Desert Detour II

Copyright Suzanne Searle & Jay Howell, 1999

 

 

WIFE?! Ceyenna lay stunned in Tyre's arms. She was not sure she had heard correctly, but feared that she had. She cleared her throat. "Did you just call me your wife?" she asked Tyre tentatively. Her head hurt from too much of a strange brew from the night before.

"Yes," Tyre responded quietly and seriously. He took a hold of Ceyenna's wrist. "This marks you as belonging to me," he stated in a perfectly reasonable tone. .Then he gently kissed her sore wrist; there were a few places that still bled.

"Here, let me help you," Tyre said. He got up and slid into his pants. Then he retrieved a small, intricately carved wooden box from his pack. He applied a gel-like substance from the box to Ceyenna's wrist and then lightly bound it. To aid in healing, he explained.

Ceyenna's brain refused to comprehend the fact that she was now married to someone she barely knew. As Tyre proceeded to dress, Ceyenna groaned and turned onto her stomach, hoping to sleep off the whole unlikely mess. Tyre came around the bed and smoothed the hair off of her face so he could kiss her cheek. "I'll bring you something to drink," he said and went out. Ceyenna closed her eyes to the situation and tried to sleep.

***

Tyre El-Khazen descended the stairs of the Scorpion Inn. He saw the Shadow Seeker's "shaman", Ithildin, seated alone at a table. Even at this early hour, the elf was up and having tea. No one else was about except for the kitchen girl, who was refilling Ithildin's teapot with hot water from the hearth.

Tyre took a deep breath. He was not sure how Ceyenna was related to her companions. Only what she had told him...that no man owned her. He found this difficult to believe, coming from the culture he did. He thought he had better speak with Ithildin in case there proved to be some difficulty in keeping Ceyenna as his wife.

"Good morning," Ithildin greeted Tyre as he sat down. The girl got a clean cup and poured Tyre some tea. Tyre pushed it aside and looked into Ithildin's eyes.

"Ceyenna is now my wife," he stated abruptly.

The Elf raised his eyebrows in disbelief. A heavy silence settled over the table. "And she agreed to this?" Ithildin asked.

Here Tyre forced himself to hold Ithildin's direct gaze. "She agreed last night during the celebration," he responded.

Ithildin sighed. Ceyenna had a way of getting herself into messes, but this was the biggest so far. He guessed that quite possibly her career as a Shadow Seeker was over because he could not see how she planned to get around this.

Tyre seemed to expect him to say something. But it was not his place to make judgments, and so he remained silent. Tyre took Ithildin's extended silence as acceptance. Then he drank his tea and poured some fresh into the cup for Ceyenna. He went back upstairs with it.

***

It wasn't until dinner was over that evening that Ithildin saw Ceyenna descend the stairs of the Inn. He was lingering over his Elven wine and studying a spell book when Ceyenna plopped down across from him without so much as a word. She reached for the wine carafe without asking him and poured herself some of it. Ithildin noticed her bandaged left wrist.

Ceyenna drained the wine and then pulled the wrapping off of her tattoo and studied it pensively. Ithildin noticed it looked similar to the markings on Tyre's cheek. Just then Tyre came in from out of doors, spotted Ceyenna and headed over. Ithildin took this as his cue to leave. This was none of his business, nor did he wish to hear of it.

"Tyre," Ceyenna began as soon she saw him, "I'm not going back to the cliff dwellings with you."

His welcoming smile turned to a frown. "You are my wife, my property," he stated. He reached for her wrist and displayed it. "None in this city of Ardania would dispute my claim to tie you hand and foot and take you with me."

Ceyenna looked into his eyes and she could see he was testing her. She could also see his love for her. She reached out her free hand and gently tucked an errant strand of his black, shoulder length hair behind his ear. Then, pulling her sore wrist from his grasp, she sat back.

"You love me because I am different," Ceyenna said. "Because I have traveled and seen places. And because I am not at all like your women. This is what attracts you to me. Don't deny me my freedom now!" Ceyenna finished, playing on Tyre's love for her and his naiveté.

Tyre digested this information a moment, admitting to himself that what she said was true. "I will allow it, but there will be conditions," he said solemnly.

***

Ceyenna found that being married to Tyre was confining. He seldom let her out of his sight. He would not allow her to go out into the city without him, even though she explained over and over again that she had been on the streets by herself practically her whole life. "You are my wife now; things are different," was all he would say.

Of course, he was always in her bed at night and the two times she had tried to sneak out he had miraculously come awake to stop her. He would gently chide her for trying to leave without his permission. Finally she had asked his permission. His answer had been "No." So, while the other Shadow Seekers were out exploring the city and having a grand time, Ceyenna was stuck going only where Tyre would go...which was next to nowhere and supremely boring.

***

Ceyenna was sitting at an Inn table about the tenth day since their arrival. Tyre was up at the bar ordering lunch. Melian and Ariena were out exploring some interesting part of Ardania without her. Melian had told her all about The Eye, a shop where she and Ariena were having their futures predicted. Ceyenna was thinking that was exactly what she needed.

Sitting next to Ithildin, she was staring angrily into her drink. Dion sat across from them telling Ithildin about the stunning weapons shop he'd come across. He'd bartered some of the gold he'd taken from the ruins for a very nice set of daggers. Ceyenna seethed silently. Just then Arondil walked up. He'd been noticing Ceyenna's restlessness and he couldn't resist goading her. "Why Ceyenna! I believe you've been leashed!," he exclaimed.

In one smooth motion, Ceyenna stood, stepped forward and slapped Arondil across the face. His eyes widened in shock as a red mark appeared on his smooth elven cheek. Ceyenna and Arondil had always traded insults but neither had ever hit the other. Ceyenna immediately felt bad. But before she could say anything, Tyre wrapped his hand in Ceyenna's hair and administered a blow to her face that sounded like a clap of thunder in the suddenly quiet common room. Through the ringing in her head she heard Tyre order her, in no uncertain terms, to apologize.

Ceyenna thought it for the best all around. "Sorry, Arondil," she said sincerely.

He didn't look impressed. He stepped up to Ceyenna with a threatening look in his eyes. Ceyenna was almost glad for Tyre as she backed up against his chest. "If it weren't for your husband, Ceyenna, I'd teach you about keeping your hands to yourself," Arondil stated flatly.

Slowly the Inn's noise was returning to normal. It was only a cliff dweller punishing his wife. Not such an unusual sight in this part of the world. "I must apologize on behalf of my wife, Arondil. She dishonors my name," Tyre said quietly. He loosed his fingers from Ceyenna's hair. Gingerly, she felt her face, wincing. At least nothing was broken!

"Believe me when I say to you that I would never hold you responsible for Ceyenna's actions," Arondil said.

Tyre sighed. "Nevertheless, I hold myself responsible," he answered. Then..."Come, Ceyenna, we must talk," he said, and went upstairs. Ceyenna followed reluctantly. Once in their room Tyre tried to explain about how the actions of the wife reflected back on the husband. How he expected her to hold his honor in high regard now that they were joined.

Then Tyre expressed his intentions to return to his people. He would allow Ceyenna her freedom in the Shadow Seekers on the condition that she take a vow to remain his alone; that she would not voluntarily allow another man to touch her. Ceyenna readily agreed to this, thinking it a simple matter to break her vow at some future point. Honor was not high on her list of personal traits. The other thing Tyre required of her was a return to him twice a year.

***

It was a few days later in the evening that Tyre and his men gathered outside the Scorpion to say their farewells to the Shadow Seekers. They had been in the city long enough, and were anxious to go back to the desert.

"Any of you Shadow Seekers will always be welcome in our homes," Tyre said formally to Ithildin.

"You are very gracious with your hospitality," Ithildin responded. "We thank you again for all your help."

Tyre turned to Ceyenna and gently kissed the fading bruise on her cheek. "Remember our agreement," Tyre admonished. Then he took her left hand in his and slid a smooth gold ring onto her index finger. "Here is something to help you remember your vow to me," he said. Ceyenna thought it quite amusing that Tyre would believe a tattoo, or a ring, would ensure her fidelity. She merely smiled and hugged him to her. She would miss him in her bed, but the city was full of men.

The Shadow Seekers had just seen the desert men off, and Ceyenna was about to take off to explore when Ithildin asked them all to come inside for an announcement. Grumbling, Ceyenna followed the rest of her companions. When they had all gathered in a private meeting room and ordered drinks, Ithildin began.

"I believe I may have found us work," he stated. "I've been approached by a servant of one of the local merchant lords. I suppose he heard we were new in town and looking for work. The merchant has invited us to dinner tomorrow night. I have taken the liberty of accepting on behalf of our group. The servant led me to believe the work is some sort of item retrieval from an ancient site a little ways outside the city. Any treasure will belong to the lord. Our fee is negotiable," Ithildin finished.

One thing seemed as good as another to Ceyenna. Impatient to begin her long-overdue explorations of the city, she was the first to agree and, snatching up her backpack, she left before Melian had finished her first question. Ceyenna only knew her way to the market and back from her excursions with Tyre. She headed in that direction first There were a few tented stalls still open this evening. Ceyenna stopped at a stall where a wizened old man was selling sweet stuffed dates. Tyre had loved these, Ceyenna mused as she bought some. She shook her head. Why was she thinking of him?! It couldn't be that she'd actually fallen in love? Nah!

It was full dark but most shops were still open. There was a long rest period during the hottest part of the day and the shops stayed open well into the night. Ceyenna followed the directions she'd gotten from Dion to the weapons shop. When she walked in, the proprietor was helping another customer. They were both male and they looked up in surprise when she entered. She paid them no attention, and instead started examining what the shop had to offer. In a few moments, the customer made a purchase and left. The proprietor came over. "Where is your husband?," he demanded.

Ceyenna looked him in the eye, which seemed to make him uncomfortable. "My gold isn't good here?" she demanded right back.

Before he could make an answer, Arondil walked into the shop behind her. "What are YOU doing here?" Ceyenna asked. The paladin took Ceyenna by the arm. "Sorry for any trouble," he said to the proprietor, who seemed relieved. He pulled her out into the street.

"Excuse me?" Ceyenna said. "Get your hands off of me!" She yanked her arm free. "What do you think you're doing, Arondil?" she asked heatedly.

"Ithildin sent me to tell you that, in this culture, women are always accompanied by male companions. Melian and Ariena never went out without one of us. They agreed to this, and Ithildin expects you to agree also. Besides, you dishonor Tyre going around without an escort," Arondil finished, unable to resist reminding Ceyenna of her obligations.

Ceyenna sighed. Arondil would definitely cramp her style. "Alright, Arondil," Ceyenna agreed pleasantly. He looked suspicious. She led Arondil down a maze of streets that she didn't know until she found a dead end ally. She stopped and turned around.

"I thought cats never got lost," Arondil said sarcastically.

Ceyenna grinned into the dark. "They don't," she replied. Changing into her tiger form, she leapt for the nearest roof; catching the edge she quickly scrambled up and over. Arondil made a grab for Ceyenna's tail, and missed.

Ceyenna knew that what Ithildin said was true. She just didn't like Arondil tagging along after her. As she picked her way back to The Scorpion over the rooftops, she came to the conclusion that she would have to sneak out her window at night in her cat form if she was ever going to find the night life in Ardania.

She was on the adjoining roof to the Scorpion when she saw Ithildin outside in the back stable yard. He had a small hooded lantern and his journal. He looked to be studying the heavens and making notations. She settled down to watch. She wanted to see what would happen when Arondil came back without her.

Ithildin was sitting on the single, rickety bench in the stable-yard. He began writing something in his book by the dim light from the lantern set next to him. Suddenly, seemingly from out of thin air, two men appeared. They grabbed the elf and stuffed a gag in his mouth before he could utter a word. They were dressed all in tight fitting black with black headgear and scarves concealing their features. They were already dragging Ithildin away by the time the startled Ceyenna had a chance to react.

She leapt off the roof and once down, changed into her human form. Using her skill as a thief, she trailed behind the men without being noticed. She caught up with them a few streets later. Ithildin was struggling but the man holding him, although shorter, was obviously stronger. They disappeared around a dark corner and when Ceyenna eased around the same corner, she'd lost them!

She went slowly down the ally, trailing her fingertips along the smooth plaster wall, checking for an unseen entrance. Without warning her hand slid into empty air and she almost tripped forward. The wall looked no different. Ceyenna concluded that it was an illusion. Taking a deep breath, she eased into the "solid" wall. On the other side was a dark hallway. She went cautiously for about thirty yards before the hall opened into a large chamber.

The middle of the room was dominated by a twenty foot black panther statue. This was a temple to her cat god, Andaras! It was more opulent than the one she was used to back home. There was a calm azure pool at the foot of the statue. The floor was a dark blue tile, inlaid with gold cat designs. The walls were hung with finely woven tapestries depicting ritual scenes. There were reclining couches and pillows scattered throughout the room. Curtained doorways led off to other parts of the temple.

Ceyenna came boldly out into the room and was noticed by the only present occupant of the room: a scantily clad male youth who was tending the pool with a net. He started at catching sight of her, then narrowed his eyes at Ceyenna. "What are you doing here?" he asked. Then, before Ceyenna could answer, he yelled for the guards. Two guards appeared out of one of the curtained doorways, dressed in black leather and armed with the local favorite, scimitars. They had not drawn them, however.

"I demand to speak with the high priest!" Ceyenna said to the guards imperiously. She was, after all, a favored worshipper of Andaras.

"He doesn't deal with the likes of YOU," one of the guards sneered in that condescending tone reserved for women in this society.

"If he wanted a slut from the gutter he'd find his own," the other man said. Both laughed.

Ceyenna changed into her Tiger form and leapt on the startled guard who'd insulted her. The youth dropped his net and ran from the room, calling someone noisily. Ceyenna settled her full weight onto the man's chest and heard him cry out beneath her as several of his ribs snapped. The other guard had drawn his weapon but was reluctant to use it against a cat who might be favored by Andaras.

"HOLD," ordered a voice full of cold authority. The guard lowered his scimitar, but did not sheath it. Ceyenna looked up to see the pool cleaner hovering behind a tall Iylari elf. The elf was dressed in dark blue robes, trimmed with embroidered gold. He was quite beautiful, with long wheat colored hair and striking jade green eyes. "What is going on here?" he demanded.

Ceyenna lifted herself off of the now-unconscious guard and changed to her human form. The Iylari raised an eyebrow but otherwise showed no reaction. "Are you the high priest of this temple?" she asked.

"Yes. My name is Jal, yours is Ceyenna. I believe you are carrying a package meant to be left here," Jal said. He seemed to just notice the injured guard. He said something in the native tongue to the guard standing next to him. The man sheathed his weapon and took his unconscious partner under the arms and eased him away.

Ceyenna was standing mute, trying to figure out how this elf knew all about her. She quickly realized that Andaras must've filled him in.

Motioning her to follow him, Jal led Ceyenna through one of the curtained doorways and down a richly carpeted hallway. They passed several doorways curtained in gauze. Ceyenna scooped up a calico cat as it was making its way out one of the doorways. It began purring loudly as Ceyenna cradled it in her arms and scratched it under the chin. Jal reached a doorway at the end of the hall and held aside the curtain for Ceyenna to enter first. As she passed closely by Jal she scented his body perfume. It was subtle and sweet and she looked at him in a new light.

The room they entered was likely Jal's personal study. There were two low tables in the room, one covered with spell books and the other with quills, parchment and the like. There were tapestries hung here depicting Elven forests with subtle animal and nature themes woven throughout. Pillows were strewn around the tables, and Jal indicated for her to sit at the one holding parchment. Ceyenna put the cat on the table, where it sat as if it belonged there.

"Let me see the package," Jal said as he settled across from her. He rang a bell while she rummaged in her pack. A female acolyte entered a few moments later with a tray of drinks.

Ceyenna laid the leather-wrapped bundle on the table. It was about the size of a large spell tome. The leather was still supple, even after the ages it must've lain there. The little cat got up and sniffed the leather delicately, then sneezed and sat back down, washing itself.

As Jal poured two cups of wine, Ceyenna studied him. His long hair was pulled back at the base of his neck in a gold clasp. His ears were pierced several times each and full of gold hoops. Rings inlaid with precious stones encircled his fingers, and gleamed in the magical illumination.

"I want my friend back," Ceyenna said after she'd taken a cup from his hand.

He drank, staring her in the eye. She followed suit, assured it was not poisoned.

"Your friend?" Jal asked.

"Yes, I followed your people here. They've taken my friend and I want him back."

Jal frowned. "You must mean the Erlini. I wanted him specifically for the sacrifice two days from now. It's an important day. Can't you give him up?" He leaned forward and let his fingers trail down Ceyenna's face. His green eyes were mesmerizing. Suddenly, Tyre appeared standing just behind Jal, frowning. Ceyenna gasped and scrambled up out of her chair, eyes fixed behind Jal. He was on his feet, dagger in hand, in a split second.

"What, by the sixth pale?" Jal swore, irritated to find nothing behind him.

Tyre had disappeared by this time. But he'd seemed so real! "I'm n-n-n-not s-sure," Ceyenna stuttered, shaken and confused.

Jal sheathed his dagger and sat down again, motioning for Ceyenna to do the same. "Unwrap the leather," Jal instructed. Still wondering exactly what had just happened, Ceyenna did as Jal asked. Under the leather was a box made of some glassy substance, black in color. Ceyenna made as if to open it but Jal stopped her. "No!" he said sharply. The calico cat hissed, its green eyes wide. "This is as far as we go," Jal said. "The item inside can only be controlled through a ritual," he stated with authority.

"As you wish," Ceyenna said coolly. This was hardly acceptable. But she seemed to have little choice. "Give me my friend and I'll be leaving," she said, aware that it was near dawn and Arondil would probably be frantic with concern about Ithildin gone missing.

Jal remained impassive. "I want him for the ritual. He's rather powerful and will be perfect for Andaras. I insist you leave him with me. Would you offend your God?" Jal asked.

Ceyenna was in a mess now. If she didn't get Ithildin, Arondil would summarily slaughter her when he found out. But if Andaras wanted him....?

"Let me get your compensation," Jal offered, seeing her wavering. He got up and left the room.

Ceyenna stroked the calico cat, unhappy. It purred, squeezing its eyes shut. She looked at the box. Curiosity got the better of her. She pulled the box over and found the subtle indentation that would open it. She pressed it. The box flipped open soundlessly. There lay a black sacrificial dagger. So black it seemed to drain the light from the room. So black, it seemed to draw your soul into it. Without conscious thought, Ceyenna reached out and picked it up.

A hot blackness filled her with power and bloodlust. Her will to control the power rose up and then a battle ensued between Ceyenna and the sentience that filled the dagger...Ceyenna lost. Her struggling will was forced to capitulate and she lost all conscious control of her body. She turned to face the High Priest as he returned. Jal took in Ceyenna's appearance: dagger in hand, whites of her eyes showing and a blazing dark aura around her.

He barely had time to think before Ceyenna was on him, the dagger raised to quench its thirst with his blood. Jal yelled some strange words while drawing his only weapon, his dagger. With inhuman strength, Ceyenna took Jal by his hair and yanked his head back to slice his throat. He desperately brought his hand up to grab her wrist. Even using his considerable Elven strength, he barely kept the black blade from his throat. He gasped Andaras' name aloud, ending his litany. Suddenly strength flowed into him matching...then, exceeding Ceyenna's. Jal reversed his grip on his cat handled dagger. He smashed the pommel on the knuckles of Ceyenna's weapon hand, causing her to drop the evil dagger. Then he ripped his hair free of her grasp, leaving silky strands wrapped around her fingers. He backhanded her and sent her flying across the room, where she fell to the floor, unconscious. With Andaras power to aid him, Jal was able to quickly secure the dropped dagger in its box once more.

 

***

Ceyenna awoke in her room at the Scorpion. Sunlight streamed in through the window, indicating early afternoon. She felt muzzy-headed and her jaw ached. She sat up in bed and realized someone had undressed her. Her right hand was bound tightly across the knuckles; it was painful and nearly impossible to move her fingers. She felt a discomforting absence of Andaras from her mind, almost as if she'd earned his wrath. This disturbed her greatly. She got up and put on fresh clothing. Someone knocked and entered while she was dressing. It was Melian.

"How are you feeling?" her friend asked.

"O.K.," Ceyenna said tentatively. "But what happened?"

"You don't remember? Think, Ceyenna," Melian urged.

Ceyenna thought for a moment. "I remember seeing Ithildin get kidnapped...and nothing after that," Ceyenna responded, even though she recalled a little more.

Melian frowned. "Well, Arondil went after you last night at Ithildin's request. Then he comes back carrying Ithildin and he sent me and Dion back to a rather seedy part of town to retrieve you from the gutter!" Melian exclaimed.

Ceyenna thought and thought but she couldn't remember anything after talking to Jal about getting Ithildin back.

"Arondil healed your hand and bandaged it, then he told us to leave and shut the door. I'm not sure what he did to you," Melian said uncertainly.

As if he had been summoned, Arondil arrived. "You're up, I see...Good!" he commented. "Melian, if you would leave us?" he asked politely.

Melian looked uncomfortable. Should she really leave her friend alone with the Paladin...who was looking uncharacteristically angry?

"Go ahead, Melian," Ceyenna said, sensing Melian's mood. "I'll be fine."

Melian left, still unsure. Ceyenna had the feeling she'd be right outside the door.

"Ithildin sent me to get you so that we could all have a talk," Arondil stated.

"That's fine with me," Ceyenna said, indicating Arondil to lead the way. If Arondil was disappointed by her lack of resistance, he didn't show it.

They left Ceyenna's room and proceeded to the one Ithildin and Arondil shared. Usually, Ceyenna shared a room also, but up until recently she'd been sharing hers with Tyre. Arondil opened the door and held it for Ceyenna, entering after her. The door shut and Ceyenna felt trapped. She quelled her paranoia. Ithildin sat at a table that he had set up as a desk. Rune paper and books lay in neat piles.

"Please have a seat, Ceyenna," Ithildin invited. Ceyenna knew with Arondil standing right behind her she had little choice. She sat. She felt like she was attending an inquisition. "I would like you to tell me what it was you took from the ruins," Ithildin asked gravely, coming straight to the point.

"Well, not much....just some gold..." she was cut off as Arondil spoke sharply from behind her.

"The TRUTH...thief," Arondil said, letting Ceyenna know he'd finally figured out her "secret". If Ceyenna had been in her tiger form she'd have laid her ears back.

Although she did not like Arondil, she had a high regard and respect for Ithildin. She told him everything she could remember including what had happened in the ruins. The silence stretched out after Ceyenna had finished. Ithildin did not look very happy.

"I hope Jal's guards didn't hurt you," Ceyenna offered.

"Ceyenna, I am calling a meeting of the Shadow Seekers," Ithildin said. "You have endangered your adventuring companions by concealing information. We need to discuss the situation and what should be done about it."

"If it was up to me you'd be voted out of the Shadow Seekers," Arondil said to Ceyenna.

"Well, you aren't in charge, are you?" she asked tauntingly. Inside, she was glad that this was the case.

***

Ceyenna, Melian and Ariena were at the public baths in Ardania city. Water was a precious commodity here, so the prices were expensive. They had felt it was worth it , however, for a meeting with their prospective employer. Anardil lay curled up, basking contentedly on some hot rocks Ariena had asked to be brought in for him.

Ceyenna was in a subdued mood, Melian noticed. She looked over at Ariena, motioning towards Ceyenna with a nod. Ariena indicated she understood. They needed to cheer Ceyenna up and let her know they were still her friends, despite the meeting.

Ceyenna had been put on the spot rather brutally and had been forced to admit that Yes, she was a thief as well as a ranger. Yes, she did worship the dark god, Andaras. And Yes, she had concealed dangerous information from the Shadow Seekers. What had come out of all of this was the general agreement amongst the group that everyone would know what every one else took out of a treasure chamber.

Ceyenna stood in the bath and dived under. The bath was warm and actually the size of a small pool. She could feel Melian and Ariena staring at her. Wondering if all their possessions were safe now that they knew they might have to share a room with a thief. And All the Gods forbid if anything at all should come up missing!! Ceyenna resurfaced and began washing her hair. When she was ready to get out, Melian called to her. Ceyenna braced herself and turned around.

"Ceyenna, Ariena and I wanted to tell you...well, we're still your friends. Even after all that's...um...well, we just wanted to let you know," Melian said uncomfortably. Ariena reached over to hug Ceyenna and after a moment Melian did too. Ceyenna hugged them both back, feeling slightly relieved.

"Isn't this a special moment in the bathtub!" Ceyenna simpered to break the mood. They all laughed. Ceyenna couldn't stand sentimentality.

The women got out and dressed in the clothes they reserved for special occasions. None of them had dresses, but instead of traveling leathers they wore cotton pants and soft cotton shirts. Ceyenna wore the black cotton pants and the black embroidered shirt she'd gotten from Fadwa of the Cliff Dwellers.

Ithildin had advised that for the meeting with the lord, it would be in the Shadow Seekers best interests to let him do the talking. The women had agreed, knowing Ithildin would do the best by them.

***

The Shadow Seekers had decided to walk the two miles across the town to the lord's house. They arrived at the guarded gates a few minutes early. One of the guards sent a servant boy to alert the lord, as he escorted the party in. They entered intricately wrought gates in the high wall which surrounded the grounds. There were well manicured emerald green lawns and exotic flowers. Ithildin was impressed by the beauty of the gardens, noting that it was the sign of extravagant wealth in this culture and climate.

The house was built of terra cotta, white washed to reflect the intense sun. An onion dome in soft mauve topped the highest part of the house, with spires of varying pastels decorating the rest of the roof. Everything bespoke of money and opulence. They entered and servants led them through halls and rooms decorated to befit a prince or a king instead of a merchant lord. Gold statues, soft, colorful woven rugs on the naval wood floors, and bejeweled trinkets all demonstrated the extent of the lord's cash flow, Ceyenna mused. She moved up towards Ithildin and got his attention.

"You'd best negotiate a high price from this man," Ceyenna warned in a whisper meant only for elven ears. Ithildin gave no sign of having heard her.

The Shadow Seekers were led into a large dining chamber. The lord and his mage were already seated at the low table on cushions. Several veiled females attended to them. Ceyenna took an instant dislike to the lord. He was fat and pale like a giant slug. He was dressed in a gold embroidered red robe that could barely contain his girth. A large red turban adorned his head.

"Please, come in, come in," the lord invited, waving his hand. "Sit, eat, be my guests for dinner!" He clapped his hands and the women hurried to arrange cushions for Ithildin, Arondil and Dion. The females were left to their own. Ithildin motioned for Ceyenna to sit next to him and she complied.

"Was it necessary for you to bring your wives?" the lord asked.

Ithildin smiled politely. "They are not our wives, but our adventuring companions," he explained.

"Then why does this one wear the mark of a desert clan?" the lord asked, indicating Ceyenna.

"She is the wife of a clansman, but he allows her to travel with us under our protection," Ithildin responded diplomatically.

The food was served at their host's bidding and they all ate while Ithildin and the lord discussed the job, which was to explore an underground site that some of the lord's men had recently stumbled upon. Apparently, "archaeology" was quite lucrative around here, Ceyenna thought. The females remained silent, as agreed, until the lord made the offer of five gold apiece for their services.

"What?" Melian spoke up. Her Dwarven heritage could not abide cheating the Shadow Seekers out of a fair wage. "That is hardly acceptable," she stated.

The lord chose to ignore her. "You would let a female speak for you?" he asked Ithildin, showing annoyance for the first time.

"These females are used to having an equal say in all of our important decisions," Ithildin said to the lord. "However, I'm sure I can count on her to hold her tongue during these negotiations," he said, casting a "remember-what-we-talked-about" look her way. Melian was obviously unhappy, but went along with Ithildin for the sake of their employment. After about an hour, during which time the table was cleared and drinks brought (for the men), Ithildin and their host had agreed on terms of employment. Ithildin managed to bargain a fair wage from their employer, including provisioning at his expense.

"I have arranged for some entertainment," their new employer said. "Please send your women away and we will enjoy it. I will gladly provide them an escort," he offered.

Ceyenna spoke up for the first time. (An unparalleled feat of silence for her, Arondil thought.) "We need no escort, thank you, we are perfectly capable of walking the few miles back to our lodging ourselves."

The corpulent lord looked her up and down in a most unappealing manner. "I can see why your husband chose to bed you, although not why he would marry you!" he said with a lascivious laugh. He turned to Ithildin, "I will send my mage to escort them. They will be perfectly safe." With that, he took Ithildin, Arondil and Dion away, and left the women with the mage.

The man was of indeterminate age, but light-skinned and blue-eyed. "Ladies," he said, after the lord had left. "I am from another continent...perhaps your own? I'm from Jaiman," he offered politely in Common.

"Well! Its good to speak to a man who doesn't treat us like invisible idiots," Ariena said. Besides, she liked mages and this one was not unattractive.

As he escorted them home, he kindly showed them a few sights and bought them sweets from a stall. They discovered his name was Malren and he was from a tiny town in the central-south of Jaiman called Letharnen. "That's a small distance from Lethys, isn't it?" Ceyenna asked. Malren nodded confirmation. They made small talk, but when they got back to the Scorpion, Ceyenna took Malren aside.

"I need to buy an illusion spell," she said. "Would you be able to sell me one?" She knew she hadn't read the mage wrong.

"It will be expensive," he warned her.

Ceyenna brought out a beautiful jeweled ring she'd stolen from the market on their walk back to the Inn. It was worth quite a bit, by her assessment, but certainly not one-of-a-kind traceable. Malren accepted it as his fee and produced a small vial which he gave over to Ceyenna. "Drink this and your image will appear as you wish. It tastes horrible, so you may want to drink some tea after this." he promised.

Ceyenna wasted no time. She asked for a cup of tea at the kitchens and went up to her room. On the way up she poked her head into the door of the room Melian shared with Ariena. "Come in here and tell me if this works," she said enigmatically. Melian and Ariena curiously gathered in Ceyenna's room. Ceyenna downed the vile tasting liquid, then quickly drank some tea to get the taste out of her mouth.

"Wow! You almost look like your husband!" Ariena exclaimed. Ceyenna had felt no change, no tingling as the spell took effect...nothing.

"Yeah, if I didn't know it was you, Ceyenna, I'd ask you to buy me a drink!" Melian exclaimed, winking. There were no mirrors so Ceyenna had to go by her companions' description of her. Semi-long black hair, brown eyes, dark complexion and dark, loose clothing typical of the desert people.

"How is my voice?" Ceyenna asked, hearing her normal voice.

"Sounds like a man's," Melian assured her.

Ariena picked up the discarded vial from the table. "Do you mind if I take this for study?" she asked Ceyenna.

"Go ahead," Ceyenna said and grinned. "Anyone want to be escorted into the night-life?" she asked.

"Not me...this will take some study," Ariena said, leaving.

"She never does anything that will get her into trouble with Ithildin, which adds up to never doing anything at all!" Ceyenna complained to Melian.

Melian frowned. "You'd do better to listen to Ithildin only a quarter of the time instead of not at all. He seldom says anything that is without value," she said.

Ceyenna rolled her eyes. "You, too?" she asked. "Since when did you become such a stick in the mud?"

"Since you almost got Ithildin killed!" Melian said angrily and left, slamming the door behind her.

Ceyenna shook her head. She had SAVED Ithildin. She couldn't understand Melian's point of view. She shrugged it off and went downstairs and into the night.

***

It was slightly after mid of night when Ceyenna, or Jamil, as she was calling herself, showed up at a seedy little tavern in the area of town near the temple to Andaras. She had spent hours exploring the city, only to come to the conclusion that there wasn't much to find anyway. It was very disappointing to realize you had fought so hard for something worthless. She sighed and entered the little place. At least she could have a drink before she went back. Several heads turned her way but she was, for the most part, ignored. She went up to the bar and ordered a drink, which the bartender refused to give her until she paid in advance.

As she took her drink toward a table in the back, she heard snippets of conversation. Their new employer's name caught her ear as she passed by a booth and so she casually slid into the next booth up. She leaned back in the seat to listen, but she could not quite hear what the three men were saying. She looked under the table. It looked just big enough. She looked around. When she was sure no one was looking, she slid under the table and changed into her cat form. It was a tighter squeeze than she's thought! Her drink was upset on the table and dripped all down the seat and onto the floor. No one was paying any attention, however, thank Andaras.

NOW she could hear! The men were saying something about the ruins. How everyone who'd taken this job had never returned. But the one talking said as how he'd heard the lord had gotten some poor foreigners, who knew nothing of the area or the rumors, to throw their lives away. Another man spoke, "I hear they've got a Paladin with them...maybe that will make a difference."

Ceyenna had heard all she needed to hear. She changed back into her human form and slid up into the booth again, on the other side. She wanted to avoid the mess her drink had made. She stood up and went back to the bar for another drink. All eyes fixed on her. She froze...NOW what?

"Hey! How'd you get in here, you whore? Nobody here's interested! Get back to the streets!" the bartender yelled, pointing to the door.

Damn! Ceyenna thought. The illusion must've been annulled when she'd transformed. Ceyenna quickly made for the exit, not wishing to cause her companions any more trouble in Ardania. She went out into the night. As she made her way down deserted back alleys towards the Inn, she knew she was being followed by at least one, maybe two men. She was almost back to the Inn and she thought she'd lost her pursuit after taking some convoluted twists and turns. She could see the top of the Scorpion when she was hit by a body from above, taking her down to the pavement and stunning her for a moment.

In that time the man took quick advantage and she felt him searching her...obviously a thief. She brought her hand to her dagger hilt but he was quicker. He grabbed her hand and forced it away from the hilt. She used her left hand to reach up and yank away his face covering. He gasped in surprise, giving Ceyenna the opening she needed. She wrenched her hand free and drew her dagger. She slid the sharp blade into his chest with practiced ease and shoved his bleeding corpse away. How was she going to explain all the blood on her clothes, she wondered as she wiped her dagger on the dead man's robe.

She made it back to the Inn and up the back stairs without being noticed. She picked the lock on the upstairs door and let herself in quietly, re-locking the door behind her. She eased down the hallway to her room and entered, closing the door softly behind herself. She wadded up her clothes and pushed them to the bottom of her pack. Then she laid out her only other set of leathers before dropping into bed to sleep. She would tell Ithildin about what she'd heard tomorrow.

***

The Shadow Seekers had taken two days to outfit themselves for desert travel. The lord had given them a token at one of the best outfitting companies in Ardania, The Pack and Shield. The proprietor and his sons had practically fallen all over themselves to help them. Ceyenna made sure to get a very expensive set of leathers, as well as some desert clothing against the sun.

So, here they were at dusk on this day of leave-taking, a cool evening like any other in the desert. They headed out of the gates of the city and were immediately into the open desert. Arondil had a map to locate the underground ruins they were to explore and Ceyenna was content to let him lead. She had not had time to pull Ithildin aside and so she now dropped back to where he was riding rear guard. He looked different dressed in his new desert clothing....foreign somehow.

"Ceyenna," he acknowledged as she reined her horse in next to his.

"I heard in Ardania that our employer has sent other people out to explore these ruins and they have never returned. Don't you find it odd that not one has reported back?" she asked without preamble.

Ithildin raised an eyebrow skeptically. "The lord never mentioned he'd sent anyone else" he stated.

"Exactly!" Ceyenna exclaimed. "We would do well to use extreme caution here," she finished seriously.

Ithildin looked surprised. "Where you council caution, then one must suppose the worst!" he responded with dry humor.

"I mean it, Ithildin!" Ceyenna said.

He turned just as serious. "And where did you 'hear' this information, and what makes you think your sources are accurate?" he asked, staring at her intently.

"I know ," Ceyenna said. "Can't you just trust me for once?"

"I will bear your warning in mind," was all Ithildin would say. Then he told her to ride rear guard. He clucked to his mount and urged the horse up near Arondil's.

***

It took the Shadow Seekers a week of normal, unforced travel to make their destination. They could see some cliffs about eight days out and these slowly became more detailed as they traveled closer. On the last day that they camped, the companions sat around eating their "evening" meal at dawn. Arondil was telling them that according to the map, the ruins were accessed through a cave entrance, and that they could be at this entrance in about an hour's hike up the cliffs. There was supposed to be a path near the base of the cliffs a little ways along to the left.

They decided to make a short camp and attempt to search for the path during daylight. Melian was to take first watch and then rouse everyone around three in the afternoon. Ceyenna waited until everyone was resting in their tents. She then let Melian know she was going to explore. Melian did not look very happy but she only told Ceyenna to be careful. The thief changed into her tiger form and made the few miles to the base of the cliffs in minutes. She took human form once again and began searching the base of the cliffs using her Ranger spells.

Ceyenna found the path, if it could be called such, only because her spells showed her that there had been recent passage. Her innate tracking ability showed little in the bare rock terrain of the cliffs. She followed the easiest way up into the cliffs and after about a half hour of steep travel came to a cave entrance. As she went closer to it, she felt the hair rise on the back of her neck. She stepped just inside the cave entrance, then cautiously crept through the tunnel, smelling a slight scent of ozone in the air. She eased her way further into the tunnel, noticing that a slight pressure manifested deeper inside.

It was pitch dark and she had no torch with her, but she was sensing some unusual things about this place. The blackness of the tunnel had a hazy, almost opaque quality. Ceyenna turned around and left, deciding it would be unwise to go further by herself. Turning back into her cat form, she left the tunnel and hurried back to camp.

***

"Explain to me again what happened, exactly," Ithildin ordered Ceyenna. It was late afternoon and still incredibly hot, even though the sun was well past its zenith and slowly heading to rest.

Ceyenna sighed and told Ithildin for the third time. All the Shadow Seekers were seated around her and Ithildin, eager for details. All but Arondil. He was off praying or meditating, or whatever it was Paladins did, Ceyenna thought. When Ceyenna was done, Ithildin asked them all to leave him alone and he closed his eyes in meditation. Great! Ceyenna thought. The Elf's motto is...when in doubt, meditate!

It was several hours later when the companions began making their way up into the cliffs. Ceyenna had protested going in the dark but Ithildin had insisted that it wouldn't be a problem. She was now leading the way, picking out the safest and easiest path for them all. They had left their horses picketed at the bottom, unable to get them up the rocky trail.

"Incredible!" Arondil exclaimed. "She actually does possess Ranger abilities!" Ceyenna ignored him for once, concentrating on the task at hand. They had lit torches at the bottom, and she found the flickering lights off the cliffs disconcerting. After an hour of climbing they reached the dark cave entrance and stopped.

At first, when no one seemed inclined to go forward Ceyenna sighed and stepped to the front. Ithildin put a hand out to stop her.

"Wait," he ordered. "Arondil and I will go first. Ceyenna was right that something is unusual about this place. There's a large amount of power built up here." He took a torch and moved to the cave entrance with Arondil, who had drawn his sword. The two Elves entered the tunnel and walked to the point where Ceyenna told them the ozone smell was. They walked further in, noting that the haziness was getting thicker.

***

It was about a half hour later, which seemed like an eternity to the ones waiting, and Ceyenna was all for going in after the Elves.

"Let's give them a few more minutes, then we will all go in after them together," Ariena suggested. Ceyenna began to pace back and forth like a caged animal. Anardil, Ariena's familiar, hunched at her feet furling and unfurling his wings in agitation. After only a few minutes Ceyenna could stand it no longer.

"Let's go!" she exclaimed. "They're in trouble, or something, or they would have come out by now!" She shouldered her pack determinedly. Resigned, Ariena took a torch and led her remaining friends into the cave. She held her torch high.

The cave seemed endless to their senses , although the walls were close at hand, all except the back of the cave which was obscured in what seemed to be fog...a pearlescent opaqueness that stopped sight. However, it appeared to Ceyenna that shapes moved therein.

"Arondil!" Dion suddenly bellowed out into the quiet. That earned him sour looks from all present. "What?" he asked defensively.

The companions went forward into the "fog", and were suddenly outside the cave again. There were trees around and a fresh breeze was blowing. The stars were brightly visible. Anardil gave a cry and launched himself into the air, flying high and circling.

"We aren't in the desert anymore," Ariena said shakily to the others.

"Then where are we?" Melian asked.

Ceyenna looked to the stars. "From the constellations, it appears we are home!" she said in disbelief.

***

Hundreds of miles away and also on Jaiman, Ithildin had come to the same conclusion a while ago. "Apparently we have been flung through a portal of some sort," he was explaining to Arondil. They had come out on a beach and were walking along it. It was near daybreak. The two Elves could see smoke in the not too far distance and were making towards it in hopes of discovering exactly where on Jaiman they were.

"Where do you suppose the others are?" Arondil asked in Erlin, seeing no use for Common with the others absent.

"I couldn't begin to guess," Ithildin answered in the same tongue. "They could be anywhere. Let us just hope that like us, they will attempt to make their way back to The Phoenix. That would be a logical meeting point."

Arondil made no comment. Logical was not how he would describe any of their other companions.

 

THE END

Editor's Note:

Post your comments on this article on the Fiction Discussion Board.