Embarrassing Old Stories, Part 1
A while back I came across some old stories I’d written and mostly forgotten about. I remembered them immediately, like old friends you’d thought long lost. In the world of nostalgia and memory, they were beautiful. Then you look at them and you realize how ugly they are, and misshapen, and your very soul cringes and hopes no one ever sees them.
Then you do like I do, say fuck it, and throw them up on your blog.
This is the first one of three that I have. All of them are stories about my Everquest bard, Jaka. She got her name from the Cerberus comic book. Sadly, the writer of Cerberus, Dave Sim, became a misogynistic fuckstick, but the character of Jaka was always a favorite of mine and inspired the backstory of my character. I wrote this in 1999, either just before or just after my mom passed away from cancer. I can see now, looking back, where this story came from.
Did I just bring that up so you’d feel pity for me just before you read this? Maybe. (Definitely.) But there is no defending this overwrought purplish hackneyed backstory. It is indefensible, however, because I still love it, and I feel no need to defend that which is, in my heart of hearts, unassailable.
When I started down the road of transcribing (and lightly editing – I’m no monster), I was embarrassed by this old shit, but I don’t feel that way about this one at least. The others are pure garbage, but this one still apparently holds a place in my heart, much to my surprise and chagrin and delight.
Miss you, Mom.
The solitary figure sat with her coltish legs crossed, gazing dreamily at the azure sky. A smile curled her lips as the boat gently rocked her with its motion as it rode high on the Ocean of Tears. Her delight only increased as the cries of gulls reached her upswept ears, the salty-yet-sweet air drifted across her smooth cheek, and the sun took her yellow hair and changed it into blaze of golden flame. Her pale, long-fingered hand drifted up and touched the hollow of her throat, and, finding nothing there, journeyed back to curl around her knee.
A shadow briefly extinguished the oblivious maiden’s hair. Standing on the aft deck behind and above, a stout bearded dwarf looked at the elf-girl, then back to the object in his dark hand. The girl must have had no idea of the necklace’s worth, he thought, when she exchanged it for passage across the ocean. His eyes knew dwarf-work, and the cunningly wrought piece crafted of pure silver had, in his estimation, been made by a true master.
The dwarf traced a thick thumb over the oval pendant that hung from the chain. The raised harp and sword on it were finely detailed, intricate to even the minutest scrutiny. Sideward pressure opened the face of the locket and his hard eyes widened. The face of a beautiful brown-haired elf blinked her eyes and smiled kindly at him, then kissed slim fingers and waved them gently. He watched the image repeat its motion twice more before thumbing the locket closed and stuffing it deep into his pouch. Not just wrought by a dwarf-master, but also enchanted with elven magic.
The elf-girl still stared out over the trackless sea as he approached. Her reverie broke when the dwarf’s squat, muscled form settled next to her on the deck. She directed a bright smile at the ship’s captain, and he could see what face she would bear when years changed her from blossom to full flower. He cleared his throat gruffly and fixed his hard gaze on the girl’s sapphire eyes. “Ye sure ye be old enough ta be offa leadin’ strings, lass? I’ll not sleep well castin’ a lamb like ye among the wolves.”
His words had an immediate effect on the girl as high color bloomed in her cheeks and her back straightened, as if every inch of height would add years to her appearance. “I have already surpassed seventeen springs, good Captain,” she said, the melody of her voice in sharp contrast to his own harsh tone. Her chin raised in the air, as if looking down on him would give her words majesty.
Her proud air wilted as the dwarf guffawed loudly. “Me pipe has more seasonin’ than ye, girl,” he said, head shaking and body quaking with mirth. “Ye be too young ta be trapessin’ all o’er Norrath, especially for an elf-girl.”
“Nonsense!” The girl’s pride had returned swiftly. “Why, Karlynna Longstrider was but fifteen when she – “
Another burst of laughter interrupted her speech before it could properly get started. “Ye been spendin’ too much time listenin’ ta stories. The wide world ain’t na place fer a wee sip a ale like yerself. But,” he said, hand raised to ward off further protest as he rose from the deck, “I ain’t yer Pa, an’ e’en if I was, I kin see in yer eye that ye na be willin’ to stand fer a lecture.” He looked down on her, his hard dark eyes softening slightly. “I leave ye with a word a caution, no more. Mind yerself, ‘cause this ain’t na story.”
As the dwarven captain stumped off, the elfmaid’s eyes returned to the rolling sea and drifted far away. Her slim hand lifted again to her throat, fingers seeking something that was lost. They trembled slightly as the girl’s eyes closed.
There is darkness first, then a beautiful voice surrounds her. The words and song warm her and she sees light around a face lovely and perfect. Green eyes twinkle at her, and long chestnut hair catches the flickering lamplight and glows as the strands tickle her own face. The perfect face turns to look beside her and gazes into the bright blue eyes of another. This one is impossibly tall, impossibly handsome. He shakes his mane of golden hair and laughs as he swings the slight figure of the green-eyed woman in his arms. She watches them against the backdrop of a magnificently carved wooden ceiling, rising high amid twisted oak branches.
The image blurs as years pass, then sharpens. Her father, weeping, golden hair covering his face as he presses his back against the wall of the flet he had built for his family. She wanders the confines in a daze, seeking something she knows she will not find, but unable to stop looking for it. Others from the tree city look at her sorrowfully as she passes them in her search. Some of the people are taller, from her father’s homeland of Felwithe. These ones wear bright steel armor, their breastplates etched with the same symbol as that of her father’s armor, still on a stand by the door.
Again the image wavers over more years before intensifying further. She stares out over the dark forest from a platform high in the branches, tracing the outline of the locket she wears with her fingers. She hears her father muttering in drunken sleep. His face is drawn and harshly angular, his hair limp and dingy. Another evening with his drunkard old swordmate, Tandan Nybright, takes its toll.
Once more, the years blur the scene, and then the image sharpens enough to draw blood. Her rapid descent down the ladder onto the forest floor. Her flight through her forest home. The mountains, high and thick around her, the chill air mocking her as it whistles through the cracks of the hard stone pass. Fright crushes her, but her feet drag her forward. Then, finally, a dock, a ship, a hard-eyed dwarven captain eyeing her suspiciously as she presses her sole possession into his hands.
Dazzled by the bright sun reflecting off the water, the elf-girl took her first tentative steps into the city of Freeport. She had spent part of the sea voyage listening to the tales of the captain and other passengers, trying to get a sense of her new destination, her new life. No story, no rumor, no fevered imagination had prepared her for the sight that was now assaulting her. Unwashed men, human and reeking of sour wine and old sweat, roughly pushed past her on the docks to unload the real cargo from the ship. Hordes of people, clad in every imaginable hue, jostled the elf-maid as she stumbled along the dock and stared breathlessly at the tumult.
The dock itself was rotting, the planks cracked and warped or altogether missing. The walls of the city showed hints that they might have once gleamed white. Now they crumbled in yellowish dusty decay. A series of ramshackle buildings squatted near the docks, and the mistreated and battered look of them was matched only by the figures who stood in their doorways. Dull eyes peered at the newly arriving ships as if salvation would surely fail to be aboard them.
As she tried to cope with the visual barrage, her other senses became overwhelmed as well. The cry of gulls, so thrilling on the open sea, was here thick and harsh, cutting with a knife’s keen edge. Competing with their cries was the voice of the horde, shouting, cursing, bellowing, the noise of a beast ill-tempered and vile. The air sent wave after wave of scents, the sickly-sweet odor of rotting fruit, the char of burnt timbers, the sourness of human sweat. The smell of the water was changed from a sweet tang to a briny, humid mass that clung to her golden hair and simple clothes.
Finally, the girl could take no more. Stumbling forward, she blindly sought refuge from the teeming masses all around her. Like a wild thing hunted, she moved faster and faster, more desperate, eager for any sign of safety. She plunged suddenly from the press of bodies into shocking, open space. Her wide eyes beheld a building, set back from the path of the restless horde behind her.
It was a sad thing set among sad surroundings. No semblance of paint remained on its walls of crumbling plaster and rotting wood. Windows stared like empty sockets, gaze fixed on the prowling masses with slack uncaring. The door was warped and pushed against its frame with stubborn disregard for those who might wish to use it. A sign hung askew from a post with worn lettering that could dimly be read: The Grub ‘n’ Grog Tavern.
The elf-girl approached the grim building slowly, tentatively. The sounds of the crowd behind her receded and the rank sea-air thinned as she stepped into the shadow of its bulk. Turning around, unsure, she regarded the horde writhing in its endless undulations. With a deep breath and shaking head, she pushed against the door. The wood squalled in protest but relented in resigned discontent.
Blissful quiet, shadowed light, and open space drew her into the room. After the crowd, it felt as if this building was for her and her alone, sitting quiet and empty and waiting for her to fill it. Then she saw the others, a pair of men looking at her as if they saw a mirage or phantom. One of the pair sat at one of a jumble of dusty tables, holding a cracked stone mug before him as if it were a lifeline or a lover. The other man stood behind a long bar that ran along the back wall. It was as dusty as the rest of the woodwork, seemingly impervious to the half-hearted efforts of the man flicking soiled linen at it. As she stepped further into the room, the barman’s eyes remained fixed upon hers. She saw unreadable emotions pass like thunderclouds across them. She could feel them take her in, drink her in, from her scuffed leather boots to plain brown clothes to unlined face.
“You must be new here, girlie.” His rough voice, cracked and unlovely, broke the thick silence. The elf-girl made no response as she stared into the eyes that froze her tongue. “Let me guess,” he continued, tongue playing along the gap of a missing tooth. “No money. No place to go. No family. No friends.” Dumbly, she shook her head from side to side in both negation and affirmation, unable to unlock her wide eyes from his. The thrum of her heart began to sound in her ears.
Finally, his eyes left hers to wander over the rest of her again. A voice spoke beside her, sounding as worn-out as the man who owned it but showing a glimpse of eager cheer. “There you go, Gregor. She’d make a barmaid that could fair break your heart.”
The barman’s eyes flicked over to the man at the table and narrowed. “Barmaid?” The rasp was thick with disdain. “You think I can afford to have a barmaid bring you cheap ale and watch you nurse it for an hour, then ask for credit?” He stared at the lone patron, who lapsed into silence and returned to his careful study of the mug before him.
His gaze settled back on her. “Do got something in mind for her, though,” he said, looking her up and down. “Yeah, I got a job for you. Come in the back and I’ll show you.” His smile chilled her. “Pretty thing, I’m going to show you how to sing.”
Sing. Sing. Sing.
The word echoed in her mind, became its own voice, became her mothers voice. Sing. The voice was full of love and comfort, and it embraced her and filled her quieting heart. She opened her mouth and closed her eyes, then gave voice to those feelings wordlessly, matching her mother’s tone and weaving it together with her own. The sound carried forth into the room, examining corners long cobwebbed, washing over the slack-jawed men who watched her, filling the room with its presence.
The squall of the door interrupted the note, and voices chased the sound back into hiding. A handful of men, dock-handlers by their look, pushed into the room and harshly called for drink. The barman, staring still at the elf-girl, swallowed twice, blinked, and went to work drawing brown ale into stone mugs.
“Mithaniel Marr,” the worn man whispered, his eyes trapped on the girl like a fly in honey. “Gregor, you, I mean, she….” His voice trailed off, as if reluctant to compete the sound that had fled. The barman ignored him, carrying double fistfuls of drink to the table of newcomers.
“Yeah. Alright.” The barman’s voice cracked like a whip as he turned and stalked back to the bar. “Your voice is pretty when you use it, I’ll grant you that. But can you sing? I mean, really sing. Songs.” His eyes were hooded and wary, heavy with judgment waiting to be laid. The elf-maid drew in breath, but a grunt and sharp gesture cut her off. “Uh-uh. Not like that. Up there.” One dirty finger pointed to a table near the newcomers.
Wordlessly, she drifted over to it, as if unsure of what to do or how to do it. She placed one foot on a chair and raised herself up onto the table. Looking down, she saw their rough faces staring up at her, some with amusement, others with a brutish longing. She closed her eyes, praying to Tunare to let the voice, that Voice, come back to her again.
She opened her mouth once again, and the sound emerged, wordless, keening perfection. Unwavering, it filled the room again. She harnessed the note, channeled it, changed it and words began to mingle within it. It became a song from her childhood, and she could hear her mother’s voice entwine with her own. Their harmonies lilted and danced with each other, in sorrow and joy.
“Now dance.” The command thrust itself amid her song and the words wavered. Her eyes stayed closed as her voice trembled, a heartbeat, then another. Slowly, she lifted a foot and took a step, the first step.
And the elf-girl died, and Jaka was born.
Her song steadied then rang out, stronger than before. Another step, and another. Her spirit took flight as if on wing, soaring high above her body, bursting out over the city itself and into the heavens. The next steps came quick and light, each one bringing a surge of love and excitement and joy. Her arms thrust skyward and her eyes opened, and with a light spring she leapt from one table to another. She felt wrapped in the presence of the beautiful green-eyed woman that she missed so terribly. Their dance and their song blended, meshed, giving each new purpose.
She could see the faces around her change, shining with a light that came from within, as of dying embers that roar to life from a gust of wind. Jaka moved through the room, the song slipping down like sweet rainwater on a child’s upturned face, and as she did her audience stirred, faces lifting as their bodies seemed to fill with life. The joy in her heart shone in the eyes of the others, and worn faces opened in innocent wonder.
Jaka’s song ended with a bow. Her breath was quick, her face beamed, her limbs shook. In that moment she felt perfect, vibrant in a way that she’d not felt since her mother was taken from her. The drab room was bright with light, a warm glow that made it feel like home. Gradually, the brightness faded, her breath slowed, and her limbs became her own. The warmth within her dimmed, the last of it departing like fingers gently caressing her cheek.
The silence thundered in her ears and her blood cooled. Fear and uncertainty crept back into her.
Suddenly, the silence was shattered by a roar of clapping hands, stomping feet, pounding mugs. All of the men stood, trying to vent the feeling she had stirred within them. The barman stood as if stricken, silent and immobile, a statue. He shuddered, stirring to life and moved towards her. He stretched his hands up to Jaka, picking her up by the waist and gently setting her back to the floor.
“If you can do that again,” he said, voice quivering, “you’re hired.”
Jaka smiled, and began to sing once more.
The places are real, in the world of Everquest, and in Kelethin you could find a wandering high elf just called “a drunkard”, and he was a fellow named Tandan Nybright. The Grub ‘n’ Grog tavern was just off the docks in Freeport.