Part One: Arrival
The City of Dargon, seat of the Duchy of Dargon, was fairly typical, for its type – river mouth port town. It surrounded the mouth of the River Coldwell, and several miles of its lower length. The river, racing to the sea from its source deep in the Darst range and fed on its way by scores of major and hundreds of minor tributaries that drained the forest that carpeted the whole of the northwest, met an estcarpment less than 40 feet high that still succeeded in turning it from its quest, forcing it to go around the outcropping. Dargon Keep had been built upon that rock in times long past, thickset massive walls bearing three towers – two facing the river it protected and one facing the sea as a watcher. Of slightly newer construction, but still a century or more old, was the Old City, built between the Keep, the River and the sea, and walled for most of its perimeter. A well fortified causway crossed the river to the much newer parts of town, especially the bustling port itself. Within the walls of the Old City lived the wealthy of Dargon, with the wealthiest and most favored sharing the walls of the Keep itself with the Lord of the City and Duke of all the lands around, Lord Clifton Dargon. Across the river, the merchants kept up a busy trade in anything a traveler might want, while closer to the sea clustered the less well-off of the residents of Dargon, keeping the port well supplied with cheap labor.
Je’lanthra’en reached Dargon shortly after midday, walking with a farm family who were traveling to the city in their yearly faring to try and sell the fruits of their winter shutting-in, having just gotten their crops planted for the warmer months. She had somehow expected there to be no travel from the landward side of Dargon, and certainly there was little that crossed the Darst range from the interrior of Baranur. But, the Lord of Dargon was also Duke of the forestland between the Darst and the sea, and his land was well populated, if not as well as the Barony around Magnus.
She accompanied the family into the Open marketplace, where anyone with goods to sell could take an unoccupied booth and stay until their wares were gone, and from there she asked directions to the Inn of the Serpent. In the last letter she had had from her brother Kroan, he said that he was living in a place two doors down from the Inn of the Serpent, and he had just gotten a job with the Fifth I Merchant firm, doing inventory (Kroan has always been as good with numbers as she had been (once) with words).
She set off across the market section of the city following the directions she had received. She came to the Inn on a street that served as a border of the merchant section of town. The Inn got its name from a well-carved sculpture of a Great Wyrm of legend – rather fancifully embellished, really, and painted a garish green and red: not frightening at all, not like the stories…
Je’en counted doorways, entered the right one, and climbed the second set of stairs. Four doors down from the top, and she knocked.
The door was answered by a young woman dressed very garishly. “Ya, whadd’ya want, ‘oney?” she said.
Je’en hesitated, then said, “Is this where Kroan Jessthson lives?”
“Na, never ‘eard of ‘im, love. Lived ‘ere t’ree years, I ‘ave, and never ‘eard tell of t’is Kroan person. T’at all?”
Momentarily disheartened, Je’en thanked the woman for her time, and walked slowly back down the stairs. Four years it had been since she had read Kroan’s last letter, and it had arrived at the College in Magnus two years before that – a Bard is seldom in one place for long. Much could have happened in six years, and obviously had: just look at her – once a Bard, now a left-handed fighter who wore a mask.
Still, there was at least one more lead: she knew where Kroan had been working then. She decided to see if they knew of her brother at Fifth I Merchants, and if they didn’t, she had time to search the whole town if it came to that.
It didn’t. She asked directions at the Inn, and found the offices of the Fifth I with ease. From there, after asking about Kroan, she was led to another office in the wealthiest section of town outside the walls of Old Town, and there, in an office, surrounded by clarks and ledgers, she was reunited with her brother.
Kroan had really grown up since Je’en had seen him last, more than ten years ago. He was now taller than she, and had filled out some, tho he was still skinny by any standards. A full beard and moustache adorned his face, startlingly red in contrast to his ordinarily brown hair, making him seem even older, but his eyes were the same twinkling brown, and his smile made him seem like a child again, happy and carefree.
To Kroan, Je’en had changed, too. She was still the tall, well built sandy-blonde woman that had left for the Bardic College when she was fifteen, over twelve years ago. He had always loved the way she could bring a song to life (he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket), and she had picked up harping with natural-born ease. But, she wasn’t now dressed in the green cloak she had always worn when she had visited home, nor the pendant of her Rank, nor was the harp she had fought a duel of words to win on her back, and the sword she wore on her right hip (odd, that – Je’en was right-handed, wasn’t she?) wasn’t good old Leaf- Killer. She wore only dusty riding leathers, and a strange half-mask of silver that was molded to her features so that, tho it hid her eyes, he had had no trouble recognizing her.
When he had recovered from the bone-crushing hug she had given him, Kroan said, “So, why are you here, Sis? I thought you mostly stayed in the south, in more civilized lands? What, did you get the Master of the College mad at you, and he sent you to the hinterlands as punishment?”
Her eyes were well hidden, and he didn’t see the pain in them, but he did notice the way her mouth twitched downwards, so he didn’t wait for some awkward response, but changed the subject.
“Well, we can talk about that in more privacy, eh? What say we go have dinner in this nice little inn I know of, and we can talk all we want – all night even. The nice thing about being boss here is I can leave anytime I want to (as long as MY boss doesn’t find out, ha ha!). You have any place to stay, Je’en?”
They did talk all night, both of them. Kroan told her how he had been promoted again and again, until he finally had control of all matters financial for the third largest merchantile guild in Dargon. He enjoyed his work, and felt quite happy where he was.
And, Je’en told her brother what had happened to her – the attack, her injuries, her leaving the College, and training at Pentamorlo with the famous Lord Morion. Kroan was genuinely upset to hear about Je’en’s losses, and, when she said she was looking for work, he immediatly assured her that she could have a lifetime position with Fifth I. She gladly accepted, but refused to promise that it would be for a lifetime.
So, Je’en, with her brother’s help, settled in to Dargon. He found her an apartment in the better part of town, and got her a job as a Peace-keeper in one of the Upper Marketplaces. She didn’t really even have to know one end of a sword from the other for such a job, just how to placate irate customers and shop keepers, but she enjoyed it, anyway.
Part Two: Assassination
“The Sword of Cleah has returned to us, my brothers!”
There was a murmur of suprise from the other black-robed-and-cowled members of the Septent of the Order of Jhel and Her Prophets on Earth. The seven men, who were always hidden, even from each other, when they met to discuss Order business, were astonished that the Time was so near. For the Sword to return in their lifetimes…!
“Brother Saith, what proof do you bring to us of this?” asked Brother Un (for anonymities sake, each member bore a number instead of a name).
“It was seen, Brother Un. I, myself, have seen it, after hearing reports about it from some of the acolytes. A woman wearing a silver mask who guards in one of the marketplaces bears Lladdwr openly at her side. The Sword of the First of Her Prophets has returned to us!”
“To be precise,” said Brother Pedwar, “Lladdwr has come to Dargon. It is in the hands of an unknowing Outsider. How is it to be returned to us?”
“We could buy it,” suggested Brother Chwech.
“But, what if this Outsider is not unknowing? You know that the King has forbidden the worship of Jhel within his borders. What if this masked woman is a decoy – what if she knows what she bears, and is ready to point out any interest in her sword to agents of the King?” asked Brother Un.
That gave them all pause. The Order of Jhel existed under a front in Dargon, that was one reason why the Septent went hooded when together. The King had decreed that Jhel and all of her followers were traitors to the Crown. The tenets that Jhel’s Prophets proclaimed included that Anarchy was the Blessed state, and when there was no more external rule, then would everyone live in Bliss and Ecstacy Forever. Few believed in Jhel, but her followers were fanatical, and they believed that if a person couldn’t be converted to Jhel’s ways, then they should die, beginning with those who imposed their rule on the people, and so postponed Jhel’s Promise.
Finally, Brother Chwech said, “If this masked woman is a plant, then if she is dead, she cannot report who had interest in her sword, right? And, if she is not – well, one more step will have been taken to fulfill Jhel’s Promise.”
“You know a competent assassin?” asked Brother Un.
“Aye, several. But, I think that a few street thugs should be enough: she’s only a woman, after all.”
“Do what you think best, Brother Chwech. In your hands I place the retrieval of Lladdwr, the Slayer that will bring down the world, and replace it with Jhel’s Promise!”
The room was dark, except over the intricately carved and inlaid table in its center, which was lit by a clear crystal globe that glowed with a golden light, suspended over it. The young yet knowledgeable man settled himself into the chair, as carved and inlaid as the table that was its mate, and shuffled the over-large deck of cards in his hands.
When the cards felt right, he stopped shuffling and turned over the top card onto the center of the table. It was the Twelve of Swords – the cards were properly aligned with the subject. The young man proceeded to lay out the rest of the Bent-Star pattern – the two Force cards crossing the Significator, and the five rays of three cards each that outlined the pathways of the layout. It took him less than a second to scan the whole pattern and read it to its deepest level, and when he had, he leaped to his feet in such haste that the ornate chair went crashing backwards. He ran into the darkness at the edge of the room with no hesitation, calling out, “Mahr! Mahr, ready the Image Table quickly! Hurry!”
The young man ran through the darkness of his house as if it was noonday-lit. Perhaps the way his eyes glowed with a sapphire blue light enabled him to move surely where even a cat might have faltered. Down three flights of steps to the first sub-basement he ran, and into another globe-lit room with another table in it. His apprentice, Mahr, was already there, preparing the special properties of the table in this room for use.
The Image Table was large, with a flat top made of polished slate. At each of the four corners stood a crystal pole, about a foot and a half high, with what looked like small silver metal flakes imbedded in it. All but one now glowed with the same eerie inner illumination that the light globe did, and Mahr was touching the last unglowing one with the palm of her left hand, muttering something softly. When her words stopped, that pole, too, began to glow, and she looked up at the young man said, “It is ready, my Lord. Do you wish anything else?”
“No, Mahr, thank you. You have done well. You may stay, if you wish.” Mahr smiled, and moved back out of the way, but happy to stay and watch her teacher, Cefn an’Derrin, work.
Cefn placed his hands on a metal plate on one of the long sides of the Image Table, and began muttering some ancient and powerful words. Light lanced outward from each pole, but only along and within the edges of the table. Soon the light seemed to take on solid form, filling the top of the table with a block of light. And then, the block cleared, but the top of the table had vanished. Instead, a portion of the town was visible, but not just as a picture – it was as if someone had built an exact scale model of part of Dargon’s fringe district on the table.
But, no model could be so perfect. Unfelt wind moved debris down the streets of the image, rocked shop signs, and caused lantern and candle light to flicker. And, every so often, people moved thru the tiny streets, either merchant going uptown, or sailor or dockworker going downtown.
Cefn read the image with the same speed he had read the cards. He frowned, and muttered a mild oath that caused a symbol embroidered on his tunic to spark and flash. He said as if talking to himself (which he was really, but aloud for Mahr’s benefit), “The cards said she’d be here. Must have taken too long to set up. I’ll have to move the Image to the danger zone, and wait.”
The Image was centered on the street that ran along the nominal separation line between the low city and the middle city. As Cefn stood, the street ran right to left along the middle of the Image, and the low city was on the side closest to him. He ran the fingertips of his right hand slowly along the metal plate in front of him, and the Image began to move to the left, until he recognized a certain combination of cross streets and alleyways. Making careful adjustments until a certain street was directly in front of him, he began to move his fingers up, so that the Image moved into the low city, following that street.
Cefn again recognized a certain alleyway, and moved the Image right, following the alley into the darkness between buildings. When the image just barely showed where the alley joined the street he had been following at its right edge, he stopped. He had reached the danger zone.
Slowly, as they watched and waited, details became clear in the blackness of the alley. Cefn noticed the concealed figures first, because he knew that they would be there – once he had pointed them out to Mahr, their positions seemed obvious. Cefn said, “She will be comming down the alley this way, from the left of the Image. She’ll never be able to spot these ambushers.”
“Master, will you intervene?” asked Mahr.
“Little one, you know that I must keep my interrest and presence hidden for our purpose here to succeed. But – fetch me some glass slivers from the laboratory, quickly.”
Mahr dashed into the surrounding darkness, uncovering a small candle lantern when she reached the edge of the darkness that filled Cefn’s house – she had no sorcerous means of penetrating it as her master did. She was swiftly back with the requested materials – a handfull of glass splinters from the preparations for a spell Cefn had been testing earlier that day. She placed them in Cefn’s free hand, and resumed watching the almost motionless waiting of the ambushers in the Image.
Cefn was also watching, dividing his mind between that task and preparing the spell he was going to use with the splinters. Silence grew absolute as the two magicians waited for the woman’s arrival.
A globe of lantern light preceeded the woman’s arrival within the Image – yellow oil-flame glinting off of silver face mask and drawn and ready sword held left-handed. The lantern hung from a special hook attached to her right wrist, which she held before her to provide maximum illumination. Her pace was measured and careful, and she looked around warily. The two watchers saw the ambushers move deeper into the shadows that cloaked their hiding places. They were well enough concealed that even when the woman was alongside them, they would still be hidden from the light.
Cefn plucked two splinters of glass from his palm, and held them above the Image where the two nearest ambushers hid. He mouthed the words of the proper spell, and released the slivers. They fell, and when they crossed the edge of the Image, it seemed that two swift bolts of lightning streaked down to flash harmlessly but brightly off of the sword-blades of the hidden attackers.
The woman saw the flashes, and immediately set her lantern down, and backed up against a wall. The ambushers, knowing themselves to be revealed, rushed out of hiding – six well armed youths with the look of the street about them. They closed into a semi-circle around the woman, who just shifted slightly so that she could keep all of them in sight. Then, the melee began.
The only light in the alley was that of the lantern the woman had set down. The movements of her attackers cast shadows into the dim illumination, making the action difficult to follow for the two who watched from safety and distance, but the attacked woman seemed unaffected by the chancy light. She moved with speed, grace, and skill, unaffected by the uneven odds and bad situation of the attack. Bodies darted in and out of light, used shadows of others to hid, and move unseen, and steel flashed bright white and blue as swords did their work. Soon, the peculiar glint of light off wet blood was seen as swift moving sword shed its red coating in moving to gain another. The melee became clearer as, one by one, the street toughs met the woman’s sword for the last time, and ceased to move.
Less than five minutes later, Dargon’s population was reduced by six. The woman stood, panting slightly, sword still held at ready, in the unblocked light of her lantern – her attackers were all dead. Any expression she might have worn was hidden by her mask, and the size of the image the mage watched, but, by her stance, she seemed unaffected by her brush with death. Satisfied that the woman was all right, Cefn lifted his hand from the metal plate, and the Image folded in upon itself. Had he watched it fade away, he might have seen the swordswoman begin to shake in delayed reaction, dropping her sword, and sinking slowly to the ground.
But, Cefn’s attention was diverted by Mahr. His apprentice asked, “Who were those men, sir?”
“I don’t know, Mahr. But, I can guess that the Order of Jhel now knows that Lladdwr is in the city, and that was their first attempt to retrieve it. We must keep a better watch over the woman.”
“Yes, Master. After what she has been through, she deserves to be looked after. Master, will it work? Was it worth it to bring her?”
Cefn frowned, and turned away from Mahr. After long moments of staring into the darkness, he finally said, “I have my orders. Jhel must be eliminated, and the Order here in Dargon is the only one left. You were with me when we cast the cards, looking for the answer. The only avenue open was to bring Lladdwr here, and the only way to do that was to get her friends to take her out that night. The cards didn’t tell us what would come of that little sorcerous manipulation, did they?!
“It has to work. We’ve destroyed that woman’s life, just to get a damnable piece of steel into this city – if it doesn’t bring down Jhel, well — well, it has to, that’s all. We must be vigilant, ready to help, and be ready, when the time comes, to expose and destroy the last Septent in existence.”
Part Three: Dreams
“Brother Chwech, report,” said Brother Un.
“As you know, Brothers, the attack was unsuccessful. Apparently, this ‘Je’en’ woman, she who bears the Sacred Sword, knows its uses. The men I hired were all killed in the ambush. I…”
“Pardon me, Brother Chwech, but it wasn’t an ambush,” said Brother Pump. “I was watching the whole thing, and someone or something intervened on the woman’s behalf, exposing the location of the men hired by Brother Chwech, and ruining the ambush. Later, I learned that I was not alone in observing the conflict. Brothers, this woman is not here by chance. Someone has lured her here, and I fear that she is bait for us. If we wish to retrieve Lladdwr, we must act slowly, cautiously, and as covertly as possible. Forget not, Brothers, we are the last of Jhel’s Priests – the prophecies do speak of a possible future wherein Jhel’s very name is forgotten. That must not happen.”
“Well spoken, Brother Pump,” said Brother Un. “Caution is indeed necessary. Has anyone here any ideas on how to coax the Sacred Sword from this woman?”
Brother Tri said, “I have done some research into this woman’s past, and I think I have found a possible weakness. You see, she was once a Bard, before a recent accident stole away her voice. What might she do, my Brothers, to regain it…?”
Je’en, Mecke, and Taal laughed in pure joy as they walked down the street, heading for the best tavern in Magnus – the Battered Shield. They had just passed their final test and were now officially Bards, and intended to spend a few hours celebrating.
For Je’en, it was the fulfillment of a dream. From that first day the circuit Bard had selected her from the Faire’s singing contest, saying she had the potential, Je’en had done everything in her power to become a Bard. She had traveled to the College in Magnus, studied hard, and learned well. And, she was now a Bard.
She and her two classmates entered the Battered Shield, and Taal immediately ordered a round for the house, announcing their news to all. Je’en smiled and accepted the congratulations of the patrons, and then the they settled into a corner booth and began to celebrate.
About an hour and a half later, Mecke suggested a little contest. The three of them would take a given legend, and retell it, each differently. It was an exercise that they had all done in class, so they all knew what was required. Since Mecke had suggested it, she was chosen to go first.
As she sang her version of the Balphiryon and Hengnra tale, the patrons of the tavern began to gather around – even in Magnus, listening to a Bard ply her trade was an event.
When Mecke was finished – to much applause, and a few coins – it was Taal’s turn. His version took a totally different turn, but was equally entertaining, and he, too, received applause, and cheers, and coins – enough to pay for his “round for the house” earlier.
Then it was Je’en’s turn. While she had been half listening to the others sing, she was formulating her own version, on yet a different tack from Taal’s. So, once the accolades for Taal had died down, she began. By way of long practice, and tenacious teachers, it had become almost second nature for her to make up a story-song as she went along. Her version came out as smoothly and professionally and the two before, and she could tell that the audience was enjoying themselves as well.
Then, in the middle of her twenty-second verse, she suddenly couldn’t sing anymore. Her throat burned, there was stabbing pain in her face, arm, and leg, and all that came out of her mouth were harsh, croaking noises, fit only for an angry bird. And, the audience immediately turned on her, throwing mugs and bread, jeering, catcalling, abusing her verbally and physically. And, to make it worse, her friends joined in with the patrons instead of standing by her and helping her. She didn’t understand. This hadn’t happened before, before…
Je’en woke up with a start, sitting bolt upright, her mouth open and breath caught to scream. She caught herself before she tortured her throat further, and instead began to sob, coiling into a ball on her bed.
Wend had awakened when Je’en did, and he, used to her nightly fits, tenderly reached out to her, gently unrolled her, and let her cry herself out against his chest.
When Je’en was calm again, she thanked Wend and stayed close to his comforting solidity. He was a Peace-keeper in the same market place she was. He had always been friendly, and a help in getting to know Dargon, and, eventually they had become lovers. And now, with these nightly nightmares, he was a great comfort to her as well.
The bad dreams had started shortly after the attack in the alley. Up until that time, Je’en had never used her newly-won skills with the sword to kill. That, with the similarity of that ambush to the one in Magnus that had taken her voice, had released all of her carefully dammed up memories. Memories that were now tormenting her each and every night.
Wend said, “Better now, hon? What was it this time?”
Je’en told him. It seemed to help. He was so understanding. She was beginning to feel something deep for him.
That night’s nightmare was typical: a good memory from her past life ruined by the intrusion of her present circumstances. Without Wend’s help, she would probably have retained the mixture, ruining even her memories of her past, but he helped her reason out the nightmare and banish it. She hadn’t had any repeat dreams, for which she was glad.
When Wend had done his work sorting out her dream, he said, “Je’en, I learned of this treatment that might help you. It’s a mild drug that frees the mind, and with guidance, deep-seated problems can be resolved while under the influence. It has been three weeks since you had an undisturbed night’s rest.”
Je’en thought about it. Normally, she didn’t like drugs, other than a little alchohol now and then. She didn’t like to be out of control. But these nightmares were bad, and without Wend, they would be worse. She didn’t want to go through life dreaming bad dreams, with Wend always by her side (as nice as that sounded, for other reasons) to keep her sane. So, she said, “Alright, Wend. What do I need to do?”
The house was in that chancy fringe district between the middle and lower cities. It stood out because it was the best kept house on the street, and it stood alone – its neighbors had collapsed, and the rubble cleared away, long since.
Wend led Je’en up to the door, and knocked. Je’en was nervous – she was literally giving control of her mind to Wend, who had offered to give the healing guidance. But, she had come to know him, and she trusted him. When she was cured, she thought she might even ask him to marry her.
An old woman answered the door, and ushered them into a well kept parlor, furnished with the trappings of a fortune-teller, as was the old woman. Wend whispered something in her ear, and handed her a small leather bag that clinked faintly as it met the woman’s hand. She hefted it as if judging the value of its contents, smiled, and produced a small silver box from her robes. She said in a voice like old leaves, “Use number 15, my son. I wish you well.” Then she began to putter around the room, ignoring the couple as they went up the stairs at the back of the room.
Room 15 was neatly, if sparsely, furnished with a bed, chair, and table. It was very neat, and the furniture was expensive, but Je’en could guess what else this room might be used for. She wondered how much of the coin Wend had paid had been for the time in the room, and not the drug.
Je’en took her place on the bed, and Wend pulled the chair up next to her. He showed her the tiny box, and opened it. Within were two very small pills with the silvery-red sheen of blood on steel. A ewer and glass on the table helped to wash down the pills, and Wend told her to just relax.
It wasn’t long before Je’en fell lightly asleep. She didn’t consciously hear the soothing words spoken by Wend, but she felt their effects. And she began to dream.
Nothing bad, this time. Only good. Reliving her memories, specifically her most recent nightmares, without the bad parts. The dreams were very vivid, and she enjoyed feeling herself sing and play music again. The pain of her loss was mitigated by the joy of her memories.
When she awoke, she felt much refreshed. And that night there was no nightmare. Wend was happy that Je’en felt better, but felt that she should use the drug for at least the rest of the week – after all, she didn’t want the nightmares returning, did she? So, every day for the next four days, she and Wend went to that lone, well kept house, and spent an hour or so in one of the upper rooms.
Cefn sat in near darkness, the globe above the table dimmed to just a faint spark. He studied the lay of the cards on the table, and frowned again. They refused to tell clearly! He read dreams and danger in them, but there was no imminency in them, and no definite focus either. The way they read, it almost seemed that they were warning of the everyday possibility of an accident, save that the cards never worked so trivially. His charge, Je’en, seemed to be in some danger, but he couldn’t tell what kind, or how soon, and he couldn’t act until he knew. With a stifled oath, he swept the cards from the table, dimmed the globe with a gesture, and sat, brooding, in total darkness.