Chapter 19 Part III

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The girl tightened her grasp around Tristan's waist, sharp ribs poking into his back as they rode towards the public square. "Please hurry, milord," she said. "We don't have much time."

Tristan nudged his horse into a canter, plowing into the crowded street. "Move!" he bellowed, nearly trampling several bystanders. He could hear Sam and Braeden cursing as they struggled to keep up.

The public square was just a few streets over from the main thoroughway, but with the city's congestion, even a short distance took a long time to travel. Still, between Tristan's determination and expert horsemanship, they arrived within minutes.

The city square was really more of a rectangle, 500 yards long and half that wide, surrounded by stone and brick buildings on three of its sides. The fourth side opened up to the street, but it was damned near impenetrable with all the people. It seemed as though the entire city had come out to witness the boy's punishment, though it was hard to say whether they had been summoned or had come of their own volition. Whatever their reason for being there, they were in Tristan's way and blocking his view of the proceedings. 

He dismounted his horse at the edge of the square and lifted the little girl from the saddle. "Here," he said, passing the reins to Sam. "You and Braeden stay with the horses."

"But— " Sam protested.

"No buts. This is my doing. I'll handle it." Tristan kneeled in front of the little girl. "I need you to be my eyes. Can you do that?" The little girl nodded emphatically, and he swept her onto his shoulders. "Do you see your brother?"

She twisted, her knobby knees clocking Tristan in the chin. "He's up there, milord!" the little girl cried, pointing towards the raised stage in the middle of the square.

He restored her to the ground. "Thank you, milady," he said gravely.

She giggled at his formality, her cheeks dimpling. But her merriment quickly faded at the steady beat of a drum. "They's startin'," she breathed, her eyes wide with dread.

"I'll fetch your brother, I promise you," Tristan said. "In the meantime, I need you to stay here with Sam and Braeden. Will you hold Braeden's hand for me while you're waiting?"

Braeden paled. "I don't think that's a good idea, Tristan."

Tristan leaned towards the girl. "I think he's afraid of you," he whispered, sotto voice. "Are you afraid of him?"

She scowled. "I's afraid of no one, 'cept maybe the Paladins and me mam." She made a show of inspecting Braeden, staring at him openly. "You gots funny eyes and funny clothes, milord, but me mam would make you piss into your boots."

"Your mam?" asked Braeden, fiddling with his hat.

"Aye, milord. Well, me gran-mam if we's being exact. Lost her eye and half her face in a fire, but 'tis her remaining eye you need to be afraid of." She tugged on the sleeve of Braeden's robe. "I's not scary though, if you want to hold me hand like milord says."

Braeden reluctantly unfurled his broad hand, and she laced her tiny fingers through his. Tristan almost laughed at the wild panic in his eyes. "Be safe," he told them and muscled his way through the thick of the crowd.

As Tristan grew closer to the stage at the square's center, he could see a full grown man, a lad in his late teens, and – shite, the street urchin from earlier – kneeling on the wooden platform, heads bowed and hands tied behind their back. A gray-bearded man sat languidly in a throne-like chair at the rear corner of the stage, and another redheaded man of middling years, dressed in practical but expensive clothes, stood behind the kneeling men, brandishing a whip.

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