“… of course, we’ll make every attempt to get everyone a part who wants one. Keep in mind, if ya played last year, you should probably wait at least one year before ya audition again. Except Lord Pelgrin, o’ course. And given that our high lord isn’t here to choose a part to audition for…”
At this, the small crowd that had gathered in anticipation around the center stage in Asher’s market grinned knowingly.
The master of ceremonies, tradition dictates, changes hands every year as well and is drawn by lottery, tickets for which are acquired throughout the year by attending the farmer’s market. Therefore, the more one attends, the more chances one gets of having the honor of starring in the festival. This particular year that role went to Gattican Thornbum, the old headmaster of the Asher schoolhouse who was retiring at the end of the year. He always fancied himself a man of great showmanship, and while few agreed with this as very little of his talent and charisma existed outside the palatial boundaries of his mind, this added an ironic air of humor about the situation. Gattican tipped the hat used to cover a perfectly bald head, twitched his peppery, coarse mustache and chortled, “… we get to choose a part for him!”
Yes, it was the first time anyone had ever applauded for anything Gattican Thornbum had ever done in front of an audience, but that riotous applause, peppered with whistles and cheers, made up for a lifetime of polite half-smiles. It was the best day of Gattican’s life, and the townsfolk of Asher were pleased as well; they would get to play a jolly prank on their beloved lord by bestowing him with the funniest part possible for a hulking, bearded wizard in a position of authority to play, and most of them had the same role in mind.
“The yak! He’ll be the yak!” one voice managed to screech between laughs.
No one paid any attention to whomever it was that actually said this. Instead, they all clapped even harder as their own suggestions were affirmed and, after a minute or so of indulgence, they went about assigning the rest of the parts: the Hero, the Scourge of Winter, the Thief, the Two-Headed Goose, the Hermit, the Enchanted Goat Cheese Wheel, and of course, the Harvest Goddess. Most of the parts were snapped up eagerly, especially that of the Two-Headed Goose, the character that most agree has most of the best lines. The part of the Harvest Goddess is always assigned last, being the most important role in the production. By this time, the anticipation was buzzing over the crowd as Gattican, now feeling faint from the excitement and having unbuttoned his overcoat to keep from overheating, announced:
“And now, the coveted part of the Harvest Goddess. As you remember, last year she was played by Grumbles the dog, who I daresay gave us the most... er, endearing and yet... well, potentially blasphemous performance in Asher’s history...” Gattican was not fond of poking fun at the Harvest Goddess. All of the other parts were fair game, but after all, she was the one the festival was paying tribute to in hopes that the next year’s crop would be just as good, and so to his mind it was hardly fair to spend that time making jokes about taking the Harvest Goddess for a walk and remembering to clean up after her. “So,” he rumbled with a sudden injection of sobriety, “This year, why not choose a young lady to play the Harvest Goddess who will truly do justice to her glory, beauty and generous nature? What say all of you?”
Rumbles of half-agreement went up throughout the crowd. It was tremendous fun having Grumbles be the Harvest Goddess, but few were prepared to deny having a lovely maiden play the part, either. Nestled in the middle of the crowd and now forgotten despite his outburst earlier, Shard nudged Eidolyn from within his disguise which featured a tall hat that he never would have worn normally, but worked wonders for concealing a large glowing purple horn.
“That’s you! Go on!”
“But you promised…” Eidolyn hissed.
“I’ll keep up my end of the deal, don’t you worry. But for now, we must secure that part for you!”
“Do I have to be the Harvest Goddess? Couldn’t I at least get a smaller part?”
“Well, not now that all the rest of them are taken.”
″Hmph!″ Eidolyn forced herself forward, pausing before taking the stage to see if she would be invited aboard. When she was not, she decided that she would rather attain the stage completely instead of standing there like a lump neither on nor off it. Thankfully, partway up she was coaxed further by the crowd.
“Here you are, my good man! We've got your star!”
“Why, the jam girl!”
“Yes!” Shard spoke up. “Of course, anyone who’s anyone in Asher has seen the fair Eidolyn peddling her simple wares at the market! All true patrons of the market and lovers of the harvest recognize her demure beauty! What better representative of the Harvest Goddess than this humble maiden who wishes only to delight us with spreadable delectables grown from our rich, native soil?”
My goodness, Eidolyn thought, if Shard were ever to quit being a hermit, he’d make an overwhelmingly effective politician. Or salesman.
This got the crowd going, and before anyone could show him up by coming up with something clever, Gattican shouted out, “Well then, I think we have our Harvest Goddess! Now, there’s a lot to do, so let’s have everyone who got a part join me at town hall and we’ll get you your costumes.”
The crowd had already begun to dissipate, the source of entertainment having passed and the man on the stage having turned back to the old, pragmatic school headmaster trying to corral actors like misbehaving children. Very few who did not intend to audition for parts in the Harvest Goddess play had attended this meeting anyway, partly because many wished to be surprised as to which of their neighbors would be playing whom and also because it was seven in the morning.
And now Eidolyn could see Shard scanning the crowd of amateur actors thoughtfully, like a predator deciding which prey item was the most suitable. Oh, gods! He meant to somehow replace one of the actors! That was how he planned to get in on the play without having to reveal himself in front of the crowd! She knew Shard well enough by now that there was no doubt.
“Shard!” she whispered as soon as she could weave through the dissolving crowd. “What in Sofia’s name are you doing?”
“I thought that was obvious,” Shard replied. “But don't worry, don’t worry. The actor playing the hero will come to no harm at all, simply meeting with a distraction of proportions severe enough to keep them occupied for the duration of the play.”
“Oh, o’ course you’re gonna be the ‘ero,” Gryphon grumped. “Be the ‘ermit. Much more suitable, 's wot I call it.”
But Galthony Ramruddy the asparagus farmer was already playing the hero, Eidolyn recalled. She wasn’t intimately acquainted with him, but she knew him well enough to be aware that he was skittish, asthmatic and was able to take a good prank about as well as a constipated minotaur. Actually, she decided, probably not the best choice to play a swashbuckling hero, but he auditioned every year and never got the part, and now the poor man had finally gotten it, only to have it eyed by a man everyone thought was a myth! “Oh, Shard, do choose someone else,” she urged.
“There’s nothing for it,” Shard shrugged with little apparent remorse. “The role of the hero will ensure that I’m on stage as much as possible to keep an eye on that slimy Lord Pelgrin… as long as I’m not debilitated from laughter at the sight of him dressed as a yak. Oh, forcing my arch-foe into public humiliation: it may be my new addiction! If it is not good for my soul, it certainly feels like it is! I daresay I shall miss the opportunity to make him look like a fool when he’s rotting in a dungeon.”
“You’ve thought about this a lot, haven’t you?” Eidolyn prompted.
“It may be,” Shard admitted with a private smile, “That I have occasionally lulled myself to a peaceful sleep with the thought of Lord Pelgrin irrevocably tossed into some dark oubliette without access to grooming implements.”
For the moment, Eidolyn ignored the blackness of this statement in favor of a rare showing of sarcasm. “No mirror? You ruthless beast, you,” she smirked.
The effect of the warm, protective smile that alit on Shard’s face was oddly chilling. Even in this gesture of kindness there was a sense of his mystery and secrecy that shone through as he tapped her cheek lightly and urged, “Go on. I do believe you have a costume to try on. You probably know better than I what lies in store for you throughout the day. I probably don’t need to tell you that I’ll be hiding most of the time, but keeping watch over you. Perhaps this is just what you need, Eidolyn; I’ve kept you for too long locked safely away in my tree. That sort of existence might suit me, but the fact that people enjoy your company and warmed so rapidly to the idea of you playing the Harvest Goddess reminded me that this is your place. Enjoy the day, Eidolyn. See old friends, amass new ones, and briefly forget about your troubles. They’ll be over soon, at any rate.”
Eidolyn was suddenly shocked by the sudden instinct to protect. She knew that Shard was going out of his way for her and risking more than she probably could estimate, and she wanted to keep him from doing so with such desperation that for a moment, an outburst of refusal hung on her lips. But then, she realized, Shard seemed to feed on feelings of inner strength. Perhaps, for the time, she should not deny him that. “Very well,” she harrumphed hastily in her confusion. “But do take care of yourself.”
To say this was one thing, but to tear herself away was quite another. And Byrri and her friend had not arrived yet. She would not miss seeing her best friend from her previous life in Gelding. An army of Pelgrin's abominations and uniformed lackeys could not keep her from dear Byrri.
“Never mind Shard,” the Gryphon said as he planted his paws and talons stoutly on the cobblestone, puffing out his tawny chest so much that it threatened to overtake his beak. “The king ‘imself, or Sofia ‘erself couldn’t keep me from your side. I daresay even a nice fat squirrel couldn’t distract me.” Tucking his wings tightly in along his sides and lashing his tail about warily, he nodded to Shard. “Go on, ya great peacock. We’ll take care of each ovver ‘ere.”
Shard did leave, taking care to do go in a good state of humors and with more than his usual panache instilled in his stride. The ensuing sense of freedom sent Eidolyn trotting after the rest of the impromptu acting troupe with Gryphon stuck firmly at her heels. It wasn’t just the rustic cliffside town that was bedecked to every rafter, post and awning for the Harvest Festival: nature itself seemed to have made the capricious decision to bow to the wishes of those in its care. For once, the chill, stiff breezes tearing at the worn stone and wood calmed to a tickling, caressing breeze and the sunlight coruscated through the tops of the hardy trees that had managed to achieve heights that brought its highest boughs over Asher’s rooftops, and as the wind puffed at the village playfully, the foliage swayed, sending light and shadow twinkling merrily over the streets. The crisp promise of winter was on every breath, lending a mortal preciousness to the perfect morning.
A dozen kinds of songs intermingled with scores of different smells as food vendors began preparing their lunch dishes early. Strongest were the scents of frying batter and spiced wine that comprised the popular duet of pheasant dumplings and mulled downberry wine that was associated with autumn and the harvest in northern parts of the kingdom. Carts laden with crafts and souvenirs tinkled and clanked over the windworn cobble in rhythm with the thunking and clunking of a cider press from the nearby meadery, and everyone—even Asher natives were just as ensorcelled by all of it as were the tourists. It was as if last year’s festival, and those before it, had never taken place. The harsh northern winter and the grueling summer made the familiar experiences of the Harvest Festival fresh for the people of Asher every year.
And she soon forgot her exhaustion, swept up in one event after another. After trying on the Harvest Goddess outfit and finding that it needed a bit of adjustment, she took the newly-fitted dress out with the cast of the Harvest play out on the streets of Asher to interact with tourists and townsfolk. Everyone had been given character instructions in order to know how to play their part, during which they would be free to enjoy the festival, occasionally convening for events such as the Cabbage Patch Brunch, the Duckling Parade, the Mums’ Dance and the reading of the timeless poetry classic, “The Ten Ballads of Rourick the Haytroll.”
And she was obliged to play the part of the Harvest Goddess at all of these events. Though people seemed to treat the Harvest Goddess with varying amounts of reverie, fear and reverence, from what Eidolyn could tell with her lack of sleep, the Harvest Goddess was both generous and capricious with a love of celebration. She was also silly and flighty, a facade that Eidolyn had quite a hard time getting into, especially given her lack of sleep. With all the endless waving, hugging children, accepting gifts of flowers and dried herbs and posing with tourists for artist sketches, she moved down every street at a crawling pace. When she nearly tripped over her flowing skirts, Gryphon spoke up,
“You want me to take your place, luv? I dun think I could wear the dress, but the tiara should fit between me ears.”
“No, Gryphon. If I could just get away from all of the people… and the light… for just a few minutes… oh, but everyone would miss me.”
“Nonsense, luv. You’re entitled to do as ya please. You’re not gettin’ paid or nuffin, and you’re not due to appear again until the Poor Richard’s Nose tournament.”
“Right,” she nodded. “If I’m to be expected to wear this silly thing and these silly sandals all day and act in a play tonight, it’s only fair that I get some rest. But where to...”
“Oh, Eidolyn! Look at you! Don’t you look a sight! You look exhausted, poor thing! What has the world done to you? Oh, Juve, this is Eidolyn.” The voice behind her, despite the familiarity of belonging to her old friend, caused her to jump embarrassingly.
“Huh. She doesn’t dress much like a gardener.”
“Oh, Juve, she’s wearing a costume, you silly boy!”
“Ah. Yes. I suppose that makes some sense.”
Quickly, Eidolyn put on a polite smile as she whirled around, taking a moment to enjoy her skirts ruffling behind her aside the ribbons streaming from her sandals. Perhaps, at times, there was something to be said for what flowing gowns can do for one's confidence.
Juve was a perfect match for Byrri, so far as Eidolyn could tell. He looked a charming, simple lad with a straightforward demeanor, with dusty blond hair that fell partially over wide, curious brown eyes. He did not look the type to be spontaneous or exceptionally witty, but genuine affection and kindness exuded from the edges of his costume—the back half of a white unicorn with a tail made of strips of linen-- probably an old sheet. Byrri wore the front of the costume, a simple but well-constructed ensemble that Eidolyn would be willing to bet they’d had help constructing. It still had a homespun look about it, though, especially the under-stuffed horn that flopped back and forth between the mismatched button eyes.
“Well, Eidolyn?” Byrri prompted with a bubbly leap, hugging the unicorn head to her chest between cascades of tight curls made frizzy by their imprisonment in the mask. “How have you been? How in Sofia’s name did you manage to get the part of the Harvest Goddess?”
It would be startling indeed to tell her old friend the truth, but she supposed she owed her friend that much. “Analerna, actually.” Before Byrri (or Juve) could voice protest, she added, “Actually quite an interesting place. I found myself enjoying myself, really. If you get the chance, you ought to go. They have this dish—well, it’s a food, really, as it isn’t served on a dish…”
The more they spoke and the more Byrri rolled resiliently with whatever Eidolyn told her, growing more and more curious and excited with each detail, from giant spiders and mud pits to magic storms and fried pastries, the more Eidolyn realized that Byrri was in the wrong costume. Looking down at the flowing whites, yellows and oranges adorned with leaves, vines and berries, she knew that Byrri would not only be the better Harvest Goddess between them, but possibly the best there’d ever been.
“Now,” Byrri said, “What has become of your own beau?” To accentuate her private knowledge of said man, she pointed to her forehead in reference to Shard's horn.
Byrri’s date grew suddenly surprised, scanning the immediate area in shock as if Eidolyn might have a partner that was just nearby, but the whole time they’d been speaking, he’d simply missed them. “What!” Juve gasped, his traditional sensibilities most suddenly and harshly assaulted. “You mean, my dear, that your friend is committed to another and yet is not on his arm?”
“Oh, well, Eidolyn is quite capable of managing on her own. She is not a shawl that simply hangs on one's arm like a decoration, oh my, no! It’s just her way. But really, Eidolyn where is... he?” For a moment, Byrri seemed ready to speak Shard's name directly, but, thank the gods, stopped herself. However, Juve noticed her hesitation with an air of slight puzzlement.
Biting her lip, Eidolyn replied. “Oh, don’t worry. He’ll be by later. He is terribly bashful, you know, despite his... charming but exasperating vanity. Or, perhaps due to it. But, Byrri, I’ve been thinking: don’t you think that a Harvest Goddess would suit you much better than a unicorn?”
“Why, Eidolyn! Are you proposing what I think you are proposing? Forgive my ignorance, but isn’t everyone expecting you to…”
“Oh, Byrri, I know, but I’m no good at this.” More than ever, she felt ridiculous in ribbons and frills. “I’m enjoying the festival, but the character of the Harvest Goddess is just too…” Eidolyn struggled for a moment to arrive at a tactful way to put what she’d been taking for granted in her head for the past few minutes. Besides that, Shard would probably quite insulted to return from wherever he’d gone to and find her having abandoned her post.
Very well; she would compromise. “Byrri, won’t you take my place for just a short time? I know you’ll be a wonderful Harvest Goddess, and I really…”
Byrri’s smile was almost maternal. “You needn’t explain, old friend of mine. I can tell you’re about to collapse. Whatever trouble you’ve gotten yourself embroiled in, it must be exhausting you. If all I’m able to do is provide you with some brief respite, then the gods themselves could not tear me from that duty!”
Eidolyn had never figured Byrri to be such a romantic! It seemed an ideal arrangement: they decided that Gryphon would take Eidolyn for a nap at Shard’s tree, waking her after a couple hours, and she would return in the afternoon for the Harvest play rehearsal—in plenty of time for the final runthrough and the evening performance, and more than enough time to be seen about town in her reluctant role. Eidolyn gently refused Byrri’s request to see Shard’s abode; she felt tenuous enough fleeing Asher for a few hours in order to get much-needed rest. She certainly did not want to bring round any uninvited guests, harmless though they may be.
And so Eidolyn passed along the costume to her friend as quickly as could be arranged, leaving Juve alone with the rear end of the unicorn and looking like nothing so much as a lopsided satyr, but enjoying himself nonetheless.
“She does seem perfect for him,” Eidolyn sighed, suddenly feeling slightly bitter.
“Yeh,” Gryphon agreed. “Er, granted, I don’t know nuffin' about human relations meself, but I suppose they look a right good match to my gryphon eyes. Now, luv, let’s get you safe ‘ome and snug in bed for a few winks. There’s a door to the tree even Shard dun know about. Been meaning to show ya once we was wivvout 'im.”
It was nearly midday now, and Gryphon was expedient in delivering Eidolyn back to Shard’s tree. Taking the now familiar trip, Eidolyn even nodded off from her perch on Gryphon’s back for a short time, and felt the slightest bit more rested upon their arrival at Gryphon’s purported “secret entrance,” a spot enveloped in dirty, stringy roots and the roar of the sea: where the enormous gripping roots of the tree clung to the bleached northern cliffs, a small crack in the trunk could be seen near to the water’s lapping, frothing surface. The lush perfume of cool soil and thriving roots caused her to sigh faintly.
“It’s covered at ‘igh tide,” Gryphon explained as he performed lazy circles around the cliff, “an’ even den you gotta be handy wiv a pair o’ wings to even have a hope of getting in frough ‘ere. Shard’s never found this place from the inside ‘cause the room wot leads into it is... ah, well, you’ll see soon enough.”
Diving down into the shadows, Gryphon lifted them into the shadows past the crashing waves that lashed at the exposed roots. The crack didn’t appear to be an entrance by design, but rather a spot where the living tree’s trunk had been split open by something. The light inside the room, which Eidolyn could sense was large but with a very low ceiling, was sparse, mostly of what little came from outside, lighting from behind shifting piles of utterly unrelated objects in a dim halo. It was easy to trip over things. As her eyes became used to the darkness, she could see that the room was covered in uneven piles of debris. These objects were mostly small: dishes, pens, glasses, toys, cups, tools and bits of money. However, a few larger items loomed in the darkness: a table, a wagon’s wheel, a few boxes, a cushioned throne and several large weapons. The room was restless with the sound of these objects continuously shifting as the piles undulated with a motion suggesting that perhaps something was living under them. “Is…”
“Nah. Trust me, I’ve hunted ‘ere lots o’ times and never found so much as a dormouse. Nuffin' alive 'ere,” Gryphon shrugged as he padded over a large mildewed cushion. “See, fings keep appearing and disappearing from this place, this tree mansion, an’ it all centers round this room. It never looks the same twice between two times you come in, so even if you find somefing 'ere—even a door, it’ll be hard to find it again when you come back.”
Eidolyn staggered out of the way as the sudden appearance of a long length of gold chain dragged a tea set, mostly broken, down around her ankles. And come to think of it, she thought she noticed a stuffed doll that had been propped against a tapestry wink out of the room as she turned. “So this is a place for lost things?”
Even Gryphon seemed to be awed by the mystery of the place, and crept carefully wherever his talons and claws might be put without stepping on something, as if he were afraid that he might disappear himself if he wasn’t careful. He seemed, Eidolyn hoped, to be leading them out of the room to the familiar parts of the tree mansion. This room was fascinating, but incredibly unsettling. “Where things go when they’re lost and where they come back from when they’re found, yeh. I fink it’s from when faeries used to live 'ere. It’s an enchantment that remained after they went away to wherever. I’d meant to show you, but, well… never really got the right time for it.”
“Or maybe lost things come here naturally, somehow. But when something disappears from here when it’s found… how can something be found if it’s sitting in here?” This couldn’t possibly be a place of respite for all lost things in the world. Surely it was a sort of local sanctuary for misplaced objects. Did that mean that there were many other places like this, tended by faeries? Perhaps the identities of the mundane and priceless items here rested here might give a clue, if some time could be devoted to it later.
“Goodness luv, I dunno. I try not to fink about it too much.”
Chapter Fourteen: Awakenings
Shard had left Asher with Mittens, optimistic that he would be better off elsewhere for the moment. After all, large festivals were hardly something he usually enjoyed. It was quite a strain to speak to a crowd of any size, and even being anonymous as part of a crowd was a test of his patience and his nerves. Eidolyn securing the part of the Harvest Goddess was something that might have occurred without any intervention, but the preciseness of his plan did require it, and speaking up to do so… well, Shard was all too happy to be alone now on the way to the unfortunate destination he had in mind.
Yes, they had help promised from Analerna, but now Lord Pelgrin had panicked; he’d seen that much the previous night. The mad wizard wouldn’t last longer before he, in desperation, did something hasty. Shard was more fearful-- terrified, really-- of a mad, frantic Lord Pelgrin than he was a sober, calculating one, and as such, he’d decided to seek more aid from an unlikely place… despite the fact that the action he was now undertaking could itself be seen as one of equal desperation. And he flew over the northern cliffs to a secluded spot, far from any popular ship routes. He estimated that he could sustain his flight spell, a relatively low level spell, while slowly replenishing his magical power on a journey that would take a couple hours. If he needed to cast magic in Sollen, the realm of the shadelings, he should have plenty by then.
Ironically, the entrance to Sollen was not far from his own home. Shadelings occasionally wandered in by pure luck, but once they left, the enchantment bestowed by the books taken from the Sylvan Tomes made it so that it was just as difficult to find the tree every time. Conversely, he hadn't visited Sollen in some time. No need, and he didn't care for the prospects of somehow being trapped there. Even now, he had little faith in convincing them to intervene with Pelgrin’s operation, and while it would take every ounce of his charisma and diplomacy, Shard also counted on relying on the gullibility of shadelings, which he’d managed to take advantage of several times before.
Leaving Mittens curled around a flowering bush to lazily keep watch, he delved through the waterfall and underwater cave, surely imposing to the average intruder but a mere obstacle to one with access to magical shields containing breathable air and light spells. The cave was lengthy, to further discourage potential invaders and dotted with twists and turns that came back to where they started and dead ends alike but, true to shadelings’ tendency toward neutrality, enough space above the cold, sloshing dark water to breathe to keep the caves from being anything but a frustration. The cave emptied out into a room that appeared to be nothing but a small empty cave, and it took either knowledge or luck to know that only crossing the room would allow the traveler to see that they were actually in a sheer, verdant valley in an unwelcome corner of the forest that was surrounded but rock cliffs insurmountable by any but those with the ability to fly.
The cave dissolved away in the sunlight that filtered through the trees down into the valley, a thin, diminished light that gave everything the look of being bathed in twilight all day long, a prospect that Shard found to be beautiful, but tiring all the same. The dwellings of the shadelings were of simple and unadorned white stone entirely identical and all the same size, at least from the outside. The stone, despite being encroached on by the ancient forest, refused to crack or erode, so while it was impossible for them to have been there any longer than those timeless trees and brush, they looked flawless and new. Dirt paths led through the valley, lined with small white stones.
The shadelings that went about their business, whatever that might have been, were dressed in nearly identical robes, all basic garments that fulfilled the basic duty of covering the body without expressing anything. They did not use money, had little in the way of superfluous possessions, subsisting almost entirely on what was absolutely necessary. However, that was also rumored to only be the unspoken law of shadeling society, unanimously agreed upon to lessen impact upon the balance between good and evil. Shard wasn’t sure how having blue curtains instead of plain white ones would threaten the balance, but supposed that it was their business, not his, and the reality was, according to the shadelings, that most did not practice this unspoken rule as strictly as outsiders would expect, and the occasional frivolous artifact could indeed be found in Sollen, being treated as a strange novelty. Shard had heard tell of a porcelain statue of a cat wearing a kilt had been passed from hand to hand as the prize of the monthly poetry contest so much that nearly everyone in the village had owned it at least once.
Dreadful and boring, yes, but still beautiful and fascinating, as long as one kept themselves firmly physically and emotionally removed from all of it. Perhaps it’d do the shadelings good to maintain steady contact with the rest of the world, but it’d take some sort of miracle to convince all of them to change their ways so completely. It would make a splendid tourist spot for the sort of traveler who insisted on peace and quiet, tasteless food and no commerce to speak of. The demons had done it, and instead of ritually ignoring the rest of the world, they’d made a livelihood of raping and pillaging it, so they must be doing something right. Perhaps demonic cuisine was more interesting?
Shard realized that the whole village had a calming, narcotic effect so that even as he walked on the firm dirt path, his head was swimming. No wonder they all felt so disconnected! Thankfully, any denizens of the village he met did not seem to recognize him, wishing him a perfectly average day, bidding him have a balanced evening and such, in a voice that was grating in its inability to stir emotion. It, at first, confirmed all his fears about the prospects of ever remaining there, though the serene grace and sterile warmth forced him to admit that the place was, in the very least, charming.
The greetings ended abruptly as one shadeling, engaged in the act of reading a small book, suddenly noticed Shard and, agape, dropped his book and stumbled back a few steps in a very unserene manner, sputtering, “Sh- Sh- Shard!” His tail twitched under his robe, and he shuffled about in confusion for a moment before dashing away in the opposite direction. “It’s Shard! He’s here! Shard has arrived!” he called down into the valley until he was out of breath, then paused for a moment, taking in enough air to turn back around and ask, incredulously, “The reason you are here is something I would wish to be made aware of.”
Shard sauntered to the bemused shadeling and placed a hand on his shoulder. “My good shadeling…”
“Good?” he sneered.
“Er… my neutral shadeling?” Prompted by an impatient nod, Shard continued, “I come here of my own will today with grave news of an urgent nature, as well as a proposition that is sure to be to your liking.”
Despite his nature, the shadeling began growing a seed of excitement rooted in the prospect of him being the one to at last escort Shard to the Right Honourable Chancellor. There was no such thing as titles or honors, officially, in shadeling culture apart from that of the Right Honourable Chancellor, but that didn’t stop them from creating their own in their imaginations, and shadeling imagination was akin to dwarven tact or orcish intelligence: present in some vague, vestigial form, but stunted and undeveloped. “What sort of grave matter is a topic which requires elaboration,” he whispered privately, and Shard remembered that no matter how awkward it sounded, shadelings always avoid asking questions.
“Never mind that, never mind that, just lead me to… well, whomever's in charge around here, and I’ll take care of everything else,” Shard grinned. The other shadeling did not return the smile, but finally nodded in assent and motioned for him to follow, and they proceeded deeper down into the valley, where at its lowest point, a series of the ever-present white cubic structures were all connected by a maze of vine-covered corridors and paths leading through a garden of both ornamental flowers and fruit trees that spread out in a fragrant blanket over the valley floor, inhabited by both shadelings as well as birds, small creatures and insects. In particular, a kind of butterfly with yellow wings tinged with a brilliant green were especially plentiful.
The paths contained a lot of sudden turns and his escort’s pace was hurried and anxious. Several times Shard nearly got lost, and had to frantically dart about a few paces to catch up, and it seemed as if they aimlessly wandered the garden for far too long, and Shard began getting concerned for Eidolyn’s safety the longer he had to wait. He was, after all, relying on Gryphon to get them to safety!
As they appeared to be making a final turn leading up to a cobbled path, two more shadelings, both debating intensely about something, emerged from the Right Honourable Chancellor’s abode and silenced themselves in an instant when they saw Shard.
“It is my desire to know what you are doing here.”
“It is my assumption that you have decided to give up your shadeling ways, and I wish to know if your shadeling nature led you here like a beacon.”
At the mention of his name, more shadelings began flooding from all the adjacent buildings, and soon the dim pungent air of the valley garden was buzzing with astonished gasps and whispered statements and questions, creating a most unsettling ambience.
“Please, quiet. Quiet,” Shard sighed, “I’m in a bit of a hurry, and I must see the… the, uh…”
“The Right Honourable Chancellor,” all the other shadelings crowded around him spoke in disturbing unison.
Good gods. “Er, yes... the, uh… the Right Honourable Chancellor!” Finally, he regained his composure and painted on the gentlemanly smile that typically came a bit more naturally. “I’ve come here with a purpose, mind you, and if you would all allow me to go about my business for now, I would be more than happy later to answer any of your pressing queries, and regale you with any number of fascinating tales.” Their eyes, just as his were, were suddenly lit with inquisitive excitement, a look that much better suited such big and vibrant eyes than did the sober indifference he’d been expecting to see. Most of these shadelings were startlingly different from the ones that had always been sent to proselytize him into a lifestyle that Shard, more than ever, was realizing was an ancient ideal whose purpose its practitioners had long ago lost sight of. These shadelings were curious!
With agonizing slowness they all settled down enough to follow him inside in the form of a fascinated, murmuring entourage. It was embarrassing to have to arrive in this fashion, but he’d have to make do, and after all, while shadelings typically had as much poetry about them as a shriveled orange rind, it was more dramatic this way.
The Right Honourable Chancellor’s home was as ordinary as Shard had expected any shadeling’s home to be, containing a simple bed, a bookshelf, a trunk containing clothes and a small table with a pair of chairs. No adornments or features identified it as belonging to an individual of exception to anyone else, and the Right Honourable Chancellor sat at his table, enjoying a bowl of porridge only as much as his ideals and the fact that he was eating porridge would allow.
Shard cleared his throat as the two dozen or so shadelings shuffled in nervously behind him. “Er… Right Honourable Chancellor?”
Gruffly and with ancient patience, the Right Honourable Chancellor emitted an “Eh?” as he turned around in his chair, either it, his bones or both creaking in agony. But when his eyes fell on Shard, he heaved himself from it onto his feet, only stumbling forward a couple paces before righting himself on the cane that had been leaned against the table. He whispered in a voice that only made it from his lips and into intelligible words by sheer force of will, “It is my desire to know if this is, indeed, the Shard.”
Everyone mulling behind Shard began speaking at once while Shard attempted to explain himself, until the Right Honourable Chancellor waved his pale twiggy arms. “Quiet, quiet, quiet. This fervor does not become us. It is my assumption that the Shard wishes to speak.”
This time, only a faint hum could be heard behind Shard, allowing him to at last step forward. “Right Honourable Chancellor, you must know that for I to have willingly shown myself in the company of other shadelings is cause for curiosity.”
“The Shard,” the Right Honourable Chancellor admonished, “we do not know curiosity, but if the Shard brings us news, he is encouraged to share it.”
“Right Honourable Chancellor, a wicked human has been preying upon the local population, kidnapping and transforming them into artificial aberrations and using deceit to pass his home off as an attraction for tourists. It’s inestimable how many have suffered at his hand already, and there are no human forces nearby that are strong enough…”
The room erupted again into a barrage of exited not-questions and feverish attempts to get his attention. He supposed that from a safe distance, this was all very fascinating to them.
“Silence, now,” the Right Honourable Chancellor rumbled commandingly, but without anger or impatience, “The Shard must know by now that we are unable to intervene in the affairs of outsiders for even the most seemingly negligible purpose. We have, as a matter of fact, observed and analyzed the acts in question…”
Shard turned an angry red as a cautious wave of whispers spread out behind him. “Analyzed!” He whirled around. His entourage was staring at him with somber guilt, many of them averting their eyes to the many uninteresting details of the room.
“… And we have concluded that any effect any or all of these deeds have had on the balance have been inconsequential.”
Holding back a surge of fury, Shard just managed to give the appearance of waving it off, showing only a little bit of shaking in his knees. “Hah! But are shadelings not obligated to protect their own kind?”
“Mm,” the Right Honourable Chancellor uttered, seating himself again wearily. “The Shard will be asked to explain how that fact is relevant to the issue at hand.”
He knew perfectly well how it was related, but Shard wasn’t prepared to give him the not-pleasure of playing into his hands. “Er...” More than once, Shard attempted to throw his customary enthusiastic vigor into his argument, but it was as if his throat was stopped up an overwhelming surfeit of feelings and a shortage of courage with which to convey them, and the best he could manage was an uncertain stammer.
The Right Honourable Chancellor huffed, smacked his lips and chuckled with the sound of a creature skulking from the back of a cave. “It is my inclination to remind the Shard that he exists separate from shadeling society by his own choice, and therefore, in the words of the second Right Honourable Chancellor of shadelings, Aphora Gildomorran the fifteenth, ‘deal with it.’”
Encouraged by a collective gasp from behind him, Shard indignantly rose back to his feet in disgust. “How dare you! I think you’re a stubborn, feckless hypocrite! You just use the ideal of neutrality as an excuse to sit on your arse! Who told the shadelings that it was their duty to safeguard the balance, and what being of infinite wisdom decreed that that came at the expense of being complacent and inactive and indifferent and boring? What right have you to hold back an entire beautiful, inquisitive culture from its bright future? There’s no excuse in the world for what you do, and if you think anything would compel me to be a part of it… in the words of the fifth Right Honourable Chancellor of shadelings Diddly Diddly Diddly Doo, ‘jump up a dragon’s arse!’”
Grunting, the Right Honourable Chancellor twitched with what was a raw, unpracticed form of indignant anger that didn’t know what itself was yet. “I would remind the Shard that there is no such chancellor as Diddly Diddly Diddly Doo, and…”
Before the Right Honourable Chancellor could finish, Shard, with unprecedented elegance produced an obscene gesture that caused all present to gasp and some to giggle before storming away through the befuddled and suddenly entranced crowd. Men and women alike half swooned, and one child remarked how much he’d like to grow up to be like him, and all the shadelings turned their gaze upon the Right Honourable Chancellor, at a loss to what they expected of him, but expecting it of him right now.
The Right Honorable Chancellor really could not be referred to as “poor” or “hapless,” since he reacted to this outburst as he would be expected: by dismissing it. He did briefly wonder about ordering some of the larger shadelings to attempt Shard's capture, which might be easier with him right there, but... something about the guilty stares of his subjects pecked at the highly-trained and devout stronghold of his mind. This could not be regret. His shadeling body and mind should have made that impossible. So what was it?
Shard was in such a state of rage that he managed to find, in every object he passed, something that added a tiny nudge to his anger. Cumulatively, just stamping through Sollen got his cheeks nearly purple and his fists clenched. His racing mind forced his memory to fail him, but later he would be informed that he'd told a rare inquisitive shadeling to “jump up a boar's bottom.” His teeth would be clenched, but his lower jaw was trembling too much. He very nearly screamed when Mittens leaped down in his path.
But Mittens laid down on the path, feigning being a real cat sunning itself and grinning up at him.
Suddenly feeling exhausted, perhaps at the sight of all the plush fabric suitable for falling asleep upon, Shard released enough of his tension to let his head hang and his fists fall at his sides. He looked very much like a marionette without a puppeteer. “That was even worse than I'd been expecting,” he reported. “I fear I may have wasted a considerable amount of time here today.”
At that moment, Mittens, a creature manufactured to be eternally grinning, seemed to be trying very hard to frown.
No time was wasted in Eidolyn getting settled in for a nap. She’d even managed to use a bit of Shard’s sleeping potion, measuring out just the right amount for a rest of a few hours. Instructions had been scrawled on a piece of paper glued to the side of the jar “one scoop per hour but subtract one scoop after the fifth! No more than ten scoops! Do not mix with milk!” but they had been there long before Eidolyn had arrived. The writing was faded and bled through the paper, and so it probably was there as a reminder when Shard was learning to mix the potion from the light blue powder, years ago. The blue powder, Eidoyn reminded herself, was the essence of Drowning Pool Flower and Bonegnaw Toadstool, crystallized and then ground into a powder. Something caused severe flatulence when the powder was combined with milk or anything containing milk, and Shard had once calculated that doing so over time could cause permanent damage to the stomach, and so the second part of his note was considered to be heeded at all times. The powder was also not to be eaten by itself, but that was general knowledge even to those not familiar with potion mixing. At the very least, a powder that is meant to be mixed into a potion should be mixed with water. Mixing a powder with honey not only tastes marginally better, but the honey also acts as a stabilizer which keeps the magical effect from being either too potent or too weak. As such, after spooning a few scoops of sleeping powder into a cup of water, she scurried to the cabinet and retrieved the honey pot from next to the tea and applied a generous amount.
“If anything urgent occurs,” she said to Gryphon, “you know where the antidote is.”
Gryphon nodded from where he sat, curled up next to the stove. A sleeping potion without an antidote is a grave thing, even if one knew when one was meant to awaken from its spell. A magical sleep is, of course, more potent than a natural one and it’s no simple task to wake someone from one without an antidote or something that general wisdom dictates is suitable for it. As such, Shard kept the sleeping potion antidote closer at hand than the potion itself, close enough for Gryphon to access easily. Lazily, Gryphon swept his tail in the direction of the little corked pot, on a stout iron shelf next to the pantry. “Dun worry, luv. You’ve earned this rest.”
Eying the solution, swirling with a few granules of light blue that hadn’t mixed in with the honey and water, Eidolyn felt as if she were staring into a dark precipice. Oh, it was just a nap, after all! “All right, Gryphon. Try not to get too excited about going back to the festival and leave without me!”
Quickly, Eidolyn downed the bittersweet mixture, syrupy from the weight of the sleeping potion and the honey, punctuating the action with a slight gag at the end. Perhaps, after all, she’d put in too much honey; the overpowering sweetness made her grimace as she padded down the living wooden stairs to her bedroom, already feeling the effects of the potion begin to overtake her. The suddenness of the potion’s effects was startling, but at least she knew she’d done it correctly. Oh dear, she thought. Perhaps she should have thought to change into a nightgown before she'd drunk the potion!
The feeling of being carried gingerly away on a bobbing tide had begun before she’d reached her bed, causing her footsteps to waver and her knees to become weak. And even though the potion would not last that long, at that time Eidolyn felt as if she could sleep for a week. She’d had enough adventures for a few lifetimes in the past fortnight, and while she’d slept, in retrospect those nights scented with Shard’s strong cologne and Gryphon’s fur and the ancient, faded parfum of the tree mansion had made for an excited, fitful sleep that was never as deep and satisfying as the one’s she’d had before these strange characters had come into her life. Of course, she decided as she allowed herself to fall upon the bed, stumbling over the frame and rapping her elbow lightly on the headboard, that wasn’t an observation of regret. With the threat of Pelgrin no longer looming over her, she could go back to her old life—or, she was increasingly aware—lead whatever sort of life she wanted, with Shard or without, inside a tree or perhaps in a far away city where she might study the magical sciences, with a small plot of garden on the side, of course…
Eidolyn’s eyes snapped open. Suddenly the leaf in her dream that she thought had been brushing her cheek felt awfully warm and coarse, and as she began to pull herself up, heaving with surprise, out of the depths of unconsciousness, the presence looming over her reared back with a scowl.
“Very inopportune, Eidolyn,” Pelgrin muttered, making a movement to seize her wrist that leaped up to pull her out of the bed.
Before Pelgrin, leaning fully over the bed, could pin her down, she half squirmed and half fell from the other side of the bed. “Gryphon!” she gasped, still hazy from the sleep. “Gryphon!” Did she dare search the room for something to use as a weapon? He would be upon her in an instant, surely. But then, if he had that capability and willingness, he would have already done so. At the least he would have been preparing some sort of spell! But something was holding him back. If she could figure out what, then she might be able to…
Crashing into the foot of the bed and sending a jarring pang of pain up her hip, she flew from the bedroom, creating a suitable clamor by pulling down the armoire in a cloud of dust. She knew that the odd assortment of brass tableware that was precariously stored inside should make for a bit of additional distraction. It seemed to work, just enough: Pelgrin made a swipe at her that was just too late, and she was free in the narrow, twisting passages of the tree, which she now knew exactly how to lose someone in.
How in the gods’ name had he got there? Was Gryphon safe? Where could she go now? She could neither leave the tree from the top or through Gryphon’s secret entrance. No, she’d have to hide or defend herself. On the heels of this realization, she hoped desperately that Pelgrin would not be able to follow her closely enough to discover Shard’s armory. She knew little of the contents that it contained, but it was her best hope for holding him at bay.
Could she use a weapon? She didn't doubt her ability to wield one adequately enough, but could she, without enough hesitation to compromise her own safety, harm another? She might just have to; she'd deal with the consequences later!
Thankfully, that room was buried deep in the array of storage rooms though halls that seemed to twist and turn back on themselves. She’d gotten confused in those corridors often enough that now she knew the small details in the features of the walls that told her where to go, as well as the shortcuts that bypassed the maze of rooms. If anything, this was an ideal place to hide, she told herself as she plunged downward, too horrified to even listen for Pelgrin behind her.
And to her astonishment it was not actually long before she’d lost him. Dragging him through the library had proven fruitful, and afterward she’d weaved a path through the room of lost things in the hopes that Pelgrin might believe she’d escaped out through the crack somehow.
She didn't dare wait to find out.
Then she’d traced backward slightly and arrived, stumbling on bare feet and panting through her parched throat, at the small room containing a collection of weapons and armor, both mundane and magical. She'd been out of breath for a couple of minutes already, her pounding heart seeming to have arrived a few paces before her. Gripping her aching side, she managed to keep herself upright in the hope of seizing a suitable weapon.
Amongst the mess of the armory, nothing was organized and there was no clear way to get to some of the items before climbing over a multitude of others. Armor of various sorts littered the room, mostly leather and steel, but she was able to notice a few pieces of scale armor and a couple of some unidentifiable material. Eidolyn knew little of materials used for armor, but while some did have a look of magic about them, she didn’t put much faith in the mismatched bits of armor to protect her from what Pelgrin was capable of, and while she had a similar level of confidence in her ability or willingness to strike anyone with a weapon, she found herself more interested in the swords, daggers, wands, scepters and other assorted artifacts. Eidolyn had never used a weapon herself in her scant three years of memory, and while she seemed to retain the knowledge of many abilities from her previous life, the use of magic or weapons weren’t among them. Quickly, she grabbed both a sword and a dagger, the use of which seemed simple enough to her. Just take the end that wasn’t pointy and stick the pointy end into your opponent, right? She was vaguely aware of the idea of how the weight of a sword could affect its swing and the concept of a sword’s guard to block physical blows from other weapons, but she doubted that Lord Pelgrin was interested in physically harming her. No, he’d be tossing spells, probably meant to incapacitate rather than to do direct harm, if possible. She sighed and began to delve into the pile to make a grab for a piece of particularly magic-looking armor. There were rings, amulets and charms aplenty in the room, but she was wise enough not to try on anything that she couldn't identify.
All the tension built up alone in the armory came out in a startled squeak as, startled, she tumbled from her perch on the pile of junk onto another pile of junk, thankfully mostly unharmed. Scrambling to gain purchase on the uneven stacks of armor, weapons, sacks, tarpaulins, ropes and unidentifiable tools, she righted herself awkwardly to see Pelgrin standing over her, alone. No guards or monsters in sight, and armed only with his bare hands and a cavernous grin of satisfaction.
“Eidolyn,” he repeated, approaching with the care of a starving hunter closing in on prey. “Thank the gods you hadn’t run far. Now that it’s time for you to come home, I admit that I regret the decision to grant you a small amount of free will with which to keep life with you spontaneous. That was a mistake that I won’t repeat.”
Acquiring a few more scrapes from the sharp edges at her ankles, Eidolyn stumbled back. “Get away from me! I’ll die before you put me into one of your little toys!” She grabbed behind her at the piles of weaponry for anything that might be useful as he advanced into the room. “You disgusting man! I’ll bet you’re lonely and sad, aren’t you? You’ve never had a real friend, and so you’ve surrounded yourself with monsters and freaks and people that fear you instead! You don’t have any friends because no one ever had the guts to tell you what a monster you are!”
Genuine hurt darkened Pelgrin's sturdy countenance. Frowning deeply, he took another step forward, his robes sweeping over the dusty floor, and spread his arms welcomingly. “But Eidolyn, you don’t understand what I’ve done for you! You must allow me to explain before you do anything hasty to either of us.”
Eidolyn’s hand clasped on a small bronze charm that looked meant to be pulled apart. Gods knew what would happen when she did that, but in a panic, she held both ends between her thumbs and forefingers and yanked them apart, ignoring a fearful gasp from Pelgrin. He dove onto her and the messy piles of the armory and painfully wrenched the trinket from her hand, hard enough to twist her wrist like a wet rag. Screaming, Eidolyn fought to kick him off.
“You have no idea what you’ve done! Never toy with magic you don’t understand!” He tossed the little charm to the far end of the room, where it began to glow red as it bounced off the steel contents of the back of the room, mostly suits of armor, swords, axes and halberds, and settled inside an ornamental helmet with a final, playful tinkle. Pelgrin seized Eidolyn, enveloping her in robes and a cloud of cologne and pulling her back into the corridor just in time for the whole of the room to be engulfed in blue flames and a howling roar. A colossal piece of the tree the size of a house was blasted away into burning splinters that drifted on the winds into the sea below and a cacophonous series of clatters sounded like a klaxon as most of the contents of the armory tumbled after the bits of wood a hundred feet down and dashed themselves on the water-worn rocks below.
It took several seconds for Eidolyn to recover from the shock and struggle free from Pelgrin's grip as he stomped out the flames licking at his robes. Only a tiny ledge, singed black, remained of the armory. There was no survivable way down to the hungrily lapping gray waves and jagged teeth of rock below. “A favorable fate next to what you doubtless have planned for me,” she panted. She gulped in a deep breath and edged away from Pelgrin toward the precipice.
Pelgrin’s eyes went wide with horror and he reflexively reached out to her, but pulled his hands back slightly, as if afraid to make a hasty move that would cause her to panic. “Eidolyn, no! I assure you, it is not my intention to do to you what I’ve done to the others! You are special! You are precious! If you will just allow me to explain!”
The searing cold wind tore at Eidolyn’s hair and dress and played at her feet. She had to keep a firm grip on the wall to ensure she wasn’t pulled away from it. “How can anything you say convince me that being with you is better than whatever will happen to me down there?” she screamed.
“Because you were made to be with me! It’s the purpose I instilled in you when I made you! Eidolyn, you are the first successful results in my experiments creating full, living, willful people using the power of my own magic! You represent years of research and maddening study!”
Eidolyn’s knees nearly gave out, and a sudden spell of vertigo combined with a sudden violent blurriness in her eyes caused her to stumble. The velvety pull of the wind pulling at her hair and dress became hands ready to pull her away from Lord Pelgrin. It almost felt gentle and soothing.
“The components used to enact the enchantments to build you were gathered the world over, at a price of a king’s ransom, gathered by the most competent treasure hunters, thieves and assassins that could be hired! People perished so that you could be given life, Eidolyn! You would throw that away?” Pelgrin bellowed hotly into the howling wind. “It would not only be a disservice to me and yourself, but to everyone who came together and loaned their unmatched talents to your existence! Eidolyn, I created you to be my wife! I gave you free will because I thought that, in my tiny kingdom of creatures and lackeys that bowed to my tiniest whim, the lure of any unpredictability would lend a quality of life unmatched by anything I could directly create with my own hands!”
“Shut up!” Eidolyn screamed as searing tears streaked down her cheeks, unrelentingly. She didn’t doubt what Pelgrin told her. After all, it made sense. It made everything paralyzingly clear. Her grip on the bark was making her hands ache, and she’d fallen to her knees on the edge of the remains of the armory, nearly doubled over. “I don’t want to hear another word you have to say!” she barely slurred through the tears and wind. “How could you think that any of that would convince me to give myself up to you? You erased my memories once, and you’ll do it again! If I can’t keep who I am, then how is that any different from throwing myself from this ledge right now?”
Obviously seeing a window of hope, Pelgrin made an attempt at giving her a reassuring smile, but its place on his visage was as precariously balanced as was Eidolyn on her little ledge. “Oh, but Eidolyn! Eidolyn, I promise that if you come with me now, your mind will not be changed! After all, it wasn’t me who erased your memories back then. It was Shard, Eidolyn! Shard! When he took you away from my tower, he left you alone and erased your memory… likely feeling that you’d be better off that way! The meddling fool!”
Quivering, Eidolyn reflexively edged further back as Pelgrin, hands shaking, reached out to her with what he probably hoped would appear to be sensitive tenderness. She choked down a sob. Whatever happened to her next, she would face it with dignity. She wasn’t going to cry!
Pounding footfalls shook the tree and overwhelmed even the sound of the screaming wind, becoming louder and closer at a terrifying rate until what looked like a deformed, hunched over dragon shoved his warty bulk through the corridor, pulling himself along on bizarre mismatched feet and scraping his ugly, gigantic wings against the walls. Its beady eyes were little round spheres of fear and anger and a broad, slavering snout lined with rows of uneven, jagged yellow teeth was nearly foaming as the beast lunged through the threshold at Pelgrin with a snarl, just as a wild surge of wind tore the startled Eidolyn away from where she clung to edge.