We knew this was coming. The closing of the Battle of Willowdale, at least in the eyes of the law. Alejandra has attempted to bring the prisoners around, and I have assisted. I have some experience in redemption, but there is a difference between coaxing a feral gnoll into a kinder pack and breaking through the shells of killers trained to give no mercy and expect none. I don't know if we can save them, from the noose or from themselves, but we will try.
Ru seems very attached to the girl. Alejandra, too. She is the youngest, and not as far gone.
At the trial, I speak of what I know: Rahzer'ok, and the value of sparing a life. Not as passionate as the others' words, but true enough. I can only hope that a few of the townsfolk listening woke after the battle to a gnoll changing their bandages, saying, “You are lucky to be alive. Just like Rahzer'ok!”
General Wilson for the prosecution. Wilson, who does not believe in peace, only victory. Who does not believe in frightened children indoctrinated and well-armed, only enemy soldiers. He calls Dr. Haiduc as witness, and for a moment I worry, well aware that the Haiduc family preaches vengeance.
“The assassins used a very deadly poison,” the Doctor says, “One in six hundred survive it. Oh, I bear them no ill-will. How about you, Ned?”
Ned stands, fresh from the dead. “Oh, live and let live, I say.”
The General looks annoyed.
A clerk stands with the number of the dead. I know it well, not as a count on paper but as an endless and overwhelming stream of grieving families. But this statistician tries to twist that sorrow into anger and a call for vengeance. I remember the lesson I gave Noemia: to defend is to be willing to end a fight once you or your charges are safe. And we are safe, at least for now, at least from the Legion. I rise again. “You are correct that seven hundred have died, and that can never be accounted for. But we have also destroyed an entire hobgoblin legion.” I watched their blood freeze in the first season's snow. I helped clear their bodies from the Golden Fields, my precious charge. “I see no need to further punish the survivors.” Not even when we came across those Centurions in their deserted camp, with my hatred fresh and hot, was I willing to kill a foe who offered no resistance.
Arguments continue, and it soon becomes clear that the audience is siding more with us than with the General. Still Alejandra seems unsatisfied with the energy in the room, and stands again, unrecognized. I lock eyes with her and signal please don't be rash, don't antagonize the judge. We have the people on our side, so long as we don't antagonize the city judge. She stands in front of the room as the clerks try to remove her – I don't know if Zuni could move that woman with a full charge – and leads the audience in a chant: “Not the ones!”
“Yes, public opinion is clear,” says the Judge.
Beautiful people of Willowdale, who can bury seven hundred and still forgive.
Alejandra finally deigns to return to her seat. She leans over to me and whispers, “My head said no, but my heart said yes.”
The judge deliberates for some time. We have made our point well, but still I worry. I've seen judges ignore public opinion to make a show of power. If this one does rule in favour of execution, I think I still might be able to get the hobgoblin the warrior's death he asked for. Alejandra will need comforting, if she doesn't start a riot. The girl, she is only Noemia's age.
But the ruling is the most favourable possible: all three prisoners will be branded rather than killed. Goshan flinches next to me in sympathy and I remember that for most, branding and exile is only a delayed death sentence. The judge announces that the prisoners may remain in Willowdale if someone takes responsibility for them. Gorgoroth, silent for the entire trial, almost interrupts the judge in his haste to claim the surprised-looking hobgoblin. Ru, almost as quickly, adopts the girl. I consider the boy for a moment. Unlike Rahzer'ok, he appears to have no aptitude for druidic training, or anything besides killing. I could still take him as a mercy, but Alejandra speaks up first.
The judge and his clerks look shocked by how quickly the prisoners have been taken in, but we are the Pathfinders of Willowdale and we have long abandoned the sensibilities of inner Laurasia. I invite the newly-freed prisoners for cake in the Boar & Thistle.
As Gorgoroth drinks his hobgoblin under a table, I overhear General Wilson's words to Alejandra. Watch your back with that changeling around, he says. I think she will, but if not I'll be watching it for her.