A red-helm guard put his cape on Lilia’s shoulders. The difference in their stature allowed the Priestess to don it like a cloak, hiding her highly visible orange-silver court mage dress. A female castle knight undid her hair and handed a white string to the Priestess. The knight kneeled and helped Lilia tie laces around the collar.
The world behind the cellar’s door was filthy and lawless. Yet unlike the Priestess, the Baron found no problem blending in. If the rule was a man changes with his social status, then Sir Richard was the exception. As the Baron of Ironheart, he still walked among his people, wearing the same iron clad and keeping the same company.
As a result, a number of people here were acquaintances of the Baron and his aides. They gave him greetings in informal manners. In this tavern called Brown’s Boulder, they called the Baron “Rick”. Needless to say, identifiable names were considered non-existent past curfew.
Brown’s Boulder is a well-known tavern in Ironheart. It is frequented by the low and middle classes but rarely any nobles. The tavern stands alone in the middle of a busy market district, built on a giant boulder that no one could move. The two-story architecture marvel is a testimony to man’s defiance in face of natural hardship; the very kind of defiance people enshrine in time of famine.
Brown’s Boulder serves food and beverage throughout the day. It welcomes merchants, guild members and adventurers alike. There is usually a guard or two patrolling the streets outside at all time. No illegal business is allowed.
Past curfew, however, the tavern-dwellers become much less lawful. Brown’s Boulder offers inn services and overnight recreations. It closes its doors as the law demanded but remains accessible if one knows how.
The owner of the place is Brown. He has a strange accent. He used to be a miner from West Rufus. His last name, a family registry tracing back to Old Miners’ origin, is too tedious for most everyday conversation. At some point, he left the mine to live in the city. Brown made a number of investments with the silvers he earned from selling his family’s iron mine. One such investment was on a plot of land no one wanted, upon which he built a forge and later a tavern.
The Baron of Ironheart led his escorts through a crowd near the bar’s counter. He waved his hand and thumbed up, signaling that the two irregulars—the Priestess and the Militia—were with him. Seeing the signal, the sentry man sitting on a rocking chair by the doorway averted his eyes.
The party stumbled upon a lone table right in front of the cellar. The table was noticeable as it was circular and small; so small that there would be just enough room for two persons. The rest of the tables were long, wide and rectangular. No one was at the table, but, Lilia could tell someone had just been here. There were half empty ale and pieces of a mechanical jigsaw lying on the table.
As they reached the bar counter, the Baron made a query with the barkeeper to see a person named “Leo”:
“Ye look for Leo? He’s upstairs with a woman”, the barkeeper said.
“A woman you say?”
“One moment,” the barkeeper broke off the conversation, “Morgan! Ice cider, room three”, he ordered one of the employees in the kitchen.
“Aye sir!” replied the waiter, leaning his shoulder and coming into the party’s view.
“Yes, a woman; a foreign beauty”, the barkeeper answered the Baron, “They are in room three. Ye come with Morgan. Yer feet must be light and ye better not ruin the moment”.
“Didn’t he have a vow, someone beat him already?”
“Hmph! Ain’t anyone give a damn ‘bout the vow. One night with a gorgeous woman and he would change his mind faster than Alex changes his chicks”, the barkeeper hissed. His comment was loud as if he intended to say it for the crowd to hear.
“Speaking of the devil”, the barkeeper turned and tossed a shoe at a handsome man in question. He saw the man sneaking something suspicious into the red cider on the kitchen’s wait table.
“Alex! Get yer hand off that drink. Ye and yer aphrodisiac out of my kitchen!” he shouted.
“Tsk”, the Priestess did not hide her leer of disdain. The place sure had some disgusting people.
“Gents, lady, and Steve; the five of you help yourselves. Drinks are on me tonight”, the Baron commanded.
Then, he turned to the Priestess. ”Lilia, you come with me”, he said.
They crossed path with a middle-age man in brown tunic at the staircase. He wore peasant’s clothing; he was tall and tanned but his build was not that of hard labor. Rather, Lilia thought he looked a bit flimsy and whimsical with his ruffled chestnut hair. He directed them to the lone table by the cellar.
“Let’s talk over there”, the man suggested.
“Morgan, take this”, the man passed a small vial of golden liquid to the waiter. The waiter took a glimpse at the vial. He didn’t say a word. He popped the cap and poured a few drops into the cider. As he intended to hand the vial back, the man refused, saying:
“Keep it. In case she can’t hold her liquor and pass out. Don’t forget the questionnaire!”
The waiter nodded and brought the cider upstairs. The Baron narrowed his eyes on the man in brown tunic.
“Hey, I haven’t done anything shady to her”, the man protested.
“Sure you haven’t… Okay, whose daughter is she?” the Baron questioned.
“Don’t know”, the man nonchalantly answered.
“What about her name?”
“Don’t know either”.
“Leo…” the word escaped his mouth, elongated as if a sigh.
He ended up sighing, as Lilia had imagined.
They casually conversed on the way to the lone table by the cellar. The Baron began by asking:
“How many did you find?”
An incomplete question, there was nothing Lilia could deduce from this alone.
“Just one, upstairs”, the man replied.
“Why didn’t you say so? Very well then, shall we?”
“Later, Rick. Sit down, I have a request”, the man invited then he noticed there wasn’t enough room for all three of them. He rose up with the intention of offering his seat.
“I’m fine”, she politely turned him down. It would be unbecoming of a vassal to sit on the same level as her master.
“Lilia, I asked Leo to look for mercenaries who are familiar with forests and dark magic. While I cannot lend you the elite guards, the mercenary, however, is at your disposal”, the Baron said to her and then turned to introduce the man named Leo:
“Leo here is a scholar from the time before Silverflow. Without his help, the Academy wouldn’t have been founded”.
“Although I no longer attend the Council, you can say I’m acquainted. It’s a pleasure to see you in person, Councilor Lilia”, Leo greeted.
“Are you coming with us?” she wondered, “The Baron says you are going to assist us tomorrow”, she elaborated.
“Not with the Archbishop around, I won’t. Certainly, I’ll be there to observe you observing the witch hunt from a safe distance”, he jokingly commented.
“And what is your request, Leo?” the Baron asked.
“First of all, I have one question”, he hesitated for a second before he began to explain, “You see, few dares venture into the Dark Forest, even fewer dares challenge the Black Witch in her own territory, and when you’re looking for mercenaries willing to take a stance against the Archbishop that leaves me with no option at all”.
“Ask anything, I’ll provide as long as it is within my power”, the Baron assured.
“I promised the mercenary a healer, one that can keep secret”, he said.
Looking at the Priestess, he made eye contact, and with a smile on his lips, he added, “Look, you have one on your side”.
“I’d be glad—”
“Hold it”, the Baron raised one hand to interrupt Lilia’s acceptance, he noticed something was amiss, “I have never mentioned Lilia before. How do you know she would be here?”
“I have ears at the guild”, he curtly answered.
“Besides, aren’t you a healer yourself?” the Baron questioned.
“I’m an herbalist, not a miracle worker! My hands are tied without herbs. This is all because of those Blueshield crusaders. I can’t smuggle a damn thing out of Silverflow with them around”, he snapped.
“Azeth again huh? Same deal at the castle then”, the Baron sighed.
“I know right? Without Father Felacia and the Black Witch, no one can stop the Archbishop from doing whatever he wants”, the man grunted.
“The Witch is a heretic, a harbinger and a murderer. Don’t you dare put the Witch and my father in the same sentence”, Lilia scolded.
“Is that so? Father Felacia was convinced she was a necessity, a lynchpin”.
“A lynchpin for what?” Lilia asked. This question remained unanswered.
“On that topic, when you think about the rumor, I find it hard to believe that Silverflow would agree with the Church. What can the Witch possibly gain from killing Father Felacia—possibly her only support?” Leo wondered.
“Perhaps Father Felacia found out something he shouldn’t have, so she had no choice but to get rid of him”, the Baron calmly answered.
“That’s what we at the old Silverflow used to call “confirmation bias”: to seek the evidences of belief instead of evidences of truth”.
“Still true at the new Silverflow”, Lilia assured him.
They contemplated the question in silence for a moment.
There was indeed a lapse of judgment on the Baron’s side. There was no doubt a missing link in this chain of events. Everyone in Ironheart knew her late father came into frequent contact with the Black Witch. After all, the truce between Ironheart and the Witch was managed by Silverflow Council and started by him.
The Black Witch survived the Church’s original anti-witchcraft campaign; she was no fool to drop a boulder on her own foot, nor was she an amateur in crime. If the Witch wanted to harm the bishop, she could have done so anytime; there was no reason why she couldn’t conceal the crime properly.
No, she wouldn’t have murdered Father Felacia without a compelling motive.
What could be the motive?
“Perhaps the Black Witch has somehow attained an unknown power, a power so great it allows her to openly oppose the Holy Church?” Lilia voiced one idea.
“How about she was framed? What if I tell you she’s innocent?” Leo proposed.
“I see the Witch still has another supporter. I understand where you’re coming from, Leo. However, I’m afraid Father Felacia did not trust her as much as you think he did. One was going to betray the other sooner or later. The Witch was simply faster”, the Baron remarked.
“The letter”, Lilia suddenly remembered, “There was a letter sent to you yesterday. What did father write?” she queried.
“Oh, my old mind, I almost forgot”.
He unfolded a piece of paper under the leather wrappings of his belt.
“He wrote that the Archbishop foresaw his demise and the harbinger was the Witch. “In three day time, death will come to test your faith. The Witch will be in Ironheart and surely she will bring you great grieves”, was the prophecy.”
Leo’s shoulders drooped, his face turned pale upon hearing the prophecy. “Lifeless” was the correct word to describe the look in his eyes.
“So he went to the Witch’s hut all by himself and ended up dead. Just fantastic”, the Baron exclaimed before reading out loud the content:
“Hmm, let me read from the start, “Sir Richard, if you are reading this letter, this means I’m no longer in this world. Most unfortunate! I did all I could to keep the Witch out of Ironheart. I’m afraid I have failed my mission. It is up to you now. Please stop the prophecy from happening even if it means striking down the Witch yourself. When you see my daughter, tell her to flee—”
“Crap! This might be bad…” Leo gritted his teeth.
The Baron stopped reading the letter and turned to look at the man.
Lilia was thankful for the interruption. She would wish to read the message her father left behind somewhere private; somewhere where no one could see her crying.
“Gah…I know that face—”, the Baron lowly grunted.
“I made a mistake. It’s a grave mistake”, the man grabbed hold of his head and bent on the table, he lamented.
“—the last time you made that face, a coup d’état took place…” the Baron solemnly reported, pressing his face against his fist.
“She’s upstairs…We’re in Ironheart”, he stuttered.
“The mercenary? What about her?” Lilia urged, shaking his shoulder, “Snap out of it! Tell us what happened?”
“Give me a second”, the man requested.
He abruptly disrupted the conversation and began working on the strange jigsaw on the table. His heavy breathing gradually calmed down as he did so. His eyes regained focus. And after a few minutes, he finished the construction.
It was a lantern with a metal handle attached to its side. He cranked the handle, the lantern lit up. He let out a sigh of relief and put down the lantern. The light dimmed and faded out.
“Follow me, we’ll see the mercenary”, he said.
The Baron quietly picked up his shield and followed the man upstairs. Unlike the usual, this time, he walked with his left hand gripping the sword’s handle. Lilia grew nervous by watching Leo’s reaction from before. She became aware of the subtle cues. Something was up, the Baron knew it but he made no comment. However, it was safe to assume Leo’s worries had to do with the mercenary upstairs.
All she could do at the time was following suit and waiting for events to unfold. She was in no position to raise questions.
The Militia joined them as they passed by the counter bar. The Priestess supposed it was a good idea to show him who would be in their witch hunt party. He seemed tipsy and his breath was stank alcohol. Seeing him in this pitiful state, Lilia couldn’t help but praying for a better mercenary, even an average one would do.
There was only one room to the right hand side of a narrow wooden corridor. From the look of it, that one room must be twice the size of a normal room. The only door leading into the room was at the end of the corridor; the Roman number III was carved on the door.
This was where Leo said the mercenary was waiting.
If she took a few more steps from the door towards a locked balcony, she would have a bird-eye view of the marketplace outside. That direction was north, however, so unfortunately she would not be able to witness Ironheart’s sunrise.
Leo knocked on the door, “Morgan”, he called.
The door unlocked. The waiter they met previously answered the call.
Sitting on a bed behind him was a black-haired woman in white night gown. Just as the bartender described, it was a captivating beauty; so captivating that Lilia couldn’t help but wondering whether it was by nature or magic. There was no other human in the room. Putting two and two together, Lilia concluded the woman must be the mercenary in question.
“Excuse me for a moment”, Leo gestured the waiter to make room for him to go through.
The woman’s amber eyes were gazing at the ceiling when they entered. She responded only to Leo’s approach but did not do anything beyond establishing eye contact. She listened to the man’s whispering first. She nodded her head and whispered something back to him. He whispered something to her again.
It was irritating to watch, Lilia thought. The waiter was standing in their way; he had no intention of letting them pass until Leo finished his discussion.
“He needs to negotiate how much information each party wants to disclose”, the Baron said, “Hence, in these businesses, we often rotate between aliases and titles to fit the situation”.
“I see, then how should I call you, my lord?” Lilia asked.
Leo caught wind of the discussion when he returned, “She isn’t interested in your background and she’s not sharing her background. Therefore, you should use a name and not a title—”, he replied in place of the Baron.
“—I advise you not to give her your real name”, he noted the last part in low tone.
The waiter locked the door behind them as soon as they gathered at the woman’s bedside. There were dirty bandages under the bed and traces of herbal medicines on the end table.
“Eliot”, the woman introduced herself.
“I’m Rick, this young man is…”
“Steve, I’m not changing my name”, the Militia firmly said.
“Very well, and this is…” the Baron turned to introduce the Priestess.
“Mana”, the Priestess uttered a random name, “That will do, for now”
The mercenary burst into laughter for some reasons. It didn’t last long as she had to cringe and bend to the right. Her hands grabbed hold of the right hip, so even though the injury was not visible under the blanket, Lilia could deduce that must be where the problem needing a healer lay.
“Damn lie! You are Lilia Silverflow, Father Felacia’s infamous little girl”, the woman corrected.
“Drink some of this cider—she invited—I was expecting a better lie”
*An earlier version of this chapter was named “Burden of proof” which included events now in chapter 6 and later. This revision is the latest as of November 2015