Return to Hellebore Chapter Forty-Four


Author: Chris Cook
Rating: R
Copyright: Based on characters from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon and his talented minionators, and Diablo II by Blizzard Entertainment. All original material is copyright 2003 Chris Cook.
Note: A map of the city of Duncraig can be found here.

It was mid-morning by the time the Djinn, her sails lowered to slow her to a cautious crawl, came slipping through the crowded river Kingsway towards the Duncraig docklands. Willow and Tara had been woken by Amalee, shared a breakfast with the crew, and now stood on the helm deck with Solaris. Even early in the morning both banks had been covered with houses and workshops, with piers jutting out into the river, and small pontoon docks gently shifting in their moorings. Amalee had been overcome with excitement, pointing and describing in detail each new sight, as Willow and Tara gathered up their few possessions in preparation to disembark. Now, with everything accounted for, Solaris had invited them up to the helm, which offered the best view, and even Amalee stood silently, watching the heart of the city grow closer. Willow and Tara leaned on the forward rail side by side, taking in the awesome sight without comment.

Ever since they had passed, on their port side, the lower tributary of the river Marien, flowing in from the west to join the Kingsway, the shore had been completely covered with stone moorings and wooden jetties, its original contours lost behind the squared-off edges of the docks. Tara spotted and pointed out an entrance to a small lake, man-made by the look of it, just beyond the mouth of the tributary. Beyond its reinforced entrance half a dozen great merchantman freight ships were moored at huge stone quays, with cargo moving on and off over dozens of massive gangplanks for each vessel, every platform wide enough to drive a wagon over with room to spare. The port was surrounded with warehouses, their massive doors open, revealing their vast interiors stacked with crates and barrels. Above a tapering counter-weighted crane swung steadily around, moving out over one of the ships with a wide cargo pallet suspended beneath it.

Further on the riverbanks were crowded with ships and boats, freighters on the west bank at docks and piers, smaller passenger ferries and launches tied to jetties on the east bank. Everywhere people were bustling about, pushing carts full of wares, shouting instructions to one another, getting into arguments, haggling over prices. The sound of a thousand voices carried over the creaking of the vessels' hulls, like a giant bee hive buzzing to itself, full of careful motion that seemed random and chaotic to the outside eye.

It was around then that Amalee tugged on Willow's skirt, and drew her and Tara's attention to the view ahead. The river, which had seemed crowded since they had woken, was positively jammed with boats, all carefully manoeuvring around each other, sails flapping in the breeze, oars thrashing at the water, paddle-wheels churning the river white in their wake. Up ahead, where the Marien's main flow joined the Kingsway, it seemed impossible that any boat could get through, yet the Djinn kept up its steady approach, with Solaris looking unconcerned.

"Flags up," he called down to the main deck, where Refash was waiting for instructions. He hauled on a pulley, and three coloured flags slid up the main mast, the top one blue with a white star in its centre, then red with two white stripes, then yellow with a black circle. Willow glanced around at the other vessels nearby, noting similar arrangements of flags on their masts, and then her attention was drawn to a thin tower rising up from the point of land between the two rivers, behind which was the heart of the largest city in the western world.

"Look at that," she murmured to Tara, peering at the distant tower. It rose high into the air, far above the buildings around it, competing even with the huge stone towers of the city beyond, and its top was very peculiar. Instead of a roof it had a massive wooden framework, within which were a dozen or so panels painted black and white, which seemed to flicker oddly, as if they were moving. Beneath this was a gantry supporting some kind of mechanism, and a suspicion formed in Willow's mind as she watched the tower and its changing patterns, and glanced back at Solaris, who was staring at it through a telescope.

"It's signalling the ships," Tara said, surprised.

"Heh," Willow laughed, "I was just thinking that... that's right, isn't it?" she asked Solaris.

"It is," he said, "that's the Regulator. Five years it's been there, ever since the river started getting too crowded to make your own way through. Now either a captain has to know how to 'talk' to the tower, or else take on a pilot lower down to guide him in to his dock. And the prices those pilots charge," he laughed to himself, "well, I made sure I learned for myself!"

"We use something similar at home," Tara said idly, "lanterns with covers, at night-time. They flip the cover on and off, and send signals to anyone who can see the light appear and disappear. But that's just for convenience, nothing like this... there are people up there, working it? Guiding the ships?"

"On the platform, yes," Solaris said, "a team of men operating the outbound signals, a second team marking the position of every hull on the river, and a third team operating another set of signals, facing down towards the shipping office. That's in a building down below, that piece of land - there's a little stream just behind it, between it and the city - it controls the whole river, as far as the eye can see. And their eyes see very far, they make good lenses here."

"So," Willow thought out loud, "the observers watch where the boats are, and they signal the office on the ground, and they signal back to the tower, and the tower signals the boats?"

"That's it," Solaris nodded, "in simple terms. I've never seen inside the office myself, but I have a friend who works there. In this business, it's good to have many friends!" he chuckled. "She tells me they have a great map of the river, and little wooden models of boats they move around. There are people whose job it is only to listen for reports of certain boats, and move their models, and people who read the signals from the tower, and people who write down every instruction that passes in and out of the office, and the River Masters who decide which boat goes where and how fast. I saw once a big machine in Lut Gholein, wooden wheels and gears all moving at once, and it is like that, my friend says. A huge machine that controls the whole river."

"Do they ever make mistakes?" Tara asked. "Read a signal wrongly, or anything like that?"

"There was a time," Solaris said, still looking through the telescope, "six months after the tower began to work, when it gave orders that were wrong. I do not know why, perhaps someone said the wrong ship's name, or misheard what someone else said. A merchantman - this was before the merchantman dock was built, you saw that earlier, to port - hit a sloop, but both were moving slowly, thank god, and no-one was hurt. They say the shipping office hired more people, and now there is a second team who compare the position of boats on the river to the positions of the models on the map. Or something like that, I do not know exactly how they work. But there have been no more accidents. Ah, there we go." He put away the telescope and called down to Refash: "A touch more sail!" He turned back to Willow and Tara, absently toying with the helm wheel.

"We have a docking permit," he explained, "our route to follow to our mooring. Not long now!" Amalee worked her way in between Willow and Tara, taking a hand from each of them and peering over the rail.

"Looking forward to it?" Willow asked.

"Yup," the girl replied quickly. "When we get there, you'll stay, won't you? For lunch at least? I'm sure uncle won't mind."

"Thank you sweetie," Tara smiled, "if it's okay with him, then yes, we'll stay for lunch. And don't forget we'll keep visiting you. You won't miss us."

"Yes I will," Amalee said, "but it's okay." She flashed both of them a smile. "I won't forget either of you. That's like having you with me."

"Oh, come here," Willow said, bending down to pick up Amalee and sit her up on the rail, keeping one arm securely around her. "We won't forget you either," she said softly, hugging the girl. Tara put an arm around her shoulders, and the three of them turned their attention to the passing riverbank.

The Regulator tower passed by to starboard, and beneath it a large, low building three storeys high, with the walls of its uppermost level composed entirely of panes of glass, shining in the sunlight. Peering at it, Willow could just make out people inside, walking from place to place busily, pausing now and then to look out. On the roof a smaller version of the tower's signalling system flickered away, aimed up at the Regulator's gantry. The signals, she realised on seeing them closer, were boards of wood, one side painted black and the other white, flipping over in their mountings as the pattern changed.

"We're on the Marien now," Solaris commented, as the boat moved beyond the tower's point of land. The southern bank was composed entirely of docks, all clad in hard-wearing stone with moss growing at the waterline. The Djinn took its place in a queue of boats making their stately way up the river, their speed steady even as vessels moved off towards their moorings or swung out to pass through the traffic. Little rowboats and single-sailed launched darted everywhere, edging between the hulls of the larger vessels like dogs scampering across a busy roadway, dodging the wheels of the carts.

On the shore the business of loading and unloading boats was carried out to the accompaniment of shouting from captains calling down to their crews, warehouse-owners on the piers yelling instructions to their labourers, people calling for room to move as huge crates swung around on ropes and pulleys, and the cries of vendors of all manner of wares working their way through the crowds. At one dock a wide-bellied freight ship unloaded its cargo with a pair of cranes built into its deck, the massive pallets of cargo steadily turning through the air and setting down on wheeled platforms on the dock. Beneath it a tiny launch piled high with bags of grain was being unloaded by hand, with porters scurrying back and forth in the shadow of the freighter.

Willow looked north to the other bank, where the land opened up into a huge stone dock, mostly unused for cargo, though there were a few smaller vessels nudged up against the stone walkways, jockeying for position and room to move their cargo. A long, graceful passenger barque rode at anchor inside the docking booms, securely fastened by a dozen thick ropes. People dressed in expensive clothes, finely-coloured coats and travelling robes, were milling about on the shore, a handful slowly boarding the ship over a thin gangplank, while suitcases and luggage crates were taken aboard over another walkway further aft. Willow pointed out to Tara the flag flying from the ship's main mast, a lion rearing up on its hind legs, holding a sword and shield as if it were a knight, all on a rich scarlet field.

"That's the Duke's flag," she explained, "that must be his personal ship."

"The ­Lion Star," Solaris added, "she carries the Duke and his family when they travel. Though these days the Duke stays close to home for the most part, so the ship is used to ferry the very rich back and forth along the river. They say she is a palace afloat, but I doubt I will ever find out how true that is."

"Expensive?" Tara asked.

"Hah! This voyage, we came all the way from the peninsula, seven weeks there and back, with a full hold of quality goods, and perhaps - if I am lucky - our profit would buy a single night on the Lion Star. In a small cabin, you understand. To berth in the rooms that the Duke uses... not in a year would a trader like me make such a fortune." He shook his head and chuckled to himself ruefully. "Run a fast ship and a good crew, and you can make a decent living, but own half a street full of warehouses and never stray beyond your own front door, and you can make a fortune."

A moment later Solaris spun the wheel around, and the Djinn came around, slowing as Refash dropped the sails. They slipped between the shore and a wooden pontoon, and even as they slowed to a halt men were scurrying about on either side, catching the ropes that Refash and Solari tossed down to them and securing the boat to its moorings. Willow glanced back to see the gap they had left in the river traffic quickly filled by a departing barge, and marvelled that they had just come across half the width of a busy river in a single manoeuvre, and every other boat had been in exactly the right place to leave their path free. Her respect for the shipping office and its Regulator increased as she watched the boats go by, efficiently coming and going but never getting in each other's way.

"Well, here I must bid you good day," Solaris said, clapping his hands and kicking the helm wheel's lock into place. "My shoremaster, down there, will be taking my letters in a few moments, if you wish to have your arrival known, he will see your letters delivered quickly. I hate to hurry you, but I have many people to meet."

"That's quite alright," Willow said, "we should be getting on our way, it's a big city. Got to go find your uncle, eh?" she added to Amalee. "Um... you wouldn't know how we might go about looking, would you?"

"At a guess," he said, "a little way west of here is the Centenary Bridge. Cross that, follow its road a little way and you will find the great Parliament house - you will know it when you see it. On the far side is the old hall, that was the town hall in the old days decades ago, and now they use it for the hall of records. If you know the name, they will tell you the place, I am sure."

"My uncle's name is Brydan," Amalee piped up.

"Then, good fortune to you, and may he look after you well," Solaris said, squatting down to look straight at her. "I am glad to have carried you on my vessel. Think well of the Djinn, and you will always have a friend on these waters." He gave her a wink, then straightened up.

"That goes for you too," he said to Willow and Tara, "in the old country, I would say my house is your house. Well, this boat is my house, so you may consider it yours if ever I should be in port when you need passage, to Kingsport or anywhere beyond that I might sail."

"Thank you," Tara said warmly, "you've been very kind."

"Thanks," Willow echoed.

"Oh, and when you see your instructor," Solaris grinned to Tara, "tell her my father, Meshif, remembers her deeds often in Lut Gholein, whenever people gather to tell stories of heroes."

"I will," Tara smiled.

"Then god bless you," Solaris said, descending the ladder to the main deck, "and may he offer you good fortune." With a wave he was gone, lost amid the crates and barrels strewn about the deck, and the dozen or so strong men who had come on board to unload them. Tara helped Amalee down the ladder, and then extended a hand up to Willow.

"My lady?" she said with a grin.

"Oh, thank you," Willow replied, with aristocratic courtesy and not a little amusement, "how kind." She took Tara's hand and daintily stepped down to the deck, keeping their hands joined afterwards. Amalee took her other hand and together, with their bags and belongings, the three of them descended the gangplank down to the pontoon, and from there around the front of the Djinn to the dock itself.

"Well," Tara said with a relieved sigh as they finally felt solid ground underfoot, "we made it."

"We did," Willow smiled. "Quite the adventure, eh honey?"

"Yup," Amalee nodded.

"There's the shoremaster," Tara pointed, "should we send a note to the palace? I'd like them to know we're safe, if we're going to find this Brydan before we go there."

"Right," Willow agreed. She found a spare piece of paper in her belt and spent a moment writing out a quick note, giving the basics of their separation from the caravan and subsequent passage to the city. Tara added her signature to it, and the shoremaster agreed that it would go with Solaris's letters in a few minutes' time, and said his messenger would deliver it to the palace within half an hour.

"Wow," Amalee breathed, as they stepped out of the shadow of the dock's warehouses and offices and into the wide street running behind them.

"I second that 'wow'," Willow said, her eyes wide.

"I third it," Tara agreed. The road was full of traffic, from pedestrians to men on horseback, two-wheeled carts and gigs speeding along, heavy wagons stacked high with cargo and pulled by teams of oxen, even grand-looking carriages, their doors set with gold-painted heraldry, and aristocratic faces peering out of their windows from behind curtains. Labourers were talking and arguing as they went, pushing trolleys or carrying crates or timber between them, street vendors were announcing their wares at the tops of their voices, with trays of produce hanging from cords looped around their necks, or pulling small carts along with them. Willow stood back as a pair of red-coated lancers went by, their points held high and their horses' hooves clattering on the cobblestones.

"I've never seen anything like this," Tara said, staring around as they slowly made their way north towards the bridge.

"I suppose Kurast must be the same size," Willow mused, "but it's all temples and halls, miles of roads and causeways, it's been there for hundreds of years... even Gotunberg wasn't this busy... this place is something else. Oh wow, look at that!" She pointed along the road, where far away a tower rose up over the city, hazy in the distance. For a few seconds a curling, twisting jet of emerald light reached into the sky from its tip, then the spectacle was gone. No-one else seemed to pay it any attention at all.

"Magic flare," Willow said, "that must have been what we were seeing last night... and others like it. Gods, how tall is that tower?"

"It's like one of the great oaks at home," Tara said, "they're thousands of years old... huge old things."

"That must be the court mage's tower, in the Palace," Willow guessed.

"That's where you're going to study?" Tara asked.

"Partly... there's a college around here somewhere too, I've got letters from the Order to study with several of the mages who teach there. At least, they were in the wagon... gods, I'd almost forgotten the caravan," she said, turning to Tara. "Do you think they're okay? I mean, they made it, right, they must have?"

"I'm sure they did," Tara said, "we'll see soon, when we get there. They'll get our letter, and a couple of hours won't make any difference while we find Brydan and make sure Amalee's safe and sound."

"Right," Willow nodded, "you're right... heh, I'm trying to think of everything at once suddenly. This place is infectious, I feel like I should be busy just from being here."

"Sure, because normally your mind is so lazy," Tara smirked. Willow laughed to herself.

"I do remember," she murmured quietly in Tara's ear, so Amalee wouldn't overhear, "several notable occasions when I've been rendered incapable of any thought more complicated than 'yum'."

"That wasn't because of laziness, though," Tara whispered back, "was it?"

"No," Willow agreed, "it was because of you, luscious." Tara shot her a sexy grin as they walked on, keeping to the side of the road, away from the carts and horses moving back and forth along the centre.

The bridge was a huge construction, spanning the river in a single arc from side to side, with stone-railed walkways on either side for people on foot, while faster traffic kept to the road in the middle, clattering over the wooden slats without slowing. Amalee kept stealing glances over the side of the bridge at the crowded river below, but she didn't slow her pace. Willow wondered whether she was anxious to get to her uncle's house, or just hungry. 'Well, she's going to live here,' she thought to herself, 'I guess she'll be able to see the river whenever she wants.' She peeked sideways herself, fascinated at the complex motions of the dozens of vessels, all carefully choreographed by the distant, silent tower. 'Lucky girl,' she grinned.

On the far side of the river they followed the road, which broadened into a tree-lined avenue, until it reached a busy junction. Carts, coaches and riders were going in all directions, and it took a moment to find a safe place to cross - a crossing marked by upright white stones on either side of the road, where the traffic paused to let pedestrians by. On the far side was a narrow strip of greenery, lovingly cared for and sculpted into an impressive garden, with trees of all kinds offering shade to a dazzling array of flowers arranged according to their colour into a soft rainbow blanket. People were dotted here and there, having an early lunch, reading or chatting with each other, seated on the grass or on wrought-iron benches spaced through the garden.

On the other side of the garden, beyond a quieter road, was a great marble-clad building that could only be the Parliament house Solaris had mentioned. Willow and Tara stared at it, as dumbstruck as Amalee, their eyes travelling over the towering columns, the carved friezes of scenes of battle and triumph, and the statues standing at regular intervals between the tall flights of steps leading from the pavement up into the building.

"Tal Rasha," Willow pointed out, gesturing to a grizzled marble figure, depicted in torn robes and battle-scarred armour, "the greatest Horadrim mage ever... that must be Wilfur the Great," a giant, bearded warrior with his hands resting proudly over the hilt of a massive double-headed axe, "he was from the northlands, he was made a general here about two hundred years ago, he was never defeated... Tirion," a man in ornate armour, carrying a mace and shield, "he was a paladin, they called him the Chosen of Akarat... he was born in Kurast four, five hundred years ago, and came out here to try to cleanse the western kingdoms of demons. Oh, look honey," she said to Amalee, "there's Esara! You remember?"

"That's her?" Amalee asked, staring wide-eyed at a statue of a serious-looking woman in her thirties, clothed in flowing robes. In each hand she held a short staff, little more than the length of a club, and both were tipped with claw-shaped pieces holding spheres.

"That's her," Willow confirmed, "when she grew up she became a great sorceress, one of the best."

"Are there more stories about her?"

"There are a few," Willow said, "I don't know all of them - I was always more into theory than history," she added to Tara, by way of explanation, before turning her attention back to Amalee, "but maybe I'll look them up in the library, and when we visit you can hear them?"

"Quite a woman," Tara commented. The sculptor, whether accurately or by way or artistic license, had given the sorceress a commanding presence. Even in lifeless marble she was an impressive sight, with a stern, unforgiving gaze tempered by a face that seemed full of feeling.

"Some of the stories," Willow said, as Amalee devoted her attention to more of the heroic statues, "probably more fairy tale than fact... it's been a long time since she was around, and you know what they say, stories grow in the telling. Some of the things she's supposed to have done are, well, pretty fanciful at best."

"Did she really defeat Goreth the way the story said?" Tara wondered.

"Pretty much," Willow said, "I mean, some of it's simplified... like, what probably happened was that all the sorceresses charged their staves to break the command spell, and Esara just released the staff's charge when she cast her own spell. You can't knock out a rod of command with a firebolt," she grinned.

"I wondered about that," Tara admitted.

"All the old legends are like that, they're sort of... filtered through generations of story-tellers, who pick out the bits they like, and don't always bother with the details that much. Still, what's important always survives."

"Like a little girl finding the courage to stand up to a powerful mage," Tara noted.

"Sounds like fairy-tale stuff, doesn't it?" Willow smiled. "I guess a fairy tale is just fact a few hundred years later."

The hall of records was a wide building with a tall clock tower, marked by a brightly-painted sign fixed to its protruding wooden roof beams, above the old decorative stone faceplate naming it the town hall. Inside Willow and Tara found a tranquil relief from the bustle of the street outside, as the long hall was inhabited only by a handful of scribes and notaries who went about their business quietly and patiently. A portly old man with a white beard down to his waist looked up from the newspaper he was reading as Tara approached his desk, with Willow and Amalee just behind her, still engaged in the tail end of a discussion of famous mages.

"Hello?" he said.

"Um, hello," Tara said hesitantly, "we're looking for this girl's uncle, he's an architect called Brydan? We were told to come here, to find out where to go..."

"Of course, of course," the man said, getting to his feet, "new in town? Yes, well, if you'll come this way... oh, forgive me," he said, turning back to Tara, "Moric, Edar Moric, at your service."

"Oh... I'm Tara."

"Willow, Zann Esu," Willow added, "this is Amalee."

"Hello," Amalee put in.

"Ladies," Edar bowed slightly, before making his way over to one of the rows of shelves that occupied much of the back of the hall. "Zann Esu... that's a mage school, isn't it?"

"Sorceresses," Willow offered.

"Ah yes, the eastern mage women... we had one at the Palace a few years ago, you know, there was some talk about some of them joining the college, can't for the life of me recall whether it was as students or teachers... ah, here we are," he said, retrieving a thick stack of papers.

"Right," he said, dropping the stack on a writing table with a thump that made the quills jump in their pot, "this is a form for a search of the records. Just a formality, really, you're free to come with me while I look it up - probably save a bit of time if you did - but we like to keep records of this kind of thing. If you'll just sign your name here," he handed a quill to Tara and uncorked the ink pot, "and here... family name first, or if you don't use them your town of birth will do... Tran Athulua?" he read as Tara wrote, "where's that? I don't think I've heard of it."

"The Amazon Isles," Tara explained, adding 'Amazon' in brackets after her name.

"Oh, of course, you're with the delegation," Edar smiled, "yes, there was a mention in the paper today."

"They arrived safely?" Tara asked, looking up sharply.

"Eh? Oh, I think so... I didn't read it too closely, just that there were diplomats at the Palace meeting with the Duke's people. Aren't you with them?"

"We were separated on the road," Willow explained, as Tara gave a relieved sigh, "we ended up coming up the river."

"Really? My word... oh, sorry, distracted myself. This line, write down the relevant details of the person you're looking for, if you would. Brydan, did you say?"

"Yes," Willow said.

"Not a common name, that'll make thing easier," Edar said, more or less to himself, "and an architect... we'll see what the records have to say..."

"They made it," Tara said quietly to Willow, relief evident in her voice.

"You always said they would," Willow replied, taking her hand unobtrusively.

"I know, but... well, it's a relief to know." She frowned. "I wonder if they had any more trouble, after that attack? Or what they're doing about us, whether they've got people out looking, or-"

"That letter should have arrived by now," Willow pointed out, "they'll know we're here. Relax," she added with a smile. Tara took a deep breath, and smiled in return.

"Very well," Edar said when the form was handed over, "let's see now... follow me please..." He led the way down the shelves, turning here and there. Rows and rows of books towered over them, all identical save for the inscriptions in gold on their red leather spines. Willow glanced at a couple of them as they passed - the first twenty feet or so of shelves seemed occupied with 'Marriages', sorted by letters, then came 'Births', then they followed Edar around a corner and eventually came to a long set of shelves bearing 'Business Permits, copies (index), by profession'.

"Architect, architect," Edar muttered absently as he tapped the spines of the books, working his way along the shelf. "Ah, here we are..." He hauled out one of the books, six inches thick from cover to cover, and carried it to the end of the row, where he laid it open on a table and leafed through the pages.

"Any idea how long the man's been in business?" he asked. "This is probably the best way to find him, without a family name, but it would help if we could narrow things down a little."

"How old were you when you last saw your uncle?" Willow asked Amalee.

"Three," she said.

"And he was already an architect then? How old are you, dear, eight?" Edar asked.

"Almost eight," Amalee replied.

"Alright, we'll start there and work backwards... I'm afraid we have rather a lot of architects around..."

Willow and Tara waited patiently while Edar worked his way backwards through the book, his finger running down the columns of names and dates as he methodically checked each one, muttering names under his voice. Amalee fidgeted now and then, and Tara crouched down to talk with her, to keep her from getting bored.

"Brydon?" Edar asked after a few moments. "There's a Brydon here, with an 'o'?"

"Sweetie?" Tara asked Amalee.

"Brydan," she said firmly, emphasising the 'an'. Edar went back to the book.

"Your friends got here okay?" Amalee asked Tara while they waited.

"It sounds like it," Tara agreed. Willow crouched down to join them.

"Hey, maybe after we've all gotten settled in," she suggested, "you could come up and visit us at the Palace?"

"You get to stay at the Palace?" Amalee asked.

"I'm sure Tara will be," Willow said, "she's important, you know, she came all the way from the Amazon Isles to meet with the Duke, so I'm sure she'll get a room there. And where she goes, I go," she finished with a smile for Tara.

"Here's a Brydan," Edar called, "Brydan Toled, licensed as a guild architect nine years ago."

"Toled was my grandfather's name," Amalee said.

"That sounds like the one we want," Tara added.

"Good," Edar sighed, "I really didn't want to go into last decade's books, the indexing really wasn't formalised back then... Toled, eh? Well, easy enough, off we go..."

Tara took Amalee's hand and led her along in the wake of Willow, as they followed Edar further into the maze of shelves. He came at last to a series of old oak bookcases with brass rails fixed to them, the shelves filled with newer wooden partitions keeping thousands of tiny scrolls separated from each other, each in its own niche with a little square of chalkboard nailed beneath. Edar dragged over a wheeled stepladder from the end of the row and, clutching the shelf's railing to steady himself, climbed it to reach the scrolls stored up above.

"Commercial permits," he explained, looking across the shelves and peering at the tiny markings beneath the scrolls. "The Guild of Architects is very particular about its record-keeping and standards... back in my father's day it was just anyone who could stack bricks on top of each other, but of course that sort of thing can't last for long..." He fell silent for a time.

"Do you think there's anything they haven't got written down here somewhere?" Tara asked quietly. Willow looked around and shrugged.

"I guess running a city this big makes a lot of paperwork," she said. "Nice place they've got for it though. All the Order's records are kept underground, it's kind of gloomy."

"Oh, all the archival records are kept in the basement offices," Edar offered, "these shelves up here only go back fifteen years."

"Ah," Willow said, looking duly impressed as she re-assessed the scope of the hall's records.

"I think we have a winner," Edar grinned, "yes, here we are, Brydan Toled, affiliated with the Guild of Architects, officially registered nine years ago as an independent tradesman." He descended the ladder with one of the scrolls open in his hand.

"According to this he's still a resident," he said as he led the way back to the front desk, "number thirty-nine Harker's road, that's east of here, behind the old docks... actually it'd be the other side of Trader street, wouldn't it... Hamis!" he called out loud.

"Yes?" came a voice from somewhere behind the shelves.

"Where's that street map you had out earlier?"

"I put it back," the voice said in a weary tone.

"Ah, of course," Edar muttered, crossing the room to a small case full of huge rolled-up maps. He pulled one out and unfurled it over a table, covering most of it with a hugely detailed map of the centre of the city, with every street, road, bridge, square, lane and alley marked in delicate calligraphy.

"Alright, now, this is where we are here," he pointed out, "where you want to go is down here, this is Trader street, it's quite busy-"

"We crossed it on our way here," Willow said.

"Well, you know where to go then. Follow that east, past the Market Hall, that's here," he pointed to an enormous square, "the street continues on the other side of it... and here's Harker's road, just here. Let me see..." he peered at the tiny numbers marked on the map, "thirty-nine would be... just here, a few doors north of Trader street. All clear?"

"Thank you," Tara said, and Willow echoed her.

"Thanks," Amalee piped up.

"Good luck to you," the man smiled, turning back to his desk.

"This is it," Tara said to Amalee, as they stood outside a well-kept two storey house, with a small brass plate beside the door proclaiming it the home of 'Brydan Toled, Architect, cert. G. of A.'

"Ready?" she asked, as the girl stared up at the building.

"I think I remember this house," Amalee said, "there's... stairs in a spiral... and a big chair with cushions. I remember sitting in it..." She took a deep breath, and looked up at Willow and Tara.

"I'm ready," she said with the steadfast resolve of a general.

At Willow's knocking, the door was opened by a man in his thirties, with short blond hair and a neatly trimmed beard, and a pair of half-moon glasses perched on the tip of his nose.

"Good day, how can I... help you?" he said, with a slight hesitation as he registered the sight of two armed, leather-clad women on his doorstep.

"Are you Brydan Toled?" Willow asked.

"Yes, I..." he said, and paused, looking down as Amalee peeked out from behind Tara. He frowned in confusion for a moment, then an expression of surprise spread over his face.

"Amalee?" he asked. "Is it... little Amalee?"

"Hello Uncle," she said, smiling and losing her hesitation once the man recognised her. He looked up at Willow and Tara, his mouth open as if to speak, then fell to his knees and hugged the girl.

"Oh gods be praised," he said, his voice thick with emotion, "we were so worried... when we heard about the villages... oh, come in, come in," he said, waving Willow and Tara inside as Amalee returned his hug.

"Darling!" he called out. "Amalee's here! She's safe!" There was the sound of something someone moving from somewhere further inside the house, then a door opened on the balcony overlooking the tall main room and a heavily-pregnant woman appeared, staring down over the railing for a second before hurrying to the side of the balcony, where an iron spiral staircase led down to the ground floor. Brydan finally released Amalee, though she continued to cling to him for a moment, and stood up shakily, looking again at Willow and Tara.

"Her... her father...?" he asked, his voice suddenly quiet. Willow shook her head sadly.

"I'm sorry," Tara murmured. The man put a hand to his mouth, then took a deep breath and glanced to where the woman had gathered Amalee up in a hug, lifting her off the ground and kissing her on the cheek.

"When news came that the villages had... were gone," he said quietly, "that no-one had survived..." he took another breath and steadied himself. "It's a blessing she's alive," he said, half to himself, "yes. Yes. Oh, I-I'm sorry, I forgot myself... Brydan Toled," he said, extending his hand, "oh, wait, you know... welcome," he finished, with a fragile but sincere smile. Willow and Tara introduced themselves to him, and the woman who was still holding Amalee in her arms, and was looking at them, kindly but curiously.

"I'm Joma," she said, offering the hand that wasn't being used to hold Amalee, "Brydan is my husband." Up close, Willow noticed her coffee-coloured skin and the exotic style of her dress, both typical of a woman from Aranoch, though she spoke with a perfect Westmarch accent. She smiled warmly at both of them, then glanced at her husband, and seemed to pick up on his concealed dismay at the news of Amalee's father - 'his brother,' Willow guessed.

"Stay for lunch," she said, inviting them with a wave of her arm further into the house, "please?" Willow and Tara agreed, and were led through to a large ground floor kitchen and dining room, where Brydan cleared some books from one end of a table set for two and brought extra chairs, while Joma set Amalee down and produced extra cutlery and plates from a drawer. While Joma busied herself preparing food Willow and Tara took turns narrating the circumstances of their finding Amalee and their journey to the city, with Amalee making sure they didn't leave out the more heroic details.

All too soon, it seemed to Willow, the meal was over, and she and Tara were standing in the front room ready to leave. Amalee ran up and hugged both of them fiercely around their waists, smiling happily and sniffling at the same time.

"You'll visit?" she asked, for the tenth time.

"I promise," Tara assured her, "in fact... tomorrow, at lunch-time?" she asked, glancing at Brydan and Joma.

"You're always welcome in our home," the woman said warmly, "always. We'll have lunch waiting for you. It's nothing compared to what we owe you."

"Thank you," Willow said, as Tara smiled her thanks.

"Thank you," Brydan said sincerely, shaking both of their hands as Joma gently helped prise Amalee off them. After an extended series of goodbyes, and more hugs from Amalee, Willow picked up her staff, bow and satchel, Tara hefted her pack onto her shoulders and took her spear, and they left the house and returned to the busy streets of Duncraig.

"They'll look after her," Tara said, as Willow took her hand and they headed back towards Trader street.

"I'm sure they will," Willow agreed. "I liked Joma, she seemed very capable. Level-headed, you know?"

"That's settled, then," Tara said, letting out a deep breath. "Nothing more to do... nothing to worry about..." she looked around with a smile, and her gaze settled on Willow. "I think our bedroom beckons," she grinned.

"I think you're right," Willow grinned back, looping her free arm through Tara's elbow. They headed back west, to the huge square dominated by the Market Hall building, which Willow remembered from the map was joined to the Palace by a main road heading north.

"Hey," Tara said as they entered the square, "first chance we get, what do you say to a day shopping here?" Willow nodded eagerly - the Market Hall, an old warehouse by the look of it, was vast, and through its wide doors they could see all manner of stalls and stands within, selling everything from food to clothes, jewellery to books, exotic artefacts, art, vases, sculptures, flowers and plants - Willow even spotted a small stall where a vendor was excitedly touting the virtues of human-sized plaster replicas of some of the statues from the Parliament house. Passing the Hall earlier, with Amalee in tow, neither woman had taken much notice of it, being more concerned with not getting lost, but now they walked at a leisurely stroll, taking in the sights and sounds of the great market with enthusiasm.

"Yipes," Willow breathed, "you know, I think you could fit the whole village I grew up in inside that place." What was more amazing was that the marketplace within seemed to be too big to be contained, even in such a huge space, and had spilled out into the square, with the pavement dotted with vendors and shoppers.

"It's almost as big as the temple of Athulua at home," Tara commented, "and that's the biggest building in the Isles. You remember, I think I told you about it?"

"The one with the grand altar you want to make out on?" Willow grinned slyly.

"Yes, that one," Tara agreed, a mild blush creeping across her face. "That infallible memory of yours."

"Uh-huh," Willow said, "you never know when a detail like that might come in handy. I mean, suppose we just happen to wander in there one day, years from now, and the priests happen to have popped out for a moment?" Her hand snuck down behind Tara and gave her a pat on her bottom.

"Vixen," Tara murmured happily.

"Tara?" Both women spun around on hearing the surprised exclamation from behind them, from a man who had turned from a stall he had been shopping at as they walked by.

"Tryptin?" Tara gasped in surprise. The young diplomat gaped for a moment, then took a quick step forward and flung his arms around Tara.

"You're safe," he exclaimed, as she recovered from her shock and returned the hug, "praise Athulua, you're safe, both of you..." He collected himself and stepped back, looking a little sheepish at his display of emotion.

"Miss Willow," he said, bowing deeply, "it is wonderful to see you again... Tara," he said, turning back to her, seemingly lost for words.

"It's good to see you too," she replied, with a noticeable trace of moisture in her eyes.

"The others will be so relieved," he said, "how long have you been here?"

"A couple of hours," Tara said, "we sent a letter to the Palace, but we had some other business to take care of."

"Then they'll know you're safe already," Tryptin said, grinning broadly, "so I'm the last to know? A fine diplomat that makes me... you're headed for the Palace now?"

"Yes," Willow nodded.

"I'll come with you," he said, "I was just looking for some supplies, but they can wait. What happened to you? Did you get to Kotram, or detour around it? How did you get here- so fast, too, it's not even a week since we lost you, you can't have covered all that ground on foot- sorry, I'll let you get a word or two in," he finished with a wry grin.

"Hey, don't worry, you're looking at a world-class babbler," Willow smiled. "Well, it's a long story..."

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Forty-Six (Rated NC-17)

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