The Price of Freedom

"Run!" Jamalar yelled, urging Adelar onward. The guards of the Court of Truth had the younger boy firmly in their grasp so rescue was not an option. At least, not yet.

Adelar ran with the deceptively casual gait of a street rat. His senses tingled with equal parts of fear and excitement. Jamalar would manage to escape somehow, if not, there would be chances to free him later. If Adelar too were caught, though, the opportunities diminished. Opportunities were treasured like sapphires and rubies, he must remain free to keep them all in his grasp. The chase was on!

Though the Court of Truth's guards were well-trained, Adelar knew they might be easily distracted from chasing a common "street rat" as his kind was called. Maj'Dul was full of distractions ever since all those foreigners had arrived.

The barrashar, or foreigners, were everywhere now Easy marks, easy pickings, easy to confuse. A group of them stood now near one of the prophets, themselves seeming as dazed by the bright sunshine as he, listening to his ravings.

Adelar paused and asked in a friendly tone, "Are you lost?"

"Yes!" cried one of the barrashar, relief flooding across his damp, sun-reddened features.

"No! Get away, you common beggar!" growled another, glaring at Adelar.

Shrugging, Adelar sauntered down the wide stone stairs and said, "I was only going to say that it is much cooler below, there is quite a refreshing breeze in the shade."

The reference to a shady breeze invigorated the barrashar who stampeded down the stairs, blocking Adelar from the guards' view. Peering around the rocky outcroppings that hemmed the stone stairway, Adelar saw the guard pack jogging onward. He slipped back up the stairs, counting the coins he had lifted from the barrashar. Not enough for a bribe, but enough to feed his family today.

Within moments, the shouts of confusion began in the Champions' Court, just as Adelar had expected. The Sha'ir swooped down low and what guards remained in the area headed toward the pit to investigate.

"So far, so good," thought Adelar. "Now for Jamalar."

They had been caught pilfering trinkets from the pockets of a tall, blonde barrashar. While Maj'Dul was filled with thugs and thieves, unfortunately Adelar's brother had chosen the wrong barrashar. This one grabbed Jamalar's wrist and with a swift, almost Dervish manuver, had pressed him into the wall with a knife at his throat. From a carpet above them, they heard the Sha'ir call out a warning.

"Such actions are not allowed!" cried the Sha'ir, circling lower and unsheathing his weapon. "Prepare to follow our law!"

And so, all of them - Adelar, Jamalar and the barrashar - fled. Only Jamalar had been caught.

His mind worked through the possibilities. Jamalar could be in the Arena now as a fighter of the lowest order. He might be imprisoned somewhere in the Court of Truth. Or he might be dead. Adelar shook his head, no, if something had happened to Jamalar, he would know.

"I must talk to Umar, perhaps he has heard something," Adelar thought, instinctively turning down the increasingly narrow streets that led toward his home in the lowest tier of Maj'Dul. Umar, a leader in their neighborhood, had sources and informants in every Court.

As he entered Umar's enclave to ask for help, Adelar's words froze in his throat. Standing before Umar was the very barrashar Jamalar had accosted earlier.

"Do not worry, little one," said the barrashar coolly, "I am not here to seek revenge. Like you, I seek the release of your brother. It is unfortunate that he chose to attack me beneath the very eyes of the Sha'ir."

"Who are you?" demanded Adelar. He could not remember seeing this woman before and yet she must be familiar with the ways of Maj'Dul to be here in the Court of Tears with Umar.

"Who I am is of no importance to your tale," she replied. "I wish to resolve this matter before it is too late." She added, "Do not let a foolish choice ruin your life. Even the life of a street rat can have merit and honor."

Adelar stiffened, turning away. What could a rich, pampered woman know of their lives? Constant scrabbling for scraps. Picking through the rubbish piles of the wealthy to find usable goods. The life of a street rat, as Maj'Dul's citizens called them, was often short and violent.

Still…she had proven herself very handy with a knife. No one had ever caught Jamalar before…

Umar clapped his hands, bringing their attention back to him. "Your brother is being held in the Tower of the Moon. I know that it is unusual but as you can see, your brother chose an unusual mark."

The barrashar bowed her head. "I appreciate your assistance, Umar, though I warn you not to betray me."

She turned and walked away haughtily, either unaware that all eyes followed her or unconcerned. An unusual mark was an understatement.

"Who is she?" Adelar asked Umar, but the older man shook his head.

"Some questions, Adelar, cannot be easily answered. Know that she makes a deadly enemy and that is all you need to know."
Umar waved away imaginary gnats and snapped at one of the nearby attendants, "Get these monkeys and their vermin away from me at once!"

"I have never broken into the Tower before," said Adelar, his normal confidence slightly shaken. "How will I…"

Umar drew a rough outline of the Tower in the dirt, then jabbed his finger at various spots. "Scale the walls here. And then here. She will be waiting for you. I suggest you do not delay."

The skies were tainted purple and red as Adelar crept back into the upper tiers of Maj'Dul. He easily located the handholds on the Tower of the Moon and began to ascent of its colourful spire. It rose higher than he had climbed before, and his head swam with a sense of wonder as he looked down upon the city. His city, as no barrashar could ever experience it.

That his brother could have committed so petty a crime and been sent here was very unusual. Could it have something to do with the mark, the fair-haired barrashar?

His mind wandering, Adelar's hand slipped and he nearly fell. Panting, he pressed himself against the rough stone walls and forced himself to concentrate. Almost there. Only a little bit further. Hand over hand. Foot over foot.

He continued upward until he reached the third tier from the very pinnacle of the Tower and dropped silently onto the narrow walk. Through an open window he saw Jamalar huddled against a wall, asleep on a pile of pillows.

The instant Adelar entered the room, however, Jamalar's eyes flew open and he whispered excitedly, "I thought you would never get here. Let's go! I have the bottle she wants!"

"Who…" Adelar began, confused, then he nodded. Of course, "She" was the barrashar. It seemed everyone knew something about her but himself.

Slowly, they descended the Tower. Hand under hand. Foot under foot. Even in the faint moonlight, Adelar could tell his younger brother was excited by whatever it was that he had managed to do for the barrashar. Hopefully she would pay well.

The arrow came from nowhere. It struck the stone between the brothers with a metallic ping before falling harmlessly away. Adelar looked down, but they were still much too high to jump. Another arrow skittered across the Tower above their heads as though skimming the surface of a rocky pond. And another.

"Adelar!" gasped Jamalar. His hands spread out across the stones, scrabbling for a grip. The arrow had glanced off his temple, knocking him off balance. His legs flailed beneath him as he slid faster and faster down the Tower before losing his hold entirely and falling backwards and away.

"Jamalar!" Adelar whispered, hugging the wall, feeling the day's warmth seep from its stones into his paralysed limbs. He forced himself to remain alert, though there were no further arrows coming toward him. Hand under hand.

Questions roiled through his head. What was it Jamalar had found? A bottle? What kind of bottle? Why was the barrashar so important that her attacker had been placed in this Tower and not in prison? His brother could not have survived such a fall, but Adelar must not let himself think of that. Hand under hand. Questions could only be answered if he lived to ask them. Foot under foot.