Two hours later, the tavern had been emptied, and the exhausted Drow girl had ordered all the workers to go home to bed so they could be prepared for the following day. Aurei was in a mental fog as she trudged through her usual cleaning of the tavern, a task compounded by the crowd that had seemed so messy this evening. She longed to take a bath and rest her aching muscles, but she knew she was expected to have everything ready for the funeral service that afternoon. So as the rain beat heavily upon the wood shingles of the tavern roof, she swept the floor, struggling to keep her eyes open as she worked.
The sound of someone loudly plopping down in a chair right behind her caused the usually very alert girl to jump and give out a little shout as she whirled around to see who had slipped into the tavern.
"We're closed, I'm afr-- …Sir Hugh!" The red bearded knight sat grinning at her, stretched out in a chair and still wearing his plate armor and muddy riding boots.
"Good evening, Aurei!" the knight said with a slight bow of his head, "I'm sorry I startled you. I know it is late, but we just arrived and I am absolutely famished."
Aurei's eyes went wide in horror, "You mean there was nothing offered to eat to the Royal Caravan at the Keep?!"
Hugh laughed, "No need to worry, my dear, there was a huge banquet laid out before us when we arrived. Pinel dove right in like a starved pig, his sow and piglets did likewise."
Aurei could not help but giggle at the term he used to describe the Sheldos family, "Hopefully the King had something to eat?"
"Well, his majesty was exhausted and rather wet from the storm they rode through to get here, so he politely retired to his quarters to dry off and change clothes. He bid everyone in his party to do as they please. I did not fancy seeing the Sheldos clan with their snouts in the troth, so I thought I would come here and see if I could find something to eat."
Aurei immediately went behind the counter and hurried into the kitchen area calling out as she looked in the Inn's cooling chest, "We have some mutton left, as well as some beef. It is rather cold though, but I can heat it up if you'd like…"
"No, no, cold is fine by me. Please don't go to any trouble for me."
"Its no trouble, really, the fire is still hot." Without waiting for a response, the girl placed some of the meat in a pan and soon had it heating over a fire.
"Aurei, you really didn't need to do all of that for me." The knight said.
"When you have ridden for hours in the rain, cold meat is not exactly a welcome meal. It will only take a few minutes. We have some potatoes left and a few scraps of bread - not much really…"
"Dear girl, please! Enough, what you have done is fine, for goodness sake. Have you run like this all day?"
She nodded as the beef sizzled slightly in the iron pan.
"I brought back the horse I borrowed yesterday, he has been groomed and fed and is in your tavern's stable. How is the Flydros girl… Leah, was it?"
"She has slept most of the day, I'm letting Krys and Brandi take care of her. She's a bit scared of me, probably after seeing me in that armor last night. I don't blame her, the poor little thing." Aurei yawned and blinked away a tired blur from her eyes.
"Were you able to get some sleep?"
"Aren't you exhausted?"
"Very much so, but when you work at a busy Inn, that is not unusual."
"Shouldn't you get some sleep before tomorrow? I imagine it will be a very busy and emotional day."
She shrugged, "Well, I sort of did - that trance-like state I was in when you surprised me is something I am told that Elves go into instead of sleep. I don't usually do that, I like regular sleep, but I've found that I can usually keep going when I do experience 'Elf-sleep'. I don't intentionally go into that state, it just happens when I'm really tired."
"The Elves I've known tend to sit down and have a far off look in their eyes when they are resting like that. I've never seen one doing chores at the same time."
Aurei smiled as she placed a plate of warmed up food in front of the Knight, "You probably haven't seen one working at an Inn."
Sir Hugh looked up at her, gently grabbing her wrist, "Can you sit for a moment so I can ask you something?"
"Ok, but forgive me if I nod off - I'm afraid when I hit that chair I might go into 'human-sleep'."
"I'll risk it" the knight smiled, "What I wanted to ask you is about your parents - your Drow parents, I mean."
The mention of her biological parents brought her to full alertness in spite of her weariness, "I never knew them."
"From what I've heard, you were found here as a baby by Duke Bugley?"
Aurei nodded; she had told this same tale countless times to curious patrons of the Inn, "They found me in an Elven carriage that had wrecked or had been pushed off into the Southflow River upstream somewhere, within the Elven forest. I was told recently that they found some pieces of Drow armor in the carriage and the armor had been made for a pregnant woman. Apparently my mother led a raid while very pregnant with me. We assume it was within the Elven forest. She gave birth to me somewhere and then either she or the Faesidhe Elves put me in the carriage and dumped me in the river - or something like that. Either way, there was no trace of the Drow who gave birth to me to be found in the carriage other than for the armor and a few Drow cloaks. The carriage floated downstream until it got entangled in the low water dam by the millpond and that is where I was found."
"And you have no idea whom your mother and father were?"
"No. The armor you saw me wearing yesterday was some that was found upstream from the Millpond. It was piled beside a grave of a Drow woman who had been killed by arrows, and she wasn't my mother. Whoever buried her apparently also was a Drow and the Rangers that traced her think she was a female by her footprints. She probably wasn't my mother either, as she travelled a long distance after digging a grave and that doesn't sound like a woman who has just given birth. Besides, I doubt she would have taken off her armor and thrown it into a carriage along with me and then started off across hostile country in her undergarments. They only mentioned one set of footprints, so this Drow lady was alone."
"It sounds to me as if there were a group of Drow nobles - females- in the party, and one gave birth to you during the raid and apparently died, along with the one that was found buried. The third fled. I know that they were nobles and not common foot soldiers by the armor - common Drow wear chainmail, not plate armor."
Aurei nodded, "That is what Thorm said as well."
"About 70 years ago - give or take a few years- there was a great battle between a large army of Drow who attempted to invade the Elven Forest, but they were annulated at the southernmost part of the forest by an equally large Faesidhe force. The battle occurred only a score of miles within the southern border of the forest and yet the Elves kept the matter to themselves and very little information has surfaced about it."
"How do you know about it, then?"
"Well, there are a few small villages in the mountains bordering the southern extent of the Faesidhe forest and it seems that several of the shepherds saw from a distance the Drow army march out of some secret passage within the mountains, following the Deepburn river by moonlight and then marching directly into the Elven forest where they seemed to simply disappear. The Shepherds were terrified of what they saw, so keep a watch out all night and the following day. That next evening they reported that the distant sounds of battle could be heard through the still night air, coming from within the great forest. Several weird flashes of light and what seemed to them to be claps of thunder drifted out of the forest. The sounds lasted all night and throughout the next day before dying away in the late afternoon. The shepherds said that the night following that, there were forms seen running out of the forest, only small handfuls in number and all of them pursued. The Faesidhe Rangers and archers chased them and killed all those that the Shepherds saw leaving the forest. Then they'd drag the bodies back into the forest."
"How creepy!" Aurei commented, absorbed in the tale.
"A few days later, when it was clear that there was no more activity coming out of the forest, some of the younger shepherds ventured down to the foothills and looked around. They found very little - Faesidhe arrows and a few dropped Drow weapons and pieces of equipment, but that was all. One of the shepherds was a little boy when it occurred and he was so impacted by it that when he grew to manhood he moved away, settling in King's Reach as a Wool merchant. He had a royal commission to sell wool to the palace, and as an old man he told the tale to the King and his knights one evening. That is how I heard the tale - and the time frame would seem to match your birth."
"Yes, but that is a long, long way off. To get to Westmark from that area you would have to go hundreds of miles through the very heart of the Faesidhe forest. How could a small group of Drow women avoid the Faesidhe for weeks if not months? And why would they flee into the forest instead of trying to get back home?"
Sir Hugh shrugged, "I don't know - perhaps they were part of a second force that was attempting to steal into the interior of the forest. Going after the fruit of the Faesidhe tree in the Clearing of the Ages, I'd guess."
She had heard of the great Elven tree from time to time from the patrons, none of which had ever seen it. It was said to be a magical tree, huge in size and its fruit gave youthfulness and healed the body. The Faesidhe Elves of the great forest guarded it zealously.
"Do you think there really is such a thing as the great tree?" Aurei asked.
"Oh absolutely. I've heard a Faesidhe Elf mention it as a fact. It produces a red apple-like fruit each summer that takes away sickness and disease, heals injuries and restores a degree of youthfulness to those who eat it. But more amazing is the white fruit - once every millennium or so, it produces a handful of white pieces of fruit amongst the red. The Faesidhe select certain individuals to eat each piece of white fruit. Those who eat of the white fruit are said to no longer age and are immortal."
"Immortal? Are you serious?"
"That is what they claim. Naturally, they have to protect such a valuable tree and especially so when the white fruit is produced."
"When was the last time the tree bore white fruit?" Aurei wondered.
"I don't know - the Faesidhe Elf didn't mention that, but I wouldn't be surprised if that Drow raid coincided with it. Maybe that is why they risked such an invasion - so some of their nobles or wizards could obtain immortality."
"Maybe that is why a pregnant Drow would go on such a dangerous mission." Aurei commented, trying to make sense of it all.
"Perhaps… one thing I find interesting, Aurei, is the Elven carriage you mentioned."
"How is that interesting?"
"Well, they are used by the Faesidhe nobles - and their ambassadors. There is sometimes a Faesidhe ambassador who comes before the King at King's Reach and I have seen his carriage many times. The common Faesidhe do not use them and they do not have them at their guard posts."
"So you are wondering how I came to be found in one?"
"Exactly - perhaps they stole one from a messenger from the Elven King had sent to the front with a dispatch- but usually dispatch riders don't take carriages. It could have been the carriage of a noble who had come to see the battle, but there would have been so many Elven soldiers in the area that I doubt it could have been stolen. Perhaps they ambushed it on the road."
"Father said there were a few blood stains on the fabric of the carriage seats, but not a lot."
Hugh scratched his beard, "Maybe that is what happened, then. But there is another possibility."
"What is it?"
"What if your mother was part of a force sent secretly into the heart of the forest to try to steal the fruit of the tree - maybe it was the white fruit's time. The whole invasion to the south would have been a ruse to pull the Faesidhe forces away and make their plan easier. They steal some of the fruit and try to escape in a carriage, but are either ambushed or the carriage wrecks and falls into a river. Do you know how the Southflow River runs?"
"It comes out of the Elven forest some miles north of town, but I have no idea what the river looks like before it leaves the forest."
"Neither do I, but I will bet it flows close to the Clearing of the Ages, where the Faesidhe tree grows. That is in the very center of the forest and still a great distance from Westmark, but by river it would be quicker."
"Father did say that the river was at flood stage when they found me."
"Interesting… maybe they were trying to cross the river when the swell of the flood broke up the bridge they were crossing, knocking the carriage into the water."
"Sir Hugh, you are certainly a wise man. To piece this all together is amazing."
"Well, I had some information you didn't have, and that helped. But it is all theory, really. They didn't find any fruit in the carriage with you, did they?"
"Not that they ever mentioned. Father did say that they used to hide me from any Elves that came into the tavern for several years, but that was due to my race."
"Do the Faesidhe ever come into Westmark?"
"Seldom - father said that when they first learned that I was here they were none too happy and sent several groups to meet with father. They wanted him to turn me over to them, but would not give a reason and would not tell them for what purpose and he refused. He said it got rather heated for a while until one of their leaders convinced them that I was no threat and they left. They had spies watching me for many years, though we weren't pestered any more by them. Even now occasionally I hear of shadowy figures watching the Inn from outside of town, but they never come into town. The last one that came into the tavern was probably 50 years ago and he only came in to speak with father for a few minutes late one evening and left. They don't care for humans nearly as much as they hate Drow."
Hugh nodded, "They are a very proud, haughty race. They even look down at other Elves, they think of them as a lesser race. Obviously they don't consider you anyone to worry about or they would have killed you long ago."
"Killed?!" Aurei said, horrified.
"Oh yes, they have no qualms about killing anyone they find dangerous or that is potentially dangerous to them. The fact that you are alive is evident that they are no longer concerned about you living on the eastern border of their Kingdom."
"That's good to know." She said with some dismay.
"Don't worry about them, Aurei. I suspect they see that you are really just a Drow with the mind-set of a human."
"Is that what I am?" she smiled.
"Well, you certainly don't think like a Drow would."
"And how many Drow have you met?"
"Only one, other than you, and he actually is only half-Drow. Half Faesidhe Elf and half Drow in fact."
"Faesidhe and Drow?!" Aurei exclaimed at the impossible combination.
Hugh laughed, "I know, it amazed me too, but he will absolutely not tell how this happened, he's tight lipped about it and seemed haunted in a sense. He's a Bitter Dreg Knight named Eleazar."
"Bitter Dreg knight. You've never heard of the Bitter Dregs?"
"No, what are they, a knightly order?"
"More than that - the Bitter Dregs are a sort of brotherhood organization made up of outcasts from regular society. Hence the name 'Bitter Dregs'. Actually, they form a very large, very powerful, mostly covert society that the Church of Yesh uses as a secret arm to keep tabs on everything."
"So they are followers of Yesh?"
"That is a requirement. They further the cause of Yesh through any means they can, and often this is in unconventional ways. The Bitter Dreg Knights - or the Blood Knights as they are usually called- are made up of warriors of Yesh - mostly Paladins and Rangers- from all parts of society as well as many demi-humans. They are the most known part of the Bitter Dregs and are legendary brave fighters. They take on missions that other orders deem too deadly. Many of them die in battle, but they always come to aid those who follow Yesh. Of all the knightly orders I've encountered, they are by far the most noble, though you certainly wouldn't know it by looking at them."
"And this half-Drow, half-Elf was a Bitter Dreg Knight?"
"Eleazar is one of their captains. A very noble man, though he seldom speaks. His skin is grey and his hair as white as yours, Aurei. His eyes are about like yours as well, fiery red."
"I've never met a Drow before."
"I'm not sure you'd like to meet him. He hates Drow passionately. I suspect it was something in his childhood, though no one knows. He has led several armies into the Underdark to clear out the cities near the surface that the dark elves use as staging grounds for raids. He doesn't even get along with the small community of Drow that live in Aeropolis."
"There are Drow in Aeropolis?" Aurei was learning all sorts of new stuff from the Knight. Aeropolis was the largest city in the world, seat of both the Church of Yesh as well as the Emperor Fendoris Maximus who ruled a huge empire in the far south, many, many miles away from the Kingdom of Westmark.
"There is a small community there. They are followers of Yesh that fled from the Underdark about 60 years ago due to persecution. They settled in Aeropolis after learning of Zeatt the Good living there- she's a Drow priestess of Yesh, the only Drow cleric he has, and it is said she is one of the most devout. Her faithfulness to him and her great piety has made her greatly respected in Aeropolis and so the city and the emperor allowed the refugees to settle there, though they still are cautious of them. Zeatt is in effect their Bishop and they call her Matron Zeatt. I'm told there are about 70 to 80 Drow living there and they have their own tiny quarter of town. They are mostly merchants and craftsmen."
"I never knew that!" Aurei was amazed; none of the many patrons in the Muddy Boot had ever mentioned the fact.
"Well, they are a very quiet, rather private community, I am told, and try to stay low-key. And Aeropolis is a great distance away. Being in the royal court, however, you are privy to much information that the common folk never learn."
"We are about the end of the world up here, not much changes… usually. I like it that way. I just wish things could have stayed how they were." She sighed, looking down at her hands.
"You mean with Duke Gamel?"
"Yes, and I miss Mother Bugley - she's been gone a long time but I still miss her."
"They raised you well."
"They were the best. Mother… I called her mother by her insistence but I really thought of her as my mother I guess… anyway, she always taught me to not feel embarrassed about being different from everyone but instead to be bold and up front about it."
"Well, when I first started serving tables in the tavern, I was just a little girl, and of course the people in town knew I was a Drow, but we'd have many people passing through on their way to and from King's Reach and they'd really have wild reactions when they'd see a Drow bringing them their mead. Mother told me that I needed to have fun with their questions and reactions - to make it a sort of game. So I'd usually come up with some sort of snappy response to the typical questions or statements they'd make. They wouldn't vary much anyway. Usually "You're a Drow!" Or "What is a Drow doing here?!" Or "There are Drow way up here?" . Things such as that. Some would say mean or hateful things, and some would get angry and a few even violent, but I learned how to handle it."
"So what would you reply when someone would say, 'You're a Drow!'?"
Aurei sat back in her chair, "Well, one of my favorites would be to respond, 'No, I'm just an Elf with a really good tan.'. Or 'No, I just don't believe in bathing.' , or 'No, I messed up a wizard's order once and *poof* he turned me into this!'. I've used 'No, I used to work for a cloth dyer until I fell into a vat of black dye and he let me go so now I work here.'. I've also tried looking down at my hands when someone would say that, letting out a little scream and running around saying 'I'm a Drow, help, help!' but that tended to annoy father so I didn't do that much. One of my favorites would be to lean in when they said that and go, 'Shhh! You'll blow my cover! How can I ever take over the world when loudmouths like you are ruining my disguise?'."
Sir Hugh was chuckling at her retorts, "It sounds like you indeed had fun with it. So it didn't bother you to have to answer all the questions?"
"You get used to it after a time; it just becomes part of life. Part of my life as a barmaid, I guess I actually enjoyed being a freak, so-to-speak… until the last few years."
Her mood sobered and she frowned slightly.
"What do you mean 'The last few years.'? Other than Duke Bugley's demise and the recent events, what else happened?"
Aurei yawned and shifted nervously in her chair, "Oh nothing serious I guess, it's rather silly…"
"What?" Sir Hugh asked, now quite curious.
"It's not something I'd feel comfortable talking about with a man. No offense, but it's somewhat embarrassing."
"Something female related?"
"Yes" she fidgeted in her chair, feeling very awkward and wondering why in the world she had led the conversation this direction. Probably her tired mind not thinking straight.
"You are too young to have too many, ah… female concerns, I would guess."
"No, I don't mean it like that… it's just… I… well, I started… changing." She was fidgeting in her chair now, amazed that she was having such a conversation with a man she barely knew.
"Changing? You mean you grew up?"
"Yeah, but it is different for Drow. You humans reach maturity in a score of years and begin the ascent in half that time. But I was a child for almost 70 years, living among humans. I grew used to being thought of like that. There was an old merchant that used to come in here regularly when I was a child that used to call me his 'little black sprite' and I had another lady called me 'pixy' all the time. I would mingle about in the tavern and joke with everyone and they looked at me as just a dark colored Elf child. When you live like that for more than 60 years it becomes your identity and you grow comfortable with that. Then, suddenly I began to change…"
"But surely you knew you would grow up?"
"Yes, but nobody here in town knew much about Drow puberty. I was told several times that I'd grow up to be a willowy Elf lady, and I'd seen some of the Wood Elf ladies from time to time and they were always small, thin and dainty and so I thought that was how I'd look, which wasn't too different then what I already looked like. But no, I didn't get that lucky."
Hugh scratched his beard again, "But you are an extremely beautiful young woman."
Aurei snorted, "Hah! All that happened to me was I got too big!"
"Look at me, Sir Hugh! You might as well, as that is all the men do all the time anymore! I hate it! I can't just relax and joke around with the patrons now, oh, no, now they have to flirt with me and pinch my butt or grope for my chest. They all stare at my chest, I haven't seen a man's eyeballs look me in the eyes since I started -as Alis calls it-'filling out'. And these stupid dresses only make it worse! It is so unfair! I've got a bigger bosom than Krys, Alis or Brandi and they are humans - well, except for Alis -- she's a half-Elf, but it is insane! I don't want to look like this! Elves shouldn't look like this! I can't even wear some of the dresses the other ladies wear because they are too tight in my stupid chest area!"
The knight was surprised at how upset she had suddenly become, as if a dam holding back her strong emotions had suddenly burst. She sat there, still ranting on and on about how upset she was that she had grown into a very mature looking young woman, with tears streaming down her face, her hands trembling and her voice getting more and more hysterical as she vented what he surmised was a very bottled up, deeply felt frustration.
"Calm down, child" he tried to soothe, but she was now sobbing in her hands, rocking back and forth in the chair.
"I'm sorry" she said through her sobs, "I hate how I look, Sir Hugh! I want to be a girl again; I don't want everyone looking at me like this! I feel so… vulgar… with a body like this. I hate it! I wish I could just wear a big bulky robe all the time so nobody would keep looking at me!"
He was at a complete loss over what to say, so he patted her arm gently and just sat there and waited for her to calm down. After a few minutes of crying and another of sniffling, she took a deep breath and dried her eyes, looking at him with a weak smile.
"Sorry, I guess I lost it for a minute. Wow, how embarrassing."
"I won't tell anyone, it looks like you needed to let that out."
"Not in front of you I didn't. That is one reason I miss Mother Bugley - she died before I ever started puberty and I know she would have known what to do."
"Do you have any ladies you could confide in about your feelings?"
"The other barmaids, I guess, but they don't really understand, because they went through it at a normal pace. I think it was all the years of nothing happening then suddenly it all changed that made me so upset. My mind was used to being a child, after all those years."
"I think what is causing your trouble is that you are among humans and they don't really understand Drow childhood. Our lifespans are in decades, yours is in centuries, yet you live and think for the most part as a human, so your mind had to work out an existence that combines the way you think with your racial heritage, and that is difficult. You don't act like an Elf or Drow, Aurei, you act like a human, but a human does not have 70 years of childhood, so I would say you found a logical way to deal with your rather unique situation. How many Elves are there - and certainly there are no Drow- that have been raised completely by humans without any of their own race to give pointers on the physical changes you go through in growing up? Very few have gone through this, I suspect. It is like an Eaglet raised from the egg by a Robin, it will think it is a Robin and go through torments of identity. Much of your racial identity comes from what your parents teach you and what you observe in your surroundings -- and your surroundings are, for the most part, human."
"But from what I have heard, I wouldn't want to live amongst the Drow if I had the chance."
"No, they are a cruel race, it is said. I imagine you would not at all feel at home there either, for you are a human in your mind, just not in your body."
"Lucky me" she quipped, standing up, "Would you like some more to eat?"
"That is enough for tonight - if I keep on eating, I will not want breakfast."
"Sir Hugh, I am very sorry for behaving like this around you. I don't feel it is proper for a lady to talk about personal things to a man… I wasn't brought up to act like that. Please forgive me, but you seem to be so easy to talk to, and very wise in your counsel."
The knight smiled, "I've been told that, but don't worry, Aurei, I won't reveal what you said to me tonight to anyone. Sometimes we are placed in positions where we don't feel like we quite fit in… or are able to do the job that has been assigned to them to perform. I've learned in my own case that you should always do your very best, be candid when you make a mistake or just don't know something, and above all, just keep trying. Sooner or later, you will master your life."
Aurei nodded, clearing the plate away. Sir Hugh got to his feet with a slight groan of weariness and turned to her, "I think I can now sleep. I will see you tomorrow morning."
"Do you have any idea how soon the King usually rises?"
"Well, he spent many hours in the saddle today… in the rain… so I am quite certain it will not be too early, though I suspect your good friend Pinel will be up with the rooster to make sure everything is just so-so."
"Goody. Well, maybe I can get a few hours sleep anyway. Thank you, Sir Hugh for talking to me. It is amazing how easy it was to talk to you about all of that… stuff."
"Glad to help, Aurei. Thank you."
The knight smiled somewhat secretly, "Let's just say, for helping me see things a certain way. Goodnight."
With that, Sir Hugh bowed slightly and walked out of the tavern into the rain, gently closing the door behind him and leaving Aurei to puzzle over his words.