King of Shadows, Queen of Light
Wow. Really? It has been… more than a year? Okay, we are definitely not dead yet. Rig and I are alive, well and kicking and presenting you with a new chapter.
As it is usual in the life of nonprofit writers who have no deadlines and editors kicking their behinds and licking their necks (err, on second thought, never mind that metaphor), many other things happened and my wrestling with a major plot point right around this stage of the story made me set it aside until I was better suited to tackle it. The time has come, and KoSQoL is back. I owe a big thank you to my fellow ficwriter Morwenna who advised me on this particular crossroad, and to my husband who never ceases to amaze me with his ability of giving me his honest opinion and calling me on by b.s. when it's needed.
The usual disclaimer still applies: I strongly regret that I do not own any of the main characters (actually at this point of the history of the NWN games and Forgotten Realms, I have no idea who exactly does /sarcasm). I take full responsibility for that Pendwyr girl, though...
And for those of you who like my little 'soundtrack' I provide for my chapters, here are the songs that helped this time. River's Dance from Greg Edmonson's wonderful Firefly soundtrack; Toss the Feather from The Corrs' album Forgiven, Not Forgotten; Fires at Midnight from the Past Times With Good Company album by Blackmore's Night; and The Truth from Audiomachine's Tree of Life.
Chapter Fifty-Nine: Fires At Midnight
Most of the leaders of my birth village (and my companions as well) were considerably into their cups by the time I got to the feast hall. However lofty that name sounded, it was nothing but a huge barn that most of the time was used for storage. Tonight, it seemed to contain the entire village and my whole entourage rather comfortably.
The din was considerable, the beer, mead and some wine I contributed from our stores flowed free, and the food was down to pies, cakes and sweet breads. I clearly missed most of the fun by visiting the Starlings first and then going back to my tent to recuperate and change.
I shook my head as I neared the head table and returned some greetings from my Greycloaks sitting at various tables, mingling happily with the locals. It was futile to dwell on might-have-beens, and unseemly besides. I did what needed doing, and could only hope and pray that Retta and Bevil would find some sense of peace in what happened. Retta might seek me out later, or may not. I would definitely need to figure out what was happening to Bevil, though… just not now. There were others who needed me, others for whom a sulking face and distracted manners might signal that I didn't care enough to be back in my village, or I disdained what it had to offer… not to mention the morale of my companions and the Greycloaks who, no doubt, were eager to observe my every move and hear stories about my past here.
I owe it to them all, I told myself and lifted my chin and squared my shoulders, as always before battle. I owe it to Tyr…and to myself.
"Ah, there you are, my lass." Georg was waving at me with his lopsided grin made even more asymmetric by the amount of alcohol he already consumed. "I mean, Captain Pendwyr." He hastily corrected himself, owing to a quick elbow from Tarmas, sitting right next to him. "We thought you figured our feast here too hearty for your stomach."
"Just the beer, Georg." I said, ducking the tankard in his hand to swoop down and kiss his cheek hastily before I took the empty seat on his right. "If you recall, I was never a connoisseur of Lazlo's ale. And I'll never stop being your girl just because they titled me in the big city."
"You say that now…" the village headman muttered, but his eyes glittered with amusement. "But anyway…we appreciated the contribution from your stores to the feast, I was just saying to your companions here."
"Nothing to it." I attempted to be as polite as possible, but it was odd: I knew him since I was running around with skinned knees and pigtails, and he remembered that too, I was sure of it. We did the dance of politeness anyway: this was West Harbor, and my fellow countrymen needed their rituals, especially him as headman of the village. "We are grateful for the hospitality and having us for the Greengrass feast. I trust my men didn't cause any trouble."
"Not yet." Sand interjected, breaking out from the intense conversation he and Tarmas were having. "It's Greengrass, Arrighan, and the dances in your village are very lively." He motioned with a long, elegant hand at the bare patch of hard-packed earth that functioned as a dance floor in front of the barn. "To wit…"
About half of my 'Cloaks were there already, obviously busy with the available female (and on occasion, male) population of my home village. It was one of those round dances where you split the line up at the end of every song line and twirled whoever was on your right, popped them on your left when done, and continued on: lots of shouting, giggling and, at this stage of the festivities, some groping as well. I watched it from the sidelines too many times not to remember.
"They are entitled to some fun after putting up with the Progress for weeks." I pointed out to Sand, and turned to Georg. "Sergeant Deorwin swore to me he had… words with them about proper behavior. I trust they are not causing trouble?"
"Oh, they're fine," he answered, one eye on the dancers, one on his tankard: it was mesmerizing to watch, if a little bit disorienting. I admired that ability of his since childhood. "You know we're used to some of the Fort Locke teamsters coming through. Compared to them your soldiers are a piece of cake."
"Don't remind me." I shuddered, remembering. "I threw some of them out the alehouse sometimes two, three nights in a row—they just didn't know when to quit."
"Or perhaps they just enjoyed you tossing them about too much." Georg winked. "And speaking of…"
Great. Here we were. I was dreading this since we arrived, if only slightly less than Daeghun's reaction.
Oddball of swamp-village hicks comes home, on the arm of a true blueblood.
I steeled myself as Georg transferred half of his gaze from the dancers to the man sitting next to me. Casavir was busy with a slice of pie with his customary thoroughness and judging by the neat pile of bones on the plate by his elbow, he worked up quite an appetite helping my stepfather earlier.
"Meant to ask about your story, milord." Georg's voice was mild, but the undertones suggested that everything—anything, really—said following that question will be included in one of his infamous tall tales. Needless to say, this didn't exactly fill me with joy. "Care to share about how you swept her off her feet?"
I bit my lip; I absolutely wasn't in the mood for this, after all that happened in the past hours, and could only hope that Casavir would help me out here somehow.
"It is difficult not to know one of West Harbor and feel some degree of… admiration." Casavir looked at his fork thoughtfully. "As this pie really demonstrates."
"Ah." Georg cleared his throat, and I stifled a grin. He clearly didn't understand that he would now be exposed to some of the finest points of Tyrran theology. For about the next hour or so, if he was not careful.
Knight in shining armor to the rescue, indeed.
"I would ask you about the meaning of that, milord, but I'm afraid we all need some sleep," Georg settled on that, finally, and leaned back on his chair, somehow still managing to look pleased with himself.
"You are a clever man, Master Redfell." Casavir said slowly, with a slight smile on his lips. "I see you've met a Tyrran before," He carefully folded his napkin and placed it on the empty pie plate before him.
I stared. No one ever provided napkins with any feast in my village: where in Chauntea's blessed earth did he get that from?
And what was this all-smiles and at-ease man doing in place of the always slightly broody one I've learned to know?
Still devastatingly handsome, though. I caught a flash of teeth from his grin and felt my heartbeat speed up.
He feels fine. He likes it here. He feels at ease, I thought, and the smile, it was even possible, grew even wider on my face.
"Met, dined, got drunk, wrestled with and then stayed up all night arguing about the origins of folktales." Georg nodded. "Name was Aevan, and he was a mighty fine gentleman." He reached out and squeezed my hand. "Taught everything to this young lady here, too." His voice softened. "I'm sorry, lass. You probably guessed when we told you no news upon your arrival that we had heard nothing about his fate. Have you found anything in Neverwinter…?"
I furrowed my brow. There it was again…
Why wasn't I able to keep the thought of looking up my teacher's past in my head?
"Nothing." I said slowly and watched Casavir's features turn into a puzzled frown too. We both clear forgot, even after I specifically asked him. "Nothing… and that really worries me."
Dammit, what was going on here?
"Well, it is what it is." Georg uttered one of his phrases I hated most. "He will either come back or he won't… but life needs to go on." He stood up and smoothed his hair down. "Now, if you excuse me, it's time I join the fray." He nodded to us and stepped, only swaying a little, towards where the rest of my companions sat, nursing their drinks.
"You…" I started, and then I felt my jaw drop literally as Georg stopped where Neeshka sat, and actually performed and honest-to-gods snappy military-style bow, clicking heels and all. I watched as he said something, too low for me to hear, watched my tiefling friend blush furiously, look around as if to say 'me? really me?' and finally get up, hesitantly at first, as Georg led her to the row of dancers in front of the barn.
"That…" I started again. "Did I just…?" I tried something else, but the words didn't quite come to me. "Was that…?" I shook my head. One of these days I will be fully in command of my oratory skills. One of these days.
Finally I gave up.
"I need some pie." I announced instead and pulled an entire half of my favorite blackberry pie in front of me. "Possibly some cake as well." I eyed the one in front of Sand and glared at him defiantly as if daring him to say anything.
"Dear girl, far be it from me to deny you your just desserts. Here's something to rinse it with." The wizard helpfully pushed a tankard towards me, with an expression that said 'I am in; and not only I am in but I raise'. "It's passable as far as lukewarm, weak country ales brewed in backyards go."
"I can see why you travel with him, Arrighan." Tarmas made a face. "My esteemed colleague employs sarcasm like others of the Art use diamond dust."
"Exactly. It goes with everything." Sand shrugged and looked at me curiously. "You do know, of course, why your village elder did that." He waved towards the dancers: Neeshka's gently curving little horns amongst her flaming red locks and her happily waving tail were impossible to ignore.
"Once I was able to start thinking, sure." I muttered into the pie. Blackberry pie, even if only made with the preserves from last year, was dearly missed. "He's the village's leader. If he clearly accepts the more… exotic members of my company, he sets an example for the less… hospitable of my compatriots, like the Mossfelds. We don't need an incident at Greengrass." I shuddered, remembering how the Mossfelds attacked me by the stream years and years ago.
"Did you teach the lass thinking like that, Sand?" Tarmas asked, curiously. "That would indeed be a miracle of the third degree; but, after all she's a paladin." He cast a curious glance towards Casavir. "Or was it the lad?"
"I will be ninety, all wrinkles, walking with a cane and still just a 'lass' to these horrible men." I grumbled and stood up, sweeping the crumbs off my lap.
Okay, if I can't have that cake, wizard, then I'll just feint and counterattack.
"Well, I can't just let Neeshka carry the burden: may I request your company for a quick turn, horrible old man?" I grinned at Tarmas, whose mouth shaped a nice round 'o'. Casavir leaned back on his chair and seemed to be enjoying himself way too much.
"You can't be that tired, all you did is talk to Sand since we arrived." I held out a hand. "Just one turn. I promise I'll be gentle." I think I even waggled an eyebrow.
"You are a quite horrible young woman despite your profession, I'll have you know." Tarmas stood up very slowly. "Is this how you repay me for giving you directions to those Illefarn ruins and talking, in exhaustive detail, I may add, to your wizard here about the history of the ruins around our own village?"
"Just to be precise, I already had the location of those ruins and their main features well marked, thanks to my esteemed guest from the githzerai Sand no doubt told you about. You merely confirmed her identification, for which we are certainly grateful." I said, smiling at him. "But as Sand, no doubt, also delivered you a quite nice collection of reagents from my personal collection at Crossroad Keep, I believe the issue of any sort of 'payment' has been taken care of already. Surely you wouldn't imply that…"
"By Mystra," Tarmas sighed as he finally linked his arm into mine, "I always knew you were a pain in the you-know-where, Arrighan. Yes, fine, I'll ruin my best robe and shoes with you—if you don't trod on them, surely some half-drunk youngster will do me the favor."
"The sacrifices you make, o, wizard." I curtsied. "I am deeply moved. Shall we?"
I needed the distraction of anything physical that wasn't fighting. Drained by my earlier encounter with Retta and Bevil, and already wary of what awaited us once we headed towards Arvahn, I welcomed the enthusiasm with which my home ushered in Spring. And if I was hard-pressed to remember all the steps of the dances I very rarely had a chance to actually practice (I wasn't exactly the person who was popular at village festivals), at least I did it with a grin and multiple apologies to anyone who I might have kicked or trod upon.
Tarmas lasted surprisingly long, but when Georg asked me for a turn, he was suspiciously eager to exchange my arm with Neeshka's. I glanced up and was able to see that the ice was clearly broken: Khelgar was dancing with one of the Buckman girls, Lena, and I could glimpse Sand through the throng trying to keep up with Willa Lannon. I snickered. That one was a lost cause—even though her brother, Garth, suffered broken bones from the Mossfelds at the last Harvest Festival I won, Willa never had to resort to anyone's protection. The girl was solid, and that was mildly put, with energy that you can only have from working day and night with livestock (and I don't exactly mean chicken either).
"You still must be leading the militia exercises." I said to Georg, after a particularly enthusiastic turn: he actually managed to lift me in the air. "That was nice."
"Why thank you, Captain, ma'am," he deadpanned, with little twinkles in his eyes. "These old bones can still manage to surprise you, hm?"
"You tossed me on my hindquarters often enough during practice to know never to take you lightly." I grinned back. "Some of those particularly nasty moves helped me a lot while in the City Watch." We ducked under the lifted arms of another couple and kept up the pace. "And I must say again, we truly appreciate the opportunity to celebrate Greengrass with…"
"Oh, leave the rhetoric to when you're in Lord Nasher's court, lass." Georg waved a hand. "I always knew this village was too small for you, and I'm glad to see you going up in the world. We were proud that yet another one of our own made a Watch officer when the news came. And now, look: you're landed nobility, with your own soldiers and everything."
"I guess I am…" I said slowly; clearly, however much I protested to the contrary, this is how everyone else saw me from the outside. I could say until I was blue in the face that I was just a hedge-paladin, that I was merely keeping the castle as Nasher's appointed officer, that those soldiers belonged in the Neverwinter army… for all intends and purposes, I was exactly as Georg described me: landed squire before my thirtieth birthday on my own right, with my own garrison and retinue, acting as an appointed officer of the ruler himself. "Thank you, Georg."
"You had the cutest pigtails as a kid, though." Georg grinned suddenly, grabbing my waist for another lift. "Much easier to toss into the air back then, too," he added, grunting.
"Hey." I said feebly. "Plate mail helps with growing muscles."
"Oh no doubt, no doubt," he chuckled. "Whoever your father was, he probably towered over everyone: you definitely got your build from him. Esmerelle was this small, wiry thing, looking like any wind would just take her away. Then, every now and then when we could get her to join practice, she did one of those weird monk-moves of hers and whoops, you were on the ground looking up at her, wondering how on earth her heel ended up planted on your chest." He sniffled. "She was also an excellent cook. How are you doing in that regard?"
"What is this, matriculation?" I protested half-heartedly. "You know I can cook, ate enough at Daeghun's house to know that I find my way around the pantry and kitchen. No monk-moves, I am afraid, and if any wind tries to take me away, it needs to be at least a tornado. Not much of those around in the Mere, or in Neverwinter, for that matter." My eyes narrowed as a thought occurred to me. "Georg: are you sounding me out in regards to how I would do as a… wife? What the Hells?"
"Well, every man likes his stomach." Georg said defensively, but his eyes were dancing almost as merrily as his feet: I had a hard time keeping up. "I understand that your opportunities to make fancy meals were limited while in the Watch and all, but now you got an entire castle: ye gods, lass, what was the last time you made him a pie, fer' stance?" He waved his free hand towards the tables. "I watched the poor man methodically devour half a pig, practically: he's clearly starving."
I slowly exhaled.
This is a really circumvented way of asking me about my love life, but this is Georg, after all.
"Georg..." I tried to slow down, with not much success. My head started to spin a little bit. "He just spent almost a full day fixing up my foster-father's roof, chopping wood, carrying water, or whatever insane tasks Daeghun might have found for him. Of course he's starving, he did hard manual labor, you should see him after a morning practice with the 'Cloaks, and… Stop grinning, you ape!"
"Ah, lass." Georg said fondly. "I honestly never have seen anyone blush that prettily. You are in it rather bad, aren't you?"
"Please don't ask me that." That came almost as a reflex by now. "Direct questions shall always be answered by a paladin and we never lie. And if I blush any more, I'll explode."
"Sorry about that." His voice was sheepish, his face anything but. The rat bastard. "It's just such a joy watching you squirm."
"Oh, Tyr." I said, exasperated. What do you say to a man who watched you grow up from pigtailed and knee-bruised toddler to a promising young member of his village militia? Who told you tales of monsters and heroes and dragons and ogres and brave Watch officers and swamp elves and went to have fisticuffs with your teacher over how he perceived you were treated? Who then agreed your stepfather to send you away possibly to never return, and then watched you come back with practically your own army, landed and titled and practically on the arms of an aristocrat? "Why am I even here?"
"You like me." Georg grinned, then slowed down in tempo with the music ending and quickly planted a peck on my cheek. "It's time to let the young ones keep going, though."
I only understood it when he released my hand and nodded slightly to someone. I was too busy stopping blushing and making sure my hair was out of my eyes: I almost forgot how vigorous my village's dances could be.
"Oh." I said, stupidly, and I felt that grin coming on that I really hoped didn't make me look like an idiot. "You up to it?"
"You might wish to watch those contractions, my lady." Casavir bowed slightly but with perfect courtly manners towards Georg and took my hand. "Your speech patterns tend to mimic your emotional state rather consistently: I noticed the return of the more relaxed phrasing more often when you are upset about something." He turned with utter grace to face me as the music started again, and lifted our entwined hands so our arms formed an arc. "Rest assured that with ten years spent in assorted professions frequently involving rural opportunities of employment, I am well-versed in the arts of country dancing, as it were." He paused. "In short: yes, I am definitely 'up to it'."
"A lovely way to remind me where I came from, milord." I muttered, furiously concentrating on the steps. "However, imagine that with this I might just make a fashion in Neverwinter."
"Heavens save us," he murmured. "Wearing a sword with court dress first, then teaching Nevalle country speech? There shall be outrage. Gossip, no doubt. "He paused, considering. "Possibly some fainting ladies as well."
"Due to the first or the second?" I was rather proud of myself for executing a perfectly matched turn while bantering the way probably normal courtiers just do right before breakfast and not even bat an eyelash.
"Very good," he said warmly. "We shall make you a perfect dama yet."
"The hairstyle is out," I said, absurdly happy with his compliment. "Absolutely no ribbons and feathers. And I draw the line at the heeled shoes."
"I, then, shall make sure my lady always has at least three perfectly shined black boots ready for court events." I watched the corners of his eyes crinkle up as he smiled and felt my stomach flutter.
"You absolutely know how to make a girl happy, Casavir Korranos." Yes, indeed. I had it, bad.
"Your wish is my command." His voice deepened and a slow smile appeared at the corner of his mouth. I was very much aware of the way our bodies moved close together to the music, especially because to honor the occasion I actually changed before I showed up to the feast, wearing the grayish-blue silk dress that Elanee gifted me what seemed to be a lifetime ago.
And right there and as if on cue, the final, rather interesting part of the dance began. I remembered, just in time not to panic. Male dancer goes on one knee while female dancer briefly rests her erm, posterior on his knee, one arm gracefully extended (inasmuch as gracefulness is possible at this stage of a country feast at Greengrass). I remembered well when this dance was usually played at the festivals, and traditionally it basically signaled that the feast was over and the younger participants were ready for other traditional activities, and, well…
Stop thinking in that direction, Arrighan.
I managed not to fall down, lose my balance or otherwise bring shame on myself or mine. I was really proud. Of course, Casavir's hand resting pretty much continuously on my hip from then on, as the dance demanded, had nothing to do with the way I had to fight not to just turn into one giant approximation of the sunset.
"That was nice." The musicians stroke the last chord and we ended perfectly in the position everyone else around us was in after the final twirl and lift. And it meant we were even more dangerously close that before: his arms still around me, his head slightly bowed, noses almost touching. "I thank you for the dance, my lady."
"Um. Feeling's mutual," I said, even less eloquent than usual. I could feel is breath on my face, and his beautiful azure eyes were right there, pulling me in…
Yes, it was Greengrass all right. Despite all the crushing emotional toil of what happened at Retta's house (or precisely because of it), my body seemed to be very much ready for whatever the traditional welcoming of Spring might bring. It kept reminding me that I was a healthy young woman, that I was engaged to a very, very handsome young man, that this was a night to eat, drink and be merry, in its traditional sense (as my human side reminded me, snickering, well, what do you think that phrase originally meant, Arrighan?)
"If I may ask…?" He bowed to me in that perfect courtly manner he always possessed and which I always envied and stepped slightly back, breaking the spell. I sighed. "Is there any other task the captain needs to perform in official capacity tonight?"
"Err, no." I shook my head and tugged at my hairpins, yet again dislodged. "Why, do we need to make a final sweep at the 'Cloak campsite, or…?"
"Not exactly, no." He cleared his throat. "I merely…was wondering if you would mind to…show me around a bit, meum mel?" Well, there went all the strength from my knees for sure. "I was otherwise engaged by your stepfather practically all day, and this I wasn't exactly in the position of… getting to know the place." He smiled a bit. "Although I certainly have been in the position to sightsee from the roof of your cottage."
"Crap. He did make you do roof repair after all." I said, still busy with the hairpins, as we slowly walked off the dance floor, his hand on my elbow. "I was afraid of that: there was a suspicious patch on the back of that roof that I reckoned might need some attention after the winter storms, I just wasn't here to help with it. Thank you." I put a hand on his and squeezed. "What else did he make you do, clean the chimney?"
"There was no time for that." He shook his head and twined his fingers with mine. I was thrilled: public displays of affection from him were entirely new and very much welcomed.
Plus, I doubt he'd do the same back in the Keep, my human side snickered. Welcome to Greengrass, Arrighan. Don't mess this up.
"Repairing the roof and chopping firewood took up the time nicely enough. "Casavir continued as we ambled along the path that led through the middle of the village. "Shouldn't we officially take our leave?"
"From whom?" I asked, jerking my head towards the barn. "It's nightfall: I suspect that based on your experiences during the ten years of you… wandering, you know what usually happens at this stage of rural festivities, right? Elders mostly engage in drinking and then stumble home to sleep it off, everyone else, well…"
"Indeed," he said, drily, but didn't let go of my hand. "In that case, maybe we should delay the sightseeing until tomorrow morning." He looked at my blank face and added. "As we might stumble upon activities in dark corners that…"
"I see." I said, hastily. "For decorum's sake, of course."
"Given what I remember about Greengrass in small towns and villages, for sanity's as well." He cleared his throat. "Your village does have Chauntea-worshipers, your livelihood coming mostly from Her bounty."
"It is said that She and Lathander are close." I said carefully. Relationships of deities were not exactly the type of theology Aevan and I discussed during my education, and what I've read and learned about the concept was vague at best. "So what you are saying is that it's perhaps best not to disturb Father Merring and his flock right now?"
"They are most likely otherwise, erm, engaged." Was it just the sparse lights from the torches and little fires burning at the crossroad, or did he really blush there?
"Ye gods, fertility rites." Sand's voice suddenly came out of the darkness as he emerged from the barn, adjusting his cuffs with meticulous care. Tarmas was right next to him. "Charming as this little festival was, I have no desire to witness the local customs in that regard." He looked me over. "You look slightly… frazzled, dear girl. Anything the matter?"
"Oh, for Mystra's sake." Tarmas said impatiently. "My esteemed colleague apparently forgets what day it is today." He waited for a heartbeat for Sand to catch up with his hint, then sighed and continued, using his 'I-am-talking-to-mentally-challenged-individuals' voice. "Well, I believe there is a passage in one of those Illefarn documents I've mentioned I possess that you were interested in regarding the last days of the Empire?" He paused, as if to wait for an answer. "Sand?" he prompted.
"Oh." Sand stopped staring at me as if he discovered I was made of bugs, or there was pie filling on my face (I actually started to wipe at my mouth as unobtrusively as possible to make sure). "Yes, you are right, my dear colleague," he said slowly, and shook his head. I could almost see thoughts passing through his mind swirling in the air. "My apologies. It's just that…but no, must be the long night. I could have sworn I've heard a child crying from right where you stand, Arrighan." He sniffed the air. "And is that…burning I smell?"
"Oh." I looked down and saw where I stood. "Gods, I didn't even notice we stopped right here." I shook my head seeing both Sand and Casavir stare at me with yet another variation on the theme of 'did you just grow two heads there, Arrighan?' "If there was a better light, you'd be able to see it; the earth here is all black and scorched. The grass never grew back at this spot after the battle when the King of Shadows was defeated here. After…"
"I'm sorry." Sand reached out and touched my hand quickly. I was surprised: he was never fond of physical closeness, or apologies, even, so it was decidedly odd. "That was when your mother died, correct?" I nodded. "I don't know how or why, but somehow tonight it echoes through time… perhaps due to the energies of Greengrass, combined with you being in the right place. " He sniffed the air again. "Yes, definitely burning...also, loss, tears, anger and…" He exhaled loudly, his eyes widening, then slowly took two steps back. "Ahh. Well, that is interesting."
"You are being even more mysterious than usual, Sand. " I said, trying not to notice that tiny little tremble in his voice and that his normally calm and even blue-tinged aura shook with ripples of yellow—fear, and light orange-suspicion. "Yes, this is the exact spot that old battle was fought and indeed, my mother and Daeghun's wife had died during that night—but we went through this already and no doubt Tarmas also told you about it." I tilted my head. "Is it actually seeing it here, through me, if you will, that makes the difference for a magic-user?" I turned to Tarmas. "Is this how you see it too?"
He shook his head, his hooded eyes watching Sand.
"No. This is…different and something that perhaps bears further discussion, as much as it pains me to admit. It is possible that due to him being an elf, he sees into the realm of possibilities easier than humans." He shrugged, with that wry expression on his face I knew so well from my childhood returning. "Or I simply have learned to ignore it without thinking about it; a constant reminder of arcane happenings in the past as you walk by its physical manifestation during your daily market trip can be rather taxing. Either way… we best be on our way." He tapped on Sand's shoulder, who was now staring at the spot at my foot, transfixed. "If my esteemed colleague would move, we will bother you no more tonight."
"No bother, Tarmas. "I murmured, somewhat distracted: I had to think over what just happened. "However, it's drawing late indeed. Perhaps we should visit you in the morning, given that we need to plan that Arvahn visit still in some detail and would use your advice on some points on the map?"
"Breakfast, then." Tarmas nodded and added: "Not too early, of course." He scratched his chin and threw a quick glance at Casavir that definitely had an appraising look to it. "On second thought, make that a lunch."
I wasn't sure whether I should comment on that or not, but decided against it, a further proof that my temper, indeed, could be harnessed successfully. I was proud of myself, and after assenting to lunch and murmuring 'good night' to the still somewhat distracted Sand and his colleague, we took our leave towards Daeghun's house.
"I am really starting to get tired of my fellow Harbormen's insinuations." I fumed quietly, after we put some distance between us and the wizards down the path. When no answer came, I looked at Casavir. "You are awfully quiet. Is it bothering you as well?"
"Mmm." He sounded distracted indeed. "It isn't exactly 'bothering', meum mel. I am merely attempting to keep up with the revelations of your past I have experienced since we've arrived. "He took my hand again. "You have to own, your ability to…" he paused, looking for words, "…to use one of our dear Neeska's expressions, 'downplay' the events of your childhood and upbringing is something to behold." There was a gentle chiding tone to his voice.
"Oh." I breathed, instead of the much more colorful word that was right there, ready to come out. "Oh, I see how that might…crap. Sorry." Yes, that was me, in all of my West Harbor glory. "I let my stepfather boss you around all day, leave you to the tender mercies of Georg and Tarmas for most of the evening, and act like it's every village and town that has a burnt hole in the ground of their main square that acts strangely when I'm near. Plus, I ignore you for the whole conversation with my hometown wizard…Yeah, I can see how that's a wee bit…" I bit back yet another strong word and stepped closer to him instead. "Let me apologize? A lot? Please?"
"Just tell me things." His arms went around me and I tried not to wheeze at the strength with which he clasped me to him. When he was not in armor, on the battlefield, I kept forgetting the sheer power in his corded arms, but my ribs right then reminded me rather insistently. "I cannot be a part of your life without that."
"I know." I swallowed hard. "For some reason I turned back into a somewhat lost six-year old as soon as we crossed the village borders. Ow. Ribs." I added. My pain tolerance as a paladin was rather high, but this was going to leave marks.
"You grew up here; every person you meet on the street knows practically everything about you." He tilted my chin up with his thumb, the rest of the fingers cradling my cheek; the pain in my ribs lessened as he let go with that arm. "Perhaps now you understand how I felt the first time I've returned to Neverwinter a little better?" I nodded, closing my eyes for a second, as his touch soothed my frazzled nerves. "You do carry enough on your shoulders already, meum mel: the added weight of worrying whether I shall find your home satisfactory is, for all intends and purposes, unnecessary." His lips brushed my forehead. "West Harbor sheltered your mother when she needed it, raised you in safety, led you to Tyr when it was time, and released you to the world when you were ready." His mouth quirked into a lopsided smile. "If for nothing else, for that alone I should bless its name and bear with your stepfather's tasks that, no doubt, will continue. For how would I have met you otherwise?"
I had plenty to be worried about. I had pressing responsibilities, duties, looming doom and mysteries enough to give worries to a seasoned veteran of many war campaigns, let alone for someone who a year ago was still wrestling with finishing her training. But there was one thing, I realized as I finally kissed him, the first time in two days, that I really never should have had any lingering doubts or worries. He accepted me with all that I was: West Harbor hedge-paladin, bastard daughter of an adventurer, wild card of the City Watch officer corps, Squire of Neverwinter, Captain of Crossroad Keep… and Chosen of the Even-Handed. Whatever may come, wherever our paths take us, I should stop questioning whether my actions, my past or my future, even, would make our bond weaker.
The surety of that blossomed in my heart as we parted and his battle-hardened fingers smoothed the loose tendrils of my hair behind me ear with a gentleness that still took my breath away.
"All right then." I smiled at him and took his hand. "I believe it is time to go home."
Daeghun was sitting out front, whittling on a piece of wood. He never attended the Greengrass festivities as a rule. I never asked why, but it must have been because of his wife, Shayla: I still remembered how I found a dried flower wreath, similar to what married women in West Harbor wore at the dance, hung on a nail up in the attic that still faintly smelled of springtime.
"There you are," he said calmly, looking up. "I trust the feast was to your liking?"
"It was entertaining, as always, foster-father." I said dutifully. "You shouldn't have waited up this late."
He always rose before the sun, and often spent the night outside, even; I spotted his bedroll and bow leaning against the bench he sat on and figured it would be the same tonight.
"I was planning on heading out later." I watched his hands: the small carving knife moved over the rough bark of the branch he held in small, careful movements.
"Sit." He said after a moment of silence, looking up at us. "Both of you, please." He waved at the other side of the wide bench: he and I had spent many a quiet evening here when he was more companionable than usual, and, at the times when Aevan was here to teach me, he and I did the same. "I have… things on my mind that probably best to talk about before you leave for your next quest, and it seems fitting that your man knows about these things as well."
"He has a name, you know." I bristled, but obeyed and sat next to him; Casavir took to my left, silent and watching both of us. I didn't realize until a moment later that we still held hands. "After you made him fix the roof and stack up your winter firewood, the least you can do is actually talk to him, you know."
Daeghun shook his head: it wasn't exactly reproachful, but the movement carried the weight of a whole paragraph, with the way his chin lifted towards me. 'There she is' it seemed to say. 'I tried to bring her up nice and proper, but see what I was given to work with?"
"I've spent a day with him while you were doing your duty as the leader of your people," he said quietly, and I subsided. "If he was offended by my manners, he surely would have left by now." He shrugged slightly. "We talked enough."
"You are just like Sand." I muttered, and that won me an amused shake of the head from Casavir. "I really should have locked the two of you in a room somewhere."
"Meum mel, let you stepfather speak." Casavir said, inclining his head towards Daeghun.
"Ganging up on me already?" I sniffed. "Next I know, you'll be asking me to bring you wine and cups. Let me make this clear, though, right now: I am not cooking barefoot. That kitchen floor is cold."
"Ah, Arrighan: always so full of life's fire." The way he said that silenced me. It was almost…gentle? I had no memories to Daeghun ever being gentle with me. Careful, always doing what was best for me, never losing his temper or even raising his voice. Not this: soft, almost tentative sound, eyes the color of the autumn forest looking at me as if…
Oh. The air went softly out of my lungs as I realized what was going on. With all that happened, yet another aspect of my visit I've almost forgotten all day finally sunk in.
I brought a man home. With whom I was ready to spend the rest of my life. And it looked like that was the sign of me really growing up in his eyes. Not being ordered to leave my home village, not succeeding in surviving the assassins who chased me, not making it to Neverwinter and ascending in the ranks of the City Watch, not even becoming a squire and captain of a border fort.
This. This was what made him all soft around the eyes and gentle-voiced. I looked down and my hand still entwined with Casavir's and blinked back sudden tears, because I remembered how Daeghun always studiously avoided looking at those couples wondering around our village at spring and summertime with hands linked, looking dazed and happy in that first flush of courtship. Back then I thought it was merely because he was an elf, distant and lacking outward emotions, bound by duty to raise a girl-child who was not related to him by blood. But now I knew that he avoided even thinking about seeing them consciously, because it reminded him of all that he's lost.
My Sight as a Chosen laid my foster-father's soul in front of me. I didn't mean to See it, I didn't want to, but there it was, keen and clear as a winter morning, and the faultline there was still raw, still bleeding, just like the very first moment when he saw his wife's broken body on the ground just a little ways from where we were sitting now.
This was the second time since I came to West Harbor that the Sight came on me unbidden, and I wasn't sure what it meant. Was I more open here, amidst the memories of my childhood? Was it connected to how Sand was able to see into the past through me there at that black patch of earth? Or was it something that I always had and it was simply growing, expanding, a part of me becoming more as a paladin, the Chosen of the Even-Handed?
I desperately needed advice about this. Naturally, I would speak to Casavir as soon as I could, but I had to talk to someone who had more experience in the matters of Our Lord's power than either of us. And that would have meant Prior Hlam or Judge Oleff, back in Neverwinter. Hells, if Mother Superior Hadewiga would have appeared out of nowhere, I would have sat down with her to talk right there and then. I needed to figure this out and soon, otherwise all of these new powers of mine, combined with whatever this Ritual of Purification Zhjaeve was talking about awaiting me at the ruins of Arvahn would prove to be just a little bit more interesting than I ever wanted.
But now… Now I looked at my foster-father's smooth face that was marred only by exposure to the elements of nature, not by age and wasn't sure what to say. Or if I should say anything at all.
"I could not have children, you know." His voice was reflective and soft: unlike most of the time. "My Shayla desired it very much, but…" He trailed that thought off. "We settled here, still hoping… Your mother, she was never too open about what her service to her god exactly entailed, even though we assisted her during some missions. And once you were born, she stayed here, with us, for you." He tilted his head. "Yet even though she never said it, we knew that something deeply troubled her. It was probably connected to your father. I am still not sure, and she never said, except that she feared someone would come for her, and for you one day. And so she exacted a promise from Shayla, a promise readily given." I took a sharp breath, knowing what was coming. I felt Casavir squeeze my hand reassuringly. "That if something should befall her, Shayla would care for you as her own. And as fate would have it, the promise would be fulfilled, but not by my bride. By me."
"Daeghun, I…" I very, very rarely called him by his name. It was almost always the strictly formal 'stepfather' I've used, and by the expression on his face I knew he realized it, too.
"Let me finish, Arrighan, please," he said quietly, holding up a hand. "Esmerelle never intended me to care for you— I know that you noticed during the years how such warmth comes difficult for me." I swallowed, hearing the admission of what was painfully obvious during my childhood years. "But you had no one else - so I did as best as I was able." He leaned forward, looking at me sideways. "I see other fathers, year over year, and marvel at how they do it. I wonder what would have happened if your mother and my Shayla had survived that night. If Shayla and I, through some miracle, managed to conceive. If you'd grown up in a real family. Would that have meant that the night when the githyanki attacked, you would not have been alone… if that would have meant the Amie had never died, that your mother would have been here and insisted to go with you and the whole turn of events would have been different." His sigh was almost wistful. "I know it's useless to speculate on such matters; and yet, here I am wishing for the impossible, so you would have a better advice for what is coming in your life than what one old, widowed adventurer can give you." He looked at Casavir now. "I can only tell you this, paladin of Tyr who holds my foster-daughter's heart: I know her years with me had not been easy ones—yet I hope she has grown up well in spite of me."
"I doubt it was in spite of you, Master Farlong." Casavir's voice was tinged with tones of Truth: I felt it at once and a shiver coursed down my spine. "From all the possible futures that could have been born from that sad night, the one where you raised Esmerelle's daughter as your own was most certainly not the worst."
"And so I keep telling myself." Daeghun said slowly. "Esmerelle was barely older than Arrighan now when we met her, you know, my brother and I. We were drawn together by mutual necessity, I imagine, much like Arrighan met most of her companions. We had others with us later, as well—and some tales of our adventures were told. "He shrugged. "But not all such stories end well, as you know. One day we realized that of the original band only we were left. My brother already settled in Neverwinter in his inn he bought with his gains from years of adventuring, and shortly after, I've met Shayla. I had enough of death, and soon we settled in West Harbor. Esmerelle, though, was spun from a different silk. She would visit us from time to time: sometimes there were tales, sometimes there were wounds and scars, and sometimes she had nightmares." He paused, the skin around his eyes drawn taut from memories. "And then came the year later known as the Year of Shadows."
"The Time of Troubles." Casavir's face was grim. "I was dedicated to Tyr the year before: I remember long hours spent in prayer to no avail when it happened… The Fall, they called it then: as novices, we were not told much about it, but those were dark times indeed, when gods walked the earth, bereft of their powers and seeking to regain them."
"'The heavens tumble and shake, and there is a storm coming, the like of which we haven't seen in our lifetimes and perhaps beyond,'" I whispered. They both looked at me sharply. "It's from a letter my mother wrote to Duncan that year," I explained. "Duncan gave me those back in Neverwinter a few months ago. It seemed my mother was somehow… either sensing its coming or… I don't have any proof of this but it seemed that she was sent to some kind of mission that was somehow… concerned with it?"
"And when she returned, she was thick with child." Daeghun said slowly. "You." He paused. "That was… you were born Kythorn 17, Year of the Serpent, the following year, so…"
"Almost exactly a year after the Fall." Casavir breathed. On his face I saw that reverent expression again that made me fearful every time I glimpsed it. "My lady, you must consult the Prior and the Reverend Judge as soon as possible. This might be of significance way beyond Neverwinter and possibly for the whole Order."
I knew what he meant: that I was sent as a sign, as a help, as something more than a mere mortal. After all, that's what people like me were called.
Aasimar. Planetouched. Heavens-sent.
"She never mentioned anything about your father, Arrighan." Daeghun shook his head. "In my homeland, we respect such silence, and this..."
He hesitated, looking back and forth between us, before apparently deciding on something and standing up.
"I…have a trunk in the attic," he said, looking down at me. "It has everything from your mothers' things I was able to find after the battle and rebuilding the house." I nodded, remembering the midsized oaken trunk, with its slightly rusty iron bindings and lock in one of the corners. "The key I put in your room on your dresser…I would suggest to have it taken back to your new home. Open it once your current quest is over, so whatever is in it, you face it with a heart unburdened of your present duties."
I nodded, somehow calmer: as always, Daeghun was sensible and thought this through. It made perfect sense to leave such tasks to when I could do it easy and in an environment unhurried and without being distracted from the deadly dangers of ruined cities and their secrets by whatever I find inside.
"However," he added, bending down and withdrawing something from his pack under his bedroll, "… I must give this one to you now. When your mother and Shayla…" He swallowed, the old pain so close to the surface I could almost see the bloodstains on his hands, "I found this in your mother's clothing: it seems she carried it with her always." He handed a folded, thick piece of darkened parchment to me and as our hands met, I felt his fingers take and squeeze mine. "I hope you forgive me for not giving it to you earlier," he whispered.
Casavir turned away as I opened the parchment, not wanting to pry, but he was back in a second, hearing my voice, between a sigh and a cry, escape my lips upon seeing what was there.
"Meum mel…?" he questioned, throwing an arm around me immediately. He and I looked together at the fine charcoal lines on the parchment, preserved unnaturally well all through the years.
A sketch of a man in repose, probably in sleep: ragged bandage covering one eye, the other with a large cut in the corner, its edges showing almost open and wide. It looked hastily drawn, a sketch, and had a smudge of something dark, maybe blood, in a corner. The hair, the beard, the shape of the jaw and the proud nose, slightly bent…
"Who is he?" Casavir asked quietly.
Oh, gods. Oh, gods. Oh, gods.
"That's Aevan." My voice was nothing but a hoarse whisper. "Aevan, my teacher. He came here first when I was twelve…"
"But then…" Casavir's voice shook. "But then how could your mother have…" He inhaled sharply as the realization hit him as well and his aura reacted to mine flaring up.
I touched the parchment, my fingers tracing the shape of his face almost reverently, and felt something break open in me like the tide of never-shed tears.
"My father." I whispered, and felt a deep toll of bells ringing in my ears at the certainty of that, stronger than ever before. "This is the picture of my father."