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The Mystara Chronicles IV: "The Joy That the Immortals Bring"by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)
This year's celebration of Beasts' Day was more blissful than had been seen in Stallanford for a generation. Aralic, weakened and injured though he was, had demanded that he be immediately tended to by some of the townswomen who had knowledge of the healing arts. His wounds had been dressed, and his tattered clothes were stripped from him and burned lest any of the orc-stink remain. He clothed himself (or, rather, was clothed) in his full priestly regalia- the brown full-sleeved, knee-length surcoat that he wore only on formal religious occasions- and he took up in his right hand a gnarled wooden staff, his knurdel, the symbol of his office. Having done these things, and despite the protestations of the women, Aralic insisted that he was well enough to give the invocation to begin the festival. He did not go into the jaws of the Black Prince's kingdom, he reminded them, only to fail in his duties as a Traladaran and as a priest.
So Aralic, weak from his ordeal yet elated to be serving the people of Stallanford again, stood before the burned ruins of his church in the light rain and looked out with pleasure and pride upon the townspeople who had gathered before him. Despite the tribulations of the day, a large crowd, almost the entire town, had gathered in the grassy square that abutted what was left of the church. They were dressed in their finest clothing, garments bright with colour mixed together in every combination under the sun.
Aralic looked sombre, almost macabre, in comparison, with his dark rough-spun surcoat and his bandaged head. Fyodor, standing eagerly in the crowd, put a hand to his own injured arms. They still throbbed with dull pain, but poultices had been applied and the treated areas wrapped in herb-scented linen by the healers. Thus attended to, the injuries did not bruise nearly as badly as Fyodor had feared, and the young Traladaran already felt as if he had full use of his arms.
However, he was less concerned with his physical condition than with the fact that he wished that he had a nice red sash to wear today instead of his beaten broad black belt. Although his common costume was similar to that worn by most of the residents of Stallanford, Fyodor nevertheless felt that after the excitement, the adventure with the orcs, he deserved to wear something a bit more fantastic.
The rumble of the crowd began to recede, leaving in its wake only a smattering of whispered conversation and repressed titters as the inhabitants of Stallanford noticed Aralic tottering unsteadily before them, raising his knurdel for silence. Fyodor estimated that over a hundred families had braved the weather and packed themselves into the square. Many of their number were from the outlying farms that had come into town when word of Aralic's return reached their homesteads. Fyodor had watched them with interest as they rode in on large wains, their swelling numbers adding to those already gathered to the point that the square was not sufficient to hold them all and youths, boys and girls alike, were forced to listen atop the roofs of local establishments.
When the din finally settled, Aralic began to speak. "Traladarans, today is Beasts' Day." At this, the crowd burst into cheers, blowing horns and waving banners depicting the Guardian and the Moon. Aralic kept his arms raised, waiting for the noise of the crowd to subside. Although his eyes flashed with zeal, his mouth revealed only the slightest hint of a smile. "Today," he continued, "we commemorate the final battle fought in the Great War. It is a day in which we remember many things. First, we remember that it was on this day that the horrible beasts that invaded our land and plagued our ancestors were driven out of Traladara. Thus, it is a day of rejoicing, for if it were not for those heroes, the men and women of that glorious age, there would be none of the Traldar still left upon the earth. We give glory to their victory and to their courage and strength of character.
"But, second, we must remember the cost of that victory. For on this day, our beloved King and God, Halav, who for our sake assumed the form of a mortal, died in our defence. Thus, surely, it is a time for mourning, for the great Halav, who with Petra and Zirchev called the world from chaos into being, condescended to walk among us, the chosen of the Immortals, to make himself known to us; and having so condescended, he lived as a mortal, not as a god, to show us the path of self-sufficiency and self-determination; and having shown this to us, this very one led our ancestors fearlessly into battle, and he did not relent until the enemy of the Traldar was destroyed, even though it cost him his life, his life which is beyond all price, in the process.
"But as you ponder this great mystery of our history, remember how and why Red-Hair died. Blessed Halav fell under the Beast-King's axe, but as he did, our King struck his opponent a fatal blow. The beast-men, seeing the death of their leader, lost confidence and began their retreat. But the glorious Traldar, on the other hand, seeing the courage of Halav and his love for his people, gained courage and found within themselves the strength of spirit to cast out the invaders once and for all."
Aralic paused to catch his breath. "But remember that this is not the end of the story. For as Petra and Zirchev, blessed be they forever, placed Halav's holy body on the pyre, the Three revealed their true forms to the assembly, and ascended whence they came to finish their great deed: to imprison the Bound, diminish the Black, and obliterate the Forgotten. And to this day, the Blessed Three sit in the heavens and dwell as our perpetual guardians. Thus, today is a day of triumph. For today we celebrate the Lordship of Halav, Petra, and Zirchev over every man and every spirit in Traladara.
"And so let us remember, with a strong heart, what has come to pass for us, that we may have the confidence to look forward to the return of the Golden Age and the return of our Immortal King. Today is Beasts' Day, the day Halav slew the Beast-King and saved his people. Let us make merry!"
Fyodor burst into a cheer, the throng of Traladarans exploding with pent-up excitement all around him. Almost immediately, he heard someone start the tune of "Today Hath Salvation Come Unto Us," and he soon lost himself in the song, arms raised in happiness, the morning's ordeal forgotten. Before he was carried away by the flow of the crowd, he caught a quick glimpse of Aralic through the crowd. The priest leaned heavily on his staff, but his countenance was brightened by a thin, weak smile of victory.
* * *
Alexander and Thalaric sat in one of the private dining rooms of the Hungry Halfling enjoying a well-cooked meal of roasted chicken and buttered squash provided free of charge by the owner. Their arrival in Stallanford was greeted with joy by the locals, and Alexander especially found himself the target of much attention directed his way by some of the Traladaran maids. But- and the Alexander of only a few days ago would be shocked to hear him say this- he was too tired to flirt, and instructed the innkeeper to make sure that he and Thalaric were left undisturbed. They needed time to be alone with their thoughts.
As they ate, the two fellow travellers watched the Beasts' Day celebration taking place outside. Traladarans dressed in fantastic costumes with wolfish heads engaged in mock combat with others garbed in clothing modelled after the ancient fashion: brightly coloured, long-sleeved, knee-length tunics, with belts about their waists and sandals upon their feet. There was dancing and playing of the flute and the lyre, and the thin, persistent rain that continued to fall lazily from the sky seemed to bother no one. The air of elation in the crowd was palpable. Fyodor, they knew, was out there, making merry with his people on this important day.
Alexander and the elf, however, were too weary to dance. Their bodies ached from combat, and the stress of the day's events remained with them still. Plus, both recognised that this was a Traladaran celebration, and despite the enthusiastic exhortations on the part of the locals, they realised that they did not belong there; for what part could a forestborn elf or one of Thyatian descent- one who could not even speak this people's language- have in such a festival?
And so they celebrated a different festival, alone in the dining room. They celebrated their success in liberating Aralic from the orcs, and their victory in all of their battles. Also, they celebrated what surely was their first adventure, the first (they hoped) of many. They celebrated in the way that was most natural to them: by consuming great amounts of wine. Tobacco had been provided for them, high-quality hinweed from the shires, and the two, after they had finished off their sizeable meal, and over the third bottle of wine, kicked up their feet, smoked their pipes, and enjoyed the sounds of
Stallanford made right again.
* * *
Varis was alone in his room at the Hungry Halfling when the dwarf came to him. The philosopher could barely stand by the time they returned to Stallanford. The sword of the orc chieftain had bit into him cruelly, and, armour notwithstanding, he had lost almost all the feeling in his arm due to numbness. Once they arrived back in town, some of the old women of the village had cleaned his wound and applied some poultices. They had explained that the poultices contained various charms to ward off the evil spirits that had become trapped in his body when it was opened by the orcish blades. The women also wanted to remove his necklace, claiming that the Karameikan device engraved on the silver pendant would just encourage disease to set in. Under other circumstances, he would have vocally protested these impious superstitions, but he was so weary that he merely politely refused to have his necklace taken from him, and paid their comments no further mind. Although, he had to admit to himself, a few hours after the women had left him his arm did seem to feel much better.
The innkeeper Bert had set Varis up in one of his best rooms- recently vacated by a nervous Darokinian merchant after this morning's events- and the philosopher had lain there ever since his return. It was now almost nightfall when Boldar entered. The dwarf had removed his armour and weapons and stood before Varis in brown breeches and a rust-coloured tunic, over which he had put on a black cloth vest. Heavy black boots and a broad leather belt completed his outfit, one that seemed to the Karameikan to be too hot for the summer weather. In his hands he held a tray with a small selection of fruits upon it.
"The halfling wanted me to bring this up for you," he said in a self-conscious tone of voice.
There was something very amusing about the dwarf standing there with the tray of apples and pears, but Varis held his tongue and smiled. "Thank you, Boldar." He took the offered tray and set it down on the night table. "Please, sit down."
The dwarf took one look at the human-sized chair and grunted. "I prefer to stand," he said.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Varis, laughing. He quickly caught himself when he saw the stern look on Boldar's face. How embarrassing, Varis thought. For both of us.
Boldar waved a hand towards the window. "These are superstitious people," he said matter-of-factly.
"Traladarans, you mean?" asked Varis.
"How do you know that I am not of their race?"
Boldar looked intently at Varis. "You didn't fawn all over that priest the way the others did, the way Fyodor did."
"Aralic is a good man."
"I am half Traladaran, Boldar."
The dwarf's eyebrows rose slightly.
"But yes, my mother's people are a superstitious lot." He smiled warmly at the awkward dwarf. "What have you been doing?" Varis had seen little of his companions once they returned to Stallanford. Alexander and Thalaric had made their appearances, but the elf was in a dark mood and didn't stay long, and Alexander just looked at Varis, scratched his beard, and offered to bring him some wine before he excused himself. Fyodor was off running around in the rain like a fool, and Boldar had simply disappeared. Varis had feared that he had left town altogether.
Boldar lowered his eyes. "Do you remember the bracelet that I found on the body of that orc?"
"Of course, Boldar. I meant to ask you about it."
"It was inscribed with runes, dwarvish runes, that read, 'Happy coming of age, Dalmund.'" The dwarf's voice trembled with barely-repressed rage. "I brought it to an armourer in town and my old employer, Dalmarek, one of my race, and it turns out that Dalmund was a friend of his, a clansman from Highforge. Dalmund had left Stallanford a year ago to visit Rockhome. Apparently he never made it."
"I'm sorry to hear this, Boldar. May he rest in Kagyar's bosom."
"May he sleep until he is awakened," Boldar said. "You know of Kagyar, then?"
"Of course. The Church of Karameikos includes the Artisan in her pantheon."
The dwarf thought about this. "It is good that you honour him." Another pause. Outside, the rain had begun to fall harder, and thunder, far in the distance, coming down off the peaks of the Altan Tepes, could be faintly heard. "I came to talk to you about the orc caves."
Varis took a slice of apple from the tray. "What about them?"
"They were...unusual," the dwarf said slowly. "They were definitely made by craft-gifted hands, hands finer than any of that sorry lot could ever have."
"So maybe the orcs were occupying an older structure when the original inhabitants moved out."
"But who?" asked Boldar. "What sort of people makes stonework that fine in a cave?"
Varis mulled the dwarf's question for a moment. "I don't know, Boldar. Maybe it's an old Traladaran ruin of some sort. How about this," he leaned forward in bed. "Imagine that there's a Traldar castle, up in the Wufwolde Hills. It stands strong for many years, but one day giants from the Steach raid it and destroy its walls, kill its inhabitants. The area is never resettled, and after years and years, layers of dirt and dust lay themselves on top of the castle until it's completely buried, leaving the lower levels, the storerooms and dungeons, intact under the earth. Would that explain it? But does it even matter? We recovered Aralic safely and slew their chieftain (if Thalaric is to be believed). Surely this is good news for the people of Stallanford?"
The dwarf stroked his beard. "But why was he taken in the first place?"
"That we'll have to ask Aralic once the festival is over and he's fully recovered."
"True." Boldar waited a moment, and then said, "Are you feeling better?"
Varis smiled. "Much better, thank you. Now I just need some time to rest."
Boldar nodded. "I wish you a safe recovery. I am honoured to have gone into battle with you." With that, he turned and headed for the door.
"Wait, Boldar!" Varis cried. "Do you intend to leave Stallanford?"
The dwarf turned to face the philosopher. "When we met this morning, you found me just before I was to begin a journey back to my homeland. I have been away for too long."
"Boldar, don't go just yet! Please, just wait one more day; there's still so much I want to talk to you about." I sound like a fool, like a young boy begging his father for a sweet. And then, a thought: How old is Boldar? I have heard that the dwarves are long-lived...
The dwarf looked right at Varis. His lips curled upwards in the faintest trace of a smile. "Very well. I will be downstairs if you need me." With that, he departed.
Varis liked Boldar very much. He liked his awkwardness, his sincerity, his demeanour. He also liked his strength and his skill with his axe. In combat, deep in the caves, Boldar had scared Varis with the power and precision with which he wielded his weapon. If only I had such skill, he thought to himself. So I could more perfectly advance the mission of the church, he quickly added.
The sounds of the festival outside his window were coming to a close, as the steadily increasing rain grew strong enough that even the wine-addled revellers were unable to ignore it. The thunder grew louder, more ominous. Night was falling.
So much had happened in one day.
* * *
He awoke in the morning with a start, at the sound of a loud crash. For a split second Varis thought that it was a particularly loud burst of thunder, the likes of which had roused him intermittently from sleep all night long, but as soon as he opened his eyes, he could see that the rain had subsided. Instinctively, he moved to roll out of bed to investigate. His wound, cleaned and bandaged the day before, ached with a dull pulse, and he let loose a yelp as he accidentally shifted his weight onto his arm. As the pain receded, and more cautiously now, Varis moved to an upright position and went to the window. Outside, a cart had lost one of its wheels and the contents of the wagon, boxes full of various vegetables, had spilled to the muddy ground. The driver was cursing his ill luck and berating one of his hands. He saw Fyodor emerge from the Hungry Halfling to assist the cartsman. Varis smiled. He felt much better today.
Another character entered the scene: Aralic the priest. Varis noted that he seemed much healthier today than yesterday; he leaned only lightly upon a wooden cane. As the philosopher watched, Fyodor grasped Aralic's hand in enthusiastic greeting.
Varis had been looking forward to speaking with the priest. He still had many questions about yesterday's affairs, and Aralic was the only one who would be able to answer his queries. He quickly splashed some water on his face from the washbasin and awkwardly pulled a brown vest on over his naked torso, being careful not to aggravate his wound. A glance in the mirror comforted him that his slow-growing beard had not come in enough yet so that he would need to shave before looking presentable. The last time he had put razor to face was the morning of their leave-taking from Fyodor's homestead, two days ago. Viuden, he thought, it's only been two days!
All thoughts of further preparation were lost when he heard a knock on his door. Who could this be? he wondered. "Come in."
Fyodor opened the door, with the priest following right behind him. "Varis, how are you? I've brought Father Aralic; he wants to speak with you."
"Well, sit down, by all means," Varis replied, surprised to see the priest; he had assumed that he would have to chase him down. The young philosopher took a seat on the edge of the bed. "Father, it's good to see you looking so well."
"It's thanks to you boys and the grace of Petra that I stand here today," Aralic said cheerfully. Now that he was closer, Varis could see that Aralic's wounds had healed remarkably. The bruises that had only yesterday covered his face had disappeared completely, and his arm that he had held clenched to his side now swung free. "How is your wound?"
Varis was momentarily lost for words. "Healer women have attended to me, and their poultices seem to be effective, although I do not understand their methods. They used no aranth or balmany as far as I could tell, yet my wounds appear to be mending themselves nevertheless."
Aralic laughed. "We use the craft of medicine that Petra herself taught us while she dwelled among us. Our arts are thousands of years old." As he said this, he moved closer to Varis and sat down on the side of the bed, facing him. "But I sense that you do not believe in Petra, lad."
Is this a roundabout way of trying to determine my race? he thought. Will this man begrudge me my Thyatian father? Varis shot a look at Fyodor, who was looking at the two of them nervously. Or does he know already? In which case, why this question? "Father, with all due respect, I do not. I am a member of the Church of Karameikos, and, as you know, the church does not include the cult of Petra."
Aralic looked into Varis' eyes, and then continued, switching to Traladaran. "Fyodor tells me that you have Traladaran blood, is this not so?"
So he does know. "Yes, gios, it is," he answered, shifting languages smoothly. "My mother was born on the Shutturga."
"But she married a soldier, no? One who came from Thyatis with Duke Stefan?"
"Yes. You know many things about me." Am I in trouble? Did I do something wrong?
Aralic laughed. "Fyodor has been very forthcoming. Let me see your wound."
Varis was taken aback by the sudden request, but the priest looked at him with such affection that he soon found himself gently removing the bandages that covered his injury. The sword wound to his right upper arm had been cleaned and the bleeding stopped, but it remained a painful, scabrous testament to the violence that the companions had partaken of only yesterday. His arm still felt weak, and he had difficulty removing the bandages.
Aralic clucked as he examined the wounds. "You have suffered greatly on my account, child." The priest reached out with one hand, grasped Varis' necklace, and gently moved the pendant that bore the symbol of the Church of Karameikos around his neck so that it lay against his back, out of sight.
Varis was put off by this action, so much so that he could only manage to get out a shaky "Father, you exaggerate..."
"No, I do not. You have done a great deed, one that not only myself but all of Stallanford will not soon forget." Out of the corner of his eye, Varis could see Fyodor swell with pride. "The Blessed Three descended to the Traldar to protect them from harm," Aralic started. Varis feared that he was about to hear a sermon, but he was too polite to interfere. "Zirchev taught the taming of horses and dogs, Halav taught the forging of bronze and the art of the sword, and Petra taught the craft of medicine. You have seen the results of the arts that she brought to us; our healer-women have treated you well, no? But when the Three departed, they swore to be with us forever, so that we might live and dwell with Halav as our King, Petra as our Queen, and Zirchev as our Guide until they should come again." Throughout this speech Aralic was moving slowly, almost imperceptibly, towards Varis. "If they are with us, then their gifts are also with us, do you see?" The priest smiled affectionately, then suddenly closed his eyes and raised his voice.
"Behold, Petra, our Queen and our Physician, is now invisibly present, to heal you of all your infirmities that you incurred fighting as a soldier of Halav." Aralic touched Varis' arm briefly, lightly, bowing his head.
The pain from the wound disappeared instantly, the flesh reforming as the priest passed his hand over Varis' injury. The philosopher stared at Aralic in awe.
"Blessed be Petra from generation to generation. Defender of the Traldar, may you live in peace."
* * *
The wound had healed completely. If Varis had not had supreme confidence in the memory of his battles in the orc caverns, he might have thought that he had never been injured at all. The power in this man! Varis thought. And then: No, the power that is working through this man! He knew that there were holy men in his own church who the Immortals so favoured that they allowed them to work great wonders. When he was thirteen, he had seen the Halavite Ventranius, his parish priest in Penhaligon, heal an older boy who had broken his leg falling off a roof. And at the cathedral attached to the seminary, buoyant globes of Immortal light illumined the fourteen altars, summoned at the beginning of every service by proto-priests dedicated to the different cults. It was a spectacular, solemn ritual, one that had always filled Varis' heart with joy. However, it had also been whispered at seminary that there were Traladaran priests who wielded similar powers, the origin of which was a favourite topic of conversation among some of the more philosophically inclined students.
There were two main schools of thought on the matter. The first was that the Traladarans were granted these powers by the forces of Evil and Death, by Alphaks and Thanatos. Within this school of thought, there were two subgroups. The first held that the Traladarans did so unintentionally; they really thought that they were praying to Halav, Petra, and Zirchev, but in reality they were petitioning the forces of Darkness. This was because (so the argument went) the Traladarans worshipped non-existent Immortals like Petra and Zirchev, and held such a heretical view of Halav that, although they spoke his name, their words in reality referred to nothing. Therefore, they were in fact followers of lies and untruth. And by following these lies, they unwittingly followed Evil and Death.
The second subgroup, smaller than the first but still sizeable, held that the Traladarans knowingly worshipped and were servants of these dark entities. There was some hierarchical support for this perspective; Patriarch Alfric had made some statements in Specularum a few years back that could be interpreted as supporting such a point of view. Varis had found that most of those who held this understanding were rather unpleasant fellows who had much of the old Thyatian spirit still alive in them, those who esteemed Vanya above all the other Immortals and who saw no contradiction between Patriarch Olliver's teachings on the soul and the attitude of imperial conquest that Varis found to be so dangerous. These were the type of men who would just as soon bash in the skull of a pagan as reason with him.
While in seminary, the perspective that Varis had subscribed to concerning this matter was typical of the second main school of thought on the subject: it held that the Traladarans' prayers and powers were granted by the Fourteen. Surely it was possible, went the argument, that Halav in his wisdom might grant the Traladarans some portion of his power out of respect and remembrance of the fact that he sojourned among them. The imperfect understanding of him that the Traladarans possessed prevented the full manifestation of his power, granted, but that did not rule out the possibility of Halav granting small prayers and requests to pious men and women of the Traladaran Church out of affection for his people. In a similar argument, Halav or another true deity, like Chardastes, for example, might perform works of healing on the behalf of those who request assistance from Petra. And on down the line.
So it was that Varis, awed at the work of power and mercy he had received at the hands of Aralic, directed his thankfulness to Chardastes, the Healer, he who was rejected by the Traladarans when he manifested himself unto them, and to Halav, Red-Hair, who reigned as king of the Traldar from Lavv. I know now that Aralic is a holy man, he thought. Asterius, if you have directed me here for a reason, help me to discern your purpose.
Aralic spoke, breaking Varis' solitary musings. "Rise, child. Petra has done her work; now we must attend to ours. I must speak to you, to all of you, about the caves. I'm afraid I have something rather dreadful to tell."
* * *
The five companions met Aralic a few hours later outside the ruins of the church. The priest had some rounds to make, visitations to those of his flock that were ill or otherwise required his pastoral presence. This also gave the companions time to eat a leisurely breakfast of eggs and ham and smoke a pipe or two in comfort. Fyodor had excitedly told the others about how Aralic had healed Varis. The philosopher kept wanting to interrupt to correct him theologically, but the young Traladaran was so excited and proud that he decided it would be better to just leave him be. Plus, the others were very interested to hear of this miracle, and at the same time very thankful that Varis stood strong again. Alexander and the elf seemed to have escaped whatever darkness had come over them, and even Boldar, who had skipped the eggs but had eaten two full plates of ham, much to the consternation of the innkeeper, seemed in good spirits. This is the joy that the Immortals bring, Varis thought.
After they ate their breakfast and drank a bit of Minroth coffee to wash it all down, and having emptied their pipe bowls, the five went to join the priest in a considerably better mood. Fyodor had made a lot of friends the night before, and he smiled to all and called out to at least a dozen as they walked the short distance to the square. Already, townsmen were at work rebuilding the church, tearing down those unstable portions of the foundation that remained. Aralic stood by, munching on a pear, cheerfully giving directions to the workers. He greeted the group enthusiastically. "Right on time!" he exclaimed. "Unfortunately the only chair I have to offer you is the grass! Some of our idle young men volunteered to build me a little shack so I can have a roof over my head until the church is rebuilt." Aralic pointed with his cane across the clearing, where a group of men were hastily erecting a small cabin. "Hopefully, they'll get it done before it starts to rain again." The thunderstorms of last night had passed, but the sky remained overcast.
Thalaric nodded. The rain had forced him to sleep in a room at the Hungry Halfling. He was young enough to be able to adjust from the leafy wilderness of his home and the intricate treehouses where he had spent much of his youth to the cities and buildings of men, a transition his elders, who had lived for unbroken centuries in the depths of the Dymrak Forest, could never make. Granted, there were those of the Vyalia, especially the Greenheight clan, who had taken to living in human-style dwellings (a paradox no doubt Varis would find most entertaining, Thalaric thought: those of my people that one would least likely find at home in a tree are known as the Greenheights). But he, for one, was not completely comfortable sleeping in a human building. In the treehouses of the Vyalia, there was always a subtle swing, a small play in the branches. Thalaric had not realised how accustomed to it he was until he started spending time among the humans. Tonight, no matter what the weather, I will sleep under the stars. He thought briefly of how happy he was two nights ago, when he and the rest of the group had stretched out on the grass outside of the town, watching for the fires that would reveal ancient treasure. And then, a thought: We did see a fire that night. The church burned. He looked at the priest, suddenly very attentive. Could there be something to the legend? Is there something valuable in the church? Or perhaps it is Aralic himself that is the prize...The elf mulled this over briefly, then, needing more data, asked, "What is it you wished to speak to us about?"
Aralic looked at them seriously. "First, I wanted to thank you again. You saved my life, and I doubt that the memory of this deed will soon depart from Stallanford. You have my eternal gratitude.
"Second, on account of the fact that you risked so much to retrieve me, it seems only just that you be given an explanation as to what happened." The priest took a deep breath. "I was in the southern fields for most of the Night of Fire, but I returned to Stallanford early in the morning to prepare for Beasts' Day services, which we northerners are accustomed to celebrating in the morning. Oh, but you are from Penhaligon, yes?" His question was directed at Fyodor. "Are you accustomed to celebrating the festival at the third hour or the sixth?"
"At the third," Fyodor said. It was the perennial problem: how to balance the festivities of the Night of Fire without becoming too laden with drink to participate in the Beasts' Day solemnities. Granted, after the services on that morning, the Traladaran community was all set to plunge back into the joyful extravagances of the holiday, but it was considered extremely disrespectful to let one's drinking and revelry interfere with the formal ritual of the morning worship. Fyodor had learned this lesson the hard way one year when his father gave him quite a thrashing for stumbling into church late after he had spent the whole of the Night of Fire drinking cider and playing at love with a young farm girl by the name of Zandra. It was a wonderful night, but the next morning he could barely open his eyes. Fyodor arrived late to church and stood in the back, pale-faced and unsteady, and when he retched noisily at one point, his father had grabbed his shoulder with a single heavy, calloused hand, dragged him outside, and given him a good beating. Although at the time he had cursed his old man for embarrassing him, in retrospect Fyodor realised that his father had been right, that he had needed to be corrected, and ever since that day he had quite liked the fact that the Night of Fire and Beasts' Day were celebrated back to back. It was a good builder of character, he thought, one that taught moderation with respect to drink and showed honour for the Immortals. He had never known that other Traladarans held different customs, although it did not seem to him to be below the notoriously lazy and assimilated southerners to get rid of the problem by pushing the time of the celebration back to noon.
Aralic nodded at Fyodor's response. "I thought that you would. Most of the north follows this custom. It was a shame that we could not perform the morning prayers this year, but by the time you returned me to Stallanford there remained precious little time for the celebration, and I thought that the very events of the day surely would illuminate the spirit of the festival as well as any prayer service. But anyway, as I was saying, yesterday, early in the morning, I returned to the church to wash myself, say the proper devotions, and prepare the sanctuary for the ceremony. When the orcs came, I was in my quarters, which are...er, were... attached to the church. I had just finished changing when I heard the doors to the church crash open. I knew something was wrong, but by the time I pulled a tunic over my head, those...beasts broke down my door! Let me tell you in all truth, gentlemen, that I am not a warrior. In my youth I picked up the sword and fought against lawless men who sought to rob our town, granted, but now I am forty-four years old, and a priest of the Immortals, and I have not sampled battle's bitter taste for many years.
"Even if I were armed, there were too many of them, and they came too quickly. I struck one with my fist, but they seized me in their foul arms and dragged me away. The last sight I saw before they popped a sack over my head was my church, my beautiful church, in flames, and the bodies of my people lying dead in front of it." Aralic's teeth ground together in anger.
"The trip through the hills was a harsh one. They forced me to walk with a dagger in my back. When I stumbled (which was often), they would drag me back to my feet again, without concern for my safety or health. All this time, I could hear them conversing in their foul tongue, although how such bestial creatures could learn speech is beyond me."
"They stole it from the elves," Thalaric said softly. "But that is a story for another day. Tell us, why do you think you were captured? I have dealt with these creatures in the past, and this seems to me to be very strange behaviour from them." This was the question that had bothered the elf all day. The cold rage which had gripped him when the orcs first attacked Stallanford had subsided after Aralic was returned to the town, but rising up to replace it was a growing sense of confusion, of illogic. The behaviour that the priest was describing was not consonant with both the stories of the Vyalia and his own experience fighting the Nyy-akk. Could this be the secret that the fire revealed?
"I know the answer," Aralic replied. "I was brought before one of the orcs, their chieftain, I suppose, for he sat in that large wooden throne...do you remember? Well, it spoke to me in broken Thyatian and told me that I had been captured to be the physician of the tribe. It actually said to me, 'You will be our shaman.' Well, I naturally refused. Think, to squander the arts of Petra on such beasts! If I or any other priest or healer were ever to do this, I pray that Zirchev's arrows would strike him down rather than let the Immortals be blasphemed in such an egregious fashion." Varis saw Fyodor's questioning look in response to Aralic's statement, and resolved to find some casual way to increase his old friend's vocabulary. Maybe we can work through the Thyatian translation of "The Song of King Halav" together. There are some excerpts from it in "The Testament of the Five Fathers."
The priest continued. "I was beaten and thrown into that cell to reconsider, although I doubted not that I would be killed as soon as their patience reached its end. And it was there," Aralic shuddered at the memory, "that you found me and rescued me before I was slain by the orcs or driven mad by the silent press of those stone walls.
"I lay in the dark for I knew not how long, the narrow shaft of dim light that entered through the keyhole on the door the only break in the murky gloom. But suddenly, a strange and horrible thing happened. I heard a peculiar sound, like a large object being moved, a dragging sound. And then all the orcs (there were five or six of them, and they were conversing boisterously in their black tongue) became immediately silent and this feeling came over me, a feeling that I was in the presence of evil. I do not mean evil the way that the cursed orcs are evil, who have no regard for life and place no value in peace, but something else, a deeper evil, more pure, more deeply unsettling. I tell you, it was all that I could do not to immediately and in the loudest voice possible invoke the name of Halav. I held back, said my prayer silently to myself, and peeped through the keyhole.
"The wooden throne upon which the orc chieftain had sat had been moved aside. From my vantage point, I could not see what this revealed, for the chair blocked my view. But I heard a voice speak a few words in the orcish tongue, a cold, pitiless voice, and suddenly an orc emerged from behind the throne as if thrust by someone, clutching its head, obviously in pain. The orcs in the room were practically grovelling to the speaker, and hearing that terrible voice, it felt to me as if the Black Prince himself spoke. An orc then stepped in front of the door to my cell, and I could see nothing further.
"Mercifully, the mysterious visitor soon spoke its last. I heard the sound of footsteps walking down stone stairs. Then, the orc chieftain became suddenly very commanding again. It shouted something, and the orc in front of my cell jumped into action. I looked out the keyhole in time to see it grab the orc which had emerged from behind the chair and drag it away, whimpering. The chieftain pushed the throne back into place (it appeared to be mounted to the wall in some way) and, taking a key from its belt, placed the key either into the chair or the wall and turned it. I think I heard a clicking sound, but so much was happening I can't be sure. The orcs, who had been very confident only minutes ago, now appeared nervous and sullen." The priest looked nervous himself, glancing down at his feet, his tongue playing along the ridge of his teeth.
It was Thalaric who answered him. "This is very disturbing, Aralic." He was looking off into the distance, away from the priest. Fyodor noted the small elf doing this and felt suddenly chilled to the bone.
"I agree," Aralic said. "Friends, I know not what the meaning or significance of this strange event was, but I fear that there is a greater evil yet loose in those caverns. We have seen what a threat the orcs, that savage, unlawful bunch, can be. How much more damage might this other force be capable of inflicting upon Stallanford?
"What I ask of you, my brave soldiers of Halav, is that you return to the caves and investigate this. I put no geas upon you; I expect that this decision be made in keeping with your free conscience. But on behalf of the community and in the name of the Immortals I entreat you to go. Please know that I do not relish the thought of sending you into danger a second time, and that I would not speak to you thus if I were not convinced that something dreadful lies, undiscovered by men, in those dark caverns."
Aralic looked up from his feet, an almost embarrassed smile on his face. "Will you do this?"
* * *
The five companions were having difficulty completing their meal. The Hungry Halfling was about three-quarters full and quite merry. The ordeals of the Night of Fire and the release of Beasts' Day behind them, the townsmen had gone back to the relative comfort of their daily routines. However, every few minutes or so, a new arrival to the inn would spot Fyodor and company and come over to their table to thank them for rescuing Aralic. This was very flattering to the friends. Thalaric, Fyodor, and Alexander basked in the glory, shaking hands enthusiastically and gladly accepting the offers of the townsfolk to buy them rounds of ale, several of which they had already put away. Varis and Boldar, however, stewed in barely-repressed anger.
"I just wish you would have consulted us, Fyodor, before you decided to accept Aralic's commission on behalf of us all," Varis said. The words of the priest were hardly out of his mouth before the young Traladaran gleefully accepted. Varis had been too polite to say anything at the time, for Aralic was visibly relieved, but now he had decided to let Fyodor have it.
"Varis, I'm sorry," Fyodor replied. "I just wasn't thinking. But you heard him: there could be something horrible still in those caves."
"That's not the issue, Fyodor. I, too, realise that it is incumbent upon us to investigate this threat, but you should have asked before you committed us to this course of action. What do the rest of you think? Do you all agree with Master Grygorov here?"
Thalaric piped up. "I think we should go. If the priest is right, this town could be in danger again soon. And if anything happened to this town, then there would be nobody to buy us drinks. Therefore, it follows, necessarily, certainly, by the very thing itself, that we must defeat the evils that ail Stallanford!" Alexander and Fyodor joined him in raucous laughter, a thin sprinkle of beer flying out of Thalaric's mug and landing in Boldar's lap. Stop trying to fool us, Fyodor, Varis thought. You don't understand that pun any more than you understand what you have just committed us to.
"I don't think that this is the attitude to have in this situation!" The dwarf said angrily. "There are concerns more important here than merry-making!" Varis looked at the elf coldly. The pun was clever, yes, but he knew that Thalaric was making fun of him, mocking what he certainly considered his philosophical pretension. What was it he said to me when we first met? Oh yes: "One who seeks lofty things does so because he wishes to discover in the world how he feels about himself." At the time he had shrugged off the elf's comment as an unintentional insult born of cultural difference. But now that he knew Thalaric a bit better, he thought that there was something else to his statement, something reflected even in his general outlook on life: an almost childish anti-intellectualism that the philosopher found infuriating.
"Relax, Boldar," Thalaric said. "You need more beer."
"Revelry does not solve our problems!" shouted Boldar at the elf.
"What problems?" Thalaric asked. "Now we drink beer (which, I must admit, really isn't that bad once you've put a couple away), and tomorrow we head back out to the hills and slay Master Aralic's bogeyman. These don't sound like problems to me."
"Fool!" Boldar sneered. "You treat this as if it were a game."
The elf slammed his stein down on the table. "It is a game. Life is just a huge game, a hunt. The participants change, but the story remains the same. We are actors in an eternal play..."
Varis cut in. "Both of you, stop, please." The elf was irritating him beyond all measure, and stable Boldar was suddenly very emotional. Remember how they changed when we were in the caves, Varis thought to himself. It's conflict that brings out the Dark in both of them. "If we truly are going to do this, to go back...there, we have to make preparations, discuss our plans. Boldar, you told me this morning that you intended to leave Stallanford and return to your homeland. Do you still wish to do this, or have you decided to stay a while in Karameikos?"
Boldar looked at the philosopher. "I have experience delving in the earth that may be of assistance," he said gruffly. "So I will go."
Varis smiled warmly. "I am glad, Boldar. And you, Alex, I assume you wish to go, right? Right? Alex, stop looking at that wench, this is important."
"Yes, of course I'm coming, Varis," Alexander replied, tearing his eyes away from a well-titted serving girl who was flirting with him from across the room. "I'm the slayer of the chieftain: you wouldn't stand a chance without me!"
"I'll drink to that!" said Thalaric as he drained his tankard.
That was the last straw. Such flippancy, such an inability to come to terms with their situation and the gravity of life in general clearly demonstrated to the philosopher that this partnership was doomed. We were fools to even start this. Varis reached across the table and grabbed Thalaric's arm. "That's a lovely cut you have on your face there. Remind me again how you came to have it." He spoke with menacing venom, his eyes narrowed to slits. The elf put his mug down on the table. "That orc had its whip around your throat. If Alex had missed with that shot, you'd be dead. And Alex," he said, turning his attention to his friend, "how confident were you when you fired your crossbow? Had you ever been in battle before? I mean, real battle, where real blood is shed, and not sparring with a man in your father's hire for sport on the Kantpatcalites family estate?" Alexander hung his head, reddening slightly under his beard. "We could have been killed in there. No, we should have been killed in there. It was either the grace of Halav or blind, passionless chance that got us out of there alive.
"You're letting your fantasies of heroism go to your head. Don't you understand? This is serious, a matter of life or death. And don't you pretend for a minute, Thalaric, that you don't care if you live or die. If we are to accept this commission, and I believe that we are morally obligated to do so, we have to approach this soberly and realistically, and not with false confidence and childish swagger!"
The table was silent. Those sitting next to them had also ceased their conversation, and were looking askance at the group. Fyodor stared at his lap, suddenly ashamed. Boldar had turned red and was gripping the table hard. Thalaric looked calmly at Varis, mouth twisted in contemplation. I don't trust him, Varis thought, surprised. "Forget it," the philosopher said, getting up. "We're not going. We're not ready."
"What are we going to tell Aralic?" Alexander asked softly, not looking Varis in the eye. There was something in his tone of voice that told the philosopher that his old friend understood.
"I don't know. He said he wanted to meet with me in the afternoon, that there was something that the two of us still needed to talk about. But I'm going to go see him now, and tell him that he ought to find someone else to do his cave-delving." Varis suddenly felt bad about raising his voice. But the facts remained: they were not mercenaries; they were not slayers of mythical beasts. They were children in love with the idea of the road, with the notion of adventure. This was not the life for them. "Alex, you can still go north, back to Darokin, maybe with a caravan. It will be safer, and you'll be able to see a lot more of the countryside." He strode for the door. After a few paces he stopped, whirled in place to face his companions' table, although he only had eyes for Alexander.
"I'm a philosopher. And Alex, you're a merchant's son." With that, he left the inn.
Those who remained looked at each other sullenly. Boldar stared at Thalaric under heavy lashes, as Fyodor, embarrassed, went back to his ale and Alexander looked around the inn at questioning faces that had witnessed what must have seemed to them to be an unusual altercation. It was Thalaric who spoke first. "Perhaps it is time to end our fellowship. I have been too long out of the Dymrak." But Alexander was already on his feet, striding for the door. Varis is right, he thought. I'm a fool who can't face reality. I am a merchant's son.