Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 22

Grash surveyed the common room as the busy day went on. He had finished repairing the roof after sending Artemis off on his own, and now he longed to take a well-deserved break. But the furniture just wasn't right.

Not that anything was terribly wrong with it, of course. It just needed a bit of adjustment to find the right balance. Now that the room had been cleaned, they needed the right combination of seats, surfaces, and decorations. He looked around at the bare walls, making mental notes of what would look best. He pushed a few old plush chairs to one side of the room and sat down, letting out a sigh as he let himself relax for the first time in longer than he cared to remember.

This was how he knew that all of their hardship wouldn't be for nothing. He had prayed, day in and day out, to his deity to give him a sign that they were on the right path. Now, they were back in civilization, they had a base of operations, and the tension surrounding everyone had relaxed enough that he was able to sit back and take pleasure in the simple joy of furniture arrangement. It was a far cry from being in a position where they could begin to plan the rest of their lives, whether the future held retribution against the evil in Eodon or spending their days protecting a new home, but at least it was better than running for their lives living in the wilderness.

After a few minutes of rest, Grash stood up, idly scratching the scales on the side of his face as he looked at the chairs once more. Shaking his head, was beginning to move them back to where he had found them when Tarrow and Fru’al came through the front door.

"Ah, there you are, gentlemen," he said to his colleagues. "Tell me which position you like better. Here…"

The trystborn interrupted him as he began to move one of the chairs again. "Sorry to interrupt, Grash, but there's something I need you to see. Come with us back to town."

Grash cocked his head slightly, giving Fru’al a quizzical look. The sage simply stared back. "It's better to show you than to tell you. Trust me."

The three of them walked down the hill towards the road that ran through town, and followed it across the town square, past the tavern, until they were standing by the river, across from the mill. Grash could easily see the lodge's back porch from where he stood.

"What, exactly, do you need to show me so urgently," he said, looking around, "that you couldn't have just pointed out from the lodge?"

But the two others simply stared, south, across the street from where they stood. Grash followed their gaze, his head slowly bobbing back and forth as if trying to spot something hiding amongst the trees.

They stood there for far too long, the red-scaled draconian growing more and more bewildered by the moment. He opened his mouth to say something, when he saw it.

He was staring directly at a house. He hadn't noticed it until just now. Not that it hadn't been there- he had been staring straight at it. But something in his mind, or something about the house, told his consciousness that whatever he was looking for, it was somewhere else. Grash wondered how many times he could have walked straight past this house without even realizing it was there.

"How long-" he began, to be cut off by Tarrow.

"It's been here as long as anyone can remember," finished the trystborn. "The woman that lives here is named Sibyla. Oliver, the owner of the general store, has grown worried because he hasn't seen her in months. He asked if we might be willing to look for her."

Grash was speechless, still confused at how his eyes had just fooled him. Without saying a word, he walked towards the tiny hut, his golden draconic eyes glancing around it for anything suspicious. The small structure had a wooden door, and one dirty window that didn't look like it let in much light. Grash knocked on the door firmly, and after hearing no reply, he pushed it open slowly. It made no sound, but offered no resistance. With the dark opening in front of him, he stepped forward, but as he did, he felt a palpable sense of confusion wash over him. He stopped, trying to remember why he was here, and promptly turned around and walked back out into the street next to his companions.

Blinking, he spoke again. "…What just happened? I felt like I left something cooking at home that I urgently needed to get back to, but now that I've walked away I realize how foolish that sounds." As he spoke, the feeling of urgency was still present, but it was as if he knew that it was false, like someone staring at a countryside painted on the side of a mountain. As he thought about it, he realized it wasn't even his home that he felt compelled to return to- when he tried to enter the building, he imagined a house on a farm, here in Kellonville, with a wife and children; almost as if it was a generic life typical of the kind of person likely to stumble upon this house. But his real home, the one in his heart- which he hadn't thought of in a long time- was far away, behind enemy lines, with a family that he would never see again.

Tarrow nodded. "That's what happened to me, too. Fru’al here has detected a number of magical wards on this building, not the least of which conceals it from prying eyes."

Fru’al, Grash noticed, was muttering arcane words to him, his eyes squinting at the small building. Grash could tell he was divining just what kind of magic they were dealing with.

"I detect about a dozen different auras," the old man began, blinking hard as he ended his concentration. "Some of every school of magic. Abjuration, Conjuration, Divination, Enchantment, Evocation, and Illusion… and not just Arcane magic. Some divine, as well. I can tell it's hidden by Illusion, the ward guarding the door seems to be Enchantment, it's likely protected against harm by Abjuration. Whoever warded this building against intruders certainly went to great measures to do so."

Grash walked up to the doorway, peering into the darkness, becoming momentarily distracted by the wood grain in the door frame. He looked back to Fru’al, who was still concentrating on maintaining his spell. "Do you have any magic that might temporarily dispel, or otherwise fool the wards?"

Fru’al shrugged slightly, blinking as his detection spell ended. "I can try, but if the one who cast this spell was stronger than I am, it will be beyond my power."

Tarrow stepped forward, gesturing for the others to step back. After a moment's silence, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and stepped forward.

Grash opened his mouth to say something, but closed it without a word as the trystborn, having crossed the threshold, tapped his worn boots against the floor in a short dance. He turned back to face the others, and bowed courteously, as if ushering them in.

"How," asked Grash, "did you do that?"

Tarrow grinned. "Simple. As I stepped through the door, I simply concentrated on the fact that I in no way intend to harm the person inside this building. Fru’al, you said this house contained Divination magic, correct?"

Fru’al nodded.

"Well," he continued, "I concluded that it must be able to detect your intentions. Last time I walked in, my mind was on edge, suspicious. This time, not so much. That, or I just got lucky."

Grash stepped aside, letting the aged magician go first. Fru’al paused before the door, mouthed some words, and stepped in past Tarrow. Satisfied, Grash followed suit, clearing his mind of all thoughts other than his good intentions. He breathed a quiet prayer to his goddess, as Fru’al had likely done, and stepped through.

I am here to help, Grash thought. I wish to find this lost girl and ensure her safety.

As he stepped through, he felt an odd sensation, as if a warm hand was reaching into his mind and sifting through his thoughts. He reflexively tried to fight it off, to push this invading force away from him, but whether he succeeded or not, the sensation ended abruptly and the draconian found himself standing in the only room of a tiny dark hut.

Fru’al wasted no time in chanting another spell, touching the wooden raven on the end of his staff and causing it to glow like a torch. In the orange glow the three knights could see what was once the home of someone with a very simple life- a bed, broken and turned on its side against the wall. A pile of rotting garbage, knocked over, possibly from a struggle. A smear of dried blood, in the center of the floor, with numerous bloody footprints in and around it, eventually trailing out towards the door.

The Horselords gingerly stepped around the bloody trail, and Fru’al and Tarrow covered their mouths with their sleeves to try and fight off the musty stench that met them as they stepped away from the door- Grash began to periodically create small bursts of flame in the back of his throat in order to do the same. They each spread apart to look for clues around the room- Tarrow knelt down beside the blood smear, Grash took out a pen and gently sifted through the refuse across from the door, and Fru’al studied the bed flattened against the wall. After a few moments of search, the three gathered in the middle, where Tarrow had found something in the dried blood.

"I believe that the unknown assailant entered while she slept," said Fru’al, pointing in the direction of the bed. "But whoever did so underestimated the victim, or the magical protections on this home. There's magical residue on the bed and some sort of explosion damaged part of the wall. This girl must have put up a fight."

Tarrow nodded. "Most of the blood here isn't hers- I'm fairly certain of it. I would need Sanna's expertise to be sure, judging by the footprints, but whoever attacked this woman was a draconian. Then again, this-" he lifted his spare dagger, the end of which held a strip of scale-covered flesh, a hint of blue visible behind the smattering of dried blood- "seems to be much more damning evidence."

After checking for any further clues, the knights made sure to return the scene to the way it was when they arrived, and then walked back to Oliver's Provisions to relay the news to the shopkeep. The halfling was not at all pleased to learn that his fears of foul play were substantiated, but the Horselords did their best to put his mind at ease.

"It seems likely that she is still alive," said the aged Fru’al, his wooden staff standing firmly at his side. "There were signs of much struggle, and I do not believe that her attacker wanted her dead. If she still lives, we will find her, and return her to safety."

Oliver and his wife Opal were listening intently, their eyes reddened with worry. Grash could tell that they cared about Sibyla, and they likely wouldn't rest easily until she was safe.

"Thank you," began Oliver, extending a tiny hand towards the three tall, imposing warriors. "If there is anything I can do to help, please don't hesitate to ask."

Tarrow shook his hand, nodding. "There may be some supplies we need, but all in good time. We are doing this for the good of the community, not for profit. However, if my nose does not deceive me, I do believe that a piece of the fruit pie baking in the kitchen would be a satisfactory gratuity," he said with a smile.

Opal laughed despite the tears threatening to escape her twinkling eyes. "Yes, of course," she said, wiping her face with a handcloth. "I will be right back." She hurried off behind the shop's curtain.

"Grash," said Tarrow, tapping the draconian on the shoulder, his demeanor immediately serious. He handed him a small object wrapped in a dirty cloth. "See if you can find Sanna and Artemis. Time is of the essence- we need to start formulating a plan now. Let's meet up at the lodge as soon as you find them."

Grash opened his mouth to say something about expecting a piece of pie, but thought better of it and simply nodded. He bowed to the diminutive shop owner, and left the building. It was dark- the previous night's storms were gone and the sky was crystal clear, the waxing gibbous moon providing an adequate amount of light. Only a father and his daughter were passing by, likely headed home for the night. Artemis did not take long to find- Grash had barely crossed the town square when he saw the boy awkwardly stumbling back around the corner of the tavern.

"Artemis," he called, snapping the squire out of whatever daze he was in.

Artemis turned to face him, slack-jawed and his eyes glazed over. He was starting to mumble something incoherent, but Grash remembered, time was of the essence. He gestured for Artemis to follow, and started walking towards the path that led around the mill to their lodge. "It's about time you returned, Artemis. Come on. We have to get you up to speed. We've been given a quest." He shook his head as he walked, knowing this was his fault- he told Artemis to go out and have fun for a day, so he shouldn't be surprised when the boy returns drunk. "We have to find Sanna while we're at it."

As if on cue, Grash noticed with a start that Sanna was walking along beside him, as battle-ready as she was every day he saw her. He had grown used to her arriving unannounced this way over the years, but that didn't stop it from startling him. Her long silvery hair was dancing in a faint breeze as they walked, and although her lithe body looked relax, Grash knew her well enough to know that a dragon could swoop down right this moment and she would have two arrows flying through the air before it touched down. It was her demeanor that reminded him that as Lainen's faithful Horselords, there would likely never be a day when they could truly rest.

"You were looking for me," she said, more as a statement of fact than a question.

Grash nodded, still walking towards the lodge, Artemis following behind, still seeming distracted. "A woman named Sibyla has gone missing. The local shopkeeper suspected foul play, and sent us to investigate her home- which was covered in magical wards against intrusion. There was a struggle inside, and Tarrow found this in a puddle of dried blood."

He held out the dirty cloth the trystborn had given him, which Sanna took and unwrapped gently and diligently. Seeing the torn piece of blue scaled flesh, she re-wrapped it and handed it back. "Then we know that a blue draconian is involved," she said. "So far I have not seen any blue draconian with an obvious injury that might have resulted in this, but I know where such information could be found, and soon."

"Oh?" Arriving at the lodge, Grash pulled open the back door, holding it open for the two of them. Luckily, Artemis seemed to have snapped out of his stupor and was listening to Grash's conversation with the edhel. Stepping inside and walking into the partially-redecorated common room, Sanna pulled out a sheet of vellum with a hand-drawn map of the area and laid it out on the table. Grash casually attempted to push the remaining chairs into a pleasing position without drawing attention to it.

Sanna directed her companions' attention to the map, pointing out the town proper, the location of the knights' lodge, the cottage to the north where they had encountered the orcs, and the point in the forest to the east from which they had first arrived. She then pointed out a section of the map to the west, along the Kellon river, a short ride out of town.

"I don't know if you knew this," she began, "but the entire draconian population of Kellonville has their own small community to the west. They rarely socialize with the rest of the town, but representatives always come to town meetings. They are holding a burial ceremony tonight for the man who lost his life defending the town against the witch Lyria."

Grash nodded. "Whether it is to gain information or not, I would like to attend- for my faith, and for my people."

Sanna agreed, and the draconian hurried off to the barracks, and started rifling through his clothes. He returned a short while after, wearing his long purple priest's robes, blending well with the ruby-red complexion of his scales. He took some time to groom himself, washing his face, cleaning his teeth, and polishing his spectacles and placing them firmly on his snout. He wanted to look nice. After all, it had been literally years since he had been introduced to a community of primarily draconian- he had rarely visited home since he became a knight, and draconians were so rare in Eodon.

He returned to the common room, where Artemis sat alone, staring out the window. As Grash gathered his things, the squire got his attention. "Would you mind if I… came along?"

Grash looked him over- he was quite filthy, and his shirt- the same red-sleeved one he had worn almost every day for at least two years- had so many tears and patches and split seams that it could hardly even be called the same shirt. And Grash knew nothing of this new community- it was possible they would turn down any outsiders, including a draconian like himself, let alone a human. But Grash could tell he wanted to come for his own reasons, and who was he to deny him the opportunity to honor a fallen warrior?

"Very well," said Grash, smiling. "Any particular reason?"

Artemis shrugged. "Well, until I met all of you, I had never interacted with anyone that wasn't human- to be perfectly honest, draconians still kind of scare me." Grash chuckled, and Artemis continued. "But I'd like to learn more. I'd like to see what different people are like. If you think they won't mind, that is."

The knight patted him on the shoulder. "If they turn you away, I'll walk away as well. Any honorable warrior would be happy to have you at his funeral."

Grash picked up his decorated axe, given to him by the high priest of Detroia in Eodon City many years ago, and gently wiped off the edges with an oiled cloth before securing it to his back. Artemis, seeing this, asked, "Uh… should I bring a weapon…?"

Grash shook his head. "No. If their customs are anything like my people, a weapon brought by an outsider like yourself would likely be seen as an act of hostility. Being a Paladin, my weapon is the symbol of my priesthood; denying it would be like denying the faith itself. No, but I would recommend you bring your shield. Defense is a virtue among draconian."

Artemis grabbed his shield, cleaned it off, and strapped it to his back. The two of them stepped out the door, retrieved their horses from the town stables, and rode through the night air down the road to the west.

Grash and Artemis followed the road past several farms, riding with the river on their right side. After some time, they came to a large circle of huts near the edge of a patch of forest. As they got closer, they could hear rhythmic beating of drums, and when they reached the group of homes Grash could see a large pile of sticks built in the center of the community, with a body draped in cloths and sheets placed in the center- a funeral pyre.

The two of them dismounted their horses a safe distance away, and approached at a slow pace to avoid any hostility. As they walked, Grash said a quiet prayer to his goddess.

"Grant my tongue the guidance and grace that you wish, and let me be your mouthpiece among these people who have come together to practice your virtues of community. So be your will."

He felt a warmth and feeling of confidence come across him, and he knew that his goddess' blessing was upon him. They stepped into the circle of huts, where roughly three dozen adult draconians and a handful of children, all of various colors, were dancing and playing music around this unlit pyre in the center. A large green female draconian approached them as they neared, dressed in flowing robes of blue and purple. She called out in a deep, heavily-accented voice, "Halt. Who be you who nears this ceremony- friend, or foe?"

Grash knelt down on one knee as she approached, his arms spread widely in a gesture that resembled wings. "My lady," he said in his native draconic tongue, "I am Grash Vesuvix, humble holy warrior of Detroia. I am a stranger in your land, but I mean you no harm. I have come with a human companion, Artemis Redsleeves, to honor the memory of our fallen kinsman. I wish to pay my respects and provide your community with my services as a disciple of my goddess."

The green-scaled woman's eyes softened, and she returned the wing-like gesture with a short bow. She responded in the native dragon tongue as well, much more fluently and easily than the common tongue. "Greetings, fellow scaled one. You are welcome here. I am called Jade. Please, approach with your companion and join in the festivities."

Grash stood back up, translated the message to Artemis, and they followed Jade to one end of the circle where a group of elder draconian, one a black-scaled woman whose dark eyes were welled up with tears, were seated in ceremonial vestments. Jade introduced Grash to the group of elders. The black-scaled woman was named Xalena, and she was the mother of the fallen warrior. Grash knelt before Xalena, took her hands into his, and prayed with her over the soul of her son. He could tell that she was fighting back tears, but she maintained a stoic appearance- a sign that she had lost her mate, leaving her as the only parent. Given the low birth rate among draconians, the death of her son most likely meant the end of her line.

"I am truly sorry for your loss, elder Xalena," Grash said after praying with her. "I know how much was taken from you." As he spoke, he was reminded of the loss he- and all of the other Horselords- endured when Galex took reign. His words reflected the pain, sorrow, and raw fury that coursed through his veins.

Xalena smiled, her aged draconic features showing her dignity, strength, and wisdom. "As am I, young red. But my son gave his life fighting for what is right. As long as that is your goal, any loss along the way is a gain."

He spoke the blessings of the goddess over her, and bowed in reverence to the rest of the elders. He excused himself back to where Artemis stood, watching the rest of the draconians dance around what must have just looked like a pile of sticks.

"Why are they dancing when this man died," asked Artemis. "Shouldn't they be sad?"

Grash watched as groups of men and women danced around in pairs, trios, quartets, and larger groups. Their movements were pure emotion; the way they moved was so fluid there looked to be no thought or plan to their undulations.

To be so free, he thought with a sigh. That would be paradise.

After a pause, Grash answered Artemis' question. "Different cultures deal with death differently. Of course they are sad that a member of their community is dead- but they are celebrating the fact that he lived. Draconians rarely, if ever, have more than one child, and even that is beyond many families' ability. When an egg is laid, a community will typically place all of them together in a rookery, and when they hatch, they are each raised by groups of parents according to color. It is not uncommon for many draconians to grow up never knowing truly which parents were their birth parents, since in essence, they had many parents."

Artemis didn't quite seem to follow.

"My point," Grash continued, "is that many of these people felt like Lorender was family- but much more importantly, they all knew how precious every single draconian life was. Every moment was something to be celebrated, even if it was cut short." After a pause, he added, "Plus, he died saving his people from evil. I only hope that when I die, I may be celebrated as he is."

After some time, Jade returned and walked with Grash, her bare green-scaled arm wrapped around his.

"Thank you," she said in her native tongue. "Xalena was deeply moved by your presence here. We all know of your exploits here and around Kellonville- and we would like to repay you any way we can."

Grash smiled. "Your words do me great justice, Jade," he replied. "If you are willing to help, I am here on business for my companions as well as to pay my respects to the fallen. Would you be willing to provide me with some information?"

Jade nodded, smiling back. "Of course. You are as one of us."

"I need help finding someone- one from your community. I have reason to believe that a draconian was involved in a kidnapping that happened some time ago. A woman named Sibyla was taken from her home, and at the scene we found scale torn from the flesh of a blue. Please understand that I mean no disrespect to our people- I am simply trying to right this wrong as quickly as possible."

Jade frowned almost imperceptively, and sighed. "I know who you seek, Paladin," she began. "A rebellious young blue named Vrell ran away from here two moons ago. Some say they saw him more recently, but he was wounded. He was seen spending time with a human girl from Kellonville named Fondin- Fondin Dermar. If he is the one you seek, I recommend checking with her."

Grash smiled, and thanked her for her help. They returned to the circle of huts, where Xalena was stoically placing a lit torch into the funeral pyre, igniting the blaze.

And in the firelight, the draconians all danced and sang until dawn, celebrating the life of their fallen hero.

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