"Poseidon massed the clouds, clutched his trident and churned the ocean up; he roused all the blasts of all the Winds and swathed earth and sea alike in clouds; down from the sky rushed the dark. Euros and Notos clashed together, the stormy Zephyros and the sky-born billow-driving Boreas."
- Homer, "The Odyssey"
Zephyrus – The god of the West Wind. Both the gentlest of the winds and the bringer of sudden storms. The harbinger of spring, the death of winter, and the herald of change. A beginning, and an ending.
"Commandments? What the fuck is wrong with you? Shaundakul doesn't give commands. He gives unsolicited advice.
What, you're still here? You're not gonna go away until I say something pithy, are you? Fine. But this is off the record. That means you're putting down that pen. Quill. Whatever.
Ahh. Much better. Thanks. You're a peach. Order a chair and pull up a drink, then, and I'll tell you all about Shaundakul – just between you and me.
Let's see. You want commandments? Well, like I said, he doesn't do commandments, but if I had to, I'd narrow the old man's guidelines down to three:
One: Kindness is the universal language.
Two: Home is wherever you're standing.
And three: Rules are made to be broken."
- Rebecca Blumenthal, Windwalker of Shaundakul and Heroine of Undrentide
Invisible, I sat by the roadside and watched the world go by.
It wasn't magic that made me invisible. Not exactly. I had an even bigger tin ear for magic than I had for music, and you'd have to find a bucket big enough to hold the Trackless Sea before I could carry a tune in it.
What I did wasn't real magic, but it was the kind of trick that could probably look like magic if you weren't in on the secret. Call it mundane magic. Call it an everyday illusion. Call it my kind of magic.
You didn't need any special tools to practice my magic. You just had to know a thing or two about people. I cast my spell by sitting down, slouched against a low roadside wall and wrapped head to toe in a ratty old cloak. I didn't move. I could've been sleeping. Hell, I could've been dead.
Then I watched as people walked right on by as if I wasn't even there.
I smiled, a little sadly. The world never changed. Not really. Not even when you changed worlds.
It was market day in Yartar. Wagons rumbled steadily in and out of the western gates. Some spilled onto the Evermoor Way, where they trundled down towards the banks of the Dessarin. More were heading into the city, weighed down with goods for the market. A steady stream of foot travelers weaved around them, hurrying past peevish oxen and snorting draft horses whose breath rose ghost-white from their nostrils in the early morning air.
At my back, the stone was cool. Above me, the sun was warm. Underfoot, blades of new grass were just starting to poke their heads up between the cobbles, green and sweet-smelling.
Spring was coming. I could feel it on the wind.
I tapped one of the tiny green shoots with the tip of my finger. "Relax," I said softly. A tiny thread of power unwound itself from its seat under my heart, creeping up into my throat. "You can come out now." My tongue tingled as the words left it.
Slowly, almost shyly, the blade of grass unfurled, broadening and lengthening until it was tall enough to catch the sunlight. There it nodded, a defiant little streak of green stickin' it to Old Man Winter.
I smiled and settled back against my wall. "There you go," I told the grass. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"
The grass swayed at me, but it didn't say anything. Most grass didn't, and if there was any grass that did, I didn't want to be anywhere near it.
Sitting back, I waited.
Every so often someone noticed me there, and a few loose coins tinkled to the ground by my feet. I thought about stopping them and telling them to keep the change, but those kinds of conversations always embarrassed people, and embarrassed people always remembered the ones who'd embarrassed them. Being remembered wasn't what I was there for, so I kept my mouth shut and let the coins fall.
I waited. The day turned towards noon.
After a while, the pile of money grew to a point where it really started to get on my nerves. I glanced down the wall. There was a pile of rags not far off, slumped against the stone much like I was. If you squinted and maybe cocked your head about thirty degrees, the pile almost looked like a person. A tin cup lay on the ground near its feet. There were some coppers in it, maybe a silver piece or two.
I coughed loudly to get the guy's – at least, I was pretty sure it was a guy – attention. Then I pointed to the coins at my feet. "Hey, buddy. You want these?" I offered.
The man's head turned. His beard was grey and scraggly and his skin wasn't far off from being the same color. The overall effect was kind of like seeing a piece of lichen peel itself off of the stone, sprout eyeballs, and look my way. A pair of bleary eyes tried to focus on me. "Don't want to poach on your turf, ma'am," the beggar slurred diffidently.
"It's not my turf." I caught his skeptical stare. "Honest. It's not. I'm just waiting for someone."
He squinted at me uncertainly, his eyebrows squinching together like a pair of fat, fuzzy caterpillars. "Sure'n y'need the coin more than I," he protested.
It was probably a bad sign when even the homeless guys thought you looked seedy. "Nah," I said. "I'm fine. Really." I had what I needed. I didn't want more. More money meant more problems.
The man gave me a doubting look, shook his head, and huddled back into his nest of rags, shivering. There wasn't much of a chill, at least not to me, but then I'd had a hot meal not that long ago. "Don't want to poach on your turf," he repeated stiffly.
I shrugged. "All right," I said. I didn't push it. From his tone, I was starting to step on his pride. He probably didn't have much left to him except for his pride. I wasn't about to take that away, too. "Suit yourself."
I left the money where it was - just in case he changed his mind - and settled back, making myself comfortable again.
Behind me, wood clinked against stone.
The morning got warmer and the crowds got thinner. People seemed to lose interest in throwing loose change at me, which was nice. I was getting tired of having pennies bounce off of my shins.
Then, a little before noon, a woman came striding down the Evermoor Way like she owned it.
The woman was platinum-haired, as brawny as a lumberjack, and so tall she could've hunted geese with a rake. A huge fuck-off sword was propped on her shoulder. She paid no mind to the crowd. She didn't have to. The crowd parted for her like the sea before a better class of prophet. People could be a little unobservant sometimes, but on the whole, they weren't stupid. They knew death on two legs when they saw it, and they weren't about to get in its way.
I snatched my hood forward to hide my grin. It looked like my patience was about to pay off.
I waited until my quarry had passed me by. She didn't seem to notice me, which was exactly what I'd been hoping for. I reached behind me, curled my fingers around Silent Partner's haft, and stood to follow her.
The weight of the quarterstaff in my hands made me pause. As always, the wood was as hot as sun-warmed teak in my hands despite all the hours it had spent in the shade, and it buzzed faintly in a way that made me think of a neon light on the fritz. I glanced at the beggar again, and I could almost feel a set of ghostly knuckles rap sharply against my forehead.
All right, all right, I thought. I hear ya, Harry. Don't get your knickers in a knot.
I knelt and scooped my pile of coins into a spare pouch. As an afterthought, I added a few linen-wrapped travel rations and a few cloudberry candies in a waxed paper packet.
The beggar didn't stir at the sound of my footsteps. I stopped and placed the pouch on the ground near his hand, where hopefully he'd find it before anyone else would and be able to take it without compromising his pride. As an afterthought, I unhooked the clasp of my cloak and swept it off my shoulders and over his. The weather was getting too warm for cloaks, anyway.
Then I stood, turned and walked away.
A breeze flitted by. It brushed my cheek and tugged at my hair, almost playfully. I squinted up at the sky. "Oh, shut up," I muttered. "Who asked you for your opinion, anyway?" With a final little gust that flicked a lock of hair right across my nose, the wind died. I scowled and swept my hair out of my face irritably. A passing courier gave me a wary sideways glance, the kind you give to potential lunatics. I turned my scowl on him. He blinked and hurried away.
I scanned the crowd. I'd lost sight of my target. "Shit on a brick," I growled. A merchant's wagon rumbled past. It was heading in the right direction. Hurriedly, I grabbed hold of the frame as it went by, planted one foot on the rear step, and hauled myself up long enough to peer over the crowd.
There was a merchant's guardswoman perched on the crates in the back of the wagon. On seeing me, her hand went for her sword.
I raised the holy symbol I wore on a chain around my neck. "No worries, captain," I said smoothly. "Just scouting the road ahead. I'll be out of your hair in a second."
The guardswoman's eyes flicked to the symbol. She relaxed and took her hand away from her sword, although her eyebrows stayed upraised in unspoken curiosity. "As you say, Windwalker."
That was another kind of magic. In certain circles, my holy symbol opened more doors than dynamite. Old Windy was a roamer, and people who roamed for a living, like this traveling merchant and the guard whose job it was to protect the caravan from bandits and other dangers of the road, knew he and his followers were on their side.
My eyes raked the crowd until I saw platinum blonde braids. I grinned. "Fair winds and safe travels," I told the guardswoman, and dropped back down to the ground.
My target strode ahead. I stalked behind. The crowd didn't part for me the way it had for her, which was fine by me. I let myself get swallowed up, just another body among many, quietly slipping into someone else's shadow every time it seemed the blonde woman might look my way.
I was almost to her when the sound of urgent hoofbeats rose above the noise of market day traffic. The hoofbeats pounded in time to the chiming of little bells. That sound made me stop, listen, and crane my neck for a glimpse of the horse and its rider. A ripple went through the crowd. People began to fling themselves out of the way of the oncoming horse and rider.
Then I saw him – a white horse all decked out in silver harness and bells, and a rider in silver and blue. He was one of Tymora's couriers, and he was riding like the hounds of hell were nipping at his heels.
I wondered what news the Luckbringer was carrying that was so urgent, but both professional courtesy and basic self-preservation told me to not to get in his way. I stepped aside.
The blonde woman was a little slower to move, maybe because she wasn't used to having to move for other people. The horse blew past her hard enough to make her lose her footing and stumble backwards. "You blind-arse son of a circus whore and a donkey's left ballsack!" she bellowed. She shook her fist after the horse's rapidly retreating ass. "Watch where you go!"
She hadn't noticed me yet, but the crowd was scattered, my cover was blown, and it was only a matter of time.
The time for stealth was over. If I was still going to catch her off guard, I had to do this now and I had to do it fast.
In a few quick steps, I was to her. I grounded the butt of my quarterstaff and braced myself.
Then I reached out and slapped her on the shoulder with the back of my hand. "Hey, Thunderbeast!" I shouted back at her. "You kiss your mom with that mouth?"
Magda Thunderbeast spun her greatsword down from her shoulder and into a guard stance, a move I thought was about as instinctive to her as breathing. Then she actually looked at me. Her jaw dropped. "By all the gods! Little noble!" she boomed, let her sword's point fall, and flung her arms wide.
The next thing I knew, I was being hauled into a pair of burly arms. "It's about bloody time you showed up!" she hollered in my ear. "Tempos' balls, it's good to see you!" She squeezed me a little tighter, this time lifting me clear off my feet. "Where in the Hells have you been, woman? Last I saw hide or hair of you, it was in Daggerford!"
I would have answered, only I had no air left in my lungs. Also, my face was being ground into a combination of a solid inch of boiled brontosaurus hide plus Magda's triple-D's, and while I was sure there were a lot of men and probably some women who'd consider this a great way to die, I wasn't one of them. "Mags," I managed to say. "Leggo." She let go. I staggered a step backwards, wheezing. "Thanks. Jeez. You'd think you hadn't seen me in – wait." I started counting on my fingers. I stopped at five and squinted. "Shit. How long's it been?"
"Hah! Good thing you have Magda Thunderbeast to remember these things, eh?" She clapped a hand onto my shoulder, making my knees buckle. "You left for Daggerford six months ago!" she shouted about six inches from my face, because Magda believed in personal space the way most people believed in UFOs. "I worry for you, little noble! The last time Magda let you leave the Sword Coast without her there to watch you, you pulled down a Netherese city on your head! Where in the world have you been?"
I spared a glance for the crowd. People were starting to look. I was starting to regret giving up my cloak. "Here and there," I said. I tucked Silent Partner into the crook of my arm, the quarterstaff tight against my body. Zalantar wood and mithril were hard to hide, but that didn't mean I couldn't try. "Hey. Keep your voice down, willya?"
Mags rolled her eyes. "Very well," she said. "Be evasive. Have it your way. I will simply have to bring you to a tavern and ply you with drink until your lips loosen." She let her hands drop. "But answer me this, at least: how in the hells did you find me?"
I pulled a solemn face and gestured towards the sky. "Divine inspiration?" I suggested innocently.
The Uthgardt gave me a look that was half disbelieving and half hopeful. "Truly? The Rider of the Winds led you to me?"
I lost the fight to keep my solemn face on. "Nah," I admitted, laughing. "Just kidding. Actually, I just asked around." I punched her shoulder affectionately. "You're pretty hard to miss, Mags."
Mags frowned in momentary disappointment. Then she brightened. "Hah! Perhaps my fame has spread far enough, at that."
I lowered my voice and struck a pose like a wrestling announcer introducing a newcomer to the ring. "Magda Thunderbeast, Scourge of the Black Hand Band," I intoned. "The Bane of Banditry. The Dame of Do-gooding-"
She made a face and returned my punch. "You made that last one up."
I grinned. "Could be." I looked around again. There were too many people here. I used to like crowds, but lately, not so much. "So," I said then, and looped my arm around Magda's. "Speaking of ale, I hear the Blue Boar in Triboar just got a few new kegs of Sleeping Dragon. What say we-"
A voice cut across the crowd. "I say!" it called. "You, there! Are you-"
My heart sank. I let go of Magda's arm and turned.
A dark-haired man was jogging up behind us, waving frantically to catch my attention.
When the guy saw my face, he stopped dead. His eyes went to Silent Partner. Then they went to back to my face, where they bulged slightly. "By all the gods!" the man burst out. "That staff! That armor! That hair! You are she! The Heroine of Undrentide! In the flesh!" He lurched forward and stuck his hand out eagerly. "My friends will never believe this! My lady, may I shake your hand?"
I stared at his outstretched hand. It had been two years. Two fucking years since Undrentide fell and I'd made my way back to the Sword Coast from the Dalelands. I didn't know how long it had taken for that fucking kobold to find a printer willing to stamp his stinking brew of five parts bullshit to one part truth on a page, but it can't have been long, because by the time I got back I found that the news had flown ahead of me and suddenly I couldn't set foot in a crowded tavern or show my face in daylight on a busy street anywhere in the Sword Coast without attracting the kind of attention I'd thought I'd finally gotten rid of when I left my old life behind.
I'd put up with it for a year, but when the snows came again, I left. I'd needed a change of scene anyway, and I'd hoped that if I just stayed away for a while it'd all blow over, like any fad or rumor.
Apparently, I'd misjudged how long a juicy rumor could last in a society which hadn't gotten around to inventing tabloids.
I scowled. "No," I said curtly, and went to tug my hood up to hide my face and hair. Then I realized that I didn't have a hood anymore. My scowl deepened. "Buzz off."
The man frowned. "But-"
"Sorry," I said, my voice as taut and uninviting as a guillotine's blade. "You must have me confused with someone else." Then I turned away and started walking, not waiting for Mags to follow.
"Must I?" the stranger asked, radiating earnest cluelessness. He darted ahead of me, falling into a kind of backwards trot to keep pace once he was there. "I mean, do I? But you look like the picture! You know, the one in chapter twenty-three?" He paused and gave me a good once-over. Then he cleared his throat. "Er. Mostly. Sort of. I admit, in your picture you were more…" Vaguely, he cupped his hands and held them out in front of his chest. "You know. More."
I stopped. "That's it," I growled. I lunged forward and grabbed a fistful of the guy's shirt. "Hold still," I ordered, hefting Silent Partner. Then I added, with perfect truth: "Don't worry. This'll hurt you a lot more than it'll hurt me."
A forearm like an iron bar clamped across the front of my shoulders. "Now, now, little noble," Magda chortled. "He means no insult, and if you begin to murder men merely for irritating you, soon we will be all out of men."
"There'd be a few left. Probably," I growled, but relented. The guy had already taken to his heels as soon as I let go of him. "God. I don't even know how people believe that shit."
Magda let go of me. "I think you are overreacting," she said. "You act as if your fame plagues you where e'er you go, but of all the people on this road, how many even noticed you?"
I grimaced. "One, but one's enough."
Magda rolled her eyes. "Why this upsets you so, I will never understand," she said. "When I heard the rumors, I was so proud of my little noble friend I could burst!"
"Yeah, well, watch where you do that, it's hard on the carpets," I muttered. Angrily, I jerked my belt straight again. Apothecary pouches shifted and my belt-knife clinked in its sheath. "And the rumors are just that. Rumors. You know what really happened."
"Yes, and I still name you a hero, and I am always right. So there."
One corner of my lips curled up into a half-smile before I could stop myself. Then I shook my head. "It wasn't some heroic adventure, Mags," I said. "Shit just happened and I reacted to it. Besides, Xanos did most of the work. He should be the hero. Not me." I had to stop and swallow a lump in my throat before going on. As I always did whenever I thought about Xanos, I wondered how he was doing. Probably fine – he was a survivor. I hoped so. I couldn't know for sure. I'd never been brave enough to track him down and find out exactly how deeply I'd hurt him by ditching him the way I had. "Besides," I added. "I can't let people start thinking I'm a hero. Then I'll have to spend all my time rescuing kittens out of trees or some shit."
Magda patted my back, but she didn't belabor her point. "Do you know what I think?" she asked.
My voice was still grumpy. "What?"
"I think you need that drink." She slipped her arm through mine. "Come! Let us to Triboar, where we shall slay sleeping dragons in their kegs!"
I relaxed. Mags had been one of my first friends in Faerun. It really was good to see her again. "To Triboar," I agreed, hugging her arm to my side.
Arm in arm, my friend and I set off down the road.
The white gravel typical of northland roads crunched underfoot. The smell of the northern Sword Coast – blueleaf and larch, loam and oak, juniper and sweetgrass, with the faint salt tang of the Sea of Swords overlaying it all even here – reached my nose. I drew in a deep breath and let the familiar scents calm me. On either side of me, rolling fields and low drystone walls ran along the road, and further on, I saw tangled forests and rugged farm valleys that looked at once familiar and strange.
At last, I looked up at the sky. It was blue and vast and full of…possibility.
I let out my breath, slowly.
Well, I thought. I'm back.