CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
12-13 of Marpenoth 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
“You must be completely nuts, Jonny, if you want stay here till the end, but I always suspected you were a few raisins short of a fruitcake!”
Omwo’s remark was loud enough to distract me from my visions. The halfling had followed me to the very edge of the plateau. I looked at him sidewise. There was a quiet fire of madness in his eyes, not unlike the spark that I had spotted there when he was still under abbot Addazahr’s domination.
“Yet, funny enough, I can understand why you are doing this, my boy. I think I will stay here with you, if you don’t mind,” he grinned toad-like. “I doubt I will have another shot at a show like this in my lifetime.”
I nodded, making a silent gesture indicating my agreement. He continued to prattle for some time, simmering from nervous excitement and curiosity, but since I ignored him completely he went quiet after a while. The two dragons continued to circle each other up in the dark sky, their hides sparkling with metallic luster under the pale rays of the moon. Their immense, bat-like wings floated across the outline of the silver disk like the sails of great aerial ships. It was the most ominous, yet spectacular view I had ever seen, and I was not about to let Omwo spoil it with his inane chattering. A strange mood came over me. The fit of paranoid anxiety that had gripped me by the throat after I recognized Adalon’s name was replaced by almost unnatural calmness.
I was humiliated and frightened to the core by my complete helplessness before the overwhelming might of the blue wyrm. That was the reason behind my senseless bickering with Omwo, and the inane jesting in the face of sure death. Afterwards, my alter ego’s reaction to the silver dragon’s name left me empty of any emotions. I was sure “Joneleth” had met her before, and wondered whether his persona was going to surface again and trigger more of my old memories. It should have made me at least nervous, but either I wasted all my fear during the course of the fight or I was simply too tired of all this excitement, but I felt nothing except a mild curiosity. After all, I went through hours of intense arcane concentration and casting just before the first dragon attack. Nonetheless, by the time I told Omwo that I would stay and watch the battle, I was cold and quiet as the snow-covered peak of Abbalayat – the tallest and most enigmatic mountain this side of the ridge.
In the mean time, the battle in the skies went on, with both opponents trying to exploit the other side’s weaknesses, while at the same time carefully covering their own. Adalon climbed higher and higher – obviously testing the limits of the elderly wyrm’s tolerance to cold and high altitude. Unfortunately her injury prevented her from taking a full advantage of this tactic. She simply could not sustain that speed and elevation, as her wound weakened her considerably.
“Why aren’t they using magic?” Omwo asked suddenly, as another distant streak of blue and white light flashed across the night sky. “I mean ... true magic, not just their breath,” he added hastily seeing my quizzically raised eyebrow. “Like what the old geezer did to hide the village, you know...”
“Ah, a good question, my curious fellow, a good question indeed. And the one to which I have no answer. Unless, of course they are following some sort of a battle codex, or a tradition unknown to me. I don’t believe they can cast any spells when flying. As to why did not she use it before ... It would be natural for the younger dragoness to avoid an open magical duel – she will be too badly outmatched. The wyrm as old as our ‘friend’ Sharpfangs... well, she cannot even dream of hurting him with her spells. As you probably know, the dragons grow more magic resistant with every decade of their lives.”
“Look - she is leading him away from here! Do you think she will be able to lose him and escape after all? Or is this is going to be a battle to the death?”
“I think the old buzzard understands his options all too well... She is the faster of the two, and I doubt he is going to be fooled by her for long. See, as I told you. He is turning back!”
“We must tell everybody that he is coming back to finish the village! We must hurry – the dragon will be back any moment now!”
“Then why don’t you run along and do this?” I asked rather mildly. “I told you I must see the end of it, and I am not going anywhere.”
“You are mad, Jonny,” Oddly enough, Omwo’s stare was a mix of irritation and genuine concern. “Or you are suicidal. Listen, you are still very young, and whatever it is that is eating at your liver – it cannot be that bad. At least it cannot be worth dying by means of being stomped over or electro-shocked by an ugly old wyrm, who does not even have any teeth. Think of the possibilities,” he continued pleadingly. “You did not even shag her yet – and she is such a fine, sweet thing with body that looks like it is made of molten caramel. I cannot see how you can...”
“If you know what is good for you, fool, you will shut your big mouth now, before I make you very, very sorry!” I hissed into his round reddened face. “And if you ever try to meddle in my affairs again, I might yet remember that disintegration spell.”
“No offence meant, chief,” Omwo suddenly looked even smaller than his usual round self, and I wondered briefly if the new title he gave me was just a slip of a tongue or something more. “I only wanted to point out to you that the girl...”
“I am silent already, but you cannot be serious about this dying thing. Look! He is coming! He is almost upon us! We must run and warn the village!”
“There is no sense running away now,” I pointed tiredly. “The dragon will be here before we can make it to the first house.”
Indeed, I was right. Sharpfangs had turned around and was flying back to Perch at full speed. His huge blue bulk was growing bigger with every flap of his humongous wings. Already, I could see the shape of his sagging belly, and wonder if indeed that was where my body would find its final rest. Death from the dragon was a somewhat better option than by serving Zaureen’s wicked pleasures, or from Farheed’s jambaya ... Still, I was not ready to die at all. I knew I wanted to see the end of it, and there was no question in my mind about my place in the affair – it was right here, at the very edge of the cliff. The halfling squeaked like a mouse, and threw himself to the ground, covering his face with both hands. To give him his due, he did not try to run away, although it would not have done him any good.
A moment later Iryklagathra loomed over us like a thunderstorm, full of crackling discharge. A thick bolt of lightning sizzled in the air, striking the stone between us, throwing me flat to the ground. For a short time my body was enveloped in bright, fiery mesh of pain, my hair crackled, my clothes began to smoke. When I was able to see again the dragon was gone. I jumped to my feet, rushing to my viewing position, and was there just in time to catch the last glimpse of Iryklagathra’s blue bulk disappearing inside the silver dragon’s lair. In a flash of a second the silver dart of Adalon’s streamlined body rushed above our heads. She screamed terribly, and followed the blue dragon inside the dark mouth of her cave. Then everything went quiet again.
“Now, can someone please tell me what all of this was about?” Omwo inquired weakly rising to his knees.
I was going to answer him, but at that moment something hit me from behind, driving the breath out of my lungs, and knocking me back to the stones. Before I could react to this unexpected assault, the girl rolled me over and pushed me down, ingenuously positioning herself on my chest, so that her legs pinned my arms to the ground, and her fingers were entwined in my hair.
“This is for being an insensitive moron and almost killing yourself!” My head was slammed on the rock, with such a force that the bright red and purple stars floated in front of my eyes. “And this is for not talking to me for a week, and pretending that nothing ever happened!” Another slam left me almost unconscious, and totally at her mercy.
“Wait, wait! Mir, what are you doing now? Are you going to finish the job yourself? We may still need him alive!” I heard Kessen’s mocking voice through the haze of pain that filled my aching skull.
“I don’t care what you think! And I don’t care if you tell the whole world! Now, have your eyeful if you dare!”
After that last heated statement her lips were pressed firmly against mine, and the universe began to shift sidewise as I felt the hot flow of her breath fill my mouth with her sweet and spicy fragrance. I have no idea how long had it lasted ... but certainly long enough for me to recover my wits, and think about the consequences. Mirriam had probably sensed my body stiffen awkwardly under hers, because she gasped and suddenly pulled away, letting go of my hair.
“Jon-Jon, I am sorry. It is just ... I was sure you were going to die this time around.”
“We need to talk,” I offered shakily, picking my disheveled self from the ground yet again, and dusting off my clothes. “Most certainly so, but this is not the time nor the place for it.”
“As you say,” All of a sudden she was meek and blushing like red flowers on the halfling matron’s shawl.
“What are you two looking at?” I snapped at the two idiots, who were grinning at us like satiated cats. At least Mirri’s brother had the decency to blink and lower his eyes. Omwo continued to stare giggling like an imbecile.
“If you did not notice it yourself, we are not exactly in a position to relax,” I pointed venomously. “The dragons can be back any moment now.”
But they were not. We spent the whole of the next day and the following night in the caves below, with Olphara’s scouts periodically bringing reports of the developments above the ground. The Gaping Cave remained mute and lifeless as a grave.
* * * * *
On the second day of our self-imposed exile into the cold and drafty tunnels of the halflings’ underground refuge, things had settled into a chaotic semblance of a routine, and I was able to walk away from the mess and contemplate my options. Our position with the Perch citizens was as precarious as it was uncertain. Technically speaking, it was our arrival and the reckless use of magic that had triggered the dragon attack, and although nobody blamed us openly there were many dark glances and distressed whispers. That our small company was not openly accused of being in league with the dragon should be credited entirely to Olphara’s influence and sensibility. Oddly enough, the venerable Dame Sixthtoe used all her considerable authority to support our case, and it was due to her quiet but persistent diplomacy that we were cleared of any suspicion, and allowed to roam free through the caverns. (I suppose the halfling matron felt that she should share part of the blame; because the magic show was her pet idea.)
Since the entrance to the hidden sanctuary was located at the bottom of the cliff next to the goat corral and the goatherd’s sheds, Kessen was even able to get to our pony and, most importantly, to her saddlebags, which to his utter astonishment turned out to be undisturbed. I have to admit - it was a great relief, although it still did not solve our problem of getting out of the Marching Mountains alive, and with our treasure intact. And it sounded like it had become an even trickier task than it was before.
After a day and a night of chaos and desperation, the halflings finished counting their losses. They were luckier than I estimated at first, since Adalon’s timely intervention had limited the number of the actual casualties to a half a dozen or so, but there were wounded, and many of the injured had suffered from electrical burns that were not easy to treat under any normal circumstances, and that without proper medications were threatening to become inflamed in the damp and stifling air of the underground caverns.
Master Derk looked like he had aged a decade over that short period of time. The wise man had used all of his divine prayers on the most grievously hurt, and the small supply of medicines that he had taken down with him during the hasty flight from Perch was running short. Now he haunted the dusty caves like a small gray specter of his former self, listening to the cries of burned children, and looking frailer and more desperate with every passing hour. It was rather melodramatic, I thought with irritation. What he really ought to do instead of this senseless wandering was to go to his bedroll and sleep, praying that Arvoreen would grant him more favors tomorrow.
For that matter, Omwo’s behavior was equally ridiculous, if not more so. It turned out that he had studied the rare and dangerous art of mind-affecting chants and harmonies. (A peculiar skill for an actor, but useful in a traveling companion.) I already knew he was accomplished in its harmful application – the very memory of the ghastly tune that he had played in the Naga’s cavern still made me shiver. It had never occurred to me though that he was also talented in the reverse process of soothing the spirit. After we had arrived in the caves, he spent hours playing and chanting the rhythmic healing and comforting mantras in the huge cavern that was selected for the children’s infirmary, employing a small wooden flute and occasionally adding a small drum to accentuate the reverberating, dreamy melody. Eventually, he had collapsed from the sheer exhaustion and stress, and had to be carried away to his bedroll. I only shrugged at this overzealous display of his therapeutic talents, since now his own condition was so bad that it was impossible for us to leave unobtrusively, even if the opportunity presented itself.
The twins were equally busy, helping clear the mess and moving the wounded and the supplies, although I noticed that Kessen did not show much enthusiasm in proffering his help, and reasonably occupied himself with care for our own equipment and the mount. But Mirriam only checked on her precious pony once, and after that effectively attached herself to the halfling matron. She was scuttling to and fro on Olphara’s errands helping to organize things, and distribute the provisions, and generally ignoring my existence. I was not particularly unhappy with this arrangement – it kept her off my back, at least for now. There was not a single chance that she might eventually forget about my promise to talk the things over between the two of us, and the very thought of having this conversation made me feel itchy and upset. The last thing I wanted was another public display of devotion or of vengeful spite. On the other hand, losing the girl’s affection was not part of my plan, at least not until we reached Darromar. So, I took to meandering around the caves, doing a little exploration on my own, and generally trying to keep out of everybody’s way.
The cavern system in question looked nothing like the stone-paved corridors under Zaureen’s temple, or the smoothly polished tunnels further down, created by a joint effort of the earthquakes and the seasonal floods. The hills in the great desert were part of the Marching Mountains ridge, but the structure and the geological origin of this network of caves was different. Our current habitat was a result of long, tedious work done by running water dribbling through the weaker layers of calcite and clay, which permeated the harder stratum of red granite, rather like filling in a cake.
The result was a rather elaborate and often impassable labyrinth of cavities connected by narrow passages that spread in three dimensions inside the mountains, and had no beginning and no end, at least as far as I could see. There were halls where the walls were seeping water, that ran in slow rivulets, forming fringes of elaborate, fragile-looking stalactites, and rooms filled to the brink with stone fragments, narrow crevices full of oozing mud and bat guano, and others dry enough to offer some habitable space. It was very probable that some of these caves were connected with the dragon’s lair above at some point, but most likely the path was too narrow to allow direct communication between the two systems. At least the halflings showed no fear of the possible invasion from that direction, and I assumed we were safe on that account.
And that was the main topic that occupied my mind during my visibly futile wondering in the stone labyrinth – the dragon dilemma. As I passed from crevice to crevice, moving the faintly glowing sphere of magic light upwards to illuminate another mineralogical curiosity or a bat-infested shelf (the latter would cause a wave of panic among the senseless critters, sending them in all directions and filling the shadows with the rustle and flutter of parchment wings), my mind kept ticking, inventing new reasons not to go and rejecting them as fast as it could generate the counterarguments to my own devices. I knew I had to get inside the dragon’s lair, and find out what happened to Adalon since I would never be able to forgive myself if I let the issue drop, and yet I could not muster the courage needed for the deed.
The silver dragon was a link to my past. The first one that I had discovered in the few weeks since my second awakening at the elemental pool, and the only one that was not offered to me by a meddling hand of some unknown ‘benevolent’ power. I was positive that Adalon’s appearance was not pre-arranged, since nobody could have anticipated that my travels would bring me to Perch, and that they would result in the stirring up of its ancient terror. It was a random chance thrown onto my path by the play of fate, and I would be a fool to miss the opportunity to learn more about my past before starting on a long and dangerous quest to the other side of the world, to save the city for which I did not care, and that for all I knew did not even exist. The question was – would I survive the trial?
“She would surely die,” the voice in my head had claimed. And for all I knew, ‘Joneleth’ would have preferred it this way. Adalon knew him, or at least she knew of him. Would she recognize me as him – I wondered. Would I live through the encounter if she did? There were no clear answers to these questions, and the best course of action would have been to ignore the silver dragon’s existence, and to get away from that place as soon as possible. Yet, I hesitated. The temptation was too great. What if she knew some vital facts about me that the water elemental either refused to relay, or simply could not see? And what if Aluril had lied to me from the start, and I was not responsible for the crimes supposedly committed by my former self? Now that was an option I could not dismiss easily. What if someone was deliberately setting me on the wrong course?
Adalon was a test; a whetstone to sharpen my resolve and set aside the last grain of doubt that was still lingering in my heart. At worst, she was dead already, and could not answer my questions; at best she was injured and weakened by her enemy. I dismissed the idea that Iryklagathra might be alive and in good health. If he was, he would have emerged to finish the village already. Most likely one or both of the dragons were dead, and the winner was in no state to present a serious threat. That last argument was a shaky one; if the surviving reptile was still able to breathe, he (or she) was still deadly to a 'soft-skinned worm on two legs' . I remembered the dragon’s boasting and cringed.
“No one humiliates me and gets away with it!”
That statement caught me like a blow in the solar plexus. My head began to spin, and I had to lean against the nearest cold and slimy wall to catch my breath, and quiet the sudden tremor in my hands. It could not have possibly been my own thought. Almost anybody could make a tap dance on my ribs and get away with it, without expecting retribution. That other personality must be closer to the surface than I thought he was.
“Let’s get one thing clear,” I thought passionately. “You are not taking me over. Not just yet. Damn you for an arrogant fool! I have no reason to trust that you are real. Either speak out or get away from me!”
“Will you ever be ready to listen?” His voice rang with cold, mocking disdain. “Or are you going to spend the rest of your pitiful life crawling through the shattered remains of your vanquished pride like a maggot through the pile of refuse? ‘She’ would be delighted to see you diminished to this. That is how ‘she’ always wanted it, don’t you think? Do as you please - I will leave you to your miserable contemplations, worm.”
“Wait, wait! Don’t go yet. Who is ‘she’ - Adalon? It must be her,” I cried out in near frenzy of my fervor. “It cannot be anybody else but her!”
And he fled, evading my desperate clawing at his ephemeral substance, and leaving me torn and shaken at the heart. My head hurt. “Why does it always come to this?” was my last coherent thought, as I crouched on the floor, hugging my knees, and burying my face in the rough, itchy wool of my robe.
“Jon-Jon, are you alright?” Mirri’s voice was frail and distant, like the chime of a china cup hitting the stone pavement.
“How long have you been here?” I jumped to my feet, turning to face her, even as I spoke. My hands grabbed her wrists, squeezing them harshly, stopping her futile attempts to free herself before I could even think of what I was doing.
“No more than a minute or so.” She looked pale and terrified. “Please let me go. You are hurting me.”
I glanced at my hands that were gripping her with a force more suitable for restraining a wild horse, and cursed, letting her go.
“Apologies. I hope you won’t have any bruises this time. You should never sneak on me like this - it might be dangerous.”
“I…I did not sneak. I called you several times but you did not answer. You were sitting on the floor talking to yourself, in elven… I think. And then you moaned and… I am sorry. I did not mean to intrude. But I thought you might be hurt or unconscious, like that time after Omwo attacked you with the poisoned dagger…”
“It was not poisoned,” I answered automatically. “In any case – it does not matter!” I corrected myself hurriedly, noticing the look on her face. Damn it – she was standing too close for my comfort. I could almost feel her breath on my cheek. I took a step back. “I am perfectly fine, and you should not be wandering around this place alone – it maybe more dangerous than you think.”
“But you are here,” she pointed out reasonably. “Therefore I am not alone. And in any case, whom do you take me for – a little girl? I am eighteen, and an assassin in training.” Mirri shrugged in annoyance. Her hands played with the end of her braid again, as they always did when she was nervous. “I can kill a grownup man with nothing but my bare hands and a piece of rope. Well, at least I know how to,” she admitted noticing my skeptical gaze and tugged at her hair.
I raised my hand and gently pried the tormented plait away from her fingers. She looked at me with an expression of a puppy deprived of its favorite rag doll, but let go. It felt heavy and slightly warm in my palm, and I dropped it as fast as if it was a poisonous snake. The conversation was turning slightly insane, I noted with resignation. But at least it bought me some time to recover my wits. And I was not about to tell her that the greatest danger that she faced in these caves was not from a stray kobold or a gibbering.
“How did you find me in the first place?” I asked with a sigh. “It was not like I left a path of bread crumbs. I thought you were busy with your... charity case.”
“Everything is pretty much done,” Mirri said without much enthusiasm. “It was not like they could not manage on their own... But I needed time to think the things over. You don’t have to explain everything to me if you don’t want to!” she blurted out suddenly and blushed. “If you think it was a mistake – just say so. I will not bother you anymore.”
“You mean knocking me down and almost killing me in front of the entire village?” I asked levelly. “I daresay it was a reckless thing to do but...”
“You bloody well understand what I am talking about!” She snapped viciously. “Stop playing me for a half-wit that cannot comprehend your refined elven ways. You have kissed me on the mouth, and you have held me in your hands like it mattered to you. And then you pretended that it never happened. Now either tell me you that you did not like it at all, or stop behaving like you owe me a thousand golden suns and I am about to send you a collector’s note!”
“You have such an eloquent way with words,” I muttered.
Yet, I could not help myself - she was so charming in her exasperation that it made me smile instead of provoking my anger. Overall the situation was rather amusing, and it was a good diversion from my other dilemma. Being chased by a young, pretty woman was a much more pleasing occupation than the game that I was currently playing on the other chessboard. “Why would you need to talk about it?” I asked mildly. “It was a pleasant experience for both of us, and I have to admit – I don’t feel sorry in the least. But I am not ready to take it any further, if that is what you are asking. There are certain risks involved for the both sides, and I am not sure that you understand the implications that well.”
If Mirri could turn any darker a shade of red, I had yet to see that happen. Luckily for her, her natural coloration mostly concealed her embarrassment.
“D...do you think I am being too hasty? I mean... I let the boys kiss me before, but I did not have any serious relationship with anybody... so, you should tell me if I was lewd.”
“No, no. It was not that.”
I had to bite my lips to stifle a chuckle. It would have been most inappropriate at the circumstances. So, I was right – she was a maiden. I was walking a dangerous edge by playing with her feelings, but strangely enough, it made the excitement all the greater. A bittersweet prize – the soul and body yet unskilled at the eternal game of momentary pursuit and graceful surrender. Was the fleeting pleasure of teaching her the game worth the inevitable ache of the severance? Perhaps. But it was really beyond the point. I was not much interested in her alluring although slightly immature curves, nor in her adolescent psyche. But her loyalty was an undeniable asset, and her devotion to me was my only assurance of her brother’s fidelity. The exact words of the water weird’s prophesy flashed briefly in my mind – “without them you would surely die.”
“You should understand my situation better than anybody else,” I said taking her hand in mine and carefully picking the words. Now, if I could remember anything at all about women, this should entice her better than any vows of undying love. “You have spoken with Chyil, did you not? I recall almost nothing of my past. And for all we know I may be a dangerous criminal, or a haunted refugee. Don’t you see how risky it might be to link yourself with me?”
“But, Jon-Jon, I ...”
“No,” I shook my head, sighing disconsolately, “You are too young to be bound to someone like that. And I am too proud to accept such a sacrifice.”
To be honest, all through that little speech I half expected her sense of humor to rebel against the cheap melodrama of that last sentence. But I should not have worried – the desire for a romance would always prevail over common sense in the most devious female mind.
“So you are saying...”
“Only that we should wait. Perhaps I am overstating the danger, or perhaps I am not. Time will tell. But I cannot let you throw yourself into a risky affair with a virtual stranger, however enticing it may look to me.”
I stared at her with as much conviction as I could master, wondering if the last statement was an overkill. To Mirri’s credit, she had a slightly perplexed look of a person presented with a curious piece of a jigsaw puzzle that did not quite fit with the rest of her pattern. Now I fully expected her to laugh into my face and tell me it was a pathetic excuse. I forgot about the highly intimidating effect of a melancholic smile on the smooth, unscarred face. Her hand trembled slightly in my own, her lips quivered. In a moment or so two shiny, salty rivulets would run down these perfectly shaped cheekbones, leaving traces of moisture on their wake. I bent over and planted a light, brotherly kiss on her tanned brow. She always smelled of sweet myrtle and desert sand, and her breath was hot and shaky as she sobbed quietly into my collarbone.
“Let’s go back to the camp now, shall we?” I offered lightly. “And I promise, never again will I do anything that might hurt you, if I can help it.” The ironic part was – this time I actually meant it.