King of Shadows, Queen of Light
All right—I am back! Must have been the longest creative slumber in fic history, but I am encouraged by all of those who still read and favorite this little project of mine, and I am deeply grateful for every one of you. While I cannot guarantee the speed of my updates, I can probably commit to more than a chapter a year… ::grin::
The usual disclaimer still applies: I strongly regret that I do not own any of the main characters, especially a certain paladin. I take full responsibility for that Pendwyr girl, though...
And for those of you who like my little 'soundtrack' I provide for my chapters, here are the songs that helped this time to break the ice: Susan Enan feat. Sarah McLachlan: Bring On the Wonder (I've used the version from the Bones soundtrack as I liked the pacing better); Dead Can Dance-I Am Stretched On Your Grave (from Toward The Within) and The Chieftains with Bonnie Raitt- Stor Mo Chroi (from Tears of Stone).
Chapter Fifty-Eight: Pushed You Down In My Soul
My tension eased a bit after my long talk with Georg. As we stopped by the makeshift camp on the Harvest Fair grounds to make sure my Greycloaks had everything they needed and letting them know about the invitation to the Greengrass festivities, I noticed a tiny but undeniable smirk on Sand's face.
"What's the matter, O, wizard?" I asked, slowing my steps. "Enjoyed Georg's remarks about the swamp elf that much?"
"Pfft." Sand made one of his more elaborate hand gestures. "Don't even get me started on the manners of your village elder, please. No, I merely was reflecting on the fate of your brother in Tyr at your foster-father's hand."
I think I said something rude and soldier-like. It might have gone on longer than a simple sentence, even.
"Tsk,tsk. Language, my dear girl." Sand shook his head, still amused. He relaxed considerably after he and Tarmas took each other's measure in Georg's house, and the curmudgeonly balding wizard of my childhood offered his hospitality to his 'colleague in the Arts' for the duration of our stay. I was more than glad about that offer, as I talked to Sand about my memory about Tarmas investigating Illefarn ruins in his youth earlier. "It's an ancient elven custom, you know, nothing out of the ordinary."
"Huh?" I still wasn't at my level best, but at least I progressed to inarticulate grunts instead of swearwords.
"What your foster-father is doing." Sand said patiently, as if talking to a child. "Making Casavir… do chores. Stack and chop wood, probably some roof repair as well…" I stared. "It's the same for all the Kindred, no matter where we live. The father of the girl measuring up the young man who has… intentions for his daughter. Traditionally, they used to take them out to hunt, field dress a kill, whatnot." He sniffed. "It's always menial work, though…I remember my father telling me about how my grandfather got him into cleaning out his study from top to bottom, the first time they ever met. He hoped for a refined discussion of the classics by the fireside, sipping wine, he said…instead he got dust, dried-up mice carcasses behind shelves and towers of books that constantly fell on him. Silverfish, too… all over the older tomes. Grandfather wasn't too keen at protecting his library, apparently. My dad couldn't believe the sacrilege—he was raised to believe in the sacredness of the written word. We often joked that this was why I was sent to study as a wizard…"
I watched his face as he talked: it grew softer, sharp angles melting somewhat into younger curves, his voice almost wistful. I've never heard him talking about his family before, and I held on to the moment as if it was a small, beautiful and infinitely fragile precious stone. I knew that I won't get another opportunity soon to get a glimpse into the dockside wizard's past as he has been before the world formed him into this hard, street-wise bitter elf.
"Anyway…" Sand took a deep breath, returning to the present, "I thought you need to know before you think this is some personal torture that Daeghun reserved for you and you only. He's following an ancient custom to the letter… and with it, my dear girl, he affirms something that has, no doubt, plagued your thoughts all too often." I turned to face him and I caught that softer look in his eyes again that, absurdly, reminded me that he literally had a few centuries on me. "You're his daughter, Arrighan, no matter what your blood says. He cares about you and wants to make sure your life, when it happens, gets tied to someone who'll value you as you are and would do anything for you…up to and including cutting firewood and mending roofs."
Elves. I shook my head to dislodge the suddenly gathered tears from my eyes. Really, who'd have thought that Sand, Sand of all people will be giving me insight into my foster-father?
"As long as Casavir doesn't fall off said roof…" I sniffed, trying to disguise my momentary weakness, and cursing inwardly because of it. By the Lord of Justice, if I get this mushy about this, how am I supposed to deal with what I am about to set out to do? "Thank you, Sand. I appreciate you helping me out here." I took a deep breath. "But what I need to do now is my burden alone." I put a hand on his shoulder. "Would you please let everyone know that I have…something private to do and I shall… join everyone at the feast Georg is throwing at the community hall tonight?"
The wizard's eyes searched my face for a second, then he nodded.
"Of course, dear girl." He patted my hand, a bit awkwardly. "Remember that I was there when we opened that cell." His eyes were serious. "If you have a need for that sleeping draught afterwards again, just let me know."
"I think I'll just avail myself to Lazlo Buckman's ale, and I'll be fine." I tried to smile: I always appreciated the hells out of when he got all concerned about me. This was yet another side of him that he didn't allow to surface too often, but I suspected it was just as integral part of his inner self as his apparently deep-seated care for his family.
Speaking about… I sighed inwardly as I turned towards Andoras, who seeing my return ran up to me expectantly and breathlessly.
"I'll be needing that ebony box from my war chest, Andoras. " I said, indicating the pile of stuff that was awaiting transport to my foster-father's house. "And do you have a tent set up so I can wash up real quick?"
I rummaged through my chest until I found what I needed and Andoras managed to rustle up some water and a quiet place for me to change into my plain blue Tyrran 'uniform' as I called the assembly I purchased so long ago from Hassim in Neverwinter. Then I took the dark box under my arm, squared my shoulders and set out across the field to where the Starlings' farmhouse stood at the edge of the village, its windows dimly lit behind the starched white curtains.
I had no doubt that they already knew I was here: we made enough ruckus arriving, and West Harbor isn't –wasn't—that big. Despite the fact that Daeghun's house stood on one end, and the Starling farm practically on the other, separated from the village itself by the fairgrounds, it's impossible to miss a bunch of soldiers, horses, carts and assorted others riding in and spending considerable time setting up camp practically in the Starlings' front yard, as it were. I found it odd, though: I'd have imagined Bevil to be at least present when I spoke to the elders—I suspected once I left, Georg made him his second-in-command in the militia for sure. But he wasn't there at the meeting hall, adjacent to the Lathander chapel… and both Georg and Brother Merrick had been rather vague about why. They said something about 'something that occurred while he was off scouting in the Mere' but offered no further details. I was used to my compatriots' close-mouthedness, but Sand and Khelgar both made faces, not understanding why I didn't receive a detailed blow-by-blow account of everything that transpired in the village since I've left. I just shrugged: despite me being a squire, captain of a castle and full paladin of Tyr, in their eyes I still had pigtails and skinned knees. Plus, those two with me weren't Harbormen, so…
I knew how their minds worked... and I could only hope that Bevil himself would be more forthcoming with me once we actually met face to face. As I stood there on the whitewashed porch, rocking back-and-forth on my heels, I felt the creaking floorboards and all the memories came rushing back at once… making it almost impossibly difficult to lift my arm and rap my knuckles on the doorframe.
Retta opened the door almost immediately, making me think she probably heard my steps on the porch. Her back was still just as straight as before, her apron starched, hair in a tight bun: every inch the consummate housewife, resident wise woman and mother of four boys.
"Arrighan." She said, her expression unreadable. "Welcome back, child." Her gaze slid over my formal clothes, posture and the box in my arm, and her carefully constructed façade crumbled just a tiny little bit. "I take it this…isn't merely a social call to one of your old teachers?"
I never really found it odd until I left West Harbor and returned, just how some of the leaders of our village were refugees from the wide world: Tarmas and Daeghun to start with, Brother Merring from the Lathander temple in Neverwinter, and Retta Starling, too, with her minor magical talent herself, married to the biggest landowner of the area and then widowed so soon after her twin boys were born, long after Lorne and Bevil. I always knew she was 'not from around here' as Georg often put it, but knowing it and seeing it now, after coming back from Neverwinter…
The city left its mark all over her: accent, manners, hairstyle, even the thin lace she made to decorate her apron and her kerchief. The memory of how she tried to teach me the art of lacemaking in vain lanced through my brain keen and painful and I took a deep breath.
"May I come in, Mrs. Starling, please?" That was how I always addressed her while living here; while Georg lost the 'Mr. Redfell' and became 'Georg' about the same time I've started paladin training, I just couldn't even imagine calling Retta Starling her first name.
"Definitely not a social call: you're as formal as you've never been before." Her thin lips pursed together even move as she stood to the side. "I had Mrs. Buckman running in here telling me all about how you rolled in with an army not a glass after you've arrived. Well, get inside, I'm baking for the feast, and some of that pastry doesn't like the draught."
I obeyed immediately, a habit borne of long years. The air was warm inside, and redolent of baking bread, sweet pastry, and some spices that brought up even more childhood memories…and Retta Starling was just as practical and no-nonsense as always. As if nothing has happened at all since I've left.
"The kids are over at the feast hall helping to decorate," she said briskly, marching into her kitchen, just to the right of the parlor. "If you don't mind, I'll need to stay in here so I finish on time…"
"Um…" My brain desperately tried to come up with the proper way of saying that maybe she'd really rather receive my news in her parlor when he whirled around and looked at me with narrowed eyes.
"Way too tongue tied." She looked me up and down. "If this is about Bevil, I told Georg already to stop treating my son as a baby. He does what he deems best and…"
"Mrs. Starling," I said, a tad more forcefully than I really intended. I think some residue of my powers must have bubbled up, because I saw her sway a little as she stood and take a little step back. But she stopped talking, which helped me to find the words that I've rehearsed about six million times on our way here already. "I apologize for being the bearer of bad news but I need to talk to you about your eldest son, Lorne, whose fate I vowed to discover before I've left West Harbor."
"Ah." The healthy color that heightened her cheekbones from the warmth of her kitchen faded rapidly as she leaned against the doorframe. Those were words every mother dreaded to hear: I knew from my days as a Watch Lieutenant. "In that case, please sit in the parlor." She bit her lip and waved a hand towards a chair. "May I offer something to drink?"
Her demeanor changed to formal as well; here we were. The pit in my stomach iced over and contracted. The memories were trembling right at the edge of my consciousness: my celestial self pushed back as hard as possible to keep them at bay and to enable me to form coherent sentences.
"Maybe later." I said, choking back acid bile, and squared my shoulders back the way you did it before taking the heaviest part of your armor on. "Mrs. Starling, I need to inform you of your son, Lorne Starling's untimely and unfortunate death." I've shifted the box under my arm, brought it forward on my palms, looking her squarely in the eyes. "I've been entrusted with his ashes to bring him home, on behalf of Neverwinter."
"Neverwinter!" Retta spat the word as if it was a curse. Her aura swirled with the yellow of fear and black of anger, clearly visible as my emotions weakened the shield I've normally kept up in front of my ability to look at people that way all the time. "They sent my boy back in a box?"
"I…" I shook my head: I've never thought this would be easy.
Come on, paladin, you can do this.
"Mrs. Starling, I am so very sorry, but this is a long tale. If you'd like to sit down and I can bring you some water, maybe I can tell you how it happened?"
Retta sniffed, and pushed weekly on my hand as I tried to slide an arm around her shoulder.
"Don't you dare to order me around in my own house…" she said weakly, but the second time she allowed me to lead her to one of the parlor chairs. She sank into it with almost all of the ugly colors leaving her aura; I pushed a bit on mine, letting it surround her. Her breathing was quick and shallow, and her hands trembled as she took the box from me.
"I'll just be a moment." I gave her aura another push of encouragement and strength (some part of me was rather terrified of the fact how easily that came these days), and hurried to the kitchen that hasn't changed at all since I've left. I found a mug hanging exactly where it was supposed to be under the cupboard on a peg, grabbed the jug from the pantry with the sweet well water, poured some and brought it back to her.
"Oh, I think I might need something stronger than that," she said, still with bitterness in her voice, but the ugly biting edge of hysterics was mostly gone. Her training that allowed her to use minor magics as our resident wise-woman served her well now. "The brandy is still in the cupboard over there…" she gestured towards the huge piece of oak furniture at the end of the parlor. "If you would…"
"Of course." I obeyed, watching her draining her water in big gulps. The brandy was still in the same old bottle that was refilled each year: home-distilled plum from the trees in their backyard. The scent of early autumn fruit filled the room as I poured into two tiny glasses carefully kept hidden in the depths of the cupboard.
"All right, Arrighan." Retta's eyes still looked pain-filled, but her hands were steadier as she took the glass from me and emptied it with one sharp movement. "It's all the waiting…" she murmured, as the turned it around in her hand. "All the years of waiting…"
"I know…I'm sorry." I reached out and squeezed her hand. "Not knowing what happened to your son for ten years is… I can't even imagine. But…" I took a sip to steel myself and the heat of the drink, distilled from nothing but pure fruit, poured over my throat and into my belly like liquid sunshine: scouring, warming and cleansing.
Just what I needed.
"But I am here now, and I have a long tale to tell." I looked into her pain-filled eyes. "If at the end, you decide I have no place in your home, I'll leave. But you have a right to know."
And so I told Retta Starling, mother of Lorne Starling how, on a cold night at the Sunken Flagon tavern I've spotted her beloved eldest son covered in the tattoos of an elite Luskan assassin, and how later I've found evidence of him attempting to incriminate me in the massacre of an entire village, committed by his own hands. I laid out the events of my trial only briefly, but when I finally arrived to the combat, my voice faltered a bit at the part of how I managed to wound her son almost-fatally, and how he was carried away on a stretcher by his Luskan companions in a haste.
"My Lorne… in Luskan's service?" Retta finally looked up from staring at her hands, still toying with her brandy-glass. "Trying to kill you? But… he knew you… you were kin!"
And there it was…the part that hurt me the most. Yes, Lorne was a fellow Harborman, and I always knew that Retta considered me as part of her extended family: kin. To harm one as such… for us backwards swamp-dwellers of our close-knit village it was almost unthinkable.
"I know, Mrs. Starling." I said gently. "As far as we were able to determine, that's why he was chosen for this assignment. What Luskan takes, Luskan breaks… and puts back together in a very, very twisted way."
"You always hear the stories…" she whispered; the glass twirled amongst her fingers. "Of course you do. But to see it done to one of your own…" She looked at me now, great green eyes swimming in tears unshed for ten years. "But you…you didn't kill him." Her words were falling from her lips like heart's blood. "It wasn't you, right?"
"My lord Tyr's justice demanded for him to be returned to his city in disgrace." I nodded. "I felled him with my sword, but the god sentenced him to live with what he'd done and face justice from those he'd favored over those who…loved him still." My mouth felt parched again, and the devastated landscape of Ember coalesced before my eyes for a moment, washing away the memories of Lorne, the dashing soldier of Neverwinter, laughing and joking before marching away to the war from which he's never returned.
"Ah, Arrighan." Retta wiped at her eyes: her façade of cool demeanor, so constant through all my years here, completely gone. "That we did, didn't we? All our love wasn't enough to protect him from whatever befallen him. The way they turned him into…" She shuddered, and one of her hands reached out to gently pat that box on the little table by her chair. "Ashes, like my heart." She took a deep, shuddering breath and looked at me again. "Now tell me all. Tell me everything. If you sent him back to those masters of him, how come you are the one bringing him home at the end?"
A paladin cannot lie to a direct question asked, and so I was compelled to tell Retta Starling everything intruth, with all the details. I was also, for good or bad, blessed by Tyr to be able to see things so much clearer than others when recalled from memory…And so, as I told Retta about Lorne's master, the black mage of horrible powers who wished to ally himself with an ancient spirit of evil, and who punished his failed servants the most horrible way imaginable: throwing them into the dungeon of the ruined castle he used as his base of operations; as I was telling the grieving mother how I find her son's disintegrating corpse thrown into a dank cell along with the still-alive ex-ambassador Torio Claven—I was still seeing them just as vividly as if it was yesterday. I felt my body twisting and wracked by waves of compassion for Retta Starling, listening to my words that she demanded I spoke with the face of a woman aged twenty years since she opened that door… and I slipped from my chair, took her hands in mine and embraced her frail body tightly, hiding her face in my shoulder so she could, finally, let go all of those unshed tears of a decade and hoping that in her sobs I might find some absolution too.
"Mother?" The voice at first was almost unrecognizable. "Mother why are you crying? And… oh."
"Bevil?" I think my disbelief was rather visibly on my face as I looked up. I felt Retta disentangling, still sniffing and I stood up, keenly aware that my blue doublet was soaked over my shoulder with her tears. "It's me…it's Arrighan."
"I can see that." Now that I could really look at him, my childhood friend looked…ill. I felt my eyes narrow as I took in his once-powerful frame: his skin was sagging off his bones as if he was wasting away from the unhealthy fires of something that licked around the edges of his eyes almost visibly. "Why are you here? Did you make Mother cry?"
What in the hells has happened to you, Bevil? I wanted to ask, but decided to frame that a little but more…diplomatically, considering the circumstances. I also recalled how evasive Georg was when I asked him about Bevil earlier and I suddenly wished I'd pressed harder.
"And a good evening to you too." I said, and turned back to Retta to see that her eyes were almost completely dry now. "I was visiting your mother to bring news about your brother."
"So you did make her cry," he nodded, pushing himself away from the bottom of the stairs and stalking into the parlor like a ragged, sickly bird of prey. "Seems like misfortune follows you indeed at every turn."
"Bevil!" Retta straightened up and her voice cracked in the air like a whip. However much her eldest's death might have broken her, she was still the same iron-willed matriarch she was when I left, apparently. "You will show respect to my guest while under my roof, son!"
"Or else what…mother?" Bevil tilted his head to the side, the motion strange on him, almost alien, along with the twitch of his lips that passed for a smile. "You'll kick me out?"
I that second, in that light, with that smile on his lips, he seemed to resemble Lorne more than ever before, and I shivered.
"Bevil." Retta sat back in her chair heavily, one hand going to her temple. Her voice sounded as if this wasn't the first time they argued like this. "This is really not the time and place to start it all over again."
"Oh, but it exactly is the right time." Bevil stood right in front of me now, and my shivers got stronger as I involuntarily felt his aura. It seethed with deep gashes of pus-yellow: wounds that were bleeding constantly in the astral world, causing never-ending pain to their bearer. No wonder Bevil behaved like he did, I thought dizzily. That much suffering would have made even grizzled warriors half-mad…and Bevil is my age, who hasn't seen combat since we've visited the lizardmen's lair on the night when I had to flee West Harbor.
The night Amie died, I remembered suddenly.
Oh, gods. Amie.
I had to close my eyes, partially in shame for forgetting it, partially from the effort it took not to rush forward and embrace Bevil the same way I just did his mother. It would have been exactly the wrong thing to do right now, because…
…because I could now clearly see the fault lines of his soul: how he, unable to accept what happened, laid the blame for that night, and chiefly for Amie's death, entirely on me; but at the same time, resented my departure and how I got a chance to do something while he was whittling his time away in the Mere, in Georg's militia never given a chance to either prove himself or to avenge Amie, except…
…except for that night when he got…
I felt like someone just kicked me square between the eyes and the world spun. Bevil clearly had something there, and it reacted rather violently to even my light probing. My celestial self insisted, pushing down gently but firmly on that particular wound, packed tightly with something that was oozing and greenish and not quite from this world…
The darkness of a cold night, him running out of the house after yet another argument with Retta about him going to…
…you're spending days at her grave, Bevil, that's not normal, even Brother Merring is worried…
…running and running and the icy wet earth of the village cemetery, the smell of snow and mud and old dried flowers… Shivering and cold, clods of soil between fingertips… the memory of a sweet face, of a wide smile and chestnut tresses in the wind…
…and the sliding of feet on the wet snow, crunch and crack as a branch breaks under an alien foot…
…something green and full of hate…
"No!" A sharp cry, like a hawk: my power broke away, retreated, pulled back at that rejection…I regained my senses and stared into the pain-filled eyes of Bevil Starling in front of me.
"No, Arrighan," he breathed heavily, shaking his head. "I know you have powers, but no…please. Don't. I…"
"I'm sorry." I whispered, feeling ashamed. I intruded, like I never meant to…those seething tendrils of pain and hatred on his astral body almost irresistibly compelled me to go and look and try to help, to understand, but I couldn't.
I wasn't invited: and a paladin should never attempt to heal if it wasn't consented. It was practically an anathema, and one of the fastest way to Fall: to assume we knew better than others what was needed, and deciding we could overrule others' wishes, even if it meant that those wishing so lived in pain and suffering.
Bevil wasn't ready to confront whatever really was at the bottom of his pain's well and now he almost doubled over from the added pain of my poking… Retta was also hurt from my news, from my story, from, I knew suddenly, the real danger of losing not one son, but two, and one right in front of her eyes...
"I'll…go now." I said quietly, gathering my cloak around me: I was cold again, despite the warmth seeping in from the kitchen fire. "I shall come back if you wish me to, later, but… it's best if I go now. My return to your house brought too much pain and memories, and for that I am truly sorry, Mrs. Starling." My voice sounded a bit stronger now, as I turned towards Retta, who nodded with quiet dignity. "For my part in it, as well, and for my inability to ease it more than I could. Should you wish, know that I am willing to do whatever you ask of me to lessen the burden." I felt the rustle of those white wings, and heard Retta's sharply indrawn breath as her arcane senses realized the potential of what I've just said. "You too, Bevil. " I added, and the pure agony in his eyes almost doubled me over.
"Whatever ails you, my friend…" I whispered, reaching my hand out and finally resting it lightly on his shoulder, "…I truly hope you will be free of it soon. You only have but ask, and…"
"Go." Bevil has hiding his face in his hands now, shaking. His voice was strangled. "Please, go, and now. I can't…I can't do it…"
"Later, Arrighan." Retta, again, was the stronger: she always was. "Later, we'll talk. But now, please, go."
Her grip on my elbow was surprisingly strong as she led me to her door: I followed numbly, still half-numb from my inability to do something…
"My son has not been himself since you've left, but it is not my place to talk as to why." Her narrow lips twisted into a sad smile. "My heart hopes that one day he can speak to you about it, and thus I can…at least get one of them back." She swallowed heavily, then lifted a hand as if in benediction.
"May the Painbearer of Sorrows give you understanding and patience," she whispered, and I finally realized where I've seen that smile before: on the icon of Ilmater, the Broken God in the funeral chapel of the Korranos family; The One Who Endures, who watches over those who suffer and in need of succor.
I never felt so small as when I bent my head to receive the blessing from Retta Starling, midwife, wise-woman and, above all, mother, who knew so much about pain, broken hearts and crushed hopes.