Disclaimer: I do not own 'Baldur's Gate', the 'Forgotten Realms' or any characters therein. Wizards of the Coast do, at my last check. Lucky them. I do, however, own Fritha and certain other characters and plot points. Basically, if you don't recognise it from the game, it's probably mine.
Author's note: Well, here we are, the beginning of the end. I have not quite followed the route that the game takes in Throne of Bhaal, and would be interested to know what peoples' thoughts are on this, so if you've anything to say, please drop me a line or leave a review. Feedback makes me smile ^_^
– Blackcross & Taylor
Solaufein walked onward, the trees about him towering pillars in that blur of brown and green, the gloom of the forest floor sparing his eyes from the worst of the light as he kept a steady pace through the undergrowth. He tipped back the brim of his hat to cast a shaded glance up to the sky, an ever-darkening amber as the dusk drew in. It would be time soon –they would be late.
It was nearing the last tenday of Ches according to the others, though the season meant little to him, the squally weather hardly changed from how it had been earlier in the month, though he could feel the days growing steadily warmer. He had been with the elves for well over four tenday now and he was slowly adjusting to life there, building relationships of sorts with those about him, though the old habits died hard and his solitary tendencies still prevailed more often than not. That evening, however, was to be one of those rare exceptions.
She had apparently told Jaheira of the place when they had met the day before, and Solaufein had a feeling it would be there he would find her.
Voices up ahead, elven and young with it, and the scene sharpened into focus as he closed to them. The clearing was filled with a dusty light, warm yellow shafts filtering through the broken canopy, the surface of the small pool sparkling under the gentle breeze. Three young hunters were stood before it, bows strung at their backs as they whispered, while on the other side she lay, curled upon her cloak and fast asleep, blanketed in a mess of fiery curls.
'It is her again,' murmured the first, the boy gazing across the pool as though Hanali herself was sleeping there. 'She must be in the forests as often as we.'
'It is cold now the sun is sinking,' offered the second practically, blond head titled to the sky, 'I am surprised it has not woken her.'
'Perhaps she does not feel it,' ventured their third, his voice hushed and wary, 'My mother says she is possessed of a dark nature.'
'Jorrei, your mother says that of many people,' snorted the second, continuing to the first, 'It grows late; do you think we should wake her?'
The first boy just sighed dreamily. 'She is very beautiful.'
Solaufein shook his head, stepping, at last, from the trees behind them and the three whirled, fumbling for their bows before they seemingly recognised him.
'It is that drow of theirs,' hissed Jorrei as though only his friends could hear him, the blond boy looking nervous even as he stepped forward to make his greeting.
'Ah, well met, cousin, we were merely-'
'The hour grows late,' Solaufein cut in, though not unkindly, 'you should be returning to the city.'
A glance between the three and they heeded him, the boys moving off the way he had come as Solaufein walked the pool's edge to drop softly to his knees at her cloak. 'Fritha?'
She stirred, shaking the mane of curls back from her face to find him. She smiled faintly, hiding a yawn in her sleeve.
'Solaufein –I must have fallen asleep.'
'Indeed,' he agreed, raising his face to take in the golden grove about them, 'though I am hardly surprised; it is very tranquil here.'
She nodded absently, straightening out the shoulders of her tunic as she made to sit.
'I found this place a few days past –it is beautiful enough now, but if you wait until moonrise, the light changes and you are in a temple, dark columns rising up to the vaulted dome, where some devoted artisan's hand has set a thousand diamonds, while beneath it ripples a mirror of quicksilver whereby some wise oracle might divine the future.'
He smiled slightly. 'You paint a beguiling scene.'
'You should wait and see it with me,' she offered without looking to him. Solaufein could sense her unwillingness -she knew why he was there, her reluctance matching his own as he reminded, 'As much as I would like to, I believe there is a gathering tonight to mark the departure of your friends.'
Her face was still turned away. 'Yes…'
Solaufein bit back a sigh, wishing suddenly he had not taken it upon himself to find her. Only the idea that perhaps she would one day lament missing this last chance for a farewell had induced him to it –he owed the girl much and they both had enough regrets to last them a lifetime.
'Though I cannot say to know any of you well, Fritha, I do believe they would be injured by your absence.' Silence, Solaufein waiting a moment before conceding to offer, 'I will say I could not find you if you wish it.'
The girl shook her head, voice quiet as she stood and found her sandals.
'No, I will come.'
She followed him through the forests, neither of them speaking as they finally reached the city and made their way along the darkening walkways to her small house in the lower eastern quarter of that great tree. It was a compact building over two levels with a sheltered and somewhat overgrown garden behind it, but it was more than enough for her and it was where she had lived the past two tenday, ever since she had left the palace a few days after Ellesime's gathering.
This was her life now, one reduced to the simplest of pleasures: lemon curd for supper; sweeping her porch in the dying evening sunlight; the light rattle of the earrings that hung at her newly pierced ears. Some would have said it was but half a life, a slow and creeping thing, full of long silent hours with only the vague sighing of her memories as company. But after having walked the land for months soulless to do nothing more than die at the end of it, it was more than Fritha had hoped for and she accepted it as it was.
And there was a certain freedom to it, as well, and one she had never before experienced, going straight from the unchanging regimes of Candlekeep to life on the road, where what you did was dictated by work and weather rather than the sages. Even the palace had had its routines. But now… She rose when she wanted, dressed as she pleased, at times not even changing from her night clothes – there seemed little point some days, the amount she slept. She could eat what she wanted too, sometimes going a whole day without eating at all, other days grazing on a feast of interesting delicacies she had bought from the city's market along with the other trinkets that caught her eye.
So every day was spent much the same as the next, slowly pottering from one small task to the other, no great joys but no particular sorrows either. She would read, go out on walks in the city and forests both, work in her garden and amuse herself with various household chores that hadn't been her concern since she had left Candlekeep.
She knew little of her neighbours -she kept out of their way for the most part- but there was an old elf who lived not far from her for whom she had a lot of time. He had shown her his own flourishing garden within a few days of her arrival there, the man generously allowing her to take some cuttings, and now the large pots of seedlings stood in the corner of her porch where the sun was best, the girl waiting for them to get a little more robust before she transplanted them in her garden proper. She would tend them each day though, sometimes just spending hours watching them, the tiny green sprouts that trembled with every breeze.
A few of the local children seemed to have befriended her, too, the young elves coming to sit quietly on her porch when she was out there tending the plants or practising her lute, the children venturing to speak to her when it was realised this boldness would not earn them any reprimand, asking her questions in the guileless way that only the young could.
What games did the human children play? And what was the world like outside their forest home? Their curiosity stemming from the fact she was a foreigner rather than the dark rumours of her heritage -not all who had taken an interest in her were so wise. She had noticed the looks on trips about the city, some of them even coming to her house, though they never dared further than the piazza before it. It seemed she had developed a small following of morbid youths who held in great esteem the soulless girl who housed demons and had lain for three days dead. Fritha avoided them. There was nothing wondrous about death any more than there was something horrible –it just was.
As for her old friends, things were little different. They had remained at the palace when she had left, though she still saw them -at least, occasionally. Imoen had been upset and, Fritha suspected, quite hurt when she had given them the news of her move over dinner on that cool spring evening so many days ago. And though in the beginning, Imoen and Aerie seemed to visit everyday, it did not last. Fritha did not mean to seem unwelcoming, but their company was a strain nowadays. They had known the girl she had been, and likely preferred her, too, and Fritha could sense it as they spoke, the eyes watchful, searching for signs of her former self. And Fritha would try at first, but as the visit wore on she would eventually lapse back into reflective silence and they would begin to cast furtive glances at each other before excuses would be muttered and they would go.
The others would come to visit too, Jaheira and Anomen more than most -well, in the beginning; she had not seen the knight in a tenday. Perhaps he understood how hard she found it, for after a while his visits had become less frequent until they had stopped all together. All in all, the company she found easiest to bear was that of Haer'Dalis and Solaufein, the girl playing duets with the former or helping the drow in his studies of the local Chondathan, both men of a nature that accepted such changes and understood the value of silence.
Solaufein left her at her door, the man taking a seat on the green, wooden steps of her front porch as she moved inside to change. Through the untidy parlour, the winding staircase taking her up to the next circular chamber that served as bedroom, the four windows giving her a view at every compass point. It was a small room, not helped by the clutter that was piled on every surface, half her bed still covered in clothes from the last occasion she had decide to play 'dress-up', hair pins and cosmetics scattered across the floor awaiting unwary feet. The dresser was next to the western window, the fading sunlight enough that she did not need to light the lamp as she finished fussing with the heavy black girdle -the flowing scarlet gown Ellesime had gifted her now edged in amber and black leaves of her own embroidery- and took the seat before the mirror.
The table was scattered with bottles and jewellery; the girl had already built quite a collection of earrings in her time there. Fritha shook out her hair, twisting back the curls at her temples to coil them at her crown and fix the small bun in place with her long gold hairpin, the girl giving the filigree camellia a tentative pat. She thought of Clare sometimes -wondered where she was, if she had managed to make a better life for herself there on the mainland. She thought of them all in the long hours alone- was Kaatje still being driven mad by her family's wedding plans? And had Garren returned to his role as Lord of the Windspears? And was poor broken Helenya still grieving the loss of Lirsand? So many lives she had touched carrying on without her. Did they pause and think on her sometimes? Fritha shook her head, giving up on such futile reflection, at least for the time being –they were late already and she was once again scrabbling through the mess of pins and pendants before her, the beads rattling against the wood as she drew up the long white rope.
Pearls: treasures from deep and secret places. She had never really thought much of them when she was younger, passing by the opaque stones when coming across them in Gorion's spell components in favour of more gaudy offerings. It was only when Beth had told her of a string she'd had when she was younger, about how they had to be worn next to the skin to keep their lustre, and suddenly they were a lot more appealing. The idea they had to be worn beneath clothes held a certain romance for her -a heady girlish intimacy. And she had been sure from then on that her first set of those milky orbs would be from a likeminded shy but amative boy who saw this sensuality too.
She did not ever think they would be a gift from a sahuagin prince, and one that she would later have to retrieve from the throat of a dead drow whom she herself had murdered. Fritha shook her head, back at the chaos of her dresser and searching for some earrings. Life, as they said, was full of surprises, and she was beginning to realise they were usually unpleasant.
Anomen stood next to the hearth, the stone surround still warm even as the fire had been left to die, the few lamps kept low to spare the eyes, and the shadows about him rang with talk and laughter, his companions lining the walls, leaving room for the maids who were bustling about the large table in the centre, setting down dishes and carafes of wine, the intricate arrangements of cutlery glinting in the half light. Anomen let his gaze drift over them, Minsc and Jaheira caught in some stern discussion over their mead cups, Imoen laughing wildly with Aerie, Haer'Dalis and Valygar a few paces away and clearly trying to discern the joke.
The knight sighed inwardly. This would likely be the last time they would all be gathered so. He had received the letter a tenday ago. The Order had finally summoned him back and, after days of wavering, he had at last made his decision.
The door opened once more, Anomen's expectations of another maid proved false as she entered in the scarlet dress he had so grown to dislike: Fritha.
Solaufein was at her elbow, the man muttering something at her ear in that brief moment of solitude before they were noticed by the others and brought with smiles and greetings into the room. Anomen made no move to join the throng. He missed Fritha –who she had been, and even who she was now –the feeling an ever-present ache within him. But he could tell that she found his company a strain, and he had not the heart to burden her with encounters that just left them both miserable.
'Fritha, you came!' Imoen cried, the girl still clinging to her arm after their customary embrace.
'Of course -I could not miss this.'
Solaufein was a little behind them, momentarily forgotten it seemed, Anomen catching his eye to send him a polite nod. He could have felt jealous of the drow's appearance, indeed part of him did, but it had been he who had stopped his visits to Fritha and the whole thing seemed so steeped in weary tragedy that Anomen had not the energy for such pointless resentment.
The last of the dishes were brought steaming into the room, the maids quickly thanked as they tripped through the door, and it was just they left. An uncomfortable pause as everyone looked to each other for some cue, and one by one they took their seats, the awkwardness ebbing slightly in the complicated round of dish passing before they all settled down to eat.
'So,' began Jaheira with the air of one who already knew the answer and just wanted to open the conversation, 'At what hour are you planning to depart tomorrow?'
'Just after the dawn,' answered Valygar.
'So early?' came Fritha unexpectedly, the girl looking surprised to hear her own voice. Anomen nodded.
'Yes, it will take the good part of a tenday if we are to travel the whole way by horse.'
A pause where it seemed the room was waiting for something more, but Fritha's attention was back on her dish.
'We were down visiting your horses the other day,' offered Aerie to the breach, Imoen beaming her agreement.
'Yes. Yours, Vals, is a dumpy little grey one with a fondness for carrots –I think the elves have named him Guzzle.'
The ranger's eyebrow twitched. 'Indeed?'
Ever one to sense a potential for trouble, Haer'Dalis was nodding.
'I understood not their fascination, but the girls seemed to think him very dear –Imoen even put a ribbon in his mane for you.'
'I did,' she confirmed eagerly, 'my favourite lilac one. He really liked it.'
Valygar bowed his head, though not quite in time to hide the quirk of lips. 'You have my thanks.'
'You go early as well?' asked Jaheira of the couple opposite her, Haer'Dalis smiling as he threw an arm about the young elf at his side.
'Aye, it makes little sense to linger, and the hour will likely not match on the planes anyway –though it will matter little.'
'The spelljammers of my home oft traded with the planes,' offered Solaufein quietly, 'though I was never fortunate enough to serve on one -where do you plan to go?'
Haer'Dalis shrugged, such clearly outside his concern. 'Sigil, and then wherever the Fates take us.'
'The Fates being another name for Aerie,' laughed Imoen.
'Oh, come on, Aerie, you've got like a whole list of places to visit –you can't see the walls of your room for maps.'
'Well, it is nice to have an idea of what you want to do; otherwise you might just drift about and see nothing in the end.'
'And we are not the only ones with plans,' continued Haer'Dalis, 'Minsc will finally return to his roost, as will our dark hawk, Valygar, and the knightling rejoins his flock, too.'
'How do you plan to get back to Rashemen, Minsc?' asked Jaheira over a forkful of rice.
'Boo says the way will be too dangerous to make alone –we will return to Athkatla and seek passage north with a caravan or company of another sort. The way will be long, but Minsc and Boo will walk it together.'
'I wish you'd let us come with you,' sighed Imoen.
'No, young Imoen, this path is not for you. Elder Yundra will be there to vouch for me at the trial now.' He smiled broadly at this mention of the old Wychlaran. 'All will be well, and however they decide, it will be good to be back in Rashemen once more.'
'You must be looking forward to seeing your friends again, too, Anomen,' smiled Aerie, 'the last time they saw you, you were a little worse for wear.'
'Do you know if the Order have any plans for your return?' asked Valygar. Anomen shook his head, trying to look anywhere but at the red-haired girl opposite.
'Nothing of which I am aware, but they would have me at hand in case something should arise, and, besides, there are the men-at-arms and younger squires to be trained and I have too long now neglected my duties to them.'
'Your words or the Prelate's?' quipped the tiefling, Aerie batting his arm.
'Come now,' the bard laughed, 'it is all in jest.'
Anomen said nothing. Haer'Dalis was half right, though they had been Anomen's own knight's words rather than Prelate Wessalen's, Sir Ryan gravely reminding him of the work it had taken to get that far, and how he owed the men and squires now under him them the benefit of his experience, as many good knights had once done for him.
'So, Valygar, what are your plans once you get back to the city?' asked Imoen, cheerfully ushering the conversation past this stall, 'Will you be busy being heroic like Anomen?'
'Not quite. I will check on my estate and ensure everything is in order.'
The girl looked surprised. 'Oh, I was given the impression it runs along quite well without you.'
'That is so,' the ranger answered, seeming almost uncomfortable with this line of questioning, 'but circumstance often keeps me away, and I feel I should give my attention to the place when I am able. But you will have much to keep you occupied here, from what I have heard.'
And likely disapproved of, too, from his suddenly cool tone, Imoen's grin somewhat tighter than usual as she exclaimed, 'You mean my visits to Mistress Aurelia? Oh, yeah, she's keeping me very busy, teaching me all sorts of dangerously corrupting magics –I can feel myself falling further into darkness each day!'
'Imoen,' Jaheira warned, always on hand to step in when it seemed the girl's teasing would go too far. Imoen heeded her, but it did not silence her dispute with the ranger's on-going prejudice.
'Valygar, Mistress Aurelia is as nice as she is scatty, and no more evil than the fat grey pony that will be carrying you back to Athkatla.'
'Is that where you have been going so early in the mornings of late?' asked Solaufein, redirecting the girl's temper before it could escalate –something in which he had likely had a lot of practise, 'I know I have seen you about on occasion.'
'Nah, I was just getting up early so I could watch your sword practise in the gardens -I'm joking, I'm joking,' Imoen laughed at the drow's unnerved expression, still giggling as she continued to the rest of the table, 'Yes, I've been going to visit Mistress Aurelia -she likes to start early because she says her mind is clearer in the mornings. We met in the marketplace a fortnight ago. She said my hair reminded her of the love potions she used to make as a girl and we just got chatting. I visit her lab sometimes and she shows me the spells she has been working on and lends me books. She works more with corporeal links to the Weave than through the runes –it's dead interesting. She's shown me a few techniques on how to access the Weave more directly, and how certain spells will link better than others, decreasing the delay between them. She seems to find me interesting because of the way my magic was sort of awoken in the asylum. She thinks may be some kind of half-mage, half-sorceress -that I could begin to form my own style of spells and magic with enough practise.'
Imoen grinned. 'Doesn't always go well though, I singed off my eyebrows the other day when I was trying to summon an everlasting flame. Oh,' the girl cried, suddenly all verve as the idea struck her, 'you should come and visit her with me sometime, Fritha! I bet she'd find you fascinating-' Imoen stopped, seeming worried by how such may have sounded and hastily trying to explain, 'Well, because of your magic and how we don't know where it comes from and, well…' the girl trailed off, Fritha's face wearing a mild smile as she nodded.
'So, Fritha,' continued Aerie, and possibly more politely than she would have usually done, 'what has been occupying you of late?'
'You must have done something,' cajoled Imoen, 'I haven't seen you in days. The last time was with Jaheira in the marketplace-' She grinned, suddenly recalling it, 'when those boys were looking at you, all shoving each other as they tried to decide who would come over first.'
'You have admirers?' confirmed Solaufein. Fritha shook her head.
'Not exactly. They have heard the rumours –they find my heritage… interesting.'
'You don't know that,' countered Imoen, 'maybe it's something else they find interesting.'
'No, I do not think so,' Fritha sighed, drawing a breath and summoning a smile, 'But it is fine, and I am glad to hear everyone so full of plans –the past is done; the future is where we must look now.'
And it was discussion of that which took them through their meal, the air warm with Imoen's tales of her magical mishaps and the laughter that followed them, while the others talked of what they would do and who they would see once they made their returns. Fritha nodded and smiled and asked all the right questions. She could not deny them their happiness –indeed, how nice to have a home to where you could return.
For an evening she had been so dreading, it seemed to pass quickly enough and before long, the last of the wine was being shared out, the world behind the windows black in the lamplight.
Fritha left them saying their goodnights, moving from the room to slip through the open doors into the dark garden beyond. Just one more trial left now, where she would endure the embraces and say the 'Sleep well's, and she was looking forward to the moment when she would make that first step across the threshold of her silent house, to feel that emptiness about her and know she was alone once more, free to lie down and be quiet and very, very still.
'Ah, so you are out here.'
She turned at the voice, Anomen stood there haloed by the dim light of the room behind.
'Yes… though I should probably be heading back soon –I will have to be up early tomorrow if I am coming to see you all off.'
Anomen looked surprised. 'Oh, you are attending, as well?'
'Well, I thought I would -Imoen mentioned it, and who knows when… well…'
She did not finish; she did not need to. They both knew that this was it. He was going back to the Order, returning to his old life, and she was staying there to try to piece together her own. And, in that moment, Fritha felt like she could have just hung her head and wept. Could have just broken down into tears and begged him not to go, not to draw a line under what had once been between them and finally end the possibility of it forever.
He would have stayed, too, if she had asked him. And then he would remain there and the Order would likely expel him, and for what? The old feelings were still absent, the girl unsure how she felt about him now from the broken fragments within and it seemed desperately unfair to ask him to stay only to decide it was all gone in a month or two's time. Anomen was staring down at her, her silence perhaps stirring some guarded hope within him, his eyes holding a gravity that she had not seen of him all evening. It was just not fair.
She swallowed painfully. 'Have a safe journey.'
He nodded once, his face a mask once more.
'Thank you, Fritha.'
The sun was risen, but only barely, the city about them stirring to life as the group of those leaving and those come to bid them farewell gathered on the large circular platform before the city gates. The sky beyond the canopy was grey and glary, what little light there was diffused by the fine layer of cloud and Imoen could feel the charged weight to the air; a storm was coming.
Around her the others were milling about one another, a few elves joining them for their departure, Ellesime not present for the occasion, though Elhan had come in her place along with a few of the elves from the palace they had come to know, plus the two court mages who were there to open the planar portal.
She turned to find Minsc at her back and smiling down at her, the sadness to his eyes lending him a rare air of gravity. 'It is time for us to be leaving.'
Imoen nodded, suddenly having to fight back the tears –this could be the last time she ever saw him, her arms were flung about him for this final goodbye, the man fondly patting her head, his hamster sat patiently in the other hand.
'Oh, Minsc, I'm going to miss you! And you too, Boo.'
'We know, but Rashemen calls and we must answer.'
'I'll come visit you soon,' she promised, finally releasing the ranger.
'Not before us, I hope, my robin.'
'Sigil?' Imoen laughed to the pair who had just arrived, Aerie and Haer'Dalis before her and smiling as Minsc moved off to share a last moment with Jaheira, 'Ha, you just try and keep me away!'
'Here, knightling, a word,' called Haer'Dalis, the tiefling leaving the two girls to their farewells as he beckoned Anomen away from where he and Fritha had been enjoying an awkward silence. The three of them had grown quite close over the last month, passing the days in laughter and games that definitely helped speed up the pace of the otherwise long days at the palace. What would life be like there now, with them gone? Aerie was watching her with a concerned smile, the smaller girl closing her in a fierce embrace –perhaps she was wondering the same.
'Ah, Imoen, I know we have not known each other for long, but it will be so strange to leave you behind. Here, I made this for you,' Aerie continued, fishing a smooth disc of polished blue stone from her robes, the different veins running together like the swirling eddies of a whirlpool. Imoen turned it over, the rune for twin etched in gold upon the back.
'I've one, too,' the elf explained quietly, 'from the other half of the stone, so a part of us will always be together even when we're apart. It's silly I know,' she confessed with a self-depreciating laugh, 'but I just don't want you to feel lonely.'
Her blue eyes seemed to be drawn unwillingly to Fritha and Jaheira, the pair together and stony faced a few paces away. Imoen shook her head even as she wound the cord firmly about her hand.
'I'll be fine -but I am going to miss you. Ah, the whole planes before you –you're so lucky! You keep an eye on her, Haer'Dalis,' she laughed, trying to bring herself round as the man returned to them, 'we won't hear the end of it from Vals if the planes turn her into some nefarious necromancer.'
'Do I hear my name over here?' came that deep, mellow voice, Valygar joining her as Haer'Dalis and Aerie finally moved to speak with the two attending mages.
'Oh, so we're answering to Vals now are we?' Imoen laughed, the grin fading slightly in her discomfort. Though she had not seen him as much as some of the others, she had been able to share every meal with Valygar, the stern man an endless source of amusement as he bore the brunt of her light-hearted teasing. As a connection, it was a subtle one, but for all that Imoen could not now shake the feeling that there was something between them, something more than friendship, though too indistinct to be defined properly. But that was how it was to stay, for whatever it could have grown to be, it had not emerged yet and now it would not get the chance.
'Well, mate, this is it.'
Valygar frowned, looking as uncomfortable as she felt. 'It is hardly the same; Anomen and I are but a tenday away.'
'Yeah…' she agreed, even as she dismissed it –she was not one for wasting time over idle dreams of what could have been. 'Well, I hope its all fine for you back at your estate and everything.'
Things were only going to grow more awkward from here on; it was time to end this. Imoen threw on a grin, thrusting a hand out for him to shake.
'Right, well, safe journey, then.'
They clasped hands for the briefest instant before he released her again, the man seemingly struggling with himself when-
'There will be a place for you there -my estate, I mean.' Valygar swallowed, drawing a forced breath to continue more coolly, 'What I mean to say is, if you wished to stay in Athkatla, there would be room for you at my estate. I may not be there myself at the time, but I will leave notice with the servants.'
'Oh,' said Imoen, not sure quite what to say to so warm an offer so coldly given, 'well, thanks. Maybe, I'll see you around.'
And Imoen turned to find Jaheira beckoning to them, everyone gathered about a swirling green portal, Aerie and Haer'Dalis arm in arm at its mouth, the tiefling beaming while the elf's smile held a more tentative air.
'Well, this is it my birds. If you ever find yourself in the Cage, be sure to spare us a visit.'
'Goodbye everyone, I'll miss you.'
A nod between them and to a chorus of 'goodbye's the pair turned to take one step forward. A flash of green and they were gone. It did not feel quiet right once they had left, something to the atmosphere sort of flat, and the three men did not linger long afterwards, descending into the gloom of the stairwell with Elhan to return to the forest floor and the temporary corral where the three horses which had be purchased for their travel had grazed this last tenday.
Imoen glanced about those left; Solaufein stood talking quietly to a couple of the soldiers who had come to bid the men farewell, Jaheira frowning at the dim mouth of the stairwell opposite, while Fritha was at the railings a little way from her gazing absently at the hazy sky. Imoen sighed inwardly; she had never felt so alone in herself. But standing there moping about it wouldn't help matters. She had crossed to Fritha's side in a few short strides.
'What are you doing now?'
'Hmm?' her friend murmured, attention at last pulled from the sky. Imoen smiled.
'Why don't you come back to the palace with us for a bit?'
Fritha's reluctance was instant. 'I don't-'
'Ah, come on, Fritha, we haven't seen you in ages.' Imoen felt a hand reach out to close involuntarily about her sleeve, her voice soft. 'Please, Fritha.'
'I have washing out,' the girl pleaded, 'and it looks like…' Fritha sighed, seemingly defeated by her earnestness. 'I suppose I could come for short while.'
The rain had broken about an hour after they'd left the gates, the distant thunder rumbling far overhead as they had taken breakfast together, the single window blinking white with the occasional flash of lightning. The talk they had shared as they had eaten had been stilted enough, but even that had died now. Solaufein was sitting by the hearth, his back to the glowing coals as he read, Jaheira still at the table with herself doing the same, while Fritha had moved to the bench beneath the window, the girl staring out at the rain, the room lit only by the fire in the perpetual twilight of that overcast sky. Imoen watched her, the girl sat with one knee brought up to her chest in a loose embrace, the firelight catching on the tiers of gold and jade that hung from each ear. Everything about Fritha felt different now, from her quiet manner to the way she dressed –a strange mix of the human clothes she had arrived with and the elven ones she had bought there. And today was no different, the girl wearing the wide black trousers and sandals she had grown up in under a narrow, green tunic over which she had thrown a heavy, high-collared travelling cloak, the sky blue linen lined in cream silk, a good hundred buttons and buttonholes running down the front, from collar to hem, in the functional decoration which seemed to infuse all things of elven design.
The creak of the door behind her, Imoen not even bothering to turn around as the young maid entered, moving to set the tray of tea she bore on the table, the girl's step faltering slightly as her eyes were caught by Fritha's silhouette. It was funny, really. In her efforts to be left alone, Fritha had generated an air of mystery about herself that just made everyone all the more curious. The maid finally managed to tear her gaze away to set down the tray, a polite nod to Imoen ending the exchange and the girl was gone, leaving them alone once more.
Imoen leaned back in her chair, the crackle of the fire and the whisper of turning pages the only things to offset the ringing silence. Was this what her days would be like now, just rattling about that palace with Jaheira and Solaufein, two people she barely seemed to know, while Fritha was a city's breadth away doing the same in that house of hers? And for how long? Ever since Aerie had mentioned it, her and Haer'Dalis's immanent departure for untold adventure, Imoen had been thinking about her own future. She did not mind the elven city, but life there was quiet and at a pace much slower than she liked to live and, truth be told, she was rather itching to leave herself. And then what? Where should she go? Back to Candlekeep? Even back to the Gate? And to do what? Join a mage school or another adventuring company?
She did not want to strike off on her own, but how long could she remain there, when the reason for her stay continued to want nothing to do with neither her nor anyone else. Imoen added a sigh to the contemplative stillness. Perhaps she should have gone back to Athkatla with the others –or even Sigil? Imoen glanced again to the window and the girl seated silent before it to feel a pang of misery –she just could not leave her, not like this.
'Come on, Fritha,' Imoen sighed, suddenly sick of staring at that pale silhouette, 'the rain is easing now –your washing will soon dry again.'
Fritha started, slowly turning to face the room as she confessed, 'It's not that. I was thinking of the others, travelling in the rain…'
'As Imoen says, it is only a shower,' agreed Jaheira sternly, the woman laying down her book to busy herself over the tray before them. 'Come take tea with us -it is getting cold.'
They gathered about the table at her request, Imoen shifting her chair closer as Fritha and Solaufein rose to take again the seats opposite, Jaheira passing round the steaming cups.
'So, I was just thinking,' Imoen began in the common she usually spoke when Solaufein was about, the drow himself politely interrupting her in a halting local tongue.
'Please, speak in Chondathan -I must practise where I may.'
Imoen grinned. 'All righty. Anyway, I was just thinking, Fritha, how empty this place seems now without the others… I was wondering if you perhaps fancied coming back.'
'I am sure it will not seem so empty after a day or so,' Fritha demurred, eyes flicking up from her cup for but an instant as she drew a sip, 'You meet regularly with Aurelia -and I thought you had made plenty of friends here among the maids.'
'Yeah,' Imoen sighed wearily, 'but it's not the same. They're all so young.'
'A fine accusation coming from you!' snorted Jaheira.
'Well, they are. All they want to do is dress their hair and embroider and chatter on about boys.'
Fritha's lips twitched. 'Barring the embroidery, that sounds ideal for you.'
'Yeah, but it's not,' Imoen whined, 'They're so quiet and meek -they make me feel awful just for laughing out loud!'
'You still see Leidril and some of the other soldiers, do you not?' asked Solaufein. Imoen groaned loudly; Fritha was not the only one with a flair for the dramatic.
'Oh, don't get me started on that! Yeah, I see him sometimes, though he's often out on patrols with the other soldiers. But you should have heard the girls when I mentioned him to them –Oooo, is he your sweetheart? Do you hold hands? Have you ever kissed a boy? I'd be insulted they asked if they weren't so sincere.'
Jaheira was frowning; perhaps she did not like to think what sort of influence she might have been having on the local girls.
'Now, Imoen, they are young and the elven ways are different from those of the human races.'
'Different is it?' Imoen laughed, 'I bet the drow women don't wait a century for a snog.'
A glorious moment as Solaufein snorted into his teacup, Fritha hiding a smile in hers, and Jaheira could have screamed herself blue after that –Imoen just didn't care.
'Imoen, really! No wonder the elven maids find you brazen if this is how you behave before them.'
Imoen ignored her, a hand reached out as she tugged at the heavy cuff of the girl next to her.
'Ah, come back to the palace, Fritha -it'll be a laugh.'
Fritha looked torn, the smile fading as she watched her friend's face and the pleading look Imoen was making no attempts to hide.
'I- I'll think about it. The rain has stopped,' she continued quietly with a glance to the window. 'I should be getting back while there's a break.'
Her cup was still half full as Fritha rose, Solaufein standing as well and Imoen wondered if it was the fact he was a drow and people assumed he had been expected to perform these duties that meant he could get away with such courtesies as escorting her. Imoen downed the rest of her tea with a frustrated sigh, heartily wishing it was something stronger, an angry frown already locked on Jaheira.
'Why didn't you help me get her to stay?'
The older woman shrugged, leafing through the pages of her book as she found her place. 'Because if she needs to leave, then she should.'
'She needs to be here!' snapped Imoen, 'She hasn't got any better since she moved out and I'm not surprised, moping about that house on her own!'
Jaheira sighed, laying down her book with a sympathetic look.
'Imoen, it not just case of making her better –she may never be who she was.'
Imoen turned away, not wanting to hear what she had suspected for a long while now, her eyes watching the lingering raindrops ripple down the windowpane -tears that still fell even after the grieving had ceased.
Outside the air was damp and cool, the breeze soughing through the branches to stir the wet leaves, rainwater patting lightly on the slick wooden walkway. Fritha was at his side, her long robe gathered and looped over her belt to keep her hems from the wet as they made a brisk pace through the deserted city.
Solaufein liked the rain. He still remembered his first experience of it, creeping up to the surface one summer night to find the canopy above rattling with those falling beads of water, the man pulling off his tunic to just stand under the deluge, letting the warm water soak skin and hair both, his heart wild with an unexplained joy. It had been moments such as those which had kept him going in the darkness, living the lie that had forced from him the most objectionable of acts. But glorious as it had felt at the time, it had been, on reflection, foolhardy and he had been fortunate no one had noted his return to the city; it would have been difficult to explain away his wet clothes. Next to him, Fritha walked in her usual silence, though he was more than accustomed to it by now. Depending on her mood, she sometimes barely said a word; even those occasions where he attended her home to study could find him left alone to his reading, the girl merely on hand should he have any questions.
'Your Chondathan is coming along.'
Her voice startled him and he wondered for a moment if he had imagined it, the girl herself still watching the path ahead of them. He smiled.
'I have a good teacher.'
'You have a will to learn –though you are lucky that the common you already speak so well actually has its roots in Chondathan, both of them stemming from Thorass, or Old Common as it is known.'
'Yes, I thought I noticed some similarities in word and structure. You said the other day you had a text on Thorass –I would borrow it if I may, to learn more.'
Fritha smiled mildly, though he could not tell whether it was due to his request or the fact her home was finally creeping into view at the end of the walkway.
She hoisted up the skirts of her robes to ascend the three wet wooden steps, the covered porch beyond sheltered from the rains, the door left open as she entered and Solaufein assumed he was permitted to follow. The girl was already disappearing through the back door, and he found her in the garden, two rows of clothes hung and dripping over that recently tamed jungle.
'Soaked through,' she sighed. 'No, leave them there,' she forestalled as he made to step down from the back porch and begin collecting them in. 'I can do nothing with them in the house. They will dry here once this rain has passed.'
He followed her back inside, into the room she called the parlour, though it housed her kitchen and sitting area both, that single downstairs room cool without the fire lit and pleasantly gloomy. It was messier than he had ever seen it –perhaps she usually tidied it before she had company. Solaufein lingered uncertainly at the edge as she scrabbled through the piles of parchment, books and quills that covered the large square table which dominated one half of the room, the girl tidying them as she went. The hearth behind her was cold and full of ash that was slyly smudging its way across the rug before it, the two long sofas that faced each other in the other half of the room similarly covered in clothes and books.
'I likely should not let it get so messy. Still…' She trailed off, seemingly not so concerned about the thing to change her habits, brushing aside some papers to finally reveal the volume. 'Here, the book you wanted -Oh, it is raining again,' she confirmed with a glance to the back window, where droplets were patting softly against the glass, the soaked clothes beyond veiled by that ever-moving haze. 'I can lend you a cloak.'
'I will wait if I may.'
She drew back, a momentary flicker of hesitation to her face before she nodded once.
'As you wish. I think there is a kettle here somewhere,' she continued, on the other side of the table now and rummaging through the cupboards next to the hearth, 'Ah ha -Could you fill that for me, please?'
Solaufein blinked at the large iron kettle how hanging from his hand, the man setting it unsurely beneath the water pump that reared over the large stone sink in the corner, the spout cast to resemble some diminutive leviathan, once gleaming scales now a chalky green. He grasped its tail, the handle falling easily beneath his hand and he tried a few vain sweeps with little hope. Nothing happened.
A murmur of laughter and he whipped back to find Fritha knelt before the hearth watching his efforts, flames already dancing the grate.
'You seem a little lost.'
He felt his face grow hot, the man stepping back as he confessed, 'I have never- this would be slaves work in Ust Natha.'
'Well, we are all slaves up here.'
She was still smiling, dusting off her knees to join him at the sink and pour a waiting cup of water into the well at its base, the pump finally beginning to draw up as she heaved upon the handle, water gushing from the serpent's smiling lips. He waited as she filled the kettle, hanging it over the fire before she was back at the cupboards, fetching out cups and her tea caddy, Solaufein hovering behind her, unwilling to take a seat while she was still standing.
A few moments and a little help from her, and the water was boiled, the pair of them finally taking their seats with the teapot between them as they waited for it to brew, the rain beating a gentle tattoo on the tiles above them.
'You seemed to have settled in well here,' Fritha offered to the silence. Solaufein dipped his face in a slow nod.
'The elves are generous hosts, as are your own companions.'
'Will you find it strange living in the palace with only Jaheira and Imoen?'
He took a moment to consider the question.
'I do not believe so. I am used enough to being in the company of strong women, albeit in not so relaxed an atmosphere. It is… pleasant, but at the same time confusing. I admit I am still not sure how to act. Amongst the drow, males are subservient to females, though I had reached an importance in Ust Natha, at least in these most recent years, that I moved outside the realms of all but the highest ranking females. But here… males and females seem to serve each other and for a myriad of reasons -courtship, rank, respect- and I am unsure of my place in it all.'
Fritha merely shrugged. 'Just do what feels right for you. The only person you have to please is yourself now, and one of the best things about life up here is that everything is so varied, whatever you do is going to be right somewhere. So,' she continued, moving to take up the teapot and fill their cups, 'you have no plans to leave and see more of the surface, then?'
'I hope to one day, but I am in no haste.'
She nodded absently, lifting her cup for that first sip, and he suspected they were the same in that. Both had undergone a huge change in their lives and it took time to take it in, to accept and forget and grow used to the person you now were, before forging forward once more.
No,' she agreed in a sigh, turning to gaze out at the rain, 'there is no rush…'