Author's Note: I couldn't resist, despite my pledges earlier to not include him, but… well, here we go. This is a Coran more along the lines of MtM rather than Discovery/Reclaiming/Kairos. And the song at the beginning is devoted to Coran, because it's the one that always reminds me of him :)
Girl, you'll be a woman soon,
Please, come take my hand
Girl, you'll be a woman soon,
Soon, you'll need a man
-- Urge Overkill, Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon
For a while, Xan allowed himself to silently consider the fact that they might survive their task in Cloakwood Mines. Travelling west and away from Gullykin led them straight into another batch of bounty hunters, which were easily despatched, and then into the path of a crazed woman with a glowing green jar.
A glowing green jar Imoen just had to see.
The woman, crazed as she was, screamed at the woman approaching her, and threw the container to the ground. Then she promptly died. As if that wasn't bad enough, a large and unfriendly ogre mage had appeared.
Suddenly it became apparent who Karhk was, and who Carsa had been.
But the group managed to overcome the ogre, passing him by only to be accosted by another mad human – this time a mage who was trying to train two slimes to do... something. For once, everyone took Xan's advice, and they gave him a very wide berth.
They topped up their supplies in Beregost, and spent one night there where Nuila shared her reverie with Xan once more. This time he witnessed, first hand, the day where Gorion had valiantly tried to persuade the girl to be a bard. And when she'd come around in the morning, she'd given him a very sheepish look, and pinked in colour all the way up to the tips of her ears. It was endearing, really – the memory of her singing, however, was not quite as fond.
She wasn't a bad singer, he supposed; had she been human, she would have been passable. But for an elf, she was incredibly poor and seemed to have no comprehension of the way some songs should be sung. Why her foster father had thought she'd make a good minstrel, Xan would never know.
Before he knew it, they were trudging through the edge of the Cloakwood forest, grim expressions on all faces as they tried to keep their noise down to a minimum, while keeping a careful eye out for any signs of recent activity. Nuila walked alongside Jaheira, the women conversing only occasionally when they spied something. Khalid accompanied Imoen, while Ajantis and Branwen demonstrated their increasing closeness. Xan was left to walk alone; but he was content with this. The alternative would have been to have Tiax keeping him company.
He was aware of the reputation Cloakwood had. Many spoke of the forest with fear, and told tales of how it was wilder than any other wood in the area. It was said to be a home to many a dangerous creature – giant spiders, especially, were known to roam the eastern edge, and Imoen was currently employed to check everywhere for any signs of webbing or silk. Their progress was slow, but Xan was in no rush. There was no need to hasten themselves to their inevitable doom.
An hour, maybe two, had passed when he heard the sound of rushing water. The druid waved for them to head in its direction and they soon emerged from the trees into a small clearing at the banks of a fast-flowing and deep-looking river. Xan sighed dramatically.
"You're not going to suggest that we swim across, are you?" he asked distastefully. Jaheira gave him a strange look.
"Not at all, mageling," she said, her accent more pronounced than normal with her deliberately slow speech. She gestured downstream and offered him a civil, but not totally warm, smile. "There is a bridge to the west. We will cross there."
He nodded, sighing as Imoen darted past him, giggling about something or other. Nuila called for them to break for a few moments; the young human girl popped up again at his side, pestering him for a new scroll to study. He sighed, as was obligatory, and made a few remarks about the pointlessness of it all, but was secretly pleased at her enthusiasm. He had expected her interest to fade long before now, and for her human concentration to have moved onto the next passing fad before becoming bored once again.
He flicked through the scrolls he had, nodding when he found the one he'd been looking for. Wordlessly he passed it over to her eager hands, ignoring her curious and excited look.
"Well?" she asked impatiently. "What is it?"
He gave her as hard a look as he could muster. "Why don't you study it and find out?" he suggested acerbically. She stuck out her tongue at him and scampered off to sit at the edge of the bank, kicking her boots off to dip them into the running water while she read. He turned to see Nuila standing by his side, a smile on her face.
"You're so good with her," she remarked quietly. "I've never seen her become so devoted to anything before."
"She has a natural aptitude," he shrugged. "If she can maintain the interest, I would imagine that she has the potential to become quite powerful with minimal effort."
The elven girl chuckled. "She'll like that, then. Doesn't really like it when she has to try at anything, which is why she decided not to become a master thief. So... what scroll was it?"
"Just another minor cantrip," he said. "But this one will protect her a little. It will be weak initially, but will improve as her understanding of the arcane grows."
"Sounds nice," Nuila remarked. "But you still haven't said what it is..."
He smiled wryly at her. "An illusion cantrip. You have seen others use it against you, the mages who have managed to surround themselves with mirror images."
Nuila nodded. "Then yes, that does sound useful. And I... I admit I am relieved that you have chosen to give her something to help her protect herself. I worried that she might be more preoccupied with spells that look impressive rather than ones that are useful. Still... when she realises what it is..."
At that moment there came a squeal from Imoen, which was swiftly followed by a hushing noise coming from Jaheira and stern glances from Ajantis and Khalid which were promptly ignored. Branwen's throaty laugh diverted their attention to the warrior priestess, while the pink-haired girl leapt to her feet and rushed over to Xan, throwing her arms around him.
"Oh gosh, it's great, it really is, and I'll learn it and show ya how good I am, you'll see, and then you'll really believe that I can do this, and I'll be so amazingly powerful that no one will stand in my way, and before long I might be able to teach someone else how to read and scribe these things and wouldn't that be FANTASTIC?!"
"Eh... yes?" Xan ventured, staggering away when she eventually released him. Nuila giggled as her pseudo-sister padded away again to properly work on the scroll now that she'd managed to identify it, and then took Xan's hand in hers and gave it a gentle squeeze.
"I'm so glad you're here," she said simply, smiling at him with obvious fondness before turning away and heading towards her previously discarded pack. He watched her go, only vaguely aware of the faint smile on his lips.
He felt the druid's scrutinising gaze on him again, though.
"So… Coran," Nuila said, her face remaining constantly impassive as she looked directly at the elf who had just introduced himself to them. "What are you doing out here on your own?"
Xan would have sworn on anything that Coran's eyes lit up at that precise moment; not only had the other elf allowed his eyes to quite openly linger on Nuila's robed body, but now he was standing directly in front of her, mere inches away from bodily contact!
"A bit of business, my sweetling, that is all," the elf drawled lazily. "In fact, it has been concluded, and quite satisfactorily too…" he continued, his eyes now roaming across her face while he smiled. Xan switched his attention to the girl; to his annoyance, there was a slight smile playing at her lips.
"I am glad things have worked out well for you," she remarked pleasantly. "But I am afraid you will have to excuse us; our own business is urgent, and we can brook no hold-ups."
The elf named Coran looked momentarily stunned as Nuila gracefully side-stepped around him, waving to the others to keep marching. But then he'd turned to face her once again, and darted forward, reaching out to grab her hand in his own. She raised an eyebrow at his boldness, but stopped.
"It cannot be so," Coran said, raising his free hand to gently rub against Nuila's cheek. She remained motionless. "For a moment I believed that Hanali herself had seen fit to reward my hunting skills with the gift of your company, but now you tell me that I was mistaken? That you are not the answer to my prayers, and not the vision I've dreamt of?"
Somewhere behind Xan, Imoen made a retching noise. As loathe as he was to admit it, the enchanter found himself agreeing with the sentiment. Branwen was clicking her tongue impatiently, glaring at the strange elf with almost as much suspicion as Jaheira. Only Khalid seemed to be nonplussed by the whole affair.
"I'm afraid not," Nuila said gently, detaching herself from the elf's hold and holding up a hand warningly as he looked set to put an arm around her shoulder. "And much though I am… complimented… I think, by your words-"
"I only speak the truth, and from the innermost parts of the heart," Coran interrupted. "Although, I can be persuaded to speak from other angles as well…" He gave Nuila a lascivious wink. To Xan's horror, she broke out into an amused smile, and the mischievousness in the strange elf's eyes only increased.
"Begone with you!" she said, waving her hand at him half-heartedly. "You'll do nothing but hold us up, and we need to move on before the darkness falls."
"You heard her, elf," Jaheira said sharply. "You have had your fun, and now you would be well advised to make yourself scarce."
Coran gave a dramatic clutch at his heart as he turned to the druid, and displayed a face full of sorrow for all to see. "Such cold, cold words to be spoken; and not even just in cruel jest?"
The half-elf snorted and stalked off, shaking her head in either despair or disgust. Or, Xan pondered, perhaps both.
"Sweetling!" he called out, turning his large eyes back to Nuila, who looked at him hesitantly, before glancing back to the two Harpers. "I believe that we have met for a reason, and I am willing to offer my services to you for a while if you will only allow me the pleasure of walking by your side, and gazing upon the vast quantities of beauty contained within such a divine group."
Jaheira rolled her eyes and shrugged at Nuila. Khalid only offered the girl a smile before nodding his head to the strange elf. Even Branwen and Imoen had slight smiles on their faces. Only Ajantis looked as outraged by the idea as Xan felt; and thankfully, the paladin wasn't going to sit by quietly.
"You will not allow this wretch to travel with us, will you, my Lady?" he asked searchingly.
"Ah, I didn't realise you travelled with a man of the plate," Coran said, his eyes narrowing as he regarded the aspiring knight. "You know what they say about such fellows, don't you my sweetling? No? It goes something like… 'Clad in iron, a reliable brother; in softer times, not much of a lover'…''
Ajantis' mouth dropped open, and his face quickly darkened to an expression of fury. Imoen had her hand clamped over her mouth, the glee apparent in her eyes, and Branwen had raised an eyebrow and placed her hands on her hips. The two Harpers were exchanging a glance, but Coran's eyes never once left Nuila's, and controlled as she was, even Xan could see the traces of amusement lingering in her expression.
"What service can you offer us?" she asked, holding her hand up at Ajantis, this time, preventing the paladin from retorting to the elf's lyrical claim. "And would you not wish to know of our intent before agreeing to work with us? You have no idea as to what we may be planning."
Coran flashed a smile at her, and threw his cloak back, showing off the large sword and bow strapped to his back. Then he pulled down his pack, allowing it to drop to the floor, and opening it at one side for her to see in. Xan couldn't make out what it was, but Nuila had a good look in, and then drew back, her nose wrinkled.
"The smell will be worth it, sweetling; the head of a wyvern is a magnificent prize, and it is a difficult foe to better. As you can see – I have bettered one, and that should tell you enough about my skills!"
Xan watched as Nuila looked over to the Harpers. They offered small nods in return, and they both almost appeared impressed by Coran's claim.
"And as for your goals…" he shrugged, seemingly indifferent. "I wager that it'll be a challenge and an experience both, and if it turns out to be that we're just too different as sorts, then I'll take my leave from you with no hard feelings and no claim to any of the treasure we'll have gathered in that time. Fair?"
Nuila grinned at him. "Fair," she agreed.
"There is just one more thing, my beauty," Coran said, hoisting his pack over his shoulder once more, and manoeuvring around so he was walking closely by Nuila's side. "I tend to find that I am at my best when kept in the company of a beautiful face… and since there seems to be no shortage in this company, I wondered if I could be as bold as to request the pleasure of yours during our long… lonely… walks?"
Xan watched as they wandered off together, Nuila throwing him a helpless glance before turning her attention back to the rogue, and Branwen quietly appeasing Ajantis' annoyance with their new addition. He sighed heavily, starting when he realised that Imoen was standing beside him. She gave him a sympathetic look, and patted his arm.
"Don't worry about it," she said encouragingly. "Nuila's not the kind to be swept away by some fancy words and charming smiles."
Somehow, this didn't make Xan feel any better.
They camped deep within the woods on the evening they'd met and joined with Coran. The elf was effortlessly melding into the group, acting as if he'd been with them for months, and not just minutes. Xan felt highly irritated by it all.
"An' so, when I cast it, it'll make another me appear!" Imoen said triumphantly. "An' when I get a bit better, there'll be more than one – there'll be several of me!"
Coran's eyebrows rose as he lay on the grass, propped up on his elbows, listening to the pink-haired girl. "Such a tantalising proposal," he murmured, studying her form appraisingly. "It's almost enough to convince me to give you some peace and quiet, and return to our… chat, a little later."
Imoen just nodded distractedly, having missed his lewd look and implied suggestions. Xan clenched his spellbook tightly, all too aware of his tenseness as he sat, leaning against the rough trunk of a large oak tree, attempting to prepare himself for the long march ahead of them the following day. Branwen was praying silently at the far side of the fire, Ajantis sitting not too far from her side as he lovingly polished his sword. Jaheira was huddled over the pot on the fire, occasionally taking sips from an iron ladle that she was using to stir the contents with, before grimacing, and adding some more of the local foliage in an obvious attempt to make their unappealing meal less foul than it already was.
Nuila and Khalid were nowhere to be seen. The half-elven man had been sent to scout around the area by his despotic wife, and Nuila had been ordered to accompany him to pick up some, apparently, valuable skills. The girl had just signed resignedly and obeyed, dragging her feet initially as she wandered away from her sister and their new elven companion. Xan had been relieved; until then, the three had been chatting together animatedly, with the two young girls giggling frequently together, while Coran's eyes sparkled and shone with mischievousness.
Now he was trying to keep Imoen's attention, but the girl had remembered her new scroll, and had pulled out her spellbook, parchments and quill, and was only half-heartedly paying attention to him. It was only when he showed any interest in her arcane learning that she'd pause in her work and give him the attention he seemed to crave.
Xan felt a smug satisfaction about that, though he kept his face carefully neutral and impassive, and pretended that he was paying no attention to the world around him. He had spells to memorise, anyway, though he was finding it hard to apply the appropriate concentration. More and more frequently he would find himself glancing up and over towards the trees that Nuila and Khalid had disappeared into some time before, hopeful of their safe return. And even when he privately berated himself for the needless worry he was feeling, he was unable to focus enough on the runes and sigils, sighing as they swirled across the page before his eyes, defying his attempts to commit them to memory for another day.
"You look troubled, mellonamin," came Coran's melodic voice. The elf was giving him a sidelong look, his face remaining mostly turned towards the fire. "Is there something you need to share with your trusted companions?"
Xan felt his annoyance grow, but composed himself with the ease of one who's had years of practice.
"It is not," he stated stiffly. "And even if it were, you are not one of my trusted companions."
Imoen's eyes darted up from her book briefly; Xan wondered at her natural instinct for picking up on those moments in the party where her natural curiosity would find nothing but delight and intrigue. The other elf, however, looked unbothered by the cold response.
"We are kin!" he exclaimed, flashing a dazzling smile to both Imoen and Jaheira, the druid having given up with her attempts at seasoning the stew, and seemingly resigned to just letting it boil on its own. Then Coran's eyes turned to settle on him properly.
"They are charming, are they not?" Coran asked, using their native tongue and an innocent tone to hide his meaning from those who couldn't understand. Xan flinched slightly, and his eyes darted to Jaheira; to his dismay, the druid was frowning, seemingly ignorant of her ancestral language.
"And there are so many of them, too!" the elf continued, his confidence growing as he sighed with obvious contentment and gazed around at the group. "Surrounded by such beauties… and the women who carry them are pleasing to the eye as well!"
He laughed at his own joke, and Xan quietly fumed inside. He savagely thumbed through his spellbook, determined to force himself, somehow, to concentrate on the arcane rather than the inane.
"Of course," Coran continued, adjusting his position so that he was leaning over towards Xan conspiringly. "The human girls are fair enough for flowers that are such a common sight; and the half-elf is harsh and strict, with a hard tone and a stern eye – which is devilishly attractive to me! But there is something about the one that shares our blood, don't you think, that is both striking and captivating to the senses, and fills my mind with wondrous thoughts and desires…"
The elf paused to sigh dreamily, before fixing Xan with a very knowing, fairly lewd expression. "Of course, mellonamin," he chuckled, "it might be the fact that her robes can cover her skin, but do little to hide the curves of her body when she stands with the sun at her back, and if I squint just like… this…" He screwed his eyes up, still grinning. "Then I can imagine almost exactly what she'd look like—"
There was a dull slapping noise, and Xan jumped slightly as he tore his stony glare away from Coran and noticed that the druid had moved from her place by the fire. She was now standing over the roguish elf, scowling down at him darkly as he clasped one hand to his ear, nursing it in the wake of her firm clipping.
"From the moment I saw you I had my doubts about you," she said, speaking fluently in their mother tongue, her eyes fixed to Coran. "You will be advised to note that I will not tolerate any such notions from you when you travel in this group and among these young girls! If you wish to travel with us and aid us in our goals, then so be it; but be warned that I will be keeping my eye on you, and if you take even one single step over the line of decency, I will make you sorry you ever happened across us. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly," Coran muttered darkly, squirming himself around until he sat in a huddled, sulky position, not daring to meet the druid's eye.
"Good," the half-elf said with some satisfaction. "Then we need speak no more of it." She then turned and strode off towards the bedrolls strewn around at the far side of their camp, but paused halfway there, and slowly turned around to look at Xan. He met her eyes uncomfortably, holding her gaze for what seemed like an eternity, though it could only have been for a few seconds. Then he thought she almost smiled, turning away again, and resuming her journey.
He sighed heavily, only finding the barest trace of amusement in Imoen's combined expression of confusion and curiosity, and willed himself to find the concentration to be able to study the words before him before fatigue and exhaustion set in.