These Roads We Walk - Prologue
Sitting on the steps, Jezra didn't bother to reply, scowling down at the scuffed toes of her boots as though they had done something to offend her. With a sigh, Tomi Undergallows settled down beside her, stretching his legs out elaborately. "Me, I ain't doin' so hot." he went on as though she'd responded. "I mean, aye, ye got yer lasses swoonin' left and right, don't ye, but ye can't do anything about it 'cause they wanna parade ye like some moonstruck pig through the streets and the like, bards goin' on and on. Normally, ye know, I'd enjoy it, but they just don't wanna stop and let me enjoy meself." He glanced at her. She didn't look up.
The silence ran out between them, and the sounds of the docks rushed to fill it. It was as though the city were slowly coming to life again. The militia were still uncovering the bases used by Aribeth's army, and the waning sunlight glinted off tarnished and bent chainmail as they marched grimly from building to building, clusters of solemn-faced family members watching them from street corners and waiting for the all-clear that seemed to be so long in coming. The last of the fires had long since been extinguished, and nearby, a crew of sweating, tired workers was slowly hauling away the inanimate hulk of a war golem. The broad, unfeeling face was turned in Tomi's direction and he shuddered involuntarily.
The march through the streets had been more or less of a joke. "For morale," Nasher had said, although Tomi had seen few smiles on the stained and gaunt faces that had bothered to turn out into the streets to watch the victory procession. Even the children that had clung to skirts or hands were silent, cheeks tear-stained through the grime. They had lost far more than they could rebuild, families and lovers torn asunder by the bloody path of war. Those people, who had watched him blankly, had listened to Nasher's speech about the rebuilding of Neverwinter, but they hadn't cared; whatever glories lay in Neverwinter's future were badges of honour for the city walls to wear, pointless glittering things that looked fine on a mantel to be boasted of at dinner parties, but that wouldn't bring life back to those whose bodies had all but been eradicated in the carnage.
After a while, Tomi had abandoned his own strained smile and had merely stared ahead in silence.
Jezra was unmoving beside him, dark head bent forward, chin resting on the arms crossed over her knees. Her silence bothered him more than anything; Jezra had always been such a polar opposite of the ideal "hero", part of what he liked about her being her brash, loud, usually self-serving nature. He had never known her to be without something to say in the few months they'd travelled together tracking down Neverwinter's enemies, even if it was just loudly yelling with her arms folded, stubbornly refusing to see an opposing point of view. How often had they hefted their coin purses around the fire at night, exchanged gleeful looks at the weight, plotted wild ideas for the spending of the future wealth they would find dropped in their laps when they were finally hailed as heroes?
He knew what was bothering her, however. He didn't want to bring it up, didn't want to admit how much it had been gnawing at the back of his own mind. That wasn't the Tomi he knew himself to be, someone who wrung his hands and fretted over the fate of others stupid enough not to fatten their funds to cushion an inevitable fall. It bothered him.
Nodding at the small pack leaning against Jezra, Tomi said, "Headin' off, are ye?" His nerves prickled when she remained silent, but he forged gamely on anyway. "Aye, ye know, I was thinkin' of that meself, after I've had enough of the swank setup they gave me back at the castle. Ye know, I ain't never had a bed that soft I wasn't seducin' some countess outta first." He chuckled.
Jezra said nothing.
He frowned at her. She was a small woman, although she was still easily two heads taller than he, small and scrappy with skin tanned dark by sun and bruised by wind. Her face seemed more given to sly grins, smug smiles; not the granite-set expression of irritation and dull hurt she wore now. "Did ye see her?" he asked grudgingly, rankled by her silence and his own worry.
She shifted on the steps, leathers creaking softly. "I did."
Jezra didn't respond immediately. She scrubbed a hand through her close-cropped hair, and when she looked up finally there was only tired defeat in her eyes. "She wouldn't let me help."
He hadn't expected any less. "What'd ye do?"
"I told her they were gonna kill her." As still as she sat, her hands were restless, toying with one another and wrestling themselves into such strained positions he wanted to wince watching. "She said she knew. She knew and she was still gonna stay."
"And what did ye say?"
Jezra's eyes dropped to the ground between them. "Nothing. I didn't wanna plead, ye know? I figured, she's gonna turn down gettin' busted outta there, knowin' what's gonna happen . . . she's already given up, yeah?"
Tomi sat awkwardly, at an uncustomary loss for words. If Jezra had been just another face passing in the crowd, another temporary face around the campfire, he could have settled things with a 'Things'll be allright, love' and a bit of a wink. Part of him still wanted to, still wanted to try to shrug off the seriousness of the situation, the pall that had settled over the both of them ever since they'd returned to the city. "M'sorry." he said instead, quietly.
She shook her head slowly. "All that time she was shoutin' for righteousness and justice, ye know, I never thought mebbe she was still hurtin'. I knew she was angry, yeah, and that's fine. Bein' angry gives ye somethin' t'do. But when yer hurtin' . . . when yer hurtin', all ye wanna do is just lay down and die. And I thought, mebbe if I'd talked to her some, ye know, after they . . . after they hung him, like they did, instead of rollin' me eyes when she was givin' her directions, mebbe I coulda helped, yeah?" She frowned again, looked up almost challengingly at him. "I ain't nobody's sappy sister, least of all hers, but . . . I didn't talk her into comin' back here just so she could play martyr."
Tomi reached out, intending to slap her on the back companionably, then let his hand falter back down to his side instead. "Ye wanna go back?"
"I don't . . . no." She rubbed angrily at something in the corner of her eye, sniffed loudly and stood up before he could see what it was, making a show of straightening her clothes and almost obsessively wiping the grime from them. "I don't know where I wanna go, but it ain't back there. I am headin' out, yeah."
He pushed himself to his feet. "Ye tell anyone?"
She looked at him. "No. They'll find out. Ye stayin'?"
"Aye. Y'know, for a li'l while, at least." He smiled slightly. "Wish ye would . . . but I know ye can't." In an effort to dispell the oddly stilted mood, Tomi stretched elaborately, tilting his head back. A lone gull wheeled crying above their heads, and he pointed up at it with a trace of his old grin. "I heard some sailor sayin' them things're good luck for voyages."
"Not if ye happen t'be lookin' up while they're flyin' o'erhead." she replied. They both laughed too hard at the joke, weak as it was, but when they'd stopped, some of the stoop was gone from her shoulders. She tilted her head to the side and smiled; Tomi ignored how effort-intensive it looked. "I guess I'll be seein' ye, yeah?"
"Aye. Ye wanna watch yer purse then. I'll look ye up, don't ye worry. All I need t'do is follow the cursin' and the blue air, aye?"
She reached out and took his hand suddenly, her grip tightening with startling intensity. "Listen," she said, face sombre again, "when they . . . when it happens . . . when they do . . . it . . . if yer still here . . . don't go and watch. If we meet up again some day, I don't wanna look at ye and know ye saw it happen. I'll see it in yer eyes."
For an instant, something inside Tomi rebelled, refused what she was saying. Come off it, it seemed to be scoffing weakly, one arm thrown over his shoulder in a let's-be-chums sort of way, a bit of desperation in the grin in it's voice, it ain't gonna happen, not in a million years, naw.
It would have been nice to listen to it.
He would have been able to, too, if he hadn't seen the curiously grim look on Nasher's face when they'd returned, heard the whispered rumours in the corridors . . . remembered what had happened to Fenthick. He tried for another smile, and knew from how it felt how false it must have looked. "Ye don't . . . have to worry about that. Okay?" He squeezed her hand once before gently extracting his own from her grip. "I'll be seein' ye, like ye said."
Jezra Luiellen dipped her head and smiled once, faintly. In that single motion he read more about the mark that had been left on her than if she had tried for a fortnight to put it into words. She hoisted the pack easily onto her shoulders, settling it into place with a practiced motion. "Aye, ye will. Keep yer nose clean, hafling."
When she had vanished around the corner, Tomi found himself setting off in the opposite direction. A part of him couldn't believe he was going back to that place, to sleep in that bed, knowing what he might hear had happened come morning, lauded in the streets like some sort of obscene victory by the town criers.
There was a chance they would all realise how stupid it was, of course. How out-and-out starkers. It wasn't likely, but there was always a chance.
So, he thought, wetting his lips as the wind picked up and stirred the ghostly rustle of debris across the street, deserted now save for the occasional flickering light of a distant patrolman, what the hell do I do now?
Twen hit the ground painfully, spat out from the void like a child rudely thrust too early from the womb. For an instant, she felt a tremendous pressure on her back, like a hand pressing firmly between her delicate shoulderblades, and she couldn't draw breath. Her heart hammered in alarm, making the haze of dim colours and shapes her mind offered up as memories spin sickeningly inside her head. Then, just as suddenly as she had found herself dropped, it was gone, and she was gasping in great lungfuls of stagnant air, spitting out the cobwebs and dust that entered her mouth.
With an effort, she heaved herself over onto her back, ignoring the way the movement made her head swim. She couldn't seem to make her thoughts connect; they spun disjointed inside her mind, meaningless fragments pushed apart by the dull throb of pain when they attempted to collide. Right now, where she was seemed only distantly important compared to knowing her body was mostly intact. Judging from the choir of aches and twinges from what seemed like every inch of her skin, she thought it was.
She remembered, of course.
She remembered the terrifying kilt of the ground beneath her feet as Undrentide had begun to crumble, the power that sustained it severed by blade and spell. She remembered the vegeful shriek of the medusa Heurodis, clawed hands spinning her to look into the blind, enraged face, skin stretched taut in a scream of pure hatred, before Twen had felt herself yanked away. She remembered as well the Door looming before her, all courage suddenly gone in the need for survival as her hand had closed around the chilled handle, tearing it open and plunging desperately inwards, an enormous flash searing her eyes and making her cry out in pain and astonishment.
Between then and now?
Her robes felt torn and tangled around her legs as she tried to set up, and her arms tingled painfully as though she had slept on them for days. The ground was mercifully, blessedly still beneath her hands, and the only sound in the room -- was it a room? -- was her own uneven breathing.
Which was . . . wrong.
Was she alone? Her eyes flew open and were met with only the dull throb of darkness, faint ghostly after-images swimming over it and changing with the re-energised pulse of her own heartbeat. "Xanos?" she called, disliking the hollow, quavering quality of her voice. Her hands ran uncertainly over the ground, feeling craked and dry stone beneath them. "Deekin?"
Her questing fingers touched something cold and sleek, and she flinched back before she recognized it for what it was; her blade. She ran the tips of her fingers over it, and her heart sank when she reached the slanted, rough edge where it had been snapped in half; foolishly, she thought, given her situation. On hands and knees now, ignoring the insistant pain her body offered, Twen shuffled awkwardly forward, trying to blink away the darkness as she called out again.
It wasn't until her hands came in contact with something else that she realised how tenuously her panic had been held in check.
The hand she groped at now, slack on the floor, was frighteningly cold to the touch. "Xanos?" she'd intended to scream it, but her throat would only admit her a whisper. "Xanos?"