by Paracelsus, November 2004
"Her tongue will not obey her heart, nor can
Her heart inform her tongue - the swan's down-feather,
That stands upon the swell at full of tide,
And neither way inclines."
Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra.
There was some debate, afterwards, as to how she had arrived. Jarl, whose small allotment lay at the southern end of the village, and was therefore best placed to observe travellers on the coast road from Sornhill, averred that he had not seen her approach. He had glanced away for but a moment; when he looked up, there she was in the middle of the road. Should have guessed then what was afoot, he would say with a knowing nod. Others, disinclined to stomach the old man's retrospective sagacity, pointed to Jarl's less than abstemious ways, and saw in the ease with which Lorin had evaded his attention less of occult agency than of Wenta's grace.
The newcomer was a young woman, small and slight. The first thing that Borek the headman noted, when she presented herself at his door, was that she was purebreed Suel. Ten years since, he reflected, he would not have thought in such terms. But that had been a decade ago. A decade, and too many abbreviated lifetimes.
"My apologies for troubling you." The girl's voice was clear and cultured. "I am called Lorin. Night fast approaches, and the wild places of the Storm Coast are no place for a lone woman when Pelor has set. Is there any in this village who would lodge me for a couple of nights? I can pay in coin, or barter, if that is needful."
This last assertion did not surprise the headman. Lorin's clothes, though muddied now with travel, were of a fine weave; two rings glinted on her fingers; and a silver clasp, fashioned in the likeness of an open book, secured the silken kerchief that swathed her neck. A noblewoman or a merchant's daughter, from her garb and her mien. Why was such a one travelling alone in these times?
"The tavern has a room, milady. It's no palace, but it is warm, and Vonth the barkeep is a good sort. He might look askance at your pet, mind."
Lorin did not journey altogether alone. A scruffy black raven perched upon her shoulder, accepting with regal equanimity the young woman's occasional strokes and caresses. Lorin smiled.
"I am sure that he can be persuaded otherwise." She rose, with the slightly halting motions of one who had been too long upon the road. "And if necessary, my raven, after the fashion of his kind, can make his own arrangements for dinner."
"So, whence did she come?"
Neven of Osprem, the village priest, squinted into his tankard. It needed no follower of the Lady of the Waves to determine that the tide therein had most assuredly gone out. He beckoned to the serving girl for another. Borek shrugged.
"She would not say. Nor where she was going, come to that. She had the look of one who did not know herself."
"Well, wherever Fharlanghn takes her, she'll not want for an audience. Mark at her way with the little ones."
Borek looked over towards the fire. Lorin sat comfortably ensconced in a corner, with half a dozen of the village children about her, hanging upon her every word. Her high, clear voice carried across the smoky room:
"...So, the dastardly Lord Robilar set to thinking, 'how then can I reach the moon, and plant there my flag of conquest?'" Lorin's face crumpled into a scowl of nefarious concentration. "He thought hard, and called to him a noniz artificer, for all agree that in their outlandish contraptions and harebrained schemes, the Glitter Folk know no peer. 'I want you,' he said, 'to make me a huge catapult, such as the Oerth has not seen before...'"
Borek smiled. "You have the right of it there, old man. She has been here but a day, and already she knows them better than I." He shuffled uncomfortably in his seat. "I was speaking to her but an hour since about Tren."
"Your youngest? How goes it with him?"
"Ill, I fear. He still jabbers to himself when he thinks that others do not mark him. I fear for the lad. These are no times for the weak of mind."
"The moods may leave him, as he grows to manhood."
"We can but hope so."
The two old friends lapsed into silence. At the other end of the inn, their visitor's story unfurled, in gaudy colours. Neven cleared his throat.
"We may not know where she is going, but I can guess, I think, where she is from. You see the clasp at her neck?"
"The open book?"
"Aye. It marks a follower of Delleb."
"A god of the Oerids. He taught the kings of old Aerdy how to read, or so the story goes."
"He was a patient one, then."
"I'll brook no impiety from you, Borek, headman as you are."
"I am sorry. A god of letters, you say?"
"Aye. His followers were scattered when Onnwal fell, but I've heard it said that they gather again in Longbridge. My guess would be that young Lorin is of that ilk."
"She looks barely old enough to have learnt her letters, before Kuranyie's dogs fell upon us."
A frown gathered upon Borek's brow as he pulled at his ale. Neven sighed.
"We have spoken of this before..."
"I know. And I know, too, that you are right. Better that the scarlet scum called us all 'sub-citizens' and left us alone than that we went to the slave camps of Scant, or worse. But still... Ghalt, the headman three villages along, lost three-quarters of his people to the Brothers. How do I look him in the eyes, and say we did naught?"
"Would you have lost our own to salve your pride?"
"No. As I said, you have the right of it."
Borek lapsed into silence. The frown remained. Neven drained his tankard.
"Come, our guest has finished her tale. If she is the lorekeeper I think her, she knows many another. Let us see what she can tell us of the wide world."
Lorin sat sipping at the rough wine of the Storm Coast, while around her, the children were ushered to their beds. She looked up as the men approached.
"My greetings to you. I trust that my tale did not go amiss?"
"Far from it, lady." Neven raised his tankard in salute. "It is always good to hear the tales of Robilar, knave though he is. They say that the Knight of the Black Unicorn has made cause with the Traitor, and that they build together an Empire of the Bright Lands. They say, too, that our Szek has had dealings with them. Could you tell us the story of that?"
A cloud passed over the young woman's face, as he spoke. For a time, she gazed at the table before her. Then she lifted her head, and looked at the old priest. He stepped backwards.
"There are many stories, Neven of Osprem, and their number grows every day. They are spoken behind masks of jade, and heard in obsidian citadels. They rustle over lost Rauxes, and jostle above ruined Tenh. On the sea, not two days' journey hence, the Far Reacher whispers them to his Parliament of Fowls. Like hourglass sands, they drift and gather. The old world groans beneath their weight."
"I am weary. I fear that I must bid you gentlemen goodnight."
To the townsman, the sea is mute. To the merchant and his crew, the sea has a voice, and one that they ignore at their peril. But to the coast dweller, living at the contested hinterland of earth and water, and witness to the hourly victories of one over the other, the sea has a thousand voices: rallying boom and wounded hiss, vanguard roar and routed sigh.
Tren, youngest son of Borek the headman, had spent a slender lifetime hearing these voices. Sometimes he thought that he heard them more keenly then any other. So intently was he focused upon them, as he slouched along the sand in the morning sunlight, that he did not at first mark another voice - human, female, and a trifle aggrieved - raising itself in recrimination from behind the next dune:
"Your reservations I acknowledge, Pontifex, but for all that, there are matters of style and decorum to be observed. A prologue requires a certain monumentality, wherefrom the corvid perspective must needs be excluded. Observe:
"'Jellorin Crinaster of Free Onnwal wrote the History of the Brewfest Rebellion, that the deeds of men might not be effaced by time, thinking it to be a conflict most worthy of narration...'"
Curiosity propelled Tren over the dune. Behind it sat the pretty Suel lady, her back propped against a large rock, with a large tome upon her knees and a quill and inkpot by her side. Her raven hopped around to give Tren an affronted look, and took to the air. The Suel lady frowned.
"Do you talk to yourself a lot?" asked Tren.
"Hmm? Oh, yes, Tren. It helps me to concentrate." Lorin glared up at the circling bird. "Sometimes my critiques of my work can be quite scathing."
The raven cawed.
"I talk to myself too." Tren answered. "And when I come here, I talk to the sea."
He bit his lip. Saying that at home would have earned him a scolding, at the least, but there was something about the Suel lady that invited confidences. Lorin regarded the ten-year old gravely.
"You are not alone in that, Tren. There is an olven lady of my, um, extended acquaintance who speaks constantly to the wind and wave. She says that the sea has almost as many voices as there are in her head."
Lorin flushed, as if she, too, had said too much, and darted the child a sideways look. Tren, complete with the egotism of the young, ignored this, and warmed to his theme.
"I can spend ages here, listening to the sea arguing with itself. And sometimes I think..."
Above them, Lorin's raven wheeled, and headed off towards the village.
"...I think, what if I joined in? Like when folk in the inn have drunk too much and begin shouting at each other, and people jeer them on, and so they come to blows. What if I could jeer the sea on like that?"
Lorin carefully set her book to one side, and scrambled to her feet. Before Tren rightly knew what was happening, she was standing in front of him. Cold, slender fingers lifted his chin, so that he had to meet her gaze.
Lorin had strange eyes. The people of the village were all but purebreed Suel, and not one of them had eyes as dark as hers. He could not think why he had not noticed this before. The realization obscurely bothered him, as if he were playing in the street, and had remembered too late that a pot he had been told to watch had now most likely boiled dry. He wondered why this should be so.
She held his gaze for some moments. Then she smiled a swift, sad smile and looked away.
"You must not think that, Tren." Shading the strange eyes with her hand, she peered out to sea. "The tide is turning. Do you know why the waves come in and out, Tren? Why the sea does not lie placid and at peace?"
Tren's brow furrowed.
"There is no reason why you should. Oerth is an old world, Tren, yet she is also a babe in arms, swaddled by forces she does not understand, but blindly craving their bounty. The Mistress," Lorin pointed at the pale circle of Luna, dimly visible low in the sky, "and the Handmaiden caress her, though we do not mark their touch, and the Oerth stirs in her sleep, and those are the tides." Lorin shivered. "I too have wondered if I could turn the tide to my will. In my own small way."
Tren had not followed much of this, but fastened upon the last words. "What happened? Did you try?"
"I did. But some things should be left to sleep." A spasm of pain contorted the young woman's face. "And ink is all that an historian should have on her hands."
In a rustle of dark wings, the raven landed again on Lorin's shoulder. To Tren's consternation, it glanced his way, and then began to chatter, in a harsh tone that had more of speech about it than of birdsong. Lorin's expression darkened as she listened.
"Tren, you must stay here. I fear that I am needed in the village."
It had been a couple of years now since Borek had seen hochebi. He had forgotten how big the bastards were in the flesh, and in the muscle, and in the heavy armour. You heard about them when you were a child, and glimpsed them, maybe, in that old bestiary which Neven had inherited from his father, and somehow you went on thinking that they were tiny monsters on the margin of a page, until you saw one. Or, as it might be, a dozen of them. He hoped that it was fear, not age, that made his hands tremble on the scythe; the one was more easily mastered than the other.
They had appeared on the edge of the village just before noon. Deserters, it seemed, like the hordes that people had said were on the loose in Silvervale. It was clear that they thought the fishing villages of the Storm Coast an easy mark. And with but twenty hastily-gathered old men to face them, who was to argue?
"We could just flee, of course," said Neven.
Borek spat. "And leave the women and children of the next six villages to their mercies, while the young men are at sea? I've ignored better advice than that from you, old friend."
"And never was I gladder to know that you would. But an old man who is about to die with foolish valour in his heart might as well do it with prudence on his lips."
Borek hefted his scythe. "Let the debt be paid, then. When first they came, we lived as Suel. Now, if we must, we die as men of Onnwal."
"That will not be necessary, headman Borek."
The young lorekeeper, Lorin, was at his side, though he had not marked her approach. She gazed up at him steadily.
"You would do this freely?" she asked. "Stand here for those other villagers? Lay down your life for those you scarcely know?"
Borek's throat was dry. "Aye," he said.
Lorin nodded. "Then I can no less. Do not seek to follow me."
She gathered her cloak, and walked towards the massed hochebi. Borek's start met with Neven's restraining hand.
"Easy, old friend. This one knows what she is about, I think."
The small woman halted about twenty feet in front of the hochebi captain, who had viewed her approach with mingled surprise and derision. When she spoke again, it was with the voice that had chilled Neven in the inn.
"This land is not yours. You will leave in peace, or you I will destroy."
The head hochebi (with, Borek sensed, some effort) found his voice. "Who are you to say that, little strawhair whore?"
"Who I am is none of your concern. Go now, lest it should become so."
The hochebi drew his sword. Borek could not quite make out what happened next, but it seemed to him that Lorin spoke again, and that there was movement of her hands. The hochebi dropped his sword, and fell to his knees.
"Since you need the telling, I am Jellorin, daughter of Bareem, of the House of Crinaster, of the Tribe of the Onnwi. I am Loremaster of Delleb and Saighden of the Tenhas, historian of Onnwal and regicide of Ahlissa. I am too many people, and together they cannot rest." Lorin passed a hand over her eyes. "And I am a Thorn of Tassek, in the service of his Prominence Keirnal Maldrenn, and these folk are under my protection."
The hochebi had to carry their captain as they withdrew.
No children sat with Lorin in the tavern that night.
Borek looked at her from across the room, in the midst of the hushed dissection of the day's events. Her demeanour was pale, but composed, as if she endured a solitude not altogether unexpected. As he watched, she looked up and met his eye. He flushed, and decided to drink the rest of his ale outside.
Luna was full, and for a moment he thought that the black shape that flitted towards him over the green was the shadow of a wind-swept cloud, for surely no creature could dart across the ground with such languid speed, such insidious grace. Then the black shape - seemingly that of a small human, wrapped in a dark cloak - halted before him. It spoke, its voice a low rasp:
"Where is she?"
"Who?" Borek asked warily.
"My journey has been long, and my patience wears thin. You know of whom I speak. A young Suel woman, small, with strange dark eyes. A raven follows her, unless she has abandoned him as well."
"Do not alarm this gentleman." Another voice spoke from the shadows. "Though terror is your trade, Fox, it need not be your habit."
The newcomer stepped into the moonlight. It was a dark-haired noniz, who looked up at Borek with calm in his eyes.
"Rest easy, good sir. I am Teplin, bannerman to the Duchess Saielma Relaster, and Thorn of Tassek in the service of Baron Maldrenn. My friend Fox wants the social graces, but her heart is true. We seek our comrade, Jel of Longbridge."
Borek was still inclined to caution. "I have seen such a woman, yet 'Jel' was not the name she gave."
Teplin sighed. "When her fears overwhelm her, Jel is apt to go astray. In such an event, it is not unknown for her to take up another name. It is heady wine, indeed, to flee oneself, if only for a space." There was a touch of melancholy in the noniz's smile. "I, of all people, can vouch for that."
Borek frowned. "You spin me a tangled tale of forsaken names." He looked over at the figure in black, who had pulled back her hood to reveal the face of a half-olven girl of not yet twenty winters. "How do I know that you are who you say?"
"Teplin is not always Teplin; that is his blessing and his bane." Lorin's voice came from the doorway behind the headman. "Fox is ever Fox, and that is hers. How did you find me?"
"Elysia communed with her goddess." Without the urgent rasp of her opening words, the half-olve's voice was quiet and diffident. "Atroa showed us the way."
"The Bringer of Storms indeed." Lorin, who was not Lorin, sighed. "We have much to discuss."
Teplin waited until the ale was brought and his pipe was lit before he spoke again. "What do you know of Geoff, Jel?"
The young Suel woman looked up. "Overrun by giantkind, since the Greyhawk Wars. Owen the Brenen - 'Grand Duke', in the Common Tongue - is returned there, though, and he wed but lately Calisse Skotti, daughter to the King of Keoland."
Teplin puffed on his pipe. "This argues, perhaps, strong favour from the Keoish. And their country has strong allies."
"Drawmij of the Circle, amongst them. But Calisse is the fourth daughter, and none expects a Skotti to sit upon the Lion Throne when Kimbertos her father is no more. She was little sought among the nobles of the land. Keoland has committed troops to the Grand Duchy, but this is no Grand Alliance." Jel sipped at her wine. "Why do you ask?"
The noniz pointed the stem of his pipe towards the doorway, where Fox was a barely discernible shadow. "In part, because Fox goes thither soon with our companions. In part, to make a point."
Teplin placed a gnarled hand upon Jel's. "You are our eyes and ears, Jel. Without you, Tassek is blind. We need you to tell us your knowledge. And because you are considerably easier on the eye than Aindros. I know that you are troubled by what happened in the Bright, but..."
"I can do this no more, Teplin. I have grown too afraid to tell what I know." Jel shut her eyes. "I make too many mistakes, and I cause too much pain." She glanced over at Borek, and lowered her voice. "The headman, Borek, has a son called Tren. The child is of the Blood."
"You are sure of this?"
"As sure as when first I met Lyrin. Do I then tell him? If I stay silent, they must at last suffer. If I tell him, they may but suffer the more." Jel sighed. "A historian should write what the world is. She should not tell it what she wants it to be."
"Say that to those villagers, whose heroic last stand you so crassly ripped from its proper place in the chronicles." Teplin tamped his pipe. "Your lorekeeper brethren are, no doubt, content merely to chronicle the tides of history, Jel. For myself, I never heard a story so good that I did not want to change it."
Silence fell for a few moments. Then Jel spoke.
"Geoff has some fascinating ruins, or so I am told."
"I have no doubt."
"I do not commit myself, you understand."
Teplin smiled. "Of course not."
Lorin departed the village in almost as unobtrusive a fashion as she had come. It was common knowledge that before she left, she took Borek the headman aside, and spoke to him, in a low voice, for some minutes. He would not say what she had told him, but all agreed that a weight seemed to have lifted from his shoulders.
Jarl said that she had left in the company of a noniz and a half-olven girl. He also averred that by the time they reached the first bend, the noniz had somehow disappeared, and that the two women were walking by the side of a great winged horse. But then, Jarl was ever inclined to say things like that, especially after lunch-time.