For the two days following their arrival, there was a fury of activity throughout Westmark. Everyone wanted to see Aurei, to speak to her and especially to meet her aunt. In fact, Zeatt created quite a bit of gossip in the town when it was learned that she was from the Underdark. They were even more amazed when they met her and learned that she was a Bishop in the Church of Yesh and a charming, lovely person. But Zeatt, like Queen Eioldth, was deeply saddened and troubled by the state of affairs that had transpired. Queen Eioldth was devastated at the death of her beloved Orc guards. The following morning Aurei and Eleazar led a detachment to the teleportation portal platform, accompanied by the lovely Queen, who had tried to open the portal. But despite several attempts, the portal did not open. "It has been destroyed." She told them and they went back to the town in despair.
Zeatt took the Queen under her care, counseling her and encouraging her. Alis, who had befriended Eioldth on her first visit to Westmark, also ministered to the young Queen. Vinth fully recovered due to the healing spells of Zeatt, but like the Queen, he mourned the loss of his men. It was Eleazar, Aeric, Lute and especially Siris who comforted him, and he healed quickly both physically and emotionally.
Krys, Brandi and the others were all thrilled to have Aurei back with them, and for those two days she was extremely busy catching up on both the business of the Duchy and the Muddy Boot. The seriousness of the political situation facing Haroldris in Northmarch, the fate of the Emperor and the empire, the looming danger to them all from the Necromancer's Guild, and the loss of life of several people Aurei knew, made the Drow girl feel heavily depressed.
Snow was falling two days later when Aurei sat, late in the evening, in the tavern of the Muddy Boot after everyone had went off to bed. She was staring blankly at a pile of receipts for purchases of supplies for the tavern when footsteps on the stairs made her look up. It was Sir Eleazar, who had spent the day divided between duties at the Blood Knight's Keep and discussing with Pectros and the ducal guard how best to protect the city from any future threats.
"Hi." He greeted her quietly as he came over and sat down beside her.
"Hi. I haven't seen you all day."
"It has been very busy. We had a false alarm this afternoon - someone thought they saw an airship in the distance, but after watching it for a while, we determined it was only a cloud."
Aurei breathed a sigh of relief, "Thank Yesh for that. How's Vinth?"
"He's doing fine. Orcs don't mourn for very long, and Queen Eioldth spoke to him for a long time at the Blood Knight Keep this evening which I think helped them both."
"She's really feeling responsible for the guard's deaths." Aurei informed him.
"It's not her fault."
"We know that, but she still blames herself. It may be crazy, but I sent a messenger off to King's Reach yesterday morning to tell the King what has happened. They both have those magic amulets that show the other one what is happening to them so they know what the other one knows, but I had to do something. She needs him, right now."
"He has to put the Kingdom first, unfortunately."
"Yes, and she understands this, but she still needs him."
"The poor lady; how hard to be an Elven woman, pregnant with your human husband's child, separated from him with danger all around."
"I'm afraid she feels helpless and hopeless, Laz."
"Well, there may be something in the works to lift her spirit."
"What?" Aurei asked.
Eleazar smiled, "Have you ever heard of the festival of Lightmas?"
"Lightmas? Of course, it's one of the most important holidays we have! Brother Darv loved to conduct the ceremony each year; the whole town greatly enjoyed the holiday." Aurei's eyes filled with tears as she thought of the dead priest.
"Did you realize that the festival of Lightmas is tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow? No, I didn't - I've been so busy since we arrived here that I honestly had no idea of what day it is. Oh, well, it doesn't really matter anyway -- with Brother Darv gone, we don't have a priest to officiate over the ceremony, and without that, all that is left is the feast. I doubt anyone in town is too enthusiastic about that."
"What if I told you there would be a ceremony tomorrow in the village church?"
"How? We have no-one to officiate."
"Yes you do - your aunt, Zeatt. It was her idea, actually. When she learned how much Brother Darv was missed, and how everyone had loved the Lightmas holiday, she decided everyone needed it."
"Can she do that?"
Eleazar gave her an incredulous look, "Are you kidding? Aurei, she is a Bishop! She was one of 12 that conducted the High Lightmas ceremony in Aeropolis, in which tens of thousands attended. She certainly can handle a small city's ceremony."
"Oh yeah, I tend to forget she's a priestess of Yesh." Aurei smiled, "That's wonderful; but what about the feast after the ceremony? Most of the celebration was held here at the Inn and we don't have time to get ready!"
"Well, what if I told you that your aunt, the Most Reverend Mother, anticipated that and made plans behind your back to get things ready so that you could fully enjoy the holiday without worrying about preparations?"
Aurei's eyes shined, "Really?!"
"She has it all under control. Everything! All you need to do is to show up."
"Duchess Bugley, you must trust me, she has taken care of all of the preparations."
"Well, you should have told me sooner!"
"I wasn't supposed to tell you at all - I'll probably be excommunicated for letting it slip. She's doing this as a gift for you and for your town."
Aurei stood up, wringing her hands nervously, "I've always had so much to do just before Lightmas… I don't know this time what I'm supposed to do!"
"That's easy. Put your papers away, go upstairs, get some sleep and just enjoy tomorrow."
"Well, what are you going to do?"
"The Reverend Mother assigned me the tough task of making sure you get proper rest. So apparently I am supposed to lock you in your room and then stand guard outside the door to keep you from sneaking back out. I'm not sure how I'm supposed to make sure you are asleep."
"Maybe you are supposed to stay with me in my room." Aurei flirted, knowing it would upset the young half-Drow.
"I don't want to be excommunicated for that either." He nervously replied, a slight pinkness coming over his grey skin.
"Then I'll have to stay up and prepare for tomorrow."
"I'm telling you, there is nothing left to prepare."
Eleazar knew that she was determined to get her way, so he sat down as his mission was far from over.
She awoke the following morning to the sound of church bells ringing. For a moment she was alarmed, for they were never sounded except during emergencies or during one of the three Holy days. But as she leaped out of bed and hurried to the window she recalled what day it was and relaxed somewhat. Glancing out into the cold winter morning, she was greeted with the image of a blizzard of lazy snowflakes that brought a wonderful peace to the scene. From other buildings, townspeople were looking out windows and doorways toward the church of Yesh. Apparently she wasn't the only person in town not told about the Lightmas ceremony. Turning away from the scene, she hurried to get dressed, for the bells always announced an hour before the ceremony was to begin. She had stayed in the Inn's large master bedroom - the room that had been her father's -- and thankfully she had taken most of her clothing over to the room so she could quickly get ready for the church service.
Half an hour later she was dressed in her finest dress and stood waiting in the cold air on the front porch of the Muddy Boot, waving at the townspeople as they slowly tromped through the snow toward the church.
Minutes later she was joined on the porch by Alis, Brandi and Krys, all three young women looking radiant in their finest apparel. They waited only a few moments before Queen Eioldth made her appearance, dressed in somber black, but - much to the four women's relief- with a smile on her face.
"Your Majesty, how are you this Lightmas morning?" Aurei asked as she and the barmaids curtsied.
"I am well, Aurei; my look at the snow fall! How glorious. Shall we proceed to the church?"
The ladies joined the procession heading to the church. Aurei was very pleased to see the excited and happy expressions on the other residents of the town as they walked through the snow to the church building. As they mounted the steps to enter the sanctuary, they were joined by Vinth who was escorted by Lute, Siris and Thorm. All four bowed to the Queen, who greeted them warmly.
"Captain Vinth, I am very glad to see you joining this celebration today." Eioldth told the Orc Captain and he fell in behind her, ever mindful of his duty to his Queen.
"Get ready for a surprise." Alis whispered in Aurei's ear as they entered the church.
She turned to her friend with a questioning look, but the half-Elf girl only nodded toward the front of the church.
Just in front of the altar stood Zeatt, looking regal in the white and red vestments that had been Brother Darv's own. She spoke to a group of men standing there, and she recognized most of them, except for six knights who wore cloaks covered in melting snow.
As they entered the men turned to face them. Suddenly Queen Eioldth let out a loud shout and sprinted toward the men. One of the knights threw his hood back and the young Queen jumped into his arms. It was King Haroldris. The assembled congregation erupted in applause.
"How could he have possibly got here so fast - I only sent the message two days ago?" Aurei asked Alis as they went to greet the King.
"I don't know - he arrived about half an hour ago, apparently he started off from King's Reach shortly after the Queen and her guards fled."
"I hope this doesn't mean King's Reach has fallen!"
Alis didn't respond, and by then they had reached the King, so there was no further time for speculation.
Soon they were all seated and the ceremony began. Lightmas commemorated the beginning of Yesh's ministry, where he announced to the world that he was bringing the Light of God into the world to save the world from damnation. Zeatt was truly amazing as she conducted the ceremony. She sang-chanted the appropriate words from the ceremony and then delivered a passionate and uplifting message that spoke of faith in the middle of adversity and strength during conflict. As the congregation sang the Lightmas hymns to Yesh in closing, everyone felt the dark mood that had blanketed the town had lifted, at least if just for this day.
After they had left the church following the ceremony, Aurei walked along with the King and Queen.
"Your Highness, I am so thankful you joined us. I must admit that I was completely surprised to find you here so quickly - and in a snowstorm no less!"
Haroldris grinned, "Duchess, I must confess that we didn't ride from King's Reach to Westmark. You see, the day after I sent my dear wife away for her safety, I received unexpected help from The Bitter Dregs. With their help, we were able to stabilize the situation there, though the rebels fled to the south. Before they left in pursuit of them, I asked the Sorceress with them if she could magically find where Eioldth was, and when she learned where she was, she offered to teleport us there by spell. That was apparently just after your group found the Faesidhe teleportation device upon Mount Kiee. When we arrived, the hillside was still on fire, though your adversaries were no-where to be found. The teleportation platform had been destroyed by the magic fire.
I had the sad duty of identifying the remains of many of the Queens' guard and we feared you all might be dead. But the amulet that Eioldth wears allows me to see and hear what she does when I need to, and I knew she was safe with you in Westmark. So we rode hard from Mount Kiee to get here."
"We lost many fine Guards in that battle." Eioldth commented as she glanced back to the somber face of Vinth who walked behind her.
The King turned to regard the Orc, "But thank Yesh we did not lose Captain Vinth."
The Orc shrugged, "I would have perished had it not been for Duchess Bugley pulling me onto the teleportation platform. I owe, Her Grace, my life."
"You saved us from being overtaken by whoever was following us, so we are even, I'd say."
"I am curious," The King said to those walking with him and his queen, "How did you know the device still worked?"
Aurei turned to Eleazar, who walked beside the Orc.
"Your Highness," The Half-Drow said, "We received help from some sort of wizard. While we were trying to out-ride those following us, a man appeared in front of us, carrying a large book. He looked like a wizard, though he seemed rather young. He told us that the device was there and still active and then simply vanished. I don't know what to make of it."
Haroldris wrinkled his brow, "Sir Eleazar, was he a dark haired young man, perhaps carrying a white staff?"
"He was dark haired, but he didn't carry a staff, only a book. Do you know him, your Majesty?"
"I don't know him, Sir Eleazar, but I think I may have heard of him."
"Who is he?" Eioldth and Aurei asked in unison.
"I can't know for sure, but it sounds like tales I've heard of Drake the Archmage."
"I've heard of that name!" Aurei exclaimed, remembering the letter her father had sent to her that had detailed two wizards that had saved her as an infant from Faesidhe Elves who had sought to murder her.
"He is a legend, but there are sightings of him. He is a watcher, one of a handful of immortal guardians established by God before the Great Gathering to monitor the races. He is said to be the great grandson of another watcher, the Archmage Kinzer. She is said to appear as a tall, incredibly beautiful blonde woman… you didn't see such a woman with him, did you?"
"No." Eleazar answered, "He seemed to be alone."
"Kinzer is the author of the Great Book of the Races that details the events that transpired after the Great Gathering. It is said that Kinzer wears a ring that magically lessens her beauty so that everyone who views her won't be awestruck. Both she and Drake were once mortals before the time of the Great Gathering, but now they serve as watchers."
"So you think the man Eleazar saw was the Archmage Drake?" Eioldth asked her husband.
"Who knows? It sounds similar to stories I've heard over the years of appearances of the man. At any rate, whoever he was gave you information that saved your lives, though it cost the lives of many valiant Queen's Guardsmen."
They all walked in silence the remainder of the way to the Muddy Boot, where, to Aurei's delight, as Eleazar had told her, all was ready for the great feast.
It was a joyous time, one that everyone would remember, the whole town tightly crowded in and around the Inn eating and making merry while some of the town musicians played lively tunes and many danced to their songs. In spite of the preparations, Aurei felt it was her duty to help Krys, Alis and Brandi serve, yet all of them were able to spend a considerable period of time relaxing and feasting. Alis sat with Sir Aeric much of the time, and it was obvious to everyone that both were deeply in love with each other. Vinth sat at a table with Lute, Siris, Thorm and a few of his Dwarven armorers and they kept the mood light for the Orc, who also seemed to enjoy himself to some degree, though the sadness never completely left his eyes.
Pectros was absent, instead spending the day at the Keep, supposedly on ducal guard business, though, from what Alis and Krys had told him, he was very fascinated with the Sorceress that remained in chains in the Keep's dungeon. Aurei had not yet had time to bring the girl to trial for her part in the attack on them at Thurgood, nor had she interviewed the lady, who was kept in magical silence to prevent her from casting any of her spells. Pectros' infatuation with the lovely young woman troubled her, for he was the captain of her guard, but he also was a lonely man who had never wed, so she chose to at least allow him to dream of some sort of happiness for this holiday.
Aurei, when not taking her turn waiting on the townspeople, sat at the King's table, with Haroldris, Eioldth, Zeatt and - at Aurei's insistence- Eleazar. The half-Drow seemed very awkward sitting with them and she did not know the reason for his discomfort, though she tried her best all during the short snowy day to encourage him to relax and enjoy himself.
It was mid evening and the festivities had dwindled down when she had finished her round of serving and returned to the King's table only to find that Eleazar had excused himself while she was away. She found him on the Inn's front porch, wrapped in his cloak watching the snow fall.
She paused for a moment before revealing her presence to him, for he seemed so sad and alone as he stood there in the dark, with only the candles in the windows of the Inn giving any light on the scene. For an instant she hesitated, wondering if there was anything she could say or do to make the sadness go away. She really liked the young Faesidhe/Drow and perhaps her interest in him was causing him discomfort due to his Knightly vows. Right now he seemed to need a friend more than anything.
She quietly walked up beside him, "You never get tired of watching the snow fall when you live here. I spend hours watching it come down. It's so soothing, but somehow at the same time it makes me feel rather sad."
"Yeah," he replied distantly.
"So what is bothering you, my friend?"
The title drew in his attention and he glanced over to her. She smiled simply, not wanting to imply anything with her glance or cause him any more discomfort.
"Do you really want me to tell you, Aurei?"
"Yes, I do."
He stared at her for an instant and she returned the gaze until he broke it.
"Okay then, I will. I'm experiencing a conflict."
"What sort of conflict?"
"A conflict between my vows as a Blood Knight and… well…"
He looked very uncomfortable as he struggled to finish his sentence.
"It's alright, Laz, I understand."
"You do?" He seemed both relieved and surprised.
"Yes. I don't want you to be tormented like that."
"Of course not. I'm experiencing the same problem, and I'm rather scared too."
"Hopefully not of me." He smiled somewhat nervously.
"Well, yes, but I'm not sure exactly why. More of a nervousness around you, I'd say, rather than fear."
"I'm not sure how this all happened, do you?"
"No, I really don't either. I just… um… well, I just feel so… happy… when you are around. I'm sorry, Laz, but I just want to be around you all the time. Yesh help me, I can't believe I'm telling you this! I must be going crazy. I feel so confused when I'm around you. I don't know why, but I just feel so… so… good, when I'm around you. I've had many friends, Laz, but somehow this is different. I'm sorry, I'm not making any sense and I don't want to come across wrong. But I really enjoy being around you, Laz."
"I… I feel… the same way. Aurei, to be honest with you, when I first boarded the Emperor's Airship, I had told myself it was to try to convince the man to do the right thing. But I did it to rescue you."
He looked down at his feet.
"Oh, I knew that." She replied, "I was so thankful to see you."
"Aurei, I am not really sure what I'm supposed to do. I have never had this sort of problem before, and I don't know how to fight it."
"Fight it? You make it sound like an enemy to defeat."
"I'm not sure what to call it, Aurei. All I can say for certain is that I seem… drawn to you. I… I don't know what to call it. I've never had a really close friend before; that could just be it… maybe, I don't know. I'm confused about it all. I was planning to head back to Aeropolis - to see if I could assist the Blood Knights in any way. That is my duty, I'd say. I'm sure I'm needed there. It is probably expected of me. But…"
"But?" She repeated as he nervously wrung his hands.
"I don't think I can leave you." He said in shame, not daring to look up at her.
"Good, I don't want you to. I know that is a problem due to your vows as a Paladin."
"Yes, it is a huge problem. That's my conflict… I don't know exactly what I feel, or if what I feel is right. I'm afraid I am failing as a Knight of the Blood. But the more that I'm around you, Aurei, the more I want to be around you. We're not supposed to have any sort of ties that bind us down. We can't have any close relationships. I-I mean such as friends… We're taught that this is a danger to a knight as it can cause us to focus on those we care about rather then our vows to Yesh. It can lead to weakness."
"Laz, I understand this, really I do. I plan on continuing training as a Paladin, so eventually I too will be expected to take the same vow. But can't we just stop trying to understand everything and just relax and see what happens? If it is Yesh's will that we serve him as Paladins under the oaths of the Blood Knights, then he will give us the wisdom and strength to figure out how best to serve him. Have faith in him."
Eleazar sighed and nodded, "Yes, you're right - we should both focus on being Paladins, not on developing a… friendship."
"Well, I didn't say that, I think we should just pray for Yesh's guidance, but at least be open and honest about what we are going through to each other. Maybe that will make us see things clearer."
"That sounds sensible. I'll be honest right now - the two times you kissed me on the day I rescued you- it really caused me some problems. I had never… um… n-n-never been kissed before. It really bothered me…"
"No, I mean I… I guess I liked it. I know I did, actually. That's the problem, Aurei, it… I don't know… I enjoyed it but I don't think I was supposed to…"
"Well, I hadn't kissed anyone before either, other than Mother and Father Bugley. I'm sorry; I really don't know what came over me. It was kind of weird, but I… I liked it too."
"Paladins don't kiss fellow Paladins. I don't think even friends kiss other friends… I don't know, really." Eleazar looked like a stretched bow string, nervously wringing his hands.
"You've never kissed Sir Aeric?" Aurei joked nervously.
"What about his relationship with Alis?"
"Well, that is troubling too!"
"He seems not to have as much trouble with it."
"That actually might mean he has more to worry about if he isn't experiencing a conflict."
"But if he is happy, is that so bad?"
"He's a Paladin."
"But he's also a man, and Alis is a lovely girl."
"Yes, but his affection for her can be used by an enemy to ensnare him. Love is even more dangerous then friendship."
"So you are saying that loving someone is dangerous?"
"Yes… in a sense, it is."
"But Yesh taught that love is the greatest gift we can give another person."
"He wasn't talking about Romantic love."
"But was he excluding it?"
Eleazar started to answer, but paused, for he wasn't sure.
Aurei took his hand and came in close to him.
"Laz, I really don't want to cause you any kind of conflict. I hate that, because I can clearly see that you are made to be a knight, and not just any knight but a leader of knights. I don't understand why I… have feelings… for you. But I do, and that is not going to change. I don't know what these feelings are, Laz. I feel really strange, but I do know I need you to be my friend, and I want you to stay here. I really feel happy when we're together. But I'm also not going to try to force you to feel anything that will make you feel guilty or uncomfortable to your vows. I would suggest that you just consider me your friend - a close, dear friend- until you feel in your heart what you are supposed to do. I'll wait until you have the answer."
"And you will accept it even if it means rejecting you and going back to Aeropolis?"
"No, then I will beat the tar out of you and have you locked up in my dungeon where I will keep you forever."
They both laughed and he smiled down at her. Her beautiful red eyes were glowing brightly in the dim candle light. The look she was giving him made him wonder if she really was as open-minded as she claimed to be to any decision he would make. She'd led an odd life, living among humans; this was probably her first case of puppy love. He was from 'out there' in the 'great big world' and was the first Drow she had met. He fascinated her, because he was different. One day she'd realize how silly the feelings she thought she felt for him were, but if he was careful, they could remain friends. He loved the thought of her as his friend.
"So until then we'll just be friends?"
"Sure." Suddenly she leaned in, and before he knew it she was kissing him again, this time with her arms wrapped around his neck. He didn't even try to resist but pulled her close, feeling the delightful warmth of her body. Just when he thought he'd gotten their relationship straightened out. The kiss lasted nearly a minute and then she gently pulled away, her eyes sparkling brightly, "There you go, 'Buddy', Happy Lightmas! Tomorrow morning I want you and the others who were with us at Thurgood to have a little chat with that Sorceress we have locked up to see if she has any idea on what is going on. Maybe we can figure out something to help the Blood Knights in Aeropolis as well as King Haroldris. Now come on, let's go back inside and enjoy the rest of this holiday, because tomorrow I'm not going to flirt with you anymore; I'll be focused on nothing but business."
Taking his hand in hers, she pulled him back into the Muddy Boot, and though he told himself he still had a decision to make about where his loyalty rested, he knew in his heart that he had already made that decision. Yesh help him.