The great hall at the top of Lystern’s squat, wide college tower felt chill despite the warmth of the day and the sunlight streaming through the ornate stained glass windows that overlooked the huge circular table.
On an arc surrounding the Lord Elder Mage, Heryst, sat the four mages who made up the law council. All old men, all trusted advisers of the relatively young college and city ruler. Opposite them, The Raven were gathered around Darrick who stood at their centre while they sat, listening to the charges arraigned against him. Otherwise, but for fifteen college guardsmen and a gaggle of clerks and monitor mages, the hall was empty, its spectacular domed and timbered roof ringing hollow.
Hirad Coldheart couldn’t shake off a fundamental sense of wrong. It pervaded his every sense and had settled like a cloying web over his body. He had already been reminded twice of court protocol and now The Unknown Warrior left a restraining hand on his shoulder, keeping him in his seat. He had been promised his say but he couldn’t shift the notion that it would be after any decision had been made in the minds of those opposite him. Not Heryst, the law council.
Darrick, of course, had remained impeccably disciplined throughout. Former General of the Lysternan armies and now accused of desertion, treason and cowardice he had returned to the college of his own free will to answer the charges. And nothing The Raven could say about the timing of his decision, and the priorities they felt he should place higher, carried any weight whatever.
He was a deeply principled man and for him, clearing his name transcended any action The Raven wanted to undertake. Those principles were one of the things that made him such a valuable addition to The Raven. But they were also a frustration Hirad found difficult to bear. So much remained to be done and he felt they were wasting time. Events were moving fast and they couldn’t afford to be left behind.
Heryst looked round from a brief whispered conversation with the law mages. Two were frowning, one shaking his head, the fourth impassive.
‘At this juncture,’ said the Lord Elder Mage, ‘We will drop the charge of treason. It is clear that your intention was not to act against Lystern. Indeed your assertion that our alliance with Dordover at the time was the potentially more treasonable act is one we cannot counteract with any great surety. Endangering the men under your command by virtue of that treason is therefore also dismissed.
‘But the charges of desertion and cowardice must stand and you will answer them.’
Hirad opened his mouth but The Unknown squeezed his shoulder.
‘Ridiculous,’ muttered the barbarian.
‘I know,’ said The Unknown.
‘I laugh at any suggestion of cowardice,’ said Darrick. ‘But within the laws of Lystern, I am guilty of desertion. That is not in dispute.’
‘That is not a clever opening to your defence,’ said Denser.
Darrick looked right long enough to spear the Raven’s Xeteskian mage with the stare that had sent a thousand raw recruits’ pulses stuttering before he continued.
‘It was desertion,’ affirmed Darrick. ‘But the circumstances mitigate my actions and indeed made my decision the only honourable one.’
‘There is no precedence for mitigation,’ rumbled one of the law mages, a heavy jowled man with eyes sunk deep into fleshy sockets.
‘Then precedence must be set by this hearing,’ said Darrick, betraying no hint of his emotions.
‘Because this was not desertion through cowardice or fear. Neither was it desertion that in any way increased the risk to the men in my command. In peace time, it would have been considered resignation on principle.’
‘But this was not peacetime,’ continued the mage. ‘And you were facing an enemy.’
‘Even so, the circumstances will be heard,’ said Heryst.
‘You are swayed by your personal friendship,’ said a second law mage, grey-haired and long-nosed.
‘And by his previously unblemished record of service, courage and honour in battle,’ said Heryst. ‘We are not trying a conscript here.’ He smiled as he turned to Darrick. ‘Make this good, Ry. There’s a heavy penalty attached to your unmitigated guilt.’
‘I am only too aware of that,’ replied Darrick. ‘And that in itself is the first part of my defence – that I came here voluntarily to answer this charge. There was little chance of my being arrested with war at our borders. I need to clear my name so I can take my part without looking over my shoulder for college guards carrying warrants.’
‘I’m sure you have all our thanks for offering yourself up without need of diverting resources,’ said the long-nosed mage dryly.
Hirad scowled and tensed. He wasn’t happy with the atmosphere. The four old men were clearly intent solely on establishing guilt. Only Heryst seemed truly interested in the possibility that Darrick took the only decision open to him under the circumstances. The question was, did he have ultimate sanction in this forum?
‘The docks at Arlen those three seasons ago were a place where not just I but every Lysternan was betrayed. It was where some of those empowered to determine control of the Nightchild abandoned their morals and put her under sentence of death. And not just her, but also her mother, Erienne, who sits at my left.’
‘We are perfectly – ‘
‘You will let me speak uninterrupted, my Lord Metsas,’ said Darrick. There was no anger in his voice.
Metsas’s heavy jowled face darkened but he said no more.
‘As has been documented, I found myself commanding cavalry that, far from preventing a ship sailing at the behest of the Lystern-Dordover alliance, were in fact defending it from Xeteskian aggression. And that is because it contained Dordovan mages in cohorts with Black Wings. Black Wings, gentlemen. The ship also contained a hostage. Erienne.’
Darrick gestured to Erienne and Hirad saw remembered pain flicker over her features. She laid her head briefly on Denser’s shoulder.
‘Dordover were using her to get to Lyanna. Her daughter. And then they would have cast her to the Black Wings to be murdered while they did the same to the Nightchild. It was an inhuman tactic for which Dordover deserve nothing but eternal contempt. And if any here present were in tacit support, that contempt is yours too.
‘I love my city and college, make no mistake. I love its principles, its morals and its ethics. And I could not lead a force that would see those values betrayed. It was a decision which broke my heart but I had no other option. Surely as the men who uphold our ethics and principles, you must understand.
‘But know this, too. I carried out my resignation correctly. I handed command to Izack in the knowledge that he was fully capable of carrying out his duties as correctly as I was. He proved me right, of course. My men were not put at excess risk and the burden of Lystern’s actions was taken from them. It was I who received the orders, Izack and his men were merely duty bound to carry them out.
‘Yet at the same time, I gave them choice. I did not incite mass desertion and as the record shows, no such action was taken. The decision was left with each individual conscience, but what choice did most of those men really have? They had families who relied on them. They had lives to lead beyond the conflict. And they had nowhere to go.
‘I was different. I had The Raven.’
Heryst shifted in his seat, evading Darrick’s steady gaze. Hirad watched the law mages too. None showed the slightest understanding of, or sympathy for, Darrick’s dilemma. And the words spoken merely confirmed the shallow nature of their thinking.
‘Indeed you did have The Raven,’ said the long-nosed mage. ‘And you fought alongside Xetesk while at the opposite end of the docks, your men were being killed by Xetesk. How do you equate that with responsible discharge of your duties?’
Darrick nodded slowly. ‘Lord Simmac, if my duty was to protect murderers and witch hunters, then I am happy to have failed. If it was to protect the innocent and deliver the best possible outcome for Balaia and hence Lystern then, with one glaring exception, I and The Raven succeeded. Though subsequent events have removed any shine from our success.’
‘The exception being?’ asked Simmac.
‘That Lyanna died and so we will never know if she could have used her power for the good of us all.’
‘Of course,’ said Simmac as if the fact had slipped his mind.
‘Dordover wanted her dead the moment she escaped them,’ said Hirad quietly. ‘What was your desire, I wonder?’
Heryst looked at him squarely. ‘Hirad, with all due respect, we are not here to debate Lystern’s flawed alliance with Dordover. Ry Darrick is on trial here.’ He allowed himself a brief smile. ‘But since you have been desperate to speak ever since we began, perhaps now is the time, if Darrick is done?’
‘For now,’ said Darrick. ‘Though I reserve the right to speak again.’
‘Granted,’ said Heryst. ‘Hirad, the floor is yours.’
The barbarian stood, feeling the cold stares of the law mages gauging him.
‘It’s really simple,’ he said. ‘The events Darrick set going saved the elves from extinction. He saved so many lives by joining us. Still not quite enough though.’
The Unknown squeezed his forearm. The Raven still felt it. They’d been too late to save Ilkar. The elf who had been with The Raven since the start. An elf they all loved and who, ironically, had feared watching them all grow old and die around him.
‘And how exactly do you work that out?’ asked Simmac, expression all but a sneer.
Hirad felt the almost overwhelming urge to cross the table and flatten his long nose. He took a deep breath.
‘Because,’ he said carefully. ‘Had he not organised the defence of the Al-Drechar’s house on Herendeneth; and had he not fought with The Raven and alongside Xetesk in that house against the Dordovan and Black Wing invasion, not just Lyanna, but all the Al-Drechar would have been dead. And with them, as it turned out, would have died every elf. Only they had the knowledge to rebind the statue of Yniss and halt the plague.’
‘I fail to see – ‘ began Simmac.
‘And where would your forces be now without the elves, eh?’ Hirad raised his voice, hearing it echo into the rafters. ‘Without their swords and their magic to back you and Dordover against Xetesk? Answer me that and keep sneering.’ Hirad almost sat then but there was one other thing to say.
‘Ry Darrick is one of the bravest men I have ever met. He is also without question the most moral and upright. Everything he does is for the benefit of Balaia, and that is something we should all be striving for, don’t you agree? Removing him would remove one of our most potent weapons from the fight that is still to come. And believe me, we are on your side. The side that would see balance restored to our land.
‘Remove him and you make The Raven your enemy. And you don’t want that.’
Hirad sat. He felt his pulse thudding in his neck and was glad of the weathered tan on his face; he was sure he was flushed.
‘Well done, Hirad,’ said The Unknown.
Darrick turned his head and nodded fractionally.
‘Does anyone else wish to speak?’ asked Heryst.
‘Hirad speaks for us all,’ said The Unknown. ‘Darrick is Raven. He was instrumental in saving the elven race and his honour and courage are beyond question. If you find Darrick guilty without redress, you must ask yourselves exactly what it is you are actually finding him guilty of.’
‘Desertion,’ said Metsas, the word snapping from his mouth. ‘From Lysternan lines.’
‘Or perhaps of doing his duty by his country.’
‘If you believe that,’ said Metsas.
‘Oh, I have no doubt,’ said The Unknown. ‘But it is you who sit in judgement.’
‘For the record,’ said Heryst, ‘and excuse the slight contradiction but I am both Darrick’s judge and commanding officer, I must make mention of Darrick’s unblemished record of courage and service to the city and college of Lystern. To list every event would take longer than we have and that in itself should inform us of his character. They are all well-documented but three stand out as shining examples of his loyalty, strength and ability.
‘The Understone Pass sorties in the years before the pass fell. How much more damaging would the Wesmen invasion a decade later have been had we lost the pass those years earlier?
‘The battle at Parve six years ago. Darrick led his cavalry to the heart of Wesmen power to break their lines and allow The Raven through. Without him, would Denser have been able to cast Dawnthief and pierce the hearts of the Wytch Lords?
‘Finally, the Wesmen invasion. Darrick’s command of the four-college force was critical in delaying the Wesmen long enough for help, in the form of the Kaan dragons, to arrive on the closing of the Noonshade rip.
‘Within these commands, acts of personal heroism and sacrifice were played out. In his time as Lystern’s general, Darrick has, without question, been central to saving Balaia.’
Hirad could see the law mages’ expressions. Their disdain for what they had heard was plain. These were mages of the old school which taught that allegiance to Lystern and a love of Balaia were not necessarily linked. And Darrick had chosen Balaia.
‘Are we done?’ asked Simmac. Darrick and Heryst both nodded. ‘Good.’ The elderly mage snapped his fingers and a young woman detached herself from the clerks. ‘The SoundShield, please.’
She nodded and began to cast. Her hands described a dome above the heads of the five who sat in judgement. She mouthed silently, cupped her hands and spoke a single command word, completing the simple spell.
‘How long will it take?’ asked Hirad, watching Metsas begin to speak and seeing him flicker his hand at The Raven. Heryst frowned and shook his head as he replied.
‘Not long, I fear,’ said Darrick. ‘I’ve only the one ally inside that bubble of silence.
‘But at least he’s head mage,’ said Hirad.
‘I suspect that means little in the middle of a war that half of Heryst’s council think Lystern should not be fighting,’ said Denser.
‘True,’ said Darrick.
‘You think Heryst may sacrifice you as a sop to the opposition faction?’ asked The Unknown.
‘It’s possible,’ said Darrick. ‘He’s not as confident as I remember him.’
‘I don’t see it,’ said Erienne. ‘Surely the salvation of the elves is enough.’
‘To save my life, possibly. To free me, I don’t know.’
To his left, Hirad heard a growl. He glanced across to where Thraun sat, eyes fixed on the law mages and Heryst. Thraun’s face was pinched and angry, gums drawn back over his teeth.
‘Blind men,’ said Thraun.
‘I know what you mean,’ said Hirad.
They fell silent, watching the law council argue Darrick’s fate while the tension soared in the great hall. Hirad felt sweat on his palms and next to him, Darrick at last showed some emotion. His face was lined with anxiety beneath his tight brown curly hair and his fists clenched and unclenched by his sides. He swallowed hard and glanced round at Hirad, his smile terribly weak, his eyes small and scared.
Time stretched. The Raven couldn’t look at each other, their gazes locked on the scene being played out in silence across the table. Metsas and Simmac had already revealed their hands and Heryst’s allegiance was clear. It rested on the two who had not spoken a word during the hearing. Where would their heads and hearts fall?
The quiet dragged at Hirad’s ears while he watched Heryst reply in obvious anger. His hand slapped the table, vibrations carrying around its circumference. The Lord Elder Mage jabbed a finger at Metsas and gestured at the two undecided mages. The law mage winced and shrank back in his chair but his expression hardly changed. Heryst asked a simple question. Metsas shook his head, Simmac made no move and the other two nodded.
‘The decision is made on majority.’ Heryst’s voice was unnaturally loud, puncturing the silence once the SoundShield was dispersed.
If it was possible, Darrick stood a little straighter, his hands still once again.
‘The findings of the law council hearing in the matter of Lystern’s charges of desertion and cowardice against former general Darrick are as follows.’
Heryst’s face was carefully neutral but his eyes couldn’t disguise his discomfort. Hirad clutched the arms of his chair. He felt suddenly very hot and wished for just a morsel of Darrick’s bearing.
‘The charge of cowardice is dismissed. The charge of desertion, of leaving the men in your command to face a foe of unknown strength and of subsequently leaving the scene of battle to take up arms against an ally is upheld.
‘The usual penalty for desertion is death without appeal. But these are not usual times. And there is no doubting you abilities as swordsman, horseman and leader of men.
Lord Metsas cleared his throat but a sharp glance from Heryst stilled any further interruption.
‘It is the decision of this court, therefore, that you, Ry Darrick, be re-drafted into the Lysternan cavalry, there to serve under Commander Izack in the war against Xetesk. Your rank will be reduced to cavalryman second class but, as you are aware, the Lysternan armed forces have always rewarded clear ability with swift promotion, often in the field.
‘You will leave for the east gates front at dawn tomorrow. Do you have anything to say now sentence is passed?’
Hirad didn’t know what to think. Relief that Darrick wasn’t to be executed was diluted with the knowledge he was to be taken from The Raven. And on the back of so much recent loss, Hirad couldn’t shift the notion that somehow The Raven were being forced to share his punishment.
For a few moments, Darrick was still while the chamber awaited his reaction. It was not one that any of them expected.
‘I accept the decision but not the punishment,’ he said.
Lord Metsas snorted. ‘You speak as if you have a choice.’
I do,’ said Darrick. ‘I can choose to agree to your punishment or remain true to what I believe.’ Hirad was sure everyone could hear his heart tolling in his chest, the silence was that pronounced. Heryst was completely confused, his face had fallen and he looked as if he was about to burst into tears. Erienne was shaking her head but The Unknown and Thraun were nodding. Hirad was with them.
‘And what exactly is it that you believe?’ Lord Metsas asked.
‘That Balaia needs me with The Raven far more than it does at Xetesk’s east gates. That we can right the balance if we’re left to act and the allies hold Xetesk at her walls. That my return to the Lysternan cavalry is a sham.
‘Gentlemen, you have to understand me. I am Raven. And that is all I will ever be now until the day I die.’
Across the table, Metsas and Simmac relaxed into their chairs. Heryst closed his eyes briefly and leant forwards, thumbs kneading his forehead.
‘Then I have no option,’ he said. ‘I’ve done everything I can for you. Ry Darrick, if you refuse to join the cavalry, the sentence of this court can only be one thing. Death.’