Conroy couldn’t help but grin as he gazed out over the notes he’d spread out across the table in the common room of the inn. He’d been listening to Griff Mason and recording his story for only three days, and yet he felt that he already had a clearer picture of the war than he’d had after reading thirty books on the the subject by ‘noted authorities’ and ‘combat historians’. Where General Byrne’s autobiography had seemed largely to be about making sure the blame for all of the successes and failures of the war were properly placed on the appropriate shoulders, the information he was gathering here was… simple. Honest. The old man wasn’t exactly a natural storyteller, so getting all of the necessary detail out of him wasn’t always easy, but even this early in his venture, he felt like he’d made the right decision in coming here.
He wiped the last of his pottage from his wooden bowl with a scrap of crusty bread, and chewed on it thoughtfully as he read through the last night’s scribblings, turning the pages over one by one on top of the portable writing desk on the table directly in front of him. Of course, in order to make a proper treatise, he’d need to correlate the events in Mason’s tale with those of the larger conflict, and he might have to refine the language just a little to make it fit with the current tastes in Euphentis, but neither of those would be too difficult…
The door to the tavern banged open, and a boy Conroy didn’t recognize stuck his head in through the doorway. Seamus the innkeeper was just taking Conroy’s bowl away from the table, and both he and Conroy looked up at the sudden sound.
“Magistrate’s coming through!” the boy said urgently, and then ducked out the door again.
Seamus blinked, said a curse under his breath, and turned to Conroy. “Better pack that up as best you can, scholar,” he said, walking quickly back behind the bar and starting to re-arrange something behind it.
“The Magistrate?” Conroy asked. “Is that the Magistrate of the Territorial Authority? An elf named…” He pulled his small notebook from the breast of his robe, thumbing through it in search of the name he knew he’d written down.
“Irandrya Ayes,” Seamus said, “yes, that Magistrate. And she will be here soon, with half a squad of Fae Justicars, so you’d better pack that away.” He pointed to Conroy’s notes.
Conroy crossed his arms. “Now, that’s nonsense. There’s nothing illegal about anything I’m doing here.”
Seamus pinched the bridge of his nose in clear frustration. There were heavy footsteps on the stoop outside, and then Griff Mason stepped into the Jack and Jester. “You heard?” he asked Seamus.
“I did, Kester poked his head in,” Seamus responded, ducking under the bar.
Mason looked from Conroy’s confused expression to the notes spread across the surface of the table, and then back at Conroy. “Why’s all this still out, then?” he called over to Seamus.
Seamus’ reply from under the bar was only a little muffled. “Says he’s not doing anything illegal. Talk to him?”
Mason took a step toward Conroy. “Pack it up, Raine, and quickly. They’ll be across the border any minute.”
“But why?” Conroy asked. “I was honest and entirely forthcoming in my reasons for applying to visit the Human Granted Territory, and the Territorial Authority signed my permit without any further questions asked. I have nothing to hide from anyone.”
There was a muffled cry from under the bar. “You see?”
Griff took another step forward, and gripped one of Conroy’s arms firmly. “Look, Raine, we know you don’t have anything to hide, but that permit is one that the Magistrate may or may not have seen herself, and one she may or may not remember she saw, and one she may or may not say she remembers she saw.” He removed his hand from Conroy’s arm. “Nobody in Low Evering has anything to hide from the Territorial Authority.” He said the sentence as though it was an oft-repeated one. “But it’s better for everyone if they don’t think they have a reason to go looking for anything, either. Understand?”
“I…” Conroy shook his head, and shrugged.
“Good enough.” The former soldier picked up Conroy’s pack from where it sat at the side of the table and began stuffing books, folios, and loose pages into it.
“Mason, you’ll- the order, Mason! I won’t be able to figure it out if it’s out of order!” Conroy threw his hands up above his head.
Mason shoveled the last of the pages into the leather sack. “We’ll help you get it sorted out later.” He folded up the front of the writing desk, slammed the top down, and dropped the whole thing into the pack on top of the papers, then cinched the drawstring at the top of the pack closed tightly and shoved the whole thing roughly under the table. There was a thump from under the bar and a muffled curse, and then Seamus stood back up, rubbing his head.
For a moment, the three of them stood in silence, Seamus and Mason with their eyes on the door, Conroy staring aghast at Mason. Then, the front door of the inn swung slowly open.
Conroy turned his head to look at the Magistrate as she stepped into the room. He’d seen elves before, of course; the Fae had opened an embassy in Etrenium now but he’d never actually been this close to one. She was, in some ways, quite beautiful, but her beauty was strange, her fine features elegant but just a little too long and narrow to seem entirely natural, as though the whole of her had been somehow stretched thin. The golden irises that surrounded her dark, thin vertical pupils filled nearly the entirety of her narrow eyes, and her hair fell back behind her long, pointed ears in a golden cascade that ended well below her thin waist. She wore a slim dress of shimmering green silk with a slit up the side of the skirt for riding, and a dark brown coat that covered her arms and narrow shoulders but extended down only to the middle of her torso.
She took a step into the room, and a pair of elven soldiers in coppery-colored plate armor stepped in behind her, taking up flanking positions to either side of the Magistrate. She looked over at Seamus. “Mr. a’Low,” she said, nodding to him. Her voice was was a high, clear tone, fluid, almost musical.
“Magistrate,” Seamus responded, avoiding her gaze.
She turned her head. “Mr. Mason.”
Mason nodded to her. “Magistrate Ayes. How do you fare?”
“I am well, thank you.” She turned to Conroy. “And I see we have a visitor. As Mr. Mason said, I am Magistrate Ayes.” She extended her hand in his direction.
Conroy wiped the sweat from his palm on the front of his robe, and took her hand lightly. Her skin was warm, much warmer than he expected. “Conroy Raine, of the Euphentine Academy for Historical Preservation at Etrenium.” He applied a little pressure to her hand, and then released it. “I, ah, that is to say…” He cleared his throat. “I received a permit from the Territorial Authority to conduct a series of interviews with some of the people here in Low Evering. I believe I have it here somewhere…” He opened the pouch on his belt and began thumbing clumsily through the crumpled sheets of parchment inside.
The Magistrate smiled at Conroy, and held up her palm. “There is no need, Mr. Raine. Now that you mention it I remember the document clearly.” She folded her hands together in front of her. “I shall look forward to reading your completed work. I do hope you are not too harsh in your depiction of us.”
“I will endeavor to paint as accurate a picture as possible, Magistrate.”
She gave a brief, quiet laugh. “I am not sure whether to find that comforting.” She nodded to Conroy, her eyes locked on his. “But I would expect nothing less from a scholar of Euphentis. Your permit said you would remain here for two weeks? Yes?”
“Yes, though if my work continues to be as fruitful as it is currently, I may ask for an extension of that time.” He gave the Magistrate a weak smile. “There is much about the Human Granted Territory that I’ve found to be of interest so far.”
“Indeed? I suppose it’s grown fairly commonplace for me, but then I am required to be familiar with all of it. If you need to speak with me about such an extension, the sheriff of Low Evering has means to contact me.” The Magistrate looked past Conroy at the other men. “Unless you have anything to report?”
“Nothing to report,” both Seamus and Mason said, nearly in unison.
“I will be off, then. Enjoy your day, gentlemen. She stepped toward the door, and the soldiers turned to follow her.
Suddenly, the Magistrate stopped, dead still, and then slowly cocked her head to one side. For a moment, no one in the room moved, and then the elven woman said, slowly, “There is iron here. I can feel it.”
In an instant, the soldiers had drawn short bronze swords, and Seamus and Mason had both taken a quick step back, away from the Magistrate and her men, their hands held up in the air. The Magistrate turned, slow and deliberate, and looked directly at Conroy. “You.” She raised her hand again, pointing a long finger at him. “Have you brought iron into Fae territory?”
Conroy felt a shock run through him. Iron? Had he brought something with him and not realized it? His hands fumbled at the neck of his robes, pulling the pendant he wore up from the folds of the cloth and holding it up in front of him. “I- there is this, the lodestone that protects me from glamour. It is sealed and bonded, as specified in the eleventh section of the Armistice Treaty and I bought it from a reputable merchant, but perhaps…” He trailed off, lifting up the pendant in a questioning gesture.
The Magistrate stared at the pendant for a moment. “No, something else.” She snapped an order at the soldiers, her voice hard. “Search him.”
The two soldiers moved forward. Conroy threw up his hands and took a step back in panic, but then one of the guards seized him by the wrist, twisting him around and pushing him down onto the rough wooden floor. He felt his belt torn from his waist, and saw the second soldier pour the contents of his pouches out onto one of the tables as the other ran a probing hand un-gently up and down the length of his body.
Behind him, he heard the Magistrate bark another order. “There.” The second soldier ducked his head under the table and dragged Conroy’s bag out from under it. He heard a thunderous crash as it, too, was dumped on the table, followed by the clattering of ink bottles and the rustling and tearing of pages while the soldier who held him shoved his face firmly to the floor; sharp pain blossomed in his mouth, and he could feel the grain of the wood pressing into his cheek.
“Get him up.”
Conroy was dragged roughly to his feet, and spun around to face the magistrate. She held up a pair of small glass bottles filled with a purple-black liquid directly in front of Conroy’s face. “This. What is this?”
He stared at the bottles for a moment, dazed, and then his eyebrows shot up as he realized what he was looking at. “It’s- That’s my ink! Just ink! Just…” He closed his eyes, fearful realization crawling down his spine. “Just iron gall ink. It’s the standard ink we use at the Academy. It’s easier to acquire than sepia, and it has better-” He coughed, and spat. His mouth tasted metallic. “-better permanency, as well.” He slumped to his knees. “It’s just ink,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry, I forgot, I forgot that it was iron, please… please don’t…”
The Magistrate stooped down until her face was level with his. She leaned in close, studying him. He looked into her eyes. “It was just a mistake,” he whimpered, shaking his head, “just an honest mistake.”
She frowned, and motioned to the elven soldiers. The one behind Conroy released him, and he stumbled back away from her onto the floor, holding his twisted wrist between his body and his other arm.
The elven woman stood up and straightened her dress. “That would explain why your papers all reek of iron,” she said, looking at the disarrayed pile of torn pages and open books spilling off of the table.
The soldiers grabbed Conroy by the arms, and hauled him back to his feet. The magistrate held the bottles of ink on her palm, and addressed Conroy, her voice quiet but hard. “You must understand my position. I cannot tolerate even small infractions of the law.”
“Aya,” Conroy heard Mason say quietly, “the boy made an honest mistake. He didn’t know. And there must be more iron in a man’s blood than there is in that stuff. You’d have to drink a gallon to poison you, and there isn’t enough there to boil down.” A pause. “Please, Aya. Let yourself feel it a little, just for a moment.”
The Magistrate looked over at Mason, staring for what to Conroy felt like several minutes, and then she closed her eyes and nodded a slow, gentle nod. When she spoke, her voice was soft again. “I will recommend that no punishment be required for this offense, beyond the events that have already transpired. I apologize for the roughness of your treatment.”
She closed her hand around the bottles, and tucked them away in the lapel of her jacket. “I’m afraid I will have to confiscate these, at it is illegal for humans to possess within Fae lands, but I believe the sheriff has a surplus of the bone-black ink we provide for his use; I will instruct him to deliver you replacements.” She frowned, staring down at the scattered papers. “Your notes will also be confiscated, but I can have one of my scribes provide you with duplicates.” She looked over at Conroy. “I truly am sorry, Mr. Raine, but I’m afraid we can never be too careful. Even here, there are those who would do us harm if given the chance.”
The Magistrate looked up at the other men. “Gentlemen. Once again, I hope you have a pleasant day.” She turned, the soldiers falling in behind her, and walked out of the inn.
Conroy found a chair, and sat down hard, shaking his head to try to clear it. Seamus came around the bar and knelt on the floor in front of him, gently wiping Conroy’s face with a moist rag. “Easy there, Conroy, easy.” The rag came away stained with blood. Seamus took Conroy’s chin in his hand and turned it slowly back and forth, examining his mouth. “Looks like a split lip, not much more. Maybe bit his cheek when he went down.”
Mason blew out a breath. “Thankful that’s all it was.” He started picking up pages from the floor, stacking them on top of each other. Conroy looked over at Mason, mystified by what had happened. Mason nodded at him. “Don’t worry, lad. Like I said, we’ll help you get it sorted out.”