Eshcarna didn't need to open her eyes to know it was morning. Not when the bright sunlight seemed to blaze right through the meager protection of her eyelids, bathing everything behind them in a blood-red glow that made her head start to throb.
Carefully she rolled over onto her stomach and pressed her face into the pillow before actually opening her eyes a tiny crack, allowing them to get used to the painful illumination of the room. After a few minutes she opened her eyes all the way, and then rolled back over again. It was much better than opening her eyes right away, but the brightness of the room still made her wince.
But her eyes, while a usual annoyance, were far from the only things that were uncomfortable this morning.
Next to her Imoen snored softly, a little puddle of drool forming under his cheek where it rested on the pillow.
Surprisingly, she hadn't bled, but it was still over. One dreadful impediment taken care of. So why did she feel so hollow inside?
True, their actual coupling had been brief and clumsy, but that was really her own fault, since Eshcarna hadn't factored Imoen's inexperience into her equations. If she'd had more forethought she wouldn't have excited Imoen quite so much, as it was, by the time they had begun she'd had barely enough time to get used to the uncomfortable connection before finding it abruptly severed. That wasn't exactly a major disappointment, since Eshcarna had entered into the experience expecting very little. Imoen, on the other hand, seemed to have gotten a lot more out of it, and that was probably the most comforting aspect of the whole encounter. Eshcarna had worked hard to please her friend in gratitude for the immense favour, and she had succeeded. In fact, the expression of agonized wonder on Imoen's face upon reaching the peak of male orgasm was a memory she knew with certainty she would never forget. Nor the way they had lain in silence afterwards, with Imoen pulling her protectively close, sheltering the now smaller half-drow in the strength of a masculine embrace that nonetheless remained comforting and tender.
So why did she feel this way?
Eshcarna asked the question, but deep down the answer was already there. She had forced Imoen into this. Granted, she had not used brute strength, or overt coercion, but she had forced her friend all the same, by promising her things that should have been given freely, in exchange for her cooperation. A sickening realization, deepened her anguish as she realized it was just what Ulraunt had done to her.
No! Sitting up, she shook her head, clasping it in her hands as though she could somehow wrench the treacherous thoughts from her mind. No, this was different. It really was. Ulraunt had approached her out of vile lust, he hadn't needed her help, he hadn't needed her. He hadn't cared whether she lived or died, while Eshcarna loved Imoen as she loved no one else in this world.
Still, what she had done wasn't exactly what one ought to do to someone they loved, was it?
The agonizing meanderings of her mind were interrupted by a sleepy sigh, and she turned to see Imoen yawning and stretching before opening his eyes to greet the world.
"Hello," Eshcarna whispered, feeling suddenly shy.
"Heya," Imoen answered, that pleasant, masculine voice husky from sleep.
"How do you feel?"
"Okay I guess..." Imoen said, then coloured suddenly as the memory of the night came back to him. "How do *you* feel?"
"I'm fine," Eshcarna replied.
"Does it... ummm, you know?" Imoen blushed again.
"Hurt? No, not really..."
"Then why do people keep telling ya you're supposed to bleed, hmm?" Imoen wondered. "Most guys must be real assholes in bed."
"I never thought of it that way."
"You know... I think, I, umm..." Imoen fumbled for words. "I think, I'm glad it was me, and not some... idiot or something... Err, I did do okay, right?"
"Yes, it was fine, Imoen," Eshcarna assured her friend. "I'm glad... I'm glad you understand."
"I wish..." Imoen cut himself off and lay back on the pillows.
"No, it's nothing."
"No, tell me."
"Tell me, Imoen, or I'm going to have to do something drastic..." Eshcarna threatened. "Like... tickle torture..."
"Aww, come on," Imoen was unimpressed by the threat. "You're more ticklish and you know it... I always thought it was kind of funny, you being ticklish and all. It's hard to imagine a drow being ticklish - must be your human side."
Had anyone else but Imoen spoken those words, they would have had a black eye in very short order, but Imoen truly had no malice, only curiosity when he spoke of Eshcarna's heritage, and that made a definite difference.
"Imoen, please tell me what you were going to say."
"It's nothing." At Eshcarna's quelling look he shame-facedly continued. "Just... last night you did all these wonderful things for me and... well, it seemed to me you didn't really have fun at all... I know you just wanted to get it over with, but I wish you would've let me..."
"I don't want to discuss it." Eshcarna interrupted.
Imoen made a sound of frustration. "But you're the one who just said..." He paused and turned to look at Eshcarna more closely. "Carnie, do you ever, well... you know... get feelings...?"
The young thief looked down at his lap. "You know *feelings*..."
"Don't ya ever get horny?!" Imoen burst out impatiently, too frustrated to make any more attempts at delicacy.
Eshcarna thought for a moment. "I don't think so. How would I know?"
"Trust me," said Imoen, "you'd know."
The two shared a long silence, which Imoen finally broke.
"Remember when you were 12 and I saw you and old buzzardface in his rooms, and he had his hand..."
Eshcarna spoke quickly, before her friend could say anything more. She hardly wanted to remember that, least of all now. "Imoen, that was a long time ago."
"...and I asked you what happened," Imoen persisted, as if he hadn't been interrupted, "and you said he tried getting fresh and you told him you would cut his throat if he tried anything else, and made me promise not to tell Mr. G because he would just be upset?"
"Imoen..." A frightening suspicion was forming, making Eshcarna's chest feel unnaturally tight.
"He kept doing it, didn't he?" Imoen's voice grew thick. "You never told him to stop, and he kept doing it... he..." Somehow the sight of Imoen's tears running down a young man's face was even more distressing. "...he was doing it all along, wasn't he?"
"Shhh..." Eshcarna whispered, trying to draw her friend into a comforting embrace. "It's over. Most likely we will never see Ulraunt again."
But Imoen would not be placated, and pulled back, sniffling. "Wasn't he? You can't lie to me, Carnie, I can see it in your face."
"Then *why* do you have to make me say it?" the half-drow ground out. "Yes, it's true. I lied. We've been 'playmates' for years... That's what he used to call it at first, anyway..."
"Oh Carnie, I'm sorry..." This time it was Imoen who embraced the half-drow, and Eshcarna tolerated it for long moments, her eyes dry while her friend wept, showing more distress at her situation than she ever had.
After a little while, Imoen seemed to notice that the emotional outbreak was entirely one-sided, and withdrew, a puzzled expression on his face. "Doesn't it matter to you?"
"No," Eshcarna shrugged. "Not really."
"I don't believe you." Imoen's voice was turning angry.
"Believe what you want, you're more upset about this than I am."
"Damn right I'm upset!" the thief's fist slammed into the mattress. "Why didn't you tell anyone? Mr. G would never have wanted anything to happen to you."
"Why didn't *you* tell anyone if you were so worried?" Eshcarna countered. "I seem to remember you were pretty upset at that time too."
"Why?" Imoen asked. "Because you made me promise not to, and unlike someone I know, I keep my promises. That and you told me you might have to go away if anyone found out. Mr. G wouldn't have wanted you to stay in Candlekeep with some guy who kept... doing stuff to you... But Carnie, I *wanted* to help you." Imoen's tears began flowing again. "You don't know how often I dreamed of sneaking into the keep, up to the old buzzard's rooms, and slitting his throat good and proper! Just like you were going to do to Winthrop that time, remember? And he wasn't even trying to..." Eshcarna could see how Imoen was discomfited by the memory, still trying to defend his surrogate parent even after all these years. It had to be okay, you see, because otherwise it meant that Winthrop was bad, or that he had been a victim himself. "That is, he didn't know much about kids... he was just doing what he thought parents were supposed to do... A lot of parents still do that, Carnie, most of 'em, in fact."
"Gorion never did," Eshcarna whispered.
She still remembered that day, 12 years ago. It had been bright and sunny, the kind of day Eshcarna hated because it hurt her eyes, but it was also the kind of day Imoen loved. Her chores and lessons were finished, and most likely Imoen's were as well, and all that remained was the prospect of good times with a good friend, though she hoped she could convince Im that they could spend at least part of their time in the storeroom where the light was dimmer.
Eshcarna ran through the gardens that filled the inner bailey, nearly trampling a few of the Chanters as they repeated their parts in the endless ritualistic oration of the prophecies of the wise Alaundo. Instead of annoyance, she got some indulgent looks that would have surprised her if she'd seen them, most of Candlekeep's permanent residents had learned by now that they ought to make way when they saw her coming.
But when she got to the front of the inn, all her exuberance seemed to be sucked away by the sight before her. Yes, Imoen was there, but she wasn't waiting expectantly with that trademark grin of hers... in fact, she looked rather busy.
A bunch sticks was clutched tightly in her small hand, gleaned from one of the small trees that grew nearby, and she was looking up as Hull, one of the Watchers that guarded the keep, handed her down another.
"There you go, kid," the gruff but kindly soldier replied. "It was supposed to be eight, right?"
Mutely Imoen nodded.
"Hey Im," Eshcarna bounded up to her friend, outwardly unperturbed by the tense mood, though inside she felt a strange sense of foreboding that she didn't understand. "Whatcha doin'?
Imoen clutched the bundle of sticks still more tightly, though it appeared she was trying very hard, and failing, to look casual. "Nothin'."
"Well, come on then!" Eshcarna said, feeling a little odd as Imoen showed nothing of her usual fun-loving disposition. "It's time to play."
"Eshcarna..." Hull cleared his throat and then crouched down in front of her. "Imoen's gonna be a little busy this afternoon."
"What?" Feeling like something was terribly wrong, the half-drow child looked between the Watcher's weathered face, and Imoen's pale countenance. "Why?"
"She just has some stuff to do..."
"I can help!" Eshcarna chirped eagerly.
Hull frowned. "No, you can't help her this time, Eshcarna," he said gently, looking towards Imoen who was hastily tying her bundle of sticks together with a scrap of cord. "Go on, hon... and remember what I said, okay? It won't be so bad..."
The human girl nodded and fled into the inn before Eshcarna could ask any more questions.
Eshcarna started after her, but Hull put his hand on her shoulder. "Hey, look, I know I'm no substitute... but how about a little swordplay, huh?"
"But Hull," Eshcarna pouted, looking toward the inn door again. "You're off duty. Don't you want some mead like you usually do?"
"Damn kid," Hull laughed, "if I'm that predictable I don't think I need any mead tonight." He ruffled her dark hair as he got to his feet. "Come on... Fuller finally got around to makin' that wooden sword for you."
Eshcarna's eyes lit up. "He did, really?"
"Yup!" Hull seemed suddenly more relaxed. "Let's go take a look at it, I think it looks nice, and I think you will too. Why, if it wasn't brown all over I'd almost say it was a real sword that could run a man through in the blink of an eye!"
"Wow!" By this time Eshcarna was completely taken in, and had all but forgotten her friend's odd behaviour. Grabbing the armoured man's hand she followed him across the bailey.
True to his word, Hull had practiced sword fighting with her for a long time, before turning her over to Fuller who had actually let her fire a real crossbow at the practice targets. Of course she hadn't been able to operate the crossbow completely by herself since the tension was too strong for a child to adjust, but once the bolt had been locked it had been her aim that took over, and had managed to hit the target every time, though not always right in the middle, though that was owing as much to her child's height as to her age. Sometimes her shots had got the dummy in the leg, or in the stomach, or a little lower... for some reason whenever she did that the guards would all make the funniest noises. So she'd begun aiming for that spot on purpose, and soon developed an eerie sense of accuracy. "I think you've got that spot covered," Hull finally told her, wiping tears of merriment from his eyes as he stared at the huge sprouting of crossbow quarrels erupting from the crotch of the much-abused archery target, before adding that "You'd better keep that particular talent to yourself, or some day your suitors might be just a little uncomfortable around you." Eshcarna hadn't understood the joke, but the rest of the guards had seemed to, because they had laughed and laughed until their sides ached, while she watched, her red eyes wide with bewilderment.
What an adventure! By the time Gorion had called her in for supper in the refectory, Eshcarna could hardly keep her eyes open. After watching her nearly landing face-first in her soup for the fifth time, Gorion had finally chuckled and picked the sleepy child up in his strong arms. She still remembered what that warm embrace felt like, his warmth and his scent, of herbs, and old paper, and sweet-smelling exotic spices...
"We'll just get you a big breakfast tomorrow, little one," he promised, as he helped her put on her nightgown and tucked her into bed.
Eshcarna was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow, her last thought being that tomorrow she would tell Imoen about all the fun she'd had, and make it up to her for whatever it was that had caused her to miss it.
As it turned out, she didn't have to wait that long.
Little Eshcarna had been in a deep slumber until she heard the sound of her door being cracked open, followed by the sound of a figure slipping inside. She opened her eyes, her infravision immediately telling her what she already knew as she saw Imoen pull off her cloak and boots, revealing a long unbleached linen nightgown.
Grinning to herself she closed her eyes and feigned sleep.
She didn't remember exactly when this had started happening, but it had become an enjoyable game for them, these midnight excursions from one bed to another. Both girls knew that if they asked their respective guardians, they would have more than likely been allowed to sleep over whenever they wished, but there was an irresistible sense of freedom and danger in doing it this way, and so they continued their game with the indulgence of the two adults concerned, who would always make a great show of finding an extra child in bed the next morning.
"Why Imoen!" Gorion would exclaim, with twinkling eyes. "How in Faerun did you get here?"
"The Bogeyman brought me," Imoen would reply, "he tried to take me to his lair, but I got away!"
"How very brave of you," the gentle sage would answer with great seriousness, stroking his beard. "I don't know if I could get away from such a powerful adversary. This calls for a celebration... I'll see if the cooks are in the mood to make some special pancakes for our special adventurers, hmmm?"
"But I didn't do anything," Eshcarna would protest.
"Yes you did," Imoen would respond. "You're the reason I got away - I told him that if he didn't let me go you would roast him with your Drow magic."
"Well done indeed!" Gorion always exclaimed. "Anyone can pick up a sword and fight, but winning a war with wits is a true test of your mettle. Pancakes it is - I don't care if they demand I make them myself!"
It was a much more subdued Imoen, however, that crept, or, more accurately, slunk, into bed beside Eshcarna tonight. Normally Imoen would pounce, and a tickling match would ensue that sometimes brought one of the Readers running to see what was causing the commotion. This time Imoen didn't even try to see if Eshcarna was awake, just snuggled close against her friend's back and remained very, very still.
"Im?" the half-drow asked, and the human girl surprised her with a deep shudder. "Sorry, did I scare you?"
"Naw..." Imoen whispered softly.
"I missed you today," Eshcarna said.
Imoen made an unidentifiable sound. "I missed ya, too..." she finally said.
"But I tried to have fun anyway," she went on eagerly, "Fuller made me a wooden sword, and there's one for you too, and..."
Imoen's voice became muffled as she rolled over onto her stomach, pressing her face into the pillow. "Can we just go to sleep now?"
In the darkness, Eshcarna's eyebrows rose at the uncharacteristic request. Normally it was she who eventually got tired of Imoen's chatter, though usually her patience lasted a bit longer than this. "Im? Are you okay?"
"...yeah..." Even muffled by the pillow, Imoen's voice had taken on a strange, suspicious quality.
"Im..." Eshcarna asked worriedly, "Are you... *crying*?"
"...no..." The delay in response only confirmed her suspicions.
"Yes you are!" The half-drow girl accused, torn between concern, fear, and anger over whatever it was that had upset her friend. "Come here..." she coaxed Imoen to face her, gathering her into a warm embrace, feeling an increasing sense of dread as Imoen lost any semblance of control and wept brokenheartedly against her shoulder.
"Im..." Eshcarna whispered. "Im... what's gotten into you?"
"It's not 'nothin''," she replied. "You never cry like this! You're always so happy, like the sunshine, except not so hard to look at..."
Imoen gave a watery laugh, which afforded some temporary relief, but still didn't answer Eshcarna's question. "I guess I just don't feel so good..."
"Are you sick? I'll wake Father... he'll fix you..." Eshcarna started to get out of bed.
"No..." Imoen grabbed her arm. "It's not that."
"Well, then what is it?" Eshcarna crossed her arms. "If you don't tell me, I will get him and then maybe he can make you tell me what's wrong."
"It's stupid," Imoen muttered angrily. "You'll just think I'm being a baby."
"No, I won't, Im, look at me," she grabbed her friend's cheeks and held her face, forcing her to look deep into her eyes. "I won't call you a baby, I promise. You can tell me anything."
"It's stupid..." Imoen said again, her eyes still watering, her lip curled tight as though it were the only thing keeping her from bursting into tears again.
"Imoen, you'd better tell me, I can still go get Father..."
"Alright, fine, okay... you wanna know? Puffguts gave me the switch, okay, are you happy now?!" Imoen mashed her face into the pillow again, as her sobs came anew.
"The switch?" This was a new item of vocabulary for Eshcarna.
"Yeah... you know... that bundle of sticks I was makin', Winthrop spanked me with them, okay?"
"Spanked..." This word Eshcarna did understand, and she began to feel very sick inside.
"Before he always used his hand," Imoen went on, tearfully, "but... there was a Flaming Fist guy in today, and I thought it might be fun to see what he had in his pockets... Well, he got really mad, and Puffguts decided that I was gettin' out of hand or whatever, and said he was gonna give me a lickin' I would never forget. So he told me he was gonna switch me, and I had to make it myself..."
Eshcarna's feeling of sickness grew. "He used that... on you...?"
"Yeah," Imoen sniffled. "He said I was lucky, because there was only eight sticks... same amount as my age. He said his Dad always doubled it when he did something really bad." She laughed weakly. "He did give me twice as many licks, though... You... you can look if you like..." she offered, after a moment, in a small, embarrassed voice. "I was scared to, cause it felt pretty bad. You're a lot braver than me, though, I bet you could have handled it."
As if in a dream, Eshcarna saw her hands pull back the covers and then lift up Imoen's nightgown. Almost immediately she put it back in place, then lifted it again, unable to trust that her eyes had really seen what she thought they had. In the dark, everything looked naturally red to her infravision, but it was difficult to mistake the deeper flush over certain areas of Imoen's tender skin, nor the darker redness of the long welts marring the lower part her friend's backside. While none of them appeared to have broken skin, the sheer number of them horrified young Eshcarna's sensibilities, especially she had never been exposed to corporal punishment before. Her small hands shaking, she again replaced the nightgown, and pulled the blankets back over them both, then sat quietly, staring into the darkness as she tried to process the awfulness of what she had just seen.
"That bad, huh?" Imoen whispered, with a gallows humour that would have sounded incongruous coming from a child, had any adults been around to hear it. Suddenly she seemed to realize that Eshcarna hadn't said anything, and in fact had not spoken for quite some time. "What's the matter?" she finally asked. "Doesn't Mr. G ever spank you?"
"No." Eshcarna's hands clenched into tiny fists, and a very, very old look crept slowly into her eyes.
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