Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters or places used except for Thralia, Tiere, and Nelo.
This chapter is not one of my favorites, and I'm sorry it took so long to write. Thanks to all my reviewers, especially killsing. More to come, especially if my muse decides to cooperate with me.
Nathyrra could think of a dozen places that she would much rather be. Right now, sitting between Thralia and Valen astride her mare, every instinct was screaming for her to get out of the 'danger' zone. While the words exchanged between the elf and the tiefling were at least civil, there was no love lost between the pair right now. Anger and resentment still came off the arcane archer in waves, her mood echoed both by the black panther flowing silently along the ground beside her and the elven destrier that shifted under her skilled hands. Being next to Koronos, as the blue-black stallion was called, did nothing to ease her misgivings.
The large warhorse was lighter built then most horses of human knights, but no less lethal looking. Still bearing the noticeable traces of a elven mount in the refined head and curved neck, as well as the silken mane, tail, and long elegant legs, he still towered over her own small mare, who looked almost like some old nag in comparison to the splendid beast on her right. With Koronos's head at a higher height than the drow's own, and knowing that the beast was temperamental on the best of days, and prone to snap at nearby objects as a 'joke', the former assassin wished fervently that she was riding back with Aribeth, their rear-guard. On the other hand, Thralia was barely speaking three words to anyone, and if she left the two of them alone, who knew what would happen. Valen was looking like he had when he had first met Thralia, brooding and suspecting her of being a backstabbing liar. Of course, in this instance the expression could be partially justified… Sighing, Nathyrra leaned back in her saddle, staring gloomily over the pricked ears of the palomino. There was no easy fix to this situation.
Thralia hadn't returned to the inn that night, instead going to the stable where her elven warhorse, Koronos, was kept. There she had curled up next to the big horse, taking some comfort in from his warmth. Thankfully Koronos had recognized that his mistress was in no mood to talk, and hadn't even done his usual head butting as a way of greeting. Still, the elf had not been able to sleep, finally getting up with the first light of dawn. Entering the inn she had seen her companions already up and eating breakfast. Ignoring her own rumbling stomach she went over to them, standing at the edge of the table until Aribeth looked up with a quizzical expression on her face. With a flash of anger, the druidess noticed how Valen studiously ignored her. Fine. Two could play that game. "I need to return to Neverwinter. I have been, ah, summoned, there, and I must ride with haste. If you wish to rest for a few more days I can have a guide escort you to Neverwinter, but I am leaving today." While speaking she had addressed her words to the paladin and ex-assassin, standing partially with her back to the weapons master, ignoring the look she could sense him sending her.
"Of course we're coming with you now," Aribeth said, concern for her friend flashing briefly through her eyes. It was apparent that Thralia had spent a sleepless night last night, the skin under her vibrant emerald eyes looking almost bruised. For an elf Thralia was relatively young, and not for the first time Aribeth had to wonder what a pureblooded elf so young was doing out in the human world. Elves were fiercely protective of their children, since there were so few. The fact that Thralia had left her home some while before Aribeth had met her the first time told her that there was some large disgrace or tragedy in her past. It almost hurt that Thralia spoke so little about her past, when she knew all about Aribeth's own life so well, and Valen's and Nathyrra's too. While the paladin's emotions were like an open book, the elf's past was closed off to all.
"Very well then. We leave in half and hour. I already have mounts picked out for all of you. Nathyrra, you have the palomino mare Calleo, Aribeth you have a dappled-grey gelding called Aspen, both human horses." For a brief moment something flickered in Thralia's eyes as she debated whether or not to ignore Valen completely, and then decided that aggravating him so early in the day might not be the best thing, even though it would give her some bitter satisfaction. "Valen, most horses won't take tieflings. I couldn't find one that I would trust to actually make it to Neverwinter alive-" Thralia knew her animals, especially her talking beasts and horses, and hated seeing the rotten conditions so many were kept in-"so you'll be taking my roan mare. She's the elven runner, next to Koronos. Her name is Arrnatari." A small grim smile curled her lips up as she turned, walking out of the common room without another backwards glance. She had neglected to warn Valen that Koronos was no well-behaved horse, and that Arrnatari, or Snow Queen in common, was sweet on the surface, but a most demanding and pushy mare that was upset with the tiefling because he had upset her mistress. That, and Arrnatari held contempt for most males of any species.
Feeling Koronos shift under her again brought Thralia back to her surroundings. Tail flicking, the black stallion snorted, tossing his head under the silken bridle. The druidess used no bits on any of her horses, which normally would cause difficulty for her companions, but she had spoken with all of the beasts-except for Arrnatari-asking them to behave. Valen would just have to deal with Arrnatari. "We should stop and let the horses graze soon." This was the most she had spoken since the morning in the tavern where she had announced her plan. Now she sighed, running a hand through her shoulder-length hair.
A small cheer came from behind her. "Yay! Deekin no like being up so high. He glad he no ride boss's horse. He be verrrry big." The small kobold was clinging behind Aribeth, being too small to have a horse of his own, and due to the fact that no pony would be able to keep up with the larger steeds. The bard's color seemed a little off, and judging by the way his eyes were squeezed tightly he was not enjoying the ride at all.
Nathyrra was glad of a reason to get off her mount. Not accustomed to riding, she was starting to feel sore from the saddle. "There's a clearing off to the left," she said, pointing. Not able to wait a moment longer, and without an answer, she swung her leg over the back of the mare, stifling a groan as she stood up on the ground. Her keen eyes watched as for the first time since the morning Valen and Thralia made eye contact, completely by accident. The expression on both of their faces was enough to make her want to douse both of them with a bucket of cold water to help them regain their senses.
Thralia had looked over to where Nathyrra had been, intending to speak with the drow woman about continuing on for a little farther, but all words and thoughts left her as she met Valen's ice blue eyes. It hurt seeing how hurt he was looking, the pain, the confusion, and the uncertainty in his eyes. He was so vulnerable, so emotionally unstable. Just one look made her stomach flip, and she shifted in the saddle uneasily, trying to tear her gaze away. It terrified her how much Valen mattered to her. The elf had a habit of losing the ones she cared about; whether watching them die, leaving them behind, or simply growing apart. A pang of buried sorrow struck her, and her hands clenched tightly around the reins, her eyes burning with tears that wanted to fall, but she forbid them to. The last time she had cried had been over two years ago, and she had no intent on crying now for no apparent reason. "That sounds good," she said, pleased that her voice sounded level.
Valen wanted to get closer to her, to take away the lines of worry and the marks of a sleepless night. He wanted to hold her tight to him and take her away from all of the duties that she was returning to. It wasn't fair to her, for the gods to pile one duty on top of another and expect her to always be ready for action. This time he wasn't going to be the first to ask for forgiveness. Last night he had tried, but Thralia had merely reacted by throwing around more barbed words. Upon his shoulders lay a heavy weight, for he very much feared losing her; there were so many things in the world above, this surface world, that called to her. It was hard to imagine her staying with him, a tiefling, when there were such bright and beautiful creatures of her own kind. Though, he had to admit, he had not seen many pure elves like Thralia, nor encountered any that she seemed to know personally.
Not a moment after Nathyrra's feet hit the ground Valen was swinging off his horse as well. Arrnatari was not a docile mount; she refused to wade through the mud left by wagons, and went at her own pace, deliberately keeping to the far side of the road and running him into as many branches as possible, even backing up once or twice to hit him again. Valen, unfamiliar with horses, did very little to correct her heading, though he had figured out that the mare already had a grudge against him. The lack of reaction, unfortunately for the weapons master, only encouraged the mischievous elven steed, so now that Valen was on the ground the advantage was all hers. Without warning the mare stopped, causing Valen who was walking beside her with a hand on her flank to run into her head, which she had turned around. Ears went back, and the mare stepped to the side, stepping on Valen's feet in the process. Just as suddenly as she had stopped she was moving again, pulling the silken reins out from the tiefling's hands. Snorting, Arrnatari shook her head, trotting up on the other side of Koronos and nipping at the larger beast. Wisely Koronos ignored her, and soon she lost interest, walking into the clearing where Nathyrra was sitting beside a grazing Calleo.
Koronos had halted in the clearing, waiting for his mistress to dismount. A frown was on Thralia's face, and her eyes were distant. The insistent bumping of a soft nose against her knee reminded her that she was still mounted, and frowning she slipped off the large horse, automatically loosening the girth before Koronos moved off. Idly she watched as Aribeth dismounted, more graceful than the tiefling or drow, and then held her arms up while the small kobold practically jumped off, taking only a brief look before throwing himself at the paladin, eyes closed tight again. Next her gaze traveled to Valen who was just entering the clearing. Again their eyes met, and the anger and fear boiled through her.
She hated him. She hated herself. Her emotions were irrational, and unfounded, but she was terrified. Previously she had believed herself to be in love with Aarin, and know she knew that while it had been a type of love, it was nowhere near as binding or as potent as her love with Valen. For years, since she had left her homeland, Thralia had avoided getting to close to a single person. Then she had allowed herself to get close to both Aribeth and Aarin, and then had been told to deliver her friend, the former paladin of Tyr and protector of Neverwinter, to the gates of death. It had torn her apart, turning on her friend, but after seeing what Aribeth had become, after trying to dissuade her from the path she was following, Thralia had killed her, and it had broken part of her spirit. Aarin had been her rock then, keeping her from taking out her anger and pain on the world, and stopping her from sinking into the dark depths of despair. He had helped her to heal, as much as he could, and she had been better for that. Neverwinter had become her home, and she had become its champion.
That was all nothing to what she felt for Valen. She would die for Neverwinter, for Aarin, for Nasher, yet it was Valen who she needed to live for. Whom she had to live for. Without him her life would be meaningless, empty, and that scared her. The druidess liked to consider herself independent, free of any restraints or chains. However she knew that wherever Valen went she would follow.
The druidess couldn't face that. It was too daunting, to terrifying for her. If you became attached you could become broken. The truth was that she was hopelessly in love with the tiefling, but she though she had said as much, she balked at all the burdens and ties that came with love. Again that pointless anger welled up in her, and it was the only thing keeping back tears.
"You have that look on your face like you're going to run away from the world," Aribeth observed from behind the elf. Slowly Thralia turned to face the paladin, and there was a careful mask of emptiness on her face, concealing her emotions. "Or you're going to blow something up; I haven't quite decided which one is which yet," the paladin continued, face perfectly straight. Reluctantly a smile tugged the corner of Thralia's lips up.
"I don't know either," she told her friend, who was one of the few who never pretended to understand or judge the druidess. They had both done things that were… questionable, but they both had their hearts in the right place. The smile was gone again, replace by a dark scowl. "The horses need to graze for a while. I think-" The words froze on her lips as across the clearing Nathyrra let out a cry, standing up and drawing her short swords. Instinct kicked in, and the druidess had he arrow knocked and ready to fire when she realized what had startled the drow.
It was difficult not to laugh, so Thralia turned her face away, setting down her bow and going over to the deer that stood petrified, large eyes filled with fright. Running a hand down the doe's brown hide she sent thoughts of calm through the animal, until the doe blinked and bent down to graze. Valen and Aribeth stood behind Nathyrra, though Aribeth had replaced her bastard sword when she had seen the deer. "It's just a deer," Tierre said, yawning as he strode over to the group. "Perfectly harmless. An herbivore. Is usually afraid of people."
"Well how was I supposed to know that?" A cross Nathyrra asked. "In case you don't remember, I haven't exactly been up here to the surface before, and in the Underdark there isn't anything that isn't harmful."`
The panther gave the drow a glance that spoke volumes, before turning and walking away from the group, curling up in a patch of dim sunlight. "Unless it's carrying a blade or twice as a big as a horse it's probably not harmful," Thralia said, still facing the deer. It had been a while since she had been in the forest. The feeling she had gotten when she had entered the canopy of the towering giants had been like someone filling in a hole in her being.
Now the lure of the forest was calling to her, the elements speaking to her as they would. Wind played in her air, and the faintest smell of rain came to the elf's keen senses. Taking a step forward, she let herself sink into the forest, her consciousness spreading out, becoming part of the forest.
Watching Thralia, Valen saw the moment when her eyes closed and her body went lax. Concern and worry stabbed him, and forgetting about being angry with her, he stepped forward, placing a hand on her shoulder. There was no reaction at all. Throwing a glance back at Nathyrra and Aribeth he saw the same confusion on their faces as he imagined must be on his own. Thralia wasn't behaving like herself, and none of them had any idea why.
This part of the Neverwinter Woods wasn't familiar to her, so she did not expect to find any familiar presences. Similar essences, yes, but not any one presence that she could name. So when she encountered the being that she knew her shock sent her violently back into her body. The transition was rough, and she staggered backwards slightly, mouth forming a silent cry as she felt herself begin to fall backwards-and was stopped by a something large and warm. One muscular arm was draped over one shoulder and pinning her tightly just below her throat, while the other went around her waist, steadying her. Realizing who had caught her Thralia tried to pull away to no avail.
"What are you-" the sharp question being formed on Thralia's lips was cut off as a small winged shape slammed into her stomach, causing her to fall back against Valen again, her knees buckling, the tiefling now the only thing keeping her from falling to the ground. Claws cut through the light padded armor she was wearing, drawing warm blood to the surface as fragile butterfly wings beat frantically as the small creature tried to burrow into the wizard's solar plexus.
There was more movement, and before Valen or Thralia could react a small throwing dagger had pinned an ice memphit to a tree. The creature let out one high-pitched squeal of pain and a pitiful flutter of thin wings before falling silent, death claiming it. Thralia's attention was shifted away from the dead memphit by a new series of scratches, causing her to hiss in pain. "Nelo! It's dead!" she half-shouted, half-growled at the faerie dragon busy trying to hide himself in his mistress.
A pair of multi-faceted blue-green eyes looked out of a small, draconic face. Twin spouts of smoke came from two nostrils as the faerie dragon climbed up the remains of the shredded armor to curl around Thralia's neck, oblivious to the glare that Valen was shooting at him. "It wasn't a moment ago when it was chasing me," Nelo pointed out, snout in Thralia's sensitive ears. The elf gritted her teeth, telling herself to relax.
"Why was it chasing you?" the druidess asked, automatically reaching up to stroke Nelo, her arm brushing against Valen's as she did so. A tingle shot through her at the contact, of skin on skin, and she jerked away, this time Valen releasing her. Taking a deep breath she waited for Nelo to answer her before turning around.
"What do I look like, a mind reader?" the faerie dragon asked, snorting in derision at the thought. "How am I supposed to know why it and a bunch of its buddies wanted me dead? I mean, its not like I was taunting them or something," Nelo said, sounding too defensive.
"Nelo…" Thralia began. The small dragon merely hid his face behind her tawny hair, claws lightly digging into her shoulders. Sighing Thralia turned around, her eyes briefly flicking up to Valen's before looking over his shoulder to Aribeth and Nathyrra.
"Now that was not harmless. " Tierre padded up to Nathyrra, eyes glittering with silent mirth. "Good job on killing it. The dagger was probably a little over-kill, but it worked." The expression on Nathyrra's face indicated that at that moment she would like nothing better than to skin the panther alive.
Flicking his tail the panther inclined his head as he examined what he could see of Nelo. "You're bleeding," he informed Thralia. "And if we want to reach Neverwinter anytime soon we need to get moving again."
A small snout poked out from the depths of the elf's hair. "About Neverwinter; Nasher said he expects you to come and greet him first, and to be ride through the main thoroughfares of the city. He also says that you are to behave yourself and not get into any fights until after he's talked with you. And Aarin sends his regards. Apparently everyone thought you were dead, and um, well… there are some people who are err… upset… that you still live."
A mirthless laugh came from Thralia's lips as they twisted in a bitter reflection of a smile. "I can only imagine who wishes that I'm still dead," she said. And who told them all I was dead. Abruptly she moved forward, meaning to brush by Valen and begin reading the horses to move again. A warm calloused hand gripped her arm, stopping her cold. For a moment Thralia's shoulders sagged, tired of fighting, but then she straightened up and glared at Valen. "Yes? Is there something you need?" she asked, voice cold.
Valen felt his temper rise, irritated by Thralia's refusal to talk with him. "Several things, actually," he said through gritted teeth. His eyes glowed with anger, the blue irises hard, his lips set in a tight line. Behind the pair, Aribeth and Nathyrra exchanged a glance, silently asking whether or not to try and stop the sure to follow argument or to make themselves great. Coming to an agreement both women moved away from the tiefling and elf, towards the horses.
"For starters, you could stop ignoring me or acting like I'm your enemy." Unconsciously his grip on Thralia's arm tightened, and the elf's jaw set in pain, remaining silent though, refusing to draw attention to the fact that he was hurting her. "And then you might want to actually include us in your thoughts." The anger in his eyes also mixed with hurt, and it tore into the druidess like a dull dagger, leaving a jagged, wound behind. Valen's free hand then moved around as a finger traced over one of the new tears in the padded armor, eliciting a wince from the elf. "Those need to be bandaged," he told her, voice softer now, not nearly so loud and hard.
Thralia was confused by his reactions, both angry and kind. "They're just scratches," she said, the hand of the arm not being gripped by Valen attempting to pry his hand off her arm, which was starting to lose circulation. The attempt to free herself proved futile, and it seemed like Valen hadn't even noticed her efforts. This sparked the anger that was lying so close under the surface of her emotions.
The anger wasn't justified by any means, but it was a way to protect herself, one that the druidess had used before and had worked. The small faerie dragon still on her shoulder abruptly moved, making an ungainly jump off her shoulder, flapping wings moving quickly to stop him from hitting the ground. Even Nelo, hardly the most observant of creatures, could tell that he had been in the wrong place.
"And I'm hardly ignoring you now, am I?" Thralia demanded, emerald eyes blazing with her own fury. "Now, if you don't mind, I did intend we get there before nightfall tomorrow, so if you would kindly remove your hand from my arm we can be leaving. Or would you rather I first inform you of when and where we should stop for the night, what we shall eat for dinner, and who shall take what watches right now?"
The biting sarcasm in her tone was irritating Valen even further. "For one moment could you try and listen to me?" he demanded, gripping her chin tightly with one large hand. She tried to jerk away from him, but he wasn't having any of it this time. It was tempting to yell back at her, but the tiefling had figured out by this point that if he fought back then the situation would never be resolved.
"Thralia… I'm not asking you to do anything except let me be with you. I know you are who you are, and that won't change, so don't try pushing me away." Hus crystalline blue eyes bored into her emerald ones, holding her captive. "Thralia, I love you. You know that. I will do anything you ask of me, except leave you. I have already left behind everything I know and followed you to the surface." The elf's eyes were bright with tears she was just restraining from falling. Valen's hand fell away from her chin, and he pulled her close to him, holding her tight against his frame. She seemed so fragile, her body so small and willowy compared to his large frame. It was no wonder she thought him overprotective, for how could he not be when she was so easily hurt? Thralia was far too merciful for her own good sometimes.
Thralia couldn't take it. She wanted to be angry with him, but she just couldn't hold onto that anger any longer. The tears fell down her face, the saltiness rolling past her lips. Her tiefling just held her there, where she felt safe and loved. It was too much. She had no idea how to deal with these emotions, but she would have to find a way. Valen wasn't leaving her side. "I'm so sorry my love." Slowly the druidess raised her tear-streaked face to look at Valen. "And I know I have noright to ask this of you, but I have to ask this of you all the same." Taking a deep breath she steadied herself. "I still love Aarin. Not like I love you. Not anything like that. But I can't just hurt him by telling him that you are my soul mate. It would break him."
Her thoughts traveled back to when she had first met the silent spymaster, and the tale he had told her of his past love. She was brought back to the present by Valen's arms tightening their grip. "I have already asked you to do so much, but I have to ask you to do one more thing for me. Let me tell him that we're together. I… when we reach Neverwinter we can't look anything more than good friends. I need time to let him down gently without hurting him. He's already been hurt so much, and used by so many people. I don't-I can't-have him thinking that I just used him too."
Valen wanted to say no, to tell her that he couldn't watch her with another man, even if he knew it was only a pretense. He couldn't take watching her and not being able to hold her close, to protect her. "Of course," he whispered against her ear, feeling her relax even as he said it. It hurt that she asked this of him, but he could not refuse. "Now let's get you bandaged up," he said, pulling away and looking down to her cuts.
"I can heal myself," Thralia told the surprised tiefling. Valen shook his head, running a finger up her cheek before turning away, pulling her with him, slipping an arm around her waist.
"Since you're fine I'm assuming that we are leaving now?" Valen asked as they walked back towards the rest of their group. "That would be correct," Thralia said, leaning her head against him.
Once mounted the group began to set off, though Valen and Nathyrra dropped back as this part of the road only had room for two horses abreast. Nathyrra looked at Valen, concern on her face. "You two made up, so what's with the long face?" she asked, one arm reaching out to touch the tiefling's arm. He looked distracted.
"She… she asked that she tell her past lover that we are together." His voice was clipped and tense, like he was holding back on something. "You're not telling me something," Nathyrra said, pulling her hand back.
Sighing, Valen decided that he might as well tell the drow. "She says that she needs time to let him down gently, and that once we reach Neverwinter I can appear as no more than a good friend. I don't know if I can do that, but I can't refuse her anything." There was frustration in voice, and hurt, too, Nathyrra realized. "Oh," was all she managed to reply though.
Frowning she returned her attention to the road. Tonight she would have to have a talk with Thralia. She knew the druidess wasn't trying to hurt Valen, but the tiefling wasn't telling her exactly how he felt either. Both of them were holding back from each other, and it was sorely tempting to knock both of their heads together. How both of them could be so thick headed… The assassin shook her head, clearing away those thoughts. Now was not the time to think about such things.
Camping that night under the open stars was a new experience for the tiefling and drow. "Elistraee watches over us this night," Nathyrra said, voice hushed in reverence. One of the drow goddess' symbols was stars, and above the group was a large spread of them. "It is beautiful, isn't it?" Aribeth asked, as Thralia set up the sleeping rolls, having determined that tents weren't necessary, as it wouldn't rain tonight.
The group was all exhausted, even the horses. Thralia had pushed the group hard, anxious as she was to get to Neverwinter. So it was that Nathyrra forgot to speak with the druidess before she told them all she was turning in, and the thought did not occur to her as she too got into her sleeping bag. The next morning they would be, hopefully, approaching the gates of Neverwinter.
Sleep claimed the group, except for the black panther that watched over them. Tierre was troubled. His mistress was trying to balance too many emotions, and it would not end without some heartbreak. Worse was the stress she was placing herself under. It would not take much to make her snap, and the court nobles of Neverwinter sorely tried her patience at the best of times. He was expecting that soon Thralia would snap, and he had no idea about what to do. He supposed he would do what he could when the time came.
Well here it is, at last. The next chapter they should (finally) reach Neverwinter. Again, reviews are always appreciated and encourage me to write faster.