Beldor dropped low and tensed, anticipating a rain of arrows on his shield. The sound of a single arrow splintering the trunk of a tree a short way behind Beldor elicited a bellowing sigh of relief. The ginger-bearded dwarf poked his head over the edge of his shield to see the small army before him lowering their weapons, the woman who’d pulled her shot was on her knees, head in hands as she shook with wracking sobs.
“Anula. Anula!” Beldor whispered urgently. The halfling woman looked at him confused, dazed. “Anula, I need you to get Mox back up. We need to be ready to get out of here!”
She placed a hand on her head and moaned in pain. Beldor sighed.
“Cloud, ya got anything left in the tankard?”
The dragonborn glanced at him, confusion and hopelessness prominent on his scaly features. He shook his head negative.
“Fine, then try to rouse the little one. We can’t get away with the drow unconscious, and we’re not leaving him behind.” Beldor commanded. “I’ll see if I can talk our way out of this.”
Cloud looked doubtful – a look that Beldor pointedly ignored – but went to work trying to rouse the groggy halfling.
Beldor straightened slowly, trying to appear confident and in control.
“Rain, was it?” he shouted across the clearing.
The woman kneeling looked up at him, eyes bloodshot.
“I know things went bad back there, but you have to understand that we didn’t have a choice. We were-”
Rain thrust a hand at the dwarf, forestalling his imminent excuse. “Don’t lie to me, dwarf. I’m not in the mood” She stood and turned. A short whispered conversation took place with a robed man to her right, who nodded. The man took a step forward and reached into a small pocket. Beldor went on the defensive, raising his shield and dropping low again.
The man paused and pulled forth a small symbol. It was odd, unfamiliar to Beldor. Near as he could tell it was a pair of eyes surrounded by seven twinkling stars and made of pure platinum. He could tell, even from here, that the craftsmanship was quite good.
“Do you consent to speak the truth, dwarf?” the man called out, his voice light and melodic.
Beldor glanced back at the others, his shield still up.
Anula still dazed, whispered something to Cloud, who looked up at Beldor confused.
“She keeps saying ‘Selûne’.
Beldor looked at the man standing in the center of the clearing. Ahhh, the symbol. He’s a priest of Selûne. From what he knew of the secretive sect, they jealously hoarded knowledge and were strangely sympathetic toward shape-changers.
“I suppose I don’t have a choice do I?” Beldor called out.
The man shook his head and began casting a quick spell. A moment later Beldor felt a pressure settle over his mind, not so different from the spell he had just escaped.
The priest turned and joined the rest of the armed individuals. The woman, Rain, stepped forward, eyes hard as she clutched her bow.
“Now, let’s get to the truth of the matter.”
Three Hours Earlier
The press of the crowd almost too much for Anula. It seemed the entire city was jammed into the renovated Market District. All she could see were legs in every direction. She was fiercely proud of her halfling heritage, but right now it was quite the nuisance. Beldor was barreling ahead, on his way to their appointed spot. They’d earned a generous vantage point based on their service to Lucan’s party, and were on their way to stand with Celedor, the halfling campaign manager.
Anula was clutching Beldor’s armor straps for dear life, trusting the stout form of the dwarf to keep them from getting trampled. She was not used to being around people anymore. Glancing behind her, Mox and Cloud were walking on either side, both alert and scanning the tightly packed crowd for trouble.
She wasn’t sure what to expect anymore. Lucan showing up had been a shock. She had wanted nothing more than to cave in his skull with her small mace, but she knew he could have destroyed her with a flick of his wrist. There was something about him, something wholly unnatural to her senses. It had been like when she would catch the scent of fresh mint leaves – it left a vague memory of a memory from her childhood, a shadow of emotion, though in this case, it had turned her stomach. Then he’d revealed her identity. She still felt embarrassed that she hadn’t shared with everyone prior to that moment, it was just that it was so long ago and had no relevance to their situation. Why worry them or cause them to look at her differently?
The crowd seemed to thin as they approached a set of sturdy wooden stairs. Beldor began stomping his way up, Anula close on his heels.
They reached the top and Anula paused to catch her breath in an attempt to slow her rapidly pounding heart.
Celedor stepped forward to greet them, grinning rapturously as he did. Beldor brushed past him, ignoring his outstretched hand.
Anula glanced around and found herself on a small wooden tower-like structure situated on the eastern section of the clearing, with a superb view of both the crowd and stage to the north. Celedor stopped in front of Anula as Mox and Cloud moved to the edge of the tower, ignoring the campaign manager as well.
“I guess the meeting with Lucan didn’t go so well?” the halfling inquired curiously. Anula, hand on the railing still trying to catch her breath, glared at Celedor.
“And how did you expect it to go? We’ve been manipulated for a week straight trying to get that snake elected when he doesn’t deserve it. He comes in, spouts some cryptic mess and then leaves – though not before telling us he was going to continue using us.” She crossed her arms in annoyance.
The halfling man, for the first time since they’d met, didn’t seem weighed down by an immense stress. He shrugged casually. “I just do what I’m told princess,” he said with a smirk as he moved off.
Incredible. Does anyone not know at this point?
There was a hush from the crowd as Anula saw a small group of individuals beginning to take the stage. She rushed to stand next to Beldor, her stomach suddenly filled with fluttering butterflies.
Melody led the procession onto the wooden platform, followed by the massive, slightly limping form of Pearle. Falanir came next, his eyes shifting nervously, trying to watch – or search? – everywhere at once. Trevor, his cheeks rosy from drink, despite the early hour, was followed finally by Margery. They each lined up along the back of the platform and stood quietly.
Mounting the stairs next was Evelyn, head held high, proudly scanning the crowd and smiling. Her eyes continued sweeping the audience and she glanced up, met Anula’s gaze and gave her a small smile. Anula returned the smile and nodded at the woman. Celedor was beside her, staring at her intently. She ignored him.
Finally, Lucan mounted the stage, each step precise. He held himself perfectly, not so intense that he seemed unapproachable, but in a manner that exuded confidence and control. Anula envied his poise.
Evelyn approached Lucan and began speaking to him in low tones, smiling as she did. The crowd began muttering, unsure what was happening.
“She’s not supposed to be talking to him,” Celedor stated, seeming as confused as everyone else.
Anula took the moment to glance around at the crowd.
There were a massive number of Union guards, the ratio to citizens, as best she can tell, was one guard to every four citizens. It was overkill considering the Union was armed and the citizenship weren’t. It seemed a bit unnecessary considering Lucan had the Union in his pocket. He didn’t strike her as paranoid, but maybe he simply hid it well.
“Mages,” she heard Beldor whisper. She followed his eyes to a small clearing across the way. A dozen robed figures stood in a group, scanning the crowd.
“If this goes south, this square could turn into a bloodbath,” Beldor whispered to her. She nodded, trusting his assessment, afraid of that very possibility.
A flash of movement to her left, on a roof opposite the stage, caught her eye. She glanced over and saw nothing. “Beldor, I think someone is on the roof, too.”
Just as she said that, Mox gave a brief gasp of pain and surprise.
”Someone killed Blud,” he whispered angrily, glancing toward the roof where Anula had noticed the movement.
“Did you get a look at ’em?” Beldor asked. Mox shook his head.
“Dear citizens of Sallet,” Melody’s voice boomed out, magically enhanced. Here we go, Anula thought, the butterflies attacking once again.
“Today we elect a new Governor. Today, the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of this great port city, we look to the future.” The crowd erupted into cheers, united in their hope, if not in their choice for that hope.
Anula had no idea it was such an important anniversary for the city. She probably should have realized it, however, knowing the city of Sallet had been founded shortly after the end of the Great War just over a hundred years ago, on the very site of its climactic battle.
Melody continued: “I pray that each of you stands by our decision this day, supporting the elected and keeping this city first in your minds. We have a responsibility, no matter the cost, to protect each other and this land.” She paused, her voice was drowned out from cheering.
“Let us waste no more time,” she said, stepping back into line.
Anula thought she might explode from anticipation. “This is it,” she whispered, knowing the outcome, but holding to hope that it wouldn’t be so.
Lucan and Evelyn moved to the front of the stage, Lucan on the left, Evelyn on the right, standing equidistant from each other, their backs to those who held their fates in their hands.
The crowd quieted, even the guards ignored the citizenship and turning to watch in anticipation. On the far right, Margery was the first to move, walking the short distance to stand behind Evelyn. Evelyn, hearing this, maintained her composure, though a small smile tugged at her lips.
Next was Trevor. The shifty-eyed man, to no one’s particular surprise, quickly moved to stand behind Lucan.
Falanir stood in the center of the stage, his eyes wild with fear. He glanced from Evelyn to Lucan and back again. He seemed petrified. His gaze settled between the two, staring at a point at the far end of the square. His eyes suddenly widened. Anula quickly followed his line of sight. There was a small smith’s shop with a few windows thrown open, though she wasn’t at an angle where she could see inside those windows. She glanced back and watched as Falanir stumbled behind Lucan.
The crowd was beginning to mutter, anticipation building to a crescendo.
Pearle showed no hesitation, brushing past Falanir to stand beside Margery, the barbarian woman towering protectively over the half-elf.
No one moved. It was two votes to two. Melody’s was the only remaining vote. Anula felt the butterflies evaporate in an explosion of hope. Melody would pick Evelyn. She, above all the others, seemed to understand what was at stake.
Melody bowed her head for a moment, her face hidden behind her tawny locks. What are you waiting for? Anula wanted to shout at her.
The high-elven woman raised her head, her countenance set, jaw clenched tight and began to move.
She stopped, shoulder to shoulder with Falanir.
Beldor, Cloud, and Mox each sighed in apparent relief, the spell’s stipulations finally fulfilled.
The crowd erupted, some in anger and some in elation.
Lucan had won.