Emmeline again proved her zest for life in her carefree dances, exuberant songs, and willingness to join in any song with her treasured violin at any request. Her energy and enjoyment of celebration with common and noble person alike set her a little apart from many of the partiers.
Baron Roland had time to reflect that participating in the Grand Melee might surely been less exhausting than attempting to keep up with the spirited young woman. Yet she never let him think she’d forgotten who she was with. When she danced with him, she made him feel graceful and strong for she seemed to anticipate and react to guidance he didn’t even know he’d provided. When she danced with others, she maintained a certain distance and he knew it was out of respect for his wishes. When she sang it felt like she was singing for him, even when the whole room hung on the sound of the next phrase before diving into a chorus in which all the assembled could join.
It was very clear Emmeline reveled in the celebration, basked in the attention, and was unafraid to indulge a little in wine. It was very easy to have a good time with her in the room. Clearly, she had instinctively mastered the most positive social aspects of life. Yet, she never abused her obvious social virtuosity to take advantage of the Baron or any other person, noble or common.
She had been easy to talk to from the moment he met her. Later, when she’d come to speak with him in his private chambers just the previous evening, she’d stumbled, her words coming out with uncharacteristic awkwardness that revealed a vulnerability he hadn’t seen before. It was for that reason that he’d asked her to stay even after she had apologized for her clumsiness and made to leave for her own chambers. Instead of following his initial impulse to take her to his bed (as had been his desire every night she’d stayed at the castle), he indulged her and simply talked. She’d wanted to know what sort of person he was behind the title, and he found that opportunity to simply talk frankly with someone person to person rather than always as Baron of Uzec was a rare opportunity for him, as well.
Her forthrightness in judging the contest winner of the Grand Melee as well as her honesty that morning continued to earn his respect.
Another song came to an end and Emmeline, looking just flushed enough to stir a man’s blood, rejoined Baron Roland. Her presence near him brought his mind immediately to the present.
Emmeline smiled at him and took a drink of wine to wet her throat again. “Your Grace, I can honestly say I have never had so much fun at a party ever before in my life.”
At his raised eyebrow, Emmeline continued, “No, it’s true! In Thalassa, I’m not anybody at all. Just a pretty face for sons of fish mongers and tradesmen to lust after. But here and now? I feel like I can be myself. Part of that… I know I’ve grown since I’ve left Thalassa. I can see that. But I would never have known it if it hadn’t been for this festival and most especially if it hadn’t been for you. I just want to say thank you your grace. For noticing me, for asking me to sit with you, all of it these past few days. This has been an unbelievably positive experience for me.”
The Baron smiled at the young woman who reminded him of a face and exuberance from long ago. He replied, “Your thanks is kind, but unnecessary. While it is an excellent party, I have done little Emmeline. You and yours took up arms to help others without reward. You took the initiative to reach out to me, to Raphael, and to the others to benefit this community. You are beloved by the people and I am glad you are happy here.” She could tell he meant every word and that he was very taken with her. He motioned her to sit by him, saying, “No ordinary woman can sing, play, and dance like that. You have a unique gift, one these people haven’t seen in a long time. Nor have I.”
Emmeline had taken her seat again next to Roland. “Although once my friends and I settle things at the Cairns we’ll be leaving for Thalassa, I’ll have many fond memories to carry me through until I next visit Uzec.”
She watched the revelry a few moments while she thought some things over. Then she turned to the baron again. “Your Grace, my grandfather taught me to always leave an audience on a high note. I must say I think we have found one.” She flashed him a bright smile. She leaned to whisper in his ear. “And I wouldn’t mind paying someone a visit before returning to the castle, if you wouldn’t mind?”
The Baron nodded, “Please. If I do not see you before your mission tonight, know that I’m still not entirely convinced the Cairns are trouble or merely rumors, so please do not do anything rash. We have yet soldiers, indeed many visiting ones as well, to clear out the trouble in the Cairns if it is a true danger. I will see you tonight at the castle upon your return.” With that, the Baron gave Emmeline leave to go.
Emmeline bid him adieu with a promise to see him later, then made as quick an exit she could given the number of still-boisterous party-goers who wanted to bid her good night. From the festival grounds she made her way quickly and purposefully across town to try and see if she could find this mysterious Morgan. The town was blessedly small to begin with and compact, so it really didn’t take long to traverse it on her way to the Mocking Nymph. Once inside the door she had herself a good around the tap room.
The tap room was most completely empty. A lone barmaid was taking advantage of the lull and lay asleep at one table, the bartender himself was busy stocking for the inevitable post-festival crowd due to arrive in the hours to come. Behind Emmeline, she heard the call of an owl which gave her pause. Looking in the far corner, where Tiffanie had indicated, she discerned a woman in black at a table reading a book and taking notes. A couple other small journals lay next to her on one chair. The other two chairs at the table were empty.
“Nice to finally meet you again. I wanted to be sure I remembered what you look like so it’s not a surprise when I finally meet you for the first time. May I ask how exactly you know something may be amiss at the Cairns to the east?” Emmeline asked.
Morgan looked quizzically at Emmeline. “You are confused. We have never met before,” she said fairly matter-of-factly. “That said, you do remind me of someone.” Placing her pen down she began paging through one of her journals. As she did so she added, “the dwarven spirits of the Cairns are quite upset. They told me so.”
The musical tone Emmeline usually heard when Mara was about to speak began. Morgan stopped thumbing through her notes and looked up briefly. The music faded. Morgan continued her search, adding, “They were quite explicit in their demands.”
Emmeline showed a fleeting smile. She’d had her fun and it was just as well Morgan thought her confused. After all, it would do no one any good at all if this strange woman that spoke with ghosts thought Emmeline had a supernatural contact — especially if Morgan might be some kind of threat to Mara.
“But why? Why trouble Tiffany and I about this? Why not deal with it yourself. You seem more than capable. At least, more capable than us anyway.”
“A ha,” Morgan softly said, marking the page she was on. She looked up and said, “Are you not the heroes who slew a Tyaanite priestess and a horde of goblins?” She continued, “From what I hear, you rescued hundreds of villagers, and saved the valley where more capable warriors had failed. This is an opportunity to prove you are who you say you are.” She paused and without sarcasm said, “what makes you believe I am capable or even willing to interfere?”
“Intuition,” Emmeline replied without hesitation. “You are more than capable, yet you hand this one to Tiffany. We will do it, of course. I just wanted to come and meet you for myself, to see what kind of person you are here and now, as opposed to what you may become.” She searched for Morgan’s eyes, but on her own face was only concern.
She remembered the pain that Mara had showed her as a result of Morgan’s anger, a punishment inflicted upon Mara by Morgan, yet Emmeline wasn’t here because she was angry. She didn’t feel like Mara was angry, either. Emmeline was both curious about Morgan and concerned for her. What might drive someone to use and harm someone like Mara? Lure of power? Greed? Or simple misunderstanding?
“Your insight serves you well,” replied Morgan with a slight smile.
Calmly she retorted, “Of course, if I am as skilled in all things as you say I could convince Rurrick to hand over his prized sword. It is possible to do this. Indeed, I could also return it to the cairn, settling the spirits, if the spirits told me the truth – they could have their own agenda. Or perhaps I could simply destroy them and keep the sword for myself?” Morgan’s smile grew slightly wider slightly showing perfect teeth. She added, “No, I choose not to do that. For your friend will lose out on an opportunity if she doesn’t go. You will miss out on an experience that is sure to change your outlook, or at least impact it.” Emmeline caught a glimpse of Morgan’s eyes and saw a deep, almost hypnotic gaze and then they looked down at the journal. “Besides, it says quite plainly here that the son of Borr and daughter of Lara, who clipped the raven’s wings would be here to struggle with and ultimately sate the anger of the lost of the house of the fathers of Azen.”
“Are any of those characterizations untrue?” she asked. “Tiffanie, or Typhon Kné told me she is the ‘son’ of Borr. Your team slew a Tyaanite, and it is assumed that those Cairns of dwarven – a kingdom of which in this area was once called Azenkuul, though the Cairns may predate that. In dwarven, that means, “Delvings of the Azen.”
“Is your mother named Lara?” she added.
“My mother is dead,” Emmeline replied quietly. “May I sit?”
When she didn’t hear refusal right away, Emmeline took a chair. “Your book hints at destiny and draws you to conclude its subjects include Tiffany and I then. I have to wonder what is in that book that interests you.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your mother,” Morgan replied. Then after a pause, she answered, “This journal is a transcription of a wide variety of prophecies and visions experienced over the years, as well as those of others whom I’ve added, plus whispers and rumors. You see here this date,” pointing at the journal entry in perfect Thalassan common script with rough sketches of Tiffanie and Emmeline, “it is 22 Messidor, 447. That is today. I remember writing that years ago. The sketches are more recent. And, I wouldn’t say destiny. I would say, decision points, turning points, or moments of possibility.”
Emmeline asked, “Turning points… actually I can see the appeal. One of the reasons I went with Tiffany and the others to save the villagers was simply to see what might happen. So, would you say you are a kind of… active historian?”
Morgan smiled, “Yes, that is a take on it.” She followed on, “And you, are a kind of fighting minstrel? Or do you charm your enemies into falling on their swords?”
“Well, that’s a thought. I haven’t tried that one yet,” she laughed a little. “Actually, the role I most prefer is to just try to provide a little insight and aid where it’s needed. Sometimes that takes a little extra something to accomplish. Some might call it courage, others perhaps just enough recklessness to be inspiring. Also, I have a nice little crossbow for when communication breaks down. Rather useless against ghosts, granted, but should things go badly at the Cairns I fully expect to advise Tiffany that flight is the best option, especially since the Baron has stated that if things are out of hand at the Cairns, he’ll send his troops to clear it. I have a hunch that’s very much a less than ideal solution though, so I’m hoping this all can be handled quietly by Tiffany and myself.”
“As do we all,” Morgan replied, “but one never knows.” The waitress, awake now, brought a glass of wine to Morgan, removing an old glass. As she reached for the wine, Emmeline noted that her cloak was not quite as ‘black’ as one would think. Subtle charcoal and light gray threads permeated what was likely an expensive, if not ostentatious, cloak. The clasp was a black owl pin, with white flecks. Her hands showed little sign of age or wear, though her nails were polished. The undercloak, at least what covered the arm was a deep violet, and likely practical. Her hand had two simple rings and about her wrist was a bracelet. Emmeline thought that maybe, she caught sight of a feather-motif decoration to the undercloak.
“Do you wish something to drink? Maude here can get you whatever you need.”
“Thank you,” said Emmeline, “but you’ve been kind to answer my questions and soon the revelers will be filtering through the city. If I want to get back to the castle without being distracted, I should get moving.”
“I should as well soon. The privacy of this place will soon come to naught,” she said as she closed her journal and began sipping the wine. “I do find you familiar,” Morgan added, “beyond visions or sketches or prophecy. Something…” She looked pensive for a moment, with her words hanging in the air. Taking another sip of wine, she finished, “I’m patient, I’ll figure it out. Until then, Emmeline Larasdaughter.” The tone was even and without malice. Curious-sounding, but yet with a veneer of foreboding.
Emmeline bid Morgan farewell with a smile, then slipped away. She put the hood of her cloak up as she wound her way through streets on her way to the baron’s abode. Her whispered questions were for and if anyone overheard, she did not want to be readily identified.
“Mara,” Emmeline whispered, “that was a very interesting conversation, wasn’t it? Can you share anything more about this prophecy or vision or whatever it is that she spoke of regarding Tiffanie, myself, and the Cairns of the Azen?”
The typical musical vignette floating on the wind as Mara appeared walking beside Emmeline as a young girl. The first she had appeared in some time. A bright, ill-defined female form with whispy black hair, light blue glowing eyes, and white dress. Not a ghost, but not mortal either.
“We do not know Tiffanie, not as you have. To us, she is a mass of twisting dark clouds with tendrils of smoke – dark and light – exiting our sight to places unknown with a sound of rage and horror screaming in sorrow and anger. With an axe emerging from the clouds at times, itself also sad, but with a ravenous hunger for vengeance.” She fades away.
“We know us, as you have always been here. You know what you should do, but you must be wary of the feathered one. She suspected. We saw a mistake bring pain and dreaming slumber on the shores of the greatest sea.”
“We know the caves are violated, with their innards ripped out from hollowed silence into unbridled avarice across time and space. The last reason for slumber is an excuse no more, and natures of dark and light are united in hate. They are not the only souls suffering. Others have been lost.” She paused, “there, another one lost….”
“Where?” Emmeline looked about, bewildered for a moment. “Wait. So the rummaging about in the Cairns and at the mine has disturbed the dead, both good and ill? Is that what you mean?”
The teen aspect of Mara startled Emmeline from the opposite side, “It may have been the final act. It pinned the dead to their rest. Now, they have begun testing what was set long before. We should know, we put it there before, and we will again. But why and what came in the deep before, we remain uncertain.”
“Was it some kind of barrier that you placed before?”
Mara shook her head, “You do not understand.” From behind the older aspect of Mara spoke as the teen walked away and faded into mist, “but you will. You eventually always have.”
A child’s hand grasped Emmeline’s hand with a touch that was ethereal, but not cold. Looking down, Emmeline saw the child Mara, “Seek the bones of our mother…”
Emmeline paused to look about and get her bearings. Seeing the castle soaring up into the star-studded night sky, she took what she thought was the correct turn and continued. “Do you mean my mother Lara? You often say ‘we’ as if you and I are the same person.”
Mara, the adult one, appeared, “We are, and we are not. You are of us, but we are not necessarily of you. You are part of us, but you are not the sum of us. It is hard to say more, as to us your are so far away. That will change over time.”
Mara walked to a bench and gestured for Emmeline to sit. When she did, Mara added, “We’ll try to explain. We are uncounted children, sisters, and mothers born, living and dying. You are Mabrilith and you are Emmeline. You are the same, but different. We are the same, but different. You are of a moment. We are all the moments, all the sisters, and of a mother long lost and more that you cannot understand yet. Lara, Elianor, Emmé, Kyrie and so on through the ages, as are your cousins, sisters, and granddaughters are of us.”
“Lara is our mother, and ourselves, and your mother; but Lara is but an instant of the mother of whom I speak. Her bones are near. Seek them, find them as you always have, and this will be more clear.”
Emmeline digested what Mara was saying. “I think I understand. Please correct me if I still have got it wrong. You represent many women as one. I am part of that line of women, and have been more than just this one incarnation of me. Therefore, I — and you — have had many mothers stretching back in time, but also forward in time, too. And, you are saying that the me here and now is part of you as well, just as many others are and will be. Is that close enough for understanding correctly?”
“Yes,” Mara replied with a smile. “We are the same, from a certain point of view. There is an ‘I’ as well that we are that is very separate from you. The past and future are mutable. I can only say so much to you on this without ramifications.”
“Unless you visit us here,” she added, “the feathered one can do that for us. But there will be a price. A high price.”
“I don’t think I’m yet prepared to owe that woman for anything,” Emmeline replied. “What you have given me helps me a lot. I need to consider what it might all mean for me and so I will take my time with this.” She stood up from the bench and smiled. “I think I will be doing well if I manage to avoid temptation when I return to the baron.”
“You are wise to be wary,” she replied, “as far as the other, do what pleases you to do. We will always be here.”
She faded as Emmeline turned to leave. After that, Emmeline hurried to the castle and then asked the staff if Baron Roland had returned from the festival.
There seemed to be a bit of commotion going on as Emmeline spoke with the guard. “The Baron is consulting with the Constable m’lady. There has been trouble at the Gaol.”
“Does it have to do with the adventurer who had looted the Cairns?” Emmeline asked.
“Yes, his compatriots broke him out. They are on the run. With most of the guard up at Calder Keep, the upper valley, or the festival, there just wasn’t anyone strong enough to stop seasoned adventurers. The constable himself was injured and one guard is dead.”
He continued, “the Baron has ordered pursuit, but we also don’t want to ruin the festival. Leaving the people with a high note the Baron insisted.”
“So they are getting volunteers to find them. Some groups have already left.”
“Is the sword they stole, the thick dwarven one, still secure?” Emmeline said, worried.
“They used some kind of spell to breech the Constable’s vault, but I do not know what they took. One of them is a secret spellcaster.”
“Not good,” Emmeline remarked. “Please let the baron know I have returned, when you can.”
The guard escorted Emmeline into the Baron’s conservatory to wait while he then had the message sent to the Baron. Twenty minutes later, the door opened and the Baron entered. It was clear he was frustrated, despite his outer composure. “Emmeline, my child, were you able to meet with your old friend?”
“Actually it was someone I needed to meet. The woman that tipped us off about the trouble at the Cairns. I wanted to meet her for myself and get some questions answered. It appears those Cairns are connected to the mines up north that were the focus of so much trouble. The Cairns are the resting places for those dwarves and it appears that the stolen sword was the final straw — or perhaps the final piece of the dam holding them back,” Emmeline said. “And now it is beginning to sound like the troublemakers have made things even worse, your grace.” She searched his eyes in hopes she was wrong.
His eyes betrayed the truth. “We’ve heard whispers recently of movement out there, some frightened farmers, but nothing for certain,” the Baron said, “until an hour ago. It seems there have been sightings of apparitions shaped as dwarves between here and the Cairns. The Constable noticed this afternoon that the blade began to make a subtle humming sound. About an hour after your friend Tiffanie visited, right as you were giving your final dance, the rogue Rurrick’s companions attacked the Gaol. The slew the guard and nearly did the same to the Constable. They are in flight and we are pursuing, but it looks as if they may have the sword. Sister Joss is attending to the Constable now, but the attack was all I was able to get from him before he slipped into unconsciousness.”
“I think we will need that sword to put those ghosts to rest, your grace,” Emmeline said somberly. “Perhaps Tiffanie and I can help your men.”
Looking out into the dusky night, he said, “I am comfortable with you and your friend scouting the Cairns to find out the truth of what is going on. That is helpful, and I welcome it, especially given our manpower shortage. I am less comfortable sending you two alone to actually deal with the ghosts. Goblins are dangerous enough.” He looked back toward her, “the undead, well that is unprecedented for Uzec. At least not for hundreds of years, before this town was founded. Do you trust the word of the person who tipped you off about the sword?”
“Her motivations are murky, but I think she’s telling the truth about this,” Emmeline said. “You’re right, though. We could quickly get in over our heads trying to deal with something from beyond the grave. The goblins we handled because we were able to take them on a few at a time — and we had a wizard. But Elemix and his is probably still miles from here. Tiffanie and I are only half our team. But. Maybe we can circle around the undead, try to figure out the trouble at the source. With luck, we could end the undead threat before people get hurt.”
“I must join the pursuit of this Rurrick, for his lackey murdered one of my men,” the Baron added, “as Brother Jos was recalled, seek out that new priestess, Sister Joss – she should be with the Constable at the temple’s hostel. If it is undead, then she likely could be of help. Once you find her, seek your friend – I believe she was at the festival. Once we recover the sword, I’ll send a rider with it to you.”
“Thank you, your grace,” Emmeline said. Then she added gravely, “Good hunting. I hope they get exactly what they deserve.”
Leaving the baron, she quickly went to her chamber and changed into something a bit more sensible for crawling about dusty old tombs. She found the attractive, yet tough dress with leather top she’d arrived in town with and quickly pulled it on. She picked up her usual traveling packs, staff, and crossbow, but left her other things, including the baron’s gifted dresses and nightgown, stowed in a trunk in that room. After that, it was off to find “sister” Joss.
Emmeline arrived at the Temple’s hostel. There were a few revelers there who had over indulged, a few injuries, and the Constable resting in a screened off area. ‘Sister’ Joss looked as if she was supervising one of the lay sisters. As Joss turned, she saw Emmeline enter.
“Hello young lady. What brings you here?”
“The baron told me I need to ask your help,” said Emmeline. “Tiffany and I must get to the Cairns east of here and begin to deal with the disturbed spirits there. Undead are on the move, sister, though we intend to avoid and go to the source of the problem. But to do that successfully, we need someone of your skills. Will you help us?”
“Sister. I like the ring of that! Besides you two and two acolytes I swore to secrecy in exchange for curing them and taking the brunt of their curses, no one knows the truth. For the first time in my life I feel free, despite the convoluted tale I’ve had to weave to replace Jos with Joss. So, the Baron volunteered me? No matter I can help. I really don’t have any armor or equipment that fits anymore, but if the fighting is minimal, I can be of help.”
Joss’ attitude was so much more cheery than Tiffanie’s or even the somber sort he/she was but a couple days ago.
Emmeline smiled brightly. It was refreshing that there was at least one man around here that didn’t think being female was a curse. “Perfect! Thank you, sister Joss! I will also do my best to keep you safe should we run into anything dangerously unfriendly and you know Tiffanie will defend us. All we need to do is find Tiffanie now.” She had some ideas about that; perhaps she might still be at the celebration, or she may have retired to the inn. She could check the inn for Tiffanie and go from there.
As Emmeline exited the Temple, Sister Joss caught up to her, “wait. I just realized something…”
Emmeline stopped and turned to look at the priestess expectantly.
“I will do this. For my Baron, this town, and the League; but I need something from you. I need to journey with you for at least a dozen days after today, please,” Joss asked.
Emmeline looked puzzled for a moment, then her face cleared and her eyes lit with sympathy. Who was she to deny someone their happiness? “I understand, sister Joss. I’ll support your request should Tiffanie or Emelix hesitate — but I honestly believe they would very much welcome your company.”
“Great! Do you think Tiffanie would mind if I tried to remove her curse every day of those dozen days?” she added.
“I don’t think she would,” Emmeline remarked, “but I have an uneasy feeling that magic backwash could affect me, and I’m perfectly comfortable being who I am right now. That feeling was really why I withdrew from the chamber just before you cast the remove curse spell that first time, despite being very curious to see.”
“I think I have that all figured out. There was a slight chance you could be affected, but unless a woman’s anima is weak, that chance is extremely small. The inverse of that is that changing someone back is pretty hard. I tried several times with each of my acolytes, but learned after a day that they awoke mostly normal. Today they are their own selves, though Ruar misses his hair. In any event, by curing them, I took their curse upon myself and my anima grew stronger as my animus grew weaker. I was the last I planned to cure, but now I really don’t want to. Tiffanie said that a sage she met said that after a fortnight, the curse is very impossible to lift. I need to make it to that fortnight to stay this way. The side effect is that Tiffanie might actually be cured in the process.”
She added, “But even so having you and any others at least 200 feet away is likely best.”
Emmeline smiled. “Yes, that sounds like a good idea.”
“Great!” she replied. “I’ll get ready. I might be able to get some basic armor and a spear. Where should I meet you?”
“We have to cross the river, so we might as well use the bridge. Let’s meet on the near side of the bridge then, then we can skirt south around the festival area and see if we can’t circle around any undead to the east while we make for the Cairns,” Emmeline said. “Hopefully they won’t be terrible hard to find, or perhaps Tiffanie has a lead on their location.”