IT DIDN’T TAKE THE judges long to make their decision, and soon they returned to the room and took their seats. As everyone went back to their places, Carling stood as tall as she was able and looked directly at Zarius.
“We have discussed your testimony and find it too extraordinary to be believed,” Zarius said gruffly. “We, therefore, find you guilty of the murder of our beloved lead stallion, Manti.”
A gasp went up from the few audience members. Carling didn’t move, didn’t breathe, didn’t even blink an eye. She didn’t know what to say or do.
Zarius continued coldly. “Guards, take the prisoner to a cell. She will stay there for the rest of her life.”
“No!” shouted Tibbals. “She didn’t do it. She’s telling the truth. You have to believe her.”
Glaring at Tibbals, Zarius bellowed, “Silence in the council chambers or you will be removed!”
Tibbals pursed her lips, pressed her fists against her waist, and glared at Zarius. Tamah reached for her filly, wrapped her arms around her, and stroked her hair.
Just as the guards took hold of Carling, a disturbance erupted in the back of the room. Carling turned and tossed her auburn curls out of her eyes with a flick of her head. What she saw caused her to suck in a quick breath. Pushing their way past the guards and into the room were two Heilodius Centaurs named Bale and Dalt.
Both Centaurs owed their life to Carling. Carling had kept Bale from burning to death in the hunting cabin in the Forest of Rumors. She and Tibbals had saved Dalt from drowning in Lake Mantle. Now, the two of them were forcing their way into the room and trotting up to the front.
“What is the meaning of this?” Zarius demanded, eyeing the two Heilodius Centaurs suspiciously.
“We have come to prevent a grave injustice,” said Dalt.
“By this you mean…?” said Zarius, his eyes narrowing.
“I mean you are wrongfully accusing Carling of a crime. She did not kill Manti as you believe. But she may have killed the Commander. He is, even now, on his deathbed and not expected to live.”
Zarius cocked his head to one side and eyed the Centaurs with a look of disdain. “Tell us what you know and why you maintain the young Duende is innocent.”
“Dalt and I were on guard duty at the gates of Fort Heilodius last night,” said Bale. “Sometime during the third watch, the Commander and four of his soldiers came into the fort. The Commander was bleeding badly from a serious wound in his chest.”
“After the Commander was assisted to his quarters,” added Dalt, “we questioned the four soldiers who had come in with him.”
“They told us they had killed Manti but that a little Duende girl had surprised them and attacked the Commander,” said Bale.
“We knew right away the only one courageous enough to stand up to the Commander was Carling,” said Dalt as he looked down at Carling and smiled.
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