As she walked on, she turned over the events of the last few days : Aribeth's disappearance, Aarin's anxiety, the rumors about Aribeth ...
Those rumors were false, she was sure. People were lying. It was impossible for Aribeth to have turned traitor and joined Maugrim's cult. How could they have forgotten what Aribeth had done to eliminate the wailing death? How could Nasher relieve Aribeth of her command on the basis of some Alliance Lord's fear and gossip?
That was the reason why she was here. She couldn't bear to hear of more nasty slurs on her friend's honour and had decided to go alone to aid her. She would prove to all Faerun that Aribeth had been wronged. She had tracked her from Port Llast to Luskan.
Although Arwen did not look much of a warrior, her fragile looks belied her strengths. She was determined to succeed in her mission. She would not fail. With that thought, she walked resolutely towards the city gates.A small troop of hulking guards eyed her suspiciously and warily as she approached.. One of them intercepted her. The steel armor he wore identified him as the officer in charge of the soldiers.
"Halt!" he barked, his hand at his sword. "Luskan is closed to all except to those with business with the Captain. If you have none to speak of, it would be wise that you turn around."
"I have legitimate business in the city," Arwen replied steadily, hoping her voice did not betray the fear she was feeling. She dug in her pouch and handed him the cult pass she had removed from the corpse of a Cultist she found on her way to Luskan.
"You're one of Maugrim's?" the officer looked closely at the pass and then at her fresh young face.
"Yes," she said shortly and hoped he wasn't going to ask her alot of questions she would not be able to answer. Apparently he was about to when a muffled rumble from the city core shook the ground. A guard dashed from behind the gates to whisper urgently to the officer. He muttered a curse and threw the pass back to her.
"Very well, you may enter." he said before gathering up a few of the soldiers and disappearing through the gates.
One of the remaining soldiers waved her on. The whiff of air she caught as she past the gates evoked a sense of dread. She was about to turn to ask one of the soldiers for directions when she remembered that she couldn't. To do so was to admit she was not a cultist. Her best hope was to find the nearest tavern or a friendly townsman. Ahead of her, moving at a rapid pace was the officer and his squad. She had no intention of running into him again so she set off in another direction.
She was distressed as she walked further into the town. It was devastated and deserted. It was worse than Neverwinter's slums during the wailing death. The stench of decaying corpses that littered the streets choked the air. Several houses were burning, adding more effluvium. Some of the buildings seemed intact but were boarded up. Others were blacken ruins and rubble. If there were people still living, they had hidden themselves away.
The shadows began to lengthen as she skirted around corpses, crowds of flies buzzed briefly at her approach before settling down again. She did not look too closely at the bloated bodies. Carts and waggons stood abandoned or smashed, a few with dead horses still hitched to them. Some still loaded with merchandise had overturned, spilling barrels and crates into the streets and clogged the drains. There was no rotting perishibles, the survivors must have removed all that was edible. Faintly on the wind, she could hear shouting and sounds of clashes. She hoped none of the battles came her way. Some of the streets were barricaded and impossible to pass through, forcing her to retrace her steps.
As she was about to turn a corner of an intersecting street, she was startled to hear the booted footsteps of someone approaching. Loosening her sword in its scabbard, she leaned against the wall of the corner building. The tall, heavyset man who turned the corner was startled to see her but reacted quickly by whipping out his sword. She drew her own sword simultaneously. They stared suspiciously at each other, battle light in their eyes. His gaze took in her travel stained clothing. Smiling, he straightened from his couch and sheathed his sword.
"Hail Lady," he said. "You don't look like one of Kurth's or Baram's soldiers. Best stay off the streets if you can, it's not safe, especially for young women."
Arwen smiled back and kept her weapon. "I can defend myself. But who are these soldiers you speak of?"
"You haven't come for the fighting? It's been going on for, oh, a couple of weeks now. The High Captains declared war on one other. Nobody knows why... most think they've gone insane. Each of the High Captains has his own army and they've been tearing Luskan apart. City is in chaos. The wizards don't come out... they could be dead, for all we know."
"And who are these High Captains?"
"There were five of them, before... all pirate lords set up to rule the city together at the pleasure of the Arcane Brotherhood. Now it seems they're going to fight until there's only one left standing... or Luskan is in ruins, maybe, " he shook his head sadly. "Just two are left, now, as far as anybody can tell... High Captain Baram and High Captain Kurth. Look around you. Many people have been drafted into their armies and killed... or just slaughtered in the streets. Homes have been sacked and burned. There is no order any more. The ports are completely shut down, the gates have been sealed. We're all trapped here in this mess. "
"I see. And who are you?"
"Name's Gregor," he grinned. "I was hired by the brothel here, to try and keep some of the worst elements roaming the city from making their way to our doorstep." He laughed at her cocked eyebrow but became serious. "Better than to be forced to fight in a war I don't want to be caught in."
"Well Gregor, thank you for the advice. Do you know of an inn where I could rest?"
"The Cutlass Inn still operates, I think. It's to the left of the main gate, just south of here."
"Thanks, may I ask a last question if it does not take too much of your time?"
"Ask my lady, it's so rare to speak with someone civilized in this town."
Arwen blushed and replied "Have you seen an elven woman recently? She wears bright armor."
"Yes, miss. I have seen one. She asked me for an inn too, so you should see her at the Cutlass Inn ... if she is not dead."
These last words shocked Arwen. "Dead?"
He nodded. "Yes, elves are not welcomed here ... And I see you have some elf blood ... You should be very cautious!"
She thanked Gregor and headed south. The guard's words had made her a bit anxious. 'No, she can't be dead! Ari is able to defend herself.' With these thoughts in mind, she hurried to the Cutlass Inn. A few minutes later she was pushing open the door of the inn.. The tavern was cheerfully noisy, which was the antithesis to the silence and gloom in the streets outside. At a glance, most of the patrons seemed to be employed in shady businesses, she would have to be careful here. A guard stopped her before she could move further into the inn.
"I'm sorry, my lady but you will have to hand in your scimitar while in this tavern."
"Why do I have to that?"
"It's the rule. Look around you, no swords are allowed here, you will get it back when you leave."
Arwen looked into the room. Effectively, there were no bare blades, although her keen eyes noticed some smaller versions of it.
"Why are there some allowed to keep their weapons? I am not looking for a fight, you know." She said with her most innocent smile.
"I'm sorry but that's the rule, no swords.. The ones you see are exceptions authorized by the Innkeeper himself."
She handed him her scimitar, "May I keep my bow?" Arwen was afraid to leave her precious weapon in unknown hands.
"No problem miss, return to me when you want your scimitar back, and enjoy your stay here."
She went to the bar where a large red haired man greeted her.
"Aruph Thunderfist at your service. What would you have? A room? Supper?"
"I'm in search of a friend. A woman elf. Have you seen one?"
"Yes one has hired a room. I think she's the one you're looking for. Go to my left, at the end of the corridor, you will find her, but I should warn you that she's not in the best of tempers. Aggressive sometimes."
"Thank you," she said politely before moving off in the direction he pointed. 'Aggressive? It is not Aribeth then? Or maybe the situation is worse than I thought.' Worries pricked at Arwen as she maneauvered around the tables in her way. She was brought back to reality by two large and apparently drunk men who stood and barred her way. One of them grabbed her arm, and she cursed the guard who had taken her scimitar. But she was not totally helpless, she had kept a dagger concealed in her left boot, but how to reach it?
"Look who is coming to us! A lone, stupid little elf," said the man who held her.
"Worst than an elf, a half-blood!." replied the other man, spitting at her feet.. Conversations died down and the tavern became still as everyone watched avidly and curiously. The guard who had taken her scimitar made no move to interfere.
"Let go my arm or you may regret it," Arwen spoke with a firm voice.
"Oh! I'm afraid." The man tightened his grip. "Show me what you can do, little half bloodling," he sneered.
Arwen stood, seemingly at ease but her muscles were tightening, getting ready to strike when a third man approached.. A tall and muscular barbarian. Scowling fiercely, the newcomer barked, "Are you deaf? The lady asked you to release her!"
The ruffian's reply was cut short by the fist that connected with his face, sending him sprawling unconscious to the floor. The barbarian pulled his arm back to elbow the second man in the stomach and kneed him in the face, knocking the fight right out of him. The people who were watching went back to their previous occupations. Outside, the shadows drew even longer as dusk fell. The serving girls hurried to put more wood in the fireplace and lit the lamps.
"My thanks ...," Arwen looked at the barbarian.
"I'm Phil, first mate to Captain Tina aboard the Star from the North Sea." he said with a little bow.
"Thank you Phil. My name is Arwen."
"Hum, Arwen, pretty name for a pretty lady. But, it's not a place for you, too many fools and drunkards here. Are you in need of some protection?" His blue eyes twinkled.
Arwen blushed. She hoped he would not notice. This man was impressive. He looked like Daelan, but was more handsome.
"Thank you for your kind offer but I'm here to visit a friend, who has taken a room at this inn," she wondered why she did not take umbrage at his presumption that she needed his protection.
"Ahh! My apologies, I should have guessed you were not alone," he pulled a comically long dismal face.
"But perhaps I may treat you to a tankard later?" she smiled, he was rather charming.
His face lit up with a smile. "So I have a chance to see you again Arwen?"
"Perhaps. I will see. Tell me where can I meet you?"
He responded with enthusiasm "My ship is at the dock, I will be happy to meet you there and to introduce you to my Captain who is an elven lady like you."
"I'm not a true elf, Phil."
"Nevertheless, you have the grace of a true elf." Both looked at each other smiling before he said "I will not delay you further, but I will be here for a while, so don't hesitate to call me if some other drunkards bother you."
With these words, Phil returned to his table. Arwen followed the barbarian with her eyes, studying him discreetly as she resumed her interrupted journey. He looked to be in his mid twenties. His hard callused hands and the thin scar over his right hand spoke of battle experience. He had an aura of presence and most likely accustomed to command. 'He is interesting. I must see him again when Aribeth is safe.'
She stepped out of her daydream and walked to the room were Aribeth was supposed to stay. Arwen stood nervously before it, gathering her thoughts. She rapped her knuckles against the wood and knocked again when there was no answer. She tried the door and was surprised to find it unlocked. Has Aribeth gone out? She opened the door, the room was in total darkness save for a single candle sputtering next to the door. A shadow moved.
"Halt!" came the cold command. "Who are you? What are you doing in my room?" Arwen shivered at the ice in a voice that used to be filled with warmth.
"Aribeth? Lady Aribeth? I am your friend..."
A snort of contempt interrupted her ."My friend? I have no more friends ... I have only hate and despair, hate for Neverwinter. I said who are you?"
"Ari, please don't say that ... it is I Arwen ... I am here to help you." She strained to see Aribeth, not moving from the doorway.
Silence. "Arwen! Who sent you here?" surprise and suspicion.
"Nobody! When you disappeared I left the others and searched for you."
Arwen jumped when a match was struck close to her and a lamp was lit. She had not heard Aribeth moved. Aribeth looked pale and remote as she flicked the match to the floor and stepped on the flickering flame. Her boot grated harshly on the wooden floor. She didn't look at Arwen and turned away to an opened window. A cold breeze wafted the stink of death into the room.
"I don't need you! I don't want any help! I only want to avenge Fenthick, and here I have the possibility to do so. Return to Neverwinter and forget me!"
Arwen stepped into the room and closed the door. "Ari, have you thought..."
Aribeth snarled angrily "Stop calling me Ari! Leave me alone. If you were truly my friend you should understand that..."
Arwen was determiend not be denied. She did not travel so far to be turned away. "No I don't. I understand that you do not deserve to stand alone in your grief nor to receive the tar of dishonour the others besmirched you with. Let me grieve with thee, Ari." she pleaded. "Let your burdens be shared that you may find ease." She reached out to touch Aribeth and drew it back sharply as she turned on her furiously.
"NO! They must pay! There will be no ease for me until those who spilled Fenthick's blood repay with their own! No one, not even those who claim to be friends of mine can stop me! Do you think you can stop me?" Now looking at her face to face, Arwen felt the stab of deep sorrow at Aribeth's sunken cheeks, the dark hollows beneath her eyes and the fiery rage that blazed from her.
"Ari, why did you give me this ring?" she dug beneath her tunic and removed a ring from the chain around her neck. "Why did you tell me I was your friend? Why..."
Weariness from the journey, her fears, days of uncertainty, danger and sorrow took their toll on Arwen and she was unable to finish her sentence. She fell to her knees, crying. The sound cut through Aribeth. Slowly, she knelt by Arwen's side. She hesitated only a moment before she put her arm around Arwen's narrow shoulders, together they held each other and cried.
All the pent up emotions within Aribeth rushed forth like the waters from a broken dam. After Fenthick's death, she had felt everything was slipping from her grasp. People she thought would be supportive seemed to avoid her. Although nothing was said blatantly around her, she knew that there were fears she was also tainted. Fenthick had been her lover, how could she not have known? And when she had tried to defend Fenthick and plead for leniancy, her very actions seemed to condemn her further. But Fenthick had been innocent! He had not known of Desther's duplicity. They just wanted a scapegoat! They were not interested in justice, only in placating the ungrateful mobs!
She had felt so alone. She hadn't expected that anyone would care for her personally. She knew she was about to ally herself to a very evil man. But to seek justice and revenge for Fenthick, she was willing to pay any price. But here was Arwen, her young student, her protege, who followed her in the belief that she could be saved. She had not expected anyone would have that much faith in her. Arwen, so like herself when she was young.
As the storm of tears passed, they dried their eyes. Aribeth picked up the ring she had given to Arwen so long ago. The tiny crytsalline diamond winked at her in the lamp light as she smoothed a finger over the word Bronwe engraved into the metal.
"Do you remember what you said to me when you gave me that ring?" Arwen said quietly.
"Yes. To have faith in the gods, in your friends and in yourself," Aribeth smiled in reminicence.
"And to pledge the bonds of friendship," Arwen grasped hold of her hands, making her look into her eyes so that the truth and sincerity was clear to her. "I have come to fulfill that pledge. Not as an obligation but as a pledge of my respect, my faith and my love. I will stand by your side, to offer you my hand in your times of strife and sorrow. To guide you, to be your light in your darkness. Whatever you may choose, I hope to be able to give you that strength to seek wisely."
Aribeth's eyes dropped. She felt torn apart. Arwen's words have brought both joy and yet pain. She did not know what to do.
"Do you want me to leave?" Arwen asked sadly when Aribeth said nothing. She shook her head silently, then looked up with tears in her reddened eyes.
"No. Stay. Stay with me," she smiled and pressed the ring back into Arwen's hands. Arwen slipped the ring back on the chain. "I wear your ring against my heart, it protects me from evil." She looked up as Aribeth stifled her cry of despair.
"There Ari," she soothed, wiping the tears from Aribeth's cheeks. "I am here."
"I am sorry for my harsh words, it was ill done of me," Aribeth apologised.
"It is over, Ari. We will talk later but first, let me refresh myself," Arwen stood, offering her hand to Aribeth. "It is night and I have been traveling all day. I am hungry and thirsty and I am sure you are the same way. You have not been feeding yourself well from the looks of you." She picked up her traveling pack she had dropped on the bed. "And I shall have to get a room from the innkeeper."
"You could share this room with me, the innkeeper could move in another pallet. It's big enough," Aribeth suggested. "And if you want to wash up, the bath houses are closed. The innkeeper provide tubs."
Arwen agreed readily, dropping the pack back on the bed before going out to find the innkeeper. Aribeth followed, aware that her inner turmoil had not ceased and that for now, the mundane tasks of settling Arwen had temporarily pushed her troubles away. But there would be a reckoning later.