Dusk was settling as the rider finally caught sight of Tower Balentyne. Sir Fallon reigned in his horse, Cazador, and pulled his cloak tighter about him. Even with the spring thaw coming on, these northern climbs were too cold for his liking. It had been two weeks since he had been reassigned. His friends had been left behind to continue overseeing the repairs to Branderscar Prison, while he had been sent north to the Watch Wall to investigate rumors of impropriety among the garrison.
Since the destruction of Branderscar and his discovery of the corruption among the guards, the king had been adamant that any similar misconduct be dealt with harshly. Even now, three months later, the prisoners of Branderscar were still at large, somehow evading Mitra’s Watchful Eye. Time and again over the last months, Sir Fallon had pleaded with his majesty to allow him to go in search of the escapees. Finally, though those requests continued to be denied, he was assigned as special inquisitor for the crown, tasked with visiting the keeps along the Watch Wall to ensure that they had no troubles similar to those in Branderscar. Tower Balantyne was the first on his list. Rumors carried by guards, reassigned to other quarters, spoke of the tower’s mage conducting unusual experiments, of alcohol abuse among the captainry, and even of a feud between captains over a woman.
Sir Fallon urged Cazador on, into the town of Aldencross. It was small, dirty, everything he’d come to expect from the borderlands. The roads were cobbled, but the caked mud on the street spoke of excessive traffic from the other side of the Wall, where, he knew, no such efforts at road maintenance would have been made. The Wall itself towered black and foreboding in the early evening shade, separating the two halves of the town. Then, just as he was passing the clean white walls of the town church he smelled it. A witch! More than one actually, recent, and within the walls of Mitra’s holy church.
His hand went to his axe and he spurred Cazador forward with greater haste. A few townsfolk dodged aside as the great warhorse barreled through the streets towards Tower Balentyne. He did not stop until he reached the gates of the keep.
The keep itself was a bustle of activity. Everyone seemed to be awake. Guards patrolled the walls in threes and fours, bullseye lanterns sweeping in every direction, the gates were barred, and Sir Fallon heard a great deal of commotion from within. “Ho!” he called at the gate, “open in the name of His Majesty, King Markadian the Brave, the fifth of his name, Protector of the Righteous!”
“Who’s there?” came the returning cry from the wall.
“Sir Fallon Nightly, Special Inquisitor to His Majesty! I have business with Lord Havelyn!”
Sir Fallon heard a muffled discussion above and then the reply. “Stand clear then, we’re opening the gate. When its down come through quickly, the keep is on alert.”
As soon as Sir Fallon was inside the walls his nostrils flared. The witches had been here too. “What’s happened here?” he demanded of the nearest guard as he dismounted from Cazador.
“There was a murder sir. Magister Tacitus went mad, blasted Old Martin Rayard out a window, and burned the rookery. Then his pet golem got loose. Killed twenty men it did! They say they found most of the bodies, but a passel of servants have gone missing too…”
“Where is Lord Havelyn now?”
“Up in the rookery with Father Donnagin and Captain Eddarly, sir.”
“Very well,” he handed the man his reigns, “see that the horse gets fed and groomed. I’m going to see the commander…”
Sir Fallon walked into the rookery to find the bald-pated chaplain, Father Donnagin, a clearly too-attractive-for-his-own-good man in a captain’s uniform, and Lord Havelyn examining a blackened corpse on the floor.
The captain gave him a withering stare as he walked through the door, “Who’re you then? This is a private meeting, officers only.”
Sir Fallon sniffed at him contemptuously. “Shut up. You stink of witch-craft. You shouldn’t be here…”
“You must be Sir Fallon, the Special Inquisitor.” Lord Havelyn stepped past the impolite captain and shook Sir Fallon’s hand. “You’ve arrived just in time, Father Donnagin was just about to interrogate Magister Tacitus.”
“The corpse,” Father Donnagin corrected. “This body belonged to our mage. I was just about to question him regarding the recent events…”
“Then by all means, go ahead.” Sir Fallon knelt beside the body. “It smells as if powerful sorceries were used here recently…”
Father Donnagin placed a blessed wafer in the corpse’s mouth and chanted a prayer to Mitra. “Tacitus of Morimun, Magister of Balentyne, I, Father Donnagin, Chaplain of Balentyne and Archdeacon of Mitra bid you speak. Answer me, who killed you?”
The corpse’s eyes opened in their blackened sockets, and a rattling hiss escaped for its lips. “I did,” it gasped out.
Lord Havelyn shook his head. “Suicide? A monstrous crime. His soul will burn in the fires of Asmodues.” Lord Havelyn bowed his head. “I never would have suspected he was that disturbed.”
Father Donnagin addressed the deceased again, “Magister Tacitus, did you kill Martin Rayard?”
Again the corpse rasped out, “Noooo…”
“Then who killed him?” Father Donnagin looked incredulously at the the mage’s body.
“This is getting us nowhere.” Sir Fallon interjected, “Father may I question him?”
“I’m afraid that’s the last question allowed by the spell…” Father Donnagin replied. Sure enough, as he spoke, the corpse’s eyes closed and the breath left it. “I will make preparations so that we might question him more after morning prayers.”
“And in the meantime the servants that killed the bird-keeper will have escaped…” Sir Fallon began stalking about the small room. “All of these birds were killed by magic. The walls are burned. Clearly the Magister used his magic to kill himself and destroy the room, but what happened to the rooker.”
“Sir Fallon,” the captain spoke up, “when my men and I were dealing with the Magister’s golem, there was an old serving-man in the Magister’s rooms, and there was another who met us on the stairs as we were rushing to investigate the rookery. A girl.” A gleam in the captain’s eye as he said this told Sir Fallon that the girl was probably an attractive one. “She told us about the Magister blowing up himself and the rookery and killing Old, Mad Martin.”
Sir Fallon sniffed the captain again. “You touched her?”
“Yes? What’s that got to do with anything?”
“She was a witch, her stink is all over you. Where are these two servants now?”
“I…I don’t know sir. They disappeared while we were battling the golem.”
“And where was that? Take me there…”
The captain snapped to attention and led Sir Fallon and the other officers downstairs to the mage’s chambers. The door to the chambers were broken and splintered. A pair of saw-horses had been set in front of the door as a temporary barricade and four guards were stationed in front. Pushing past the guards, Sir Fallon found a room in shambles. Tables and book-cases were knocked over. Huge gouges in the walls and floors, and splatters of blood on every surface showed signs of a great battle. And the smell…
Sir Fallon retched, spilling his last meal on the floor to mingle with the smells of blood and witchcraft. When he had recovered he sniffed around the room, stopping at a gap between two bookcases. “They were here. Several witches. They used some powerful magic in this room…”
“But…” the captain spoke up again. “When we were fighting, I’m sure there was another bookcase there.”
“An illusion?” Sir Fallon began walking around the room, touching everything. “Hmmm…the rest of this seems real enough. Captain…?”
“Eddarly, sir. Captain Zack Eddarly.”
“Captain Eddarly, can you describe the two that you saw?” Sir Fallon turned to the chaplain, “Father Donnagin, can you round up all the other guards who were on duty at the time of the attack?” The chaplain nodded and departed immediately.
After hours of questioning guards Sir Fallon was tired and frustrated. No one in the keep, save Captain Eddarly, had any recollection of having seen the girl the captain had described, even the guards who were with the captain at the time could not remember her. And the captain’s own descriptions were vague and useless, speaking more about her beauty and sense of desperation than any real description of her appearance or features. The more Sir Fallon heard, the more he was convinced that the keep had been infiltrated by witches. The Magister may have been in league with them, and he was certain that Captain Eddarly had been bewitched…and that he might, indeed, still be under their influence.
Sir Fallon went to Lord Havelyn’s rooms and knocked on the door. When he was admitted he bowed to the keep’s commander and explained what he had learned, or not. “I need to begin searching immediately while the trail is still fresh. We have a good description of the old man and he clearly managed to leave the keep before the lock-down. I need as many men as you can spare to begin searching the town for the man, its possible that the witches will be with him.”
Just then, Father Donnagin came in, “the acolytes have finished the drawings you requested Special Inquisitor.”
“Thank you, Father.” Sir Fallon, took the stack of papers from him, stifling a yawn. “I’ll head out at once and begin searching for the culprits.”
“But, Sir,” Father Donnagin interrupted, “its almost two of the morning. Surely you can rest a little before continuing.” Sir Fallon nodded, grudgingly.
“I’ll have fifty of our best men waiting for you buy the gate at sun-up.” Lord Havelyn said. “And I’ll send out the heralds to begin posting the drawings of the old man immediately. When the town awakes we’ll be ready…”
Sir Fallon nodded politely and turned to leave. “I’ll be claiming the Magister’s quarters. If I’m not awake in time for Matins, send an acolyte for me…”