CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
9 -10 of Marpenoth 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
On the fourth or the fifth day of our travel through the desert we finally entered the outskirts of the Marching Mountains – the wide range of craggy hills, abundant with giant rocks, treacherous landslides, and dusty grey rivers of petrified lava-streams formed in the wake of the ancient volcano eruptions. It brought little relief, since our track through the fields of razor-sharp lava fragments was even harsher then the journey through the ever-shifting sands of the great desert, and there was yet no sight of water or lush green vegetation that usually sprouted along the banks of mountain streams. Our water supply was running short, and most of our fluids now came from the sticky juice of some local cacti that Kessen procured along the way on the northern, shaded slopes of the dunes, and that had to be split open with a jambiya knife after carefully removing the needles.
The twins have assured me many times that they knew their way in and out of the ‘Marchies’ – a quaint local name for the impressive range of giant rusty-red peaks that now filled most of the view to the right from the narrow trail. But so far their knowledge of the surroundings has failed to bring us to any hidden spring or waterhole. Luckily, their desert-breed pony proved to be a hardy beast. Even burdened with all the treasure and restricted to the diet of cacti and dry desert plants, Henna trotted ahead without giving any sign of tiredness or discontent with her fate, (the statement which I would not dare to apply to myself with the same certainty).
The nights were growing longer, and even as I sighed in relief at the retreat of the suffocating heat of the desert, the new problem had presented itself on the first night of our stay in the mountains. It was too damn cold, and after spending almost half a year in the dry and hot climate of the Calim desert, I suddenly rediscovered the inconveniences of the midnight chill spells. Kessen’s ill-fitted leathers were poor protection against the cold, and besides, they chafed and strained in too many places. After ransacking through all of the saddlebags contents, I finally found his old, worn aba that Mirriam had put in there obeying the pack-rat instinct that almost any female acquires when preparing to travel on distances longer than two miles. It was of dark indigo wool, too short for my height, and threadbare on the elbows. But it was such a respite to put on after the snug and hard leather jacket and breeches that I almost shivered from pleasure. Still, it did not make me feel any warmer, and I had to accept a vest of uncured goatskin, covered with long black and white fur, a pair of pants of the same material, and a shapeless felt hat – the only clothes for colder mountain weather that the twins carried in their bottomless saddlebags.
According to Omwo, I now cut a fine figure of a traveling hedge-wizard, with an acute habilitation disorder, but I preferred this new shabby exterior to the posh green and plum silks of the water elemental’s gift. It was practical and unremarkable. After careful examination of my choices of footwear, which were few, and by and large deplorable, I had to accept the pair of green elven boots, despite all the controversial emotions that they stirred in my mind. Nonetheless, it was a better option than developing bleeding calluses from Kessen’s oversized sandals, and definitely a much warmer one. Sometimes bodily discomfort is a stronger argument than vague aversion. Not that I had anything in particular against elven clothes and goods... Yet, the longer I pondered over the certain aspects of Aluril’s story, and my supposed role in it, the more uneasy it made me feel. Add to that Omwo’s endless anecdotes about elves, and their fastidious ways, and you will get the idea.
Overall, the relationship between me, and the little bastard had settled into a sort of uneasy truce, hiding our mutual dislike. It is hard to intensely hate someone with whom you have to share the everyday business of setting and clearing the camp, collecting firewood, and thousands of other small chores that are associated with traveling in the wild in the company of two human youngsters, a halfling, and a pony. Truly told, the twins cheerfully accepted the lion share of the tedious work. Their sunny disposition set the mood of our journey; and although their characters were subtly different, with Mirriam being the brains and the willpower of the tandem, (and Kessen its unyielding, evasive obstinacy), they worked exceptionally well as a pair. That made the small disasters like a handful of sand in every dish we ate, or a punctured water skin that lost all of its contents and deprived us of water, much easier to tolerate. Since Omwo permanently took over the duties related to cooking, and the twins were ultimately superior in setting the tent, starting fire, and packing the supplies, I was left with a very few simple tasks around the campsite, and most of the time someone would relieve me even of these smaller chores, upon noticing me unsuccessfully trying to figure out the art of splitting wood or cleaning dishes without using magic.
That gave me plenty of time to work on the Naga’s scrolls, carefully deciphering the spells, and transferring them into my slightly bedraggled spellbook. Mirriam provided me with ink and a stylus, and I spent my free time filling the pages of Lasarus’s gift with line after line of dense-packed letters, switching from common to elven every now and then, and re-inventing my own symbols and pictograms, that surfaced in my mind with the ridiculous ease of a language, invented and formalized in early childhood for a once favorite but now well-forgotten game. There were at least a dozen new spells that I learned. Not all of them could I recognize at first glance, and most of the ones I did, required strange and exotic components that were hard to come by in the middle of a desert. Thus, my studies were limited to purely theoretical musings on the nature of the incantations, and associated finger signs.
Perhaps, that was for the better, since practicing magic in an open field with a group of weary companions looking over your shoulder at every step was not exactly my favorite kind of a game, and after the incident with the soup bowl they were wary of me trying the simplest of my spells. I grew tense and irritated, which provoked a series of mocking remarks from Omwo, and could have resulted in further explosions, if not for the extreme conditions of our march, and the fact that after days of walking, and evenings spent bent over my notes, I barely had any energy left for anything but a few words with my companions, a quick bite of whatever Omwo was cooking at the moment, and a quick descent into dreamless oblivion, that thankfully found me every night after I rolled myself into my rough woolen blanket, and closed my weary eyes.
It was an immense relief, after month after month of the bloody and terrifying nightmares. I shuddered at the very thought of waking up in the dark, screaming and gibbering like a lunatic, or worse crying and pleading for mercy – the ritual that repeated itself with maddening persistency on every night that I had spent in Chyil’s care in Amkethran. It would have been extremely unpleasant experience for anybody traveling in my company, not to mention what it would have done to my sense of self-respect if it happened in front of the girl. I wondered yet again, if Aluril knew what she was doing when she rid me of my horrid dreams, or if her surprise at my condition was genuine. Someone was surely playing games with me, and it was a pattern of such tremendous complexity, and scale that my mind refused to comprehend the implications. I was not pleased to be used as a pawn on the divine chessboard, and something told me it was not the first time that I was used in this manner.
These uneasy speculations occupied most of my daytime hours spent on the march across the desert, and later along the edge of the mountains. We were slowly making our way north-eastwards, in the general direction of the river Agis, and the fringe of the great wooden massive marked on Mirriam’s yellowed map as the Forest of Mir. Our journey would lead us across the Agis, away from Calimshan and into Tethyr, and further north to the second great Tethyran waterway - the river Ith, to end in Darromar, the new capital of that unsettled country, with its fledgling new monarchy. Zaranda Rhindaun, the new queen of Tethyr moved the royal court to Darromar (formerly known as Ithmong) shortly after establishing herself on the throne, and marrying the last scion of the old ruling dynasty. The new monarch was renowned for her libertarian views and racial tolerance that resulted in ending of the persecution of Tethyran ethnic minorities, including the wild elven tribes. Little else was known about her to my companions, except for the general feeling of stability and improved security that was suddenly created in Tethyr under her rulership after a decade of devastating civil wars, and minor noble rebellions. In Darromar I intended to find a caravan heading north, or procure some other means of traveling to my final destination, and the twins would take a barge to Myratma or travel by land to Zazesspur, as they were still undecided about the next leg of their journey.
All the information about Tethyr, and its geography was bestowed on me by brother and sister during our many conversations around the campfire. Having spent the last five years of his life under the domination spell, Omwo knew little of the current political situation, although he remembered that some of Zaureen’s trusted agents were sent to Darromar on a regular basis to purchase expensive goods and delicacies. He admitted to certain familiarity with the city from his earlier visits, but since we were going to part ways with the halfling upon reaching Fort Qian, that was of little importance. As for me, I flatly refused to discuss the details of my own quest, stating only that my main objective was to reach the elven city of Evereska before the Winter Solstice – the fact that I once let slip from my tongue at the moment of weakness, and that I now deeply regretted, since Mirriam had made it into a personal quest to extricate the rest of the relevant information out of me, using all possible and impossible tactics, such as sweet talk, coercion, and simple blackmail. She had found a staunch ally in Omwo’s persona, as he had also acquired a passionate interest in my past, and haunted me with seemingly innocent questions and verbal traps, cunningly inserted in between his stream of annoying jokes and half-hidden insults.
The girl had the gall to confront me one evening, stating that ‘holding it all inside’ was not doing anything good to my mental health, and that I would benefit from an open discussion of my ‘personal problems’. I only looked at her, trying to silently convey the message of utter inappropriateness of such an invasion of my privacy, and turned back to my spellbook. Luckily, that was sufficient to put her off the idea, at least temporarily. The looks she gave me afterwards were a strange mixture of hurt and anxiety. I wondered if I was indeed that intimidating, or it was her girlish sensitivity. In any case, it did not interest me enough to try and find the root cause of her distress, although I could guess some of the obvious reasons, as I simply refused to acknowledge any change in our relationship after they pulled us out of the gorge. The kiss was a mistake on my part, and I decided to pretend that it had never happened, much to Mirriam’s disappointment. By then, I was firmly convinced that keeping my distance from the girl was in my (and hers) best interest, and my original notion of encouraging and exploiting her affection was replaced with a strong aversion to any complications that may arise from such an affair. Unfortunately, my deliberate coldness did not to seem to have much of an effect on her, and she continued to behave like I owed her some sort of an explanation. After a few days of that hassle, I simply refused to maintain any sort of a conversation with anyone but Kessen, who seemed to be the only sensible person in the party, although his fixation on personal wealth, and a strange addiction to putting himself in dangerous situations while obtaining it, often made me shrug in distaste.
Such was the state of our affairs, and the general mood inside our little group, when the harsh and miserably cold routine of our journey through the spurs of the Marching Mountains was suddenly interrupted by a rather unusual encounter that led to the whole series of events to be described further in this journal.
* * * * *
On one gray and chilly afternoon, when the damp, billowing masses of fog appeared to pour forth from the sparse growth of mountain firs with the stubborn persistency of runaway milk, determined to drown the whole world in its white, sticky wetness, we came across a shallow but murderously cold stream. It ran at the bottom of a gorge into which our trail dived from the side of a smaller mound before ascending serpent-like on the slope of its taller neighbor, which in its turn could be called a medium-sized mountain without undue exaggeration. It was a pleasant enough discovery, since I was beginning to worry that the mountain dew that Mirriam collected every morning in bowls and pots left outside the tent especially for this purpose, was going to be our only source of water for the next week. We stopped and camped on the bank of the small river, making a decision to spend the rest of the day and the upcoming night there, to satisfy everybody’s need for personal hygiene and replenish our water supply.
I only had time to drop my pack on the beach covered with flat smooth pebbles of the same reddish tint as the mountains around us, and strewn with hulks of driftwood, when the argument erupted. After the twins relieved her of the saddlebags with the treasure, the pony simply waded into the rushing stream that barely reached to her round belly in its deepest level, and drunk her full until Kessen chased her out on Mirriam’s insistence. The girl claimed such gluttony was not good for the little beast’s health, but I suspected it was simply a way to express her general displeasure with us, and to show the degree of her control over the male populace of the group. Astoundingly, we had all accepted her dictatorship over the course of the past two days, since it was much easier to agree with everything she said than to endure an avalanche of sarcastic commentary, and practical advice that inevitably followed each expression of mild disagreement.
Her usual light and humorous way of talking was replaced with stern reprimands, followed by prolonged silences. Since Mirri was particularly vicious on Kes, I wondered if it was in the nature of women to torment their male relatives as a payback for an affront from another man, or if she was mad at her brother because he was the only one in the group, with whom I was still on good terms. The thought was born as a reflection of one of the vague memories, which often flickered in my mind when I was too tired to catch and analyze them. Kessen winked at me after each particularly vicious attack from his disgruntled twin, and it made me feel uncomfortable, since he was suffering from the consequences of my digression. It was their family matter of course, and as an outsider I had no business interfering with the course of their relationship. But what puzzled me most was the fact that in the rare moments when she deigned to address me at all, Mirriam was unnaturally and exaggeratedly polite. I once caught her looking wistfully at her bruised forearm – the dark blue imprints of my fingers had faded over the course of few days, and now were hardly visible. But the look on her face was that of regret rather than satisfaction with the fact, and when she noticed me watching she blushed profusely, and quickly covered her arm. All of this was rather mysterious and slightly irritating.
Thus, when I heard them start another loud and pointless squabble over Henna’s potential sickness, I quickly grabbed one of Kessen’s spare tunics, and mumbling my apologies retreated upstream to find a quiet place to bathe. To my greatest displeasure, Omwo chose to follow my example, and avoid the family quarrel. We found a secluded spot in a segment of the stream that was somewhat slower and deeper then the rest of the river, about half a mile from our original site. I soon decided that even here, the water was too cold, and the current too swift for anything more than a quick wash. Besides, I had no desire to strip naked in front of the leering actor, since his sense of humor was particularly vicious when it came to my looks, which he found hilariously effeminate, and too pretty for a male.
I had no idea if all the elves were supposed to look like that, but his comments bothered me somewhat. There were very few things about myself of which I was sure at that point, and he did not make me feel any better by questioning my masculinity. I suppose, the absence of bodily hair was an affront to nature in the eyes of a halfling. Omwo himself boasted a tangled mass of black curly fuzz in all the appropriate places (except for his head that was naked as my knee), including his big flat feet, and chubby toes. I was never very good at distinguishing between halflings (or hin-people as they call themselves), and since the bothersome fool never talked about his own origins, I had only a vague idea of his tribal and social standing, although he once mentioned that his family owned a potato farm somewhere in the Western Heartlands. Supposedly, he was of the Lightfoot tribe, but whether the members of his family evicted him for some nasty trick or he left of his own volition to become an actor in a troupe of vagabonds of similar nature, remained a mystery, and one I was not particularly interested in solving.
I removed my robe and tunic and waded knee-deep into the stream, plunging my sweaty head into abysmally cold but clean water, and clutching the slippery chunk of crude grey soap borrowed from Mirriam’s personal reserve. The water was so clean and soft that even that inferior substance produced the desired effect – my head was soon swathed in white lather that stung my eyes and completely obscured my vision. Nearby I could hear Omwo puffing and splashing like a beaver, or some other water-bound creature. When I emerged from the second dip, dripping water and soap bubbles, the first thing I heard was a rather surprised baaing and clanking, and my smarting eyes beheld a remarkable sight: the other shore of the small river was crowded with a herd of piebald mountain goats of various sizes. The animals looked agitated, as they swarmed around the leader of the herd - a tall, mature male goat that in addition to his remarkably curvy and sharp-looking horns and a beard bore a saddle, a bridle, and most importantly – a rider.
“By Urogalan’s finest spade!” Omwo’s voice screeched from somewhere behind me. “What a fine collection of horns and hooves you have over there, grandfather! Care to cross over and share the news and a cup with a lost soul? Don’t mind the elf – he is a bit retarded as all of them blasted tree-huggers. Indulge the curiosity of a traveling jester - I have not met a kinsman in near half a decade!”
I slowly wiped away the remains of the soap, squinting at the scrawny figure on top of the lead he-goat. Indeed, the person that I at first took for a human child was a bedraggled elderly halfling dressed in furs and old rugs, who looked at us suspiciously, cocking his near-bald head to one side. The remaining white, fluffy locks stood around the pink central spot on his head like a small nimbus, or a crown of a half-blown dandelion. I imagine, I presented a wet and miserably cold but harmless image, for the goat-herder grinned at me and turned to my cheery companion.
“So, you be the trickster then, sonny?” The old hin said in a surprisingly shrill voice, urging his goat to enter the stream. “Can you juggle, and do tricks with cards, and them balls? Poggo, Droggo, come here boys!” He waved a skinny hand and a pair of halfling youngsters mounted on the same black-and-white beasts, and dressed in similar goat-hide pants and coats, galloped from the bushes behind him. “I have not seen a jongleur in these parts, ever since I was a wee one meself,” the halfling continued. “It is always nice to have one come to the hold. And an elf be your partner then? I have heard them long-ears be good singers!”
After the old codger crossed over to our side, leaving the baaing multitude of goats under his grandsons’ supervision, the halflings quickly switched to a chirruping, sharply accentuated hin-tongue, as our new acquaintance asked Omwo about the details of our journey, and at the same time yelled his directions back to the younger generation (at least that was my best guess on the topic of their discussion). The actor joined in the fun, shouting encouragements and making jokes in the same gibbering lingo. I scowled and walked back to the shore, collecting my belongings, and ignoring the hins that were now exchanging questions and equally inane answers with each other across the stream. It looked like we would not have a quiet, restful afternoon after all. Indeed, the goat-herder, whose name was (surprise, surprise) Gonkfloron Longhorn, or simply Gonk, turned out to be a talkative fellow. When Omwo brought him, his two grandsons, and his hairy, bearded charges back to our camp I had already warned the twins, who upon my return were already setting up the tent and starting the fire. Their efforts were in vain, for it was soon decided that we would find better accommodations and nourishment in the nearby halfling village, or hin hold that according to our swarm of halfling locusts was a few hours ride away from the river.
Whether the halflings underestimated the travel time, or they deliberately picked up the goat trails that led further and further into the mountains, looping and swinging across the scraggy slopes bristling with firs, spruces and mountain pine, I did not know, but it was already dark, and quickly getting darker yet, when we finally reached the almost vertical wall that rose high into the sky from the bottom of another small canyon that was completely indistinguishable from the multitude of its brethren, that we had passed on our way to the elusive halfling village. Gonk, who was riding in front with Omwo at his side reined his mount, and yelped, making the obstinate ancient goat rise on hind legs and make a full turn around with an agility, amazing in the animal that old. He then heeled the beast making us jump out of his way on the narrow trail, and disappeared in the darkness beyond. I could hear his shrill voice discussing something with the two young ones, as they collected their herd and led it deeper into the canyon.
“They will pull us up the wall in a basket,” Omwo explained cheerfully, “there is no other way into the hold from here. They are cautious – you see. These mountains are teeming with rogue ogre and giant clans. Not to mention the rumors of drow settlements, and the recent Bhaalspawn wars. It caused quite a commotion in the whole area. He said we were lucky not to run into anything nastier than the hin tribe. There are all sorts of things on the move through the Marching Mountains right now.”
“What about Henna?” Mirri asked urgently. “Surely they cannot pull a pony up there. It looks totally insane.”
“The saddlebags are too heavy,” Kessen nodded warily, “and there is no way I am leaving the horse here – not with all the gold in her packs!”
I only shrugged, remembering the imprint of the giant foot that I spotted at the bottom of the small gorge that we had to cross on our way here. It looked ... remarkable. I had absolutely no desire to meet the owner of that foot, not to mention that my head was groggy from the day-long march, and the prospect of setting a camp on the narrow trail at the bottom of the cliff did not sound attractive, especially because there was a warm bed available three hundred feet away (regretfully, that distance would have to be measured upwards rather than sidewise).
By what means Gonk delivered his message to the villagers was a mystery (later on, I learned that there was an alternative way into the hold, and that one of the youngsters was sent ahead with instructions), but in a few moments we heard a distinctive sound of creaking, and a sturdy wicker basket, big enough to accommodate half a dozen halflings or a pair of humans, was lowered down the wall on a sturdy arrangement of ropes, and plopped on the rocky ground in front of us. Two brawny halflings, dresses in familiar goat-hides, but equipped with short spears and slings jumped out, and after a brief interview with Omwo, who served as a translator, indicated that we should pick the first persons to travel up the wall, and that the horse should stay behind and would be taken to the goat corral by Gonk and his remaining grandson. Obviously, the hin’s livestock was not hauled up and down the cliff every night but spent most of the warm season in a fenced enclosure at the bottom of the gorge, and in case of sudden danger the goats were quickly secured in a specially prepared hideout in the network of natural caves around the area.
“I am not going anywhere without the horse!” Kessen repeated stubbornly.
“And neither am I!” his sister added in a voice ringing with indignation.
“Oh come on, kids, we cannot possibly stay here all night,” Omwo squeaked in agitation, “Jonny, don’t just stand here with your arms folded like you are some kind of a freak – say something!”
“Frankly speaking, they are right,” I answered carefully, trying to sort through all possible ways of resolving the crisis. “I don’t think we should leave the horse here either.”
“And I thought that you had some sense in that pointy-eared head of yours, elf-boy! You are the worst of the three. Yondalla, mother of all, you surely depleted me of my brains on the day when I agreed to travel in the company of the obstinate children, human and elven!” he turned back to the halflings, and burst into an energetic speech in hin-tongue accompanied with intense gesticulation and striking the air with his little fists. Mirriam gave me a thankful look.
After a brief but passionate argument it became clear that nothing would budge our resolution. I had to take the twins’ side, since there was no warranty that the halflings would not take a peek into Henna’s saddlebags at first occasion. And although I was mostly indifferent to the fact that the amount of wealth that we now carried with us was enough to buy a hundred villages like Amkethran with all their inhabitants, I still needed the money to pay for the means of my future travels, and to procure the information about Evereska. Not a single one of Easamon’s maps contained any hints on the mysterious elven city’s location, and after a few futile attempts to find anything relevant in the smuggler’s personal notes at the bottom of one of the atlases, I gave up the idea. (The notes seemed to be related to his journey between the Amnian city of Athkatla and some obscure archipelago in the Sea of Swords.) I had no doubts about my ability to earn a living as a wandering scribe or a wizard, but the sum required to bribe some royal official or a merchant to obtain a map with Evereska’s location, was probably beyond my means without my share of the treasure.
The negotiations entered a deadlock that seemed to be unbreakable, until the halflings suddenly agreed to let Kessen stay with the pony and lodge with Gonk in his shed, while the rest of us would travel upwards to the hin hold. It was not a perfect solution but still better than spending the night in this inhospitable ravine. Kes was probably safe enough with the halflings, and although Mirri tried to suggest that all of us should stay down here, it was quite obvious to me that Omwo’s promised performance for the hin children was the main reason behind our invitation to the village. As for me, I had my own agenda, mainly procuring at least some of the ingredients that were essential for my new collection of spells. Even such a small holding should have a shaman or a hedge-wizard of sorts, and I was hopeful that he or she would provide me with much needed magical supplies. We had other plans as well, the ones that we had discussed on out way here, and these required securing villagers’ good will, and employing some diplomatic skills. I hoped that I and Omwo would be able to pull it off, even if it meant cooperating with the annoying jester, the very thought of which made me cringe in distaste.
When that long and tiresome discussion was finished, Kessen and the horse were led away by one of the guards, and the rest of the group was offered a passage up the wall. To my utter surprise, Omwo offered to wait for the second haul, stating the need for a translator and negotiator in case of possible complications, and since I was reluctant to send the girl up there alone, it was our turn. As I stepped into the creaking basket, offering Mirriam my hand, I wondered once again by what inexplicable means did I end up in such an odd place with a band of most unlikely companions (a likely expression basket case immediately sprang to my mind and made me chuckle nervously, despite my best intention to stay calm). But since the gods ignored to my silent inquiry, all I could do was to sit still and let the girl clutch at me at each precarious swing and bump of the improvised elevator. Mirriam was shy at first, and honestly tried to keep her distance, but it was virtually impossible in these narrow, swaying quarters. I had a feeling that she was not seriously displeased when at the final stage of our trip, after a particularly violent jolt of the container, we ended up in a tangle of limbs and clothes on the bottom of that peculiar accommodation. She was tense and warm, and her heart was beating against my chest with the speed and tenacity of the overwound clockwork. Then the basket gave a final jerk, and stopped as suddenly as it started. Our journey was over, and I carefully disentangled myself from Mirri’s timid embrace, and helped her out without saying a word.
After I stretched my insensate limbs and adjusted my robes, finally straightening to my full height from the crouched position inside the blasted container, I finally had a chance to look around. It was dark and cold at the top of the small plateau, and the chilly light of autumn stars poured reluctantly on the miserable collection of stone sheds, and strange round mounds that proved to be the entrances into the hin underground burrows. Someone coughed behind my back. I swirled around, fully expecting some sort of a trap, but it was only a small group of curious and slightly nervous halflings with brightly lit torches that was waiting for us by the odd construction of wooden wheels and pulleys that operated the lift.