Forest Elf
Part 8

by J. Falconer

Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle etc belong to MCA/Universal and Ren Pics, and anyone else who has an interest in Xena Warrior Princess, not me.

Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle etc belong to MCA/Universal and Ren Pics, and anyone else who has an interest in Xena Warrior Princess, not me.

Copyright ã 2000: The characters in here belong to me. All rights reserved. No part or whole of this work may be copied or used in any shape, form, or manner whatsoever without the author's express written consent. If you want to use them, all you have to do is ask...nicely.

Violence disclaimer: This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Bit more graphic than usual (enter, stranger, at your riske - here there be icky bits), but readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.

Love/Sex warning: This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live - move along, move along, nothing for you here ...

Major vote of thanks to my ever patient beta readers Foreva Xena and Diamonddog for taking valuable time out to read this. Without their support this would still be an idea floating around in my head. BTW, please remember to feed the bard...

Part 8

Bathed and refreshed, Sunstar followed her quiet guide into the depths of the monastery to meet Choranthus, the abbot of the Monks. Her spirit was battered and abused, but her mind was sharper and clearer than it had been for quite some time.

As she followed the young, graceful, smooth headed, human Monk to her eagerly awaited meeting with Choranthus, she was struck by the aura of peace that hung throughout the entire building of the monastery and its surroundings. They passed many silent monks going about their daily business with a timeless serenity, the huge stone hallways ancient and peaceful, delicate, and powerful tapestries adorning the smooth walls. It was a time of preparation for her before she ventured forth to battle the drow. Perhaps some measure of the peace and forgiveness of the monastery would enter her soul.

The monk led her into a great, silent stone chamber; the focal point of the room was a long, low dining table. All around it were large, soft cushions, for the comfort of the diners. The monk elegantly and expressionlessly gestured for her to enter. She inclined her head and did so, padding barefoot over to the two figures she saw at the head of the table. One was her mother, Morningstar, looking considerably more rested. The other was an old man, skin wrinkled and brown through long contact with the weather. Even comfortably seated, one could see he was tall; perhaps taller than her own six feet. He wore long lose cream robes that covered much of his body, leaving one shoulder exposed.

"Ah, Sunstar," he said, solemn face creasing into a sunny smile at the sight of the young elfmaid. He gestured gracefully, indicating for her to sit opposite her clearly more relaxed mother. Both noted with concealed shock that Sunstar looked terrible; she had lost a lot of weight since the last reports of the monks visiting the monastery. Her freshly cleaned clothes hung on her thin frame like sackcloth, and there were dark rings around her haunted eyes. Both she and her mother looked strained and deeply troubled.

Sunstar inclined her head, and, with a ghost of a smile, quietly did as she was bid. For the first time in a long time her mind felt clear, and she was able to think much less sluggishly. She was eager to continue on the journey to the drow, as both she and her mother were now fully committed to discovering why the drow were intent on destroying the elven nation.

No sooner had she made herself comfortable, then another monk, this one wearing white robes, politely placed a hot bowl of food in front of her. She was ravenous, as she had not eaten properly in quite some time. She took a mouthful of the tasty vegetable stew and smiled gratefully, nodding at the anxiously hovering young human man.

"That will be all," said the kindly old monk, nodding and smiling gently at the young initiate. The young initiate blushed, then bowed and backed away awkwardly. He had never had real contact with elves before, and feared that the graceful creatures would view him as clumsy and provincial.

"You must be Choranthus," said Sunstar quietly when she had eaten several more mouthfuls of her meal. Memories of her father and his unsolved death flittered through her mind, anxiety about the drow threat to Shimmering moon and Nightshade's fate distantly gnawing at her subconscious. Her eyes were hollow and haunted as she calmly stared at the abbot.

"I am," the old man said simply, gentle eyes assessing her quietly. "Please eat; there will be time enough for talk once we have finished our meal." Though he did not show it, Choranthus was quite curious as to what had brought the elves here. He remembered the reports of the messenger scout, and wondered if they carried the madness that had gripped their nation with them.

Sunstar nodded gratefully. While she had been in prison, the guards had not often bothered to feed anyone; and more than one elf died of simple starvation and general neglect. She was ravenous and the stew was delicious. Before she knew it, it was empty, but the anxious initiate immediately refilled her bowl. Once the second bowl was finished, she felt pleasantly full, and relaxed back, seeing the tense lines around her mother had lessened. She was concerned about Morningstar; they had both been under unimaginable strain over the past few months.

The meal was conducted in comfortable silence. Sunstar used her time thinking carefully about what they would tell the monk. Her mother had told her the monks had an extensive library, and she planned on asking the abbot if she could make use of it to continue the investigation that had been so rudely truncated in Shimmering Moon. Thoughts of her home brought back some uncomfortable memories, with it a sinking sense of failure and embarrassment that she banished with a swift swipe. Those thoughts would do her no good; she was resolved to attempt to right some of the wrongs that had been done to Shimmering Moon, and find out once and for all what had happened to Nightshade. There was no doubt in either elf's mind that the false Nightshade that Sunstar had met in the forest, that had stayed with them, had been the one who had murdered her father.

Choranthus watched them carefully and sympathetically. They showed no signs of the violence that had soaked into the elven nation that the brother they had sent out had spoken about. He wondered what had brought them to the monastery. Were they there for sanctuary? He would ask; but first, the comfort of the guests had to be attended to.

The abbot smilingly led them out of the dining hall, into his large private chambers. Like the rest of the monastery, it was Spartan, containing only a simple cot, but there were soft cushions strewn about the cool stone floor.

He arranged three of them in a circle, and gestured for the elves to sit. Morningstar and Sunstar bowed slightly in thanks, then gravely seated themselves.

"To what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?" he asked quietly without further ado once they were comfortable.

"We have come to speak with you," said Morningstar grimly. "I was present when your messenger delivered your note. We would like to know what this grave danger facing the Elven nation is." Now that they had left Shimmering Moon, she felt much calmer and in control of herself. She found it incomprehensible that she had sat back they way she had and allowed events to take their course. She had been so consumed by her feelings towards Darkwood's absence that there had been little room for anything else. Now that there was no doubt that Nightshade had killed Darkwood, she was more than a little determined to discover why the deed had been done, and who that Nightshade really had been.

"That is not the only reason you are here, is it?" Choranthus was quiet and gentle, but when he spoke his words were direct and pointed. "Do you seek sanctuary, perhaps?" It was quite clear that whatever they had been afraid of had already come to fruition in Shimmering Moon. What had happened to Nightshade? The message they had sent to the elves had only come about because they had not heard from her for quite some time.

Sunstar eyed the old man solemnly, and then smiled ruefully. Was that true? She was here merely as a stepping point on her way to Dragonar, but what happened if Darkstar came looking for her? The elves would drag her back to Shimmering Moon and kill her instantly. If that were to happen, she would need precious moments to escape from them. She inwardly shook her head; it was a sad state of affairs.

"I would say we most certainly do," she said softly, dropping her eyes, coloring slightly. She was embarrassed now that the words had actually been spoken. She lifted her head and bravely met the monk's eyes, waiting to be refused. They were men of peace; why would they place themselves at such risk for her?

Morningstar thought about it for a moment, and then nodded her head in agreement. Darkstar would have absolutely no question in her mind now about where the ex-Queen's true loyalties lay. If the elves went looking for them and found them in the monastery, they would not be taken back to Shimmering Moon alive.

The monk lost his smile, and stared at Sunstar's sorrowful eyes keenly. "It must be grave times indeed for an elf to seek sanctuary with us. We know your city is not as it was. Perhaps you should tell me what has happened to you." There was no question at all in his mind that they would help the elves.

Slowly, haltingly, deeply ashamed, Sunstar told him all that had happened, starting from finding Nightshade in the forest, up until Morningstar taking her out of her prison cell three nights earlier. She still could not fathom what had come over her to allow events to spiral out of control in the way that they had.

By the time she had finished, she was quietly in tears again, and the monk looked on sympathetically as Morningstar rocked her distraught daughter in her arms. Morningstar was equally embarrassed. Viewed objectively, the events of the past few months sounded as though they had had come from the darkest of nightmares. She should have stayed on the throne and made sure that her husband's murder was fully investigated. Elves killing elves seemingly with relish while others had looked on uncomprehending? Where on earth had that come from?

There was silence from the grave Monk as he digested this information. Indeed, the situation was dire. He had some idea he knew the source of all this unrest, suspecting that there was much more behind it than the simple appearance of the portal. He assumed Nightshade had never made it to the elves, and was reasonably sure he knew who had impersonated her. The question was, what else was involved, and why?

"That is indeed bad news," he said, slowly, grimly, shaking his head. "We had not anticipated this at all." He turned to meet the surprised stares of the elves with calm, thoughtful brown eyes.

Sunstar was again tortured by her memories of the past few months, and completely missed the nuances of the monk's calm words. Her mother, however, did not.

"Anticipated what?" asked Morningstar, surprised, seeing her daughter was in no fit condition to continue. If the monks had known something was happening to the elven nation, why hadn't they spoken up sooner, before all the disasters had visited Shimmering Moon? Her heart sank when she realised that that note was perhaps intended to reach them much sooner than it did.

"It would be much easier if I explained," he said slowly, shaking his head, deep brown eyes quiet and sad. "It was such a sad story, that began almost a year ago."

Nightshade slumped in the bushes, dreadfully aware of the approach of her death.

She was tired. Absolutely mind numbingly exhausted.

Hemlock was dead, killed by her own strong hands as she coldly and ruthlessly squeezed the drow's throat. She had regained consciousness earlier than the psychopathic magician had expected, promptly choking him, robbing him of the ability to chant, unwilling to allow him to pull her firmly into the grips of his dark magic.

He had attempted to open the portal, and had only been partially successful. The spell had mercifully faded away with his final strangled gasp. She was safe. Above all, Sunstar was safe. That last thought brought a faint smile to her lips, and a soft gladness flowed through her gentle, slowing heart.

She faded in and out of consciousness in the undergrowth, blood seeping out the dreadful wound inflicted by the Drow King, memory of Sunstar quietly teasing the edges of her consciousness.

She heard the distant crashing of elves in the undergrowth. She was reasonably certain that she had bought enough time for the young elfmaid to escape, but she could not be sure. She did not know whether they were friend or foe and had no desire to find out. She was free, free at last of the drow, no matter how temporarily. It was a feeling to be cherished, one that would be preciously guarded in what little time she had left.

The trusting, almost loving, look the gentle young elven princess had given her before she had turned to face the drow had almost broken her. What had she done to deserve such faith? Had she done enough? The half elf had promised Sunstar she would deliver her to safety and that was just what she had tried her hardest to do.

Now though, now...that was a different story.

Now that Sunstar was back with her people, what would happen if the forest elves found her? Would they imprison her for her part in bringing Sunstar back to Dragonar? Would they even bother to come looking for her? She wasn't sure. She didn't think so. It would be much simpler for them if they left her in the forest to die.

She decided not to push her luck. She was almost dead anyway, of no use to anyone anymore.

All she really wanted to do now was to relish her newly found freedom and die in sunlight. She had never truly had the pleasure of peacefully enjoying the warm sun, and wished to do so now.

Despite her condition, and thanks to her drow training, she was able to carefully and almost noiselessly dragg herself out of the bushes, hiding behind a nearby rock. Her blood trail was clearly visible and would give her away, but perhaps she would be lucky.

Indeed she was.

The elves had conducted a half hearted and almost incompetent search for some minutes, never really coming close to the almost invisible drow. They had quickly given up and turned away, presumably to report to their King.

Well, that was good. She was still alive, but not for much longer. Her gray face creased into a gentle grin, as golden hair teased her, enticed her.

She lay in the early morning sun, glorying in the feel of the sunlight on her face, sending a fond farewell to the slanted green eyes that had tortured her for the past several weeks. There had always been such trust and forgiveness in them, when she clearly deserved none.

Finally she passed out, the pain and loss of blood from her wound almost overwhelming.

Though that didn't happen before she was able to realise that for the first time her long life, she was truly happy.

"Father?" asked Horatio, a tall, young human boy, hesitantly. His eyes were firmly downcast in respect for his superior. "I apologize for the intrusion."

Choranthus looked up from the scrolls he was studying. Horatio was a young initiate into the order, quite keen, and a gentle young man. He had come to them from a poor fishing village about a week's journey from the mountains. His sunny disposition made him a favourite among his colleagues, his quick wit and keen intelligence soon landing him by Choranthus' side as his personal assistant.

"Yes, Horatio?" asked Choranthus gently, carefully marking his place with a finger, looking up encouragingly at the young initiate. Horatio respected his superiors a great deal. He would never disturb the abbot unless it was a matter of the gravest urgency.

"An injured person has been delivered to our doorstep." Horatio's voice was soft and firm, and he watched his superior with gentle, apologetic eyes.

"By whom?" asked Choranthus, curious, staring at Horatio intently. The monastery did not invite travellers, preferring not to encourage interaction with the outside world. Although they did not turn down people who arrived to them seeking either help or sanctuary, they also did not advertise their existence.

"A travelling monk, Wencelas, is with her. He was on his way to see us, and found her."

"Has the comfort of our brother been seen to? What do you mean by 'her'?" Was it to be another of the vain human nobles that would try to seek sanctuary for the most frivolous of matters? He quickly dismissed that idea. Horatio would never have bothered him so quickly if that had been true.

"Yes, our brother has been conducted to our guest quarters," said Horatio quietly. "The injured person is female and an elf, judging by the ears."

The abbot's ears pricked up with interest at this piece of news.

"Why would Darkwood leave one of his people out in the forest?" mused Choranthus, aloud. He was surprised. It was decidedly unusual for an elf to be injured and remain in the forest, given that the forest elves took care of their own. It was just not in their peaceful and gentle nature to leave a sick brother out in the open for all to see. In the rare occasions that an elf was injured to the point of not being able to move, then they would send forth one of their healers with the utmost speed.

"Well, Father, perhaps you should see for yourself?" There was a question in the initiate's voice, as though he were doing something that his elders would not approve of. Choranthus was intrigued, and knew Horatio had the confidence to stand by his actions. He did not practice deception and stealth, believing it best to be open about what one had done, and face whatever the consequences were, good or bad.

"Horatio, why don't you just tell me?" Choranthus sighed. Although interested, he was not of a mind to indulge his assistant's clearly guilty conscience. It would be just easier if Horatio just told him, rather than the abbot having to drag the words from his shy assistant.

"Because Father, I really think you should judge for yourself." Horatio's voice had firmed, and he looked into his superior's eyes, clearly torn, but convinced he was doing the right thing.

Choranthus sighed again and nodded. His assistant did not have a dramatic streak normally. He was the most gentle and unprejudiced person Choranthus had ever met. If the young lad wanted him to see his injured friend, then it was because it was someone he was not sure that the elder monk would admit to the monastery.

Well, it was an elf. Even their warriors were welcome at Highgate Monastery. They were not common murderers and thieves, after all. Besides, the monastery did stand on elven land. Who were they to turn away their gracious hosts?

He got lithely to his feet, and gestured for his assistant to lead the way. Although of quite an advanced age for a human, he had lived his entire life in the monastery, and had benefited from the simple, unencumbered existence.

He silent followed the nervous Horatio all the way to the infirmary. As with the rest of the monastery, it had a high ceiling and smooth, stone walls. Although the rest of the huge old building was Spartan, this was the one room that had creature comforts, richly decorated with tapestries depicting ancient monks going about their daily toils, untroubled by the outside world.

In one bed lay a very tall elf, over six and a half feet, clearly female, judging by her neat curves and sculpted features. Her hair was silken black, with pale, creamy skin and ruby lips. The only flaw in her beauty was the jagged cut curving wickedly down one side of her face, and the lumpiness of a heavy poultice resting on one side of her body.

Choranthus stared at her in shock. Why on earth hadn't they even attempted to see to the comforts of this obviously badly injured elf?

"Why hasn't she been healed?" he demanded softly, eyeing his assistant with gentle reproach, not wishing to disturb their guest.

"That decision was best left to you," said a new voice smoothly, as Horan, the librarian who also doubled as a healer sidled up to them. He stood straight and tall, meeting the abbot's eyes squarely.

He was a pale man, almost cadaverously thin, with large ears and nose. His brown eyes were beady and close together. Despite his bizarre appearance, he was one of the most good-natured and soft hearted of all the humans in the monastery.

"Why?" asked Choranthus, equally quietly. Now he was more than curious. If an elf was ever brought to their doorstep, they sent for the healers of Shimmering Moon to come. They would just keep the elf comfortable until their brethren arrived. If the monks had not done that, then it meant that this was not a forest elf. If she was not a forest elf, then what was she? Even half elves were welcome in Shimmering Moon.

Horan quietly approached the bed, followed closely by the intrigued Choranthus and the anxious Horatio. The grievously injured elf was pale and sweating. Although not dead, the soft crimson stain on the thin sheet covering her body promised that she soon would be. With the most gentle and practiced hands, Horan lifted an eyelid, and Choranthus gasped in shock.

Though she certainly did not look like one, her glowing sky blue eyes proclaimed her to be a drow.

"It is a drow," he muttered softly in surprise, glancing at the expressionless Horan. The comment was quite obvious, but it was the best his confused consciousness could come up with. Horan shrugged; to him it was irrelevant. He would heal her, regardless of who she was. She was a living, breathing creature, although clearly in pain and equally clearly dying.

An almost inaudible voice sounded from the barely alive elf.

"My name is Nightshade. Please, let me die - I have done nothing to deserve your kindness."

The eyes flickered open, and two pools of softly glowing blue stared at Choranthus. The eyes were deep and kind, quiet and gentle. They instantly helped him decide.

"We help all travellers," he said kindly. "We will help you too." The eyes told him quite clearly she was no killer. He wondered where she had come from.

Turning to Horan, he smiled gently.

"She has some of the look of a drow, but she most certainly is not one," he said gently. "Heal her. Please. She must have quite a story to tell." Horan smiled at his superior. Choranthus was a wise monk and a gentle man. The monks respected and loved him with good reason. Horatio had learned much from his abbot and would make a fine brother, he noted with pride.

Then Choranthus turned to his anxious apprentice. The boy was a good-natured boy, having only the best intentions of other races at heart. He was careful to give the boy encouragement as often as he could, and favoured Horatio with a reassuring smile.

"You did the right thing Horatio," the abbot said gently. "I am glad you made me see for myself."

Choranthus paused thoughtfully for a moment. "Please let me know when she is up, and bring her to me." She would have quite a story to tell, he was certain. He was quite curious to know her origins, and how she had come to find herself in the forest injured almost to death.

Horatio breathed a sigh of relief. He had seen the odd drow, that was true, but when he looked deep into her soul, although it had been stained black, it was shot through with great clear rays of golden light. That light looked as though it were trying hard to break through other parts, but did not quite know how to do that yet. His master was a kind and wise man, and Horatio had fervently hoped that he had done the right thing by the monastery.

Choranthus smiled again at Horan, and quietly left the hospital, a much happier Horatio in tow.

Horan watched them leave, and then turned back to the injured half elf on the bed.

"Nightshade," he said softly, gently placing a large warm hand on her cool forehead.

Her eyes flickered open, eyeing him, dazed.

"Lie still, I am going to heal you," he said softly, and gave her the ghost of a smile, the physician in him assessing the damage done to her.

"What if I don't wish to be healed?" she whispered. She looked a little more alert. Why, she wondered, would these obvious human men of peace waste time with what was clearly the worst of all enemies to life and liberty? Perhaps they had not heard of her. She would have to slip out before they realised who she was.

"I can't let you die. The Father will not allow it," he said gently, and gave her another kindly smile. "Please, relax," he continued reassuringly as he quietly pulled the bed clothes back, and gently removed the blood soaked poultice from the half elf's body, revealing the jagged, swollen cut.

By the time the monk's hands touched Nightshade's body, she was beyond even the mildest expression of the pain she was feeling. She had been content to die, knowing that she had at last done a good thing for another life. If the monk insisted on healing her, then she would be sentenced to a homeless, wandering life, forever shunned by all others. She would be forced into a life of exile from all other beings. She was reasonably certain she could survive this, but wanted to speak to Sunstar just one last time.

She had very strong feelings towards the young elfmaid, but she could not identify the unfamiliar emotion. She did not think that Sunstar would want to ever lay eyes on her again. Nightshade was merely an unpleasant reminder of a recent close brush with a race that should never have had contact with any decent species, remaining locked in its mountain side of treachery, deceit, lies and murder.

The real question for Nightshade now, was did she really wish to continue to live? She knew it was true that she would pay for the things she had done to undeserving others. She also knew that she had seen clear running water, sunlight reflected off its untainted surface; tall green trees, growing rampant and uncaring in their forests; a beautiful young elfmaid, so gentle, sweet and kind who had never laid any judgement upon her; vast human cities under a clean blue sky, filled with people who went about their business peacefully, though not without their own turmoil; human farms and farmers, growing their crops for countless generations, playing and laughing with their young.

The sunlit world was indeed a thing of rare beauty.

There were no political intrigues that would result in her death, no signs of constantly committed atrocities, and above all, it was the most beautiful thing Nightshade had ever seen.

Nightshade did want to see as much of it as she could, but did not wish to be recaptured by the drow. Imprisonment by any other race would be a pleasure, as it did not even come close to the rare and exquisite tortures the drow could impose on both the living and the dead.

So the decision was made. She would live.

All of this raced through her mind in the minute or so of consciousness remaining to her before she passed out when the gentle heat began from Horan's hands, and she felt her torn flesh begin to itch and seal.

Nightshade remained unconscious for almost three days.

Slowly, Nightshade came to her senses, late in the evening of the second day.

She groaned, muscles protesting from the abuse they had received. Horan heard his patient, and immediately made his way to her bedside.

Slowly she opened her eyes, and the odd looking monk swam into focus in her still bleary vision.

"Who are you? Where am I?" she asked weakly, peering at him intently then looking away, slowly taking in the smooth, stone walls and the robes of the human sitting in front of her. She could not clearly remember how she had gotten here, wherever here was; it was all a blur.

"Lie still," he said quietly, and gently pushed her back on the bed, as she struggled to sit up. "I am Horan. I am the Librarian and healer of Highgate Monastery." He smiled at her encouragingly.

"I am in a monastery?" she asked slowly, incredulously, gaping at him. "What happened?" Slowly little bits returned to her. She remembered being unconscious in the forest, then figures speaking to her. It was all so indistinct, and she shook her head, trying to clear out some of the cobwebs.

"You were found in the eastern wood of the Elven forest surrounding Shimmering Moon. One of our travelling brothers, Wencelas, found you. He brought you here, and abbot Choranthus, ordered that you be healed." His voice was soft and soothing, and he laid a gentle hand on her forehead, seeking signs of fever. Elves were much different than humans; he had not healed many of them, but was convinced he would be completely successful with her. Although, he thought, at least the cut on her shockingly beautiful face would not leave a permanent scar.

"Why did you do that?" asked Nightshade quietly. They would have known she was a drow. She was surprised that they had gone to the obvious trouble of healing her.

"All life is sacred," Horan said, almost surprised, yet still smiling at her gently. "Yours is no exception." He was a healer, and would do all in his power to save life. The abbot was right - looking into her eyes, one could see she was no crazed killer.

"No, I am not," said Nightshade sadly, shaking her head. "I am half drow." Had these humans simply not noticed this small fact?

"Ah yes," said the peaceful monk quietly, smile playing about his lips, meeting her unusual blue eyes with his calm, sympathetic stare. "We know that. You are also half elf. Our abbot, Father Choranthus, has asked that you be brought to him when you are feeling sufficiently rested."

Well, that made sense to Nightshade. She was in one piece, and they wanted to get rid of her.

"I am sufficiently rested," she said firmly, although she didn't feel it. She felt very weak, and knew her legs would be rubbery. The healing had sapped much of her strength and she was very hungry and tired. She tried to sit up to get out of bed.

"No, Nightshade," said Horan quietly, as he once again gently pushed her back down onto the bed, with a firm and surprisingly strong hand. "There is time enough for that in the morning. First, eat and rest."

He quickly reached around behind him, and pulled forth a bowl of steaming vegetable stew.

Nightshade smiled gently in thanks. Time enough, as he said, to be shown the door after she had had a good night's rest. She carefully took the food from him, and her hands shook as she fed herself, under his watchful, concerned eyes. When she was done, she was tired almost beyond her considerable endurance.

Horan quietly rescued the bowl from her. Exhausted beyond belief, she sank back down onto her bed into a deep, dreamless sleep.

She woke up again at mid morning of the following day. This time, Horan was not present. She was alone in the hospital. Slowly and cautiously she sat up. Her naked body was still sore, but it was not as bad as it had been, and the cut had been fully healed - only a light scar remained. She put her hand up to her face, tracing the faint outline of the scar that the Drow King's knife had left on her cheekbone. Horan had presumably healed that one as well.

Trying to adjust to her surroundings, she leaned back for several moments and thought about what to do next.

Her first order of business was to ensure that the drow could not recapture her. There were two ways they could do this. The first way involved the use of the Eye, a spell that involved a personal possession of hers, available only to the most powerful of drow magicians. Hemlock had been the last one to manage such a feat. She felt reasonably confident that there was no other magician of Hemlock's calibre in Dragonar that would answer to the, without a doubt, deposed Drow Queen Paris.

The second was the portal. Though random in nature, Nightshade had heard rumors that Paris's nameless pet magician had been able to direct its use. If they wanted to find her, they would not really have any problems. Why hadn't the magician been involved in the previous hunt?

She wasn't exactly sure, but she thought it was because the Queen had not really been interested in hunting her down. One lone missing scout, no matter how good, would never attract her attention.

That, of course, would have changed with the death of her beloved husband the Drow King, and the true escape of Sunstar. Without her unusually vicious husband protecting her, Paris would be unable to hold the throne of Dragonar. She had taken far too much enjoyment out of being the Queen, inflicting the most hideous torture on her lovers and unfavoured subjects. When she fell from power, all the survivors would be howling for her blood, and would cheerfully see to her swift demise. The one thing that might make this situation bearable for her was a new toy, preferably the one that had caused her downfall. Paris would want another lover, and Sunstar would to be it, regardless of what she would have to say in the matter.

Sunstar was not really safe at all then.

Nightshade remembered the promise she had made to the young forest elf: I'll not let them harm you. She had to fulfil that promise, or she and the decision she had made to change her dark life were worth nothing. If she walked away now, it meant that she didn't really care about the beautiful young elfmaid, and that was blatantly untrue. She cared more than she dared admit to herself.

She would return to Dragonar then, and end the threat to her beloved young friend Sunstar.

Before she did that, though, she would have to find out as much as she could about the portal in Dragonar, and the magician who controlled its use, Ishmael.

Highgate Monastery...that rang some bells. She was sure she had heard of it in her travels with the drow. Weren't they a group of peaceful human monks who were reputed to have an extensive library? Well, perhaps...perhaps she could beg them to make use of it before they asked her to leave. She would not need that much time. A small smile crept across her face. They had been hospitable so far. There was a small chance they would let her stay for another half day or so, enough time to find the information she was after.

A small sliver of hope entered her heart.

The light was almost blinding to her, but she cautiously swung her legs over the edge of the bed and stood up.

A wave of dizziness swam through her, and she leaned over and grabbed the edge of the bed until it passed, then felt around for her clothes. She could not find her own clothes, but her questing fingers closed around soft cloth that looked white, and she knew Horan had left her robes similar to what the other monks wore.

Smiling slightly at the monk's kindness, she pulled the garment on as best as she was able, and stood again. She closed her eyes; they were next to useless in full light and in complete drow darkness anyway. Nightshade had learned over her long years with the drow to sense when objects were near, and used that ability now as she slowly and cautiously made her way out of the hospital.

She knew she had to meet the abbot, but planned on delaying the meeting for as long as she was able. She needed to think carefully about a polite way to phrase her request before the monks asked her to leave.

At the doorway to the hospital, she cocked her head, listening to the distant sounds of the monks outside the monastery, hand resting on the smooth stone of the doorway. She decided to follow the sound; although she would see nothing, perhaps she would learn more.

She turned down passages blindly, listening carefully for the faint sounds. Her hearing was unmatched, but even she found the noise difficult to follow. After some length of time, and a small number of wrong turns, she felt the warmth of the sun on her cool skin and knew she had reached the busy courtyard.

Her tightly closed eyes teared in the bright sunlight, and she lowered her head, enjoying its warmth. It was almost more than she could bear. By the sounds of things around her, a wagon had arrived with supplies from the outside world. Although the monks could grow and make most things, there were certain activities that were beyond them, such as gathering more books for their already vast library, and items such as scrolls and ink. The cloth for their robes was probably spun in house, and they also would have grown their own food, she reasoned.

Suddenly, there was a frantic sound from beside her, and she quickly cocked her head to attempt to home in on the sound.

The wagon driver and monks out in the courtyard had not noticed her, and if they did they would have steadfastly ignored her. She was a guest, and it was not their place to interfere with her progress in any manner.

A large object slid, and Nightshade immediately located the source of the sound, just off to her right. She quickly leapt towards it, but collided with one of the frantically moving monks. They both collapsed into a tangle of limbs in the dust. There was the sound of a heavy impact, and a loud scream of agony. She knew immediately that a box had fallen off the back of the wagon. Her heart sank in the few seconds she was on the ground. If she had been paying more attention to where she was going, she would have been able to place herself square in the path of the object.

Nightshade cursed fluently under her breath in drow, and gently disentangled herself from the monk, making sure he was unharmed by the collision. She stumbled on towards the sound, ears filled with ugly screams of agony. She was quickly drawn to the sobbing and moaning on the ground next to her. Cautiously, she felt to her side, feeling the edge of a rough wooden box. It was clearly a crate of some sort, and quite large by the feel of it. Equally clear, there was an unfortunate person pinned beneath it. She would have to act quickly to release him.

The man gasped in agony when she touched the crate, and she immediately let go, staring blindly and anxiously at the source of the sound. She had not meant to hurt him further and flinched at the sound of his pain, unwilling to contribute to another's agony. She would have to try and speak to him, let him know what she was about to do.

Again, she cautiously put out her hands, delicately and gently feeling a face, unshaven, flinching at the contact. Her heart sank. She really disliked seeing another life in this much pain.

"I want to help you," she said softly and gently. "Lie as still as you can."

The man ignored her; he was in too much pain to think. Nightshade sighed; his best chance would be with Horan and the healers.

She felt the milling of bodies all around her, and the brush of soft cloth against the smooth skin of her exposed shoulder. She would have some help moving whatever it was; that was good.

"By the Gods," the monk next to her breathed, clearly in shock. By his words, she was glad that she could not see the spectacle in front of her blind eyes.

She sightlessly groped sideways and anxiously touched the monk. "Please," she said urgently. "Help me. I'm going to try and lift it." She did not think it would be a problem; she had always pushed her body to the limits, and had gradually developed very wide limits.

"You can't do it," he said disbelievingly. "It is quite heavy, too heavy for one elf to lift." He stared at the female elf with the tightly closed eyes. She couldn't even see anything, and she wanted to help?

Nightshade smiled, a gentle, rueful smile. "I am very strong," she said almost apologetically. "Please help me." She could probably lift the box, but would need another to pull the injured man out from under it. She only hoped it would not cause the poor human any more pain.

She could feel the monk stare at her, almost hear him decide. Well, why not? What did they have to lose? Elves were quite strong, despite their wispy appearance.

"What do you want me to do?" he asked slowly.

"Pull him out from under the box when I tell you to," she said quietly, feeling around the sides of the box, following the splintery sides to the earth. She had a better idea of its size, and knew she could easily grasp it. The man moaned softly in agony.

She experimentally flexed her muscles. Not at her full strength, but it would have to do. Delicately, she put her fingers between the smallest space between the injured man and the ground.

Straining mightily, muscles bulging, sweat appeared on her brow, the box was hoisted up into the air approximately six inches. She had time to idly wonder if humans carted rocks around in their wagons. What could they be carrying that could possibly weigh this much? She was suddenly glad she could not see the state of the injured man due to her current blindness.

"Now," she ground out through gritted teeth. Her muscles began to tremble with the strain she'd put them under.

There was a scream of pure agony from the man as he was unceremoniously and quickly dragged out from under the obstruction.

"He's free! Fetch Horan!" called the relieved monk urgently, and Nightshade dropped the box, stumbling over backward and breathing hard. She was very relieved they had been able to help the human so swiftly. The lift had sapped almost all her strength, and she rested quietly in the soil attempting to recover enough to drag herself out of the hot sun and into the shade. She was tired, so tired.

She heard quiet approach of another figure, clearly masculine, easily dropping down into the dust next to her.

"Nightshade," came the gentle voice of Horatio. "Let me help you." The tone was respectful, filled with a quiet thanks. He was glad they had had her here to help. She may have had the glowing eyes of a drow, but it was clear to his unprejudiced eyes that she was a gentle, caring forest elf.

She felt the young human gently pull one of her arms over his shoulder, standing carefully and tugging her to her feet with him. He half walked, half dragged her into the shade of the courtyard. Her treacherous muscles would not allow her to take her own weight, and she accepted his help gladly.

"Please, let me rest a moment," she said raggedly, still breathing hard as she collapsed onto the steps. She was weak as a kitten and starving. Nagging concern for the human teased her around the edges of her sluggish consciousness. She wanted to ask, but could not find the words to do so.

"Let's get you back to the hospital," he said quietly, hauling her to her feet once more, and half dragging her into the cool confines of the monastery. She leant heavily on him as she faded into and out of consciousness.

It took them almost an age, but her eventually managed to get her back into her bed, and the world was once again mercifully dark before her head hit the pillow.


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