Voices in the Night

Voices in the Night

It’s been awhile since I checked in on Azmih. So I decided I should brush the dust off him and renew his quest to determine what, exactly, this being trapped in rubies is. I came up with a delightful little scene and set about writing it down.

Seven pages later, I realized that, while it was delightful, this story wasn’t the least bit small. I split it into two writing sessions, but still only managed to get 2/3rds of the way through the story.

So while I didn’t originally intend to take a brief interlude from my tale of Wandering Mountains, it happened. Sorry (but only a little bit sorry). I hope you enjoy this little side adventure with Azmih as much as I enjoyed writing it!
. . .

While many of Azmih’s belongings could easily be described as shabby, the same could not be said of his cloak. He took great care to keep it in good repair, mending its seams at the first sign of fraying and patching any thread worn areas before they could become holes. Though he hadn’t yet managed to line it against wet and rain, it was a fair barrier against the wind, a welcome blessing on a night like this.

Though the sky was heavy with thick, grey clouds, the brittle nature of the grass gave Azmih the impression they were unlikely to loose their burden here. The mountains would no doubt catch them and deflect their rain to the side opposite this valley, which may have been one reason the village’s original founders settled here.

From the way the wind raked the escarpment as he completed his descent, he doubted a lack of rain would make this winter eve any less miserable. He was simply glad he was close enough to a settlement of enough size that he wouldn’t have to spend another night huddling in a shallow cave, listening to the wind howling only a few feet from his head. Even if there were no longer rooms available in the inn, he could surely arrange to curl up in a corner of their common room near the hearth.

You wouldn’t be so desperate for warmth if you had gone by way of the river instead of plowing over the mountains.

If Azmih were a less patient man, or less used to the dry nature of his silent companion, he might have responded sharply and with no small amount of bitterness. Instead, he pressed his lips into a thin smile and shook his head. “You know as well as I do that there is an altar just off the path of the ferry. And we cannot afford to visit one until we have figured out what to do with our new friend.”

Mentioning the energy which infused the rubies tucked into his belt pouch caused Azmih’s right hand to stray to his hip. He was relatively certain the matter of a constructed life form was well beyond his jurisdiction. But until he received some sort of confirmation, he didn’t dare take the risk. “Your little trick isn’t likely to work more than once.”

Though the silent presence that walked in his wake said nothing, Azmih sensed her agreement. She did not experience the weariness of the road or the chill of the season, though she took no pleasure from seeing her companion suffer. Perhaps she was annoyed by the necessity of forging so far off their path. Perhaps she believed the rules should be less strictly interpreted. But since neither of them could affect the opinions or mandates of the forces they served, both had to live with the inconvenience.

Azmih preferred to accept his reality with grace and dignity. He was well aware that he was both flaunting and bending the rules by avoiding the paths his ancient ancestors established. But straying often led him to people and places that needed his services but would have had no way to commission him otherwise. He had no qualms with his work, and often enjoyed meeting new people along the way.

In the end, he supposed everything worked out for the best. He had never actually been punished during the altar ritual, so he assumed the god he served ultimately agreed with his philosophy.

But he had spent an inordinate amount of time avoiding altars over the last few years. He was going to have to rectify that or he’d soon find himself unable to serve his duties.

This silent introspection came to an abrupt end when he reached the edge of the village. Tucked as it was into the mountain’s final descent, it had little need of watch towers and night guard, though it did sport a single low wall and a thin, wrought-iron gate that could be closed against night dangers. If not for the clouds, whoever occupied the stolid guard house would have been able to note his approach for some time. As it was, the young woman who emerged from the warmth of her living room seemed somewhat surprised by the arrival of an unexpected visitor.

“My apologies,” she said as she unlocked the gate and swung it inward just enough for Azmih to pass. “We don’t usually see unscheduled visitors this time of year. The last of the trade caravans left a month ago and we won’t see another ’till early spring.”

“Not to worry,” Azmih replied with a friendly smile. “I did not exactly make anyone aware of my coming. I do hope you aren’t opposed to weary travelers making their way across the mountains?”

“Not opposed, no,” the guardswoman agreed with a polite bob of her head. “Though most people take the river to skip the climb.”

“What can I say?” Azmih spread his arms beside him, his palms turned toward the sky. “I am a consummate lover of nature and all its spaces. It has been long since I enjoyed the wonders of these mountains. But I have also been long on the road and will admit I am chilled near to my bones.”

The guardswoman started, as if realizing she had been rude. “You’ll be wanting to make your way to the Impolite Princess, then. There’s always someone manning the bar, day and night. And they’ve got a warm porridge that’s perfect for evenings like this.”

Azmih breathed a soft sigh of relief. “Have they rooms available, do you know?”

The woman laughed softly. “Rooms aplenty this time of year, and so few people to fill them, they’ll happily fuss if you let them. Just down the main street and take a left. You can’t miss it. It’s the brightest sign on the block.”

“You have my gratitude,” Azmih replied, bowing from the waist, waiting for a clear dismissal from the guard before he made his way down the darkened streets. It was always a relief to enter a place that welcomed visitors. A suspicious guard would have quickly drained what little energy he had left. His stomach was already growling in anticipation of the promised porridge and the longing for a soft bed and heavy blanket grew greater with every step.

So it took a moment for the next howl of the wind to penetrate the growing haze in his mind. As soon as the first word struck his ears, he came alert. The tiny hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. His ears twitched. He must have imagined it.

He turned, glancing back down the road, but the guard had already gone back into her house, erasing the bright light that had spilled from her door. He glanced around the street, but there was no sign of other people. It was hard to judge the lateness of the hour without moon or stars, but he guessed it was near to midnight. On a night like this, most decent folks would be in their bed hoping the sun would dispel the gloom come morning.

All the shops were closed, their signs bleak in the grey darkness. Every door and window was closed and locked against the windy chill, not to mention any intruders that might prow the night.

So who could possibly have asked for help?

Azmih bowed his head, drew a deep breath and resumed his trek. It was possible he had imagined the voice, now that he walked among civilization. But he had only gone three feet before the wind gusted again, bringing a new set of words to his ears.

How could you?

Again, he paused. After a moment of hesitation, he reached up and pulled down his hood, exposing his head to the night’s icy claws. He was just about to give up and retreat back into the warmth of his cloak when the wind brought a new set of voices to his ears.

Can you hear me?

Have you forgotten?

Why will no one listen?

He was numb with cold by the time he reached the Impolite Princess. True to the guard’s directions, the Impolite Princess sported a brightly colored sign lit by a lantern perched atop its crossbar. It was the brightest light on the street, and a friendly flicker issued from the lower floor windows, almost like a beacon beckoning him inside.

Cautiously, still listening to the whispers carried past with each new gust of wind, he slid the door open and made his way into the foyer.

“Goodness, you look half-frozen!”

Warm hands engulfed Azmih’s before he had a chance to respond. Fingers massaged the backs of his hands, gently urging feeling to return to his extremities.

“What madness possessed you to wander the streets with your hood down, dearie?”

Azmih glanced down into the face of a woman who was no longer young, but couldn’t quite be considered advanced in age just yet. She had warm brown eyes and a friendly smile that was tempered by some hint of sadness she had learned to hide well. It was only that Azmih was so used to working with the sorrow and grief-stricken that allowed him to catch the deepening of the wrinkles around her eyes and the slight tension at the edges of her smile indicating that the expression was somewhat forced.

“You might think me mad if I admit the truth,” Azmih replied, forcing a thin smile to his own lips. “I’ve been making my way over the mountains and the season’s chill may have addled my brains more than I realized. The guardswoman said you’d have porridge even at this late hour?”

“But of course! We’re always ready to feed a weary traveler or a beleaguered friend. You never know what might befall a mountain town, especially in the heart of winter. Come now. Food first, then I imagine you’ll want a nice, warm bed to weather the rest of the night?”

“Only if it isn’t too much trouble,” Azmih replied. He could already tell that he had missed his opportunity to prevent the older lady from fussing over him. But after so long on the road with only his silent companion for company, he wasn’t opposed to a little friendly hospitality. Especially when it wouldn’t cost him extra.

The woman hustled him into the common room, which seemed to occupy most of the tavern’s ground floor. A warm fire burned in the hearth, as strong and cheerful as it might have been during peak hours, not yet banked for the evening. Perhaps it never would be. Perhaps that was why the guard had guided him here.

Rather than a table, the woman led him to a seat at the bar. Within seconds of sitting down, a strapping young lad slid a warm mug across the polished wooden surface. Azmih uttered a hurried thanks as he set his hands on either side of it, not quite touching the surface, letting the ambient warmth seep into his joints. Already, his hands burned with the return of heat to his body. But it was neither an unfamiliar nor an unpleasant sensation.

When his hands had sufficiently warmed, he lifted the drink to his lips and allowed it to spread its fire down his throat and into his belly. Mulled cider was his guess by the mix of sweet and tart tastes. Probably spiked with a bit of wine or whiskey to chase the chill away more quickly.

The haze of exhaustion had begun to creep over his mind again, dulling his senses, lulling him into a state of relaxation. He might have fallen asleep with his head on the counter if the older woman hadn’t returned with a full bowl of spicy smelling porridge.

“Take your time and eat your fill, dearie,” she encouraged. “And if you need more, just you give me a wave.”

“Thank you,” Azmih replied, stirring himself as he lifted the spoon and savored the first bite. This was the kind of place that would have been worth going out of your way to visit. He imagined the spectacular spread the inn keeper prepared for holiday meals and harvest celebrations. The porridge boasted a hint of cinnamon and was clearly sweetened with honey. The texture was both hearty and creamy and Azmih was momentarily lost in bliss.

“This is delicious,” he managed after a moment, resisting the urge to shovel the next several bites down his gob without pausing to taste them. “Please forgive me for the haste of my introduction. I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name?”

“Eliza,” the older woman replied, a hint of amusement dancing in her eyes. “And who might you be, traveler? Most who decide to spend time hiking our mountains do so in the summer months.”

Azmih chuckled, a low, soft sound, and indulged in another bite of his meal before he answered. “My name is Azmih. I’m a wanderer by profession as well as nature. If I weren’t hiking your mountains with the onset of winter, I might be plowing my way through waist deep snow somewhere else.” He shrugged. “But the decision to wander your streets with my hood down was hastily made. I assure you, I’m not usually so reckless in my wanderings.”

“It’s not so difficult to understand,” Eliza replied, leaning against the counter opposite him, settling in to keep him company while he ate. “They’re strange streets on a night like this.”

Azmih arched an eyebrow wondering if this was an invitation to speak with a looser tongue than he might usually. “The streets are much as I recall,” he admitted. “Or at least, not much different than most towns I know. It’s the wind that seems strange.”

Surprise made Eliza’s eyes grow wide, but she recovered quickly, a hint of weariness seeping into her smile. “Noticed, did you? You aren’t crazy, if that’s what you’re thinking. Everyone hears the voices. Not always, mind. But when there are voices to hear, everyone agrees what they say.”

“Not the kind of tale people like to tell, I’d wager.” Azmih scraped some porridge from the side of his bowl as he contemplated what to say next. “Is this some kind of local legend? Is that what encourages the villagers to speak of their experience among themselves?”

“Local? Certainly,” Eliza agreed. “The phenomena is too new to be considered a legend, though, I would think. It’s only been the last year or so.” She paused, as if reviewing the months in her mind, then shook her head slightly. “It’s hard to remember exactly when it began. The days all seem to run together.”

“So the voices aren’t related to the season?” Azmih pressed. Supernatural dealings just so happened to be his area of expertise. And if the strange voices on the wind belonged to spirits, he wouldn’t be able to leave until he sorted it out.

“Would that they were,” Eliza replied with a hint of a sigh. “We’d all like to have a break from ’em.”

“I know it’s late, and I’m nothing more than a stranger-“

“Nonsense,” Eliza interrupted with a flick of her wrist. “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t connected with yet.”

Azmih’s smile grew a little wider and a little warmer. It was so rare for him to be offered a sincere greeting, he couldn’t resist responding to her flattery. “Then perhaps you wouldn’t mind regaling me with the story of how the strange winds started? If you know it, that is.”

Eliza’s smile finally faltered. She drew a long, deep breath and released it slowly. “I know it. Indeed I do, all too well. But it’s a heavy story for a night like this one. Morning comes sooner than you think.”

“Once I fall into one of your fine beds, I’m afraid it’ll be midday by the time I extract myself. I’d like to hear the tale, if you’re willing to tell it, but it can wait if you prefer.”

Eliza slid her fingers along the smooth surface of the bar, as if looking for imperfections. “Day or night, now or later, it won’t ease the telling. Boris,” she called over her shoulder, “grab another of those ciders for our guest. And one for me, if you don’t mind.”

A gruff and muffled reply drifted to Azmih’s ears and, moments later, the strapping young lad returned and slid two more mugs across the bar top.

Eliza lifted hers, blew lightly across the surface of the liquid, then took three measured sips before she began to speak.

“The whole town thought they were going crazy the first time we heard the voices on the wind. Of course, it took most of a month before people started to talk about it. No one wanted to deal with the accusations. No one wanted to be the crazy drunk howling about the voices that weren’t there. But as soon as people started whispering about it, the stories spread. We quickly realized that either the entire town had gone collectively crazy or the voices were actually there.

“The fact that passersby can hear them quickly reassured us of our sanity. But no one wants to live in a town where voices come in the night and whisper into your dreams. So a pair of locals hitched a ride with one of the summer trade caravans. There’s a sage that lives not far from here. Two or three days ride. A hedge witch, of sorts. She’s uncanny, but she knows the way of the land.

“The locals told her our story and returned with her response. She said that the source of the voices was a grove not far outside the village. There’s some kind of sacred tree there. The witch claimed she could sense its presence even from her distant thicket.”

There is something, his silent companion murmured, though Eliza would have no way of hearing. A change in the land. I can sense a hint of it, though it lies outside my purview. If something supernatural has tainted it, that could account for my perception.

Azmih kept his expression carefully neutral, nodding for Eliza to continue.

“The witch told us that all we had to do in order to silence the voices was to spend seven nights in the grove. The town talked it over and a brave soul volunteered. He marched down into the grove and settled in for the night.

“He never came back. Seven days we waited, but there was no sign of him. We hiked out during the brightness of day but saw no sign of him.

“We met again and talked it over. It was decided we should try again so a young woman took her turn. She marched out to the grove, but she didn’t come back. This time we went the next day to look for her and saw no signs. Seven days later, the voices still howled. And it might be our imaginations run rampant, but it seems there are more of them now than there were in the beginning.”

“So you gave up?” Azmih asked when Eliza fell silent. “Did anyone go back to ask the witch if there was more to her riddle?”

Eliza shook her head and sipped from her mug again. Remembering the refill, Azmih reached for his fresh mug and sipped himself.

“The witch’s words seem simple enough. The town decided to go back about our business as best we could. Every now and then, a brave soul would go down to the grove, proclaiming they would find the answer. But none of them came back.

“After the fourth, we started to wonder if maybe the grove requires seven sacrifices in order to solve the trouble. But we all agree that feels unfair. None of us touched the grove, at least so far as we can tell, so why should we have to feed it seven souls to secure our freedom?”

“And was that the end of it? Did the village make the grove forbidden after the fourth disappearance?”

“The grove is perfectly safe during the day,” Eliza countered, lifting both hands as if in defeat. “But the mayor cautioned anyone against wandering there in the night, said it would be best if we forget about trying to solve the riddle and move on with our lives.

“Still, you live in a small town in the middle of nowhere. You get youngsters growing up, wanting to prove their bravery. Over the months, they wander off on dares. At last count, six have gone missing to the grove.”

“So everyone is holding their breaths, wondering what will happen when a seventh sacrifice is made.” It wasn’t a question. Azmih had been at this long enough to read the truth in Eliza’s eyes. If he walked the town by day, he would no doubt find an atmosphere of tension, anticipation and anxiety while everyone waited for the final tree to fall.

It seems off, the silent voice whispered in his ears. If the grove wanted sacrifices, a legitimate sage would have known that. And would have had little reason to hide the truth. And spirits can’t take sacrifices even when they demand them. They haven’t the ability.

“A riddle to be sure,” Azmih answered aloud, since the words wouldn’t seem out of place to his host. “I happen to know something of matters like these. Perhaps I can help you fulfill the witch’s instructions. But not tonight, I’m afraid.” He set his spoon down and pushed his empty bowl in Eliza’s direction. “You’ve been more kind to me than I could have anticipated, but I’m afraid I hear your bed calling.”

“Of course.” Eliza lifted the empty bowl and set it on a counter opposite the one where Azmih sat. By the time she turned back, a tired smile had returned to her lips. “Follow me. I’ve had the lads prepare a bed. Brick-warmed so that you won’t have to suffer another chill. Though I must advise you against looking any deeper into the voices. It would be best if you moved on in the morning and forgot you ever heard a thing.”

“I should very much like to, lady, but I’m afraid I was bound to the problem the second I heard the first whisper. Worry not, I know more about such things than most.”

Eliza paused on the stairs, turned and gave him a hard look. Azmih wasn’t sure what she was trying to do; she didn’t seem to be looking for signs of falsehood, but it didn’t feel like she was taking his measure either. Finally, she relented. The tension leaked from her body and her shoulders sagged.

“Yes, I suppose you would. I recognize that symbol peeking out from beneath your cloak. If anyone could solve the matter of spirits, it would be a Necromancer.”

Azmih’s hand flew to his neck. How could he have been so careless? But he found the tarnished silver chain had already fallen back beneath the deep folds of fabric. If Eliza had seen the necklace, it couldn’t have been more than a passing flash. She must be more observant than he realized.

“If you wish me to leave-” he started.

“Nonsense.” Eliza flicked her wrist again. “I’m not a superstitious old fool. And besides, you seem willing to help us. A few years more and we’ll be in trouble, whether we like to admit it or not. If you can solve the riddle, we’ll be in your debt.”

“It’s nothing a few nights in a warm bed and a few hot meals couldn’t cover,” Azmih insisted, shaking his head. “And not until I see what I can do for you, of course.”

“Worry about it in the morning,” Eliza replied with a tired smile. She turned and continued up the stairs.

The Impolite Princess wasn’t particularly large, but it looked as though there were four rooms tucked along either side of the hallway. A branching hallway indicated there might be four more on the opposite side of the building. Candles burned in sconces at regular intervals, keeping the shadows at bay, making the upper floor seem warm and welcoming.

Eliza took him to the first room at the top of the stairs. A corner room on the outside of the building with a window overlooking the street from which he had come.

“If you need anything, go down to the bar and call for one of the lads,” she said as she unlocked the door and set the key in Azmih’s hand.

“Thank you, though I doubt I’ll need much before midday,” Azmih replied, tucking the key into one of his pockets.

Eliza nodded and turned to leave. She paused halfway through closing the door in her wake, leaving only half her face visible when she glanced at him again. “You might hear some odd voices in the morning. I apologize in advance if it happens. It’s nothing to worry about. It’s just my daughter. She’s had some trouble of late. For the most part, she keeps to herself but, every now and then, she gets restless.”

“I understand,” Azmih said quickly. It might be a matter worth looking into later but, for now, it was none of his business. “And I’m sure she won’t trouble me. I’ve slept in a fair number of common rooms of late. I’ve learned to sleep through just about everything.”

Eliza nodded, closed the door and left him alone.

Uncertain how much longer he could keep his eyes open, Azmih stripped free of his cloak and used the water basin set near the door to rinse some of the travel grit from his face and hands. Then he folded himself beneath the covers, pleased to discover that Eliza hadn’t been exaggerating when she said the bed had been brick-warmed. He was so comfortable, he nearly dropped off within the minute.

Except the wind howled from outside, pounding against the window, carrying distressed voices in its wake, causing his ears to twitch one last time. He listened to them for most of an hour before warmth and comfort finally overrode his curiosity and drove him into the warm embrace of oblivion.

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