(The Founders: Chapter 3)
Mirra curled against his chest, the rambunctious baby finally tuckered out and napping nearly an hour late while her brother sniffled on the other side of his father’s sling, tucked as comfortably against the druid’s warm chest as his sister, but made twice as grumpy by her long delay of their rest. Rhese smirked and looked down, tugging his tunic out of Rhylian’s unhappy fist one more time as they strolled along in the warm sun, his other big hand occupied patting the infant’s back.
“Little moon,” he rumbled softly, shushing with a hiss between his teeth, “now you’re just your own worst enemy. Mirra is quiet; it’s your turn to relax and sleep.” With his tunic liberated, the young father brushed his knuckle along his son’s soft cheek, drawing languid, soothing circles along Rhy’s skin. He was rewarded by the child’s golden eyes blinking slowly, his cries softening to distracted little whimpers as he started to relax.
Rhese Silvering grinned, feeling pleased with himself, and lifted his head while his hands continued their calming tasks, looking around the garden maze’s hedges and enjoying the crunch of his boots along the pebbled path. In the middle of such a lovely day, there were quite a few others wandering through the maze at Proudmoore Keep as he was, and he nodded politely as a young noble and his wife passed, ignoring her wide-eyed stare. The kal’dorei and his pair of little pointy-eared babes made for something of an oddity, so he tried not to blame the Kul’Tirans for their poor manners. Not too much, at least.
The druid rounded another green, leafy corner and came out into a short dead end where a flowering tree grew amidst a bed of ferns and colored grasses, comfortable and happy in the shadows of the hedges. He shook his head and yawned as he turned back the way he’d come, paying idle attention to the way Rhylian slowly went limp in his sling.
Sure enough, a glance down revealed the baby’s eyes blessedly, peacefully closed.
“They’re beautiful, if you don’t mind my sayin’,” came a politely soft voice from in front of him.
Glancing up, Rhese smiled at the older Kul’Tiran woman walking toward them, her shuffling steps skittering pebbles like a wave ahead of the toes of her black leather slippers. Her hair still bore some small sign of the rich chocolate brown it must once have been, but now it was more white than anything else, pulled back into a loose knot that did nothing to help the wrinkles crinkling the corners of her sea green eyes.
“Madame,” he said proudly, patting little Rhylian’s back through the sling, “What father ever minds when you tell him his children are beautiful?”
The stranger chuckled at that. “Handsome an’ sweet with tha litt’ls an’ a good sense of humor t’boot? Lad, were I a few decades younger, I might have tried t’woo ya fer me’own.” Her wink was sweet and full of harmless charm as she beckoned him closer and leaned in to peek at the sleeping twins. She looked back up at him. “Them ears’d take some gettin’ used to, ah s’pose, though.”
The kal’dorei laughed. “Oh, don’t worry. The learning curve is pretty short for those. They’re not nearly as intimidating as they look at first glance.”
Patting his arm with a thin, leathery hand, the older woman made a show of following the lines of his long, dusky ear back with her eyes. Despite his amusement, Rhese felt his cheeks warm with a self-conscious blush.
“Where d’ya tuck all that when y’wear yer hat, lad? Ya do wear hats, don’cha?”
“Of course,” he answered with a smirk. “We just make sure they have carefully placed holes. Believe me… you don’t want to crush all that ear under a human-style hat. It aches like crazy after two minutes.”
Laughing, the old woman gestured back the way they’d come, and Rhese fell into slow, measured steps beside her. She set the pace at something slight, giving her taller companion plenty of time to enjoy the hedgerows around them as they sought out the courtyard at the heart of the maze, chatting amicably all the while.
By the time they both settled on to the single unoccupied bench, the night elf knew all about her deceased husband, her three grown children, and her thoughts about her advancement into old age. (Which was already a fraction of his despite what his culture thought of his tender young age, but he was too polite to tell her so.)
Rhese grinned as he shifted the sleeping babies in their sling. “You really worked as a dancer in a tavern, Deidra? When was that?”
“Oh, goodness, dearie,” she smirked, patting his knee. “That was a few children an’ a cargo hold full of decades ago. Another lifetime, seems like.”
The matron was opening her mouth to say more when she spied a middle-aged man rounding the tall fountain with its clear pool and carved anchor and gull, his balding pate and long mustache distinctive. She perked up and shoved to her creaky feet, waving until he saw and veered over.
“Jack!” Deidra gestured toward Rhese with one hand, taking her friend’s hand in hers by way of greeting. “Mate, this here’s Rhese Silverwing.” She leaned in with conspiratorial glee, mock-whispering to the man. “Don’t let th’ears fool ya. He’s an elf….”
Rhese laughed and bowed his head. “Nature’s greetings, J-”
When the thunder struck, that time, the entire courtyard shook, sending nearly everyone who was on their feet to the ground. The druid reached for Deidra, but he missed her arm. Instead, the old lady to landed on the pavement with a little cry, her outstretched hand plopping down on an empty pile of clothes and boots. On the back was a symbol: silver and purple worms entwined in a figure eight, consuming each other… or being born from each other, but she barely glanced at it.
The druid blinked at her with a furrowed brow for a moment as she processed, as her wizened face fell into lines of resigned grief. No wailing from his new friend, no immediate screams, just a sad acceptance and the sheen of tears in her mousey eyes.
“Aw… Jack.” She looked over at Rhese as he leaned forward and took her arm, helping her to her feet. “He’s been my neighbor for goin’ on half my life… His boys’ll be devastated.”
“I’m sorry, Deid-” The young father was interrupted as the babies across his chest burst into startled, fearful wails, and he stood suddenly, taking time only to help her onto the bench. Around them, the cries and calls and tears were starting in earnest, and the night elf shuddered even as he tried to comfort the twins. “I have to go. I’m very sorry, Deidra, but if I learn anything at all… Be careful, and please get home safely.”
The old woman nodded and wiped at her eyes, thoughtful enough not to touch him with her marked hands. “Yer a good lad, Rhese. Go take care’a yer own. Tide’s blessin’s t’ya all.”
Heart hammering in his chest, twins squalling fearfully across it as he patted them, the druid rushed back out of the hedge maze and through the streets. First, he needed to know that his family was safe, that Sarren and Yami and Alen were in the apartment, that Nysse and Rhoelyn were still accounted for on the Darkshore. Then…
Shaking his head, Rhese frowned as he hurried. After the family, it would be time to go pound on Ardell’s door. There were too many dead-ends in their investigation of this mystery. Too many frustrating, empty missions. It was time to start finding answers.