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The Mystara Chronicles XXV: "Brother in Arms"

by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)

Ilselloc fiddled with the rope that held the greased skins stretched taut over the wagon, tightening it ever so slightly. The grey sky threatened rain, which would mean the ruin of the gift of Eltan's Spring's crop if it should catch them unawares. Thalaric watched the young elf's fidgeting with amazement. The Vyalia could not believe how much he seemed like a Karameikan merchant. What would he make of the Blueleaves? he thought. What would they make of him?

Their passage south was going slowly, far more slowly than their journey north had been. After their trials at the hands of the hag and three days of inaction at Eltan's Spring, the companions longed to give heel to their steeds and gallop triumphantly back to Threshold. Boldar had not stopped talking about the Iron Ring and the things he hoped to do to its members. Varis longed to speak to his hierarchs, Fyodor to spend another night in revelry at the Juggling Ogre. But because of the slow pace of Ilselloc's wagon, they were forced to put the fulfilment of these desires on hold for the time being. It was going to be a long, slow journey before they would reach their destination.

The trip might not have been swift but it was relaxed and friendly, the companions' sprits rejuvenated by the freedom of the road. That night, when they made camp, Fyodor realised that it was exactly one month ago that they had been drinking in the fields outside of Stallanford on the Night of Fire. The next morning, they had made their way against the orcs of the Wufwolde Hills, and their adventures had begun. For Ilselloc's benefit, they told the entire story, emphasising the sense of danger, exaggerating the odds, minimising their fears and uncertainties. The young elf ate it up.

"So you just charged into the cave?" he asked, wide-eyed.

"That's right," Fyodor answered. "Lickety-split, right up the side of the hill. Didn't think twice."

"That was so brave!" Ilselloc said.

Varis smirked. It was something, all right, but I'm not sure it was bravery.

"That's nothing," Boldar said. "You haven't heard about the worms." He said this last with in a low, rumbling voice, his black eyebrows raised into arches.

"The shooting star is gone." Thalaric spoke, his eyes raised to the night sky. The others directed their gaze upwards. The daytime clouds had dissipated somewhat, and the sky was relatively clear. The heavenly torch was nowhere to be seen.

"Look," Fyodor said, amazed, "look at the Griffon."

Varis inclined his gaze heavenward and found the constellation of which his friend spoke. "What about it?"

"Look at its tail...I can't see the last star."

The philosopher squinted at the celestial lights, and he was surprised to see that Fyodor was right. A star, the third of three that marked the Griffon's tail, was missing. "Maybe a cloud obscures it," he said thoughtfully. "The air was not so clear today."

"Maybe," Fyodor replied. "Or maybe the star fell out of the constellation." What could that mean? he thought to himself. Why is the Griffon losing its tail?

* * *

All told, it took the group three days to make the southwards journey, and they arrived on the night of the second of Fyrmont. The guards and clerics of Tarnskeep welcomed them back and informed them that the patriarch and matriarch were not available at the moment. However, their rooms had been kept up and they felt confident that they would be able to find room for Ilselloc as well. The friends thanked them and went eagerly to their rest.

Early the next morning they were met by messengers from Aleena; the matriarch wished to speak with them immediately. The companions made themselves as presentable as they could as quickly as they could and shovelled some cold chicken into their mouths as a breakfast before going to meet the Administrator of Threshold.

Aleena had decided to meet them in her private chambers in Tarnskeep instead of her offices in town, and so to there the brotherhood went. Although he was uninvited, they had asked Ilselloc if he wished to come with them to meet the matriarch. The young elf politely declined, obviously put-off by his strange surroundings. He added that he hoped to make the trip back to Eltan's Spring as soon as he was able. The companions had made him swear not to do so before they had a chance to properly send him off.

And so the four companions alone met Aleena in her study, a neater, more spacious version of her town hall office. The matriarch had obviously just come from morning services, as she wore her formal long white gown with the emblem of the Order of the Griffon emblazoned upon it in gold thread. Her flowing yellow hair was unbound and swept gracefully down her neck. Fyodor had forgotten how beautiful she was; Varis had forgotten what a powerful presence she possessed.

Aleena greeted them all and blessed the kneeling Varis, her expressive blue eyes full of concern as she saw his mutilated ear, the still-yellow cast to Thalaric's skin. "I sent you north a week ago," she said, taking her seat behind her desk. "I thought you had met the same fate as Ilsa and the others. In fact, I was preparing to go myself to Eltan's Spring this day when I received word that you had returned." Aleena smiled a lovely, grateful smile. "The Immortals have heard my prayers. Tell me: what is going on in Eltan's Spring?"

And so Varis told the tale, everything from the Iron Ring ambush, to the almost fatal attack of the giant wasp, to the strange breeding practices of the town, to the pixies, the hag, and Bertrak's restitution. He told his hierarchical superior with sorrow of the deaths of Ilsa, Dunkel, and Theobald and afterwards handed her the note from Bertrak. Aleena, face ashen, took the scroll and broke the seal. The philosopher watched her with extreme interest as she unrolled it and began to read. Brow furrowed, she soon rolled up the note with a practiced hand and slipped it into a drawer of her desk.

"This is not what I expected," she said quietly, her eyes fixed on her hands. The companions exchanged glances of concern, all except Varis. The philosopher stared straight at her, hoping to divine by her expression what Bertrak had written. The temptation to read the Chosen of Belnos' note these past few days had been intense. But now, as he watched Aleena's face in disbelief, he was struck with a horrible insight. By Viuden, he thought, Petrides was right! Aleena and Bertrak were... He couldn't bear to complete his thought. It cannot be! Yet he saw the look on her face, and remembered the tone of Bertrak's voice. They may have spoken of theology, but in their hearts they were meditating only on each other.

"Well," the matriarch said, looking at the companions with a thin smile. "I must heartily congratulate all of you on a job very well done. I am glad that I have learned the truth about Ilsa, Dunkel, and Theobald. Their deaths weigh heavily on my conscience; my spirit needs to be purified, and I do not doubt that Tarastia will demand a heavy penance for my carelessness, perhaps no less for the horrors that you four experienced." Her eyes grew briefly unfocused. "But these are my sins..." Aleena's voice trailed off.

She shook her head, as if waking from sleep. Pulling open a large drawer at the base of her desk, the matriarch resumed speaking. "It seems that you have saved Eltan's Spring and restored Bertrak. For that, I offer you my sincerest thanks and everlasting gratitude, as well as double the reward we had agreed upon. One hundred royals each," she said, placing four sacks of gold on the desk. "It is the least that I can do, considering the nature of what you found at Eltan's Spring. Counting the fifty that I gave you initially, this brings the total profit for each of you up to one hundred and fifty royals."

"It is a rich reward, my lady," Fyodor said in an inflated tone of voice.

"You deserve it," Aleena replied, her face shining in her old familiar way. "And it comes just in time for the Fyrmont Tax!" Fyodor groaned and the matriarch laughed. "Surely one quarter of your earnings is not too great a price to pay for the protection of the Duke's armies and the maintenance of our fine roads?"

"'Glory in all deeds', as they say," the young Traladaran replied good-humouredly, quoting the reverse of the Karameikan gold royal.

"'Glory in all deeds' indeed, Master Grygorov," Aleena answered. "I shall send the appropriate authorities to your chambers to collect the necessary coin." She rose to her feet and the companions did likewise. "The reputation of the Brotherhood of the Silver Band is waxing; I am certain that you will find many more opportunities for monetary gain, and in the great service of Law. May all your quests be as glorious as this one!"

"Your Eminence," Varis replied, sinking again to his knee, puzzled by the confusion of his thoughts. He knew that despite his scattered mind, he did hold firm to the truth of Law, the protection of the Immortals, and the synergy of the church. Yet right there on the surface, cancerous, accusing, was a veneer of doubt and disquiet. Mustering his internal resolve, he strove, with a mighty push, to banish his suspicions of Aleena and the hateful image of Petrides from his mind. "Is there any way that I can serve you?" Varis filled the temporary vacuum of his soul with passionate prayers for strength.

Aleena seemed almost startled by his question, but she regained her calm in a heartbeat and surveyed the adventurers, thoughtful. "There is perhaps something that you could do. It is not a great quest, but it does concern the affairs of the duchy. Are you willing to do some travelling?"

* * *

"Auxastis," Baron Halaran said, kissing Varis' healing staff reverently. "'The Help of Chardastes.' It is a fitting name, I think, for an item of such power."

"It is, Your Eminence," Varis said, receiving the staff back from the patriarch. "It has been wanting a name."

"Such items are not common. It must have been blessed by a holy man indeed, perhaps Olliver Jowett himself. Although what it was doing in the possession of a demonolater is anyone's guess. And about this gem, you say that it was not consecrated by Aralic of Stallanford?"

"He claims that it was blessed by Nikelnevich the Traladaran." Aleksyev Nikelnevich, the Specularum-based patriarch of the Church of Traladara, was either a holy man of peace or a ferocious warlord, depending on whom you asked.

The patriarch nodded. "Halav is loyal to his people, even though they turn from his truth. Let that be a lesson to us all. " He clasped his hands together. "Varis, I must confess that I have some other purposes to my calling you here other than to examine your gem and staff."

"Yes, Your Eminence?" Varis' heart was thudding in his chest. Does he suspect Aleena of something? What will I say?

"First, I want to ease your mind: I know all about your mission to Eltan's Spring. Yes, Aleena herself told me soon after you left. I am her purifier as well as her uncle and hierarchical superior; she could not keep such a secret from me for long. She was trying to protect me and the duke, but her concerns are, in my judgment, unwarranted. As touchy as the Darokinians are about their borders, I do not think that Aleena sending you to find her servants is anything remotely approaching an international incident. And so, although you did not know it at the time, you journeyed to Eltan's Spring with my full blessing. I am as happy as my niece to hear that the problems of that place have been solved, and if Chancellor Mauntea gets his gander up because of this I shall deal with him personally."

"Yes, that is a relief," Varis said, smiling. "We just wanted to help."

"I know," the baron-patriarch said, smiling avuncularly. "You are an unusual one, Varis Acinavit. Most of those who attend our seminaries and decide to pursue the vocation of the philosopher are not found righting wrongs in the wilderness!"

Varis smiled in return. "It is true, Your Eminence."

"Your path is not without precedent, but it is a narrow way, as they say in Kerendas." Sherlane leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.

The philosopher nodded, thinking back to those days not long ago when he was zealously pursuing his studies in Kelvin. "I thought for a long time that I would attain to the priesthood," he started before he realised that he was doing so. "I figured that I would serve somewhere under the tonsure of Viuden or Halav. But that was before I read Beda and Gnaeus of Actius."

The patriarch chuckled at this. "Yes, the Divine Beda is known to have that effect on people. So that was that, yes?"

Varis nodded. "That was that." A wistful look passed over his face. "I also began to have some reasons to doubt my...suitability to serve as a spiritual leader."

"Now that is not unheard of," Halaran said. "Some of my best priests passed through the very worst crises of faith while they were in seminary. You see, many people have an unrealistic view of what it means to be a priest. They think that they will show up at seminary, read the sacred texts, learn a few prayers, and boom," the patriarch snapped his fingers, "the Immortals manifest their power through them and I station them in a wealthy fane to minister to a pious flock." He laughed at his own characterisation. "But that is not how it is, is it."

"No, it is not, Your Eminence." Varis was embarrassed; in the patriarch's vivid picture, he saw himself, a seventeen-year old looking with awe upon the eight-sided Castle Kelvin for the first time, wondering if he would be the baron's own purifier one day. "It was very different; wonderful, but different. When my education was completed, I felt lost. My parents had passed into the Light, so I had no home to go back to anymore. An old friend of mine had been Sheared and was wandering the countryside, so I figured that it might do me good to spend the summer on the road.

"And then things started to happen. We met Fyodor, a childhood friend of mine, then Thalaric. At Stallanford, we were pulled into an adventure before we even knew what was happening. It was there that we met Boldar and everything has just been..." He made a gesture with his hands. "Just pulling us along, Your Eminence. To be honest, I haven't had much time to stop and think about my career and what I hope to do. I don't think that I am suited for civic service, and part of me is seriously considering applying to the seminaries or even one of the Thyatian universities to continue my studies but..." Varis looked down to his lap where his hands were loosely clenched. "Another part of me is exhilarated by this life, this life of the Brotherhood." He toyed with his silver bracelet. "I truly feel that I am helping, in some small way, 'to bring Law to lands that know it not.'" He echoed the Third Prayer of Supplication in the Vespers service.

"But you have doubts," the patriarch said, leaning forward slightly in his chair, his clear blue eyes shining.

Varis nodded. "I...have been troubled by delusions," he said softly. "I question sometimes my place in the church...even the church's place in the universe."

Sherlane seemed to smile slightly. "It is nothing that all of us have not felt at one time or another," he said warmly. "The road that you have chosen, child, is a brave one. It is also, I think, the best for you. Yours is not a spirit that will be purified by contemplation, like Beda. It will be purified by action. You must see the eternal conflict that we wage first hand. You must see the connection between our theology and our politics for yourself."

"Your Eminence," Varis said, stammering, "what...what do you mean?"

"Just that," he replied. "Have no fear that you are pursuing the wrong path. It is for you to wander this land, this land claimed by Law yet still fought for by Chaos. It is for you to fight for the Immortals in those places where it is most needed."

Varis nodded. Strangely, he felt hot tears burning his eyes. "Thank you, Your Eminence."

Sherlane smiled. "Do not thank me; thank your own nature, given you by the Immortals. They have surely favoured you, or they would not have led you to possess such holy items." He indicated the gem and the staff. "These are not given to all, you know."

"They have been very helpful, Your Eminence." Varis was suddenly struck by something: I have always assumed that it was lawful to use the gem. "About the gem, Your Eminence," he began, haltingly. "I know that all divine power flows from the Fourteen..." His words trailed off as the philosopher thought about how best to proceed.

Halaran smiled. "Remember, young philosopher, the Traladaran church possesses a portion of the truth in their worship of Halav. And a portion of what is true is still true. This item is holy, and as you, an emissary of the Fourteen, use it to dispel the Dark, it is perfected in its holiness."

He knows my mind better than I myself do, Varis thought. "Not all of the hierarchy feels the same way, Your Eminence." The words came out before the philosopher could stop them, impolitic words that he immediately regretted.

"I know this well," the patriarch responded, adopting a serious tone. "We must avoid extremism, Varis. We can help to guide this Traladaran people towards the truths of the world without alienating them, without calling them servants of the Dark as some preposterous men have done. Three out of every four citizens of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos are not members of our church. Three out of every four do not follow the precepts of Law. We can never truly unite this nation without the Traladaran acceptance of the church, but how can the Traladarans be induced to accept the church if we demonise them? If we do so, we will accomplish nothing but drive them further and further away, until all of their spirits will be food for Thanatos, and the lawful order for which we have worked will become a mockery of violence and civil hatred.

"At the same time, we cannot deny that among the Traladarans are good, holy men who strive after the cleansing of their spirits. How can we say that these men are of Alphaks? How can we say that they are of the Dark? No, Varis, I stand with Patriarch Olliver in this, as in all else: the Traladarans are loved by Halav, who sojourned with them, and who, to this day, grants manifestations of his power to those worthy of him out of divine mercy and affection. If Halav Red-Hair does this for the Traladarans, how can we of the Church of Karameikos- Thyatian and Traladaran alike, I might add- regard them with anything less than that respect?"

"Forgive my question, Your Eminence," Varis said, strangely ashamed. "I understand your teaching, and the teaching of Patriarch Olliver. It is hard sometimes, being out of the seminary. My companions do not trust in the Fourteen and do not believe the teachings of the church. I feel...alone, sometimes. I am often tempted to...dig in my heels, if you understand my words. Make the differences between my friends and I greater than they need to be. So I don't lose track of who I am."

Halaran nodded sagely. "You have a rare insight into yourself," he said. "Self-knowledge is a great gift. It is good that you do not lose track of who you are. But how can you bring to purification those who need it by driving them away? I commend this penance to you, Varis Acinavit: attend especially to the prayers of Valerias. You have the spirit of a Viudenite, and those like you often neglect Valerias or have a less-than-perfect understanding of her. The Thyatians read her scrolls and see only the carnal, the base desires of our bodies. But we understand that the love over which she is effective is the love of the spirit."

He was right, Varis knew. He had often felt that his devotions to Valerias, the Patroness of Love, were more a formality than anything else. "I will do as you command, Your Eminence. May I say, though, that I do have a very deep devotion to Asterius, and-"

"Asterius patronises the social relationships of man," the patriarch interrupted. "Next you will tell me that the name of Donar is never far from your lips? Yes? These are good things, child, good things indeed, but these Immortals are concerned with different aspects of the spirit. They deal with those with whom you must have congress, gods of civilised life, if you will. They help to build bonds of fidelity between those who are alike. But Valerias claims as her domain the heart, the longing for those who are different from you, which is the reason behind her symbolic language of erotic love between man and woman, the two great opposites. That is where I perceive in your spirit a weakness. Without concern for Valerias, the wisdom of Viuden or the leadership of Halav is not perfected. The Immortals are Fourteen, Varis, Fourteen for fourteen paths to the Light. All must be respected, all must be followed."

He was right, Varis knew. "I shall do as you command."

"Good. You will do great things, Master Acinavit, provided that you always cleave to the Immortals. They are wiser than us, you see." He said the last with a gentle smile and a twinkle in his blue eyes.

The philosopher smiled as well, feeling much better, rising to his feet in response to the patriarch's own rising. "Matriarch Aleena has requested that we travel to Luln-"

"Yes, I know," the patriarch interrupted. "It is a long journey, and I wish you the blessings of the Immortals." He stopped for a moment and looked at Varis with his head turned slightly askew. "We will see each other again, novice. You are always welcome in Tarnskeep."

"Thank you, Your Eminence." Varis kissed the old man's hand and left the room. He was almost shaking. The patriarch had seemed to see right through him, and the philosopher's confession practically threw itself out of him, from a place long concealed from others and even from himself. He felt relieved, and more than that, he felt that he had a mandate and a purpose. He felt better than he had in a long while.

Yet as he made his way to his chambers something else grew in his mind. The conversation with the patriarch had forced him to talk openly about Alexander for the first time in over a week. It was he who, above all others, had caused him to embark upon this path. The Valerian scrolls spoke of man and woman as the great opposites, but the philosopher knew that Alexander was the opposite of Varis' soul, drawing him close even as it confounded him. Perhaps Petrides was right after a fashion, Varis thought. Perhaps his words were a riddle...

NO, another part of him shouted. That delusion, that phantasy, that dream or whatever it was had no part of truth. Not even the slightest. Of this he was certain.

And now he did not even know where Alexander was. Was he in Immortals-cursed Glantri or some other distant land? Did he travel still with Sarala and Sarrah, or did he keep other company? Would he ever long to return to Karameikos or to see his old friends? Varis wished that one day he would return, and that the Brotherhood of the Silver Band could be reconstituted. Until that day, he prayed, Donar, keep him safe: for he is my brother in arms.

And Valerias, he finished, mindful of Halaran's words, grant that both of our spirits may find peace. If not with each other, than wherever your peace may be found.

* * *

Alexander Kantpatcalites stretched in the morning sun and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He lay there for a moment, trying to remember where he was. For two weeks it had been much the same, a different roof every night. Oh yes, he thought as it came to him. That old hostel on the road to Dolos. He looked up at the ceiling, saw the chipping paint and the cobwebs in the corner, and sighed. Just like the others.

For two weeks they had been on the road, and the stops along the way were already beginning to blur together. There was the Duke's Road Keep in Karameikos, then a succession of Darokinian towns and cities: Highdell, Reedle, Selenica, Nemiston, not to mention the series of inns at which they had stayed on the stretches of road in between population centres. And this was only the beginning. It would still be another two weeks until they reached Darokin City, and only the Immortals knew how much longer it would take to reach Glantri. Probably at least another month, Alexander thought.

He sighed again, wishing (not for the first time) that he had thought through the realities of the trip before agreeing to leave with Sarrah and Sarala. Although he did want to see the mysterious and far-off land of Glantri, the journey was a dreadfully long one. They would have made better time on horseback, but Sarala would not agree to that. Horses do not enjoy my scent, she had said with a trace of irony. Alexander did not doubt that, remembering well her other form.

And so they went their way by foot. Up the Duke's Road north to the high passes in the Altan Tepes and down again into the southern plains of Darokin, to the exotic eastern city of Selenica, and then west on the mighty Darokin Road. Here they travelled through the southern portions of the Canolbarth Forest, the densest that Alexander had ever seen. The elvish nation of Alfheim lay but a short distance to the north, and although the elves did not begrudge Darokin this swath of land, it was nevertheless scarcely populated by men. Nemiston was the exception, of course, but the companions had found that place unfriendly and suspicious. Two nights they spent there, resting and purchasing additional supplies, but they had not been happy ones.

His mind returned to the present as Sarrah stretched next to him in the bed, rolling from her side onto her back, throwing one of her arms over her head. Alexander turned to look at her, noting her fragrance and smiling at the tufts of soft black hair that peeked out from her armpits. He loved that about her. The Thyatian merchants' daughters with whom he had shared his bed most often tended to shave this hair away, in keeping with current fashion. Alexander had thought that all women were smooth there until his first encounter with a Traladaran serving girl, with Tia. At first he had been surprised, thinking it somewhat mannish. But her lusty passion soon made him forget all about it; in fact, it seemed to him to be right in step with her earthy earnestness, just as the careful preening of Landarian's daughter and the rest had seemed to go with their detached sensuality.

Why did I have to think of Tia? he scolded himself. She was long behind him, an artifact of his past. Sarrah was his present or, at least, that was what he wished her to be. Her behaviour had been rather erratic over the past two weeks. As they made their way north and west from Penhaligon, their level of conversation, never very high to begin with, started to drop off. Sarrah seemed more interested at times in being around the Glantrian Sarala than around Alexander. He had caught them whispering together on a few occasions, suddenly stopping when he drew near, pretending that nothing was going on.

From Reedle on through Nemiston, Sarrah had even stopped sharing his bed. That had been too much; he could deal with rising feelings of jealousy by day as long as she provided him with sweet release at night, but without that Alexander didn't think that he would be able to endure the long trip. Frustrated and embarrassed at his own crass feelings, he had been about ready to set out on his own, spurred on by the celestial sign of the shooting star, burning a solitary course south and west. But the second night in Nemiston, when Alexander was taking his rest, Sarrah had slipped into bed beside him and without a word had reached into his breeches. As always, Sarala shared the room with them, and that excitement combined with the long week of unfulfilment led to a quick and almost violent release on Alexander's part. Since then, the two had been closer together, and even snuck away at times to couple in the woods.

His manhood stiffened as he ran his hand over Sarrah's taut stomach. That morning, two weeks ago, when he left Varis and the rest to go with the women to Glantri, he had discovered his lover in her room in Lord Kaerin's mansion. She was doing a handstand, holding her body with such perfect balance that it was almost artistic. He had found himself reminiscing about their encounter on the road north of Penhaligon, when Sarrah had asked, in her shy, self-conscious way, to be included in the party's number. Her subsequent acrobatic display, in conjunction with their memory of her fighting prowess in Kavorquian's basement, had convinced the friends of her raw ability, but it was Alexander who talked his companions into letting her join them. He had seen something in her, something at odds with her background in thievery. Not that Varis would ever let me forget that that was what she once was, he thought bitterly.

She stirred beside him and opened her eyes, blinking sleepily. Alexander smiled at her and stroked her hair. Sarrah responded with a smile of her own. "Where are we?" she murmured, continuing a running joke that the three of them had.

"Who knows," the Karameikan replied. He saw Sarala rustling in the other bed, her auburn hair spread out on the grey sheets like sunlight contending with rain clouds. If experience was any guide, she would soon be up and humourlessly insisting that they press on. Where will we lay our heads tonight? Alexander thought. How much longer can I take this?

It had been different at first, of course. First, there had been the newness of the journey, the change of the dynamics of the group now that it was just Alexander and the two women. Although Sarrah's strange attachment to Sarala was present even then, she had not yet begun to begrudge him her affection. The romance of their situation was not lost on Alexander, who found the whole arrangement to be quite exciting. It was like a song or a poem that he had heard once- something about Kerendan lovers on the run- but he couldn't quite place it.

Now, two weeks later, the journey had become almost a task, a chore to be completed rather than a process to be delighted in. It had been nearly unbearable for a while, when it seemed to Alexander that he was either being ignored or conspired against and the towns and inns, the miles and miles of road blurred together into one. At least things were more manageable now that Sarrah had mysteriously regained her coy eroticism. She offered no explanation for her behaviour, and for some reason Alexander could not quite bring himself to ask.

The other thing gnawing at Alexander's mind was the fact that the trip, frankly, was turning out to be a bit of a bore. The few short weeks that he had spent adventuring with Varis, Fyodor, Thalaric, and Boldar had been full of action and daring. They had conquered great menaces, and gained both wealth and prestige as a result. Now, however, Sarala had studiously kept them away from anything that even remotely possessed the scent of excitement. Alexander understood her reasons: she was only being careful that her secret remained a secret.

Nevertheless, he would have felt a good deal better about his situation if the threesome were to hire themselves out as caravan guards, at least. When he broached the subject with the shapeshifter, she replied that their purses, enriched by the loot of Haradraith's Keep, were deep enough to convey them easily to Glantri. Alexander realised then that she did not truly understand the issue. It did not befit a rogue to plod along caravan routes with his sword stuck in his scabbard.

His musings were interrupted by Sarala's rising. The Glantrian rose from her bed, stretching. She looked Alexander and Sarrah over without smiling and left the room. Sarrah instantly turned to Alexander and pressed her lips to his. He responded in kind, but his heart wasn't in it. Am I a fool? he thought. Should I have never left Varis and the others?

* * *

They left the inn that morning, leaving the sycophantic innkeeper smiling and bowing as they tossed him the silvers he was owed, their path continuing to carry them westward on the Darokin Road. It was the height of summer, and this day, like most of the days, were sunny and hot, although the forest cover provided some respite. Travel on the road was constant, if not ever truly crowded; as the only direct route between Darokin City and Selenica, the road was continually trod by merchants seeking profit and the power that followed from it in the republic's plutocratic system.

As they had drawn near to a large eastward-moving caravan, Sarala had taken a long, looping course off of the road, trying to stay far away from such an assortment of horses and other beasts of burden. Sarrah and Alexander likewise stepped off of the road, allowing the mighty caravan to pass undisturbed. The carts were large and weighed down with boxes and crates, and the Karameikan spotted more than one richly-appointed carriage pulled by white horses with jewelled bridles. Surly guards lined the perimeter, holding long polearms or crossbows, fixing Alexander and Sarrah with imperious stares.

Money is power, Alexander thought. He wondered how his own father would fare in Darokin. Would he have enough daros to qualify for election to the Outer Council? He smiled at that thought, at Jarandros Kantpatcalites sitting in council, setting tax rates and planning diplomatic efforts. Alexander shook his head. His father could barely sit still to raise a son. But how I miss the privilege of my father's house. It wasn't the first time that he had had that thought, but he knew that it was dangerous to dwell on it now.

Alexander remembered the beginning of their journey to Glantri, their morning exodus from Kaerin's manor. The servant had caught him just before they left, pressing the letter with the familiar seal into his hand. It had been written by his father's secretary, and it bore the news that his father, ever the merchant, was in Thyatis on business and would not be able to attend the festivities given by Lady Penhaligon in his son's honour.

Alexander had not been happy to read that; seeing Fyodor interacting so joyfully with his family had made the Karameikan long for what little family he had. Not for the first time did he think of his mother, living in Retebius with her second husband, long discarded by his father with typical Thyatian efficiency for a woman not much older than his son. He had neither seen nor heard from her for years. Sometimes he wondered if she even remembered her son and daughter by Jarandros Kantpatcalites.

And then there was the other news that the letter bore. In keeping with the secretary's carefully delicate speech, his missive danced around the subject, managing to express himself clearly without ever saying anything forthrightly. Alexander had read it twice and stuffed the letter into his pack with a shaking hand, unwilling to dwell on what he had read. Now, as he trundled along the Darokin Road with Sarrah at his side, he fought again to keep his thoughts on other matters.

His nose twitched. A ways off of the road, a group of Darokinian peasants were burning a heap of thistle; a north wind swept some of the smoke and ashes towards the highway, burning the eyes and noses of the travellers. "Fucking peasants," a passing lesser merchant cursed as he dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief. He looked at Alexander and Sarrah. "You'd think they'd have more sense than to do this a stone's throw from the road." But he found that he had an unreceptive audience. Sarrah was trying to see if she could spot Sarala, looping around on the south side of the road. As for Alexander, the smoke had brought another reminisce, and he thought back to that first day of travel as a threesome, the day that they left Kaerin's manor and began their journey north.

They were burning Janner in the old way when they arrived at Stallanford, the smoke rising with formal solemnity into the summer sky. By the time that they arrived in town the funeral pyre had utterly consumed both itself and its inhabitant, the sacred words had been said by Aralic, and all that remained of the old man's funeral was a bowl of ashes and the chanting of the metoinin.

Alexander had always rather liked the traditional Traladaran burial ritual. Although many richer Traladarans, like his brother-in-law's family, built decadent and gothic tombs in the manner of the Dark Age kings, he had always preferred the simple evocation of the heroic age that was the pyre. There was a certain finality to it, this poignant communal experience that returned the dead to the elements, to the sky and the earth. It was beautiful, in a sad sort of way. He was sorry that he had missed Janner's burning.

Aralic had spotted Alexander then and had welcomed him back to Stallanford. It was he who told them about Janner and his recent end. The old ranger had been a well loved figure in town, the priest said, and had lived a tragic life. A Thyatian, born in the empire, he had come to Stallanford with nothing more than the clothes on his back. Although he came speaking not a word of Traladaran, Janner embraced Traladaran culture with an almost fanatical zeal. A quiet man, he spoke little about his past and offered no explanation for his rejection of the ways of his ancestors. He fathered one son, and his young wife had difficulty delivering his second. Both mother and son died, and Janner never remarried.

A patient and crafty hunter and woodsman, Janner had distinguished himself during the battle with the orcs at Detoria Pass, but had also lived long enough to experience the ultimate pain of seeing the death of his only child. He had been gladdened by the vengeance wreaked by Alexander and his fellows, Aralic confided, but the prospect of living while his son slept with the dead had been too much for the old man's heart to bear. Janner had stopped eating soon thereafter and practically willed himself to death.

At the time, Alexander had found himself very affected by this sorrowful tale. For some reason he felt like apologising, although to whom and for what remained unclear. The strength of the town stirred his heart, though, as it continued its life in mundane circularity. Alexander could appreciate that, although he knew that he himself was not a part of it but was rather judging it as an outsider, invited in but never given a home, liked but never loved.

Alexander shook himself out of his reverie. Why am I daydreaming? he thought.

"I don't know where Sarala is," Sarrah murmured, peering through the forest on the south side of the road.

Alexander smiled grimly. She had it right. I don't know where I am; I don't know who I am.

* * *

It was a week later, Darokin Day, the greatest festival in the entire republic, and Alexander was drinking in an inn so poor that the floor sagged under the weight of his chair. The town was called Grundale, and it was located a mile or so north of the road. A passing traveller had directed them to the hamlet, and the three companions were taking some much-needed rest.

The women were sipping at tankards just as he was, Sarala sitting in the corner, her hair tied up into a tight bun at the back of her head, her green eyes watching the flow of traffic with suspicion. Sarrah too was guarded, more wary than he had seen her in some time. This was an out-of-the-way place, and although Alexander was somewhat familiar with the mores of rural Darokin, his fellows were less certain.

Those others that shared the room with them were woodsmen for the most part, trappers and hunters. Many of their womenfolk joined them and children could be seen here and there, running under tables and scrambling over chairs. They left the three alone for the most part, although many, when they caught their eyes inadvertently, raised their glasses in salute in honour of the father of their nation. The men of Grundale might be on the bottom rung of the republic's plutocracy, but they recognised well the freedoms they had, and they drank deeply to Ansel Darokin, the nation's current ruler Chancellor Mauntea, and their local magistrate Baron Farstead.

Besides themselves, the only other who looked to be a stranger in the crowd was a bard holding court on the far side of the inn. Surrounded by drunk or near-drunk peasants, he was playing a series of bawdy popular favourites in a manner that simultaneously conveyed the precision and technical proficiency of his playing and singing as well as his cultivated distaste of both the material and his audience. He also seemed to have an eye for Sarrah, as Alexander caught his gaze alighting on the thief more than once.

The Karameikan tried to pay him no mind. He had no reason to doubt Sarrah's interest in him. True, it bothered him that sometimes she and Sarala liked to have private conversations, but he knew that was something that all women did, and Alexander was doing his best to push any kind of jealous thoughts from his mind. Sarrah was not his to control, and just because she sometimes found Sarala's company more interesting than his meant nothing at all.

With a final percussive flurry the minstrel finished his tune to happy applause from his audience. Alexander wondered how often Grundale received such a visitor and why such a performer was in a place such as this. The harpist hopped down from his perch on one of the tables, made a bow that seemed sneering and affected to Alexander but undoubtedly urbane and sophisticated to the peasants, and sauntered over towards the corner table where the three were sitting.

Great, Alexander thought. The pinkie finger of his left hand tapped the pommel of his sword. What do I do if he tries to seduce Sarrah? This was a new feeling for him, as he could not remember ever being that attached to or jealous of a lover in the past. The fact of Sarala somehow entered into the equation, but he did not know exactly how.

"Happy Darokin Day," the singer said as he approached the table, teeth gleaming in a wicked smile. I recognise that smile, Alexander thought. I had that smile, once. Not too long ago, in fact. Before this fucking trip sapped away all my energy and life.

"You are a fine singer," Alexander said before he realised. "Too fine, perhaps, for such humble accommodations."

A look of puzzlement flashed across the face of the still-smiling bard. "Yes, well, we all have to make compromises in life." His clothes were fine, though plain, and his boots and cloak were stained with dust and mud. Blonde hair set off a sharp and handsome face. A few days' worth of stubble graced his chin and he spoke quickly, cleanly, and dramatically. Turning to Sarrah, he made a graceful bow to her, a bow that lacked the arrogance of the one delivered to his former audience. "I am Rothlinn of Akorros, and it is my great honour to make your acquaintance."

You fucker, Alexander thought. Although Rothlinn's comment was ostensibly directed at the entire group, he knew that it was meant only for Sarrah. What was more, he knew that Rothlinn knew that he, Alexander, would understand this. Never in his entire life did he more want to challenge a man to a duel.

Rothlinn took Sarrah's hand and bent over it, kissing it slightly. Shocked and outraged that such a thing could be happening right in front of him, Alexander was greatly relieved to see that his lover was looking at him with a look that told him that she considered Rothlinn to be as ridiculous as he found him annoying. The Karameikan breathed deeply with satisfaction and smiled smugly, wondering how long it would be before the pretentious fop found himself knocked out cold on the floor of the inn. If he were to go one step too far with Sarrah he would undoubtedly find out first hand that she was very capable of taking care of herself.

"How about a song, then?" Alexander said, trying not to let the cruel glee that he felt in his heart spill over onto his face when he saw the disappointment in Rothlinn's eyes at not being able to continue his courtship. "My sister and sister-in-law and I have travelled for many miles without hearing such an Immortals-touched voice." He glanced at Sarala briefly, but the copper-skinned Alphatian did not appear to be taking much interest in this little game.

"I am flattered by your generous words," Rothlinn said, "but I have sung many songs for the peasants of this place, and my voice and fingers are weary. Perhaps I could sit with you for a moment and-"

He stopped as Alexander withdrew a Darokinian daro from his pouch. "How about 'The Ballad of Balthac and Sinan'? My sister has never heard it," he said, gesturing to Sarrah.

Rothlinn licked his lips. "That is a very long song, and somewhat old-fashioned," he said, obviously conflicted, desirous of Alexander's gold but also of his "sister."

In reply, the Karameikan withdrew another daro. "Two gold, then," he said, handing the princely sum to the minstrel. "And we want to hear the long version, not that chopped up way that they sing it in Akorros."

The bard nodded, as if giving up, and accepted the coins. Stopping only to bite them quickly to verify their true nature, he smiled apologetically at Alexander and plucked solitary notes on his harp, humming softly to himself to get his pitch. Then he began.

True to Rothlinn's description, the full version of "The Ballad of Balthac and Sinan" was a lengthy composition, attributed in its current form to some famous bard of the last century whose name Alexander thought that he should know but had currently forgotten. It told the tale of Balthac Polymathis and Sinan the Anointed, a pair of adventurers who walked the lands of Darokin over a thousand years ago, before there was an Ansel Darokin who would lend his name to the great nation, before the emperors of Thyatis ever donned the crystal crown.

Balthac was a warrior of strong resolve and unimpeachable character who travelled the lands of men both far and wide, bringing death and destruction to every minion of chaos who threatened the nascent peace that human clans hoped to bring to the area. He wielded the mighty two-handed sword Camb, forged by the Twelve Watchers, a blade of such dire power that all of the forces of evil fled before it. Sinan was an elf maiden from the deep halls of the Canolbarth. A puissant warrior and a master of magic, she accompanied Balthac on his many journeys. Shy in the way that her folk often were, Sinan nevertheless shared an affinity with the human warrior, and the two were inseparable.

Among the peaks of northeastern Darokin, in the Dwarfgate Mountains where Darokin rules in name only, an area now called Orcland, Balthac and Sinan faced down the greatest dragon that had ever lived, a tremendous red wyrm by the name of Calor. For a full month the three fought, and the epic nature of that battle occupied a full half of the ballad. But in the end Sinan struck down the horrid beast, driving her sword into the dragon's breast. However, the price paid was great; for Balthac had also been slain, his body shattered and broken by the beast of entropy. Grieving, Sinan sorrowfully raised a cairn for her companion and friend, and left the tales of men, retreating back to Alfheim and what solitude she could find there.

Rothlinn told the tale in full, as he had promised, and despite the pained look he made when the text was particularly roundabout in a way that he, no doubt, found terribly archaic, the bard sang and played beautifully. Alexander grudgingly admitted to himself that even at two daros the song was well bought. He hadn't heard the tale in some time, and he had forgotten how much he liked it, even the parts that by now would be considered almost cliché. Sarrah obviously appreciated it as well; her pleasure was easy to see. Sarala, typically, seemed unimpressed. She had even gotten up at one point in the tale and disappeared somewhere for a span of a few hundred lines.

The bard was clearly tired as he finished, but he seemed to revive a bit as Alexander and the women graciously applauded his performance. Others of the people of Grundale had drawn near as the romance progressed, and they too added their appreciative claps and cheers to the companions' while the singer bowed. The townsmen also did Alexander the great and unexpected service of dragging Rothlinn away to the bar for a drink. Nicely done, Kantpatcalites, he thought to himself with pleasure, leaning back in his chair. You got rid of the fop and got a great song in the bargain, all for the price of two daros nicked from Ilyana's horde.

"What did you think of the song, Sarala?" Sarrah asked the Glantrian shapechanger with her characteristic deference.

Sarala shrugged, her eyes on the table between them. "I have heard many poems like it. It was fine in the telling, I admit that, but the theme did not move me."

"It didn't move you?" Alexander asked with amazement. "If it were not for the deeds of Balthac and Sinan, these lands would have remained claimed by orcs forever!"

"Would they?" she replied, arching an eyebrow. The candle light refracted off of her coppery skin. "I don't know that. But then again, it is just a tale, and the accomplishments of the poets pale compared to the mysteries of magic. You will see when we reach Glantri," Sarala said, answering Sarrah's wide eyes. "You have tasted what I mean when you watched your friend, the elf of Karameikos, his name...?"

"Thalaric," Alexander replied. He had not spoken his friend's name in weeks.

"Yes, he," Sarala nodded. "You saw the powers that he was capable of wielding, did you not? And he is nothing- nothing- compared to the wizard-princes of Glantri. Yet for all of their power, for all of our accumulated knowledge, the simplest workings of magic remain a complete mystery. We grasp at principles, we know that our labours are successful by their fruits, but as to why?" She waved a hand dismissively. "We have no idea why it works. It does, and for most that is enough."

"That is very interesting," Alexander replied, "but what does it have to do with 'The Tale of Balthac and Sinan'? Yes, the world we live in is an astounding one; I have seen things in the past few months that I never before would have believed. But how does that make this tale of our past less impressive?"

"Because it is just a tale," Sarala said, louder now. "Do you want to hear a true tale? Not the work of a poet or a bard, but something that will show you how little you understand this world of ours?"

There was something of a challenge in Sarala's voice, but something else too, something of a confession. Alexander's attention was riveted on her; he had no doubt that Sarrah was likewise transfixed. He nodded, curious.

Sarala downed the dregs of her beer, scowling at the taste. "Very well. I will tell you of my people. Ours is a chronicle unlike that of any other race on Mystara."

"Mystara?" Alexander asked, confused by the name.

"This world," the shapeshifter replied, waving her hands about. "All of these lands that we have been travelling, all of the air, all of the oceans, all of the fires under the earth. This is Mystara, as it is known to the sages."

"Do you mean...the earth and nature and all of it?" Sarrah asked shyly.

Sarala made a face and paused, thinking. "I suppose you could put it that way. Just realise that I do not mean merely this body of land which men call Brun, or all of the bodies of land, for that matter, but also, as I said, the oceans and the air."

"So everything," the thief said hopefully.

Sarala smiled. "No, not everything. That is what the story is about."