It had been another profitable evening.
Willip. What a name for a town! The performance this evening had been at a new theatre that Anton Phize had financed in this small harbour town. Anton was a man I had met in Greyhawk, a huge portly man with that always smelled of spice and had a deafening laugh that could compete with my singing voice. We had become friends, I guess I could say, if ‘friends’ meant we depended on each other for business. But, he asked if I would come to Willip and celebrate the opening of this new theatre, so it was the least I could do. Besides, I still loved to travel, and the crowd showed their approval with fine silver. I had been one of four performers that night, but I decided to forget their names after I had seen them perform. To my delight Anton let me perform last, an honour afforded me few times before, and a wonderful opportunity to leave a lasting impression.
My evening in Willip had been tiring, but not exhausting. In my travels recently, I had heard about some of the unfortunate travellers caught in some of the ‘less than reputable’ areas of this trading town. Known predominantly for its harbour dock life, Willip boasted the highest population of any settlement in Greater Furyondy, but certainly not the finest, nor the most culturally enlightened in my opinion.
However, in this town was an almost palpable sense of poverty and oppression. Not by the city guard or by King Belvor’s decree, but by the ever-present threat of Iuz’s troops in the lands to the east. The raids and killings, the theft and weekly promise of another violent incident on defenseless border towns and villages not only focussed royal funds towards thwarting this evil, but it robbed Furyondians of their hopes and dreams for a better life; it seemed a weight on everyone’s shoulders; emphasized tonight by the threatening rain clouds overhead.
In fact, news of terrors to the east flew to Willip’s local taverns with lightning speed; I had been here three nights and the gossip and panic spread like wildfire each time a patron with too much ale in his blood voiced his irrational fears that Willip would be overrun by morning.
No matter how small the town, even in dismal and dreary towns like Willip, the inhabitants sought relief in the music, dancing and drink every evening. This was where everyone could forget their worries; this was where I could really shine. I took it on as my responsibility to remind them that there was always hope, that there were still beautiful places in the world that were protected and prosperous. I regaled the crowds with stories of those who had gone on to great success and happiness from origins such as theirs, and they loved me for it. Immaterial perhaps, but it was all I could do.
And it was with this thought that I buttoned my cloak against the cool harbour breeze and set off into the night, towards the area where no lights shone in the streets, where I would find those I meant to help…
I wandered the streets for more than an hour. I had no idea what time it was, only that my feet were cold from the damp puddles that dotted the dirt streets. With a quick inventory of my belt pouches, I could tell I had handed out well more than my earnings tonight.
Maybe a few hundred silver, near as I can tell…
Even in the night, and under the cover of the magical invisibility I relied upon so heavily for protection, there were predators. Melf had taught me that. It was Melf’s Ring of Invisibility I wore. I touched the ring assuredly as I rounded another corner, but became suddenly aware that my steps were becoming heavier. I was tired, but it wasn’t fatigue. It was a definite sluggishness that I was not normally accustomed to, unless my evening had been one enjoying the spirits. The night air, too, seemed to chill my lungs a little too much, and I could feel every breath becoming more and more laboured as I drew myself along.
I must be getting sick…
The night air was growing colder, and the darkness seemed to close more tightly around me. By this I mean that it became heavier and more oppressive; even with the sight my elven mother had granted me in birth, things became blurred and obscured in the distance.
Maybe I’m more tired than I thought…
But I knew that notion was as false as the idea that I would be okay. The lamps that I knew were in the distance I could barely see, and a cold sweat dotted my brow. Perhaps that old woman who was coughing so heavily… or maybe there was something in that garbage-filled alleyway that might have been contagious… could it have been something in the crowd tonight?
It became obvious much too late that delirium had set in, and the last thing I saw was the cobblestone rushing forward to meet me as I collapsed against a lantern post, in the cold, wet street.
When I awoke, I was surrounded by brilliant lights and the sweet smell of incense. I could tell because the smell was thick in this room, and I needed to open my mouth to fill my lungs with the delicious scent. My eyes couldn’t quite open, but it was only the piercing light that kept them closed. I wanted to open them; I felt as though I was waking from a deep, deep slumber filled with nothing but silence and darkness. No dreams lingered at the back of my mind and very quickly I realized that I didn’t know where I was waking up.
When finally I did manage to open my eyes, I stared up at a high, cathedral-style ceiling, with murals and tiles spread across it like the floors of the Celene High Council Hall. When I turned my head, I saw beds and cots like the one I lay upon scattered about the room. A great hall even, that shone with the sun that streamed through the many windows that lined the walls high above me.
A church. I realized. I’m in a church.
But which one? And why? I tried to raise my head, but a pain jabbed in the back of my skull, so I lay my head back down. Quickly, a woman approached me with a look on her face of both concern and thanks. She wore soft white robes that reached down to her ankles, and she spoke very softly to me, in soothing tones and asked for another woman dressed similarly to bring water and food. I would quickly learn through my bouts of consciousness and delirium that I had ‘the sickness’.
Over the next few days, a handful of attendants continued to fuss over me, despite my best efforts to leave the temple and my sick bed. I was so weak that I could scarce lift my head from my pillow, but I was able to glean from the conversations of those who attended me, I was supposed to be very thankful. I even remember Anton Phize being there briefly, but it was as blurry as any of the last few days had been.
For what do I have to be thankful for?
It was explained to me that I had come down with a disease that had arrived in Willip via the dock-workers that frequent the harbour city. It had claimed several dozen already, but the priests and priestesses were working tirelessly to warn the inhabitants of the city to come to them at the first sign of symptoms that they were only now beginning to recognize.
One thing amazed and continued to bewilder the priests and priestesses as they watched me day to day. I could speak with them, very naturally, despite my weakness of body, and allow them any information they wished. In fact, I become quite popular with those who worked on the sick, they would come to me during their times of relaxation, and listen to my stories. I tried, as weak as I was to entertain them, but without the grandiose gesturing and dancing that I loved.
In fact, as weak as I seemed to be physically, I was tempted on occasion simply to burst out in song, to hum a tune to lighten the mood of the place, or to whistle to myself to pass my waking hours. I couldn’t help it sometimes, so monotonus the prayers and moans of those around me. It seemed this only amazed the priests and priestesses even more.
Everyone who had this disease had not only lost their voices, but the ability to speak altogether… permanently.
The disease attacked the lungs first it seemed and then there was a loss of the ability to speak. The clerics’ ability to remove diseases from the patients was invaluable, but the disease took hold and progressed so quickly, there was little that could be done after a very short period of time. Most people didn’t know what was happening to them until it was too late.
And this, of course, was the mystery.
So I suffered, it seemed, all the symptoms of the disease, but it did not take hold of my ability to speak, sing, or have any adverse effects on me that would not cease in time. And it was for this that I was to be thankful. So very thankful. But curious…
Days had passed, and I wished I had control of all my faculties. I was gaining my strength back, but as I grew stronger, the room and the beds became more crowded. Daily, more individuals were ushered in to see the clerics or to lay beside another, to wait, to listen for the news, be it good or bad.
I was anxious to leave, but was told to remain for the afternoon, that I might speak with the priestess who was responsible for my recovery. All this time, I thought I had recovered myself, that it was my mixed heritage or my will brought me back into health. This, of course, was quite a shock to me. Apparently, this priestess was anxious to see me, and had left Willip as ambassador to both Chendyl and Greyhawk in the hopes of drawing aid from the churches there to help with the administering of aid and the containment of this potential epidemic.
Thankfully, the deaths seemed to be slowing, but more than 50 survivors had lost their powers of speech… for good.
After some hours of waiting, a woman entered the temple, cloaked in travelling garb and ushered in by several guards other women wearing similar cloaks. The woman who I had been attended by approached her, and with a curtly bow, spoke briefly in her ear and pointed in my direction. The travelling priestess approached me with a purposeful stride, and introduced herself promptly.
“Hello, special one. I am Gwyneth. Heirophylia smiles on you this day.” She was middle aged, very obviously human with her rounded face and dimpled chin. Her hair was pulled back, but it hung down around her neck and across a white robe. Around her neck she wore a golden medallion which I immediately recognized as the symbol of Heirophylia. She was young to me in years, but wore the creases and lines on her face to show her concern and responsibility.
I immediately liked her.
She brought me to a chamber outside the main hall, where simple furnishings dotted the stone-floored room. She removed her cloaks and garments, and revealed a pale blue robe of similar style to those women and men outside, but the different colour had to have some significance…
“Please, Kaelis. Sit. Make yourself comfortable.” Still standing herself, she motioned to a chair behind me. She sat herself behind a desk, from which she removed a pile of parchment, and began absent-mindedly glancing over one at a time. After looking through only several of them, she impatiently set them at the corner of the desk and looked at me with her beautiful green eyes.
“You look well, and rested.” She smiled at me. Too late I realized what she meant.
“Yes, thank you milady.” I used my most formal tone in addressing this woman. “And from what I understand, I have you to thank for it.”
“Thanks are not necessary, Kaelis, but I now have some questions for you that you have most assuredly been asked by the others of my order already.” I knew she was going to ask about my voice, but I feigned ignorance respectably.
“Forgive me, madam. I do not.”
“I mean, of course, your voice and it’s state since your having contracted the disease which has Willip in its grasp.” She eyed me carefully, and sat patiently, awaiting my answer. There was a way in which she held herself, as though she were anxious for something, but needed to approach it properly. For some reason, I had the impression she needed something of me, but I could not guess what I might possibly offer her.
“Unfortunately, I have little insight to offer either you or your order, Mistress Gwyneth.”
“Gwyneth will be fine.”
“I have little recollection altogether of how I found myself under the care of your associates, and less still of why I seem unaffected by this terrible illness in the same way that so many have been injured. In truth, I count myself very lucky indeed to be able to speak with you now.”
“And rightly so.” She pushed back her chair and stood, straightening her robe as she did so. The small flames in the room caught her medallion and shone rays of light off it as she walked around the desk towards me. “But I assure, you Kaelis, that it is more than sheer luck that you sit here with me now, enjoying your voice as so many have in the past. You are a sign, Kaelis. You are a sign from She who empowers me that you are the one for whom I’ve been looking for some time. Heirophylia Herself has sent you to me. She has sent you to Willip. There is much for you to do yet before you leave.”
My surprise could not have been more apparent. Her pleasant tone, her entrancing stride would have cowed another into hypnosis and wonderment, but I almost jumped as she approached me.
Could this be? Could she really be saying this to me? As if this is all part of her goddess’ plan! What does she want me to do? I don’t even know of this goddess! She wants me to help her somehow? What is going on here?!?!
I was in shock. She had in one simple sentence propositioned me to become what I pitied in others. Passive. Humble. Conservative and subservient. My mind raced with the implications of what she said to me, but I realized I had thought much and said nothing.
“What?” was all that came out. Recovering, “forgive me, milady, but you presume too much. My trip here was a long time in the coming. I had plans to arrive months before but was delayed in Chendyl. It is simple coincidence that you and I have met, and little more.” I considered what I said to be quite bold, for I knew nothing of this woman. Her demeanour and her posture were both those of a woman who was tired. Tired of something she would never stop doing. Tired of giving without believing.
“Yes, Kaelis. You have been saved from the loss of your beautiful voice so that it could be used as a tool for Heirophylia’s ministry. You know better than anyone I’ve met how to read people; it’s what you do.”
I was aghast. What was she saying? I must have opened my mouth in suspicion.
“Oh yes, Kaelis. I know you. I’ve heard much about you, and have spoken with many who also know you. I’ve spoken with those you entertained nights ago at the Bardic College. I’ve spoken with the priests and priestesses all over Furyondy that have watched you at my request. I even had words with the vagabond who brought you to our door. Yes, you owe your life to more than just Heirophylia. Oh yes, I know you much better than you know me. And you are the one person who can help me.”
“Help you with what?” I knew my polite and respectful demeanour had crumbled away with my surprise. But still I refused to become indignant. “I hail from Celene, Gwyneth. I know not of your goddess, nor of her agenda. However, what I do know is that I do not play a part in that agenda. I fear that you might have misplaced your hope, or your anxiousness, for I cannot help you. I play at life. I take very little seriously, and my simple regimens pale in comparison to the sacrifices that you and those of your order base their lives on. I look at each day as an opportunity to meet new people, and have not the complacent and passive mentality that my elven brethren are renowned for in the Flanaess.”
I could not have put it more simply. However, there was a light in her eye that I knew meant she heard little of my rebuttal.
“Let me put it to you,” she said. Her patience was admirable, for I had been as blunt as I dare with a woman of impressive social stature and one who demanded much respect in matters of faith. But she continued, “there was a time that I was so enamoured with my ministry that I thought of nothing else. The doctrine, the rules by which I lived were set in stone, and upon that basis I led my life. I have spent years aspiring to become the embodiment of Heirophylia’s teachings, and have served many this way. But with my years of learning so too came the realization that those who Heirophylia tries to reach do not remain set in stone. The hopes, dreams, and lifestyles of all people change. And they have. Much of our order is static, and will not change. It is a great source of pride for my superiors, but fills my heart with woe.” She furrowed her eyebrows at having said this, but pushed on.
“I do not disagree with how things continue to be done, but year after year we lose the faithful, one by one. The crisis here, in Willip, right now is a perfect example! How many will lose their faith because they thought Heirophylia would not help them keep their loved ones? How many will no longer be able to sing her praises because they’ve no voice to sing with!?!? It is these people that Heirophylia wants most to reach, but they need to want to come back to us. To Her. A new era must be ushered in, and it is I who wish to bring it to the people.” She looked at me intently, her hands gripping the armrest of her chair so her knuckles appeared whiter than her pale, freckled skin. “Is this hurtful pride that I feel? No. It is the desire to further show the people that Heirophylia understands their plights, whatever they may be! In all forms, in all people. I need to show them that She understands and sympathizes! THAT is my mission.” Her knuckles relaxed and she composed herself, smoothing again her robe on her lap. “And I need you…”
I was stupefied. In all my years of travel, I had never entered a place of human worship. It would have been almost blasphemy to The True Creator that I feign worship of another god. The anxiousness that the other clerics witnessed in me during these past days was a mix of shame for being so helpless and repulsion at that same helplessness in the hands of a human god!
“You know not what you ask of me. You wish for me to administer prayer and guidance to the masses?!? You wish for me to become a minister of the faith and call Heirophylia my saviour in life?!? I assure you, Gwyneth, you misunderstand the messages from your goddess! For I am one of Corellon’s children. I bleed His blood, and breathe the same air that He once breathed Himself! I praise Him for all that He has provided me with and thank him for his guidance in my times of strife.” I shifted in my seat and then stood, looking down upon her, aware of her displeasure, but disappointed in myself at the sight of her understanding.
“Do you doubt that Heirophylia is the reason you speak to me now?” She was losing her wide-eyed expression of forgiveness now, a look I did not enjoy. “You know that She has healed you for Her purposes! She brings you from the door of death and the horror of life without Her; to the light and grace she sheds on me, and you have the audacity to deny her influence in your salvation?!” She stood to face me, and to my surprise, rose taller than me by inches.
“Your life as one of Her chosen would not be without the comforts that you enjoy now, Kaelis.” She grew quiet and pleasant again in the blink of an eye. “I speak of you and I, with our cloaks wrapped around us, delivering the stories and hope that Heirophylia promises to those that need Her word the most! It would be the life of travel and discovery that you enjoy now, but with the light of goodness always on your shoulders. The night life, the freedom to go where you wish when you wish would still be yours. And I would accompany you, as a sign that She can work the miracles people have come to expect. It would be wonderful. We would worship on the road. We would spread Her word to those that would listen, and they would listen to you, Kaelis! You are the one!”
I didn’t know what to tell her. I had absoloutely no desire to aid this woman. Her insistence that it was Heirophylia who saved my voice was not at all compelling, and I did not know how to tell this woman about the shame she and her order had laid upon my heart.
“My good lady, I know your story. I sympathize with your plight, but I cannot do this. I would resent your goddess for all the time I was with you, because I would know every day that I did it for you and not for Her. I would speak to the masses of what I had seen, but not what I had felt. For I feel nothing. I am thankful for all that you and your acolytes have done, and should there be a need for me to aid you in the future, I will do it with pleasure and thanks. But what you ask of me now I cannot do with you.” I was desperate that she understand me. I was still tired, and I could not bear the weight of this request. “I implore you, Gwyneth. Make no more attempts at winning me to your cause. Please.”
She sank back into her chair. No longer was her gaze fixed on me, but the stone floor that was cool under me. She reached to the medallion that still glinted with the torchlight, and sat, pondering, staring, hating me; I had no idea. I could not bear the moments that passed. I could not move, nor could I talk. I stood, motionless, awaiting some sign that I could leave, unhindered and owing nothing to her or her goddess.
And she gave it. Quietly, standing and facing me in all her understanding, she reached forward and ever-so slightly brushed the back of her hand against my cheek. My stubble had grown in a week as much as a human’s would in a day, but she could feel it. So could I.
“You are a mystery, Kaelis Goldenchord. For your moral compass does not direct you anywhere. It leads you nowhere, and for that I am sad. You will never know the direction that will inspire you to take up the worthy cause. You will never know the loyalty we feel to She that provides for us everything. You will never know…”
“Thank you milady, but I do know. I know that my path is not your path, nor could it ever be. I know that you are righteous, and giving and understanding. I know that you will find whoever it is that you seek, and I know that you have not found that person yet, not in me.”
I tilted my head towards her hand, and stepped back slightly, offering myself just enough room to bow curtly to her. “Again, peaceful Gwyneth. I offer you my thanks, and I would hope that you would extend that sentiment to those who cared so lovingly for me. I would take my leave of you now, and will be of no more trouble to you. My thanks and best wishes in your ministry.”
I bowed again, out of politeness more than respect. I remember now the gaze she cast towards me as I turned to leave. Sorrow, patience and a longing that I only realized days afterwards. She wanted me for more than my gifts. She wanted me as her companion, to offer her a taste of the life she forfeited so many years ago, but could never know again. Her station in life was set, and nothing, not even the longing in her heart could make her change. Her will was too strong. And I knew when I left her that I could never accept that offer in the future. I knew when I left that it was because I would never know that dedication or understanding. That tolerance or accepting nature, without question or complaint.
And then I knew I left for the right reason…