This issue brought to by:
A Compelling Darkness
Copyright © 2003 by Kim McCallan
“I don’t like leaving you alone with him,” Sirocco said softly.
“Just get back quickly. You never know how long that spell will last. You’ll be in more danger then we will,” Idariel whispered.
“It’s not the local predators I’m worried about; it’s you and Narovan. Try not to irritate him. He may act controlled, but Dark Elves aren’t known for keeping their temper, and you High Elves aren’t known for tact.”
“You push him too far, Idariel, and you’ll find out …”
“I’m more worried about you and Rake. At least Narovan is consistent.”
“And consistently honorable, courteous …”
“He’s got some deep-laid plan, and he needs an sorceress in his pocket to accomplish it. Don’t ever forget that, my friend. He didn’t waste that Old World honor crap on me, just you. That kind of partiality means that he …”
“I won’t argue with a bard about people’s motives. You just keep an eye on Rake in town; he may be our only hope of getting decent prices on those supplies we need, but he’s still a rogue and assassin.”
“A rogue, assassin, and Narovan’s trusted ally; or at least his ally. I’m not certain Narovan trusts anyone. If we can’t trust Rake, doesn’t it follow we can’t trust Narovan, whom he serves?”
“Just hurry. It’s dangerous to split up like this.”
The only reply was the beating of Sirocco’s hand drum as she began her spell-song to speed her and Rake’s journey through the monster-infested hills.
The evening sun glinted off of Idariel’s protective spell, forming a halo of light around her as she worked. She moved around camp, preparing for a long stint of silent, invisible meditation.
Menial labor isn’t any High Elf’s strong point, and that goes double for a sorceress! Hiding camp takes me twice as long as it takes Sirocco. She flipped open her Jeweler’s Kit, and cataloged the bits she had made so far.
I’m getting better. It won’t be too long before I’m ready for more difficult tasks. She glanced at the fading sun, feeling the ancient rage of her people stir within her. Wood Elves and Humans don’t give it a thought, anymore. But I’ll never forget what happened. I’ll never forgive Ryvus Thul.
When she glanced down again, her eyes widened in horror at the sight of a large, ugly insect crawling towards her. Only two feet across, it was smaller than some they had fought here, but it was still revolting. Its back glistened red and black. Its wings were folded, its mandibles chattering mindlessly as endless, uncountable legs propelled it towards her.
Even as she flinched in disgust, a sword flashed by her and swept the vermin away. She whirled to find Narovan standing unexpectedly close. He flashed her his razor sharp smile, gave her a little bow, and went back to concealing their camp.
Just like he always does. He never speaks to me. Well, to be honest, he almost never speaks, except about his god, Varn Thek, the so-called Governor of War. At least he doesn’t follow the god of Hate, Kali Than, like most Dark Elves.
She stared a while longer, caught by his grace, the power implicit in his capable hands, his perfection of form, and the endless puzzle he represented.
He stands tall and strong, taller then most humans, as strong as some Ogres! He always looks his best at dusk. The evening sun burnishes his smooth, midnight black skin and plays across his silvery white hair.
As her gaze followed his efficient progress through camp, she inevitably glimpsed the Bone Wraith. Its skeletal form had long since given up flesh, but the sight alone made a phantom stink of death invade Idariel’s nostrils.
It’s watching me. It’s always watching. The horrible undead thing he summons to guard us also stands vigilant over him, an ever-present reminder of his chosen path. Death Knight. He can’t be honorable, or courteous. He can’t tolerate weakness, or be kind. Despite what he wants me to believe? It’s a trap. I know it is.
Idariel could feel tension rising up her back, into her face, causing her ears to quiver. She jerked her gaze away from Narovan, and forced herself to concentrate on her Jeweler’s Kit.
She carefully stored each gem and bit of metal, and wrapped each completed piece of work. After painstakingly cleaning each and every tool, she clipped them into place. The main work area folded over the cover in three sections, and the three-legged stand also collapsed, to make a small rectangle that fit easily into a backpack.
I can’t carry a backpack; they weigh too much. Someday I’ll get a magical one that weighs almost nothing, and then …
Her thoughts were interrupted as she struggled to pick up the heavy Jeweler’s Kit. Strong, black arms reached around her and lifted it into Narovan’s waiting pack. For just a moment, the warmth of his body and the musky, forbidden scent of him washed over her. Idariel’s muscles locked, her head spun, and she couldn’t breathe.
What’s the matter with me?? I didn’t ever react so foolishly to Darien, and I even let him kiss me. Once, anyway. Or does a kiss goodbye count?
She found this thought unaccountably depressing.
“The camp is ready.” Narovan’s voice was smooth as old whiskey.
Idariel felt heat rising in her cheeks, and clenched her fists; knowing his keen night sight wouldn’t miss her blush.
‘Daydreaming’ he’ll think in scorn. I’m just thankful that at least he can’t know what I’ve been daydreaming about.
A flurry of defenses (I’m not really like this! I’m dependable; I’m a capable sorceress!) flew to her lips, but she let none of them out.
Defend myself? I will not! Not to anyone! Least of all Narovan, to whom I owe service.
Her gaze locked with his.
A year and a day, a day and a year, for saving us from the Ogres’ cages. None of the time spent rescuing Treehome from Ambassador Devin counts toward that sentence. Just the time before and after, the time pursuing his goals. If I went to Treehome as myself, a young Sorceress who had spent better then five years defending that land from Bloodbane Orcs, and told them that the Dark Elves seek an alliance with Bloodbane, they would listen. But then everyone would know. It would reach my parents that I’m traveling with him.
My parents didn’t even approve of my romance with a Wood Elf. What will they think of me traveling with a Tier’dal Death Knight and a human rogue? Would they honor my obligation to him? ‘It’s a trap, Idariel, can’t you see that? Dark Elves don’t have a code of honor, he’s just using you for something.’ She could hear her mother’s voice, and in the back ground, the ages old, ‘but why a Sorceress? I mean.. You’re smart enough to do something worth while…’ and her father’s ‘We’re a respectable family, Idariel, high born, it isn’t as if we need the money …’
No, leaving Elvine had been sound, and leaving Treehome before my family officially objected had also been sound reasoning. It is only this last decision, to follow the ancient code of honor, from before Ryvus Thul created the Desert of Thul out of my people’s homeland that causes me to question my judgment.
Looking into the fathomless, unreadable wine colored eyes across from her, she felt obscurely reassured about her decision.
She sank onto her meditation cushion, facing him and able to see past him to any approaching enemy. He knelt across from her, controlled and still. She allowed her gaze to play along his sharp cheekbones, wander across his thin lips, and just brush the tips of his ears. Then, as always, she picked the small golden ear stud in his left ear for her focal point.
I made that. I put that there. I can reach my goals. It only takes clear vision and determination.
The familiar litany calmed her. She cast her spell of invisibility, first on him, then on herself. Soon, only the Bone Wraith was visible in the small clearing, shuffling from one end to the other, pretending to be a random horror instead of a horrible guard.
Soft moonlight shimmered, blurred, and slowly Narovan re-appeared. He hadn’t moved, perhaps he hadn’t even blinked during the scant half hour that had passed before her spell failed.
Invisibility is annoying that way. You never know just how long it will last, hours or minutes.
Idariel looked at Narovan, feeling the silvery cool touch of moonlight as she, too re-appeared. It seemed to happen that way a lot, that the duration of spells on herself and Narovan would be similar.
Not that it means anything, of course. It is just superstition, and foolishness.
Her forehead wrinkled, and her gaze fixed on Narovan’s, as all her lingering doubt and worry surged to the foreground.
Narovan raised an eyebrow in inquiry. He waited, saying nothing.
He’s always so patient with me.
“You shouldn’t be, you know,” Idariel accused him, “you shouldn’t be able to be patient, or honorable. Perhaps you only pretend, so that Sirocco and I foolishly trust you.”
His face, never easy to read, grew all the more remote.
“Why do you always do that? I’m trying to …” She faltered. The only emotions she could express readily were anger and fear, neither of which High Elves were even supposed to feel.
And anger expressed at Narovan just leaves me feeling empty and cruel. He never gets angry back.
He sat there. Still patient as a stone, and just as silent.
“What if you are? What if you are honorable, and patient? What if you can feel tenderness, or affection? What do I do then?” Idariel’s eyes narrowed as she searched his face for even the tiniest reaction to her words. When none came, she ground her teeth, and began to concentrate anew on her invisibility, embarrassed and humiliated by her outburst.
Before she completed the spell, warm fingers touched her cheek, and then brushed under her chin; they forced her head up, and her gaze was drawn once more to his.
“If you don’t trust your own people - your friends and traveling companions - you’ll never trust anyone. You must choose, Nameless. I may be the dangerous choice, the illogical choice, but think of this: we both want revenge on Ryvus Thul. That, too, is a dangerous thing.” He leaned closer to her, so that she felt his breath across her cheek, his eyes dark and challenging. He murmured, “You often make dangerous choices …”
END SCENE ONE
Her eyes closed, breath shallow in unknown anticipation. A thrill rushed down her spine as she felt his warm breath against her delicate ear.
Idariel felt his muscled and armored arm whisk by her. She heard the words of dark magic flow from his lips, and the sharp scream of something inhuman. Narovan stood up.
“More of them.” He said it briskly, as he effortlessly picked her up by the waist and placed her on her feet behind him.
Does he think me some fragile thing to be protected? Her jaw muscles clenched, yet her anger died instantly as she saw what faced them.
Goblins. Squat, powerful, green and hideous. Though their heads didn’t quite top Narovan’s shoulders, they were considerably stronger than an average Elf.
Idariel had never learned to tell male from female, and preferred to think of them as slugs, reproducing through division, not sex. Her stomach turned when she saw the twitching Goblin on the grass, engulfed in swirling green clouds of disease that ate away at its flesh.
Three more were advancing on Narovan, one with a curved blade and a lurching stride, one with eyes bulging in blood lust, and the largest, wielding a wicked two-handed sword.
The bright starlight seemed to dim, absorbed by the oppressive darkness of Narovan’s black steel shield. His empty hand thrust out towards the Goblin with the curved blade, the one she mentally dubbed ‘Lurch.’ Those dark words issued forth again. Idariel saw nothing between the Death Knight and his victim, but the Dark Elf grew taut with strength, and at once Lurch’s wickedly curved blade seemed almost more than it could lift.
All doubt and fear left Idariel; words of power issued from her to freeze the one with the bulging eyes in its tracks. Soft light glittered around it, and its eyes dimmed as it was mesmerized, struck dumb by the beauty of her magic. She decided to call that one ‘Frog Eyes.’
She glanced at Narovan and saw that he had drawn one of the Dark Elves cruel, curved swords. He looked with contempt at the largest Goblin, stepped towards it and slammed sword to shield, making the clearing ring with menace.
This one will have to be Big One. Unimaginative, but then I’ve never had a gift for names, or I wouldn’t be known as ‘Nameless’ by my traveling companions.
Big One grasped its long blade in two hands and charged its foe. Idariel flung her hands out. Exquisite blue energy flowed to Narovan. His muscles grew even greater, threatening to break the straps of his black armor. She smiled in satisfaction as their blades clashed, and enjoyed the look of shock on the Goblin’s face. Clearly, Big One had not expected its mettle to be tested by what it regarded as a puny elf.
“To the left.” Narovan said, as he faced his two opponents. The Bone Wraith appeared behind the Goblins, flanking Lurch, and dropping a giant two handed Axe near Narovan’s feet.
Idariel glanced left and saw another Goblin vault over a boulder. This one was hideously disfigured, his nose a bulb of flesh on the scarred face. Scar Face it is!
A spiral of light, dark blue and silvery, drew the reserves out of her foe’s will, and stole its strength. Scar Face could barely move under the weight of its gear, but still advanced on her. Idariel danced deftly away from the edge of the Goblin’s swing. Magic flew faster than thought as she spread her fingers; golden sparkles danced, and its head lulled to the side, dumb, emptied of thought and purpose.
A savage snarl grabbed her attention, and she turned again to the battle. Big One flailed at Narovan with one fist, the other hand lay severed on the ground, still clutching the hilt of its two handed sword. Narovan parried the wild swing and sank his blade deep into the Goblin’s belly. It grunted and fell to the ground, clawing at Narovan’s breastplate.
With more soft words, Idariel sent a golden haze of light to surround Narovan, protecting him somewhat from the blows of his enemies.
“It’s about to break loose.” Narovan nodded to Frog Eyes, who showed signs of shaking off the spell.
“It is done.” She said as she sent golden sparks to mesmerize the Goblin again. “Kill it at your leisure, warrior.”
She watched in fascinated horror as he reached out with his magic and drew life from Scar Face, to heal the shallow wounds he had sustained. Scar Face’s eyes grew wide as Narovan’s darker spell overpowered Idariel’s. In a panic, it thrust its blade at Narovan’s head. Metal shrieked as Narovan blocked the blow with his shield.
She looked away as Narovan’s next spell enveloped Scar Face and started eating its skin.
She spied another Goblin trying to sneak up on her; two more followed a distance behind it, one with only one ear, and another with a horrible squint.
How dare it sneak up on me!! “They have a reinforcements, Narovan!” Calling on the discordant power of chaos, Idariel formed it into a charged ball of flickering light, and shot it forth at the sneaking Goblin.
Raw chaos slammed into it. Shock and disorientation stunned it into inaction, giving her time to send her blue and silver whirlwind to sap Sneak’s strength and will. The hideous green Goblin staggered toward her; Idariel’s hand flashed at Sneak once more, knocking it unconscious with a brilliant rainbow of colors.
Idariel glanced at Narovan; he had shed his shield in the skull of Scar Face, and he was now swinging an axe the size of a dwarf at a new Goblin, the one missing an ear. She shook her head in disbelief.
Elf, Dark Elf at that. No one would believe me at home.
She watched as he planted the heavy axe-head deep into the Goblin’s midsection. It grunted and gurgled as its body gave up.
He turned, and she saw a huge rent in the front of his breastplate. Though blood seeped down his torso, he didn’t seem to notice.
“Look out!” Narovan’s voice reached her, but she had heard the movement.
She leapt clear of a sweeping blade. Her hands wove as she moved. A fierce whirlwind of gray and deep blue lights surrounded the squinting Goblin. Its sword fell from its hands as Narovan lopped its arm off at the elbow. Squint tackled him, despite its spouting stump, and they went down in a heap.
Idariel formed the words of her strength spell and sent the soft golden light to Narovan once more. She heard a sickening crack as the Goblin’s skull split open. Then Narovan slowly rose, leaving its limp body where it lay.
Narovan walked to the remaining Goblin, Frog Eyes, still dazed from Idariel’s spell. He poked the dazed Goblin with the edge of his axe; it didn’t respond.
“This will hurt, my thuggish friend.” He motioned and his Bone Wraith, who had clearly disposed of Lurch sometime earlier in the fighting, moved to the other side of Frog Eyes. She winced only slightly as both the Elf and his minion brought their blades down on the Goblin. It screamed and tried to run, but the Bone Wraith cut it down.
END SCENE TWO
“We did it! We won, and with just the two of us!” Idariel laughed in delight, and reached for Narovan’s hand, though he was several strides from her. “You … we …” She shook her head and laughed again, gazing at him with unfeigned approval and respect. “How do you know so much of the Sorceress’s Art? I swear to you, there are instructors at the Academy who do not react so well, or understand so closely, the strengths of the Sorceress.”
He strode towards her, moonlight and darkness flashing across his blood encrusted armor. “Of course we lived, Nameless … No! Idariel …” His voice filled her name with power; the simmering remains of battle rage still echoed in its tones. “To do otherwise is unthinkable for the valiant.”
She stood; arm still outstretched, and felt a chill of apprehension. How did he know her name?
He loomed closer in the night. His voice was raw, not the controlled tones she was used to. He captured her hand in both of his. “Are you well?”
“You heard us? You heard my name?” Idariel thought frantically back to her last conversation with Sirocco. I hadn’t realized he was close enough to overhear! What else did we say? What if Rake heard?
“Yes. Did they mark you?”
“All of our conversation?”
“It must have nearly killed you to defend me - isn’t it normally the case that you are the one attacking me? My honor, my motives …”
“If you talked occasionally, I might know more of your motives!”
“Hmm. Indeed. Are you injured?”
A wave of moonlight revealed his face to her in that moment, and it was filled with purpose, with anger, and with …lust?
Instinctively, she tried to jerk away from this primal sign of the passions he normally concealed. In a move that seemed born as much of reflex as of design, he pulled her tightly against his chest, one arm about her waist, trapping her. His other hand tangled in her silken hair. His gaze snared hers, and the look in his eyes filled her with an odd mixture of fear and anticipation.
“Are you or are you not hurt?”
She trembled in his arms, her voice soft and breathless, “I am untouched, Sir; you have never yet failed me.” She blinked, recovering some small semblance of her composure, bringing her hands up to rest against the rents in his armor.
His body jerked at her touch, and her hands leapt away from him as though burned.
“You, however are wounded, and as there is no Sirocco to sing you well tonight, you’ll have to tolerate my hands healing you!” She pulled away from him, and this time he released her. He’s in shock. More hurt than he realizes. “We need water, and I’ll get my kit; try to get out of your armor.”
With a gesture, he sent the Bone Wraith down to the stream, and followed Idariel back to her pack. Halfway there, he paused to stare at the dying form of Sneak, the Goblin Idariel had dispatched.
“I can cure the worst of it myself.” He gestured and spoke the words of dark magic, and the remaining life force of the Goblin drained into him. He hissed against pain as damage deep inside his body healed. “Unfortunately, the dying have little left to give.”
Idariel returned to his side. As gently as possible, she helped him to remove his armor and padded undershirt. The moonlight revealed two light gashes, and a deep one under his ribs. With sure skill, she cleansed the three wounds, and bound up the two shallower cuts.
“Any of these blows would likely have killed me, and this last one…” Her fingers trailed just below it. “Could have cut me in half.” She took a deep breath and continued, “I’ll need to sew it up. It is too deep, without Sirocco to sing for you. You’ll have to tolerate my touch a bit longer.”
“I’d rather have your hands on my body, for any reason, than Sirocco’s song in my ears.”
His voice was soft, his eyes unfocused, as they had been throughout her ministrations.
“Oh …” Does he realize he said that aloud? “I’ll be gentle as I can, but you may wish a little of my Elvine wine, Rake’s brandy, Sirocco’s cordial, or your own …” I’m babbling.
His gaze flickered to hers. “No, I must be able to defend you. You are powerful with an ally, but helpless alone; you must always trust your well being to another. I could never choose your path. You make dangerous choices.”
“Who makes dangerous choices? You’re the one full of holes!”
She set to work stitching up the gash. It’s just a tunic, or a really complicated bit of jewelry. It is NOT flesh and blood; it is NOT a person. She repeated the words to herself until she had finished the task, and then carefully bandaged the wound. She ran her sensitive fingers along the edge of the bandages to be certain they were not too tightly bound across his chest.
When she was done, she washed her hands in fresh water fetched by the Bone Wraith, and sighed in dismay as she looked down at herself. I’ve only the one set of robes, and it is a mess. She blushed, but firmed her resolve. “I can’t wear this, it is covered in your blood. It will bring predators. Your armor must be washed, too.”
Narovan nodded. “Wear my cloak. It has some defensive value.” He slipped his cloak from his pack, and handed it to the Bone Wraith. After a deep, inscrutable look at her, he turned his back.
She regarded the Wraith. “Well, creature of undeath, if you occasionally leave something to be desired as a guardian, you certainly have a future as a domestic servant.”
She slipped out of her heavy robes and stood for a moment clad only in her hair, moonlight, and a thin silken chemise. She reached for Narovan’s cloak, but the Wraith did not release it.
“Narovan, your creature is disobeying me!” She spun, heat in her face, and marched up to Narovan. “I thought we had agreed that at least some of my commands could be obeyed without going through you?”
He turned slowly around to face her.
“I would think having it hand me something you’ve already designated for me would come under that heading?”
“I became distracted.” He surveyed her, from the ground she stood on to her disarrayed hair. From the look in his eyes, she might as well have been naked. He held one hand out to the Wraith, and it readily dropped the cloak into his waiting hand.
She glared at him, furious. How dare you look at me like that, I just saved your life! “I see nothing of note, did you hear more monsters approaching?”
He smiled slightly, and shook his head. “We are in no danger yet. My ‘creature,’ as you call him, has moved the bodies of our enemies upwind of us. With our armor drying, nothing will draw enemies here too quickly.” He swung the cloak about her shoulders.
The cloth was dark, as if it absorbed light, but very warm. It had the odd texture of things from the Dark Elf City, and carried the spicy scent she had come to associate with Narovan. His battle hardened fingers just brushed her skin, starting at her collarbone then running slowly down the front of the cloak, nearly to her breasts, as he straightened the collar. Her anger seemed to drain out with the touch. An evening breeze swept by them. Idariel saw a chill pass through Narovan’s wearied body.
He’s still not himself.
Idariel concentrated on her spell, and took a step closer to Narovan. His eyes widened, but her Invisibility snatched him from sight before she dared guess what his odd look had meant. She cast again on herself.
She fingered the soft warmth of the cloak, and then wrapped it around Narovan as well. She could feel the cool patches of the bandages, and the blazing heat of his body through her thin chemise. He groaned; she pulled back, afraid she had hurt him. Cold air washed over her, but only for a moment, then he was there again, holding her against him, his breath sweet on the back of her neck.
She stood stiff, nervous and unsure, for the longest time. She was unable to meditate, unable to think clearly of anything. At last, exhaustion overcame her. She settled against him. One of his hands guided her head to his shoulder. She rested there, as if he had been made for no other purpose than to hold her.
END SCENE THREE
Idariel woke to the sounds of Rake and Sirocco jesting. She was so warm, and so comfortable, that she never wanted to move out of the bedroll. She snuggled deeper into the soft pillow.
Pillow? And I don’t have a bedroll; they are too heavy. A winter blanket wasn’t comfortable, and certainly wouldn’t keep rocks and roots from digging into your back, but it was sufficient to keep a person alive in the wilderness. Soon the odd texture of the bedroll penetrated her sleep haze.
Narovan’s. I’m in Narovan’s bedroll, in my underwear. Now everyone is going to think that he … that I … he never even kissed me! I’m going to wring his not-so-scrawny neck for this. He’s wounded, he’s ill, but he lets me sleep the night away tucked like a baby in his very own bedroll. If he’s opened his wounds, I’ll kill him! That is, if I don’t die of embarrassment first.
With a moan, she opened her eyes and looked anxiously for Narovan.
“You’re up, Nameless! Looks like you and Narovan had a bit of…” Rake paused, clearly amending his word choice, but grinning - no, smirking! - in a way that set Idariel’s temper on edge. “…trouble while we were gone. The two of us, on the other hand, kept our thoughts on our mission and our hands on our blades, and we’re back without a scratch.”
Her intention to ask after Narovan’s well-being and whereabouts died an abrupt death. She flipped her hair back, and looked coolly from one to the other. Sirocco was looking at her with a troubled expression. Idariel shook her head slightly, hoping to forestall any confrontation. Not in front of Rake.
“We had some trouble with Goblins, and Narovan was injured. Did you see to him, Sirocco? It was beyond my skill, and he’d done too thorough a job on the Goblins to get much…” here she shuddered, “…assistance from them.”
She felt warm sunlight on her hair, on her face, and on her bare arms, a reminder that she wasn’t dressed. “If you will excuse me, Rake, I need to get dressed.” And to talk to Sirocco.
“As it happens, my lady Nameless, I can help you. Your armored robes aren’t dry yet, but Narovan had me purchase clothes for each of you.” He put a large package down on the foot of the bedroll. “I’ll just check on Narovan.” He winked at Idariel. “The Bone Wraith is still here to protect you two.”
Sirocco stared after Rake. “I would have sworn he didn’t leave my sight the whole time we were in town.”
“Are you telling me you didn’t leave him even once to perform or to chat up the local bards?”
‘Well there was .. but no, he was gambling with the Gotern brothers when I was in the singing duel with Bard Drikan. And I know he was bartering with Merchant Shen while I was looking at the musical instruments. I also distinctly recall that he was in the audience when I won second place in the impromptu song-writing contest. I’m always quick with a rhyme, especially if the topic is romance!”
Idariel glanced up, and from her friends stern expression correctly interpreted that last to be addressed to her. Again Idariel bit back a desire to ask after Narovan. Where had he gone? What could he be doing? Except for her own need to render herself invisible for a bit of privacy, the party tended, for simple survival’s sake, to stick together.
“Nothing happened between Narovan and I, Sirocco. It was a pretty exhausting fight. When I …” Idariel’s voice faded. “My robes got all bloody. We had to wash them. Narovan lent me his cloak; I don’t remember the rest, I fell asleep.”
Sirocco burst out laughing. “Nothing could be less romantic then you falling asleep on him! I’ve sometimes been worried, Idariel, that you don’t fully understand the nature of Dark Elves. You shouldn’t trust him enough to fall asleep when you are alone together, but that is better for you then letting yourself imagine....” She chuckled softly again. “I doubt that has ever happened to the arrogant fellow before. “
“I was just so tired …”
“Come now, you wouldn’t have fallen asleep if it had been Rake! Speaking of which, I didn’t see him buy us clothes, or even look at women’s clothing. And how would he know our sizes?”
“My dear Sirocco, Rake didn’t name himself after a farm implement, I’d stake my life on it. He knows our sizes better than our own mothers do; I don’t doubt that what he got will fit - No, I doubt only its style and taste.” What did a Dark Elf and a human know of High Elf styles, or the subtle language of color and design?
She undid the package, and promptly had to eat her words.
Idariel stroked the soft fabric. I have misjudged them. I have misjudged them both. That they would know or care that such clothes and colors would please me, make me feel less lost out here…
The package contained several gowns, all of the finest quality, with exquisite embroidery and detailed trim, and a few sets of trousers, flowing tunics, and silken shirts in earth tones. One gown was in the deep greens of the treetop home of Treehome, or even of the ancient forest home of the elves. Another was the gold and whites of Elvine. But the third … it was in a vibrant rose, with azure and violet trim, and a matching mantle.
“Look at these, they are perfect. Are you sure you did not pick these out, Sirocco?” Absently, she pocketed the discreet card that came with the package; doubtless the name of the high-end seamstress who had designed and made such lovely clothes.
“I wouldn’t have picked those fancy gowns for traveling out here. They’ll just get ruined. Look what he did for me!!” Sirocco slid into a forest green silk shirt that just matched her eyes; her lovely brown hair was perfectly complemented by the textured leather vest and matching leggings. She even looked taller than normal in the finely made clothes.
“I have never owned leather tanned this well, or embroidered vests with fine silk shirts. We can’t afford this; Narovan must have purchased it. Why?” She gave Idariel a stern look. “I don’t think it is because it would make you happy! They aren’t our friends, really, though it can be easy to forget that.”
“At the moment, I’m not sure I care why!!”
The two grinned at each other in sartorial glee. Sirocco had a wicked gleam in her eye as she continued, “Don’t be too impressed, Idariel - you’re a lovely woman, and no doubt Rake just picked colors that would flatter you. I’ll help you into the rose one; let’s hope we don’t get attacked soon.” She glanced at the bedroll. “Aside from falling asleep, how did you and Narovan get on last night?”
“We were fine.” Idariel hoped her cool voice clearly indicated that she wished no more discussion of that topic.
“I am a Bard, I’ll figure it out eventually.”
Idariel nodded, and turned her attention to the gown. I’m just glad that Sirocco is willing to let me off so easily today. I’m not sure I understand what happened last night, I don’t want to think about it, and I certainly don’t want to talk about it. The gown fit perfectly, its hem falling to just above her slippered feet, so that a hint of ankle would occasionally flash.
“Narovan told us what happened, but his explanations often leave me feeling like I knew more before he started talking.” Sirocco said.
“Like an anti - Bard? He makes people wounded, and confused?” They laughed. Idariel smoothed the fine silk, delighting in the sheer feminine feel of it. “It may be impractical, but I feel so much better in this. I’ve a few trinkets that will go with it, too. It’s a little sad we’ve been so short of gold, we’ve had to sell all of my best pieces.”
“Spells are more important.” Sirocco said ruthlessly, already changed into another outfit, this one in forest green leather trousers, a deep burnt sienna silk shirt, and a green leather vest with burnt sienna trim.
“They are to you, because you are an uncultured Wood Elf with more sense then style.” Idariel laughed at her friend as she finished fastening the purple scarf with one of her elegant gold headbands, allowing her delicate ears to just peek out of her hair.
Sirocco adjusted her instruments. “I may have no sense of style, but you have a handicap as well - no sense at all!” She dodged Idariel’s thrown hairbrush and dashed down hill, towards the stream. Magic rippled around her, and her headlong pace slowed to a crawl. “At least now you may be able to keep up with me, Witchy One!” She sang over her shoulder.
Idariel lifted her skirts and darted after Sirocco, leaving the Bone Wraith to guard camp. Weaving through trees, tossing non-harmful spells and songs back and forth, the two played like they had not since leaving home. The sun broke through the canopy of trees as they reached the stream, Sirocco gracefully leaping the water in two great bounds, like a young gazelle, Idariel lightly stepping from rock to rock.
Pausing in the middle, Idariel looked upstream. She froze in place, tottering, at the sight that met her eyes. As unexpected as her own lightheartedness this morning was, it was nothing to seeing Rake and Narovan lounging in a shallow swimming hole.
Idariel swallowed and fought not to blush. Wood Elves and Dark Elves had no difficulty with nudity. With humans you never knew what they believed. But High Elves … I will not embarrass myself in front of them. Despite her internal distress, she found it impossible to look away.
Both men were well muscled, Rake with more bulk but less definition than the elf. They shared a plethora of scars as well. There the similarity ended.
Water droplets glittered like the finest diamonds on Narovan’s black skin. His long silvery hair pooled about him. There was no sign of the injuries he had taken the night before; as long as Sirocco could sing an injury healed before the scar set, he wouldn’t be adding to his already impressive collection.
The deep tan of Rake’s hands and face ended abruptly just past the wrist and neck, becoming a lighter tan over his chest. His normally non-descript brown hair, freed from a severe ponytail, flowed to his shoulders in rich mahogany waves.
They’re both handsome. I wonder that I didn’t see it before. I know they are both dangerous; Rake’s easy manner and ready grin never fooled me on that score, but I had not suspected he was masking his true appearance as well as his true nature.
Rake wore a friendly, amused smile.
Idariel finally lost her battle with the blush, and squeezed her eyes shut. Oh no, here I stand, blind and teetering in the middle of the stream. I can nearly hear the mocking laughter already! She forced her eyes back open just in time to see that Narovan had walked down the bank until he was beside her.
He offered her his arm to steady her as she stepped lightly onto the banks of the stream, firmly keeping her gaze above the collarbones. She smiled a thank you at Narovan, and then tossed a slightly shaky grin to Rake, praying that he, at least, would stay seated.
“These gowns are just exquisite Rake, Narovan - I must thank you. The seamstress is truly skilled! How did you find such things out here?”
Narovan shrugged, and led her towards the swimming hole.
A true smile, without a hint of mockery, crept out onto Rake’s face. It actually reaches his eyes. I’ve never seen him look like that before.
“Thank you! She’ll be delighted you approve, Nameless! As to how I got them - let’s just say, I have my ways.”
“You’re never one to give anything away.”
“It’s all about profit, Nameless, it’s all about profit! Now, if you really want to know, I’m sure we could work something out, you and I.” He ducked as Sirocco tossed a pinecone at his head. “You Wood Elves sure are good at hiding and moving silently, Bard. I didn’t hear you until you were at least 50 feet away.” It was Sirocco’s turn to glower. “I’m sure with practice, you might even have gotten close enough to hit me with that.” He sent a roguish smile her way, and then settled once more into the pool. “Narovan and I were just soaking our sore muscles. Care to join us?”
Idariel felt Narovan tense at Rake’s words; the arm on which her hand rested went rock hard and still. Does he not approve of interracial mixing? High Elves do not, but Wood Elf and human bonds are very common. I’ve never wondered about Dark Elf pairings before.
“Ladies.” Narovan’s clipped voice gave her the answer. “Be ready to travel, time is of the essence.”
Sirocco gave Narovan a stern look. “You were badly enough hurt yesterday to go into shock; you won’t be fit for travel for another day.”
Before Narovan could respond, Rake heroically leapt into the awkward conversational breach. “Perhaps you have something easily prepared that we could eat for breakfast, Sirocco? I think Narovan’s hungry.” He shot Sirocco a conspiratorial look, and then turned back to where Narovan and Idariel stood.
“I’ve information that some of the items we seek are in the Draginite fortress - I got us a map while we were in town. It won’t be long now till we have the breastplate, and that Shaman’s staff you and Narovan were interested in. Even if you can’t use it to help open your gate, it will fetch a fine price in town. Enough to pay for our passage to Faemist, at least, if we don’t choose to sell any of the rings you’ve enchanted.”
“It is too early to be thinking of opening any gates, Rake,” Idariel said. “We’re not powerful enough, and we haven’t yet found a weapon that will be effective against a god. We must study the staff and see if there is a connection between Ryvus Thul’s plane and ours.” Idariel sighed. “If nothing else, it is an ancient relic of our people, and shouldn’t be left in the hands of the Draginite Shaman. Did you find any books that would be useful?”
“Ah, yes. Um … you did mention anything on Ryvus Thul; I have one old book that is a treatise on the magical properties of the Desert of Thul by the Druid Firedrake Altarn, dated about 200 years ago.” Narovan, Sirocco and Idariel exchanged amused glances; 200 years could hardly be considered an “old” book to an Elf. “The other is called the Desserts of Thul and is even older; it seems to be an ancient text on food from the old Elven homeland forest, before the Burning, but no one in the store could read it.”
“Old indeed,” murmured Narovan.
“Give that one to me! With my bard training, I may be able to read it,” Sirocco said.
“Aren’t any of you excited about the first one?” Rake surged out of the water with startling speed.
Idariel slammed her eyes shut, blushing furiously. That’s both of them! Haven’t they any sense? Can’t Rake tell that Narovan is angry?
By the time Idariel dared to look, all she could see was Narovan’s broad back. When he stepped aside, she could see that Rake had wrapped his towel about himself, and was rummaging in a sack.
With a bow and a flourish, Rake presented the cookbook to Sirocco, and the magical treatise to Idariel.
“I’ve heard of Altarn,” Idariel said. “He is said to be very thorough, if a trifle dry. Oh, look, he did find an alchemist to analyze the sand. It looks like it might work as a focus for fire magic. That isn’t too surprising.”
“It should surprise you, Sorceress, since that means the god’s own power is tied up there.” Narovan read over her shoulder, searching for clues.
She felt the hair on the back of her neck raise up, and try as she might, she could not forget that he was still naked. Without looking up, she pushed him gently away from her, shivering from the skin on skin contact, and said, “Narovan, you’d best dry off and put something on, you’re likely to drip on the book.” I only hope that excuse isn’t too transparent.
“A powerful enough curse would leave traces behind for centuries. I hope and suspect that the magic inherent in the sand may be the reason that the forest hasn’t recovered. If so, we have a chance of fighting it.” Idariel said.
“Aren’t you more the expert on divine magic, Narovan?” Sirocco’s voice jarred Idariel out of her book.
“Not everything is as it seems.” Narovan answered, his gaze still focused on the volume in Idariel’s hands.
“You are a Death Knight - they are considered the darker cousins of Paladins, aren’t they? Paladins are divine casters, gaining their power from their god. Divine casters are very knowledgeable of the gods and how their powers work.” Sirocco said.
Narovan leveled his cool gaze at Sirocco, then returned his attention to the book.
Idariel felt Narovan’s movements as he dried off and wrapped the towel about him; he did so with out ever stepping away from her side, or apparently, taking his attention off the book.
“Don’t try to get between two intellectuals and a new book, Sirocco. They’ll be analyzing principles for hours.” Rake’s voice dropped to a low pitch as he continued. “And maybe this way we’ll get a bit of rest, right?”
“We need to make breakfast, but I want to find out what language this is actually in.” Sirocco waved the ancient book in Rake’s direction. “Do you want to make breakfast? Narovan will need something substantial after his injuries last night. His body is depleted, whether he wants to admit it or not.”
She moved to a dry rock in the shade, and sat down, fingering the book. “The three most ancient languages use the same alphabet; since they are tonal, I’m better then the ’Witchy One at figuring out what language a newly discovered book or scroll is actually in. That’s why she always gives me first crack at the oldest books; it won’t be long, though till she’s over here demanding answers! She isn’t the most patient creature in the world.”
“I may not be patient, but I’ve got good hearing. Besides, you love a challenge; you’d get bored if I didn’t push you.” Idariel laughed at her friend, and then glanced up at Narovan, astonished again at his height.
“Did you catch this part? I think the sand is part of a curse. If the reason the forest never recovered is a curse, it can be lifted. All curses have a way to lift them. It’s part of their magic.”
Narovan narrowed his eyes and re-read the section, murmuring magical theory into her ear.
“All right, I’ll make breakfast.” Rake sighed dramatically. “No point in hiring experts and then not letting them do their job. After all, a happy craftsman is a productive craftsman.” He smiled sweetly at Sirocco and Idariel, a smile that didn’t reach his eyes this time. “Shall I make enough for four? You two haven’t sat down to a meal with Narovan and I since, let me see -- That last Tavern in Farona Venu.”
Idariel could tell that beneath the gentle bantering, Rake was offended. I don’t think now is a good time to explain that we don’t trust him not to poison us. There are many poisons that can be fed a small bit at a time, and only when the poison is stopped do the people suffer any difficulties. When we first met him, he was using a poison that was powerful enough to down an ogre in one shot. I don’t want to see what that kind of poison would do to an Elf. It doesn’t help that I know he makes them himself, and he was just in town, where he could get all sorts of fascinating ingredients. Logically, he wouldn’t hurt us, but sometimes, fear doesn’t respond to reason.
She sent a tense look to Sirocco, who then said, “Wood and High Elves have delicate palates, and don’t eat much anyway, compared to the two of you. I’ll fix something up later for us: probably a leaf of spinach or two and a nut.”
“I don’t know why you’re uncomfortable eating with a death-dealing, disease-spawning Death Knight and a rogue poison master. It isn’t like either of us would ever risk our income by hurting you.” Rake actually sounded a little hurt, as if the idea of someone having that poor an opinion of his business savvy was distressing.
“I rarely eat when I’m studying something or making something, Rake. No offense is intended.” Idariel sent a soothing smile towards Rake.
She could see his features soften slightly, and then the familiar look of suspicion swept across his face. He was no doubt wondering weather or not she had just used a spell to soothe his ire. Soon, his mask was once more in place, and she could no more read his feelings than Narovan’s. She sighed in frustration.
Men!! Why do they always think it is my magic?
“People react to me, Rake; good or bad, but never indifferent. In looks, I am no more or less attractive then any other Elf, but I have a presence that is half the reason I became a Sorceress in the first place. I didn’t cast a spell on you; I don’t even own the spells you’re worried about.”
Precisely because I don’t expect you to believe I wouldn’t cast them on anyone that is on my side.
His face didn’t change, but his voice grew dark, dangerous. “Then how did you know what I’m thinking?”
“Because it is what everyone except for Sirocco …”
“And I.” Narovan’s reply was for her ears alone.
“…thinks about me at one point or another.” Idariel looked the assassin in the eye, daring him to doubt her word, challenging him to think about what she had said.
He chuckled, and waved a hand at her, his mood changing with the quicksilver suddenness she had come to associate with humans. “Don’t worry, Nameless! Everything is fine. I’ll fix a real breakfast, you can eat if you’d like. You must be tired, too, after last night.” He leered at her and Narovan, standing so close together.
Idariel felt a blush try to fight its way onto her face, but she took a few deep breaths and went back to pursuing the book. She could shut away the outside world while trying to discern new magical truths from the sometimes-obtuse Druid Altern.
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