“The Gatekeeper”

Copyright Jack Sutter 2018-2020

Chapter 12 “The Fortress of the Drixi”

The main gate led into a long tunnel overlooked by fortified galleries where the Drixi guards maintained their post beneath the shadow of the wooden hoardings.  Here any invader who managed to break through the first door would have immediately found themselves deluged with all manner of horrid missiles with nowhere to hide.  Just beyond these defenses was the lowest level courtyard. The yard was a densely packed affair, with much of the available space taken up by large, thick walled buildings which were integrated into the castle walls.  From his place amidst the crowd of soldiers Hae-jin could see very little of the yard itself, but higher up he could see the many tiers of turrets and parapets piled on top of each other as they crept upward towards the great keep.


Over the heads of the soldiers Hae-jin could just see the officers sitting on their horses, and they appeared to be deep in conversation.  After a painfully long time of doing nothing but standing in a sea of Drixi soldiery the crowd at last began to give way to a group of saffron clad warriors who approached the prisoners.  They were unarmored, but each wore a dagger and a large, straight, single edged sword at his side. They released the prisoners from the rope which had previously strung them together, but their hands remained shackled individually.  They were then led out of the courtyard and up into the next level of the castle, where they came to another, much smaller yard. The guards were leading them into a side building, and as they did so Hae-jin espied the Drixi officers who had accompanied them on their journey.  The officers were ascending a covered wooden stairway leading to an elevated door in one of the buildings in the next tier up.  


And trailing behind the officers were the three Zard.


The prisoners were brought into a small room which was more or less empty save for a desk and several bare wooden benches.  It seemed like it was a waiting room of some sort, perhaps a place for the townsfolk to come and present their grievances to a castle scribe to be brought to the attention of their magistrate.  The guards directed the prisoners to sit on the benches, and yet again they were left to wait.


It was dark outside by the time anyone came to retrieve them.  At long last there was knock at the door and a teal clad officer was admitted.  The prisoners were ushered outside where a grey robed guard detachment bearing lanterns was waiting for them.  They were then marched through as series of twisted stairways and passages, snaking their way through the many terraces on their way at last to the great keep.  The courts were largely empty. Here and there a few lamplighters were finishing their first rounds of the evening, while high above stars were beginning to glisten against the sky.


At length they reached the keep, and leaving the lantern bearers behind the prisoners were conducted through another series of winding passages and corridors to the great hall.  The great hall was wide and long, with a high ceiling of vaulted timbers lined with narrow windows of greenish-yellow glass segmented in geometric shapes. On the far end was a raised dais on which the high table was placed, while elsewhere the room was filled with elaborately carved tables and benches regularly spaced from one another to allow minstrels and other entertainers to wander the floor unimpeded.  The walls were covered in an off-white stucco and painted with elaborate designs and scenes, and as always eyes were prominently figured everywhere. Hae-jin found himself wondering what on earth all those eyes were there for. Perhaps they were there to ward off malevolent forces of some kind. Or perhaps they served as manifestations of the eyes of protective spirits, forever keeping watch over the Drixi and their land.  Either way, Hae-jin was of the mind that the Drixi appeared to be more than a little superstitious about using them, even slightly paranoid, and at this point the ubiquitous motif had become in equal measure tiresome and unsettling.  


The prisoners were being led to the high table now, where a small crowd had gathered.  The table itself was a crescent shaped affair, lined on one side with high backed chairs facing towards the rest of the hall.  Painted on the wall behind them was the silhouette of a colossal, six fingered hand made up of densely woven floral patterns painted in many bright colors.  The fingers of the hand were splayed, and above each one there was a single large eye, each of slightly different design with the pupil containing a distinctive sigil in gold leaf.  Above each eye there was a label bearing the name of what was seemed to be either a deity or a virtue (or perhaps both). As Hae-jin glanced again at the walls around him he realized there was some sort of theme to the murals which lined the great hall.  The whole thing seemed to tell a narrative of some kind, beginning at the great six fingered hand and progressing clear around the perimeter of the hall to end up again at the same place at which it had started. It was composed mostly pictures, with only sparse text which was difficult to understand out of context (even for one who happened to be blessed with a gift of tongues), but it seemed to tell a story of both creation and destruction, of the beginnings of gods, beasts, and Drixi, of great wars and deeds of the past and of things great and terrible yet to come, all beginning and ending at the great six fingered hand, which seemed to represent some sort of supreme power or primal creative force. 


There was an open space on the floor before the dais, where under normal circumstances the principal entertainment would likely take place.  Here the prisoners were ordered to halt, and it was grimly apparent to Hae-jin that today it was he and his companions who would be providing the entertainment.  Metaphorically speaking, that is. There was nothing frivolous in the present mood of the Drixi around them. The hall was filled with an air of seriousness. The officers muttered a few grave words to one another as the prisoners were brought into their midst, but otherwise the assembly remained silent.  


Several officers were seated at the high table, dressed in teal or grey, their clothes finely wrought and embroidered but otherwise unremarkable.  One chair was left empty, however. It was in the very center of the table, taller and grander than the others, and draped over with a silken cloth of saffron and scarlet.  It appeared that the chief of the proceedings had yet to arrive.


It wasn’t a long wait though.  To one side of the dais there was a large door, and issuing now from it was a procession of guards and servants dazzlingly attired in the distinctive blend of saffron and scarlet.  These were followed by a small group of Drixi wearing simple robes of a deep sea green. The door was closed behind them as the last of the party filed into the hall, while three of the saffron robed Drixi ascended the dais and approached the high table, the officers at the table rising to their feet with respect as they did so.


The lead Drixi took the vacant seat at the center of the table, while one of his attendants took up position standing behind him and the other (presumably a scribe) took a seat on the the far end of the table and began laying out writing materials.  Once seated the lead Drixi motioned for the other officers to sit down as well. For a moment the air was filled with the dull scraping and creaking of chairs as of the officers assumed their seats, and Hae-jin took that time to look over the Drixi who apparently was to be his judge.


The Drixi was by far the most sumptuously attired individual Hae-jin had seen yet.  Every thread of his clothes was covered in elaborate embroidery, every buckle and aglet was made of either gold or silver finely wrought and richly enameled with bright colors.  A sizable dagger set with small jewels hugged his belt, and about his shoulders was hung a great chain of office consisting of golden plates shaped like eyes as usual and fitted with multicolored crystals.  His hair like that of all Drixi was of a pale platinum, while his eyes were of a particularly dark violet, which gazed penetratingly at Hae-jin past his stern, chiseled features. The Drixi leaned forward now, placing his elbows on the table and resting his chin and lips slightly upon his cradled fingers.  For a moment he gazed silently at the prisoners before him. Then he spoke.


“Alwog, Berwog, and Gurthwog.  You have been arrested on charges of violating the Sacred Edicts through abetting an illegal and impossible infiltration of our hallowed lands.  What have you to say in your defense?”


Alwog stepped forward, wringing his hands slightly while bowing and groveling in a most servile way.


“So it please Your Worship, it’s a right honor to be sure to be addressed by one of the Arbiters.  A right honor indeed! So it please Your Worship, my brothers and I are innocent!”


“Is that so?”


“So it is, Your Worship, so it is!  We none of us have ever seen these humans before!  Not ever!”


The Arbiter pursed his lips in a thin smile.  “So you say, Alwog of Wog, so you say. Yet you were found in the company of these very humans upon your arrest at Mount Vorn.”


“Not true, Your Worship!  I don’t deny that my brothers and I were at the mountain (all perfectly legally), but never with humans!  When we were arrested we were alone. No humans about, none at all! It was only later, Your Worship, after we were arrested that the army put us in chains alongside humans (putting us at most grave risk indeed).  Until then we’d never laid eyes on these humans before, not ever, so please Your Worship.”


“That’s not what your neighbors say.  I have eyewitness testimony to the effect that you were seen departing your home in the company of no less than three humans, a bear, and a large exotic bird, and that you then departed the vicinity by illicit and unnatural means.”


“Surely you don’t accept the word of Rabbits, Your Worship!  It’s not properly legal!”


“Thankfully I do not have to rely solely on the testimony of mere rodents and their kind, however wight-ish they may be.”


Here the Arbiter motioned to a guard near the door.


“Bring in the Fox.”


The Guard saluted and opened the door.  A brief word was exchanged with someone inside, and in a moment another soldier entered escorting a small red Fox.


The Fox was escorted to the dais.  The creature made a peculiar bow with his forelegs not unlike that of a trained show horse.  The Arbiter then addressed him.


“Your name?”


“Bartholomew Fox-Goodburrow, Your Worship.”


“Bartholomew Fox-Goodburrow, do you acknowledge your previous testimony that you saw the Wogs depart from their home in the company of three humans?”


The Fox made a sideways glance at the prisoners and fidgeted slightly.


“Yes, Your Worship.  In a way. But if I might clarify…”


“Yes or no will do, Fox.”


“But Your Worship, I cannot swear to the fact that I saw them go freely and willingly.”


The Arbiter scowled.  It seemed to Hae-jin that he would rather not have been reminded of this detail.  He looked again to Alwog.


“It would be far better for you, Wog, if you answered me truthfully now.  Or would you prefer that I order my men to fetch the presses?”


Alwog appeared shaken, but defiant.


“You can’t do that.  You don’t have enough evidence.  The testimony of a wightbeast doesn’t carry near enough weight as that.”


“If this were a matter of petty thievery you would be correct, but it’s not.  This is a question of treason. I have more latitude than you might imagine, Wog.”


The Arbiter then looked to Hae-jin and Joan.


“As for you, I need no further evidence.  Your presence here is a crime in itself. However, it also demonstrates that our defenses have been gravely compromised, and I require further information immediately.  Your cooperation at this time is very much in your best interest….very much so indeed.”  


The Arbiter let the significance of his words sink in for a moment before proceeding further.  


“I will give you an opportunity to answer my questions now, of your own volition.  I demand to know where it is you have come from, for what purpose you have entered our lands, and by what means you have nullified our defenses in so doing.  Be forewarned that I have many and varied means of ascertaining this information for myself. This is your opportunity to surrender these facts freely, and to thus perhaps save yourselves.  What is your answer?”


The Arbiter waited menacingly for a reply.  But none was forthcoming. Hae-jin’s mind was racing, trying to come up with something to say without exposing his friends to grave risk.  Would Lindsey and her mission really be doomed if he told the truth? Would he and Joan be condemned to some miserable fate if he remained silent?  Could he get away with telling only a half truth? But would that even matter? Was the Drixi lying? Would he simply have them all killed in the end whether they cooperated or not?  As the Drixi waited on his reply Hae-jin found himself without an answer. Joan too remained silent. In all probability she was trying to sort out a similar dilemma in her own mind. Throughout the hall there was nothing but a tense, doleful silence….save for when an explosive sneeze erupted from one of the Wogs.  


At last, the Arbiter spoke again.


“I see I shall have to extract what I require without the convenience of your compliance.  Perhaps after witnessing some of the powers which are mine to command you will be more inclined to cooperate.”


Here the Arbiter arose.


“My Lord Arch-Haruspex, may I entreat you to approach?”


At this, one of the Drixi robed in sea green stepped forward, and ascended the dais.  His gait was somewhat stilted though, and his face and hands were gnarled and wrinkled.  He appeared to be quite elderly indeed, and unlike the other Drixi who were universally clean shaven, this one sported a lengthy but thin beard.  The Drixi approached the high table and bowed in a perfunctory sort of way, as if the observance wasn’t really necessary but was done anyway out of tolerant indulgence.  In contrast, the Arbiter rose to his feet and bowed deeply, partially covering his eyes with one hand for a moment as he did so.  


“My Lord Arch-Haruspex, I entreat you to call upon the powers at your command to bring light to that which is dark, to reveal that which is hidden, and expose that which is concealed, by Udar’s most Holy Hand.”


The Haruspex grunted.  “I hear your plea, and I do place my powers at the service of the Arbiters, so may Udar bless.”


The Arbiter bowed again and resumed his seat.  The Haruspex approached the edge of the dais and peered keenly at the prisoners with a pair of violet eyes which were so pale that they hardly had any color to them at all.   Hae-ji suspected that the Haruspex might in fact be quite nearsighted.


The Haruspex then began to pace back and forth on the platform, muttering and moaning indistinctly to himself, his eyes rolled back in their sockets.  He began to execute a series of sweeping and dramatic gestures which caused his robes to billow theatrically. Every movement had an almost rehearsed sort of rhythm to it, yet it was somehow lackluster and slightly uncoordinated, as if he were executing motions which had been practiced and performed for a lifetime, but the performer himself was grown old and tired.


Suddenly, the Haruspex halted and cried out loudly.  Immediately, four more Drixi in sea green robes stepped forward to ascended the dais and gathered in a small group near the seer.  Two of them carried large bowls, their arms draped with linens, while another held a small object tightly in his hands. It was a little grey dove, its wings and legs pinned closely to its body in the gentle, firm grasp of the Drixi.  The Haruspex raised his arm slowly and pointed with a knobbly finger. The dove was then held over one of the bowls as another Drixi produced an an ornate, razor-like knife. In an instant the bird was no more, its death throes contained by the iron grip of the Drixi handler as its blood was collected in the bowl beneath it.  Its carcass was then slit open and its organs poured into the bowl as well. The Haruspex then approached as the acolytes stood aside deferentially, one of them handing the Haruspex a small golden rod not unlike a stylus. The Haruspex took the rod and then began to prod about the entrails with it, peering into the gory mass while reciting indistinctly.  This went on for some minutes until at last the Haruspex grunted to himself in satisfaction. He then went over to another acolyte holding a water filled basin and washed his hands (which were still more or less clean) and dried them on the linens proffered by the acolyte. He then approached the Arbiter as the acolytes (whose hands were actually quite bloody) at last took their turn to wash their own hands.  


The Haruspex raised his arm and pointed his gnarled finger again, this time straight at Hae-jin.


“This one.  This one is an alien from a distant land far to the east, which is called Ereph.  He is a powerful warrior who is a traitor and an outcast among his own people.”  


The Haruspex now pointed at Joan.  


“This one is has come from one of the human kingdoms which lie a several hundred leagues to the north, either Finnon, Renwall, Linster, or Tollardy.  She is a witch, a traitress, and a murderess.”


The Haruspex turned to face the Arbiter.


“They have violated our lands in order to steal treasure with which to further the wicked machinations of the woman, and have made the Wogs their servants.  They breached our holy valances through the meddlesome arts of the Alva, who seek ever to undermine the will of the Arbiters and to diminish the glory of our sacred land.”


The Arbiter’s face flushed and he struck the high table with his fist.


“I should have known it!  The fairy folk care nothing for our sovereignty.  They would impose themselves and their loathsome servants on us at every turn.  They will not stop until they have obliterated every last shred of our autonomy.”


The Arbiter then arose.


“Worthy Emissary of The Speakers, will you approach the table?”


From the floor of the great hall a grey robed figure stepped forth from among the assembly.  His gait was peculiar and unnatural, and as he ascended the dais he cast back his hood to reveal a terrible, reptilian visage, pebbly skinned with a long snout with great sagging jowls which were lined with jagged spines.  The scales of his face were a dull olive color, ornamented with various patterns of bright red paint. The creature bowed low and solemnly before the high table, and as he spoke he revealed rows of needle like teeth and a blue-grey tongue, and he spoke with a gravelly hiss.


“Most esteemed Arbiter of the Drixi, I am honored to be of assistance.”


“Your assistance is appreciated, Emissary.  What have you to tell me about these prisoners?”


The Zard cast a cold, inscrutable gaze over the prisoners.


“The are servants of the Alva.  They seek to do mischief against the worthy endeavours of my noble masters, as my masters have so informed the Arbiters.”


Here, the old Haruspex grunted indignantly.


“Endeavours with which your noble masters are ever wont to entangle all and sundry.  You too sully our land with the evil fruits of your meddling and scheming.”


The Zard hissed deeply.


“My masters have been entirely forthright in all their dealings with Drixi, unlike others whom I need not mention.  The Arbiter speaks rightly, the folk of Alfheim will never cease from molesting you with their relentless trespassing, unlike my masters who desire only to live in friendship with you.”


“I assure you, the Black Speakers absolutely affirm the sovereignty of the Drixi.  It is their spoken word.”


“Only so long as Drixi sovereignty serves the interests of the Speakers.”

The Zard hissed smugly.  “You need only look at the present situation, old man.  We have been entirely open and candid with the Arbiters.  Indeed, did we not warn them in advance of this very invasion which has now taken place?  These loathsome prisoners before you are here in your power only because of our deep friendship and regard for the Drixi.”


“Fiddlesticks!  Arbiter, don’t be taken in by this cold-blooded flunky of the Black Speakers.  What is the word of one witch against another?”


The Arbiter cleared his throat restrainedly.  


“With respect, Arch-Haruspex, this is not the time to debate foreign policy.  The night is waning and we’ve wasted too much time already. If the prisoners will not speak, I think it is time we compelled them.”


The Arbiter arose and addressed Hae-jin and Joan.


“I give you one last chance, humans.  Will you speak to me?”


Again, Hae-jin and Joan remained silent.


“I see.  Guards, bring forward the male.”


Hae-jin found himself seized roughly by the arms and dragged closer towards the dais.  The Arbiter leaned forward and looked Hae-jin straight in the eye.


“Cut off his right hand.”


From somewhere behind there was a gasp, and as one of the guards drew his sword the Arbiter abruptly waived his hand in abjuration, and the sword was returned to its scabbard.


Twisting around, Hae-jin looked behind him too see that Joan had stepped forward.  


“If you please My Lord, spare my friend’s hand.  There is no need to harm him, I shall speak.”


The Arbiter smiled in satisfaction.


“So the mute has a tongue after all.  What have you to say to me?”


“If you please, My Lord, your Haruspex is partially correct.  We came to this land with no intention to do harm or insult to the Drixi, but merely to conduct a small ritual needed to free my homeland from the oppression of the Black Speakers and their servants.”


The Haruspex snorted.


“Ha!  You see Arbiter?  The witches spread their chaos everywhere even as they quarrel and fight amongst themselves, polluting our land with their foulness in the process!”


“So it please My Lord, I am no witch.”


“Deceitful woman!  I know what you are, I read it all in the entrails.  You are tainted with witchcraft!”


“Indeed I may be so.  Nearly all the poor folk of my land are tainted by the witchcraft of our oppressor.”  


“A pretty tale, witch, but if you think that…..”


Here the Arbiter interrupted.  “Again with respect, Arch Haruspex, there is much we still need to uncover.  But I do believe more testimony is being offered.” The Arbiter gestured towards the floor of the hall, where the Fox was now standing on his hind legs as high as he could and waving with his paws.


“Speak, Bartholomew Fox-Goodburrow.”


“If you please, your worship, but I do believe the woman may be telling the truth, at least partially.  When I saw them at the house of the Wogs, I also saw another creature, one not unlike his honor the Emissary.  I saw him cast a mighty spell upon the whole party, and bewitch them all.”

The Arbiter scoffed incredulously.  “Are you talking nonsense, Fox? Why didn’t you mention this earlier?  Are you trying to make a mockery of this investigation?”


From somewhere at the high table a voice spoke up.  “I think the Fox is right!”


The Arbiter looked to see who had spoken, but suddenly another voice spoke.


“Nonsense!  The Fox is clearly mad!”

“No, it must be true, the Zard have the prisoners bewitched!” retorted the first voice.


“Don’t be a paranoid dimwit, you clod!  The whole idea is nonsense!” the second voice shouted back.


“Is it time yet for a recess, I’m getting hungry” said a third voice.


The Arbiter was still trying to identify who the speakers were when one of the teal robed Drixi sitting at the table stood up.


“Enough of these disruptions, this is getting out of hand.”


“Sit down, fool, you’re making an ass of yourself!” cried one of the voices.


The Arbiter began to speak, but by this time the entire high table had descended into chaos as all the Drixi sitting there broke out into a graceless argument.  Finally, the Arbiter beat his fist on the table.


“Enough!  There is nothing to be gained by further argument.  I will consult with the Haruspex on this matter in private.  The questioning is suspended. Remove the prisoners, and we shall reconvene in the morning.  This council is hereby adjourned.”


And it was over. The Arbiter and the Haruspex made a grand exit in the company of their attendants while the rest of the Drixi began to disperse, and the prisoners were escorted out with all their limbs happily still intact.


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