Gloriana

The Beggar and the Banshee

Tales from the Starless Market

Playlist: The Starless Market

“Sidhe!” The voice was like an iron hook dragged over a courtyard. “Death to sidhe! Four hands of rings for elf-ears on strings!” From atop a crumbling stone pulpit, one crier of many held up a jangling mass of shining gray rings. The hollow hum of a great singing bowl spilled out from a shattered bell tower across the way. To the three dozen or so scáthcail loitering beneath the leafless trees in the courtyard, the song had words: Dryad’s root for banyan root, dryad’s root for banyan root. Several of the pale, slender figures already bore the whorled stain of umbral banyan tattoos; they paid the song no heed. There were more silhouettes than patrons in the Starless Market, where the shadow-fey sell murder for inks, blades and baubles.

The companions had two errands to run, one unearthly and one supernatural. First, Jurian let slip that some of the mercenaries plaguing Dunlan Fief had just been paid, and one so inclined could find them outside the walls of town. Taking the hint, the companions set an ambush. Bromin emerged from the woods as a seller of ales, and invited all of them to partake. The magic of his brew made heavy their eyes until nearly all of them fell asleep. Those who resisted found themselves with blades to their throats. The mercenaries revealed that they took orders from both Warrick, emissary of King Ralzemon, and Sheevra, the Lady in Red.

With plunder in hand, the companions chose to cash in their favor with the wicked goblin warlock, Dwenday. They spoke his name three times and he appeared to fulfill their command—guide them safely to the Starless Market and back again. Beyond the sight of the town, Dwenday led them to a rocky canyon. He snapped a dryad’s finger against a rock and the rock receded into a long, moss-obscured passageway. With each step down the cavern, the color itself faded from sight. At last they came before a natural archway, curtained with hanging moss. Something moved above the entrance, surrounded by a sibilant chittering, like a thousand crickets chirping as one. Its shadow dwarfed every member of the party. Dwenday threw worms into the darkness and sang a goblin lullaby

Hush goblin child
Hush and fall silent
The chasme will hear you
And peel off your flesh
A thousand ways to hurt
Are the joys of the chasme
If it sings you to sleep
You wake up screaming

The uplifting melody was enough to lull the fearful abomination back to sleep, and Dwenday parted the moss curtain for the companions to pass below the arch, into the Starless Market.

Starless.jpg

The courtyard stretched out to the horizon, bare white stones cracked and riddled with black ivy. Above them the sky was utterly devoid of clouds, light, or anything but a tapestry of blackness. Patrons of the Starless Market lurked in the shadows cast by flickering gray flames, invisible unless you stare directly at them. Many of the figures staring at the mortal interlopers were slender gray fairies, their flesh pierced with the iron that hates them. These were the Shadar-Kai, fairy assassins who bound themselves with iron to hold at bay the curse that drags them ever closer to the Underworld.

Any sounds seemed harsh and painful against the echoing silence, but across the courtyard they could hear the song of a singing bowl. It signaled an offer—the death of a dryad for the sap of the umbral banyan. Elsewhere, criers offered silver rings on silken strings in exchange for a child’s first laughter, a maiden’s beauty, the beard of a widowed father, and deaths. The Starless Market is where the fey go to hire assassins.

At the courtyards center a cracked and ancient fountain, flowing now with ivy instead of water. To the one side, a market stand, where a shriveled figure plied her horrific wares—the souls of corrupted mortals, now transformed into shrieking larva. On the other, a broken wall against which slumped a filthy, rag-enshrouded beggar. His name was Old Aram, older than any could remember. Morel realized with horror that the soul-merchant on the other side was familiar—he’d seen her in his dream, when she offered him the key to his curse in exchange for Royse’s bottle of memories.

They’d come to this godless place in search of The Caoineadh, who wove Mairg’s crown of roots. Perhaps they could learn something that would break her power to ensnare mortals in a life-draining nightmare. But something drew Tyrandriel to speak to the beggar first.

Rags and bandages concealed every inch of the beggar, and his breath smelled awful, but the old man’s voice was wry and humorous. Aram asked them for a boon of kindness or mirth in a mirthless place. Bromin shared ale and Gaemund challenged the old man to a game of Three Dragon Ante. The game meandered back and forth, as Aram seemed to play with a completely random strategy, folding when he had the lead and playing right into Gaemund’s bluffs—yet the result was a near perfect tie. With a laugh, Aram thanked them for the game, and offered them a trade. He revealed from below his filthy robes a cage containing an owl, and exchanged it to the party for the game. Ulreik Hras Halril gladly made the trade, acquiring her familiar. He complained about Tyrandriel’s robes, telling him “Son, you can’t go out in this weather, not dressed like this—it’s all the wrong color.” It later occurred to the party that apparently Aram could see color even in the eternal gray of the Starless Market.

Both Tyrandriel and Ulreik asked about the Rainbow Road. Much of what Aram had to say, they already knew—the Queen of Stars and the King of Storms each control the way to the Path of Seven Veils. They emerged, however, with one additional clue—each of them has a father who walks that way and frequents the Court of Stars. Could they be one and the same?

Finally, Aram told them that they seek the Caioneadh, who speaks only through a Whisperwood, for her voice is death for mortals. She could be found on the third level of the market gallery.

As they tried to move past the Seller of Souls to find the The Caoineadh on the third tier of the marketplace, she sniffed the air then called out: “”/characters/tavion-gervis" class=“wiki-content-link”>Caius? Caius, dear boy, is that you?"

How could this fallen fairy, trapped between the Fey lands and the Underworld, know Tavion’s alias? He drew closer, wary but intrigued. Sure enough, the hideous Night Hag recognized him from his early childhood—though he couldn’t remember any of it. “Caius, sweet boy, all grown up. Come to trade again, have we?” Speaking with her, Tavion and the companions learned that she was one of three sisters—Mother Waxcap, Aunty Atropas, and the Witch of the Willows.

The three sisters trade in flesh, souls and memories, respectively. Tavion learned that in his youth he struck a bargain with the Witch of the Willows, and that is why each time he leaves the fey world he loses all memory of the journey. Whatever the terms of the bargain, it involved giving his brother “Everything he ever wanted.” Atropa offered Tavion a new bargain—for Royse’s memory bottle, she would tell him all the details of his original bargain. This conflicted directly with the bargain Atropa already struck with the (hiding out of sight) Morel, but Tavion accepted it nontheless. In exchange, Atropa granted him a jet-black stone, a key he could use to access the Starless Market once again.

At last the companions trekked up the broken stairs to the highest causeway of the market. Shadar-Kai lurked in every shadow, their chains and blades twitching with hunger for mortal blood. In the shadows of the ancient archways they came face to face with a bundle of dark leaves, coiled branches and pale flowers that walked on dark, willowy roots. Thin vines waved in the air as the ambulatory plant drew in air and exhaled it through reeds, speaking for another with a haunting, hollow voice. This was the Whisperwood, speaking for the Caioneadh from afar.

Speaking with the Caioneadh was fraught with peril, for any question it disliked, any memory invoked against it made it scream with its true, banshee voice, shredding the life of mortals who hear it like fraying fabric in a terrible wind. Still, they learned of the origins of the Root Of Sorrows, lost to time.

The Caioneadh remembers when the Tree grew in the fifth kingdom, sending its roots out to ensnare mortals and feed off their misery. The phoenix came to roost in its branches and burned it to ashes, which scattered across the winds of dream. Now only the roots remain, spread throughout the kingdom. Those roots can never grow back into a full tree, and yet they spread, devoid of a guiding will, blindly seeking the cruelty that makes them strong. Caioneadh has woven a crown more than once, but each time it demands a terrible sacrifice.

When Iommor died, Mairg mourned not only for her son, but for every Huldra ever slain by the people of Marchen. Never mind the lives taken by Iommor’s claws—a single Huldra life can last hundreds of use and participate in beauty humans can never imagine. With Ri Searbhas biding his time and hiding his designs from her, she took matters into her own hands. Mairg came to the Starless Market and asked the Caioneadh for a crown of roots. The Caioneadh’s price was terrible—The life of a queen for the crown of a queen. It was not long after that Mairg’s loyalists stormed the lands of Angren, slaughtering Queen Dakona and attempting to seize her children. Only through the valor of Corik Tel’Maerlyth did Rhawunel escape. Caill An’Angren killed his way to freedom and Nabac An’Angren was forced to make a bargain with a dragon to hide from Mairg’s forces. At last, Mairg received her crown, and with it she began to draw power from mortals across the land.

The only force known to permanently hold back Mairg’s power lies in the hands of The Grey Wanderers—a Protection spell can hold the Crown at bay for a night, but it must be repeated each time the victim falls asleep. The Caioneadh ill took to questions about the Wanderers, screaming into the companions’ souls with rage when asked. Nevertheless, they gleaned some facts from the ancient banshee. The Grey Wanderers are the messengers of Ash and Embers, last remnants of the fire that burned the original Tree of Sorrows. Perhaps their ways hold secrets that could destroy the Crown that makes Mairg stronger every day.

As the party departed the Market, Tavion took Morel aside and told him about the deal Atropa offered him. Both questioned why the Seller of Souls held such an interest in her sister’s wares, memories, but agreed to work together. Unfortunately, when they walked back into the world of light and color, all memory of their visit was gone from Tavion’s mind. Even attempts to recount the events to him ended in failure, for where others could understand or read written accounts, he was blocked from comprehending them.

Their journey back to Dunlan Fief met with a sudden interruption—they had been gone several days, though it was hours for them, and smoke rose from the city. Dunlan Keep was under attack!

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