~ Varisye ~
UNDER THE AHVIARYNELLE
I am an adventurer. I am magnificent and brave and cunning and...
No, actually, I'm a fraidy-cat if ever there was one. My lute and I have seen none of the dazzling, death-defying tales I sing of. Rather, we have seen the inside of many-a-tavern and pub, plus a few carnival sites. Jezzabell the Jazzier Minstrel—known in this part of Varisye as Jezz-Jazz—earns just enough coin to avoid having to find honest work. That's a good thing, seeing as how I cannot sew or cook. I wouldn't be much help on a farm—gifted as I am with diminutive size and a so-called black thumb—and the chances of me finding some kind and gentle duke to marry seem to diminish every passing day. The Ahviarynelle might look kindly down on a diminutive red-head with a thief's form, but not too many knights do.
Before I get ahead of myself (storyteller, remember) how and where, Dear Traveler, does one begin to describe this vast and varied realm of Varisye?
With the terrible beauty of the memorial at Arsys? With the fire rings of Montegollath? With the Onyx Bridge in Zepriin or the seven Green Keeps of Delaney's Gorge? Or the creatures one is likely to see swooping among those cursed places?
Perhaps I should start with what you certainly will see from almost any point in the land—the Ahviarynelle.
The Great River, the Mother-Watcher, the Ahviarynelle is a dazzling ribbon of water (or something) which flows a curving path among the clouds. She changes colors everywhere. There are places, such as Shugoki's Spike, where you can see her shift from purple to red to green to gold to orange to red-violet throughout three turns, or bends. (If it's socked-in cloudy or rainy, well, you're out of luck.) She is not always directly overhead, but she is there. People claim to have seen her light up with lightning during an evening storm. Other people claim to be able to hear her, though she is many kaftas' distance in the sky. If one were to brave the steep slopes of cursed Mount Arsys, I wager they still would not get high enough to be on her level. Stories of dragons and griffins flying high enough to touch her waters are just that, stories. Regardless, to wake with the sun and find her emerald-green magic smiling down on you in the Downs is a wonderful feeling. Like nothing could ever be too bad in your life, so long as she's flowing.
I suppose I'm like a lot of folks in that she gives me comfort. Gods and goddesses have failed us. Kingdoms and countries have failed us (the lands of plenty do not hold plenty for all). But she is always with me. Though I have penned many a thought and lyric on her story—tucked away in my knapsack—I think her origins should remain a mystery. For she is good. I truly feel that. And a good mystery has a magic all its own.
I've got two songs about our mother-watcher, the Ahviarynelle. Of course, visitors to this realm (as the joke goes) may not have the foggiest idea who or what I sing of. Though it's difficult to imagine how they could miss seeing it—unless they are blind.
Singing and playing are what I do best, like I said. The notes and words I twirl take work. I've got the knapsack full of songs (some unfinished) to prove it. And now, Dear Traveler, it is my intent to relate the strangest tale of late, seeing as how it involves an Ehara hero who could not use his blade-skill (master though he is) to solve a problem.
Ah, I've gotten ahead of myself. You need the setting, first.
My cousin Perissloss (yes, we give her grief over her name) has been inside the map room of an Oracle. According to the great map—which covers an entire wall—Varisye ranges 7,000 kaftas from the northeast to southwest corners. Without the aid of frightening magic (I am told there are many tiers of power) one would have to cross nineteen rivers and at least six mountain ranges, depending on which of the great roads they take. They would also have to pass through a number of queendoms, domains, and territories of unknown disposition. It would take years, and luck. To say the journey would be easy would be a liar's claim. I tell stories, not falsehoods. Leave those to the knights and Dwarves.
I myself have never left this north-central part of the land, to the east of Mount Arsys and the city of Sealth. The villages and orchards and farms of this country, Tajra, keep me satisfied.
Now, if one looks at a map regarding this part of the world, they are likely to see a finger of land curling out into the Carp Sea. This area is covered by the Carpath Mountains and the lakes formed by their valleys. Lakes mean fish and a living, so there are a handful of fishing villages spread throughout. One of them, Horrvath, recently ran into trouble. Like I said, there is a certain irony in that a member of the Ehara kind—distrusted by many Komens—provided an answer for a Komen village.
Regarding these folk known as Ehara, there are two qualities which give the average Komen (or Dwarf or Elf) a bit of a start. First, Ehara are quite tall. If I come up to the shoulder of your average man, then this average man might come up to the shoulder of an Eharan woman. Some are so tall they must duck under tree branches on the roads. They are not burly or bulky like some knights fashion themselves. Rather, their forms are rather thin. Not bean-poles, as they saying goes, but their form seems deceptive when compared to rumors of their enormous strength. One song I borrowed from another artist tells of an Ehara fellow lifting a portcullis singlehandedly. I wouldn't mind witnessing such a thing, provided I don't have to go under said portcullis.
The other key thing you can't miss is their skin color. Each Ehara has two—a main color and stripes of another hue, like tigers. I think you can see how it might startle someone to find themselves engaged by a woman of sky blue with stripes the color of blood—Komen blood—arrayed across her face. Additionally, they have no hair. I am told the women have a distinctly different shape to their faces, and sometimes wear adornment, but I have only seen one in my dreams.
There are a few creatures I wish I hadn't seen for real, of course. A Grey Orc, even shackled up for crimes against villagers, is a frightening brute. So, sure, that's part of the reason I keep to this region of Varisye. Things seem fairly normal, and Countess Torscha, the local ruler, is not too interested in collecting taxes from traveling entertainers. (There is a great story behind why she and so many of the rulers here are women, but that, Dear Traveler, is a tale for another day.)
Perhaps it was fate—or the Ahviarynelle's will—that I run into my juggler friend Oggie while in Tampring. I was staying in the Artists Camp—a protected area for entertainers such as myself—while performing at the Red Dragon's Claw there and at Jilly Jo's pub three kaftas down the hill. Oggie had latched on to a circus group on their way to a show in Sealth in four days.
Oggie's a small, light-hearted guy who never lets life's downs get to him. One would think that having a lopsided face of dark-brown skin might cause a lot of misery in places where his face was unique. It goes without saying, some folks are just mean-spirited. In such a case, he'd turn the insults by grabbing the first stack of apples or drinking mugs he could find and wow his way out of a jam. These days, he was up to juggling seven daggers (with cork tips on them during practice).
The circus already had a couple musical acts, so there wasn't much room for me. However, in catching up, Oggie related a fantastical tale of the fishing village of Horrvath. Frozen, they were—the whole village.
“Angered a witch, they did.”
“That's the story,” he said. “Then, on account of a barkeep in Dunnington, 'twas an Ehara who got them unfrozen.”
“Unfrozen. You mean, they all survived?”
“That's how I hear it.”
A dazzling mystery dropped in my lap was too tempting to ignore. “I thought magic was forbidden to that kind.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “You're the minstrel, you should check it out. The fella's up in GreenHump, what I hear.”
Now, it's not too often that I get a story straight from the source. One of my requested yarns concerns a heroic Woods Ogre named Lankrahn. While he is a noble enough creature to have rescued a family from mountainside death, he soon after disappeared into his native environs. (As I stated, I am too chicken a person to have ventured solo into the forest to find him.)
Oggie had never steered me wrong, and the Horrvath story certainly had my attention. I consulted the map posted on the fence by the communal fireplace. GreenHump was a farming community about fifteen kaftas northwest of Praugh, where I played at Jilly Jo's. Jo herself had told me how merchant groups traveled that road with frequency, under guard, so I could probably join their tail. Jezz-Jazz was on the hunt.
For the price of a couple songs—which tickled one merchant and irritated the mounted guard—I was allowed to trail the small caravan by fifty paces. We set off right after sunrise, as it would take until mid-afternoon to reach Greenhump. I don't mind going that distance by foot in one stretch. I believe I've had to journey twice as far in a day, which makes me grateful for tough shoes and tougher feet. Tried riding a horse once or twice, but didn't like it. The loss of control, the feeling being so high above solid ground. To me, it feels high.
This made me think of Ehara, like the fellow I was hoping to meet. The rumor is, they cannot ride horses because they are too heavy. The Ehara, that is. This conjured to mind all sorts of questions about shape and bulk. If your average horse weighs as much as ten Jezz-Jazzes, what brute was an Ehara allowed to ride? I have never seen a giant in real life—though they exist in artwork and stories—so I have penned comical tales about them. Woe the brownies who scurry from those boots! Probably flames or frost springing from each step, the way the stories go.
GreenHump appeared first as a bell tower rising from a strand of forest before its namesake bulge spread wide, topped by a small temple of sorts. The village climbed the far side of the hill, which turned out to be much larger than I first thought as the road turned downward. The merchant in the lead rang a bell mounted by a fence. This seemed like a formality, only, as few people could have slept through the racket we were making. Loose forks clanking against pots or something. The guard looked back at me, and I mimicked singing and playing. I thanked the kind merchant who tolerated my presence and headed up a path into the village proper.
The first woman I asked did not speak Common, so I tried to convey gratitude and moved to the second. This was a shoe cobbler cutting leather in the mid-day sun. “Greetings,” I said. “I'm looking for the Ehara man who is staying here.”
“Ah, Dirkennion,” he replied. “You mean no trouble, I hope,” he added, his eyes narrowed and face tilted in a challenging kind of way.
“No-no. I'm a minstrel,” I explained, jabbing a thumb at the instrument on my back. “He is famous.”
He nodded. “Follow this path to the windmill, then turn left. You cannot miss him.”
I thanked him and purchased an apple from his neighbor. The sweetness of the fruit and the orange hue of Mother River above reminded me of the goodness of the world, so I took my time. Couples passing by spoke in other languages but paid me little mind. I did not appear threatening to anyone—a quality which has saved me from trouble as often as it gave me cause to flee.
The windmill grew as I got closer, with blades reaching to eight or nine of my height. Their steady turning was a sight to behold. I've had little exposure to so-called machines. The four blades showed recent repair, newer wood and thatching and paint. Unless it was possible to remove a blade to work on it—which looked untenable from its weight—then someone climbed up there to do the work. I couldn't do that unless a murderous attacker was after me.
The thought made me dizzy, like the creaking turn of the blades were hypnotizing me with deception. I centered myself with another bite of apple and turned left, down from the windmill's little rise. A stream of water with a rock bed wended through the village. I crossed a small bridge and watched the stream curve toward and away from this narrow street.
Ahead was a cottage with a small fenced-in area occupied by a mule. And there he was.
At first glance, it was easy to see how any Ehara could be frightening (if they all looked like him). The creature before me—truly, a man—stood one-and-a-half times Jezz-Jazz's height, I'll wager. I don't think he'd fit in the cottage. He wore trousers and boots but no shirt, at the moment. His skin was maroon color marked by copper-hued stripes which, as foretold, could resemble those of a tiger. He did not have the bulging muscles I often sing about in jest (knights and warrior are often full of themselves). Yet his musculature appeared incredibly strong, as he was, at the moment, holding a rock which rivaled my weight.
“Greetings,” he said in a low voice which betrayed no strain from the load.
“Hello, Sir. It is a fine day for work, is it not?”
“Most all days are fine for work, barring conflict.”
He set the rock with care on one side of the stream. Though it seemed a simple thing, I was spellbound by his act. “I have never met an Ehara before.”
“Understandable. Only a few have ventured toward this part of Varisye. GreenHump is a place which agrees with me.”
“So, you are the great Dirkennion.” I leaned on the fence.
He leered at me. “I do not know about the 'great' part, Miss. However, Dirkennion is my name. And I am busy.” He considered another stone.
“I can see that. Sorry. Would it be alright if I ask you about a certain adventure?” I tapped my instrument playfully.
“If I say no?”
I went to one of my usual ploys, owing to the fact that few men can completely ignore a young woman's bust. So I undid the top button of my shirt and leaned forward a bit, smiling. “I could ask very politely...”
This time, he sighed. “If you let me continue my work, you may inquire.”
It was at this point that his state of busyness drew me in. While I grabbed a seat on a polished stump and got out my pen and scroll to take notes, he kept on as normal. With ease, he hefted a rock nigh half the size of Jezz-Jazz and set it in place. Whatever structure he was building required planning I could not see. He eyed his progress in silence for a bit, then made some adjustments. When I asked the first of many questions, he did not seem annoyed. Piece by piece, without flair, I heard his tale.
Horrvath fishing village is a collection of a couple hundred souls on the banks of Lake Eereth. It is cold, there, set to the north and higher up, in a bowl formed by the Carpath Mountains. It seems the three occupations there would be fishing, growing purple turnips (which like the cold air) and keeping the bears from taking too much of either. That part of Lake Eereth, where the Grey River flows through, is also home to a dog-sized blue fish with gold stripes. I don't know this fish has a name other than blue. However, it is referred to specifically in the posted town rules. If caught, a blue is to be set loose immediately. At first, I thought the fish might be poisonous to Komens. Instead, this rule represented an agreement with the powerful witch, Ninkah-Zulla, who lived alone in a cabin up one of the mountain slopes. If they didn't bother her, she had no reason to bother them—provided her decree was obeyed.
For decades or hundreds of years, this had not been a problem. There was enough turnip and fish packed on glacier ice traded to nearby Skull Valley to keep everyone in modest living conditions. This changed, however, when one Baron Gilthorpe had a house built on the slopes of Wicklow Mountain, across the lake from Horrvath. The pompous baron, a false nobleman, educated himself on the local lore regarding those he saw himself as ruling. Mentions of the blue pricked his ear.
It is said that, with enough coin, anyone can be persuaded to do something. The baron's men finally found a willing father and son who would bring him a blue for dinner. (He had a so-called royal taster try it, first.) As tragedy would have it, the blue provided a particularly succulent taste which the baron felt he could show off to others of his station. He began hosting a monthly dinner—each event requiring one blue.
In a village of slow change, details are easy to come by. Rumors about this illegal act circulated quickly, whispered as it were to not anger a woman, the witch, the villagers had not seen in decades. But the father and son had earned a pretty coin, and money has a way of corrupting.
Three of the blues had been caught and delivered by the time Ninkah-Zulla paid a visit. It is likely that, on a foggy morning gone quiet with the fleeing of birds, nobody could identify the older woman in purple robes walking into Horrvath. It also likely didn't matter if they did realize who she was. A witch does not visit to argue or bargain.
The father and son returned from a typical morning run—without a blue—to find everyone in the village frozen stiff. Even dogs and chickens were immobilized in mid-stride. Though the father and son were foolish, and had been fools, they were not simpletons. This was retribution. Both were too horrified, upon returning home, to touch the woman of the house. Her needle-bearing hand hung suspended—perhaps for eternity—above the blanket she was mending. Magic has rules which are unknown to those who don't use it. All they could do was go from home to home and douse a few unattended cooking fires. The guilt and shame of their actions must have been stomach-turning.
Baron Gilthorpe himself, who believed treasure could purchase all things, had disappeared. Or, rather, a great pile of silver coins had appeared outside his front door. His staff were mighty perplexed, since he never ventured out deer-hunting in nearby orchards on his own. His mounts were asleep in their stalls, and his ceremonial suit of armor hung polished in its place. They knew nothing of the fate of Horrvath across the water, at the time. The mystery of their missing lord persisted until, in disturbing the great pile of coins, one servant noticed a silken slipper sticking out. The baron's. Occupied, of course.
In Horrvath, the fisherman Chugach knew there could be no revenge taken out on the witch. The still forms of 151 people attested to the power of her magic. Instead, wisely, he and his son set off in search of an answer. In each pub and town they tried, disappointment was the result. However, heading south, the tale of a frozen village spread until a woman traveler from GreenHump heard the story and brought it back to Tiptik Zhang, Dirkennion's local 'overseer.'
“'Perhaps you can conjure a solution,' Zhang told me. His words were not in jest, as he believes people can be clever even in the darkest of situations.”
“Is he correct?”
“He is the oldest man in the village. I believe his wisdom carries weight.”
“So you set off?”
“I am training to be a constable. It is my duty to settle matters, when I can.”
“Were you not afraid?” I asked.
“Fear is not the right word, Miss. Like all Ehara, I am forbidden from magical use and study. Though my historian brother laments this on occasion, it is law to us. Ninkah-Zulla would know that I could not pose a threat to her.”
“How far is Horrvath from here?”
“I cover ground with haste. You would have to look at a map.”
Dirkennion stayed the night in the next village south, bearing the medallion of a constable. Though the villagers were fearful of the witch, one mother saw the purpose of his visit and gave him lodging in the family's abode. Early the next morning, he covered the last dozen kaftas to Horrvath. Chugach managed to hear of this and made his way home in someone's boat, accompanied by a friend. They all arrived at the shore amidst a thick, quiet fog.
“Is this normal?” Dirkennion asked.
“Aye. The mountains often force us to steer by smell and guesswork.”
True to the story, all of Horrvath was still. No smoke rose from chimneys or pit fires, no cat or dog said hello. A raven scavenged for food, hopping from perch to shoulder. The people were neither covered in ice nor frozen blue nor turned to stone. They were simply still. Some had toppled to the ground in mid-stride. A little girl had fallen from her fireside chair, and a doll lie forgotten at her feet.
“You should not touch anything,” Dirkennion advised Chugach, who was approaching a frozen villager. His face tightened. This was someone he knew.
“This was the witch's doing. Damn her!” the friend swore.
At this, Dirkennion looked at both men. Chugach wore a dour, guilt-ridden expression.
“Why would she?”
Another glance at the guilty fisherman told him nothing else needed to be said, here.
Dirkennion looked about for only a few more moments, never drawing his blade.
“Point me in the right direction,” he ordered Chugach. “Perhaps she can be reasoned with.”
Chugach brightened and extended his arm. “I have heard she lives about seven kaftas that way.”
“Beyond the teeth rocks,” the friend added.
Dirkennion soon found a footpath marked by simple, green-painted stones. He walked with purpose but with eyes watching for large predators. Even an Ehara could make a tempting meal for certain creatures. He passed through stretches of fog-drenched trees, climbing steadily towards a towering mountain face.
Frosty areas strangely gave way to a stand of trees which formed a 'U' around a modest abode of wood and stone. Wisps of purple-tinged smoke rose from its single chimney.
Dirkennion paused at a distance where, if seen, he could at least hope to defend himself. The stop also gave him time to run through his questions and tactics. He had never dealt with so powerful a being before, and he knew nothing of this woman (beyond her decree and retribution). A small pot of pink flowers by the cabin's door said she might have sense of whimsy about her (as he had seen no such flowers in this area) but that was not enough. If she chose to find offense at his presence or his mission, no power of his would be enough.
He approached slowly and paused again where a tree stump would serve as a door knocker. He picked up a rock and knocked it thrice against the stump's flat top. After a pause, he repeated this, creating a pattern of sounds which would not be found in the natural world. He set down the rock and waited.
The door creaked open and Ninkah-Zulla appeared.
“Interesting,” she noted, stepping forth. With a pretty if weathered face and sylvan hair streaked blue violet, it was not unreasonable to suppose she had lived for a thousand years. Yet her voice and movement betrayed no frailty of age as she came to a rock garden wall not twenty feet from Dirkennion. “I have not met an Ehara in these parts in a few centuries. Why does one come calling today?”
“My name is Dirkennion Pelorath Singh. I am bound to be a constable in Sealth when I complete my service under Tiptik Zhang in GreenHump. My father and uncle perished at Arsys.”
In response to this proclamation, the sorceress leaned back in thought. These words were true. Ehara constables do not tell falsehoods. The inclusion of Dirkennion's kin lent additional creedence. The cataclysmic Battle of Arsys occurred in this part of Varisye, far from Eharan lands. The father and uncle would have come of their own accord to face the demon Kalimoraith.
“Your family has a history, then, of involving themselves in the troubles of others.”
“Yes, Madam. There are injustices in the world.”
“Hmm. Situations which require solutions, is that right?”
Now her eyes flashed purple in challenge. “Do you feel injustice has been done here, Ehara?”
He thought for a moment, choosing words with care. “I do not know enough facts to render that opinion, Madam. Clearly, the Horrvath fisherman violated rules about the blue fish. Rules set down by yourself.” He thought again. “There was mention of a baron and his money.”
“Yes. He, too, has been dealt with.”
“I see.” Dirkennion set his foot on the tree stump and leaned forward. “While I take it his payment was permanent, you did not do the same with the villagers.”
“Correct. In current form, they serve as a warning. Ti-Ri Nex would prefer it this way, if I had asked.”
At this, Dirkennion paused. Ti-Ri Nex was one of the seven Sentinel Dragons who watched over Varisye. They were practically deities. The sheer fact that this sorceress could communicate with the highest beings around spoke to her experience and station.
“Am I correct in guessing that the baron's coin and ego are to blame for the illegal catching of the blues?”
“Then...I believe your warning will live on in the fisherman and his child. Your power is absolute.”
At this, Ninkah-Zulla smiled. “You use flattery as a tactic. Out with it, Negotiator.”
Dirkennion glanced back in the direction of Horrvath. “They appear to be simple folk who should be allowed to carry on with their lives. It is my belief the guilty fisherman will never forget his mistakes. This history will live on. Perhaps he could become an ally, of sorts. And the others.”
“You ask for their freedom?”
“I am. People can always do good. Your concern for the natural world could be channeled into service on their part. On my journey here, I noticed a persistent reddish weed on the south slopes, for example.”
“Ogrefire, they call it. Donkeys like them, but there are no donkeys for fifty kaftas.”
“Could the weeds be transported as food?”
At this, Ninkah-Zulla lifted her head to the Ahviarynelle and grinned coyly. “You are a persistent problem-solver, Dirkennion. But what do I get in return for...releasing the good citizens of Horrvath?”
Dirkennion hoisted another stone into place. “I asked her what she needed.”
At this point in the tale, I leaned forward, dying to know. “What was it?”
I could swear his colors shifted a bit when he replied, “She remarked that she had not enjoyed the company of a man in a long time.”
“Oh,” I said. I could tell he was somewhat embarrassed. I also felt a little edge in myself, as some part of Jezz-Jazz was not keen on hearing that he had, in fact, stayed for a time.
The minstrel in me would not go unsatisfied. I coughed and cleared my throat. “And so...?”
Dirkennion shrugged his shoulders. “She has mastered the art of shape-shifting.”
“Did she...did she become an Ehara woman?”
“Hmm, that sounds nice,” I remarked before I could stop myself. “The ability to change, to become whomever or whatever...”
“I do not understand.” Dirkennion's expression was troubled, as if I had confused or saddened him in some way. There was a long pause before he asked, “What would you become, Miss Jezz-Jazz?”
I didn't know how else to respond than, “Someone else, maybe.”
“Why?” he asked, hoisting a rock into place.
I didn't say anything because I had to swipe away a couple tears.
“Forgive my being forward. You said you sing about the greatness of others, though much of what heroics are can be called luck. Do you ever sing of yourself?”
Before the sun started setting, I found a rock promontory at the edge of an orchard and set down to compose my song. I had not answered the Ehara's last question, which seemed foolish of me. I was the one who asked questions and, on occasion, sought out a deeper truth. Yet, he had stumped me with one of his own.
The idea was silly, though. Who wants to hear about a traveling minstrel who had, thus far, avoided the dangerous adventures she often sang about? Was it luck or fear?
I often entertain pub patrons with the tale of a girl named Mikkelsya. She looked quite a lot like myself, I'm told, with raven-black hair instead of tomato orange. But she was daring and quick and rogue-ish, an acrobatic thief. One night, breaking into a count's bedroom, she was caught. Rather than face the dungeons, she fled across the rooftop. Her sad, brief tale ends with a crossbow bolt in her leg, and a long fall to the garden fountain below. All the treasure she had stolen and secreted away did nothing for her, in the end.
No, Dirkennion, I would not like to trade places with her.
I played a few quiet tunes in the day's dying light. High above, the Ahviarynelle glowed a lovely shade of purple. Droplets caught sunlight, throwing amethyst-hued beauty down on a pitiful creature like me. I felt strangely content. Where she was going, I did not know. Where she was bound, I did not know. Her eternal ribbon seemed to curve northwest, toward the setting sun, but I let this remain a mystery. She was, and that was good enough.