Well, this is the last chapter of this story, so I very much hope that it works and is enjoyable. Of course, everything apart from Rhythien belongs to Bioware.
A mild summer dawn found Rhythien behind the Starling farmhouse, chopping wood with Bevil. She glanced across, saw that his pile was half again as high as hers. She frowned, and brought her axe down all the harder.
"It's not a race," he said lightly.
"It always used to be," she retorted.
He laughed. "True enough. And I would always win, and then Amie would tell you to stop sulking."
She drove the axe against the next log. "You would remember that part." Her hands juddered around the haft, and she swore. "You miss her."
His gaze jumped away. "Yes. Of course I do." He shrugged, heaved up another log. "But, Rhyth…do you know the worst thing? I miss her so much it hurts sometimes, but I think…if she hadn't died that night, would she have died when the village was attacked again? Or later, or at Crossroad Keep, or…?"
She nodded slowly. "I think I know what you mean."
He shrugged again, a little self-consciously. The axe snapped down onto the log, digging deep into the dry wood. "That's when I think everything changed."
"Amie, you mean?"
"Yes. You remember when we came to get you?"
Of course she did. She had fallen into uneasy dreams, troubled by strange thoughts and the too much wine she had drunk at the fair. Pounding on the door had jolted her awake, and she had blearily listened to Bevil and Amie spluttering something about grey dwarves and attackers, and odd creatures with swords. Daeghun had vanished, and they had ventured outside into the chill night air, only to find flames turning the sky crimson, and the noise of battle crashing across the green.
"I wasn't even thinking properly," Bevil added. "Everything seemed…I don't know. Bearable. The duergar, the bladelings…everything was bearable until Amie died. And then everything changed."
She nodded. "Yes."
There had been little space to mourn, either Amie or any of the other fallen. Upon retrieving the shard, Daeghun had packed her off to Highcliff with barely enough time to say farewells. She remembered blundering into the forest with enough food for a week or so, a sword slung at her hip, and the promise not to let anyone see the shard hidden in her pack ringing in her ears.
"It was strange, those days after you were gone." Bevil leaned against the low stone wall, the axe propped against his muscled shoulder. "Quiet. Like everyone was waiting for something awful to happen. My Ma finally told me what happened, years ago, with the attack, and your mother."
Rhythien left her axe buried in the log and joined him. "Bevil, what…what did Daeghun do?"
"After you left? Spent most of his time out of the village, gods know where. In the wilds, doing whatever rangers do, I suppose." Bevil's gaze leveled at her. "He seemed to know things. Seemed even more terse than normal. I tried cornering him a couple of times, but, well…you know how he is. Didn't want to talk."
"Yes." She smiled ruefully. "Yes, I know."
Bevil grinned, lifted the axe from his shoulder. "First to get through two piles?"
"Is that a challenge, Starling?"
"And if it is, Knight-Captain?"
This time, the mention of her former title did not sting. Instead, she smirked at him. "Then prepare to lose."
Much later, when the sun was high, and the wind sighing through the willow trees was soft and warm, Rhythien sprawled beside Bevil. He had been fairly gentlemanly about her defeat, and had even offered to carry their lunch to the riverbank. Now, they lazed by the water, while small birds fluttered in the trees on the other side and the clouds raced away above.
"Can I ask you something?"
She rolled onto her stomach and flicked breadcrumbs at him. "You never used to bother asking if you could, first."
"No, but that was before you were a Knight-Captain." He rubbed one hand against his stubble thoughtfully. "Rhyth, wasn't there a point when you wanted to say no?"
"What do you mean?"
"To Sir Nevalle, and Lord Nasher, and all of Neverwinter…didn't you ever want to say no?"
"More times than I can count." She shrugged idly. "What could I have done? Told Lord Nasher Alagondar exactly what to do with his titles and his promises?"
"I suppose not." Bevil's gaze lingered on the play of sunlight on the river. "You must have been tempted."
She laughed, a little forced. "More than a few times, I'll give you that."
Bevil's eyes shifted from the water, fixed on her. "I'm glad you came back."
She trailed a path past delicate patches of snowdrops and around the whorled base of an ancient tree. The air was clear and warm this morning, the loam beneath her feet dry. She made her way through a small glade, and across the stepping-stone bridge over the river. Deeper in the forest, it was wider, and rushed and seethed against the sloping banks. Tangled weeds descended into the water and bunched against half-buried boulders. She picked her way alongside the river until the trees rose thick and close around her, and the air was dense.
"Alright, I know you're out here somewhere." She planted her hands on her hips and glanced around. "Daeghun? Where are you? Bevil said he'd seen you heading out this way. Daeghun?"
Something rustled behind her, and she turned to see him standing before a high stand of ferns. His head was tipped quizzically to one side. "You came looking for me?"
"Well, you said we were going to head up towards the mountains. I…was worried you'd gone without me."
His pale eyes widened a fraction. "No. I came out to get supplies."
"Oh. Did you find anything?"
He guided her back to the village, though she was certain she knew the half-hidden path by now. There, he cut and dressed the meat while she found bread and hard biscuit. She buckled her sword on over her leathers, though she found she had no wish to use it. She checked in briefly with Retta, letting her know they would be gone some days.
Returning with a wrapped fruitcake, she found Daeghun waiting beside the bridge. As always, without speaking, he led her through the forest, and into the marshes. This early in the summer, the water was high and the reeds lush and rattling in the wind. He wove a trail across damp hummocks and between deep pools until the swamp fell behind, and the ground firmed underfoot.
Some four days of unhurried walking brought them to pine forest, and the smell of dropped needles. The sun was sinking by the time Daeghun called a halt. She gathered wood for a small fire while he scouted for wolves. Apparently satisfied, he sat beside her while the sun vanished and mist coiled around low branches. After a quick dinner of cold meat and bread, she stared into the flames, and he oiled his longbow. Looking up from the fire, she watched the movement of his slender hands, running up and down the bow. She remembered thinking his elvish grace to be almost unsettling in the way he moved soundlessly over floorboards that seemed to creak for everyone else.
After checking over the fletching on his arrows, and the buckles on his quiver, Daeghun laid his weapons down. She sensed rather than heard his exhalation as he gazed at the fire and the mist beyond.
She listened to the evening sounds of the forest and wondered if this was peace.
Not quite allowing herself to think about it, she leaned her head against Daeghun's shoulder.
A shudder rippled through him, but he did not move, did not extricate himself from her. Instead, very carefully, he slipped an arm around her waist. "Rhythien?"
He shook his head slightly. "Nothing."
She smiled. "When you have nothing to say, you generally don't bother telling me that."
"True enough." His fingers tightened against her hip. "Do you mind?"
The fire died down into flaring embers. The night smelled of pine sap and charcoal, and the clean scent of Daeghun's skin near hers. When his arm moved, and he straightened away from her, she felt a curious pang of regret.
"Are you tired?"
She shook her head. "I'll take first watch."
He nodded, and left her alone with the gloom while he curled up in blankets near the glowing remains of the fire. The shadows here were full of shifting moonlight, and the wind rustled through leaf-heavy branches. She glanced down at him and supposed he was in reverie, dreaming of old things. He seemed pale as cut marble, his face denied the hard intensity of his waking gaze.
Her watch passed without upset, and she spent most of it staring at the black of the pine trees above the line of mist, or the wash of dark sky above that. When she swapped places with Daeghun, she wrapped herself in the blankets and turned towards him before she drifted into sleep.
She jolted out of a dark, troubling dream. She stared down at her hands, saw that they shook uncontrollably. Her mouth felt dry, her face speckled with sweat. She registered new flamelight, and the sound of water bubbling. A shadow slanted across her, and she jumped.
"It's only me." Daeghun pressed a hot mug into her hands. "Drink this. It will warm you."
Her fingers trembled horribly around the handle, and he steadied.
"May I ask you what you dreamed?"
She blew on the drink, and the steam touched her face. "I was standing before the Betrayer's Gate again. Except this time, I was alone, and my scar hurt, and I knew if I stepped through, I would die. No…worse than die. Become like all those other spirit-eaters…become lost to the curse."
He watched her impassively. "Are you afraid to die?"
"No." She sipped at the hot liquid, and the fresh, clean taste of rosemary flooded across her tongue. "I was when I left the first time. For months, I was scared I would die. Thugs in the Docks, the orcs in the Sword Mountains, githyanki, Lorne Starling...gods, I never slept that night before I fought him."
She had paced the floor in the Temple of Tyr instead, too aware of the tight knot of fear lodged somewhere in her chest. But Lorne had fallen, like all the others, like Zeeaire and the Luskan assassins in Solace Glade, like Logram Eyegouger and Quaggoth-Yeg.
"But then when we were sent to Crossroad Keep to take it back from Garius, I was badly injured."
"A collection of mercenaries and adventurers, and a handful of wizards." Some unreadable note smoked through his voice.
She smiled. "You remembered. I was hurt, and I remember lying there with a hole bigger than my fist in my lower back. It was strange – there was no pain. We had few potions, and our healers were exhausted, and I had to wait out the night for them to recover. I thought the strangest things that night."
"How it felt to have a piece of flesh missing. Whether the scar would match the one on my chest. How it no longer hurt, and whether that meant I was about to die. How I wanted my friends to stop bothering me and just go to sleep, because if I was going to die, then them staying awake was unlikely to stop it. And then I realized the one thing I was not feeling was frightened."
"There are far worse things to fear."
"Yes." Like the hunger, she thought, that left her crippled with uncertainty and the terrible knowledge of what she could become.
"Go back to sleep," Daeghun said. "I'll sit watch until dawn."
This time, she spiraled into slumber that was black and warm and undisturbed.
The morning brought sunlight and clear skies, and she followed Daeghun up through the rolling slopes towards the grey of the mountains. He mentioned that he and Shayla and some friends had once journeyed the length and back of the towering peaks, but he did not explain further, and she did not push him.
Seven days of idle meandering took them back down into the marshes, and through dense brush and hanging vines. They picked a campsite far from the main trail, where small streams wound through the soft soil and circled stands of tall trees. Mist clung to leaves and moss and small, round rocks, and as the sun faded away, the rain fell.
"I used to hate the rain here," she said.
"I'm not sure." The drizzle was light still, sifting through the branches and feathering against her hair where she sat beside him. "I think I hated West Harbour as well."
"No. No, I never hated you. I never told you otherwise, but I never hated you."
The small movement at the corners of his mouth lent her courage, and she rested her head against his shoulder again. A moment passed, and he settled his arm around her. This time, his fingers trailed up her back, tangling in the loose ends of her hair. The sensation was strange, soothing and enticing at the same time.
"Why did you come back?"
"To see you."
He shook his head silently. His hand moved, delving into her hair. She raised her head from his shoulder and looked at him. They had made no fire this evening, and he was pale in the gloom. She reached up, brushed his rain-damp hair away from his ear. He leaned into her touch for a long moment before he froze.
"I have not," he began, and stopped. "It has been a long time…"
She did not push him, did not speak. Only sat there when he lifted a hand to touch her forehead, the slant of her cheekbones, her chin. His fingers shook as he traced around her mouth.
"Rhythien, is this what you want…?"
His hands descended past her throat, to the ties of her tunic. He fumbled the knots, and she hid a slight smile at seeing how nervousness spoiled his grace. He glanced back up to her eyes, and she saw that he was trembling all over.
As, she realized, was she. Very gently, he cupped her face, and waited as if for permission. When she did not pull away from him, he smiled. A strange, unfamiliar sort of a smile, full of apprehension and hope. And when he claimed her lips, all thoughts fled, save for her discovery that the inside of his mouth was warm and tantalising. After that, there were no words, as he drew her down beside him; only sighs, and whispers, and soft cries as they clung to each other.
She woke to the unusual sensation of bare skin against her own, and moss near her head, and the early morning chill making her gasp.
"Are you cold?" Daeghun asked.
She turned over properly, saw that he wore nothing but dew and a tentative smile. "Mmm. A little."
He shifted, drew the blankets up around her. His fingers played across her collarbone, and down to the wide scar. "Does it still hurt?"
"It aches sometimes."
"I am sorry," he said, haltingly. "About what I told you…about it. About not telling you about the shard."
"Ssh. It's done. It's over." She curled up against him, and sighed when his arms closed around her. "Daeghun?"
"How old are you?"
He half-smiled. "I have more than two centuries behind me."
She rested the side of her face against his shoulder, breathed in the scent of his skin. "I'm going to die a lot earlier than you, aren't I?"
"Some things are never certain."
"But you are an elf."
"Yes." He combed the ends of his fingers through her hair, lightly stroking. "I would rather…not talk of such things. Not today."
She nodded. "I understand. I'm sorry."
"Don't be." He smiled, and it reached his eyes as he looked at her. "I'm not."
They took their time returning to the village, following meandering trails and never hurrying. She found her eyes lingering on him as he walked ahead of her, or else noticing how he kept turning, as if checking that she was still there. At nights, he started sharing her watch, muttering something about how elves required little sleep, or reverie, or whichever. She became used to sitting out the darkness with him beside her, an arm around her shoulders, or else tangled with him in front of the fire.
When the trees opened up around the trail again, and she saw the familiar curve of the green between the houses, Rhythien paused. Something lodged in her chest, something very close to regret. "Daeghun?"
He stopped beside her, and his fingers brushed again hers. "Yes?"
"This…what happened…you're not going to forget...?"
His hand tightened around hers. "No." He leaned in, and kissed her, slowly and deliberately. "I am not going to forget."
It was many months before she spent the night with him in West Harbour. Some days, he would vanish upstairs early, and she would find herself suddenly too awkward, or uncertain. Others, she would catch him downstairs, and they would exhaust each other on the rug in front of the fireplace, and she would not know how to ask to simply sleep next to him later. In the forest, when she journeyed with him, such difficulties seemed to melt away; there were no doors, no questions, and he seemed more than content to while away the days beside her.
Rhythien sat coiled in her favourite chair, listening to the rain hammering against the walls outside. A book lay on her knee, half-forgotten. The fire crackled, almost down to glowing embers.
A shadow swept across the open doorway, and she looked up into Daeghun's angular, pale face. He wore an open-necked shirt over his breeches, and she noticed that his feet were bare. "Aren't your feet cold?"
"A little." His gaze flicked across her, then away, to the walls, the rug. "Rhythien…do you want to come upstairs?"
She smiled, unsteadily. "I thought you'd want to be alone."
"No…I just wasn't sure how to ask you."
"Oh." She laughed then, a gulping, relieved kind of a laugh. "We make quite the pair, don't we?"
"So it seems. I should have…" He shook his head. "I should have asked you long before this. I'm sorry."
"No, don't be. I just…I know you like being by yourself."
"Yes. But I like being with you, as well."
He held out his hand, and she clasped it, and let him lead her upstairs, into his room. He helped her out of her clothes, and she pulled his shirt over his head, and marveled again at how smooth and pale his skin was. Afterwards, they simply lay next to each other, her head against his chest, and his arm around her waist.
"Do you…worry what people will think?"
His head turned, and she saw him frown. "I'm not sure," he said. "I…wonder. I will admit that. I mean…"
"Do you worry?"
She traced a hand across his bare chest, felt him shiver in response. "Three years ago, I would have worried. I would have probably kept myself awake wondering what people might be saying to each other."
"Now?" Her fingers skimmed over his collarbone, and up, into his loose hair. "I've done worse things, and cared less of what people might think."
Like when she succumbed to the hunger, or gave herself to a traitor, or slaughtered the dreaming witches; but these things were all in the past, and she found that the recollection of them hurt less.
He laughed, soft and quiet and still so unusual, from him. "A compliment, I assume?"
"Hah. Yes, indeed." She moved slightly, and trembled when his hands moved, cupping her face and stroking through her hair. "Daeghun?"
He kissed her temple. "Yes?"
"I…like this, very much."
"So do I."
There was a questioning, hopeful note in his voice. She smiled, and curled herself properly against him. "Good."
Beside the bed, a single candle fluttered, lit only after she reminded him that her eyes were not elvish, and that she would blame stubbed toes and knocked shins on him. The light spilled over the bare walls, and the fall of the curtains, and the clothes chest. Two bows were hung near the windows, quivers alongside. She recognized elven runes, and Daeghun's own handiwork in the stitching around the straps on the quivers. There was a table as well, scattered with feathers for fletching, a book, and two plates, and nothing else.
"Daeghun, did you ever consider…I don't know. Moving into a different house?"
For a long moment, he was silent. "You're not really asking that, are you?"
She said nothing.
"Yes, this is the same room I've always slept in," he said, his tone edged and a little wary. "Is that what you were asking?"
"I suppose." She chewed on her lower lip. "No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything."
"You're young, you're human, you're far too curious, and you can be forgiven." He brushed her hair away from her cheekbone. "I am…not at ease, talking of such things."
"I know." She turned her face against his chest, listened to the way his heartbeat had quickened. She remembered snarling such terrible things at him, growing up, that she could not stand his silence, and his absences, and how he never smiled. "I never knew, did I? How you felt."
"About Shayla." The name felt suddenly easier on her lips, even in this room. "About what happened to her. About Esmerelle. About me."
"No, you didn't." He shifted, slid back slightly on the pillows so he could look at her properly. Something in his pale gaze cut through her. "But then, I never let you."
Rhythien drew in a slow breath. "Well, perhaps now we have time to learn, don't we?"
"Yes," Daeghun said. "Yes, I think perhaps we do."