Nexville had grown from its humble beginnings during the last major orc uprising, becoming a moderately sized town. The mines and roads to Daffgin brought in enough travelers that another elf was unremarkable. Once the gate sentries had let her through, she got no more than a curiously glance. None noticed her furtive, almost haunted glances around, peeking at faces before turning quickly away.
Like many visitors, the elf stopped at Edarís tavern. If any thought it strange that she moved through the modest crowd to a table near the back, pausing to trace something carved into the table before sitting down, they didnít comment on it.
She absently ordered a meal and ale from the barmaid, apparently tuning out everything but the tabletop until her return. The elf thanked her politely before once again disappearing into her own world, opening just enough to eat and drink.
Tara Swansong, bard and general do-gooder, surrendered to her feelings again and walked over to the elf. "Well met," she said softly in elvish. "May I join you?"
The elf looked up, green catís eyes startled and hunted. She hesitated a moment, then shrugged. "If you wish," she said, voice cracking slightly.
"Thank you. This is my first time here, so I feel soooo out of place. Is this your first visit?"
The elf studied her plate and pushed a piece of meat around. "No," she finally said. "I was here... once before. A long time ago."
"Ahh." Tara nodded sagely. "I canít imagine why anyone would want to leave. This is such a nice little place. Very near to nature, not at all like a city."
By now the elf had efficiently polished off her meal and was making quick work of the dregs of her drink. "A.... friend of mine died," she muttered into her cup. "Excuse me, I have an .... appointment to keep." She stood and walked off, leaving her dishes for the barmaid to take. Tara stared after the dour elf, then turned back to the table.
"Hel-lo," she said to herself, moving around the elfís vacated chair. She traced old carvings in the table, following the names of Dirdre and Taylor and the notches underneath. Remnants of an ancient bet, no doubt, but the young bard wasnít above taking inspiration from anywhere. The names had a nice ring together, perhaps as a love ballad....
Dirdre slipped out of town, ignoring the potential for her horse to be stolen. It wasnít important now, of no consequence. She had all she needed in her pack.
She walked for nearly twenty minutes before stopping, a shorter distance than she remembered, but the town boundaries had grown. She took a deep breath before venturing further. To any other, it was just another stretch of woods, with perhaps a slightly clearer path. To Dirdre, it was achingly familiar. She reached out and gently stroked the moss covering a tree root. If she looked at it just the right way, the sun left spots that almost looked like the red of blood. The faint touch of fungus was almost like the steel of the blade as it left her hand, darting down to take Taylor in the gut....
She took another deep, shuddering breath, slipped off her pack, and slid to the ground, resting against the root. She closed her eyes and for awhile, let the scents and sounds and feel of the forest wash over her, resting and absorbing the woods, like the one sheíd grown up in. At last she spoke.
"I donít think Iíll ever understand you. Humans, I mean. You, I thought you were so willing to be on the winning side that youíd stack the deck, helping the orcs, and the last good thing you did was send me back to warn them. How long did you lie here, dying? How long were you in pain because I was foolish enough to throw that dagger? I never thought you were double crossing them. You were always so honest with me, so straightforward, that I couldnít believe you would lie to them... well, I suppose that doesnít make much sense either. Not much does, or ever did. Orcs killed my family. I know that. Iíve always known that. But I still blame the men - the humans - they sent to guard my home. They got there a day late. One single, simple day. And because of that day, all of them died. How could they have waited that long? What delay, what obstacle, kept them from getting there a day earlier? And why? always, above all else, why? why there, why then, why my family? And why couldnít I do anything to help them?"
"Well, this isnít why I came. I came back to say Iím sorry. Huh. Itís stupid, I know. If you were here, youíd whack me a good one. I was the one who threw the dagger. I... killed you. But thatís all I can say, Taylor. Gods, I didnít know, I didnít think.... I shirked my duty. I wasnít even supposed to be there. My flute. Thatís why I came back, to get my flute. Itís the only physical thing I have left of my family, and I killed you for a piece of silver. Gods, I am so sorry!"
She finally opened her eyes and took the flute from its pouch. "I didnít even know the truth until a few weeks ago. A leprechaun gave me an offer I couldnít refuse. I asked him why, and he told me you hadnít turned. I never dreamed I could be so wrong. I - I hope youíre someplace better, Taylor. With friends you can trust. He gave me one more wish. I... I couldnít use it to bring you back. Iím too much of a coward. I couldnít - canít - face you. Not like that, not after.... I couldnít even bring that bedamned dagger back." She stood and brought the flute near her lips. "I canít give you your life. I donít expect anything, let alone to make things better, but I hope youíll take my life instead." And Dirdre began to play.
It began as a simple tune, cheerful and celebrating all that came in life. Eventually it spread, doubling back on itself and branching off and interweaving together, sounding like more than one flutist. Slowly, a single thread separated slightly, moving further and further off the established pattern until suddenly, the others stopped, leaving the solitary tune to wail in disbelief and pain. It moved on, trying to go back to the original pattern, but always containing that disrupting echo of hurt.
Eventually, it was joined by another melody, like the first but faster and more vibrant. The two joined; counterparts but making a healthier whole. The second tune droned over the first, supporting and supported, until the earlier tune wailed again, this time in outraged pain. The second one was abruptly drowned out, then ending in a tortured whisper and disappearing except for a faint hint that remained, becoming part of the first melody.
The ballad continued, repeating the earlier pattern but changing the melody, until finally the first tune, now altered and dark, encountered a lighter, yet somehow older music. They switched back and forth, the first uncertain, the second, except for an undertone of mischief, indifferent. Then the first squawked in harsh, unmusical surprise, and slowly returned to the first melody it encountered, but a more ethereal, unearthly version which disappeared. The original melody continued, alone and harsher, and somehow more pained, than when Dirdre began, then it slowed to an uncertain stop.
Even before the last echoes disappeared, the elf began again, resting only long enough to take a swift drink of water.
By the third time the music came to an end, the first stars had appeared, and the air had become humid with the promise of rain. Dirdre lowered her flute, suddenly, painfully aware of her raging thirst and the agony of her cramped, overworked fingers. A cool breeze swept past her, refreshing at first but then freezing cold. "Iím sorry," she whispered to the unhearing woods. "Iím so sorry."
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