Debt Of Blood
Part 10: Parting is such sweet sorrow
“He calls you ‘Carter’ and you call him ‘Sir’. What was I supposed to think?”
The Gate had taken them back to the Source Stone and now they were making their way through the underground tunnels back to the castle dungeons. Now that they were clear of the ‘pocket dimension’, and out of danger, there was time for conversation. Some of it, unfortunately, was along lines Jack would have preferred to be left alone.
He cringed inwardly as he overheard Sharwyn. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to hear Sam’s reply. Sometimes the best thing to do with the elephant in the room was to pretend it wasn’t there. He quickened his pace, trying to move out of hearing range, and caught up with Daniel.
Of course the first thing he heard Daniel say was “Fascinating.” He was in the middle of a discussion with High Priestess Sumia. Jack groaned. It looked as if he had a choice between terminal embarrassment and terminal boredom.
Or maybe not. Cierre wasn’t in conversation with anyone and she was far enough away from Sam and Sharwyn for Jack’s purposes. He changed his course slightly and joined her.
“So, Cierre,” he said. “You’ve pretty much fulfilled Kenadi’s last wishes. Maugrim’s dead, Neverwinter should be able to beat the Luskans now, everything’s more or less hunky-dory.”
“Hunk-y-door-y? That did not translate,” Cierre said. “It must mean something for which there are no words in my language. Perhaps I should get Sharwyn. She speaks some Ilythiiri.”
“Uh, no, don’t do that,” Jack said. It hadn’t occurred to him that Cierre didn’t speak the same language as the Neverwinter citizens but, seeing as how she was obviously a different race or maybe species, it made sense. The translation amulets were even more impressive than he had first thought; it hadn’t occurred to him to ask Teal’c if he was hearing Jaffa rather than English. They could be incredibly valuable; maybe enough in themselves to make the whole mission worthwhile. Well, except for the parts where SG-1 had been being tortured. “It means… ship-shape,” Jack explained.
“Pointed at the front and flat at the back, with sails sticking up in the middle?”
Jack thought for a moment that Cierre was joking but, if so, she was doing a very good job of feigning bafflement. Oh, yeah, she came from an underground city and she’d been living in the wilderness for the past fifteen years. She probably wasn’t exactly of the nautical persuasion. “Uh, satisfactory, the way you’d want things to be, fine, in good order,” he clarified.
“Ah. Completely subjugated,” Cierre said. “Indeed.”
“So, what are you going to do now? That is, once we get out of this castle.” By this time they were climbing the stairs that led up to the basements and dungeons.
“My people have a saying, ‘from victory to an inn’,” Cierre replied. “Eat, bathe, sleep. Perhaps sleep, bathe, eat if the exhaustion of which Sharwyn warned us strikes too soon.”
“I was meaning a little further into the future than just tonight,” Jack said. “I guess you’ll be going back to, uh, Luruar, right?”
Cierre pursed her lips. “I… suppose so,” she said. “It no longer has the appeal it once had. I have tasted true… comradeship and, despite what I said to the treacherous surface elf, solitude has lost some of its appeal. I dared to hope…” she paused, and glanced over her shoulder, probably looking for Sharwyn but not seeing her because of the curve of the stairs, “…but no. It will not happen. Perhaps I might find an adventuring company that will not reject me because of my race.”
Jack felt a sudden urge to invite her to return with them to the SGC. He held back for a moment and considered the idea. There was a lot to admire about Cierre; most of all the sheer guts that she’d showed, more than once, in pressing on despite taking a sword thrust to the… guts. She had a lot of the same qualities as Teal’c and she’d make a formidable ally against the Goa’uld. Unlike Teal’c, however, she didn’t have any personal stake in the conflict. They’d be taking her on as a mercenary, more or less, and Jack wasn’t sure General Hammond would go for that. Maybe he’d better talk it over with the others before he said anything to Cierre…
His chain of thought was interrupted as they reached the top of the stairs, entered the dungeon level, and he noticed a commotion up ahead. Guards running around like headless chickens. He brought his P-90 to the ready. Maybe the Luskans had managed to get a strike force into the city centre, had broken into the castle, and were trying to get to the Gate to link up with Morag. An impossible objective, as Morag’s pocket plane had collapsed into itself and the Source Stone gate was deader than Elvis, but they weren’t going to know that and they might require some violent persuasion before they gave up.
It wasn’t necessary. “It’s the prisoner, sir,” one of the guards reported to Sir Nevalle. “She’s dead.”
“Lady Aribeth is dead? Did she commit suicide?” Nevalle asked, taking the words out of Jack’s mouth.
The guard shook his head. “Not Lady Aribeth, sir. The other one, the lizard woman. She just up and died, all of a sudden like, a few minutes ago. Not a mark on her, didn’t seem to be sick, nothing. Smacks of dark magic to me, sir.”
“She killed herself,” Aribeth called out, from her cell further along the corridor. “She told me that her people were all gone now, their time had passed, and she had no more reason to live. She stopped her own heart, I think. I envy her. I must wait for Nasher’s noose to free me from this burdensome life.”
“She must have sensed it when the pocket plane self-destructed,” Daniel muttered from behind Jack. “Fascinating. It’s a shame. There were still things I would have liked to ask her…”
“It’s too late now, Daniel,” Jack said, turning his head. “She’s dead, her people are all dead, and the crystal versions of stasis chambers are buried forever. Forget about it.”
“I guess you’re right,” Daniel said, sighing. “Oh, well, at least I picked up a few more of the translation amulets.”
“Useful,” Jack said. “They should be valuable enough to get the bean-counters off our backs.”
Cierre’s eyebrows climbed high and she stared at him. “You are persecuted by foreigners who tally vegetables?”
“Sir Nevalle, report,” Lord Nasher commanded.
“The Old Ones are destroyed, my Lord,” Nevalle replied. “Sir Baedil, the mage Durvur, and three of the castle guards fell bravely in the service of Neverwinter. Their sacrifice was not in vain. Neverwinter is safe.”
“I am relieved to hear it,” said Nasher. “You have done well. The forces of Luskan are in full retreat now. Some quarter of an hour ago they seemed to fall into disarray and fell back even from secure positions.”
“That will be when we slew Queen Morag,” Nevalle deduced. “It was her influence over the minds of Maugrim’s cultists that was driving them on.”
“No doubt,” Nasher agreed. “In the Docks those Luskans who unexpectedly came to our aid are withdrawing, in good order, and taking the original occupying forces with them as prisoners under guard. Elsewhere the Luskans have become a rabble. It is no longer a question of driving them out but only of retrieving the loot that they have taken before they can carry it away.”
“That is good news indeed, my Lord,” Nevalle said. “The war, then, is over.”
“It seems so,” said Nasher. “We have paid a heavy price but it would appear that, at last, Neverwinter is safe.”
“Much of the credit must go to Colonel O’Neill and his colleagues,” Nevalle said. “Not only are their weapons fearsome but the Colonel is a gifted commander and tactician. I have learned much from observing his methods. Sir Baedil’s death, in fact, resulted from his ignoring Colonel O’Neill’s instructions.”
“You have earned the gratitude of Neverwinter, Colonel O’Neill,” Nasher said.
“Thanks, uh, my Lord,” Jack said. “Right now we’d appreciate some of that gratitude in the form of somewhere to sleep. Sharwyn boosted us up for the final fight but it’s going to wear off soon. She warned us that the come-down is going to hit us hard.”
“Of course,” Nasher said. “There are all too many empty rooms, alas, as their rightful occupants have fallen in the battle. I shall have the seneschal find you accommodation.”
“Thanks,” Jack said again. “Oh, one other thing. We spent ten days locked up in a filthy dungeon, and since we got out we’ve been trekking across the wilderness, fighting, traveling through Gates, and then fighting some more. Being close to us probably isn’t all that nice. Any chance we could get a bath?”
Breakfast was kind of… British. Bacon, kidneys, sausages, smoked fish, eggs, mushrooms, something that resembled haggis, oatcakes, and toast. There was, however, a reasonable approximation to coffee available as well as a drink that was pretty similar to tea.
Jack set to with a will. He wasn’t worried about the possibility of contracting the local equivalent of Montezuma’s Revenge – the food looked to be thoroughly cooked, and if there was anything like that in these parts he’d have caught it during ten days of padding out prison rations with MREs – and anyway he was just too damn hungry to care. Although he didn’t touch the local version of haggis – he wasn’t quite that hungry – and, as his poison immunity would be long gone and Sumia didn’t seem to be around to top it up, he steered clear of the mushrooms in case they… weren’t.
Sam and Daniel followed his example. Teal’c loaded his plate, in his usual manner, with enough food to choke a starving grizzly bear.
Cierre heaped her plate with haggis and mushrooms. “This resembles a delicacy of my homeland,” she said, “which I have not tasted in many long years.”
“You sure you can’t go back there?” Jack asked, still pondering the idea of inviting her to join the SGC.
“To do so would mean my death,” Cierre said. “I have accepted this and it no longer grieves me.” She tasted the food. “Not quite the same but tasty enough.” She began to eat, with the same single-minded determination that she’d shown when fighting, and responded only with grunts or single-word answers to Jack’s attempts to continue the conversation.
“Teal’c Lite,” Jack remarked to Daniel.
Daniel glanced briefly in Cierre’s direction and nodded. “You might have a point,” he agreed. He produced a book from somewhere about his person, propped it up against a flagon of fruit juice, and began to read.
Jack grimaced, turned to Sam, and saw that she was engrossed in studying one of the translation amulets. Her left hand was conveying food to her mouth, moving back and forward almost mechanically, but her eyes were fixed on the amulet and her laptop. Jack grimaced again. It was impossible to carry on a conversation with Teal’c while the big guy was eating, this world didn’t seem to have invented the morning newspaper or the crossword, and the nearest TV was hundreds of light years away. Boredom loomed.
He turned back to Daniel. Maybe he could annoy his friend into abandoning the book. It would be difficult, unless he resorted to foul tactics like throwing sausages at Daniel or lighting the book on fire, but maybe not impossible. At least the attempt would keep him… occupied…
Jack’s brow furrowed. “Danny,” he said, “you’re not wearing your glasses.”
“Wassat, Jack?” Daniel grunted, his gaze still riveted to the book and his mouth emitting a small spray of toast crumbs.
“Your glasses,” Jack repeated. “You must have left them in the room. Is that book large print or what?” Daniel’s eyesight wasn’t terrible without the glasses, he could function normally as long as you didn’t ask him to shoot a Jaffa at fifty yards, but he should have been holding the book a lot closer.
Daniel raised a hand to his face, groped for the frame of glasses that weren’t there, and then touched his finger to the bridge of his nose. “They’re not there,” he said.
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Jack said.
Daniel’s eyebrows quirked upward. “I can see just fine,” he said. “As well as if I was wearing them.” He put his hand to his breast pocket, pulled out the glasses, donned them and then frowned. “And putting them on makes things blurred,” he said, removing the glasses at once. “It was like this yesterday, when Sharwyn sang that song, but she said it would wear off. The exhaustion hit me right on schedule…”
Jack screwed up his eyes. Was it his imagination or was his eyesight a little clearer than usual too? It wasn’t easy to tell; his eyesight was still pretty good, mostly, except that he had to hold print just a little further away to read it than when he’d been younger. “Don’t throw your glasses away just yet, Daniel,” he warned. “The song said ‘Heroes just for one day’, remember. Your eyesight might go back to normal after twenty-four hours.”
Daniel shrugged. “If it does, it’s no big deal,” he said. “It would be nice if it doesn’t, yes, but I’m used to wearing glasses.”
“I would like eyeglasses like yours, Colonel O’Neill,” Cierre put in, breaking off from her voracious consumption of haggis. “They shield your eyes from the glare of the sun, do they not? I greatly desire such protection.”
“Hey, you should have said,” Jack told her. He reached down to his pack, which was propped up against the legs of his chair, fished out his sunglasses and handed them over. “Bugaboo Glacier,” he said. “They’re supposed to be extra good at keeping out the glare of the sun on snow. Just right for you, yeah?”
Cierre looked at them for a moment and then, slightly awkwardly, put them on. “I thank you,” she said. “I am in your debt.”
Jack grinned at her. “We owe you a lot more than that, Cierre.” He studied her for a moment. “They don’t look right on you. Too big for your face.” The obvious solution presented itself. “Carter…”
Sam raised her head but kept her eyes trained on the laptop screen. “Sir,” she said, “do you realize that these amulets translate Spanish, Greek, Goa’uld…”
“Now that is interesting,” Jack conceded. “Ancient too, you think?”
“Probably, sir,” Sam said. “I haven’t found anything yet that they don’t. Remember all the work it took to translate the inscriptions from Ernest's Planet? Ancient, Nox, Furling…”
“I remember getting trapped by a faulty DHD,” Jack said. “It wasn't my idea of an ideal vacation spot.”
“If we find anything like that again we’ll just be able to read them, or take photographs, and go straight home,” Sam said. “These amulets are going to make things so much easier.”
“I’m all for that,” Jack said, “but right now I’m after something else. Your sunglasses, Carter.”
“My sunglasses?” Sam’s eyes opened wide and she actually looked away from the screen.
“Yeah, for Cierre,” Jack said. “Come on, Carter, I’ll buy you a new pair when we get home.”
Sam pouted, and heaved a sigh, but gave in and produced her Ray-Bans.
Cierre tilted her head to one side and looked at them. “They are not dark,” she said, sounding dubious.
“They’re light-adaptive,” Sam explained. “They go dark when they’re exposed to sunlight.”
Cierre smiled broadly, swapped over the sunglasses, and returned Jack’s pair. “Thank you,” she said. “These are… wonderful. My people would pay large sums for such glasses. Perhaps not those in my home city of Menzoberranzan, who rarely go out upon the surface, but in Rilauven, where they worship Vhaeraun, they would be greatly prized. The worshippers of Eilistraee would desire them more than any.”
“That’s good to know,” Jack said. “I’ve been wondering what we can offer this world as trade goods.”
“Oh?” Cierre’s eyebrows climbed above the sunglasses’ rims. “I would have thought it was obvious. Weapons.”
“Not weapons,” said Lord Nasher. He looked down at Jack and his comrades from a throne, elevated on a stepped platform, at the head of the audience chamber. “They would be… destabilizing. I could never permit such deadly devices to spread across Faerûn.”
“That’s a relief,” Jack said. “We have a strict policy of not selling weapons to any culture that doesn’t already have something similar.”
“You sell weapons only to those who do not need them?”
“Well, yeah, pretty much,” Jack said. “If they have ones just as effective as ours, but heavier and clumsier, it’s not going to be a big deal if we upgrade them a little. Handing out our kind of guns to people who don’t have anything better than bows and arrows is a whole different ball game. We don’t want to go destabilizing nations, like you said, or arming a conqueror, or anything like that.”
Nasher nodded. “I approve. Perhaps we can indeed do business. The question is, what can you offer, and what do you want from us in return?”
“Usually we offer medicines as the first thing,” Jack said, “but that seems to be something you don’t need. Maybe our doctors could have helped out with the plague, if we’d been here in time, but that didn’t happen. With everything else you seem to be pretty well covered. Actually what we most want from you is your healing potions.”
“Oh?” Nasher’s eyebrows rose. “Can the priests of your land not make their own?”
“Ah, that would be a no,” Jack admitted.
“In their homeland all worship Ao,” Sharwyn put in. It was the first time she’d spoken during this audience with Nasher and Jack hadn’t exchanged any words with her since they’d split up the previous night. She’d returned to her own home in the city, rather than staying in the castle, and she was now wearing a formal gown of purple cloth instead of her usual black breeches and leather jerkin. Her ever-present guitar was still slung at her back. “So I gathered from Giles, anyway.”
“Ao?” Jack turned to Daniel. “What’s she talking about?”
“I suppose he could be regarded as an analogue of the Judeo-Christian God,” Daniel explained. “He’s the Overgod, in charge of all the other gods, but he doesn’t meddle with the affairs of mortals and almost no-one here worships him directly.”
“Giles, you say, Lady Sharwyn? The man from another world you have mentioned?” Lord Nasher focused an intense gaze upon Jack. “You are not, then, merely from some remote part of Faerûn or another continent. I thought it odd that your devices differed so significantly from our own; even the Lantanese have nothing like them.”
Lady Sharwyn? Nasher hadn’t addressed her that way when they’d first come to the castle. She certainly looked the part, now, but he wouldn’t have thought that simply putting on a dress would change how the ruler spoke to her. Had she been, what was the word, ennobled for her deeds? Not that it mattered right now, except that it implied that Nasher was feeling enough gratitude to be dishing out tangible rewards, and that might help with setting up a trade deal.
“Yeah, we’re from another planet,” Jack revealed. “I didn’t want to get tied down in explanations yesterday when we had more urgent things to think about. We came to your world through the Stargate – the portal Sharwyn calls the Voice of the Lost – and we can only go back the same way.”
“Hmm.” Nasher frowned. “That is in a… disputed region. Any permanent trading post there would undoubtedly be attacked by the Luskans, and by the orc tribes who also claim sovereignty over the area, and the benefits would have to be very great to make such an enterprise worthwhile.”
“So we make a local Gate trip the rest of the way,” Jack said. “No need to station anyone on-site.”
Nasher shook his head. “Impossible. The portals within Neverwinter are warded so that only a few of our most trusted citizens can use them. Lady Aribeth, alas, was one such, and her defection meant that additional wards had to be added. They are formulated so that no-one but a loyal citizen of Neverwinter can open a portal to the city.”
“Bummer,” Jack said, remembering now that Sharwyn had been the one to operate the Gate for the trip to the city. “I guess I should have expected that. We have… wards on ours, too, but not quite the same way. Anyone coming through has to send a message first, identifying themselves, and if they don’t pass muster they go smack into a solid wall and end up dead. O…kay. We can work round this. We can give one of your… loyal citizens, maybe Sharwyn, a radio – that’s a long-distance communications device – and call up when we’re coming.”
Nasher stroked his fingers over his chin. “That might be permissible,” he said.
“Uh, sir, not to rain on your parade,” Sam said to Jack, “but I don’t think your idea is workable. Just how far is the Stargate from the city? ‘Disputed region’ doesn’t sound like it’s just a few miles down the road.”
“Forty or fifty miles, as the crow flies,” Sharwyn answered, “and much of that through Neverwinter Wood. It is quicker to go around even though it is twice as far.”
“Oh.” Jack pulled a face. “Our little radios won’t reach that far, even with a booster at the Gate. We’ll have to come back with bigger versions.”
“You may do so, certainly,” said Nasher, “but you will have to make your own way here on the first occasion.”
Jack raised his eyes to the heavens – well, to the ceiling of the audience hall, anyway – and sighed. Lord Nasher wasn’t exactly going out of his way to make things easy. “Fine, we can do that,” he said. “Now that we know what to expect on this world anyone who messes with us will seriously regret it. We could use a map, though, if they’re not… forbidden.”
“Only maps of the city itself are forbidden,” Nasher said. “Aarin Gend will provide you with suitable maps.”
Gend, who had been directing a hostile glower at Cierre during the entire audience, nodded. “Of course, my Lord,” he said.
“Okay, then,” Jack said. “We’ll come back later with a more powerful radio and a selection of trade goods. We should be able to come up with some things you’d find useful or saleable.”
“Elasticized thread and stretch fabrics,” Sharwyn suggested. “Often did Anya bemoan that, without them, the brassieres that she taught our seamstresses to make were not what they could have been. There is also a process for treating rubber – vulcanization, Giles called it – that they knew only partially. They have taught what they could to the alchemists of Amn but the results are imperfect. I would buy that formula myself.”
“Sure,” Jack said. “I don’t think any of us know it off the top of our heads…”
“I do, sir,” Sam interrupted him, “or at least I have it in a book on my hard drive. The accelerants might be beyond local chemistry but the Hancock process should be workable. It just…”
“Give it to Sharwyn before we leave, then, Carter,” Jack said, cutting her off before she could start going into tedious details that would make his eyes glaze over. “As a freebie to thank her for everything she’s done for us.” He turned to Sharwyn. “Share the profits with the others, okay?”
“Of course, Colonel… Jack,” Sharwyn said, “although I would happily pay you for it. You have done so much for us and, anyway, Cierre has already paid us for our services.”
“Huh?” Jack opened his eyes wide and looked from Sharwyn to Cierre.
“Ten thousand nobles,” Sharwyn said. “It was not necessary, as Tomi and I would have gone to the rescue of Daelan anyway, but she insisted.”
“I was obeying Kenadi Nefret’s last wishes,” Cierre explained. “I heard her, before our duel, telling you that, if she fell, you were to take her pack and use the gold therein to pay Sharwyn to help you get home. There remains a further eight thousand nobles. I deem that it is rightfully yours. Take it, and use it to purchase the items that you seek.”
“It is rightfully mine,” Aarin Gend put in, his voice harsh. “I was Kenadi’s intended.”
“Surely I pay you well enough that you do not need to take gold from those who saved us from the threat of the Old Ones, Gend,” Lord Nasher said. “It would be poor thanks for their endeavors.”
“It is not the money, my Lord,” Gend said. “It is not right that I should have nothing to remember her by.”
“I have her sword,” Cierre said. “I had thought to give it to Daniel but perhaps it should be yours.”
“That would be… acceptable,” Aarin Gend said. His face was still set in a glower.
“And now we come to the matter of what is to be done about you, Cierre of Luruar,” Lord Nasher said.
“I trust you are going to shower her with gold and jewels,” Sharwyn said, “for she has done as much as anyone to defend Neverwinter against Maugrim and the Old Ones.”
“The one who did most was the woman she killed,” Aarin Gend countered.
“Kenadi was the one who saved Neverwinter from the plague,” Sharwyn said, “but without Colonel O’Neill we could not have defeated the Old Ones. Teal’c slew Maugrim. Daniel Jackson and Samantha Carter used their knowledge to gain us access to Morag’s realm and Sumia saved all our lives there. Cierre slew Klauth, winning us one of the Words of Power, and ended the war with the Elk Tribe Uthgardt. Many played their part. Cierre’s contribution cannot lightly be set aside.”
“Hey, you said you weren’t going to take any action against Cierre,” Jack said.
“I said that I would take no action against her over the death of Kenadi Nefret,” Nasher said. Something about his manner reminded Jack of one of those scenes in TV crime shows where the detective springs a verbal trap on the suspect. “I said nothing about the death of Commander Damas.”
This was something Jack knew nothing about. There wasn’t anything he could say in reply except “Huh?”
“Had I not slain him you would still be at war with the Uthgardt,” Cierre said.
“Yeah, and I was going to kill the bastard anyway,” Tomi piped up. “She just saved me the trouble.”
“The fact remains that Cierre killed him,” Nasher said. “The commander of a Neverwinter military establishment, on active service.”
“A mass murderer,” Cierre said. “He gave plague-infected blankets to the Uthgardt that killed scores of them and started a war in which many of your soldiers, and civilians, died.”
“So you say,” Nasher said. “Can anyone verify your story?”
“I can,” Tomi said. “So can Zokan Thunderer of the Elk Tribe.”
“Can any Neverwinter citizen back up your tale?” Nasher pressed. “Lady Sharwyn?”
“I was not there, as you know,” Sharwyn said. Her mouth twisted. “I was at my mother’s funeral.”
“You cannot, then, corroborate their story.”
“Hey, wait a minute,” Jack said. “That guy deliberately passed on the plague to those tribesmen? So that was what the big barbarian guy, Jaevgrim, was talking about. It’s what made the tribe go over to Maugrim’s side. If Cierre killed this Commander Damn-ass she was doing you a big favor.”
He heard a faint sound of music. Sharwyn had unslung her guitar and was stroking the strings, gently, picking out a tune that seemed vaguely familiar.
“It was not a decision for her to make,” said Nasher. “She should have brought evidence to the proper authorities.”
Sharwyn began to sing softly. “And the men who hold high places
Must be the ones who start
To mold a new reality
Closer to the heart
Closer to the heart…”
“And while I was doing that more of the Uthgardt would have been dying,” Cierre said, as Sharwyn sang. “I promised Chief Zokan, and gave my word as a fellow worshipper of Auril, that I would act swiftly. Damas withheld the cure and there was no time to go to Neverwinter. I had to force it from him at the point of the sword. He fought back… and lost.”
Nasher stroked his chin. “There is logic to your words,” he conceded.
“Spymaster and Nevalle
Each must know his part
To sow a new mentality
Closer to the heart…”
“I have no love for Cierre,” Aarin Gend said, sounding as if the words were being dragged from him, “but I must admit that, in the same circumstances, I would have acted the same way. The reports that came to me from Fort Ilkard were severely critical of Commander Damas. I would have recommended that he be removed from his post had we not been under such pressure on other fronts at the time. Her story… fits with what I know of his character.”
“My Lord,” said Sir Nevalle, “I fought at Cierre’s side in Morag’s realm and found her to be a warrior most steadfast and valiant. If you press charges against her in this case I shall offer to take her into my service as a squire. She will then, under the law, be entitled to Trial By Combat.”
“Ha!” Callum snorted. “Good luck in finding someone to take her on. I certainly wouldn’t, my Lord, not unless the survival of Neverwinter depended on it. And I’d make my will first.”
Nasher heaved a sigh. “Very well,” he said, “I shall not take any action against Cierre of Luruar in this matter either.”
“Glad to hear it,” Jack said, rubbing his hands together. He saw Sharwyn slinging her guitar over her shoulder once more. “If we could maybe get back to the trade deal now…”
“However,” Nasher went on, “that does not mean that the question is settled. Kenadi had many friends in Neverwinter. Commander Damas… not so many, but he had relatives. Some hold positions of authority. All may seek revenge.”
“I do not fear them,” Cierre said.
“Cierre,” Sharwyn said, “it’s not that simple. I don’t care what you do to friends or relatives of the swine who unleashed the plague upon the Uthgardt but, if you are forced to defend yourself against Kenadi’s friends, you could end up having to kill some good people. And Vengaul Bloodsailor owed Kenadi a blood debt. He could come after you with thirty men. All tough customers.”
“I will not stand for blood feuds on the streets of Neverwinter,” Nasher declared. “You must leave this city, Cierre of Luruar, and soon.”
“Egeria warned me not to put my trust in the gratitude of princes,” Cierre said.
“What was that you said?” Nasher asked.
“Nothing important,” Cierre replied. Jack guessed that her remark had been in her own language and had been incomprehensible to those not wearing translation amulets. “It was never my intention to stay here, Lord Nasher,” Cierre went on. “I shall depart soon.”
“When the fleet from Waterdeep arrives,” Sharwyn said, “we shall sail back with it. You could come with us.”
“You are not staying, Lady Sharwyn?” Lord Nasher leaned forward on his throne. “I had intended to offer you one of the vacant positions in the Neverwinter Nine.”
Sharwyn bit on her lower lip. “I thank you for the honor, my Lord, and for restoring my title, but the answer is no. With my mother dead, and Kenadi, this city holds too many painful memories. I cannot stay.” She turned back to Cierre. “Well? Will you come?”
Cierre drew in a long breath before replying. “I would like to say ‘yes’,” she said. “It means much to me that you called me ‘friend’, and adventuring in your company was… pleasurable. Yet… Waterdeep. A city of a million humans, all of whom no doubt hate Drow, far from the wilderness. I do not think I could stand it. I thank you, but… no. I shall return to Luruar.”
Jack looked at Aarin Gend and saw something in the spymaster’s eyes that he didn’t like. A flash of… triumph, maybe? Jack wasn’t fully up to speed with this place’s geography but he gathered that Luruar was a neighbor of Neverwinter. Further away than Luskan, yeah, but close enough that they were sending an army to Neverwinter’s aid. Close enough that the guy in charge of Lord Nasher’s spy network would have contacts there… probably the local equivalent of Black Ops people…
“Hey,” Jack said, suddenly reaching a decision. “I have a better idea. Why not come with us instead?”
“With you? To your world?” Cierre’s eyes seemed to fill the lenses of the sunglasses.
“Sure,” Jack said. “Okay, what we can offer you is mainly a whole lot of fighting, and some hiding, and maybe a little blowing things up. But you like that sort of thing, right? You’ll have a ball. And nobody on our world has even heard of drow.”
“Ah, that’s not strictly true,” Daniel said, oblivious to the death glare Jack turned upon him. “There are drow in the folk tales of the Shetland Islands, related to the dark elves of Scandinavian myth, and they appear in various fictional works based on those legends. I haven’t actually read them but, from what I understand, they’re pretty popular and there are a lot of fans of the drow on the Internet. They even feature in ‘Dungeons and Dragons’.”
“Daniel,” Jack muttered, through clenched teeth. “Not helping.”
“I understood little of that,” Cierre said, “save that there are people of my race in stories of your world – but only in stories. That might be a good thing.”
“We’d love you to join us,” Sam chimed in. Jack was relieved to hear her say so, as he hadn’t had a chance to discuss the idea with his team-mates, and had been a little worried in case they disagreed. “I can’t guarantee you’ll like Earth but I hope you will. And, if you don’t, you can always come back.”
“Indeed it would be most agreeable to fight alongside a warrior such as you on further occasions,” Teal’c added. “I am sure that the people of the Tau’ri will extend the hand of friendship to you, as they have to me.”
Cierre gave a little, almost shy, smile. “Do you have… snow?” she asked.
“Sure we do,” Jack said. “Our base is way up in the mountains. There isn’t any snow in the summer but in the winter we get a lot of snow.”
Cierre’s smile grew broader. “Then I accept.”
The bridge was a work of art; literally so. Built to resemble a dragon, with side rails forming the furled wings, the supporting pillars carved into the likeness of legs, and the walkway paved with tiles in the shape of overlapping scales. Looking at it from the castle side Jack could see that the underside of the far end, where the span joined the bank, was sculpted into coils representing the dragon’s tail. Bridge engineering, except for knowing where to place charges to blow them up, wasn’t really Jack’s thing but he had to admit that it was impressive.
When they’d crossed it the previous day it had been evening, a veil of smoke had been hanging over the area, and Jack had been in no mood for sightseeing. Today the air was clear and he had time to appreciate the splendor.
“Nice view,” he remarked, as they walked down the steep path from the castle to the bridge.
“A most ingenious representation, O’Neill,” Teal’c agreed.
“It’s beautiful,” Sam said.
Daniel opened his mouth, probably to make a comparison between the bridge and a monument built by the Sumerians or Hittites or some other mind-numbingly boring dead civilization, but Jack decided they’d spent enough time commenting on the scenery.
“Hey, Sharwyn,” he said, “or should that be Lady Sharwyn?”
“I have no interest in such things,” Sharwyn replied, her tone cool. “I accepted Lord Nasher’s offer to restore the title only because it would have pleased my mother. From his point of view it’s a way of rewarding me without it costing the treasury anything. What do you want, Colonel?”
“Nasher,” he said. “He didn’t exactly go out of his way to be helpful with setting up the trade deal. In fact he spent most of his time putting obstacles in our way. What’s his problem?”
“This is the City of Skilled Hands, Ja– Colonel,” Sharwyn said. “Some in Athkatla and in Waterdeep have said, in jest, that the name comes from it being my home town, but in truth it is the skills of its craftsmen that have earned it that title. You see the Sleeping Dragon Bridge in front of us,” she waved her hand, “the Dolphin Bridge, the Winged Wyvern Bridge… masterpieces, are they not?”
“Well, yeah,” Jack said, “but what’s that got to do with the price of… sunglasses?”
“The clocks of Neverwinter are famed throughout Faerûn,” Sharwyn said. “They sell for a hundred and fifty nobles apiece. They keep time accurately to within five minutes a year. To carry one you must use both hands and walk slowly. Your watches fit on your wrists. They gain eighteen minutes and fifteen seconds a year.”
“They what?” Sam, who had been taking photos of the bridge, broke off and fixed Sharwyn with an intense gaze. “How? And how do you know?”
“Your planet’s day is three seconds longer than ours,” Sharwyn said. “Or is it shorter? I forget. Willow worked it out. Anyway, I bet you could adjust them for our planet.”
“Of course,” Sam said, smiling. “They’d have to be modified specially, which would add to the cost, but if the order was large enough the extra cost would be negligible. Are your coins as high in gold content as they look?”
“Seven-eighths gold,” Sharwyn said. “Pure gold would be too soft to stand up to use as coins.”
“Eighty-seven point five per cent,” Sam said. “Twenty-one karat. They weigh about a tenth of an ounce, I’d say, so that would be, uh, around forty, forty-five dollars each, if I remember the price of gold right. We couldn’t sell watches at a noble each, not with the cost of tweaking the timing and of powering up the Stargate, but at five nobles each we’d make a healthy profit. Everybody would profit.”
Jack agreed with her. “That’s great,” he said. He gave Sam a beaming smile, turned his gaze to Sharwyn, and was surprised to see lowered brows and a downturned mouth. For that matter Daniel didn’t look as cheerful as he should have done. “What?”
“Not everyone,” Sharwyn said. “The clockmakers of Neverwinter would lose their livelihoods at a stroke.”
“We’d wreck their economy, Jack,” Daniel backed her. “No wonder Lord Nasher wasn’t enthusiastic.”
“You desire healing potions, and presumably also magic items such as the enhancing bracers and belts,” Sharwyn said, “and so the temples and the Cloaktower mages would profit. The ordinary people of the city… not so much. If you could supply raw materials it would be much more acceptable. We could import rubber from you instead of from Chult, chocolate from Earth instead of from Maztica, and silk from you instead of Kara-Tur, and it would have no adverse impact upon the businesses of the townspeople. Most welcome at the moment, I think, would be building materials. There will be much reconstruction to be done in the aftermath of the war.”
“It’s just not economically viable,” Sam said. “It costs money every time we operate the Stargate. The only things worth trading are high value, low volume, manufactured goods.”
“Then Nasher will not make things easy,” Sharwyn said, “and may well deliberately place obstacles in your way. It would be different in Waterdeep, or Athkatla, but they’re a long way away.”
“Damn, why isn’t anything ever easy?” Jack complained. “Oh, well, there are plenty of smart guys back at the SGC. They’ll figure something out. For now we’ll just buy all the healing potions we can get our hands on. Are you sure we can’t make them for ourselves?”
“Without the divine spells they’re pretty much just refreshing fruit drinks,” Sharwyn confirmed. “Of course you could invite a priest to go with you.”
Jack had a brief mental image of Sumia at the SGC. He imagined Senator Kinsey poking his nose into things again, pissing off Sumia, and her reacting by giving him some horrible and fatal disease. For a moment he was almost tempted. “I don’t think that’s really an option,” he said, setting the temptation behind him. “Maybe we might think about it later. We’ll stick to healing potions for now.”
“Stocks will be low, following the battle,” Sharwyn said, “but our troops will no doubt have taken potions from the bodies of dead Luskans. If we ask at the Trade of Blades I think we will be able to find enough to fill your requirements.”
“I hope so,” Jack said. The time on this planet had been… interesting, and some of it, at least the parts not involving torture and deadly peril, had been pleasant, but by now Jack really wanted to get back to Earth. And not just so that he could catch up on ‘The Simpsons’. “Oh, yeah, there was something I meant to ask,” he added, as a thought occurred to him. “You said something about Sumia saving all our lives down in Maugrim’s hang-out. I don’t recall that. Did I miss something?”
“The poison gas cloud,” Sharwyn said, arching an eyebrow. “How could you – oh, yes, she had made you immune.”
“That was when I received my wound,” Cierre put in. “I was distracted by the burning in my throat and I was too slow to parry the sarrukh’s thrust. I believe that it was also a contributory factor in the death of the wizard Durvur.”
“I nearly got killed too, Jack,” Daniel said. “I lost my grip on my P-90 when I felt myself choking. Luckily it only lasted a couple of seconds.”
“And I never even noticed,” Jack said. “That’s… bad. I should have been more aware. Sorry, guys.”
“There was nothing that you could have done, O’Neill,” Teal’c said, “and our exposure to the noxious substance was, thankfully, brief.”
“Sumia was immune, of course, and she dispelled it,” Sharwyn explained. “She then summoned a vampire to keep Morag occupied.”
“A vampire? That guy in black who turned up out of nowhere and turned into mist when Morag ripped out his heart?” By now very little about this world could surprise Jack. A vampire was just one more piece of strangeness.
“Well, yes,” Sharwyn said. “What else would he be?”
“Vampires. Right. Of course.” Jack pulled a face and stared out over the river. Tendrils of white vapor rose from the water and swirled around the carved supports of the bridge. “That looks like… steam,” Jack commented. “Is the water hot?”
“It’s warm,” Sharwyn confirmed. “It rises, almost boiling, from hot springs at Mount Hotenow. The harbor never freezes, even in the depths of winter, and the river is warm enough for swimming all year round.”
“I don’t think I’ll try it out,” Jack said. He took a look over his shoulder at the rest of the group. Sam was still taking photos, Daniel was lagging behind and staring around as if he was trying to memorize everything, and Teal’c, Cierre, and Daelan were deep in a conversation of their own. He didn’t see Tomi at first and then spotted the little guy, just past Daniel, watching over the errant archaeologist like a sheepdog guiding a lost sheep.
“Hey, it’s Sharwyn! Give us a song, luv, will you?” A passer-by, obviously recognizing her, paused and called out.
“Yeah, go on, play something for us,” another voice chimed in. Half a dozen others added their requests.
“I’ll be doing a show at the Theater on the Lake tomorrow night,” Sharwyn told them, “with the proceeds going to charities supporting those who lost their homes or livelihoods in the war. Wait until then.”
“Can’t make it, luv, I’ll be working,” said the man who had first spoken up. “Go on, just one song. Put your hat down and I bet you’ll make a few coins.”
Sharwyn turned to Jack. “If you don’t mind…”
“I guess we have time,” Jack said. He wouldn’t mind hearing Sharwyn play just for entertainment, for a change, rather than to attack the enemy or summon up angels. “Carter, what do you think?”
“I have to get this on video,” Sam said. She was already opening up her pack and extracting her laptop. “I rescued a webcam from what was left of the Weeble…”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Jack said. “Sure, Sharwyn, go right ahead.”
Tomi scuttled up and tossed a hat down on the walkway. “All contributions gratefully received,” he said.
“Let’s do the show right here,” Sharwyn said. She swung her guitar into position. “Two songs, no more,” she told the bystanders. “I hope you don’t mind me doing one about a certain other city…”
“Dirty old river
Must you keep flowing?
Flowing into the night
People so busy
Make me feel dizzy
Carriage light shines so bright
But I don’t
Need no friends
As long as I gaze at
I am in paradise…”
The snow around the Stargate was still stained with blood. Ravens flew up from the corpses as the party emerged from the portal. A wolf snarled at Jack and then fled, a human arm in its jaws, into the woods.
Sharwyn ignored the grisly scene. “And so this is where we say farewell,” she said. “I will miss you… Jack.”
“Yeah, we made a good team,” Jack said. “I’ll miss you too.” Daelan and Tomi had remained behind in Neverwinter and they’d already said their goodbyes. Sharwyn had opened the portal from the Halls of Justice to the Stargate and accompanied them on this final trip. Jack paused and took a deep breath. “I was sorry to hear about your mother,” he went on. “The plague?”
Sharwyn shook her head. “Only indirectly. Cancer. The doctor treating her died of the Wailing Death. By the time we could find another doctor, to continue the alchemotherapy, it was too late. The cancer had spread too far.”
Jack averted his eyes from her face. He found himself looking into the empty eye sockets of one of the corpses and hastily shifted his gaze back to Sharwyn. “So your priests can’t cure cancer?”
“Sometimes they can,” Sharwyn said, “but sometimes their healing spells make things much worse. I lost someone else, a… good friend, to cancer before her.” Tears glistened in her eyes. “Can it be cured on your world?”
“Sometimes,” Jack said. “Surgery, radiation treatment, chemotherapy. It’s really not in my area of expertise. About all I know is that it works for some patients. With others all it means is that they don’t have any hair when they die.” This wasn’t the sort of conversation Jack had intended and he had a feeling he wasn’t helping any. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
“When I married against her wishes she disinherited me,” Sharwyn said. “She told me I was dead to her and she would never speak to me again. At least I was able to reconcile with her before…” She broke off and swallowed hard. “I hate partings. Farewell, Jack.”
“Goodbye, Sharwyn.” Jack said. “You’ll remember about the GDO?”
“I will.” Sharwyn nodded and then brushed her hand across her eyes. “If I ever need you, if those… parasitic snake enemies of yours ever turn up on this planet and are not immediately destroyed by the gods, I will use the device before I pass through the portal.” She slapped her hand down on the DHD five times, hit the central globe, and then slipped her guitar from her shoulder as the portal formed in the Gate’s ring. “I shall return to Neverwinter now. I may never see you again.”
“Hey, you never know,” Jack said. “Goodbye.”
“And to you. Farewell, Daniel, Sam, Teal’c, Cierre.” As their chorus of farewells sounded Sharwyn began to strum her fingers across her guitar strings. She began to sing as she walked away towards the Gate.
“Of all the things I've believed in
I just want to get it over with
Tears form behind my eyes
But I do not cry
Counting the days that pass me by
I've been searching deep down in my soul
Words that I'm hearing are starting to get old
It feels like I'm starting all over again
The last three years were just pretend
And I said
Goodbye to you
Goodbye to everything I thought I knew
The song cut off when Sharwyn passed through the Gate. Jack waited for a moment, until the portal winked out of existence, and then dialed Earth’s address.
“Okay,” he said, as the ‘kawoosh’ formed and then collapsed into the familiar blue event horizon, “let’s go home.”
Disclaimer: lyrics quoted in this chapter are from ‘Closer To The Heart’ (Rush, modified to suit Sharwyn’s specific purpose), ‘Waterloo Sunset’ (The Kinks, written by Ray Davies, slightly amended for the Realms), and ‘Goodbye To You (Michelle Branch). They are used without the permission of the copyright holders and with no intent to profit from their use.