DargonZine 13, Issue 1

Talisman Three Part 1



This entry is part 14 of 38 in the series Talisman

Author’s Note: This segment of the Talisman Saga begins approximately 420 years after Talisman Two in a portion of the continent of Duurom that has all but forgotten the Fretheod Empire. Called Farevlin, which means ‘thousand lands’, it is made up of hundreds and hundreds of tiny kingdoms, dukedoms, city-states, and autonomous towns, some no larger than an average crossroads village. While Farevlin shares a common language, background, and legends of unity, each state within the area tends toward fierce individuality. Even so, there are always people who prefer the legends to the present day.

 

The curtain opened, revealing a painted backdrop of a forest. The crowd that had gathered in front of the stage quieted in anticipation. The stage that now occupied the corner of the market square had been quickly and sturdily erected not more than two bells ago, which showed that the troupe — Torenda’s Troupe, as the proscenium proclaimed — were professionals. But no one in Tilting Falls had ever heard of Torenda or her troupe before, and all were curious to see what was about to take place before them.

Two people walked into view from stage left. They were dressed in tunics and baggy leggings and had swords belted over red tabards. They walked to the middle of the stage, looking around themselves wide-eyed.

 

As they reached the center of the stage, they stopped advancing, though their legs kept moving as if they were continuing to walk. As their forward motion ceased, the backdrop started to move instead, increasing the illusion of movement over just the mimed walking. Some in the audience laughed in wonder at the clever trick.

 

The downstage figure asked, “Are you sure we followed the directions properly, Samad?”

 

The upstage figure, Samad, said, “Absolutely, Dirik. I followed every turn just like we was told. I don’t know why we haven’t found the stag’s glen in the Forest of Hawks. The forest must have moved or something.”

 

The audience laughed weakly, but it wasn’t much of a joke — more of a pun on the moving backdrop, after all. Dirik said, “Well, if we’re lost then how are we going to find Sir Mefes? We went to a lot of risk pilfering this jewel –” Dirik held up a large gold disk studded with sparkling gems of various hues, “– from Narial’s temple, and we aren’t going to get paid unless we get it to Sir Mefes.”

 

“What do you mean, ‘we’?” Samad said heatedly as he stopped his mimed walking in an exaggerated manner. Dirik ceased moving his legs too, but the backdrop continued to move for a bit. The audience laughed as both characters looked at the moving backdrop with exaggerated anger, and Samad stomped loudly. The backdrop stopped, started, stopped again, and then reversed its motion for several moments, as if returning to where it should have stopped in the first place. It stopped again, but the characters on stage waited for a beat or two, as if to be sure it was going to stay where it was. It did. They nodded to each other in satisfaction, and continued with their lines as the audience’s chuckles faded.

 

Samad repeated, “What do you mean, ‘we’? *I* stole that jewel from the coffers of the temple, while *you* played ‘hide the offering’ with that cute slip of a temple maiden.” The audience roared. “The only risk you took,” Samad continued, “was of exhaustion.”

 

Dirik defended himself with, “Well, someone had to divert her attention, and Narial *is* the goddess of lust, after all. It was the natural thing to do.”

 

“Yeah, so why is it that you always get to do the natural thing when it is fun, and I get to do the natural thing when it is disgusting or dangerous?”

 

The characters turned to face stage right again and started to walk. The backdrop started up right on cue as Dirik replied, “Just lucky, I guess.” Samad shook his head resignedly as the audience chuckled again.

 

The two thieves walked in silence for a few moments, and slowly, normal forest sounds began to be heard. Bird calls, rustling leaves, and the chittering of small animals sounded from backstage. Dirik looked around with a smile on his face and said, “Well, at least it’s a nice day for a walk in the woods.”

 

Samad continued to be grumpy and answered with, “Never did like the woods. Can’t see more than a couple of yards in any direction. Even the paths twist and turn too much, and don’t provide much better visibility.”

 

Dirik said, “You worry too much, Samad. What do we need to see far for anyway?”

 

“To see where Sir Mefes is, for one,” Samad said darkly. “And for another, to see wild animals far enough away to have time to hide from them.”

 

“What wild animals?”

 

“Boars. Or bears, even.”

 

“Bears?” asked Dirik. “Do you think there are really bears in these woods, Samad?”

 

Samad sighed and said, “With your luck, Dirik, probably not. Probably not.”

 

Just then, a roar sounded from stage left. No one in the audience had ever heard a bear, but that certainly sounded like the noise they thought a bear would make. Everyone glanced to their left, and some even looked a little worried.

 

The two characters looked over their shoulders and shouted oaths in fear. Samad turned back around and said, “Of all the times for your cursed luck to fail, Dirik. I dare say that this is Narial’s fault — her temple maiden probably thought she didn’t get her bell’s worth of pleasure or something. I hope our legs are better than our luck. Run, Dirik, run!”

 

The two characters accelerated stage right and the audience naturally looked stage left to see what was chasing the two thieves. They clearly expected a stage prop of some kind: a bearskin hung on a cross-pole perhaps, or someone in a brown tunic with a mask on, or maybe something clever or innovative, like the moving backdrop.

 

None of them were expecting what they actually saw, and when the roaring, angry bear walked out of the stage left wings, three quarters of the audience gasped in genuine fright. It stood half again as tall as a man and was twice as wide. It had brown, shaggy fur, huge claws and teeth, and small, angry-looking eyes. It lumbered after the two fleeing thieves who were just disappearing into the stage right wings.

 

By the time it reached center stage, pursuing the characters and not reacting at all to the screams from the audience, most people realized it was a clever trick of some kind, or maybe a very well-trained real bear. The few who had started to run stopped and turned back in wonder. The bear stopped in the middle of the stage and roared. The backdrop continued to move, and the bear batted at it, giving a coughing grunt and stomping its paw. The backdrop stopped, and the bear turned its head toward the audience and winked, slow and broad, making them titter nervously, then laugh louder in relief. The bear turned back to stage right and with another roar, it lumbered after its prey.

 

The moment it vanished into the wings, stage right, two screams of fear rang out, followed by sounds of general mayhem. Men shouting, pleading, screaming, a bear roaring, ripping sounds, thuds of bodies, all so exaggerated that the audience started laughing again after a nervous moment of hesitation. When the arm came flying out, trailing blood, the audience roared. The mayhem continued for some time, with an occasional limb flying out onto the stage until there were more parts than any two people could have had between them lying about.

 

Another figure walked onstage from stage left. He was tall and handsome, clad from head to foot in chain mail — coif, hauberk, and leggings. A large sword hung at his side, and a shield, painted red, hung at his back. He reached center stage and turned to the audience. He didn’t seem to notice or react to the commotion still coming from stage right, nor did he acknowledge the body parts strewn around the stage.

 

“Excuse me,” he said. “I’m Sir Mefes, and I seem to have misplaced two of my hirelings. Perchance, might you have seen them?”

 

The audience knew what was expected of them at this kind of moment in this kind of play. Somewhat raggedly but mostly in unison, they nodded.

 

“By the Creaking Knee of Bovish, I knew they’d get it wrong!” Sir Mefes stormed, looking at the stage and stomping his foot. Behind him, the backdrop shifted hesitantly to the left, then back again. The audience cackled.

 

Sir Mefes looked up and said, “I told them to meet me in the Forest Stag Inn in the village of Hawk’s Glen. How could they have twisted that around to end up here?”

 

The cue was unmistakable; there was only one reply and the person on stage was waiting for it. Without any hesitation at all, most of the audience chorused, “I don’t know.”

 

“Neither do I,” said Sir Mefes. “I don’t suppose they had Norla with them, did they?”

 

“No,” replied much of the audience, while others just shook their heads. Then, a few loud members piped up with, “They had a jewel!” to which others added their voices belatedly, causing the sentence to echo around the audience for a few moments.

 

In the spirit of the form, and as if he had heard it only once, and not a score or more times, Sir Mefes replied, “Right, a shining jewel, with golden hair and violet eyes: my daughter, Norla. I sent them to take her from the Temple of Narial and bring her back to me. How difficult could that have been — she was the only one there at the time?”

 

The audience shook their heads, and the boisterous, loud few said, “A real gold jewel, not Norla.”

 

“Damn them to Perda’s Outhouse! But I should have suspected they’d get that wrong, too. All right, do you know where they are now?”

 

“Over there,” everyone said, pointing stage right.

 

Sir Mefes seemed to notice the noise from off stage for the first time. He pointed stage right and asked, “There?”

 

The audience nodded, and said, “There. Bear.”

 

Sir Mefes sighed, and said, “I suppose I should rescue them, shouldn’t I?”

 

The audience nodded again.

 

“Very well, I’ll be right back. Thank you for your help, you’ve been very kind.” Sir Mefes turned and started walking towards the ruckus, giving the audience a little wave as he left.

 

As the knight left the stage, the commotion changed. No more screams sounded — instead, it was the bear who sounded in pain. Furry limbs flew onto the stage, and the audience cheered. The battle was soon over, and presently all three characters returned to the stage, none of them any the worse for wear. Sir Mefes walked between the two thieves and shouted at them for being blundering fools, while Dirik tried to give him the gem-studded golden jewel, and Samad just mumbled something dark about luck.

 

The three kept walking across the stage, and exited stage left. The curtain closed on the audience’s applause, but the stage outside the curtain didn’t stay empty for long. Even before the applause had died away, a woman walked onto stage from behind the curtain. She wore a bliaut and underdress which were both sewn together from scraps of cloth of all shapes, sizes, and hues.

 

“I’m here to keep your attention,” she announced in an animated and cheerful voice, “while my apprentices pass among you with tins in which you can place representations of your appreciation of our skit in the form of any coin you think it was worth.”

 

Two more women, dressed in tunics and leggings like men, appeared at either edge of the crowd carrying tins. They began to work their way through the standing audience, one working from the front, the other from the back.

 

The woman on stage continued, “Now, for my other apprentices — Janile’s Pack of Stretch-Rats.” From both sides of the stage boiled half-a-dozen ferrets, all dashing across the boards toward Janile. As the stretch-rats scrambled up her skirts and under her bliaut, the audience laughed and handed over their coin in payment for the entertaining show they had just witnessed.

 

***

 

In a cave many miles from Tilting Falls, a man stood before a room full of kneeling people dressed in simple robes of undyed linen. For a cave, it was a very comfortable room. Only the uneven rock of the ceiling betrayed its lithic origins; wood covered the floor, and the walls were smooth like plaster and painted a light tan color. There were three doors in the room: one on the wall the man faced, and two on his left. The only other furniture in the room at the moment was the ornate stone table that rested behind him. Lamps affixed to the walls provided plenty of light.

 

That man was named Zarilt, and the people arrayed before him were his students. As such, they called him Tchad, which meant ‘teacher’ in an ancient dialect. It was a term of respect that Zarilt had finally come to accept without undue embarrassment.

 

The door Zarilt faced opened and two figures entered. Both were dressed in the same kind of robe as the kneeling people, but one wore the hood up and the other had a blue belt tied at the waist. Zarilt gazed serenely at the two as they walked up the aisle between the kneeling people and stopped in front of him.

 

“Welcome, aspirant Kersh.” The one with the blue-belted robe, a fresh-faced young man with plain features and brown eyes, bowed slightly, nervously, when he was addressed.

 

“And welcome to you as well, Virrila,” said Zarilt in his rich, deep voice that filled the cavern room easily. The hooded one bowed in response. Zarilt continued, “You have undertaken to sponsor aspirant Kersh, and have seen to his education in our Way. Do you judge him ready? Has he learned what has been taught?”

 

A low voice came from the hood, echoing the nod with, “He is ready, Tchad.”

 

“Do you feel yourself ready to become a student of our Way, aspirant Kersh?”

 

Still nervous, Kersh stammered, “Y-yes, Tchad.”

 

Smiling like an indulgent uncle, Zarilt lowered his voice and whispered, “Now, Kersh, there’s nothing to be nervous about. We’re not like some of those death cults I’m sure you’ve heard about. If, by some chance, you are not ready to join us, or you decide you do not want to join us, you will be free to try again or leave as you wish. We will even provide an escort back to Bluebell Rock.

 

“So, take a few deep breaths and steady your nerves, all right? I’m sure that Virrila has done her job as well with you as she always does.”

 

“Yes, teacher, ah, sorry, Tchad. I … I’m more excited than nervous, I think.”

 

Zarilt looked out over his students, giving Kersh time to calm down. More young people than old knelt before him, but that was only to be expected. There were people from all over the thousand states of Farevlin, and some from the even wilder land of Drigalit to the south. Only a few of the many faces before him shone with the serenity he endeavored to teach, but that didn’t discourage him. He only provided the philosophy of his Way, and an example of it. His students were encouraged to learn his Way at their own paces. That he had been able to teach anyone the serenity he possessed made all of the difficulties worthwhile.

 

Zarilt looked back at Kersh, and found the young man calmer. He pitched his voice to the room again, and asked, “Aspirant Kersh, what is our Way?”

 

“Ah … your Way is serenity, Tchad Zarilt,” answered Kersh.

 

“And serenity comes from where?”

 

“From within, Tchad.”

 

“How, aspirant?”

 

“Serenity comes from within through simplicity, Tchad,” recited Kersh. He didn’t quite understand it, but Virrila had told him that understanding would come in time.

 

“How, aspirant?”

 

Kersh’s mind stumbled, thinking that the Tchad had somehow read his thoughts about a lack of understanding. Then he remembered the litany he had memorized, and recalled the correct response. “Tchad, simplicity requires a break from the mundane world. Simplicity requires freedom. Simplicity is found here, in the Treasury of Farevlin. Simplicity gives us time to reflect and to find the serenity within each of us.”

 

“Very good, aspirant,” said Zarilt, his face almost glowing with pleasure and serenity. “Now, do you understand what you have recited?”

 

His heart hammering, Kersh searched his memory for the proper response. None came to him. The litany he had memorized was finished, yet there were more questions being asked. What was he to do? He recalled Virrila telling him that serenity came from truth, and so he gave the Tchad the truth.

 

“Well, no, Tchad.”

 

“Few among my students do as yet, aspirant. But tell me, do you accept that the understanding will come, with time and effort on your part?”

 

Zarilt watched Kersh think. His Way was no secret, and yet he was not flooded with aspirants. Not everyone understood his Way, and even fewer were willing to give up everything they knew, everything they had been taught by their parents and friends, to see if there really was meaning behind the words of the Way. Those that glimpsed that meaning journeyed to his caves, the ancient Treasury of Farevlin, where they were tutored in the rudiments of the Way. But to follow the Way required a commitment, and now it was Kersh’s turn to decide if he would accept that commitment.

 

Finally, Kersh looked up at the teacher, the Tchad, and said, “Yes, I do think that understanding is available, and I am willing to try to grasp that understanding and find what the Way means to me.”

 

“Then remove the blue belt of mundane concerns and take your place among my students. Be welcome here, Kersh.”

 

Applause rose from the kneeling students as Kersh untied his belt and handed it to Zarilt. Virrila lowered her hood, revealing to Kersh her strong-featured face and long black hair for the first time. Kersh had come to know Virrila only by her words and actions, and he found it odd to only now be associating a face with the person.

 

Kersh and Virrila clasped arms, and she led him to an open spot in the front ranks of the students. Those near the open spot congratulated Kersh on his wise decision, accepting him into their number immediately and totally. Zarilt waited a few moments for the rejoicing to die down before he continued the ceremony.

 

“Now, my students, before Kersh is shown to his new living space and you all introduce yourselves to him, let me begin his teaching the same way I began the teaching of every one of you.

 

“Once I had a life out in the world, like each of you once had and may again. But I found that I was never happy, never truly, fully happy in that life. When my Uncle Taddis, the previous Treasurer, died, I was his only heir. So, I was removed from my former life and introduced to one that allowed me time for deep contemplation. And out of that contemplation came the Way.

 

“I must say first that I am no prophet. I speak for no religion or god. My Way is available to any who can come to understand my words. Few of you worship the Wheel as do I, yet several of you have found the serenity of the Way as I have. You only need to understand the Way.

 

“Out in the world, you have all been taught that happiness comes from others. If you are a good son or daughter, or a good father or mother, you can find happiness. If you please your master — whether that master be your parents, the person you are apprenticed to, the person who pays your wages, the person for whom you farm your land — you will be happy. If you own enough property, whether land or goods, you will be as good as or better than your peers, and you will be happy.

 

“All I can say to those lessons you have learned is that they are false.

 

“Happiness can only come from within. You are the only one who can make you happy. Happiness comes from simplicity, the simplicity you will find here as I did. Here, you owe no one fealty, you owe no one work or money. Here you will do your share of the work that needs to be done to support us all, and no more. Here you will find happiness in the simplicity of your new lives. And from happiness comes serenity. Serenity is our Way.

 

“Let go of the concerns of the outside world. Forget power. Forget material goods. Forget position. Forget politics. Concentrate on yourself, understand yourself, and understand the Way. Once you have accomplished this, once you have let the lessons of your life go and accepted the Way, you will find the same serenity that I have.”

 

The students of the Way began applauding. Zarilt brought his hands together and bowed deeply to them, and then turned his back, dismissing them. As they filed out of the cavernous room, he contemplated the five items laid out on the top of the stone table, situated almost altar-like in front of him. These were the only items contained within the Treasury. These were the sum total of his charge, the purpose of his position. But no longer the only purpose he served here.

 

Three of the objects had names and legends: the Chalice of Oronhil; Hekorivas, the Scepter of Unity; and the Orb of Sdanyip.

 

The other two were unnamed. One of these was an oak branch carved from amber. It was an exquisite piece of work and looked just like a real branch of oak, except that it bore a leaf bud, an acorn flower, a fully grown leaf, and a ripe acorn all at the same time. Because of this, Zarilt suspected that it was an icon of some nature religion, perhaps from a sect of his own religion of the Wheel.

 

While Zarilt had no knowledge of how the amber oak had come to reside in the Treasury, the last object in his care had a history, if no legends, associated with it. It had been left as payment for help that a former Treasurer had provided in a time of need to some nomads who called themselves Siizhayip.

 

That object was obviously incomplete, perhaps broken. It was a stone sculpture of some kind bearing the figures of a cat and a falcon, along with some intricately interwoven bands of three different materials that filled the inner portion of the piece. It looked like about one third of a larger piece, judging from the smooth, arced edge and the other two jaggedly torn edges, shaping the whole into a large wedge of a disk of some kind. The three materials that the bands were made of were some kind of silver metal, some kind of gold-colored metal, and one made of glass. The glass band originated from the center of the falcon, and the silver band originated from the center of the cat.

 

Zarilt turned from his charges and found the room behind him empty. He hoped that Kersh would succeed in his quest for serenity. His Way was not for everyone: for every student he had at the moment, he had lost five since he decided to spread his message. But he wasn’t worried. He didn’t see his mission as one of numbers of people enlightened, but rather one of spreading his vision.

 

And, of course, living his serenity for all to see.

 

***

 

The common room of the Headless Sheep Inn in Tilting Falls was full to bursting that evening. Over half of the patrons crowding the room were members of Torenda’s Troupe. Most of the other half had seen at least one of the three skits that the Troupe had put on that afternoon in Tilting Falls’ market square.

 

The early part of the evening had consisted of the residents of the town reveling in being able to rub elbows with the troupe that had so entertained them. The troupe had been toasted and congratulated, and not one of them had to pay for the food and drink they were consuming — at least, not in coin. They did, however, have to endure being cornered time and time again by townsfolk eager to inform them of their favorite moments, reliving the afternoon’s entertainments in excruciating detail. It was fairly obvious to the entire troupe that Tilting Falls had experienced a dearth of performers for quite some time.

 

Eventually, though, the townsfolk gathered into their normal groupings to eat or drink, and only occasionally glance over at a table of players and then excitedly tell their table companions yet again how good some part of the skits had been. This allowed the troupe to do much the same, glancing over at the townspeople and remarking on their odd tastes in clothing or applied scent — or lack thereof — or whether their own parts had been more favored by a table of people. This was all done very quietly, of course; the troupe was planning at least two more days in the market square, and it wouldn’t do to anger the potential customers.

 

At one table in the back, well-buffered from the townsfolk by a layer of players’ tables, sat most of the people who ran the troupe. Bifrorlani was the owner and leader of Torenda’s Troupe, having inherited it from Torenda when she retired. It was common knowledge that Orla ran the troupe far better than Torenda had, and it was only the reputation of Torenda’s Troupe that kept Orla from giving in to the suggestions to change its name.

 

Orla was in her late thirties and had been with Torenda’s Troupe as actor, assistant manager, and then owner, for most of her life. She was a plump woman, but had a bearing that usually kept people from noticing her ample waistline. She had raven-black hair, pale skin and mismatched eyes — the left was blue while the right was brown. One of the several earrings she wore in her left ear was a small blue disk bearing a silver symbol: two pairs of two concentric ovals set cross-wise to each other and interlaced. The small disk, less than an ebbit across and thus smaller than the nail of her smallest finger, echoed a larger, hands-width version of the same design tattooed on her right hip.

 

Next to her sat Aborkendo, a leading man in the Troupe as well as their carpenter. Kend was swarthy-skinned, with brown hair and eyes, and the bearing of a leading man — handsome and well aware of it. But he was also an accomplished carpenter and wood carver, and had no qualms about putting in his fair share of the work at what some might consider the more demeaning jobs that were required backstage.

 

As usual, Kend was carving a small figurine with a small-bladed knife. Such was his skill that the rodent that was emerging from the small stick seemed almost lifelike.

 

Hanging from his right ear, one of only two earrings he wore, was the same kind of small blue disk that Orla wore. His left hip also bore the same kind of tattoo.

 

Sitting across from the first two was Elianijit, the Troupe’s stage manager and scene blocker. Elin was fair of skin, with chestnut brown hair and dark grey eyes. She not only made sure that props, sets, and even actors were where they belonged during a production, she was also quite capable of creating an entire skit from scratch as well as starring in it.

 

Elin’s left ear was decorated by a blue-disk earring; her right hip, by a blue-disk tattoo.

 

There was one more person in the room who had an absolutely vital part in running the troupe: Odonornaka, the Troupe’s lead musician, was sitting by the main fireplace and entertaining the room with her music. Naka was a very pretty young woman, with long blond hair and grass-green eyes. Her most striking feature was her nose, which, despite its large size, was well-shaped and only enhanced her beauty.

 

Naka was proficient in a large number of musical styles on a wide range of instruments, some of which she had invented herself. She composed almost all of the music that the Troupe used, and it was her job to teach and to lead the four other musicians that the Troupe employed.

 

Naka also wore the blue-with-interlaced-ovals earring and tattoo. The earring in her right ear was the newest of the four, though all were equally clean and polished. The tattoo on her left hip was even newer than that; she had made her place in the relationship official with that tattoo only three months before, though she had been wearing the earring for a year.

 

The three around the table had been discussing the day’s performances for the past two tankards, and were almost finished. Discussing the first skit about the bear in the woods, Kend asked, “Was the bear realistic enough, do you think?”

 

Orla responded, “Judging by the reaction of the crowd — and that’s what counts, after all — it was perfect. I mean, did you see how many actually started to run?”

 

“Oh yes, the bear, the bear,” said an older man as he came over to the table. “You’re talking about my bear … our bear. It was great, wasn’t it, Kend? They were scared out of their wits! I just love how that trick gets them every time.”

 

The newcomer was named Githanjul, and he was the Troupe’s illusionist and mechanic. While his contributions to the Troupe were not absolutely necessary, items like the moving backdrop and the bear illusion certainly added a certain spark to even the most average skit in their repertoire. The four Troupe leaders often considered him as indispensable as any one of themselves.

 

Thanj was tall and slight, which made him look frail and older than he was. His hair was strawberry-blond streaked with grey, and his wispy yellow beard that kept mostly to the point of his chin only enhanced the illusion of advanced years. His eyes, though, were sharp and keen, their brown depths alive with alert intelligence.

 

His ears and hips were bare of relationship symbols, and many among the Troupe wondered if he had ever been that close to anyone. No matter how friendly and outgoing the illusionist was, there was always something hidden about him that kept people from getting too close.

 

Kend said, “Yep, Thanj, as usual, your illusion was superb.”

 

“Oh, now,” said Thanj, “you know as well as I that I didn’t do it all myself.” Thanj reached into the pouch at his side and withdrew a small carving of a bear standing on its hind legs. “Without your carving, Kend, that bear wouldn’t have been half so realistic.”

 

“Well, thank you, thank you” said Kend as everyone enthused about his carving. “So, Thanj, should I carve some different bears, or can you vary this illusion beyond the model?”

 

“Oh, ah … I don’t think you need to carve me any more bears, Kend. I can stretch this illusion enough to make them look different if we need to.”

 

Thanj put the bear figurine away, and withdrew another object from his belt pouch. “Oh, you’ve all got to see this. It’s a new one; I’ve been working on it for quite a while.” He held in his hand a metal cone about five ebbits tall and two-and-a-half ebbits wide at the base. It was hollow, and had some kind of spidery carvings, almost like writing, on the outside.

 

“Another choreographed illusion, Thanj?” asked Orla. “What is it this time?”

 

“Just you wait!” he said as he leapt up and made his way to the fireplace where Naka was playing. He whispered in her ear, then knelt down and spun the cone so that it twirled on its tip on the hearth in front of Naka. He then slipped back to the table, grinning from ear to ear. Only the people at the table had noticed him moving.

 

The cone spun for a few more moments, and then suddenly flipped over, coming to a complete halt pointing straight up. Just as suddenly, a dancing figure appeared where there had been a cone. Naka changed the music she was playing, her notes fitting perfectly to the movements of Thanj’s illusory dancer.

 

At the abrupt change in music, most of the other people in the room turned to look at Naka. They saw the dancer, and murmurs of appreciation went up from almost every table. The illusion was perfect, and Naka was playing perfectly too, so that no one else knew that the beautiful, scantily-clad woman dancing on the hearth wasn’t real.

 

Her arms moved sinuously, but not as smoothly as her stomach and hips. She didn’t move away from the spot where the cone had stopped, but she lifted her feet one after the other, shifting her hips, leaning sideways and backwards, arching her chest out, rocking her head back and forth. She even seemed to breathe in the middle of her dance movements.

 

Elin watched for several moments, then said, “I remember her!”

 

Thanj turned to her, his grin getting even wider. “Did I get her right? I think so, but I can’t really be sure.”

 

“Oh, you did a fine job, Thanj. A fine job!” said Elin.

 

“You have some memory, though,” said Kend. “We saw Prancha dance what, a year and a half ago? Two years?”

 

“Thank you, thank you. Yes, for some things my memory is useful.” Thanj stared not at his illusion, but at the people watching his illusion, drinking in their appreciation of his craft.

 

Eventually, the image of the dancing woman vanished, the illusion played out. The players in the room knew what had happened immediately, and started calling out praises to Thanj. The townsfolk, however, were very greatly confused by the disappearing woman, and the noise level in the room increased dramatically as they all speculated endlessly about just who or what had been dancing on the hearth.

 

Kend said, “You know, Thanj, if you could get those special illusions to move away from their source, you wouldn’t need my carvings anymore.”

 

“Oh, no, Kend,” said Thanj, “no, no, no. My choreographed illusions cannot react at all to what is going on around them, while the person carrying your carving with my illusion on it can move around, act, react, do anything, and still look like the thing your carving is. No, even if I could ever get my special illusions to move, your carvings would still be just as required as ever.”

 

Kend smiled, and said, “Thank you. I suppose you’re right.” Thanj nodded, and left to retrieve his cone, while Kend went back to working on the rodent he was carving. It looked something like a rabbit, and something like a squirrel, and something like a ferret, and despite looking in parts like all three of those animals it also looked like it was just a dusting of magic away from coming to life.

 

Elin asked, as she usually did, “So, when can we put on one of the serious plays, Orla?”

 

With the cadence of a well-rehearsed speech, Orla replied, “You know as well as I do, Elin, that to do a serious play we need a proper theater. No one wants to watch a tragedy while standing in a market square. They just won’t stay around long enough to get it. People who are likely to set aside their daily business for a time to watch one of our skits want diversion, not depth and plot. They want comedy, they want absurdity, mayhem, and, above all, stretch-rats. You devise me a skit with drama and pathos *and* gamboling stretch-rats, and I’ll seriously consider putting it into our market-square repertoire.”

 

Everyone around the table laughed on cue, and some of the players at adjoining tables chuckled, too. Elin had once tried to write just such a skit as Orla had described, and the results *had* ended up in the repertoire — as one more comedy/action skit. Rumor had it that Elin was still trying to write ferrets and drama into the same play.

 

Orla whistled and held up three fingers. Moments later, one of the two waiters in the Headless Sheep Inn glided through the throng with three foaming tankards. She expertly set them in front of the three at the table and whisked the empties away, dodging pinching fingers and grabbing arms all the way back to the bar.

 

Silence fell at the table as the three started in on their new tankards. Instinctively, they kept their ears open to the conversations filling the room with noise. The information gathering was almost second nature — the more that the players knew about the townsfolk, the better they could fit their next two days of plays to them.

 

One table was discussing the relative merits of two tailors in town. Orla noted several colorful turns-of-phrase that she was sure she could use at some time in the future.

 

Another table was debating whether the wares of one particular farmer were worth buying. They went over in detail the way he plowed his fields, the products he used for fertilizer, the way he harvested his crop, even the conveyance he used to bring his wares to market. And yet, all it boiled down to was that his prices were too high and his produce, in the expert opinions of those at the table, just wasn’t as fresh as it could have been.

 

One table was relating a particular rumor that was circulating concerning the activities of someone calling himself Warlord Adamik. Various versions of the rumor were compared, and though each was different, they all held an aspect in common: that Adamik had taken up the mantle of Unifier of Farevlin. Every so often, someone would decide that the ‘thousand lands’ of Farevlin needed to be one land again. Adamik had been only marginally successful so far, having supposedly conquered two or three of the southernmost states in Farevlin. While he was, according to rumor, an accomplished war leader, he still had the hurdle of the fierce independence of the Farevlin states to overcome.

 

Three people in the corner were talking about the charms of their current lovers. They were so drunk that none of them realized that they were all seeing the same person, and every one of them assured the others that their own lover was by far the superior one. Elin was intrigued by the situation, and started working out a skit based on the premise.

 

Actual seduction, as opposed to tales of it, was sparsely represented in the room. Kend supposed that townsfolk had better places to spark than the Headless Sheep Inn.

 

The inn door opened to let in three stragglers, and at that moment a bolt of lightning lit up the room, thunder crashing down very shortly after. The three newcomers struggled to shut the door against the suddenly howling wind, and Orla caught a clear glimpse of hail rattling to the ground.

 

As the three new people squeezed in around the bar, conversation at several tables turned to the weather. Most were simply glad that they were inside, in good company, with such excellent entertainment as was playing by the fire.

 

One table, however, started trading ‘wild weather’ stories, which made Elin and Orla, the writers, take notice. Local legends were always good fodder for skits, and the Troupe hadn’t been in the south of Farevlin very often.

 

The story that seemed most interesting concerned a figure known as Skrnahl, the Wild Hunter. Not quite a god, but not mortal at all, Skrnahl was constantly roving the worst nights. During wild storms, during the dark of the moon, or in the dead of winter, Skrnahl rode his giant demon stag across the land, with a crown of lightning circling his head and fire flashing from his eyes and dripping from his sword. He drove a flock of invisible hounds before him that cleared his path of anything living. He especially hunted cheats, bullies, liars: people who picked excessively on the weak.

 

Elin privately wondered about that: she guessed that stormy or dark nights were good times to get rid of people who caused trouble, and blaming it on Skrnahl served to divert suspicion and serve as a warning to those of a similar ilk to the recently ‘hunted’.

 

The evening wore on, and eventually it was time to leave the revelers behind. Kend stood, and held out his hand to Orla. There was a nervous pause, and Elin stood instead, taking Kend’s hand. Kend said in a confused voice, “But, it is Orla’s turn tonight. You were last night, Elin. What …?”

 

Orla said, “Ah … I’m not feeling well tonight, Kend, so I asked to switch with Elin. So …”

 

Kend look relieved, and said, “No, that’s fine, just fine. I hope you feel better, Orla.” He drew Elin close to his side, and together they walked to the stairs that led to the lodgings.

 

Not very long after, Naka ceased her playing, much to the disapproval of the crowd. She walked over to the table and sat down beside Orla. The crowd wanted Naka to play more, and as long as she was in the room, they continued to implore her to take up her instrument again. Naka was very tired, so with some brief apologies, she and Orla made their way to the stairs as well, hand in hand.

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