know if I really saw.”
“My Lord, a moment?” Harms was already on his feet and striding towards Stevens. Talon raised his hands and stepped back, allowing the two of them to confer. He watched as Harms turned redder, Stevens seemed to get smaller, and several of the lumberjack’s friends began grabbing at the accuser’s shirt. Finally, Harms turned around, trying his best to salvage his dignity. “My Lord. Mister Stevens should like, at this time, to recant his statement and withdraw from pursuit of charges, with the court’s permission, of course.”
Harg was having difficulty keeping a straight face, but he looked at Talon, practically beaming. “Does the accused consent to this change?” Talon looked at the lady in the dock, who looked at him mildly uncomprehending. Talon nodded at her, and she nodded back. Talon turned to face the bench. “We are satisfied, My Lord.”
Harg leaned back in his chair. “If there is no further business, this case is dismissed and court stands in recess.” He banged his gavel and several things happened at once. The colorful carnival crowd gave out several cheers. The lumberjacks began heading out the door, Stevens being brought along less than voluntarily. Harg was gone out of the chamber like a shot from a crossbow.
Talon looked up at the gallery and caught Ralla’s eye. She smiled at him and he returned the smile before she rose and left. He looked back down to see the red-haired half elf at the bar. He waved Talon over, producing a coin pouch as if from the air.
“Well, at least now I know to whom to turn when I need a lawyer.” The carnival master smiled. “Leonora thanks you and so do I.” He dropped the pouch in Talon’s hand, gave a small salute, and seemed to glide through the packed crowd as though he were partly incorporeal. Talon stared at the pouch.
“I suppose you’re please with yourself, Locke?” Harms had gathered his papers, clutching them tightly. “What do you suppose you’ll do with your ill-gotten gains?”
Talon grinned. “I anticipate breakfast, Mister Harms. Care to join me?” Harms looked aghast for a moment, then sighed.
Breakfast was excellent, and lunch was really not bad at all. As the sun went down, Talon spent his time much as he had the rest of the day, when he was not eating. He peered into the coin pouch at the stack of golden eagles therein. He had no real idea if it was enough to get him through the arcane hoops that Gwynne’s beaus would have to jump in order to reach her boudoir, it did mean he wouldn’t sleep alone tonight, or on the bench in the inn’s common room.
Talon arranged his greatcoat, currently a dark forest green for the dim lamplight in the common room, tipped his hat to Jak Krimminy, and walked out the door. It was just across the Low Market to the Rouge Lady and…
“Let’s see your license.”
The voice was gravelly and thick with the impact of some sort of alcohol. Talon looked to his left to see Gavel Kreed’s thug, Payden “Payday” Teetum, leaning against the empty fruit cart.
“License? What license do you mean?” Talon felt like he knew where this was going, but he might yet be able to fast-talk a drunk Payday.
“Your license to practice law, Clever Tongue.” Payday stood up straight and stretched his neck, causing it to pop loudly. “Town records say it’s expired.”
“Expired?” Talon asked innocently. “I don’t have it on me, but I am fairly certain there is no expiration date on my copy of the license.”
“Every license in the town expires. Yours expired yesterday. As a result, you owe a fine to the Consortium and Mistah Kreed.”
Talon sighed. “I suppose it would be too much for you to show me the ordinance or regulation detailing this expiration date?”
Payday took a step forward. “You callin’ me a liar, Clever Tongue?”
Talon’s jaw set. “No, I’m calling you an idiot, Payday.” He pulled back the right side of his greatcoat to reveal his rapier. Payday flared at the name, but grinned when he saw the sword.
“You don’t want to do that. Assault on a Consortium official is a hangin’ offense ‘round here.”
“That seems like it would depend on someone witnessing the assault, wouldn’t it?” Talon rested his hand on the sword hilt.
“You mean like them?” Payday looked over Talon’s shoulder and Talon heard several footfalls from several different angles. He looked around and saw that he was surrounded by eight additional goons. He lowered his head.
Payday was on him like a striking snake, driving his fist into Talon’s midsection and forcing all the air from Talon’s lungs with a whoooof. As Talon dropped to his knees, and then to the earth, the blows seemed to rain from every direction. He felt his ribs break and it seemed that his cheekbone was moving in a way it probably shouldn’t.
Talon noted that at least two groups of Hollow folk walked by as his beating continued, but not a word was said. His mind, clearly in cahoots with the Consortium thugs, denied him the bliss of unconsciousness and he, at last, lay on the street, gurgling blood that tried to rise out of his throat. Only one eye was really functional and it watched as Payday took the coin purse from him and peered inside.
“That’s about it. I’ll tell Harg to renew your license now.”
One of the thugs reached for Talon’s sword, but Payday kicked at his hand. “We ain’t no thieves, ya idiot.” He growled at the man, now clutching his scratched-up hand. They turned to walk away. Talon noted that one lingered behind. Gustav Stevens glared down at Talon hatefully, then spat on him. The spittle landed on Talon’s bloody face.
Once the thugs had disappeared up the hill, Talon began trying to stand, but he discovered his shin was broken when he tried to put weight on it, and he collapsed into the mud again. Using his bruised forearms, he dragged himself back to the door to Jak’a’Napes. He could not reach the door handle from where he lay, so he slapped the door several times, each slap sending shockwaves of pain through his battered hand.
The door opened and Jak grunted to himself as he saw the battered half-elf on the porch. “Nine Hells, boy. What did you do now?”
Talon’s answer was unintelligible, due to the ruin of his jaw and teeth. Jak pulled him into the common room and set him on a bench near the bar. No one seemed to look at him as he slumped there. Talon pulled his greatcoat around him, which was slowly shifting color in response to the light. He put his mauled hand to his lips and slowly murmured. He cajoled and flattered a few of the more well-known gods and was rewarded with a soft glow of light that spread through his mouth and hands. He resisted the urge to cry out as teeth regrew and bones reset, making a wet clicking noise as they did so.
Jak had gone back to polishing mugs, but stopped when he saw that Talon was casting magic. “I didn’t know you were a priest, boyo.”
Talon smiled, which hurt a lot less than it had a minute ago. “Not as such, Jak. But the Gods, while powerful, are just as likely to take a liking to kind words. Negotiations can be made.” He chanted again and his bruises shrank and the rest of his bones clacked back into place. He still hurt all over, but, he thought, he was probably no longer in danger of dying. He rose slowly and shuffled back to his usual spot. He sipped from his canteen and avoided eye contact as the night wore on. When Jak closed up for the night, he slid his pack to one side of the bench and stretched out, resting his head on the pack and pulling his coat around him like a blanket.
Another day in the Hollow, Talon ruminated as he drifted to sleep. Just another day.