Midnight and Amber
She met him just after the war began. It was a strange night, dark and drizzly, with bursts in the distance that were not necessarily thunder. She was returning from a poor evening’s take at the Cinnamon Tree and was far from pleased. Her singing had gone largely ignored. Dancing had only made things worse, leaving her parrying lewd suggestions and requests for private, more horizontal dances than the ones she had performed. When that last drunkard had grabbed her ankle and almost made her fall, she had kicked back to free herself, then promptly packed up and left. She decided that this war was no good for business.
She had not gotten very far when the skies opened up, and the rains began in earnest. She paused in the middle of the street and swore to the skies in Romeri. She began thinking that perhaps this rain was a good thing, to clean the foul city air and streets, when she noticed a sheltered overhang. It was at the construction site of a new shrine, temple, or whatever they were planning to build from all that quarried stone. It seemed a suitable place to wait for the rain to stop. Readjusting the pack on her shoulder, she dashed for it.
He was the first to see the girl darting out of the rain. He just stood there in silence with the rest of his friends that had volunteered to guard the temple construction site for the evening. She was a Gypsy, one of the Romers; young, maybe seventeen or twenty in human years, and very well put together. One might almost say voluptuous, but not quite. She was small and lightly built, about his height of five-seven, and maybe all of a hundred and ten pounds drenched. Which she was. The white cotton of her blouse clung tantalizingly to her body, though the tight, red velvet vest kept too much from being revealed, and her bright, multicolored skirt clung enchantingly to her slim, dusky legs. Her skin was an olive gold and her curls hung long and dark down her back, held out of her face by a gold-colored scarf folded into a band and tied behind her neck. A spray of soggy flowers was pinned on one side above her jewelled but very human ears. Her eyes were black, and flashed as she set down her patchwork shoulder bag and stared out into the dark fall of rain, taking a deep breath of the night air.
She sighed then and turned to face the five others who had also taken shelter here, not at all surprised by their presence.
Her face, as she turned it into the faint glow of the lantern inside the arched doorway, was definitely handsome, with strong features that did not overpower her natural, exotic beauty. The earthy scent of wild orchids and morning meadows rose from her body, tantalizing, musky, and warm. She smiled, obviously in a fervent hope that these men were friendly but without real fear. It was as if she believed herself capable of protecting herself with the curved scimitar tucked into the sash at her right hip.
“Droshvi,” she said. Her voice was mellow and rich, a practiced singing voice that promised to be very different from any Elven singer he had ever heard, as exotic as the rest of her. The Romeri accent rolled off her tongue like a purr, adding to the image of mystery she presented. He felt his body begin to react in spite of himself.
‘She’s human,’ he reminded himself with a growl.
“Droshvi,” she repeated when no one answered her, then caught herself. “Hello,” she corrected.
Adrick was the first to react, and began strutting immediately, the pompous cock’rel that he was. He strode up to her, taking her hand up and bowing over it, his eyes never straying far from those gloriously dark, wet breasts. “Adrick, Brother of the Circle of Three, at your most gracious service, my lady! Allow me to introduce my company.” He gestured broadly to a dagger-bearing elf to his right, “This is Lithgorin in the cloak, and Sister Rue.” A half-Elven woman in a light blue gown and purple cloak nodded to her from behind Lithgorin. “The tree leaning up against the wall over there is Barak Hillvale.” Barak waved shyly to her as she gazed at each of them, coming to rest finally on himself.
Tightening his jaw and forcing himself back under impatient control, he turned from that gaze and went into the archway behind him. “Oh,” added Adrick, noting the direction of her attention. “And the sullen one in the back there is Landros. And you are, my dear?” He finished, looking at her expectantly.
“Lark,” she answered.
She smiled secretively. “Just Lark,” she purred. She set her things down by the wall, checking her violin case for damage as she did so. “And why might you be here on such nasty night?”
“Ah,” Adrick gestured grandly. “We have been asked by the most holy Temple of Three to guard this, the site of their newest shrine, this evening for the proud sum of fifty silver harps. And you?”
Before Adrick could get an answer, Landros appeared back in the doorway, his face livid. He seized the slightly taller man by the shirt and growled in his face, “HOW MUCH?!”
“I did say each. ... Didn’t I?”
Lark found the scene amusing. Ah, entertainment at last, she thought, idly sifting through her pack whilst she kept a close eye on the pair.
“Do you mean to tell me that you dragged me out on a cold rainy night to guard this god-forsaken pile of rubble for a pittance of fifty pieces of silver!?”
Adrick sputtered. “But it is for the temple, Landros. I would have volunteered us for nothing, but I knew you would not have agreed.”
Landros seemed on the verge of doing some manner of violence to his half-human friend but brought himself under control, and, just as suddenly as he had seized the man, he thrust him aside in disgust. He turned his back on him and stood at the edge of the overhang.
Adrick called after him in righteous self-defence, “You ought to be grateful, Landros. Time may quickly come when that fifty harps will not buy you a loaf of bread!”
Humming softly to herself, Lark began looking Landros over. He gazed out at the night as if the rain had been sent as a personal insult. He was not exactly handsome, but he was pleasant enough to look on, with strong lines, but the delicate elven boning and shape. His hair clung wetly to his tanned neck and shoulders, straight and dark gold. He was slight of stature, no taller than she, but nicely muscled and well-defined. He moved like a lithe wild animal newly penned in a circus cage. His eyes were the most striking thing about him, a deep amber that turned to stare into her soul and seemed uncertain how to react to find her observing him so closely.
Very much disturbed by the Romeri girl’s intent gaze, Landros went inside, out of the wind and the rain and the presence of her, to watch the inner courtyard from the back of the guardhouse. Even more infuriating, it seemed, was that she appeared genuinely innocent of the reaction she was causing.
Shrugging his abruptness off to rudeness and anger, Lark put Landros from her mind. Her humming changed to singing as a means to pass the time and ease the memory of how this evening had begun. Inside, Landros heard her. His instinct had been correct. Her voice was rich and velvety in the way no elven voice could be. Her accent added the touch of a purr to it, very sultry.
Sultry, that was the best way to describe her, he thought. The only way to describe her.
He suddenly realized that he had stopped fuming to listen to her, that his impatience and anger were leaching away like the rain into the earth outside. Then, just as suddenly, she stopped.
Adrick trotted up, hushing her almost rudely. “Please, my dear. This is a temple, holy ground, a place of peace!”
“Sometimes, Adrick....,” Landros growled to himself in Elven. “Just can’t leave well enough alone, can you?”
The girl just stared at the priest, stunned. No one had ever asked her to stop singing before. Ignored her, yes. Asked her to stop...? “What...” she began when she found her tongue. “What has your god against music?”
“Goddess, actually,” he began, drawing himself up with all the pomp and arrogance and self-righteousness he could muster. “The Maiden is a goddess. And she has nothing against music, per se. Still, her temple is a place of learning and should be kept as a quiet place. Even though it is not yet built.”
Pompous windbag, Landros thought.
What arrogant popinjay! thought Lark.
Disgruntled, she turned away. She stared out into the rain, trying to decide whether it was worth it to get even wetter, or to stick it out where she was. The arrogance here was overwhelming. She began to regret, and not for the first time, not leaving this city a week earlier than she had tried to before the siege and the sealing of the city gates. Just seven days, and she would have been free. Now she was trapped here, in this filthy, reeking prison of stone and cobbles and unwashed bodies. Sometimes, she wished she could just fly away, like Nightingale, her familiar.
The woman stepped up to her, put her hand gently on her shoulder, and smiled. “Oh, do not let him get to you. He is a bit overzealous at times.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Bit?”
Rue half-laughed. “Something of an understatement, yes. Tell me, you are a Gypsy, no? One of the roamers?”
Lark gave her a long look, but the woman’s attitude did not set off any anti-Gypsy warning signals. She seemed friendly and genuinely curious, though she wore the same style and color of robes as Adrick, purple and pale blue. “I am Romeri, yes,” she answered.
“Do you, perhaps, read fortunes?”
Lark brightened at the question. Finally, the opportunity for a properly turned coin!
Landros stood watching the inner courtyard. Something caught his eye near the rear of the unfinished wall, just beyond the enclosure of the shrine itself. Something was not right. He turned and passed through the archway, intent on grabbing Adrick or Barak to investigate.
At that moment, turned. “I get rune stones,” she said and bent from the waist to rummage through her pack for them.
Landros stopped, staring; his reason for coming out here completely gone from his mind as the hem of her voluminous skirts rode up in the back, giving him an excellent view of lovely calves. The dampness of the skirts only served to further accentuate her other assets. She stood, her hair swinging back out of her face with a toss of her head. A flower fell from her temple. She started to bend over again to pick it up, and He almost paused for another view but reined himself in sharply.
“Lark,” he said, moving more to the side of her. “Do me a favor, would you?”
“Sesha?” she asked, pausing in the act of reaching for the blossom, somewhat confused.
“You... you are a very good-looking young woman,” he began, not quite certain how to put this without getting himself slapped. “For a human,” he added. “If you were an elf, you’d be Damned Good-Looking. But you are very good-looking. But you are also a distraction. I am trying to work over here, and I can’t do that with you....” he gestured ineffectively, trying to indicate what she had been doing.
She straightened, resting half-made fists on the upper slope of her hips, waiting, amusement clear in her black eyes.
“If you have to get anything out of your bag, do it like this....” He then squatted beside the flower, exaggerating the bending of his knees, and picked it up. “That way, I can work,” he placed the soggy blossom in her hand, “and you can get your rune stones. Thank you,” and turned, trying to remember why he had come out here in the first place.
A long, low wolf whistle broke the heavy night air, repeated, louder this time. Lark stiffened and held up her slim hand for silence. Then, a breath later, she slid the scimitar from its place without so much as a hiss of silk. “Trouble,” she whispered.
Landros stepped between the women and the sound, his long sword seeming to materialize into his hand so quickly was it drawn.
“What do you mean, trouble?” Adrick puffed, not even trying to keep his voice down. “It was only someone admiring a pretty lady. Perhaps yourself in your present, rather revealing state....”
She silenced him with her hand across his mouth, black eyes flashing inches from his as she leaned in. “That is my familiar,” she hissed tightly. “And sound means trouble.’’
“Mumiryer?” he mumbled through her hand.
“Familiar,” she nodded and let him go.
“Where?” Landros asked quietly.
“That way,” she pointed. “About....” she paused, trying to translate the bird’s thoughts, “our number of them, I think. Sorry, mockingbirds cannot count.”
Landros gestured for Adrick, Lithgorin, and Rue to sneak around the other side of the wall and for Barak to come with him, hoping to pin the trouble between them. There was no question of the girl following. He seriously doubted she would have stayed put if he had tied her to the archway posts.
Silently, or as nearly as possible with so many humans in tow, they slipped out into the rain towards the courtyard grounds of the half-built temple. From behind them, the Romeri whispered softly, “Follow sound of whip-poor-will.”
The wolf whistle ceased. A few seconds passed, and the sounds of ‘whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will’ could be heard a few hundred yards away. The lightning and other magical flashes from the siege mages cast eerie shadows among the half-standing walls and the columns that lay about in pieces waiting to be erected to full glory. Soon, they began to hear talking and crude laughter just beyond the outside wall. In the darkness, Landros made out five figures vaguely man-shaped, possibly human. This he communicated with Barak, knowing the large human was, for all intents and purposes, blind in the darkness.
As he turned to whisper to the girl, he could not find her. He breathed a sigh of relief. ‘One less thing to worry about,’ he thought. ‘At least the girl has some sense.’ He waited a few more moments until he could see the glimmer of the others just beyond the group of men.
“Hah! She didn’t put up much of a fight, did she?” joked one man, unaware they were being stalked.
“Nah, too scared. It was almost no fun at all, no challenge.”
There was a pause as one of them glared incredulously at the speaker.
“I said almost,” came the gravelly reply, and the laughter began anew.
“Come on, Feris said to meet him at the Hog’s Blood in half an hour. If we want our pay, anyway, and I don’t know about you, but I.....”
Lightning flashed in the distance, illuminating a wild-looking figure on the top of the temple wall beside them. Long dark hair fanned out wickedly in the wind, and her arms were upraised in what could have been an arcane gesture, as if the storm had come at her bidding alone. An instant later, before the one man who saw this could react and warn his friends, the net hit him, bearing him to the ground and pinning him beneath the weight of the man who had stood next to him. Chaos erupted. Both halves of the party converged in the middle, taking the remaining three men by complete surprise. The combat was over in less than a minute.
Lark appeared nearby as they started gathering the limp or whimpering bodies, stepping out of the trees next to the wall. There was a flash of movement beneath her hair, and a mockingbird peeked his head out into the rain at the jumble of prisoners. “I saw place just inside building there where can be put.”
With a nod, Landros began helping the others carry or push or kick the villains into the temple grounds. Thankfully, the area she pointed out was relatively dry; the roof having already been partly erected. They interrogated the two who were still conscious. Barak seized one of them and picked him up by his arms. He felt very vulnerable, dangling in the air, his toes easily a foot off the ground. Barak turned him around to face Landros.
“Tell the man what he wants to know, or I make a wish,” he said in the man’s ear.
Landros stepped obligingly up. “What were you doing on the temple grounds?” he asked, as menacingly as he could muster with rainwater running down the narrow locks plastered to his face.
“Nothing. We were just passing by,” he insisted, trying to sound indignant.
“No. I saw you just on the other side of the wall by the main building. Inside the grounds, so don’t feign innocent with me, or I’ll let him split you like a wishbone.”
He thought about it for a moment, glanced up and back at the black giant holding him. Barak grinned. “I don’t know nothing, I tell you!!”
“Who is Feris?” Lithgorin growled, a mere shadow in the corner.
“Uhhhh, a fence. A broker. He... he finds jobs for people.”
“And your job was?” Landros smiled tightly. It was not a friendly expression.
“Nothing, really. Just take the artifact and go! Hell, that rock is already on its way to the client!”
“Rock? Hey, Adrick, wasn’t there something about a gemstone or a magical rock around here?” Landros asked.
Adrick trotted up quickly from magically binding the others. “Yes. I believe so. I think they placed a famous or powerful stone in the altar before they sealed it today. It is standard practice to....”
Landros ignored the rest of his speech. He pulled the man’s face as close to his as he could stomach. His breath reeked of onions and garlic and other equally foul human foods. “Where is the rock?” he demanded.
“I don’t know!!” the man insisted. Landros held his breath, gritting his teeth against the stench. “Truly!! I work for Feris! We do not know who hired him to hire us! Just that it was somebody powerful. He probably has it already!”
“If the rock is so long gone, why are you still hanging about?”
The man kicked to try and free himself in a desperate, weak gesture. Barak spread his arms further, pulling him higher up, and he felt the slow burn in his shoulders. “There was a detail to take care of,” he spouted reluctantly.
“What detail? The woman?”
He stopped struggling. “Um, we ran into a priestess,” he answered meekly. “She, um, tried to stop us, but um, she couldn’t, so, um, we.... she fainted! Yeah and weeee....” his mind raced, trying desperately to give the insane elf what he wanted and still be able to keep his arms attached. “We put her into the altar.” He braced himself, expecting to get his arms pulled from their sockets and his head to follow shortly. Barak tightened his grip on the man’s wrists, but no rending of limbs occurred. After a few short seconds, he ventured a peek.
Landros had merely gathered himself, trying to keep from ripping the guy’s head off, and settled for landing a hard fist along the man’s jaw. The body promptly went slack in Barak’s hold, and Barak let go. They watched the limp figure crumple onto the stone floor. “Not bad,” Barak mused, impressed by the display of strength from the little man.
“Hmm,” Landros mused in response. “Do you think it’s too much to hope he cracked his head when he landed?”
Without another word, Landros began walking back into the main chamber of the temple, to where the altar had been set up just that afternoon with great pomp and ceremony. The others followed, leaving the thugs securely bound in the corner. The main chamber was a grand place, to be filled with archways and mosaics and alcoves. At the end of the large room was a narrow dais on which stood the marble altar. Landros set to examine the altar cap but could find no way to get a grip on it or to attach the ropes above it. Even with Barak helping him, it would not move.
It begged the question how they had gotten it open and closed on their own. How they got in and were not heard or caught by him and his friends, he could see… and, ironically, hear. There was a section of the wall that was incomplete, and some spell active here that dampened sound. Had it not been raining they would have been patrolling the grounds and caught the bastards. He growled to himself, cursing the rain for the twentieth time tonight.
“Hold on a minute,” Landros said and reached into his pack. He donned a pair of stiff leather gauntlets, flexing his fingers to ensure a proper, snug fit. “Now,” he said, returning to the problem at hand. “Adrick, get that long pole over there. We’ll use that as a lever. Ladies, if you would step out of the way?”
Rue crossed her arms and huffed, “And what if we want to help?” she snapped.
He stood, gave her a stiff bow. “My lady, if you believe yourself stronger than Adrick or Lith, by all means, please, take their place. For there is only room for four of us here.”
She waved him off with a sneer, though her lips curled almost instantly into a smile. He flicked a curt salute to her teasing and turned back to the capstone. Adrick placed the pole and set himself. Barak stood in the middle, with Lith and Landros on either side of him, and, counting off, they heaved. The stone groaned, shifted, then crashed to the floor, where it broke neatly down the middle.
“Oh, Maid Jeliana is going to be pissed,” Adrick muttered, staring forlornly at the broken stone.
Landros ignored him, looking into the surprisingly deep hollow. The altar was at least twelve feet deep, and he could just make out the priestess’s body lying at odd angles at the bottom. “I see her,” he said, “Somebody get me a rope.” As it was being dug out, he gave a quick eye measure of the hole. “This is going to be tight,” he muttered.
“I’ll go down.” They all looked at Lark. “I’m only one will fit down there with her. You most certainly won’t,” she snapped, lightly pushing Barak out of her way. Without waiting for anyone’s agreement, she perched on the edge and swung her legs into the hole, dangling them patiently as she waited for them to rig up a makeshift harness for her. Once the rope was secured, she pulled off her muddy slippers and tossed them aside. Just before descending, she pulled out a small pendant of a songbird from a hidden pocket in her tight vest and slipped it around her throat. At a word, light sprang into the room with the equivalence of full daylight, emanating from the pendant. “Now, I can see,” she said and allowed them to ease her down below the level of the top before she set her feet on opposite sides of the shaft and deftly walked the rest of the way.
Above, Lithgorin mused aloud. “Nimble little minx. Attractive, too.”
Landros only grunted in response.
Lithgorin merely rolled his eyes and muttered something in Elven about Landros not knowing a handsome woman if she bit him.
“She’s alive!!” Lark’s call echoed up the shaft. “Anyone got healing draughts up there? I’d rather not risk moving her until she’s had at least one.”
“Hold on a second,” Rue called. “We’ll lower it by rope.”
“Just toss down,” she called.
Wary, Rue aimed carefully so that the bottle would not hit the sides and break on the way. The girl caught it deftly and, carefully straddling the priestess in the tight space, slowly poured some into her bloody mouth. Once there were signs of life in her, Lark fed her the rest of the potion. A few moments later, she felt confident enough to slip the harness on her and have her hauled up. The moment she was out of the hole, Adrick and Rue fell to work and began praying over her for healing, leaving Landros and Barak to send the rope back down after Lark.
The woman opened her eyes, glanced at both of them, and smiled weakly. “Thank the Maiden. You must get me to the main temple. They have stolen the Rock of Mystery, and it cannot be allowed to remain in their hands.”
Adrick nodded, gathering her up in his arms carefully, and walked away.
Pulling Lark from the hole and winding up the rope, the others followed, collecting the prisoners from their corner and marching them in front, and gathering their gear on the way out of the site.
Lark shouldered her bag and stared after them, not yet stepping out into the rain again. She looked north to where she had left her caravan and the promise of dry clothes and a warm stove with piping hot tea. She looked after the small group marching determinedly toward the Temple of Three and sighed. By her ear, the mockingbird peeped a confused question. “Yes, I know, Nightingale, I know. But.... there might be some adventure in this. I do not know, but ...I may regret this, but... oh, hells!” she muttered and darted out into the rain after them.