Also, this isn't a very good chapter. Very little happens action-wise - it's more focused on Vanagar being consumed by social malaise, and while she does make some progression, it's way more fun to read about epic magics. It's a necessary progression, but I think if writing it now I'd set it during some discovery events, rather than sitting about re-iterating things we know already.
Zerith, with one of his better ideas, had suggested taking one of the tables outside, and they'd sat in the afternoon sun playing cards and griping about being confined to the circle of stones. Once they'd patched the bit of roof and the shutters which the storm had damaged, there had been nothing much to do. Most of the disassembled stable had blown away, and there no longer was a horse to put in it anyway. Incomprehensible, being bored in Irrelath
At least Vanagar had always liked card games. It gave her a sense of participation without actually having to work at thinking up something not boring to say in the way of small talk in a group. And this group made quite a collection: Jaelith's friends, the two bards, two women, Merry and Karie, from Artesia and a man who said he was from Arras Island itself, returning there from Ferrance. The bards were a little older, nearing their thirties, and the two women barely scraped past being called 'girl'. Heron was their own age.
A couple of the mercenaries were not more than twenty-five, but they had shown no interest in joining the double card game, instead prowling about on their patrols. The inn staff seemed depressed, the two men watching from a distance, looking as if they'd like to join in. The older of the innkeeper's daughters, the one who did the serving, had wandered out with a couple of jugs of water and had lingered. Her father had called her back, quick enough, just like that terrible old woman's grandson had been brought quickly to heel when he'd wandered out looking like he wanted to join in.
"Of course we should all pitch in with chores, maintaining the inn, cleaning our rooms," Jaelith said, replying to his brother's question. "Unless you've funds to pay Hobben indefinitely, Zer?"
"Wouldn't want to be thrown out for not paying the bill here, Zerith," Rithia said, flashing him one of her amused looks.
"'Room' not 'rooms'," Zerith griped. "Five of us in together, tripping over each other's gear all the time."
"Least you're not sleeping on the floor in the common room," Cienne pointed out.
A booted foot nudged Vanagar's leg, which she ignored, assuming the contact to be accidental. But she was wrong. With surprising delicacy, the boot returned, touched her ankle, ran up the inside of one leg to her knee. Before she could stop herself, Vanagar raised wide eyes from her cards, looked across the table to where Jaelith looked back at her, and raised one corner of his mouth in a tiny smile.
"Can't bear to sleep in the same room with me?" he asked, turning to look at his brother.
"Jay, I've nothing against the sleeping, but there's other things I'd like to do which definitely don't require your presence," Zerith replied.
Karie, sitting next to Zerith, reached up and whispered something in his ear, and he grinned.
"Careful, I'll take you up on that, Karie," he warned
The boot stroked the other side of her leg and Vanagar desperately tried to decide what to do. When Jaelith turned back, she ventured a quizzical smile, hoping this was the right way to act, not too eager, but acknowledging what he was doing, not looking as if she did not want it. He gave a warm response, eyes crinkling at the corners. It was a wonderful, timeless moment - only five, ten seconds long, seeing more than friendship in Jaelith's hazel eyes.
"Your deal, Heron," Zerith said impatiently, and Vanagar glanced over to see the Arras Islander directing a very meaningful look at Rithia, who was on Vanagar's right. Rithia responded with just a hint of smoulder and Vanagar, who was not meant to be included at all, revealed her reaction by going deathly pale, then bright red. She transferred her gaze to her lap and tried very hard not to cry, but her distress would probably be apparent to anyone who was looking. The probing foot returned and it was all she could do not to flinch.
She risked a glance across the table, damning the heat staining her cheeks. Heron, shuffling the cards, was still looking significantly at Rithia. Jaelith had turned to answer some question of Cienne's.
The foot moved away and Vanagar hastily took the opportunity to shift her legs, angling them far away from Heron's reach. She prayed that when he tried again, he would manage to encounter Rithia and not realise that he'd been touching Vanagar. She felt physically ill, her stomach knotted into a fist, her throat and chest tight and painful, just thinking of what his reaction would be, and as for Jaelith...! Heat washed through her again, pure shame.
Her cards had been dealt and as she picked them up she looked at Jaelith again, found him watching her with a puzzled expression. If only she could stop blushing! He must think her mad, gaping at him like a love-struck cow and then blushing furiously for no reason at all! He wasn't stupid. He mightn't know what was going on beneath the table, but seeing her smiling at him like that and then blushing idiotically... She wanted to crawl out of sight and die, tried desperately to think of some way to get away.
"Here they come!"
Cards were instantly downed, and they turned to watch eight people making their way up the hill, carrying what looked to be a deer slung on a pole. Vanagar's relief had nothing to do with their survival of the storm apparently unscathed, and everything to do with the fact that attention was riveted away from her burning cheeks.
"Those mercenaries are really nervous about what their Captain's going to say," Cienne was saying.
"I'd be more worried about what the ghost-layer's going to say. Mendican's just a mercenary. She's the one with the bells that call thunderstorms," Heron said.
"Not the mercenaries' fault, surely?" Jaelith put in. "Ekridge held them back and it was that farmer who actually rang the bell."
"Excuses. You watch. I bet he'll come back looking like he's been put through a wringer."
It was the two Armitans who carried the deer, presumably on the basis of strength. So strange to see the beautiful and distant Lady Kinrathen in that plain garb, acting as bearer while others were unencumbered. Armitans were apparently very complex about what it was right and correct for them to do. Still, the first thing Ritnar and Vanion did was relieve the other two of their burdens.
As Heron had predicted, the mercenary called Seinfal, after a brief exchange with his Captain, returned wearing a tight, stiff expression, very pale about the lips. Vanagar, reminding herself of her plan to be quietly valiant, put this vow into action by bravely edging to the rear of the group when they stood. But that was about being as far as polite from Jaelith, and nothing to do with the ghost-layer.
Like parents whose children had been naughty, the scouting party surveyed the clumps of people waiting for them at the inn's entrance, registering the unease and guilt. Vanagar saw fading red marks on their faces, as if they had been in a fight, and wondered what had attacked them.
Kier asked something of Ritnar in that liquid language and Vanagar thought she caught the name of the horse. Certainly, when Ritnar replied, his eyes dropping away from the bondsman, the reaction he provoked was one of arrested disbelief, then anger sternly contained, but visible all the same. The Armitan's face became as withdrawn and distant as the mountains, and he looked to the direction Ritnar indicated as if he planned to immediately start off in chase. A word from Lady Kinrathen stalled him, but the perfectly correct bow he gave in response was very stiff indeed. It had been, from what small amount Vanagar knew about horseflesh, a very fine horse. She had thought it was Lady Kinrathen's, but doubted that conclusion now.
Stehl Lacey came to the fore, and studied the card table briefly. A red mark across one of her eyebrows gave her a marvellously rakish look.
"Well," she said. "If you'll take the tables back inside, be patient for ten minutes or so while we attend to matters, we will give you the news of the day, which is quite complex. It would be best if everyone was there, so we will all squeeze in."
"Come on, everyone," Jaelith said, raising his voice a little. "You heard Ker Lacey. We'd better move these tables."
Watching the 'leaders' heading down toward too-empty graves was much more interesting, but everyone moved, if slow and reluctant. They'd built a rough but functional pair of steps up to the doorway, but Vanagar still managed to stumble going inside, almost dropping the end of the bench she was carrying.
Rithia, carrying the other end, raised her lip in disgust. "Now if you'd broken your neck, Lady Graceful, it would have made sense," she said, softly spiteful as they replaced the bench along the wall they had taken it from. Vanagar didn't respond; it wasn't worth even trying.
Rithia shook her head, angrily. "Tongueless idiot. You know, given a choice between you and Jerian, not one single person here would hesitate to make the exchange. Clumsy tag-along, why wasn't it you?!"
Vanagar stared at Rithia, shocked by the open attack, and the genuine pain which brought the hint of a sob to the end of the last sentence. Rithia turned away with a fulminating glare, not overly pleased at having revealed herself, and making it clear that she planned for Vanagar to pay for the slip.
Two people to avoid. Vanagar wondered how many would feel as Rithia said. Surely not Allia? She thought about it as the room was slowly put back in order. She didn't really know. If there had been a situation where Allia had had to choose between Vanagar and Jerian, which would she choose? Vanagar didn't doubt that Rithia had been speaking complete truth for the rest of the group, but Allia was supposed to be Vanagar's friend. Not her best friend. Vanagar had never been anyone's best friend, and Allia and Cienne were far closer. She did not know how Allia would choose.
No. She did. When she really looked at it, she really couldn't call any of these people her friends. Close acquaintances some. Others mere acquaintances. She seriously doubted that any of them would introduce her as "my friend, Vanagar".
It was an interesting thought, liberating even. They weren't her friends, they were people she knew, and she knew them a damn sight better than they knew her.
The ghost-layer had gone to her room, and came back wearing a faintly irritated expression, but dashed the expectations of the crowd by merely going to the table by the door that she had made her own already. No-one would leave a table empty merely because Vanagar had sat there twice. The room, when everyone finally came down, even the mean-minded old woman and her daughter and grandchildren, was far too crowded. Stehl Lacey stood behind the bar, raised a hand, and summoned silence.
"Very well. You have had your own adventures while we have been gone. I think Lord Thunderer has meted out punishment sufficient to ensure that you will hesitate before turning over anyone else's room." She nodded at the murmurs of surprise. "You are in a circle consecrated to the Greater Gods, people. Remember that - it is no more or less than being in Temple. As to the bodies..." She sighed, lifted her hands slightly. "I have no clear answer. Plainly they are gone, and the graves show signs of strong magic. Where they have gone, why and how - I do not know."
"Is that all?" Arven stood up, pushing off Allia's restraining arm. "Is that all you're going to do? Say you don't know? My brother's body has been stolen!!"
Stehl Lacey looked at him. "What do you wish, child? We will look for some clue to what has happened, we will certainly try to return your brother's body to his grave, if we do locate him. But we must look to the living, whose concerns are more immediate. You understand that, don't you?"
"He didn't deserve to die," Arven replied, faintly.
"Few do." Her eyes were compassionate, and she nodded in approval as Allia rose and slipped an arm around his waist and drew him back to his seat.
"We will start, I think, with what we found today." Vanagar listened intently as Stehl Lacey described the whistler and the five empty, windowless buildings, the glowing falls and the ravine they had followed for some distance out of the valley. The peaches, produced on cue, looked innocuous enough for something fruiting out of season. Stehl Lacey outlined future expeditions, which would not be limited to the scouting party, stressing that though she would not limit travel outside the circle, she did not want anyone wandering off alone or in pairs. A minimum of five people had to be in any group, and they weren't to go out of the lake valley, especially not into the forest behind the inn, which the mages said looked to be particularly power-haunted.
"A simple rule is: if it looks strange, stay away from it. Don't trust what you see, don't stray too far, don't play hero."
"Yessir!" Zerith muttered, two places down from Vanagar, but if Stehl Lacey heard, she didn't respond.
"Now. The next matter." The ex-mercenary looked uncertain, which sharpened Vanagar's drifting attention immediately. Stehl Lacey wasn't a person who went about looking uncertain. "Good news, in a way," she continued. "We made a successful second attempt to communicate with someone outside of the valley, augmented Ker Pendar's link to Councillor Kemior to reach her, and through her, High Lady Aliantha. So now our location is known."
"Why is that good news 'in a way'?" demanded Ekridge.
"It is, quite simply, good news, but from it we have learnt something... difficult." She waved a hand for silence. "We now have a reasonable understanding of why we have been brought here. The High Lady informed us that at the same time that we were transported to Irrelath, most likely by the Gods themselves, the seals on the tombs of the Dancers were broken."
"'Tis the dawn of the Third Age!" called out the trapper who had gone on the scouting expedition.
For a while after that, nothing could be heard over the babble. Vanagar didn't say anything, didn't even try to listen to the shouted questions, the fear and excitement breaking around her. The Third Age. The Age of Wonder. The Dancers.
The First Age had been the Age of Knowing, when people learned the world and its limits, when those limits had been less solidly set than they were now. They seemed to have understood the world better, back then, had written the books of learning, set the rules. That was when the Dancers had appeared, been conquered and bound into their tomb, when prophets had spoken truth instead of gulling nonsense, and Irrelath had been more than an abandoned legend.
The Great War had brought the Age of Knowing to a close, had left a lawless shambles behind. The signing of the Charter had established the Second Age, the one which they were in now - had been in, anyway. The Age of Reason, some people called it. Others called it the Charter Age. The prophets of the First Age called it the Age of Leavening, and there were great tracts written on just what that was supposed to mean. Those prophets had obligingly predicted that the Dancers would be released, and would bring with them the Age of Wonder, "where that which was Rule shall be rewritten". They weren't very specific on what exactly would happen in the Third Age, their prophecies tending to be rambling, but a few of the notable highlights Vanagar could remember were Gods walking the Realms, a new race being created and the dead rising in light.
All that, and the Dancers as well. There were four of them, elementals. Heat and chill, illusion and stone. Earth and air, fire and water. It had not been that they had control of these elements which had frightened Vanagar, when her nurse had read her tales of the Dancers' defeat to give her nightmares. It had been the senselessness. They were things which appeared, alone or all four together, sweeping through an area and bringing destruction in their wake. Burning and breaking, for no reason any could say, but that it was their nature. One particular story which Vanagar hated was that the Dancers had been human once, had been condemned by the Gods to a bodiless, loveless existence. They were called Dancers because the stories said that amidst the icy mists and walls of flame, solitary figures, human in form, could be seen, veiled in their power, dancing their destruction as if it brought them joy.
"All right! All right!" Stehl Lacey slammed a tankard hard on the bar repeatedly until everyone shut up.
"No, it is neither a joke, nor a mistake. Nor is it all I have to tell you." Stehl Lacey put the tankard down carefully, studied the scarring she'd added to the surface of the bar. "High Lady Aliantha has been searching the histories for details on how the Dancers were contained previously."
"The Sorcerors of Irrelath," said Leah Romullar, the words falling out of her mouth.
"Yes. The Sorcerors of Irrelath used a device to bring down the Dancers. According to the High Lady's research, that device should be in Jormath, the tower visible to the south."
They were in the middle of history. Their actions would set the course of the future. Vanagar did not slip quite into a daydream, for she could not imagine herself heroically facing down the Dancers - that would simply be too unlikely. But she would be there when history was made, would see this device which would save the Realms. She felt stunned quite beyond her normal worries, listened through a haze as Stehl Lacey spoke of the barrier around the Forsaken Land and the defences they might encounter in Jormath, of the city which had once been beyond the mountain, and the smaller settlement they might have to search for, to the north, where the sorcerers had based their studies. Bards would sing of the people who found these things.
Vanagar's pleasant distance lasted quite a long time. She drifted upstairs, not wanting to try to join the excited conversation her friends - her acquaintances - embarked upon. Instead she lay on her bed and dreamed of Kier, who she thought a very appropriate person to bring down the Dancers. Dreamed of battles between good and evil.
Thinking about Jaelith eventually broke into more pleasant reflections. She lay looking up at the ceiling. He had chosen deliberately not to sit next to her. There had been no mistaking that hesitation. She remembered thinking once that if she made her feelings clear to Jaelith, she might be surprised by his reaction, might find that he did like her, perhaps had thought that she did not like him. Another of those hopeless puppy fantasies. It was the ones which might be true that always hurt the worst, far more than daydreaming about winning the admiration of Kier the Bondsman.
Did it matter? She had always known Jaelith thought of her more as someone to be nice to than someone to be attracted to. She was disappointed that he was so embarrassed by the thought of a 'clumsy tag-along' like Vanagar wanting him that he found it necessary to avoid her. Trust Rithia to find just the right insult, to encapsulate Vanagar's own view. She tagged along, she didn't belong, wasn't wanted.
How stupid to be in Irrelath, to be on the verge of the Age of Wonder, and to be thinking of romantic inadequacies. Well, today seemed to be her day of resolutions: she would make another. Along with trying to be quietly valiant, she'd stop being a clumsy tag-along. The clumsiness would be the hard one, but if she didn't attempt the things she knew she couldn't, and paid attention to where her feet were the rest of the time, instead of those watching her, she'd at least keep her fumbles to a minimum.
One serious draw-back with not being a tag-along occurred to her. She wanted to explore, at least a little. If she didn't work to get herself included when the others went out, she'd not be included at all. She didn't for a moment believe anyone would invite her along. A pity that she didn't have any skill worth mentioning. Her mother had taught her the process of law, not how to forage in the woods.
Well, she would solve that one somehow. She refused to be an encumbrance on the others' explorations, refused to have her presence resented. Perhaps, as a start, she'd make herself useful to the inn staff tomorrow. They'd need to wash the linen and all that sort of stuff. She'd find out who knew how to gather nuts and mushrooms or whatever they'd be doing, and she'd offer herself as a student. She'd help people who didn't think of her as a tongueless idiot, she'd be Vanagar and she'd like herself, regardless of anyone else's opinion.
Making a real point out of avoiding past acquaintances would be useless. If, by some miracle, they did ask her to go exploring, naturally she'd go along.