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The woman sat quietly in a dark corner of Mugwort's Tavern. Light from a hidden source illuminated her work and her ringless hands. Galen had noticed her hours before, a lonely figure writing intently in a small black book. He watched her, his grey eyes full of suspicion. It was no place for a woman, at least not one with any sense of honor or decorum. But she was not dressed like a whore. And thus she was most seriously out of place. At dusk she rose, uncoiled in one swift motion, and strode across the room to speak to the innkeeper. Galen started, then watched the proceedings with interest.
The woman was no more than a girl, twenty at the very oldest. But she was unusually tall, almost a head above many of the men she walked by. Her black cloak shimmered slightly as she walked, and the outline of a dagger could be seen at her hip. Her step combined the ungainly gait of a child with the strong step of a soldier. The clink of coins ended the exchange. The innkeeper give her two cups. Holding them carefully in one hand, she walked out the door. Her book was still on the scared wooden table, and behind where she had sat he saw a large sword leaning against the wall. Intrigued, he turned to watch her silhouette against the last grays of the horizon. She stood proudly, hood thrown back, looking up at the full moon. A steady stream of red flowed from one cup as the girl poured a silent libation. Her lips moved in private prayer. She put the empty cup down on the damp earth. It wobbled slightly, then fell. A ruby drop rolled out and sunk into the ground. It brought to his mind buried memories of blood stained earth. Oblivious, now holding the other cup, the girl turned to the north, raised the cup in a silent cheer and took a sip. She repeated the action facing in each cardinal direction. Rituals complete, she picked up the wine cup and reentered the inn. She pulled her hood about her in a sudden gesture of insecurity.
Galen ordered two ales from the barwench and went to the girl's table. Placing one on the rough surface as a peace offering, he spoke. "I have no right, but I must ask. What was that all about?" She studied him with a practiced eye, predator to predator. To his surprise, she smiled, and gestured for him to sit. He looked under her hood and saw a nondescript face framed with medium brown hair. She had regular features and surprisingly blue eyes. Despite those, a face easily lost in a crowd.
"I was once a priestess of the Lady of the Moon, and while I no longer am part of her clergy, I still revere her. So I honored her at the full moon with a cup of wine." She looked at him calmly, almost daring him to find something unusual about her actions. A single pearl wrapped in silver wire dangled from a ratty black ribbon about her neck. Her clothes were likewise travel worn. They might have once been black but bleached brown by the sun, or they might have been brown, stained by countless days on the road. He dared not guess which was closer to the truth. She looked too young to have worn them out herself.
"And the other cup?" he ventured.
"Oh, well, I don't know how to explain it. It's just that…well…I suppose it is just that I miss my friends. It has been so long since I've shared a drink with any of them. So that is my way of doing so. First to the north where my favorite drunken story teller hearkened from, then to each direction. So that way, if they are out there somewhere, I have shared a drink with them. In memory of the old tales, and those I shared them with." She sadly echoed an old friend's drinking cheer.
"Mmmhmm…" His voice echoed with doubt. "Aren't you a little too young for adventures?" He tried to not sound too condescending. Even if she turned out to be no more than the blacksmith's daughter, she knew clearly her weapons. The girl snorted, rudely, loudly.
"I think you mean too female." There was something in her eyes he did not like. A streak of temper.
"I mean," he continued haltingly, "I don't think of clergy as having terribly exciting lives."
"Really? Who else has the mettle to kill demons, or to bring back the dead? Or lead forays into the unsettled parts of the world? Who else can offer protection against dangers greater than the mortal?" Her voice rose with each question, punctuated with sharp breaths. An angry blue glow began to appear from nowhere, reflecting oddly off her necklace, casting sickly shadows on the wooden table and lighting her face from below.
"Do tell." His tone was deeply sarcastic, and maybe a little interested. "I mean it, persuade me. Tell me about these friends you miss." Her eyes flickered eerily, her nostrils flared. She cracked her neck thoughtfully, and shrugged. The blue light faded away.
"Fine. You buy the food and drinks."
Her voice slipped into a slightly aristocratic speech pattern. "I shall start with the resent times, they are easier for me to explain. My memory of many past events is… shall we say, hazy. Actually, many of them are. Too many fights, they blend into one wasteland of dreams."
"I have been studying these past years with the priests of Apollo. My path is to search for truth and light, no matter where they are hidden. I had been a priestess of Artemis for two years, but found my personality was inherently not suited to worship her fully. I found myself too fond of order and law. And art. So after long deliberations I converted to her lighter twin, while still revering her. Thus my family name was apt. Luxetumbra. Light and shadow." She paused. "Oh, and what is your name?"
"Galen Basilides." He raised his cup in a greeting salute. "Just call me Galen."
"Very well. You might as well call me Rini. That is the only name most know me by." Her smile was curiously knowing. She took a sip of her drink. "A proper Dwarven ale!" She sounded much younger now. "How I've missed it!" She laughed at his instantly raised eyebrow. "Such a face! What, did you think me not used to drink?" Galen shook his head, confused. "Well, where should I begin, rather, continue?"
"I believe the beginning is a traditional place to start." He was rewarded with a nasty look.
"Fine." She rolled her eyes. "It started, as do many troubles, with a marriage arrangement. I was nearing my sixteenth year, and having been seen as an adult for two, my father was ready to marry me off. He saw fit to sell me to the highest bidder as if I were chattel. My mother had died two years hence and my father wished to find a wealthy young widow to marry- he had bid on one just as men bid on me. In keeping with the truth, it was our lands that proved the attraction, rather than me. I am judged too round in figure and too tall in stature to have many…charms….shall we say?. Back to the purpose, it was not me that was coveted, but my dowry. My unorthodox education and wide readings filled me with a desire to see the world. And that did not include a world that would begin and end in a manor house locked up by a noble husband."
"So I decided to run, taking along my father's ward, who was but six days older than I. Her parents had died long ago and she was as unhappy as I at the prospects life offered us. We attended the nightly service as always and retired to our bedchambers. While carpets do little to block out the chill in a stone building, they are extraordinarily useful in muffling sounds. We gathered our few belongings, me the little I had of my mother's jewelry and a book of my mother's as well as some manuscripts of my own. My mother's book was a small bestiary- I had been drawn to its fantastical illustrations as a young child and used it to practice my letters and drawing skills. I practically memorized the information within it. But I digress . . ."
"We took my father's two war-horses. From there Em and I fled, the beasts must have felt our urgency and they flew through the night. I am proud to say that no matter how dire my position has been; those are the only things I've ever stolen. Except, of course, for myself…"
She stopped, took a drink of ale, and wrinkled her nose at the tavern food that had appeared before her. It looked…deader…than it should have. She shot another appraising look at her companion. After all, he had asked for the beginning… His face was swept clean of emotion, black hair and grey eyes only completed the illusion of a granite cliff. She mentally shrugged and continued, more to herself.
"The next night Em and I rode into a small collection of villages. I believe it was on part of the land my father controlled, but I was never allowed to see such things before, so I do not know for certain. One place did not seem to be any person's home- it was open and we had seen others enter. Frightened, but in need of lodgings, we entered.
"It was dark and grimy inside, worse than the haze of our former home; it looked as if some half-blind illuminator had tried to paint the underworld. It also smelled horrible, not the natural odor of life, but as if something, well, you can make your own inferences. My companion and I ascertained it was not a place to stay, but we spent a small amount of our pitiable resources on drinks, hoping to make the owner more voluble. It did not work. Men walked in and told tales of monsters and fights and their wives, and women not their wives. One spoke of a high lord, and how he was trying to get humans to inhabit the southern lands. A drunken chorus decreed that none in their right mind should wish to inhabit goblin-infested swamps."
Galen snorted. Rini looked at him, her eyebrows rose as if of their own accord, challenging him. "Well, what fool would live in such a place?"
Her voice grew cold again. "Those with nothing to lose, or those trying to get lost." Galen looked at the girl, one minute she was ordinary as any farmer's daughter, the next she had the temper of a war god and the nerves of a high strung horse. "Short version of that night, my friend caught a cut-purse in the act. She walked out, holding his wrist like a mother her troublesome whelp. I gathered our things and rushed after her. I found both horses, but she was gone. I slept in the woods that night, but when she did not return I searched quickly and pressed on, stone sober and alone."
"You slept in the woods. Alone?" His voice reached a painful pitch than cracked. In a hoarse whisper, "You couldn't have defended yourself at all. You're alive by sheer luck."
She curled her lip into an adequate snarl. "I mentioned my unusual education. It included a small amount of fighting. I sold the other warhorse, getting a decent weapon and much needed cash in return. I can take care of myself. Always could…"
"Yes, it was reckless to choose my destination on the slurred words of some intoxicated yeoman, but such a place that only fools would go, there would be no one to ask questions. If any place could possess such a virtue." She cast another disparaging glance at Galen, and around the bar in general. She sat back in her seat, quaffing the last of her ale, a shrewd look on her face. "You do not believe me, and so are bored. I supposed I should not blame you. The moon has set, I will leave you here." She stood up, put her small book-fastened with a clasp of gold set with small blue gems around a large white crystal-in a pouch that manifested itself, and turned to take up her sword.
Galen realized it was against the wall because it was too large for a traditional scabbard, being a full five feet long at least. Not even a blacksmith's daughter would use such a weapon. He followed her to the door. She was already outside."Wait…"
"What?" She turned on her heel, her tone clipped.
"Where will you stay?"
"Such concern? I am staying at the Temple of the Sun."
"But no one…"
"I am, as I said, a member of their order. I am permitted to come and go as I please. And stay where I will." The irony of leaving the service of the searching Moon because she had not wanted to wander her whole life was not lost to her.
"So high, so young?" He gestured to her recently vacated seat. "Finish your story."
"It is too long. The end of it is simply told. Our guard and a few townsfolk went off to assist a community being attacked by a number of unnatural creatures and being threatened by one of two priests. One of the Sun, and one of Chaos. I had lost my position of power in our town, but was still respected, especially by those of the town we were in. I convinced them not to kill either once we caught them, nor believe either, but to bring them to a mage who would be able to force both to tell the truth, and thus learn who was causing the plague of ills in the area."
"Once the Golden priest was shown to be truthful, he approached me to offer training because he had felt my mediation was unusually just. I was already questioning my vocation as a devotee of our Silver Lady, so left to train in a temple far from the town that I had learned to call home. It was already in a sad state of decay, though I miss the friends lost…. To make an end of it I rapidly learned the arts of the Sun. I flourished under truth and light and rose through the ranks, determined to be beholden to no mortal. But wanderlust came over me eventually."
"You have an interesting idea of 'simply told.'"
"Well, in my life, that counts as simple."
"I am sorry for offending you. Return tomorrow and share the journey inbetween your leaving of your birthplace and your leaving of your goblin infested home."
She nodded curtly. "If you wish." She whispered a few words and her necklace began to glow again, illuminating the path leading into the woods. She nodded again, a goodnight, and walked away. It was clear she did not fear the night.
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