Sonata in Gray

The drums of a heavy rain hitting the ground woke him up earlier than usual. Earlier than needed. Evroulf accepted this new state of consciousness with a long yawn and a stretch. He still missed having a proper window, to be able to sing in tune with the earlier birds, but security procedures had dictated for ages that Maralian commanders slept on the lower levels of the fort, with only as much as a horizontal slit, along the roof here and there, to provide light and fresh air.

The melancholic ranger—don’t all rangers have a hint of melancholy?—reached for a simple grey robe and his heavy boots. Making sure he didn’t wake up anyone else with the resonance of the old shrieking doors made of heavy bracken wood, he climbed the ladder to the upper rooms and headed to the stable.

“Kang,” he whispered, trying his luck. But the loyal hound didn’t need to be called to feel the presence of his friend and, seconds later, there he was, wagging his tail against the ranger’s legs.

The pair headed to the shore. McTyr wanted to wash his face with salt water and watch the last nocturnal animals rush to their holes and nests. Then, a fast paced stroll with Kang around the walls, and he would be ready to come back, don his commander attire, and light the candles at the large table on the ground level. Mornings in Marali were starting to get dark at this time of the year.

* * * * * * * * * *

The old wooden shutters of the rickety wooden window creaked back and forth. Rain pelted the humble little building without mercy, while a fierce, northern wind whistled through the poorly hung door. The dynamic yet oddly soothing rhythm would be punctuated, now and again, by the gentle rumbling and rolling of a distant thunder. All together, it had provided the most serendipitous backdrop for the morning prayers. But now, the day would soon begin, and with it, a new set of challenges. Goddess knows they were long overdue.

Altaira opened her eyes. Already, the faintest suggestions of dawn were beginning to creep on through the window. She allowed herself a smile—not every facet of this trip needed to be a challenging one. Eventually, the rain would have to subside, and when it did, she wanted to have her angling gear at the ready. The fish were sure to be whipped up into a frenzy on account of all the storming, and the bounty promised to be rich.

The cleric got up, wrapped herself tight in her woolens, and headed for the door. The detail of guardsmen posted outside saluted her, but made no attempt to follow—a huge relief, given yesterday’s struggles. Who would have thought that the most difficult part of her day would be struggling to convince the nervous Captain that she was perfectly fine sleeping at the Inn of Days? Where else was safe if not within the walls of Marali itself? And so close to the fort, too! It wasn’t as if there were a shortage of guardsmen, she noted as she made her way through the north gate, disregarding the raindrops falling all around.

Altaira didn't make it two steps past the gate before one of those same guardsmen started to call out after her. But their words did not register. For up ahead in the distance, she could just make out a man and a hound walking in lockstep. And they were walking straight toward her.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Mother Mei,” saluted a surprised McTyr in his singing voice, “I hope the rain did not wake you up. It was very loud.” Despite a brief exchange of correspondence not that long before, it was the first time the two met in Marali since 426. Not much about the fort had changed. A lot was different inside the ranks of the Vanguard and the hearts of the Northerners. “Were you heading out?”

"E—Evroulf." Altaira finally stammered in her rough, gravelly tones, as she returned his salute in kind. "What a pleasant surprise. I was simply going out for my morning constitutional. I suppose you were doing the same?"

“Kang needed a walk, his fur gets…” The ranger paused for a second, not daring to look the older cleric in the eye. Petting the hound, who, in turn, looked at the stranger with friendly curiosity, McTyr dared to continue. “Kang is my four-legged friend. An homage to… Ugh. I hope I did not just bring back heavier clouds than the ones already upon us.” What a bad start!

Altaira smiled a soft, weary smile that betrayed a deeper anguish. "Evroulf, worry not. You are right to honor him. Commander Kang did his duty to Marali and to Ybarra, and he did it well, all the way to the end." She knelt down and extended a hand toward the curious hound.

The hound seemed to like his new acquaintance. McTyr wiped a drop of rain off his brow. What if she thinks it’s sweat? I am not even properly dressed to talk to a lady of her stature. He was thankful for Kang, distracting the attention off him. “Any news on our other guest? We should be meeting her shortly, I think?”

“He, Evroulf, is coming along about as good as can be expected. The poultice was applied successfully, and already the swelling has reduced dramatically." She let out a heavy sigh. "But these wounds run deep.” She rose to her feet. Out of instinct, perhaps, she scanned the horizon. “Twenty-five years, now, since I last treated wounds of this nature. But I could not forget them."

“The Hauksen girl…” McTyr did not want to insist. He knew the result of that experience and the consequences it had for Mei within the hierarchy. “And Peytra Gray is a man? But the song…”

"Yes, yes, but Willow Hauksen?" Altaira sounded mildly surprised. "Not just Willow, Evroulf. Long before her, as you may recall, many of our people were falling to the daggers of the Creed. The mark they leave, the precision and impact of the strike... it is unmistakable." She turned back toward the city, and began to walk with slow determination, not bothering to check if the pair was following after her. "As for Peytra, I'll admit I never could make much sense out of the song, but he is most assuredly a man."

“I feared as much.” Evroulf gave a larger step to catch up with the cleric. “Regarding the Creed, I mean. Of course, I would have recognised that Mr. Gray is a man, had I heard his voice! But, if you allow me a question: Willow’s wounds were made by a rogue as well. One of ours. Do you think…” No. He would not dare to ask. Not yet. It was too soon to question Marali’s dodgier schools of fighting, in the margins of the official training. Could the strongest enemies of Marali have been trained by the city itself? No. He had to push away all these questions for the moment. Even without his official robe, he was the Commander now. It was up to him to survey the instruction of his troops. “Forget it. What about Mr. Gray, where is he? Is he aware of what happened to him?”

"We'll get there. First, I will say just this: Zara may have been filled with hatred, but there is one thing she was not: a traitor." Altaira pressed on with a slightly quicker gait. That very word, "traitor", sent her thoughts into a spiral, back to the constant arguments with Commander Kang, the heated debates, and most dreadful of all, the Commander’s fiery accusations of disloyalty. Even after all these years, they still stung. "But I will follow your command—let us forget it, for now. Peytra Gray should be down below; Terwynn was looking after him this morning. What he knows, I am not yet certain. He regained lucidity yesterday morning, but the trauma was clearly still too much to allow for coherency. We shall have to see for ourselves.”

* * * * * * * * * *

The oppressive heaviness of the twilight. Dark clouds which would soon promise rain, enshrouding the moon that was not quite full. The mournful caws of his companions, circling gracefully about him, feathers falling from their silken plumage. The short, almost imperceptible snapping of a twig. The hiss of steel speeding through air, the sickening stab of dagger piercing flesh like butter.

Peytra Gray jolted up from his slumber, gasping for air, gritting his teeth through the burst of pain which seized up and down his spine, emanating from the wound that extended deep into his side. The sounds and the sights from that fateful night flitted about his eyes, over and over again. He knew now what came next. The frenzied cacophony of birds wheeling and diving at his would-be assassin. The frantic rustling of leaves as he scrambled out of sight, while his devoted, feathery friends covered his retreat to the nearest cave. And then, someone else, a man in robes of black, standing in the cave—the birds said he would come—before all faded to black.

And now he was here. The storm had already arrived, it would seem. A number of guards, unmistakable in their purples and grays, and two brown-haired woman, one with streaks of silver, had come in and out of the room many times. How long had it been—one day? Two? The blessings of sleep had come often and inconsistently. All conception of time had been shattered. Were his companions safe? And what of his pumpkins? He cursed aloud. Had he not buried his head in the sand and waited so long to come to Marali, he could have avoided all of this. Anxieties grew by the hour. But nevertheless, fate had brought him here, so here was where he needed to be.

Slowly, and painfully, he lifted his head up. The room was empty. Where had his new caretakers gone off to now?

* * * * * * * * * *

“Good for nothing!” Terwynn sighed, as she poured the burning water over the leaves and roots on the pot. But ginseng tea was her speciality and, and least that, she could do well.

She paused for a second, to hear the eventual changes in the sound coming from the room nearby. The almost inaudible breathing suggested that their patient had awoken.

She hurried the preparations. Ginseng tea, a loaf of bread with some hard Maralian cheese, a boiled apple, not too hard on the stomach. Roxy, the hell hound puppy McTyr was breeding to give to the care of the new Major, was looking up and whimpering, hoping for a scrap of the cleric’s generosity.

Terwynn Rees filled the dog’s small bowl with milk and watched the tiny ball of fur run clumsily to drink it. Then, the cleric cleaned her hands with the rag hanging on the wall, savouring a last moment of peace. Breakfast was ready. The meeting promised to be long, and Peytra Gray had to eat to have a chance to stand it. Terwynn would be there too, even though she felt good for nothing. She was hoping to have a word with Mother Mei at the end. She could maybe ask her about short term studying sessions in Brigobaen. She needed to leave Marali, for once. At least until she could understand what she felt around Rydelia.

* * * * * * * * * *

Peytra Gray was half out of bed when the door opened to receive the younger of the two healers. "Greetings, mother," he managed to say, his deep baritone voice colored by a morose timbre.

“You are awake. Very… “ said Terwynn, just before the pup burst into the room and leaped onto the bed. “Roxy! Down!” The cleric placed the tray on the table closest to the door and rushed to shoo the lively pup out of the patient’s bed. “I’m sorry. She’s very little. The Commander is obsessed with his dogs.”

Peytra smiled. "There is no need for apologies. A man needs a companion, and a hound is as sturdy and steadfast as a companion that can be found." The smile quickly faded as the pup scurried out of the room. "Oh, would that I be able to return to my birds so easily! But tell me, Mother—what was your name?"

“Terwynn, with two Ns,” she replied, feeling dull. “They call me Mother Rees. I have been a healer in Marali since the 420s.” That is what she said. What she would have liked to say was “Terwynn Rees, traveller and scholar. Lived a full life of adventures and, guess what? It was just the beginning.” She poured the tea.

"Charmed, Mother Rees."

“Do you feel strong enough to meet our Commander?”

“Aye.” Peytra brushed aside the tangled mess of bedsheets, and reached for the cup of tea, wincing as he did. "I would meet the Commander now, if it pleases him."

Rees nodded. It was about the appointed time, anyway, so the other participants should not take long to arrive. As she folded the extra cover that Peytra would not need during the day, she heard steps in the corridor. The door was open; the Commander would just have to walk in. Kang, on the other hand, was not one for ceremonies. He darted in, lured by the smell of his furry cousin. After a quick sniffle around the room, he greeted Rees with a short lick, saluted Gray, and rushed to play with his friend near the fire.

Evroulf McTyr’s voice echoed in the hallway. “Please, go ahead, Mother Mei. I must change quickly. It would be disrespectful to welcome our guest in my morning robes.”

Moments later, the soaking wet figure of Altaira Mei appeared on the threshold. "Terwynn," she said with a nod. "And—oh." She turned to behold the image of Peytra Gray sitting upright, cupping a steaming mug in his hands. "Someone's looking rather chipper."

"Greetings... Mother Mei, I take it?"

"The same." Altaira gave the invalid a brief smile, before turning to Terwynn. "His dressings have been changed, I trust? No signs of infection?"

Terwynn bit her tongue. “None,” she said, after a long breath. Things were not good, if she couldn’t even attend to the sick without resenting them. She really had to talk to Mei about Brigobaen. “Do you still need jade for today’s treatment?”

"Oh, we should have enough for the moment, thank you. Rydelia acquired quite a few more artifacts yesterday evening. Enough so that we should still be able to spare the amulets for Evroulf."

Peytra, who had been eyeing the exchange with curiosity, then cut in. “Pardon my intrusion, Mother—but may I inquire about the amulets of which you are speaking?”

“Jade amulets, my dear.” Altaira moved to straighten out the coverlet. “The precious stone has a number of uses. There are the healing properties, for one. But some say it can also protect those who wear it from undetected attack, physical or otherwise. Such as that from an assassin.”

“I see.” Peytra took another sip. “I shall have to give it a try next time.”

Then, at last, McTyr appeared in the room. “My apologies, Mother Rees, Mother Mei...” the ranger looked down, “Kang, Roxy.” Then he raised his eyes again, smiling big, as if starstruck. “Mr. Peytra Gray! We meet, at last! I have known your name for a long time.”

"Ah, the Commander!" Peytra made an effort to stand, but collapsed swiftly.

Only a step or two away, Mei rushed to his side to catch him. "Not so fast, you," she said, inspecting his bandages.

Peytra sighed heavily. "Forgive me, Commander, for my inability to stand in your presence. My quest to reach you here in the homeland has been a most harrowing one, indeed."

* * * * * * * * * *

[To be continued…]


  • edited June 2020
    * * * * * * * * * *

    (Evroulf McTyr): * eyes widen * So… you really are the heir of Ybarra?
    (Peytra): And you really are the flesh and blood of Eamon! I never thought I'd get to meet his great grandchild.
    (Evroulf McTyr): I am, indeed. I never met him, of course...
    (Evroulf McTyr): ...but our old baker told me many stories, when I was just a noisy child.
    (Evroulf McTyr): But where have you been, all this time? So silent! Why did you never return to Marali?

    (Peytra Gray): Oh, good old Eechie Ochie! I... * breathes a heavy sigh *
    (Peytra Gray): Well, once the Nightingales fell apart... so did I.
    (Peytra Gray): I dare not count the years I spent aloof. For this I bear immeasurable shame. * lowers head *
    (Peytra Gray): * looks back up * But the past is in the past. And with it, passivity.
    (Peytra Gray): The birds now whisper in hushed tones at the gravity of our plight, and of the path that lies before us.
    (Peytra Gray): The time has come. Time for Marali to reclaim that which is rightfully hers.

    (Terwyn Rees): * with a hint of disdain * If only Marali was better at keeping what is hers within her walls.
    (Evroulf McTyr): Mother Rees! A bit of optimism!
    (Terwyn Rees): I am sorry, Commander. Optimism is the luxury of the South.

    (Altaira Mei): * holds up a hand * If I am hearing what I think I am hearing, optimism may not even be necessary.
    (Altaira Mei): * turns to Peytra * Just to clarify, my dear: you mean to say that you know a way to reclaim our stolen Curio?
    (Peytra Gray): The way will become clear, in short order. There is... certain information I am privy to.
    (Peytra Gray): Information that will solve our problem, and restore balance.

    (Evroulf McTyr): I presume those… those people that attacked you, if people they are still…
    (Evroulf McTyr):…suspected who you were when they acted.
    (Evroulf McTyr): I have no doubt it was the Creed who trapped you.
    (Evroulf McTyr): They had access to the Maralian records for a long time.
    (Evroulf McTyr): They heard the same legends, they knew you existed.
    (Evroulf McTyr): And they will likely need the Curio for their endeavours at the Shrine of Dethras.

    (Terwynn Rees): As hateful as they are, it wasn’t the Creed who stole our piece of the Curio. Speaking of things we can’t keep within our walls…
    (Evroulf McTyr): No, but, from what I overheard them saying when we found the Creed’s Lair: they will likely need the Curio for the Shrine.
    (Evroulf McTyr): The Creed is attempting some world-shattering cacophony, with the help of that Jalux.
    (Terwynn Rees): I could go to Brigobaen to research on the Shrine. We know very little about it.

    (Altaira Mei): * clears throat * All too true. Such a research expedition is sorely needed.
    (Altaira Mei): But these details, while pressing, do not concern us at the moment. Let us hear what Mr. Gray has to say.

    (Evroulf McTyr): Of course, Mother Mei. Please, Mr. Gray. I am sorry for the interruption.

    (Peytra Gray): No matter. * smiles * What are seconds, in the face of years?
    (Peytra Gray): Now, as you say, some of our secrets are not so secret anymore. Such is the nature of things.
    (Peytra Gray): Our enemies may know that an heir of Elara – or an heir of one of Her Disciples – is required if one wishes to use the Curio.
    (Peytra Gray): But not all is lost! We still know something about the Curio that our enemies do not.
    (Peytra Gray): We know what happens when two separate fragments of the Curio are brought in close proximity.

    (Altaira Mei): Yes, the latest intelligence from the field reports already suggested this.
    (Altaira Mei): If the fragments are brought together, ours – the damaged one – will be restored to its full power.
    (Altaira Mei): Restored to full power, while the Division of Diabolical Devices is holding it.
    (Altaira Mei): Which causes even more problems. So just what is your plan?

    (Peytra Gray): * grins * Your intelligence is impressive, but hopelessly flawed.
    (Peytra Gray): There is something else that happens, too.
    (Peytra Gray): Should some fool ever try to take a piece of the Curio, and bring it that close to another piece?
    (Peytra Gray): Why, he'd be blasted off the face of the earth!
    (Peytra Gray): That much power - it is impossible to comprehend. None could ever hope to manage it!

    (Terwynn Rees): Even so… are you sure you can hold the Curio yourself? Your condition is still rather fragile.
    (Peytra Gray): We may bide our time, for now. Harvest Moon is yet full, is it not?
    (Altaira Mei): So it is.
    (Peytra Gray): And your intelligence is secure, is it not?
    (Altaira Mei): Undoubtedly. It's not by accident that Rydelia was made Major.
    (Terwynn Rees): * mutters * It's not like there was much competition, either...
    (Peytra Gray): Then we can infer that these Diabolicals do not know a thing about bringing Curio fragments together.
    (Peytra Gray): And if they know nothing about this, then they have no reason to attempt it anytime soon.
    (Peytra Gray): So, we bide our time, and then - only when we are ready! - we give them that reason.
    (Peytra Gray): We give them the knowledge we have. But only the half of it.

    (Evroulf McTyr): Sounds like we have a tune for the Dancing Moon.
    (Evroulf McTyr): Until then, my friend, you must restore your strength.
    (Evroulf McTyr): I shall travel to Mirith and Andris to present them the issue.
    (Evroulf McTyr): If we want to lead the Diabolicals to attempt anything like that,
    (Evroulf McTyr): they will necessarily do it in one of the two cities.
    (Evroulf McTyr): Perhaps we should focus on Mirith.
    (Evroulf McTyr): The King is always away with the Mhara, they may appear weaker at first sight.

    (Peytra Gray): * smiles * I will look forward to seeing the Royal City again, after all these years.
    (Peytra Gray): All then that remains is to determine how we wish to set the bait, when the time arrives.
    (Peytra Gray): We must be cunning! We must be swift!
    (Altaira Mei): I think I may know a way…

    (Altaira Mei): The Division of Diabolical Devices can find out in the same way we did.
    (Altaira Mei): Through the Infernal Tome.
    (Peytra Gray): The what now?
    (Altaira Mei): It is the tome that is the source of all our prior intelligence on this matter.
    (Altaira Mei): It was written by the cleric Clara, kept in Brigobaen until this frenzied search for ancient books started.
    (Altaira Mei): Were the Diabolicals to stumble upon that tome... they would find that half of the information we want them to find.
    (Altaira Mei): The bait would be set.
    (Altaira Mei): The only problem is that the tome now lies with that crazed wizard Zaedrem, in that accursed library in that accursed cave…

    (Evroulf McTyr): It might be the moment for Rydelia to play her solo.
    (Altaira Mei): Have her visit the cave on her own? Last time, it took an army.
    (Terwyyn Rees): Last time we were dealing with an Andon. Now we are dealing with a wizard.
    (Terwyyn Rees): They tend to be more open to... diplomacy.
    (Altaira Mei): Diplomacy? With a wizard? Who also happens to be a necromancer? Quite a bold play...
    (Altaira Mei): But I suppose it is the most advisable course of action here.
    (Altaira Mei): So what then, we give the people in that library clemency, and they give us the tome?

    (Evroulf McTyr): We don’t need the tome. Not just yet, at least.
    (Evroulf McTyr): Though it would be safer to keep it in our hands.
    (Evroulf McTyr): That wizard is ex-DDD. What we really need are his old contacts.
    (Evroulf McTyr): We need someone to tell Fiadoryx that it may be a sound idea to take our piece of the Curio to Mirith.
    (Terwynn Rees): And you think Rydelia is charming enough for that?
    (Evroulf McTyr): * with a sigh * Mother Rees, you seem to be keen to go to Brigobaen.
    (Evroulf McTyr): I’ll make the necessary arrangements with Father Evaristos,
    (Evroulf McTyr): and you keep us informed of your findings.
    (Evroulf McTyr): Mother Mei, if you could stay with us a bit longer…
    (Evroulf McTyr): You could take your old post, at least while Terwynn is away.
    (Evroulf McTyr): Rydelia will meet Zaedrem. She shall ask him for a contact in the DDD.
    (Evroulf McTyr): He is likely open to betraying his old boss.
    (Evroulf McTyr): Meanwhile, we shall prepare an abridged version of the Infernal Tome…

    (Altaira Mei): All very good and well.
    (Peytra Gray): Ack! * winces painfully *
    (Altaira Mei): * rushes to stabilize the patient * And yes...
    (Altaira Mei): It was decades that I was away. But I am ready to serve Marali from within, once again.

    (Evroulf McTyr): * in a lower voice * Mr. Gray, we should let you rest.
    (Evroulf McTyr): I will travel to Mirith this evening and spend a few nights there, to speak with whomever is around.
    (Evroulf McTyr): If we could coordinate this trap for the DDD towards the end of the Dancing Moon, that would be ideal.
    (Evroulf McTyr): Let me know if you want us to bring your harpies. Their songs may sooth your pain.
    (Evroulf McTyr): Until then, this meeting is dismissed. Thank you all for your loyalty.
    (Evroulf McTyr): * clumsily salutes *
    (Evroulf McTyr): * in sotto voce * Marali Prevails...
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