"Oh," said Imoen. "But..." What she would have said was cut off as Eshcarna climbed out of bed and reached for her tunic and pants, quickly getting dressed. "Where are ya goin', Carnie? It's the middle of the night..."
"I need to pee," the half-drow child lied, her mind already far away, already executing the plan that was even now forming amidst the horror and anger that still clouded her thoughts.
"But it's the middle of the night," Imoen protested again as if repeating the words would somehow make them get through. "Why dontcha just use the chamber pot?"
"I hate emptying it," Eshcarna replied, which was entirely true, and neither was the second part too far off the mark. "Besides, my tummy's a little upset, too, and I think I might puke..." It was upset indeed, sickened at the marks her friend had shown her, at the thought that Winthrop had really... He was so big and strong, and Imoen was so small. Gorion had always told her you weren't supposed to pick on people who were smaller than you, and you weren't supposed to hit anyone. So why did Puffguts do both to Imoen?
To her childish mind the answer was painfully simple: because he was a bad man. Bad men bullied people and hit them and hurt them. The bad men in the stories her father told her always got stopped, but what if no one stopped Puffguts? What if he kept right on hurting Imoen?
Part of her thought that maybe she should wait and tell Gorion in the morning. Maybe he would talk to Winthrop and make him stop, but then again, maybe he wouldn't. Big people always seemed to work together, like they were planning something. How many times had she walked into a room only to have all the Big People stop talking and stare at her, as if they had been talking about her all along? Maybe they got together and planned what they would do to kids to make sure they always got what they wanted.
Deep down, Eshcarna really thought that Gorion wasn't like that, but sometimes he was really hard for her to understand. Not just Big People hard, but... Anybody hard. Sometimes she told him things and he really didn't seem to grasp them, like when she said that everybody kept looking at her funny. First he told her that she was imagining things, and then he told her that they were curious about her because she was different from them. When she finally told him everything, that she had heard them saying bad things about her, he had said the most heart-breaking thing of all. "Sometimes that's just the way people are, Eshcarna... I know it isn't right, but there isn't really anything we can do to change it. We just have to learn from it. Because you know it feels bad to you, you won't ever point and stare at someone who is different, will you, Eshcarna?" Mutely she had nodded, and that had seemed to please him, but now that same conversation held a world of fear. What if Gorion thought that Winthrop was supposed to hit Imoen? That they couldn't do anything about it? That was an answer she couldn't accept, even if it came from her beloved foster father. "Even I can be wrong, sometimes, child," he had once told her. Well, he was definitely wrong this time.
"I could go with ya," Imoen offered.
"I'll be okay," Eshcarna said, even though the idea of wandering around the keep alone late at night was not going to be fun this time. "It's not like anything's gonna eat me or something."
"You're mad, aren't ya..." the human girl deducted suddenly. "Aww... Carnie, I... I'm really sorry I told you that story about the grey ooze living at the bottom of the privy and shooting goo at people's bums..."
"Yeah," Eshcarna said, fumbling under the mattress. "I'm really mad, but not at you Im..."
Carefully Eshcarna withdrew the shining object she had pilfered from the guardhouse months ago. She'd been having lots of bad dreams, and even though Gorion had tried to be sympathetic, he didn't seem to truly realize how scared she was, so she'd stolen a small dagger, though in her hands it looked like a short sword now, beginning to acquire a soft red glow as it absorbed her body heat. Since she'd had it, she felt a lot better, but she never thought she would have to use it, let alone want to so badly...
"Carnie... What's that?" Imoen crept to the edge of the bed, leaning down to look at her friend.
"Don't fib! I saw something, Carnie."
Eshcarna frowned. Being gifted with such excellent night vision, she often had trouble discerning just how well, or not so well, someone without infravision could see in the dark. Sometimes the accuracy of what they saw truly caught her unawares.
"It's nothing, Im, go back to sleep, okay? I'll be back soon..."
"Why do you have a knife?"
"What are you gonna do, Carnie?" Imoen's eyes were wide and scared.
"Winthrop shouldn't be hurting you," Eshcarna said with a coldness that belied her childish years.
"I have to show him, Im, I have to... He... he can't do that to you!" Angrily Eshcarna wiped at her eyes, feeling them flood as the unfairness of it all finally overwhelmed her. "He's a bad man, a really bad man!"
"No!" Rushing from the bed, Imoen grabbed Eshcarna's arm. "He's not... He's doing it because he loves me, because he wants me to stop being bad and grow up right..."
"You're not bad, Im... You're good, you're a good girl..." The tears came faster and Eshcarna struggled not to sob. "Not like me..."
"Carnie, c'mere..." Imoen hugged her friend gently. "I'm okay. I was just being a baby, it's not that bad..."
"Yes it is!" Tears continued to stream down Eshcarna's face. "Was it fun, Im? Did you like being hurt?"
Tears began to well again in Imoen's eyes. "No..."
"Do you want him to hurt you more like that the next time he doesn't like something you do?"
"You said he used his hand before, right?" Eshcarna continued her merciless line of questioning. "And now he used sticks - do you think he'll go back to using his hand again? Or maybe he'll think the sticks aren't good enough either, and find something even bigger to use on you..." On and on the half-drow pressed question after terrible question until Imoen was sobbing in near hysterical panic before finally relenting, crouching down before her friend as she sat, or more accurately sprawled, on the cold stone floor. She had tried to put her wounded bottom down for its intended purpose, but apparently it just hurt too much.
Eshcarna helped Imoen up and guided her back toward the bed, tucking her in as though she were the adult instead of simply another child. "Look at you, Im... You're scared, and sad... You're *not* being a baby. No one whips babies. Or at least I hope they don't," she muttered, a grim afterthought under her breath.
Imoen pulled the blankets around her and continued sobbing, though it seemed as if she was trying to regain control. "Carnie," she finally choked.
"Please gimme the knife..."
"I can't do that, Im."
"Please..." Tentatively Imoen reached out of the covers, those slim, agile fingers that had gotten her into so much trouble now working stealthily towards the blade in Eshcarna's momentarily lax hand.
"I said no!" Eshcarna caught herself before actually shouting, but it still came out rather loud as she jumped back from the bed. "I've gotta save you, Im. After tonight," she promised darkly, "Puffguts won't do that to you any more."
Imoen threw herself from the bed again, falling to the ground hard as she tangled in the sheets. "Please don't hurt him..." the child wept. "I love him... I don't want him to die..."
"Then you're dumb, Im!" Eshcarna told the prostrate figure of her best friend. "Really dumb!"
Imoen's face crumpled, twisting in anguish, but the half-drow girl hardened her heart, leaving the room without a backward glance. Hopefully later Imoen would understand.
Her friend's distressed crying sounded rather loud, even after she had pulled the door shut with a determined tug.
Eshcarna hurried towards the stairs, ducking behind the banister just as she heard agitated footfalls hastening towards her room. No time to waste if she was to get this done. The last thing she heard as she ran down the stairs, nearly stumbling in her haste, was Imoen's tear-filled and frightened voice...
"Mr. G... you gotta do somethin'...! Carnie's gonna kill Puffguts!"
A shadow made of shadows, Eshcarna ran through the gardens of the inner bailey, her journey far different from the exuberant passage she had made earlier that day. Now she had a far darker purpose, one that frightened her, and yet couldn't be forsworn.
Shouting and running footsteps came from the keep as an errant tribe of misguided rescuers stumbled through the night to stop her quest for justice. But Eshcarna was small and fleet, a creature of the darkness - yes, that was what *they* called her when they thought she couldn't hear - and she reached the inn before her pursuers had made if half way across the gardens. The door was open, as it always was, and she crept quietly inside, and then, with an ancient, unnatural smile, shot the bolt home.
Now nothing would stop her.
Up the stairs she went, past room after room of sleeping guests to the end of the hallway, to the small set of rooms Winthrop called home. Not a sliver of light came from beneath the door, and Eshcarna smiled again. Good, he was asleep.
Getting the door open was not such an easy task, for, though Eshcarna's fingers were clever in their own way as Imoen's, she had recently discovered they liked a different sort of activity. For a moment all her chaotic thoughts tumbled aside as she remembered how it had felt when the travelling minstrel last winter had allowed her to touch his harp. How sweet it had been, the beautiful sigh of the strings under her fingertips, the instrument seeming to welcome her curiosity and exploration with a patience that few people seemed to have. Seeing her enraptured face, Gorion had promised he would see what he could do about getting her a harp of her own. She wondered what that would have been like, for now, she knew, it was to be an experience she would never have. Not if she went through with this. But that didn't matter, none of her selfish wishes or dreams mattered, not if they came at the price of Imoen's spirit.
*They hang murderers, you know,* a dark voice inside of her whispered.
/They wouldn't hang children!/ she thought back.
*Oh, wouldn't they? Not some children perhaps, but the child of a Drow, that should never have been born, should never have been allowed to grow, an abomination...*
/Stop it!/ Words filled her mind, words and whispers that were said just loud enough for her to overhear, looks and glances filled with fear and loathing... Even Hull and Fuller, who often entertained her, looked at her that way, when they thought she couldn't see, or met each other's eyes in a silent communion that took place over her head...
No one spoke of Drow around her, the subject was never broached, was forbidden, but Eshcarna had learned all the same, it was hard not to when your home was the greatest library in all of Faerun. Bloodthirsty, the books said of her one half kin... betrayers, they said... torturers... murderers...
If she walked through that door, she would be a murderer.
So be it.
Resolutely she continued picking the lock and it finally sprang, much more loudly, she was sure, than it would have if Imoen were here. Yes, Imoen, think of Imoen... She might be faster, and prettier, and loved by all, but she was not strong, Eshcarna knew. She needed someone, and right now only Eshcarna could help.
Inside the room Winthrop snored on as Eshcarna turned to close the door, trying to lock it as she had the other one, but the lock would no longer work: her clumsy efforts had broken it. No matter. They still had the front door to contend with, and it didn't take long to slit a man's throat. Why, it would probably be just like hunting rats for Reevor in the store room, though likely a lot messier.
Eshcarna crept on silent feet towards the bed where the Innkeep's bulk lay, a huge lump of flesh mounding the covers. He had always seemed so spirited and jovial, always ready with a joke or a good story, but all of that mattered nothing to her anymore. He was just a rat, she told herself, a very large, very fat rat, and worst of all, a rat who had hurt her friend.
As Eshcarna got to the side of the bed, she realized she couldn't easily reach his throat. She could stab him elsewhere, but that thought was soon rejected, his corpulent body presenting a large target, yes, but neatly concealed the vital organs under an equally large amount of padding. The girl didn't stop to wonder where this information came from, all she knew was that it made sense, and so she let it guide her.
She would simply have to get closer, and did so by climbing onto the bed. Even that wasn't good enough. She was small, she realized, with the burly Innkeeper outweighing her by many, many stone. He could easily escape her unless she made an even greater effort.
Decisively, she plunked herself onto his humongous chest, pressing the weight of her knees onto his arms. It would have been sufficient if she had been grown, most likely, but she was only a small child. She would simply have to do it quickly, before he woke up and struggled.
Taking a deep breath, she tucked the dagger under the wattles of Puffguts' numerous chins, seeking out the pulse that would tell her where to make the lethal slice. A second more, one second more, and she would have done it, but, with perhaps a canny sense of his own impending demise, old "Puffguts" Winthrop, Innkeeper of Candlekeep, chose this moment to open his eyes.
A more experienced assassin would have struck right then, taking advantage of the disorientation that lingers between sleep and waking, but despite the Drow heritage that so many despised and feared, Eshcarna was no assassin, only a child. Though at this point few could dispute that at this point she was a very dangerous child: one that was hurt, and frightened, and angry, and armed with a deadly weapon.
"Huh...? Wha...? Imoen?" Winthrop squinted up at the half-drow perched on his chest. "'zat you?" Then his gaze cleared and he smiled up at her. "Ah, it's you Eshcarna lass, what brings ya here so la - " As he went to sit up, the sharpness of the dagger pressed against his throat, drawing a thin line of blood, and he slumped back. "Oh..." he murmured, "I see..."
Eshcarna said nothing, simply glared down at the fat man with all the hatred she could muster.
Winthrop swallowed. "Uhhh... perhaps ye'd like to be tellin' me what yer doin' lass? 'Tis a far different game yer playin' from the ones ye and Imoen usually..."
"It's not a game." Her voice was flat and cold.
"I see..." The Innkeeper kept his voice slow and steady as his eyes held hers. "I thought we were friends, lass... why are ye doin' this?" A sudden panicked look flickered into his eyes. "Where's Imoen? Have ye...?" The big man swallowed, unable to finish the sentence.
"Safe," Eshcarna replied, not seeing the look of relief pass over the face of the one she had deemed her enemy. "And soon she's gonna be safer - safe from a *rat* like you!"
"Rat?" Winthrop repeated. "Ah lass, Reevor's been pressin' ye too hard to clean the storerooms, he has, if ye be seeing rats in every corner..." Even with a dagger pressed to his throat, old Puffguts managed a quip, hardly what Eshcarna expected of a cowardly bully.
All the same she was not impressed. "I'm not laughing."
"Neither am I, lass," the Innkeeper told her softly, perhaps for the first time beginning to look a little worried, "neither am I. Please tell me, what's grievin' ye so? Ye hold a dagger to my throat like I was the one that slew yer own mother..."
"I never knew my Mother," Eshcarna replied. "So maybe you did."
"This is not like ye, Eshcarna," the man tried again.
"Then you don't know me very well." She began to press the dagger harder against his neck.
"Lass! Hold, will ye?" Winthrop tried to struggle then stopped as she pressed harder. "If I'm to be executed, can I not at least be beggin' the courtesy of knowin' what was my crime?"
"Ask Imoen what your crime was!" Eshcarna shouted, surprisingly them both, tears beginning to pour down her cheeks.
At hearing this the big man relaxed somewhat, his tone becoming kinder. "Now lass, that's not yer concern, that's between parent and child..."
"You're not her real father!" Eshcarna pressed the knife down harder, and Winthrop gurgled, not so much from being cut, because her use of the weapon was clumsy at best, but from the pressure on his windpipe.
"No buts! And don't you tell me it's none of my business! Don't you *dare*! I don't care if you're a million years older than me and you think you know everything. Imoen's my friend, and that makes it my business!" The half-drow had to pause, out of breath from her tirade. "You... you... hurt her!"
So focussed was Eshcarna on her intended victim that even the soft, crackly susurration that marked the opening of a dimension door, did nothing to surprise her.
"Eshcarna!" came a familiar voice. "Thank the gods, I'm not too late! Please child, put down the knife."
"No father," the half-drow replied. "I can't..."
"You know violence is not the answer," Gorion coaxed in a gentle voice.
"Yes, I do, and you do, Father, but Puffguts doesn't."
"Imoen told me," the sage replied, his voice deepened with concern. "Eshcarna, my child, she does not wish you to take this action. She was beside herself, Tethtoril had to give her a sleeping draught."
"Now look, ye've gone and upset her over naught," Puffguts interjected, looking up at Eshcarna before glancing towards Gorion. "Gorion, my friend, as I were tryin' to tell this child of yers..."
"Winthrop," Gorion replied calmly, "now is not the time."
"Father he beats her!"
"Now look ye here, 'twere not a beatin'. I loves my Im, I does... I would never beat her..."
"What do you call hitting someone with a stick?" Eshcarna snarled.
"That were not fer regular like," Winthrop wheedled defensively. "I jus' was wantin' to make sure she understood..."
"Do you think Imoen is stupid?" Eshcarna asked. "They don't even beat dogs..."
"Dogs, well... they don't understand... a whippin' would ne'er train 'em up. Ye must show them what is good and reward it..."
"So because Imoen is smarter than a dog, you're not gonna treat her as good?" Eshcarna was livid, more livid than most people had ever seen a child become. "Father, you told me it was never right to hit people, so why is it okay for Puffguts to hit Imoen?"
"It's not, child..." Gorion replied with a sigh. "In fact, that's what I would like to discuss with him, if you could just give me the knife, I think you have...", he cleared his throat, "made your point."
Eshcarna stared down at Winthrop for long moments. She had liked him once, but that was before she had learned what was underneath. How many other people had this kind of meanness inside them, hiding it and letting it out only when they thought people wouldn't find out?
"Please, child, do as I ask. Imoen needs you."
Imoen... the whole reason for everything Eshcarna had done on this terrible night. She looked towards her father for the first time. He was badly rumpled, salt and pepper hair flying in all directions, one of his day robes buttoned crookedly over a long nightshirt, and slippers peeking from beneath. His face seemed to have aged a decade since supper time, she could see it especially in the tired orbs of his grey eyes.
Timidly she climbed from her perch atop Imoen's foster father, and ran towards her own, tossing the dagger aside before burying her face in his robes, feeling hot tears sting her eyes. "I'm sorry, Father... I just couldn't, I couldn't..."
"Shhh," crouching down, Gorion gathered her in his arms. "Hush child, I know... It was probably the worst way to handle the situation, but... I can see that you did what you did out of love..."
"Yes..." Eshcarna wept. "I love Im, I don't want her to get hurt... She's not a bad girl... she shouldn't have to be scared of getting hurt from someone that's supposed to love her... And... and..." A terrible realization struck her. "And I hurt her too, didn't I?" Her sobs deepened. "I just wanted to make her safe..."
The half-drow didn't see the look the two weary men exchanged over the top of her dark head, or the way Winthrop glanced away towards the window, a suspiciously liquid gleam in his eyes. "We all want to make her safe," Gorion said. "Even Puffguts, er, Winthrop... he just didn't know there were other ways, better ways to show her he loves her and wants her to grow up alright..."
"I hate him!" Eshcarna wept angrily, heedless of the object of her hatred who could hear quite plainly what she said. "I'm gonna hate him forever, and nothing you say is gonna stop me!"
"You don't have to like everybody, Eshcarna," Gorion said, "the gods know that sometimes I do not, but you do have to respect them, as I taught you. And you have to remember that even though you think what he did was awful, Imoen still loves Winthrop, and if you want to stay her friend, you have to respect her feelings about him, too. Can you do that?"
"Uh-huh," Eshcarna mumbled finally. "I'd do anything for Im."
"I think you have just proven that my child," Gorion said, with an even more exhausted sigh. "Beyond the shadow of a doubt." Pulling back, he held her at arms length for a moment, his grey eyes searching her crimson ones. "Go now, and tell Imoen that she has nothing to worry about, that you just gave her 'Puffguts' a good scare."
After the door had closed behind her, and the girl had gone, Gorion gave an even more serious look to his friend and colleague. "One that he should do well to remember."
Neither Eshcarna nor Imoen knew what the two men had discussed that night, only that when Imoen returned home the next day Winthrop told her they would try a new way of doing things. After that there were no more spankings or beatings, or hitting, or whatever folk might call it, though, with her mischievous disposition, Imoen soon developed a real knack for washing dishes, mending clothes, changing beds, mucking out stables, peeling vegetables and just about anything else that someone needed doing whenever she got into a spot of trouble. And any time Imoen found herself so occupied, Eshcarna usually occupied herself right alongside her friend, because she truly would have done anything for Imoen, and even a serious case of dishpan hands was better than the alternative.
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