The homemade brush dipped onto a makeshift palette of flat, polished stone, first gently and expertly picking up paint by swabbing at the colors at the smallest possible incline. The artist rotated the brush at intervals to give the brush an even soak of the color, then moved the brush to a darker color, though this time holding the brush at a steeper angle so as to only allow the brush tip to pick up the hue.
The palette was merely a flat protrusion on a natural gentle incline of rock that had been crudely carved to resemble a table that emerged from the rock wall. The layers of paint that had dried on it had long concealed its natural color.
The artist paused, running a practiced eye over the rough parchment, then lowered the brush, his hand straight and steady, applying a force when the brush touched the paper, then gently turned the brush, finishing off the stroke with a small flourish before surveying his handiwork. The brush stroke was vaguely oval, with dark burnt umber hues from where the brush had first impacted the paper, which faded to lighter amber where the artist had gradually softened the force.
Quickly the painter made small embellishments as the paint was still wet, and the image of an eye seemed to leap sharply into focus on the dull parchment.
In his left hand the painter held a cracked bowl filled half-full with water, and in this he dipped his brush carefully. He sat on a rock that he had moved to the makeshift table for the purpose of painting, apparently ignoring the discomfort.
The artist was seated in a cave lighted softly with lanterns propped up on other rocks. These lanterns were each but small cages weaved cunningly of very fine wire, filed metal strips from forges which could be purchased widely, mostly for the use of magic-practitioners who kept small pets.
Inside each cage was a small ceramic bowl, positioned such that half of it protruded out of the cage for easy refilling, yet shallow enough such that the occupant of the cage could not escape. Each bowl was filled with diluted, sweet secretions of certain types of fungi, used in their natural state to attract insects and small animals for dispersal of spores.
The occupant of each cage was a large insect nearly the size of a humanoid palm, which glowed brightly enough to light up a half-meter radius in soft light, though light that was bright enough to shock the unwary would-be predator enough for the insect to escape. This was the Underdark, where light was usually alien to most of its native creatures. These insects, however, each in their own cages, brought forth their light continuously, and occasionally chirped loudly to the others.
The rest of the cave was sparsely furnished, with a bed fashioned of cloth heaped together in the shadow of the table, a pile of tangled equipment behind it. A stack of scrolls was placed reverently in the opposite corner, as well as neat rows of small caged creatures, apparently for study.
A large male burrowing hawk sat thoughtfully on a large pack in the pile of equipment, infrared-seeing eyes shut tight in sleep. Its plumage was drab like most other Underdark birds, and it sported wide wings used more for gliding than flying, with five small claws on the joint for gripping and climbing on the rock.
Its feet had small talons, and long toes. This bird, as the artist had found after some study, could climb up sheer walls to achieve a height good for gliding. They did shun water bodies, even with the presence of fish, because once wet they would be hampered when gliding. This particular bird had been (painfully) raised from a chick (painfully) stolen from a nest, and had (embarrassingly) identified the artist as its mate.
But the walls were beautifully decorated. The light of the insects showed every hue and shade in startling intensity, which would normally have shown up as mere gray in the infrared spectrum. The wall was covered with paintings of Underdark creatures, surprisingly accurate. Each creature had its name under its portrait, and the colors – guessed or accurate – had been painstakingly applied, and each creature was lovingly detailed.
A makeshift ladder was propped against the wall for the artist to reach the higher portions of the wall. The wall itself had obviously been carefully roughed smooth before painting, and there seems to be one other room adjoining this one.
Beside the table was what appeared to be a chart of sorts, classifying the creatures of the Underdark into categories. There was the occasional dark smudge, as if the writer had erased a mistake.
Perhaps most startling of all in the strange cave was the artist. Ivory-white hair had been tied back so as not to cover the eyes, and pushed behind elegantly pointed ears. His forged chain-mail armor was scarred with many scratches, and his clothes worn under the armor was also tattered and ripped in several areas. The artist was barefooted; showing well-formed feet callused from much walking (or running), with sable black skin.
The dark elf paints a diatryma carefully, a large side view that would be labeled later. Back and front views would be painted discreetly at the left side of the parchment, and gathered information about the animal would be written down at the right side later.
The elf works far from any city, or any care save for his work, for which he is the first to undertake in the Underdark, and for which he had designed himself.
[Note to readers: The author of the following manuscript had come up with his own classifications and names for the creatures mentioned. So as not to confuse the reader, the names have been translated into their common callings.]
Today I finished the painting of the diatryma in time to feed the studies. Although far from the TimeKeeper Tower of my mother city, the torch-worms in their cages have become noticeably dimmer. The concoction I feed them has worked unfailingly – they will glow only when there is enough in their bowl for them to drink, for this glowing appears to sap most of their energy, and without their drink they would preserve their energy by curling up and being still.
I stepped back to admire my handiwork with a critical eye, but I could not but feel a sense of satisfaction, even if the proportion of the right leg is a little stilted. Carefully I washed the paint off my brush, and placed it carefully at the foot of the table with the other brushes where it would not roll.
I am rather proud of the brushes, which I made myself from the hair of animals, some from the hair of rothe, and the softest from disassembled diatryma feathers, tied tightly at one end and inserted into a tube of hollowed bone, glued in place with the sap of a type of fungus.
As for the paints...I must admit that I did not think of myself. In my mother city I had observed the use of pigments extracted from various vegetation and stone in paints, and had fortunately taken notes. As for the table, for that I had to recruit the help of a few gray dwarves, who were more than happy to trade this work for portraits of all of them, which I believe they would keep as heirlooms in their small families.
Most of the equipment I purchased from the occasional markets held outside any cities, where any race were allowed to buy and sell with little conflict. I have long ago run out of currency, and most drow money are not used in such markets anyway – many believe they are cursed. I must trade my art for what I want, and there are precious few portraitists here that I have never as yet seen another who wields a brush for this purpose.
I walked into another room, where I stored food for the various creatures I studied. This cave is but a larger junction of a few tunnels, though all of them lead to dead ends. I picked up a bowl and tipped worms and bugs from some jars inside it, then reentered the main cave.
The animals were settled enough to clamor for attention in their cages stacked at an unpainted section of wall. Patiently I emptied a portion of the food into their fixed bowls in a pile next to the cages, then proceeded to gingerly put the bowls into each cage. There were only ten cages in full, containing a Greater frilled salamander to a blind-scaled rat. This last wasn't a true rat at all, more like a member of the canine family, even though it did resemble its namesake somewhat.
I have been reluctant to keep meat eaters, because meat does not keep well, and it is tiresome to have to venture out to snare prey just for this purpose. I watch them as they eat, as their manner of eating is not only information that may be written down, but also an indication as to their state of health.
When they finished, more or less, I removed their bowls, and gathered up some of my equipment. The burrowing hawk, Hikarr, made one of his 'barrr' cries, and I allowed him to claw his way onto my hand, where he climbed easily on my shoulder. Hikarr has never really bothered to learn how to fly, or what his kind see as flying, despite my best efforts.
"You're hungry already?" I scratched the hawk gently below his wings. Hikarr merely clacked his powerful beak impatiently.
I speak to the animals I have, even though I doubt if they understand me. It's the only way in which I can remember speech, and I normally alternate speaking all the languages I have learnt every day. No doubt it has served me well whenever I meet the occasional travelers in the tunnels.
I heft the large backpack onto my shoulders, and strapped a sword on my side, then hooked one of the torch-worm's cage on the other.
I hardly ever bother to practice with the sword anymore. I prefer to run than to fight, even though I was once trained to follow its ways. Still, the warrior's school appeared to be a default school – I was so useless in magic that I required all the energy the House's token could give me just to cast a simple faerie fire – perhaps all such 'failures' were dumped in this school, whose art could be learned with practice. Blood, especially if it is my own, still makes me feel faint, however. Needless to say, I was a near-failure in the warrior school, but I never bothered.
But I doubt, even as my hand lays down these words for eternity, that the reader would be much troubled by the problems I had faced in my past. I was a failure in magic and in the sword, and my sisters always spared no breath in informing me of these shortcomings. A drow male whom is talentless in everything but drawing is a useless one indeed.
Hikarr chewed on a bit of my hair as I walked down the tunnel that led to my cave. The walls had also been painted on, though these were earlier efforts. I winced inwardly as my eyes spot all the old mistakes, but the paint is not removable, neither will it tarnish in time.
Perhaps I am selfish to paint all these images far from any habitation, but from my experience, a precious few will understand my work.
The tunnel gets smaller as I walk on, a precaution against any uninvited guests, until I had to crawl on hands and legs to get out. Hikarr is used to this, and he moved to sit on my back, his talons clutching at my ill-used armor in impatience.
I emerged high up in a larger tunnel, and climb down using handholds which I can now find with my eyes closed, having passed down this way for the last hundred or more years. I lose count.
The tunnel entrance to my cave is practical. Few creatures that I cannot defeat or drive off can enter, and few intelligent creatures will even suspect that a sentient creature worth investigating inhabits the tunnel. I can bear the discomfort and inconvenience of crawling out and crawling in.
The tunnel dust was scoured with fresh tracks and depressions, and occasionally marked with animal waste. I studied it idly with the light provided from the cage, but there were no tracks of animals to be feared, just a herd of the wild rothe that always pass this way.
I turned off the light by covering the cage, and waited for my infrared vision to kick in. The herd prints, as I thought, had long-ago faded in heat imprints.
The tunnel led eventually to one of the many bodies of water that one can find in the Underdark. The water of this one was stagnant and fetid but drinkable, and it seeped out of fissures in the rock to pool in a natural depression. It was a large cavern, which led this small lake, but the air itself seemed moist. Certainly this encouraged the growth of many species of fungus and other plants that could survive here, and these carpeted the walls and the ground in many shades of the infrared.
Chatterers shrilled overhead as I entered the cavern, but soon settled down. These chatterers are named for their incessant cries whenever an intruder chanced near – they are one of the warning systems of the Underdark.
Creatures have been known to bed down especially in their vicinity so as to be warned of oncoming predators...or prey. They are little birds, only a mouthful for Hikarr, but are fast in flight. Their feathers are drab, but they sport a long feathered tail which I occasionally take advantage of for quills.
I have been trying to establish these little birds in caverns near inhabited cities, but my efforts have not been very successful. I thought that they would serve to warn creatures of the approach of a hunting party, but apparently some selfsame creatures classify such parties under the wide and broad category of 'prey'. It is hard to try and save rare creatures so convinced of their personal power.
I could, however, see the rothe milling together near the water's edge. This particular herd was not afraid of a mere dark elf, and they splashed in the waters or grazed on the fungi. I was more interested in testing out a theory of mine.
I dropped the backpack on the fungi, then grasped Hikarr and threw him high up into the air. It annoys him to do it, but the hawk is able to glide. Spurred by instinct, he glided low down over the small lake, then struck quickly, gliding the rest of the distance with his prey – a blind fish – to feast on the flesh when it landed. There are few predators that find it convenient to attack a burrowing hawk, and he was relatively safe.
I took the feeding bowls out from my backpack, and washed them in the lake, dried them, then put them back in the backpack before dragging it away. Chatterers swooped down to take advantage of the washed out remains, and I took care of other small matters like gathering fungi to provide the sweet liquid for the torch-worms.
The herd seemed to have ignored Hikarr, but I fumbled in my backpack until I found a lasso and another bowl. Many decades of practice has made me a good hand with this bit of equipment, though at the beginning, more often than not I tangled up my own legs trying to tangle up those of animals.
I approached slowly and cautiously, trying not to startle the herd, but they mostly ignored me, having probably seen no other elves in their lives. When I neared a heifer and her calf, I swung one hand back, then neatly threw the loop of rope over her neck.
The heifer immediately started to squeal in shock, and as I hoped, the rest of her herd backed off, milling in fright. Rothe are basically not like pack animals, who will defend each other. Their philosophy could be summed up as: better her than us.
I was belatedly aware that the heifer was stronger than I was, and she was tugging me towards the herd. Desperately I looked around, and found it in a protrusion of stone in the wall in front of me. I ran forward – the heifer certainly was surprised at the sudden loss of dead weight on my end of the string – and looped the rope around the stone before she recovered.
The rope was one of the more useful things, which I bought from the travelling marketplaces. I have not as yet found a way to fashion it myself.
I kept one hand on my sword and approached the heifer, trying to sound soothing. She rolled her eyes at me, and her ears flattened, the rothe tried to back off, even though she was twice or more my size and weight. The calf was crying pitifully, but still staying obediently by her side.
I finally backed her to the wall, and her dim mind realized that she was trapped. She did try to lash out with sharp hooves, but I dodge well. I dodged until she stopped, panting and quivering with resignation, before bending down unobtrusively.
I put the bowl underneath her and gingerly touched her udder. At this, she squealed again and nearly caved in my head with a kick, but I murmured to her, trying to calm her by stroking her flank. She did calm down eventually, though it was quite a while before I managed to milk her without risking severe skull damage. I took the half-filled bowl and backed off, then sniffed at the milk. It had a rich scent, and I cautiously drank a bit.
I had, for the years since I left the city, only drunk water, and on rare occasions in a market, wine. The milk tasted like ambrosia compared to the tasteless, stagnating water, and I drank it greedily, I must admit. When I finished, I wiped my sleeve, and felt something clawing up my leg, though by the clicks of the beak I knew it to be Hikarr. Painfully I waited until he had resumed his favorite position and was trying to clean my hair, then thought carefully.
Milk would be a nice change from water, and it was supposedly full of nutrients. Still, it soured quickly (from experimentation earlier). Perhaps I could catch one of the rothe? But I would be hard-pressed to fit a full-grown one in the entrance, though some of the tunnels looked as though they could be large enough to house one.
A calf, then? But I would have to feed it this...milk, and the herd could not be relied on to pass here every day. Maybe one that had begun feeding on the grass, then.
However, on closer study (ignoring the wails of the trapped rothe), the only rothe small enough to fit through the tunnel entrance were those that still relied on their parents for sustenance. Reluctantly, I decided I would have to take my chance – tying one up here near the lake would only be inviting a predator.
Rothe were plentiful enough such that they were the staple food of many carnivorous creatures.
I managed to catch hold of the calf following the heifer I had caught; though it was a male. Rather regretfully, I managed to free the heifer from the lasso, and she quickly galloped back to join the herd.
Collecting the rest of the rope, I studied the other calves, and realized wryly that I had no idea how to differentiate them from this distance, so I settled down to the laborious task of catching calves until I caught a female one.
It wasn't easy. The second calf I lassoed squealed loudly, and his mother attacked, head down, charging and grunting. I narrowly escaped that one by running into the water, though keeping my head enough to continue holding the rope. For some reason, they wouldn't venture in a few feet from the shore, even when the water's only ankle deep.
My boots were starting to get soaked, however, and I finally put both hands up to my mouth, still holding the rope, to amplify my sounds. I imitate certain creatures very well, and the sounds of a basilisk finally drove her several feet away, allowing me to get out of the water, though my boots squelched uncomfortably.
I pulled the calf to me, still making basilisk-growls at the heifer, and found with some satisfaction that this one, at least, was female. It would be a time before she would be able to produce milk, but I could wait. I held her under an arm, and started to walk back to my backpack. Hikarr 'churred' at the heifer, which was cautiously following, but she soon seemed to give up, heading back to the herd.
The calf was kicking and biting, and I soon felt rather bruised, though I still retained the presence of mind to seek out a patch of edible fungi and pick a few, then shouldered the backpack, heading to the cave.
Hikarr was making a few puzzled noises at the calf, and I faintly wondered why he identified me as his mate. Unless burrowing hawks occasionally took their mothers as mates, which is quite a (even to me) distasteful idea. Still, this is only a problem once in two years when Hikarr thinks it's his mating season. Then it gets embarrassing.
I had quite a job getting the calf through the tunnel, but finally managed to get back safely to my cave. My ribs felt as though they had been used as drums by a particularly energetic group of musicians on one side, and I was sure that there were hoof prints on some of the chainmail.
I headed into one of the short tunnels that were connected to my cave, which I used as a storeroom for bulkier objects, and cleared up enough to dump in the calf. I piled a few crates at the entrance to prevent it from escaping into my living space, then stood back, and then lifted the cloth covering the small cage to light up the place.
The calf cowered away from the light, but I could see that her hide was a uniform dark brown. Four hooves skittered nervously on the rock, and the small whisk of a tail lashed at her flanks. The teeth of rothe grew nearly continuously once they reached a certain age, as they would constantly grind on them as they grazed on fungus.
I thought she was beautiful, but then, I also think hook horrors are beautiful. All creatures are this way to me. Perhaps the reader would find in this some perversity, but I do love animals, even though I occasionally question this myself in disbelief. Perhaps that is why I bother to study them, and help them whenever I can to no benefit for myself.
It took a few days for the rothe to stop squealing at the top of her lungs whenever she caught scent of me, and even longer for her to learn to drink from a bowl instead of me trying to force-feed her milk (stolen from heifers) with a metal wine bottle that I had bought some time ago, anticipating its use in this manner. Glass would only break if she applied too much pressure, and the shards would injure her mouth.
However, these sessions more often than not left the both of us drenched in milk, with Yours truly suffering a severe kicking, and the calf mewling and squealing in fear. Only a small portion went down her throat. I was glad when she was able to use a bowl, though she occasionally knocked it over and bawled until I managed to refill it.
There are certain types of stringy fungus that make good bedding; though I prefer my pile of cloth. This I used as covering for the floor of her pen, though I had to change this regularly.
I soon began to call the calf Mykasa the Spoilt, after my eldest sister, who had always craved attention. Perhaps it is a perversion of sentient nature to see aspects of others we know in the animals we see. If we suddenly think, "hey, that Grise-eared rat behaves exactly like my uncle Ulranl", we'd forever see an uncle Ulranl in the movements of the poor rat.
Mykasa had melting brown eyes that were large and soft. She did have a mischievous side to her nature, and often irritated Hikarr when I finally deemed her well behaved enough to let her out of her pen. Prudently, I had put all the scrolls and edible materials on higher shelves until she learnt that it was wrong to eat anything other than the food that I gave her, though by that time she had turned one scroll of a drawing of a Snake-scaled fish into chewed pulp.
Oh, but she was an endearing creature! This did forgive all the attention she demanded, though sometimes I was sorely tempted to bundle her back to her herd, especially when she took to rolling in my blankets and scenting my sleeping nest with her strong musk.
I released all the captured creatures when I was done with them, back to where I had found them. Rothe were hardy beasts, and could go several days without food, but as a precaution I left quite a bit of fungus for Mykasa when I left. She was off milk by now, and was willing to eat what her kind ate, though at the beginning she insisted to be hand-fed, something that disgusted Hikarr. Hikarr's behavior was tryingly offensive whenever I attempted to hand-feed him. Perhaps this is because of some sort of hierarchical behavior between hawks -–certainly I have never observed a hawk's female mate (ah ha.) feed a male before.
After watching the last of my captures – a Yellow-winged scythe insect – scuttle off bewilderedly, I sat down to contemplate my next move. I enjoyed this kind of freedom, but I must admit that my mind goes blank when I ask myself, "What should I do next?"
Hikarr was watching everything impassively. He is the only companion I take on these trips, other than a cage with a torch-worm. Maybe the reader would wonder why I bother to take him with me at all, considering all the fuss I have to put up with to feed him. His presence is a comfort, I would think. I have always been subject to many phobias, and one of them is being alone. This is one of the favorite topics that my nightmares dwell on.
Walking alone in the tunnels still frighten me. I would begin to hear sounds of my imagination or otherwise, and I would seem to feel the heartbeat of the world, the pulse of the Underdark itself. My mind provides me with darkness that seems to hover just at the edge of my minds, and I would start to imagine voices. Needless to say, a cold sweat would start out, I would walk faster, and my stomach constricting sharply and soon I would have broken into a frantic run to my cave, sobbing for breath. I would be the first to admit that I am not a very brave person.
Yet, with something to talk to, or something alive near myself, I have more confidence...I can sneak up to paint a basilisk (which I did once, though I ended up running away very quickly), or find a safety spot and paint dire corbies which shriek incessantly for my blood. This last I had done before as well, though it ended up with me suffering a sprained ankle, a badly scratched arm, and a new set of scars on my chain mail.
Occasionally traders pass by. The route that goes through the small lake is a known one, though few are aware of my tunnel entrance, or would even care if they saw it. I had successfully raised a small colony of Chatterers further down the route, which would inform me of any arrival. Similarly, the colonies in the lake cavern also act as a warning.
I looked idly about me. The scythe insect lived predominantly in this sort of cavern – one covered in pale mushroom carpets that were so white they seemed to glow. The mushrooms were my main source of white paint, or pale paint, because hardly anything in the Underdark would affect such a revealing color.
The mushrooms were edible, but I found them tasteless. Still, perhaps the taste of insects differed from mine, or they had not the intelligence to try and obtain better tasting pastures.
I squatted down. Closer to the ground, I was able to see more than I would have imagined while standing up. Small ants marched their way past what would seem to them a towering multitude, and a small spider sat on the cap of a nearby mushroom, as if surveying a domain. I watched it idly as a small moth flew by jerkily, and the spider pounced to land neatly on the moth, yet it had attached a lifeline of silk to the cap, and with this it reeled itself and its struggling prey back up.
I do not have any quarrel with spiders. Some of my kind would fear them and avoid them for terror of inciting Lloth's wrath, while some would kill them when not watched for hatred of their lives. I think they're beautiful in their own way. Such grace, such agility!
I frowned when I saw a squashed area of mushrooms with the dim light that my torch-worm cage was emitting, then I noticed yet another, and another...it looked like a trail. The areas were hoof-shaped, and smaller than my foot.
I thought it odd. Rothe do not come this far to my knowledge, and if a herd had entered here, all the mushrooms not eaten would be trampled in some way. And rothe did not travel alone.
The trail was fresh, for the crushed mushrooms were still releasing a dull, earthy scent. Hikarr clicked his beak irritably as I stood up abruptly to follow the trail with my eyes. I was glad that I had brought my travelling kit with me – paints, brushes and paper.
It was strange. Infrared would have revealed to me all that lived and breathed in this cavern of pale mushrooms, but I saw nothing. I looked around for a while before raising my torch-worm cage, and bracing myself to run. I uncovered it, letting a stronger light flood the area.
The mushrooms now stood out with stark brightness in the light. I blinked once to clear the spots from my eyes, then blinked again.
There was a creature lying down on the mushrooms. At first glance, it seemed to resemble rothe, having four hooved feet and a tassel-like tail, but then it did not. It had a much longer, more graceful neck, for one, powerful and proudly arched. Its face was longer and more delicate than rothe's, tipped with delicately furred, pointed ears, all-black, alien eyes that seemed to shine wetly, with no whites. It was totally black with what I would call fur or hair, but this also seemed to be wet, or slick with some sort of shiny oil. It had a long back that seemed at first suitable for riding, and yet too fragile for weight. It had a very long mane – rothe manes and forelock were brush-like, hard tufts – which also seemed slick, and seemed very soft. The tail was longer than rothe's, and so were the legs.
It didn't seem inclined to run away, but just lay there, legs folded beneath it, and stared.
When I stepped closer, it stood up, forelegs first, then hind legs, prancing nervously, and I belatedly noticed a strange protrusion on its forehead – a long, tapering, thin cone as black as the rest of it, though this looked like evenly-twisted bone. I sat down slowly, praying to anything that was listening that it wouldn't spook, but it now seemed content to watch, lashing its tasseled tail.
Slowly, keeping my eyes on the creature, I fished out a scroll and my painting equipment, along with the board that also served as backing to my pack. I quickly sketched it out on the parchment, but I need not have feared – it just lowered its head to lip at the mushrooms.
As I painted, I wondered why it had stopped here. Did this small cavern have some meaning to it, or was it just resting? What did it eat normally? How fast could it run? Was it solitary, or just a lone outcast? Questions reeled in my mind as I finished off the side sketch, then a front-view sketch, then a back-view.
Perhaps it brought me luck, because the sketches seemed perfect. Too absorbed in my painting, I became unaware of its presence as I began to fill in the details of shading and tones, until I felt wet breath on my neck and an angry, nervous chitter from Hikarr.
I looked up straight into the face of the creature, and nearly swallowed my tongue. My first thought was that it would attack – it could trample me into the ground or impale me on its horn before I could draw my sword, but I did keep enough control not to yell and startle it.
Its black eyes glittered, and then it cocked its graceful head at the painting. It didn't seem discomfited by the light.
I noticed that its hooves, close up, were cloven, and did not have the dullness of bone, but seemed to be as obsidian. I could smell the quivering creature, though oddly I could not see it with infrared vision.
Was this a ghost? No, I put that thought out of my mind – ghosts would not have the habit of breathing warm breath down my neck. Hikarr was plainly upset, but did not attack. This was interesting, because the hawk had once fought a Verre-lizard, a creature ten times its size, for coming too close to its kill.
Slowly, I reached into my pack, and fished out one of the sweet-tasting fungus that I was fond of taking with me on wanderings. This I offered on an open palm to the creature, firmly believing that it would slobber all over my hand as Mykasa would.
It took small bites, though exuding a condescending air. Perhaps this was an incarnation of a spirit...?
Logic prevailed. This was a new species...perhaps I would be the first to learn of its existence, I realized with growing excitement. Somehow it stayed out of the infrared range. It looked fast and intelligent enough, and it wasn't afraid of humanoids that would have coveted it for its horn, its mane, and its pelt. Maybe it was too rare.
When it had eaten every part of my offering, it rasped a rough tongue on my hand hopefully, then seemed to lose interest in me and whirl around to face the wall. Before I could react, it leaped right at the wall – and passed through it as if the wall had but been an illusion.
I placed the drawing carefully on the ground, stood up, reached out and gingerly fingered the wall. It was rock solid.
Hikarr seemed relieved – the hawk was chattering and trilling quietly to itself. Most odd – the hawk seemed convinced of its invulnerability at times, and viciously attacked anything with the slightest provocation, and hardly ever was relieved when its would-be victim retreated.
What marvels this world holds! I no longer feel bored, nor do I feel a sense of empty space opening up in front of me. This creature seems like an omen, though I stopped believing in these things since I left my mother city. I quickly packed up my drawings, and left for my cave.
It was obvious to me that I had not been wandering for as long as I would have liked. Soon I would have to walk again in the tunnels of the Underdark in search of new studies, for it would be a waste of time to continuously study the known ones in trawling of new information. I know that this is my lifetime's work, and that even the lifetime of a drow would not be sufficient.
I frowned as I examined the traps and their victims. Though crude, the snares had been effective and viciously efficient in immobilizing the captured. In a jaw-like spring, a Silver-eyed rat, as large as a rothe calf, had broken its neck, the dead white eyes that gave it its name staring into space.
Some nets hung around this trap had ensnared carrion birds and bats, which I lost no time in releasing once I identified them. The last jaw-spring trap had broken and was holding the leg of a young adult Evoema, a smaller cousin of a Diatryma. It shrilled at me loudly, and tried to peck me with its sharp, spear-like beak. I first concentrated on destroying the spring trap that held the rat, then dipped into its blood. The rat had not died long, and the blood had not as yet caked. Holding back the bile that threatened to flood my mouth, I wrote the symbol of Lloth on the ground next to it.
I no longer followed the goddess, but the trappers would think twice before venturing into this region again. Sometimes fear was the best deterrent.
As for the Evoema, I ascertained that the break was clean, and I reached in my backpack for a blindfold I had crafted for large birds. Strangely, once they could not see, birds became calm and pliant.
Now the only problem would be slipping it onto its head. The Evoema stood as tall as my shoulder, and its beak was nearly as long as a small scimitar. I warily circled then flicked to the right with my drawn sword.
As I suspected, the bird lashed at the sword, and I was able to leap forward, and clap the blindfold on its eyes, hastily tying down the string. The bird thrashed for a while, then stopped still, even when I pried open the trap. Panting, I considered it. I could not possibly fix the leg here – it was only luck that the trappers hadn't come back, and it would be impossible to carry.
I picked up the carcass of the rat. It would be a good specimen, though heavy and inconvenient to carry.
I sheathed my sword and thought, but Hikarr sprang onto the Evoema's feathery back, squawking as if angry at the attention the large bird had brought. The Evoema started forward in fright, nearly forgetting its broken leg in panic at the weight on its back, and I had to run after them.
I caught hold of the Evoema's neck, and realized that this way I could guide the creature quickly, even though it limped heavily. The Evoema had a very long, snake-like neck, unlike the diatryma, and its feathers, especially the male's, were scintillating in the infrared, though dull in visual light. This was why it was rare – the Evoema would have been a good catch for a trapper, even though this one was female.
The long legs were built for running, of course, and were scaly and oddly pink in visual light. The legs were also capable of a powerful kick, and I knew I would have to be careful.
When it showed signs of slowing, I dumped the carcass of the rat on it, and it went even faster, terrified. I hoped that this wouldn't shock it into a vacant stage that normally preceded death.
I dared not bring it all the way back to my cave, for the leg was hurting it, and it could permanently damage itself. I led it to one of the cubbyholes I had made for myself before, some distance away, which was at the end of a confusing maze of passages.
There I splinted and bound its leg with bandages, hoping it would not tear them off as most birds did. I left the hood on to try and achieve that, and took Hikarr off its back, though I did tie it down and hobble its legs. I'm only practical.
It took some time for the Evoema to heal enough to walk properly, but by this time I had skinned the rat, eaten the meat, and cleaned the bones for rebuilding later. I also had some observations on the part of Evoema habits – it ate meat, apparently even carrion, and this meat it swallowed, as it had no teeth in the beak. It made harsh voices that sounded like someone blowing his or her nose violently or falsetto shrieks and trills, but most of the time it was silent.
I would not bore the reader with a detailed description of the creature. However, once it could walk without pain, I forced it out to the main tunnel, and released the cast. The leg seemed more or less healed, and I caught hold of the head, then carefully removed the blindfold to find myself staring into the reddest, most psychotic looking eyes I had ever seen. The bird lashed out with a powerful kick that thankfully did not seem to break my legs, and then it ran off as I lay clutching the injury in the dust.
So much for gratitude.
I was jolted out of sleep unceremoniously by a harsh, strong voice that seemed to reverberate around my chamber. For one confused moment I thought I was tied down, and nearly panicked, before realizing that the sheets and rags that made up my sleeping nest had merely knotted together, tight enough to give the sensation of ropes holding me down.
I had forgotten about the voice until it sounded again, and my sleep-fogged voice identified it as rough, street dwarfish. I extricated myself quickly and went quickly but cautiously to the entrance of my caves.
For a moment I wildly thought that a dwarfish group was storming my hideout...the tunnel would be more than big enough for them, and Lloth knew I didn't have any back door...
In the tunnel below was a typical gray dwarf merchant group – with the small, squat caravans pulled by small teams of rothe, hemmed in neatly by armed dwarves, all wearing fitted adamantite armor and holding axes. I have never heard of a dwarf who would even look at any other weapon than an axe for a weapon.
"Ho, elf!" the dwarf in the lead caravan shouted at me. "You coming? Just came outa bed, did ye? Yer head's a real bird's nest."
I smiled involuntarily. "You're early, Valin." I called back, recognizing the dwarf with relief.
"Early me beard," the dwarf roared back. Valin was old even for dwarves, and his face was nearly covered with hair – bushy eyebrows, shaggy mane, heavy moustache, and a long, expansive beard. "If I ain't bin callin' ye, ye'd have slept through t' the next Market-Time an' beyond! Ye comin'?"
"Wait," I said quickly, and hurried to dress. Hikarr hopped from claw to claw on my backpack excitedly, sensing the oncoming journey.
Valin was a merchant dwarf who traded in metals and oddities. He was rich enough already to settle down in any one of the major gray dwarf cities, but he loved to travel the Underdark with his caravans.
He also seemed to know very quickly where each Floating Market was held, the market that allowed inter-species trading with rules against open discrimination and more importantly, fighting. Many merchants from many species always congregated at a Market, and it was there where I normally got most of my supplies, which I could not obtain, by other means.
I had befriended Valin several decades ago, and had never regretted it – the dwarf always came calling when on his way to a Market. Myself, I always kept a spare pack ready in case he did.
This time I had had ample warning, for I had noticed tracks of caravans heading in one direction on many of the adjoining tunnels. I was relieved that I had taken initiative to gather enough fungi for Mykasa to eat for a month or so, and now I just had to shoulder the pack, allowing Hikarr a perch on my hands, and gather up the torch-worm cages.
I climbed easily down the wall, nodding at some of the mercenaries whom I recognized from the last trip I had enjoyed with Valin, then clambered up onto the first caravan with my friend.
I'm not considered tall, and so as I looked over the helmeted heads of his entire crew of mercenaries, I felt an involuntary spasm of glowing pleasure. Call it an ego if you want, but hey, even my sisters were taller than I was...
Valin fished in his pocket, and grunted as his stubby hand came out with a small bit of dried rothe jerky, which he offered to Hikarr. Hikarr squawked, landing heavily on the dwarf's gauntleted hand to tear at the food, but Valin showed no discomfort at the extra weight – nor did his hand waver an inch.
"Yer're looking thin," the dwarf said peremptorily. "Eat more."
I laughed, experiencing an intoxicating wave of euphoria at the prospect of company. "It has been a year," I said in dwarfish, "And the first thing you say when we speak seriously is that I looking thin. No 'how are you's, or 'It's been a long time'..."
"Elves," Valin snorted as he flicked a whip over the rothe to start the caravans moving again. "Yer're alive, ye don't look sick t' me, an' it's obviously bin a long time an' you know it. Huh."
"What are you going to flood the fair with this time?" I grinned. Some of the mercenaries were whispering to each other as they marched on...the newer ones more suspicious of my presence, the older ones tolerating.
Valin waved a hand vaguely, upsetting Hikarr, who plucked away the rest of the meat with a triumphant though muffled shriek, then retreated to my shoulder. "The usual, o'course. Ye've bin travellin' with me fer more'n ten times by now. Whut do I alwus sell?"
"Weapons, the odd books, statues, gems," I said with a droll grin. "You never change, I suppose."
"Hey, if there wus a market fer the hair of nosy elves, I'd be more'n happy t' cash in." Valin snorted, with an exaggerated pose, hand on his massive axe belted at his waist. "I'm a merchant. O' course I'd sell the things that give the most cash. An' if the demand don't change, why should I?"
"Which reminds me," I commented. "Valin, you've always said that you know more of the Underdark than most other dwarves."
"Spit it out. Ye got somethin' to ask?" Valin kept his beady eyes on the tunnels while I put most of my equipment behind us in the caravan, making sure the torch-worm cages were fully covered.
"I saw a creature I didn't recognize the other day." I admitted.
"Ye? Didn't recognize?" Valin feigned astonishment, though I could see by the way he was twirling his heavy moustache that he was pleased that I was asking him.
"I don't know everything," I protested. "I'm not even considered old for an elf."
"Awlright. Now whut did this here creature look like?" Valin smirked.
"Black, four-legged like rothe, but taller, more elegant, you could say. Slender with cloven hooves, a tasseled tail...oh yes, and a black horn and totally black eyes." The image of the thing had already been imprinted on my memory.
"Got a picture? I know ye have," Valin chuckled as I reached into my pack and handed him the sketch. He unrolled it carefully, nearly reverently – dwarves do have a deep respect for artwork, since they create so much of it themselves.
"Ye really saw this?" Valin let out a low whistle. "Ain't bin drinkin'?"
"You know I don't drink," I said, a trifle annoyed. "And elves hold their drink very well, unlike some dwarves..."
"Ye gotta nerve, there," Valin grinned sheepishly, a remarkable feat considering most of his mouth was covered by bristling hair. "Anyways, this creature's an' elvensteed. I didn't think it still wus here...not this far down, anyways."
"Elvensteed?" I frowned. "Never heard of it. And I'm an elf."
"Quite obvious," Valin drawled. "Whut wit' the pointy ears, an' all..."
"This far down?" I persisted. "You mean they're common higher up in the Underdark?"
"I would think so," Valin said, then peered at me under his eyebrows. "Ye went through yer warrior school or suchlike, didn't ye?"
"Nearly lowest in my class, yes," It was my turn to grin sheepishly, but the fact didn't rankle anymore, and I doubt it ever had.
"Didn't ye learn anythin' 'bout the Great War? The elf 'un, which got the likes of ye banished down here. Much to us dwarves' dismay." Valin smirked.
"We weren't banished," I began automatically, then stopped. "Okay, so maybe we were. What do the 'elvensteeds' have to do with the Great War, anyway?"
"Actually, 'elvensteed' issa dwarf term," Valin said. "Should be 'drowsteed', but that don't sound as nice." Valin spat down the side of the caravan. "Ye want t' hear it?"
"Of course," I said, taking out more paper for writing and placing the drawing back into my backpack.
"Good for yer. Well. Did yer priestesses tell ye anythin' much about after ye elves got into the Underdark?" Valin responded. "'Tis a long journey, but I ain't that found of talkin', and I'm no storyteller."
I frowned again as I tried to recall the lectures, but my memory was decidedly cloudy. "I seem to remember a lot of rhetoric on Lloth," I admitted. "Why she helped us and guided us and whatnot. And how we established the first few cities."
"Them priestesses tell you about how she guided ye?" Valin winked. "Ain't it difficult for even a Goddess to make a few t'ousand drow conquer the Underdark first go?"
"She gave us our infravision, I know that," I faltered. "What does this have to do with elvensteeds?"
"All in good time," Valin leaned back to stroke his beard. "Right. First thing, Lloth wasn't that sure o' the Underdark, bein' usually lurkin' around in the Abyss an' all. Mind, I heard this in my days under a 'Teach, an' I'm not so sure either."
"Yes..." I prompted.
"So she needed scouts. An' maybe she speeded up yer...whatsit..." Valin paused. "Tip o' me tongue."
"Growth? Thought? Evolution?" I supplied.
"Last word. Yeah. So ye all can see inna dark. But it ain't no good, since ye could'na see right through the walls, an' all. And manifestin' to guide wassa hard thing for Lloth in those days. She just didna have that much power." Valin paused to raise a wineskin to his lips.
"I thought all dwarves drank beer," I grinned.
"Yeah? I thought all elves only drank wine," Valin snorted. "Until I saw Menzo. But that's 'nother story. An' if I thought all elves ran around with their pants down, I doubt it'd make any difference to ye."
"You've made your point. Continue?" I sighed.
"'Twill be several more days before we hit the Market. Plenty o' time." Valin probably enjoyed watching me squirm for another hour or two until he relented.
"Awlright. Stop yer whinin'. Elves...ye all live so long, an' then still rush here, an' rush there...rush, rush, rush, no wonder most of ye die faster than us." Valin gave me a supercilious stare and a wink, quite a feat since I towered above him, even sitting down. "That an' maybe the effort of pumping all that blood so high. I think that's why humans die even faster."
"Maybe," I commented. Some of the impatience must have leaked through in my voice, because he nodded at me as if having scored some point.
"Must admit Lloth had a smart idea, or she stole it from somethin'. Would'na put it past her. She found she still needed scouts, an' with limited power an' all, she could'na protect all o' ye, or could'na care. So she saw most o' her scouts get eaten up or hacked inna itty bits, an' she decided she needed yer to have some way to 'port out of danger. But there were precious few mages t' spare on scoutin'." Valin paused for another drink while I waited.
"So she got them elvensteeds out o' some kinda Plane. Maybe even Abyss. Them elvensteeds, 'tweren't demons. Sorta a reflection o' some Upworld (Surface) creature. Called a One Horn, or somethin'. So this elvensteed, ye saw it walk through a wall?" Valin waited.
"I did," I admitted. "The wall was solid," I continued, rather inanely.
"An' it didna seem afraid of ye?" Valin pushed.
"It wasn't," I said. "It surprised me a little. Most of the monsters, they run, or move away, or attack. It just looked at me, then later when I was drawing it, it came up close to look."
Valin nodded sagely. "There ye are. Them elvensteeds, apparently there's only a fixed number o' them in their Plane. When one disappears, another soon appears t' take its place. So some o' them were more'n happy to follow Lloth over an' help yer people, see. New surroundings, an' all. Apparently they live forever, they can't die, an' they can walk through walls, an' take a rider wit' em."
"That's all? New surroundings and they help us? And how come there doesn't seem to be any more of them where I encountered the beast?" I asked.
"Well...this is hearsay, see," Valin said cautiously. "Apparently they don't much need'ta eat, but they like to drink blood. As fer the no more o' them, I'm sure they can keep outa sight, whut wit' walkin' through walls."
I wasn't very surprised. Blood contained all the foodstuffs and air and water a creature needed to live, which was why it was also called 'lifeblood'. A lot of creatures drank it not because they were evil, or horrible, it was just an efficient food source without all the bother of chewing tough flesh or bones.
Valin looked disappointed that the last hadn't gotten the reaction he had expected. "So maybe yer people let 'em drink a little, so that them elvensteeds would allow 'em to ride 'em. Anyways, yer people settled down real well, an' when the cities were established, they didn't see much need for the elvensteeds no more. Drow ain't much for explorin' most of the time, an' they figured if they had a nice, cosy niche, there ain't much in the Underdark fer them." Valin seemed to forget that I was drow myself.
"So they went to hammer into all them drow children that the Underdark's a right nasty place, full o' monsters waitin' to eat them, when half of them monsters would sooner run away, an' you'd be hard pressed to find some if you don't know where t' look." Valin sniffed.
He was right. Initially I had been terrified of the Underdark, seeing every turn as a possible ambush or trap. The priestesses had dropped heavy hints that only Lloth's power protected a city and its patrols from harm. I had been so afraid of going by myself that I had carefully not declared myself renegade from her teachings. I didn't follow her much any more, but I decided I didn't want to anger any goddesses.
Then I realized the Underdark itself wasn't dangerous at all, except to the foolish and stupid. If you understood how it worked...it was just a web of chains, food chains, symbiotic chains, habits. If you unraveled it or understood every strand, it wasn't dangerous any more, only marginally more dangerous than any drow city.
Or maybe safer, when I think of it. Certainly some of the scratching, bites, and assorted wounds I had gathered from the Underdark had been a lot less painful than a snake-whip's bite.
Animals flourish in the Underdark, because it's like clockwork. There are precious few monsters that go around killing things for no reason – most of them follow game trails, and if you can recognize them, you can avoid them, and avoid trouble. During the hours of patrol when I was a graduate (barely), I often wondered if the monsters had but been portalled there by mages. Certainly some of them seemed rather lost.
Most monsters avoided cities completely. There are small messages they leave – scratch marks, scent marks, which say something like "Do not enter this place, Danger." Admittedly, an elf may live better (conditions) in a city, but the Underdark offered freedom...and I grasped it eagerly.
"Elf? Ye still there?" Valin prodded me rather rudely.
"Sorry. Got a little lost down memory lane," I admitted.
"Looks like ye got mugged there," Valin said frankly. "I wus sayin', since yer folk didn't need them elvensteeds no more, an' some of yer people started thinkin' they were bloodsuckin' monsters, they drove most of the steeds away."
"And how is that possible?" I asked. "If they can't die."
"Did I say they can't be hurt?" Valin countered. "One thing yer people were using quite a bit then wus iron. Steel. An' that hurts the elvensteeds. Sorta burns them bad. Since Lloth did'na interfere, all them elvensteeds could'na stay with the elves, and also could'na return back to their planes, so they all ran off into the Underdark. Bin livin' well, probably."
"Strange it didn't attack me, then." I commented. "I mean, after what we did to its race."
"Ain't everyone think the same nowhere, elf." Valin said. "Probably wasn't every elf that wus 'gainst them elvensteeds. They may remember, see. They probably also forgive. Ain't everyone got bloody long memories like you lot."
"Seems to me this can't all be hearsay, or I'd love to stay in one of your cities," I commented.
"I ain't bin pullin' yer leg, if that's whut yer' thinkin'," Valin glowered at me. "I've got several caravan loads of books in there, an' I can read. When I don't have anyone t' talk to, what else can I do?"
"Talk to them?" I motioned to the other dwarves.
"Huh. Them lot kin only talk about the same things. Drink, wimmin, weapons, money. Eh?" He glared at the nearest mercenary and waggled his eyebrows. The mercenary grinned back.
"They'd bore me earwax outa me ears," Valin confided. "Yer drawin' ain't the only reason I call ye everytime I pass."
"Thanks." I grinned. "Hey, these books which you read...they're information on these sort of creatures?"
"Sure are," Valin smiled, with a crafty wink.
"How much?" I asked, though I had a sinking feeling.
"Ye won't have enough money," Valin stated bluntly. "Ye've been wearin' the same chainmail...an' the same sword...me beard, I wonder why ye ain't ashamed of them wrecks..."
"They serve me well," I said happily. "Even the sword." And it's so blunt I can't cut my hand on it, which was what I did with my first sword. "I don't use it to fight, anyway."
"An' elf that can't fight an' can't use magic's a useless elf," Valin teased.
"Maybe," I countered. "But most elves who fight or use magic can't see past Lloth. Or if they did, most of them'd be dead from committing 'treason', or they're probably too consumed in torturin' themselves with hatred or lies they spin themselves of what they think they are – some sort of 'higher' drow elf, with 'higher' morals, 'higher' principles...pah."
"You sound like you've thought about this, or seen this," Valin commented.
"Seen, I have," I said. "I've talked to some of the drow whom I've encountered outside cities. I wander a lot, as you know. Most of them don't have what it takes to live by themselves, or are too burned up by all the hatred, or all their 'ideals'. Boring, to say the least. I know one fellow called Balranl eventually tried to attack a drow patrol single-handedly. He died very slowly."
"Most of them male, eh?" Valin grinned.
"Females have it better," I responded. "And maybe they're not as stupid to run off on their own with hardly anything but the clothes on their back." Which wasn't what I did, fortunately for myself. But some of the elves I'd met...fools, all of them. Seeing the Underdark itself as their enemy when it could be their friend – certainly this sword would have snapped already if it weren't for the Underdark's magic.
"They've got plannin', they do," Valin agreed. "Maybe 'tis universal. An' it's certainly why I ain't gonna marry. All that organizin' I've seen with other fellers will probably drive me mad sooner or later."
I was not really listening to him, but mulling on what he had told me. Elvensteeds! Being able to pass through walls would be a great asset in my work...
Valin seemed to read my mind. "If ye'd thinkin' o' ridin' yer elvensteed, I won't advise it." He said. "I like ye, elf. An' I don't think it's all that the book says, that yer people just drove 'em away because they didn't need 'em anymore. As fer blood, everyone knows that yer people ain't too squeamish 'bout spillin' that o' their own race."
I shuddered, remembering some of the sacrifices I had witnessed. "I'd keep that in mind," I said rather weakly. "Though it would be very useful..."
"Ye once told me yer're claustrophobic inna real small space, right?" Valin asked.
"So small I can hardly turn around, yes." I said. It had been one of my sisters' more cruel pranks – locking me inside a closet or suchlike, so that when I was found, I was a near hysterical, sobbing wreck. It disgusted my mother, and amused most patrons she had. But she had never produced any other sons, so I supposed she thought I was an asset, small as I was...
"Think o' it this way," Valin said seriously. "How do them elvensteeds go through a wall? I don't know nothin' about it, but I have the feelin' they push themselves through. An' if yer're facing a lot of wall..."
I could imagine, unfortunately. Somehow being pushed through all the particles in a wall, that would be worse than the smallest closet I had been locked in. And I wouldn't even know whether it would hurt badly.
"Some people think the Underdark's all tunnels," Valin said. "I think it's all rock an' soil, actually, just with a few tunnels threaded in between. So when ye wanta go from Place A to Place B, cutting across a few miles o' rock an' soil..."
"I might just go insane," I said dryly. "I suppose I can do without an elvensteed."
Though I really wanted to go back and do more sketches. The creature's beauty had been nearly hypnotic, if perfection could be crystallized into a single form, that would be it. Its dark form paced my dreams, and sometimes flicked over my daydreams.
"Anythin' else ye've bin up to?" Valin asked after a mile of silence.
That reminded me of something I had meant to give him. I reached carefully into my backpack, threading my hand through a lot of cloth padding, and presented him with a glass jar. Inside it was a feather that looked dull and gray in infravision, but when he touched the jar, it began to burn with a pleasant green fire, yet it was not consumed, and the flame was not hot. The fire wasn't a steady color of green, but an exquisite, ever-changing, non-uniform mix of shades. The feather itself, however, was a boring iron gray.
Green for neutrality. Well, it certainly seemed to show that color often.
Valin stared at the jar, then at me. "Where did you get this?" he said suspiciously. "That's firebird feather."
"There's a major trapping problem in the Underdark, what with the demand for exotic pets rising," I sighed. "One was caught in a cruel snare I found. Dead, unfortunately. I took some of its feathers." It was sad, in a way. The creature's feathers had started to burn with their strange light once I touched it, but the bird was painfully and obviously dead, the neck snapped and dangling at an unnatural angle. Sometimes I wished I had powerful magic, then I could blast all the trappers to the Nine hells, or some powerful swordplay, so I could lay in wait and kill them...
"The rest?" Valin pressed rather greedily.
"Burned and buried," I said calmly. "I didn't want anyone thinking there were any wild firebirds left. In fact, I was quite surprised myself."
"Bah. I could'ha gotten a nice price of the bones an' flesh," Valin sighed.
"I'm giving you the feather," I pointed out.
"An' it more'n pays for this trip," Valin secreted it somewhere. "Sure'd be able to find some silly mage who'd take it for a good price. Thanks, elf." Then he narrowed his eyes. "Got any more in that pack of yours? I'd be willin' to exchange some books, or some armor an' weapons..."
"Any books on creatures?" I inquired.
"All on magic, I'm afraid," Valin sighed. At least he was being honest, I decided privately. "But the weapons..."
"I don't have any with me now," I said truthfully, "But I really don't need any weapons or armor. I'm happy with mine...adamantite lasts a long time, even with neglect."
"Ye ain't natural," Valin muttered. "Any elf would'ha jumped at this..."
"Any elf would have managed to gather an army, kill the lot of you, and spirit away all your stuff if you had anything they really wanted," I said dryly.
The Floating Market
The first thing one noticed about a Floating Market was the noise level of a few hundred stalls and more people shouting prices, bargaining, and trying to talk above all the shouting. The second thing was usually the smell – many didn't bother to dump their rubbish in tunnels outside the Market itself, and there were no rules against littering, anyway.
The third thing would be the dragon.
It didn't look like any dragon I'd heard of the first time I saw it, more like some sort of serpent. And it looked as though it was made of stone, though there was probably some sort of magic involved in this.
A Floating Market has never been held at the same place twice.
Yet at every place, it was characterized by the dragon...that seemed to have been carved up from the stone itself, it fitted so seamlessly onto the walls, and the ground. One of its dead eyes were larger than my head, and its own head lay at the center of the cavern the Market was held in, mouth slightly open to show dagger-like teeth and a stone tongue. The head itself, with the dragon lying on the ground as if in sleep, was already far taller than I was.
Up close, the dragon had a rough look, a statue-like look. Far away, it looked incredibly real, as if the pupiless eyes somehow watched over the Market itself.
The dragon had a snake-like body, that ran straight to the nearest wall from the head, then ran on the cavern's perimeter, though when the body came to the wall, it seemed to merge with the wall. Certainly only half of the body seemed to protrude from the wall, also seamlessly.
There weren't any legs, and the body tapered off into a tail whose tip would meet the part of the body that first touched the wall. The tail itself was flat out on the ground, and spanned a surface area larger than the space of the huge head, and was as flat and smooth as a marble floor. This tail was normally used as a platform for performances.
In such, the dragon's body had a complete loop around the Market, though its body skirted the entrances also by lying on the entrance perimeters. The dragon seemed to have variable lengths, but the head and the scales were always the same sizes.
Some sort of magery...but when a Market was held, even if it was smack on the middle of a basilisk game trail, no monsters would come near it, or interfere with any caravans going to or moving away from it. It was usually near water-lakes, held in a cavern with a high ceiling, placed in neutral areas not near cities, and most of the time not near any game trails anyway.
A Market usually only stayed in one cavern for thirty-seven days, the exact number of spikes rising from the ridge of the dragon's back. These ridges glowed in the infrared, but as the first day passed, the first ridge would stop glowing, when the second day passed, the second ridge would, and so on.
Sometimes I wondered if the dragon was the spirit of the Market. Certainly a Market was always held in its coils.
There were precious few caverns that had all the conditions a Market required, so the dragon-bound cavern was usually found sooner or later and word would spread quickly. It was always full of stalls and bustling, at any rate.
I loved it.
It had its rules, though. No fighting, no killing, and no thievery. And any merchants wishing to set up shop had to give the dragon a gift.
Valin directed his mercenaries to a spot near the tail, then trailed me to the dragon's mouth. I marveled at it – it did not look alive, just a carving, but it should be, in some way. No one knows how it turns up, just that it does. Sharp-looking teeth framed a small cave; a large forked tongue licked out, invitingly curved like a welcome carpet to the dark interior. Oddly, the air just outside the mouth was warm, though the dragon was cold stone.
If it were a real dragon, it would be pretty rich by now. Everyone gives rich tithes in hope of good luck. Valin placed a coat a mithril armor, complete with surcoat and embroidered cloak, as well as a pair of beautifully made swords on the stone tongue, while I offered a scroll of a painting I had done of the last Market, repainted at my home with brighter colors, and patterns at the side – a full day's effort, that one.
There was a distortion of air, some sort of movement that looked like a ripple in water, then the offerings were gone. That meant they had been accepted – if the offerings had remained, then we would have had to make more effort.
No one knows what happens to those who set up shop anyway, but no one really wants to find out.
As before, I set up my stall next to Valin's. The customers we attract can then look at the wares of either of us. For myself, I sell portraits – quick portraits, or already-done scrolls of landscapes or animals. After a while, you tend to know what others like to buy – scrolls of fantastic creatures with impossible background landscapes. So far the best exchange I'd had was a filigreed, well-made mage robe, protection against offensive magics, apparently. Totally useless to me, but I'd be able to trade it later.
Valin uses a few caravans that can open up on one side. He always has a lot of stock, from armor to arrows to swords to cloaks, and books and odd spell components. He probably always goes away with a profit at the end of the day.
It's all trade in the Market, no coinage most of the time, except on agreement. I had written a list of the things I would need to get, and I spent some time each day checking out the other stalls. I always eat well in a Market, sometimes sharing from Valin's table.
"Ye better eat more," Valin often commented, filling my bowl. "Ye look like a skeleton, with that rate...I'd be thinkin' ye ain't cookin' properly." Valin usually thought it was funny that I could cook, but it's only logical. I have to survive on my own cooking most of the time, so why not learn to do it well?
I suppose the reader could say that I since I want some sword skills, I should practice it well. For this I say...gathering, drawing, classifying, wandering takes up a most of my time, pushing out swordplay, which I dislike intensely anyway. While cooking, I have to do it three times a day, lots of practice time.
There was a svirfneblin stall this time, which was quite odd. Svirfneblin mine a lot of gems, I have heard, though they usually don't like to part with them. I drew them covertly from a distance during a lapse of customers. I'd like to visit one of their cities one day.
The cavern was usually lighted well with mage-lights or by more ordinary means. Infravision's all very well, but for seeing details on things you want to buy, or for checking out flaws, there's nothing that can compare to the accuracy of color-vision. Infravision would only see a sword as a gray shape – color-vision would see its harsh edge, the details on its hilt, the fineness of its blade...
I looked wryly at what passed as my stall. One table loaned from Valin, foldable. On boards beside the table and on the ground I lay out some scrolls, more were in my pack. These scrolls were the 'fancy' ones I occasionally did on a whim, for sale. Those that I drew creatures on and wrote information were not, of course.
Hikarr spent most of his time asleep, if not on my shoulder, then on one of the dwarf mercenaries. Burrowing hawks were rare near dwarf cities, and he was a novelty, I would think. Certainly the mercenaries thought being treated as a perch was an honor.
I was feeling buoyed up and lightheaded by excitement, even past the first few days. After a year of seclusion, I was now surrounded by activity, sentient life. I was able to exercise my linguistic abilities, and what sweet joy, what euphoria.
I bought most of the items on my list, and all of the really essential ones – better quality scrolls than that which I could make by pressing pulped fungi, some more rope, bandages, some salves and potions that were unattainable by non-magical means.
I was saddened to see that there were some stalls selling exotic animals, and even more selling their pelts, feathers, flesh, bones. I couldn't do much for the animals, since I had not the money to buy them and hardly any information on where they had come from to release them again. And even if I did, how was I to ensure they would not be caught again?
Better to hope that someone who knew about them and would care about them would buy them. Otherwise...I was just glad that Valin always situated his store far from these kinds of stalls, as if he understood they upset me.
Sometimes I painted the performances on the Dragon's Tail – dances elegant or sultry or surreal, magic displays, mock fights, and plays. I loved the plays, especially the humorous ones, and most of the actors were happy to pose for a painting later for a keepsake and a reward for their craft. They were often free-lance groups, and survived on donations...this was encouragement enough to strive to be the best, so that more would donate.
On the third day, the market seemed a bit more subdued as a Matron and her entourage arrived rather obviously at one of the main entrances.
Valin sniffed as he watched them move languidly through the stalls, the two priestesses in front of the Matron obviously creating a lot of disgruntlement in their wake. Some shopkeepers were left sullenly silent after they passed. I was not surprised – my kind strike a hard deal, and make it quite obvious most of the time that they believe they are the superior species. Oddly, the Matron never seemed to say anything.
"I'd be tempted to give 'em one inna eye if they come over," was all Valin said before retreating behind his caravan. The loud, off-key and bawdry song that the mercenaries had been entertaining each other with stopped, to my relief. I have sensitive ears.
I felt rather resigned as one of her entourage spotted me and the entire group came over. The Matron was quite a beauty, and seemed a bit older than I was, her face with that timeless quality, enough to be as old as my sisters are. She stood on a drift disc, somehow elaborately done in patterns of interlinked spiders. The ones my mother had been able to conjure were just serviceable and plain. She too, wore elaborate, purple on black robes, with furred trimming.
I didn't want to know what fur, and viewed her with jaded eyes. I don't have much truck with those who wear fur for decorative purposes.
This one looked rather intelligent. Most Matrons I'd seen either looked half-crazed with fanatical fire, or half-crazed with hormonal fire. Either too old or too young, apparently, I just tried to avoid them. One tends to get sick of denunciations or barely veiled invitations to their beds...it's not even as if I have higher than average looks on purpose. One might as well blame my father – I've been told I look like him, even though he was somehow killed before I really remembered his face. Certainly he was the only male elf whom I've heard of as being described 'gorgeous'.
I still think that word is better suited for females.
Her guards were a small but tough-looking bunch of soldiers, not scruffy enough to be paid ruffians, and not 'straight', as Valin would call it, enough to be paid mercenaries. They wore jeweled swords and scabbards, and the arms of whatever House this Matron came from. 'Straight' mercenaries would have plain swords (easier to hold and lighter, and most probably won't be stolen if you leave them accidentally), and no arms, and standard-pattern, non decorative-looking armor.
Two other priestesses stood beside her. I simply stared at them openly without lowering my eyes in a gesture of respect (and probably fear). No fighting was allowed here, and even if it were, Valin's mercenaries would probably be a match for hers. I was no longer subordinate to Lloth and her laws; I was a free drow.
Still, I felt a familiar shrinking of my heart in the presence of what I had been brought up to think as authority for many years and held back any insolent comments.
The Matron seemed to inspect my paintings from her lofty perch. Hikarr, sensing my nervousness, or probably just a bloody poor timing, flew back to my shoulders, startling me a little. I had been biting my lip, or I would have let out a most embarrassing yelp.
This seemed to be a cue to break the strained spell. "You sell paintings?" the Matron asked curtly.
"Aye, and I paint portraits as well," I said, keeping my voice from faltering. Any moment now she would start asking where I was from, what I was, how come I wore the...damn, I had forgotten to take it off. The medallion around my neck with the emblem of Lloth on one side, and the arms of my House on the other...it had been a part of my dress for so long that I had never tried to figure out the tricky catch on it that would allow me to remove it.
Not that it gave me any help at all this far from my city. Dear Mother hadn't bothered to put any tracing beacons on it either, because she'd thought her son wouldn't have enough nerve or spine to run away.
Sure enough, one of the priestesses-by-her-side glanced at the medallion, and whispered to the Matron.
"You are a noble from a city?" the Matron inquired.
"Was," I said, and decided that honesty was currently the best policy. "I live myself in the Underdark."
'Renegade', was the word that seemed to ripple through the perfect ranks, and I bristled a little.
"I don't pray to Lloth any longer," I said quickly, before any explosions or tirades, "But I have not forsaken her, either."
"To stop honoring Lloth is to forsake her," The Matron said steely, though her eyes were unreadable. I heard faint metal-on-metal rasps in the background. Valin's mercenaries were preparing for trouble.
"I cannot remember the prayers," I said truthfully, then thought quickly "And to pray from my own devising would also be sacrilege. I still respect her, aye, but I do not expect her to aid me or watch over me. I do not curse her or denounce her, nor have I deserted her for another God."
"A neutral may be seen as renegade, as well," one of the priestesses-by-her-side hissed. "You were bound to your family and to your Matron, were you not?"
"I'm sure they're glad I'm gone," I said dryly. "I wasn't much help to them."
The priestesses' eyes blazed, but the Matron looked amused. "Truly?" she asked.
"This is my only talent," I said expansively, gambling on the twitch of her mouth that could only be a small grin, waving a brush at a scroll. "Judge for yourself."
"Speak more respectfully in the presence of a blessed of Lloth," one priestess snarled.
"We are not in her city now, Tyline. I am sure Lloth is able to make exceptions." The Matron chided. I gave her a more interested look. This was new. All the priestesses I had treated in this manner would be fuming off by now, on which Valin would say (rather loudly) something about a good riddance, and we'd have to leave (stealthily) a few days after their entourages to avoid ambushes.
"You cannot fight, or cast magic?" she inquired. It was definitely a grin now, though a rather impish one.
"No," I smiled, though rather ingratiatingly.
She chuckled richly, and seemed younger for a moment, and more beautiful. "Then perhaps you would be honored to paint my portrait." She said, with a mocking incline of her sculpted face.
"My Matron..." a priestess protested. "Holy One..."
"Enough, Valiane. Take Tyline and some guards to purchase our needs. I will treat this as a respite from the long travel," the Matron said firmly, in a voice that strongly resembled my mother's when she wanted my sisters to do something they didn't want to. It had the same effect – I wonder if Tyline and Valiane thought much about it, but they turned automatically to obey.
"Well now," she smiled. "Do you want a pose?" I mentally notched her age younger at this coquettish statement.
"I would'na thought this o' a Matron," Valin commented. He seemed to have been watching.
"Thought what, dwarf?" the Matron inquired, sitting down on her drift disc such that her feet dangled endearingly in the air. Oddly enough, she spoke perfect dwarfish, and this made Valin blink in surprise. Her soldiers looked as wooden as always, as if they weren't listening. They probably were – but not to this conversation.
"Any male drow givin' a Matron lip usually'd be bein' beaten up by now," Valin said insolently.
"This is the Floating Market," the Matron shrugged. "Fighting is not allowed here. And I believe there is no sense angering others, since you may need their help one day."
"Pragmatic," I offered, smoothing out a scroll.
"Eminently so," she continued. "I think this is a good pose. Comfortable, too – maybe if I were to move my elbow here? All right. I am a Matron from a relatively new drow city, with only twenty Houses at a maximum. No one's rather sure. Competition is fierce, even in such a small community, and resources are, as yet, scarce, such that I have to visit the Markets occasionally."
"New city," Valin mused. "Ain't any drow cities that can be called new 'round here...ah, Vilanae'ynzeran?"
"A mouthful, is it not?" she seemed amused. "Wasn't my idea. But you are correct. We are too small to withstand prolonged combat, though if you are planning on informing your cities of us, we will be more than prepared."
"It's near a major dwarf city," Valin nodded. "Don't worry. S'long as ye don't fight us, we won't fight ye. We're happier off on our own business."
"Assurances do not weigh much." The Matron shrugged, motioning for me to start painting as she crossed her long legs gracefully. "And though this may be denounced as sacrilege from some cities, Vilanae'ynzeran is investigating if non-drow can be converted to the True worship."
"More worship, more power," Valin agreed. "It should have been done quite a while ago...but Lloth agrees?"
"She does, and has even granted some non-drow her priestly powers. This is, however, still in its experimental stage, but I have hopes that she may one day rule the Underdark...Are you interested, dwarf?" the Matron asked, with a smile that more or less expressed the fact that she already knew the answer.
"No thankee." Valin shrugged. "I'd rather keep me soul. As fer yer Underdark, there're gods enough fer everyone, an' I doubt that's feasible."
"It is, Valin," I said. "Though it'd take a lot of bloodshed."
The Matron shrugged agreeably, and I noticed how her chest moved interestingly. Our eyes met, and I could see she was enjoying the attention – both the curious interest from Valin and the other interest from me. I quickly kept my eyes to the paper and my mind off undeniable attraction...wonderful. I hate being young. I thought to myself irritably, and when I looked up, I frowned slightly, as she seemed to wink and grin wickedly. Damn, a mind reader?
"As to male drow," she continued, with a slow, nearly imperceptible nod that justified my suspicions, "We've stopped that system of killing off the third child. We have, as it is, precious few drow in the city. Even if most of those are good warriors and mages," she amended, with a glance at Valin.
"I ain't tellin' no one," Valin shrugged. "My home ground's 'nother city, an' I'm more taken t' chasin' the Floatin' Market. Ye can flaunt yer warriors an' yer mages to yer heart's content as far as I'm concerned, lady."
I felt mildly impressed. Valin had actually called a drow female...any female, at that rate, a lady.
"Ye are, ain't ye?" Valin smirked. "Lady Vilanae herself."
I blinked, feeling left behind. For myself, I hadn't heard anything about this new city or anything of this 'Vilanae', but I hardly keep to date with drow events. Then I realized – Menzoberra had founded Menzoberranzan. Vilanae...Vilanae'ynzeran...
"Guilty," the Matron smiled dazzlingly, enjoying my confusion. "What gave me away?"
"Yer priestess called ye a Holy One. Ain't any Matrons I'd seen before called that. An' I've seen a lot," Valin said blithely. "An' I'd heard this founder of the city got along wit' non-drow. An' one more thing, ye don't have no mages in yer party, an' ye can't have walked here on yer own. There're precious few Matrons I can think of who had the power to 'port over, and are so assured that they don't bring many soldiers, an' all of them Matrons have founded cities. 'Cordin' to legend, o'course."
"You're well read, aye," Vilanae smiled. "True. It was Menzoberra's power that raised the Narbondel tower, not magery as commonly believed. It is said that she raised it also for her final resting-place. When you are beloved enough by Holy Lloth, her gifted power is greater than mere magic can hope to achieve." Vilanae looked comfortable with this fact.
Strange, but maybe not that strange. I doubt Lloth is only content with priestesses that squabble with themselves. I'm sure she wants to rule the Underdark, as well...and if that means 'gifting' a priestess with near absolute power...Lloth isn't very selfish, and there's evidence enough that she usually trusts elves to...do jobs that she knows they can do better than herself.
Valin snorted. "Ye ain't like most Matrons."
"Most Matrons," Vilanae grinned, rolling her eyes,"Stay in their safe little fortresses, and they don't dare to dream, or aspire beyond their rankings. Lloth encourages that, aye, but sometimes She also encourages the...other sort. The type that build cities, that build dreams. It takes those who can 'get along' with others to build, because quite a bit of the Underdark is already inhabited, and neighbors who dislike you because you don't let yourself get along with them are deadly ones indeed. Why, if all elves were as vindictive as you'd probably been brought up to believe, we would all have killed one another by now."
"Ain't no loss," Valin said bluntly.
"Valin!" I objected.
"Present company excluded," Valin allowed graciously.
"Thank you," Vilanae said with dignity.
"Have you heard of elvensteeds?" I queried suddenly. She gave me an odd look. Then I felt a certain prodding in my mind, a faint presence. I summoned up my image of the creature.
"Ah, of course," Vilanae said appearing to comprehend. "Though it's not really common knowledge, is it? At least, that's a new name for it."
"The elf came across 'un of 'em somewhere," Valin shrugged. "And that name's dwarfish."
"I'd like to know...why exactly did we drive them away eventually. I mean, a little blood doesn't really hurt us." I said dryly. "And even if we did settle in a city, I doubt they would become totally useless."
"Because they took souls," Vilanae said solemnly. "Or something like that. The Books aren't very clear, I must confess. Lloth found that the elves whom were touched by the elvensteeds...their souls no longer belonged to her. The elvensteeds chose one rider until he died, then would take another."
"Died?" I swallowed, throat dry.
"Not like that," Vilanae said, amused. "Apparently an elvensteed would twine a soul tightly around its own, or something. When the drow died, natural lifespan, I believe, they'd release that soul somewhere out of Lloth's reach, then twine their soul around another's."
"I see," I murmured, dabbing the finishing touches on the portrait.
"Lloth's a jealous one," Valin shrugged. "But all o' 'em are."
Vilanae then smiled nearly childishly with delight when I presented her with the finished portrait. I would have liked to detail the background more, but that would only have complicated the picture more...but I did feel proud of this one.
Vilanae turned it several angles to the light, then when she spoke again; it was my turn to feel childishly pleased by her awed voice. "Why, this is beautiful!"
"The paint'd all dry in a few minutes," I said modestly.
"Thank you so much," Vilanae said with unusual (for drow) sincerity, "What do I owe you?"
I acted on impulse and on her melting, large eyes. "Nothing," I smiled, and smiled more widely when I saw Valin's eyes nearly start from his head. "Good luck to you," I added.
"I can't take this without paying..." Vilanae protested.
"Yes you can," I grinned, ignoring Valin's gestures. "And it'd be good business for me. Advertising."
"Thank you," Vilanae repeated, then she smiled. "One of these days you have to come to the city. It'd give me someone to talk to, at least, other than all the rituals, rituals, rituals, all day long. You can't imagine what a pleasure it is, finally being able to talk about things not related to running a city or to Lloth for so long. And maybe something else to do, as well." She winked slyly at me. Oh no, not one of those Matrons... "Wait, I don't even know your name."
I paused, off-balance for a while. "My name..." I had forgotten it, to tell the truth. Valin only called me 'elf', or...
"He don't acknowledge it no more," Valin commented. "Me group, we call 'im Ranger, 'cos that's what he does, an' it's as good a name as any." Valin had dug that out from somewhere, and he had said that to be a Ranger meant something like living in the wild and caring for the wild above others, whose very life is dedicated to the wild. It suited me, I thought.
"Ranger?" Vilanae seemed to roll the word in her mouth. "And what does he do?"
"I'm here," I said, a trifle annoyed that they seemed to be ignoring me. "I spend most of my time classifying and painting the creatures of the Underdark...and studying them. I also destroy traps and released the trapped animals – or kill them cleanly if they are beyond help."
"A crusader for animals?" Vilanae's mouth twitched in amusement.
"Lloth knows they'd need one," I said rather fiercely, then softened my tone. "Many of the creatures in the Underdark are already rare. If we keep on killing and trapping them...for sport or for pets, then I'm afraid one day they'd die out. We only have one world, one home...we only have one chance. If we can't save them, then how can we save ourselves?"
Vilanae smiled. "I doubt I understood most of that, but it does seem a good cause, if rather impossible. Well then, good luck to you, and Lloth bless."
Valin watched them go as the priestesses returned, soldiers carrying packs, with a sour expression on his face. "I hope not," he muttered, turning to a customer.
I stared at her back for a moment. A presence seemed to brush my mind in a not so innocent, inviting caress, before fading away. Women.
Later in the day I asked Valin, "Do you know anything else about this Vilanae?"
"Interested, are ye?" Valin leered.
"No," I said quickly, then, "Yes. Um." I contented myself by glaring at him.
"Hah!" Valin muttered. "Young 'uns and their feelin's. Well, Vilanae's 'parently one o' the more powerful priestesses of Lloth produced so far, an' the most powerful livin' now. The city near her, they ain't stormin' her city, because they're 'fraid of her power. Interestin' to see she doesn't realize that."
"Just what sort of power are we talking about here?" I asked suspiciously.
"Apparently she's got a basilisk as her personal pet," Valin snorted as I let out a low whistle. "An' she seems to have resurrected any follower of hers who's died. An' not back to zombies, either."
I could see why the latter was frightening. "She seems very young," I admitted. "For this sort of responsibility."
"She's not much older than ye are, I'd reckon," Valin shrugged. "Hearsay's that she was a rising priestess in 'nother large city, then she suddenly divided, sayin' all sort of things about Lloth wantin' 'nother city, yada yada. An' quite a few followed her. The large city wasn't none too pleased, but she bested their council of ten Matrons alone, an' tweren't many complaints after that."
"She seems intelligent, strangely," I said. "Most of the priestesses I'd seen who have even a fraction of her power seem consumed by it."
"Yeah. Her city's close t' one of the rivers, an' it ain't on rock, but on one of them really fertile caverns. They're self-sufficient so far – she had the sense to take commoners who'd know how to fend fer themselves this way with her along with nobles. Apparently got her bask pet or somethin' to mark the entrances – dwarf scout animals won't go anywhere near 'em." Valin cracked his knuckles. "The city may be a real problem later, but now we're more'n willin' t' leave 'er alone."
I thought about this as I picked up some paints and began to draw the view of the Floating Market from where I sat. Admirable, certainly, but just as certainly beyond me. I didn't really care. Right now my thoughts returned rather rebelliously to the elvensteed.
Obsessive behavior, I noted wryly. Get a grip on yourself; I doubt you'd even see your elvensteed again anyway.
"Ye'd better forget 'bout it, then." Valin observed, and I realized I had spoken aloud.
"Frankly, my friend, I can't," I said. There, I said it.
"Ah, youth," Valin rolled his eyes upward. "Awlright then, I'd tell ye this...Elvensteeds apparently like jewelry. Silver, shiny ones...necklace types."
I heard the dwarf's loud sigh as I immediately leaped from my seat to wander through the stalls in search of just that. Maybe I didn't want to ride an elvensteed, but I certainly wanted to see it again. My stomach felt uncomfortable, as if by idling in the Market I was losing time.
My eyes fell on the head of the stone dragon. For a moment, all was normal...then it winked at me. I was sure my jaw hit the ground...I turned to Valin to realize that he was talking to another customer. No one seemed to have seen this except me...I bit my lip. Was this some sort of omen, or some sort of prank, or was I seeing things?
I visited the pale mushroom cavern several times, but it yielded nothing. The squashed mushroom tracks had already begun to heal, and there were no others that I could find.
Hikarr was always rather spooked from these trips, and would mutter to himself until we left. I sat down and looked around glumly for the last time, ignoring for once the beauty of the pale carpet of mushrooms.
My hands idly pulled at some of the trinkets I had purchased, and then I shrugged rather philosophically. Then again, maybe it would come back. And if it did...
I walked back to the spot where I had first seen it, and pulled away some of the mushrooms to reveal the dark earth, then placed a silver link-necklace long enough to go round its neck on it. Then I released all but one of the torch-worms into the cavern, so that the place would be filled with dancing light.
I had more of them, anyway. I turned to go.
Disappointment drove me from the drawing table back into the Underdark, and I would confess I felt more cheerful as I walked off familiar territory. I love exploring – that feeling of risk and the fact that you won't know what every moment may bring...I marked my way by chipping a bit of rock away around my shoulder height in the wall at regular intervals, using a small hammer and a wedge.
Perhaps it was a little noisy, but I figured that it'd only serve to scare a few animals away. Those that were attracted to the noise...well, I could still climb the wall if need be.
Hikarr seemed nervous on this trip, and seemed to be trying to look in every direction at once, shifting his weight apprehensively. I found it odd – Hikarr usually hardly noticed if we were in 'our' territory or not, he enjoyed these ramblings in the Underdark, he wasn't afraid of them.
Still, I didn't place much worry on it, preferring to concentrate on my infravision to ferret out any creatures. I hung my lasso on my belt – the easier to catch and observe.
The tunnels I followed eventually narrowed down such that I had to stoop a little to walk. I was soon walking on rock again instead of soil, which meant there would be precious little fungi here. I was nearly making up my mind to turn back when I saw a faint glow in front of me that wasn't the rather straight-edged infravision colors.
It looked like the light from a bad lantern, or a few torch-worms. Curious, I carefully put my hammer and wedge into my backpack so it would not clink together and give away my presence, admonished Hikarr to shut up quietly, and inched forward stealthily to the light.
I paused a moment to let my eyes adjust, then I realized this was one of the normally inconvenient tunnels that opened out into a larger tunnel several score feet up. In this case, for observing, it would be useful.
I peered over carefully, Hikarr raising his wings slightly for balance.
The miners had one hooded lantern in the tunnel, perhaps better for mining whatever they had come for. They were short, chest-high and hairless, and were so much alike to the stone in color that for a moment they looked like animated parts of the rock they mined.
The lantern was odd. Usually the gnomes were 'in tune' enough with the stone to be able to mine it without light. Then I realized this lantern seemed to have gauze around it...and I devoutly tried to remember if I had lit any sort of fire around here before.
The lantern was a test for one type of noxious gas sometimes found in tunnels, explosive in fire, but more importantly, poisonous to inhale. At least the lantern's flame didn't seem to be burning blue...if it was, time for me to run.
Still, it was a stroke of good luck. The gnomes themselves had lit up their mining operations, enough for me to paint. I flattened myself on the wall, and carefully took out board, scroll, paints, brush and water.
Some of the tunnels close to the deep gnomes had obviously been dug by them, the edges were still unshaped by the Underdark into natural-seeming formations. Probably escape tunnels, I decided. Certainly I wouldn't be able to fit easily into one.
There were about forty to fifty of the miners, and some were obviously on guard. They were mining some sort of gems that were dark in color, but these I paid no heed.
Curious. I doubted that this area was close to any city that the deep gnomes would fear, so why would they put up exit tunnels? Unless this was a habit...I made a note on my parchment.
I was outlining some of the figures, especially one whom I thought was the leader. Certainly he kept walking around instead of handling any pickaxes, and his hand was always on some sort of pendant on his throat. Sometimes I cursed the fact that I was drow – this made it so much harder to ask questions.
Hikarr suddenly shrieked in my ear, nearly causing me to upset my paints. I automatically turned to hush him, then froze.
Two deep gnomes stood a few feet away from me, holding their pickaxes in a way that made my heart try to sink into my tattered boots.
I quietly cursed the fact that I hadn't been on my guard...the word was overconfident, that I wouldn't be discovered this high up. I mildly wished that I had thought of bringing my piwafwi from the city, but that was too long ago and too late now.
Stupid...as expected, the guards were rather shrill about their discovery (me), and spoke rather loudly, making all sorts of graphic gestures. I didn't understand their language, but I could certainly understand what they were getting at.
Slowly, so as not to upset them and the paint, I put my hand to my belt, unstrapped the sword, and tossed it to them. The scattered as though it was a snake, then came back cautiously when they realized I had just disarmed myself.
Somehow I found this rather funny. The guards obviously thought I might explode into a fire-breathing dragon in any moment.
I didn't want to fight. I would only get me killed, so what was the point? I held out my hands to them, palm out so I wouldn't be thought of as holding any weapon, and watched with a certain perverse amusement as they quickly got out of the direction which my hands were pointing to.
Eventually they got what I was waiting for, and tied up my hands, before pushing me to my feet. They sounded suspicious and severely puzzled. I didn't blame them.
The leader of the mining group arrived, clutching his pendant very tightly. He looked suspiciously at Hikarr (who seemed to have settled down since none of them were bothering him), then at my pack, then walked over cautiously to scrutinize what I had been doing.
He turned back to me; eyes narrowed, and spoke to me in his language. I shook my head to show that I didn't understand him. He switched to garbled goblin (of which I only understood three words in the entire tongue, which were:'kill', 'prey', and 'help'), then to gray dwarf.
"What are you doing here?" he asked rather slowly. His language was quite different from dwarfish, which tended to be harsh and guttural.
"I was painting," I said. There isn't actually a word for 'painting' in dwarfish, just 'adding on colors and shapes'.
One of the guards broke out in an agitated ramble, but the leader waved him silent.
"Which city sent you?" he continued. "Do not lie, or..."
I got the point. I doubt they only use pickaxes for threats and mining. "No city," I said. "I live myself in the Underdark."
"By yourself?" the leader sneered.
"Have you seen any drow from a city who would wear this sort of armor, and carry that sort of sword?" I inquired. "Or would any city send a lone drow out to...do whatever business that concern the svirfnebli?"
"Certainly your armor is in a condition I have never seen drow to be," the leader admitted. I winced a little. "But what is this...painting?"
This was the difficult part. I explained as well as one could in a tight spot on the verge of seeing if Lloth was my true Goddess, about what I did and why I paint. I saw they were half-convinced, to tell the truth, it does sound unbelievable that I can spend my entire life doing this.
Then I asked rather politely if I could ask a few questions about their mining and their way of life.
Now this certainly seemed to confuse them. Their idea of drow spies probably didn't include said spies rather calmly asking them questions, instead of the other way around.
The leader seemed half-convinced that this was some sort of plot, and half-convinced I was a crazy elf who was telling the truth. He looked critically at the painting again.
"Spell?" he began. Apparently this was yet another sad race that didn't know what a painting was.
"No," I said patiently. "Just a picture. No spells would need this sort of scroll...and if I were a spy, don't you think I would have been drawing a map? Not painting in all the miners and the details?"
"Drow tricks," the leader began again, with the assurance of one with his feet on firmer ground, then hesitated before brightening up. "Look through his backpack," he ordered a guard. Now there were more of them – bright red eyes in the infrared that stared straight at me.
There were more scrolls in the backpack of animals that I had painted, some staple food, some spare scrolls, brushes and paint, climbing equipment, fire-lighting flint, rope. Hardly anything that would be incriminating – I saw some of the guards had a bit of disappointment on their faces when the guard emptied my backpack.
"More 'paintings'," the leader murmured. "Thoqqua...cave fisher...magga cammara, perhaps he speaks truth."
I felt a little relieved. If I had been doing the same to a drow patrol, I'd have been skewered by now, hacked into very small pieces, and my scrolls would have been burned.
There was a long argument in their language, and then the leader turned to me. "We have nearly finished with the mining. Tomorrow we return to Blingdenstone, where you will be tried."
Wonderful, I thought. I hope Mykasa has enough to eat.
Hikarr shrieked then, loud enough and sudden enough for everyone in the tunnel to start and wince, talons clutching painfully into my shoulder in fear. Then he subsided just as quickly, quivering.
"Sorry about that," I began. "He's a little excitable..."
"Burrowing hawks are never afraid," the leader said coldly, looking around with the rest, perhaps looking for something that had startled Hikarr? "I have seen one attack an elemental."
"It's a standing joke in many places, aye," I murmured, and the leader flashed me a odd look. Seems to me that a lot of people have been doing that lately.
"You are different, elf," he said curiously. "Most we have met before or captured when raided have spouted all sort of tales on the cruelty and evil of svirfneblin. You seem to take this very calmly."
"I've long ago realized that a lot of teachings of Lloth were a little general," I said dryly. "My best friend, if you could say, is a gray dwarf. Lloth's priestesses taught that the dwarves were evil, mechanical-like creatures, apparently only concerned in 'evil' acts, crafting weapons, and more 'evil' acts. Perhaps they forgot to mention that they like to sing badly, have a rough sense of humor, tease people unmercifully, and my word! They even know how to read and write and count. My friend probably doesn't even know how to work a smithy." I rolled my eyes theatrically. This seemed to have incited a few chuckles from those who understood dwarfish.
"You are different," the leader repeated, still unrolling some of the scrolls. He stopped at one of them, then showed it to me and the rest of the gnomes. "The Floating Market?"
Apparently I had forgotten to remove that one. "Yes," I said cautiously. It was quite a good one of the view from Valin's caravan, though some of the stalls weren't very well done. I had been running out of paint.
"We had some gnomes there," one of the guards was saying.
"I saw them," I nodded.
"They did mention something about a drow that seemed to be painting others," another said. "Dilwav spoke to me about it, I remember."
"Who were you traveling with in the Market?" the leader asked, as if grasping some point.
"Valin the duergar merchant and his caravans," I said promptly.
There was some more whispering. "We will take you to the city." The leader said finally. "King Schnicktick will decide what we are to do with you. But if you are to be executed, we will make sure it is a clean blow."
I sighed. There was no indication where this Blingdenstone was, no indication if I was going to be held there for a long time.
As for the clean blow...
Perhaps it's generous from his point of view, but from mine, it still meant death. I began to make out a will in my head. Perhaps I could get some of them to bequeath my scrolls to their library or something...
Through this surfaced a very sharp, clear thought: I don't want to die.
I trudged back with the gnomes to their Blingdenstone under heavy escort. Hikarr continued to unnerve everyone with his sudden cries, and it wasn't a very calm group that finally arrived at the city.
Certainly there was a lot of sensation from the miners we passed that increased in number as we neared the city. Sometimes I wondered vaguely what would happen if I were to suddenly shout at the nearest guard, and decided that though it would probably be funny to someone watching, it won't be funny to me (later).
It had been a few days of travel, and I still had to move slowly and deliberately. The slightest sharp movement would nearly send them diving for cover.
I remember this and find it funny now, when I write this down, but I had to hold my mirth in check then. Svirfneblin are touchy. The first time I did lose control and start laughing, half of them looked as me as though I was insane, half of them simply glared.
I get searched at regular intervals, especially after we stop to rest. Needless to say, Hikarr is never too pleased about this, and I had to exert a lot of persuasion before I can stop him from attacking the entire mining contingent by himself every time it happened. They've taken to searching carefully around him, after a few incidents.
At least someone's carrying my backpack, I thought, and held back a grin. I'd forgotten how free one feels when there isn't a literal weight on his shoulders.
Still, I was more than happy when they didn't destroy or deface my paintings. I would be hard pressed to reproduce them later...if there was a 'later'.
The entrance to Blingdenstone had two massive doors. Apparently this wasn't the only entrance, it was one of many – but most were created the same way. Steps led up to a landing, and a ramp was on one side for the carts. The landing had been carved with interesting patterns that I could not get a better glimpse of.
The doors had been carved into likenesses of some humanoid creature, which looked like the elementals of my childhood teachings. We'd been taught that the deep gnomes use this sort of magic for their protection against raids, anyway. I was prodded through them, and they closed behind me.
Blingdenstone did not have the architectural beauty of my mother city, but was eminently suited for defense. I mildly wondered which mind had come up with the confusing welter of stairways, walls, and tiers. Many deep gnomes peered down at me as we passed, and I supposed rumors were already spreading like wildfire through the city.
I gave up trying to remember where I was after the path crossed itself again for the third time, and concentrated on walking. Eventually I was rushed through some building, walkways, and more corridors until I had a mild headache. Even Hikarr was protesting softly in a series of irritated 'churr's.
We reached a room with a low ceiling and a stone chair...with iron shackles on it. It wasn't the only room like this – apparently this corridor was lined with these sorts of rooms. There was a lot of iron involved in the structure of this corridor, I noticed.
Some of the svirfneblin pointed at Hikarr, but the leader shook his head, having freshly witnessed the ferocity of an angry burrowing hawk (It hadn't been Canven's fault, actually, as I later found his name was. He'd just tried to see if Hikarr was standing on any knives or suchlike that I would want to conceal). The svirfneblin in question had already been led away for stitches, I would think.
I was tied down tightly at every joint, and inwardly wincing at the prospect of having to sit straight for the first time in several decades. Hikarr didn't object much to this, and the guards made a special point not to touch the hawk.
When I was left in the dark room alone, Hikarr seemed to relax a bit. Of late, he'd been keeping a painful grip on my shoulder, such that even the svirfneblin had observed it and allowed me to put a wad of cloth there for him to grip. Now he relaxed, even hopped on the top of the chair, and picked at my hair.
I had no idea how long I would be left in here, so I decided to sleep. I'd had precious little on my trip here, I had no idea how far I was from home or how I was going to get back, and a hundred thousand other small worries.
Sleep wasn't a very good idea. I was shaken awake roughly from a nightmare in which I was hounded by dark shapes on the edges of my vision, and in the background, svirfneblin jeered and laughed and cheered on my destruction...
I took a few breaths to calm myself down before taking stock of the room. Seven elderly svirfneblin peered curiously at me.
They had fine robes, and I decided that they were probably of importance. I stared back at them equably, slouching as much as was allowed on the chair.
"Far from your city you are, elf," one said in dwarfish, pointing at my medallion. "Even where the group found you."
"I know that," I said patiently, "Traditionally, anyone running away is dealt with rather terminally, and I wanted to put as much distance as I could between myself and the city. And before you start accusing me, I can't take of the medallion's chain, and I suspect the catch is magical in nature, because not even a dwarf could pick it."
There were a few whispers among the svirfneblin, then I noticed two others standing respectfully behind the seven of them, whom I rather recognized.
"The drow painter in the Market, he is," one of them said finally, in bad dwarfish. "He had been selling some pictures of creatures of the Underdark, and had also been asking around for information on them."
"I cannot understand you," one of the elders burst out. "You wish us to believe that the entire existence of your life, alone, is to help animals? To study animals? You will spend your long life simply painting animals?"
"Well, I was brought up to believe all svirfneblin did was the mine all day and kill drow as a sideline," I said dryly. "How are you to know what all drow will always do? There will always be exceptions, won't there?"
"Perhaps," another elder said. I was relieved to find they didn't mind their prisoners 'talking back'."And the mining crew had been on neutral territory, not near any drow city, much less the one he has come from."
"Sneaked up on the crew, he did," another one said accusingly.
"Did you think I could have announced myself?" I cut in before they would jump to even more colorful conclusions. "Considering how svirfneblin seem to react to drow?"
The elders and the two from the Market eventually went off, still arguing. I watched as the door slammed shut again, shrugged, winced as the iron chafed at my skin, then slipped back into a fitful doze.
Then Hikarr started to scream, rage and terror and an undercurrent of challenge in that one harsh shriek, not a very nice experience since I was tied down and couldn't shut him up.
My eyes turned to the doorway, and for a moment I thought I saw a fleeting shadow across the mild emanations of the stone, a total blankness in infravision...before it was gone, and Hikarr shuddered and settled down.
Svirfneblin guards burst into the chamber, saw that I was as shocked as they were about the hawk, then started jabbering at me in their lingo.
They milled around for a while, and I pointedly closed my eyes and fell asleep.
Later one of the elders came back to the chamber. "The king wishes to know what the writing on some of your scrolls are," he commented.
"Information," I replied. "Mating habits, where I found them, suspected life span, what they eat...that sort of thing."
"Your speech is careless for drow," the elder said suddenly, as if changing direction to unbalance me.
"I have not spoken amongst my kindred for a very long time," I responded. "Or spoken to anything much at all except during the occasional Floating Market."
"Why does the hawk shriek so?" the elder asked. I decided he was really trying to unsettle me, so I just tried to keep up.
"I don't know," I said honestly. "Maybe he sees things that we cannot see."
"Your scrolls are being examined by the Archivist," the elder started abruptly. "He – Vanwer Dissengulp, has expressed interest on your...work."
"The scrolls?" I pressed.
"He has taken them into custody," the elder said. "And he would like to ask you some questions."
"Of course," I said, probably still sounding rather relieved. I had been expecting a death sentence.
Vanwer turned out to be yet another old svirfneblin, though he seemed to radiate a good nature, and a quiet strength. I took a liking to him rather quickly.
"What is your name?" he asked, when the elder left.
I shrugged, then winced again. "None that I care to answer, but a duergar friend calls me Ranger."
"Very well, Ranger," Vanwer said. He had a ponderous way of speaking, slow and measured as if giving a public lecture, but perhaps this was just because he was unfamiliar with the duergar tongue. "I am the Archivist of Blingdenstone's library."
"A library," I murmured. "Do you have books on the creatures of the Underdark, then?"
"Many," Vanwer said with pride, then frowned a little. "Though some may be incorrect. It is one matter in which I may need your help, for you seem to have a deep interest...and perhaps a deep knowledge in this."
Many books on animals! The very idea was exciting...then I thought of something. "Er. All the books are in your tongue?"
"That is correct." Vanwer said. My expression must have betrayed disappointment, because he added quickly, "They an be translated, though not very well. Do you have more of these...scrolls?"
"Many," I said, "In my cave."
"Perhaps there could be an exchange," Vanwer said tentatively. "You need my help with my books, and I may need your help with your scrolls. Even if the information is not relevant to mining, it would be good knowledge." I understood this last much later. Svirfneblin cities with large, expansive libraries enjoyed a certain prestige. Most of such cities do – then people can come for the purpose of learning.
"And you can teach us your tongue," Vanwer grinned.
"I will be more than happy to," I smiled.
"I will speak to King Schnicktick," Vanwer said solemnly, then went out of the room.
I looked around wryly in the darkened room while I was alone again, and sighed. This was getting tiresome.
Whatever Vanwer said, it had been affective. I was to be treated as a guest, and Vanwer had insisted on an expedition to my cave, and also insisted that he come along. This last was overruled by many on the grounds that he was too old, but the expedition was finally arranged.
There were, of course, dissidents, claiming I was going to lead everyone to a trap, but I offered for them to use some spell to read my mind if they had doubts.
I didn't know svirfneblin couldn't do this, but it did seem a good thing to say at the time. They certainly seemed impressed.
It wasn't until Vanwer threatened to follow me himself that the expedition was allowed out. They led me back to the place where they had found me, and then I used the chip marks to lead them in turn to my cave.
During this journey back, Hikarr was very agitated, such that I had to spend a lot of my time soothing him. I was getting worried, and my own words kept coming back to haunt me: maybe he sees things that we cannot see.
I went up into the tunnel first, then allowed them to follow. The torches they carried lit up the painted walls, and they spent a lot of time gaping at these. The leader of the expedition was supposedly Vanwer's son, Belwar, and though he didn't understand duergar, also got along with me.
When he stepped into my chamber, however, Mykasa let out a tremendous bellow, and knocked over the crates that kept her in her tunnel. She pushed me over, making loud, snuffling noises as she licked my face in ecstasy.
The gnomes, at the first sound, had retreated into the tunnel, and they peered at me in astonishment.
"Pet," I explained, and ruffled her mane. It was thankful that rothe waste was not volatile, or the cave would have been uninhabitable by now, I considered. As it was, there was a certain scent from the tunnel that was none too pleasant.
I pushed her off firmly, then nodded at the gnomes. A moment later, the chamber seemed to be chest deep in them as they examined the walls, the charts, and my furniture...
I directed them to the scrolls, and they (apparently instructed by Vanwer) carefully put them into packs. I felt a loss as my scroll-storage emptied, but it would be Blingdenstone's gain – Lloth knew that stagnating here, the scrolls wouldn't be benefiting anyone else.
I gathered up more paints, then, motioning for the gnomes to wait, pondered the tunnel mouth. Mykasa was too large to go through, but I may be gone in Blingdenstone for too long.
Somehow I managed to convey this to the gnomes, and at Belwar's direction, they promptly set to work widening the tunnel mouth. In minutes, it was now large enough for the rothe to pass.
Belwar was young to be (as I understood) a relatively high-ranking deep gnome, but he did seem rather smart. And at least he didn't talk in circles as most deep gnomes seemed to...not as much, in any case.
I thanked them – I had never thought of that, I must admit. We managed to lower Mykasa down to the tunnel below, and then I shooed her to the lake close by where her herd still was. I would come back for her when I returned, if she still survived.
She persisted in following me, until she perceived that I intended to leave her there. We left her bleating rather forlornly at the edge of the lake cavern.
I felt as though a chapter of my life had just closed as I turned my back on her.
Whatever Hikarr's been sensing all along has been making its presence felt. Guards on duty when we rest have reported fleeting sightings of infrared-shadows, though these never seemed to try to get nearer. Then things started to get missing; noticeable items like silver knives and even a pickaxe.
Belwar thought it some sort of spirit, since even with a tight guard, things still disappeared. Assuredly, this made us pick up our pace. And whenever Hikarr started having a mild shrieking fit, everyone held on tight to his possessions, sensing that the hawk was warning us.
We arrived back in Blingdenstone earlier than expected, but the scrolls were taken to the Library, with Vanwer fussing like a mother diatryma over her eggs.
Apparently after some of the scrolls were displayed to councilors and the King, they were more or less convinced by my...authenticity. The reports filed about how and where I lived also had a hand in this purpose.
As for anything else – the gnomes were willing to put on trust. I felt deeply touched when my position as guest was confirmed, somehow. Now I had company, even if I was to get a sore throat speaking so much dwarfish.
Vanwer had a home somewhere in the city, but he hardly seemed to go there, or even refer to it. His entire life seemed to revolve around the library and his role as Archivist. He even slept in the cavern used for the library – in a small, connected cave with no furniture but a rough cot. They set up a hammock there for me as well.
Have you ever tried to sleep in a hammock?
It's very comfortable...at first. But you wake up feeling as though your body has been twisted and frozen into peculiar and painful positions. I spent fifteen minutes each day trying to recover from one of these...stretching, push-ups...it only amused Vanwer. The gnome spent all his time holed up in the library...sometimes I wondered why he didn't run to fat.
Blingdenstone's library wasn't larger than my mother city's, but I found it infinitely more interesting. For one, only a fraction of the library was on religion.
Vanwer 'monopolized' my time first thing after a morning meal. We alternated helping each other – on one day he would translate the Blingdenstone books for me, on another I would translate my research. We probably made a strange sight – huddling together on one of the stone tables in the library – a svirfneblin and a dark elf.
In this way, I picked up a bit of svirfneblin language, both written and spoken, and he would learn the drow language.
Time after that would be for me to give classes on the drow tongue. Svirfneblin were quite intelligent, and they picked up quickly, even though I wasn't a very good teacher. I gave the classes in a sort of enclosed theatre, to any that were interested, though the king and his dignitaries often showed up. Vanwer occasionally came to listen, but he already had 'private' lessons early on, so he never really had to.
He jokingly called it 'moral support' the first time I asked him.
Later I knew it was because he thought I might need 'allies' when teaching in front of so many svirfneblin, and had come to make sure I would not be verbally assaulted or otherwise. He was willing to do this on a few days' acquaintance with me, of a race he had been taught from youth to distrust and fear. I found this quality quite common in svirfneblin, and deeply respected them for it.
After this was time for myself. I painted the city and captured its life on paper – the tiers, the entrances, the inhabitants. I always managed to attract a crowd when I sat down to paint; though they were mostly children who would lose interest after a while.
Hikarr spent his time in the room I shared with Vanwer, sleeping, or chattering to himself, occasionally flying, but only occasionally. It wasn't surprising. In the cave, he usually sat on my backpack or on his perch than on my shoulder. He was only a hawk, anyway. Sometimes I wished that he would protect me, but I frankly knew that he would only protect himself. If he was on a safe ledge and I was being savaged by a pack of nigouar (trans: cousins of surface wolves, thought to have originated from the surface), he'd watch, or fly away, bored.
I found Belwar had as good a nature as his father, though I hardly saw him and hardly thought of it. We were acquaintances, no more, though he did come occasionally to the teachings. Apparently he sometimes heads expeditions near drow cities.
It didn't take long for me to paint most of the relevant parts of Blingdenstone, and paint portraits for those who requested them. That left the later part of a day free, and the children welcomed a new playmate.
There was a cavern that had a soft, deep sand floor, and they usually played in this one – making figurines in the sand. We made an 'enclosure' of four hard metal sheets scavenged from their smithy, joined with hinges together to form a square, then filled it to the top with sand, making sure it was compact, then removed the enclosure after a day or so.
The sand would stand by itself as a block, ready to be sculpted. Sand figures never lasted very long, but they could be detailed, and certainly a lot of fun to create. We would spend several [trans: nights] building one – I was not a very good sculptor, and neither were the children. Then we would watch it fall down, or 'destroy' it rather gleefully. So fell a small lopsided figure of a basilisk, a thoqqua rearing from the sand, an evoema...
Maybe children are born destructive. And some stay so. Usually this sort of destruction would become a contest, with all sorts of rules made up on the run – limits on the size of rocks that could be used, the number of rocks and so on.
I cannot remember, even now, when I had ever had this much fun.
Or we would 'draw' in the sand, trace each other's likenesses, or just doodle. Or play some more games – there is one I remember which involved five smooth stones, and a lot of dexterity. The game worked by levels, each one harder than the next and you played your turn until you 'failed' a level. On the first level, you picked up one stone, tossed it in the air, and caught it. On the second, you tossed a stone, patted another, and then caught the thrown stone to pass it...harder and harder.
I had longer arms and longer fingers than any of the children, but they had played the games longer than I had. I can't remember if I had even won a game with them, but we normally played until the parents of the children came looking for them.
They were lucky, those children. Svirfneblin have as low a birth rate as drow, and they react the opposite way to children – they cherish them and love them, and even extend this love to other children. They were very lucky, and I mentioned this several times to Vanwer, wistfully.
I began wondering once why Vanwer never seemed to return to his home in the city, then I thought about Belwar. So didn't Vanwer have a mate?
Vanwer never referred to this in any way, and neither did Belwar. So either the 'mate' had left...or had died. This last was plausible – it would explain why Belwar (I had heard) volunteered himself for all the most dangerous expeditions, and why Vanwer always shut himself up into the library, even to the extent of hardly ever meeting his own son.
And also why the both of them never referred to family at all...it would be so much of a hurt in their hearts to do so. I thought about my family – if they had all died this way, I doubt I would have grieved or felt their loss so keenly. So is it better to have but not to love, or to love but not to have?
I never thought I would like children, having thought that they all made a lot of noise, had hardly any toilet training, and were upsetting and not always grateful. Better to keep pets.
This sort of thought in time would have turned me into the most profoundly antisocial creature in the Underdark, until I might have eventually shunned even the Floating Markets. I thank the svirfneblin now for helping me in this way, even though they may not have been aware of it.
Vanwer and I soon had to address a few issues, however. The scrolls were mine, and I would rather keep them because I often updated them, but the pictures...
"Even with worded descriptions, a picture is better," Vanwer said, in svirfneblin, making sure I understood what he said.
"But to repaint every scroll here...I have hundreds," I responded in drow. This way, we managed to teach each other even if we were talking about the most trivial things. "And we have not even finished translating half of them."
"A life's work," Vanwer smiled.
"Hardly the beginning," I retorted with a grin.
Vanwer eventually persuaded me into a course – I wouldn't need to paint the paintings of the creatures, just to use black ink and draw ink outlines of them. It didn't take very long, and so before we translated a scroll, I would first draw the ink outline of a figure on the scroll.
The svirfneblin written tongue is not as elegant as that of the drow, more of symbols that can be carved into stone easily than a language comprised of an alphabet. Translating took some doing, especially when we grew more familiar with each other's tongues, when we would disagree frequently on what the matching word to that expression in svirfneblin or in drow was.
Normally Vanwer had the last word on the drow-svirfneblin texts, but I remember once we argued for half an hour on the correct translation of 'hereditary traits'.
Belwar never seemed to know or care about what I did with his father, but then he was usually out on expeditions. That gnome will come to a bad end one day. Live on the edge, and you will eventually fall off.
We also exchanged notes on each other's races. I learnt about their customs and their way of life; Vanwer confirmed some facts about drow and crossed out those that were incorrect. Though on most part, the facts about our cruelty were accurate.
Even now I cannot recall how long I spent in Blingdenstone. Long enough that the svirfneblin started taking my presence as a facet of their life, and my proximity was no longer a curiosity.
Long enough that I had read and sieved through relevant books in the library, and we had translated all my scrolls. I judged that quite a few svirfnebli, even the king and his councilors, could now converse understandably with another drow.
Then I felt wanderlust consume me again, and I thought it would be time to take my leave. I was formally bid farewell by svirfneblin dignitaries, hugged Vanwer farewell, and was sent off by a group of miners going around the same direction. A large group of my playmates tearfully waved as I left, I recollect.
I promised Vanwer I would return, and I did, over the years – writing out spare copies of research for him to translate and use, along with the outlines, until one day I came back to find that he had died.
I was told that I had missed him by a mere five days, and that he had been taken by old age.
Life is ever transient.
I wrote my text in svirfneblin since the new Archivist did not read drow, but he did not have Vanwer's fervor in this work. Oh, he welcomed the new information, but I was somehow certain the scrolls were just tucked in some dusty corner.
My comings became less and less frequent...then I stopped eventually.
Mykasa recognized me when I returned to the lake near the cave. She broke out of the herd, a larger creature now, and also trailing a calf. I made quite a fuss over her and told her I missed her, but I thought she would be better off with the herd, so I left her as she was. This time, she made no effort to try and call me back.
Hikarr passed on as well a few months after this episode. He had attacked a carrion feeder, a large larva-like creature whose cruel-jawed head would be a meter in diameter. His luck failed him this once – he caught the larva's squirting poison in a straight blow across his head.
I ended his life cleanly. The poison would have slowly rotted him away...for him to die in agony, but it hurt me so to watch him fade, hoping against hope that he would get well, then finally to make my decision and release his spirit from his already rotting shell.
I buried his carcass where I had first caught him – a high-ceilinged cavern where many birds lived, the soil rich with their waste, such that a carpet of strange, multi-colored mushrooms offset the sandstone walls.
And I was alone again.
I had no heart to go and recapture a hawk companion or any other companion, and no interest as well.
I realized after moping in my cave for some time that I hadn't checked the white-mushroom cavern since I had returned. Hoping it would take my mind off all the melancholy businesses, I roused myself and gathered my equipment.
"Hikarr!" I whistled for the hawk. Normally he would be perched on my shoulder by now...then I remembered.
I walked out of the tunnel quickly before I could start to cry.
The Underdark never has much place for prolonged sorrow, and I could feel it slipping away as I concentrated on moving through the tunnels and caverns. Perhaps work is the greatest healer, or there is something special about the Underdark, or maybe I'm just plain odd, but I didn't feel as upset as I did after a few days of intense traveling.
The cavern seemed as timeless as when I had first entered it, though this time there was something different.
I hardly dared hope.
But in the same spot as when I had first seen it, was the elvensteed. It even seemed like the original one I had found.
The scene looked so familiar I nearly turned to observe if I was sitting in front of it painting it. For a moment I thought I had stepped back in time.
Then I noticed its ears flicked back and forth as if in amusement, and the silver link-necklace hung from its mouth.
It rose to its feet with unnatural grace, and trotted over, its hooves making no sound at all even as it crushed the mushrooms. Alarm bells had started ringing all over my mind, and my eyes were drawn nearly involuntarily up to see its wickedly sharp horn.
It stopped a few feet away, and stretched its neck, as if offering the necklace.
"You keep it," I said quickly, then reached with trembling hands into my backpack to take out the worn bag where I kept the trinkets I had purchased, and pulled out a few. "Here..."
The elvensteed shook its head irritably, still offering the necklace. I took it from its mouth, not really comprehending its motive until it lowered its head.
Ah. I placed the necklace on its neck, as if awarding some sort of metal. Then it raised its flawless head, and the black eyes stared for a moment into mine.
"It was sweet of you to offer the necklace, but you must have forgotten I have no hands to wear it myself." For a moment my ears did not register that the words, spoken in a voice so perfect as to be rather frightening, came from the elvensteed's mouth.
"You can talk?" I blinked.
"Can you?" the creature challenged, idly flicking itself with its tasseled tail. The voice sounded most definitely female.
"I just did," I said lamely.
"So did I," the elvensteed replied equably.
"The stories never said..." I began, then frowned. "I mean, there wasn't any mention of talking...not from anyone I had heard of."
"Think before you speak," the elvensteed admonished. "At least you will be more prone to speak full sentences. Now, are the rest of those pretty toys for me?"
I couldn't believe the fact that the creature was talking, and it looked decidedly amused, but I found myself helping it fasten bits of jewelry on itself – many delicate bracelets on its hooves, some fine necklaces interlinked with precious gems in its mane and tail, and a large pendant with a huge tiger's eye stone on the chain around its neck.
It...or she, as I should say, walked an experimental circle. Strangely, the 'toys' stayed on, even though they didn't look like they would even survive a step.
"Welladay, since we have come this far," she said, stopping in front of me again, "I believe you would like to ride?"
"Yes," I said truthfully, "Though I don't know how to."
"You are delightfully frank," the elvensteed sounded pleased. "Riding can be learned. Do you know the price?"
"Not very clearly," I admitted. "You'd drink some of my blood, and you'd also combine yourself with my soul, or something."
"Remarkably correct," the elvensteed said, moving closer. I realized I had backed against the wall. "Not combine, though. More...of sharing."
"Half-half?" I blinked.
"Not that sort of sharing," the elvensteed chuckled. "There are some things a soul does that we do not particularly need, but we do crave. I will not be eating up your soul, dark elf. As for the blood, rest assured I will not take very much very often."
"How did you know I was the one who'd left the necklace?" I asked, desperately trying not to agree so quickly. There was something near hypnotic about those black eyes.
"Very few dark elves know or care about us," the elvensteed said. "I found the trinket, but did not know if you were interested or whether it was just a gift. In the old days, a gift would have amounted to acceptance, but I am not certain about the present. The stone dragon informed me of your prolonged interest in the Floating Market."
"It's alive?" I swallowed.
"Yes it is," the elvensteed responded, "Though it chooses to take the semblance of carved stone on this Plane."
Doubts bloomed in my mind quickly. I had spent so long searching out an elvensteed, and when finally confronted with one, I could not decide.
"I have probed your mind as I followed you after the Market," the elvensteed continued. "Rest assured I can stop your memory when we pass through the walls, so you need not fear. You will not die of any fault of mine – I will do my utmost to defend and shield you, since you are the first elf in centuries to even express interest in the bonding."
"Were you the...shadow which had been upsetting Hikarr?" I swallowed at the hawk's name.
"Aye. I have followed you since the Market, but your hawk could sense my presence," it said. "I could not follow you too deep inside Blingdenstone, for the city contained a lot of iron."
I remembered rather belatedly that elvensteeds feared iron, and nodded.
"Mind reading...walking through walls...how powerful are you? Where are you from?" I asked.
"We are more powerful on our home plane, where we can call up magic," the elvensteed commented, "Here we have but our knowledge and the abilities you have mentioned. We will live for as long as we want to, and we are from a part of the Abyssal plane."
"Knowledge?" I grasped.
"Aye," she replied. "We have observed and remembered much of the Underdark, and will continue to remember. I can help you in that respect, for I have traversed much of this underground realm. Choose, elf. Do you accept?"
"Of my own free will," my mouth worked.
"Do you pledge yourself to me?" the elvensteed's eyes seemed to burn.
"Yes," I said, rather uncertainly.
"Good," she said with satisfaction. "Now this will hurt a little."
There seemed to be two elvensteeds, one lighter one that I seemed to be able to 'see through', and this one reared up from the first, as like a spirit leaving a body, then abruptly surged into me.
It hurt a lot.
I felt as though someone was trying to tear my heart away from my body. Pinpricks of pain seemed to spread out from my mind, to cover my entire self. I must have screamed, though I did not hear my voice, and I must have fainted, because I woke up to find myself curled up in the shadow of the elvensteed's body. She was absently licking my face.
"That hurt," I growled.
"I warned you." She replied, unfazed. "I am Lady Karnaeve Darqhaire, sired by Prince Vistankl Darqhaire of the Darkflame Plains and Lady Diaern Silverdancer, one of the first Walkers of the Material Plane, traveler tried and tested."
"That's a long title," I said inanely.
"Aye," the elvensteed flicked her mane nonchalantly. "We of the Black Horn have our own rankings and societies. Amusing, do you not find it so? I do not expect you to address me by title or full name, of course. All my riders have called me Kar."
"My friends call me Ranger," I grinned weakly.
"I know," Kar said impudently. This did not serve to make me feel any better about the entire business.
Vilanae shook herself awake, then spent a moment stretching luxuriously in the rich four-poster bed. She turned around lazily to see her current playmate, the drow painter she'd met in the Floating Market, and studied him for a while.
He was very handsome, but so were many she'd seen before, even in the new city. He wasn't particularly fantastic in bed either, being 'out of practice', as he called it mischievously. He wasn't a good fighter or mage by his own admittance.
Maybe because he was simply different from most of the males, who were unbearably submissive in her presence. Are all females attracted to males who aren't afraid to have their own views and are not afraid to express these views in their presence?
And perhaps because of his personality itself, which frustrated quite a few of her priestesses and also puzzled herself. She could not understand why he would spend his entire life dedicated to animals, which most of the time would not even be aware of his existence.
He was an enigma, even more since he had arrived rather blatantly at the gates of Vilanae'ynzeran, on the back of an elvensteed, then mildly asked if she would like to see him. As if it didn't really matter to him either way.
Well, that may change.
Vilanae decided that if she had to wake up, she'd be damned if she'd let him sleep. With a wicked smile, she pushed her foot against his thigh.
There are bad ways to wake up someone in the universe, but one of them is to touch the victim with ice-cold toes. Ranger woke up with a yelp, his eyes settling on her laughing visage and muttered to himself darkly.
She could only read his surface thoughts now, probably because his elvensteed was shielding him, but it was enough to make her laugh harder.
"What?" his voice was husky from sleep.
Many of her priestesses called him insolent – he hardly used titles if he remembered to, and his speech was always blunt, to the point, sometimes painfully so. She found it refreshing.
"If I have to wake up, so do you," she retorted.
"Yeah, right," he sighed, "I suppose I could get going."
"Going?" Vilanae frowned.
"There's nothing for me here..." he began, saw that her lip began to tremble, and then hastily added, "That is, I am very sure your people do not approve of me, and your popularity with them might just go down. I am not a powerful mage or a good fighter, you will have no practical use for me."
"Then why did you come?" she challenged.
"I was passing through," he smiled. "There's still a lot of wild creatures around here, but not for long, I believe."
"Why?" Vilanae began, then sighed as the answer came to her. "Patrols."
"Precisely," Ranger's face showed resignation and regret. "Some of them are quite powerful creatures, but they would not stand up to a really good patrol. I wish cities managed to find a way around this – even creatures can be a defensive faction..."
"There is that," Vilanae said suddenly. "If we leave the creatures alone...if people attack, there is a chance that the creatures may stop them or slow them down."
Ranger smiled at this, as if there was something funny he saw but was just as obvious not going to express it. "You have power, Vilanae. Use it on the creatures, then." Vilanae could see his strong thoughts: At least they won't die.
"Or if I did not want to use the power..." Vilanae pondered. She did not really wish to bother Lloth with this request.
"You have a basilisk. Take him for a walk – use him to mark out all the routes your people use normally, or around the city. The creatures won't come near – there are very, very few of them who would even risk crossing a basilisk's old game trail." Ranger stretched, managing to exhibit his lean body.
"That is a better idea," Vilanae approved. "Of those that would not be scared off..."
"They all keep the fixed routes," Ranger shrugged. "I've known precious few creatures that wander around the Underdark without a fixed destination, even if they are lost. Avoid the routes."
"I doubt any of us can tell that there is even a route," Vilanae said slyly. He eyed her with amusement.
"Is this an excuse to keep me here?" he inquired.
"If you would view it so," Vilanae smiled. "I told you, it is a relief to be able to talk to someone who doesn't blurt out 'Holy One' or 'If Lloth wills' every few sentences."
"You speak of the Spider Queen lightly," Ranger observed.
"I have spoken with Her," Vilanae bowed her head. "Lloth is eternal and She is wise, and She will have any power that I can offer Her in my lifetime. I have sworn that before I die I shall make Her one of the most powerful goddesses of all the deities in the Underdark, or perhaps even the world. Perhaps I will convert all the drow cities to Her worship first."
"That's a high goal," Ranger shrugged. Vilanae found this neutral point amusing – so long as her goal did not interfere with his animals, Ranger wouldn't care less.
"Maybe," Vilanae commented. "But as Lloth has decreed, I will have my entire life to devote to this. Now, I think you should get dressed. After I head the morning Thanksgivings, I will summon my priestesses. We will have to listen to the plans about the defense of the city."
Ranger wore the clothes she had provided wryly. He was used to his old armor, but Vilanae had disapproved of it, and had even offered him a new set, though he didn't accept.
She enjoyed watching him dress, but once he did she wore her own robes quickly, then hurried out towards the Chapel, as she called it.
Ranger was let in the large room Vilanae occupied. It was definitely feminine – the drapes on the four-poster bed looked like tapestries in themselves, as did the covers. There was a large wardrobe with many robes, a window overlooking the city, and it was carpeted in some sort of fur.
He stood up and walked around the room slowly. The books in the bookshelves were mostly teachings from Lloth, the rest were stories in her praise. He was running his eyes over them idly when a familiar Presence behind him warned him of Kar's approach.
"I thought the two of you would never get done," Kar said mockingly.
"Thank you for your suggestions, though," Ranger said sourly, "Now we're stuck in this city."
"I like Vilanae'ynzeran," Kar made a complicated dance step on the carpet, though her hooves were always unnaturally clean. "Perhaps I would be able to call more of my kindred here later."
"I doubt it," Ranger grinned, "Lloth's even more possessive of her drow of late."
Kar somehow managed to give the impression of shrugging. "We shall see. Lloth is not the only goddess or god who wishes domination of the Underdark – Darkflame knows that every deity wishes that. She may need our help again, though this time it will be on our terms."
"That would be amusing," Ranger said with resignation, "But this is a delay to my work, even if the tunnels around here would yield any new species."
"But you are doing so well!" Kar commented wickedly, "Charming the robes off the Holy one, the Matron of Vilanae'ynzeran, no less!"
Ranger snorted. "I've seen enough of drow society to know that once she finds someone more 'interesting' than me, she'd leave."
"And of your little trysts?" Kar looked significantly at the rumpled sheets on the bed.
"Casual," Ranger grinned. "I will remember, but that would be all."
Kar sniffed, and stamped a delicate hoof. "With my help, you could..."
"Stop it, Kar," Ranger sighed. "I don't want you influencing anyone 'for my sake'. Leave this city alone...please."
"Ah, you are so sweet to ask," Kar said, amused. "Very well. I will leave her."
"This leave-a-basilisk trail idea," Ranger frowned. "You know basilisks are one of the few species that wander around sometimes."
"I will put my own marks on the trail, fear not," Kar shook her long mane out of her black eyes. "It is more impressive to the drow to use the basilisk, but the animals will keep away from my marks."
"Which may also serve to draw elvensteeds to the city?" Ranger shook his head.
"If they choose to read it," Kar shrugged. "I have but seen one of my kindred in the past ten years. The Underdark is large, and we do not usually meet each other."
"Ah, right," Ranger paused. "But as to this creatures-may-defend the city idea..."
"I will persuade them to help," Kar gave the impression of grinning. "You can, however, encourage Vilanae to leave offerings of food to the creatures at specific points. Payment."
Ranger could sense Kar's mind presence sharpening, and expected the next move. He sat down on the edge of the bed, and tilted his head to bare his neck with a sigh.
Kar pranced closer, radiating amusement, and gently rasped the skin on his neck with her tongue. He didn't flinch when sharp teeth sank into his flesh, and he allowed the elvensteed to drink, carefully trying not to tense up.
This was part of the pact.
However, Kar never took too much, and the fangs withdrew quickly even before he would start to feel weak.
Already the wound would be healing, there was something strange about the elvensteed's saliva that had this effect...
Two hours more and the scars would be gone. Ranger patted Kar's neck, and the elvensteed lay down at the edge of the bed, resting her head on his lap. A comb levitated over from Vilanae's dressing table, and Ranger patiently began to comb the elvensteed's mane.
Vilanae luxuriated in Ranger's arms, happy and sated. Lloth's touch was stronger than normal in a situation where she didn't require power, which meant the goddess was also tapping in on her pleasure. She felt honored by the attention, and summoned her energy as an offering, for the Spider Queen.
There seemed to be a feather-like shake in the touch, and the power washed back to stay inside her, as well as a definite fan of approval at her willing sacrifice.
Lloth was pleased. Vilanae smiled to herself, then turned to half-face Ranger, who had buried his face in her hair. "Tell me," she murmured, "Why do you really spend so much of energy on your task?"
Ranger looked up at her, and he was deadly serious. "Peace," he whispered.
'True Ranger' was completed a little ahead of time. I know the ending may be a little abrupt, and I should have detailed Vilanae a bit more, but that would allow for another story, if I ever come up with one.
It was originally brought into writing when I looked up the meaning of a 'ranger' in a dictionary: A person whose job is to protect a forest or natural park. I have long been a trifle annoyed by TSR's portrayal of 'rangers' as a 'part of nature', and yet they usually use their powers to twist nature into 'helping' them.
Gits. Even 'Mooshie'...I don't have the energy to dig up his full name now...I doubt his home was natural, or all those 'friendships' with all the creatures were natural either.
So, why not? A 'true' ranger of the Underdark, a nameless dark elf from a nameless city, maybe a cynical reflection of Drizzt. He can't fight, can't magick, but he has a greater heart than Drizzt can hope to have, that has reached past his own personal concerns, for the Underdark itself. I doubt that all the cities can go around killing the 'monsters' this long without them becoming rare. As for trapping - it is a problem on this world as well.
Maybe this story is also a tribute to all the true rangers on our world, who spend their lives protecting our wildlife. The animals won't know they exist, but we will. They won't be paid as much as a moviestar, or get as much recognition, but what they will do and are doing for our world is beyond thanks.