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."
After ten years of waiting, learning, researching, Naitachal was antsy to be gone.
Unfortunately, Eurosy was slow and methodical in her preparations, and though he tried to pretend patience, the sidelong, amused looks she gave him every time he bit back a sigh or a pointed comment said she wasn't fooled.
He wondered if she was even dragging her preparations out deliberately, just to make him squirm.
A sennight later, they finally rode out onto the open road, Eurosy on a palfrey far too fancy for hard travel, and Naitachal on his Star—the most placid horse ever to set hoof to turf. Naitachal had expected Eurosy to come with a full train of baggage, but she traveled even lighter than he did: just a small pack of clothing, the usual road provisions, and two scuffed hard cases. One was for the mandolin she wore open on her back, and the other was in the familiar shape of a fiddle.
"That's always the hardest," she told him as they passed the straggling edges of a city that had grown beyond its walls. "Which of my darlings to take." She glanced back over her shoulder. "We're all strings here. Perhaps I should have brought the concertina instead? Or the bodhran?"
Naitachal caught her reins before she could bring her palfrey about. "If we were playing dance halls and festivals, yes, but strings are best for taproom singing."
He was of two minds on that score. On the one hand, a week with the woman had made him question if he was really ready for this, her breadth of knowledge making him feel very much the apprentice she'd called him, even though Aidan and the College had confirmed him. Playing with her at taverns, learning from her… he'd be a fool to rush the experience.
But now that he'd finally set aside study and taken action, the rush of urgency was upon him. Even one night felt too long to delay.
"You haven't said where we're going," he said.
"No, I haven't." She looked sideways, chuckling. "Your face."
Naitachal had too much experience schooling his features into blankness to believe she could read him if he didn't want her to. "Is doubtlessly a study in saintly patience," he drawled, refusing to rise to her baiting.
Eurosy smirked and contented herself with humming a jaunty jig. Naitachal studiously didn't glower at the old woman's back, but he did pull up the hood of his cloak as the stares and second-glances of merchants and farmers they passed on the road began to wear at him.
They covered more distance than he would have expected, but the pace that Eurosy set took its toll on her, revealed by the sag of her shoulders and the increased length of time between her jibes, though she did keep up her humming. He was relieved when they came upon a turning and Eurosy took it, leading them to a roadside public house tucked between cozy farmsteads—a place more for locals than for travelers. They could push on and hope to find a larger inn further down the main road, but it was just as likely they'd spend a cold night bunked in some farmer's barn. Or an open field. There was no need to put Eurosy through that.
Besides, she'd been humming tantalizing bits of songs he didn't know all day. He wanted to hear her play a room.
"We're heading north," Naitachal noted after he'd seen to their horses—there was no ostler in a place this small—brought up their bags to the one room available to let, and settled in a corner of the rustic taproom with his companion. She'd washed the dust from her face, and that seemed to have refreshed her spirits. She watched the farmers talk about their day's work with bright green eyes and a bemused grin, waving any time one of them noticed her fine features or pointed ears. He knew better than to test of the goodwill of such country folk. He kept the hood of his cloak up over his head. Better to be thought a White Elf shadow than to be confirmed a dark one.
"Your observational abilities astound me, apprentice-mine. Did the position of the sun give it away?"
Given that it had been foggy, the sky clouded over for most of their ride? "No, the signs along the road. They teach us to read where I come from."
Naitachal didn't bother to hide his grin; his hood would do that for him. "North is Elven lands."
"They teach you geography too, I see."
He sipped his ale. Such places were usually better at ales than wines, unless they were surrounded by vineyards. "I'll be even less welcome there than I am in places like this."
"Ah. Is that why you're swaddled up in that cloak of yours like a baby assassin? Because that isn't suspicious at all." Eurosy sipped her own drink, a rotgut grain alcohol that swirled around her glass like liquid amber. Naitachal had no interest in trying the stuff, not after she'd described the flavor as peat and woodsmoke.
"You should play," Eurosy said.
Naitachal shifted. "I'm not sure—"
"I am. This room needs music, and I need to hear if you have the skill to entertain Death."
"You've heard me practicing all this past week."
"But not to an audience. Keep it bright and bucolic. Pick wordplay songs over the bawdy. Many new-minted Bards make the mistake of assuming country means stupid. These aren't slow folk. They like a clever quip as much as city people. And they listen better.
It was like being back with Master Aidan, that uncomfortable tension at being talked to like a callow youth when Naitachal counted his years and experience far beyond that. However, unlike a callow youth, he was wise enough to swallow down his resentment and welcome the instruction for what it was. Eurosy had a point. Without her guidance, he might have kept to a duller, bawdier repertoire rather than playing to country vanity.
He dragged his chair to the front of their table, took out his lute, and fixed the tuning that had gone sour on the road. His actions earned a few curious looks, but it wasn't until he unfastened his cloak clasp and let the dark fabric fall back over his chair that the room fell silent. Conversations died like the winking out of stars. All eyes were on him: the shadow in their midst.
"Effective technique, that," Eurosy whispered.
"Yes. It's quite useful for catching a crowd, as long as I survive the pitchforks that sometimes follow." He strummed a chord, and another, and started picking out an embellished Banish Misfortune in quarter tempo, fast enough to catch their attention with his skill, slow enough that they couldn't quite guess the tune he was leading into. Like laying honey out for flies. He slipped to half tempo, gradually speeding up until something clicked. He watched comprehension dawn across the room in a wave of Ah's and brightening smiles as the farmers recognized the jig and forgot the player. Tapping feet became pounding mugs. He even earned a few unexpected yips when he broke again into finger-picking. He raced the jig to the finish, driven by the pounding and clapping of a crowd turned from churlish to cheerful. He finished with a flourish and a thump against the bell of his lute, and the room erupted into applause.
Naitachal couldn't bite back his grin. Bardic Magic might have Power unlike any other magic, but this was why he loved music. In the course of one song, he'd banished the hatred and mistrust.
Banish Misfortune, indeed.
Now that the crowd was primed, he felt safer to start singing, but he wanted to keep them engaged, so he started in on a song about a young shepherdess looking for her crook, a milkmaid working her churn into butter, and a farmer plowing his fields, full of double-entendrés that had the folk hanging on the lyrics and snickering at the wordplay. And then he played right into a drinking song, the sort that had an easy chorus so that anyone could join in, even if they'd never heard it before.
At some point, Eurosy joined him on her fiddle, but she kept to easy accompaniment only, leaving him to pick the tunes and hold the crowd's attention.
His ales and Eurosy's amberglass started coming quicker, and free. He only drank enough to keep his voice, but Eurosy drained each glass. Her notes still played true, but when she started swaying not in time with her playing, Naitachal decided it was past time to end the set. He brought the farmers down gently with a love ballad, and laid them to rest with a call-to-haying that they could all join in on. The taproom reverberated with the thrum of rough, honest baritones and altos, with the occasional thready tenor or soprano. It was early yet, but these were folk who worked and slept by the cycles of daylight. They started drifting home as soon as Naitachal finished. A few gave him nods or tossed a coin in the open case at his feet. The music gone, the unease of before had returned. Naitachal packed up his lute as though he didn't care.
Eurosy lolled in her chair, nursing her last amberglass. Naitachal sighed and packed up her fiddle as well, loosening the hairs on her bow, removing the chin rest, digging the little cube of rosin from where it had fallen under their table. It seemed he'd been cast in the role of apprentice again, indeed.
He was contemplating the Bard and their four instrument cases, wondering which would be safest to leave in the taproom while he took the others up, when someone cleared their throat behind him.
"You need some help with her?" asked the young man who'd been delivering their drinks all night. The innkeep's son. He had the same honey-wheat hair and moss-green eyes as many of the folk around here, but he was lean and untanned, as though he didn't spend all his days baking in the fields.
"I'd appreciate it, yes," Naitachal said, and so did Eurosy, by the way she perked up and draped herself over boy. He seemed to take her flirting in stride, leading the way upstairs while Naitachal followed with the instrument cases, trying not to bang them on the narrow stairwell walls.
The boy laid Eurosy out on the bed, untangling her arms from about his shoulders. He gave her a quick buss on the lips that was entirely respectful, yet still had the drunken lecher purring and snuggling up into her covers with a happy sigh.
The boy was smiling too when he stood. He glanced past Naitachal to the cot that had been set up for the Dark Elf's use. "You're in for an uncomfortable night," he said.
Naitachal stood from stowing the instruments. He regarded the innkeep's son with puzzlement. Humans—those who didn't have need to—rarely engaged him in idle conversation of their own volition. "I've suffered worse."
The lad wandered over, his fingers brushing across the propped-up fiddle case, only a few inches from where Naitachal's rested. Close enough that Naitachal could feel their warmth.
"Still, that's no reason to suffer when there's no need. I've a… very comfortable bed of my own." Those warm fingers touched Naitachal's. Eyes green as moss met his, steady and clear in their invitation. Naitachal's hand trembled under the boy's. He couldn't seem to find his voice.
Taking silence for encouragement, the lad stepped closer and raised his free hand to touch Naitachal's silverfall hair. That broke Naitachal from his immobility. Decades of guardedness reasserted themselves. He caught the lad's hand before it could touch him.
They stood, hand in hand, as though partnered in a dance. "I am grateful for your kindness, but I think it best if I suffer the cot."
"Oh." The boy stepped back, deflated. "A-all right." He scurried from the room like a kicked puppy.
"Idiot," Eurosy snuffled from her bed. She rolled over and commenced snoring. Naitachal watched the door a long time and wondered if she meant the boy, or him.
They left the inn early enough the next morning that mist clung to the hollows of the surrounding fields, and the only life in the yard was an excited hound that hadn't quite grown into his paws.
The hound followed them for half the grey morning, until some critter in the surrounding woods attracted its attention. It darted off barking and never returned.
Naitachal pulled Star up beside Eurosy's palfrey, trying to catch the elusive tune the bard hummed, but it was too soft, or else it kept changing, he couldn't decide which. Every time he thought he had it, it slipped away, like trying to catch minnows by hand.
He finally gave up in bemused frustration.
"You never speak of Oretta," he said. In truth, she barely spoke at all, save when she was poking at him with her wit. Naitachal had never considered himself much of a talker, but next to Eurosy he was positively garrulous.
Eurosy's humming faded. She tilted her head, cocked and curious like a bird. "You don't speak much of Eliathanis," she said.
If she meant to silence him, it was effective. Naitachal tugged his cowl lower. And yet, he supposed he'd asked for it with his impertinent question.
Eurosy leaned over to pat his knee. "Some losses are so raw that they leave holes we can't talk about. We can only talk around them."
Naitachal nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
"Believe it or not, the dancers had it closest to right. Oretta was the outgoing one. I was always her shadow. I didn't mind. I preferred it. She drew the eyes that I wished to avoid."
"Full of fire," Naitachal murmured, recalling a crimson dancing dress with gold spangles, and the pale blue shroud that followed. He wondered what the women who danced Eurosy wore, back when the troupes still danced the classics.
Eurosy laughed. "She was that. Our parents despaired of her, and they trusted me to counter her wildness. They despaired even more when sickness banked her fire, though none more than I."
"When did you decide to go after her? How did you know what to do?" he asked, leaning closer. The songs never spoke of this, nor the tales, nor any other version of the story he'd been able to find in any medium.
Eurosy grimaced. "There was no decision. At best, there was only the denial of a girl who didn't really understand death." She shot him a wry, sidelong smile. "And would you believe I turned to Necromancy?"
Naitachal's eyes widened, and he choked on a dozen shocked responses.
Eurosy laughed, catching her palfrey when the mare tried to dance sideways. "Your face. Take heart. I had no skill for it, nor taste. So I found another way."
He relaxed into his saddle, relieved. "What way?"
"Hush. I think we…" She looked about, brow furrowed. The trees and fields along the road looked the same as they had all day, save perhaps that the fog was a bit thicker. "No. Here. This turning."
Eurosy led them down a lane too narrow to ride abreast, curtailing further conversation. She returned to humming, and Naitachal tucked his chin close to his chest to chew on what she'd said.
The track led to a cliff overlooking a wide river, and the cliff trail led down to a bustling river port. Naitachal admitted to being thoroughly lost. The port resembled Westerin as it must have looked in its early days, though surely they had traveled far enough north to be in the deep, wooded territories of the White Elves. Yet when Eurosy led them to an inn, all the faces in the taproom were broad-cheeked, wide-eyed, and thoroughly human. They stared at Eurosy with open curiosity and ignored the cloaked shadow sitting at the old woman's side.
"And are you going to play tonight?" Naitachal asked, suspecting he already knew the answer. Eurosy had her fiddle case, but she'd left her mandolin upstairs.
"Nope. They distill a liquor here out of tree sap that I haven't had in… ahhh…" She smiled, her eyes on some distant past. "Well, centuries before you were even a twinkle, apprentice-mine. It's nice to revisit old haunts." She looked about the room, and Naitachal resisted the urge to point out that the smoke-cured timbers holding up the roof couldn't have been more than a decade old.
"Just don't drink so much that you can't make it up to our rooms on your own power. I don't think the barmaid is going to carry you, and the folks here don't look nearly so honest as the farmers from last night."
"Oh, they're honest enough for sailors. It's strangers you need to look out for in places like this, and that's us. Now." She tapped his lute case to get his attention. "These folk are used to doing for themselves. Sing songs they can join in on, and don't be surprised if some of 'em join with more than voices. Just play along, and you might learn a thing." She nudged the lute case toward him and welcomed the barmaid and the first glass of the tree-sap liquor with grasping hands and an eager smile.
"Lush," Naitachal muttered, pulling his lute out for tuning.
Eurosy hadn't been exaggerating when she said the patrons would join in. Before he'd even gotten his courses in tune, one fellow at the next table had pulled out a wooden flute, and a round-shouldered woman with sun-burned cheeks was swishing water around the inside of a bodhran to loosen up the drum.
Naitachal drew back his hood, expecting the same nervous hush from the crowd as he'd received from the farmers, but he got nary an eyelid flicker. Apparently, Dark Elves were only as much of an oddity here as White elves.
"What're you up for?" the fellow with the flute asked.
Non-plussed, Naitachal shrugged. "What have you got for me?"
The old piper favored him with a gap-toothed grin. "How about Madge-on-a-Cree. What say you, Madge?"
The drummer tapped her beater on the wooden rim of her bodhran and rolled her eyes. "You never get tired of that joke, do you Jimmy Gap-tooth?"
"Because it never gets old! An a'hup, here we go!" The piper set flute to lips and launched into a jig Naitachal had never heard before. It was easy enough for him to pick out the basics, even with the bodhran player driving the rhythm faster than a jig should go. Tables and chairs scraped across wood as some of the patrons cleared the floor for a bit of dancing.
Just when Naitachal had grown comfortable with Jimmy's jig, the old piper lifted his foot, and the next eight-count slipped into a different jig, leaving Naitachal to catch up all over again.
At least the drummer slowed her rhythm in deference to the red-faced dancers. Soon, others were joining in on the impromptu session. A swarthy, bearded fellow wheezed back and forth on a squeezebox. A guitar joined them, and two whistles—though they lacked Jimmy's skill—and a fiddler. When the fiddler joined in, Eurosy grinned and set down the molasses-thick drink she'd been nursing to join in with the rest.
Once he'd proved himself, Naitachal was encouraged to lead a few tunes himself, but mostly he demurred. Eurosy had been right—again. He was learning more songs tonight than he had in the past year of searching for the old bard. It was a disheartening reminder that perhaps he'd become too single-minded in his quest at the expense of building his repertoire and being the Bard that Master Aidan had trained him to be.
He'd make up for it, he thought. When this was over, when he had Eliathanis at his side, they'd travel to strange river towns and sleepy farming hamlets, finding new songs and playing old ones.
He strummed along with whatever tune the other musicians suggested, letting their music carry him along in his silly fantasy. Perhaps because he wasn't paying attention to any one thing in particular, he noticed the shadow that slipped past others' eyes.
She was slender, almost elf-thin, her face a pale triangle with too-large grey eyes that seemed to catch the light and reflect it back. Her tunic and trews were grey as well, and the cap she wore pulled low over her head, though he caught sight of a few wisps of hair as pale as cornsilk.
She crept catlike along the edges of the crowd, her hands moving gracefully as a musician's as she held out one to avoid collision with a dancing couple, or brushed another along a singing sailor's waist to nudge past him.
Naitachal couldn't decide if she was the most skilled thief he'd ever seen, or the sloppiest, to have let him catch sight of her.
She stilled and turned her head, as though sensing she'd been noticed. Naitachal concentrated on his finger-picking, and when he looked up again, she was gone.
He played through to the end of the variation, then excused himself with an age-old gesture that had the other musicians smirking and nodding their farewells.
Naitachal scanned the room and caught sight of a flick of grey disappearing up the stairway. He followed, the ruckus from the taproom below covering his footfalls and the creak of the stairs.
But those noises also covered any sound she might make. He plucked a few notes on his lute and hummed along under his breath, something to excite the heart and—with the aid of a lick of Bardic Magic—let him hear it beating.
He slung his lute behind him and thrust open the door to his right. He dove for the window, catching an ankle before it disappeared out the opening. He dragged the grey-clad thief back into the room. She yowled and hissed and scratched at his face, but he grabbed her by the scruff of her tunic and quieted her with a good shake.
Her hat fell away, revealing cornsilk hair too fine to be human, and bluntly pointed ears.
Neither human nor elf, but half-blood of each. He blinked at her. He'd met a few half elves in his travels, but they were rare even for White Elves, and unheard of among Naitachal's own kind. As strange to him as he was to others, after a fashion.
She crossed her arms when he continued to examine her without speaking. "Would you like a sketch to take with you?" she spat, growl still lurking under her words.
"Why, do you have a talent for sketching?" Naitachal asked with a raised brow. The girl coughed, and he could almost swear that she pursed her lips to shut down the beginnings of a smile.
"Oh, don't laugh," he told her, very sternly. "You mustn't laugh. How will anyone take you seriously if you laugh?"
Her lips pursed together harder. "I could kick you in the sac. You'd take me seriously then," she threatened, as if she wasn't all but dangling by the back of her tunic.
"Indeed." Naitachal's arm was getting tired, so he released her. "In that case, I promise to take you very seriously whether you laugh or not. I'd prefer to avoid such an injury."
Her shoulders hunched and she backed up a step, but she didn't bolt. She pawed her hair back into order and retrieved her fallen cap. "You going to turn me in?"
"That depends. Do they chop off thieves' hands here?"
"What? No!" The girl snatched her hand out of his reach and cradled it close to her chest, her lambent-grey eyes wide.
"Ah. Pity. That would have been a show. I suppose I'll just have to take back whatever you took, and pretend we never met."
She opened her mouth, likely to argue, but Naitachal lifted his hand and wiggled his fingers at her. "I can always find a cleaver and do it myself."
Grumbling, the girl reached into her tunic and started handing over pouches and loose coins.
"I'm a Bard, you know," Naitachal told her when she pretended to be done. "I could sing every coin from your clothes if I had a mind to."
Several more pouches followed. The girl held out her empty hands as if that were proof of her honesty, and Naitachal decided it was enough.
"Wait," he said when she climbed onto the windowsill. She turned, crouched, a grey, point-eared shadow with lambent eyes. Naitachal fished a coin from his own purse and laid it on the sill next to her. He knew how hard it was stand between two words, never quite belonging to either.
"For your name," he said, nodding to the coin.
The girl snorted and palmed it. When she lifted her hand, it was gone. "Moggie."
"Maggie?" Naitachal asked.
"Close enough," she said, and disappeared into the night.
With a sigh and a curious sense of loss, Naitachal headed back down to the taproom to return the purses to the innkeeper, and to make sure Eurosy spent the night in her bed rather than sleeping under a table.
When twilight began its gloaming on their third night on the road, Naitachal begged Eurosy that they might move on, even if it meant sleeping on the open road.
"I mislike this place," he said, breaking the companionable silence that had fallen between the rhythm of their mounts' hooves and Eurosy's constant humming.
They rode along a dirt track, another tiny spar shooting off the main road. Naitachal wouldn't have even noticed it if Eurosy hadn't turned her palfrey down it. Deep ruts ran along either side of the road, acanthus, irises and violets sprouting in thick tangles from the ditchwater, but the fields beyond were barren. Harvest had come early here, with husks and old, broken roots thrusting up from the ragged furrows. The gloaming bleached the plant matter white, giving it the look of old bones on a battlefield.
Naitachal reached out with senses he rarely called on anymore. He flinched when something reached back.
He reined up, looking to his left and right. Whatever he'd sensed, it came from all around. "We must turn back."
"Now you say so? I'm afraid it's a little late for that, apprentice-mine." Eurosy nodded back at the road wending behind them. Naitachal saw only swirling mist. It lay in the hollows of the road, the weed-choked ditches, the furrows of the field, funneling back along their route until it was only unbroken grey.
Naitachal's unease grew. They'd entered the Greylands, and he hadn't even sensed it. He was not so far removed from Necromancy that this should be the case. He turned on Eurosy. "How? When?"
"Oh, my boy. We've been on this road since our first night." She reached over and patted his hand. "But it was better that you didn't know. Your Power is strong enough that, as close to the border as we were, you might have yanked us clear out of the Greylands without even realizing."
Naitachal thought back to her humming, to the two inns where they'd found shelter, so friendly and safe, as only something seen through the lens of nostalgia could be. "You cushioned us in your memories." He hadn't known Bardic Magic could do that.
"Made for a much more pleasant journey than it might have been. But we're coming up on our destination, and the next house is too close to the Dark Veil for such sleight-of-mind."
"And what awaits us at this house, that we must delay there?"
"Your third helper, let us hope. Otherwise, we'll never get across the veil."
"Third--?" but a stirring in the mist curling up from the ditch caught his attention. A grey cat he'd spotted when they were leaving the innyard that morning stepped out onto the road. She sat before Star's hooves as though she had no fear of trampling, her tail curling primly about her feet. She looked up at him with moon-lambent eyes and gave him a soft, curious mew.
Almost as in reply, a bark sounded from the road behind them. Miss Moggie arched her back and hissed at the tongue-lolling hound that bounded up to Star. His fur gleamed bone-white in the gloaming, save for the tips of his ears, which were as red as if they had been dipped in blood.
Free now of whatever spell Eurosy had been weaving, Naitachal could sense the death on them both.
"Wights," he grated, and swung his lute around to defend himself, even as his long-dormant Necromancy whispered that defense wasn't necessary. That enslavement was also an option.
Eurosy laid a hand on the neck of his lute, forcing it down before he could strike the first chord.
"Helpers," she corrected. "And much more taken with you than mine ever were with me. They follow even when you're not singing to them. You wouldn't believe the efforts I had to take to keep mine amiable. But these," she swept her hand at the still bristling cat and the dog who was so happy his entire body wagged. "They like you."
"They crave my Power. Like calls to like," Naitachal murmured. There was something familiar about the both of them. Something…
"The thief," he said, watching the cat slink away from the dog with the same wariness the young half-elf had given Naitachal. The dog barked once and then whined at losing Naitachal's attention. "And the innkeep's son. What might have happened if…" If he'd turned the girl in. If he'd accepted the boy's invitation. He let the rhetorical question hang. He knew the dangers of the Greylands.
Eurosy snorted. "Every adventure has dangers, and every prize a price. Now come along, before that Power of yours attracts something less friendly."
She kicked her palfrey into an amble, and Naitachal brought Star about to follow. Miss Moggie gathered her grey haunches underneath her and leapt gracefully onto the pillion behind Naitachal. She settled, a warm, rumbling weight at the small of his back.
With another bark, The Hound settled into an ear-bouncing trot at Star's side, casting adoring glances up at Naitachal as they continued down the lonesome road
If Naitachal had misgivings before, they increased when he and Eurosy rode into the carriage yard of their third destination. Unlike the bucolic farmer's taproom or the riverside tavern, this third establishment was a twisted, looming affair. The main building towered high and narrow, with peaked, black-slated roofs and rusted iron fixtures.
"Even the gables have gables," Naitachal murmured. And yet, as uneasy as the place made him, at least part of that unease came from a grim realization. "This reminds me of home."
Naitachal tugged his cloak closer about him, over the mewled protests of Miss Moggie, who didn't appreciate being dislodged. "That isn't a good thing."
"Ah. Well, cheer up. This is as far as we go." She pointed beyond the inn's twisted weathervane to what Naitachal had dismissed as the approach of night.
He saw now it was something much more final. "The Dark Veil."
"Even so." For once, Eurosy didn't sound chipper. He glanced over at the old lady. In the green witchlight of the innyard's lamps, she looked every year of her great age. Whatever she saw in the darkness made her flinch and look away.
Naitachal pretended to steady Star—as if the placid lunk ever needed steadying. "We don't go beyond?"
Eurosy shook off her gloom, though the smile she gave him was strained. "Not without an invitation. And here's where we get one, if anywhere."
"And how do we do that?"
A second smile, this one full of her usual sharp humor. "Why, we entertain the locals, of course."
Naitachal was reluctant to hand Star over to the ostler, a gaunt old man with cheekbones so sharp and skin so thin that Naitachal half expected the bone to cut through and shine bloody at the surface. The ostler trailed a small horde of cherub-cheeked stableboys, which might have been comforting, save that those cheeks were maggot-pale, and many of the boys' chins and fingers were smeared crimson chunks that might be jam.
"We take horses in trade if you can't pay your bill," the ostler said, as if that was supposed to reassure. Naitachal didn't see much choice. He couldn't leave Star to go wandering about the Greylands.
"I wish you would have warned me so that we didn't endanger the horses at least," Naitachal muttered to Eurosy, taking her arm as much to keep her close as to lead her inside.
Miss Moggie had disappeared to wherever cats went when they weren't underfoot, just another patch of foggy grey in a world of shadow and mist. The Hound snuffled around the stables, but he came quick enough when Naitachal pushed open the inn's front door.
"It would have made you suspicious," Eurosy said. She tugged on a lock of silver hair that had escaped his hood. "Now remember, these are just folk. We play to please."
"These are not just folk," Naitachal hissed. His stomach roiled with quiescent Power grown restless. His ears rang with whispers he'd never been able to ignore since the first time he touched Death with his Power and felt that grim caress in return. "These are shades, spirits, and specters. Ghosts, ghasts, and ghouls. Fiends, frights, and phantasms—"
"That is quite an extensive catalogue," Eurosy drawled. "Although a bit overdone on the alliteration, and I don't think phantasm should count for the f's."
Naitachal turned his startled laugh into a cough. "Yes. Aidan was always after me on the alliteration." The admission was wrung out of him, and in its wake came resignation. He had brought them here. He wanted to seek after Eliathanis. Had he thought it would be easy?
Had he really been as foolish as any rank bardling?
Humbling thought, that.
The main taproom was nearly empty, only a few wisps of shade and mist hanging about some tables. The edges of the room twisted like a puzzle into shadowed alcoves and balconies, making it hard to find a good place for staging. Naitachal finally gave up and took a table in the center, where they could be seen from all sides.
Even thinking about how exposed they were made the space between his shoulder blades itch.
The roof peaked high above them, more shades rustling amongst the shadowed rafters. He could hear every whisper from the room, even the tick-tick of The Hound's claws across the wooden floor as the dog-shaped wight snuffled under the empty tables and chairs.
At least the acoustics were good.
Eurosy nodded at his choice of seating. She set their cases down and popped the clasps for her fiddle. Naitachal did the same and set about tuning his lute.
The cacophony of their tuning earned them a few glances. Naitachal sensed more than he saw something settle into one of the nearest dark corners. It watched them with eyes that shone even blacker than shadow, save when they caught a glint of green from the witchlights, or a glint of red from no source that Naitachal could locate.
Naitachal gave up trying and concentrated on his tuning, and on trying to decide what in nine hells he could play to entertain the dead.
The innkeep shuffled over to them, his loose-limbed gait unnatural in a way Naitachal thought was better not to consider.
"Musicians, huh? Don't get your kind here often." He peered at Eurosy with eyes the color of tar. "You smell familiar."
"Lavender water," she said without flinching, even when the innkeep sniffed her with his pointed, twitchy nose. "All the old ladies use it."
"Mmm." The innkeep licked already-wet lips. "I like old ladies."
Naitachal didn't think he meant that in a kindly way. "Do we have your leave to play?" he asked to distract the old revenant from Eurosy.
The innkeep waved one hand, grave dirt and lichen embedded under each cracked fingernail. "They're a quiet crowd now, but if you want to rouse them, on your heads be it. I'll charge you a life for each drink I serve you."
"Then we'll take no drinks from you," Naitachal said.
The innkeep shrugged as if it made no matter to him. "And it's unlikely you'll earn anything for your pains. The dead are stingy with their coin."
"We only need enough to pay the ostler."
The innkeep laughed, a creaky, dry sound like the scrabbling of rat claws in the dark. "Sounds like you have it all figured, minstrel." He headed back to the bar, then turned on an afterthought. "Oh, and I wouldn't suggest stopping until the crowd's done with you. The folk who come here can get ugly if they're left unsatisfied."
Ugly. Naitachal knew well the ugliness that the angry undead could unleash. He had felt their endless hunger He'd channeled it himself often enough, usually to deadly purpose.
And he hoped to hold it back with only music and Bardic Magic?
His Power—his Necromantic Power—stirred again. There were few enough shades present that he could hold them off, control them, make his escape. Possibly even bring Eurosy and the horses with him.
But if he quailed now, he'd lose any hope of recovering Eliathanis. He doubted he could find this place again without Eurosy's help, and he knew of no other way to rescue his friend.
His doubts fled at a soft touch on his arm, warm and comforting as a hearthfire.
"Ready?" Eurosy asked.
Naitachal studied her sunlight hair and spring-green eyes. He caught her hand, squeezed her fingers in thanks for bringing him this far. Eliathanis had been his first true friend. Perhaps in Eurosy he had found another.
"Just folk," he said, and strummed his first chord.
Just folk, Eurosy had said, but still folk who inhabited a twisted, twilight realm, so Naitachal sang to them of such things as they were. Vanity. Perhaps the dead had it in equal measure to farmers and city folk. He sang of the Faceless-Fair, who stole children away to who-knew-where, of the Pale Rider at the crossroads, who sometimes guided travelers safely home, and sometimes ate them. He sang of washers at the ford, and bone markets, and an immortal madwoman seeking her lost love, he pulled out every song in his repertoire that had left him just a little queasy on learning it, because he knew the truths that birthed such tales.
The room filled. Naitachal couldn't quite say when or how. At the end of The Shiverling's Kiss, he could have sworn the room was empty, but as he led into the opening strains of Merry Mary, Bled and Buried, the room was full. A sea of hollow, hungry eyes watched him, a sea eerie in its silence. Cups lifted; the spirits drank, but there was neither clink of glass nor thunk of mug.
And worse, Naitachal could feel them, like a thousand curious mice nibbling at the edges of his Power. A cold shiver worked its way up his spine, and he almost fumbled a note in Bones and Stones, which was just a simple children's counting rhyme that he should have been able to play sleeping.
He flexed his shoulders, felt his bones pop and crack. How long had he been playing? The thought made him realize how parched he'd become, and once that realization took hold, it became harder and harder to shape the words, to keep his voice from cracking. He tried to think of an instrumental piece, anything to give his dry throat and burning fingers a rest, but his mind had gone blank. Bones and Stones was winding to an end, and he had no idea what to play next. He looped around to a repeat of the first verse, a stall. The chill gripped him harder.
Eurosy's hand on his back chased it away. He'd forgotten her presence. "I'll spell you for a song or two, but that's all we dare. More, and they'll turn on us."
Naitachal nodded. When he came to the final note of Bones and Stones, Eurosy took over on her fiddle.
Naitachal sagged in his chair. His back ached, and his fingers burned. His throat was beyond parched, yet he dared not signal for a cup of wine. For the first time, sounds broke out around the room, a stirring of movement, shifting, restlessness. The fascinated, hungry looks on the faces of their audience twisted into scowls. Eurosy had been right. She could hold the crowd, but not for long.
He'd never make it, he realized with despair. He'd been too eager, come too soon. He didn't have the repertoire, nor the stamina, nor the skill, to play this crowd to satisfaction. He wasn't even sure he could manage one more song. His mind was still a blank, his throat still aching dry.
He searched the room for Eliathanis, hoping at least to catch a glimpse of his friend before he failed him, but the faces all blended into one, hollow-eyed and hungry.
Except… Naitachal brightened for half a beat before he realized the golden head bobbing toward him was too tawny by half. Before he could sag in disappointment again, the innkeep's son stood at his side. The Hound. He pressed a large flagon at Naitachal, so full that it sloshed over Naitachal's hands at the jarring movement.
Naitachal was tempted beyond reason, but he pushed back. "I cannot. The cost…"
"It's refreshment you brought yourself," the lad said, eyes bright and eager as a puppy's. He pressed the flagon back on Naitachal. "You'll owe nothing to this house."
Dare he trust those guileless eyes? But Eurosy had named The Hound a helper, and Naitachal knew he was doomed if he didn't drink.
He took the flagon and drank, something sweeter than wine and more refreshing than water. It slid over his tongue and down his throat like a balm. His mind cleared; his aches and pains and fears banished as well. The drink filled him, effervescent and sparkling as a jig.
A jig that skirled through his head. Banish Misfortune.
He looked down into the still-full depths of the flagon. Was it possible, here in this place, to drink his own music and be bolstered by it?
He supposed it made as much sense as anything in the Greylands. He patted The Hound's shoulder in thanks, and when Eurosy finished her tune, he launched into the spritely music that filled his being.
Enough with cringing from the lure of Necromancy. Enough of singing dull and dire songs. It was time he trusted his quest to the full power of his Bardic gifts.
Freed from the constraints of caution, Naitachal explored the other areas of his repertoire. The jig led into a series of other jigs, some old standards, others that he'd learned just the night before. The jaunty higidy-pigidy of the rhythm caught the residual restlessness of the shades and coaxed it into nodding, then twitching, then the jouncing of knees and tapping of feet—those who had knees and feet, at least.
No longer needing to hold herself in reserve, Eurosy joint him in accompaniment. When Naitachal tired of bouncy jigs, he transitioned into a series of slip-jigs, the odd rhythm catching the crowd each time they threatened to slip into nodding silence again.
When he abandoned jigs entirely in favor of a fast-paced reel, one of the shades rose, and then another. Like swirls of graveyard mist, they began to move around the tables. Their rent, pale garments twirled and twisted in their wake, lending an eerie grace to their otherwise ghoulish movements.
Dancing. They were… dancing. Two more shades rose and joined in, shrouds billowing, tangling, and snapping free again. More shades joined the dance, and soon the floor was aswirl with mist and gauzy grey winding sheets. They rose up, filling the rafters above when there was no more room on the floor. Naitachal caught glimpses of wide eyes, white as boiled eggs, of lips pulled back and teeth bared in parodies of smiles. Clawed hands swept just past his nose, and sometimes he saw other body parts: gaunt ribs over concave bellies, ridges of spine pressed up against clammy, translucent skin, jutting pelvic bones sharp enough to shred the swirling mists. He spared a glance up at Eurosy, but all her attention cleaved to her fiddle, so that she need not witness the dancing dead.
Naitachal stole sips of water from the everfull flagon during brief lulls where Eurosy took the lead. The shades didn't seem to notice, and it was enough to refresh him.
He played until, one-by-one, the shades drifted back to their seats, nodding with exhaustion. The snuffles and murmurs of slumbering dead began to overshadow the strains of music.
"They're not tipping," Eurosy grumbled under her breath, snatching a quick sip from Naitachal's flagon.
"I've noticed," he muttered, but he'd also noticed something else that gave him hope: a small, grey shape slipping among the other grey shapes. Every so often, her hand would catch on a shroud, lifting it and sending it fluttering in her wake.
The last few shades drifted down from their dance like muzzy grey snowflakes. They lay their heads on branch-thin arms and slid into sleep. Naitachal brought the final reel to a close. The room was blanketed in a waist-high mist that rose and fell as though it slept with a single breath.
Striding through that mist came the innkeep, a cruel smile twisting his lips.
"We've nothing to pay him with," Eurosy whispered, checking Naitachal's open case and the floor around it.
"Patience." Naitachal felt a nudge at his elbow. The grey-clad thief stood there, clutching a bulging sack close to her chest. The Hound—who'd resumed his canine form and settled under the table at Naitachal's feet, raised his head and gave her a half-whine, half warning growl. She hissed and stuck her tongue out at him. Then she thrust the sack into Naitachal's hands. It was heavier than it looked, and it shirred with the soft clink of coins sliding against each other.
"For not turning me in," the thief said, and she turned and slipped away into the mist before Naitachal could stop her.
Naitachal palmed a handful of coins, and tucked the rest of the bag through his belt, flipping his cloak over it so that the innkeep wouldn't spot it. He busied himself with closing his case, though he kept his lute out. Sleeping or not, he had no intention of sheathing his best weapon in a room full of shades.
"Well-played," the pinch-faced innkeeper huffed, nodding at the quiescent shades. "But not well enough."
"What might you mean by that?" Naitachal asked, and slid two of Miss Moggie's stolen coins across the table toward the man.
The innkeep started at seeing the coins. "Where did you—"
"Our generous patrons. I trust it is enough?"
The innkeep grunted and took the coins. Naitachal half-expected him to bite them, and he wondered which would win the battle: the corroded copper coins, or the innkeep's long, yellowed teeth.
"It'll do, I suppose," the innkeep grumbled. "Since I shouldn't delay you with trifling. The Master commands your presence. The woman too." He looked Eurosy over, head to toe and back up to her fierce, green eyes. "I know you now. Didn't expect you to return living."
"I've never been one to follow rules. You're our guide across?"
The innkeep rubbed his two coins together and spat. "Through the door at the end of that hall is all the guidance you'll get from me."
Naitachal considered the pinch-faced man. Perhaps the dead were just as stingy with him as they'd been over the music. He fished another coin from the handful he'd taken, this one as bright a silver as the full moon. "For your pains. And if you have your ostler ready our mounts for when we leave, there'll be another for each of you."
The innkeep's small, black eyes widened. He snatched the coin from Naitachal as though he expected a trick. "Very good sir," he said in a hiss that Naitachal assumed was supposed to sound deferential.
He held his arm for Eurosy to take. "Down the dark hall?" he suggested as though it were nothing but a pleasant stroll.
Eurosy took his arm with a rueful grimace. "I suppose we can't walk out on a command performance. Let's go get your friend."
The hall was long, paneled with dark wood and lit with candles. Each successive flame beat back a little less of the darkness around it. Not even Naitachal's night-accustomed eyes could perceive further than a few steps. The hall grew chill, their breath misting in front of them.
The flames shrank until the candlewicks flickered a desperate, breathless blue, a string of phantom lights that Naitachal could only see by not looking directly at them. Eurosy's breathing was even, but her grip on his arm grew tighter and tighter. She jerked when they heard a dry scrabbling on the floorboards ahead.
"Rats," she whispered with distaste.
The guttering candles snuffed out, and the weight of the dark descended, smelling of soil and earthworms and sweet rot. It trailed fingers across Naitachal's skin, cold and clammy as a corpse's. Filaments dry as swampgrass brushed his cheek and brow. He'd worked with the hair of the dead in spells, enough to recognize that dry, brittle caress. Two tiny pinpricks of red flashed, the rat looking back at them, and Naitachal was disinclined to reject the guide—any guide—in this darkness.
"We're passing through the Dark Veil," he murmured, as if Eurosy didn't know. He should be afraid, but he couldn't quite get past his wonder and curiosity. How many Necromancers had sought this passage and never returned from it? There were libraries dedicated to supposition: what was the passage like, what was on the other side, why did nobody ever return? He could write an account that would become one of the great works of sorcery.
He could… assuming he made it there and back. But he wouldn't. Necromancers twisted death to serve themselves. They would never submit to this soft, welcoming darkness. They would fight it. Or fear it.
"There is nothing to fear," he said to Eurosy, squeezing her hand. Her nails had dug into his arm hard enough to draw blood if his sleeve hadn't been protecting him.
"If you say so," she grumbled. "Don't recall the walk being this long the last time. But then, my guide had the kindness to blindfold me."
"And cause you to miss all this?" Naitachal thought he waved a hand at their path, but the darkness was so complete now—save for those two, blinking pinpricks of red—that he couldn't be sure. Strange shapes and flashes of color danced in his vision, his mind trying to fill the nothingness. The silence itself was a sort of music. "That was no kindness."
"I'll keep my own council on that one, you madman."
"I think I see a door," he said. "No. A curtain."
"I don't see anything," Eurosy said. Her voice sounded faint. Afraid, or far away.
"It's just ahead. Here." He reached forward to part the drapes for them. Eurosy's hand slipped from his arm. Light flooded the darkness, so bright he cried out and barred his arm across his eyes to ward it off. The curtains closed almost atop him. He lurched forward and fell to his knees, throwing his hands forward to catch himself. His harp case tumbled free, and the lute banged unhappily against his back.
The light streamed crisp and thin from a cold sun in a wintry blue sky. Naitachal knelt in a clearing ringed by white-trunked birch trees. The pale green of new spring buds dotted the branches, and a light furze of tender green shoots spread across the mud-black ground.
"I must say, you are the last person I expected to come stumbling out of the darkness," said a familiar voice. Not Eurosy. As much as he'd come to care for the old woman, her voice could never fill him with such joy. He twisted around, thinking it must be some trick.
It was not.
"Eliathanis," he breathed, and was gifted with a bemused smile he'd thought never to see again.
"Well met, my friend," Eliathanis said. His smile lingered a moment longer before dropping into a disapproving scowl that was also familiar. "Now do you mind telling me what a living being is doing wandering the fields beyond?"
Naitachal stared up at his friend, the question on Eliathanis' lips barely registering. The cold of the ground disregarded. Ten years he had spent working for this moment, and it all collapsed to a point: Eliathanis reaching down a hand to help Naitachal up off the ground.
He looked beautiful. And wrong. Very wrong.
Naitachal tried to take his hand—and couldn't.
"Hmm." Eliathanis lifted his hand to examine it. Sunlight poured through it, showing it as little more than insubstantial mist. Even Eliathanis' frown had a faded, distant quality to it.
Naitachal stood. He had made it beyond the Dark Veil, but he wasn't done. He had an appointment to play for Death still. He wondered if Eliathanis had been brought here as encouragement or distraction.
He retrieved his harp case and checked the tuning on his lute. The courses had gone off again. If he ever made it out of this, he was getting a new one. "I've come to take you back to the world. Alive."
Eliathanis' faded frown deepened. He sighed, and the bare branches of the trees rattled like bones. "Naitachal, I begged you not to do this."
"So you did." Naitachal looked up from his tuning. Eliathanis' presence struck him anew, as did the faded, insubstantial wrongness of it. "And I'm not."
"But you are. You…" Eliathanis' objections faded to silence, his haunted expression dropping into something more like puzzlement. "What's that?"
"It's a lute."
Exasperation ripped away at the remnants of Eliathanis' grave serenity. "I know it's a lute," he snapped. "I mean…" he took a shuddering breath, and the grey mists swirled around him again. Naitachal was reminded of an actor forgetting his lines, and pulling his costume about him to have another go. "I mean… you should not be here. You have a life to live, and I have… eternal rest."
Naitachal made a tetching noise. Tested his strings against each other. "Nicely melodramatic, but you should have saved the tree-branch rattling for that pronouncement instead."
Frustrated, Eliathanis pushed back the flyaway wisps of his silvery hair. It should be gold, Naitachal thought. And his eyes, they should be spring-green, not the greyed-out green of lichen on old stone.
But Eliathanis' exasperation was real enough, if a faded reflection of how it had been in life. "Well, I'm sorry if I lack your theatrical abilities."
"So this is all an act to deter me from bringing you back?" Naitachal asked.
"I… no… yes. I don't know. Someone… something… pulled me from my rest and commanded me to test your resolve."
"Don't you also have to have resolve for that to work?"
"I have resolve." Eliathanis crossed his arms, the mist of his torso growing more solid, as if the overlap of self gave him strength.
"Mmhmm." Naitachal couldn't hold back any longer. He stroked that pale cheek that would never know a blush again, unless Naitachal succeeded.
Eliathanis' eyes closed, and he leaned his cheek into Naitachal's touch. Naitachal's hand sank an inch under that faded outline before the mist became dense enough to stop him.
"You want this, my friend. You want this as much as I do, to live again, to feel blood in your veins and my touch on your skin. Tell me you don't, and I'll leave."
Eliathanis opened his eyes. He drifted closer, and a chill, wet hand trailed down Naitachal's face like drizzled rain. "I shouldn't. I can't."
"I am not the only one who misses you. Who would welcome your return," Naitachal said.
"What do you mean?"
"The Moonspirit Clan mourns you still, their favored son. Your parents, your three sisters."
Eliathanis' gasp was echoed by a breath of wind, high and hollow. "How do you know of them?"
Naitachal grimaced. "Who do you think brought them word of your death?"
Eliathanis read his grimace aright. "I see. And they thanked you with violence."
"I made it away again safely," Naitachal said, and no need to go into the harrying details of his escape. "In retrospect, a letter might have been wiser."
Eliathanis dropped his hand, the mist of his shroud curling around him tight. "I don't wish to know this. I don't want to yearn for the world. I am here now. I belong in the fields beyond, as all who have died belong."
Naitachal looked around the winter clearing. If he could have described Eliathanis as a landscape, it would have been this. Almost as though the place had been made just for their meeting. Naitachal's eyes narrowed. "Tell me, what great secrets have you learned since your death?"
The non-sequitor caught Eliathanis by surprise. "S-some things are not meant for mortal ears. Not even a Necromancer's."
Naitachal nodded. "Fine then. How long has it been since you passed through the Dark Veil? What friends have you made here in the fields beyond? What loves?"
"Time is… timeless here."
Eliathanis huffed. "And none of that matters to this conversation. The dead are not meant to return to life."
Naitachal stroked the neck of his lute. Somewhere, Death was waiting, but he didn't think he'd find his audience until he convinced Eliathanis to leave. Another test. "Explain to me why. Explain to me, you who now understand death better than I ever did, what the druids and the paladins and the other holy men who claim to understand the great Truths could not explain."
"Death is a natural part of --"
Naitachal waved his hand. "Heard it. But that doesn't preclude that coming back might also be natural. Especially if Death itself is amenable to extending the lease."
Eliathanis pouted. There was no other word for it, and it made Naitachal's heart ache. "I don't recall you being this annoying."
Naitachal smirked. "You don't recall… elfy-welfy?"
"Ah yes. Now I remember." Eliathanis' smile faded, as if he couldn't hold any expression or emotion too long. All that was left was resignation and sorrow. "Philosophy aside, that doesn't address the cost to you. To perform Necromancy of this scope, you would need to sacrifice something great indeed. Not just lives, but a soul. Be it yours or another's, I will not have that."
"But you would come with me, if not for that? That is your only objection? The cost to me?"
Eliathanis' faded sigh stirred the tender sprouts of grass, covering them in frost. "In the end, it is the only objection that matters."
Naitachal smiled as the jaws of his verbal trap closed gently around Eliathanis. "Then we return to your earlier question." Naitachal hefted his instrument. "This. Is a lute." He took Eliathanis' hand, kept his grip loose so that the mist wouldn't dissipate when he lifted it. He pressed his lips to the cold, grey mist of Eliathanis' palm. "And I am a Necromancer no longer."
Though only grudgingly convinced by Naitachal's tale, Eliathanis led him through the thin and scattered wood to a quarry that sheltered a sunken amphitheater. Square blocks of black granite ringed all sides, their faces sheered to sharp edges and speckled with white quartz that glistened like stars. Naitachal and Eliathanis climbed down a rough-hewn stairway, the granite blocks rising up around them until it seemed like they were descending through the firmament to the only solid patch of earth amid a star-filled void.
At one end of the quarry, a figure sat on a seat of bone. Red robes flowed down from the deep-hooded cowl, down the wisp-slender body, to pool in shining ripples across the granite.
Standing to one side was Eurosy and a faded shade who could have been her twin. Eurosy's eyes were rimmed red, and she clutched at the misty outline of her companion's hand as carefully as Naitachal held Eliathanis'.
"Oretta?" Naitachal asked. Eurosy nodded, and the shade beside her bobbed as though curtseying.
"And this is your Eliathanis?" Eurosy asked. A glimmer of her usual wickedness peeked through her weak smile. "Took you long enough to get here. Is his kiss as sweet as memory?"
Naitachal gripped Eliathanis' hand at his affronted gasp and gave his fellow bard a saucy wink. She didn't need to know they'd spent their time bickering instead of kissing. "Sweeter."
The figure in red stirred, the edges of the robe breaking off to flutter away like rose petals.
Are You Ready?
That voice was not a voice meant to be heard by living ears—or dead ones, it would seem. It thrust itself into the gaps between reality and pried them apart as though it could reveal the inner workings of creation. Naitachal winced at the voice. Little bits of mist shredded off Eliathanis and Oretta. Eurosy wrapped her arms about her sister, but it was like trying to embrace a cloud. She nodded, a rapid, birdlike movement.
"Yes. I'll explain to him."
The voice sent sand raining down the sides of the granite blocks, a rain of meteors through space, lighting up Eurosy's face.
"Explain what?" Naitachal asked, a dread suspicion growing. He'd guessed that Eliathanis had been brought here by Naitachal's challenge.
So why was Oretta here?
Eurosy's face smoothed into an unreadable mask. "The last time I was here, Death warned that if I returned before my time, it would be to remain… unless I brought another to replace me. Death is more fair than most people suspect. A life for a life is the coin of this realm. So now we see if youth and energy can win over age and cunning." She snapped open her fiddle case and pulled out her instrument.
Betrayed. Naitachal dropped Eliathanis' hand. Stupid, stupid, to have trusted her, trusted anyone. Had the past ten years taken him so far from the balance of his life that he no longer watched for such things?
"Naitachal." His name on Eliathanis' lips was both plea and warning. Naitachal shrugged his lute from his shoulder. His gaze on Eurosy was cold, his emotions hidden behind a similar mask of purpose. "So we shall. I've heard you play these past two nights. Your fingers aren't as nimble as they might once have been, your voice no longer as true. And you forget that I hold a certain fascination for Death." He let his Power ripple, like tossing a pebble into a long-dead mere. The figure on the throne stirred, sat straighter. Bits of crimson robe flew off in a scatter of fiery autumn leaves.
Eurosy scowled. "So it's to be like that, is it? Your faith in Bardic Magic is so thin that you'll resort to cheating to win." She tightened her bowstrings and skimmed her cube of rosin up their length. "That will make a fine story indeed."
Eurosy's words stung more than Naitachal dared show. He glanced over at Eliathanis, vague worry drawn across the shade's face in faded lines. How great must his concern be, if it showed even that much? Naitachal wished he could kiss his friend into not biting his lower lip so fiercely.
Eurosy was right. If he was to win this, he had to do it fairly. But she didn't need to know that.
"I play to win, and when I return to the world, I can tell the tale any way I choose."
Eurosy's eyes narrowed. "I see." She set her bow to her strings. "Banish Misfortune?"
He nodded. It was as good a place as any to start.
Eurosy tapped her foot. Once. Twice. And one-two-three and—
They played, their gazes locked save for the darting glances they gave to their fingering. Banish Misfortune was a country jig, easy even when they added embellishments. A warm up.
The first chance she got, Eurosy yanked them into the weeds, and Naitachal got the first hint that she'd been playing him the entire trip.
Her fingers flew over the neck of the fiddle, each one striking true as a smith's hammer, adding just the right touch of vibrato when the note called for it. Her bow slid across the strings, pulling sound from the box sweet and pure as candyfloss. He kept up as best he could, but a lute was no match for a fiddle in instrumentals, and he was no match for her as a musician.
Perhaps in a century, but not yet.
But Naitachal wasn't ready to lose so easily. His Necromantic Power tugged at his gut, but he'd made his choice there. He couldn't go back on it. His eyes flicked to Eliathanis' misty, worried frown, his fog-dimmed eyes. No, not even for that. Which meant he had to find some other way.
He slowed his playing as the next b-part came to a close, and Eurosy, coaxed to match his tempo change or fall into cacophony, faltered long enough to let him steal the lead.
He struck the opening chords of Her Touch, a Thousand Petals Fall, the sort of bittersweet ballad that perfectly suited his baritone. He shifted, singing directly to the figure on the throne. A delicate, dark-fingered hand had emerged. It tapped along with the tune on the broad, scooped ilium that made up the throne's armrest.
Eurosy joined her voice in harmony to Naitachal's, and he knew he had her beat here. The fiddle wasn't a singer's instrument, and Eurosy's voice showed why she preferred it: a perfectly pleasant alto, but it didn't compare to her playing, nor to Naitachal's stronger, more resonant chest voice.
As long as he kept them singing, he had a chance of winning.
The ballad came to a close, and Naitachal prepared to launch into The Ride of the Wild Hunt, but Eurosy had other ideas. She tugged the tune into a different key. Naitachal shifted rhythm to try to catch it back on the downbeat. They played tug of war with the music, never quite letting it descend into cacophony, but it had to sound strange and discordant to a non-bard's ears.
Death's fingers stopped tapping.
With a jerk of her entire body, Eurosy ran her bow across three strings at once. The harsh cord broke their struggle. Bardic Magic surged, and one of Naitachal's strings snapped. He snatched his hands away with a hiss, only barely avoiding the whipped backlash of the broken string.
"My harp," he said to Eliathanis. The White Elf darted forward with the case. Eurosy ignored them both. She stepped before their audience of one, commanding a solo that would have set Kings to their knees and Empresses weeping.
Naitachal glared daggers into her back and tuned his harp with quick adjustments. He was at even more of a disadvantage now, not only because he had less practice with this instrument, but because it wasn't an instrument that shone in instrumentals.
Now singing was his only hope. A mean little smile curved his lips. He had the perfect song.
A good thing Eurosy had opened the challenge to dirty tricks. He concentrated on her bowing and plucked his strings in simple accompaniment. Each sharp note carried a subtle snippet of Bardic Magic. One by one, the hairs of her bow broke. By the time she sawed her solo to a close, most of the hairs dangled from the tip like the fall of horsehair they'd once been.
Oretta was already at Eurosy's side with her mandolin, but not quick enough. Naitachal slipped in and played the opening of The Ballad of Eurosy and Oretta.
Eurosy's fingers fumbled a note as she recognized the tune. Oretta's mouth fell open in shock. And Death… Death sat up. Leaned forward in a burst of startled cardinals. Death ignored the frightened flutters, listening to Naitachal's song. Intently.
As Naitachal had hoped. As Eurosy had been teaching him. Half of music was knowing your audience, and Naitachal doubted Death would appreciate the reminder of Eurosy's last visit, or the way it was told in living realms.
Eurosy frowned fiercely at Naitachal, but she had little recourse but to accompany him, sing harmony on the chorus, and connive to steal the lead again when the song came to an end, which it was doing much too quickly for Naitachal's comfort.
He prepared for another musical tug of war with Eurosy, wishing he'd spent more time practicing the harp.
But she stole the lead before the song was even ended, modulating it into a higher key that strained Naitachal's range.
Which seemed to be fine by her, as she took over singing the final verse herself.
It was a new verse, one he'd never heard in ten years of seeking out the song in all its variations, and it filled him with dread. Not because it was good—though it was—but because it spoke of Oretta's second death, of Eurosy's return beyond the Dark Veil… and of seeking final repose in the arms of her sister.
Confusion made Naitachal's fingers still on the strings. The song came to a close, and he couldn't think of a note to play to continue the battle.
He needn't have bothered.
The world trembled to silence in the wake of that sepulchral voice. Eurosy lowered her mandolin. Sweat beaded her brow. She cast an anxious glance at Oretta. Eliathanis came to Naitachal's side and rested his hand on Naitachal's shoulder. It was as light and insubstantial as the alighting of a sparrow.
Still, Naitachal took comfort in it. Whatever happened, at least he and Eliathanis would be together.
Death rose from the seat of bones. The red robes trickled down the steps, leaving trails of skittering, tumbling, scarlet-bodied spiders that quickly sought refuge in the dark earth.
The long-fingered hand lifted, the sleeve of the robes falling back to reveal a fine-boned wrist as dark as obsidian. Eyes red as carbuncles flashed in the deep shadows of the cowl.
It Is Decided.
Death held out that graceful, awful hand.
Held it out… to Eurosy.
"What?" Naitachal pressed back into Eliathanis, no longer sure of anything he'd been certain of before. Eurosy had been better. She had won. But winning seemed very much like losing, and did that mean that losing was…
"Wait!" Naitachal lurched forward, but Eurosy had already taken Death's hand. She shuddered, the color draining from her face. Her mandolin crashed to the ground with a discordant protest of strings.
Make Your Farewells.
Death turned and was gone in a flutter of blood-winged butterflies.
"I don't understand," Naitachal whispered. Already, the gleam of life had left Eurosy's skin, and the bright green of her eyes was growing dim and distant. Her clothes swirled like mist, shredding at the hem into dissipating wisps.
Eurosy chuckled, a faint and distant sound. "I won. Death chose me. Can't have a mere apprentice playing in a court as grand as this."
Dread washed through Naitachal, understanding come too late. "You planned this from the start."
"All magic has a cost, and the cost for a life is a life." She looked past his shoulder. Naitachal turned. Eliathanis stood bold and solid before him, in a silver-grey arming coat and trews and boots that Naitachal had forgotten about until this moment. The White Elf examined his hands as though he'd never seen them before. Here was the gold and green that had been bled from Eurosy. The fading woman lifted Eliathanis' chin and searched his eyes. The searching look she gave him should have been sharp, but death had dulled its edge. "Take better care of this one than you did the last," she told him. "No more fey-madness, you hear?"
"No." Naitachal shook his head. He preferred betrayal to this sacrifice he'd never requested. He tried to grab her hand, but already she was too thin and insubstantial to hold. "I won't let you pay the cost."
"It is too late, and it was my choice. If you'd repay me, take on an apprentice yourself. We always learn more from our students than we do from our masters."
"And what did you learn from me?" Naitachal asked bitterly.
Eurosy laid a misty hand on his chest. "That Death is nothing to fear if you have a friend at your side."
He flinched away from her insubstantial touch. "I didn't want this. I gave up Necromancy."
"And now you have a tale to tell, like a proper bard." She brushed a kiss across his lips, cold and wet as rain. "You played well, apprentice-mine, but you've much still to learn, and now you have the chance to learn it." She eyed Eliathanis. "Without too many distractions. Now go. Quickly. The dead don't sleep for long, and you've taken much from them this day."
She tried to push him away, but her touch was nearly insubstantial, her strength gone. She had no more effect than the fluttering of a dying bird.
He could fix this. He had the power. He could breathe life back into her. Into Oretta, too, if Eurosy wanted. They could all escape together, and leave Death cheated.
It was nothing he hadn't done before.
Another set of hands held him back when he would have grabbed for Eurosy.
"She's right. We must go. Listen. Look." A sound Naitachal had taken for the rising wind echoed from beyond the ring of granite. Mist roiled at the ridge like a storm coming from all sides.
But it was neither wind, nor mist, nor storm. The dead had woken, and they were full of fury.
"Go!" Eurosy hissed. Oretta had come behind her, their insubstantial forms overlapping, merging into something with more strength than a moth. They both pushed.
"Where?" They were surrounded on all sides by granite blocks, and beyond that, a furious mob of shades.
"There." Eurosy pointed. Naitachal spotted twin pinpricks of red flashing from the shadows of one tumbled block. A rat, eyes and coat blacker than the shadows that hid it, squeaked and disappeared into a crevice hidden by the fallen block.
Gripping Elaithanis' hand, Naitachal abandoned the women, the instruments, and any hope of fixing the mess he'd created, and dashed for the tunnel.
The passage back into the Greylands went much more quickly, perhaps because they were running. They stumbled into the taproom, tables and rafters empty now, and a howl like a thousand banshees close on their heels.
"I need a sword," Eliathanis said, empty hand flexing.
"And I need my lute," Naitachal said, which he had to admit sounded much less effective as a weapon, but the days were long past when he could draw a life-devouring black blade from his very soul.
"You both need to leave," said The Rat, though now he took the form of the innkeep. He stood before the front door, barring their path. "Question is, am I going to let you."
"I think you will," Naitachal said, and tossed him the coin he'd pulled from Miss Moggie's bag. It flashed like a tiny sun, warm gold amid so much chill, and hit the floor several feet short of the innkeep. The man dove after the rolling coin, and Naitachal and Eliathanis took the opportunity to run outside.
The ostler and his shark-toothed mob of stableboys stood in the yard with the horses. Eurosy's palfrey skittered and stamped, lips curled back over her teeth and eyes rolling white with fear. Star chewed on a bit of nothing, placid as ever and looking entirely bored by the proceedings.
Naitachal didn't even wait to bargain. He tossed another gold coin into the mass of stableboys, and they fell on it, fell on each other. He leapt atop Star. Eliathanis had already grabbed the palfrey's reins. He mounted her on the run.
Hooves tore up the turf as they raced down the road, away from the inn at the edge of the Dark Veil. That boundary didn't seem to have any effect on their pursuers. They burst through like the front of an angry storm. Naitachal dared to reach out with his Power, seeking the other boundary that would take them back into living realms, but all he could sense was death on every side, death coming for them.
"How far?" Eliathanis' question was more a movement of lips than sound, drowned out by the pounding of hooves and the screams pursuing them. Naitachal dared a glance over his shoulder. It was like a deadlier version of the dancing—mostly swirling mist, but glimpses of furious eyes white as curdled milk, skeletal hands reaching out, and ragged flesh shredding from black-bloated limbs as the tide gained on them.
"I don't know. Too far." Eurosy had brought them here, and the only way Naitachal knew to get back was to retrace the route she'd taken.
Something sharp pricked his leg. He raised a fist to beat back whatever had latched on to him before he realized it was a small, grey cat clawing him from his saddlebag.
"The coins. Scatter them," she hissed. "It won't hold them forever, but it will buy you time."
Naitachal nodded and gave Star his head so he could fish the bag out from under his belt. The mouth sagged, and coins scattered across the road in a rain of copper, silver, and gold.
True to the cat's word, the tide broke, roiled against itself as the shades stopped to collect every coin.
Naitachal emptied the bag and caught up with Eliathanis.
"That won't hold them for long," the White Elf noted.
"Next time, you can plan the rescue."
"Next time?" Naitachal's heart twisted at Eliathanis' soft smile and raised brow, but his words made Naitachal ill. There could be no next time. The cost this time had already been too high.
Eliathanis leaned across the gap between their horses, his fingers brushing Naitachal's knee, and somehow that both helped and made his guilt worse.
"We've a long ride ahead of us," he said grimly, and bent low over Star's neck.
They rode hard, and much longer than Naitachal expected it should take to get back to the main road. He reined up when they came to a crossroads, barren fields and mist-filled hollows stretching in all directions. "This is not the way we came. This is no place I've ever seen." And even his Power, when he let it brush against the world around them, came back with nothing but greyness and death.
A distant echo of screeches reached them, and Eliathanis had to fight his palfrey to keep her from bolting. "I believe that means we're running out of time."
Naitachal nodded and peered down each road, but they all looked the same to his eyes.
Except… almost drowned out by the screeches, he heard barking. "This way," he said, spurring Star, and hoping he hadn't imagined the sound.
Star reared up and skipped back when The Hound jumped from the mists, barking and circling, his red ears bouncing and his tail wagging fit to fly off. "This way! I know the way. It's this way!" He ran off through the fields.
Naitachal exchanged a glance with Eliathanis.
"You know it's never a good idea to leave the path," the White Elf said, even as he brought his mount around.
"And which part of this adventure has seemed a good idea to you so far?" Naitachal countered, and urged Star to follow The Hound.
The cacophony behind them grew in volume, and a glance back showed a racing front of undead like floodwaters roaring over the land. Naitachal urged Star on despite the uneven terrain, with Eliathanis hard at his side, and the white streak of The Hound's body lighting their path.
"There, see? The trees, see?" The Hound barked, and with a lick of his old Power, Naitachal realized he could see a line where the mist thinned and color returned to the world. He pressed into Star's neck. The horse's stride lengthened as though he could sense it, too.
But then a horrible shriek came from right beside him, and Eliathanis and the palfrey went down in a churning mass of kicked-up mud and flailing limbs. Naitachal sawed on Star's reins, fighting momentum and panic to bring the horse about. The palfrey righted herself and raced past Naitachal, riderless.
"I'm fine. I'm fine!" He was caked in mud, but he'd managed to roll with his fall and stagger to his feet. He tossed a glance back at the flood racing across the field toward them.
Naitachal reached down a hand and pulled him up pillion. He urged Star on, promising him all the alfalfa he could gorge himself on if he just outran the undead horde nipping at their heels.
Eliathanis wrapped his arms about Naitachal's waist. They both watched the treeline grow closer, but not nearly quick enough, watched Eurosy's palfrey flicker and disappear beyond the border.
"Well, at least one of us is making it out alive." Eliathanis' breath was warm against his ear. Naitachal closed his eyes long enough to tap into his Power, then opened them again and concentrated on the border. If it came down to it… yes… for this, he would go back to what he'd once been.
He heard a bark, and a white shape zipped past him, running the wrong way. "Go! Go! I will stop them!" The Hound yipped.
A yowl of irritation emerged from Naitachal's saddlebags. "Show-off. I suppose that means I have to, as well. Gods save me from martyrs and heroes." Miss Moggie leapt from his saddlebags and darted up to The Hound's side. Together, the two tiny wights squared off to face the oncoming horde.
Eliathanis squeezed his arms tighter about Naitachal. Naitachal squeezed his thighs harder around Star. He closed his eyes and his heart against the howl and the hiss that echoed behind them as they reached the border and erupted out into the living world.
They rode another hour in the gloaming before they found a road, and another hour beyond that before they found the Moonstone Inn. The name alone was enough to indicate that they'd crossed the border into Elven lands, even if the great number of graceful, pointed-eared patrons did not. Naitachal kept his cowl up and his cloak close and let Eliathanis barter for a room and board and stabling for Star. He slipped up to the room as soon as he was able. The exhilaration of their mad escape had faded, leaving behind only guilt and questions and a strange reluctance to meet Eliathanis' eyes.
He'd shucked his cloak and settled into a good brood by the time Eliathanis came up to the room.
"You'll never guess who wandered into the stableyard while they were rubbing down Star," Eliathanis said, dropping the saddlebags next to the door. He was still a muddy mess, though it had mostly dried. His hair was matted with it, and a long smear of grey-cracked clay streaked down his cheek and neck.
And yet he was smiling. Naitachal blinked. "Hm?"
"The palfrey. Does she have a name?"
"I… don't know. I never caught it if she did. Usually it was just 'lackwit' and 'you poncy twit'."
Eliathanis chuckled and removed his arming coat. He tugged his mud-stiffened shirt over his head. "I'll have to come up with something better than that. What do you think of Hero as a name?"
"I think Cowardly Deserter might be more fitting. Or Glue." Naitachal watched Eliathanis move about the room, touching everything, examining it, eyes bright with restless energy. The light played over the pale skin of his chest that had escaped the worst of the mud, over back muscles that shifted and bunched and relaxed as he moved, full of energy. Full of life.
Naitachal wasn't quite sure what he'd expected to feel should he ever come to this moment, but it wasn't this deep gulf of separation. If anything, he felt even more lonely than he had before.
"I asked them to bring up a bath for this mud. I hope you don't mind. I suppose you could hide behind the door if you're really…" Eliathanis finally looked at him. Paused in his circuit, strode over, and knelt before him. "What is it?" he asked, hands gripping the arms of Naitachal's chair so that the Dark Elf couldn't slip away.
"I… don't know."
Naitachal gave him a wan smile, but couldn't find it in himself to make a joke. He rubbed his hands over his face, as much to avoid Eliathanis' gaze as anything. "I'm tired."
Eliathanis tugged his hands away, holding them tight in his lap and peering up at him until it felt harder to avoid his eyes than to just meet them.
What he saw in those spring-green eyes made him tremble. Years apart, and yet nobody could make him feel so known as Eliathanis did. And wasn't that part of the problem?
"If I told you that you mustn't blame yourself for Eurosy's choice, would it do any good?" he asked.
Naitachal couldn't seem to catch his full breath. "Probably not."
"Then should I blame myself? It was my life she traded hers for."
"No," Naitachal said. How could he explain a guilt he didn't quite understand himself?
"Then why this?" Eliathanis touched the furrow between Naitachal's brows, the downturned corner of his mouth.
"Your every protest against this was that you didn't wish to lose me to what I'd once been. And now… I…"
"I don't see emptiness here. If anything, they're too full." Eliathanis's fingers brushed across Naitachal's brows. Naitachal's eyes fluttered closed under the soft touch.
"I don't think this is something words can fix."
Eliathanis lifted Naitachal's hand to his lips. "Then perhaps I should simply kiss you and hold you and pester you later when I've found a sword and can do so properly."
Naitachal spread his fingers across Eliathanis' lower lip. "You're all muddy."
Eliathanis rose up on his knees, pulling Naitachal down to meet him halfway. "That's what the bath is for."
His kiss tasted sweet as a spring thaw, his cool lips quickly warming under Naitachal's. Naitachal groaned and slid out of his chair to press against Eliathanis, thigh-to-thigh, chest-to-chest, groin-to-groin. He slid his hands, palms flat, up that warm, muscled back, and dug his fingers into firm shoulders hard enough to make Eliathanis grunt and break the kiss.
"You will tell me if I go too fast," Eliathanis said. His fingers threaded through Naitachal's hair, scraped across his, skin and held his head so he couldn't look away. "You will tell me if you need aught else. For me, it has only been a day since you were kissing me and promising me later, but you have changed much in our time apart. I fear I only just started to understand you, and now you've slipped away again."
Naitachal's fingers pressed into his shoulders, so solid and real and here, and he just wanted to forget everything else and pound himself against that solid flesh. "I haven't slipped anywhere. I am here."
"Then be here." Eliathanis kissed him then. Hard, but not nearly hard enough.
Naitachal shoved him back, and followed him to the floor when Eliathanis' fingers tightened and tugged at his hair. He kissed Eliathanis hard enough to bruise, ground his hips against the other elf's, and it still wasn't enough. His arms were trapped beneath Eliathanis' back, bones grinding against the wooden floorboards under their combined weight, and that wasn't enough, either.
Eliathanis bent a leg around Naitachal's hips and used the shift in leverage to roll them over so that he was on top. He grabbed at the claws shredding his shoulders and pinned them above Naitachal's head. Naitachal considered himself fit enough, but he was no match for a battle-trained warrior like Eliathanis. He struggled and kicked, but Eliathanis pinned him harder, twisted their legs together so that all of Naitachal's struggles only resulted in grinding his hard cock against Eliathanis' solidly-muscled thigh and why in nine hells hadn't they bothered to strip down before they started wrestling?
Logistics. Everything came down to that.
Eliathanis seemed to be thinking along the same lines. He broke their kiss and lifted his head. "If I loose my grip to strip off your clothes, will you stop fighting?"
Naitachal grinned, wild and wicked. "No." He didn't have hands free to press against Eliathanis' cock, so he settled for rolling his hip in that general area. From the eye-glazed, slack-jawed shudder he received in response, he rather thought he'd hit his mark.
"Very well then." Eliathanis buried his face against Naitachal's throat, nipping and kissing along the shadowed hollows of skin. Naitachal strained, arched his back as much as Eliathanis' weight would allow. The other elf's teeth were sharp, but not sharp enough.
"Harder," he grunted.
"You won't be happy until I draw blood, will you?"
No, Naitachal thought. "One way to find out," he said.
Eliathanis bit down hard into the muscle at the curve of neck to shoulder. Perhaps not hard enough to break skin, but hard enough to bruise. Naitachal's head fell back against the floorboards with a thunk and a whimper. His fingers flexed into helpless curls. He barely noticed when Eliathanis released his wrists, barely noticed when that sharp bite softened into suckling pressure. He did notice when the cooler air of the room brushed over his hips, his thighs, his cock, but Eliathanis bit hard again, teeth clamping around the straining tendon of Naitachal's neck, and Naitachal's eyes fluttered closed on another whimper. He thrust his hips into space—at some point, Eliathanis had untwined their legs. Naitachal was no longer pinned by anything but Eliathanis' teeth at his throat.
It was enough.
Eliathanis relaxed his bite and sat up. He touched Naitachal's abused skin with gentle fingers. His chuckle was little more than a thrum in his chest. "I could suck you hard all night, and it wouldn't leave so much as a mark," he murmured, finger tracing down the line of bites, waking little flares of pain-memory that had Naitachal twitching.
He cleared his throat and found his voice. "There are so many ways that could be taken."
Eliathanis slid his finger between his lips in suggestive promise. "And I intend to explore all of them now that we have the time."
Naitachal stilled. His languor dissipated like mist in the Greylands. A tingle passed over his scalp, a tightening, like his skull was too great for his skin.
"Oh no. You will not undo all my hard work with more brooding." Eliathanis lifted Naitachal's leg and pressed his wet finger inside.
Pain flashed through Naitachal, and surprise, and the urge to clench tight, driving away all other thoughts. He should relax, but he didn't want to. "More," he whispered, tightening around Eliathanis' finger. His nails dug into the wooden floor at his sides.
"In time," Eliathanis said, holding his hand still. He trailed his free hand down the leg propped up against his chest, a gesture meant to sooth when soothing was the last thing Naitachal wanted. "There'll be oils with the bath—"
"I don't want oils. I want you. Inside me. Now."
Eliathanis withdrew his finger and stroked Naitachal's hip. "I won't be how you punish yourself, my friend."
Naitachal shook his head, closing his eyes against the empathy in Eliathanis' gaze. "It's not punishment I need. It's…" He fell silent, searching for the right word, the word he needed to convince not Eliathanis, but himself.
"What?" Eliathanis' question was as soft and insubstantial as a wisp in the Greylands.
"Affirmation," Naitachal said, remembering those first kisses from so long ago, kisses exchanged in stolen time, kisses taken in defiance of danger. He met Eliathanis' eyes. "I need to know you're here. I need to feel you, beyond doubt."
"Ah." Eliathanis' lips pressed into a line. His brow furrowed. He nodded. "In that case…"
He spread Naitachal's legs wide and surged inside.
Pain. Pain and fullness and yes, Yes, YES. Naitachal's cry lodged somewhere in his throat, only emerging as a series of huffed, shuddering breaths as he forced himself to relax into the pain instead of tightening against it. He hooked his ankle at Eliathanis' shoulder, wrapped his other leg around Eliathanis' hip, pressing his heel into the other elf's backside. He opened himself as fully as he could to Eliathanis' invasion, wanting him, welcoming him. He was full of Eliathanis, his head, his heart, his cock, balls, and ass, and he didn't care if there was no poetry to that as long as it was true.
His gasps finally emerged on a sob. He pressed the back of his hand to his lips to keep from breaking down into more sobs.
Eliathanis' weight pressed Naitachal's leg down. He shuddered, cock fully-hilted inside Naitachal. He turned his head and pressed a kiss against Naitachal's calf. "Gods, this isn't going to last long," he muttered.
Naitachal could only nod, too afraid of what might come out if he tried to speak. Instead, he touched Eliathanis' belly just above where their bodies joined. Eliathanis turned his lips away from Naitachal's leg to look down at him, and he was such a mess that Naitachal couldn't help but smile Dried mud still caked the lower locks of Eliathanis' hair, streaked his face and arms where it hadn't flaked away during their wrestling or been wetted again by sweat.
Naitachal's smile became a smirk. "And here I'd heard mud golems were known for their stamina," he drawled.
"Oh, it's like that, is it?" Eliathanis growled. He shifted his weight. Naitachal's snicker caught on a gasp. His cock twitched, knocking against Eliathanis' hard abdomen. Pain and pleasure were both just sensations that demanded submission. Naitachal dug his fingers into Eliathanis' hips and urged his friend on.
Eliathanis obliged, small movements building into longer, more confident thrusts. He braced one hand on the floor and wrapped the other around Naitachal's cock, stroking in counterpoint to his rhythm.
Naitachal arched into each stroke, pressed down against each thrust. Eliathanis had been right in his prediction that they wouldn't last long, but it was Naitachal who broke first. His entire body flexed and tightened, orgasmic surges that wracked him into spewing again and again into the cup of Eliathanis' hand. Naitachal tightened, trying to hold on to that mindless abandon as long as he could.
Eliathanis grunted and stilled, every muscle taught as a bowstring and hard as steel. He finished, pumping in hard, fast thrusts, and Naitachal squeezed around him, milking him for every last drop of pleasure.
Eliathanis collapsed atop him, skin sweat-slick and gritty. Naitachal pressed his cheek against Eliathanis' heated one, wrapped his arms around the shivering elf, and held him tight.
How long they lay like that, Naitachal couldn't say. Long enough for their breathing to steady and their sweat to dry and their bodies to cool. Long enough for Eliathanis to grow soft and slip out, though Naitachal still ached with the memory of being stretched and full.
Long enough for the bath to come. They stirred at the timid knock on the door. Eliathanis groaned and staggered to his feet. His trews were bunched somewhere below his hips. Naitachal hadn't realized that Eliathanis hadn't even managed to get fully undressed. For some reason, the thought made him smile.
"Are you just going to lay there, naked and grinning like a loon?" Eliathanis asked, pulling his trews up and fastening only enough hooks to satisfy modesty. Powers, he looked delicious. Naitachal decided that mussed should be Eliathanis' natural state.
"Just throw my cloak over me. They'll never notice."
"They might when they try to set the tub atop you. Get up, you useless lunk. Hide or don't, but I am getting my bath. One moment!" he yelled at the door when the latch clicked. The door didn't open, and Naitachal finally submitted to Eliathanis' tugs and prods. He rose, dragging his cloak around his nakedness and hunching over in a chair in the corner like he was dyspeptic.
When really, he was fighting laughter. Especially when one of the four maids setting and filling the bath noticed him, noticed his obsidian skin and silver hair, and almost fell into the steaming tub with a startled Eep!
"All is fine," Eliathanis said, steadying the young elven girl with a hand under her arm. "He's with me."
"But… but…" the girl sputtered.
"Shocking, isn't it?" Naitachal drawled, because clearly Eliathanis needed his help. Although from the way Eliathanis glared at him, Naitachal wondered if his help was appreciated. "That I would deign to keep such company. Only look at that mud."
Apparently, a speaking Dark Elf was too much for them. The maids fled shortly after that.
"Are you trying to spoil my bath?"
Naitachal rose and wandered over to the cold tray the maids had also bought. Meats and cheeses, mostly, but also a small selection of fruit. He popped a berry into his mouth. "Towels, soap, hot water and more for rinsing. You have everything you need. They were just lingering to ogle." Naitachal did a bit of ogling himself. He even added a bit of a leer for good measure.
Eliathanis' skin washed pink, making Naitachal smile. He'd feared that familiarity and debauchery would cure his friend of that delightful tendency. He stroked a finger down Eliathanis' pink cheek. "I hope you never lose this," he whispered.
Eliathanis grimaced and grabbed Naitachal's finger, but only so he could nip at it. "While I hope that someday you are cured of your perverse urge to needle me," he said, though Naitachal suspected that was a lie, especially when Eliathanis shoved his trews down and kicked them aside. He was half hard again already, his pale pink cock jutting and bobbing as if it were just as offended as its owner.
"Are you going to stand there all night staring and smirking, or are you going to join me?" Eliathanis snapped, stepping into the steaming water.
Naitachal let his cloak slide from his shoulders. "With such a gracious invitation, how could I possibly refuse?" he drawled, stepping into the bath behind Eliathanis. He cupped the other elf's chin and angled his face around, stopping Eliathanis' retort with a kiss.
Chapter 7: Epilogue
Of course, life never settled itself as neatly as it did in stories. Naitachal should have expected that, but he still found himself wondering if there would ever be a townhouse and years of happily-ever-after in their future, as with Eurosy and Oretta.
He and Eliathanis parted ways in the innyard of the Moonstone.
"You could come with me," Eliathanis said. He was eager to return to his clan and tell them that rumors of his demise were incorrect, and Naitachal could hardly blame him. If the Nithathil had close clan bonds, if Naitachal hadn't trapped his own clan in a recursive chaos gate, he might have wanted to do the same.
Instead, he'd thrown every flimsy excuse he could think of not to go. He needed to replace his lute and harp, and quality instruments were hard to come by. He needed to contact Master Aidan and the College to report what had happened. And he should probably tell Count Kevin and Lydia.
Some losses are so raw that they leave holes we can't talk about. We can only talk around them.
Naitachal's heart squeezed around the memory of those words. He shook his head and aimed for lightness I his tone. "Hard enough to convince your clan that you're not some sort of unnatural revenant without a Dark Elf and a Necromancer at your side."
Eliathanis' gaze bored into Naitachal. "I see no Necromancers here."
"And I'm still wary after my last visit. Should your clan succeed in killing me, you've no way to bring me back from the dead. And no-one who would…" Naitachal stopped. Swallowed down his grief and guilt over Eurosy. He'd been right last night: talking wasn't a balm for this wound. Nor, it seemed, was love, or a night of sex. It wasn't Eliathanis' judgment that Naitachal feared to face, but his own.
Uncomfortable silence followed. Eliathanis broke it. "What will you do?"
Naitachal shook himself. "Travel, I suppose. There are songs out there yet to discover. I hear Portsmith is lovely, this time of year. Perhaps I'll head further north and catch a ship down to Westerin." Eurosy had packed up her house knowing she wasn't coming back, but someone should check that it was taken care of, just in case.
"Portsmith is cold, muddy, small-minded, and stinking of humans at all times of year. The Moonspirit lands are--"
Naitachal cut him off before he could ask again for Naitachal to join him. "Perhaps I'll seek out a likely boy. It's about time I took an apprentice, Eurosy said."
Bards voices weren't supposed to crack. Not ever. All Naitachal could do was pretend his hadn't.
Eliathanis had no such compunction. "Naitachal, you didn't know what she planned. Her death was no more your doing than it was mine."
"She warned me. You warned me. Everyone warned me that such things always come with a cost. I though… I thought Bardic Magic was different. I thought--"
Eliathanis stopped his words with a kiss. Naitachal shivered, slipped his hands up Eliathanis' back and clung to the kiss.
Eliathanis was the first to pull away. "Do whatever penance you feel you must. Take your apprentice and train him as Eurosy would want. When you are ready to stop punishing yourself, when you're ready for me to join you, you know where to find me."
Naitachal collected his sorrow and hid it behind a wry grin. "Perhaps I'll just leave a message here at the Moonstone. Your clan has long memories. And frighteningly good aim."
"Very well, then. I'll check every moon."
With a final touch of his finger to Eliathanis' ear, Naitachal mounted Star. The placid stallion huffed and clopped out of the innyard and onto the road.
Naitachal did not look back.