CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
10 -11 of Marpenoth 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
I counted at least six small sturdy figures in quaint garments of homespun wool and ubiquitous goat-hide, led by a robust female in a fringed blue shawl. They did not look particularly pleased with my appearance. I suppose, they expected Omwo to come with the first freight. Seeing my tall (and by their standards it must have been excessively so) frame extricate itself from the basket and unfold to its full length must have been a cultural shock. Even if they were prepared to see an elf, they never expected one so lofty. For many citizens of that small dwelling we were the first, and maybe the last outsiders that they ever saw in their lives.
The fear of persecution and enslavement by humans was bred in their bones since times of the late Shoon Empire, and thus the villagers were instinctively suspicious of the taller folk. Ever since their escape from Calimshan centuries ago, the halfling tribes of the Marching Mountains never established much contact with the outside world, and traded mostly among themselves. And even communications between individual hin holds were maintained by use of messenger birds. By the time I helped Mirri get out of the elevator, most of the faces brightened a little. Perhaps my smaller female companion looked less intimidating. Besides, Poggo, the smarter one of the two Gonk’s grandchildren, must have delivered some minimal information about our group’s dramatis personae. Slightly aggravated by this delayed reaction, I introduced us briefly in Common, and was in turn greeted by the blue-shawled dame, who seemed to be in charge of the gathering.
The halflings were the village elders, all slightly disgruntled and peevish after being dragged in the middle of the night out of their warm burrows to the dark mountainside by their sharp-tongued, imposing matriarch Olphara Sixthtoe. The aforementioned matron was the head of the village council, and the energetic presence behind every out of the ordinary affair ever to transpire in that rural outpost. Olphara was also one of the few villagers who spoke relatively clean Common, and was a famous adventuress, as once in the days of her youth she had traveled all the way to FortQian and back.
She was a robust looking hin-woman of advanced age, but in possession of a bubbly personality. The distinguished matriarch's hair was done into a multitude of steel-grey plaits, strung with blue beads, and decorated with falcon feathers. Her long woolen skirt was of deep crimson, and her knitted shawl, which she wore with more pose than some of the royalty affected while wearing their mantles, was of midnight blue, embroidered with big red flowers. Even in the flickering light of the halflings' torches, I flinched at the sight of it. Remarkably, Olphara took an instant liking to Mirriam even though the girl was a human, and unmistakably of a Calishite descent. Perhaps the hin-woman sensed a kindred spirit in a human maiden, since my companion wore garments almost as noteworthy as Olphara’s own. Today Mirri had picked a mind-shattering combination of green velvet waistcoat, embroidered with vine-red cherries, tight leather pants (that she wore as a tribute to her profession), and a red silken scarf that she wound around her slim waist like a sash to finish the ensemble. I thought sourly that on the harsh backdrop of red and brown rocks even an outrageously bad archer would not miss her from two hundred yards. Luckily for her, this part of the Marching Mountains was somewhat more forested than the area directly adjacent to the great desert. But honestly, her costume would have looked conspicuous even in the jungle of Chult, among the birds of paradise. Of course, the girl in her turn looked at the halfling dame's flamboyant apparel with an expression of excited curiosity and approval.
Due to this sudden outbreak of affection between the two females, our credentials were confirmed rather quickly, and our reception became even more cordial after the next run of the creaky wooden construct delivered the annoyingly cheerful Omwo and his two guides. The matter of Kessen’s reluctance to join us at the top was never mentioned aloud, although I am sure it was reported to the matriarch at first occasion. Next, we were ushered to Olphara’s personal dwelling - a spacious house built of rough mountain stone, which she shared with her numerous offspring and their families. That was only appropriate, since it was the tallest building in the village, and it boasted a dining hall finished with gleaming pinewood, in which I could actually stand without slumping.
After the chilly mountain air outside, the house felt especially warm and hospitable. The entire building smelled of beeswax, wool, and drying tobacco leaves - a bouquet fitting for a halfling house, and the roaring fire in a huge fireplace, with the customary rotund copper kettle on a blackened iron hook, looked an epitome of domestic bliss. I mused on how many daughters-in-law were employed in maintaining the glossy shine of the waxed walls and floorboards, and the immaculate cleanliness of the cupboards with its fine collection of local pottery. It was too late for a formal banquet, but nevertheless we were served a hearty meal of bread, cheese and stewed vegetables with occasional chunks of goat meat, accompanied by liberal amounts of sour-tasting beverage that was introduced as a variety of ale. Since no halfling chair or bench would have been adequate, and there was no human or elf-sized furniture in the entire hold, we were seated on the floor on the rainbow-colored woolen rugs and cushions, spread around the unfinished wooden boards, swiftly brought in, and laid on round blocks of wood especially for that purpose by numerous members of Sixthtoe household. I quickly lost count of how many broad-shouldered, dark-haired curly halflings and halfling youths were introduced as her children and grandchildren, not to mention all the apple-cheeked plump and shy daughters and granddaughters.
In the course of that late-night meal, it was decided that we would stay in the village for the next day and one more night, so that Omwo could display his skill to the crowd of hin-children and equally excited adults. Olphara even promised to send messenger birds to the two or three nearest holds that were within half a day ride from our host village to invite more audience. Since in a course of that performance Omwo had designs on my own persona, I groaned at the very thought of it. Our village was originally called Dragon’s Perch, or at least that was how the scoundrel translated it from the hin-tongue to common, but all the Sixthtoes referred to it simply as Perch. A curious name for a halfling settlement that was fused to the edge of the rocky precipice like a swallow’s nest to high riverbank but I have heard of stranger ones. The nearest holds were called Silver Ghost (presumably from the name of the small river in the valley below), and Qysar’s Hunt, but since I had no time to get into the fine ethnographic details at that moment, I did not press the issue.
After supper Olphara took Mirriam to sleep in her personal quarters. A high honor in the halfling matron’s books, but the one that did not seem to please our little assassin, for she gave me a rather pensive look, even as she was led away by the cheerful hostess. As they passed by, Olphara herself graced me with an ironic stare, the meaning of which I refused to understand. Omwo and I were destined to stay in the dining hall, since it was the only room in the house suitable for my height, and the bard had volunteered to keep me company. Whether it was the weak local beer that was served abundantly at dinner, or I was simply so tired from the long march that my head could not continue processing all the derisive thoughts and observations that clicked in my mind through the entire evening with the annoying repetitiveness of a metronome I do not know, but I fell asleep the moment I closed my tired eyes. But unlike all the other nights that had passed after I had been healed by the water elemental, that time I had a dream.
I dreamed of trees, clear brooks, and small glades hidden deep within the vastness of an enormously old and wild forest. It was so frighteningly similar to my vision of the world through the senses of the 'Old Man' that I almost whimpered in horror at being drawn back into that boundless, alien mind. I struggled with every fiber of my being, and eventually the pull weakened and relaxed. As I fled the presence of the demi-god, I could feel deep sadness of that separation somewhere at the very edge of my mind that was still trembling at the very possibility of the reunion. I flew over the emerald sea of treetops following the familiar route, then slowly descended down, to the well-recognized shapes of the hidden tree-city, the one that I had seen twice already in these highly disturbing dreams, only to find myself on a narrow catwalk, leading to the glade of trees blazing in the rays of the setting sun like a burning ship amidst the green vastness of oceanic waters.
My feet were driving me forward despite the raising panic in my brain, which had turned into a blob of quivering jelly and was unable to continue issuing meaningful commands to my half-paralyzed limbs. Yet, I continued walking, even as every cell in my body was screaming of certain death. I vaguely recognized the fantastic structure on top of the round platform mounted on the stately ash-grey trunks of the royal copper beeches: the giant trees whose foliage was sparkling with every elusive shade of red and gold between liquid bronze and fresh blood. The Suldanesselar Royal Palace was built of crystal, gilded metalwork, and live wood. All these mundane materials were molded together into a bright, multi-towered entity that was more of a sunset dream of its architect - at the time of his last creation a homeless refugee from Myth Drannor - than a solid building. Yet, the Palace looked a little strange to my eyes. The lattice of the ornamental gate was damaged, and missed elements of the pattern. Half of the statuary at the front was reduced to lumps of stone, and the trees themselves bore deep, ugly scorch marks, although the burns looked old, and were already beginning to heal. As I approached the building, I could finally see a lonely figure of a woman, dressed in green and gold, walking towards me from the other side of the bridge.
My heart gave a single lurch, wedging itself up in my throat, even as a cold, painful emptiness began to spread in my chest on its rightful place. I knew I was going to die by her hand, yet the thought of death was not unpleasant in itself - rather satisfying. But a sense of panic, deeper and stronger than any fear of death, was rising to the surface of my being, like some ugly betentacled deep-water monster, or a giant pale shark that is drawn from the darkest abyss of the Trackless Sea by the light of the full moon, and its hunger for living flesh. I was trembling from head to toe now, clutching at the wobbly rope railings of the narrow suspension bridge, and letting my head drop to my chest in futile hope that she would pass by me without recognition. My hair fell over my eyes, covering my face with a thin veil of fine silver threads, and effectively blocking my eyesight. She was so close now - I could hear the rhythm of her footsteps, even discern the sounds of her deep, steady breathing. Her clothes brushed at my flank, and for a moment, I was enveloped in a cloud of her scent: the ever-familiar mix of rose petals, sweet cedar, and pine resin. Then she passed me without stopping, and I could almost try and draw air back into my hurting lungs.
"Joneleth?" She turned abruptly, grabbing a handful of my hair into a slim fist, and at the same time yanking my head up with a force astonishing in a woman.
Her eyes were two green fires, burning deep inside the perfect bronze mask of her face. High cheekbones sharpened by grief to the cutting edge of a sword, vermillion elven bow of a mouth tightened into a thin line by the sudden outburst of anger. I took a long shattering breath, trembling under the forceful pull of her fingers. The heartache had almost erotic edge to it now - so exquisitely unbearable in every little detail, it gave me shivers.
"You are dead," she hissed with the vicious ferocity of a wild cat, "and you shall stay dead as long as I am still the Queen of this ill-fated city that you have twice reduced to smoking ruins. Did you come here to look at your handiwork yet again? Or to torment me with what once was, but never will be again? Well, have a good look at what you did to all of us, and to me on your last visit! Let me show you something," she shook back the hood of her green velvet cloak, so that the wave of russet strands fell forward enveloping her shoulders in a living curtain of light.
I gasped at the wide silver lock that ran from the left temple through entire length of her hair.
"Do you want to see more?" she shook in a spasm of hysterical laughter. "Why I am asking this of a mute ghost, who is nothing but a play of my imagination? He would not care, and I am sick and tired of the mindless clones that my mind keeps conjuring almost every night, even though it had been a year since I've buried the wretched shell that was once him with these very hands! Be gone creature, and never come back!"
"It is only a dream," I tried to tell her, but my tongue refused to move inside my parched mouth.
She pushed me over the railing with both hands, and I let go, allowing her to tumble my listless body over the rope, into the green and bronze sea of tree leaves below. The air solidified around me, taking me in with gentle care of lover's embrace. My body acquired weightless quality of a feather, and instead of plunging down through the fragile lattice of leaves and branches, I began a slow steady descent steered sidewise by a flow of mild breeze.
"The mythal," she gasped suddenly, "it is working again! Why? What have you done, Joneleth? What have you done to the Tree and to the mythal? Why is it working here in this wretched dream? Its power has been lost for Suldanesselar for almost a year... ever since you had cloaked the city into that dreadful illusion, and rigged the Tree with parasites! And nobody can fix it now - they are all dead, same as you are..."
"It is only a bad dream my queen," I repeated stupidly staring up into her limpid green eyes that were now wide with shock of her discovery. "And I cannot remember what I did to mythal, same as I cannot remember your name. Who are you, and why is it so important? And what did you do to me that was so dreadful that I cannot look upon your face without fear and anger twisting everything inside me into tight knots?"
Her amber skin turned sickly pale, as she tried desperately to grab for me, even as I descended deeper and deeper into the rustling abyss of tree leaves, at the same time slowly drifting away from the bridge, on which she was standing alone.
"Why are you crying?" she whispered in awe. "You should not be able to - you don't have the spirit ... Joneleth ... Jon? It is truly you this time, is it not? Should I even ask how did you manage to escape from the Abyss? You shall answer me, stubborn boy! You had sworn an oath, and I am still you Queen even after you betrayed me, and your elven heritage not once but twice! It is not over until I denounce it. Come back here I command you!"
"I cannot even if I wanted to," I cried up there, into the dim spot of golden light that was her face. She was fading quickly, even as I slipped deeper and deeper into the reddish glow of the chasm below.
There were eyes down there too, menacing, gleaming eyes of creatures that existed only to rip and maim, tear and slash. The leaves were not there any more; only ash and embers, and the red light drowning everything around me in waves of fresh blood. Another woman’s face floated towards me from the hellish depth below - pale and exquisite, with skin white and smooth as the rarest porcelain, and gleaming sapphires of eyes sparkling with mad laughter. The apparition had a mane of hair the color of raven’s wing streaked with blue highlights, and plump sensual lips of that deep tone that looks almost black at the bottom of a wineglass.
“Do you still like my looks?” she murmured almost gently, “I knew you always loved me best, if only because I reminded you so much of yourself, the way you have been before. Look at me, Joneleth. Look closely. I am what you should have become if not for your trice-cursed arrogance. Why was it always so important to you to clutch to your transience, when undeath was within your grasp? Did not you hate mortality with all your heart? And yet you rejected the greatest gift offered to you – that of the cold perfection of undying flesh, power, and near endless life.
“Of un-life,” I corrected her with a pedantic streak that surprised even me. “And who are you? Why did you say your face reminded me of myself? I look nothing like you.”
She laughed long and hard, shaking her index finger in the air before me. “When you wake up - look in the mirror, amada. Did not you yourself say once that if you used black hair-dye and rouge you could pass for me even at daytime? Of course, then you would also have to shrink a few feet, but I would not have minded looking a little taller. ‘Perfection should have no limitations’, that was one of your favorite sayings, was it not? I hope you are enjoying yourself, wherever you are now, brother dear, because take it from me - it is not going to last. I am coming for you.”
I woke up in cold sweat - an expression only too often used to describe that particularly drained and clammy state of body and mind that often accompanies a nightmare. Alas, it was only too familiar to me after months of vicious phantasmagorias that I had had to endure while being a virtual invalid in Chyil’s care. I sat upright, fighting panic and the wave after wave of nausea that came in the wake of my vividly horrid dream, and looked at the single round window up by the ceiling with eyes wide open from shock. The night was dark and quiet behind the thick, wavy glass. At least my elven night vision allowed me see every little detail in the dimmest corners of the room, and thus kept the obscure horrors often bred by inflamed imagination at bay. My hands were shaky and damp, and I hated the sense of utter humiliation that came over me after each one of these dreams. It made me feel weak and unclean. My only prayer was that Omwo would not wake up and see me in this condition. Yet, I did not weep or plead for mercy this time – a little to be proud of, but a progress nonetheless.
I realized with certainty that my memories began to stir, but I was not sure I was ready to accept the weight of that burden just yet. There was no point in trying to delude myself denying the obvious – I was no longer a nameless stranger, free of earthly bonds and limitations. For once, I had a name that belonged to the bearer of the face I wore. Joneleth Ithilnien – I tasted it in my mouth, and shuddered at the sound of it. Whatever he did in his past (and I could not bring myself to say the words I did), it was going to haunt me in this strange new life that was forced upon me like a new role on a substitute actor that was called on stage at the finale of the play to take over the role of a colleague, who had had a heart attack after the third act. The most amusing part of it was the fact that he had never seen the text of his role, and the prompter was taking a break. It was so droll, it almost made me cry. For the first time since the day of my awakening in Amkethran, I asked myself if I really wanted to know who and what I was. Slowly, carefully, I repeated the breathing exercise that Chyil thought me for such occasions. The panic subsided, and my heartbeat returned to normal. After awhile, I was able to lie down, and go back to sleep.
The second time around, I was awakened by an infuriatingly cheerful melody. Someone coughed vociferously behind my back. I raised my leaden-heavy head with a groan. It was a bright and sunny morning. The fire was already lit in the big fireplace and the room smelled with dry mint and lavender boughs, freshly brought in and sprinkled around the chamber. I had obviously slept through the entire morning. Omwo sat fully clothed on his bedroll, spread on the floor in the opposite corner of the room, whistling a merry tune, and wigging the thumbs on both hands and feet in rhythm. The very sight of his act made me queasy, but the halfling ignored my morbid look callously.
“If I knew you were going to grind your teeth and mutter elven gibberish all night, and then sleep till eleventh hour, I would have picked a different roommate,” he complained loudly. “Aren’t you pointy-ears supposed to stay awake at night? I always thought you only faked sleeping, my boy. Tonight however, not only you have ruined my perfect snooze, you have presented me with another mystery.”
I did not deign to answer that but scrambled out of my sweaty roll of blankets and coverlets, provided by Sixthtoe’s hospitality, and began collecting my clothes and gear. Omwo looked at my face and turned serious.
“Alright, the outhouse is on the backyard, and you can ask Allice, the kitchen maid, for some warm water from the big caldron and your breakfast. Everybody has been up and running since dawn, but because we are honored guests, they let us sleep through the morning hours. You girlfriend had checked on you twice already.”
“What did you just say?” I jerked, missing a buttonhole on the collar of my tunic, and tore off a button. The small bone disk ricocheted from the floor and jumped across the room, ending in a crack between two floorboards. I looked after it disgustedly, trying to figure out if there was any way to retrieve it without loosing even more dignity.
“Mirriam was here twice in the last hour or so,” the culprit repeated innocently. “She seemed to be anxious to make a trip down the wall to see if that disreputable twin of hers is doing fine, but did not want to go without letting you know.”
“Is there anything else you wanted to tell me?” I raised an eyebrow, trying to make sure that he understood I wanted to be left alone.
“Oh yeah, after you finish grooming yourself, and stuffing your face with porridge - there is nothing else by the way, so you better like it - you will need to go and see Derk.”
“Who is that?”
“Don’t you remember a thing from yesterday’s talk? I thought you only lost your long-term memory, not your wits! He is Olphara’s old man, and the local hedge wizard, healer, and priest of the Wary Sword. The chapel is right across the street, and that is where he keeps his apothecary, and his magic workshop.”
“I should have figured that out,” I inclined my head in a jest of polite sarcasm. “Dame Sixthtoe has a monopoly on everything in this village; she could not have possibly missed this one!”
“I don’t like your attitude,” Omwo shook his head with an expression of mild annoyance. “Please remember one thing – this place is her home, and we are but humble visitors, relying on her good will and hospitality. You better keep your mouth shut, sonny, and don’t ruin our case before I even pleaded it.”
“Now, why should I care to appease a rustic halfling matron, who is so full of grandeur, she is almost bursting with it?” I asked ironically.
“That is what I call the case of a pot calling a kettle black, Jonny,” Omwo wagged a short, sausage-like finger at me. “I’ve met an elf or two in my life, so I know most of your precious people are snotty, pointy-eared, xenophobic bastards. But you my boy are worse than many, because not only you might look at someone like he is a dirty stain on your sandal, you would actually mean it.”
“I don’t give a worn half copper-penny for your opinion about my character, halfling!”
“And I don’t give a hole in my old dirty sock for yours, elf! But if you anger dame Sixthtoe or her husband, we will have a chance of an icicle in the Nine Hells to get out of these Mountains alive, and with all the treasure still in our possession!” He suddenly clumped his moth shut with one hand and hissed at me angrily. “Now, see what you have done? I bet my future house in the richest quarter of Waterdeep, over that old felt hat of yours, that at least three pairs of small round ears have heard every word that we exchanged here.”
“But you don’t have a house in Waterdeep, or anywhere else for that matter,” I said reasonably.
My anger had dissolved as quickly as it rose. I was simply too distraught after my dream, to get properly upset over his demented comments. Besides, I could not but smile at the expression of deep chagrin that was painted on his round, hairless face. Omwo was a natural comic, I realized belatedly, if only because he never tried to be funny – he just was. I wondered if he knew it, and used it to his advantage.
“And you won’t have a half-copper penny in the pockets of your moth-ridden robe, mageling, if you won’t stop arguing and attend to business.” Omwo continued. “It is bad enough Kessen made all that fuss about the horse. I had it all squared away with Gonk: we perform, get Olphara’s permission, and he will take us all the way to Agis river, and the ford near Fort Qian by the goat trails that only he alone knows how to find. Old geezer had agreed to watch over our saddlebags for a reasonable price, and I impressed him enough to actually make him believe that the stuff in there was trapped. Plus, I almost coaxed him to sell me a few of his best goats as pack animals for our provisions. And then the boy had to jump in and almost ruin all my plans!”
The little actor sighed with such a comical exaggeration, that I could not stop my lips from curling up. Omwo definitely was a good distraction that could dispel even my almost permanent spleen, or at least turn it into a mild aggravation.
“I have already talked with Sixthtoes;” the halfling continued sulkily, “Derk will supply you with all you want for tonight’s performance – just don’t be greedy, and take only what you absolutely need.”
He threw me a small purse that contained a few small silver coins. I wondered how he came up by it - probably rummaged through the entire chest of gold just to get these few out. A remarkable foresight for someone as hare-brained as him.
“Why are you looking at me like I am new interesting specie of a horned toad?” he asked cautiously, noticing my curious look. “I don’t like it when you are quiet, Jonny, so don’t get any funny ideas about ‘remembering’ a spell or two. I may be not as skilled in the Art of the arcane as you are, but I am sure not without my own resources. The bardic magic works differently from your wizardly stuff, but works it does!”
“Stop babbling, you twanging buffoon,” I snapped back at him, “I have no desire to cause you any harm at the moment, although you are tempting me with every syllable that you spit out of this insufferable mouth of yours. Surely, someone must have told you before that your tongue is your worst enemy? Now, about this absurd scheme of yours - I have a few ideas of my own, and it will all depend on our timing, and the spell components that this Derk character will be able to provide.