Lady, Warrior, Healer, Thief

By Leslie Ann Miller

Disclaimer: There is some violence in this story.



CHAPTER 7: GIDEON CITY

Wraith was miserable the entire journey to the human city. She clung tightly to Jewels and kept her face buried in the girl's back. Mostly she recited blackelf poetry to herself to keep her mind off what she was doing and where she was. Keen hinted that she had some idea for a perfect disguise for her, but until the warrior had a chance to visit some acquaintance in the city, Wraith was supposed to masquerade as an islander. While she wasn't exactly sure what an islander was, she understood that she wouldn't be expected to understand the local language and could go about keeping her face and skin hidden without anyone thinking it odd.

Since Markisander had a reputation for being a widely traveled adventurer, she was supposed to be his long lost daughter, or something to that effect. "If it comes up, let them believe what they will," Keen shrugged.

It was a ragged and tattered group that finally rode under the arched west gate of the city. They came with a crowd of others early in the morning, and the guards paid them little heed as they rode by.

The noise and smells of the human city were overpowering to Wraith. Although they had found and purchased a thin veil to cover her face at one of the outer villages, she still kept her eyes closed against the blinding light as they lost themselves in the winding streets.

"We can't can't go to the Black Lion Inn," Keen said as they clopped along leisurely. "Too many might recognize me and start asking questions."

"How about the Dancing Boar?" Markisander asked.

"That's where the Blackmace Swords drink, isn't it?" Keen asked.

"Yes."

"Better not, then. I owe the innkeeper for a broken table..."

"Isn't that where the fellow made the comment about your scar?" Merlynn asked.

"Indeed," Keen grinned. "I broke his face and the table with it, and Merlynn healed him after," she explained to Mar. "All for a price, of course. Paid for our dinner but not the table."

Mar chuckled in appreciation.

"How about the Crystal Goblet?" Lornon asked.

"Too expensive," Keen and Mar said at the same time. "And too close to Merchants Row," Keen added. "We wouldn't fit in."

"You know," Merlynn said thoughtfully, "I often pass a small inn on the way to the Lady's Temple. It's off Temple Way near the Temple district, just down from the docks. It's probably used by pilgrims. We wouldn't stand out being poor travelers, and it seemed like a quiet place. I think it's called the Katarina's Heel."

"Never heard of it," Markisander said.

"Neither have I," Lornon said.

"Sounds perfect," Keen laughed.

It seemed to take forever to get to the inn. Wraith simply couldn't believe the human city was so huge and diverse. She tried to deal with the assault on her senses by attempting to identify as much as she could without looking - from the terrifying rumble of wagons and what Jewels called "carriages" on cobbled streets to the shouts of merchants and the stench of human waste. It was so different from the blackelf Home. Home was silent, clean, almost pristine in comparison. The human city was simply overwhelming. Even the small western human villages were nothing like this!

When they finally reached the Katarina's Heel, Wraith was wishing heartily she'd never left her peaceful cave. There was no way she'd ever be able to escape if trouble happened here. So many humans... What in the names of the Gods of Darkness was she, a blackelf, doing here?!

They dismounted and tied their horses to the hitch out front. Wraith barely had time to note the smell of water and fish in the air before Merlynn put a hand on her shoulder to guide her through the door. She stumbled slightly on the step, but Merlynn caught her before she fell.

It was darker inside, and Wraith hazarded a peek around. The common room was filled with chairs and tables. The few patrons were watching them curiously, and Wraith realized that her stumble had caught their attention. Her stomach knotted in sudden fear, but as Keen stomped forward calling for the innkeeper they returned to their meals and private conversations.

A large, muscular man with a bristling red beard came out of a back room wiping his hands on his stained white smock. "Greetings!" the man said enthusiastically in a booming voice. "Welcome to Katarina's Heel. How may I help you?"

Keen and Markisander exchanged glances.

"We'd like room and board for three nights," Lornon said when they hesitated. "How much do you charge?"

"How many rooms?"

"Two."

"From out of city?"

Lornon nodded. "We've come to visit the Temple District."

The man looked them over thoroughly, from Keen's scar and Markisander's scuffed leather armor to Jewels' unmatching boots. "Are you a healer?" he asked Merlynn.

She nodded.

He smiled broadly, stroking his beard. "Well, for the healer I'll offer you the rooms at two silver for the three nights. Food is separate and you pay when you eat. Drink is included in the price of the meal." He fixed Keen, Lornon, and Markisander with a warning stare. "I must ask, however, that you leave all weapons behind when you enter the common room to eat or drink. I run a peaceful inn and abide no fighting."

Keen looked as if she were going to protest, but Merlynn put a hand on her shoulder. "We understand," the healer said. "And we will do as you ask."

He nodded and showed Merlynn, Jewels, and Wraith up a back stairway to their rooms while the others went to fetch their saddlebags and tend to the horses. Wraith looked around curiously. She'd never seen the inside of a human inn before. When the innkeeper disappeared back down the stairs, she asked what the names of all the objects were.

"This is a bed," Jewels laughed, flopping down on it. "A real, honest to gosh bed...D-Do you not have them?"

Wraith shook her head. "We sleep in sand. What could be more comfortable?"

Merlynn rolled her eyes. "Lots of things that I can think of. This is a table," she said, tapping her fingers on the wooden board under the window.

"And Merlynn is sitting on a chair."

"And that is a mirror," Merlynn said, pointing. "My goodness, this is a nice inn. The innkeeper gave us a very good price."

Jewels made a face as she looked at herself in the mirror. "Why d-did Mar and Keen look so suspicious, then?"

Merlynn grinned. "Keen is used to places where the innkeeper greets you with `Sit down and mind your manners or I'll call the city guards...' - if they bother greeting you at all. And you know how she is about her weapons. That ax is permanently attached to her body. Can you imagine her putting it down to eat? I'm sure she'll find somewhere else to have dinner."

"Well, I thought the innk-keeper was very nice," the girl said, trying to run her fingers through her tangled hair.

"Me too," the healer agreed.

Not knowing what else to do, Wraith sat down in the middle of the floor. The wood felt very strange and warm.

"You know, I don't think my b-brothers would even recognize me now," Jewels remarked, looking in the mirror thoughtfully. She turned at the sound of heavy boots coming down the hallway.

A moment later Keen pushed open the door and tossed their saddle bags on the floor beside Wraith. "Merlynn," she said, "Why don't you sleep with Mar and Lornon. That way we'll have a Sword in each room, in case of trouble. They'll probably even let you have the bed to yourself..."

Merlynn smiled pleasantly. "I certainly hope so!"

Keen laughed. "At least you won't have to put up with my snoring."

"That's a point," Merlynn agreed, and picked up her bag. She winked at Wraith as she left.

Keen frowned down at Wraith. "That veil does not work very well at all. I have an idea for a better disguise, but again, I have to see if my friend, first, has kept it, and second, if he did, if he will part with it."

"If I am to do any thieving, I would prefer to wear black," Wraith said.

"Agreed. As I said, it will be perfect. You'll see. I suppose I should get you something black, too, Jewels. Do you have anything against wearing trousers?"

The girl shook her head, doubtfully. "No, not that I k-know of....I've never worn them b-before..."

Keen snorted. "Is there anything else you need to get into the Castle?"

Jewels looked at Wraith, then shrugged. "Rope?"

While Wraith knew that she would not need a rope to scale the castle walls, she doubted that Jewels could do so.

"And grappling hooks, too," Keen nodded. "A rope ladder for Jewels. What about lock picks? Can you open locks?"

"Locks?" Wraith asked, puzzled.

"Locks," Keen repeated, turning the bolt on their door to demonstrate. "You know, to keep doors from being opened."

Wraith got up to examine the mechanism. In Home, they did not have doors. Instead, they hung woven tapestries across the entrances of the family dwelling areas. While the blackelf caverns themselves were well protected by guards and traps; inside, there were no doors, no locks. It was an odd concept, this human need to lock each other out. They could not even share each others thoughts... were they not separated enough?

Standing back, she used the Talent to turn the bolt.

Keen shuddered. "Gives me the creeps to see that. Still, it could be decidedly useful... Saves me the cost of lockpicks." She stared at the door for a moment, then looked back Wraith. "You know, you could make a fortune in this city as a thief." She shook her head. "You'd turn the guild upside down... Well, I'm off to stable the horses, get you both some clothes, and get re-acquainted with the city. You two stay here. I'll take Mar with me."

Wraith looked around the small room when the warrior had left. "What shall we do?"

Jewels stretched out on the bed. "Sleep," she said dreamily.

"Or dice," Merlynn suggested as she opened the door. Lornon followed her with a wide grin on his face.

He tossed six squares of ivory onto the floor. "It's been awhile since I've had the chance."

"We must introduce Wraith to the more sophisticated of human pastimes," Merlynn said, sitting down cross-legged.

"Ugh! I'll p-pass, thank you," Jewels said politely, working a boot off with one foot. "I was always taught that d-dicing was vulgar, which m-means I would probably enjoy it, but I'm too t-tired."

Lornon sat down beside Merlynn and glanced at Wraith. "Well? You in?"

Wraith smiled. "I in."

"Great," Lornon said, "But you must swear not to use your magic to fix the dice, all right?"

Although she wasn't sure how or why the dice were broken, Wraith promised, and they spent the afternoon dicing.

***

Keen and Mar returned before dinner to deliver the goods they'd purchased, but left again soon after to find a "suitable place to eat."

Merlynn chuckled. "They're both looking for trouble. I can see it in Keen's eyes. They'll probably head to the up-town docks to start a brawl. She'd better be careful though, lest someone recognize her. She wouldn't want to have to explain to the King why she isn't hunting Wraith in the blackelf tunnels..."

Jewels and Wraith examined the clothes that Keen had brought. For Jewels there was a pair of matching black boots, a dark blue tunic, and a pair of dark brown trousers which were slightly too long in the leg. She rolled them up and tucked them into the boots.

For Wraith there was another pair of boots made of soft black leather and a matching pair of black leather gloves. She pulled on a loose long-sleeved black blouse over a pair of black pants which tied by strings at the waist and ankles. She also put on a black leather belt with loops for holding daggers and a long, wide strip of black cloth with a single thin red stripe wrapped around her head to cover her face.

"It's brilliant," Merlynn said, looking at her.

"Brilliant?" Wraith asked, unsure of the human's use of the word.

"Yes," Merlynn nodded. "You look just like a Brengarian assassin. You're even the right size. As Keen said, it's the perfect disguise. They aren't allowed to show their faces, and everyone is positively terrified of them. Nobody will bother you when you're dressed like that."

"Except other B-Brengarian assassins, of c-course," Jewels pointed out. "D-Do you th-think this is wise?"

"Well," the healer said thoughtfully, "I don't think any of this is particularly wise. Stealing horses, sneaking into Gideon Castle...Mother of Trees, real Brengarian assassins are the least of our worries. And this at least will provide the perfect cover for Wraith. Goodness knows whether anyone would have believed that islander story. And we simply can't allow her to be discovered. I wonder where Keen found a friend with such an outfit?"

"What is a Brengarian assassin?" Wraith asked.

Merlynn shrugged. "I've heard that they are members of a religious death cult that originated in the islands. They have very unusual fighting styles. The assassins appear in the city from time to time, usually at night. I've been told that they take contracts through the thieves' guild, and that they guarantee their work, though only the wealthiest can afford to pay for their 'services.' I do know that they seem to kill with ruthless abandon. I've been asked to say prayers for more than one of their victims... innocents who surely just got in the assassin's way. They're known to be deadly fighters. Some people claim they even use magic! Thankfully, there do not seem to be many of them. It's considered very bad luck -- seeing one, that is."

A knock on the door interrupted her speculations, and Lornon poked his head into the room. "All done?" His jaw dropped when he saw Wraith. "Gods above, I thought for a moment..."

Merlynn grinned. "It's perfect, isn't it?"

"Yes, if you want to give half the city the fright of their lives. I thought we were trying to avoid drawing attention to ourselves!"

"Well, it will keep people from bothering us..."

"I'll say."

"How do I look?" Jewels asked, interrupting.

Lornon bowed, and kissed her hand. "You look beautiful, Lady."

Jewels sighed. "It's a l-lovely suggestion, anyway. Thank you, Lornon."

"I mean it," he said. "Indeed, if you were not my half sister, I'd seriously consider asking you to be my Queen."

Jewels blushed.

He kissed her on the cheek. "You ARE beautiful, Lady."

Jewels was still blushing when they went down to dinner. Wraith stayed by herself in the room.

After dinner Merlynn suggested that she and Wraith visit the Lady's Temple. Lornon and Jewels stayed in the common room to listen to the travel tales of the other visitors.

Not wishing to disturb the patrons downstairs, Wraith slipped out of the third story window, testing the rope and grappling hook which Keen had brought. She met Merlynn in front of the inn, and together they made their way down Temple Way into the Temple district.

The streets were not entirely empty, but those who saw them coming were fast to make an escape. Some darted into temples, others turned down side streets. Wraith had to smile... dressed like this, perhaps she could escape the city afterall, if needed.

There were many temples of various shapes and sizes lining both sides of the Way. The larger temples had the river at their back. Some temples were small stone houses, others were large structures with pillars and stone stairs. Some had gardens with fountains, a statue, and little else. Merlynn told her the names of the Gods as they went by each temple, but Wraith did not remember all their names.

Humans, apparently, worshipped as many Gods as the Blackelves. Interestingly, Merlynn's Goddess seemed to be one of the most important. The Blackelves, too, worshipped a Lady; but she was not so powerful as the Father of all Gods, the Lord of Darkness.

The Lady's temple occupied an area larger than several city blocks. On one end was a huge, stone building that Merlynn said was the hospital. This, apparently, was where humans came for healing. To the side of the hospital was a tall stone wall running the rest of the way around the temple grounds. In the center was a low archway, and it was to this entrance that Merlynn led them.

A young woman sat in the entry beneath the arch, and she looked up as they approached. Wraith could see a garden behind her, and beyond the garden, more stone buildings. The young woman looked at them in surprise, but she displayed little fear at the site of Wraith in her disguise. "Welcome to the Lady's temple," she said. "Please leave your weapons here."

Merlynn left her quarterstaff in the entry and motioned for Wraith to leave her daggers.

After disarming they walked under the archway into the main temple. The stars overhead provided the only light, but it was oddly stronger and clearer than the starlight in the streets, and Wraith had to wait for her eyes to adjust to the sudden brightness. Merlynn explained that the garden itself was actually the place of worship, or temple, and the surrounding low stone buildings providing shelter and storage for the healers were not considered to be holy spaces. In smaller towns and villages, the Lady's temples were simply referred to as "groves," always centered on a sacred tree, with a healer or priestess in attendance, but not necessarily any stone buildings or walls. At the far end of the garden, barely visible through the crowd of trees and plants, was a small fountain and pool beneath an enormous tree of a kind that Wraith had never seen before. It had wide, jagged leaves, and it was not as tall as some of the trees in the mountains, but it trunk was knotted and knarled giving it the appearance of tremendous age and girth. She guessed that this was the sacred tree of this particular temple.

Merlynn led Wraith through the garden to the fountain's edge and kneeled beneath the tree to say a prayer.

Wraith did not notice where the priestess came from, but suddenly a tall, gray robed figure stepped forward from the shadows. The woman's hair was snow white, but her face was young and peaceful. Her blue eyes had a distant look to them, as if she were focusing on something far, far away.

Merlynn looked up. "Priestess," she said in pleased surprise.

The woman smiled. "Merlynn. You have returned --despite your expectations..."

Merlynn nodded, but offered no explanation. "I did not mean to disturb you..."

"Nonsense," the woman said with a slight wave of her hand. "The Lady told me I should come to the garden, and I was astonished to notice a Brengarian assassin entering our temple." She acknowledged Wraith with a slight bow. "While all the Lady's children are welcome here, we have never before had one of your calling come to visit us. I wished to greet you in person."

Wraith nodded, uncertain how to reply.

Merlynn took the woman's hands in her own. "Priestess, she is no assassin. She is a blackelf."

The woman's eyebrows raised slightly, and then she smiled. "Then we are indeed most honored."

Wraith stared at the human in amazement.

Merlynn grinned. "You see Wraith, we are the Lady's healers. You will find no hatred in this temple, and should you ever need help or sanctuary, you can find it here. So long as you come here with peaceful intentions -- and leave your weapons in the entry -- no one will harm you."

The woman nodded. "What Merlynn says is true. The Lady longs for peace between our peoples, and we will not violate her wishes..." She turned to Merlynn. "You are in trouble. I can see it in your face. What happened in the mines? Is your friend Keen here with you?"

"Oh, Jilane," Merlynn sighed. "I thought that I would die with Keen on that mad quest. But now I'm certain I will die with Keen on another equally mad quest."

The woman frowned. "Perhaps we should sit down," she suggested, and led them to a long stone bench to one side. "Start at the beginning," she said, and Merlynn began her story.

By the time she finished, the sickle moon was directly overhead.

"Lady of Mercy," the woman said slowly in the silence that followed. She looked at the moon. "You know, perhaps I should not tell you this, but my heart tells me it will do no harm. Duke Blackmace has been coming to the temple to pray. He has not done so since his wife died. Indeed, he asked me to pray for his daughter, and to ask the Lady to forgive him for some terrible deed he had committed. I did not understand what he meant by this at the time, although I did as he requested. Perhaps you should tell the Princess. I cannot help but think that you need all the allies you can find, and it may be that the Duke will be sympathetic to his…. step-daughter."

"He ordered his men to drown her in the river, and only Keen's intervention saved her life," Merlynn said. "Elianna is terrified of him, and she is the only one of us who can approach him."

The Priestess sighed heavily. "Well, perhaps the knowledge may still be of use. The tree has been restless, Merlynn, and the fountain cloudy. The whispers in the wind tell us to beware of the King's advisor, Slanger, a Wizard. One of my acolytes saw a vision of Dragonfire erupting, and I had hoped it was a vision of the distant future. But now I know that it has already happened. The Banished One was put to sleep by the Lady's hand, but Dragonfire tells us that he has awakened. I fear that there is more at stake here than the throne of Midlothia, Merlynn. The Banished One must not escape his prison, or He will try to undo much of the Lady's good."

"Is it so serious?" Merlynn asked.

"Can you not feel it?"

Merlynn shook her head. "I'm part of it, I suppose." She struggled for a moment, searching for the right words. "It... it feels like another wild venture with Keen. I am not afraid to die, Jilane, but...but this! You frighten me. Am I worthy?"

"Gracious," the woman said. "Is anyone worthy? My first thought is to say `better you than me'. I could do no better than you, certainly, and probably much worse. The Gods have their reasons for the things they do. If the Avatar told you to do this, then they will help you to accomplish whatever needs to be done."

"Do you believe it really was an Avatar, then?"

"Did you, when he spoke to you?"

"Yes."

"Then it probably was. Time and distance will cause the mind to doubt, but you must trust that first belief."

"Yes," Merlynn said firmly. "Yes, you are right. I must not start to doubt myself now. But the Banished One... I have wondered much about him on the journey here... What has he got to do with all this? Surely the gods imprisoned him in such a way as to prevent his escape!"

"Certainly," the Priestess said. "But how that is, I do not know."

"I do," Wraith whispered, and the humans turned toward her in surprise. "The Gods of Darkness asked us to give up the Out in exchange for the Lord's bounty In. Our duty was to guard the Banished One's prison. Our oldest ceremonies are based upon the myth...or...rather, what most of my people believe to be a myth."

A sudden breeze stirred the leaves in the giant tree.

An airy, whispery voice seemed to speak:

"Inner, Outer

West and East

To fight the Evil

Soon released..."

"Tell us more," the Priestess asked, standing.

"Beware of Slanger," the breeze whispered, and, with a final rustle of leaves, fell silent.

Wraith shivered. "Priestess," she asked, "do you believe that human Gods and blackelf Gods communicate with each other? Perhaps, perhaps they are even the same, with different emphasis and different names...."

"I do not know," she answered slowly.

"My mother, the blackelf Queen, believes that the human miners are trying to free the Banished One. I had never believed that there was a Banished God before. I had always thought that the Queen was using the myth as an excuse to kill humans. But now I am not so certain. If the myth exists for both humans and blackelves.... Perhaps the Queen knows something that I do not."

Merlynn nodded sharply. "When we were in West-mine, Fogart, the governor, mentioned that they were trying to find the motherlode -- under mount Dragonfire -- at the direction of Slanger!"

"Slanger again," the Priestess said. "Well, I don't think we need the breeze to tell us that Slanger is trying to free the Banished One, then. I wonder if he's working for the King or on his own behalf. Or both. I must think this over carefully. It is clear that action is needed. Do you believe you can successfully steal the royal scepter?"

Merlynn nodded. "Elianna grew up in the castle and knows the enchanted passwords, and Wraith has some unusual magical talents... Together we hope they can succeed."

"And then what will you do?"

"Well, Lornon will declare himself rightful ruler."

The Lady shook her head. "It won't be that simple. If he is indeed the rightful ruler, which remains to be proven, bring him here, to our sanctuary, where you will have some protection. It is difficult to say how long the King and Slanger will respect the temples' ancient law, but it may provide you some time." She smiled at Merlynn wryly. "Let us fervently hope that we can stop Slanger before he frees the Banished God. Otherwise the Tree and the Temple may not be left standing very long."

She escorted them to the entry, and as Wraith slipped her daggers into the loops on her belt she heard the Priestess humming softly to herself as she made her way back to the tree.

Merlynn watched her go.

"She does not seem too disturbed by the possibility of the destruction of the temple," Wraith commented.

"No," Merlynn said. "She is closer to the Lady than most. When you have felt Her love, it is difficult to fear death and destruction. She will grieve, yes, but there is no use in crying for what has not yet happened."

Wraith pondered the healer's words, and together they walked the lamplit cobbled streets back to the Katarina's Heel.



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