Part 15 – Unsure and Obscure
Trust the Star Witch was becoming something of an unspoken mantra for Jala. It made sense. Though she would always stand enigmatic as a highly questionable character, Kru had proven herself as an astute travelling ally throughout the odd journey so far and – dare she think it – as a friend.
It was obvious. She knew Stellastelathororn. She was worldly, experienced and far more aware and knowledgeable of the ways of strange southern societies than the young northern barbarian. Out of her comfort zone and far from home in an unfamiliar place, Jala did as instructed and followed Kru’s lead.
‘Erm, yes,’ she stuttered, attempting to summon up a convincing acting performance. ‘I didn’t know her at all before today when we, errr, met upon the road…’
The guards – a ring of them all wearing wary, judgemental looks on their visages – looked back and to from Jala to Kru Nak To to Jala to Krung Nak To again.
‘Really?’ muttered a burly man whom they assumed to be the highest ranking of the horde. He had a brushy moustache and the heels of his leather bootikins were greatly elevated whereas his colleagues’ footwear was flat-soled. Jala noticed that upon their armour all of the men wore a little golden brooch with a fist symbol stamped into its centre.
‘Yes, yes!’ Kru interjected.
‘I was, ah… wandering down near the mountainside and then found her around, erm… those parts!’ Jala cut back in. ‘We warmed to each other immediately. We’d been wandering on our own so long that we welcomed each other’s company…’
‘And, because I’d wandered astray, this kind young lady of the North decided to guide me. Thus, we find ourselves here but, now, alas we must part…’
‘So, she’s not with you?’ asked the suspicious looking lead guard.
‘Oh, ah, no,’ Jala answered. ‘I have my own business to attend to. I need to find a swordsmith, and some summer clothes and, erm, someone who can sell me devices that I might torture despicable sorcerous dwarfs with…’
Jala sensed that she was the subject of some curious glances so quickly added…
‘… I may also be in the market for a pack-mule. Honestly, the dwarf torture was just a joke…’
‘Ha! What a spunky, spirited young woman she is!’ Kru came forward to save the situation and brought Jala into an intimate embrace. ‘Well goodbye, my child. And here, a token of my gratitude…’
The Star Witch reached into her bosom and pulled a clutch of flowers from out of her dress. Jala remembered – she’d ripped those flowers right out of an indigolily shrub back beside the Fountain of the Meek all that time ago.
Kru leaned in close as she handed over the plant. In the blackness of the witch’s hood she spied the two shining small eyes of Marek, keeping his silent peace for the present. Jala’s eyes fixed on the face of Kru and listened in to the riddle her guide whispered without moving her lips…
The friend you’ve lost, far out of sight,
Thrice named on the flower, blooms reunite.
‘I think I understand,’ said Jala as Kru withdrew to join the entourage of guards.
‘I think you do,’ the Star Witch smiled in return. ‘I will be seeing you soon enough again, my sweet, I’m sure. Now men, take me where thou wilt and where I need to be…’
And with that the guards stood to attention, the leading figure gestured down the street and they marched off in slightly formal fashion. With Kru and Marek gone Jala stood alone – alone and uncertain on the mean streets of Stellastelathororn.
The streets were filthy. Kru didn’t remember them being this dirty the last time she was in the city. It was true that she hadn’t stalked the alleys and avenues of Stellastelathororn’s lower city for decades but still, she thought as she dodged a puddle of what looked like vomit and discarded fourth-hand bathwater, it definitely wasn’t this mucky in the old days.
As the guards bustled her down a particularly tight byway the Star Witch began to ponder deeply. Something was amiss here. Her escorts were laconic and giving off unfriendly vibes. The streets were quiet and they saw few people as they marched ever onward into the metropole’s depths. The atmosphere was odd, ugly even. It was an atmosphere similar to that of a party where someone has had a tremendous upset or died and everyone carries on, though it’s clear that they’re carrying on under the shadow of the great white rhinophant that’s in the room.
At a turn to the left over an exposed sewer, the group came upon the darkest walkway they’d yet encountered on their ramble. Why have we left the more illustrious and appealing parts o Stellastelathororn? one of Kru’s many internal monologues wandered. Surely, we are going the wrong way, if we mean to head to the university. The men moved ever nearer to her and as the armoured elbow of one of their number smashed into her hip the Star Witch started and, all at once, panicked at the uneasy peculiarity of her current situation. Okay, enough, came the cry of another of her internal monologues. Find out why we are being frogmarched through the deserted and dirty back nether regions of the lower city slum districts and find out now!
Kru opted to comply with that cry. Before speaking, she considered the gang of seven around her and tried to rummage back through her memory to recall the last time she had encountered agents of the Sablemagus Guild.
‘So,’ she piped up, shattering the sharp silence. ‘Quite conspicuous these days, aren’t you? To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to find the Guild so easily upon arrival in the city. Way back when it used to be that you’d have to hide in dark corners and wait for the oh-so-elusive acolytes of oh-so-elusive Sablemagus Guild to reach out to you…’
The head guard turned to Kru and eyeballed her with a touch of amazement, his brushtache poised in a position that spoke of acute incredulity. ‘Honestly, you really think that we’re from the Sablemagus Guild?’
Something deflated deep down inside Kru’s torso and she came to realise that she had made a hideous error. Such errors were rare and, thus, hugely traumatic to a Star Witch with such an inflated sense of self-assured mastery. ‘Ah,’ she sighed. ‘Not from the Guild…’
‘No,’ came the response with a smug smile. The six other guards reflected the smug smile and thirteen eyes all honed in on the helpless witch with greedy, mocking malice.
‘Well, I was hoping to see the Sablemagus Guild and, well, it’s actually quite important so if you don’t mind…’
But a sword swiftly unsheathed from a scabbard stopped her in her tracks as she sought to move away. ‘No you don’t, my dear,’ said the leading guard, his moustache raising itself as a forbidding barrier.
This angered Kru. ‘I do not like being called “my dear” and I do not like…’
‘Oh, my dear, I care little for what you like,’ he retorted. ‘To be honest, I’m actually surprised. What of the wisdom, eldritch intelligence and sharp wits of the fabled Krung Nak To, the legendary Star Witch, the lauded Lady Charmfingers…’
‘Only one woman is allowed to call me that!’ came Kru’s incensed rejoinder but the tached tormenter dismissed her rising wrath with a casual shrug and a chuckle.
‘Well, I personally was expecting something far more challenging when we were tasked to apprehend you. Now if you don’t mind, somebody wants to see you and it is our duty to forcefully escort you.’
‘Who wants to see me?’ It was one of those uncommon occasions in Kru’s life where slivers of fear and shades of absolute uncertainty crept into her conscious awareness and started to eat away at her nerve ends.
‘That you will find out soon enough,’ replied the guard as he reached down into a satchel hanging off of his utility belt. He retrieved a set of chained metallic rings and, with a nod, ushered his colleagues forward to grab a hold of their captive before she had time to defend herself properly.
Kru struggled against their grips but it was hopeless against so many men. Her arms were forced forward towards the advancing head guard who grinned with great relish as he placed the catatonic fingercuffs over her digits.
The last she heard was the muted sneer of ‘How do you like the fit of those, Lady Charmfingers?’ before she faded from consciousness and swooned into a sinking stupor.
As she drooped, Marek moved further down into the depths of her cloak, determined to remain undetected. He stifled a fretful squeal and clung tightly to the inside of Kru’s armpit as the seven armoured men dragged her comatose form away.
The streets were filthy. Streets were still a relatively new phenomenon to Jala but she was pretty sure that Stellastelathororn’s public highways were in a poorer condition than standard. It seemed that everywhere she stepped there was a pile of abandoned waste, a puddle of foul liquid or the corpse of some kind of creature. It was true that she was in a busy trading district near the city’s harbour but still, the gross uncleanliness of the environs seemed excessive.
Strolling solo through the strange new world that was Stellastelathororn, Jala had found herself repeatedly wishing that she hadn’t parted with Kru and Marek. The Star Witch would undoubtedly have been able to navigate her way through the perplexing labyrinthine lanes and direct her straight to an auspicious destination. Even accepting that Kru knew best and that separation was necessary, it would have been nice to keep Marek if only for some company.
Overwhelmed by the urban immensity of Stellastelathororn, Jala had wandered dazed and with no idea of what she was doing or where she was going. She had sort of hoped that if she just moved around with the ebb and flow of the city eventually she’d hit upon someone or something she could stick to. This had not happened and so, feeling evermore like an aimless outsider, she’d ended up slipping through the insalubrious areas. Her eyes were wide open and she stayed alert as she walked around attempting to get a firm appreciation and of the big southerly city’s daily life.
Daily life in these sectors was dirty and loud. Up above the elevated upper city with its temples, palaces and university buildings stood aloof and serene, overshadowing the lower city with its dockyards, its merchant markets and its sooty slum dwellings.
Jala had meandered around these parts, somehow failing to find a route that took her near to the prestigious rise in which the likes of the Sablemagus Guild must surely reside. Having never before seen any sort of sea, she had nervously avoided the harbour and doubled backed every time she’d caught a glimpse of the great, terrifying blue beyond. All she’d discovered in the residential slums were ugly, unwelcoming looks and, altogether, this had encouraged her to try and stick around the busy public areas full of trade and labour activity.
Now under a brooding late afternoon sun she’d come to a befuddled halt in a lively plaza. Colourful market stalls and even more colourful characters thronged around a set of weathered sea creature statues. All ages, races, creeds and personality types seemed to be here and to Jala’s mind – a mind that only really knew the open wilderness of the sparsely populated North – it looked like an elaborate battle scene that refused to play by the rules of conventional combat. There was certainly blood, for the rough tiles of the market square swam with the entrails of fish in addition to various clumps of used hay, excrement and whoknowswhatelse.
It was disgusting. Jala began to feel sick, dizzied by all the movement and the blur of faces. A woman dragging a giant wolfhog by a rope shoved past and knocked the poor traveller hard against a slime-coated wall. Picking herself up again, Jala caught sight of a child selling ferret fur sashes from a barrel and she began to think of Marek, wishing once again that she hadn’t been left alone in this unnerving alien realm.
Spinning round she came to see an obscenely obese man gobbling down a half-dozen live eels for the entertainment of a small circle of enraptured onlookers. Seeing this and catching a whiff of the rank salt-seasoned air, she started to dry-retch.
She was weary. She was lost. She was feeling terribly unwell and insecure and now she simply longed for rest and a quiet space to gather her thoughts.
Turning aside from the plaza into a sidestreet she spied a wooden sign over a doorway that was decorated with an inviting picture of a waving jolly golden giant. Making out the words ‘Goldengreet Tavern‘, Jala’s mind was made up in an instant. She stumbled towards the bright yellow doorway and forced herself inside, shunning the smell of fishguts and sea salt for an indoor reprieve.
It was an eerie place. The lights were dim and the clientele appeared to be even dimmer. A lone barmaid was measuring out queer-looking coloured liquids without any apparent rhyme or reason. Jala clocked a couple of papers pinned up behind the bar that were stamped with a fist symbol similar to that gracing the golden badges of the guards she’d met earlier. The only other people in the tavern were a gang of brutish men who’d commandeered a couple of benches in the centre of the room. Jala could tell from the number of empty flagons that they’d been here a while and their raucous manner – all rowdy joshing and loud boozy boasts about Gütte Ragworm’s mother – confirmed that they’d been drinking heavily.
Creeping up to the bar, Jala tried to summon up the courage to order a drink but found herself voiceless. She tried to cough out some words but upon meeting the gormless frown of the barmaid she shrank back embarrassed. Rasping out something that resembled ‘I’m sorry, just give me a moment’ she withdrew to a corner booth and dumped her exhausted body down onto an uncomfortable wooden seat.
So much for reprieve. It was as if all her northern fortitude and barbarian strength had deserted her upon venturing into this forsaken city. Arrival in Stellastelathororn had not been the grand experience she had anticipated and now, isolated and ignorant of the way that enormous foreign settlements worked, she felt tremendous uncertainty and anxiety.
Her body shut down. Utterly forlorn, all thoughts of the journey so far and all its ordeals flashed through her tired mind. It seemed absurd that she’d been through all that just to end up as a sad, solitary husk hanging hopeless in a dim drinking hole in the shabby lower parts of the glorious city of infinite promise. What about her destiny?
All these thoughts, memories and mental images thrashed around and burned and blazed in her brain until, all of a sudden, she felt a strange and shooting chill surge and whistle its way through the inside of her skull. Jala raised her head, her gaze drawn to an opposite corner of the tavern. The loose form of a figure – a figure she had not previously been aware of – came into vision. He had a loose, fluid shape and his black hooded cloak was blacker than the blackest black. He came closer. In an ethereal fashion and with a motion that didn’t seem to be in sync with regular time about him, all blurred at the edges.
‘Hello…’ echoed a high-pitched, sonorous voice. ‘May I take a seat here?’
Jala blinked at the shape. ‘Erm, yes…’ she replied, hardly thinking of her wish for some company and more answering in kind because she had no idea what else to say.
‘Thank you,’ echoed the gentle, lilting reply. ‘I see that you are a person of interest… a person who has travelled far in search of answers to many mysteries…’
‘Yes.’ Jala murmured, slightly dumbstruck.
‘Good…’ and at this point the figure leaned forward over the bench. His face peered out of his hood and Jala came to see the beatific vision of beaming serenity that suggested advanced years, advanced wisdom and advanced compassion. Compared to everything else she’d seen today, this was a pleasant sight to behold.
The serene man’s forehead flapped and for a split-second Jala could have sworn that another eye appeared above the brows. She blinked rapidly and, coming back into focus, she found that her new acquaintance was breathing quite heavily, whistling as he ate up the air as if he was desperately trying to ingest something in order to attain some sort of euphoria.
‘Ah… ah… Jala… I see you seek so many answers and are so very lost…’
‘Wait, how do you know my name?!’ she cried out, perhaps a little louder than she intended to.
He leaned back and continued to suck up the air. Jala looked him up and down and then marking the man’s darker than dark cloak it hit her. ‘The Sablemagus Guild?’
The man stopped and relaxed down into a smile and an uncanny congratulatory expression. Before he had chance to say anything though a wild, hostile scream shattered the relative calm of the tavern.
A flagon flew through the air and smashed against the Guildmeister’s right shoulder. He shook and wriggled to his feet (if he had feet) then turned swiftly to face his assailants. Advancing across the room in an alco-fuelled frenzy the gang of brutes were approaching the blacker-than-black cloak shape with palpable bloodthirstiness. Surprised by the sudden rush of activity, Jala heard a holler of ‘Smash ‘im up!’ followed by a roaring ‘Get the weird dark’un!’ and then a whole brace of emptied drinking vessels battered their corner as the mob came in closer.
It all happened so quickly. The hooded figure turned to Jala, winked at her with his third eye and sang softly and sweetly ‘Jala… come with me my child…’
Next thing she knew her new acquaintance had whirled around and with a faint woosh was leaping through the window above their booth, the grimy glass shattering in spectacular fashion.
She rose to follow him but stumbled as she attempted to gain a footing on top of the bench. Slipping, she dropped the knapsack that she’d been clutching at hard for comfort. She scrambled to scoop up her things but then saw that the fistful of indigolily flowers that Kru had given her had fallen just out of reach onto the floor.
The flowers. The Blooms reunite invocation riddle. How could she have forgotten the flowers that, if she’d understood correctly, could lead her back to Kru whenever she desired?
She dropped down flat on the tabletop hoping to get her hands on the precious gift but it was too late. The gang was now upon her and she wouldn’t be able to retrieve the flowers and follow the footsteps (if he had feet) of the Sablemagus Guildmeister.
She had to make a choice – Should she flee and chase the mysterious Guildmeister who may be able to give her answers, leaving the only link to Kru behind? Or should she let the Guildmeister go and stand her ground to fight off the attacking throng of thugs here in the tavern?
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