|The Phoenix Hope
Author: HyacinthMacaw PM
My post NWN2 epilogue. Just when Knight Captain Lianna thinks some peace and quiet is in order, she and her friends find that some of the hardest battles come during peace. New: Ch 24, 'Heart of Darkness'. Feedback is always appreciated!Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Drama - Chapters: 24 - Words: 176,388 - Reviews: 116 - Favs: 22 - Follows: 20 - Updated: 03-12-09 - Published: 07-09-07 - id: 3647253
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
"The phoenix hope,
can wing her way through the desert skies,
and still defying fortune's spite;
revive from ashes and rise."
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Elasias 20, 1386 DR, the Twenty-Seventh Year of Nasher's Protectorate
Standing on the wall at Crossroads Keep, I sometimes thought that nighttime was often the hardest to bear right now for the memories. Ten months after the final battle, it was true that the darkness hid the last of the damage that Veedle's workmen hadn't quite managed to repair. But at least in the day the bustle of people moving to and fro about their business, the sounds of them, seemed to chase away the memory with the vitality of the castle's residents.
Here under the stars, the quiet of everyone gone to their beds was suddenly all too reminiscent of that last night, the unearthly stillness drawing out further and longer until the fear it tried to cause became an enemy to battle just the same as the undead. Even months later, memory tried to prowl in like lions to the kill. And with that, close behind came the thoughts of what I might have done differently given the choice.
"You don't sleep easy these nights," the voice came behind me, the soft words shattering the stillness. "And I don't mean for Marrin's sake."
"You don't rest well yourself," I returned, feeling the cool pitted roughness of the stone wall beneath my hands. "It isn't an easy thing to forget."
Casavir sighed quietly, putting a hand on my shoulder. "Nor honestly should we seek to forget. And yet…"
I shook my head miserably, looking out at the stars, taking a peculiar comfort in their bright light. Gazing on them shining in their distant vigil in the gods' heavens, I could find it so easy to believe that the world was so very large, and that surely I with my problems must be so very small. It somehow made it more bearable. "Perhaps if we'd been here all along it would be better. But the whole time we were away, it was just the focus of surviving the newest trials and getting back home; I couldn't even touch on what happened here. And seeing this place again brought it all back."
The portal in the Vale of Merdelain that we had frantically leapt into after defeating the King of Shadows, barely escaping the stones crashing down, had spit us out in Rashemen, far and away in the east. It had also separated all of us, and I had woken alone and terrified in Mulsantir, bleeding heavily from the chest where my extra-planar journey had apparently wrenched free the last silver shard I'd carried there since I was a child. I'd remembered virtually nothing of my true self, feeling only a strange, dark soul-hunger for a part of me now missing.
As an outlander, I often met with suspicion and outright hostility from the native Rashemi. I could understand it; from what I had read, Rashemen stood fast as a bulwark against the corrupt power of Thay despite the small numbers of its people, and a constant siege mentality tended to make a nation almost overly vigilant. I was just grateful that several new companions saw my distress, chose to befriend me, and shared my path. I couldn't have done it alone.
Of those who had known me, only Falyris had been by my side, and I knew now how much of myself had been spirit-lost at the time that even my bonded eagle companion, one of my oldest and truest friends, had stirred almost nothing in me. Still, she stayed with me while we journeyed through the worst of winter, though I could only imagine how miserable she had been that her mind-speech had met with little reaction from me.
My new Rashemi companions clearly noticed her faithfulness. Most of their people nominally worshipped a few of the gods of Faerûn, but primarily their religion was one of shaman-spirits. They believed that one of the guardian animals chose a child at birth to claim them as their own. My fellow ranger, Minsc, cheerfully told me that Falyris was a sign of my totem, and that I was a sister of Luar, the eagle. Apparently his own hamster companion Boo wasn't any kind of totemic sign, as he was a brother of Deil, the wolf.
The amulet I wore around my neck and my leaf-and-star tattoos also made them embrace me, as they signified I worshipped one of the Three who were revered in Rashemen: Mystra, Chauntea, and Mielikki.
A ranger, a servant of Mielikki, from the Sword Coast by my accent, the bonded companion of Falyris the eagle, and a sister of Luar; a few bare facts to outline my life. Of memory, love and hate, friendship and enemies, I had nothing.
Five months later, with the help of a hathar and her quests to us in both the physical and spiritual planes, I was restored to myself. And so I woke in Ylrana's home, realizing what had happened, and grieving to not know the fate of any of my friends who had still been standing by me at the end.
Zhjaeve and Ammon had already fallen bravely during the final battle. Zhjaeve hadn't followed our faith, and ruthless old Ammon couldn't fully redeem what he had done, but they had both given their lives to hold back the shadow, so I hoped the gods looked lightly upon them for it. Qara was dead by our hands after defecting to join Garius, and I could find little in me that was sorry for it: she had always been a trial for me at best, though I had been equally loath to inflict her on Duncan. At least her destructive abilities had been useful for me, but she'd been a completely inept and bitchy bar-maid.
And Bishop…I had let him live and run after his confused, strange confessions of a twisted, almost obsessive feeling for me, and that my choosing Casavir all those months ago had sent him over the edge. I reacted with a touch of pity for an obviously broken creature, I would admit, but more a cold anger-fueled determination to not grant him the death he obviously wanted as a release after he had deliberately betrayed and undermined us for the best part of a year. I condemned him to live, and to be as he was before: faithless, forlorn, and forsaken. Now in addition he could torment himself in the knowledge that he had destroyed probably the best chance he'd ever have for something more, that he'd knowingly rejected a circle of friends who would stand by his side no matter what given the opportunity.
As for those I believed still lived, I set out to find them. One by one I found my friends, scattered throughout that distant land of the Unapproachable East like beads from a broken necklace, and our meetings were always full of both laughter and tears. Khelgar, Neeshka, Elanee, Grobnar, and Sand…as much as I had been spirit-healed by Ylrana, each time I found one of them, I felt like another piece of me was finally restored.
Khelgar and I happened across each other a mere week after I began my search, just outside of the village of Alashei. He'd been looking for the rest of us as well, though he'd had a few adventures himself along the way. He clucked and fretted to me over the sheer eagerness of Rashemi men to test their battle mettle against the unusual opponent of a dwarf, and a studied monk capable of fierce empty-handed combat. Strange culture, he thought, where people thought that cracking heads together was the way to prove their abilities. He'd cleaned their clocks well enough, though, at every turn. I caught the twinkle in his eye as he said it. I tried not to burst out laughing, nodding gravely and agreeing that truly, many people were too impetuous.
Neeshka had been hiding out in Mulsantir, not far from where I had woken up. I didn't blame her: a tiefling might have caused some trouble, though most people wouldn't even know her heritage—they would only see her differences. At least in this cold land and with the time of year, she could remain hooded and cloaked and be seen as merely a shadowy, unknown lady. I thought she had actually come to enjoy playing that mysterious role in time; it appealed to her flair for the dramatic to go into a shop or tavern and cause its patrons wild imaginings about who and what lay beneath the disguise. And she confided to me with a mischievous grin that for a skilled rogue, Mulsantir had been easy pickings when she nipped into the houses of the spoiled and rich. I'd shaken my head and encouraged her to donate some of her treasure to the poor. She admitted she'd already done it, stammering something about cute kids; maybe my ideals had rubbed off more than she'd like to admit.
We found Elanee in the Ashenwood, living in the unspoiled nature of Rashemen and communing with its wild spirits. I honestly thought that such a place filled her with such an unadulterated pleasure after the poisoning of the Mere that she lost herself in the glory of it, almost forgetting about us. I couldn't fault her for it. We had all sacrificed things we had held dear, and what joy we could find was to be grasped with a whole heart. Besides, as an elf, she would have had a difficult time in the almost exclusively human Rashemi society, as other races were a curiosity at best, a suspicion at worst.
Sand had been in Immilmar, obviously fascinated by the ruling magocracy of Rashemen there—of course it appealed to his extremely academic and spellcaster's nature. It was too bad that he had to keep his status as a wizard under wraps, since all vremyonni were made to serve the ruling hathari. He caused enough curiosity already simply by being an elf, and so he kept mostly out of sight when he could. His old skills of making himself quietly beneath notice from the Docks served him again in good stead. He had been pleased enough with some things he'd managed to learn on the sly about Rashemi magic, though.
Grobnar, sweet and absent-minded as ever, actually had forgotten about us, immersed eagerly in the deep lore and skills of the nomadic Rumantsch he was traveling with. He equally fascinated them, with his bardic skills and by simple fact of his being a gnome. As soon as he saw us trading with his new friends, though, he hopped out of the brightly painted wagon leading the caravan and rushed to greet us with his usual guileless cheer, asking where we were bound next. He left the tribe of tinkers and horse-masters with a merry wave and promising to send them a copy of his forthcoming master work on the Wendersnaven.
As overjoyed as I was to see all of them over the next two months, it was for the last reunion that each night I turned my face up to the cool starlight and prayed fervently to every merciful god in Faerûn, and now the wild-spirits of Rashemen whose realm I was in.
My companions, both the old and the new, had treated me gently on that matter and given me their unyielding support, as they understood in this case my final quest wasn't merely to find a friend. I sought my love, my soul's mate. And as months went on, there was another urgent reason that I needed to find Casavir.
After he had spoken to me here on the battlements, both of us remembering with such happiness the months we'd already passed together, I'd suggested that we go inside to give what time there was to each other. The reality of the situation came upon us rapidly, and we had spent those last few hours before the siege together in my quarters awash in a tide of the sorrow we had anticipated might come in the morning. Trying desperately to keep it at bay with the fierceness of our feeling, even now I remembered that night with an almost sorrowful ache. The two of us made love with mingled joy and despair and the absolute abandon of those who could only pray that the next sunset would see us still alive.
The gods smile strangely on us sometimes. Lathander must have reveled in taking hold of that bittersweet love and reshaping it from our nearly despondent farewells at the end of things into a delightful promise of the future. In the middle of winter, I'd become aware that I was with child, though I felt little other than a detached bewilderment. It was a mystery until Ylrana had helped me regain myself. With that, the knowledge came flooding back, every memory I'd made with him from our first meeting in the Sword Mountains right up until he followed me through the portal in the Vale, and I knew with a deep certainty that this was the result of that last night.
I had been convinced Casavir was alive. My spirit, once it was restored to me, would have felt his loss. But I worried deeply that I might never find him, and I had many dark dreams at night of him faithfully searching for me the rest of his days, since I knew he wouldn't love another so long as he thought me alive. Nor could I take another into my heart either in that case. Now to that I added the pain of his possibly never knowing that he was to be a father.
Seven months after defeating the shadow-king, and after two months spent searching for my friends, we had worked our way from Mulsantir in the south all the way to Mulptan in the north. With a few questions and a few gold coins, I heard about a tall, dark foreigner, a warrior. The man had arrived in the city a little more than a fortnight past. They took notice, as he had already done some good turns with his sword for the locals in between asking his questions.
They referred to him also as a "brother of Okku", a Rashemi term for their bravest fighters, as many of those claimed the bear-spirit as their totem. With their warrior's ways, they approved heartily of how this man lost himself in a fight and proved his skills, although they found it passing strange that though spirit-fire shone bright in his eyes he didn't give himself over to a good healthy rage. They chalked it up to the soft gods-loving ways of the west. But yes, they agreed with a meaningful glance at my belly, the man's relentless focus wasn't fighting or even good deeds, but seeking one who met my description.
That evening, we'd been sitting in the taproom of the Grinning Rat as I fiercely questioned the patrons for what they knew, and finding myself glad that the baby gave me an excuse to turn away an offer of the clear Rashemi liquor known as askarit.By the smell of it, I thought it would be better used to clean armor than to drink. Drumming my fingertips on the battered heartwood tabletop made sticky with old askarit, fire-wine, and piiva, I tried to make a plan of how best to search. The child was kicking up a storm, and unfortunately that would mean that if she—I somehow always thought of it as a girl—kept it up, I might be racing for the privy in short order.
"Lianna?" I barely heard my name, half a gasp of surprise, coming from behind me. But the voice…I'd have known its sound in anywhere in all the realms.
Minsc, in his self-assumed role as my protector, turned and growled while reaching for his longsword, "The lady is not to be bothered. If you don't shove off, you will taste hamster justice!"
Normally I might have had a clever remark to make about the thought of visiting Boo's "hamster justice" on a man who actually served the god of justice, but words failed me at the moment.
"Minsc, it's all right," I said, laying a hand on his shoulder. "This is my husband."
"I saw Falyris outsi—" Casavir began as I turned towards him. The words died in his throat as his eyes landed somewhere rather below my face, then abruptly shot back up to meet mine, blue and entirely startled. Whatever he had been expecting from this reunion, obviously it hadn't been a baby. "Lia…?"
I too looked at him with some surprise. Blue eyes weren't unknown in these lands, and he had hair as black as theirs. If not for his fairer skin and the fact that he towered at least half a foot above the average Rashemi man, he would have passed for one of them by now. I'd seen him look somewhat disheveled on the trail. But now, with his height and strength, dressed in leathers and furs over his old chainmail, his wavy dark hair grown out and pulled back into a short queue, a fair bit of facial hair…he looked almost as ursine as the former owner of the claw he wore as an amulet. From that, I knew they hadn't been speaking obliquely when they called him a brother of Okku: they had meant he claimed the bear as his totem.
Another thing was different, and I realized after a few moments what the problem was. I couldn't feel his aura, and he was a mere five feet from me. Startled, I wondered what had happened to him, until I remembered where we were. Rashemen was brimming with wild mages, and the few arcane spellcasters of the hathari and vremyonni. But divine magic was virtually unknown. The clan-based, shamanistic society had little use for the general Faerûnian pantheon. I was almost sure the native tongues probably didn't even have a word for "paladin". The gods of the far-west held little power in these lands, and so divine mages in Rashemen were pretty much reduced to mundanes for the duration of their stay.
I noticed also a Rashemi girl of about sixteen, slender and dark, stood by his side, obviously traveling as his companion. I looked at her in some bewilderment. "This is Dasha," he said helplessly, gesturing slightly to her as he stared at me.
I'd deal with the girl and whatever she signified later; for now more important things were on my mind. "Casavir…I…" I could hear the strain in my voice, the tremor of emotion threatening to overwhelm me. A taproom was no place for us to have this discussion. "Please, will you excuse us?" I said to our table, and barely waited for them to acknowledge it before I was on my feet hurrying upstairs towards my room, hearing Casavir close on my heels.
I had barely closed and locked the door behind us when he pulled me into his embrace. As he hugged me even with the awkward bulge of the baby, I put my arms around him and we clung helplessly to each other. We kissed then, and the desperation of it almost matched those final hours at Crossroads Keep. No farewell this time, rather the ferocity of two survivors who could barely believe they had come through alive, and needed to lose themselves in each other in sheer thanks-giving. Several minutes later, I didn't know if the dampness on my cheek was my tears or his—did it really matter, when we were one?
Finally we sat down on my bed, and I found myself unable to let go of even the simple touch of hands after so long. "You see there'll be three of us soon," I whispered, drinking in the sight of him, my heart singing for joy.
"Yes, of course, but," he searched for the right words, "how did this happen?"
I laughed; it seemed such an overwhelmed, so very maleresponse for him to have. "Neither of us may have much experience to draw on, but surely by now you must have the idea. You were there for it, as I recall."
I could see that he was blushing. Some things never change. "Certainly I was there. I just never imagined…"
"Neither of us could," I said, shaking my head. "We didn't dare think of anything beyond the next battle."
He glanced at me almost shyly, and hesitated as if waiting for permission. Sensing his question, I took his hand in mine and placed it on the swell of my belly. "Wait a moment for it," I said. "She's been up a bit." We sat a little while in peaceable silence, and she finally obliged by giving me a good thump. Having roused long enough to perform one last time for her father's benefit, she soon settled back down, content to have been the center of attention.
"Little warrior," he said with an expression of wonder and a slight grin. He sobered then, sighing deeply with a sound of regret. "Annwyl, I'm so sorry I wasn't here sooner. Believe me, it was impossible."
I shook my head, putting a hand to his cheek. "It wouldn't have done you much good, and I'm glad you weren't here." I saw the gleam of hurt come into his blue eyes and hurried to explain. "Cas…after I arrived here, I woke up in an alley down in Mulsantir and I was bleeding. The—the last shard was gone from me, and with it, my entire self. Up until two months ago, I knew nothing of my life aside from a few details gleaned from my trinkets and tattoos. It took new friends to care enough—you saw them downstairs—to lead me to a hathar to begin the quests to recover my spirit."
"Lianna…" His voice was soft, as he placed a gentle hand over the old shard-scar across my ribs as if all these months later, and no matter that Tyr couldn't help him, he would somehow call down his divine healing to ease my pain.
"No, please. Let me finish. I even scorned Falyris' words, just because I was afraid and didn't recognize her. It would have been five months of me treating you with simple indifference because I wouldn't have known anything of what you mean to me."
"I still would have stood by you," he said in a raw near-whisper, holding my face between his large, battle-scarred hands while he looked into my eyes, "gone anywhere and paid any price to aid you. Your struggles should be mine as well."
I fell silent, not sure I could even find the words to describe how it had felt to be spirit-shattered. And yet, my voice low, I tried; he might have some idea. "Do you remember how your soul felt when you believed yourself a fallen paladin?"
He nodded, eyes glancing quickly to the paladin's ring on his right hand, the ring he had put aside those dark years thinking he had no right to wear it. "It was just emptiness within me, a sense of loss. I could barely think of it without pain. I tried not to."
"You lost a very deep part of your spirit for a few years by thinking it had been torn away. I lost everything for those months. Would you have wanted me to see you in those days, if you had but known me before? You're only mortal, Casavir, and though you would have borne it with courage, I know that you'd have suffered from my reaction. And it would have scarred deep."
He sat in silence a few moments, absorbing that. By the softness in his expression, I saw that he understood and didn't judge me for it. "You are—all right now?"
"Better this night than I've been in the last seven months, my love. But yeah, after I completed the quests, Ylrana—the hathar—helped bind the pieces of my spirit back together." I leaned towards him, laying my head on his strong shoulder as I'd loved to do before. "And she can send us home. We're all together again; you were the last still missing."
"I thought I might have to look for years to find you," he admitted, his hand moving in small circles on my back, an idle, soothing caress. "I didn't even know if you had come to Rashemen as I did."
"You would have searched, though."
"I would have sought you for the rest of my life if need be. I told you," his voice deepening with sudden emotion, his gaze directly on mine, "nothing could stand between us, in this life or the next."
"I know." I let that stand; nothing more needed to be said. I cleared my throat, unsure of just how to proceed with this. "Please don't take this the wrong way. I trust you. But who in the hells is that girl downstairs?" I managed to lighten my tone. "And you're looking a proper Rashemi barbarian yourself of late."
He laughed then, the rich sound of it lifting my spirits as it always had. I'd missed his laughter so much. "The short answer is that the girl is Darilya Efimnov—also called Dasha, sister of Irla the winter leopard, and so forth. She's of the Chukthal tribe; coming into Mulptan, I imagine you glanced east by a little southeast and saw that it lies at the foot of the mountains?"
I nodded. "Trust me, I noticed." The Sunrise Mountains with their craggy heights and the harsh northern climate looked a bit more formidable than even the Sword Mountains.
"It seems the portal dumped us out far and wide—gods be thanked, it kept us all Rashemen at least, as I see you found the others. I woke up in a snowdrift high in the mountains getting nuzzled by a damn monstrous winter bear. It was probably just hungry, and I frightened him off without a fight—he was a bit puzzled trying to take a test chew on chainmail anyhow. But that wasn't a promising beginning. And when I saw it was night and tried to cast a darkvision spell, I found out," he shook his head with a rueful smile, "that Tyr has no power in these lands. I couldn't even manage basic craft like mage-light."
"I guessed as much. A god's strength comes from his followers, and Tyr has few here."
"Aye, though since I had no idea where I was as yet, I thought it was maybe a place of magical Silence, like in Duskwood. Anyhow, I've been in the mountains long enough to know it with being late in Marpenoth, it was winter already, particularly as cold as this land is. The passes were snowed over pretty thick, and I had no hope of getting down to the plains alive until they melted. With that, about all I could do was hope somebody was up there for me to shelter with through the season."
"I assume you found them."
"Took two days, but yes, and they probably wondered what sort of maniac was wandering the mountains that late in the season until I explained that it wasn't exactly my fault. They let me stay the night, and the elders spent most of it arguing over what to do with me. Small problem, you see; I'm sure you know Rashemi on the whole don't hold much love for outlanders. They're clannish as anything I've ever seen."
"I've noticed," I said with wry understatement.
"So, they were a little pissed off at the thought of a foreigner holing up with them for the long months of an entire winter. But they've got good, selfless hearts. The idea of leaving anyone short of a kin-slayer or a spirit-stealer to die alone in the mountains wasn't acceptable either. Ramis, the shamaness, finally had the bright idea that if I could prove myself as worthy a warrior as a Rashemi man, I would be acceptable to the spirits to be adopted as a Chukthal and live with them. That settled everybody's ruffled feathers." He grinned ruefully, shaking his head. "If nothing else she probably figured I'd be some entertainment."
"Good thing you're handy with a sword."
"Vladisar was fair fine himself. I won mostly by letting him tire himself out with rage attacks. Not the most elegant or impressive victory, but it served."
"Ah yes, 'Endurance is a warrior's most necessary attribute.' First lesson of the sword, I believe." He had hammered home the point to me that no matter a fighter's skill, even the best could be beaten by someone, even of slightly lesser prowess, who could just stay their feet longer without tiring. He trained ceaselessly himself to keep his stamina high. I wasn't surprised he'd seen that a barbarian was prone to exhausting himself quickly and bided his time in combat to win the advantage.
"Second lesson," he corrected, with a gleam of easy humor in his eyes, obviously recalling our training sessions. "If you remember, the first was 'Don't hold any weapon too dear; it's merely a tool.' But I think if I'd had a hundred Rashemi back at Old Owl Well, Logram would have been begging me for peace terms."
I took hold of the bear claw amulet at his throat, tracing the silver-filled runes etched into it. I looked up into his eyes, curious. "They took you in enough as a Rashemi for Okku to take interest, I see."
For a man as devoted to the gods as he was, I couldn't help but be a little surprised that he could accept other spirits laying claim to him. Somehow I couldn't see many of those I knew back home acknowledging these wild gods with any kind of grace.
He obviously understood what I was getting at. "I wonder what sort of fanatics you've run into in your years that you wonder at it. Even those dedicated to the service of a particular god do well to pay heed to the others. You've seen that, I think." He was right. I clearly remembered a whispered word, a prayer, or thanks-giving to different gods from him often enough: Tempus for battle-luck, Sune for the love between us, Mielikki for safe travel in the wilds, Tymora for good fortune, Ilmater for patience, and so forth. His nightly prayers were always to Tyr as his station demanded, but he always spared time and thought for the other deities. "It's just the same here. Only a fool would mock another's true faith by dismissing it as superstition. Particularly so when these spirits walk the earth for mortals to see as our gods do. Tyr can't aid me, so if Okku chooses to favor me while I'm in his realm, then I'm honored by it."
"True enough." I sat back, releasing the amulet. "So, you fought your way in. Go on, then, let's hear the rest."
"Of course I told them that while I was glad of their friendship, as soon as spring came I had to come find you. I had to believe you were all right." I smiled, trying to encourage him. It must have been a hard winter for him, to not know anything of my fate. I had feared for him for only the two months I had been myself again. It had been fully seven months of anguish for him.
"Still in one piece, as you see." He went on, telling me of his winter among the Chukthal, and from his tone, it was obvious that aside from his constant worry about me, he had found it no hardship to dwell among them. I should have figured he would have found his feet quickly in Rashemen. He might have lived in Neverwinter for years and gotten some of its polish, but at heart, he wasn't one of them. I'd come to realize that with how deeply he questioned his duty when measured against the vicious politics, corruption, and heartlessness that ran so thick in cities.
The veneer of sophistication and noble speech didn't fully cover that at his core he was still one of the iron-born, the stark Iluskan influence clearly mixed into the more common Tethyrian of the Sword Coast. He was always far more pleased to be a man of action than words. And from what I had seen of the northlands that had been the home of his ancestors, living in a harsh and unforgiving land shaped the people of the Iron Shore and the Rashemi much the same: they both had tough, proud, straightforward, very insular ways, and prized a warrior's battle-prowess, honor, and valor above most anything else.
"The passes finally cleared a little less than a month ago. I bid them farewell, but Dasha said she was coming with me. The youths of this land go on a journey of at least a year to see the world before they can be initiated as adults—the dajemna. She said it was time for her to go out on hers, and she might as well help me search for you and do a good turn."
I laughed, shaking my head. "You don't think you had something to do with it?" He gave me a questioning look. "Come now, Casavir. An exotic foreigner comes into a quiet mountain village, and he's handsome and charming—no false modesty now, you well know that you're attractive—and he's also a fine warrior. If you were a sixteen-year-old girl, you'd probably be a little in love yourself and jump at the chance to travel with him."
He smiled sheepishly. "Please don't concern yourself. You have no cause, believe me."
"I trust you," I reassured him. Even if presently I wasn't exactly the lissome young warrior he'd wedded—I freely admitted I was developing a distinct waddle due to my new bulk—I didn't have worries about him jumping into anyone else's bed.
"Do I need to…ah…speak with her?" He looked distinctly uncomfortable.
"It's probably just an innocent crush. There's no need to embarrass the poor girl by bringing it up." I also remembered the last time he'd tried to dissuade an infatuation, and left poor Katriona pining after him; men often weren't exactly deft at handling that situation. "Now, if you've found her in your bedroll of a night, that's another matter."
"No," he muttered. "But I imagine if she sees that my heart's yours alone, and inevitably when she meets one who can actually give her what she seeks, it'll resolve itself."
"You think she means to come back all the way to the Sword Coast with us?"
He shrugged. "I admit I haven't broached the subject. I didn't expect to find you so quickly as this, though of course I'm glad of it. Her period of dajemna officially ends next Tarsakh, although some stay adventuring longer. Shall I encourage her to part ways with us?"
"No, although I don't how much adventure we'll give her. After all, we have the child to think about."
"Well, just going to the far-west is adventure enough for a Rashemi as so few have been there. I'm more than happy to think about some peace myself, believe me. Gods know that between my roaming the Coast, the orcs, and getting caught up with the shard business, I haven't had any in over six years."
"Make the offer, at least. But yes, please…let's go home."
I went to sleep that night easily with his arm around me, his hand resting lightly on my belly as he held both me and our baby. In the morning, we made for Ylrana's home. I parted from my Rashemi friends at that point as they chose to stay in their native land, with promises that they would always be welcome at Crossroads Keep should they choose to journey west. Dasha, with youthful exuberance and her idolizing Casavir, of course insisted on coming along, which I could only smile at.
The hathar's portal magic kicked us out in Applefield, a few hours from Neverwinter, in the early evening. The locals must have been scared shitless to see a rugged looking bunch of barbaric-looking strangers wandering into their village. A few diplomatic words from Casavir, and the feeling of his suddenly-renewed aura, reassured them despite his shaggy appearance: people were always going to trust a paladin.
They were happy enough to let us stay the night after that, though they did ask Casavir if he could see to a young man come down with green-fever. I sensed his silent sigh of relief when it became obvious that Tyr had indeed noticed his return, and his magic answered his call immediately with the incantation to cure disease.
Dasha let out a hiss of surprise to see the divine light suddenly around his hands. "You didn't tell us you were a vremyon besides!" She sounded insulted.
"I beg your pardon, dear girl," Sand said briskly, obviously affronted that his skills should be compared to the admittedly lesser mage-powers of a man who relied more on a sword than spells. "He's certainly no wizard."
"I'll explain it later," Casavir said idly over his shoulder.
We stayed in the Blue Boar tavern that night, taking the opportunity to clean up before we'd inevitably have to go see Nasher tomorrow. I cut Casavir's hair myself, noticing that a few strands of grey had crept in amongst the raven black. He wouldn't even be thirty till Marpenoth, but gods willing, we'd be together long enough for there to be many more grey hairs for him in years to come.
He was ready to shave as well until I convinced him to just trim the beard and mustache, telling him that I liked the distinguished look they gave his angular features. I'd come to also secretly enjoy the feel of them against my skin as he kissed me, though I didn't say as such. He'd smiled and agreed to humor me. And so the paladin of Tyr re-emerged from the Rashemi barbarian, though I noticed he continued to wear the Okku amulet the Chukthal had gifted to him.
We went to the Flagon first in the morning, and Duncan was overjoyed to see all of us, his brogue gone thick enough with emotion to be almost incomprehensible. He told me that they had found my cloak in the Vale, and Nasher had been all too happy to declare me probably fallen in battle.
"I'll enjoy disappointing him by showing up alive," I said cheerfully. "I know from the last hero of Neverwinter that he prefers 'em out of his way."
He also told me that Daeghun had been searching for me ceaselessly. My throat tightened to think of my father mourning me. He had never been a man of easy words, but that action spoke louder than any statement of affection ever might have. I'd hoped to see him soon.
Nasher had been gracious enough, congratulating us on the defense of the Keep and our successful fight against the King of Shadows. Unspoken was the admission that with his own failure on the battlefield, it had been only me and mine who had saved his ass from having the entire land overtaken. I knew in years to come I had him where I wanted him with the sway that bought, and I would quite happily spend it to make him and his politics stay away of the running of my keep.
He apparently decided that some further reward was in order, so I found myself a reluctantly dubbed lady. As he was already a fellow knight and since he was also my husband, Casavir found a lordship thrust upon him. All to the good, I tried to convince myself, since as a member of the highest echelons of the nobility I had more rights to oversee my lands and my people as I saw fit without needing Nasher's say-so. After listening to my companions attempt unsuccessfully to refuse Nasher's generosity towards them, we'd been happy enough to set out for Crossroads Keep later that afternoon.
Our arrival there had been joyful. Even Kana and Nevalle had managed to smile before launching into reports of how they'd capably overseen the keep for seven months. Bevil had hugged me tightly enough to almost crack ribs then gasped in apology as he thought about the baby. Katriona had greeted us and I'd been expecting a trace of sadness when she saw that Casavir and I were now tied together by a thing even deeper than romance. But she gave sincere congratulations, and surprised me when I saw her slip her hand into Bevil's as he put his arm around her. So that was the way of things, and both Casavir and I were smiling to see it.
Our companions, though eternally bound to us by friendship and love, soon went to tend to their own affairs, with a promise to rejoin us at Yule. And so a fellowship tested and proved true through battle, betrayal, and loss was finally ended. I remembered the refrain to an old Harborman's ditty as I watched them make their way from the castle walls. Storms we did weather, giving each other shelter; battles we fought together, now bound as friends forever.
Rebuilding the castle went on, and Casavir and I gingerly tried to settle into our places as peacetime Lord and Lady of Crossroads Keep. Our daughter Marrin was eager to see the world and arrived a few weeks earlier than anticipated, in the first days of Flamerule. It was entirely fitting, when I thought about it, that her fire for life should burn so brightly when I remembered the fierce circumstances under which she was conceived.
Running a keep in a time of war with its fierce and immediate demands was difficult enough. To rule in peacetime and attend to the never-ending small needs was almost harder. Casavir seemed to recognize that I struggled with not wanting to beat my head against a wall at attempting to adjudicate the likes of a dispute over a pig by two local farmers, and tried his best to pick up the threads.
The two of us were also trying to adjust to new ways around each other: not only to the trials and joys of our new daughter, now six weeks old, but also to the fact that ours had been a battle-born romance. Everything had been easier when we lived by the sword. We fought each day for our survival, relying on each other, loving with the knowledge that there might not be a tomorrow.
"It was so much simpler when it was just you and I under that linden tree," I said softly into the darkness, giving voice to the thought I had hardly dared speak before.
He sighed quietly. "So it was. Everything is simpler with battle to temper it." He wrapped his arms around my waist, holding me. As he nuzzled the back of my neck, I closed my eyes at the faint, pleasant tickle of his whiskers against my skin. "But the rise of shadow could not defeat us, my lady. Seven months without any knowledge of whether we might ever be together again didn't do it either. After enduring so much, this can't beat us down."
"I know you would have died for me," I said, turning to him.
"I'd have done it without hesitation. You heard me say so." He smiled at me in the starlight. "I admit I'm glad it's a price I didn't have to pay."
"Will you now live for me instead? That might almost be more difficult." His answer was to kiss me again on that wall, as passionate and sincere as he had been that night.
"Of course; we'll endure whatever comes," his voice fierce. "You know we will."
I believed the conviction in his words. I could only think it was a good thing he had said that come what may we'd still make it together, when early the next afternoon, one of my Greycloaks found me and stammered out that Bishop had returned to Crossroads Keep.