The old elven woman lay sprawled on a chaise in her garden like a cat in the sun, leaves and light dappling her bare skin with tabby stripes of shadow. She wore a floppy little sun hat and a few leafy scraps as a nod to modesty, but it wasn't much of a nod. More of a blink. Beauty had carved its way into each wrinkle, each pucker and divot of sagging flesh, reminding Naitachal of the lustrous wood bell of a lute, each whorl and ring another story waiting to be told.
He paused on the stone path that led through the garden to a narrow townhouse. Age this great was a rare thing among elves, and even more rarely did it go so scantily clad. Most elders preferred hermitage, and hermits tended to prefer voluminous robes. Or Sack-cloth.
Not this one, which was one of the many reasons Naitachal had sought fruitlessly for her for so long, only to stumble upon her in an unremarkable townhouse in the expanding new settlements outside the walls of the human city of Westerin.
"You are a difficult woman to find, Bard Eurosy," he murmured by way of greeting.
An eyebrow twitched in acknowledgement. "Well. I'm right here. Couldn't be more obvious if I waved a sign about, my boy." The old woman lifted her head and opened her eyes. They narrowed, perhaps due to sunlight, or perhaps due to the visitor standing in the middle of her twee little city garden, but she only shifted to chase the sunlight that was disappearing over the eaves of her townhouse. "Hmph. Or not. Might be the daylight is too bright for you."
"I manage well enough," Naitachal said. It was a kinder welcome than a Dark Elf usually received from his White Elf kin, but it was still a pointed reminder of how others saw him: a shadow out of place. He picked his way along a flagstone path to sit on a bench carved from walnut. Shadow he might be, but at least he could endeavor not to be a looming shadow.
"I suppose you must," Eurosy said, looking him over in a way he usually only received from much younger ladies.
Or perhaps the older ones were just better at hiding it.
"Well, you aren't flaying the skin from my bones or attacking me with skeletons and spiders, so you must be Bard Naitachal, Aidan's newest little bird. To what do I owe the honor? I think that's the right line for my role."
"And very gracefully delivered." Speaking to her was almost like speaking to a crotchety, older version of himself, that same balance of wry pragmatism and self-mockery that he liked to think he cultivated. Here was one who cared even less for platitudes than he did.
Which meant he could only answer with similar forthrightness. "I suppose that means my line is that I've come to ask about Oretta, and how you brought her back from death."
"Hah. Conversation by rote. That makes this easy. Go to hell."
"Well, yes. That is my intent. But how?" He leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, as if she hadn't just dismissed him. "And how do I find the one I'm seeking? And how do I return with him?"
"No… I mean…" Eurosy growled and pushed herself up to sitting. "Faugh. Can't properly berate you for being a smart-ass when I'm lying on my back."
"You needn't go to such effort on my behalf," Naitachal murmured, earning a twitch of lips from Eurosy that was almost as sweet as a smile.
"Who are you after?"
Eurosy glanced heavenward. "Boy, there isn't a kiss so sweet you can't find a sweeter kiss one town over. Go lose your head over someone new and stop pestering me."
"That is not why I aim to bring him back with Bardic Magic," Naitachal said, paying her shoo-ing motions no mind. As if she could so easily get rid of him after he'd sought her for so long.
"Because I could not do it with Necromancy."
Eurosy stilled. The sunlight crept off her chaise. When she rose, it was with all the grace and puissance he might have expected from a legend, nevermind her skimpy attire or her floppy little sun hat.
"Well then. I suppose I can hear you out. Come inside."
Instruments of every variety filled the cozy townhouse—at least, Naitachal thought they were instruments. About half of them he couldn't begin to recognize. His fingers twitched to touch them, examine them, see if he could figure out their working and caress music from their alien bodies. But no. He had a mission, and he mustn't be distracted.
Eurosy was no help. "Go on. Have at it. Get to be my age, you start to forget everything you've collected, and I don't have the patience for apprentices anymore. The last three took exception to my sunbathing, the darling little prudes. So I never get around to playing them as much as I should. I'll make tea, and you can weave your tale."
Naitachal touched the curved, gourd-like box of an instrument sporting only one string and an oddly-bowed fiddlestick. It wobbled, shaking dust free to dance in the sunlight, and the bow clattered to the floor.
Naitachal picked it up and ran it across the string. Dying cats yearned to mimic the sound that emerged. He set the instrument back in its place and folded his hands behind his back.
Eurosy laughed. "Believe it or not, it's supposed to sound like that."
Naitachal tore his attention from the room. He was a full Bard now, but seeing Eurosy's collection made him realize how much he still had to learn. A lifetime of learning. Or, as Master Aiden had been fond of saying: a sorcerer started knowing nothing with the aim to command knowledge of all things, whereas a bard started thinking they knew everything only to learn again and again just how little they knew of anything.
Eurosy plunked a mug in front of him. Rose hips and chamomile buds bobbed on the surface, steeping. "So, how did you find me? You know that Eurosy isn't really my name, yes?"
"That is one of the things that made you hard to find. Should I call you--"
"Eurosy will do. I believe for this tale that Eurosy is more appropriate. Now, how did you find me?"
"After your sister…" Naitachal paused, gave that story name as well. "After Oretta died last year, there were whispers, old revivals of the tale. Those who still remembered you wondered if you'd be going back again."
"Fools. Why would I do that? Oretta lived a good, full life and died an old woman in her bed."
"Peaceful, you mean."
"Well, she was. Gave the fellas she was with quite a fright, though." Eurosy snickered. "Humans. Stamina they might have, but not much for backbone." She sipped her tea, studying Naitachal over the rim of her mug. He wondered if she expected him to be shocked. If so, she'd have to come up with something more extreme than an elderly elf with a healthy sex life and a fetish for humans. He was Nithathil, after all.
"So you wouldn't bring her back?" he asked.
"What, so we can sit in the sunlight together and ogle pretty young Dark Elves who come to call?"
Naitachal's lips twitched. If he'd thought he could parlay his looks for her aid, he would have worn something nicer than his usual black traveling cloak and clothes.
"You will not find many of my folk wandering around in sunlight."
"Found you. Now stop flirting with me. Shameless, getting an old lady's hopes up like that."
"Who is getting whose hopes up?" He set his mug down, folded his hands in case they started to tremble. "What do I need to say to convince you to help me? To tell me how you ventured beyond the Dark Veil and brought Oretta home?"
Eurosy grunted and put down her own mug, matching his posture. It reminded Naitachal of those nights learning cards—and how to cheat at them—from Tich'ki.
"Tell me about him, this lover you would save."
Winter and springtime, and the sharp, sly sunlight that pierces the days between those seasons, he thought. Dewed skin flushed petal pink, muscles of a swordsman tensed on a frame blade-thin and steel-hard. Hands grasping, pushing, pulling, pale fingers twining with dark.
But those were just surface images, the flashes of memory he flayed himself with when he wanted to be reduced to raw loss and wanting. Eliathanis was more often to be found in the empty moments of Naitachal's days, when the music fell quiet and he touched the deep well of loneliness beneath it. A friend, a lover, a brother, hesitant acceptance, green eyes that saw past the mirror-dark surface of his skin to the center of Naitachal's being. Pride bending, a hand offered in friendship, a face falling open into a tender smile, warmth at his back, at his side. Vulnerability encased in armor, wielding a silver thorn against their enemies.
But that sword had led him to his downfall, that armor not enough to protect Naitachal's Winterspring love from a stormfall of arrows.
Naitachal dragged himself out of the well of loss he always carried. He cleared his throat and found his voice. "Eliathanis was his name, of the Moonspirit Clan. He was cut down by Princess Carlotta's men during her most recent coup attempt against King Amber."
Eurosy's white-winged brows rose. "That was ten years ago."
"And I have been studying Bardry ever since."
"You tried to bring him back with Necromancy?"
Naitachal traced the rim of his mug with a finger. "I… considered it. I was convinced otherwise."
Eurosy grunted. "By whom?"
Naitachal met her eyes. "Whom do you think?"
The Bard nodded. "You got more of a goodbye than most, then. Why should you get more?"
"Because it was senseless!" Naitachal slapped his hand down on the table. Eurosy blinked, but she didn't flinch or jump away at his vehemence. "There were a dozen ways we could have made our escape. We were uninjured, well-rested. Carlotta's sorcery was strong, but she was limited by trying to maintain her disguise. My Necromancy was match enough for her. There was no need for Eliathanis to ride against the barracks. If he'd been in his right mind, he would never have done so, but the fey madness was upon him, and sense had fled. So he charged, a charge so pointless that I can't even figure a way to immortalize it in song. We didn't even defeat Carlotta until a fortnight later. His death wasn't heroic. It was a foolish footnote. At best." Naitachal shoved his mug away, jaw set, nostrils flaring with every breath.
Eurosy's lips twitched. Her cheek dimpled like she was biting it. "You… want to bring him back because you're offended that his sacrifice lacked a deeper narrative meaning?"
At least the old elf had the courtesy to hide her laughter behind her hand.
Naitachal shook his head, fury bleeding away as quickly as it had risen. "I mean, no. Not entirely. But…"
"But you are making your case to a Bard, where such things matter?" she suggested.
"One who has already indicated that sex and companionship and even love can always be found again."
Eurosy wiped her eyes. "Ah yes. Not that the songs would have us believe that. But as Bards, we know that life is no more a song than a map is the territory.
Naitachal leaned over the table and grabbed her hand, trying to salvage something from his botched attempt to convince her. "He was my friend, my first. A brother like I never had, and his death was a waste. Why did you seek after your sister, if not for those same reasons?"
She studied his hand, obsidian fingers entwined with alabaster. "That is why I sought after Oretta, but that is not why I brought her back," she murmured. She slipped her hand out from under his, shaking her head. "I'm sorry—"
"Please." He couldn't let her slip away, not after so long. "I won't stop trying. If you won't tell me what you know, I'll find another way." After all, she had done it with the guidance of only a fox, a crane, and a turtle, if the songs were to be believed.
Eurosy collected the mugs and set them on the sink. "I wish you good seeking, Bard Naitachal," she said. A dismissal. She frowned at the two mugs sitting side by side. Touched one, then the other, her expression haunted. "Although…"
Naitachal's belly lurched. He held still, hanging on her hesitation. She looked up, her gaze fixed on some far point outside the window, her face so smooth and serene in that moment, carved by rosy afternoon sunlight, that she looked centuries younger.
"Although… a Dark Elf walks away from his upbringing, casts aside the Power of his Necromancy to take up the lute, all to win back his White Elf friend from Death itself, with Eurosy herself as his guide? Those are the bones of an epic tale."
Her face firmed. Age settled back onto her like a cat readjusting in the sunlight. She nodded. "Very well. I'll help. More than that, I'll take you myself."
Naitachal sat back in his chair so hard he nearly tipped himself head-over-ears. "Wait, you're agreeing to help me because it would make a good story?" Hadn't she just laughed at him for that very thing?
She had, and she laughed again now and patted his cheek. "I am a Bard, apprentice-mine. A good story should be the only reason we go on adventures."