Than the rush that comes with your embrace
And in this world of loneliness
I see your face
Yet everyone around me
Thinks that I'm going crazy, maybe, maybe
Leona Lewis – Bleeding Love
The man behind the Iron Throne in the Sword Coast was called Rieltar Anchev. He was also heavily involved in the iron crisis, having employed Mulahey to taint the ore in Nashkel, and having betrayed Yeslick's friendship to take over the mine in Cloakwood. Studies of the paperwork found in Davaeorn's desk linked Tazok and Tranzig to the operation, both involved with procuring slaves to work in the mine, and hiring bandits to raid the coast.
"It would appear that this Rieltar's plan was to ensure the only sure supply of good iron was coming from his mine," stated Jaheira as she cast her eye over the papers once again. "Any existing iron weapons or tools were to be obtained by banditry and theft. The whole of the Sword Coast would then be at the mercy of the Iron Throne and their supply."
"A bit extreme though?" Nuila was frowning. "I mean, I know mercantile houses can be ruthless, but this... this is surely breaking the law?"
"Only if proof is found," Jaheira noted. "They have been extremely careful with their plans, and the bandits and mercenaries they've employed have been enough to keep the authorities busy. Also, this talk of war with Amn will have put more pressure onto the Dukes of Baldur's Gate. If there was any threat from the south, having iron readily available to arm and armour their troops would be necessary."
"D'ya really think Amn are planning to attack?" asked Imoen.
"N-no," Khalid shook his head. "And r-reports of Zhentarim activity are as f-false, I imagine."
The druid nodded her agreement. "It is convenient for the blame to be placed elsewhere, as it then means that less eyes are watching the true culprits."
"I still don't understand the assassination contracts," said Nuila. "Look at them; some of them refer to me by name, some as the ward of Gorion. But these assassins were sent for me long before I even reached Nashkel, before I even left Candlekeep! If they were just looking for me to stop us prying, then why did they start so early?"
Jaheira was frowning, and Xan noticed her sharing a concerned look with Khalid. Her husband also looked worried, but neither could offer an explanation.
"My lady," Ajantis spoke hesitantly. "You've spoken of Gorion before, and how he was an adventurer before he settled to raise you in Candlekeep. Could it be possible that he was somehow involved in an investigation before you left, and his killers now target you as you are continuing that work?"
Imoen's eyebrows rose as he said this, and she started nodding. Branwen also seemed to be considering his words. Nuila just shrugged.
"I don't see how," she replied doubtfully. "He didn't leave Candlekeep, so I don't know how much he would been able to learn from within. The books were all about history, not current affairs."
"But Firebeard used to come and visit often," Imoen said. "And others; like Khelben!"
Nuila shook her head. "Not for years, Immy. And Firebeard... really? Can you see him being involved in something like this? Interrogating suspects, or exploring rumours?"
Pink-hair sighed. "I guess not."
"Regardless," Jaheira interjected briskly, "they are aware of our interference, and we must remain on guard at all times. This one," she said, waving her hand at one of the parchments, "this Sarevok – it says he is Rieltar's son, and he seems to have taken a personal interest in dealing with anyone getting too close to the Iron Throne. We cannot assume he will stop now, especially since the mine has closed."
Yeslick bowed his head at her words. "Clangeddin's will be done," he muttered. "I hope me ancestors can forgive me the transgression, but that bastard left me wi' nay other option."
"Your ancestors will understand," Branwen said softly. "They would not wish to see your old halls filled with slaves, abused and condemned."
"Aye, ye be right," the dwarf sighed. "An' once again, I escape wi' my life, but little left to show fer it."
"You can come with us," Nuila offered. "I will find enough proof of the Iron Throne's involvement to bring to the authorities, and they will be dealt with swiftly and harshly."
Yeslick chuckled darkly. "Yer idea o' vengeance ain't the same as mine, wee lass. And these old bones have been fightin' long enough over the years. Nay. It be enough te know ye'll be keeping on this path. The road has ended fer me. Bentley's offered me a room so I can stay fer a while, then I will make me way te Mirabar. Some o' me old clan head that way when last the mine was put under water. It seems fittin' that I try an' find 'em before... Well. I be gettin' nay younger."
Nuila nodded. "If you are sure," she said. She didn't seem surprised – no one did. The dwarf had been reflecting on his life during their time at the Friendly Arms; his initial fiery vengeance had faded quickly, neither Nila or Jaheira willing to encourage him in his quest for simple revenge. And with the hope of assistance fading, the lust for retribution had died into a sorrowful acceptance that whatever lay in store for his former captors, he would not be involved in it.
"I am, lass," he said, patting Nuila's hand as he stood up. "I moved over te the new room earlier. Makes things... easier fer me. I wish ye the best in yer hunt. An'... I'll pray every night to Clangeddin fer yer victory."
With that he turned and walked away, his shoulders slumped, his years evident. Nuila had a pained expression on her face, which Jaheira quickly noticed.
"Let him go," the druid said quietly. "He will find more peace with his relatives than he will seeking vengeance that he cannot claim."
The monk sighed and nodded, looking around the group. "Where is Coran?" she asked. "If we were all here, I thought we'd be able to make plans."
"I saw him in the common room earlier," Branwen replied. "He was chatting quite animatedly to one of the barmaids."
Nuila rolled her eyes. "The red-headed one? He'll get no luck there. She told me yesterday that she wasn't interested in him; that her husband is due back from the army in a few days, but Coran's free drinks don't go amiss."
Imoen sniggered. "Don't tell him," she said wickedly. "At least this way it keeps him out of trouble."
Jaheira just shook her head at the girls as they giggled. "We still have another two nights paid for here," she said. "We will make our plans tomorrow. But today we should make our preparations. There are several traders who arrived this morning on their way to the Gate. We will all need to browse their wares and purchase anything we think we will need. Ensure weapons are tended, armour is repaired. Plans can be done tomorrow; and then we will head north in two days time."
He found Nuila in the common room, tucked away in one of the corner tables. She smiled up at him as he approached, her attention returning to her needlework as he sat across from her.
"Have you seen him?" she asked, her needle gliding through the silky robes as she repaired the latest tear acquired in Cloakwood. He frowned.
"Coran. Be discrete! Look behind you, just to the left of the bar."
Xan slowly turned around, trying to be as nonchalant as possible. He saw his fellow elf straight away; Coran was sitting at a table with a buxom, young girl perched on his lap. He was staring at her intently, though it wasn't her face that was getting much attention.
"Oh, Corellon help us," Xan mumbled, turning away again. "Were we not doomed enough as a group, we will end up leaving here to head north with a group of pretty, young maids whose only life skills include batting eyelashes and pouring remarkably large tankards of ale."
Nuila's eyebrow arched. "You think she's pretty?"
Xan sighed. "For a human, she is fair of face."
Nuila nodded, still diligently sewing. "And what about me? Am I pretty?"
Xan frowned. "I think you are more than aware of your own... attributes."
She grinned at him as she finished her repair, tearing the thread with her teeth as he grimaced. "Maybe so," she offered, "but sometimes it's nice to be told."
"I see," he said.
She looked at him. "Well?"
He blinked. "Well, what?"
It was her turn to frown, but there was no annoyance in her features. "Tell me I'm pretty!"
"Oh." He coughed. "Nuila," he said, in his most formal voice, "you are very pretty."
She just laughed and shook her head at him, secreting her sewing materials away in a pouch on her belt. "You'll need to work on that," she told him, smoothing out her robes as she inspected her work. "There – what do you think?"
He looked at her robes. The tear in her usual travelling robes had been neatly stitched, the black thread running in measured stitches along the length of the rip.
"It is... very pretty," he replied dryly. This earned him a proper laugh and a swat at his arm.
"Gorion used to think my sewing was acceptable," she said as she folded the robes away. "He said that it was one thing I was good at." She stood up, motioning for him to follow her as she headed for the stairs. "It was about then that he started sending me to the kitchens to practice cooking, and suddenly I'd be asked to babysit on the very rare occasion we had children visiting the inn."
Coran gave them a sly wink as they passed, and Nuila flashed him a mischievous grin. Xan sighed disapprovingly – she was only encouraging him.
"Anyway," she continued as they made their way up to their rooms, "I enjoyed the cooking, and Miri said I was getting quite good at it. And I didn't mind watching the smaller children; but the first time I had to change one was quite a distressing experience for all involved."
"I can imagine."
"Well, after a few months I went to see Gorion because we still didn't know what I was going to do with myself, and he sat me down and asked me how I'd been doing. He seemed relieved when I said I was managing fine, and even enjoying some of it. He'd been thinking of sending me off to be a nanny somewhere, he said, so he needed to know I had some practical skills to offer." She paused, suddenly looking sadder. "But that wasn't even a year ago now; and he'd changed his mind, but he wouldn't tell me why. That's when he decided to send me to the Namers for lessons. They... did not approve of my interest in Tymora."
"He sent you to clerics of Oghma despite your faith?" Xan asked, opening the door to their common room. Nuila nodded.
"Oh yes," she said airily. "They were the only clerics there, and I think he wanted to see how strong my faith was, rather than seeking to convert me. I guess if I'd been fervent enough, he'd maybe have found someone to come tutor me in Candlekeep. But as it was..."
"You weren't particularly dedicated to it?"
She just smiled, then stopped in the middle of the room, her eyes dropping to the ground. She shuffled her feet.
"I, um, wondered if I could... um... ask something."
His eyebrow rose. "Of course."
She took a deep breath. "Well, since Yeslick has left us, and you have a room to yourself, I thought, maybe, I could come and share with you, not in that way, I just mean to take the spare bed, and so Imoen and Branwen have a bit more room in our room, and... yes."
She peeked up at him apprehensively. His heart had lurched and his throat had gone dry. He didn't know what to say.
"I mean," she went on, "it's probably a stupid idea, and I don't want to make you feel awkward, and I am perfectly fine—"
"It would be... nice."
Her eyebrows rose, then a smile spread across her lips. She bounced slightly as she spoke: "Are you sure? Oh! I will get my things!"
Then she disappeared into the room she shared with Pink-hair and the priestess, emerging soon enough with her pack and a handful of other assorted items. He held open the door to his own room before he even gave himself a chance to think about what he'd just done and she shyly moved past him, dropping her belongings onto the spare bed messily, before wandering over to the window. It seemed to be a nice day outside; the sun was shining, and he could see blue sky. He let the door fall closed and moved over to stand beside her.
Just as he got close, she turned to face him, her arms slipping around his waist. She had a gleam in her eye and a mischievous grin on her face. He returned her hug, watching as she put herself onto her tiptoes and reached her lips up to his.
A short while later they made their way downstairs and out to see what was on offer from the makeshift stalls that the traders had erected. Xan hadn't been sure what to expect from Nuila's impish look, but the monk appeared to be content with a slow approach, busying him with idle caresses and small kisses for a delightful while, before taking his hand and announcing that they should carry out Jaheira's instructions.
And so he was still holding her hand as they emerged into the sunshine, walking along side by side almost like any other normal couple. He was wearing a plain traveller's robe, his hair falling freely to his shoulder without his usual Evereskan circlet holding it in place. And Nuila... Nuila was wearing a dress. A simple summer dress that she'd undoubtedly borrowed from Imoen, pink as it was. Her hair was starting to curl again after his barbaric attempts to cut the singed pieces off, but she was persisting with pins and clips to keep it away from her face. Her silver chain was ever-present around her neck, the low cut of the dress showing that it carried a small silver coin, Tymora's likeness etched on it, surrounded by the usual shamrocks.
She looked happy as they meandered along the path, nodding pleasantly to Branwen and Ajantis as they passed, the warriors carrying bags of supplies recently purchased. Xan gave a cautious look behind them as they continued, noting Branwen and Ajantis leaning in together, whispering conspiratorially. Nuila seemed completely uncaring.
"Here – that man is selling spell components," she said, pulling him along after her as she made her way to one of the nearer stalls. He followed obediently, partly bemused, partly confused. She was so natural, so easy with it all. He felt awkward and clumsy; he was more concerned about what the others would think, than she appeared to be, that was certain. And he was sure that, wherever she was, the druid would be watching.
The stall soon took his mind off things. Nuila graciously allowed him his hand back so he could rummage through the wares, inspecting the freshness of various herbs, and checking for defects in gems and imperfections in other minerals. She watched him with a quiet fascination and satisfaction, a small smile settled onto her lips that seemed reluctant to go away. Now and then he'd look over to her, and the smile would broaden; he would flush, and go back to his purchases. Was this really how it was meant to feel?
Eventually he was done, almost confident that he had enough provisions to see them safely to Baldur's Gate, at least. He haggled a good price with the merchant, and collected his bag of reagents. Nuila reclaimed his hand, and led him off to the next stall.
"You seem uneasy," she remarked, giving him a sidelong look. "Would you rather we walked separately?"
He sighed and shook his head. "No. I... I am just unused to this. I am happy if... if you are."
She smiled and nodded, wandering off to one side to inspect a weapons stall. She pointed to one of the cloth slings hanging up on a rack.
"Can you use one of them?" she asked.
He shrugged. "A little," he said. "I know the principle behind their use, and have practiced with one on occasion. Why?"
"I was wondering about you getting one, for if we're attacked," she said thoughtfully.
He raised an eyebrow. "Is my magic not enough?"
"More than enough, usually. But what if you have nothing left?"
He motioned to the scabbard hanging on his hip.
She shook her head. "I don't know if I want you so... close... to a fight," she said, almost to herself. She was looking at the sling again. "I think I'd feel better about knowing you were safe. Safer."
"I could say very much the same about you," he objected as she called the vendor over. "Are you to buy one for yourself? Or perhaps some darts, or a nice bow, like Imoen has?"
She snorted. "One sling please, and some bullets." The vendor nodded.
"You don't have to use it if you don't want to," she said, before turning to look at him with big, wide eyes. "But I'd really rather you did."
"And I would really rather you did likewise."
"Hmm. Remind me to try and remember my archery lessons when we next share reverie."
Xan winced. "I... believe I have already bore witness to that."
Nuila grinned, handing over some coins and passing the sling and ammunition to the enchanter. "Then you'll understand why I'm much better not having one. But you..." She reached up to touch his cheek softly. "I want you to stay safe."
He opened his mouth to reply, but caught sight of the figure looming behind Nuila before he could speak.
"Ah, there you are," said Jaheira, her green, green eyes watching Nuila's gentle caress. "We were looking for you."
Xan retreated to the safety of his room. Nuila had been whisked away by Jaheira, the druid adamant that the monk pick up the correct equipment, whatever that was meant to be, and Khalid had offered to accompany the enchanter back to their quarters. They'd strolled back in silence, finding Ajantis and Branwen in the common room polishing weapons and discussing previous battles. Xan quickly excused himself.
He'd only just put his bag of reagents down when there was a quiet knock on the door. He groaned to himself, but called for whomever to come in. He wasn't surprised to see Khalid.
"I h-hope you don't m-mind me disturbing you," the half-elf said, jerking his head to the common room. "I d-didn't want to discuss things with others present."
"Not at all," said Xan, a sinking feeling telling him he knew exactly where this conversation was going. "Please, sit down."
Khalid smiled and wandered over to the chair beside the window, settling into it. He casually looked over to Yeslick's old bed and nodded.
"I see N-Nuila has m-moved in? We thought she might."
Xan sat on the edge of his bed stiffly. "She wished to have more room."
Khalid nodded. "The room was c-cramped with the three of them in it. And she rests b-better when she is near you."
Xan fidgeted. "I do not mean to be rude, but it sounds as if Nuila and I have been the subject to some... discussion."
The fighter looked dismayed. "Oh, n-no... well, yes, b-but not how you think." He sighed and leaned forward. "N-nuila is our ward, by the wishes of Gorion. We w-want the best for her, and to p-protect her."
"As do I."
The half-elf smiled again. "We know. You are very g-good to her, and she c-cares for you deeply. That much is obvious. I just wanted to t-tell you that while w-we still think she is very young, we respect her decisions, including any involving her h-heart. After all, no one knows a heart as w-well as its owner."
"I see." Xan pondered for a moment. "I must admit I am surprised; I thought that there would be some level of disapproval..."
"Should there be?" Khalid's question was simple, but Xan understood the hidden meaning behind it.
"No," he replied, quietly. "We have become... close. But there is nothing but innocent notions. Nuila is aware of my responsibility, just as I am aware of her own quest. I will be nothing but honest with her."
"As we expected," Khalid said softly. "B-but if I may say; be aware of her age. She has seen many less summers than you, and though she has s-some maturity on display, she is still y-young and fanciful at times."
"Am I to assume that she is currently receiving a similar talk from your wife?"
The half-elf laughed. "J-jaheira will be blunt, honest and t-to the point. But she w-will be fair. And above all, she will ensure Nuila is c-careful."
Xan's eyebrow rose. "Careful?"
Khalid nodded solemnly, but there was a twinkle in his eye. "If Nuila hasn't b-been taught about the birds and the b-bees yet, then Jaheira will make sure she knows about both. And about the badgers, deer, squirrels, and any other a-animal she needs to explain to m-make Nuila understand."
Xan nodded slowly. "Poor Nuila," he said. "I really do not think she will be prepared for such a discussion..."
Khalid, it transpired, had met Jaheira a short time after her coming of age. She'd been brought up by druids, the daughter of a noble family who had perished in the Tethyrian war. She'd been saved as a child by a serving girl, who had smuggled her from the family home and taken her to the forest. She had been headstrong, stubborn and opinionated when he first arrived at the grove, member of a party who were seeking strong individuals to work for their organisation. Xan didn't have to guess that he was speaking of the Harpers.
Jaheira had joined with them immediately, believing strongly that she had to take action to have any effect on the world around her. He, at the time, was shy, withdrawn, and very meek. She had bullied him relentlessly for the first few weeks, until one day she went so far as to challenge him to a practice fight. He'd tried to decline, but she refused to take no for an answer. So one evening, at the camp, they'd fought with wooden weapons before the rest of the travelling party.
He beat her. Four times he bested her in combat before she accepted defeat. After that she'd began speaking to him, asking him for tips on her stance, advice on how to best use her weapons. An unlikely friendship had developed, and then one night, under the starts, she'd kissed him and they'd become inseparable. Xan listened as the half-elf spoke; he got the impression that this was a tale rarely told, and while he was genuinely interested in the story, he was uncomfortable with hearing the intimacy of the couple who guarded their privacy so fiercely. But Khalid stopped there, a small, contended smile on his face as he thought back to his happy memories.
"So y-you see, w-we do understand how a bond can be made," he said, turning serious. "But a life on the r-road is not easy, and maintaining that bond is d-difficult."
"I am well aware of this," Xan sighed. "And the futility of it all is not lost on me. But Nuila..."
Khalid nodded sympathetically. "For what it is worth, I b-believe in you both," he said, standing up. "I am sure that everything—"
He was interrupted by a scream, quickly followed by Ajantis' booming voice: "BY HELM!" Khalid and Xan exchanged a look, and ran to the common room. The paladin was standing at the door to the room he shared with Coran, the door closed, the paladin flushed red in the face. Branwen was standing by the armchairs, her hands covering her mouth.
"Wh-what has happened?" Khalid asked, making his way over to Ajantis. The paladin held out his hand, signalling for the half-elf to go no closer. Khalid paused, giving Branwen a quizzical look.
"W-will anyone explain?"
The door behind the Waterdhavian opened, causing the paladin to stride away quickly. A head of red hair peeked out, an embarrassed smile covering a young girl's freckled face as she slipped out, her clothes dishevelled, her shoes missing, and her hair unkempt. She bobbed a clumsy curtsey, then fled from the room.
The elf appeared a moment or two later, a pair of trousers the only clothing he'd seen fit to put back on. Branwen gasped, and averted her eyes much to his amusement.
"Come now, Branwen," he laughed. "A woman as feisty as you has surely seen a man's body before!"
"You dare slander her good name?!" Ajantis was furious; Xan could see he was visibly shaking.
Coran just gave him a peculiar look. "I don't see how that is slandering her, oh pompous one. But you look like you could do with some relaxation yourself. I could arrange for Milly to meet you in the bath-house, perhaps?"
"—you speak to—"
Silence fell, so unusual was it for Khalid to shout. The half-elf glared at Coran. "Get dressed, and then sort out y-your supplies," he said. "You have h-had your fun for today."
Coran just laughed and went back into the bedroom. Xan could hear him whistling merrily to himself.
"B-branwen," Khalid said, "take Ajantis out for a walk, would you? I think he n-needs some time and some fresh air to clear his head."
The priestess nodded, standing up and heading to the door. After a moment's hesitation, Ajantis bowed his head and strode off with her. Khalid watched them go, then ran his fingers through his hair and sat down heavily on the chairs. "Th-this is why I usually leave these things to Jaheira," he said. Then he smiled slyly. "I have picked up a thing or two from her, though."