AUTHOR'S NOTES AND WARNINGS: This is part of the backstory of my AU Remembered Realms, but it should also be canon-compatible unless 4E has dropped even more revelations that I missed.
This fic contains the death of a major character. From the summary, you can probably guess who. In canon he'd stay dead. In Remembered Realms, well, Resurrection still exists at this point, as do people who'd eventually have a motive to cast it.
The Last Night Above
Alturiak, the Year of the Bent Blade (1376 DR)
Jezz's good leg had been crushed under his horse in its death throes. He didn't cry out when it happened; the pain was beyond true comprehension. When the pain became comprehensible and he would have cried out he was already dedicated to making sure he wouldn't. When they dragged him free at swordpoint, blood was running from his mouth from the effort.
One of them found his familiar, a green asp slipping through the green grass, and beheaded it with a dagger. Then he screamed, or tried to. With his jaw still locked, the sound trapped in his throat was more of a gurgle. He fell slack in the grip of the two who held his arms (one of these, too, had been fractured in his fall), and would not be revived. The Dalesmen who served as part of the anvil to the hammer of a revitalized Myth Drannor had anticipated escorting their limping captive into Ashabenford in triumph. Their plans needed to be revised somewhat.
Once he was safely imprisoned an itinerant young priest of Ilmater had set the leg and arm, returned him to consciousness, and healed him enough to take away the worst of it. Now both legs ached roughly equally, on a level he could readily endure, and so he had for years ever since the rockfall in the Underdark. The priest fulfilled his god's dictates and set aside special prayers for the soul of his charge. The authorities viewed the development with some relief. Being goodly folk, they were not given to deliberately keeping their prisoners untreated. Also, for some who thought politically, they wished him to cut an appropriately menacing figure at the trial. He was a drow, to be sure, all could see that, but he already looked small among them and he was already crippled and if he were in obvious pain throughout the proceedings it would be inappropriately dissonant, discomfiting. For similar reasons they allowed him his leg brace for his appearances in public.
In this respect, Jezz obliged them. He sat with a straight back, his hands with their bound fingers chained to the table. His head remained high in some combination of pride and bloody-mindedness, and he didn't so much as squint in the daylight. The same young priest of Ilmater volunteered for the unenviable task of advocating for his defense, and perhaps Tymora had given Jezz a brief smile in this matter, because he devoted more effort to the task than would most of the people of Mistledale who would otherwise have been chosen by lot, who had spent the last few years contending with House Jaelre's raids. Meanwhile, Ashabenford's high priest of Tyr directed spells of lie detection on all concerned. Everyone knew where he stood on the matter, and no one in the crowd of spectators doubted for an instant that Tyr agreed.
Though in the back of the room someone whispered, "I wasn't expecting him to be so small."
He remained composed through the list of charges, and at the very end of the prosecution's solid case he agreed to be questioned under divination as well as oath. The high priest of Tyr swore in turn that he would report all findings in full, and favor neither side. All was done in good order, the charges neatly dated and listed, because if one suspended the workings of justice even for such an obvious villain for any reason beyond sheer necessity then it would be too easy to let the definition of "villain" slip wider. Some of the Dalesfolk in attendance still recalled how, not twenty years before, Shadowdale had come all too close to executing a young mage for the murder of Elminster. Elminster, as was his way, hadn't died. Some of the more knowledgeable knew that in their grief and rage, the good people of Shadowdale had nearly killed the woman who would soon become the new Mystra. Thankfully, she seemed to bear no hard feelings (some of the very knowledgeable whispered, with sighs at the caprices of fate, that the man who had already been named Cyric had been the one to rescue her, though at the cost of numerous other lives unjustly ended).
The advocate of the people of Mistledale said, "Did you, or did you not, on the eighth day of Hammer in the Year of Wild Magic, lead an attack on Mistledale unprovoked..."
"I did," said Jezz the Lame, composed and unrepentant. His Common was accented, but fluent.
"He speaks truth," said the high priest of Tyr.
"Did you, or did you not..."
And so it went. Until after one charge, quite unexpectedly, he said, "I did not."
And the high priest of Tyr said, "He speaks truth."
A murmur went up. The advocate said, "You did not participate in this raid?"
"I did not."
The priest of Ilmater, seated beside him, looked unsurprised. He had been told this, which was why he had allowed this questioning at all. But he did not look hopeful. He knew how much that counted for, or how little.
"None of your fellows did?"
"They did not."
"None of your allies?"
"He speaks truth."
And because he was a scrupulous man, who investigated all he could as deep as he could, the advocate said, "Do you know who raided on that night, then?"
Jezz went so far as to smile – a shade of the cockiness born from a youthful presumption of invincibility that still resided in certain nightmares, some of them nightmares of those who had themselves been disabused of such presumptions – as he said, "Most likely it was the spider kissers."
The advocate looked helplessly over to the priest of Ilmater, who stood. "Would you please tell the court what you mean by spider kissers?"
They gave only the briefest explanation then, enough to whet the appetite, and then the advocate finished his list ("I did." "I did not.") and it was the turn of the defense. And so the priest of Ilmater and the bandit leader Jezz the Lame explained to the court, with the periodic confirmation of the high priest of Tyr, that one drow was not necessarily very much like another. That the bandits who had until recently resided in Cormanthor, Auzkovyn and Jaelre, were distinctly different from the spider-bedecked zealots of the Underdark. That House Jaelre had fled Menzoberranzan because... and so it went. The followers of Eilistraee and the Masked Lady in the room, under cloaks and illusions, nodded as well – they had always known as much. At the end of this explanation a number of others who watched and listened knew more than they had before.
"Why did you begin raiding?"
He shrugged. "To survive."
"He speaks truth," said the high priest of Tyr, and saw that at the very least, he believed it was the truth. He thought of explaining this to the crowd but remembered he had already reminded them at the start of the trial, before he cast his first spell: he only sensed a lie when the subject knew it was one.
"Did you ever try legitimate trade?"
"Why don't you ask one of those merchants what they would've done if a drow walked in their shop with coins in hand and asked for a loaf of bread?"
So the priest of Ilmater called up one of the merchants of Ashabenford, one who was respected and well regarded, who blinked and hmmed and said he would have wondered how a drow got so far into town, and then he would have fled. "Likely before it got round to asking."
"He speaks truth," said the high priest of Tyr.
But it had been a very long list of charges, and for most of the things on that list he had said, "I did," and when questioned further he had explanations but no excuses ("Why did you continue to raid?" asked the advocate for the prosecution. "Partly survival, partly diversion." "Diversion from what?" "From Myth Drannor." "Why? What were you doing in Myth Drannor?" And so it went). The ultimate outcome had never been in doubt. When the sentence was read and made formal the priest of Ilmater bit his lip and laid a tentative hand on Jezz's forearm. He sat with no expression, and did not shake it off or glare it off as he would have three days before. A very few in the crowd marked it.
The priest of Ilmater said as he unbuckled the brace with careful hands that he would keep praying for him. Jezz smiled at him and said, with his cockiest look, "Not that I don't appreciate your efforts, but save your prayers for someone who wants them."
His cell was a spare room of the Rider barracks. There was a narrow bed, and a basin, and a chamber pot beneath the bed, and a sturdy door padlocked and bolted, and four solid walls. He lay on his back on the bed, his hands on his chest, and thought of the last time he'd seen the night sky.
All moved with the rhythms of a people who walked in daylight. The last meal before rest was eaten in the evening, and so it was delivered. He stood and retrieved the tray. During his imprisonment he had worked out how to use the new configuration of his hands – bound tight at the fingers and loose between the wrists, in the standard procedure for mages – for necessities such as eating and pissing without making a fool of himself. To such puzzles was his mind now applied.
So, he thought, I will die in the morning.
This was a calm thought. The pains of the mind, too, had climbed beyond comprehension. The setbacks of the last two years had become a complete rout. Myth Drannor was lost, the Elven Court was lost, his very god was lost thanks in part to a scheme he had been unable to stop.
Valdar and Urz had been two priests of House Jaelre. He knew they'd stayed behind to join that scheme, and he knew they'd left on the winter solstice. Valdar had returned to Minauthkeep just as panic was beginning to break out. He stayed only long enough to confess what he had done and what the consequences had been. They'd never seen Urz again, or Szorak Auzkovyn, or the enigmatic Malvag. Vhaeraun's shadow spoke with a female voice.
And now his life, too, would be lost. What of it? All that was left to be done was to die without making a fool of himself in front of all those hostile eyes.
He wondered how he might be judged once dead. He couldn't be called Faithless with a straight face. Perhaps he might be called False for not adhering to Eilistraee's insipid teachings over the tendays that had passed since the winter solstice. The thought was only a little less ridiculous.
The priests of House Jaelre might have taken comfort in the close presence of their god, who took such direct interest in their affairs and their welfare. Sometimes, such as in those long hours crawling through the Underdark tunnels with his broken leg, Jezz had been calmed through the empathic impressions of his familiar; Keheneshnef had been sedate, and patient, and easily contented. None of that any longer.
When the turnkey came to take the empty tray, he brought an Eilistraeen in its place. Jezz wondered, as a thought exercise, how long he might have if he were to try to eat her in turn. And how would he do it? Chew her toes? Leap for her throat? She was fully dressed, so apparently there was to be no hidden benefit to this final ordeal whatsoever.
"It's too bad it came to this."
He kept his gaze on the ceiling. He wouldn't bother getting up again on her account.
"I had a talk with some of your colleagues."
He kept himself from asking: which ones? Valdar? Nurkinyan?
He didn't know what had become of the other House leaders – Nurkinyan, Tebryn, Belarbreeza. The flight from Minauthkeep had been too disorganized and the survivors too scattered. He did know what had become of the ones who had been with him.
"To a one they agree you've got talent and potential coming out of your ears. You might be really young, but all of them still respect you. Some of them maybe..." She resorted to Common for the word she needed. "... maybe they even love you."
And a lot of good respect and love had done him in the meeting in the hollow tree. With Malvag, the smug ass, acting as if only cowards would think sending their god into Arvandor was a terrible idea. Why had he even been invited, to stand among all those priests? His skill with sorcery was modest at best (and would never get better...), certainly not on the level that even sham High Magic would surely have required.
"You're not sorry?"
"Are you about to tell me why I should be?"
"No. If I were to die on the morrow, I wouldn't want to be lectured."
Then what are you even doing here, he thought.
"Of course, if I learned I weren't to die on the morrow, then I might open my ears."
Here was something unexpected. He didn't let it show on his face, even what she could see of it. She was still standing just over the threshold, before the closed door. Her hooded cloak was the color of the night sky, with repeating patterns of silver stitching at its borders. He spoke with the indifference of the overwhelmed. "Are you making an offer?"
"Then the terms, if you would."
"For the terms to make sense, I'll have to explain some things first. May I?"
"You made quite an impression at the trial. A lot of them still want your blood, but most of them know now they want it because you killed people and all, not just because you're a drow. To be honest mostly they still think you're a terrible person, but terrible people are people too. And since it's more likely now you won't just be torn apart by a mob the instant you set foot out of doors, the Council of Mistledale listened when we asked for clemency. What with the efforts of your advocate, and the recent union of our gods... they let us send in a delegate to offer you another chance between song and sword."
Song or sword or hangman's noose. The sentence they read had been hanging. He didn't know if it would be slow or quick.
"The dead can't atone, or not nearly as handily as the living. Over history, we've given this choice to far worse. People a lot worse than you've found their way out of the red into the black, and left something better in the world. And since you're a prodigy and all, if you accepted you'd have a lot of time to do that and you could probably do it a lot sooner."
Assuming, of course, no one tore him apart.
"And to be frank, given your standing," she said, "we've also taken into account that if you agreed to make yourself an example, there's a lot of others who'd follow it. It would make things a lot easier for everyone."
Courteous of her, to put it in the open and not pretend it was all out of sanctimonious concern. Of all the Eilistraeens he'd encountered, Jezz supposed he detested this one the least. Or that would be so, if he still had the energy to properly detest.
"I'm no priest."
"Neither am I," she said. Again she managed to surprise him. "I'm what the surface folk call a bard. I praise the Goddess through song. You needn't be a priest to be... to be someone who matters. Whatever happens I'll write of this, and sing of this, but it's you who picks how it ends."
Did that mean she couldn't even tell when he lied? Even if she could, if he put on the best mask he had and said that yes, he'd love to live or in his case keep living in the land of great light, that he'd happily come in peace and frolic where trees and flowers grew, would it matter to her if he only said song because he liked the prospect of the sword or the noose even less?
How long would it take for him to die? If she spoke truth and the humans out there viewed him just that bit more favorably, or at least loathed him less, then perhaps they would arrange it so that his neck broke straight off.
"What would be expected of me, then?"
"To lead like you did before. To learn things and teach other people those things the best you can. Who knows, maybe you'll have a bit to teach us. The males mostly went to Vhaeraun for a reason, didn't they?"
He wondered: if he had a spell of lie detection to use on her, would he find she actually believed that last? There was no possible way that her sisters, triumphant, would ever listen to him.
Did he want to die?
No, not particularly, and he supposed that as it approached he'd want it even less.
Did he not want to die, enough to say yes?
No, not now. Not lying here, trying to stare through to the stars above. He tried to predict if tomorrow before the gallows he would regret it too late.
If Vhaeraun lived it would be different. It would've been nearly a duty to live. He would have said and done all that was necessary to survive, and eventually he would have gone back to Minauthkeep laughing. What was there left to go back to?
He looked sidewise at her. She was looking at him with clasped hands, a sword pendant just visible trapped between her fingers. She, too, looked very young.
All the old dreams a crumbled wreck. What was left to be done, now?
He hadn't sought death. Mere tendays ago he'd still been fleeing from it. But now that it had found him...
"Unless they've locked you in with me, I'd like you to go now."
She hesitated. "If you're sure."
She reached out slowly, and she rapped on the door slowly, and she spoke to the turnkey slowly, and she left slowly with many glances back. In those long breaths she gave him a thousand more chances. Better that she'd given them to someone who wanted them.
They buckled the brace back onto his left leg and shackled his ankles. He could manage a fair pace without stumbling. A few simple tasks left for him now: Don't fall. Don't lower your head. Don't lose your head, ahead of schedule.
There was an even larger crowd today. All the farmers and such who'd been too busy for the trial could turn out for a denouement that would take less than an hour. He saw a number of elves among them, most likely Crusaders come for a gloat. One in the front row tried to trip him. He gave that one a smile, to make him shudder and look away and perhaps wonder, for a while, if an unquiet spirit might come knocking in the night. As he moved forward, following the escort in front, he heard furious whispering to that side and just behind. Had someone actually been angered on his behalf? A nice fantasy.
There stood the priest of Ilmater, his lips moving as he fiddled with the red cord on his wrist. Beside him stood the bard who sang for Eilistraee. The skin of her folded hands was now nut-brown as a green elf's, but he recognized her cloak with the silver thread. The hood was down and her features had the same cast. She stared at him as if hoping that, at the last moment, he might call out his change of mind and she could then enact some mad rescue.
The gallows platform was set very high above the ground and what little was left to hope, hoped. The two humans who'd brought him here had to help him up the narrow steps. Their touch was not rough. Perhaps he would have preferred them to be rough so it would be even easier to die hating them, or the best he could scrape up of hatred.
They moved the rope into place and tightened the noose. The sky blazed in color. He looked out on them and thought that perhaps this was the greatest crowd he had ever looked out upon. His mouth moved in familiar patterns of curses without giving them his voice.
He shook his head. The fear began to stir now. Would that this ended before it awoke entirely, without regrets.
They had more to say. They said it. The noose itched.
He mouthed one last impossible prayer, the last fragment of ambition and dream and insane hope, pleading with Vhaeraun to live again and bring it all back.
Perhaps he could have done something if he had said yes, but...
He fell. The last rattle of the chains as he snapped to a stop followed him into the black-moon dark.