AUTHOR'S NOTES: Well, this is it. Last call, unless I do appendices for Ghaunadaur and Kiaransalee. Further notes, as always, at the end, and updated for the newest chunk of lore as of November 5.
GENERAL WARNINGS: Language and mention of disturbing activities.
Traditional Gender Roles
The Dark Maiden's Message
The Year of Rogue Dragons (DR 1373)
"He blundered into me around noon," said Talffyn as they walked through the camp. "Torn up something awful. His sense of direction doesn't seem so great - could be the sun. Maybe he wandered into the Velarswood evensong."
Tarlaunim winced and reflexively touched the hand-length sword dangling from a fine chain around his neck. "Tal-"
"If you're not going to stand up for yourself, 's my prerogative to do it for you." Talffyn was trained as a bard, not a cleric, but in this she was ferocious as he'd seen some of the Dark Ladies. "You heard what that excuse for a priestess said. You'd think this was the Underdark."
"She didn't say anything. Not about that. She hesitated. I'd be surprised if she didn't. Anyway. It wasn't too bad, was it?"
Talffyn frowned, but apparently she didn't want to drag through that argument again either. "It wasn't. All he could do was spit blood. Granted he did a lot of that. Spit all over Pellanarra before he passed out. But no wonder you tranced right through it."
"Any idea of allegiance?"
"Pellanarra thinks it's Vhaeraun. He wore the right sort of mask, and we found enough poisons stashed in his boots and so on to wipe out a hamlet. Not a drop of spider venom in the lot, though. He hasn't moved at all since, I don't think. Is that normal? Twice I thought he'd slipped off to the Fugue to wait for his god."
"Vhaeraun will not come for this one," Pellanarra interposed. "Not if we can help it."
They were almost at the tent now, near the center of the camp. Pellanarra stood in the entrance, one hand pulling the flap open. The other absently rubbed one of her swords. From Silverymoon in the north to here in Cormanthor Tarlaunim had seen her do wondrous things with them, and his admiration was tainted only slightly by the knowledge that he could not learn to do the same.
He hadn't thought he could learn this until relatively recently. Maybe the matter of the Sword Dance, too, could change.
"He could respond better to a male," Pellanarra was saying now. "When Dilyn-" She stopped.
"I know about her," said Tarlaunim. "There's no need to edge about it."
Dilynrae was one of the other priestesses back in Silverymoon. She had no trouble with spiders, spiders could blanket her probably and she'd not twitch, but any hint of a snake set her to trembling - when Tarlaunim and Talffyn were children even a suggestively twisted rope could set her off. He guessed it had something to with viper scourges. "They turn on the priestesses who offend the Spider Queen," Talffyn had whispered, consulting her sheaf of foolscap notes. "Bite them and so on."
"When she was here at first she refused to listen to the males among us," said Pellanarra." She would order them about, insult them. It took some time for her to leave that behind."
"Yes," said Tarlaunim, "I suppose it would. This is… the other way around, in a sense?"
She sighed. "In some ways, they're more amenable to the message, but in others… and I suspect this one is a priest as well. I'm afraid you'll have your work cut out for you, but you seem to be the best prospect all the same. Don't hesitate to ask for guidance if need be."
He would have liked nothing more to assure her that he wouldn't need to, but in the long run he'd rather not eat his words.
Pellanarra stepped aside, still holding the flap. "Tarlaunim, why don't you take over from here? He rests now, and you know enough to tend to him until he wakes. Once he does… I have confidence in your judgment."
He swallowed as he came up beside her and looked inside. "It's good to hear that." Surely Pellanarra's opinion, with her experience in the faith, counted for more than his queasy gut.
She placed a hand on his shoulder. "The Dark Maiden would not have called you to her service if you could not see to such matters."
Winter was not long gone, and those new to the surface often had a hard time of it unless they went raiding and shifted their difficulties elsewhere. Tarlaunim could make out far too many outlines of bone beneath the skin. When changing bandages he had the feeling of handling a doll - not a floppy one he'd cheerily mummified in white rags years ago while playing at being clerics with Talffyn, but porcelain not for a child to touch.
Lack of movement encouraged the impression. It was as Talffyn had said - about a candlemark in, he'd drawn breath and held it until, several regular breaths later, he spotted the corresponding exhalation. He banished as he did the thought that wouldn't it be a fine thing if his first charge died without either of them speaking. Pellanarra, of course, had already tended to any wounds that might have proven fatal.
Granted, Reverie was stiller than the sleep of other races, but it was normal to have some movement, else elves would be constantly sore. And it might not be Reverie - the other drow's eyes were shut. If this was sleep then it was even more bizarre. Nothing to do about it, though, but to remember to shift the other drow himself every few candlemarks. The exercise was complicated somewhat by the cords wrapped around each ankle and attached to the edge of the pallet. Necessary precaution, he knew, as was the matching cord around the wrists and meticulously peacebinding the fingers. At least when he put a hand over that it wasn't so easy to feel bone.
For a while he sang, but then he stopped for a swallow of water and could not bring himself to continue singing to someone who likely couldn't hear. After that he rehearsed the message until the sun through the trees stippled the tent fabric with darkening gold. Then he ate his share of what was sent in on a tray, and at moonrise he used his few unexpended spells in further healing before he prevailed on someone else to watch while he sang in praise. He returned with renewed magic eager to take flight from tongue and fingers, and with the sensation that he'd been witness to a small miracle - a sensation that had mellowed but endured over hundreds of moonrises.
Shortly after that, Tarlaunim noticed a slight irregularity in the breathing he'd learned first to notice and then half-ignore. When he looked, the other drow was slowly blinking. Tarlaunim leaned over and murmured the standard soothings; it only took a few more breaths to determine the other was in no state to hear the message yet. He did have enough of a semblance of consciousness so that Tarlaunim could guide him to drink some water before he lapsed back.
The next morning Tarlaunim received a new tray. He turned to find the other drow staring about the tent best as he could while turning just his head and neck, eyes distinctly clearer. They passed over Tarlaunim several times before locking on him. Tarlaunim smiled and hoped it conveyed the desired effect; the words he'd meant to say had all got in a tangle.
Further movement, when it came, was cautious. First one leg, then the other, drew close until they were stopped by the ankle cords. Arms next; one elbow braced against the blankets and began to push him into a sitting position. He visibly winced at this point, and Tarlaunim hurried to support him, only just remembering to put down the wobbling tray.
At his touch the other drow recoiled with such wild force that he flung himself into the wall of the tent, which shook at the impact. He fell with a thump, letting out a cry of pain quickly stifled by his own hands, and tore them away just as quickly, staring at the bindings.
"Tarlaunim?" someone called from outside. "Is all well in there?"
Tarlaunim called back an affirmative and returned his attention to the other drow (he needed to ask for a name; he was tired of mentally applying that epithet, and "the Vhaeraunite" was hardly an improvement), who was taking gasping breaths while regarding Tarlaunim warily. Tarlaunim retrieved the tray and set it down between them before he sat down himself, crossing his legs.
"I'm not going to hurt you." He reflected at the incredulous expression on how sadistic it would be to say so and follow with hurt. "There's no need to worry." At least not about that. "As you've likely just heard, my name is Tarlaunim. Tarlaunim Coborel of Eilistraee, to be precise," he added, filling another cup of water and holding it out. "Might I have yours in return?"
The other drow gasped several more times before replying, drawing himself up best as he could with his injuries. "Zayrtel Telenna. Of Vhaeraun, though I suppose you knew that already, considering…"
"Considering this." Zayrtel - what a relief, to have a name - gestured abruptly at himself. He was half-dressed if even that, though the extensive bandages were a fair substitute in the way of preserving his modesty. "You… they…"
His obvious mortification left Tarlaunim blinking. True, the Dark Maiden's followers had few inhibitions, but the drow at large were not exactly squeamish about such things either. Some of Talffyn's accounts had made that much clear. "We usually need to have some idea of wounds to care for them." He glanced about for clothing, putting down the cup. "None of us has developed the ability to see through clothes yet." He spotted a promising-looking bundle an arm's length away and managed to snag it. Unfolded, it turned out to be a pale gray tunic and leggings, a fair substitute for silver and probably requisitioned from someone the right size. He offered them one in each hand.
"Nightshadows, it's already been done. You think after the fact… fine. Better than nothing." They looked at one another. "Well?"
"Is there a problem?" A significant glance at the cords. Tarlaunim, now that he looked, couldn't imagine how either of them could get the clothes on over that arrangement. "Oh."
Tarlaunim considered. "I suppose I could take them off one at a time, if you wouldn't mind other tying meanwhile -"
"Forget it. Forget it. It's more trouble than it's worth." He'd slumped halfway and begun to maneuver a blanket over himself. "Look, I was stupid just then. I would have realized it was procedure if I had just taken a minute to think. I… overreacted. I apologize."
"There's nothing to apologize for."
"There wasn't any point in being angry." He'd managed to drape the blanket over his shoulders like a makeshift cloak, and pulled it in close. His mortification, if anything, seemed to have increased. "Certainly not with you."
That was anger? In retrospect, he supposed there was some of that, but it hadn't been the overriding impression. Did Zayrtel prefer him, then, to think of it as anger instead of…?
He picked up the cup and held it out again, giving it enough of a jitter to slosh the water inside. Zayrtel took it but did not drink.
"You were so still -"
"That again?" He eyed the cup. "I thought I'd left off since - it doesn't feel like I did."
"I did the moving in your stead. Are you feeling all right?"
"All right for nearly being sent to Ellaniath."
"My god's realm." He stuck the cup back at Tarlaunim. "Though you wouldn't know that, would you?"
Tarlaunim looked at the cup, then at Zayrtel, and repeated this several times before he figured out what was being asked of him. He drained it in a gulp, refilled it and passed it back. It occurred to Tarlaunim then that in all the conversation he'd forgotten his other task entirely. "Speaking of which, I bring a message from my goddess."
With the safety of the water confirmed, Zayrtel sipped briefly. "I'm flattered. A message from a goddess. It's more than the Spider Bitch ever did for me. Go on, does it look like I can stop you?"
He cleared his throat and reminded himself to enunciate. "A rightful place awaits you -"
"'In the Realms Above,'" Zayrtel cut him off, "'in the land of great light. Live beneath the sun again where trees and flowers grow.' And here I thought it was personal." He feigned a yawn. "What? We do our research. You can tell them they might do well to do the same." He tilted his head and smiled a smile seemingly calculated to diminish sympathy - but that couldn't be what he was after, could it? "You see, if you're going to make an offer, you should find out first what the other lot already has ."
"I can't fault most of your memorization," said Tarlaunim. "Only, it's ' come in peace and live beneath the sun again.' Something of a crucial difference there."
"Oh. Is it."
"Come in peace? Fine. That I can do. I'd like to see you try to stay in peace with those unreasonable faerie elves."
"You speak as though they attack without provocation."
"Define 'provocation,' if you please. I've no problem with them when they're not trying to feed me arrows. They're the ones who throw a fit when others try to succeed where they failed. If that isn't unreasonable…"
"There are elves who stayed here," said Tarlaunim, "and they haven't any less of a right to object."
"I don't suppose you've ever dealt with one of their objections?"
"They've had no reason to." Hasty convocations with the Dark Ladies of the Velarswood and their varied associates on the band's arrival in Cormanthor had ensured that as much as it could be ensured. He wondered if elves had caused the injuries.
"Oh yes, that arrangement." His tone summoned tale-built pictures of backroom dealings and whispers in alleys.
Better not get into that, Tarlaunim decided, if the subject wasn't pressed. He had to remember that the point was not to win the argument, but to convince, and if he stepped in that direction about all he could do was bog down. He sought another topic. Some idea of background would help him find the appropriate tack. "Did you happen to be raised on the surface?"
"Ha, if only. Whatever gave you that idea?"
"It was only a question," said Tarlaunim. "It happened with Talffyn and me, and there were others."
"Lucky you." On some level, he seemed to mean that.
"Not the surface. Odds are a Lolth-ruled city, then. Is that a fair guess?"
Silence. Zayrtel reached for something, then seemed to realize it wasn't there and let his hands drop. "Does it matter?"
"Yes." Right then he would much rather have served Eilistraee primarily by music, as Talffyn did - that he could have laid out ahead of time. But she thought him worthy of more of that. "So were you?"
"Fine. Yes. Next question?"
"And you left."
"Why was that?"
"You definitely were surface-born. Otherwise you'd already know why ."
"I can guess," said Tarlaunim. "But I'd rather not work with too many assumptions."
He took another drink. "Exactly. Such as assuming that your goddess's 'message' is something new."
"Speaking of which, I was wondering how you knew that. You overheard my practice?"
"Never mind. Then you've… met others?" Tarlaunim felt himself tense as he spoke. There were only so many ways such an encounter could turn out.
"From a distance," Zayrtel said quickly. "I'm hardly the only follower of the Masked Lord in this forest. As I said, I did my research, and I'll not speak for how they knew."
Tarlaunim could guess. "You have companions?"
Zayrtel peered into the cup as if scrying, likely figuring whether it would be more or less advantageous to claim any. "I… never said that."
The camp was already prepared for raids in any case. It was always prepared. "Never mind. You were going to tell me why you left?"
"Are you hungry?"
"Ah, so that's how it's going to be."
"What…? No. It's not how it's going to be." Tarlaunim gave the tray a push in his direction. "There's nothing conditional about it."
He regarded the contents of the tray with a look of mingled relief and disappointment before tearing a piece off a small loaf of bread and tossing it at him. This time Tarlaunim caught it and acted as poison-tester without another awkward interlude. That arrived immediately after.
"We weren't all born on the surface, of course," Tarlaunim said at last. "Did I tell you about Talffyn? My twin sister."
Zayrtel had finished the bread with considerably greater speed than the water, and was currently swatting unseen crumbs.
"There was one time when she wanted to know absolutely everything about the Underdark. Mother and Pellanarra told her what they could, but when it came down to it they didn't have so many details. Tal wanted details." He remembered their mother fretting about this interest. She found it disturbing, verging on macabre. Talffyn had told her she wanted to know what they were spared. This failed to comfort their mother. "So she decided to find a firsthand source. Some of the ones I knew in the north… they didn't like to talk about it, especially the priestesses, but she can get the dead to speak."
"The priestesses?" Zayrtel's head snapped up. "How could they know anything? They couldn't know shit about that!"
"Talffyn asked them anyway, badgered them until they gave in. She took notes, and she read them to me." Tarlaunim hadn't wanted to know, hadn't felt it was a thing one should want to know. He'd listened anyway. "From that I can come up with a hundred reasons why you would want to leave-"
Zayrtel's fingers twitched in their ties. "You can use those if you want."
"Is it that awful? That hard?"
"I'd ask you again, does it matter? But I know the answer to that. It doesn't." He pulled himself in, hands resting atop his knees and knees drawn up to his chest. "You can get your sister to give it a try if you think it matters that much. She can ask my dead-"
"All right," said Tarlaunim, "all right. We needn't go into that if you don't want to."
"Since when did what I want come into this at all?"
"We're not like the followers of the Spider Queen. We oppose her destructive ways."
"So do I!"
"Eilistraee promotes compassion-"
"So you say while my kit and my holy symbol are gone and I'm tied to the bed." One of the ropes jerked taut for a moment; he hissed and grabbed at the corresponding leg.
"Is it all right?"
"Fine. It's fine."
"Compassion," said Tarlaunim. "Not stupidity. The history between our gods is… not good. But we're not like that. Would a Lolth-worshipper have helped you as we did?"
"Assuming there's not thumbscrews and a rack stashed outside? Probably not. That's the way of it with them, with you, isn't it? That's the difference. You can't afford to waste anything." He laughed, still rubbing his leg best as he could. "I apologize. I apologize. I oughtn't take this out on you. There's no point in being angry."
That phrase again. "Why not?"
"No point in being angry with the messenger. You've obviously been sent by them to extol the benefits of being a good little slave."
Outside Tarlaunim could hear the faint strains of a singing voice. If it hadn't been morning he would have guessed it to be evensong. They were supposed to be private, but sound carried. In the Velarswood they did it together, sharing their pent-up emotion.
He did not want, right then, to think about the Velarswood.
Repay rudeness with kindness.
He thought he recognized the voice as Pellanarra's. It was
strident and proud as the singer usually was. Dance, of course, was
I'm… not certain the faith is ready for a male Sword Dancer.
Pellanarra's song was usually paced out and sedate. Meanwhile
Talffyn's wild airs tended to switch quickly, bridging between
melodies as they occurred to her but inevitably returning to her main
It'd damn well better be ready for one by the time Tar's ready. This isn't the Underdark. Song and sword, it'd damn well better be.
Tarlaunim's legs were halfway unfolded, poised to fly forward. He noted his hands stiff and straight as blades, one of them partly raised, and gradually relaxed them even as he sank back to crossed legs.
Zayrtel had leaned back and lifted his bound hands before his face, eyes shut. He was shaking. It didn't take long to realize why.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that." There was other sound from outside, but all he really heard was Pellanarra's song and the other's shuddering breaths. "I'm not going to hurt you. Not for words. We aren't like that."
Even without his holy symbol Zayrtel donned masks, and another one went up as his arms gradually lowered and his back straightened. This time Tarlaunim saw it clearly for what it was. "You're… sorry? You're sorry? You didn't even raise a hand all the way and you're sorry?"
"Could you please explain?"
The shaking had shifted in its entirety to Zayrtel's hands, which he tried to hide behind the bend of his legs. The blanket had slipped off and lay piled around him. "Explain… explain what?"
"What makes you think I am a slave?"
"It's nothing. I… I…"
"Go on. What kind of priest would I be if I could not tolerate challenges to my faith?" At least they could give him some kind of an opening to reason his points, unlike false acquiescence. Tarlaunim knew that intellectually. He should know it deeper than that, and until quite recently he thought he had.
Zayrtel gaped. What Tarlaunim could see of his hands went still.
"Is there something behind me?"
"A priest, you said."
"Well, yes?" He fumbled briefly for his sword pendant and lifted it to dangle between them. "I said that before, didn't I?"
"No. You said 'of Eilistraee.'" Zayrtel focused on the pendant as if it were an enchanter's device. "That could mean priest. I used it in that sense, certainly. But it could mean simply 'this is the god I pray to.' In context…"
He grabbed at the blanket and began to pull it over himself once more. "I thought they didn't allow males. I've certainly never seen any, or heard a breath of them until this."
"I'm not surprised. There aren't very many of us yet, I don't think." Females of any race are welcome, he'd always heard. They'd never said no males.
"Nightshadows. How long has this been going on?"
"I was called three years ago. I can't say for any others."
"Huh." The wonderment was already fading - Tarlaunim couldn't expect his mission to be the work of an hour. He was disappointed regardless. "Nothing goes to waste, does it. She hasn't got a lackey god to fob you off on, after all."
"Please," said Tarlaunim. "For the sake of this conversation, would you mind giving her the benefit of the doubt? Or at least considering the possibility of a purer motive than that. It would be untoward not to extend her the same courtesy she extends our race."
"Well…" He sifted for words, arranged and rearranged. This line of conversation had carried him straight to a cliff edge; it was all he could do not to visibly squirm. Get the other to listen, he decided finally, and theology could be dealt with afterward. "Say if you might have made a mistake." Zayrtel was certainly listening now. "Acceptance - of the possibility. Acceptance meaning you can go on without it a stain on you. You may not be perfect, it says, but you have worth all the same. Like forgiveness. I suppose you could call it advance forgiveness."
"Mistakes." At first he thought he heard satisfaction at the admission that Eilistraee might have erred. No - that was what he'd expected to hear in the word. When Tarlaunim actually considered the tone, satisfaction had no actual part whatsoever. In its place… "And what mistakes would those be that 'our race' made?"
In his mind Tarlaunim hopped on the cliff's edge with one leg extended over nothing.
"What mistakes did I make?" He frowned. His eyes shifted focus, his voice lowered. "Do you want to know?"
Tarlaunim nodded. One instinct directed him to lean closer. Another, the one he obeyed, warned him against it. Even if he had no divine magic Zayrtel could do a great deal of damage given the opportunity.
Zayrtel let out a laugh. "It wouldn't be simple as running for the trees and melting into the nearest shadow, would it? They'd be all around and prepared for something like that. I'm not inclined to play the target again so soon." He shrugged. "Believe it or not but I can say this. It's nothing that could do anything now, after all, nothing worth hiding anymore." His voice was distant, as though making his case to his god or himself at the same time he made it to Tarlaunim. Tarlaunim had the feeling of seeing through him, and being seen through in return. "Just about every one of us had a story like this. No need to swap them, or tell each other of our own god. But you're surface-born. You wouldn't know that, and you've a right to hear more than their stories."
Talffyn's accounts weren't all from the priestesses, and there were quite a few contributed by males who'd come to Eilistraee, but Tarlaunim couldn't see any gain in bringing that up now.
"But you probably wouldn't know why that's so important either. So here's another reason for you. If you want any chance of convincing me that your goddess has some improvement, first - listen." He seemed about to leave it at that, then blurted, "Not that you will convince me, mind you."
Tarlaunim had to smile at that before he hastily bit his lip. To his relief, Zayrtel reacted not with pique, but with another fit of laughter. This relief was tempered by the abrupt stop as Zayrtel grabbed at his side.
Tarlaunim started forward. "What was I thinking? You shouldn't be up so soon!"
Frantic motions, as if trying to push him away with the air. "I can lie myself down." He proceeded to do just that - though it was more of a crash than a lie.
During his following exertions, Tarlaunim made several more attempts to assist only to be rebuffed with equal vehemence. He finally seemed to find a position with minimal aggravation of his injuries. Tarlaunim, after some shifting about of his own, discovered a half-sit that didn't have him loom over Zayrtel or else sprawl out beside him like a paramour. "You were saying?"
"I was saying…" He stared at the top of the tent. "You know parzdiamo ?"
"I think so?" The explanation had been awkward, as were those for a great many drow words. "An… unofficial lover." "Lover" and "love" were also tricky, and for general use he substituted the surface elven. "Yes?"
"Yes. That was me. Everyone's parzdiamo. Good for a vith and for play both, but then down there one tends to be part of the other."
Play - jivvin - another of those words, implying a certain degree of cruelty. Vith, meanwhile, was straightforward but crude. Tarlaunim turned them about in his head, imagined how they fit together down there, and wished he hadn't.
"I presume you at least have enough of an idea of how the spider-kissers go about things to not have to be told all the details. Which is fine on me. So let me just say that one of the frequent visitors was fond of sharpened wire. She used to string it about after she was done with her vith , say not to move, and take Reverie elsewhere." He lifted his hands and traced lines over his face, his shoulders, everything he could reach. "When she came back it was easy for her to tell if I'd forgotten myself. That happened quite a bit until I learned." Learned to stop moving even in trance and sleep? "Then she tired of me. Lucky I was never actually hers - she probably thought me too much trouble and expense to acquire just to cut my heart out."
Tarlaunim could almost feel metal against his own skin. He was as reluctant to move into it as if it had actually been conjured into being. "How long did that…?" Why did he ask when he didn't want to know?
"I don't remember exactly. Three years, maybe. Four." A lulled quality had entered his voice. "There was healing, of course, had to keep us in some kind of shape, but it wasn't the best and sometimes they liked to leave the blood running for a while. For too long. Extra charge for that, but they could spare the coin. I prayed it wouldn't scar. That probably sounds petty to you."
"Not really," said Tarlaunim. "That was in the stories too. Had to do with warriors, mainly, but I expect they could be a danger for someone in… your position, especially if it was somewhere like your face."
Names were detached from his sister's collection. That was one of the conditions imposed before they would entrust her with them. For a tenday he'd tried guessing - who'd immolated her brother over an accident? Who'd ruined a rival student wizard by slicing out his tongue? Or who'd possibly had his tongue cut out, and regenerated by the grace of Eilistraee? Talffyn, for once, held her own tongue on this, and when the tenday had passed he'd thanked her for it.
Zayrtel turned his head toward Tarlaunim and nodded, then returned to his conversation with the tent. "So I prayed to keep a pretty face. It wasn't to the Spider Bitch, I remember that much. I suppose I knew even then I'd have no help from her. I called to anyone who might answer."
"I'll aim at the dark and say Vhaeraun did."
"Exactly." Tarlaunim could see part of his sudden smile. "I'd hated the thought of staying there and being sucked hollow. For a while I thought what I wanted in its stead was some priestess to take me for her own, only when I thought about it I realized much the same thing would happen at the end. It's the same for most males, and nobody likes to think of it. Even the followers of the Spider Bitch's lackey would rather go down fighting than end sliced apart on an altar, and I didn't see myself on any battlefields.
"I tried to rationalize that it's the time in between that matters, pretend I'd be special and survive, convince myself not to be bothered… but the thought of how it would have to finish was always there. The Masked Lord showed me what lay beyond."
If only Eilistraee had been the one to show him. It seemed finding something improved had closed his mind to the possibility of something even better.
"It's not as though I think males are somehow better. Plenty of them came. They wanted proof that even though females treated them like boot-muck there was still someone below them. They can rot. But the ones treated like boot-muck are mostly the ones looking."
If he didn't feel fine himself, Tarlaunim would have suspected something in the water. Fatigue could loosen the tongue - or, if Zayrtel thought escape was impossible as he'd claimed, it would be logical to try to change the particulars of the situation, and gaining sympathy from Tarlaunim - or even convincing him of the validity of his god's cause - would be a considerable help in that.
And it worked to some extent. Most drow of the Underdark, males especially, would have suffered in some way, but the telling of the particulars was no less effective. Perhaps with time Tarlaunim would not be so deeply disturbed, but at present he felt nearly the same queasiness as Zayrtel showed at the thought of wire and touch.
"It is Vhaeraun's command that we aid and avenge," Zayrtel continued. "It is his desire to do away with the Spider Bitch's mad rule. He helped me, his priests helped me, and now I pay him back. How is that a mistake? You tell me that."
Tarlaunim waited a breath, tracing back along the line of conversation to the prior mentions of mistakes before he replied. "Our faith - my faith - has no objection to what you describe. What you don't describe is the problem. The idea of running roughshod over the surface lands, and ill-treating females in revenge for what you -"
"No. That's not how it is at all. Females are no better than males, true - that does not mean they are inferior. Is it our fault they tend to be loath to give up divine favoritism?" No mention or defense, Tarlaunim noted, of the Masked Lord's designs on the surface. "I escaped that. You ask me to walk back into it."
"I'm sorry you think we're like that."
"There you go again. 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' Whatever did you do?"
"You've said it as well."
"But I'd done something that would mean saying it. You?"
"It's an expression." From what was visible of Zayrtel's face, he disbelieved this. It could be he took it as some proof of his view, that Tarlaunim continued to apologize for things that weren't his doing. "We, too, advocate equality."
"Hence why for years I would've had more luck finding an orc mage than one of your ilk?"
"I'm here now, aren't I?"
"Fair enough for now. Ought I disregard before?"
"I'm still a novice yet. I wouldn't presume to know the will of the Dark Maiden. What I do know is that while there may be a… skew in her clergy, there's no mistreatment based on that as there is in the Underdark. It's not a foremost goal, I admit. But just because there are not so many of us as priests yet doesn't mean we're considered inferior, any more than your god considers females inferior."
"And your foremost goal? What's considered more important?"
"Peace on the surface. A return to what our race was before we were separated from the other elves."
"Working off whatever debt the drow of thousands of years ago might have incurred, to prove your worth to those who would rather see you dead and have done with it. Why bother trying to imitate them?"
"It's an effective model for a society free of the practices of the Underdark - and it makes more sense than looking to, say, halflings or humans… Silverymoon is pleasant enough, but I understand it's an oddity." Even in that oddity the followers of the Dark Maiden were an oddity, hidden beneath cloaks and veils and gloves and illusions, and Tarlaunim himself was another oddity inside of that.
"We did well enough looking to ourselves and cutting away what didn't fit. And somehow I doubt your lot is rid of all of that, either." It didn't take a divination to infer his meaning.
Three years ago Dilynrae's eyes were so wide that Tarlaunim had checked for snakes, then put a hand to his face to try to wipe off whatever oddment might have found its way there. I knew someone like you. She'd fingered his pendant. He didn't last a year out of training. They were all - I was -
It's not the same thing. Pellanarra steered her away by the shoulder while giving Tarlaunim an apologetic look. It's not and thank the Dark Maiden for that.
"So you're not enslaved," Zayrtel continued, "only marginalized. I see. I believe you when you say they don't abuse you as the spider-kissers would, but that doesn't mean there's not a better way."
Tarlaunim could have said much the same. "I see why you'd have misgivings. But we have progressed in other aspects - and once you learn about them, you may find they compensate for this one apparent impediment. Besides," and he displayed his holy symbol once more, "whatever restrictions were in place once, here I am now. There must be a beginning somewhere, and perhaps you will be part of it if you wish."
"Quite a sizable 'if.'"
"Of course. It's my task to reduce it."
Outside, Pellanarra's song wound down. Laughter mingled with what was probably Talffyn's voice as she wandered the camp, encouraging morale.
"I don't believe my words alone can do our way justice," said Tarlaunim. "Tomorrow night maybe you'll be well enough so I can show you about." He could see Zayrtel wince. "Is something wrong?"
"Nothing?" It would seem at least a way to garner more information - but that was the problem, wasn't it? Once he'd seen the layout of the camp there was even less chance of release out of what little he'd had to start with. "There'll be measures. You needn't fear about that."
"I'm not afraid." It was the greatest, most apparent lie he'd told so far.
"In the meantime," Tarlaunim sidestepped, "what else can I do for you?"
Zayrtel brought his hands to his forehead, shutting his eyes. "Besides the obvious? Could you just go away?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Damn. Could you stop talking, then? I doubt I'll be able to listen properly for much longer anyway."
Tarlaunim nodded. "Yes, more rest couldn't hurt. Tell me if you need anything?"
The only action that could be remotely construed as a response was Zayrtel's eyes shutting tighter.
Tarlaunim counted ten breaths before he stood, picking up the tray en route. The tray went to another corner of the tent, where it was unlikely to be tripped over or rolled over on. He counted fifteen more. "I'm sorry?"
An incoherent groan.
"Do you mind if I take evensong in here?" It wasn't evening and he wasn't alone but he couldn't see the point right now in calling for someone to switch, and already the gathered feeling was beginning to churn about in the area of his throat.
"Take it until… forest creatures complain… for all I care."
"Thank you. And another thing."
"What?" There wasn't quite as much exasperation as he was worried he'd hear.
He knelt again, reminding himself not to reach out. Another three breaths passed before Tarlaunim felt confidence in his articulation. "I know we disagree, and I couldn't have expected anything else. I just want to say that - well, I don't truly understand. How could I? I don't think I even want to, because that would mean knowing all those things… But you've plenty of reason and plenty of right to be skeptical. I think I understand that at least." One breath, stretched. "I just hope we give you enough reason to change your mind."
Admittedly, he also hoped he hadn't given this speech to someone who'd dropped off at some point or otherwise become incapable of understanding.
… or to someone who'd been lying through his teeth all the while and was now shrieking with inward hysterics at how very gullible the followers of Eilistraee could be.
Zayrtel's murmur halted the rapid dive of his thoughts.
"You're not like the hands-over-ears spider-kissers, are you? At least you don't speak like you are. Even if the tools come out tomorrow…" Tarlaunim grimaced when he realized what tools those would be. "It's been an interesting talk…"
Tarlaunim marked off twenty this time; during this Zayrtel was uncannily still as he'd been not an hour ago. He hummed for another few breaths, running through the basic scales before settling on a starting melody. Then he opened his mouth and translated into the following song both the questions passed along to him and those drawn from himself.
The Dark Maiden was not the Spider Queen. He knew he would have some answer.
CANONICAL NOTES: (Updated November 5, 2006) In second edition Eilistraee was unique among her family in that she allowed no male clergy whatsoever. For a long time, there was no new word on gender restrictions, although the Sword Dancer class was female-only. There was brief mention of a male cleric, but this tended to be explained as a typo or the like. For the purpose of the story back in July and August, I went with the theory that there was an actual change - set up a bit of symmetry with Lolth that way. Then Ed Greenwood announced he'd be giving his opinion on the topic shortly, and I got ready to slap an "especially non-canonical" note on this one.
Well, it's out, readable on Candlekeep, and male priests of Eilistraee are definitely in the picture. Cue dancing around the computer room in jubilation. What a birthday present!
Overall, I think "The Dark Maiden's Message" meshed a lot better than I hoped, and far as I can see there aren't any gaping plot holes that need immediate patching. There will likely be some eventual revision to take note of the new associated Realmslore, i.e. the Changedance (Oh, that should be fun). I wouldn't hold my breath for it, though.
Also according to Ed Greenwood, there are apparently some sixty drow in hiding in Silverymoon, and more in the general area.
This story was largely inspired by the War of the Spider Queen series and the Starlight and Shadows trilogy (particularly Windwalker, which was also where I got the word parzdiamo - though the way it's used is pretty much my own), and forum debates on Eilistraee's clergy - and a small bit from the Night Masks blurb in Lords of Darkness . Please don't blame the writers - they couldn't have known how I'd abuse their work.
For Zayrtel Telenna (and most of the cast of "The Masked Lord's Embrace") I also have to credit the excellent authors of priests of Vhaeraun that I've come across. Same plea as above applies to them.
Finally, a thank you to reviewers past and (hopefully) future.