IN WHICH Osmorn is made light of. He displays his talent for statesmanship, and his utter lack of athletic prowess.
We packed up the next morning and headed out. I’ll say one thing for my time with Brumli and Crannog: I didn’t have to cook. Or do dishes. They subsisted on a variety of dried foods that were light, compact, supposedly good for you, and had the added advantage of being entirely without any trace of flavor whatsoever. So we each ate a small handful of their pressed horse food and set out on our way.
“I’ll need my lute back,” I said to Crannog as we got on the road.
“That seems unwise.”
“I need to practice. I need to keep my fingers warmed up, especially if I’m supposed to help you in your negotiations and you think my music can increase the likelihood of something good happening.”
“I’ll not allow you to weave sorceries around our heads while we travel!” Brumli said.
“Look, you can clearly tell when I’m doing that. How about I promise to keep any…influences out of my song and you let me practice the lute? If I break my promise I’ll find a chair for you to hit me with, or you can just wrench a branch off a tree.” I said. Brumli considered for a long moment and then nodded.
“Aye, very well, you can practice your instrument.”
I thanked him and retrieved the lute from Crannog. The strings had been stretched a bit, but the timber of the body seemed to be in fine shape after our little adventures thus far. It really was a very nice instrument.
Tuning up took longer than normal, but finally I was satisfied that all was well. I took a deep breath and composed myself before starting in on my practice runs.
“I’ve never liked modern music,” Crannog said as I was collecting my thoughts.
“I…that…that wasn’t music,” I said, about to explain more, when I caught his eye. “Ah, a joke.”
“They’re easier for me, because people don’t expect jokes,” Crannog said.
“Whereas from me they figure I’m always joking?”
“Well your life is a joke, isn’t it?”
“Hey now that’s not…no, yeah, actually, you’re right.” I said and and I stopped talking and just focused on the music.
I had promised not to try to do any “magic” with my music, so I just played warm up songs and a few complex melodies. Getting more and more into it, it felt good to just play.
We arrived at the ruined temple. It didn’t look that bad. The front was covered in vines and foliage, but other than that it still seemed fairly intact. The grass around the temple was green and lush, without the sorts of trails you would expect from bipeds moving through it.
“Aye, there it is,” said Brumli, and he pulled his mace from its scabbard along his back.
“I thought we were going to try to do this diplomatically first,” I said.
“And I figured you would want me to have this ready to hand when things go badly.”
I over to Crannog, who looked at me, an the temple, and simply loosened his sword in its sheath once or twice, then said. “I’m good.”
“Okay then.” I said. I brought my lute into position and started walking into the temple.
The doors were off their hinges, laying on the steps out to the ground, making a ramp up to the entryway. I stepped through the entrance and let my eyes adjust to the darkness a bit. After a few moments I could see several long shapes laying in various places around the room. I took another step forward and one of them raised its head.
The beltaine have long, serpent-like bodies without limbs. They have prehensile tails, which really just means the last two feet or so of their body is small enough to wrap around things and mobile enough to use those things. Including weapons. I can tell you from personal experience that a beltaine coming at you with a sword on one end and it’s mouth open, fangs bared on the other end is a whole new definition of the word fear.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
At the moment this one simply lifted its head and looked at us. “Hello the beltaine,” I said, realizing how utterly unprepared I was for this. What did you call a single member of this species? Was this all of them in the world, or simply a small colony? Did they speak Common?
“You are seen,” came a voice from deep within the darkness of the temple. The voice was quiet, with a hint of Casinian accent, oddly. If I had to guess I would have said the speaker was male, but really all I had to go on was the depth and timbre, so I wasn’t willing to put any money on that bet.
I couldn’t see far at all, just a few feet that were lit by the doorway, my eyes were still dazed by the light outside. There was a sense of pillars marching back into the distance, a feeling that the room was wide. I knew the external dimensions of the building, it seemed like it was all a single cavernous space.
“May I know who I am addressing?”
“You said ‘the beltaine’. It is not displeasing.”
Well, that was good at any rate.
“I thank you. We have come in hopes of reaching an agreement.”
“You seek that which rests here.”
“Aye, we seek the relic stone,” Said Brumli.
“It will not leave this place.” The response was quiet, simple, mostly uninterested. It was a statement of fact, an observation as prosaic as someone commenting on crops doing well this year.
“Perhaps we could discuss a trade,” I said, trying to keep Brumli from pushing towards conflict.
“To what end? The stone is here. Here it will stay. Anything you offer will fail to change that.”
I had a momentary glimpse of something bigger than my mind could handle at the moment; a sense of a yawning cavern between myself and the beltaine. Not a physical cavern, a difference in being, in thinking. I’ll try to cast it into words.
The problem with translation isn’t one of grammar or syntax, nor is it one of nouns and verbs. Those are all building blocks. The problem is what you build with your language. Thoughts of one mind rarely fit perfectly, or even well, in a mind trained on a different language.
For one terrifying moment I saw a glimpse of how the beltaine thought, an insight given from how they were speaking. They didn’t use first-person pronouns. There was no “I” in their language, not even a “we”. At the moment I didn’t understand the implications of this, I simply recoiled from it, from a way of thinking and reasoning that was so alien to me as to send a physical shock through me.
Dragon’s Bones, I was naïve.
But we were speaking of what we, as individuals, wanted, or desired, or hoped. How could this make sense to them? What did they think of themselves?
“And what is to stop us from simply taking the stone, back to the place where it rightly belongs?” Brumli asked his voice low and rumbling.
“The beltaine.” Came the reply.
“May I please?” I said, and started to play the lute. It felt so stupid, just picking out notes in the middle of what seemed to be shaping up to a battle, and one in which I was likely to die, one way or another.
“What is this?” The beltaine asked.
“I seek to understand, and to proffer understanding. I am not trained in violence,” I said, and found the feeling of the place. I even closed my eyes, although that was partially because I wanted to acclimate to the darkness even faster. But the sense of movement, of readiness I had felt from in front of me subsided ever so slightly. The beltaine seemed content to listen while all I was doing was playing.
There was still a difference, still something I was missing. I tried to reach out and focus on their minds, to understand what I was experiencing. But I needed questions.
“The stone is here, and you say that it will stay here. Why will it stay here?”
“Such is the shape of life.”
“Do the beltaine desire the stone?”
“What is desire?”
“Is it your will that the stone stay here?”
“What is will?”
Okay this wasn’t working. “When did the beltaine learn Common?”
“There was one…one like you. A divided one. It was intelligent. It came here. It spoke and it listened and its words were of value. It became important to understand the words of this one. Its words will be remembered.”
Another insight. “It brought the relic with it.” I said.
“You are less ignorant than others.”
“Did it ask that the stone stay here?”
“What did it say about the beltaine?”
“I called the beltaine wise, patient and trustworthy.” the voice said, but it had changed slightly. Suddenly older, more frail, and with inflection. I looked into the darkness. Opening my eyes suddenly, and I saw a shadow moving, on two legs. “And so they have remained.”
“How long ago was this, sir?” I asked.
The figure laughed. “Before I died, and since then I haven’t paid much attention to the passing of days.”
“You seem to be doing quite well at the moment.”
“A trick, a shadow, an attempt to understand, that’s all.” It said.
“What was your name?”
“You wouldn’t know it.”
“What would convince the beltaine to let us take the stone?”
“I could tell them to, if I lived.”
“Couldn’t you just tell them right now? Surely they can hear you as well as I can.”
Again the figure laughed. “Oh, they hear me far better than you do, to be sure. But no, I am not the one to give any commands.”
“Can I ask a few more questions?”
No response. That seemed at close as I was going to get to an invitation.
“Why did you give the relic to the beltaine?”
“I don’t know.”
“You mean you don’t remember?”
“I mean I never knew. I tire of this game. Perhaps you are not as clever as they thought.”
“One more question: how can we remove the stone?”
More laughter. “Be fast. They know the stone must stay in the temple. If it leaves the temple, they will know a different world. It isn’t far, but they are many.”
“Osmorn, lad, don’t converse with ghosts,” Brumli said.
“It’s not a ghost, it’s a memory,” I replied. “And it’s the best they could do on short notice to communicate with us.”
“So we fight?” Brumli asked.
“What? Where did you get that? They aren’t big on change, you may have noticed, but they’re not vindictive either. I hate to say this, but you might have had the right idea the first time. Perhaps I could soothe them into a lassitude while we remove the stone. Or…or something.”
“Perhaps not. They are cunning devils.”
“No, I don’t think so. I think they…that’s why the temple isn’t more ruined. They keep things as they are. They are the opposite of mortals. But once something is changed, it is now part of the world, and they will maintain that new way of things just as much.”
Crannog was nodding but Brumli just growled. “You make even less sense then the pile of snakes over there, lad. I’m not here to analyze their minds, I just want he relic so I can return to my abbey and receive my next assignment.”
“They have their assignment. It will never end…unless we get the relic past the door.”
“Crannog, how many of them do you see?” Brumli asked.
“I make out twenty, maybe twenty-two,” He said and Brumli nodded. “Aye, that matches my tally.”
“Thirty six,” I said. I mean seriously. I started pointing at all of them.
“You yet seek change,” the beltaine voice said again, not the old man voice, the first voice.
“Perhaps that is the nature of our people,” I said. There was no response.
“Do what you can now, Osmorn, lad. I don’t mean to stand here trading words all day.”
I didn’t like it, but honestly I felt less bad about our task now. They were told to keep this thing by someone who died. It wasn’t something they worshipped, it was simply a change in their world. If I told myself that it was easier.
I started playing sleep, quiet, lassitude. I tried to feel the heartbeats of the beltaine, and had to slow down, slower. Slower.
Finally I was playing a single note, a plucked open string, one of the lowest strings. Then the same string, muffled. Then the lowest string. Then the lowest string twice…
“This is as good as you’re going to get” I said quietly and Brumli started forward, walking with his mace up. “Stay close to me lad, I don’t know the range of your magic,”
“That makes two of us,” I said and I followed him. Crannog flanked me, the three of us a triangle with Brumli at the point.
The beltaine didn’t move, few even looked up as we passed. It wasn’t too long before we reached the center of the room. There was a small stone table there, and an even less interesting looking stone sitting on the table. “Ah, there it is, at last, by the Unnamed,” Brumli said. He moved his hands in what I assumed were the motions of a small act of devotion.
“Maybe just take it yeah?”
“Patience, heathen,” he said, hands still moving.
I looked down. The decorations around the table were disturbing, a weird bas-relief on the sides…wait, no.
Those were real bones. Skeletons, in a circle all around the table, pressed hard against it, into it, ground against it until they wore their way into the stone.
I shouldn’t have looked that hard, that unprotected. I was new at it still, okay?
Whatever I had been doing fell apart. Brumli had just picked up the stone when suddenly there was a silent motion behind him. Out of the darkness a tail whipped his hand, another slammed Brumli himself into the table, winding him. He lay against it gasping and trying to rise again.
Crannog grabbed the dwarf in one hand and lifted him easily, which is a good trick. He started heading for the exit. Oddly enough the beltaine seemed content to let him go.
“The relic lad,” Brumli wheezed out. “Grab the relic!”
“I am uninterested in the relic at this moment in time,” I responded. Well, in spirit. What I actually said was “ █████████ the relic!” as I started walking out of the temple.
“Osmorn. Grab it and throw it to me,” Crannog said.
“That also seems unlikely,” I called back. Again, in spirit. The beltaine were circling me as one of them picked up the relic and returned it to its place on the table.
I tried to return to my song of lassitude. It seemed to work. Once the relic was on the table the beltaine seemed content to settle back down. So I waited until what I judged to be the absolute depth of somnolence before I shifted my weight. I couldn’t really see Crannog, just his outline by the door. It seemed like he had set Brumli back on his feet. I grabbed the stone, and threw it with all of my strength.
“Crannog!” I called out. I saw him turn as the stone approached. His hands came up, preparing for the catch…and it hit him in the face, knocking him backwards, right on top of Brumli.
For a moment nobody moved. Crannog was laying on top of Brumli, they both seemed to be comatose. The beltaine were staring at the dwarf and the human, which left me in an invidious position. All I had to do was cross the floor without all of them deciding that I was the reason for their ire.
I hadn’t stopped playing my lassitude song, but even I could tell that it was ineffective at the moment. So I stopped. Turns out that was a bad choice. The moment the echoes died out the beltaine all turned to me at once. Which isn’t what you want in this situation. I started running toward the entrance. The beltaine, without any visual or audible communication that I could perceive, divided into two groups: one to retrieve the relic, one to stop me from throwing it again.
This was more or less where I learned what it was like to have a Beltaine with a sword charging at you. It’s terrifying. Both ends seem to be moving individually, of their own accord. I didn’t even have my rapier, just the lute, and I wasn’t using that as a shield again. I glanced down at one of the pressed skeletons laying on the floor around me, and one of them had a shield. I yanked on it, pulled hard, and fell backwards, across the beltaine that was charging. If you’re ever being attacked by a beltaine, that is how you survive, it turns out; roll across the middle section of the serpent.
With a complete and utter lack of grace I fell off the back of the Beltaine’s body. Gasping to recover and stand back up, I also also attempted to ready a shield and protect my lute. I succeeded at exactly one of those things. The lute was fine. The shield was massive, a kite of the human or possibly giant variety, the kind you have to loop onto your forearm near the elbow and then hold onto the handle set into the back. The leather strap had corroded away, so the shield was entirely unweildy, twisting and moving as I tried to face beltaine in every direction at once.
I happened to glance up and see that Crannog was on his feet again, checking Brumli over and then he saw the relic. Roughly the same time that three beltaine did. He dove headlong across the few feet between him and the relic, grabbed it, and threw it out the door.
At the same time his hand was wrapping around the relic, a beltaine had wrapped its tail around my leg. As the relic sailed out the door, the beltaine’s fangs sunk into my shoulder. As the relic landed on the path outside the door, the beltaine disengaged from my shoulder and I commenced screaming with great gusto. When the relic came to rest, the beltaine lost all interest in me, Crannog, Brumli, and the relic. The one who had my leg let go, not even with contempt. It just slithered away. The one that had been waving a sword let the sword fall, and instead busied itself cleaning the stone table, putting the sword back where it had come from. One of the beltaine took the shield from me, not roughly but also without any concern for my feelings on the matter, and put it back where it had been before.
I started walking to the door again. The beltaine made some space for me to pass, exactly as much as I needed and not a millimeter more. The world was getting dark and painful, I could feel two bright stars in my shoulder, could feel how they dug into the flesh of my body. My arm was burning, my heart pounding like a drum.
Blearily I could see Brumli holding the relic, moving at speed to a safe distance from the temple. Ivy caught me and asked me why I had let Thomas shoot me. No, wait, that was a different adventure. And Thomas was dead. Same shoulder though. Ivy wasn’t here, but Andraste was nearby, or, no, she wasn’t a tall human male.
A ghostly form reappeared. “They truly hold no grudge.” It said.
“I’m dying,” I commented.
“They aren’t sorry, either.”