Fight, Swear, Loathe; Chapter 22

The jor walked with a noble bearing neither Hilde nor Belynda was accustomed to seeing. A casual observer might have thought that he owned the place. As he led them through the entryway and out into what was a beautiful, and curiously constructed underground city, he talked about the neighborhood, people, and idiosyncrasies of this place. As it happened, they were in the far southeastern corner of Kaht-Medinhk, the massive city of the dark elves beneath Slothjemia. Belynda and Hilde had both heard of this place, but they had never been here. The fastest route to get to this metropolis was a seven-day journey, all underground, from the Slothjemian lake port of Jaggerholmschloss. At least, that had been the fastest route. Without taking time to explore and fight undead and set traps for a beholder, they could have made this trip in two days from the top of the Peklender Mine. Granted, that was still a day or two away from any large surface cities, but that was still a considerable savings of time.

Von Slothjem told them that this part of Kaht-Medinhk was the home of the House of Vaanmer Kaht, a minor noble family with aspirations of grandeur. One of the notable people of this House was LeCreana Deathtree, a powerful sorceress whose father, Selkirk, had been the Lord High Warlock under King Manfriedreich IV, the previous ruler of Slothjemia. It was LeCreana that had given use of a cottage to Hilde and Belynda’s guide. Belynda asked a lot of follow-up questions, which von Slothjem promised to answer later. Hilde wasn’t sure what to make of any of this information, but she knew that this jor was somebody of note, and that was all that mattered.

The caverns in which the drow city existed were not entirely natural. The elves had manipulated the stone, by magic and manual labor, to go up and up, giving them room to build their homes and wondrous palaces. They were almost all shaped like naturally occurring columns when stalagmites meld with stalactites; wide at the base and top, where it touched the ceiling, and narrower in the middle. The rocks were dark grey and black, and the city would have been gloomy as a result. However, there was plenty of magically painted lights to illume and decorate the drow buildings. The colors were dazzling to Hilde and Belynda, gaudy in a way they could never have imagined. Everywhere were dark elves, most armed with elegant daggers and small, hand-held crossbows in decorative hip holsters. Their skin was as black as obsidian, but their hair was bright in contrast, ranging from yellow to white. Their eyes glowed in colors that matched the vivid magical lights of the city. They were very different from the sundered drow of the surface world. Here, they acted haughtier, more confident, and they had an edge about them.

“Be careful, ladies.” Said von Slothjem, his voice clear, but subdued ever so slightly. “Keep yourself always on guard. Dark elves are not like anyone else you’d have encountered.” He made sure that Hilde and Belynda heard him before he continued. “They thrive on the chaos of life in the deep places. They are paranoid, arrogant, and dangerous. Always carry a small blade, wherever you go. It would be wise to not overstay your welcome.”

Hilde frowned. “How would we know that?” she asked, skepticism evident in her voice.

The jor laughed softly. “As soon as you make one of them angry.” He turned, and winked at the ladies. “Watch yourselves. Be mindful of your words, and your actions.”

The jor led them through the maze of streets, not a one of them running in a straight line. Curving this way and that, he took them to a large, vaguely hourglass-shaped building that ran ten stories, from the ground to the roof of the cave. Two guards stood at the door, and von Slothjem nodded to them as he entered. He swung the double doors open, and Hilde and Belynda gasped at the great reception hall that occupied the entire ground floor. In the middle of the hall was a magnificent spiral staircase. Von Slothjem smiled at his guests as he said, “It is five flights up. If you need a break, just say so.”

Up they went, and when they arrived at the proper landing, they saw that there were four doors spaced equidistant from each other in a circle around the staircase, which continued upwards. The swamp orc pointed to one of them, and announced, “That is my cottage.” He took a key from his belt pouch, and unlocked the door. Opening it, he motioned for them to enter. “Make yourselves at home, ladies.”

They stepped inside, and found themselves in a lavish room, filled with exotic artwork. This appeared to be the main room in a suite, with other doors to either side, and on the far wall, seven windows, each made to look like spider webs with the finest etchings either of them had ever seen. The room was lit with white fairy fire, ingeniously hidden in sculptured alcoves and niches throughout the room. The carved images of arachnids were elegant, and gently disturbing to the women.

Von Slothjem closed the door, and motioned for them to sit. “This is what the drow call a cottage. The rooms on that side are yours.” He waved his hand towards the doors on the left side of the windows. “Later is a fine banquet, but that is several hours away. The final feast of the mushroom fish festival. If you want to rest until then, you are welcome to.”

Hilde sat on one of the couches in the room, a grand purple piece of furniture embossed with gold. She removed her helm, and plopped it next to her. “What is a mushroom fish?” she asked, as she sank into the upholstery. Sitting down had never felt this good.

Belynda took their bags into one of the adjoining rooms, and was humming happily. The jor laughed, and sat down in a black leather chair with a cartoonishly high back. “I should say, mushroom and fish. Something of a tradition here, to thank their gods for a bountiful harvest. I come here every year for the festival. I have developed quite a taste for mushrooms, you see.”

Hilde sighed, and could feel her muscles relaxing as the couch seemed to be conforming to her. “I reckon there are worse things to have a hankering for than mushrooms.” She said, her voice tired. She hadn’t felt tired until now.

Belynda came out from their room, and said, “Let’s go get you out of that armor, milady. You’ll enjoy a rest before the banquet.”

Wearily, and with great regret, Hilde fought herself off of the couch. It was surprisingly difficult. The furniture seemed to want her to just stay and settle in. Von Slothjem rose from his seat as well, and said, “Have a good rest, ladies. There is a small bell here on this table, just ring it when you are ready to socialize again. I’ll be in my rooms.” He bowed slightly, and Belynda giggled.

Once in their bedroom, Belynda helped her mistress get out of her armor, and then the both of them collapsed onto the huge round bed. There were heavy red curtains over the windows in this room, and the women began to dose off into slumber.

The last thing Hilde heard before sleep overtook her was Belynda asking, while yawning, “Why would they need curtains when there isn’t any sunlight?”

Not having a sun or moon, or any visible tracking of time, really plays havoc with a person. Hilde and Belynda slept for an indeterminate period of time, and when they awoke, they could hear voices in the main room, even though their door was closed. Belynda sat bolt upright, her ears perked up, as she tried to make out what was being said.

Hilde asked sleepily, “Who is it, and what are they babbling about?” The big round bed was almost as comfortable as the couch in the front room, and she wasn’t keen on having to get up quite yet.

Belynda cocked her head to one side, and whispered, “I don’t know. I recognize our host, but the other two I don’t know.”

Hilde got up, and put on a fresh tunic. She put on her trousers, and slipped into her boots. Belynda grabbed a frilly little dress that she had tucked into her bag, and quickly slid it on. Hilde looked at her, and just shook her head. Only Belynda would have thought to pack a pretty gown to go spelunking. Hilde had heard of being prepared, but that was ridiculous. Or it would have been, had they not stumbled into a drow elven city that was celebrating a mushroom fish festival.

Belynda opened the door to the front room, and smiled to the occupants therein. “Hello!” she said cheerily. “I hope that we didn’t oversleep, and miss anything fun.”

Hilde staggered up behind her, looking as though her hair had decided on its own to explode in every direction. “Because we are all about having fun.” She muttered. “Showing off with those fancy drow words, huh?” she said to Belynda, who just giggled. Turning her attention to the bemused people in the front room, and said, “Hello!” with a flourish, and exaggerated grin.

Their host stood up, and bowed. “Shar Hilde Eigenblade, allow me to introduce my associates.” He motioned to a dark elven woman with intricately braided, shoulder-length white hair. “This is Dellila, my secretary.” Von Slothjem then motioned to a tall, powerfully built orog to his right, and said, “And this fellow is Polk, an old friend.” Both the drow elven woman and the orog smiled at Hilde and Belynda, and waved.

Dellila stood, and said in an almost musical voice said, “Rackerby was just telling us about your unexpected arrival here. What an interesting tale you must have to share!”

Hilde rubbed her eyes with her hand, and replied, “We went down a mineshaft, through a hole, down a waterfall, and here we are.” She blinked at the drow elven woman. “Adventure.” She said flatly.

Polk laughed, a deep, booming sort of laugh. “You’re right, Rackerby. She is wonderful!” and with that, he laughed again, and winked at Hilde.

Belynda smiled at the trio, and said with a laugh, “We’ll be out presently. Milady needs me to tend to her hair.” Grabbing Hilde’s hand, she tugged until her mistress demurred, and went with her back into the bedroom.

It took longer than it should have to get Hilde’s hair in order, and Belynda did what she could to select the best of the clothes that her mistress had brought on this trip. It was pretty slim pickings, and there was only so much that could be done to dress it up. The pants were kind of billowy, made from a lighter fabric than what she normally wore, and were a pleasant brown color. Her tunic was yellow, sort of a mustard yellow, and wasn’t dirty so much as just wrinkled from having been wadded up in a backpack. Belynda brushed Hilde’s hair for all she was worth, and finally got it under control.

Returning to the front room, Dellila handed Hilde a deep grey robe. “You were unprepared for a formal party, Shar Eigenblade. Please, allow me to give you this modest gift. I hope it pleases you.”

Hilde unfolded the robe, and Belynda gasped. Tiny, almost imperceptible golden threads ran throughout, with elegant golden clasps in the front, and a gray and golden interwoven belt around the middle. Hilde whistled. “This is really something amazing!” she said, a big smile spreading across her face. Hilde slipped it on, and looked at herself. The robe covered her well-worn boots, and when clasped, her trousers were hidden, as well. Her voice dropped to a near whisper, and she asked Belynda, “It doesn’t have any spiders on it, does it?”

Before her squire could answer her, Dellila answered Hilde with, “No, milady, it does not. It was made by the drow for purposes of export. No multi-legged critters anywhere in the design. And it will hold up just fine to sunlight, too.” The dark elf smiled and seemed to be doing her best to stifle a laugh.

Hilde looked surprised, and realized her faux pas. “Oh, I am so sorry! I didn’t mean to say I didn’t like them. I’ve never had reason to not like them. It just hasn’t come up.”

The dark elf patted her arm reassuringly, and said, “Don’t worry, Shar Eigenblade. I’m sundered. I have never been particularly fond of bugs, myself.”

Everyone had a good laugh at this exchange, and von Slothjem offered everyone a drink of dark elven brandy. He procured a good-sized chunk of cheese for Cinder, and gave her a dish of fresh water.

Rackerby announced, “The mushroom fish festival will be having its final banquet shortly, so I do hope that everyone brought their appetites.” He smiled, the diamonds in his tusks catching the light with a sparkle. “I think, perhaps, we might have some business to discuss, as well.”

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