This story is rather different in tone from my last one, and going to be not nearly as long - maybe three or four chapters. It comes from a small idea that I had a couple of days ago, so I hope it works. A few things may differ from what is said and implied at the end of the OC and MOTB - mostly to do with who survives and is still in West Harbour. Usual disclaimer still applies - everything except the main character belongs to Bioware.
It was raining the day she returned to West Harbour, much as it had been the day she left. Soft, grey drizzle seeping through low branches and running down thick bark and soaking into the deep, green moss. Her hair was damp and wisping at her temples, and her boots were leaking. The pack she carried kept her back dry, but her cape and leathers were wicking up water. Not that she cared, not now; she had travelled too long and too far to worry that small raindrops ran down the back of her neck or fell from her forehead as she walked.
She had heard the rumours all along the coast, that the bull-headed tenacity of the Mere farmers meant they had returned – those that survived, in any case. Returned to the swamps and the greenness and the ever-pervading smell of wet earth. The last she had seen of the village, most of the buildings still smouldered, while shadows played in the wreckage. She wondered how many had left in time, how many of them had escaped. Bevil Starling had told her that some of them had, but even he did not know true numbers.
She had walked the weeks-long journey from Crossroad Keep, and refused the horse she had been offered. The Knight-Captain's sudden and shocking return from the wilds of Rashemen had sent the keep into uproar, with messengers sent at all haste for Neverwinter and Sir Nevalle scrabbling to arrange some kind of proper celebration. When she had sent him away wearily, explaining that she merely wished to rest a few days, and then he could do whatever the hells he cared with the keep, he had looked almost relieved.
She had discovered Khelgar firmly ensconced in the Phoenix Tail Inn, along with Sand and Neeshka, and had whiled away a few days in friendly conversation. They talked of the others who had fallen in Merdelain, except Bishop, and she told them of her quest in faraway Rashemen. She spoke of those she had met there, of Safiya, the Red Wizard, who was not entirely whole, and Okku the Bear-God, and Gann-of-Dreams, the hagspawn to whom she had bidden a soft farewell at the borders of Rashemen. There had been Kaelyn the Dove as well, who had fallen beneath the misguided passion of her own doomed crusade.
Some details she kept to herself, not trusting herself to speak of them yet; the curse that had left her hollow and almost dead, and Akachi's memories, that had burrowed so deep into her that she had been no longer sure whether her thoughts were hers or his.
Despite Khelgar's protests, she left with the dawn some days later, after a vague promise to see them again sometime. Her path took her to Neverwinter, and a brief stop at The Sunken Flagon, where Duncan spoiled her for a good fortnight or so. They traded tales of old adventures; he, of past times when he had ventured half-drunk into orc caves, and she, of the time the Ashenwood had woken and taken to vengeance, and she had in turn beaten the blights of the forest back and called the Wood Man from his slumber.
After agreeing that she had seen stranger things, Duncan packed her off on the road to West Harbour with a bag full of coin, a bottle of his oldest whiskey, and a fierce hug that had almost made her want to waste another month or so in his company.
Now, beneath the steadily falling rain, she followed the old, fern-fringed track towards the slope of the green. Most of the houses were rebuilt, she noticed, and lights burned within. The afternoon sun had long been lost behind swathes of cloud, and the shadows lengthened. She passed the drooping willow trees, and the huge log she had once fallen off as a child. Bevil had laughed at her, she remembered, to take her mind from the impressive scrape she earned.
A quick glance across the river showed her Daeghun's house, still standing, and as uninviting as she recalled. No lanterns flickered behind the windows, but she knew that meant nothing useful. He had rarely bothered with lights, save the odd candle or two, and in any case, she did not know if he was home or out in the forest.
Not quite able to make herself cross the bridge and knock at his door and find out, she turned her steps instead towards the old Starling farm. Here, light blazed against panes and under the line of the door. She wondered briefly how she was going to appear to them – half-starved and worn out, no doubt – before knotting one hand and knocking.
She heard footsteps and a male voice first. "Yes, Ma. I hear it. Probably Tarmas, come scrounging for a good meal."
The door swung wide, and Bevil Starling gaped at her. "Rhythien..?"
She nodded awkwardly. "Remember me?"
"Rhythien…I thought you were…" Bevil shook his head. "Gods, what am I saying? Come in, you look exhausted."
He hauled her into the hall, and she saw familiar wood paneling and candlelight. Retta's voice floated quizzically down from the dining room, and Bevil called back, "Hold on a moment."
He closed the door and stared hard at her. "Rhythien, where have you been all this time?"
"Long story." She swiped a hand across her forehead, scattering raindrops. "I'm sorry for intruding…"
"Intruding? Don't be silly. You never intrude, you know that." Bevil stared at her again and then laughed. "Gods, I'm sorry. I can't believe…we all thought you were dead. Here, let me have your cape."
She shed her pack and her cape, and her swordbelt and weapons followed. "I was at Crossroad Keep a few weeks ago. Sand told me you'd come home."
Bevil nodded. "Didn't take a shine to being a soldier, after all. Seemed more use to come back here and do something worthwhile." He grasped her elbow, steered her into the dining room where Retta sat. Steam rose up from uncovered dishes, and Rhythien's stomach growled.
"Great Gods above." Retta shoved her chair back. "Rhythien, child. You're back?"
"Yes." She let Bevil guide her into a seat near his mother. "Yes…been a long time, yes?"
Retta motioned to her son. "Don't just stand there. Get the poor girl some food."
While Bevil busied himself with a spoon and a plate, Retta clasped Rhythien's cold hands. "We thought we'd lost you, child. After all that business in Neverwinter, and then you taken off to that castle." She patted Rhythien's palm. "Good to have you back, child."
Rhythien nodded numbly. A plate appeared in front of her, and the familiar smells of roasted vegetables and sliced meat invaded her mouth and nose. She stared at the swirl of rich gravy. "Retta, Bevil…I'm sorry. I just…I haven't talked to anyone in a while."
"Don't apologise to us, child." Retta found her a cup of ale, placed it beside her. "You just eat, and then you can talk if you want."
She nodded again, and dug into mashed potatoes and pumpkin and carrots. Days of trail rations had left her craving for real, hot food, and she had almost forgotten how wonderful a cook Retta Starling was. The potatoes swam with butter, and the meat was tender. She drank, and the almost-forgotten, slightly bitter taste of the ale slid down her throat.
How much else had she forgotten, she wondered, while wandering the snowy forests of Rashemen, fighting the curse that slowly ate at her?
"Is…" She looked up from her over laden fork. "Is Daeghun at home?"
"No, sweetheart." Retta smiled gently. "He took himself off into the forest a tenday or so ago. Not expecting him back for another, I reckon."
She nodded slowly. "Do you mind if…could I stay with you? Until he comes back?"
"Of course you can, child. You don't even have to ask. You know that." Retta squeezed her hand. "I'll leave you two alone. Keep eating, sweetheart. You could do with it."
Rhythien scooped up another mouthful of pumpkin and nodded silently again. Left alone with the man who had been the boy she had grown up with, she could think of nothing to say. She had last seen him when Crossroad Keep had been attacked, and the siege had begun in the darkest hours of the night. She had been woken from an uneasy sleep by the ranger, Bishop, who had asked again if she wanted to run away.
The attack had been brutal, and Bevil had been wounded. Touring the infirmary afterwards, she had seen older scars on him, the marks of the torture he would not speak of. And then events had hurtled along ahead of her, and she had ventured out into Merdelain with the others, and had not known if Bevil had lived.
"Rhythien," Bevil said quietly. "You know I searched for you, don't you? Me and Daeghun, we both did…we went after you, into Merdelain, but we found nothing."
She blinked. "You did?"
"Nevalle's soldiers had already been there, and pulled out Sand and Neeshka and Khelgar. We went in after them and combed over that place stone by stone."
"Yes." Bevil topped up his drink. "I know you think he…anyway, he came with me. Did all the scouting, really. We turned the whole place inside out and came up with nothing but old bones and odd track marks. Khelgar swore blind he'd seen you carried off by something, and I thought, well, maybe he was right."
"He was right." She mopped up the last of the gravy with a thick crust of bread. "They were gargoyles. They took me to Rashemen."
She shrugged tiredly. "Can I save that one for tomorrow?"
"Sure. Look, you look like you're about to keel over. You want to sleep?"
She nodded. "Bevil?"
"No problem." He grinned good-naturedly. "Come on. You can have the small room upstairs."
She followed him unsteadily, realized just how tired she was. Had she even slept properly since leaving Rashemen? Maybe at The Sunken Flagon, she conceded, but most nights she woke coated in cold sweat. Remembering staring at the Wall of the Faithless, or facing down Myrkul's sneering remains, or walking the silent, grey streets of the City of the Dead. Other nights she dreamed of Akachi, and his descent from boy in fierce love to madman without a face. And how easy could it have been, for her to succumb to the curse, and let it turn her into nothing, as well?
"Here you go." Bevil pushed the door open, handed her a candle, fluttering in its brass holder. "Sleep as long as you want, Rhythien."
"Thank you." She gazed into the room and wondered what would plague her sleep this night. "Bevil, where are the little ones?"
"Not so little anymore." He smiled widened, then faded. "You know about Danan?"
She nodded; she did. Killed when the village had been destroyed, the youngest Starling sibling she remembered only as tiny and vivacious. "What about the others?"
"With Tarmas, and learning how to hold a sword properly with Georg." He shrugged. "Stubborn to the core, both of them."
"That's good to know." She mustered up a pale smile. "Goodnight, Bevil."
He inclined his head and left her to the shadows and the soft twilight streaming in through the window. She left the curtains half-open; she did not care for darkness. She unpinned her hair, ran her fingers through the thick tresses. She kicked off her boots and stripped off her tunic and leggings. Clad only in her shirt, she slipped beneath clean sheets and fell into sleep only bothered once by old nightmares.
Perhaps out of old habit, she woke with the dawn light streaming through the curtains. She peered out through the panes at a misty, damp West Harbour morning. Thin grey tendrils wrapped around leaning tree trunks, and the grass glittered. She recalled hating this weather, this unceasing mugginess and grey skies. But now, after the cold and the bitterness of Rashemen, and the shadows of Merdelain, she could find little to fault in it.
She dressed quickly and quietly, and left her hair loose. She discovered Retta in the kitchen, kneading bread, white with flour to her elbows, and two loaves already baking. "Can I help?"
"No, child. I'm nearly done as it is." Retta pushed a stray lock out of her eyes. "Your hair is still long."
Rhythien nodded, a little self-conscious. "It seemed the only thing I took from here that did not change. So I kept it."
The clothes she had left in had been worn to holes and replaced; the sword, broken, and a new one forged, only to be cast aside in favour of the Sword of Gith. Even her own skin was traced with new scars, and she was certain her laugh sounded different.
"I understand, a little." Retta pounded the dough into shape. "When I first moved her from Neverwinter to be with Bevil's father, I had the longest, most lovely blonde hair."
Rhythien smiled. Even Daeghun had mentioned once that Retta had been considered beautiful in her youth. "Sounds enviable."
"I kept it past my waist for nearly fifteen years." She sighed, lifted the tray into the oven. "I decided I was absolutely determined that this place was not going to make me regret having the most impractical hair."
"How old were you?"
"When I came here? Oh, younger than you, child. Seventeen, I think." Retta wiped her hands. "Bevil's outside, somewhere. Should be chopping wood, but you know how that boy daydreams."
The older woman glanced across at her. "Yes, sweetheart?"
"You know…" Rhythien shivered. "Bevil did some amazing things at Crossroad Keep. I expect he does not talk about it much, but…you should be so proud of him."
"Oh, he doesn't, as you'd imagine. And I am, sweetheart. Very much so." Retta smiled, but she saw the edge of sorrow beneath. "Now take yourself outside for some fresh air, and remember to come back for lunch."
Rhythien recovered her cape by the door, and almost went to buckle on her sword. So long, it had been it seemed, that she had worn weapons as comfortably as any piece of clothing. She stared at the longsword and its tarnished, oft-used hilt, and decided firmly to leave it hanging beside the door.
Feeling curiously vulnerable, she stepped outside into the clammy mist and breathed in. The air tasted of moisture and mildew and leaves. She made her way between the leaning, dark houses, the earth beneath her feet soft with dew. A short walk took her to the solitude of the encroaching trees, and she paused. She recalled Daeghun leading her through these forests, making her inspect each log and twig and draped vine. He had seen tracks and prints she could not for the life of her point out amid the mud and the clinging ferns.
She wasted the better part of the morning sitting on a low-hanging branch and staring at the twining mist. Afterwards, she meandered back towards the farmhouse and found Bevil picking potatoes in the vegetable garden. She helped him and they worked in companionable silence, as they had so many years ago.
But the gulf of Rashemen and the curse still hung between them, she knew. She wanted to explain, to tell him why she was so thin, or why her eyes were so hollow. But something stopped her, and she wondered what.
She glanced up, startled as he clasped her wrist. "Yes?"
"Come and sit down." He guided her onto the low stone wall and sighed. "Rhythien…I feel like I know you and I don't know you. Know what I mean?"
"I know you must've been through a lot…hells, I can't imagine what you've seen. But…" Bevil's forehead creased. "I'd really like to know about it. Remember when we were seven?"
She nodded slowly. "Didn't we promise never to keep secrets?"
"Yes. Can you tell me about it?"
Haltingly, she did. She told him of waking in the barrow, amid a sea of pain. Of meeting Safiya and travelling to Mulsantir, and learning of vague clues as to Lienna's whereabouts. Of how the strange trail had led to stepping through a shadow portal and finding Kaelyn in Myrkul's vault. Of how she had enlisted the help of an imprisoned hagspawn to aid her in fighting a legion of angered spirits.
"Gann-of-Dreams?" Bevil frowned. "Odd name."
"He was a dream-walker. Spirit shaman. He was my friend."
"Just a friend?"
"Yes. We parted, and I miss him, but…we were never more than friends." She had helped him find his mother in Coveya Kur'gannis, and he had pledged his loyalty when they had stepped through the Betrayer's Gate. She explained the rest of the story, of how Okku the Bear-God had joined them, and how their quest had led to Thay, and Myrkul, and finally to the City of Judgment, and Kelemvor himself.
But still, she neglected to mention the hunger in detail, or how it had left her doubled over and screaming some nights, while Gann held her hands and whispered to her than it would not take her, that he would not let it.
"And after all that, you just came back here?"
She stared down at the rich earth beneath her feet. "Why not?"
"You could've been the Knight-Captain again."
"I never wanted that."
"I know." Bevil scuffed his feet. "Rhythien? You know at the siege?"
"When the ranger broke the gates…"
She bit her lip. She had known this would come, that he would want to speak of it. Sand and Neeshka and Khelgar had been considerate enough not to, but Bevil was obstinate, and her oldest friend, and under no such strictures. "Yes."
"Did you know he was going to do it?"
"No," she answered truthfully. When he scowled, she heard herself snap, "Yes, I shared his bed. Yes, I was a fool. Yes, he tried to tempt me with leaving with him. No, I did not know what he planned."
Bevil exhaled slowly. "You're not a fool."
"I believed he cared for me. I chose not to see some very obvious signs. I was a fool."
"I don't think so."
"It's done, anyway, and he's dead." She raked her hands through the loose hair at her temples.
"In Merdelain," she answered distantly. "I killed him."
Bevil blinked slowly. "You killed him."
"He was waiting for us, with Garius. I went up to him, and I listened to him." Her voice sounded absent and hollow even to herself. "He talked, and I listened. I made the others wait. And, just when he was finished, I let him kiss me. And I stabbed him in the stomach."
Bevil swallowed. "Why?"
"He betrayed us. He broke the gates. You said so yourself."
"Yes, but…" Bevil twisted his hands together. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't've asked."
"It's alright." She gazed down at the turned-over earth, at the way it speckled her boots where she sat. "Bevil?"
"Do you think Daeghun will want to see me?"
"What?" Bevil shook his head. "Of course he will. He scoured Merdelain for you. Why wouldn't he?"
She shrugged. "Did he ever talk about me?"
"No. No, he didn't. You know what he's like."
She did, but it did not stop the sudden, sharp pain. "Yes, I do." Her gaze travelled across the garden, to where the opposite wall gave way to damp green, and finally to the stand of trees. "I'm going for a walk."
"Rhyth?" He used the nickname he had decided on when they were both ten or so. For once, it did not raise a smile from her. "Rhyth, are you alright?"
She nodded. "Yes."
The forest was as silent and accepting as it had been earlier that morning. She retraced her steps, then walked further, past tall trees and ducking under hanging vines. Toppled logs thick with moss crossed the path, and she vaulted over them before choosing a smooth boulder to perch and think on.
Twilight was turning the sky a lucent cobalt by the time she returned to the farmhouse. No mention was made of her missing lunch, but she noticed that Bevil's mother piled her dinner plate and made certain she ate every last scrap. She bid the two of them a polite goodnight and retreated to the silent safety of the room, and sank into an uneasy sleep that was broken by memories of Akachi and Daeghun.