When the meeting ended, it was early evening and Aurei hurried through the mass of people to catch up with the young knight as he walked alone from the Keep.
"Sir Eleazar?" she called as she hurried down the steps to catch him. She was afraid he'd not be too happy if forced to speak to her alone, but she was pleased to see him stop and turn to her as she joined him.
"Duchess, what can I do for you?" he asked almost shyly, the very slightest hint of a smile on his lips.
"I was hoping you could stand my presence enough to allow me to walk with you."
"Well, the sight of you no longer tempts me into an angry rage - but I must admit that it is tough for me not to look upon you without very negative feelings welling up inside of me."
"Nothing violent, I hope?" she smiled demurely.
"No, not any more… that is gone now forever."
"I'm very glad of that. Are you hungry?"
"Very much so, but I think I'd prefer to eat alone."
"Well, I tell you what - if you'll come with me over to the Inn, I'll give you something to eat that you can take wherever you'd like and I'll leave you alone."
"I don't want to owe you for a meal, Duchess."
"You won't - the information you provided at the town meeting is more then enough to pay for a meal."
Eleazar sighed, seeing the girl was determined to get her way - just like most Drow women, "Okay, Duchess, sometimes it is easier to give your opponent more than they demand to save a struggle - I will dine WITH you -- do you have a private room where we could dine alone?"
Aurei was completely taken back by the complete change of attitude from the Elf, "Um… yeah, we do. You want to eat dinner with me… alone?"
"I don't 'Want to' Duchess, but I know the look in your eyes too well; as it is the stubbornness that is a racial trait of most Drow noblewomen and I really don't want a long battle, so I will give you what you want."
"I'm not sure I like that, Sir Knight - you're not going to try to beat me with a chicken leg when we're alone are you?"
"Probably not - I'm still too weak to give you any trouble, Duchess. Hopefully in time I'll be able to --- give you trouble that is, not beat you."
"I look forward to it, as that will mean you're well."
"I'm not sure, Duchess, if I will actually ever be 'well' again."
"You will be." she said with certainty, "Because I am going to require your help."
Eleazar laughed, "My word, but you DO sound like a Drow Matron!"
She frowned at him, "Right now I'm merely a Drow Duchess that is up to her pointy ears in vexing problems. I'm certainly not demanding anything from you, Sir Eleazar, but I am very sure you will willingly help me."
He looked at her amused, "Oh really? Why, pray tell, would I do that?"
"Therapy." She replied, "You faced something in the Elven forest that left you weak and shaken. You've changed and I see that you are not the same, rather arrogant Knight that rode into Westmark and tried to kill me upon our first meeting. I think you have conquered many of your 'demons'."
The knight visibly paled at mention of the word and for a moment looked at her stunned, before regaining composure, "Duchess, you have no idea."
"There is just one fault that remains to be cleansed, and that is your hatred of the Drow. I feel Yesh brought you here to help you remove that hatred by helping me. I mean, think about it - I am very likely the only Drow this side of Aeropolis and you are brought here of all places, so you have to deal with me. It sounds to me like Yesh wants you to learn something about your feelings for the Drow."
"Duchess, I led three expeditions into the Underdark to destroy several Drow cities. I've faced thousands of Drow and killed nearly as many. Yet all that bloodshed never lessened my hatred for your kind."
"Hate usually doesn't go away after violence, quite often it just makes hatred worse."
"And you think that by helping you - or your people here- it will suddenly make me accept the race that killed my mother?"
"No, I hope that it will teach you to judge by individuals, not by race."
"There are no good Drow, Duchess."
"What about me, Sir Eleazar? Am I evil?"
"You are… different, Duchess. You are just a human girl in a Drow form. You understand what it is to look like a Drow, but not to actually live as one. So you don't count."
"So you are saying I'm more-or-less just a human?"
"Exactly - in the way you think, you are."
"Then why are you prejudiced against me?"
"Because you still look like those she-devils in the Underdark!" He was growing irritated at her logic.
"Can't you see, Sir? You're judging me on how I look!"
Eleazar sighed in frustration and rubbed his forehead, "Duchess, it is rather hard to get past your appearance. You have to understand --- Drow nobles are almost a sub-species of the Drow race, they are taller, more graceful, and the Drow noblewomen are all exceptionally beautiful. They know how to use their beauty to get their way with not only their own kind, but males of most humanoid species. It is not a learned trait, apparently, for you have been using your magic on me and believe me, if I can be affected it is a sign that you are exceptional in your skill. It was my Drow father's mother - my own grandmother, I guess- that once lured me away from my mother with her beauty when I was a mere boy in order to use me to her own ends. How perverse it is, yet that is why they do it, Duchess Bugley, to get their way. I have seen extremely beautiful noblewomen use their charms against males of many species, and more times than not, they are successful. I have even met Matron Zeatt, the priestess of Yesh that leads the exiled Drow followers of Yesh in Aeropolis, and even she was unable to persuade me to train some of the Drow youth of the city as knights to serve Yesh. Matron Zeatt is most persuasive, Duchess, and one of the most attractive Drow women I have ever seen, yet I was able to easily resist her. Then I met you. You greatly resemble her, Duchess, though I must say you surpass her with your beauty and charming skills. That is why even speaking to you makes me very, very uneasy, for I'm afraid I'm being charmed, whether you know you are doing it or not."
Aurei stopped and touched the knight's arm, looking deep into his eyes, "Sir Eleazar, as Yesh as my witness, I'm not deliberately trying to use any kind of Drow hocus-pocus on you! Honestly, I'm not trying to deceive you or manipulate you. Could we not just talk and get to know each other better and maybe you will be more relaxed around me and then you will be able to understand what I'm trying to accomplish?"
"I've agreed to dine with you already, Duchess, and I will leave the conversation up to you."
"But I want you to at least give me a fair hearing, Sir Eleazar."
"I promise I will do that."
They reached the front entrance to the Muddy Boot and the Knight held the door open for her. As soon as she entered the Inn, a chorus of male voices called to her, but she just waved at the Patrons and went over to tell Brandi that they would be using one of the Inn's three private dining rooms. She then led the Drow half-breed through a door into a somewhat quieter and empty room. She bid him sit at one of the twelve places along the rectangular table, "Now, tell me what you would like to eat?"
He surprised her by placing a very hardy order for an Elf, but she was delighted that he seemed to be growing less awkward around her and so she hurried to put the order in and returned with a long stoneware bottle and two mead flagons.
Eleazar eyed both with raised brows, "Duchess, I don't drink alcohol."
Aurei smiled, "I know, Paladins of your order don't drink, but
this is Sylvan Elf Honey Mead - unfermented and very sweet
"I haven't had any of that in many years."
"We have a Wood Elf who brings us a case several times a year - he makes it himself and it is actually quite good." She sat a flagon in front of the knight and poured the fluid into it and then into her own, "This should not get you in trouble with your Order."
"You have nothing to worry, Duchess, for I'm no longer a Paladin." He stated this so flatly and she nearly dropped the bottle in surprise.
"You're not? Why?"
He hesitated for a moment, but then he recalled one of his creeds. He had always made it a point that after he had made a mistake, to 'embrace the error' and go wholeheartedly through the suffering state in hopes that through misery he would learn discipline. This time he decided to force himself to suffer by allowing her charms to open him up, though he suspected she would merely use him for her own purpose. He no longer feared her to be evil, but she was still a Drow woman, albeit a young one, and he knew that all of this was just so she could get her way. He suspected that allowing her to see his vulnerabilities would very soon lead to heartache for him, and in that pain he would learn a lesson. So, motioning her to sit, he told her the story of his life, following the outline of his reoccurring nightmares, but supplementing it with his recent meeting with the Faesidhe, the revelation of his mother's identity and then the encounter with the Fae lady that ended with a demon being expelled from within him. He knew the whole grim tale would shock the young Drow woman and hopefully pop any bubbles of delusion she might have about him.
So he told it passionately and graphically and was somewhat glad to see the expressions come across her face as she sat and very quietly listened.
"-and that is when you and your half-Elf friend found me. I told Sir Alvis about the demon and even though he didn't say anything, I'm certain I will be removed from the order, which will mean I will no longer be a Paladin. It is only logical and I certainly don't blame him." He ended the tale with a long drink from the flagon.
Eleazar looked at the girl, satisfied that he had shocked her enough with the tale to curb her optimism toward him.
She sat there for a few moments after he finished, taking the story in, blinking back tears for his plight. A single tear dripped down her face and with it, Eleazar knew that his story had not had his desired effect. She took his hand in hers and he tried to gently pull it away, but she squeezed it while again looking deeply into his eyes with the same fiery redness that resembled his own.
"How you must have suffered." She finally commented, emotion in her voice, and he tried to move her away from pity.
"I haven't suffered enough, Duchess. How horrible to be deceived by evil as I have. Any Knight of the Blood worth the title should have fallen upon his own sword in disgrace."
"Don't talk that way, Sir Eleazar! Didn't Yesh say that 'Your failings are seeds of my grace that grow into mighty oaks of righteousness.' ?"
"Yes, but I think he didn't have my situation in mind when he said that, Duchess."
"Sir Eleazar, I did not detect any evil about you when I spoke to you outside of the Inn on the day you attacked me. I wonder if perhaps there is more than just a demon involved in your situation."
The young knight looked puzzled, "What do you mean?"
"Well, you said that the Drow matron was chanting a spell just before she killed your mother, right?"
"You assume she was summoning the demon of rage - but what if instead of summoning it, she was setting up the conditions of its imprisonment?"
"Well, maybe the spell she cast caused the demon to overtake you only in certain situations, such as times of high stress. Perhaps it only physically came upon you at these times but at all other times dwelt somewhere else."
Eleazar didn't respond to her idea, but she could tell that he was mulling over what she said.
"You see how that would work? At times of high stress, you'd be possessed, but then it would leave and no magic would detect any evil about you. It would be a rather fiendish spell, don't you agree? The type of spell an evil Drow would cast. Besides, if the Matron was going to use you as a gladiator, wouldn't other matrons be hesitant to send up their champions against someone possessed of a demon? Wouldn't they want to scan you magically before agreeing to a match? If they detected that you were possessed by a demon of rage, I'd think they would be loath to pit someone against you. So it would have been in the Matron's best interest to cast an enchantment like that on you. Competing Matrons would have had you scanned and that would have revealed only a slave boy, so they'd agree to the match and then during the match you'd be overwhelmed by evil and win, but the demon would depart again after the stress ended."
Eleazar scratched his chin, "It would certainly make sense. I'm impressed with your reasoning, Duchess. It would explain why the Order never sensed any evil about me while I was serving as a knight."
"And if that is indeed the case, then the demon lied to you about your paladin abilities, for you would have had them yourself when the demon was not upon you."
Aurei could see a glimmer of hope in the knight's red eyes.
"But I would still have to atone for my sins when under its control, and I would need to start afresh."
"No harm in that, is there?" She asked, but before he could reply, Brandi came through the door with trays of food for both of them and they interrupted their talk to prepare to eat.
After a few minutes of eating in silence, Aurei resumed their conversation, "You know, Sir Eleazar, one terrible thing that has happened to you that you didn't even mention is that you have never been a child. You grew up as a slave in the Underdark, working as a slave with no fun or any childhood companions to play with. Then, as a young man, you joined the Blood Knights which is a strict order and not subject to any sort of frivolous pursuits. Now you are all dour and somber, for you don't know how to relax and enjoy yourself."
"What is the point?"
"Elves on the surface love life, Sir Eleazar. They spend much of their time in frivolous activities. You missed out on that."
He shrugged, "Well, I guess I did."
"Another thing," Aurei continued as she picked at a piece of chicken, "You said that your mother was the Keeper of the Faesidhe Tree, according to what the Elves told you. You said she was immortal as she had eaten of the white fruit. Wouldn't that make you immortal too?"
"Who knows? As dangerous as my chosen profession is, I doubt that will mean much really."
Aurei paused a moment, debating telling him what she had in her mind to tell him, but she decided to press on anyway, "Sir Eleazar, I think I may have the same sort of problem you have as well."
He looked over at her, confused at her statement and she told him about the letter in the magic chest from Gamel that had told the story of the Faesidhe visiting her as a baby and how the mysterious lady had told her adopted father that she too was immortal.
"Really?" Eleazar exclaimed after she finished her tale, "You know, Matron Zeatt has long been rumored to not age, and she had a daughter a year or so after she came to Aeropolis who is about your age, I am told. As you look very much like the Matron, I'll bet that she is the Drow matron that the mysterious lady told Duke Gamel about. That would make her your aunt."
"Wow, a living relative." Aurei said in amazement.
"If you too are indeed immortal, I wouldn't let it worry you too much - immorality does not protect someone from harm or from accidents. Neither one of us will probably live out lives that are longer than we normally would as Elves."
"I hope so - already I have seen many good friends grow old and die while I stay young. In fact, my life was the complete opposite of yours - I lived as a human, and I was a child for 70 years, so to speak. I had plenty of time to frolic and play. In fact, I had it all figured out until I started puberty. Until then I'd found a niche I had fit in here, as a little dark elf girl. It was actually rather pleasant until I started growing up, that is when my problems began. Suddenly, after 70 years everyone began treating me differently and I felt awkward around everyone. So I know what it feels like to not fit in. To me, immortality, while those I love die off, seems clearly wrong. I hope my father was mistaken about what the lady told him. Forever is a long, long time."
"It is unless you know what to do with your time --- and you seem rather busy."
"Recently I certainly have been… too busy. It's hard to try to keep everything balanced out right, I am afraid I'm making a huge mess of things."
"I seriously doubt that, Duchess, it looks as if you are a natural leader."
Aurei snorted, "Yeah, right - me a leader."
"Why does that amuse you so much? Isn't that what you are doing?"
"I really didn't have a choice, it was just thrust upon me."
"Leadership often is. When I was 80 years old I was made a Captain of my order. That was 12 years ago and I have always felt like the Court Jester sitting on the throne, so to speak."
Aurei laughed at his use of words, "Sir Eleazar, do you have any close friends?"
"Friends?" he paused a moment to consider the word, "Well, I'm not really sure if I have ever had what I am told is a friend. You never made friends in the Slave pits of the Underdark, and as a knight I have comrades in arms, but we all have different jobs to do and missions that we go upon. I guess Sir Aeric is a close companion - we've seen many battles together. There is another knight - Sir Schzart- he's a member of the Lizardfolk race and one of the finest, most noble knights I have ever known. I consider him a friend as well, but neither knight ever really knew me extremely well."
"So who do you confide in?"
Eleazar looked on blankly, "No-one. I pray to Yesh, so I would say I confide in him."
"Aren't Paladins of your order allowed to have friends?"
"There are no restrictions on that, but we are taught that strong attachment to others is a way our enemies can enslave us. Our focus is to be on our vows of service in arms to Yesh and our order."
Aurei shifted in her chair, "That seems rather harsh."
Eleazar shrugged, "That is the way of the Paladin - we sacrifice comfort and friends for the cause."
"Do you think that is the will of God? To sacrifice all for him?"
"It's what I've been taught and it seems to make sense to me. When I was with my mother in the slave pits of the Underdark, it was her death that brought the rage into me. Had it not been there, I would not have been a tool of the enemy."
"Nor would you have escaped that place and become a Blood Knight. If you had not had a sense of someone loving you, the desire to destroy those who try to cause evil and harm in this world would not have been important to you."
The Knight looked at Aurei with some surprise at the wisdom in her words.
"Duchess Bugley, you seem extremely wise for such a young lady."
"Not really, Sir Knight, I just listen in church - didn't Yesh tell his companions, "Hate shatters, but Love strengthens?"
Eleazar had to smile, "Yes, I guess he did at that. Love, though, makes you very vulnerable, Duchess. Think about your town here - if everyone in it were threatened by evil - as perhaps it is right now from the Necromancer's Guild- wouldn't fear of their safety hamper you?"
"It would give me courage and determination, Sir Eleazar. I'd give my life to save them."
Again he smiled, this time at her passion for her community, "I am very certain you would, Duchess. Is that why you follow the Paladin's path?"
"I haven't really followed any path, Sir Eleazar, I just try to act on what I believe to be right. Somehow in all of it, Yesh has decided that I should act as a Paladin does."
"It's a very hard path, Duchess, and though I know there are some female knights, I have never personally known a woman to take up the role - in any knightly order. In fact, most orders don't allow women as knights."
"Well, it's not really my idea, Sir Eleazar. I have enough to keep me busy as a barmaid and now as Duchess. But Yesh apparently has other plans for me, as well as for Alis."
Eleazar looked up concerned, "That half-Elf barmaid? A Paladin?"
"Sir Eleazar, who do you think laid hands on you a few days ago? Alis and I both did and some sort of healing power left us and gave you enough strength to at least awaken."
"Really? Well, Yesh knows best, but I'm quite certain my order will not train either one of you as a Paladin - oh, we will teach you to fight in battle, but not as a Paladin."
"Sir Eleazar, I have received permission from Saint Kinnis himself to be trained - Sir Alvis told me this. In fact, this was going to be one of your tasks here - to train me and any others that so desired, to be Blood Knights."
Eleazar frowned, "Then why wasn't I told this?"
"I imagine Sir Alvis wanted you to meet me first and see if you could stand me before training me."
"I don't like things being kept from me, Duchess."
"I understand that. I didn't ask for you personally, Sir Eleazar, it was either Sir Alvis or maybe Saint Kinnis' decision for you to do the job."
"I would have refused if I had known." He said flatly.
"Oh, I know that, I think it worked out best as it did."
"How do you figure that? I have not agreed to train you."
Aurei smiled sweetly and shrugged, "Well, if you don't, I'm sure Sir Aeric will - he has taken a definite interest in Alis."
Aurei laughed, "Don't panic, Sir Knight, I think they both just are falling in love."
"Falling in love?! Yesh preserve me! Aeric is one of my best lieutenants, what sort of deviltry is this, Duchess?!" Eleazar looked as if he had been stabbed in the heart by his best friend.
"Oh please, Sir Eleazar - he's a young handsome Half-Elf man and Alis is a sweet, lovely Half-Elf orphan girl. Surely this is not the work of evil."
"You don't understand, Duchess! As I told you, Blood Knights are supposed to have no loyalty to anyone other then to Yesh and our order. Not to parents, not to siblings, not to friends!" The half-Drow was growing more upset and Aurei suspected she would not be able to change his views.
"Sir Eleazar, what if this is, in fact, the will of Yesh that Alis and Aeric fall in love?"
"It isn't his will!"
"Do you speak for Yesh?"
The young knight opened his mouth to speak but wisely thought before saying something blasphemous.
"It's not right." He mumbled, shaking his head wearily, "The world is going crazy! I knew we shouldn't come here!"
"I'm sorry I've made you upset, Sir Eleazar."
"Duchess, I'm sure for regular farming folk, this is all very normal and pleasing, but we live in dangerous times and Blood Knights are fighting a desperate battle with the Necromancer's Guild. We have no time for romances and those types of things."
"Then why fight at all? What is the point? What are you fighting for, if you won't enjoy life, Sir Eleazar."
"It's called sacrifice, Duchess, and it is the highest creed of the Paladin!"
"Sacrifice without reason is foolish, Sir Knight. Yesh said that He came to restore the joy of life to all who have lost it to fear and evil and that all who follow him are bearers of life to a lifeless world."
Eleazar groaned slightly, "Do you have to keep using Yesh's words against me?"
"Sorry, I'm just trying to show you that you are wrong, and since you don't put much stock in my ideas, I thought Yesh could convince you."
Eleazar sighed deeply, "Well, all of this will have to submit to the judgment of Saint Kinnis - I know he will certainly not depart from what is right."
Aurei nodded in agreement, "I will ask Sir Alvis to send word to him for his opinions on these issues. In the meanwhile, please don't give any grief to Sir Aeric for his interest in Alis - he has been nothing but a perfect gentleman to her and she would certainly not try to cause him to stumble in any way. In fact, I am absolutely amazed that she has fallen for him as she seemed immune to those feelings until now."
"It's just a girl's crush, Duchess - Aeric is a very handsome young man. Many women are drawn to Paladins for some insane reason. We are trained how to handle infatuations."
"Alis is not the sort of girl to get infatuated with a man. I suspect this is the real thing."
"Wonderful." Eleazar rubbed his forehead, "I don't know how he
is going to train her if she is in love with him."
"I'll bet that isn't the sort of problem you've ever encountered before." Aurei laughed.
"Thank Yesh for that!"
"That is all the more reason for you to stay and at least train Alis and me."
"If I even remain a Paladin." The Drow half-breed mumbled, picking at his chicken bone.
"Have you prayed to Yesh about that?" she asked after a moment of quiet.
"There you go again, bringing Yesh into it."
"Don't you think that is a good idea?"
"Yes, yes, it is, but… I haven't felt as if I was… worthy of praying since…" he trailed off, his face darkening as he recalled his last battle with the demon.
"Then I think it is high time that you did. Come with me!" She stood up and held out her hand to him. He looked at it and then up at her.
"Where are we going?"
"To set you right. Come on, you've picked that chicken bone so clean the dogs won't be able to chew on it."
Aurei wiggled her fingers and he stood up, ignoring her hand. She led him out of the private room, through the now filled tavern and outside into the evening air.
"Where are we going?" He asked a second time as she led him into the street.
He followed her down the street amazed at how many townspeople called greetings to her as she passed them. She was very well loved in the town, he thought to himself, still dumbfounded that a Drow could endear herself so deeply to humans.
A few minutes later they were standing outside the town's small Church of Yesh. Aurei hurried up the steps, pulling a set of keys from her pockets and quickly unlocking the large double doors. Pushing them open, she slipped inside, only to pop her head back out a second later to see if he was following her. Eleazar knew better than not to do as she expected him to do, so he slipped in behind her.