*Friendly Arm Inn, 8 Mirtul, 1368*
Eshcarna sat alone, but then she usually always did. Only two people in all the world would ever have joined her for longer than it took to mutter a sullen word, or some sort of unflattering racial epithet, and one of them was six days dead and never to return.
The other, her childhood friend Imoen, had abandoned her for the moment, to pass her time with newer company. This suited Eshcarna just fine, especially in her current mood. Looking across the room she could see the look of pleasure on Imoen's face as she conversed with the newest of their companions. Whatever she might think of anyone else, it had never been in Eshcarna's power to begrudge Imoen anything that made her smile. "You smile enough for both of us," she had once told her human friend in one of her rare playful moods.
"That's good," Imoen had rejoined, "because you don't smile nearly enough."
Eshcarna pulled the blue hood of her cloak closer around her face and continued to observe her companions. The newest was a pair of half elves, apparently friends of her foster father, and, while they seemed a fair bit more wholesome than the bloodthirsty halfling and unstable human wizard she and Imoen had picked up along the way, it was really a moot point. She didn't trust any of them.
A bright, childish laugh rang out across the room, Imoen, chuckling over something that the half-elven man, Khalid, had said in his soft, stumbling voice. He seemed quite cultured, and she would have liked to ask him, and even his sour-faced wife, Jaheira, who even now glared at her across the expanse of the room, how they had come to know her foster father, but such encounters usually didn't go well.
Eshcarna returned the glare from within the confines of her hood. It was like staring down a dog, and she was determined that she would not be the first to look away. It seemed that this was not the day for her mettle to be tested, however, as something Xzar said made the mongrel bitch snap her head up, fixing her disturbing stare on him instead. The tension between the two pairs had been plain enough since their first meeting, and Eshcarna suspected that she might have to drop one set or the other, and settled on the wizard and halfling, they were... one could only put it, very creepy, even for someone like her, who usually discomfited even the most stalwart individuals without even trying.
In fact, her very existence alone was discomfiting, sometimes downright intolerable, to those she had met. Eshcarna was a rare individual, who often wished she was so rare as to be non-existent, as was often the lot of the particular group to which she was condemned to belong. Eshcarna, you see, was a half-drow.
Normally her kind were slaughtered at birth, but she'd had the fortune, or perhaps misfortune, to be born in a demi-human community, her mother, also a half-drow, no doubt subsiding gratefully from the rigours of childbirth into the final mercy of death. Such would have been Eshcarna's lot as well, if her foster father, Gorion, in a misguided attempt at pity few would have dared, hadn't taken her into his care.
All her life, though she had never known whether to bless or curse the man for his actions, still she had been unable to do anything other than love him. It had shamed her, sometimes, this love of hers, this anxious need to meet with his approval, which she had miraculously earned somehow, in spite of her many faults. Well, now he was gone, and that tiresome stage of her life was over and done with.
She finished her draught of firewine and placed a coin on the table, motioning a nearby wench for another. A neat little row of goblets was already lined up in front of her, all standing at attention like the Watchers of Candlekeep, and she intended to swell their ranks by several more before the night was over.
Her wine was brought, and with her grey fingertips she slid the coin closer to the woman, who took it without suspicion or complaint. Hooded like this, she might have been anyone. She supposed it was a small blessing that her skin was but medium grey, and her hair, where it escaped her hood, was a dark walnut brown, rather than sickly silver, or white blonde, as she had been told was more usual for those of her kind, the rare ones that lived to grow up. If it weren't for her telltale red eyes, none might have given her a second glance... and she would have preferred it a thousand times more than the attention she did gain when she was foolish enough to go about uncovered. How wonderful if her eyes had only been grey as well, grey like Gorion's had been, like storm clouds... But there was nothing so poetic about her own crimson gaze, blazing starkly out of her dull skin in the only striking contrast present in her entire form, the rest of her was muted, blending one shade into another, grey and brown, rather like a corpse.
Corpse. Her fingers clenched around her goblet, remembering the disembowelled form of her foster father, on the morning she and Imoen had found him, just six days ago. She finished her wine again, and once more a coin appeared, its gleam soon producing another brimming cup that did nothing to drown her sorrows.
"M-might I join you?" a hesitant male voice had the audacity to interrupt her thoughts. Khalid, the wary warrior, had come to importune her. She was vaguely impressed, he had seemed so completely cowed by his hawk-faced wife that she would have hardly thought him capable of independent action.
"What do you want?" she asked, snatching the new goblet from the barmaid the moment it arrived, and taking huge drink, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Maybe he would be appalled by her manners and retreat, he seemed like the type.
"N-nothing, I just thought I would..."
"Everyone wants something," Eshcarna interrupted. "So either tell me what it is, or leave me in peace. Or actually, just leave me in peace, I don't care what you want, since I have no intention of providing it."
"It's n-not healthy to drink alone," the warrior replied, and took an empty chair without imploring further courtesies, intelligent enough to grasp that they would not be forthcoming. He placed his own mug of ale pointedly on the scarred tabletop.
"There, you did want something," the half-drow told the half-elf with a bitter smile. "You wanted to convey some sanctimonious reproof." Out of the corner of her eye she could see the Druid, Jaheira, watching them intently. "Did your wife put you up to this? Well, your work is done, errand boy, you can be on your way."
Khalid seemed oblivious to the insult. "We never had the f-fortune to meet before this, but Gorion did write us many letters about you."
"Let me make it easy for you," Eshcarna said. "Anything good he wrote about me was a lie, and anything bad was about ten times worse. We might as well all go to Nashkel since I have nothing better to do, but this is a business relationship, nothing more."
"He told us that you wrote poetry," the warrior said, after a moment. "And that you could s-sing, that you were even s-something of a b-bard."
Eshcarna frowned, reaching down to touch the cloth-wrapped bundle at her feet, feeling the reassuring shape of her harp beneath the wrappings. She laughed bitterly. "He told you what I am, did he not?"
The half-drow laughed harder, and more desperately than before. Many, including Imoen, had learned to be wary of her laughter, because it was not a mark of joy. "Yes, do imagine, a bard that people cross the street to avoid, one they would rather run out of town than listen to..."
"I would listen," Khalid said.
"Out of love for my father," she accused, "nothing more. Many 'tolerated' me for his sake, and I'd as soon be hated openly as tolerated like that ever again."
"And so you c-court hatred, as one m-might court a lover. It isn't going to w-work this t-time..."
Eshcarna slammed her goblet back on the table, spilling wine over her hand. "You speak as if you believe you have some secret window into my soul. Well, you do not. You know nothing of me, and it will stay that way."
"P-perhaps I know nothing," the warrior conceded, sipping at his ale, "but Gorion knew a great deal, he was a wise man, and a brave one, and an excellent judge of character... You t-tell me I will listen to you only for his sake, and I ch-charge you to sing, then, by the same t-token, only for h-his... Deny it though you may, you are not d-drinking because you like the taste of wine."
"I am not going to sing," Eshcarna replied through gritted teeth, trying to let the rest of his words pass over her without being analysed. "Did Imoen put you up to this?"
He glanced over at the other table again, which would have confirmed her suspicions even if Imoen had not been looking right at her, a concerned frown creasing her forehead. "I'm n-not asking y-you to perform, you d-don't even have to sing... J-just play something quietly for you and me, there has been n-no one to play music tonight, and it f-feeds the soul..."
Eshcarna hesitated, even though her hands were already reaching for the fastenings of the bundle that held her harp. Music didn't just feed her soul, it *was* her soul, her only outlet and comfort in a world that hated her, one that she hated right back. Her fingers tingled when they finally touched the smooth, polished wood that seemed to pulse under her hand. It was no magical instrument, just a simple wooden harp that Gorion had went through great difficulty to procure for her, but to Eshcarna it was a living, breathing thing, and sometimes, it seemed, one with more of a mind and a heart that she owned herself.
She pushed back her chair and pulled the instrument into her lap, running her fingers over the strings like a mother would ruffle the downy hair of a newborn babe. Despite the hardships of the last few days it was somehow still in tune. Eshcarna didn't so much play the harp now as caress it, feeling the texture of the strings under her sensitive fingertips, coaxing it to purr like one might stroke a cat.
Unbidden a tune began to weave itself out of her improvisations, and when she realized which one it was, she tried to stop it, but her fingers continued playing, almost as if they were possessed. She struggled through the bridge and the chorus at least twice, trying to make herself play something else, but it wasn't working. The words to the song were in her head, demanding release like the very fiends of the nine hells, and finally she realized there was no choice but to give in.
By this hand I vanquish
all the lies that you've by told
by this hand I banish all the pain
by this hand I gather
all the burdens that you hold
this hand, it's all I have to give
At first her voice was quiet, little more than a whisper, but as the power of the words and the song took over, she found herself singing louder.
And I wish the gods would give me
more strength in this hand
and I wish that you would
put your hand in mine
The song mocked her, but she continued to sing, it was a battle now, not merely a song, a war between her will and the emotions inside of her, painfully stirred by the meaning behind the words, by the secrets of the song and the one who had written it so long ago.
By this hand I raise up
all the wonder that is you
by this hand I wipe away the tears
by this hand I dismiss
all those who never saw you true
this hand, it's all I have to give
And I wish the gods would give me
more strength in this hand
and I wish that you would
put your hand in mine
As she sang, Eshcarna remembered someone from what seemed like a lifetime ago, someone she had vowed she would forget had ever existed. A little girl sitting alone in the gardens, looking down at her reflection in the shining waters of the fountain, a small, dark face, made darker still by smudges of dirt, framed by wild, tangled brown hair. The little girl was alone, no one liked her, no one saw her as just a little girl... No, what they saw was centuries of hate, staring out of crimson eyes, a hate that was their own, and had never been hers.
By this hand I realize
that I cannot do these things
by this hand, for it is just one hand
it is your hand that must reach out
and find the truth only time brings
but my hand is still ready to give
But she hadn't been alone, and a warm presence comes to sit beside her. He seems like a giant, like a mountain, and his face is like a thunderhead, but it softens just for her. He sees her, with those eyes of his, truly sees her, and not simply what it seemed she should be. He offers her his hand, and she turns away in miniature haughtiness, tears gleaming in her scarlet eyes, but he waits patiently, doesn't accept her rejection, and, after while, she turns back, gives him a hesitant smile, one of the few genuine ones she ever experienced, and lets him lead her away, back inside the keep.
And maybe the gods will give us both
more strength in our hands
if they're together
my hand in yours
and yours in mine
Her eyes were closed as she finished, her thoughts far away, in a place where the sun is warm and the world looks just a little more tolerable. Then, the sound of unexpected applause from dozens of hands brought her back from that place, applause that, as a bard, she should have craved, but instead it filled her mouth with the taste of ashes. And as the sorrow and knowledge returned again she wished that she could die, envying the one who already had. Hating him for leaving her behind.
Escharna opened her eyes, and saw that the whole room had gradually stopped what they were doing to listen to her song. She had tried to be quiet, but had drawn unwanted attention to herself again. It was a small blessing that her hood hadn't fallen back, that they couldn't see the two crimson orbs that marked her forever, made uglier still, bloodshot with alcohol and unshed tears.
She ignored them all and looked at Khalid, hoping for a distraction, a reason to lash out, to bring sanity back, but all she could see was an expression of wonder on his homely bronzed face, and tears in his eyes that matched her own.
"That was beautiful," he told her. "D-did you write it?"
"No..." She found herself stammering, ironically worse than he had. "Well, that is... I wrote the music, but... Father, he... he wrote the poem for me when I was little, and last year I set it to music for him as a midwinter solstice present. It was... the last gift I ever gave him. Excuse me..."
People had begun to throw coins, and they pelted her like hail, but they might all have been rotten tomatoes for all the joy she took in them as she fled the warmth and too-bright lights of the tavern to seek the welcome solace of the night.
Part 1 - A Song for My Father
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