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The Mystara Chronicles XVI: "Welcome Back"by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)
The companions made their way directly to the cosy and busy taproom of the Hungry Halfling. Like the rest of the town, it was alive with activity, full of dark-skinned and silk-robed Selenican merchants making arrangements for the evening. Despite the commotion, it was only a matter of moments before Bert, like a good innkeep, noticed them. The halfling and some of the locals who remembered them gathered around, welcoming them back. Sarala's strange appearance and haughty demeanour drew some looks, but for the most part the residents of Stallanford made them feel at ease again, one group of tanners actually giving up their table so that they could sit at it.
They ordered beer and wine. Bert had slipped a chicken pie in the oven ("just for you" he said), but for the time being they were satisfied with fresh bread and some soft cheese. Without revealing its contents, Fyodor gave the bag bearing Ilyana's head to the halfling, with instructions that it be put on ice.
The group ate and drank in silence, more exhausted than they knew. Fyodor had just torn off a new hunk of bread and was reaching for the butter when he saw Aralic enter the inn. The priest spotted them and drew near, embracing the rising Fyodor. "I heard that you had returned. My friends, it is so good to see you again!" He was beaming. "Were you successful in your quest?"
"Gios, it is good to see you too," Fyodor replied. "We have been very troubled, and we have to show you something."
Aralic's face twisted in a show of concern. "Oh? Well, what is it then?"
Fyodor picked up the still-scabbarded Sebrisst from its resting-place and showed it to the priest. "We have recovered the sword of Elendorath."
Varis winced as he saw the attention of Bert and several customers snap over to the companions. "Maybe we should continue this outside," the philosopher said, nudging Fyodor.
"Yes...yes of course," Aralic stuttered, his attention completely occupied by the sword that Fyodor held. "Are you sure that it is Sebrisst?"
Varis answered. "We are."
"How did you come by it? No, never mind....there will be time for that later. I'm sorry, I'm not sure exactly what to do. Come to the church. We will drive the spirits from the blade, and then see if Dalmarek can unmake it. Come, come with me." The priest was still talking as he headed for the door.
Fyodor immediately started after him, noticed that only Varis was following him. "Well, what are you waiting for?" he asked incredulously. "Let's go!"
"Fyodor, we just got here," Alexander said plaintively. "I'm filthy and I've been drinking nothing but water for days." His hands were wrapped possessively around a mug of ale.
"What are you worried about?" Boldar grumbled also. "The sword is in good hands; we can deal with it tomorrow at least."
Fyodor looked at the recalcitrant group in utter disbelief. "But this is Sebrisst!"
"Then go to your business, friend," Sarala said, her words causing the others to turn and look at her, surprised. "But if you would have my advice, as one who has spent her entire life in the presence of magic, know that unless that sword is the most powerful of artifacts (and since I have never heard of it before I can only conclude that it is not), it needs no special ritual of exorcism to destroy it. Skip the church and plunge the thing directly into the furnace if you simply must do away with it, but at any rate it need not be done right now. Its evil doubtlessly lies in the intention of its user, not in any spirit trapped inside the blade, or any such nonsense."
Even Boldar could acknowledge that it was a grossly impolitic speech, but Sarala spoke with such dismissive confidence that none dared to contradict her.
"Who is that?" Aralic whispered to Varis in Traladaran, noticing her for the first time.
"A Glantrian." He almost said "a shapechanger" but managed to catch himself in time. No matter his dislike, his hatred, even, of this woman, Varis knew that they probably owed each other their lives. And it was this unbreakable bond, more than anything else, that checked his tongue.
"I thank you for your advice, lady," the priest replied, lifting his voice. "But we are in Traladara now, and we follow Traladaran customs, and worship the Traladaran Immortals. We will pray over the blade." As Aralic spoke, Fyodor was reminded of the way that had spoken during the commencement of the Beasts' Day festivities: with authority.
Sarala shrugged with unconcern, yawned, returned to her food. Sarrah joined her. After a long look at Varis, Alexander sat back down, followed by Boldar, then Thalaric. "Nothing's going to happen," the elf said wearily. "Come! Let's relax and have some wine."
"I can't believe you," Fyodor said, obviously upset. This is the enmity of Sebrisst, he thought. It is working right in our midst! He turned his back on the others disgustedly. If there was any doubt in his mind that the blade needed to be destroyed, it was gone now. "I am ready, Gios." He led the way out of the inn, followed by Aralic and Varis.
Boldar blew out a puff of air and glared at Sarala. Although he himself had little desire to do anything right now other than drink ale, he was not happy with the way that their newest companion had dealt with the situation. The dwarf found her to be arrogant and ungrateful; in other words, a Glantrian. All of a sudden, he couldn't bear to be in the same room as her. "Excuse me." He stood abruptly and left.
"Let's order some wine," Alexander said, trying to ignore the departing Boldar. "Today is a feast day, although I doubt that there are many Thyatians in this village who would keep it. It is the Day of Valerias!"
"I do not know this festival," Sarala said, yawning again.
"It is a celebration of the Immortal patroness of love. It is a day where every creature rejoices in the sublime joys of love and romance," he said with a smile.
"I see. I need a bath, and I could do with a couple hours of sleep in a soft bed. I wonder if these could be provided." Sarala seemed completely indifferent to and unimpressed with Alexander's pronouncement. Soon she too had left the gathering, off in search of Bert and his accommodations.
Sarrah looked after her in concern. "I wonder if she's okay."
"I'm sure she'll be fine," Alexander answered. "She has been through a lot recently, as have we all." He looked down at himself, saw the dirt and the blood. They had washed some of the filth off of them in the Hillfollow earlier today, but the grime of the road and of battle was with them still.
"I think maybe we could all do with baths," Sarrah said, obviously noticing his mournful look.
"And then dinner?" Thalaric asked.
Alexander nodded. "And then dinner."
* * *
They washed in large copper kettles that Bert kept for such occasions. Alexander bathed together with the elf, a most uncomfortable arrangement for him. He was used to the private baths in his father's mansion in Kelvin. His only companions were the occasional serving-girl that he persuaded to join him, a not infrequent occurrence in his younger days. His favourite was a youthful Traladaran, Tatyana or Tanya or something like that; he had called her Tia. He hadn't seen her for at least a year, ever since his Shearing and his extended trip through Darokin. Her companionship was much better than the elf's.
Thalaric, on the other hand, was delighted with the arrangements, and splashed the water like an infant, singing a strange song in a language that sounded like Traladaran but for little snippets of Thyatian and what seemed like the elf's own native tongue thrown in for good measure. Soon Alexander realised, from the melody if not the text, that it was one of the songs that the Traladarans had been singing during the Night of Fire. The elf clearly could not remember the words, for he was splicing in any bit of doggerel that would fit the meter.
As he washed himself with Bert's harsh soap, Alexander's mind drifted away from memories of Tia and towards his future with Sarrah. He saw her quite clearly in his mind's eye, running one of the hin's coarse sponges over her body, stripping away the layers of grime and the splatters of blood. Doubtless she and Sarala would be sharing a tub just as he and Thalaric were. He found the Glantrian interesting and exotic but not attractive in the least. Sarrah alone demanded the attention of his inner eye. He thought that it was surely a sign from Valerias herself that the two of them would have the chance to be alone together on this night above all other nights.
His reveries were interrupted by a great splash of water that struck him full in the face. "Thalaric!" he cried in annoyance.
"Rarrgh!" the elf cried in some sort of fey pantomime. "I am Argos, the dragon of the Lake of Lost Dreams! I will drag you to your doom!" With that, he leapt upon Alexander, laughing hysterically, trying to submerge him.
"Damn it, Thalaric!" Alexander sputtered, wiping soapy water out of his eyes. "What's the matter with you?"
"Rarrgh!" he cried in response, renewing the assault. Alexander couldn't help but laugh as he wrestled him, finding that the elf was both stronger and more slippery than he had anticipated.
Tonight was going to be great.
* * *
When the sun went down, Alexander, Thalaric, and Sarrah were treated to an interesting sight. All of the Darokinian merchants left the inn in a swirl of silks and gathered in a group outside, many of their guards joining them solemnly. An older man with a long beard took up a position facing them and began to speak what seemed like a benediction in the Ylari tongue.
"What's happening?" Thalaric asked as he tried to get a better look through the window.
"They call themselves True Believers," Alexander said, rubbing his chin. "They worship a nameless god whose cult is strong in Ylaruam. These men, though Darokinian, are of Ylari extract from Selenica and have kept many of the customs of their ancestors, among them the commandment to pray at sunrise and sunset."
He watched as the prayer leader was handed a large, richly jewelled book. Holding it aloft, the others bowed down in reverence. "It's their sacred book," Alexander continued, "written by their prophet Al-Kalim." The old man began reading from the book, his cadences sounding strange and mysterious to the companions.
"How do you know this?" Sarrah asked.
"I passed through Selenica a few times," he answered. "True Believers tend to be very devout; it's hard to pass through any territory held by them without obtaining at least some knowledge of their beliefs and practices."
The prayer session was coming to a close. One by one the faithful drew near to the man holding the holy book and kissed the tome reverently. Once they had all finished, the merchants re-entered the Hungry Halfling, clamouring for food and drink, their pious religiosity replaced with boisterous joyfulness. They chattered happily in Thyatian and Ylari as Bert and his small staff began bringing out mounds of meat and bread from the back kitchen while placing before them large flagons of wine and mead.
Into the midst of this chaos came Sarala. She had purchased trousers and a tunic earlier in the day, and the stiff clothes were complemented by her stiff, tired, gait. Some of the merchants turned to look at her, interested and seemingly somewhat off-put by her appearance, but Sarala paid them no mind. She walked up to the table that the others were sitting at, gruffly told them that she would return in the morning, and left the inn without another word. Surprised by her sudden appearance and then departure, Alexander surmised that, like last night, she might need to spend the evening hunting, in obedience to the moon. How quickly I've accepted her, he thought with amazement. Whatever she is...
Sarala's leave-taking had left Alexander, Thalaric, and Sarrah to eat the chicken pie that Bert had made especially for them. They felt much better having bathed and with something substantial in their stomachs. Their travel clothes had been laundered and were drying as they sat at table, so they had attired themselves in their spare clothing, a bit crumpled, perhaps, but far better than the dirt- and blood-caked shirts and trousers that they had given Bert.
When they finally reappeared some time later, Varis, Fyodor, and Boldar stood out in stark contrast to the others. They were still filthy, their clothes still unwashed, the stink of the road still clinging to them. They looked tired. Bristling with weapons, Fyodor began removing them, stacking his arms in the corner of the inn near where the others were sitting. Varis and Boldar did likewise and sat down heavily on the bench, ignoring the looks of the other patrons.
"Sebrisst has been destroyed," Fyodor announced after a period of awkward silence.
"Well that's good news!" Alexander said, confused as to why the young Traladaran didn't seem as excited as he should have been.
"Dalmarek's forge swallowed it up," Boldar reported. "It has been melted down."
"Aralic exorcised the blade first," Varis finished. "Just in case."
"Wonderful!" Alexander took a swig of ale, feeling the tension in the air. A pause. "I'm sorry I didn't come with you today." He didn't really mean it, but he hoped that it would serve to relax them somewhat.
Varis patted his friend on the shoulder. "It's nothing, Alexander. We're just glad to be done with Sebrisst. It's a relief, you know?"
Alexander nodded. It was a relief, to all of them. Every person at that table was happy that they no longer had to waste a single thought on that blade, or on Ilyana. They had triumphed over both, and the pain of any lingering memories they planned to obliterate with alcohol.
They began immediately. As Fyodor, Varis, and Boldar dragged themselves to their feet, reclaimed their weapons, and went off to bathe, the rest started into drinking. There were a pair of minstrel groups in the Hungry Halfling tonight- a rare occurrence indeed- and they were engaged in a musical mock combat: one would play a song, then the other would try to top it in some way. It made for great entertainment, especially because of the good-hearted jests tossed back and forth between the leaders, a one-eyed man with pipe and tabor and a fat, thick-jowled singer. Predictably, Thalaric was fascinated by this, and before the others knew what was happening, he had drunk an entire bottle of wine and was playing with the bands, pounding away on a tambourine, running back and forth between the two groups, his ridiculous green hat and hose drawing good-natured guffaws from the crowd as he danced on the tables. Sarrah and Alexander were nearly doubled over with laughter themselves.
The others returned from their baths wearing a fresh set of clothes. Boldar excused himself and left to spend the night with Dalmarek. Fyodor was immediately commandeered by a group of Traladarans that he had met the night after they had returned from having slain Petrides. Varis plopped down next to Alexander and Sarrah and ordered a beer. Like Alexander, Varis was eager to mark the Day of Valerias. However, his understanding of the nature of the festival was in line with Karameikan teaching rather than what he considered to be libertine Thyatian custom. The two exchanged some pointed words about this fact before Varis excused himself and left the inn before his drink arrived, vocalising his intention of wandering the village in search of any worship service commemorating the Patroness of Love.
With the killjoy Varis gone, Alexander turned his full attention to Sarrah. His desire for her had been building for many days, and he could no longer resist trying his luck. Now that she had bathed, her ruddy skin smelled of flowers. Her long black hair had been released from its thong and combed out. She had changed into a rumpled yellow knee-length skirt and a loose white blouse, the kind with a rounded bodice that Traladaran peasants favoured.
Seeing her in such womanly clothing, Alexander realised how strong her build was. She lacked the litheness of most of his conquests: serving girls in his father's employ mostly, with the occasional depraved Thyatian society girl for variety's sake. The former seemed mainly to acquiesce to his advances rather than truly to desire them, and the latter often put Alexander off with their unhealthy appetites. There had not been much true beauty in his life, not since his mother and sister had left Kelvin, and far too much ugliness as of late. He needed Sarrah.
When she slipped back through the crowd from the bar after going to get a couple more ales for the two of them, weaving her way bare-footed through throngs of Stallanford farmers and caravan guards, Alexander knew that he couldn't remember a time when he was more attracted to a woman. She had what only could be described as a practical beauty, the beauty possessed by women who must labour for their bread, who drink beer instead of fine wines and dress in simple clothes rather than extravagant silks.
More than anything else, it was the way that she moved, with absolute control, with an unhurried grace. She was tall for a woman, and her passing attracted the attention of other patrons, who too must have found something in her gait intoxicating. But Sarrah's attention was fixed only on him, and when their eyes met as she returned with their drinks, he knew that she would soon be his. He could read it in her deep brown eyes, sense it in the heaving of her chest, smell it in her hair. It was as if the entire taproom was theirs, as if there weren't dozens of others, all clamouring for food and drink. It was as if it were just the two of them.
Sarrah's lips were wet and her eyes smiling as she downed half of her ale in a single swig. Alexander followed her lead, knocking back the light local brew with gusto. "Sarrah, I must have you tonight." It was clumsy and direct, but it was heartfelt. His head swam and his manhood was straining against his breeches.
She drained her mug and wiped her mouth, her eyes never leaving his. He felt her bare foot tracing patterns on his leg. She smiled. "Finish your beer."
* * *
He found her willing but surprisingly inexpert, often hurting him with her frantic fumblings. Alexander did not care, for her breath was warm and sweet, and her sex gripped him like a moist velvet glove. He felt like he had not lain with a woman in years, and when the time of release came upon him he cried out in joy as he spilled his seed on her stomach and collapsed, laughing softly.
Sarrah's hand reached up to caress his hair, awkward in its ministrations but gentler now. He looked at her, beautiful, her skin pale against his. He wondered if she had taken as much pleasure in their coming together as he had. Somehow he doubted it; he had found that thus it was always the way with women. It was the knowledge that they were desired that was the heart of the excitement in sex for the female.
Alexander kissed her softly and rolled off of her. Sarrah ran her hand lightly across his stomach, a faint smile on her lips, her mind seemingly elsewhere. At last she sighed and kissed his chest, rising from the bed and crossing the room to the window. Alexander took his pipe from the bed-table and packed it with tobacco, carefully lighting it from the candle that was the only source of light in the room. Sucking a mouthful of sweet smoke, he looked over at Sarrah. Naked, she stood gazing out upon the village of Stallanford, at the lights illuminating the crooked, unplanned streets and the small dwellings of the townsfolk. Even from his position Alexander could see the torches where the merchant caravan had circled its wagons for the night.
"What do you see?"
Sarrah's attention whipped back to the bed, where Alexander had propped himself up on one arm. "It's beautiful out tonight."
Alexander smiled at that. "Not nearly as beautiful as in here." He smiled at his own clumsy compliment, hoping that his sincerity would cut the treacle somewhat.
His words seemed to have the desired effect, as his lover tossed her hair and slunk back towards the bed, straddling him and placing her callused hands on his chest. "Where are you going next?"
Alexander was puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, tomorrow, where are you heading? Are you going back to Penhaligon?"
"Oh. I hadn't thought that much about it." Alexander drew from his pipe. "I imagine that we should probably visit Lord Kaerin, get rid of that head that Fyodor has been carrying around."
Sarrah smiled as Alexander gently massaged her with his free hand, playing with her thin, dark, leg-hair. "What do you think Sarala is doing?"
Alexander shrugged as his hand traced the curve of her hip. "She's probably going to want to head home as soon as possible, I would imagine. Why?"
"No reason, just curious." She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. "I'm not tired enough to sleep."
Sarrah nodded, taking the pipe from him. She took a deep drag, then kissed him on the lips, letting the smoke pass from her mouth to his. Alexander's head swam as she set the pipe down on the side-table, the fires in his loins burning hot once again. She put her lips to his ear. "What can I do for you..."
* * *
Fyodor rolled off of Marya and collapsed, exhausted but slightly disappointed. Their second meeting had not been as fulfilling as their first. The older woman had been delighted to see him again, but once he had her in his bed once more, it seemed as if she performed her part with none of the passion that he remembered from the last time. The fact that the persistent ache in his jaw that had been bothering him ever since he and his companions had emerged victorious from Petrides' catacombs had turned from a dull soreness to a sharp pain wasn't helping matters.
Fyodor sighed as she threw an arm over his chest and half-heartedly snuggled next to him. He wasn't as drunk this time, he knew. Maybe that was the problem, for it certainly seemed that Marya was far less attractive than before, her thighs lumpier, her breasts more pendulous. She could have picked up on this drop in enthusiasm on his part, which would explain her lukewarm reception of him.
Nevertheless, she had consented to be with him again, perhaps for the very same reason that Fyodor found himself drawn to the older woman: it was easy, a sure thing, much more comforting to him at this moment than a young girl who might not allow him what he wanted. Although, he thought, if I had known she would be so disinterested, I might have taken my chances with that long-legged Darokinian who sat in the corner.
It didn't matter. He would be on the road tomorrow anyway, headed back south at Aralic's advice to Penhaligon to speak with Lord Kaerin. Afterwards, Fyodor thought that he would go visit his family, surprise them with all of the wealth that he had won. Maybe he could even host a feast, invite the neighbouring families. Wouldn't his mother be proud at the success that he had found? Wouldn't little Tikhon, almost a man himself now, thrill to hear all about his big brother's adventures? Wouldn't his father be honoured that his old blade had been put to such good use?
Would they even believe his stories? Fyodor had to admit that they sounded fantastic. He could just imagine Old Ivanevitch raising his bushy eyebrows in disbelief when he heard that Fyodor and his companions had given a second death to both Elendorath and Demara. How amazing it all was! And how so perfectly true.
He wondered how Kaerin would receive the news. Baron Halaran would no doubt want to hear all about their adventures first hand. If he were no longer in Penhaligon, Varis would surely want to travel to Threshold to speak with him personally. He would probably want Fyodor, at least, to go with him. The young Traladaran did not have to think long to know that he would definitely accompany his old friend. The surge of divine power that he felt coursing through his body when he slew Ilyana only served to confirm his long-held belief that the Blessed Three had gifted him with something great, a more noble doom than had been granted to most of his kinfolk. Our people have been without heroes for far too long, he thought.
Who knew what he would be able to accomplish? He had boon companions, a magic bag filled with gold, and Bastard-Slayer at his side (his sword was rapidly acquiring epithets). What could he fear, with Halav fighting beside him? What could he fear, with Zirchev guiding his steps? What could he fear, with Petra healing his every infirmity?
Yet something had been eating at him, suggesting that he had much more to learn from the world than the world could benefit from him. Sometime yesterday, the thought had occurred to him that, in the end, he and his companions had achieved exactly what Kavorquian and Petrides had hoped. They had done what those haters of Traladara were unable to accomplish themselves. This did not sit well with Fyodor, although he knew that it was surely a good thing to have made sure that Stallanford would be safe, the north secure.
There are no more thumizai in Traladara, Aralic had said this afternoon. They fled forever after the Great War. So the gnolls who served Ilyana were not the beast-men who ravaged the land two thousand years ago, when, as "The Song of King Halav" said, four out of every five of the Traldar had given their lives in defence of their homeland. That was a comforting thought. But there were other threats, other enemies of the people and their land. Perhaps things weren't as clear-cut now as they had been back then, but there was still a call for strong and honest men who could wield a sword in the name of the Immortals.
Fyodor smiled, happy in this knowledge. He kissed Marya's forehead. She wasn't that bad, after all.
* * *
Sabinus, Erren, and Sarrah had taught Kaerin well, for unlike the last occasion the companions had come to visit, this time his mansion was well guarded. Swordsmen bedecked in Penhaligon green and yellow were everywhere. Two stood guard at the wrought-iron gate. Others could be clearly seen surrounding the house, alertly patrolling the elegantly landscaped estate grounds in pairs, keeping watch amongst the many statues and well-gardened shrubs.
The guards at the front gate examined them suspiciously as they approached, their greatswords drawn and resting point-down on the ground. "Can I help you, sirs?" one asked in a cool, professional tone. He was an older soldier, with a voice that was clearly used to barking orders.
"Is Lord Kaerin well?" Alexander replied, concerned.
"The lord is well. What is your business here?"
"We are his acquaintances. He sent us to take care of a matter for him. My name is Alexander Kantpatcalites; could you tell him that I and my companions have arrived?"
The soldier chewed his lip for a moment before calling one of his fellows who was standing on the other side of the gate and ordering him to bear the message to Kaerin.
"Is something happening here?" Alexander asked as they awaited the reply.
The veteran glanced coolly at the group. "The Lady Penhaligon is visiting Lord Kaerin and Lady Alerena."
Varis was startled. "Have they married already?"
"No," the soldier replied with an air of mockery. "They will marry on the Day of Valerias after Lady Alerena's seventeenth birthday, as is customary."
You mean "as is customary in Old Thyatis," Varis thought to himself. Such an arrangement, which was considered to be the most auspicious day for a woman to be wed, seemed to the philosopher to be functionally not any different than the superstitions of Traladaran astrology. Old habits die hard, he conceded, confident that one day the church would be successful in purging the land of this error. He was deep in his musings over the relationship between time and the dispensation of the Immortals when the messenger returned from the house. "Lord Kaerin instructs that they are to be brought to him immediately."
The old soldier grunted and opened the gate, stopping Alexander with an upraised hand as he made a move to enter. "Your weapons, please."
"What?" Boldar exclaimed. "We mean your lord no harm."
"Your weapons." His voice was calm and even, but Alexander could see other guardsmen beginning to gather around, their hands resting with deceptive casualness on their sword-hilts.
"Boldar, don't worry about it. Your axe will be safe." Alexander smiled at the guard, trying to defuse the situation.
The dwarf grumbled as he handed over his weapon to a pimply soldier evidently younger than Fyodor. Today was the sixteenth of Buhrlin in the dwarvish calendar, the anniversary of the Battle of Sardal Pass. On this day, of all days, Boldar wasn't about to take any guff from a pock-faced human teenager. "I'll be back for this," he snarled. "See that it doesn't get chipped."
* * *
"My friends!" Kaerin exclaimed, smiling broadly at them. He had chosen to receive them in his sitting room, the very same sitting room in which he and Baron Halaran had commissioned the group ten days ago. "I am so very glad to see you!" His eyes gleamed as he grasped Alexander on the shoulder. But then he saw Sarrah, who stood in the back, head down, and his expression changed. "Her!" he shouted, suddenly furious. "Why have you brought that one back into my home?"
"Begging your pardon, m'lord," Sarrah said icily. "These are my companions."
"What?" Kaerin was turning red. "You better have a good explanation for this, Master Kantpatcalites."
Alexander raised his hands as if to appease him. "Lord Kaerin, I understand that you may be upset, but please hear me out. Her name is Sarrah, and she joined us soon after we saw you last. She has proven to be a trustworthy companion, most helpful, and we would not have survived without her aid. Plus, if I may humbly remind you, my lord, the Baron pardoned her of any wrongdoing in that unfortunate incident." He saw two women enter the sitting room from a door in the far corner. "But Lord Kaerin, you have not yet introduced us to your lovely bride-to-be."
Kaerin looked surprised for a minute, then turned to see the newcomers. His glower changed to a smile. The younger, evidently the Lady Alerena, wore a form-fitting long-sleeved green and white dress. Velvet slippers covered her small feet and she was adorned with tasteful gold and diamond jewellery. Alerena was a slight thing, very young and seemingly uncomfortable. She was obviously dressed in a way that was designed to appear provocative yet classy, but she could not be called attractive in any sense of the word. Nevertheless, her eyes were blue and clear and her dark brown hair was pulled up in a flattering bun on the back of her head, a few wisps of loose hair brushing her neck. Her skin, at least, was absolutely perfect.
The other woman was known to Varis. She was Arteris, the ruler of the Estate of Penhaligon. Varis had seen her from afar on a few occasions, but had never actually had the chance to speak with her. He considered it a great honour to be in the presence of the Duke's holy representative and bowed deeply as soon as he recognised her. "My Lady," he said. The others, unsure of themselves, likewise bowed.
"Greetings, travellers." Arteris was much taller than Alerena, as tall as Alexander, and she possessed none of the noble frailty so evident in Kaerin's betrothed. She wore light, conservative robes of dark blue and silver and a gold necklace about her throat. Her brown hair was arranged in a long tight braid. Alexander thought that the Lady Penhaligon would have been reckoned a beautiful woman- for although she was older than Alerena she was still young, maybe thirty years of age- if her face were not puckered in an unfriendly scowl.
"My friends," Kaerin said, "allow me to introduce the Lady Arteris Penhaligon and my beautiful bride-to-be, the Lady Alerena Kelvin." Alerena curtsied modestly while Arteris continued to examine the companions. Kaerin then introduced the party, politely greeting Sarala (who at Sarrah's behest had grudgingly decided to accompany them to Penhaligon to receive her share of Lady Penhaligon's congratulations) and noticeably grinding his teeth when he came around to Sarrah.
"My ladies, allow me to say on behalf of my friends that it is truly our pleasure to make your acquaintances. In particular, we would like to extend our congratulations to Lady Alerena on her engagement." Even as he spoke, Alexander found himself sympathising with the fourteen-year old girl. What must she have thought when she learned that her father had promised her to a one-armed man nearly twice her age? Then again, would Kaerin even be interested in her if it were not for her noble birth? He thought about the uproar in his own home when his father had learned that his sister intended to marry a man with Traladaran blood. Alexander stifled a sigh. He was not looking forward to getting married.
Alerena smiled and bowed her head in acknowledgment of Alexander's remark, although he thought that he saw little happiness in the young girl's face. Kaerin seemed not to notice, for he beamed proudly at his prize. Alexander continued. "I am happy to report that we have taken care of the matter that we had spoken of, my lord," he said, gesturing to the tightly sealed sack at Fyodor's belt.
The young Traladaran, seeing his cue, pulled open the sack and dramatically dropped the severed head of Ilyana onto the floor. Alerena shrieked hysterically.
"My lady!" Alexander began, completely shocked that Fyodor would do such an asinine thing. "I am very sorry...my lady, a thousand apologies....Fyodor put it back in the sack you fool!"
Sarala snickered in the back of the group as Fyodor and Varis went down on their knees, stuffing the decaying head back into the bag. By this time Alerena had stumbled out of the room, Kaerin supporting her. Arteris continued to scowl at them.
"Is that the head of Ilyana, the one who claims to be my father's bastard?" Her voice was calm and even.
Alexander tore his eyes away from Thalaric, to whom he had shot a warning glance as a measure against the elf breaking into laughter, and turned to Arteris. "Yes, my lady. We did not intend to display it in quite that manner, but yes, it is her head. My injudicious companion here cut it from her shoulders. She will no longer trouble you, my lady."
A trace of a smile flitted across her lips, triumphant, with a small taste of what seemed to be relief. "You have done well, sirs and madams. You have done very, very well indeed."
* * *
Fyodor had no idea that it would feel this good to come home. He had walked confidently and triumphantly through Penhaligon, Bastard-Slayer at his hip, letting the sun beat down on him, enjoying the familiar sights and sounds. He hadn't spent so much time out of his armour recently, and he had relished the wind in his hair and the ruffling of his tunic as the gentle northerly winds cooled him.
He had stopped in at the Wanderer's Rest, of course. Oliphant Smeaton was just as busy as ever, but he managed to find time to have a drink with Fyodor at the bar. Lady Penhaligon had made the formal decree of a holiday that morning in celebration of Ilyana's defeat, and Smeaton and the other patrons had gathered around him, buying him drinks, clamouring for the story.
No one knew anything about Ilyana besides the fact that she was "some bandit in the mountains." Fyodor had been sternly instructed by Lady Penhaligon not to mention anything concerning Ilyana's supposed ancestry, so he concentrated instead on her connection to Elendorath, the aspect of the tale that was more interesting to him, anyway. The young Traladaran had a lot to do that day, so he told his tale in brief. But even in an abbreviated form, the crowd enjoyed it very much. True, there were some who disbelieved that Ilyana had wielded Sebrisst. "Did the blade smoke and flame?" one asked. "Did it scream with the voices of the damned?" asked another. "Did it drip a never-ending stream of blood?" asked a third. When Fyodor, rather confusedly, denied these things and more, some of the group lost interest. "Faker," the young Traladaran heard whispered amongst some of the listeners.
But the vast majority of the patrons had welcomed him and lauded him. Fyodor would have liked to stay longer, but he had much to do before tonight. As he left the tavern, he had thought about what those men had said. They were right, in a way: he had heard those things about Sebrisst. Could it be that they were right, that they had destroyed some other blade? But Aralic had thought that it was genuinely Sebrisst, and Ilyana must have as well, for that matter. Fyodor nodded to himself. He was convinced. The others were just jealous.
He had also paid a visit to an armorer and had himself fitted for a new suit of plate mail. Although he loved the armour given to him by his family and friends, he knew that it had taken quite a beating, and that in its ruined condition it was more likely to cause him harm than to do him any good. Fyodor paid the smith in gleaming coin and arranged to pick up the finished product the next morning.
But it was the walk out to the countryside that made Fyodor happier than anything. Maybe it was his imagination, but the air seemed to smell different here, different even than it did in a place like Stallanford. The earth was darker, richer; even the greens of the crops and the whites and browns of the farmhouses seemed brighter, more real.As he approached his family's farmhouse, he saw his neighbours working in the fields, their faces slick with honest sweat. When they saw him, they hailed him excitedly, surprised both that they were seeing him again so soon (for he had in truth only been absent from among their number for a few short weeks) and that such rumours and tales had preceded him. Fyodor promised to tell all once he met up with his family, and by the time he arrived at his parents' homestead, he was accompanied by a motley gaggle of his fellows.
They were just finishing their afternoon meal when he arrived. His mother embraced him happily, his father beamed with pride, his little brother punched at him playfully.
"Fyodor, everyone is talking about you!" his mother said, tears of joy in her eyes. "They say that you defeated a bandit chief and that the lady has declared a feast in your honour!"
Fyodor blushed and waved his hand modestly. "It is just good to be home. I have brought you presents." He unstrapped the roll of cotton that he had been carrying on his back. The fabric was dyed red and was beautifully embroidered with gold thread. "We took this from the bandits' desputnik. You can make beautiful clothes from it."
As his mother and some of the neighbouring women cooed over it, his father patted him on the back. "You've done well, son."
"Wait, I have more for you." He picked up the large sack from beside the door where he had left it. Reaching inside, he pulled out a fistful of platinum. "Thyatian emperors, each one worth five royals. They're for you, for all of you. Share them and be prosperous."
Cries of joy could be heard throughout the entire crowd. His family and neighbours embraced him heartily. For some reason, Fyodor had never really realised how poor they were until now. Most did not own shoes. Their clothes were thin and patched. Even his home, his childhood home, seemed little more than a shack to him. All of which made their own sacrifice in providing him with his old beat-up suit of second-hand plate mail all the more incredible. They could use this, he knew. Thank you, Halav, Petra, and Zirchev, for allowing me to provide for my family and my neighbours in this way.
Fyodor's father put a hand on his shoulder. "My son," he said loudly, "welcome back to the family. You are more than worthy of being called a Grygorov."
The time of his Shearing was over.
* * *
"I've bought you something," Alexander whispered to Sarrah.
Smiling, she turned from the merchant's cart. She was wearing her yellow skirt again, and it caught the light from the sun. "What is it?"
Alexander pulled a small vial from his belt pouch. "Here."
"Again, what is it?" she laughed as she examined the container.
Sarrah popped open the top and smelled it gingerly, keeping her brown eyes fixed on Alexander's blue. Her flirtatious look turned to one of pleasant surprise. "Alex, it's wonderful! It smells..."
"Like nothing you've ever smelled before? It's Minrothaddan, from Open Isle. Do you like it?"
"Of course I like it...I love it, in fact." Sarrah dabbed a small amount of the spicy perfume on her fingers, then behind her ears. She put her arms around his neck and kissed him softly on the lips. "Do you like it?"
"Oh, yes," he laughed, kissing her on the forehead. "Where's Sarala?" The three of them had left Kaerin's mansion together late this morning to visit the town. The Glantrian had been exhausted yesterday and had gone to sleep, curled up on a sofa, almost as soon as they had completed their audience with Lady Penhaligon. Today she looked much stronger and healthier than Alexander had ever seen her look.
"She's over there," Sarrah replied, "looking at knives or something. We should probably see how she's doing."
The two lovers weaved their way through the square, then down a short street to a small arms shop called the Crossed Swords. Sarala was just leaving it as they drew near. She saw them and smiled at Sarrah, nodding to Alexander. He could not help but think how different she looked now compared to how she did when they first discovered her. The copper-skinned Flaem had changed clothes again, eschewing the trousers and tunic that she had bought in Stallanford for a thin, simple, brown-dyed cotton robe. Knee-length and sleeveless, she wore trousers underneath it and high hard boots on her feet. A dagger was sheathed on a belt at her waist and she bore a thin iron-shod staff in her hand. A gold bracelet that she had claimed from the party's loot she now wore about her left wrist. Her long, straight, auburn hair had been washed and combed out, tumbling halfway down her back. Her almond-shaped green eyes possessed none of the exhaustion that had bothered her as of late, but instead burned with something that resembled confidence. She was striking.
Alexander and Sarrah approached her. "You've armed yourself, I see," Alexander said as way of making conversation. He knew that Sarrah had become quite attached to the Glantrian, but Alexander was still on the fence. He found her interesting, of course, and he was rather amused at the way that she affected Varis and Boldar, but she had an air to her that still made him vaguely uncomfortable.
Sarala nodded at his comment. "Rather shoddy workmanship but it will do for the time being."
"Why don't you invest in a good sword, Sarala," Alexander said. "Even a shoddy sword can protect you better than that stick you've got there."
The Flaem smiled. Then, before Alexander knew it, she was moving. Quick as a flash her left hand gripped the staff above her right. The butt end lashed out, catching Alexander behind his left knee. As he suddenly found himself falling to the ground, Sarala let go from the staff with her right hand and drew her dagger, bending over him and pressing it to his throat only a moment after he hit the ground, completely surprised. She held the staff in her left hand, the length of it lying across her arm and her back in a stylised position.
"I can defend myself quite well with my weapons of choice, my friend."
Sarrah was laughing. His knee aching and his pride bruised, Alexander tactfully bit back the urge to comment that she obviously couldn't defend herself well enough not to have ended up in Blackmaer's cell. Sarala sheathed her blade and, along with Sarrah, helped him to his feet.
"Where did you learn to do that?" Sarrah asked.
"From the Saffron Monks of Lhamsa," she answered. "They teach few outsiders their techniques."
Alexander dusted himself off, tested his leg. Glancing around, he saw that a few townspeople had stopped to see the confrontation and were now continuing on their way, chuckling to themselves. "Pardon my hasty words," he said, full of respect for Sarala yet still burning from his humiliation.
"We'll make quite the good team, don't you think, Alexander?" Sarala asked.
Alexander was confused. What did she mean by "we"? Then he saw Sarrah's eyes. "Sarrah?"
"I'm going to go with her to Braejr," Sarrah said enthusiastically. "Why don't you come, Alex. It'll be exciting!"
How much she sounds like Fyodor, was his first thought. Her eyes were wide with the thrill of anticipation. Sarala's eyes, on the other hand, were unfathomable. Alexander had no idea if the Flaem wanted him to come along as well or not.
He had to admit that the idea sounded full of promise. Glantri was far away and exotic, everything that Alexander had been hoping to see in the time of his Shearing. He also knew that it was a place where he would be unable to go so long as he travelled with Varis.
There was promise here, to be sure, but it was all so out of the blue. When did they decide on this? he thought. When was Sarrah going to tell me? He did not want to be far away from her for long. She had just become his lover, and there was so much that he wanted to explore with the enigmatic Specularum-born thief. Why would she decide on this without even talking to me about it?
"I...I don't know, Sarrah," he stuttered. "Let me think about it? You never mentioned this to me before. When did you decide to do this?"
Although the question was addressed to the thief, it was Sarala who answered. "We spoke of it last night, after I realised that it would be easiest for me to contract a travel companion from among your number. I have a long trip to make, and I am loath to travel alone after...what happened. Sarrah handles her blades better than any of the others, so she was the logical choice."
Sarrah smiled at the compliment. It's true, Alexander thought. She fights with such strength and grace that I sometimes find it hard to believe that she learned her style from that footpad Erren. "Sarrah is a skilled warrior," Alexander agreed, a certain amount of defeat in his voice. "She is also an accomplished acrobat and a fine cook. Her bravery is unquestionable." He didn't think that Sarala would appreciate her other gifts, her body toughened by hardship but somehow bearing still a quantity of feminine allure unmatched by the most bored, decadent noblewoman. Perhaps that is her allure, Alexander thought.
He remembered the way that she had looked two nights ago, when they had lain together for the first time, how her skin seemed to glow in the moonlight as she surveyed Stallanford from the window of his room at the Hungry Halfling. Alexander did not want to give that up.
But why did she not mention this to me earlier? The thought would not leave him alone. Could she have thought that it was not worth speaking about, that it was not a big decision to make? Alexander was at a loss. Where is Varis when I need him? he thought dryly. The philosopher's logic and reasoning power might be of immeasurable help to him in this situation, for what it came down to was the fact that Alexander had no idea what Sarrah could be thinking.
"She is a worthy companion," he said, concluding his panegyric. "You could do no better having her by your side." He looked Sarrah in the eyes, trying to discern her motives. He could detect nothing in her but pride.
Sarala cleared her throat, nodding her agreement with Alexander's pronouncements. She sized him up, then, casting a doubtful glance at Sarrah, said, "If you are not too attached to Karameikos, we would not refuse your company."
Alexander head bobbed slowly as he struggled to keep his emotions from showing. "I'll have to think about it. When are you leaving?"
The shape-changer sighed. "Alexander, I have been gone for far too long. I have been mistreated. I have lost some of my most valuable possessions. I am tired of this land." There was genuine pain in her voice. "Do not think me impolite, but I must leave as soon as possible. If you would come with us, I'm afraid you must make up your mind by tomorrow's dawn."
Alexander nodded, looked at Sarala's strange eyes and his lover's familiar face. She seemed as if she were about to say something, but remained silent. He wanted to go, he knew. He corrected himself: he knew that he would go. He could not bear to leave Sarrah, not now. Yet he could not deny the fact that he was uncomfortable. There was something here that was not right.