XII: Wandering Eyes

Entry: XII

Ice blue eyes, adorned with the intricate makeup of a seer, peer into a levitating amethyst the size of a sturdy knight’s head. The many jagged edges projected the peering eyes, scattering them amongst the walls and ceiling, in kaleidoscopic brilliance about the study room.  The polished furniture glowed with violet luminescence.

The door creaked open cautiously.

The magnificent stone crashed to the ground in an instant. The precious thing now lay smashed in pieces, void of light, on the stone floor.

“Unbelievable wretch!”   …is what she wanted to say, but through her reserve and wisdom, she spoke softly.

“Yes?”

An awkward looking young caretaker inched his way into the room. He felt a deep tremble in his gut –as if someone had pumped him promptly with rotten air.

The pressure started up his torso and he nearly felt as if he was about to vomit. He clasped his hands tightly around his mouth and gagged.

The seer watched unamused. He wasn’t sure which was worse, the magic’s adverse effects or her intense, unwavering, fixed eyes.

The several moments it took him to regain composure felt longer to him than the dozen tower floors he climbed to deliver a very simple message.

She spoke again “A gemstone is to magic as the mighty dam is to our Draumer river… if you break it, you’ve released the flood; most respond poorly.”

Turning away from him she sat back down at her desk.

Half speaking, half choking, the man responded. “Of course Lady I-*heuck*… apologies… L-lady Ingrid.”

She scooted the chair around towards the door, folded her hands, and closed her eyes. Even the lids of her eyes burst like the sun with extravagant color. She dropped her forehead to her hands and began messaging her temples.

She spoke wearily. “So… the Count’s here then?”

“Yes, Milady”

“And I’m supposed to sup with him or some formal nonsense?”

“The Jarl’s intent was to have y— was to include you in this very important dinner, yes.”

“I will not.” Lady Ingrid turned back towards her desk and pulled a leather bound book out by the spine.

“But Lady, the Jarl commands—“

“—Nothing of importance! Now, you will go to Sigismund and fetch me a new amethyst, which the Jarl will be charged for, and leave me to study in peace!”

The young man abruptly dipped back outside and close the door tight behind him.

“Every time I stumble on something interesting…” She soughed “Formalities…”

Using her index finger and propping her chin on her free hand, she flicked open a book of hand-drawn illustrations and descriptions of elves. She peered her eyes on the ancient lettering.

“Now… who is in my city?”

 

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Chapter 10: Decadent Streets and Strange New Brews

The guard not only directed us to “The Prancing Witch” but led us there, and bid his partner adieu, promising to be back within the hour. He walked ahead of us at first, talking about the history of all the buildings, the fine architecture of old constructs desperately clinging to preservation. The city was littered with both culture, and vestiges of war.

After we had marched down countless streets and traversed a handful of short-cut alleys, we approached “The Prancing Witch”. By this point the Guard had led his hand to Abeline’s shoulder… a little too touchy perhaps; Abeline cringed for a moment; she looked at me and rolled her eyes. This didn’t seem like the sort of place you’d want to boast your tourism in, a touchy guard was better than no guard; the merchant’s here were ruthless, I could see it on their faces—they could smell our foreign air.  Our tavern was clear at the end of a colorful street, past a long stretch of narrow city townhomes—homes built into each other in a collision of architecture, culture, and personality, that had been transformed into a sort of wild bazaar. Colored, brightly dyed linens hung out windows drying, dripping unto the canopies of street vendors that have transformed their porches and front rooms into store fronts. I remember master’s mutterings before I left, “You can find anything on those streets… be careful Leafe.”

“Clear a hole, c’mon you, step aside.” The guard pushed his way through a bustling crowd of bidders and hagglers. Men and woman walked through with baskets of cheap jewelry and trinkets, holding fistfuls of whatever shiny things they were peddling over their heads.

The shouting was insufferable. Though I’m the only one who seemed to think so. Abeline, though a witch, seemed to adore the hustle and bustle. Her eyes fixed from shiny nick-nack to brilliant fabric, to spectacular doo-dad. And when we passed the herbalist stall, I had to pull her along as she grabbed the side of her coin purse and charged towards it.
————————–

 

Old, dank, creaky, and yet… very homey—The tavern of the Prancing Witch embraced us seamlessly into her care. Cleaning the place however, was a journey in itself.  There was dust left unperturbed for what seemed ages—so rooted into the furniture on which it lay, that extracting it from the wooden chairs and tables felt like an advanced form of alchemy.

Abeline took on a motherly role, which I didn’t at all mind. She set me up with a spacious room, abundant in chests, wardrobes, writing desks, and a bed which after cleaning, was the best I’ve ever rested my body on. She, naturally nabbed the master bedroom and one smaller room adjacent to hers which mysteriously accumulated magical nick-nacks, potted herbs, potion bottles, and… organic parts—fur from a certain woodland kritters, an over-sized eyeball plucked from who-knows-what. I felt it best not to pry into these matters.

That left the remainder of the upstairs hallway opened to guests and tavern-goers whom couldn’t stumble their way back home. They didn’t appreciate the obligatory fee that coincided with being put-up for the night; however, it kept them from passing out in our alley-way and thus, kept away guards and pick-pockets.

Those first few weeks were full of scrubbing, swabbing, sanding, finishing, and all stuff I was used to from my past laborious occupation, and didn’t mind in the least. And when we got sick of dust and splinters, we took trips to local vineyards, which are plentiful in Draumerheim, and forged relationships, making deals for wines and mead.

Abeline and I plunked a barrel of sub-par red wine onto one of our tables.

“Alrighty pointy, pay attention, this is how we sell wine.”

She pried open the barrel and took a small taste with her finger. “Be a dear and run up to my room; there’s a small box of spices and fruit peals under my bedside stand.”

When I returned with box in hand, a faint, lingering purple smoke had just dissipated from above the barrel.

“What was that?”

“What was what? Oh good! The spices. Spill ‘em. Now.” She pointed with her index finger into the brew.”

“All of-“

“Yes, all of ‘em.”

I dumped the contents of the small box into the wine. Upon hitting the surface there was an oddly volatile splash, larger than I expected, almost as if the wine was somehow… lighter. And as the heavy bits of dried fruit absorbed the juice and had begun to sink to the bottom, somehow the faint rusty red begun to deepen into a rich sanguine pool.

I could feel my face flushing just at the scent of it. “Oh my… that smells incredible.”

It wasn’t often that I paid compliments, but the aroma rising up from this brew sent a series of chills and sensational tinglings throughout my body. Abeline smirked with a proud glint in her eye. “And this lovvie, is how we make profits.”

She sighed and paced towards the basement door behind the bar with her arms at her waist and gave a “humph.” “Looks like we ran out of excuses not to clean the basement.”

Armed with lanterns and mops we started descending into the unknown. Each creaky step let up a cloud of soot. I coughed out the words “When was the last time—“ I put my hand up to my throat, “Gods.” I stood still and rubbed my tongue against my teeth trying to not think about all the questionable particles leaking into my lungs. “When was the last time someone’s been down here?”

Entry 9: Old Cities and New Faces

“Leafe, Shiny, come look!” Abeline’s face flushed with hope as she stood at the top of the great green hovel in front of us. We had just cleared the forest, soaked to the knee in mud and so threaded with stickers and thorns from shrubbery that a stranger might mistake us for a pack of Treant Saplings.

I noticed Ashe pretending not to respond to “shiny.”

We climbed the hill behind her. So much endurance. It bewildered me how she was still so full of life after yesterday’s long silent march. We didn’t intend to camp last night but somehow silence added weight to the hike. I sensed that Ashe was beginning to feel the weight of his soul. You know it’s bad when the paladin needs a break.

We climbed the grassy hill to find that we were actually standing on a cliff. The grassy cliff came to an abrupt, rocky drop; it didn’t look natural. Miners?  Below us, the morning fog was just starting to fade back into mystery, and the sun reached out over a great expanse of grey stone, white rock, and red brick buildings spanning our horizon. Behind them we could see a great river, and from our distance, could not make out the other side.

“My word.” I was completely awestruck. “I never imagined.”

Abeline nodded “Draumerheim, ‘as old as man’ some say. This city has expanded, collapsed, rebuilt, burnt down, erected again, and again, until it became this.  Buildings so tall, they make the great pines of the north tremble.”

Ashe stood silently, looking at the city below without showing great change in his expression. His brows lifted a bit, and perhaps his cheek muscles relaxed, but he held his demeanor steadfast. He grunted. “No time like the present then?” And started down to the left of our cliff, where the cliff-side gave way into hills and the passage downward was safer. We followed pursuit.

As we grew closer to the city, I began to notice just how varied it was. Buildings were not at all uniform, and it seemed that some were much newer than others. Many where built in varying style. It was all sort of an architectural culture mash—Powerful Nord archways attached to artistic Southern walls—several different temples had their trademarked spires erected. I could see what my master meant; this place is a haven for masons; the only end to a mason’s career here would be his death—judging from those towers however

We followed a stream all the way up to the city’s sewer gates. The closer our proximity, the greater the stench.  I didn’t mind so much. When I was younger I took refuge under bridges, forgotten alleyways, and other nooks that might surprise you, to escape the bullying of bigger street urchins. Human street children had little cause and therefore little to unite over. However, they did have me to share their disgust in. It always started with curiosity over my physique. “Youre so lanky! When was the last time you’ve eaten? Are those your real ears.” And it always ended with the dripping arch ways of streets above me, the chirping of rats—I didn’t mind the rats though, they never brought me any harm. I never had to run from a rat, only from people.

At some point in the long final stretch, Ashe allowed himself to slip behind Abeline and I. He insisted he was fine, although his face looked troubled. No doubt burdened with the weight of his mind.

Abeline pulled out a small, folded parchment, and rubbed her thumb across it.

“Abeline, I never asked, what’s your business in Draumerheim?”

“This.” She held up the note. “This is my new business.” She looked proud, and her eyes were alert and lit with passion.

“And this is?”

“My new tavern! Auntie Kylie left me her business when she died last season, just at the summer’s start actually. I would have sprinted straight off to Draumerheim if the delivery of this letter had been left with swifter hands.”

“You seem very eager.”

I jumped up on a little rock protruding like a lance from the ground and playfully tested my balance on a single foot. I watched my footing carefully for a moment. When my eyes returned front, Abeline’s intensity nearly projected me on my backside.

“You have no idea.” She said. “I left the moment this letter came to me, and would have gladly vanished earlier.”

We continued on while she talked more about how she had been dying to leave home for some years now, but she was careful to never say why.

Behind us, I heard stumbling armour and a muddled curse. Ashe tripped over the spired rock but quickly recovered his composure, as if he was embarrassed. No one cared; at this point in the journey we were all dreary of travel and dreamt of beds.

Abeline gagged on the growing stench and held a deep-purple satin handkerchief to her mouth. “Gods.” In contrast to our misfortunate path upon the ground, the sky was now well lit by the early-autumn sun, and a flock of red and brown birds flew over head. The tree leaves on either side of the vast rolling landscape reflected light off their glossy green; they had not yet begun to turn. The air still resembled summer; night however, made it more obvious that the season was receding.

We approached the sewage duct, a great massive stone archway, loosely barred and leading into some unwanted darkness, and then proceeded to move to higher ground so that we were on level with the city, if that were possible; the city took many levels. We saw roads and gates, many of them from this one side. Merchants and travelers were spilling out and coming in, in equal abundance. The city walls where high, and in some places merged with protruding buildings that stuck out. Atop every other guard tower, a banner was erected: sandstone red and tan, a golden lion took the center of each; the lower corners were marked with a triumphant blade, and at the top, each had a goblet.

Abeline sighed “Finally home.” And grinned ear to ear.

We walked a few yards behind a cart and pony and beneath us the road slowly turned from dirt to white brick, which lead us to a powerful gatehouse. Only two guards stood nearby, one looking particularly relaxed, bowed and smirked at Abeline. The other raised his brows at his companion. “Anything we can assist you with my lady and fellow? Our city can confuse the unfamiliar, but all who do not disturb the peace are welcome.”

Abeline still grinning said “Yes actually. One moment.” She unfolded her note while Ashe walked in behind us. The two men saluted him as he walked past.

“Hey Ashe!” I called out.

He turned. I mimicked a soldier, held up my shield and pounded a fist against it. He chuckled accidently and shook his head at me. “Leafe, you’ll do well here with that spirit. And I mean to check up on the two of you soon. But first there is something I need to look into.” I gave him an understanding nod.

Abeline turned and waved. “Oh yes, ta-ta lovvie, best wishes and all that.” He waved, nodded and headed down a bustling street. She turned back to the guard who had slipped a little closer to her. She pushed him back gently with one finger. “Ah ah ah… easy there slick.” She pointed back at the note. “Now, how do I get to The Prancing Witch?”

Entry 8: Guilty in Green

What is this? I pulled a crooked twig out of my hair. We were entering the old wood. People usually left this area alone.

Markus started “This used to be a natural preserve. Lords only would stroll through here hunting the big buck. Now it’s mostly forgotten.”

I replied “Mostly?”

“Yep. Thought you’d know about this… anyhow, yep! Druids still come here; druids forget nothing.”

“Is that so?

His voice sank “More than you know.” He shuddered and clanked his teeth. “Anyhow…”

We marched on for miles through jagged thorns and the thickest brush. Sometimes it seemed that he’d purposefully take the most difficult path. We’d approach a trail, take about five paces down it and then he’d veer off into some sticklers.

Ughh “Why are we walking through thorns?”

He’d jovially sing “It-sa-thiiis way! This way today-oh-ohhh-oh…”

There were some small broken dead branches that suggested maybe… just maybe perhaps some form of life trudged through these impassible woods in the last few months. But to meet druids out here? Unless they flew I didn’t see how this was possible.

My companion stumbled over his own foot. Oh gods… please don’t be drunk. Then he caught the other foot in a protruding root, just barely catching his balance by hopping on his opposite leg. He bent back so far that I thought he was bound to plummet on the crown of his head.

“Oh ho! Still got it.” He tried to silently belch and the smell of rum saturated the air around us. I helped stabilize him and he smirked. His breath reeked so strongly my face shriveled as if I had eaten a lemon whole; I could feel my guts churn. He removed the bottled from inside his cloak and attempted to take a swig of it. Dear God, It was empty.

“What in Oshrildin… I didn’t even see you drinking it.”

His body wiggled like jelly. “Ahaaa… hic-sneaky sneak-ic-y… ah…”

He fell back on his arse. Great, Trondelag’s most wanted and my savior is drunk. I looked around. Green thickets and leaves, brown trunks and dirt, and grey decaying wood. Ahead were some boulders.

“Are we even going the right way?”

“We go… that-a-waaay!” He sent the bottle flying some 60 foot ahead, shattering it on the boulders, sending glass shrapnel flying every which way.

“If I didn’t need you I swear-“

“Swear what? Ohhh-hoho, go on. Swear what I dare you. I dare you. Please by all means finish that sentence.”

He attempted to stand with no avail. He fell flat on his back, a dead branch cracked under him and I saw the moment of panic take his face. When he realized his back had not broken he mustered up his don’t fuck with me face again and opened the front of his cloak and then held his tunic open with both hands exposing his chest.

“Come-on then! You’ll what! “

A moment of silence passed; clouds moved above us giving way to sunlight, the wood lit a light, luminescent green.

The angelic, soft nervous voice I fell in love with filled my ears and tickled my spine.

“He’ll do nothing because he is a true gentleman. Gather your composure Markus. This is Sir Ashe, a front-line battalion Knight whom has served in over three wars and survived nine individual battles. “

Her face blushed Ruby red. ” You will show respect!”

 I turned to gaze upon my darling Merette. She was adorned in pale green robes, flowing, yet thin. Her form was noticeable; the curved aspects of her body were delicately contoured by the fabric. She had no hood; instead she adorned a small tiara decorated with bits of elk antler. Around her neck lay bulky bone necklaces and she had wrapped vines around her waist like a monk’s rope.

______________________________________________________________

Leafe

The Paladin had stopped sharing his tale, much to Abeline’s dismay.

She nudged him on but with every suggestion to continue he seemed more and more irked with her. His face seemed almost guilty.

Eventually she gave him some rest and after a long silent march he said “I beaded her that night, unmarried, in the wild, and as an occultist. I beaded her still and have never felt a greater poison consume my heart.”

Abeline stopped rapt as a statue. “Excuse me? Occultist? Eh-hem! She was a druid Sir Ashe and a noble young lady at that it seems. She adored you. Occultist? Please, leave the black magicks in more capable hands if you would be so kind. Your angel has not interest in things of this nature.” She cup her palms and a small flame sprout forth.

“I thought I would have my Merette, in sanctity, as noble clergy, in my chambers… forever my angel. That Merret will still live on in my memory, false though it may be.”

“She loved you, probably still does!” At this point Abeline was talking a mile a minute. “She sacrificed for you, saved your life! You know that fog that rescued you, the shattering axe? Yeah, thank the druids you hate.”

He stopped. Kneeling down he pulled off his leather pack, reached inside, and pulled out a burlap sack. He opened it. I shielded my eyes from the gleaming light. “See these? These are the remains of the axe that would have had my head. Merret’s cult gathered these for me. They had nothing to do with the axe shattering. They intended the fog to initiate quicker. So tell me witch, what saved my life? Was it black magick or Oshrildin’s glory? Glory that I had forsaken for the shadow of a woman?”

There was a strong silence.

“If you can’t tell me, then we have spoken enough about Merette and magick for one day.”

He gathered up his bag and continued on. I put my arm on Abeline’s shoulder. “Well, we asked.” And then we followed behind him. It shouldn’t be long now.

Entry 7: Finishing the Bottle

Inside the rotting tavern, we found ourselves a couple barstools that resembled chopping stumps. I’ve pulled corpses from the fray of combat with less dagger-holes in them. We sat ourselves down amongst a gnome and a child who sat eating breakfast at the bar.

The child didn’t turn its head or speak, and from the side of its head alone, I could not say whether it was a boy or girl.

The gnome was a clean and well-kempt. In all manners evident he appeared to be a perfect gentleman.  He looked over at me and my hooded… whatever he was, and gave us a little nod.

“Mistress will be back in just a minute. Just drawing the little one’s bath.” He said in a peppy, nasally voice.

My hooded friend lifted up his arms, clad with brown leather bracers, and pulled his forest-green hood back to resemble his face, but still left it resting on the top of his head. I could see now, some long blond hair slipping out. His face was friendly, smiling, and stubble suggested that he hadn’t shaved in at least a few days.

His warmly replied “No problem little friend, we’re in no hur-“

                “’—Little!’ What do you know of ‘little’ giant? I happen to be the tallest gnome in all of Trondelag.” He stood on the bar stool, but his stubby fists and his waist, and stared the two of us down most intently.”

The mistress came strolling down the stairs, “Calm yourself Fiodor. These two lost dogs aren’t worth your time.” She walked behind the bar, bent forward to collect something from a lower bar-shelf and came back up producing an unmarked bottle of some dark liquid.

“Dogs?” My companion rebutted, “We are courteous men, whom—“

                “—Dogs.” She said. “You’re a dog Markus, and your shiny friend here is a shiny dog.”

My confusion must have manifested upon my face in some form.

She took notice while she poured two small clay mugs with the liquid. “Oh, you don’t know do you? Well, this one” she nodded at Markus “is no good.”

Markus hoped up on the edge of his stool. “Look woman, I just saved the man’s life!”

                She slid the two mugs forward. Markus grabbed his and slumped back on his stool. “Markus, you’re a dog, and as much as I hate to say it, a very handsome dog.” She reached out and pinched his chin. “Sometimes even a nobel dog. But a dog is a dog, and I will not forget what you’ve done. Chara, come on little one, time for your bath.” The youngster picked out a little potato out of its breakfast bowl, popped it in its mouth, slid down, and followed its mother up the stairs.

The gnome took another glare and scuttled off into the backroom mumbling something ill-phrased to himself.

By that time Markus had just drained his mug of vile. “Gonna finish that?” He pointed at mine.

                “What is this?”

“I thought you said you liked rum?”

                “I haven’t said a word this entire time.”

“Right, so you haven’t. But you are now, so that’s good. Mind if I?” he wrapped a finger around the handle of mug and slowly slid it to him, as if he was being sneaky. “There we go… Like I was saying earlier, I saved you. Well, she had a lot to do with it I suppose. And then there were the druids who summoned that fog… But I—I was the one who found you in the alley. Ah, ha! See, where would you be without me?”

                I slunk my head down into my palms and tried to process the cataclysm that was consuming my life. What was all my service for? All for nothing. They will find me. “They will kill me and Merette will see me die disgraced.” I spoke my mind mistakenly.

“Merette, little clergy girl, about yay big?” he gestured the height with his hand. “She’s the one who saved ya.”

He had two more drinks, stole the bottle from behind the counter and we hit the streets. We walked down old roads which I have never seen; he told me we were heading to the old sacred grove.