10th July - Oporto
The ruins of the Courthouse were still burning as Moira sat cradling the dying man, her doublet folded under his head to form a crude pillow. It was all she could do under the circumstances, hiding as they were from the Perdanese raiders who still picked through the debris.
It had been a long road they'd travelled together, Heinman the experienced old commander and Moira his headstrong charge. She remembered the cold winter's day when their ship had set sail from Calis, that splendid haven of the mighty Cagilan Empire. How proud she had been as she looked upon that flawless harbour, waving her farewell to the land of her youth and the two sisters from whom she had until that moment been inseparable.
Hers was the right by trial of skill and cunning to venture to the East Continent, to raise there her banner for Fontan and learn all there was to know of this radical idea they called Democracy. A realm where the nobles came together as equals, recognising no king, alike in kind regardless of distinctions of prestige and wealth, each giving voice to their feelings and in so do achieving a higher form of wisdom. Or so the travellers' told the tale. So unlike the quiet, thoughtful politics of the Old Lady, the glorious Empire which eclipsed all other realms of Atamara in her blissful majesty.
And by her side on that gently heaving deck stood her childhood mentor Carl Heinman, Captain of Lady Sorcha Dubhaine's personal guard. Carl was a veteran of the Great War against Abington who had taught the sisters every art and stratagem of battle, the swift flight of the arrow, the deft tilt of the lance and the brutal slice of axe and sword.
Tears streaked Moira's cheeks as she remembered the dutiful guardian of her teens, dragging her from the overcroft where she was enjoying an assignation with one of the stable lads, the flat of his sword driving the poor youth before him as he delivered a lecture on the duty of the nobility. No one else had ever treated her like that, not even the roguish Yfain for whom the dignity of class had never been a barrier. Carl Heinman was a man apart. The finest and bravest of soldiers. Her dearest friend.
"Lady Sorcha will have my hide for this Ma'am," his voice was a heavy rasp, the humour betrayed as his lungs struggled for breath, his sharp eyes were glassy and distant. A rough bandage held his shattered ribs in place, the shaft of a Perdanese lance still buried in the skewered flesh, too deeply set to remove.
"You did your duty old friend, and more than your duty. She could have asked, and you could have given, no more than you have," she fought back the croak in her voice. The Captain had lived his life with utmost dignity, she would not rob him of that in death.
"Keep your guard up lass!" he shuddered, lost in who knew what memory, and was no more.
She sat there for a long while, clinging hard to the cooling, vacant flesh as her tears ran without limit. Moira had always believed herself inured to death, hardened by the many who had fallen in battle to the bite of her steel. Close. Personal. Visceral. Slaughter had become her trade and today she'd been paid with interest.
No longer would the proud Imperial Cagilan Guard march where they pleased, the circle of their steel and courage more kingdom than any gilded throne could command. The men and women who'd crested the walls of Akesh Temple, who'd stood proudly in the front line as the Lions raided Ashforth, who'd thrice battled Sirion in the fields of Oberndorf and storming the walls of Tokat held the cream of Perdan at bay whilst Moira herself laid Sven the Usurper in his stolen earth. So numerous were the battles between that they'd merged into one bloody backdrop, fractured by a casual joke or a fireside grin.
The night was deepening and the flames guttered limply in the wan moonlight. Moira knew she must soon slip away and attend to her own duty. The people of Oporto looked to her to guide them through these troubled. Lifting her fallen friend's body she laid him to rest on the justice bench, covering his body with the ragged colours of the Guards and resting his notched and splintered axe lengthways atop it.
"I'll miss you old friend," and turning Moira walked from that place and she cared not whether the dogs of Perdan saw her passing, for she was in a perilous mood and all who saw her trembled and fled.
11th July - Oporto
Moira studied the score of accused as they knelt beside the ruins of the courthouse, hands roughly bound behind their backs. Some of them she knew by name, prominent members of her civil administration: Lana the postmistress; Torelth the under-sheriff; Johann the temple bursar; Colm the reave. They were a wretched sight.
There were those amongst her company who had accounted these traitors their friends, and that knowledge made their alleged treachery all the harder to comprehend. Had she not been a just and fair lord?
Moira sat in stoney silence as the charges were read out and the evidence presented by her sheriff Caithlinn, a tremor in the middle-aged burgess's voice as she came to her own son Colm. Her own son! Gregor's poison had blackened his heart such that she could no longer recognise the boy she'd raised in the man who had taken gold to depose his mistress.
"And further, conspiring as one against the person of their liege lord and the sovereignty of Fontan they did severally and variously aid the Kingdom of Perdan in acts of sabotage and pillage. These charges presented on behalf of the people of Fontan in the presence of her rightful lord, Countess Moira Dubhaine," she returned to her seat, visibly shaking.
"Thank you sheriff. Do the accused wish to enter a plea in their defence?" Moira's voice was cold and controlled, a mask concealing her deep sense of betrayal. The law was not a small thing to be wielded for petty revenge, and she was determined to honour the memory of her fallen comrades by giving these alleged traitors a fair trial.
"We serve Fontan," it was Lana who answered, her voice defiant, "The true Fontan of the glorious Lord Protector. It is you who are the traitor and who should cower here in chains!" She spat on the ground, her face a twisted malevolent thing, all trace of beauty and humanity lost beneath her blind hatred.
"And does this woman speak for all of you?" Moira leant forwards in her seat.
"No," a man's voice, sullen and resigned.
"Then how do you plead?" her eyes focused on Torelth the under-sheriff, the man who just the day before she had joked with as she prepared to hold court and mete justice. She had always believed him a staunch servant of the court.
"Guilty as charged," a half-dozen others echoed his words.
"And what of the rest of you?"
More shouts of defiance and treachery.
"You are condemned by your own words and by the power vested in me to mete justice I have no choice but to find you guilty on all charges. The law offers but one punishment for such as you. Death by disembowelment," and her voice was emotionless as she pronounced that most horrific of sentences.
A man might hang on the gallows for upward of an hour if the executioner misjudged his weight, and it was not uncommon for the relatives of the condemned to hasten their demise. In such cases the law accounted this a mercy. But for those who suffered disembowelment their death might take a day or more and none were allowed to intervene on pain of death themselves. It was truly the harshest of punishments.
"Murderer!! Whore!! Tyrant!!" Lana hurled a string of invective, frothing at the mouth with a fervour that Moira had only seen once before, at the courts martial in Akesh Temple. Once more the City of Fontan had spawned a fanatical hatred for the people of its own race, and once more that hatred knew no bounds of reason.
"Take these traitors back to the cells and have the stakes made ready, they sentence will be carried out at nightfall," Moira stood, sheathing the sword which until now had lain bared across her lap as evidence of her right to mete low justice. It was the wolf-headed blade of Asena, a gift from her predecessor Duke Aeneas of Khazak.
"So it has come to this," she thought, as she made her way back to the pavilion pitched in the abandoned courtyard of her manor house. Even as she entered the blackened gates she caught site of her faithful squire Iraen preparing their simple noontide meal, and it dawned on her that she wasn't alone after all.
"Get me a quill and some parchment, I have a letter to write."