King of Shadows, Queen of Light
English is not my birth language, so any constructive feedback is appreciated.
There is, and will be, in the impending chapters, some language—nothing really bad, but be warned if you are sensitive to such things.
I write to music—there are songs that I had on continuous loop while writing this story. For this, I used Kecharitomene from Loreena McKennitt's An Ancient Muse.
Chapter One-Stay Close To Me
"What is it, Uncle?" I was sleepy, bruised, barely out of bed (my first sleep in weeks in a real bed), barely washed, barely dressed, and barely civil. On top of everything else, what people usually politely call 'my time of the month' was also on me, and that did not improve my mood either. But, as opposed to a normal woman (or Qara, who usually just tried to torch everything in sight when it was her turn and everyone just took it in stride), I was supposed to be calm, collected, courteous, aloof and impeccably groomed. After all, I was a paladin of Tyr.
I tried to get that mug of steaming coffee out of my uncle's hand, but he put it down behind him on the table and attempted to glower at me with his hands on his hips. It was hard for him to do that, as he was about two inches shorter than me. I am tall.
But he took that mug away after he waved it under my nose, so obviously he wanted something. Even my before coffee morning brain understood that.
"Fine." I went around him, sat down at the table and grabbed the mug. M-mhm. Coffee. "What can I do for you, esteemed relative of mine?"
"Smartass." he snorted. "Just because I put up with…"
"Duncan!" I started to lose my patience, so I raised my voice. "Please, I just got back late last night from a rather extended crawl in an orc-and-troll infested cavern complex, completing yet another heroic mission on the Watch's behalf. I am bruised despite all my healing efforts, I pulled my shoulder, I had to put up with Neeshka and Khelgar's worse-than-usual bickering ALL the way from Old Owl Well to the city gates…and you really, really don't want to know about what else I am having problems with today." I tried to look threatening, but I knew I was losing this battle before we even started. I was not wearing full plate, not even my chain shirt to back up the scowl, and despite my height, instead of brawn all I have to show is sinew and some curves.
"I need to talk to you." My uncle was not swayed by my little speech, having decided that there needed to be A Talk this morning, then. I even suspected the subject.
He remained standing and watched me take my first sip. He does make good coffee, and when I sighed deeply and closed my eyes for a second, I knew he smiled despite himself.
"About all these…people with you."
There we were. I leaned back on my chair and attempted to smile sincerely.
"Certainly, Uncle, but do sit down, please." He reluctantly obeyed; he was not looking forward to this either. Yet I could see in the defiant set of his jaw that he meant it, this time. Oh my. "Now, what seems to be the problem this time?" I was glad I grabbed my coin purse when I left my room. This was shaping up to be one of those conversations when I probably had to use it. "I know I have to pay for the two extra persons that I brought back with me…room and board, but I thought maybe we could work something out, what with one of them being a bard… Perhaps he can chip in with some entertainment?"
Duncan shook his head.
"That's not just it, lass." He had this pinched look on his face that I already learned to associate with a severe hangover. Uh-oh. Sand had not delivered one of his miracle cures, apparently, and this probably did not improve on my uncle's morning. "Your bard will be fine as long as he plays in evenings you are in town. He's a gnome so he won't eat too much. And the other gentleman was already down here, paid a week ahead, took breakfast and went to look after his horse." Duncan sniffed. "A fine horse, that one is."
"Elbriel? Yes, sure. "I said absent-mindedly. I had a food stain on one of my cuffs which meant I had to do laundry today, as this was my last shirt. Argh. "Wait- you mean he paid you already?"
"He sure did; room and board, full price too. A real gentleman, he is." Duncan nodded approvingly. "Quiet-like…but I suppose that's his way, what with being a paladin and all…" He noticed the light in my eyes, because he hastened to add: "Present comp'ny excepted, of course."
"Thanks, Uncle. "I murmured. He really did not have to rub that one in. With only Aevan, the one-eyed wandering paladin who passed through West Harbor twice a year to show as my teacher, I was painfully aware of how much of a hedge-job I was.
"I'll be sure to take lessons from him, then. However, if this is neither about Master Grobnar, nor Sir Casavir, what can I do for you?"
"It's those urchins, lass." He shook his head. "Why on earth you told them they can live in my stables?"
I swallowed. I had almost utterly forgotten about that promise I made to Wolf, the sad-eyed child leader of his tiny gang of homeless urchins. It happened right before we headed out of town, and was not exactly on my mind while crawling in orc-infested canyons or hacking at troll-limbs. I was left staring at Uncle Duncan for a second like an idiot.
"Look, Uncle… it's not that there are many of them," I started.
"Six." he nodded. "Six of them, and let me tell you, they are…"
"Well, what? " I defiantly started back at him. "Did they torch your place?"
"Well, no, but…"
"Are they keeping your stables in order?"
"Yes they do but…"
"Are they running as messengers, doing shopping for the kitchen, let you know if they spot a cutpurse walking in to your inn, sweep your doorstep, that kind of thing?"
"Well, yes, they do, but…"
"Then they kept their end of the bargain. What seems to be the problem?" I leaned forward so that he can see just how serious I was about this. "Duncan, those kids were being abused and beaten every day by the gangs. I've seen their injuries. There is an eight-year old girl amongst them, Vana, I am sure you recall her. She was burned on her arms, thighs and worse places when she would not hand over the purse she picked after almost three days without food, by one of Moire's thugs. I'll spare you more details as I know you've seen a lot here, and I am aware they might not be the sweetest smelling kids of the noble-born, but this is the Docks. I know they are not lily white innocents, either, but they had to stay alive somehow. Wolf promised me that they won't steal a thing if we let them stay here. That probably means they just eat twice as much as normal kids would and squirrel away loaves of bread and some apples because they still think tomorrow they will be back on the streets." I shrugged. "I am an officer in the Watch, Uncle. I clear up the streets of this city in the best ways possible. And you know, I don't think in this case there was another solution that would have let me walk the path I do." I raised my hand.. "I thought they earned their keep here as per my agreement with Wolf, but since you are my kin and you seem not to think so, I am willing to talk money."
"You shame me, dammit," Duncan murmured. "How do you do that? You are barely out of diapers, you're barely in this city for a month, and you already know more about it than I ever bothered to learn…and you have a way with your words no kin of mine ever had."
"Maybe that is because I am just foster-kin, Uncle." I sighed and pulled my purse from my belt. "And since no one ever tells me anything about my real parents, I have no way of knowing." That was an understatement. My foster-father, Daeghun made it a lifelong pursuit not to say anything about my mother or father, so much so that in West Harbor it was considered an art form…especially after he almost managed to beat up Aevan, my teacher, when he asked him about it. He had good reasons to want to know; I had some rather unusual talents manifesting with the onset of puberty, which is when he started teaching me. There was a rather tense exchange of words, I am told, and it actually came to blows, but no one knew about the outcome. The one-eyed paladin just showed up the next day a bit of a limp, while my foster-father carried himself stiffly for about a week, like his ribs were cracked.
"So, what would you call a fair contribution, in addition to what those kids are already saving you?" I asked, trying to ignore the warm feeling in my stomach.
He had just complimented me more than my foster-father ever, ever had, in all my years living under his roof. After that, it was only a brief haggle over the price. Duncan could be persuaded to understand compassion and charity to a certain degree, but first and foremost, he was an innkeeper. He had a bottom line he needed to constantly keep an eye on.
With a lighter purse but much lighter heart, I headed over to the stables after finally getting my breakfast. I wanted to see if any of the kids were around to let them know that their status as Irregulars at the Inn was heretofore official. Unfortunately, it seemed they all left for some errands. There was only the smell of hay and straw, horse and leather, and the occasional thud of a hoof or a snort. I peeked at my mare, Lorra, who was placidly passing time, her mane already combed, her flanks shiny, almost all of the traces of our long travels gone. Apparently, Wolf and his minions were hard at work very early this morning, as it was still just after dawn. I always got up early because the morning devotions of Tyr's servants were rather elaborate, and I had yet to complete the last step, the arms practice. I headed towards the back door, twisting the knots of my weapon-belt into place, and as soon as I stepped out to the tight little courtyard I understood where all the urchins went.
My new companion was hard at work already. In the total silence that ruled, I could clearly hear the swoosh-swoosh sound his perfectly aligned blade made as he went through the six guards and the eight postures, flowing almost effortlessly from one into the other.
I dropped my equipment bag from my shoulder and started to pull out pieces of my armor. Two of the kids finally noticed me, closed their mouths and trotted over.
"Hello there, Wolf." I said. "Having fun this early in the morning? Thanks for taking care of Lorra, great job."
"No problem, lady," He grinned. "This new man you brought to town, he's really good. Is he a paladin, too?"
I nodded, with decidedly less enthusiasm than him. I had to admit, as I fussed with the buckles and plates and making sure my hair stayed out of the way (Wolf and the other kid tried to assist, with more or less success, as they still kept one eye on him), that his form was perfect. But then again, as I've seen him doing this for real quite a number of times last week, I already knew that. The precision and economy of his movements, the alignment of the blade, the way he used his ribcage and hips to drive the moves…No wonder those orcs thought he was an avenging spirit-possessed warrior. The way he lost himself in the lethal dance of killing, becoming an extension of his weapon, the will of Tyr that drove the blade to restore balance…
I shook my head. There I was, dwelling on the deeper mysteries of the god when I was barely competent to wield a sword in His name…Another visit to the church in the Merchant District was due for me, it seemed, long hours of contemplation in front of His altar asking for forgiveness and His grace so I can be worthy of the enormous burdens He deemed me worthy to bear. Brother Hlam will surely be able to guide me.
The last piece of plate in place, I made the sign of the sword on my forehead, murmured a quick invocation to clear my mind, and started to run through the stances to be ready.
There was just enough space on the courtyard for the two of us, with Wolf and his minions by the stable door, crouching in the sand. The first rays of the sun started to peek over the roof, tentatively warming the air.
I sped up, as the familiar feel of the god's time invaded my mind. It made everything seem slower, as if the world was stuck in mud and my blade drew me upwards, out of it. If I followed its rhythmic, soothing silver sound, it kept me afloat and safe, guiding me on the path I had to walk. I knew that my movements came faster and faster to anyone watching, like the killing dance, the footsteps of which I was drawing on the sand and in the air almost out of control…and yet it never did. Under the surface of the silver-and-crimson blur of my aura, I was calm, collected and focused, my soul singing the morning hymn of Tyr without words, the plainchant of the light of righteousness in the darkness of injustice, while my lips hummed the same chords.
With the last note, held high it the air, the tip of my weapon in the last position above my head and ready for the killing stroke, it came to an end. I was back in the courtyard, in the sand; the sun was above the rooftop now, shining with the morning brilliance of a thousand mornings just like this. My breath was coming hard, but evenly, and I barely broke a sweat, which made me absurdly happy. I was slowly making progress.
"Whoever taught you that, my lady?" I jerked fully out of the trance now. No one, ever, ever in my life had called me 'my lady' before I met him.
He stood before me, with his sword carefully wrapped and held by his side, as per regulations when not in use. He regarded me with his head slightly tilted to the side, just like when we met the first time. And just like then, it felt as if the edge of a huge, tempest-filled blue-and-silver cloud brushed against me, against my aura. His colors in that realm were silver and blue, like mine were silver and crimson. The joint pressure of the two auras caused considerable discomfort to my tiefling traveling companion, however much she insisted that she had no problems with mine.
"What do you mean? " I let my weapon down to my side, walked to the side where a hay bale served as my usual resting place after these morning exercises, and sat. "I am going through the morning devotions, as I was taught by my teacher…you have seen me doing it during our travels together enough times."
He shook his head, almost impatient.
"Pardon me for saying so, but you are not, my lady." He inclined his had. "May I…?"
I stifled a sigh. Formalities, again. He was shrouded in them, this paladin; and wore them like a cloak around his broad shoulders.
"Sure." I indicated the remaining side of the hay bale. He sat, placing his weapon next to him with great care.
"I watched you." he began slowly. "It was different, this time."
"I did not feel any different." I said; I knew I sounded defensive. "Am I…doing something wrong?"
"Not wrong, no." His voice was deep, thoughtful, and contemplative, and very soothing. "I am aware that there are different schools of interpretation regarding how these exercises can be performed." Well, I wasn't, so that was already new for me. But then again, he was probably dedicated to the god since childhood and raised in a chapterhouse, from what I could deduce from his ways. It only stood to reason he knew everything there ever was to know about matters of devotion. "There were…lectures included on them in our chapterhouse." Yep, I was right. "The way you usually practice conforms pretty closely to Standard Neverwinter practice, also known as the Even Path…if I remember right you told me your teacher came from the city?"
I nodded. Sir Aevan was an errant knight of Tyr, wandering to our village one bright spring morning, watching Bevil and I beating up each other with tree branches on Retta's field. Then, coming up behind us so quietly that we did not realize he was there, he grabbed my shoulder from behind…and had to stifle a surprised and painful cry as the first defensive flare of my powers burned through his thick glove, faster than I, spinning around, could drive the tree branch into his stomach. I was twelve.
"He did… So, you say that I did something different today?" I leaned back and closed my eyes. My bruises were still making me stiffer than usual, and the warm sunlight and the smell of hay was very soothing, almost cozy. The waking sounds of the inn slowly filled the quiet around us, and I noticed that Wolf's kids started to evaporate after watching us. The fun was over, and they had to earn their keep. I was impressed by this apparent display of responsible behavior, and smiled to myself, settling into the hay a bit more comfortably.
"My lady… Am I boring you?" I heard it next to me. Oh, no. I did it for real this time.
"I am sorry, Sir Knight." I opened my eyes and tried to keep my voice sincere. "I had no intention of giving offense…I am simply enjoying the sun and the peace that was not available to me for a while, and in giving myself to this, I for a moment ignored your presence. If you could forgive me…"
"There was no offense." He looked at me again, with that intense azure gaze of his, that never showed anything else but carefully measured calm, or the silver battle cloud of Tyr's holy warrior. "I am simply unwilling to disturb you if…additional contemplation is called for. What you did today…" He stopped, as if thoughtfully measuring his following words. "We had some…old texts in the library. Not at the chapterhouse; in my father's house. My family collected books."
His family must have been rich, then. I did not have any of my own, until Aevan gave me an old hymnal of his that I still kept in my pack. In West Harbor, one did not have much time for reading except for the long, dark hours of winter, and for that, my foster-father measured out his few books very, very carefully. By the end of my time there, I could recite almost all of them by memory.
"That book was one about the legends of the god's warriors of old." I was not sure where he was going with this. "It discussed a path of devotions in detail, the one called The Path of the Silver Fire. It had descriptions, and illuminations…Illustrations." He looked at me intently. "You performed the Path of the Silver Fire exercises this morning, my lady, exactly to the letter, and yet you say you did not know?"