Baldur's Gate II -
Welcome to my online fiction site! On this site you can read my online novel inspired by the game "Baldur's Gate II - The Shadows of Amn". This is unofficial site and it is not associated by any means with Interplay, Bioware or TSR inc. No material from this site can be reproduced for any commercial use and any noncommercial use must be authorized by me.
THE STORY OF A GIRL WITHOUT A NAME
by Janetta Bogatchenko
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The cold rain kept drumming ceaselessly against the wooden shutters of my room in the Five Flagons inn. It was one of these ‘perfect’ Amnian winter days suited only for staying inside, albeit it started with relatively dry if cloudy morning. I was floating three feet above the floor in a perfect meditation position, trying to wrap a bubble of silence around myself in a vain hope to find refuge from a flood of disturbing images, and unsettling emotions that plagued me for the last three days. A single sphere of arcane light was spinning between the palms of my hands. Normally I would not use these kinds of tricks in my studies. I find them a bit gaudy. But Gorion always insisted that there was no better way to push the boundaries of your ability and stretch your mental capacity than handling a few simple spells at the same time, preferably from the different schools of magic.
Thanks Oghma, I did not have an audience today! Viconia and the men were out for a day of shopping at the Promenade, and Jan went to visit his family. I smiled remembering a sly expression of a fox that was granted a free run of the chicken coop on Viconia’s face being replaced with that of annoyed suspicion, after I told her that she could take both Minsc and Anomen as her escort, and that I am not going with them. I may as well get ready for her inevitable grouchy return. No doubt she will think I divined the upcoming rain, and choose to stay mum about it.
I stayed indoors for the whole day dedicating that time to my magic studies. There was a heap of old and new scrolls on the floor before me. Some of these have been in my possession since Imnesvale. Some were new purchases. One grimy parchment, splattered with blood and gore, I had found on the corpse of the dead necromancer. It looked like a significantly complex spell. So far I was not successful in understanding what it was. Hundreds of tiny sounds kept intruding on my weary mind: rhythmic beat of the raindrops on the windowsill, a heated argument between two guests that was going on in the room next to ours, even persistent buzz of a cricket in some obscure crack in the wall. All these little domestic noises kept me from achieving the proper trance. Faint sounds of music were coming from downstairs – it sounded like the actors of Sigil troupe were having another rehearsal.
“I am too damn tired,” I thought wearily. These last few days, after solving the Skinner’s case, were most taxing. I had been questioned by nearly every copper in Athkatla. On the small boat, stationed at the tannery private dock, they found stacks of body parts and organs, neatly packaged, and preserved with magic, all ready to be shipped to the unknown destination. Spell components - I assumed. But in Rejiek’s personal quarters the magistrates discovered something even weirder - a suit of armor meticulously sewn together from carefully fitted pieces of human skin and flesh. It was too soft to be of any practical use but the work itself was superb, as the seams between the individual pieces were near invisible. Aegis told me in a nervous whisper that he was sure if not for our timely intervention - his skin would have been added to that dreadful article! The dead wizard possessed a casting license on the name of Vellin Dahn that had all the proper seals and signatures. Now the whole Order of the Cowled Wizards was in uproar trying to find out who had issued the necromancer’s permit.
I was having nightmares. Truly told, at first I was almost relieved, for these were the ‘ordinary’ dreams, with undead horrors chasing me down the endless corridors ending in lime pits. But they were becoming annoying. I was not getting enough sleep, and in daytime Anomen’s blue orbs, framed rather girlishly with thick dark lashes, doggedly followed my every move with a mixed expression of mulish stubbornness and growing irritation. Every morning he inquired politely on the status of my investigation. I knew that I only had few days before he would decide to take the matter in his own hands. Despite his recent endeavors the Helmite was a royal pain in the back, as my rabbit reminded me shrewdly. I sighed and closed my eyes, concentrating on my task. That last time I succeeded, and as all the noises faded from my consciousness, I slipped into oblivion of a proper meditation trance.
The warm caress of the afternoon’s sun on my eyelids wakes me from my reverie. I grin with pleasure, and jump to my feet in one fluid motion, dismissing the levitation spell that kept me afloat until now. Next I dissolve the orb of magic light that is still spinning lazily at the tips of my fingers, noting with surprise that over time its color hued to a light green. To my utter astonishment I notice that the only garb I am wearing is loose trousers of gray silk, held in place by a wide sash of the same material. My feet are bare, same as my chest. Somehow it does not bother me at all. As I raise my hand to sweep an annoying strand of long, wavy hair away from my eyes I realize that it is not dark sable but platinum blonde, almost white. My hand is long-fingered, delicately sculptured yet strong. It is a hand of a man of Tel’Quessir blood 76, one who was trained as a scribe rather than a warrior, with distinctive pattern of calluses caused by holding a quill, not a sword.
I look around at familiar insides of my chamber. It is a spacious, almost empty room with walls formed of living, growing wood. The only pieces of furniture are a semi-circular bed, that looks like it is a part of the gently rounded wall, and row after row of bookshelves, lining all possible and impossible surfaces, up to the high, arched ceiling lost in the dim green light streaming from the top. The checkered green and white carpet under my feet is hidden under seemingly disordered pile of books and scrolls, and the graceful archway on the other side of the room leads to another chamber, that is clattered with various magic devices and crate after crate of spell components. I am aware that the only way to access most of my books would be to levitate myself up there, but I also know that this is the way I like it. My queen insisted that I have my own quarters at the Palace but I rarely stay there lately, preferring the familiar disarray of my old study to the lonely magnificence of my royal apartment.
I am slightly tired after my long mental exercise, and the western breeze that flows through the round window of my tree-trunk chamber brings fragrance of the late spring, and sound of distant laughter. I decide to take a walk. My robe, of the same light-gray fabric as my trousers, is sprawled on my bed where I threw it casually before going into meditation. I don it and walk outside.
I find myself on a narrow balcony hanging over a near bottomless abyss of shifting leaves and golden sunlight. I look forward, and my field of view is filled with a sea of waving treetops - dusky purple, bright emerald and deep green; they sway and roll under the gusts of warm wind like waves of the real ocean that lays hundreds of miles to the west. The afternoon sun reflects off the narrow silver band of the River, twisting crazily through the rolling hills of Tethyr’s great forest. At a distance I can hear the noise of the Suldanesse rapids, when the river enters the narrow canyon before jumping off the rocky cliff and falling in a series of foaming falls into a small, clear lake at the bottom of the gorge.
Suldanesselar, the city of my childhood, lies before me in all the glory of late spring, its wide network of rope bridges and filigreed balconies decked with shiny lanterns and magic crystals, stretching between mighty tree trunks like a fine spider web studded with sparkling gems of the morning dew. The multi-tiered stacks of circular platforms are connected with spiraling staircases leading from level to level, and hugging the colossal trunks with deceiving grace of the ornaments, rather than that of the trivial ways of commute.
Among the trees that gave life to the city are a few old oaks towering their prodigious crowns over two hundred feet into the air, and many lush and mighty maple trees only reaching the moderate height of hundred to hundred and fifty feet. But the pride and joy of my city, and the source of its proverbial beauty, glorified in many poems among my people is a glade of copper beeches that is the heart of Suldanesselar and the focal point of its legend. The beeches grow as high as tree hundred feet, soaring over the crowns of their woodland brethren like a family of cheerful, redhead giants over a crowd of smaller folk. Their elephantine trunks, covered with smooth, gray bark that feels almost silky to the touch, stand like a colonnade of a magnificent temple created by Nature itself to venerate the beauty of living things. In the middle of a summer their leaves will acquire a warm copper tone - deep rose with a hint of green at the edges. But now, in the middle of Mirtul they are gloriously red, the color of fresh blood or glowing ember, so incredibly vivid against the lapis lazuli of clear spring sky that it almost hurts your eyes to look.
It never fails to take my breath away, even though two hundred years of waking up to this beauty every morning and watching the leaves shift color ever so subtly with every passing hour should have made me immune to the trees’ magic. I only left my city once, when I stayed in Evereska for twenty years, studying what remains of the Elven High magic within its enchanted walls. I was much younger then, and I could not dream of capturing my queen’s fancy and becoming her official consort one day. Today I don’t think I can stand being away from Suldanesselar and what remains of Ellesime’s cooling affection for even an hour.
I walk past the many small shops, taverns and guild houses, either elegantly built upon the wooden platforms to be a part of the tree, or hollowed with magic inside the living trunks. I myself helped to built some of the newer ones. The People say I have a special touch. I suppose you may say that I can feel the trees through the tips of my fingers. It is almost like they speak to me through my hands, and make me aware of their secret thoughts and hidden fancies. It is a strange gift, especially rare in one of my blood, for I am not one of the Rillifane’s chosen, not the Sy-Tel’Quessir like most of the people of Suldanesselar and its illustrious queen. They call us Teu-Tel’Quessir - the moon folk. My family fares from Myth Drannor. They were the refugees, who fled the fair City of Song after the nycaloth-led Army of Darkness had finally succeeded in breaking its defenses. Thanks to the kindness of the previous ruler of Suldanesselar, and support of the local tribes they settled in Tethyr almost three generations ago, and it became our new home.
I leave the upper levels of the city when I reach the long, graceful arc of the palace bridge that connects the royal residence with the rest of the city. I have no desire to be spotted by any of the queen’s attendants, and suffer their all-knowing, kind sympathy. Our quarrels became the talk of the city. I descend to the ground level, and stroll among the mighty tree trunks and hamlets of the ground-dwelling denizens of Suldanesselar, until I reach the beginning of the queen’s gardens that start at the large clearing surrounding the Palace Grove. The wild plums, cherries, and apple trees that thrive here, under the open sky, cannot grow below the thick canopy of mighty beeches.
There are few serpentine ponds fed by hidden springs, and a slow stream that connects them into a daisy chain trickles leisurely among the flowering shrubs to became a swiftly flowing brook that blends with the Suldanesse river further down the road. I follow the trail that leads under the low branches of gnarled plum trees, among the thick overgrowth of tamarisk and acacia. The carpet of pink and white petals covers the ground under my feet. It is late in the season, and most of the trees already shed their frothy wealth of flowers. Ellesime takes particular pride in planning and shaping the fantastic landscapes around her dwelling. Every now and then one can see a tree bent in a strange arc over the brook, or an ornate stone carving overgrown with vegetation that serves the mysterious purpose of accentuating her artistic idea. The gardens are her legacy, her spellbook, and in a sense her vision of herself. There was time not so long ago, when I thought I could discern the meaning of these hieroglyphs without difficulty.
I walk the grounds, carefully avoiding her favorite places of respite and meditation, and wide trails that lead to popular sites where citizens of fair Suldanesselar like to spend their time playing with their children, having their simple meals, and dancing following the sweet melodies of harps and flutes. The local sprite and fairy population is keen on keeping the grounds clean and well groomed, as per their concord with Suldanesselar royal family. I circle around the Palace Grove – a standalone cluster of ancient trees that supports the majestic structure of the royal Palace. These are my favorite copper beeches - the tallest and the strongest ones among all the trees of Suldanesselar, their leaves the color of polished bronze – same as the unruly tresses of my queen.
I follow the path that wraps around the beech copse, and soon come to a crossroad marked with standing gray stone bathed in torrents of sunlight coming through the intertwined branches of giant beech trees. An outline of a mighty oak, with sun and crescent moon tangled in its crown is carved into the obelisk by an unknown artisan. From here, I go east. The trail becomes a straight line leading steadily upwards. As I walk up the knoll my heart beats faster, my every nerve twinges with sudden charge of vital energy flowing through my body, and my mind is filled with sudden joy. The closer I come to my destination the stronger are the effects, until my very being is swimming on the warm currents of happiness and vitality radiating from the giant tree that is towering on the very top of a low green hill.
This ancient oak is so high that it would have soared over the heads of the tallest Suldanesselar ruddy beeches, if placed among them. Its leaves are of that incredibly rich, dark green hue that is always said to be the color of Rillifane’s cloak. Its warm, dark-brown bark is separated into scaly, loose plates at the lower levels, as if the tree is wearing a suit of armor, and is furrowed with broad, flat ridges that run as deep as collective memories of my people. Some of the scales and low branches form a sort of a stair that leads up into the crown of the great oak. We call him the Tree of Life or simply the Old Man. According to one of the legends, it was a gift from Rillifane Rallathil himself to the founder of queen Ellesime’s noble family, who was once the Leaflord’s mortal infatuation. Others believe that the Old Man is one of the saplings of the ethereal Oak that stands at the heart of the Arvandor, in the High Forest of Mount Olympus. They say that one of his brothers, known under the name of Grandfather Tree 77 graces the High Forest of the far North. The other sapling, named Aviendha, is rumored to be on the isle of Evermeet.
More than ten thousand years ago, the lands now known as Tethyr, Amn, Erlkazar, and Calimshan were forested as far as the eye could see. Two races, the giants and the Tel’Quessir, dominated the forests, although other humanoids populated the region as well. The People and the giants carved their empires out of the wilderness, and the Tel’Quessir named their great forest-kingdom Keltormir, after one of their great leaders. The Old Man tree is a focal point, and a conduit of life force in what once was the Great Forest of Keltormir, that spread from the western Sword Coast, the Cloud Peaks and the Troll Mountains on the north, to the jive clusters of the Iltkazar Range on the east, and south to the Shining Sea, broken only by Lake Esmel, the Gorge of the Fallen Idol, the Small Teeth, and the Starspire and Marching Mountains.
“Greetings Old Man,” I whisper as I climb up. The tree answers with rustle and sigh of its own, as delighted shiver runs through its mighty limbs and smaller twigs. I can easily believe that the oak is ten thousand years old. The tree keeps murmuring to me as I climb through its lower branches to my favorite spot hundred feet above the ground. At this level, a mere quarter of the tree’s full height, its thicker limbs are still wider than then forest trail that led me to him, and the Old Man seems to curve protectively under me forming a cozy nest from the intertwined thinner boughs and cradling me in its fatherly embrace. We go back long time, Old Man and me. I had never known my father, who was slain in one of the many bloody skirmishes between the People and ever-encroaching vermin of human trespassers swarming our ancestral forests. I am always bitter when I think of it. The Tel’Quessir should never die in this manner. When after centuries of life dedicated to bringing beauty to the Land, and commuting with natural and mystical forces of the world we grow old, we retire gracefully to Evermeet to pass to the realm of Arvandor in the plane of Arborea, or reincarnate and go through another cycle of life without end 78.
The Old Man tree was my great escape as a child, as I spent endless hours daydreaming cradled amongst its limbs, protected from the elements, and mesmerized by the endless whisper of his leaves. I suppose my special ability to ‘touch’ other trees, comes from him. As I make myself comfortable against the Old Man’s warm bark, I dream of Ellesime again, of her fragrant breath against my cheek, and her russet tresses tangled with my own long silver ones. The tree chuckles softly and I see an image of myself as a tall and lanky hundred-year-old youth, watching at the queen at a spring festival with wide opened eyes, and another one fifty years later, after my return from Evereska. Ellesime is wearing a green chiffon gown, virtually transparent to my enamored stares, and is very much aware of the effect it has on me, as we walk down the trail in the queen’s gardens.
I stir restlessly and another image floats to the surface of my mind, countering the Old Man’s affectionate visions of me and my lover. I see Ellesime’s royal profile, and the edge of her mouth turned slightly upwards in a half-smile, as she listens to a tall, bronze-skinned male, who is wearing his thick dark hair in a warrior ponytail. His right hand rests on a hilt of his bright sword, and his posture is graceful and athletic – the man is a naturally born soldier. At his sudden exclamation she turns her head and sees me approaching. A fleeing shadow of irritation crosses her brow at the interruption, but it is gone as soon as she realizes she is being watched. Elhan’s smile is faster than snakebite, and the whole exchange takes less then a minute but when I leave them together my heart is a frozen ice shard, and my mind is seething with jealous rage.
The Old Man is troubled. His leaves rustle reproachfully at the stream of angry images flooding my mind. A sudden gust of wind blows through its branches, cooling my face and ruffling my long white hair, and instantly a gray curtain of clouds swallows the rays of sunlight, streaming through the thick green foliage. It is almost scary to believe the Old Man can control the weather but, on the other hand, I can give no other explanation to a sudden chill spell that makes my whole body shiver. Instantly I see a clear image of a small child kicking a small myconide, and sneezing violently as a yellow cloud of magical spores hits his nose, then running in panic as the effect of the fear spell reaches his mind. I can almost feel the tree shaking in laughter as I recognize the image of myself barely ten years of age. Somehow I am not amused. “Go now,” the wind whispers in my ear, “Find her. Look. Touch. Listen. Life is precious. Time is nothing. Anger is death.” I rise shakily from my seat, and make my way to the ground in a daze of confused thoughts and fervent hopes. The Old Man keeps murmuring to me on my way down.
I find Ellesime at her favorite spot, sitting on a low hanging branch of an old plum tree by the deep pocket of slow flowing water. A dark red disk of the setting sun is reflected in the pool. It turns it into a well of molten gold, and surrounds Ellesime’s head with flaming red halo, as her hair, whipped into a disheveled mass by the northern wind, stands up like flame of a torch. As always she is surrounded by a flock of various small critters that seem to follow her whenever she goes. I smile amusedly at the pair of fox cubs, curled at her feet, noticing that her usual escort of wild mice, squirrels, and berrygobblers is keeping shyly away from these two new favorites. The little foxes fur matches the queen’s mane perfectly, and I catch myself at thinking how well the curve of her body fits that of a fox, one melting into another. Her ears are delicate and pointy, trimmed with a slightest shade of red fuzz, and almost as sharp as that of her followers. I won’t be surprised if at my sudden motion she would spring up and slink away into the forest covering her tracks with a red, fuzzy tail. At this queer thought a muted half-chuckle escapes my lips, but that is enough to stir her little companions, as they scuttle hurriedly around her feet. One of the cubs stands briefly on her hind legs, and barks at me defiantly showing a maw full of tiny, needle-sharp teeth.
Ellesime turns her head slowly, and I see her eyes filled with hidden mirth. I am sure now that she had spotted me right away but preferred to sit still, waiting for my first move. The green imps of laughter are dancing in her eyes, yet a strangely uncertain smile is quivering on her full red lips. This is the first time in our uneasy relationship that I see her unsure of herself.
“Joneleth,” she whispers as if in a half-dream. “I knew you would come here. I was waiting all day, but I cannot stand it anymore. I need to know what happened!” She jumps off her perch and runs to my side entangling her sleek fingers in my hair. My heart is racing like Rillafane’s ritual stag at the last throes of his death run. I find enough resolution to keep my hands off her, and raise an eyebrow in a silent signal of surprise but she only laughs at me, dismissing my stunned expression. “I need your help, silly boy,” my queen chimes after a brief kiss. The butterflies in my stomach grow to the size of mountain eagles. “No more secrets, I promise! Today is the day when it all comes into focus. I need you to scry for me. Can you find Elhan?”
My heart sinks at the sound of this name but Ellesime is feverish with excitement, and ignores my hurt looks altogether. She grabs me by the hand, and pulls me to the side of the stream. On the very bank of quiet pool, half-hidden by the thick bushes of tamarisk, sits a marble birdbath. Crafted from polished white stone it is of a very simple design - a round basin supported by a single pillar marked with smooth vertical grooves. It is dry now, and filled with dead petals and leaves.
“Can you use it as a scrying pool?” Ellesime asks doubtfully. “There is no other place I would rather have it done. The matter is too risky!”
“But why, by the lady Goldheart, do you want to see him?” I ask sullenly. “Your brave general is on a hunting expedition with that dubious human ‘friend’ of his! You know this better than anybody else!”
“Oh Jon,” Ellesime sighs indulgently, “You are so naïve. Of course I know where he is! He was courting prince and then king Errilam for me for the last few years. The humans are the short living creatures, and they have short memories. Errilam’s father king Haedrak had slain my grandnephew Kymer the Na'N'Tel'Quess 79, claiming him an usurper, and thus stifling our hopes for return of the old times, when the kings of Tel’Quessir blood were ruling the human kingdom of Tethyr, and our two races lived in peace with each other. Ever since then Haedrak was suspicious of Tel’Quessir and the People did not trust him either. But with the new king on the throne, there is hope for reconciliation.”
She smiles at my puzzled expression. “You don’t remember? Sometimes I think you are daydreaming with your eyes open when I talk about these things! I meant king Strohm’s dynasty of course. They were of our royal bloodline. I was born when humans still had a woman with a bit of sense on the throne, and she was of the Strohm’s line. Ever since that clown of a male they called ‘king’ chose to forget his roots and called his family the house Tethyr instead of the house Strohm, the humans were acting more and more insane. Elhan’s task was to smooth their new king’s feathers and establish some sort of a mutual trust.”
I smile at her obvious contempt for us ‘males’. Ellesime is fiercely proud of her gender, albeit I always joke that her attitude is more appropriate in the drow matron. We used to resolve this kind of arguments in a rather glorious fashion, proving to each other relative advantages of either sex. I sigh wistfully for these old times, and look at her with futile hope.
“So,” I ask dubiously, “that was all? That was what you have been discussing with Elhan all the time? Human politics?”
“What else do you think it was?” she laughs wrapping a strand of my hair around her finger. “You know I love you.” These three words are enough to turn my knees to water. I take her head between the palms of my hands, and look into her emerald eyes that seem to shift color like the waves of a deepest sea, or leaves of my beloved forest. Now they are bright green, then the shadow runs over her face turning them deep turquoise until the ray of the dieing sunlight sets the golden sparks spinning in her irises and make me feel dizzy with desire. She returns my kisses, a bit less passionately than I wish for, and urges me gently to the site of her impromptu scrying bowl.
I quickly incinerate the remains of dried flowers and twigs with a simple spell, then summon a minor air elemental to clean up the ashes. The cup is now ready to be filled with water. As a silvery water globe forms above the surface of the stream and slowly levitates to the marble birdbath, Ellesime claps her hands in delight. The air elemental is curious as a small child, and floats over and under the liquid ball, trying to touch the shiny surface. When the water finally spills into the basin, it gets wet for its trouble and hangs over the birdbath bowl as tiny rain cloud. Finally, a small shower rains down adding to the scrying pool and the elemental floats away, looking rather like a wet aerial puppy. I shrug apologetically as the queen seems a bit irritated at these antics. The marble cup is now clean, and filled to the brim with clear water. The surface shimmers gently as the last circle caused by miniature rainstorm dies away, and sits still as a perfect mirror.
“What exactly do you want me to show you?” I ask Ellesime gently.
“I already told you,” she stamps her foot impatiently. “Find Elhan!”
“I need something that belonged to him, preferably a personal item,” I ask sourly, “and I have to warn you that the token is going to be incinerated in a process of casting the spell.”
Ellesime shakes her head and produces a small slip of paper with a ciphered message from her pouch. “What did you expect,” she asks me smiling wickedly, “a lock of hair, or a love letter perhaps?”
I refuse to discuss the matter, although honestly I am greatly relieved at this development. The note goes up in a puff of smoke, and as my incantation takes effect I bend over the water surface in the basin, trying to discern the images swirling slowly in its depths. I can feel Ellesime’s breath on my cheek as she joins me at the scrying pool. Together we stare into the silvery mirror, and slowly the image comes into focus before our disbelieving eyes.
I see a little clearing deep in the heart of the great forest of Tethyr. It had been trodden with many feet and horse hooves. A great bulk of mottled brown fur and ruffled feathers is sprawled on the blood-covered, trampled grass. It is pierced with many arrows, and almost chopped into pieces by somebody who had lashed at the corpse of the already dead beast in a mindless rage. A great feathered head with bloodied cruel beak had been cut off and rolled aside. Huge, taloned paws are stretched out, and hacked off by multiple sword strokes. I look at it in puzzlement at first – the monster seems to resemble a dire bear in bulk and stature but its face looks like that of a giant owl.
“An owlbear,” Ellesime whispers in awe, “Seldarine protect us, I have not seen one so huge in decades...”
A spot of white color, and a sudden motion in the shade of an old spruce catches my eye. I see a tall elven warrior bending over what I realize is a dead horse. Judging by the berth of its chest, and the length of strong, elegant legs – it was a magnificent animal, worthy of carrying a king on its back. An arrow is sticking out of the dead stallion’s neck. I suck in my breath noisily. The man stretches his hand and snaps the arrow shaft off at the very opening of the lethal wound. But I have already seen what he is trying to conceal – the arrow is fletched with a spray of green feathers.
The man turns his head as if feeling himself being watched, and I recognize Elhan’s arrogant profile. A quick flash of his hot dark eyes burns me through all the distance and the cool neutrality of my scrying mirror. My control slips, and the image breaks into many shards of mixed colors and fleeing shadows.
When I regain control of the spell, I see a string of human nobles and soldiers, riding gloomily through the darkening forest. Their faces are gray with anger and despair. Some of them are crying openly. In the middle of the procession a riderless horse is carrying a bloody bundle, wrapped in a sky-blue cloak, embroidered with royal lions.
Ellesime’s hand strikes at the image breaking the spell. I gasp and almost faint at the sudden backlash of magic energies. She is pale as a ghost but her eyes are burning with intense blue light of angry resolve, and the look she gives me is sharp as cold steel.
“You shall forget all about this,” she says steadily. “And never mention it to anybody! It was not supposed to happen, but what’s done is done.”
“But my queen,” I mumble in a shock, “it was ...murder!”
“An accident, most people would say,” she hisses angrily.
“A Tel’Quessir archer shooting a white horse instead of an owlbear in bright daylight?” I raise an eyebrow. “Excuse me but this kind of a tale would not fool a child!”
“Don’t get your personal feeling towards Elhan affect you judgement! And before you ask – no I did not plan this! Elhan was supposed to offer king Errilam a concord of eternal peace, and a hand of his young cousin in marriage. Errilam’s granduncle, and my nephew king Kymer has been dead for fifty years but his daughter from a half-elven consort lives, and though by our standards she is still a child, she could have married him to bring a trickle of elven royal blood back into Strohm’s line!”
“So Elhan murdered him, when the king refused this offer?” I ask incredulously, “and you think it was justified?”
“I am not saying it was justified!” Ellesime snaps angrily. “I need to find out what happened first. And I am going to deal with Elhan in person when he comes back! But if this transgression becomes a public knowledge we would have a full-scale war with humans on our hands in no time!”
“I would not exactly call kingslaying a ‘transgression’,” I mumble, “and I bet you the humans already know. They may be an inferior, short-living race deprived of true spirit, and thus doomed to spend their lives in futile pursuit of violent and dangerous passions, but they are not that stupid.”
“Even if they do,” Ellesime shrugs, “they cannot prove anything. And the People would never believe in such a tale. After a while I shall offer our condolences to the new king, whoever he is going to be, and everything will go back to normal.”
“As you wish, my love,” I murmur softly. I have no desire to start another fight with her over this, no matter how disgusted I feel about the whole affair. Besides, I acknowledge her superiority in the matters of war and politics. She is a naturally born leader and a high cleric of Rillifane. I suppose He will give her better advice than I ever could. I stroke her hair soothingly, and she smiles at me, snuggling in a familiar way into my wary embrace. Her face is lifted up now meeting my kiss with fervent passion. At this moment I am ready to give up my soul and my sanity for one more night in her hands, and she is very much aware of her powers over me. As the sun settles into the crowns of the fiery beeches, we begin our track back to the Palace. I am not going to spend this night alone after all.
I was awakened rather sharply from my trance, just when the things were becoming interesting. Not that I really wanted to experience their lovemaking sensations on a full scale. What I have glimpsed was enough to set me off balance for a few days. Ouch, ouch, ouch ... Never dreamwalk on the enamored elves, would be a good mental rule, that is if I could control these strange visions of mine. Ellesime? Now, where did I hear that name?
An abandoned mine shaft amongst the barren and devastated landscapes of Nashkel. Mounds of iron ore tailings along the trail. An emaciated, feverish man in stinking rugs, blabbing about ‘the everlasting beauty of her eyes’ and a handful of stolen emeralds in his dirty hand. I did not touch his stones. Even so, the statue of the Elven Queen that was his death warrant was vandalized and its face mutilated in a matter of days by a crowd of desperately hungry miners, turned beggars. But the name had stuck in my mind, as a symbol of a particularly cruel and senseless joke.
“Now my dear child, would you perhaps snap out of it and talk to me?” A slightly annoyed voice proclaimed loudly in my ear. “Not that you don’t present a pretty picture for a truly dedicated Sensate, floating in the air with a dotty smile on your face, but I need to have a few words with you, and you’ve been at it for quite a long time! Whatever exalted dream you are having it is unhealthy, even for the one of your exceptional heritage, and being on the Prime does not make it right to be rude to your guests!”
I raised my head, noticing to my astonishment that I was indeed still hovering in the air, and dismissed the levitation spell, dropping to my feet rather hastily and getting rid of the light globe. The woman standing before me with an expression of amused irritation on her beautifuil face was of an extraordinary appearance.
“Do I have a penchant for attracting redheads lately, or what?” I thought briefly.
“Perhaps you are sublimating the essence of your unfulfilled dream into alternative reality?” the rabbit offered suavely, “or it is just a weird fluke.”
“And perhaps you are a stainless steel dragon in disguise!” I snapped back. “Don’t forget that the simplest solution is most likely the right one. I would be damned if I ever dreamed of anything like her.”
Her tresses were perhaps not as colorful as these of Rosie, or of the mysterious Elven Queen in my dream, but of more subdued, deeper russet, with a strange purple shade at the temples. Her eyebrows were also of that strange mauve color. Looking closer, I realized that what I took at first for a play of light or a dye, was in fact her skin covered with tiny purple scales, starting in the area where her eyebrows were supposed to be and going down to her temples in two graceful arches. The overall the effect was not unpleasant, if a bit exotic.
The way she dressed reeked of decadent abundance, and a great deal of taste, although it had nothing to do with current Amnian fashion. I have to admit that looking at the elegant lines of her outer frock, dark bronze with black velvet insets and a frothing wealth of golden lace, I wished for a moment that I could wear something like this, just to feel the way it swishes and drapes around you.
“I apologize for my digression,” I offered in my politest sarcasm, straightening my own black woolen robe that looked even more pathetic in the face of all that splendor. “One wonders though, if barging into a private suite in a hostel is a custom in the place where you are fairing from, whenever that may be?”
“Sharp as a nail, aren’t you child?” she tsk’ed not showing the slightest shadow of embarrassment. “The innkeeper was concerned, after you did not open the door to take the lunch tray he had send with one of the maids. Besides, there is that young police officer, waiting to ask you some more questions. You are somewhat of a local celebrity these days. So when I volunteered to check on you, they were more than happy to guide me to your rooms.”
“I do believe I had my door locked this time,” I frowned thoughtfully,“albeit I can imagine a simple hair pin can do wonders with these locks. Next time I go into a meditation, I shall paint a sign or something... On the mean time, since you are already here and obviously know who I am, perhaps an introduction is in order?”
“Oh, forgive me child! I am Raelis Shae - a director of that troupe of merry vagabonds you have already seen downstairs. We own the playhouse in the lower level of this splendid hovel, so Master Thunderburp considers me something of a junior partner in his enterprise. It is a lowly hole after the splendor of the City of Doors 80, but the Prime has its quaint appeal. The world is experienced through senses, and Toril is a vivid world. Creatures of all types, weird cultures, everything so... substantial.” She wrinkled her nose amusedly. “The tastes and smells here alone can fascinate the true adept, although, sadly enough, I am getting tired of the place.”
Raelis looked at my puzzled face. “I don’t believe you can actually fake this expression. You really have no clue of what I am talking about then? Spend all your life on the Prime, poor thing! I thought so, but Haer Dalis convinced me you may be Duke Rowan’s spy after all. The wretched cambion is known to attract women like rotten fish flies, and make most unlikely allies. It won’t be past him to corrupt an aasimar!”
“Aasimar,” I said thoughtfully. “You know, you are the second person naming me one, and since it is probably important, why don’t we have a nice cup of tea and talk it over? I am starving!”
“I shall ring for a maid,” the strange woman nodded her approval. “Since you don’t want to run into that eager lieutenant of yours in the bar, we better order room service. One good thing about you being raised on the Prime is your total ignorance of your race usual prejudice. I would not have expected an aasimar to be so ...”
“Unsophisticated? Quaint?” I offered helpfully.
“Democratic, perhaps is a better word for it, albeit I never was particularly fond of these fanatics from the Revolutionary League. I find Curst distasteful, and Carceri the Plane of wasted efforts, if you take my meaning. But we can discuss all this over tea, if you wish.”
“Cucumber sandwiches? Almond biscotti?” I grinned.
“Order some pound cake, and cold cuts. You look like you need some hearty food in you system! One cannot live on celestial harmonies alone, whatever your ancestors have to say about it. We are on the Prime with all the consequences.”
I had rarely enjoyed myself more than in that hour in Raelis’ company. She was fickle, vain, and intensely charismatic. She could chatter about any subject related to popular cosmology and the Planes for hours, and since my own knowledge of the matter was purely theoretical and at least decades old (I estimated that was the age of the most recent of the Candlekeep's library Planewalker Guide), I used the opportunity to learn more. Raelis talked about the Outlands, the splendid city of Sigil and its ruler – the enigmatic and ubiquitous Lady of Pain, the factions that de facto ruled the city; and the bitter conflict between her own party – the Sensates, and infamous Fated, the hated tax collectors. However, truly told, on her first visit she did not tell me any of the details.
She was extremely interested to learn more about my other heritage, chuckling extensively at the irony of an aasimar tainted with Bhaal’s blood. Though Toril's native pantheon was not of much interest to her.
I myself was not much impressed either. After getting over my first bitter shock of discovery that I was a Bhaalspawn, any minor complication like a bit of celestial blood in my veins could not bother me less. Since I had no way of finding the truth about my mother’s heritage now that both she and Gorion were dead, the issue seemed purely academic to me. At least that explained the strange color of my eyes, and my proficiency with conjuration spells. It was always unnaturally easy for me to open a connection to the other Planes. When I suggested this to Raelis she laughed heartily, saying that I obviously missed my calling - most of the aasimars that she know were either paladins of virtue, or the most vicious of assassins.
“There is no compromise with your kind,” she said amusedly, “if you do it – you go all the way to the hilt. I wonder how long will you balance on this edge of neutrality you cherish so much. Sooner or later your blood will push you over, and then Gods help you child, for you will have it all, for better or worse!”
One would think that if things go right for a change you can relax and ‘ride the currents of fate’ for a while, letting the troubles take care of themselves. Wrong idea, and a deadly dangerous at that! The moment you relax your grip on the events they start riding you, instead of the other way around. And as the Bhaalspawn is a wild card thrown into this world to disturb the smooth fabric of time and space continuum, the calamities that happen in the wake of her passage are perilous if not outright deadly.
I was browsing through the pile of scrolls and parchments on the floor before me, feeling rather pleased and entertained by my long tete-a-tete with Raelis Shae. Being a prominent former citizen of Sigil, the city of endless planar portals, for me she was an extensive repository of an outerplane knowledge. I’ve read of it – the crossroad of the Planes, place where many alien races met and mingled in an incessant whirl of elegant, cultured splendor and exciting, sophisticated intrigue. ‘To see Sigil and die’ – was an old saying amongst the scholars of Planar travel. It amused Raelis enormously to stumble upon a simpleton of a Prime-bound aasimar, such as I.
The conversation stirred something in me. Even though I was born on, and bound to the world of Faerun, and its destiny was to some extent linked to my own, I always longed for something more. Something that was out of my reach, that flickered and beaconed as a faint, distant star in a midnight blue sky, or a lost and forgotten face of a stranger in the crowd of familiar faces. After the sickening discovery of my Bhaal’s heritage I assumed - that was it. That was my lost and forgotten identity. Raelis insisted there was something more to me.
And even though I dismissed the revelation at first as a sort of a bad joke, whence I was confronted with it in the Adventurer’s Mart, the doubt lingered. Jaheira insisted she knew nothing of my supposed celestial heritage, but that was not surprising. What if Gorion was hiding more than the ugly truth of my Bhaal’s legacy? Why amongst thousands of nameless bastards, spawned after the rampage of rape and coercion that the dead god of Murder inflicted on the Faerunian womenfolk, I was the one picked up to grow up in Candlekeep, in comparative safety of the great fortress, under the tutelage of dutiful monks? There I learnt great many things that even the children born to the royal families of the Realms were never taught.
Of course, the future kings and queens have no need to know the signs and sounds of the many dead languages (such as Netherese or Rauric), or runic ones known to the handful of elven and dwarven scholars of the arcane (Espruar and Dethek) 81. And even though I raved and raged at the restrictions they put on my education (especially when I was forbidden to study the higher level destructive spells of the School of Evocation), I realized now that my curriculum was incredibly broad, and unfettered.
The old prune Elminster would show up twice a year, and chuckle at my feeble attempts to read a few paragraphs in Dwarven or Bedine, then dismiss Gorion’s praises to my quicksilver memory and affinity to things magical. But the looks they exchanged with Gorion at these meetings were most meaningful. Then the old mage would depart, always leaving me with an uneasy feeling of another failure, and a cartload of more things to ‘challenge my spirit’ as he used to say. By the age of twenty I could understand most of the languages spoken in the Realms, and read on half a dozen of the most important dead ones. I also knew by heart the contents of the most of the tomes from the Section 457A-C (the basics of Conjuration) of the Arcane Division of Candlekeep Library. That was not a small task. (On the other hand, I had never learned to mend my own socks, and when I tried to cook the local roaches went on hunger strike.)
Looking back at these memories, and at the incredible bulk of abstract knowledge that was dumped on me every year since I turned twelve, I assume my mentors knew that they did not have much time. They were grooming me for a role much more important than a humble scholar of the Arcane in a backwater monastery. I absorbed the knowledge like a sponge, without showing any signs of fatigue or irritation. Quite an unusual treat in a teenager! It made my tutors feel queer, like they were teaching a magically built construct rather than a young bronze-skinned girl, with eyes like two clear yellow topazes, and a tangled mane of sable-brown hair.
I looked myself over in a small oval mirror of the dresser, in its flaky gilded frame that ubiquitous Ms. Thunderburp, the innkeeper's wife, tacked with bleached-out pink ribbons. Over a year and a half of wandering my face lost all softness and pleasant roundness with the last remains of baby-fat, and acquired sharp and feral look of a hunted animal. The deep shadows around the bright-yellow eyes, and sharp elven cheekbones on slightly triangular face, paired with pointy ears, made me resemble one of the big cats that rumored to stalk the jungles of Chult. I sighed and turned away from the image of myself. Thanks to Anomen's ministrations I was at least spared the ugly scars inflicted by Rakshasa's claws. My limbs and body was another story. Thanks to Irenicus I will bear the scars till the end of my natural life.
"Disgustink freak!" I muttered to myself angrily, pulling the sleeve of my robe over the scarred flesh of my elbow. I remembered for a second the feeling of absolute careless freedom that I felt about my body in the dream, when I was an elven mage. Who was that fellow, and why did I keep having dreams about him anyway? For that matter, why was not I having any more nightmares? Questions with no answers. I was getting tired of these. All my life was an endless list of questions left unanswered. People tended to walk out of my life and either die or dissapper, like my mother, Khalid and Jaheira, Gorion and Imoen.
Thinking of Gorion made me return to my first topic. The thought that stroke me as important was obvious shallowness of my education when it came to things extraterrestrial. As if my mentors were deliberately limiting my knowledge of the Planes, concentrating on the Prime Material Lore instead. I never learned a word of either celestial or abyssal languages, even though I was curious and it seemed proper. I had to fight with Gorion for my chosen specialization in the school of Conjuration, and he always was uncomfortable talking about the outsider nature of the summoned beasts. My religious education was limited to the instructions of Oghma’s and Azuth’s priests who dwelled in Candlekeep; these were suitable for any normal human child.
Could it be that Gorion and Elminster planned it this way? So that I would learn to cherish my mundane home world before I learn anything of my ‘other’ heritage? I shrugged. No use speculating on this. Gorion was dead, and as for Elminster - even if I manage to run into the antiquated wizard yet again he would most likely ignore my questions and speak in riddles! The old bugger enjoyed meddling in other people’s affairs, but it did not mean he would let anybody meddle in his.
“Blast him,” I thought tiredly. “I shall find out what I am on my own!”
“Admirable attitude,” the long-eared pest piped inside my head, “I would not mind being treated as an ‘astral leporid’ 82 . Let’s hope your interest will last until tomorrow's morning!”
“Hey! Long time, no see!” I responded gleefully, “Astral leporid indeed? One may think you’ve ultimately succumbed to the call of Nature, and stopped playing your head-games with me altogether concentrating on more important things like eating and mating.”
“What is the point of trying to dissuade you from screwing up your life?” the bunny shrugged mentally, “I am still surprised you’ve lived through the skinner’s affair. It was quite dangerous and unsavory - mind it! All that for the sake of that half-witted Helmite, phew.”
“You are jealous,” I mumbled uncertainly.
But the rabbit finished the mental exchange with a loud snort, and went back to sleep pretending to be just another clumsily executed embroidery amongst the multitude of frilly pillows and quilts of questionable artistic design, that crowded my bed. The Flagons’ owner was a married halfling, and his wife obviously had her say in the room’s decor.
I shook my head in frustration – it was no use arguing with him when he was in that mood. I started to muse instead on the strange coincidence of me acquiring a male rabbit as a familiar. Once upon a time I happened to stumble upon a rare grimoire dealing with summoning rituals that described bonding process between master and her familiar. The book stated that the animal was choosing its future master/mistress from the pool of many available candidates, rather like a fastidious bride. I tended to believe it, impossible as it sounded.
“Homo homini lepus est, hmm...?” 83
Turning back to my original trail of thoughts, I remembered the most interesting part of my conversation with the tiefling thespian. Raelis hinted that some of the plays they were performing were ‘Prime’ remakes of their Sigil repertoire. She was the troupe’s resident writer and producer, as well as prima donna, femme fatale, and ingénue. I was still curious at how did they get stuck on the Prime, and their plays seemed like a good source of information on the customs and habits of the Outside society. So, I promised myself to indulge my inner child, and at the first opportunity go see the cheesiest of the shows they have been running in the basement.
After that, I made more progress in half an hour than I did through the whole morning. I could see now that the dead necromancer’s scroll, contents of which eluded me for so long was indeed a powerful enchantment. In fact it was a prize worth thousands if not tens of thousands gold, for it turned out to be a spell of Simulacrum. That was a weird magic that permitted a wizard open a conduit into the Plane of Shadow, and call forth a clone of himself woven from the elusive matter of that place. The best part was that the shadow clone always stayed under its creator’s control but was able to access the magic weave on its own. I thought of the infinite row of ethereal mages making copies of themselves, only to see that copy summon another one, and so on ad infinitum. My head went dizzy. There must be a way out of this paradox but so far I could not see one!
It was at that particular moment that the door of my chamber creaked again.
“Yes please, you can come in,” I said cheerfully to the small, magenta-robed intruder, “not that anybody needs my permission to barge in here, but you are welcome anyway!”
“Ain’t you a bit grouchy today, You Worship?” Jan responded in his mocking falsetto.
I noticed that his tone lacked the usual zest, and that his robes and the magic contraptions that hung from his belt and various minor straps around his body, were in serious disarray, like he lacked the will to take care of himself. What remained of salt-and-pepper locks around his bald patch was disturbed and disheveled, as if he continuously ran his hands through his hair in a fit of nervous idiosyncrasy. Something was troubling him - that much was obvious. Yet the gnome dismissed my polite concerns, and went straight to the point of his visit.
“I happened to call upon a certain noble house today,” he said tentatively, “on my personal business that has nothing to do with your inquiry!” he added hastily. I nodded indicating that I respected his privacy.
“I had to pretend to be a crazy antiquary, a weird one who is buying various junk in vain hope to find jewels among rubbish,” Jan sneered at his own trick. “Otherwise the honorable Qar Jysstev won’t let me into his house, of course!”
“Never heard of him,” I replied politely, “but do go on please.”
“Oh, lord Jysstev was once one of the most powerful men in the country, even rumored to be one of the Six,” Jan answered with a shrug. “That is until he bet on the wrong suit of cards in the game of Thrones that seems to go on nonstop in that pitiful pile of rubble they used to call Tethyr! For the last year or so lord Jysstev was desperately juggling what’s left of his property here and in Muran to keep away the imminent bankruptcy. In my humble opinion he is only extending the agony. But that is not important, this is!”
What he pulled out of one of the many pouches hanging from his belt was a palm-sized miniature, encased in a lavishly decorated frame. Alas the gilded oval casing was badly damaged, as if somebody tried to destroy the picture in a fit of rage. Despite this obvious misfortune the miniature itself was intact. It depicted a good looking youngster, perhaps in his late teens, dressed elegantly, even lavishly in a rich suit of golden-brown velvet. The texture of the fabric was painted with an excellent technique, and I noticed that the artist spent a lot of time on working out the details of the costume, luster of the golden chain at the neck, and red sparkle of the ruby earring. The face of his subject however was less of a success, as the unnaturally yellow-pale tone of the skin, resembling that of a wax figurine was surely an exaggeration that was supposed to make the boy look more ‘aristocratic’ in his appearance.
“By Sir Sarles, himself,” Jan nodded seeing my puzzled look, “and I got it for a pittance, for that was one of the matching pair of miniatures that was a gift from the artist himself to the late granddaughter of Lord Jysstev, for her seventeenth birthday. The grandmother only wanted to keep the girl’s portrait of course. Tallia had a nervous breakdown at the party after this fledgling Lothario broke up with her, and died shortly after from brain fever.”
“Sounds a bit melodramatic for my taste,” I cringed.
He shrugged again. “’Tis not for me to be a judge in these matters but according to my sources it was done rather heartlessly! The Vanity Fair had it afterwards that he already dated another, and was playing with both of the girls. So, when the second tragedy struck there were rumors of suicide.”
“And the second girl was?” I started with renewed interest.
“Yes, you’ve got it, Your Worship. None else but his holiness’ sister miss Moira Delryn!”
I looked at the pale lean face on the portrait - the olive-black eyes were underlined with dark circles. “So this must be Master Yusef?”
Jan nodded his silent acquiescence.
“And the brother would be the last one to find out as usual,” I shook my head. “Speak of the looks being deceptive. He sure does not strike me as a predatory type.”
“They rarely do, lassie,” the gnome sighted as if thinking of something personal. “That is why girls fall for them. I though the portrait may be of some use to you, as everybody in Jysstev’s estate assured me the likeness to the original is astonishing.”
“Jan,” I said seriously, “you are a genius, and I owe you. If you will ever need assistance from me don’t hesitate to ask!”
The little wizard shrugged and muttered something to the extent of “we’ll see about it.”
I decided not to press the issue. “This maybe our best chance at getting dirt on this fellow,” I continued excitedly, “too bad I cannot make a few copies and go through the neighborhood asking questions. I bet you there would be some people who remember this face! To think of it, let’s try something right now. Raelis said lieutenant Aegis was waiting for me downstairs. I wanted to give him a slip today but with this picture we may have something to talk about!”
Aegis was nursing his beer at the bar, in the company of the familiar round-faced redhead. At the sigh of me she suddenly blushed and made a move to rise, showing a shy, lopsided smile. It was so unlike Rosie that at first I did not recognize her. Then I noticed her newly acquired green frock (of the same violently bright hue as her red one if a bit more modest in cut) and a pair of lacy black mittens on her plump, freckled fingers. Her hair was actually gathered in a bun, and covered with a hat. Something was going on here that was definitely not of my business. It was too late to retreat, so I advanced on them with my most genuine smile of approval.
“Hi Rosie, glad to see you around. I gather you are doing well lately?”
“Hullo miz Thea,” the young woman smiled again, this time bravely showing the gap in a place of the left incisor. “Captn was giving me some work at the office, and he handed me a small advance on my wages, so I could buy meself nice clothes and stuff. Plus I still had some of the gold you gave me, bless your soul.”
“I needed somebody to clean up the place,” Aegis explained hastily blushing like a poppy flower. “Besides she can actually read and write a little, and since I hate the paperwork I though...”
“Excellent idea my friend,” I nodded enthusiastically. “You definitely needed a receptionist, and Rose is one smart lady. I bet you – she may be useful in your detective work as well.”
“We shall see about it,” he mumbled hastily, and I was glad he found it in himself to offer her this opportunity, for whatever savory or unsavory reasons of his own. For it was so much better for Rose to work for him in whatever capacity, than go back to the streets.
“You were going to ask me something,” I offered breaking the awkward silence and was quickly assured that it can wait. “Then I perhaps can ask you a favor. I was told that this is a portrait of a certain young man, a resident of your District. I want you to have a good look at it and tell me who it is.”
“Why it is the young Yusef Farrahd of course!” Aegisfield cried out immediately. “A ritzy picture, if a bit ragged around the edges. Where did you get it? Ah, the wretched boy is probably dead by now anyway! Not that it is any of my business, of course,” he added resignedly. “There are some people in this city who can get away with anything, even murder. But I have already told you too much. Take my advice – stay away from Farrahd the elder’s personal affairs, and you will live a long and happy life.”
Aegis’s response was remarkable if expected, and I was ready to ask him what did he mean when he said the boy was probably dead, when I happened to have a look at Rosie. The stunned expression of her face was enough to make me forget about lieutenant’s implications for now and concentrate on her reaction.
“It is him,” she mumbled with trembling lips, and suddenly burst into tears - the act that resulted in two black rivulets of mascara trailing down her plump freckled cheeks. “The boy from the bridge! I would have recognized him in my sleep,” She hiccupped like a small child, and whipped her nose with a sleeve of her new dress.
“You knew him Rosie?” I asked gently, trying not to sound too interested. “Was he ... a client of yours?”
“Oh, no,” Rosie shook her head in a violent denial. “No, no, it was ... different! I met him on the Alandor Bridge one night and I though he was one of them fancy boys, you know - the ones who work the streets same way as we do.” She smiled miserably. “He was all beaten up, and bleeding like a pig, and his pretty clothes were all bloody and dirty. And I saw him look at the river the same way Lily did sometimes. Lily was a girlfriend of mine,” Rose added quickly, “she went down into the Alandor when a sailor pushed her in, Lily did. But she always said she had a fancy for the river. Always wanted to jump in and be done with it, she said! I though he looked just like Lily, and pulled him away from the railing. And he said ‘thank you Rosie’ and gave me this,” she touched the small red bauble at her ear. “‘Tis was my good luck charm ever since!”
“When did it happen, Rosie?” I said carefully. “Can you remember if it was before or after the Feast of the Moon?”
“I think about two weeks before,” Rosie offered uncertainly, “yes it was just before the first skinnings began.”
“I could have told you this,” Aegis snorted suddenly. “Nobody had seen Yusef since the twenty first of Uktar! I looked into this as I thought him a suspect at first.”
“Do you know what happened to him?” I asked casually. “You’ve said that he is probably dead, but why?”
“Because his dad finally got the wind of his addiction,” lieutenant grumbled sourly. “Mind it, I cannot prove anything but one of the servants told his girlfriend, who happened to be a cousin to one of my lads, that master Saerk locked his son in his rooms without food or water and sealed the door! I got the news just before the Moon Feast 84 and went to the mansion to investigate. They did not even let me in, and when I returned to my office there was a missive from Chief Inspector Brega, telling me to mind my own business, and stop harassing the honest businessmen!”
I looked at him in disbelief. On the twenty second of Uktar according to my notes the magistrate officers had entered the doors of Delryn estate, after the stable master reported the murder.
“Can I borrow your pretty earring miss?” Jan peeped in suddenly. The little wizard was lurking behind me through the whole conversation trying to stay unobtrusive. It did not mean he missed anything though, for that was exactly what I asked him to do – serve as my second pair of eyes and ears.
Rosie looked at him suspiciously through her wet, smeared eyelashes. “I am not going to steal it,” the gnome reassured patting her on the plump hand, and giving Aegis a quick, ironic look. “Her Worship would confirm that I only engage in wealth redistribution when people really deserve it!” and he grinned in familiar, easygoing way.
“You tell this to Minsc,” I raised an eyebrow, “every time he wakes up in the middle of the night, and barges into my room wailing that his hamster is missing again!”
“But that only happened twice so far,” Jan cackled, “and it is a matter of mutual attraction between Boo and me. He comes over to visit on his own free will. If I were in his skin I would wish for a break from that chattering nightmare Minsc carries in his scabbard too!”
“I think it is a matter of carrying cookies and sunflower seeds in every pocket,” I grumbled. “Seducing your friend’s animal companion with fatty foods and romantic ear scratching, that’s how it is called. I noticed Puck spends half of his time lurking in your pack as well. Why don’t you get your own familiar by the way?”
“Tough choice,” the gnome grinned frog-like, “I cannot settle my heart on one particular animal. Elephants are too big, and anyway only someone like Beeloo can get himself into that much trouble! Cats are vain, rabbits are flighty; weasel would be stealing eggs and then I can’t go visit my aunt Cherrypip anymore; a toad would make a swamp in my pocket and I have to keep the sulfur powder dry; turtles sleep all the time and birds are tattlers!”
“Does it mean you are afraid of competition?” I smiled. “I know just a perfect companion for you Jan. The one that would suit your personality, and fill in that little niche in your heart that is still empty.”
“And who would that be, Your Worship?” he asked suspiciously, but I could see the light sparks back in his eyes again – at least this banter made him forget about his personal troubles for a while.
“You need an imp,” I offered smiling.
“An imp!” Jan shook his head in amazement. “Did I ever tell you the story about the mage Golodon and his imp familiar, no? Well, Golodon was my first master, as you can recall. Many years have passed but I had never known a wizard, human or else, with more annoying and unsavory set of habits!”
“I do remember hearing something about a head of aged Gorgonzola in his pants...” I started thoughtfully.
“Ah! The cheesy one,” Jan nodded his approval at my good memory, “he also had a familiar – an ageing female imp, who answered to the name Indread. Mind it, not all things are getting better with age! That old lady was so fat that her pitiful wings could not support her in the air anymore, so she scampered around the tower on all fours dragging her spiky tail behind, and always begging for more food. It was one of my duties to feed her and clean after her, as she left her droppings all over the place! Imagine my relief when one day she went missing. Golodon goes antsy – where is my missy?! And all his staff had to fall off their collective feet looking for her. No trace of the imp anywhere. After ten days time Golodon proclaims her dead but Indread flies back into the main dining room (during the formal dinner in her memory no less!), lean and mean as a she-hawk, and goes straight for Golodon’s bald patch!” He tentatively patted his own and winked at me. “I did not have this back then. Anyway, she screeches like a banshee and claws, and makes it clear she is very much displeased with her master! (Nobody knew of course that I sprinkled his head with a bit of powdered mandrake root that morning – imps crave after it like cats after valeriana! 85) People said, she got stuck in her pet door on the way out of his secret studio, and could not get out for more than a week. Obviously the hole shrunk over night mysteriously! Somebody left her the water in a small dish though.”
“I wonder who that somebody was,” I said smiling back at his wicked grin. “And in any case this only proves my point – you do have certain affinity to imps, whatever you may say.”
Our cheerful discourse eased Rosie’s concern to a point, when she reluctantly unfastened her precious earring, and handed it to Jan with an uneasy smile. It was a pretty enough bauble, and as I can see at once wickedly expensive. The ruby was wrought carefully into a solid gold hoop that was studded with tiny diamonds. The workmanship was superb, as with all the things coming from house Farrahd. Jan made a low whistle. Even by rough estimate she could get a hundred gold pieces for this.
The gnome clutched the earring tightly in his palm, and looked at the painted miniature for a few more minutes, muttering something under his nose. Unlike at his last flashy performance this time he was pretty modest and efficient. The few casual visitors at the bar did not even notice what was going on, although Aegis frowned and made a sign to avert evil. Jan fished out a dirty brown bit of what looked like a dog hair out of another pouch, and wrapped the earring in it. Rosie wrinkled her nose in disapproval.
“A hair of the dog that bit you?” I grumbled.
But the gnome was firm in his resolve and did not rise to my bait. “Half a mile north, north west, then make a correction on the winds from the sea, the moon is in the third quarter tonight ... bingo! I got him!”
“What was that?” The lieutenant asked suspiciously.
“The boy,” the little wizard answered happily, “is alive. Otherwise I won’t be able to Locate him with this little cantrip. It is rather easy, compared to the Read Object spell.” He made a flashy bow and gave the earring back to Rosie. I noticed that the brown patch, whatever it was, was gone.
“Are you positive about it?” I asked excitedly.
“Like an elemental from the Positive Energy Plane,” he chuckled. “This one never fails. If the person is dead you can never feel his vibes so strongly. We are very close to his home, and I had a portrait and a personal item.”
“But for how long though he is going to stay this way?” I frowned. “I cannot see any alternatives. We need to get into the mansion and get him out somehow.”
“This would be suicidal!” Aegisfield exclaimed angrily. “You don’t know what you are talking about – the villa is packed with armed guards like watermelon with seeds! You and your fighters will be discovered, outnumbered, and hacked into pieces in a matter of minutes or slowly tortured to death while his lackeys extract from you every bit of information they want! We won’t even get your bodies back. Saerk is one of the top honchos in Athkatlan underworld - the fat cats as we call them, and rightfully so. But he keeps his record clean, and is welcomed in the most of the noble houses. I understand Yusef was expected to marry the Namarch’s granddaughter, but Saerk backed off at the last moment considering them small fish.”
“Ah, but I am not planning to drag my party along,” I answered lightly. “In fact you would greatly oblige me if you don’t tell this to any of them, especially to the young man in the bright platemail or the drow lady.”
“Are you planning to go there alone then, Your Worship?” Jan looked at me amusedly. “I always knew you were a bit batty, otherwise you would not have taken up with me, but I never thought you had a death wish!”
“Why, old friend,” I answered in the same light-weight intonation, “if I had one, I had plenty of chance to get it satisfied. And alas, I am not going there alone - you are going with me.”
“I am?” The gnome replied cheerfully. “That’s great news, Your Worship! Too bad I have to disappoint you. Normally I would not care, but at the moment I cannot allow myself to be exterminated in one of these crazy adventures that you seem to invite rather like moldy piece of melon attracts fruitflies! I have a duty to someone dear to me, and I am not getting myself killed until I am done with it.”
“Oh, we have plenty of time,” I offered pleasantly, “tomorrow morning we shall deal with your little problem, whatever it is, and after it is all said and done we will go and pay Saerk a visit. We cannot get into the mansion before sunset anyway, and we cannot go tonight as it is already too late.”
“Aegis,” I turned to the fuming lieutenant, “can you get me a floor plan of the house by tomorrow night? I am sorry to bother you with this, but I do recall a certain promise made in a certain basement, and I am going to request my boon of you now.”
“I am not going to help you kill yourself over some stupid junkie!” Aegis exploded. “What is so special about young Farrahd that you are willing to risk your neck for his sorry ass? Don’t tell me you’ve fallen for him as well. He used to be a magnet for the harlots when he was younger,” he gave Rosie a dark look - she shivered. “Half of the brothels in Athkatla listed him and his gang as their best clients! Then he lost interest in women and switched to grass. Now the old snake decided that his heir is not worthy of his money anymore, so what? This city would be a better place when they are both gone!”
“He is a nice boy!” Rosie exclaimed hotly, “do not call him names, Aegis! He was so sad, and helpless, and ... plain desperate. I knew something bad had happened to him.”
“Probably lost his pouch of grass,” the lieutenant muttered furiously.
“His charms or lack of thereof have nothing to do with my wish to meet him,” I interrupted their heated exchange. “He is a suspect in another high profile murder case, and as I promised a friend of mine to get to the bottom of it – I am not giving it up. Since he is not getting out of the house, I am going inside to get him. It is that simple!”
“Two wizards may have a chance where one would certainly fail,” Jan muttered. “Assuming we can get to him, how do you suggest to get him out? That is if you even plan to do it, after you had your interview with him.”
“I cannot get us in there because I’ve never seen the place, but I think I can master the teleport spell out of there,” I muttered quietly. “I even think I can manage the three of us together. There cannot be more than sixty pounds in you,” I looked the gnome over appraisingly. “It is not going to be easy, and that is why I need you Jan. To watch my back while I am casting the darn spell, and to put a dire charm on the boy if all else fails.”
“It’s a deal,” the gnome nodded suddenly,“but in the morning you shall go with me down to the Coronet. I have an appointment that I need to keep. It maybe a good idea to have somebody watch my back.”
“I shall get you the floor plan,” Aegisfield sighed wearily, “it is the least I can do, since you are going to do it anyway, and I cannot stop you!”
“Stop her from doing what?” I purring voice of an irritated cat asked out of the blue. “And what is the plan that you asking for, jabress d?”
I turned around to behold the wet and bloodied trio of my forlorn companions. I was so absorbed in our conversation with Aegis that I missed their entrance altogether, and Viconia was able to sneak uncannily close without me noticing her. My only hope was that she did not hear enough of to draw any conclusions. She was wet and rumpled, but there was a sparkle of amusement in her red eyes, as she draw back her veil and disposed of her hat with a flourish. Unlike most of the Calimshite quarter inhabitants the Five Flagons customers were a democratic bunch, and if they could swallow a thiefling theatre without blinking an eye, a drow priestess was practically a darling. On the mean time the other two members of our company were making their way to our table through the crowd. I noticed that both Minsc and Anomen were heavily loaded with gear, and somewhat more disheveled than it was appropriate after a trip to the market. There were bloodstains on Anomen’s usually immaculate armor and tabard, and Minsc’ leathers definitely looked worse for wear.
“Now, how did you get into another fight?” I asked in annoyance, assuming that my best defense would be counterattack. “I thought you were just shopping?”
“Ah!” Minsc boomed happily. “We were. But you see, Ano and Vic decided to go and see the circus!”
* * * * *
Anomen was cold, wet, and irritated. It had started to rain when they were crossing the Alandor bridge, and by then it was too late to change their plans. He tried to keep his temper at bay for the whole morning, just as he promised to the one who haunted his dreams, but he knew he could not stand it much longer. They were following on Viconia’s heels like faithful hounds. First the dark elven wench dragged them all the way to the city graveyards, and they watched warily as she made her way between the marble obelisks and crumbling statues of angel-like creatures, that looked more like dripping gargoyles in this abysmal weather. The drow made her way to one of the more lavish mausoleums, and picked the lock with her hatpin in a quick and efficient manner. She obviously felt at home in the dreary place. The rusted door opened noiselessly for the hinges were assiduously oiled, and they saw a neatly arranged chamber with a bedroll and a couple of bulging backpacks in one corner, and a rather posh empty sarcophagus in the middle.
“Take it easy, jaluk d,” the drow laughed at Anomen’s stunned expression, “I don’t sleep in this thing,” she kicked the stone sarcophagus with her expensive, high-heeled boot of soft blue leather. (She took care to get the pair that exactly matched her gloves, even though it did cost a fortune.) “It is way too cold in it! This tomb was empty when I first moved in. Whoever built it never had a chance to use it. Perhaps they have made their preparations in advance. Considering how short-lived you humans are it was a wise move.”
“Boo says, the little one was more afraid of the living than of the dead,” Minsc shook his head with genuine feeling.
Viconia gave him a surprised look and her eyes softened. “I was doing fine, addled one. Save your pity for someone more deserving.”
“What about the undead?” Anomen muttered in visible distress. Did they bother you here?”
“The Night Singer watched over me,” Viconia answered with a shudder. “I placed the strongest of the wards she granted me on this tomb, and renewed them daily. So far I did not get any unwanted visitors but I have heard noises coming from the older section of the graveyard. I think I can ‘turn’ any wayward animated corpse with Shar’s blessing, still I am pleased I don’t have to come here again!”
At Viconia’s directions Minsc loaded himself with her backpacks. Anomen only snorted at her questioning stare. He was not going to give the dark elf the satisfaction of seeing him do her bidding! The Rashemi on the other hand, seemed fascinated with the creature of darkness. The big ranger chuckled heartily at her arrogant commands, and his big brown eyes shone softly as he followed her every move with all too obvious pleasure. Anomen had to admit that there was something to look at! The drow’s sumptuous curves were emphasized dramatically by her clothing, as her silvery chain vest and velvet pants hugged her body as a second skin. Viconia caught him staring and grinned like a pleased cat as Anomen blushed to the roots of his hair hastily murmuring a prayer to the Watcher.
At his request they stopped at lady Moirala’s grave for a moment, and Anomen paid his respects to his mother, kneeling hastily to clean the gravestone from the dead leaves and branches brought by harsh winter winds. The grave was still in good order as Moira had tended to it frequently. The young cleric almost choked at the thought of his sister bitter death, and her lonely ashes sitting at the edge of the silent black pool in the abandoned garden. Who would tend to her shrine if his bitter row with Cor would go on?
“Did your mother ... love you, jaluk?” Viconia asked suddenly. There was a genuine curiosity in her voice, and Anomen raised his eyes to meet her stare. She had lifted her veil when they entered the grounds, and now her ruby eyes sparkled brightly on her stunningly beautiful dark face.
“Is it not natural to everybody?” Anomen responded tiredly with a question of his own, and was taken aback by a peal of sarcastic laughter that died on drow’s lips.
“No, jaluk. It is not,” Viconia sighed. “You were a lucky one to have two females who cared about you.”
“Both of them are dead now,” Anomen’s face crumpled with pain. “Moira’s killer still lives and I cannot even go and see her ashes without shaming myself!”
“You would have to find and kill him to redeem your honor,” the drow said matter-of-factly, “but at least you know she is at peace,” Her face suddenly turned old and gray in the uneven light coming from the veiled winter sky. “You can touch her urn, and have your tears fall on her ashes. My little brother still lives in a sense, but his mind was wiped clean, and his tormented soul is locked forever in the hideous body of a drider d!”
Stunned by this sudden revelation the young cleric looked at Viconia’s face that for a fleeing second showed signs of searing pain. Then her features were smooth and arrogant again, and a sarcastic smile played on her full red lips.
“A drider?” Anomen mumbled in confusion. “Isn’t that a kind of a monster with the lower body of bloated spider and man’s torso? I have always thought these creatures were myth ... But what happened to your mother?”
“Valas killed her,” the drow scowled viciously, “as she was trying to sacrifice me to the glory of Lloth. She died cursing both of her children and begging the Spider Queen to punish us for taking her worthless life! My brother was young but he was a powerful mage, one who could have been the pride and strength of his family. Alas, House De’Vir is no more, and he roams the caverns of the Underdark in the shape of a pale nightmare! That was the Spider Queen’s punishment for his ‘crime’ of saving my life,” Viconia’s voice sounded dread and hollow, “the only way to save him would be to destroy him. It is my wish to meet him one day, and grant him the long craved release. The surface elves believe in reincarnation, I do not know if that happens to the illythiri d but mayhap we are not that different from them, and he can come back in a different body. Nay, this is nonsense! I should not even think of it, or the Goddess would punish me for daring to hope. Vengeance and bitter resolve is the only proper way for our kind!” She raised her chin and looked defiantly at the two humans towering over her diminutive figure like two mongrel dogs over a black mongoose, as if daring them to challenge her spirit.
Anomen felt silent as Minsc was making some soothing noises, fussing over Viconia in his usual cordial manner. Strangely enough, the drow did not rebuke his advances completely. Just sneered mockingly, and called him ‘yibin wun karliik’ d.
On their way to the Promenade Anomen thought that the priestess was deliberately goading him into watching her every move. The sway of her hips was mesmerizing. She walked three steps ahead of the two men, dancing her way proudly through the crowd, and somehow there was always an empty space for her where a moment ago was a swirl of sweaty bodies, even though she was now wearing her hat with the veil, and the soft gloves covered every bit of her ebony skin.
Now they were traversing the Waukeen Promenade under the incessant drizzle of cold winter rain. It would stop for a few minutes, then start again, seeping under their armor and drenching their cloaks, turning their clothes into a wet, sticky plaster. For a while they found shelter in the Adventurer’s Mart. Since the Order generally frowned on all arcane enterprise, Anomen had never visited the place before. His head went spinning from the spicy perfume of the exotic spell ingredients: the aroma of salamander dust, dried herbs, beeswax, peppercorns, bits of clay, embalming resin, camphor, old parchments, and strangely - the sharp smell of armor polish. The crate with magical weapons draw him as a magnet, and he watched warily as the sturdy dwarf customer was sorting through Ribald’s wares with many a chuckle and salty joke.
“Interesting contraption, my lord,” the storekeeper nodded at the dull shine of the Flail of Ages at Anomen’s studded belt. “I’ve heard of something like this once, though the manuscript mentioned five heads, not three. Rakshasa’s work, isn’t it? Mayhap I can interest you in parting with it? No? Well, I understand perfectly. Just make sure you always keep your eyes open for an uninvited visitor.” Ribald nodded with a smile, and went off to help another customer.
Viconia was holding a list, written in the Bhaalspawn wizardess’ hand that she had pulled out of her pouch, and the storekeeper quickly and efficiently packed the requested wares.
“You may want to tell the young lady,” Ribald added with a smirk, that I have news for her from the old friend.” And he slipped Viconia a note, sealed with a blob of wax imprinted with three crescent moons. It sure looked innocent enough but Anomen knew the device. So, the Kozakuran was still lurking in the shadows. The observation put the young squire into a sour mood, yet he did not object when Viconia gave him his share of the packages to carry back to the Five Flagons.
When they finally emerged from Ribald’s unsavory Emporium of dried salamanders, powdered myconids, and crumbling parchments the rain had stopped. There was even a patch of clear sky promising a short relief from misery. A few futile sunrays peeked through the thick mantle of clouds giving the great stone amphitheater that hosted the biggest outdoor market in the Realms a somewhat cheerful look. The crowds were back, mulling happily around the wet circus pavilions and cages with wild animals that were clustered behind the main tent in a makeshift shelter of bright canvas. Normally the circus people would be on their way to greener pastures of Calimshan at this time of year. Not this time. The rumors of upcoming war with Tethyr over the rebellious cities of Trailstone and Riatavin 86 were in the air from early fall. Since his loyalty was to the Order not to the ‘greedy nation of merchants’ (as Prelate often said it should be) Anomen felt indifferent about the fact although the amount of refugees from the south started to grind on his nerves.
The animals stirred and roared in their cages unhappy with the soggy Athkatlan winter. Minsc squeezed into the crowd around the tiger pen and was talking to the disheveled great cat chastising its trainer, who was trying to convince the tiger to enter the smaller cage that could be wheeled to the Big Top. The afternoon performance was about to start shortly. The ground around the cages was mulched with sawdust, stamped into the muddy ground with many eager feet. It stank with wooden shavings and animal urine.
“As if the stench of the collective rivvin was not bad enough!” Viconia scowled in disdain and sneezed. Somehow that made her statement less offensive and Anomen grinned at the wet, unhappy drow from above using the advantage of his height to look superior.
“I don’t believe that your underground cities smell any better,” he replied naughtily. Where there are people there is always refuse, and you don’t even have the advantage of winds down there!”
“The slave quarter stinks,” Viconia nodded, “because of all the rivvin! But the main streets of Menzoberranzan are gleaming clean, as any violator would be executed on the spot by the guards. And the otyghs and slimes are very efficient in disposing of the corpses.” She looked up at him amusedly. Through the veil of purple gauze her eyes gleamed like two amethysts. “Feeling better, jaluk d? I noticed you weren’t that happy about the letter that I got from that half-rivvil for jabress. You think she is teasing you?”
“Why by Helm’s beard would I care about her letters?!” Anomen muttered blushing fiercely. “I know Yoshimo had to communicate with her about some business matters. I am just curious about what it was, that’s all!”
“Is it really so?” the dark elf drawled and sneezed violently under her veil, “Ssussun pholor usstand! Now I got something in my eye! This place is disgusting - we need to get out of here!”
“What about Minsc?” Anomen asked urgently as he followed Viconia’s lithe form around the perimeter of the big tent, and away from the animal cages.
“The addled one will find us, or he will make his way back to the inn alone,” she shrugged. “Follow me, jaluk. You shall help me get this bit out of my eye, and I don’t want the other rivvin staring. Here is a quiet spot.”
She led him to the cluster of smaller tents to the east from the entrance to the main pavilion, and sneaked behind them. There was indeed a space between the bright canvas, sheltered from public view and relatively dry. Anomen wondered how did Viconia guess it would be there. The drow ordered him to put the packages on the ground, and lifted her veil. It was all done in such a superior, businesslike manner that he did not even think of disobeying her.
But when he bent over her to have a closer look at her bright scarlet eyes, she chuckled huskily and grabbed his head, pulling him forcefully down. Anomen’s heart jumped into his throat as his first thought was of some vile treachery, then the dark elf’s plump mouth clamped hungrily on his own, and for a while he could not think of anything at all.
His knees almost buckled as Viconia’s hands sneaked around his waist, divesting him of his belt, and unbuckling the strapping of his breastplate. In less than a minute she had his armor undone, and her ungloved hands were under his tunic exploring and teasing his flesh. The young cleric thought he was going to faint. He felt absolutely terrified and aroused at the same time. His thoughts were running like rabbits in the opposite directions, as he was scared half to death that any moment somebody was going to walk in on them, and at the same time was even more afraid that she would stop. His heart was beating like a hammer, pumping hot blood with the speed of overheated steam engine. Rivulets of sweat started to snake down his back into his pants.
“I think that’s enough!” Viconia chimed, suddenly pulling away from him, “or I would have to gather you from the ground with a spoon. You have no self-control, jaluk d. What if I had a dagger in my sleeve or worse?”
She made a quick move and he saw a long cruel needle spring out of the massive ring on her left hand. The tip of the needle oozed clear sharp-smelling liquid. That ring was not there this morning, he noted to himself. The drow waved her hand in front of his suddenly blanched face lazily, and smiled showing two rows of pearly-white teeth.
“W...what is this?” the young man asked taking a step back and grappling for his weapon that was not there anymore.
“It is the ring of a spider kiss,” the drow responded with a short laugh. “Highly poisonous, and quite lethal. And it is just one of the many little trinkets I had hidden in that tomb,” Viconia grinned. “Relax, ssin'urn d , I am not going to hurt you. You are weak, as all males are, but you can make a pleasant toy. I am a cruel mistress, but my slaves always found their subjugation to be most satisfying to their own physical desires!”
The needle snapped back in its hiding place and the drow’s bare hand caressed his bare breast teasingly, as if that was what she intended at the first place. Anomen drew his breath shakily. His face was slowly turning the brightest shade of red.
“I was only playing along, you know,” he said trying to control his voice. “I could have stopped any time!” His hands were shaking, as bent over to pick up his belt.
“Oh really?” Viconia laughed starting to pull on her gloves. “Then I shall not try it again, as you will be on your guard, jaluk. Or should I?”
“You are really enjoying this!” Anomen snapped at her.“But I’ve learned my lesson, drow! Perhaps, Sir Keldorn was right – the only handling that your kind understands is caress of honest steel and kiss of fire!”
“Trust is for the foolish and the dead,” Viconia’s voice sounded tired. “You would benefit greatly to remember this. As for your threats - you would not be the first rivvil to try! The last time I trusted one of your kind, I ended up trussed up and buried alive, after my neighbor and his two sons thoroughly enjoyed playing with my body. Unfortunately for them they did not finish me off before putting me into that grave. There was not much left of them to bury when I finished with them. Or do you think I saw more chivalry from the Beshabans over the two days that I was in their hands awaiting execution?”
“This cannot be true!” Anomen shook his head backing away from her again. “No! You are lying to me! No human being can do something like this to a woman, drow or not and...” he looked at her face, and the scornful sneer of her lips convinced him she was telling the truth better than a thousand words could have done it.
“I...I am sorry, Viconia! I did not mean, what I just said ... It was my anger speaking, not me...” a genuine surprise in her eyes took him aback, and the young man felt silent in total bewilderment.
“We really should go,” the drow priestess said after a short pause. “Neaten yourself, jaluk. All of this should not have happened. I thought it was going to be fun to make jabress jealous but I guess am getting old for this kind of games... ”
“You think she would be jealous if she learned about us?” The enthusiasm in his voice was unbecoming.
“There was no ‘us’, rivvin d!” Viconia hissed in frustration, “it was I who was having fun with you! And if you try to boast you shall have a chance to make a closer acquaintance with that ring!”
“Oh, I will never... that is you can rely upon my discretion...” Anomen tried to say it solemnly but grinned despite himself, and Viconia noted that regardless of his pompous and preposterous façade there was still enough of a boy in him to make him likable.
From the relative dimness of their cozy confinement behind the circus tents they emerged into a dazzling and noisy Promenade plaza, and proceeded to re-track their steps back to the animal cages. The hawker at the Big Top was yelling loudly that the last tickets were going, and that the performance would start any moment now. Kids were buying brightly died sheep-bladders filled with hot air; and the hard candy and fried chestnut sellers hawked their rain-soaked wares right at the entrance of the brightly striped tent.
A slightly disheveled elven girl in a wet silken dress was selling the tickets at the booth. She was quite pretty in a skinny emaciated way, and her wind-blown shock of blonde hair must have looked gorgeous when dry and untangled. Viconia sneered, and growled like a she-fox when they passed by, and the elfgirl made a choking sound, rather like a half-strangled hen. Anomen though he smelled a strong whiff of a wet bird coming from the cute booth-babe but decided it was just his imagination. Yet when he turned his head to steal another look at the girl and saw her profile, her longish nose and weak chin somehow made him think of a chicken. At that particular moment Viconia pinched him at the bottom, and he whirled around unable to rub the sore spot without loosing half of the packages he was carrying in his both hands. Cussing, the young squire wished sorely for his plate leggings that he left at the Five Flagons today.
“Mama we are going to be late! Let Sir Willam run ahead and get the seats! This time when magician calls the jinni I want to see it! Peony said all of that was just smoke and mirrors but I think she is lying. It was real! Was it Sir Willam? And I want that caramel apple again like you’ve got me last time! Mama, Sir Willam bought me an apple last week, remember? And it was much better than the ones that Peony makes. I want another one!”
A lady with what they call ‘the shadow of former beauty’ on the tired face frowned at the little girl in green velvets, who was jumping impatiently up and down while chattering nonstop to all around her. “Calm down Vesper, and let your sister take you by the hand!” The tired lady’s voice sounded nervous, almost hysterical. “Leona dear, don’t let her get away again!”
The third one in this female trio - a lanky teenage sister named Leona - tried unsuccessfully to take hold of one of the little hands; avoiding the sticky fingers of the child’s other palm that was clutching a bright red lolly.
“Sir Willam please don’t pay attention to Vesper’s antics! You are spoiling her rotten,” The mother of the two girls smiled at the imposing silver-haired gentleman at her side.
They only run into that model display of domestic happiness because Anomen’s senses were still very much confused. Viconia sidestepped the busy family, and was headed for Minsc’s great bulk that loomed in the crowd ahead but the young squire was carrying too many packages that hindered his eyesight. When Leona bumped into him, and sent half of his burden flying, he gasped in righteous anger and was ready to give the poor girl a good lashing of his tongue. Then his eyes caught the sight of the girl’s mother.
“Lady Maria! I am terribly sorry for my clumsiness! I hope you are doing well?”
But his worried apologies hang in the air as the woman he named Maria blanched, and grabbing the hands of both girls hurried away inside the big circus tent. The middle-aged nobleman threw a worried look at Anomen and run after his lady friend and her two daughters.
“I wonder what was this all about?” Anomen muttered to himself.
“This woman looked at you like you were a ghost,” Viconia commented handing him back one of the boxes that he dropped. “I am starting to suspect that there is more to you than meets the eye, Anomen. You are such a handsome, powerful and charismatic individual! Were you her lover once?” He could swear that despite the sweet words, the drow’s lips quivered with laughter under her veil.
“By Helm’s beard, woman! I understand that your life have been a terrible mess, but can you think of anything else but sex and violence?”
“Is there anything else to life worth thinking about?” Viconia grinned. “I have a feeling I may actually start liking your company, ssin'urn. You will develop some sense of humor if you stay away from jabress long enough! When she is around you look like a ssinssriggin wael d with intelligence of rothe’s d behind.”
“You are only saying this to start another argument,” Anomen mumbled uncertain if he should take it as an offence or a compliment. “Can’t you keep it civil? We are in a public place Viconia, and that woman was the wife of Sir Firecam, the knight of my Order.”
He bit his tongue, suddenly remembering how the drow had met Sir Keldorn, and what happened afterwards. For the last week Anomen’s mind was in a haze of grief and anxiety. He did not even stop by the Order’s headquarters to report on his progress – just sent a note notifying the Prelate of his arrival in Athkatla. His excuse was family business of course, and the fact that the Bhaalchild mage kept moving their lodgings, jumping from hostel to hostel with a speed of a wayward shooting star.
“Oh, I remember the stinking iblith d,” Viconia drawled slowly, “so, that was his mate going out with another male? Suits the old wael d perfectly!”
“I am pretty sure Sir Keldorn asked that gentlemen to entertain his wife and children whilst he is away on the Order’s business!” Anomen exclaimed angrily. “Your insinuations are completely unfounded. In fact they are outright vile! I knew Lady Maria since I was a child. She was always cool and remote, but she has a deeply rooted sense of duty to her family!”
“The cold ones are the most dangerous,” Viconia shrugged, “you know what they used to say about paladin wives in Baldur’s Gate? That they buy a lion’s share of all erotic literature out there, for the lack of real thing!”
“Now you speak like Jan,” Anomen sneered, “or are you making fun of me again? Nobody would ever believe that lady Maria Firecam is unfaithful to her husband!”
“So it has came to this,” a deep dangerous voice sounded at his side. “My name is now being dragged through the gutters, in a tale of foolish paladin and his adulterous wife. Your girlfriend is right, young Anomen. The woman who looks like the paragon of virtue would most likely betray you without blinking an eye, for deep in her heart she is lustful and treacherous, as it is so often the way of the weaker sex!”
Anomen shifted sidewise like a crab, unable to turn his head in horror. Sir Keldorn was towering over them in all the splendor of his Order uniform, with the white cloak thrown back to show the bright platemail and the long hilt of the Hallowed Redeemer- his bejeweled greatsword.
“How much did he hear?” the ill-fated squire thought wretchedly, “and does he realize that I am here with the drow elf? I may count myself lucky that he did not find us half an hour ago, and luckier still if I will get out of this mess in one piece!”
He looked furtively at the murderous paladin, looming over the blue-clad, diminutive figure of the dark elf. Viconia’s white locks were tucked under her hat, and both her hands and her face were covered. Still, Anomen knew the paladins were supposed to feel the ‘evil’ vibes, and was preparing to the inevitable disaster of her discovery. Still, the old man had only seen her dressed in rags, bloodied and half-starved after her rescue from the Beshabans, not elegantly clad in silver mesh and blue velvet.
“Tell me lady,” Keldorn’s brow creased in deep furrows, “how did you come by this knowledge? Do they flap their tongues about Maria and me on every corner nowdays, or is it something more personal? And what is your name and position in this town?”
Anomen opened his mouth in a vain attempt to invent a plausible explanation but Viconia’s arrogant voice answered the question before befuddled squire could gather his wits.
“I am countess Mareeza Kymer, formerly of Tethyr, now a humble refugee in the land of Anm.” Anomen noticed to his surprise that her lilting exotic voice indeed acquired the intonations of Tethyran accent.
“Humble? I would question this,” the old paladin growled, “you claim to be of a noble house, ‘countess’, yet your stature betrays the demi-human blood, and your speech is that of the most unrestrained libertine, unbecoming in a young woman of a good family! One wonders, why do you bother to cover your face if all your other clothes are so,” he made a rounded gesture, “revealing!”
“Oh,” the drow sighed theatrically and shook her head in a pretend sorrow, “I only cover my face and hands because they are disfigured with most unbecoming scars, my lord. But your other guess was correct - I am a half elf, a descendant of the renegade half-elven line of the former kings of Tethyr. The usurper Zaranda held me in custody for many months, and her henchmen tortured me most vilely. It was impossible for me to receive proper healing or even pray to my Goddess for deliverance for I was kept drugged most of the time. Thanks Goddess, I escaped and made my way to Riatavin. But when the wretched city revolted against its rightful rulers and switched sides, I was forced to flee yet again, and traveled to Athkatla in hope to find sanctuary from Zaranda’s persecution. My Mistress protected me and guided my steps, so I now reside in her house of worship in Athkatla’s Temple District, whence I had chanced to meet your young charge,” she nodded gracefully at Anomen, whose jaw now hung almost to his knees at her incredible story.
“And what goddess do you claim to serve, mistress Mareeza?” Keldorn asked in a more relaxed manner. He was somewhat pleased to be recognized as Anomen’s mentor and superior. Anomen, on the other hand looked mighty annoyed with her interpretation of their relative status in the Order, which was exactly the effect she was after.
“I serve the Dancer of the night,” Viconia murmured softly, “one who revels in the secrets of seductive darkness. My Mistress is Shar..ess, the Dancing Lady. 87”
“By Tempus’s balls!” the old paladin cringed, “no wonder the young fool is so taken with you.” His face took an expression of extreme annoyance. “Squire Anomen, it seems you’ve escaped the lure of the Daughter of Bhaal only to fall into clutches of the servant of Mother of Cats!”
“I err, did, Sir Keldorn.” Anomen blundered, “that is - I did not! She is not...I mean I did not...”
“Don’t bother,” the inquisitor shrugged, “you are not the first one, and neither you are the last. Sharess’ temples are the dens of inequity and her servants cherish pleasures of flesh above everything else. I should have known you would end up with someone like this ‘countess’ - a shameless brazen jade, much like her so-called goddess!”
“You are mistaken Sir Firecam,” Viconia purred in the most charming voice, “my Mistress is not deserving of her reputation of a flighty seductress. She is ingenious, subtle, and full of mystical allure.”
The drow shook her head and the soft gauze of the veil swayed, outlining the lovely dark shadow of her face. Anomen’s heart sunk, but Keldorn, though irritated by her ‘revelations’, seemed oblivious to her true identity.
“My Goddesses religious dogma is a balm to the wounded body and soul; especially if one is enduring the pain of personal loss or betrayal,” the drow sighed as if in compassion. “And since we’ve just seen your wife walking by with another man, whose company she was greatly enjoying, you may benefit from turning to my Mistress’s service.” Now her voice sounded imposing, almost triumphant. “Remember Keldorn, most pains are hidden. And serving Her brings relief to these deeply hidden wounds of the heart, and the sweetest rewards to the disturbed jealous mind!”
“Don’t you dare preaching to me that one could forget his broken heart in the embrace of the temple whore!” Keldorn roared in heart-wrenching despair. “Not all the dances of the Mother of Cats can heal this kind of a wound or make one forgive such a betrayal!”
His blue-clad opponent seemed to be taken aback by this display of bitterness and jealousy.“But Sir Keldorn,” she whispered docilely, “you cannot blame your wife for your own deficiency. She fulfilled her duty to you by bearing two perfect daughters. If she was unhappy with your performance of the night dance, she had every right to explore the sacred ritual with another!”
“You wretched...woman!” the enraged man was almost chocking from indignation. His face turned purple, and his fist clutched the hilt of the Redeemer, as if to draw it forth. However one look at the priestess’s gloved hand raised defensively over her veiled face cooled him down enough to take control of his temper.
“I shall not discuss the matters of honor with one such as you,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “Whatever blood is flowing in your veins, royal or not, you are not worthy of my anger! The law would protect my honor. The adulteress should suffer for her transgression, and her accomplice would soon taste the cold kisses of my sword!”
Keldorn turned on his heel and walked into the crowd like a statue of some ancient demigod, straight-backed and proud, towering two heads above the crowd of Athkatla’s regular denizens.
“That was cruel and unfair to lady Maria!” Anomen exclaimed as soon as old man was out of ear range. “Why did you do it? You didn’t even know for sure if there was any truth in these accusations! And you should have known that saying that she was unfaithful to him because he did not satisfy her needs as a husband was like pouring oil into fire!” The young cleric blushed at this last ‘daring’ tirade, which threw Viconia into a fit of mirth.
“You are precious ssin'urn d,” she chuckled heartily. “Of course I knew what I was doing! My True Mistress would be pleased with me, for I successfully planted the seeds jealousy and discord in his wretched black heart. As if he needed my provocation!” the drow spat after these last words. “He was ripe for the plucking, jaluk, and his dame was right to choose another over his impotent rage!”
“I should go after him and try to talk him out of it at once!” Anomen moaned. “If he runs into them in this state of mind he may do something he will regret!”
“You mean he will slay them both? What is so special about it?” the drow shrugged. “Is not it what males do to their mates in your society? ‘Tis truly disgusting the way you treat your womenfolk.”
“Of course he is not going to kill his wife!” the young cleric cried out in astonishment. “He is a knight of the Order after all! But he is going to report her to the Magistrate and then she will be jailed for life, whilst he will challenge her paramour to a duel. I don’t mind him killing the wretch, but I feel sorry for lady Maria!”
Somehow his words caused the drow to burst in a fit of silvery laughter. When she finally stopped she explained her sudden mirth. “Your ‘code of honor’ is amazing thing, jaluk d! So, ‘tis dishonorable to kill in a fit of rage but ‘tis fine to throw your spouse of many years, and mother of your children in prison for simply choosing another mate. Great Mistress!” The priestess turned her veiled gaze to the skies. “I praise the subtle wisdom of your work among the rivvin! You are truly the Dark Goddess of this confounded folk!”
Her eccentric behavior might have caused a commotion at any other time but at that particular moment the crowd around them had dissipated, as everyone who was interested in the circus performance had entered the Big Top, and the bird-girl closed her small ticket stand and went inside, pulling the flap behind herself.
“You will be wiser to avoid this kind of performances,” Anomen chided the drow looking around warily. “I find your religion a disgusting parody of true faith, yet this is no time nor place to discuss such matters. I am responsible for your safety at the moment, and I would appreciate if you try to cooperate. You’ve done enough damage for one day!”
“Feisty, ain’t we?” Viconia giggled. “I love a male with a spirit.”
“By the Gods, woman!”
“Fine,” the dark elf sneered, “I shall be quiet as a graveyard rat, my ssin'urn del’honglath d. By the way, I have not seen the iblith d enter the circus tent. If you want to warn his wife of his intentions – now is the good time. I would not lift a finger to stop him from killing her but putting a mother of two strong female children in jail is revolting. My every drop of blood screams against it! Maybe she can flee to her own House and seek their support against the raving male.”
“You maybe right,” Anomen answered in some hesitation, “but we need to find Minsc first and let him know of our plans.”
“Oh, yes – he is carrying my packs! I am surprised he did not go inside on his own,” the drow chuckled, “the addled one often acts like he is a child of five!”
They had found Minsc at the other side of the Big Top, still engaged in a long, profound conversation with a tigress. Her trainer went inside promising to return for her when their turn would come, and the ranger stayed with the cat to keep her company. He was sitting on the wet sawdust, with one hand deeply inside the small, wheeled cage, scratching the furry orange underside of the ecstatically purring animal. Predictably enough, the idea of seeing the circus performance was met with a great deal of enthusiasm from both Minsc and Boo. So, the trio of adventurers proceeded to the entrance flap of the Big Top, and entered the dimly lit space between the inner and outer canvas to negotiate their late entrance fee with the frantically hissing circus attendant, who was guarding the way in. The bird-like elven girl had disappeared altogether. Anomen decided she was probably occupied in one of the forthcoming acts. They could hear the cacophony of the pompous march coming from the inside, and the thunderous laughter of the crowd, heated by the clown’s reprisals. It seemed the performance was in full swing.
A gray shadow streaked across the clearing and disappeared under the gossamer weave of leafless branches, covered in delicate frost patterns. It was about four hundred miles to the nearest coastline from here, and the softening effect of ocean winds on the climate waned making the early mornings bitter cold, though the frail ice webs would melt away by mid-afternoon under the mild kisses of winter sun. There were patches of snow hither and yon hidden in the gullies and under the thick canopy of evergreens. Little birds with curiously shaped beaks, curved like half-moons and crisscrossed like a pair of wicked torturer’s tools, fussed among the fragrant green-furred branches of the mountain spruce, seeding the ground with remains of their winter feast, empty cones and loose seed peelings.
A man whistled quietly and bent over the patch of snow where the shadow passed on its way into deeper recesses of the forest. There were clear imprints of canine paws, each like a densely fitted flower with central soft triangle, and four neat finger indents ending in a sharp claw-mark. It could have been a dog but the closest human dwelling, the abandoned manor house in the Windspear Hills and its surrounding villages would be more than fifty miles away. That left wolves and coyotes. The imprint was too large for a coyote, although delicately shaped and light. He was not surprised at meeting a wolf in this area, merely at the fact that she (and he was now sure it was a female) was running alone that far into the winter. Her paw-prints did not match any of his local pack - of that he was sure.
He had found understanding with his wolves over the last few winters. They knew that his small stable and cowshed were well guarded and secure, and left him alone. He in his turn had never used poisoned baits, or wicked spike-traps on the shrinking piece of land that was still considered his property, though of what was going in the nearby villages or in the area around his former home, he had no control. The marauders that the new master had brought with him had no respect of life or Nature, and the farmers were falling under their influence faster than he had anticipated.
The man had met stranger things in his lifetime than a lonely she-wolf. Hopefully, the newcomer would quickly establish some sort of relationship with the local wolves and would not bother him and his livestock, going after abundant deer and jackrabbits instead. She would need to work with the pack to feed off the wild game and wolves were so much better in working out these kinds of tribulations than humans! No wild animal would willingly kill one of his own species even during the seasonal mating rituals. The wolves would fight for the leadership or female’s favors but they would never kill or permanently cripple their opponent; neither would they drive him away to starve in solitude, always giving the looser an ample chance to stay with the pack in a lesser status.
The man shook his graying head under the moth-eaten fur hood smiling bitterly. The humans were never that generous. He had finally found peace within his heart after first loosing his property and his titles to the malicious treachery of the neighbor, then burying his wife, who succumbed to poverty and lung disease. Now he lived only for his young son and his memories. Strangely, he discovered that his new life in a remote log cabin in the middle of the woods tending to his farm, his cows, his horse and dogs, and his few retainers suited him better than his former opulent existence in the old manor house. Baron Windspear was a man of refined tastes and grandiose gestures, spending money like water, and caring more about appearances than essences of things. Master Garren was a farmer, a ranger, and a caretaker, who was sometimes forced to perform the duties of a healer and herbalist for his livestock and his small family, that now consisted of his ten year old child, his former majordomo and his wife (they were too old to seek employment elsewhere), and their teenage granddaughter.
Garren Windspear adjusted his longbow, giving the wolf tracks one last hesitative look, then concentrated on following the wild rabbit’s trail that had led him here. He had no time to waste. The rabbits were digging the snow in his newly planted orchard, trying to reach the tender bark of the seedling apple-trees under the straw and rag wrappings, and his dogs were getting old to chase after the frisky rodents all day. If he succeeded in tracking the long-eared pest, his family would enjoy the rabbit stew tonight. He mentally wished the lonely wolf good luck in her quest for social acceptance with her brethren, and returned to his task.
Jaheira watched him from her cover in the dense underbrush of evergreens. A loosely connected stream of images drifted through her wolf-mind.
a middle-aged human man...smell of wood, smoke, leather, horse and cow manure... steel-gray hair and beard with few remaining strands of black... eyes like two glaciers in winter...
The man smelled oddly reliable and friendly. She whimpered trying to catch the fleeing sensation of a worry that was stirring deep in the back of her animal mind.
danger! too long in the animal shape... need to go back to natural form! pain, searing pain of the loss...and the face, suntanned and dark-eyed floating to the surface of her mind... Khalid...No! I will think about it tomorrow...not now...now hunt, chase the warm elusive creature across the snow and into the deep hollow under the tree roots... flurry of quivering limbs...smell of the rabbit’s sweat...blood, sweet and hot like life itself...mouth full of sweet sticky liquid dripping between sharp white teeth, and down a gray muzzle...the crunch of fragile bones filled with deliciously fat marrow...tender stripes of raw rabbit flesh on the tongue...the world is filled with wonderfully sharp colors and smells...bright red spot on the white patch of snow... sharp smell of green spruce needles and brown bark...warm yellow sun, high in the pale blue sky, and suddenly - far and away in the mountains, the song of a male wolf calling for a mate...
The she-wolf had feasted on the rabbit’s entrails and softer parts, and buried the rest of it under the gnarled roots of an old fir, piling the mound of frozen soil and rust-brown dead needles over her repository. She did not intend to come back for it - tomorrow she can catch another fat rabbit, or glut herself on the nest of hibernating mice, digging them from their winter sanctuary together with their cache of ripe hazelnuts and wild grass seeds. Yet concealing the remains of her meal was the proper thing to do, and her newly awakened innate wolf-sense screamed that it had to be done.
Jaheira could not remember when her human conscience started to give up before the onslaught of wolf’s glorious instincts. But she recalled the instance when for the first time in two months she awoke without pain of her loss gnawing at her heart with the sharp teeth of a hungry rat, and slowly turning her soul into the charred ruin of its former self. That was the day after she had left Trademeet and started on her long track eastward. She had slept in her wolf form that night, preferring the relative simplicity of preparing an animal den to the cumbersome task of setting a human camp. The cold morning greeted her wolf’s nose with a usual bouquet of scents that permeated soil and air of the winter forest. A spicy tang of pitch coming from evergreens, a deep fungous fetor of decaying leaves, an old stench of wolverine urine that had made her hackles raise in a growl, and sweetest of all - sharp and alluring smell of a prey. It was a lame half-starved doe that the she-wolf ran to the ground that morning putting the deer out of her misery with a quick slash of razor-sharp canines. Then she gorged herself on the venison and moved on.
Jaheira had covered the first hundred miles of her journey in two days, sleeping through the brighter part of the day (as it seemed more appropriate in her new shape), and running in a slow but steady trot through the twilight hours of early evenings and gray mornings. The nights were the time of the hunt when the wolf could loose herself in the thrill of a chase; feel the cold sting of winter air on her rolled out tongue, and the excitement of that last jump ere the bite that filled her mouth with hot, salty wave of blood. Her heart was beating in a perfect rhythm inside her lean body, and her thoughts were clean and simple, always focused on the straightforward tasks of the upcoming night, or savoring the crisp clear memories of the previous hunt. Sometimes she dreamed of the chase, and her daily dreams were as clear and perfect as her hunting nights. Gone were the torturous, life-draining nightmares, filled with endless corridors leading always into the same room with a stone slab of a table, and the mutilated naked body strapped to it in the last throws of bitter agony.
The druid was moving in the right direction, but as time passed her goal seemed less and less important, and the life of a lonely predator wandering through the game-rich forests on the outskirts of the Small Teeth drowned her with inevitability of a slow but steady drift of quick sand under the feet of unwary traveler. Days turned into weeks, and even as the shape-shifter reached her destination, her resolve to seek out the elusive Queen of the Fairies, who ruled over the remaining fey creatures of Keltormir (the forest that once covered the land from the Cloud Peaks to the Shining Sea), waned and became a vague notion of a task that should be done one day when the time allows. Jaheira spent her days sleeping in one of her few semi-permanent dens across the forest, and her nights hunting or tracking the potential prey. Sometimes she felt a strange pang of guilt, formless and remote as a pain in an amputated paw, or rather, a memory of that pain, long gone and forgotten. That was when her wolf instincts would take over, fighting the pain with the same intense fierceness and lucidity as if it was a deadly poison, forbidding her the memories and the cravings of her human form.
A few times she had come across the tracks of the wolf pack that supposedly ‘owned’ this territory but they did not bother her yet, and she had no desire for their company, knowing with some deep animal sense that they would detect an imposter, and not willing to risk her newly found balance of mind and spirit over the questionable benefits of the pack’s acceptance. On some nights, she could hear them singing in the distant Hills, as they followed a deer to its swift and bloody finale, relaying the role of a chaser from one quick-legged gray ghost to another, in the usual manner of a hunting pack. She had learned to recognize the voice of their leader – a deep velvety baritone of a strong male in his prime. Then the she-wolf could feel an answering howl raise inside her clenched jaws, threatening to break through and betray her presence to the other wolves. Jaheira had to use all her remaining human stubbornness to thwart the strange desire, and retreated deeper into her lair growling in irritation. She had no doubt though, that the wolves had noted her tracks but preferred to keep their distance, perhaps out of some strange mix of pride and respect to her privacy.
The sun has not yet risen above the rugged tree line, and the world was still cloaked in blue shadows of predawn. Later on, the shadows would retreat into the deepest coves to safeguard the tongues of gray snow under the craggiest lower boughs of bestubbled firs. The morning air was cold and crisp, with a disturbing hint of yesterday’s charred gruel wafting from the campfire. The small forest birds already started their morning routine, and the thick shrubbery was alight with busy chirruping and occasional flurry of little wings.
Ajantis Ilvastarr glared disapprovingly at the bush in question. What was this all about? His small brown eyes were red-rimmed and blurry, and his heavy-set face with slightly balding forehead and plump dimpled chin graced with shaggy beard, was pale and puffy from continuous sleep deprivation. He sighed - there was still an hour or so left of his watch. He took the most difficult morning shift as usual, (he was now a full member of the Order, and as such was bound to present a sound example of knightly behavior to his subordinates, even if it left him stiff and cranky as an old carriage). The night was relatively quiet, and a small party that consisted of Ajantis, three squires in training, and an old sergeant, wanted to continue their march to Athkatla on the morrow.
Theirs was a reconnaissance expedition, and they had discovered a lot of disturbing activity going on in the hidden valleys and remote gorges of the Small Teeth. The Ogres and the Hill Giants were on the move, supported by the countless tribes of orcs and other goblinoids. All this sudden commotion was suspicious, and since their small party was no match to what now looked like an amassing army of monsters, Ajantis decided to cut it short and return to the Order’s headquarters in Athkatla. Hopefully the Prelate would be able to make an informed decision after listening to his report, albeit what he was going to do with this information was anybody’s guess.
The heavy-lidded paladin sighed at the noise the birds were making, and continued his infinite paces around the perimeter of the camp. He still hoped to catch a catnap for an hour or so while the others will be packing and making breakfast.
“They will do the usual lousy work of it without supervision!” he thought disapprovingly remembering yesterday’s ruined supper, “but if I don’t get some sleep I risk falling out of a saddle.”
He looked in the direction where their horses were tethered. His chestnut gelding was chewing melancholically in half slumber, as were sergeant’s piebald mare and the pack mule. The squires were treading along on feet, as it was appropriate for their status. Ajantis envied the animals their ability to sleep standing upright. He could not afford to doze out on his post, for somebody would surely notice his lapse and his moral authority, that was his only tool to keep the clumsy pack of young pups who called themselves squires of the Order in hand, would be lost.
This expedition was the first serious task entrusted to Ajantis
by the Prelate since he was elevated to knighthood after returning from his
long, fruitless journey north along the
Ajantis was jealous. Not ever in his life had he accomplished anything that important. He had never learned that the small group of vagabonds, (sheltering a drow elf no less!), with whom he had an unpleasant encounter near the Friendly Arm Inn was responsible. The other thing that had never entered his mind was a possibility that his father’s generous donations to the Order had anything to do with his swift and easy elevation to knighthood. In fact, if he had learned about it, it would have upset him greatly, as he considered the Order of Most Radiant Heart a bastion of virtue and righteousness in the desert of base human depravity. He was not a bad fellow, just a bit dull and unimaginative even though he had grown up in one of the busiest, most decadent cities in the Realms. Alas! Even the rich merchant family, dwelling in the classy suburb of Waterdeep can spawn an innocent...
reek of the burnt oats ...equine and humane sweat... incense and armor polish ...phew, paladins! What a bunch of ninnies ... their horses’ leads are too short and the animals are thirsty... I’ve come close and the birds are making so much noise...will these featherbrains ever leave me alone?
Jaheira snarled at the idiot birds that raised such a racket at her presence. The human watcher possessed the tracking skills of a dead log, and would not have noticed her even if she pranced playfully across the clearing where they have set up their inexpert camp, or most likely, would have taken her for a large dog. Still the noise was annoying. She noticed with the eye of a seasoned traveller that the campsite was set too low, and because of it their bedrolls were probably all wet from the melting snow. The fire was started with green wood and was smoldering, producing a cloud of smoke that was visible for many miles around. It was all none of her business and she would have retreated quietly into the forest if not for a strange feeling of unease that came over her every time that she had turned her head sideways and glanced at the human figure at the fire.
flicker... flicker, silhouette of the sentinel shifted acquiring rainbow transparency of fata morgana and was overlaid with towering hulk of monstrous green flesh... sharp, crooked teeth, bald head covered with ugly warts... half-naked chest bulging with insanely overdeveloped muscles, covered with mystical tattoos and bone necklaces... a feathered totemic staff in place of a sword... an ogre? cloying odor of human sweat and worn leather...sharp tang of steel and ubiquitous armor polish... sweet perfume of gum resin that some human priests burn during religious rituals and plain scent of the wet wool of a tabard - the creature’s smell did not change!
The she-wolf sniffed at the hulking monster at the fire. An ogre mage stretched and continued to lumber around the campsite in a parody of a watchful guardian. Jaheira’s hackles rose and a low muffled growl emanated from her throat. The small piebald horse tied across the clearing suddenly raised her head and neighed in fear, alerting the gray and the mules. Now all the animals snorted and shifted restlessly, raising their heads and pulling at the ropes to have a better look at the bushes where the wolf was hiding. The ogre hissed and went to check on the horses. As it limped across the campsite, its outline shifted again, flickering green and he turned back into a heavy armored human knight, with bright sword at his hip. Jaheira blinked and cocked her head trying to have a better look at him from the corner of her eye. The ogre’s image came back. It seemed that whenever she tried to perceive the creature using her human senses and logic – it turned into an ogre, but when she was using her plain animal sight and sense of smell – it looked human! The druid threw a glance at the knight’s companions snoring at the fire and hair rose at her back. Leathery wings of a small wyvern were draped around an elongated reptilian body, a spiked tail curled around its owner’s bulk. Nearby slumbered a grizzled old gnoll, covered in silver-gray shaggy fur, and armored to his yellow teeth. The other two shapes looked like ordinary, ‘garden-variety’ ogres, if such a word can be used to describe these smelly, ugly, vaguely humanoid brutes.
Ajantis reached the feeble picket line, and murmured comfortingly, patting the frightened little mare on the rump. His own steed stared at him with one moist, bulging eye showing the haughty purebred profile and neighed, trying to stand on his hind legs. His rein was too short to allow such a maneuver, so the horse kicked its rear high in the air and screamed like a banshee. The piebald mare shuddered in terror and joined the chestnut in a slightly more piercing, if not less annoying bleat. Now the mule decided to support his fellow equines and added his wail of a drunken fishmonger to the uproar.
Ajantis cursed and hanged on the horses’ lead ropes with all his weight, trying to subdue the maddened animals. His companions started to turn and twist at the fire, rising sleepily, and crawling out of their blankets. Both of Ajantis’s hands were on the horses’ reins now and he clutched for his dear life, scared to let go and trying to avoid the flying hooves. His long sword beat him heavily on the hip, hindering his movements and tangling between his legs. Finally, he slipped on the dead winter grass, and went down heavily, still clutching at the ropes. Almost instantly something heavy and ghostly gray as a wicked spirit hit him on the back, and rolled him over. The paladin grabbed for his weapon, dropping the ropes and releasing the terrified animals. His sword was gone. The chestnut whinnied and kicked with all his might, aiming at the lightening-fast, silent shadow under his feet. Ajantis reeled away, barely escaping the horse’s hooves.
When he gathered himself and scampered up to his feet the first thing he saw was a large gray dog sitting no further than five steps away from him, and watching him disapprovingly with disturbingly clear, green eyes. Its front paws were resting on the hilt of a long sword.
“By Helm’s balls!” Ajantis’s face turned red as a beetroot.
His young charges watched the scene in astonishment that was quickly turning into an outright gleeful mirth. The dog growled and pawed at the sword with a formidable muscular paw. Its sugar-white canines glistened wetly under the fringe of healthy dark gums, and a long pink tongue rolled out in a most profuse show of a mocking smile. The disheveled paladin rose, taking a bold step in the creature’s direction, and noting to himself that the teeth were just too large for a dog. He wondered vaguely if the brute will be able to snap off his fingers, but decided the thought was unmanly.
“Now, be a good boy...” Ajantis muttered making what he thought a soothing gesture with his hand.
The horses continue to go mad behind his back. The ‘dog’ growled deeply and dangerously, showing the maw full of razor-sharp white triangles, and snapped at his outstretched hand, barely missing half an inch as the young man withdrew it hastily.
“It’s a she-wolf kiddo!” an old sergeant yelled form the other side of the campsite. “No wonder the horsed are mad. Just try to stay calm and don’t turn your back on her!”
That was followed by a snicker from one of the squires. They were all up and watching the show now, little brats! Ajantis scowled in frustration, showing his own strong square teeth to the wolf. Amazingly, it had the desired effect. She barked shortly, and jumped to her feet, wagging her tail. Then she playfully took the hilt of his sword into her massive jaws, looked at him wickedly smiling her wide canine smile, and fled into the forest!
Ajantis plodded through snow-covered bush, sliding on muddy soil, and stumbling over unseen roots and fallen branches. Every step was a challenge, every twist of the elusive animal trail - an agony of indecision. He knew he could not give up and let the wolf carry away his personal weapon, for this would be the end of him or at least of his reputation as a knight! He would become a laughing stock of the Order. On the other hand, by abandoning his young charges in the middle of the nowhere and chasing after the four-legged thief he was putting them at risk, and in his books that was far worse offence than loosing a sword. He only had time to yell an order requesting them to wait and putting sergeant Bundis in charge, before running off after the wolf.
Every time when the irate knight decided to stop his pursuit the she-wolf would turn back and follow him for a while, flaunting the weapon that was firmly caught in her powerful jaws. She seemed tireless and determined to make him follow. That was the most maddening game! At first, he was throwing pinecones and pieces of bark at the wolf, trying to make her drop the unwieldy burden. But that seemed to have no effect, and when one of his missiles hit her on the back, she growled in annoyance and continued her steady trot. And does not matter how fast he run she always seemed to increase her pace just enough to stay ahead of him. By the time, the he had finally decided that this was not natural behavior for a wild animal; they were at least half a mile away from his campsite.
“Stop, you wretched creature!” the knight roared in the last desperate attempt to draw the animal’s attention. “I am not going any further! Not a step, not an inch. You can keep it for all I care!” Ajantis stomped his foot on the wet snow that was now reaching up to his shins and leaned on the scabrous trunk of black pine. Sweat trickled down his spine and his lungs worked like a pair of smith’s bellows.
The wolf paid no heed to his little tantrum. She made few more steps, dropped the sword casually on the snow, and slinked into the forest like it was the most natural thing in the world. After all the trouble she gave him Ajantis was almost offended at this nonchalant treatment. Muttering dark curses and stomping heavily through the undergrowth he grabbed his sword and retraced his steps back to the camp. Fortunately, for him the wolf’s trail led him around hidden pits filled with melting ice and water, and impenetrable tangle of prickly brambles. He could already smell the fresh whiff of smoke, coming from the campfire and hear the muffled voices of his companions and neighing of horses, although the camp itself was hidden behind the sparse hedge of young firs. At the last moment, something stopped him from barging into the clearing. The voices did not sound right.
... the human is making so much noise it’s a wonder his companions did not hear him approach... except that they are even worse than he, if such thing is possible! not of my business ... I wonder what will he see? I’d drawn him far enough from the center of the illusion... would they now see him as a threat as well?
Ajantis gasped in horror. He could not have possibly spent more than an hour in his quest for the sword, yet what a horrid change awaited him at the campsite! The wolf must have been a decoy. His squires and his old serviceman were gone. Probably slain and devoured by the beasts! On their place two foul ogres, a gnoll, and a wyvern were stomping about the camp, pocking through their belongings, and obscenely enough – stirring the cook pot on the newly lit fire! Ajantis shrugged at the thought of what must be cooking in this pot. His heart boiled with grief and rightful anger, as his sweaty palm clutched the hilt of his newly recovered sword. Revenge! He would surely die avenging his friends and charges, but better for him to be dead than put on trial for negligence. The young paladin gritted his teeth readying himself for one last charge. A battle cry was bubbling in his throat as he raised his gleaming sword.
Thump. Something hit him from behind right under the knees, bringing him down to the ground and successfully preventing him from charging into the ogre-infested camp. In a moment, the weight of the massive animal body was on him and the frowning wolf muzzle scowled into the young man’s face. The animal breath was warm and her eyes limpid green like two clear beryls. She yapped and whinnied, clearly trying to convey some sort of a message.
“Vile beast,” Ajantis gasped choking on the flood of tears that suddenly was threatening to drown his resolve. “What have you done? You’ve led me away, so that your masters could finish my companions! I shall have my revenge even if it would cost me my life!”
He tried to dislodge the wolf from his chest again without hurting her, for something in her eyes convinced him she did not mean him harm. For a moment or so, they struggled frantically on the dirty snow but the animal, though strong and agile, was no match for his fury, as she clearly did not want to use her deadly teeth. Ajantis dropped his sword and grappled with the wolf squeezing her in his hands, and finally hurling her away in a flurry of gray limbs and snapping jaws. Then he pushed himself up to his knees, and grabbed for the sword. In less than a breath space, she was on him with all the stubborn tenacity of her kin. They’ve fought in silence, pushing each other away harder each time, very much aware of the menacing presence behind the scant tree line. At length the human had won, managing to toss the tired wolf away from himself, and grab his weapon as her body hit the tree trunk with a loud thud.
The man was exhausted; his breathing was rough and whizzed as the cold air rushed into his lungs with brutality of an icy stream flooding the hot furnace. The wolf was coughing miserably trying to lift herself up yet again, so Ajantis pushed himself upright firmly clutching his sword, this time ready to meet her next attack with a thrust of cold steel. He saw now that that was his only chance on going on with his suicidal plan. The she-wolf whinnied one last time looking him straight in the eye, but he shook his head firmly letting her know that he was ready for the kill this time. Something went out in her eyes then, as if the light was shut off behind the luminous windows of her soul.
The wolf raised herself on all fours, shuddered, and... melted. That was the only way Ajantis could later describe what transpired before his wary eyes. Her colors shifted from gray to brown, then from dark red to crimson, and finally to bright amber, all the time radiating the terrible heat, like a bulk of molten glass in the kiln of a glassblower; her body became transparent and pliable and finally shifted into something new. As graceful and powerful as the wolf form has been that other shape that was emerging from the shiny mold was breathtaking. Ajantis gasped. The figure solidified into a woman’s body clad in tight brown leathers. The woman rose from a half-crouch, then moaned and folded upon herself, falling on her knees and hugging herself with trembling hands.
“Kha-leed...” her whisper turned into unintelligible moan, the violent sobs shook her entire body, as if her heart was breaking.
The knight was confused. Appalled as he was at the werewolf’s transformation her miserable state, and obvious distress stopped his hand from delivering the lethal strike. The fact that the woman was stunningly attractive even in her wretched condition had nothing to do with it (or so he told himself). Her once lustrous and shiny golden-brown locks hung in a dirty rugged curtain, veiling the gaunt, grimy face that possessed features of rare beauty. Her ears were elongated and pointy - that probably indicated presence of elven blood, he decided reluctantly. Slightly slanted emerald eyes glowed with intense light betraying the terrible suffering, and her pale lips were drawn back in an awful rictus, displaying two rows of perfect gleaming teeth, that were now rather delicate and absolutely human in appearance.
“Stay where thou are,” Ajantis finally found himself mumbling, “or go back to the vile den whence thou came from, and I shall do thee no harm, werewolf! My quarrel is not with thou but with thy masters. Although thy wicked treachery deserves no lesser punishment than their cruel slaying of my companions! Be grateful that I am reluctant to spill the blood of a woman.” He was rather proud of this little speech it had dignity, yet was menacing enough to show the creature its proper place.
The effect that this ‘brilliant’ monologue had on the woman was similar to that of a sudden cold shower. She gasped, stopped sobbing, and looked at him narrowing her eyes dangerously.
“Idiot!” she breathed out in a single snarl. “Cretinous, zany, imbecile ass of a paladin, who does not know the difference between druidic shapeshift and lycanthropy! Walking tin can with mental proficiency of a shellfish! No, what was I thinking – your average crab is more intelligent!”
Ajantis’s cheeks reddened with anger. So, instead of showing gratitude for his self-restraint, the creature was calling him names. He will show her! However, as the befuddled knight breathed heavily ready to answer with a heated reprisal, a strange mood came over him. He was standing in the shady forest looking at the bloodied, bedraggled hellcat crouching at his feet, and yet at the same time he saw himself in a bright daylight, holding his horse’s reigns at the side of a wide, well-trodden highway. A slim, elegant figure, dressed in shiny plate mail planted herself in front of him, hands on her hips. On the right of her stood a tall, dark-haired warrior smiling indulgently as his hand caressed the hilt of his gleaming sword, another man - a giant with bald tattooed head holding a formidable two-hander towered at her left, and three smaller figures, one of them dark-skinned and chalk-haired as it befitted a drow elf, were waiting impatiently further up the road. The sun reflected merrily from the gilded filigree on woman’s armor as she finished her reprimand. Then her dark-haired husband took her by the hand, and led her away, leaving Ajantis behind gritting his teeth in frustration. All he did was to point them that having a drow companion were dangerous to their health.
“I know you!” he blurted, interrupting another string of colorful definitions that was flowing relentlessly from her pretty mouth. “You are Jae... Jere...”
“Jaheira,” the woman snapped, “though beats me if I know who you are, and how we’d met! I am a druid of Silvanus, the Oakfather. It is by his blessing that I can change into a wolf form, although you are obviously too ignorant to be aware of such things!”
“I know about druidic shapeshift,” Ajantis responded heatedly and stumbled. They were speaking in half-hushed tones, and his careless raise of voice made her frown. He continued in an accusing whisper, “if you are a druid of Silvanus, why are you in league with the monsters?”
This question seemingly threw the self-proclaimed druid off balance. She gaped like a fish, then tried to collect her wits and answer, but the more she thought about it the more indignation showed on her expressive face, until it looked like she was going to choke from fury. The look of her pretty face turning slightly purple made the young knight back off a little. He suddenly remembered how Prelate Vessaline bellowed at the ill-fated squire Delryn, after the aforementioned youth failed to show enough zeal in important but messy task of stable cleaning or some such. Squire Delryn was always the scapegoat, since he was a scion of a relatively wealthy family that refused to pay for his upkeep at the Order. Prelate was a talented administrator and shrewd politician, if a bit callous in his personal dealings, and things like that irritated him to no end.
“I am seriously considering cracking your skull,” Jaheira offered conversationally, “perhaps if I make a little chink some common sense can find its way in. No? A pity. It looks like we are at a deadlock here. Well, go ahead - kill me, and then make a goulash from your friends if you are so inclined.”
“What do you mean ‘my friends’,” Ajantis whispered indignantly, “they are already dead, aren’t they? Killed by the horde...” his voice trailed off as a sudden understanding made his heart leap into his throat. “You mean these are my companions?” He looked at her tired face with new hope and paled slightly.
She nodded quietly at the mute plea in his eyes. “Yes, the monsters are just an illusion. You friends are safe, unless of course you would go on with your ‘revenge’ scheme and slay them with your own hand.”
“Forgive me, my lady!” Ajantis rushed to her side, plopping on his knees and grabbing her small, scratched hands. She hissed in indignation and tried to snatch them away but he held them firmly in his big, callused palms. “If what you say is true, you just saved our lives and my honor! But how did you know? And why lure me away first?”
The druid frowned, and Ajantis noticed with a pang of guilt that her breathing was still labored, and that her left cheek sported a fresh scratch, and a bruise inflicted by his fist.
“I saw you this morning as I was going about my business,” she explained reluctantly. “Your appearance seemed curious, for your body shifted between human form and that of a huge ogre. So were the aspects of your friends. I was curious, and decided to check if the illusion was tied up to each one of you or to your campsite. You see, it is fairly easy to set up such a spell but almost impossible to maintain it for a long time, unless it is anchored to an enchanted object! No, I am not a wizard myself,” she added at his curios stare, “but I do know a lot about magic. I have friends...and associates.”
“Pray do continue,” the young man muttered, squeezing her hands in a fit of enthusiasm.
Jaheira yelped slightly, and freed herself from his grip glowering at his clumsy apologies. “Are you so intent in finishing your job?” she gasped, but then softened at his guilty stare. “Just stop fidgeting and pay attention to what I am saying. When I’ve drawn you away far enough the illusion had failed. And now I can see you clearly as a man, even though I am back in my humanoid form. I was only able to see through illusion as a wolf,” she explained at his inquiring stare. “Moreover, only when I tried to think as a wolf.” She sighed and muttered something unintelligible. “No matter, I am human again, as much as I could ever be. Now we need to decide what to do about your friends.”
“Why do we need to do anything about them?” Ajantis blinked. “I shall simply approach them and explain things the way they are. Even if it will be tough to go out there and talk to the ogres,” he complained. “But if I shut my eyes tight...”
“Yeah, it will be that much easier to them to chop your head off,” Jaheira finished with a snarl. “Or do you think this enchantment works only one way? They will see you as their worst nightmare. This is so-called double-edged Programmed Illusion. I’ve heard of such spells, though never seen one activated ere today. The enchantment must be anchored to something in your camp, or rather something you’ve brought with you.” Jaheira shook her head. “I can’t believe you’ve just happened to camp on a spot of wild magic. It would be too convenient an explanation.”
“You maybe right,” the young paladin muttered, “now that I think of it, we had a rather weird encounter yesterday. It was a single Hill Giant, you see. When he saw us, he yelped and run off, like the Hell itself was after him. I thought we just looked formidable enough as a group to scare him away. But the Hill Giants don’t run away that easily, even when they are outnumbered. And strangest of all - he left behind a cow!”
“What’s so strange about it?” Jaheira cocked an eyebrow. “They are known to raid farms and villages, snatching the livestock.”
“It was a live one, you see. Fat and healthy little beast, with a collar and a cowbell. I had a strange feeling it belonged to our runaway.”
“What did you do with the cow?”
“N..nothing,” Ajantis blushed. “The lads wanted to eat it of course but I was adamant – we simply let it go.”
“Good,” the druid nodded, “most likely your giant is a local farmer, who was simply herding his bovine back to the barn. Now think. What did you do in the last few days? Did you happen to offend a powerful wizard? When was it that you had your last contact with humans?”
“Fascinating story, indeed,” Garren Windspear stretched and shifted in his creaky old armchair, placing his feet closer to the flicking fire.
They were all warm and slightly dazed after a sumptuous meal of rabbit slow-roasted on a spit, freshly baked bread, and homebrewed dark ale. Jaheira picked sulkily at her vegetables, and complained the meat was overcooked, but subsided after both Ajantis and their host looked at her strangely. Once they finished their dinner, the squires were sent to sleep in the kitchen, on the freshly stuffed straw mats arranged by Garren’s housekeeper. After weeks of camping in the wet and cold forest, the youths were ecstatic.
There were three of them - two clumsy bright-eyed boys of no more than eighteen, their chins barely covered with soft fuzz, and sturdy, red-cheeked girl, the daughter of a rich farmer from the North. Elotte was the ringleader, and obviously the smartest of the three. The looks she gave Jaheira on their way to Garren’s cottage were most appreciative. The druid wondered if the lass had guessed her part in the ordeal, and what did she think of it. On the mean time, she decided to keep an eye on the girl. The old sergeant Bundis Grady volunteered to sleep in the stable with the horses, despite their host’s protests.
Thus, Jaheira and Ajantis finally got Garren Windspear all to themselves. The former baron was reserved, nonchalant listener, who did not blink an eye through all Ajantis’s incredible tale. Only the occasional flicker of sparks from his clay pipe that he relit twice through their conversation betrayed any interest on his part.
Now he slowly hunched over the hearth, dumping the contents of his pipe on the coals, and asked casually. “And how, say you, you’d managed to lift the curse from your confederates?”
“That was easy,” Jaheira sighed, “once I convinced Ajantis I was telling the truth, he agreed to creep around the bushes and cut the horses loose, whilst I provided the distraction. They were forced to split their forces, and run after the animals, therefore giving us a chance to rummage through their packs and saddlebags. Of course, by that time we knew what we were looking for. Once the item was removed and taken far enough from the camp - the illusion faded.” She reached inside her jerkin and pulled out the ornate scroll case of fine leather, decorated with gilt and silk tassels.
“Open it, my lord Garren.”
“And why should I?” The old man looked at the fine object as if was going to bite him. “I recognize the insignia. Verily, I have no desire to touch anything that has been in his hands.”
“I gather there is no love lost between you and lord Firkraag?”
“You are correct.” Garren’s profile was still like a stone bas-relief, although Jaheira could see the small blue vein pulsing at his temple.
“But my lord Windspear!” Ajantis cried out hotly. “The letter was addressed to you!”
“I do not wish to discuss my private affairs,” Garren snapped. “You’ve enjoyed my hospitality – have grace to leave the sleeping dog rest!”
“If you wish it so,” Jaheira sighed. “Still, it maybe a dangerous thing. He had obviously wished you harm.”
She pulled the case open and pried out the scroll nested inside. Generous blob of red sealing wax imprinted with dragonhead was affixed to the parchment on a twisted piece of cordage. She unrolled the letter - it was short and dripped with content covered with pretend courtesy. Lord Jierdan Firkraag inquired about his neighbor’s health, complained about the weather, and asked if ‘dear Garren’ was still adamant about the land deal.
“Quite an arrogant bastard, isn’t he?” Jaheira noted. “I have heard his lordship purchased the peerage from the Council of Six quite recently, at astonishing price. Couldn’t have anything less than a dragon’s head for his device, phew! He did not even bother to invent a plausible excuse for this missive, despite his insistence that it was quite urgent. Ajantis was supposed to deliver into your own hands,” she added. “Of course, he intended to get it back, as soon as the carnage was over, so as to leave no evidence of his involvement. If there was any magic about this epistle it is gone now,” she said mildly. “Triggered by the first encounter with the farmer they met in the forest a few days ago. And then dispelled, by removing the spell anchor from the vicinity of its targets. One wonders, why did not he link it to a particular individual? But then, you may have been away from your home when they arrived.”
“Are you saying Firkraag meant them to attack my household?”
“Oh yes,” Jaheira nodded. “Most likely they would have slain everybody in the house, seeing them all as monsters who invaded your home. And you would have been hard pressed to protect yourself and your loved ones. I am not sure who would have won,” she looked uncertainly at the old man’s powerful hands.
“Do you have proof that the letter was enchanted?” Garren asked quietly running his fingers through his close-cropped gray hair.
“None whatsoever,” Jaheira shrugged. “Ajantis and his little troop visited the illustrious lord Jierdan in his, pardon me your mansion, on their way from Brost. They were treated with utmost hospitality, and the gracious host was extremely curious about their mission to investigate the Ogre tribal activity in the area.”
“I’ve been sending warnings to Vessaline for months,” Garren muttered. “We had squired together and were knighted on the same day. But he always had an eye for politics. Full points in rhetoric and religious philosophy classes. Married the niece of former Meisarch. His raise through the ranks of the Order was spectacular. And I had to retire from my duties when my older brother had his unfortunate accident. You see, I never expected to inherit the barony; it was rather a shocker... ”
“Prelate Vessaline...” Ajantis started.
“Prelate Vessaline sent you to Firkraag, who was his eyes and ears in the region for the last two years! Only these eyes and ears saw not the peril that is even now is brewing between the crags of the Small Teeth!” Garren exploded.
“By Gods! We did have a letter from prelate to lord Firkraag,” the young paladin stiffened, “but if you are implying that prelate is a traitor to the cause of righteousness...”
“Vessaline is a fool, who is so involved in his petty politics and power struggle with the Council that he sees not what is going on under his nose!” the older knight exhaled. “And Firkraag had bought his support by generous donations to the military school in Murann, prelate’s pet project. I have no quarrel with the Order, and even Vessaline’s obvious backing of my rival, the man who through his ingenious machinations drew me into bankruptcy, and annexed my lands, did not affect my loyalties. The Order was my family for long. So long, that I almost forgot what it was to care for a real one. Praised be the Watcher for giving me a chance to redeem myself! One thing I realized, perhaps too late, and that is that before rallying troops for the last grand battle between Good and Evil one should start small, say become a protector and caretaker of his own household!”
“You are the first Helmite that I know to express such a view,” Jaheira shook her head. “Most of your church members are a bit more...”
“Callous? Pompous and unsympathetic to the plea of those of ‘lesser stature’?” The old paladin nodded at Jaheira’s obvious discomfort. “Don’t answer. I know what they speak of us behind our backs.”
“What do they know of the Vigilant One’s designs?” Ajantis scowled.
“Oh, we’ve earned some of our reputation,” Garren nodded
absently, ignoring the younger knight’s remark, “but I know that the priests
who had scorched the
“My word of honor!” Ajantis flashed.
“Versus that of lord Firkraag,” Garren dismissed it with a shake of his head, “anything else?”
“Are you questioning our words?” Jaheira frowned angrily. “Because if you are, you are doing yourself a disservice my lord Windspear. We could have shrugged the matter off, and proceeded on our respective ways. But I deemed it necessary to stop by your house and warn you of the upcoming danger.”
“Oh, I trust you, there is no question about it,” Garren answered simply. “I am merely playing the devil’s advocate. So that you will understand, that it is impossible for us to proceed with this complaint. Lord Firkraag has the local authorities in his pocket, and strong support in Athkatla due to generous distribution of funds. Since he owns my debt obligation that is worth about thrice the actual price of the lands, he is de-facto lord of this realm. The only thing he still lacks is the barony itself, and since the land is bound to the title and I refuse to sell him my ancestral name, he raves and rages but can do nothing until both I and my son are dead.”
“Curse him! That was exactly what he was trying to arrange without driving suspicions to himself,” Jaheira snapped. “But I see your point. There is nothing we can do now. He is a strange one. I do remember meeting him briefly in Athkatla but my friend refused his offer of employment, although he promised her riches beyond belief. One wonders were his money came from. I had never heard of his family, albeit I traveled far and beyond, and no stranger to Amn.”
“Ever since he took over my barony the land had suffered,” Garren said grimly. “Albeit at first, he accused me of neglect to gain influence over my people. There were many sudden disappearances, slaughter of livestock and burned crops. I could do nothing. His minions whispered into my vassal’s ears that their lord does not have the will or sufficient funds to protect them. That was my undoing. For in my quest to restore my authority I borrowed unwisely, and helped him to tighten the noose around my neck. Now that I am diminished to gentle poverty, he is collecting the dues and taxes from the farmers. I doubt that he is getting much. The land is exhausted by his greed, and the people are suffering under his harsh rule. But his original wealth is of unknown origin. There are rumors... but again there are always rumors. My lord, lady,” he rose and bowed graciously to Jaheira. “’Tis time for us to retire. I shall discuss this no more, till I sleep on it. You shall have my chamber tonight, my lady. And I will share my son’s room with my young comrade at arms, since Taar is sleeping in the servant’s quarters tonight. I apologize for the lack of comfort but this is the best we can do for you under the circumstances.”
On the next morn, Jaheira was awakened by the sound of rhythmic thudding coming from the outside. After so many days in wolf’s body, the sensation of warm blankets and clean linens felt so self-gratifying that she loathed leaving her bed, even as she hated herself for this sudden surge of hedonism. She shrugged remembering their frequent arguments with Thea. The Bhaalchild was a late raiser, and she always whined and sighed incessantly if she had to wake up before her time (which was usually well after the sun had settled high above the horizon). In Jaheira’s eyes, there was no excuse for loosing precisions morning hours on luxuriating in bed.
Thinking of Thea made her remember the suffocatingly hot summer they had spent together in Baldur’s Gate. That memory made her uncomfortable. For months Jaheira was restless, as if she had a premonition of the upcoming storm, even when the situation seemed to be under control. For once they had a sense of stability, and the future that did not include every day fighting for survival. The girl was about to be elevated to the ducal status, and even though there were dark glances and occasional poisonous remarks behind her back, overall the unlucky Bhaalspawn seemed to enjoy the rare streak of popularity and public support.
Then it all crumbled before Jaheira’s disbelieving eyes. The Harpers Council was sending her one confusing instruction after another, and she had to spent a lot of time convincing her local contact to stay calm and do not attempt to seize control of her willful young charge. Later, something terribly wrong had started to happen with Khalid. The panic-stricken, pained looks he was giving her pierced her very heart, and his usually sunny and patient demeanor suddenly turned moody and melancholic. Yet, he refused to discuss the reason behind his spleen, and his passion for her turned arduous and desperate. Jaheira could not recall their relationship being so intense and passionate even in the early days of their marriage. And then - the final catastrophe. Thea’s abrupt flight from the city, and their ill-fated pursuit that ended in their captivity. Khalid’s murder and the girl’s wretched confession...
Stop! Jaheira yelled at herself. There is no need to thread upon this road just now. I shall think about it tomorrow. Or later, sometime when the world would not be balancing on the edge of destruction, and I would not be holding the very scale on which the Slayer’s heart should be weighted.
She jumped out of bed in one graceful motion, and quickly dressed herself, noting that her clothes were taken and that instead she was given a clean tunic and leggings of rich fabric cut for a woman, although slightly worn and shabby. It fitted her nicely, albeit was a bit too tight around the bosom. “Did these belong to Garren’s late wife?” she thought briefly. Her studded leather jerkin and pants were cleaned and oiled scrupulously.
. . .
The druid found her way into the kitchen and was offered the warm honeyed porridge, bread stuffed with pumpkin seed and dry cranberries, fresh eggs and milk, and wrinkled winter apples. Garren’s housekeeper was a small silver-haired lady, with a smile of a child on tired lined face (not unlike her apples), and quick clever hands. While she was eating, Jaheira peeked cautiously out of the small window. Ajantis’s squires, Shamus and Gorgan were busy filling the big water barrel from the stone well in the courtyard. Elotte was supervising the ordeal, and cheering them up. Martha (that was the old lady’s name) explained good-humoredly that they were preparing the bathhouse for use by guests. Jaheira reddened. Her personal cleanness was questionable, to say the least. Spending two weeks in animal state did not improve the condition of her clothes, and she realized that she must have still smelled like a wolf.
Muttering excuses, she removed herself from the kitchen and walked outside. Ajantis was nowhere to be found, but she soon discovered the source of the mysterious noise that had woken her up. Garren was chopping firewood in the backyard, whilst his young son was playing with the dog by the woodpile. The former baron was shirtless, and Jaheira clucked her tongue at the impressive display, for his body was still slim and muscular despite his middle age. Judging by the ferocity of his strikes, their host was not in the agreeable mood but the druid never shied away from a challenge, so she made her way across the yard, and stopped next to the hot, sweaty paladin. The boy smiled at her, and she noticed how his steel-grey eyes mimicked the expression of his father’s - same haughty and remote stubbornness.
“So you are up at last,” Garren regarded her from the elevation of his superior height, and lowered his axe. “I thought you were going to sleep until !”
“Good morn to you too, my lord Garren,” she smiled. “Did you have a chance to think over your situation?”
“You are straightforward, I’ll grant you this,” he responded humorlessly. “Yes, my lady. I’ve made my decision.”
“I shall follow Ajantis to Athkatla, and present my case to the Council of Six. Mayhap I will also be able to convince Vessaline to support me, instead of Firkraag.”
“Most unlikely, albeit I applaud your resolve,” she nodded. “I wish you best luck. If you will need my testimony, I shall give it any time. A pity I cannot join you on your way.”
“I dare not ask what is holding you here.”
“It is a private matter,” Jaheira sighed, “although I can use your help, perhaps. I am looking for a landmark. A tall standing cairn in a circle of smaller stones. It may be in a remote area in the woods, or perhaps on the small island, or a hill.”
“I do know such a place,” Garren nodded slowly. “Albeit no sane person would go near it, especially at night. I can take you there if you wish. I suppose you know what you are doing if you are seeking the entrance to the Seelie Courts of the fairies! But don’t blame me for not warning you in advance.”
“Their Queen is fickle and mischievous,” Jaheira agreed, “but generally good-natured. Besides, I am doing her a service by seeking her out.”
Garren whistled. “So, you are looking for Vaelasa89 herself,” he looked her over admiringly. “I doubt I shall see you again in my lifetime, lady. A pity. I like your spirit.”
“Are you always such an optimist?” Jaheira raised an eyebrow, “know this, my lord Garren...”
But whatever she was going to say was left unfinished, for at that moment they heard a loud yell coming from the front yard. Somebody was crying their head out trying to attract attention. Garren dropped his axe and rushed forward, pulling shirt over his head as he run. Jaheira caught up with him as he turned around the corner. The first thing they saw when they reached the center of the commotion was angry Ajantis holding a small bare-feet, hairy-toed gentlemen of halfling persuasion by the scruff of a neck. The halfling dangled from paladin’s fist rather like a rag doll, trashing and shrieking like mad as he was trying to kick the red-faced knight in the shins. At the sight of Garren, the halfling redoubled his efforts.
“Ah, my lord Garren! Run! Hide! They are coming! Run I said!”
“Oh, stop it, Jum. Calm yourself and tell me what is going on!” Garren frowned.
At that instance, the little rogue succeeded in landing a solid blow at Ajantis’s knee. The young man, who was not wearing his steel greaves at the moment yelped, and almost dropped him.
“Curse it! We’ve caught this little rat in the bushes, spying at your house, lord Garren!” Ajantis growled snatching the unfortunate halfling with his other hand, and almost chocking him in process. “As I grabbed him he started yelling this nonsense about the bandits. There is not a single soul within half a mile from the house, Sir. Sergeant Bundis and I were patrolling your lands when we spotted him!”
“Bandits! I saw them! They try not to be seen, but I saw them! Nearly here!”
“This is ridiculous,” Jaheira muttered. “Why would anybody try to rob the only house in the area that is actually guarded? Unless...”
The loud yelp of a dog and the cry of a frightened child interrupted her this time, and she could not clearly recall what happened next as the place was filled with people yelling and running, flash of arrows and frightened neighing of horses. When she run around the house, and reached the backyard, she had found the old hound gurgling in a pool of his own blood. Garren’s young son Taar was gone.
Drow mini-dictionary for this part
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jabress mistress, usually said about the female in charge of important enterprise
dryder a monster with lower body of a spider, created by Lloth’s curse on a drow perpetrator
illythiri dark elves
yibin wun karliik weak in the head
Ssussun pholor usstan! Light upon me!
ssinssriggin wael love-struck idiot or more precisely lusting fool
ssin'urn sexy male beauty
iblith disgusting piece of refuse
ssin'urn del’honglath brave sexy male
NOTES FROM SISTER OMPHALLA.
76. Tel’Quessir - The Fair Folk refer to themselves as Tel'Quessir, an elvish term meaning the people. They refer to all other beings as N'Tel'Quess, a less-than-diplomatic elvish expression meaning not-people. The Tel'Quessir originally included seven known subraces of elves, each of which is believed to have appeared in the Realms over 25 millennia ago and all of which have interbred with humans to form Na'N'Tel'Quess, almost-not-people (half-elves).
77. The Grandfather Tree dates back to the height of Aryvandaar, long before the Crown Wars precipitated the Descent of the Drow and the fall of the Vyshaantar Empire, making it one of the oldest living things in all of Faerûn and over 13,000 years old. With the exception of the Stone Stand cutting (of which more is said below), the great giant of the woods is the last known living example of an "arakhor," an Elven term that translates loosely as "one who protects the forest," or "tree warden." Akin in some respects to elementals, the arakhora draw life, energy, and intelligence from the forest in which they dwell and give back a forest's energy by serving as a caretaker and guardian. Writings preserved from this era by the church of Labelas Enoreth suggest that the arakhora were a form of elder treant, perhaps the progenitors of the treant race in its modern form.
In the course of over ten millennia, the nature of the arakhora and the role they once played in safeguarding elven realms has been forgotten by even the Fair Folk. Today, the Grandfather Tree is as much a mystery to the elves of the High Forest as it is to the Uthgardt barbarians who venerate it as a beast totem and woodland spirit. Those few elves, who have encountered the Grandfather Tree in recent centuries typically venerate it as a manifestation of Rillifane Rallathil.
78. One is struck in elven theology by the close relationships between the fair Folk, magic, and the natural world. Most of elven faiths emphasize elven unity with life and nature, and they tend to blend the distinction between elves and their environment, much as the Seldarine are held to be spirits of Arvandor. For example, the Fair Folk have spirits, not souls, and many elves believe they will be reincarnated as animals, plants, faerie folk, or even elves once again. Similarly, elves are creatures of the Weave, tightly bound to and part of the web of magic that envelops Abeir-Toril.
79. Some notes on the recent history of Tethyr.
- The dusky half-elf king Kymer was killed in a duel with his nephew, and the corsair became King Haedrak II in the Year of Loose Coins (1227 DR).
- Tethyrian princess Cyralna was married to Lord Ortaal Emveolstone, a son of the Emveolstone clan of Waterdeep, and their first child was due. A royal entourage traveled to Waterdeep for the birth, consisting of her younger brother Prince Toram, her two youngest sisters the Princesses Chynnil and Pyriiss, and the five daughters of her recently deceased sister, Princess Kessynna. Cyralna Emveolstone and her child died in labor. Before the news of this tragedy could be sent to the court of Tethyr, all seven princesses were dead in their beds, slain by mimic grubs disguised as pillows. Within a tenday, it was found that the lesser Lord Kyvan Emveolstone, a recent widower who was uncle or brother-in-law to the princesses, had killed them in concert with the greedy Prince Toram so they might rise in power. The aged King Haedrak died of a fit after hearing of the awful fate of his three daughters and five granddaughters, seven of whom were slain by the hands of his own kin. At the request of the new King Errilam, Kyvan and prince Toram, the murderers of the seven princesses, died the deaths of traitors in Waterdeep, and their quartered remains rotted over the gates of Waterdeep and Zazesspur by the end of the Year of the Purple Toad (1274 DR).
- Despite the devastating events that led to his assumption of the throne, King Errilam was a kind and well-loved king. His laws were just, and he was a friend to commoners, nobles, and elves all equally. While hunting with his court and some elven friends within the Forest of Tethyr in the Year of the Beholder (1277 DR), the noble king Errilam was killed in an accident. While the elves claimed it was a mishap that occurred while chasing an owlbear, Tethyr’s king was dead, and many whispered that the elves secretly shot him or deliberately led him to this accident. The incident sparked century of strife and hatred and many cruelties between the royalty of Tethyr and the elves.
- Alemander III (1262 to 1288), 1st nephew of Errilam, King of Tethyr ascends the throne and begins persecution of the elves.
80. At the center of all the rest of the Outer Planes lie the Outlands. They are a place where all factions and ideas collide along its outer ring. It's a place where every idea has a counter, and if someone travels long enough they'll come where they've started, as per the Unity of Rings. At the center of the Outlands is a massive spire, stretching infinitely high into the sky. It is ever present throughout the Lands; no matter where one goes, the center can always be found by following the Spire. At the very top of the spire, floating above an infinite space lies Sigil, the city of Doors.
81. Languages of the Forgotten Realms
Netherese – Language of the lost kingdom of Netheril. Bears similarity to many elfin languages with added, subtle and duplicate meanings. Very good language with which to discuss magic.
Rauric – Language of the ancient humans in the areas now in and about Mulhorand and Unther.
Espruar – Silver Elfin Runes. A runic language used to express elfin thoughts. Like Dethek, all elfin languages (not common elfin though) are the same when written.
Dethek – Runic method of recording dwarvish speech. Interestingly enough, all dwarvish dialects are identical in written form (excluding dwarf common).
82. Since rabbits and hares belong to the family Leporidae, they are also sometimes called leporids. Leporids are among the most familiar mammals. If it has really long ears, it’s probably either a leporid or an animal named for a leporid. Leporids are also known for their long hind legs and habit of hopping.
83. Homo homini lepus est (Rauric) - Man is as a rabbit to his fellow men. (From Homo homini lupus est Man is a wolf to his fellow men.)
84. The Feast of the Moon is celebrated on the night of the last day of Uktar (the Rotting); among other important holidays selebrated on that night are the Day when the Dead are Most With Us (Myrkul), The Commemoration of the Fallen (Haela Brightaxe) and Rising of the Dark (Shar).
85. Highly speculative!
86. In the spring of 1370, the Year of the Tankard, rebellious cities of Trailstone and Riatavin seceded from Amn and petitioned to join with Tethyr.
87. The Dancing Lady, the Mother of Cats, - different names of Sharess - the goddess of sensual pleasures, hedonism, festhalls and (not surprisingly) cats. Her symbol is two full feminine red lips, smiling.
88. An alliance between the three Gods of 'good' alignment - Tyr (The Even-Handed, The Just), Torm (The True, The Loyal Fury) and Ilmater (The Crying God), is generally known as The Triad.
89. The Fairie Queen Titania is also known as Queen Mab, Rhiannon or Vaelasa by humans. She is the Greater power of Ysgard, Arborea, and the Beastlands. The Queen of the roaming Seelie Court Titania is very protective, curious, and playful, but also very conscious of her small size, and conflicted between curiosity and caution. She is imperious and beautiful, powerful and incisive, yet starngely flighty and vacuous. She is the one who watches over the faerie races, including treants, dryads, satyrs, pixies, unicorns and the like. She desires nothing more for her charges than that they should live forever in blissful hapiness. Her husband and consort is Oberon, but they both take other lovers as it suits them. Titania occasinally leaves her realm to hold court in sylvan forests of the Realms. It is rumored that many a place is marked with circle of standing stones, that serve as gates connecting the Faerun with her blissful realm of Seelie Court.
Last modified on August 30, 2002
Copyright © 2001 by Janetta Bogatchenko. All rights reserved.
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