Author's Note: Here are some musings featuring Xan, Kivan and Coran. There is a chance this could grow longer, but for now it stands as it is. Reviews and comments welcome as always!
Credits: Characters owned by Bioware and inspired by the work of Domi and Kulyok at the Gibberlings 3 and Pocket Plane Group, respectively.
The words escaped his mouth and he cringed hearing them echo into the night trees. Quietly though he dislodged the shrub's thorny grasp from his robe collar and moved on. Xan didn't look back; he didn't need to. He could feel the gaze of his companion reproaching him without bothering to turn around.
They continued on in silence, or at least Kivan did; the archers that guarded the hidden entrances to the vales of Evereska were practically human compared with the stealth this ranger possessed. Xan tried to blame his own stiffness on the tortures he suffered in the mines, but he forced himself to admit it was a half-truth. Even before he was chained and beaten by that sadistic beast he'd been more at ease in a library than the forest. An almost blasphemous thought, he considered wryly, though the Seldarine clearly thought to correct the imbalance by ensuring he spent as much time as possible trudging around the latter.
"My lord?" Kivan's voice suddenly said.
He spoke so low that Xan barely noticed him. He turned, wondering, then felt even more of a fool realising they'd reached their lookout. If Kivan noticed his inattention though he said nothing. The ranger sat cross-legged on a rock with his back straight and his eyes focused on the forest.
With a quiet sigh Xan sat next to him. He shut his eyes and softly the sounds of the wood came to his ears. A light breeze shook the pines, bringing him their fresh scent. Somewhere he heard a mother doe calling to her fawn, who must have wandered too far in his nightly frolic. The breeze called again and he almost fancied he heard the faint crash of the sea, its rise and fall blending seamlessly with the other sounds of the night.
Gradually his mood unsnarled and he felt himself drifting. He was tired. That was nothing unusual, but he felt it keenly that night. When Kivan roused him for their watch he didn't want to admit that the reverie he'd been chasing for hours had still eluded him. Why could he not bring himself to say that he needed sleep? His kinsman would understand, surely. It was no shameful thing given his recent experiences.
He still saw it in his dreams—that cave. That damp, horrible cave, filled with the stench of kobolds and the sick moisture that trickled down the muddy walls. The chains that gnawed endlessly into his bloody wrists were the least of the sufferings he endured there. Mulahey's eyes; had he ever seen eyes that lit up so at the sound of a scream? Not even orcish blood was so foul. He was a demon. His kobolds robbed the human graveyards, bringing back trophies for his vile necromancy. Xan felt a sharp pain and forced himself to abandon the memory.
In the mines he'd turned more and more to sleep, his body and mind too exhausted for reverie. Slowly he'd been returning to normal but it was a long path; his reveries were too short, and he emerged from them feeling more tired still. Though perhaps it was what he saw there that burdened him more than anything else.
"The rains will come tomorrow," Kivan said.
Xan jerked his head, startled by the sudden speech. He followed his kinsman's eyes up to the moon. She was wrapped in a thin rainbow of a halo, like Sehanine wearing her veil. But that night her face looked cold to him as a dead ball of rock. Xan shuddered and looked away.
"Snow is more likely," he replied.
"The air is not so cold for that," Kivan said matter-of-factly. "The spring has driven it to the north."
Xan said nothing. He felt foolish again; Kivan must think him soft indeed. Of course he knew it wasn't going to snow, why did he say so? Yet somehow he felt like he'd spoken the truth. The snow would come again, and neither of them could stop it.
"It seems the rains will not leave us alone," he said instead. "They have been following us for days."
"What does it matter, the rain? It falls on us all but passes again."
Kivan shook out his black braids; he clearly feared the weather as much as a tree. His long braids reminded Xan of the night he stood before the mirror with a pair of shears, cutting away his hopelessly matted and filthy hair in a final gift of humiliation from the orc. He made a short noise in his throat.
"Yes. It grinds down men and mountains, just the same."
Kivan glanced at him but offered no comment. Xan felt a snub though in his silent look. How happy had he been that day they encountered the ranger in the woods—at last, at last, one of his own, neither orc nor kobold, nor the humans and half-humans whose hopeless lot he'd thrown in with. Joy washed over him like a river to feel a fellow spirit near again, a tangible release that he could not express in words. Yet the ranger's peculiarities dampened that feeling even before his own natural reticence could take over. Kivan treated him more with the suspicion of a wild animal than the warmth of kin.
Though what else could he expect from a wild elf? Not a polite name, and not one Xan would dare say to his face. He'd rarely encountered them in his travels, and always the experience had been less than social. He'd felt like an unwelcome guest in their forests and it was doubtlessly of mutual relief when he finally took his leave. Although Kivan graciously called him 'lord' he knew that title was a fragile one; he was not of the Moon and had no bond to the blade he wielded. Any respect he gave was a gift, and one that could vanish like the wind.
Yet Xan respected him. He had a strength that was impossible to deny, an immutable sense of purpose that for all his obligations he'd never been able to conjure. His bread, his water, his very breath were one goal. It was frightening almost the strength he had, though he could not imagine anything less from one who had sworn an oath to the Black Archer. A disturbing god, one that was almost...un-elven. Xan glanced at him again. Watching Kivan stare off into the trees like a hawk he wondered if he could ever feel such a drive. His thoughts drifted again, and for one moment he was certain he could.
Despite his grim nature though Kivan was still infinitely more tolerable than the other kinsman who travelled with them. Xan scowled recalling Coran's jovial attempts to draw him into a comparison of the various virtues of the women in their group. Like some lewd shepherd sizing up his flock his eyes took in every measurement, and little doubt his hands took in others. His behaviour might be forgivable for an eighty-year-old but in a grown man it seemed almost distasteful.
What demon was it that drove him? Demon, or succubus. He seemed like a man running from something, though what Xan couldn't surmise. His own folly, perhaps. Xan knew his type—forever chasing forbidden love with the humans rather than finding one that truly had a chance to flower. He would run till his breath failed him, then collapse and die in the happy knowledge that he'd lived life as a romantic. He would leave nothing in his wake save for an inevitable string of half-breed children who would never know their father.
A cynical voice told him that was the likely origin of most of whom the humans called half-elves. A twinge of guilt struck him though thinking of the pair of half-human Harpers he'd joined with. More than that; he owed them his life, not least from the druid's healing touch. They were both good-hearted and strong and he could not truly fault them, though Khalid could hardly speak and Jaheira had a voice to rival an eagle.
Yet like all their kind they seemed to belong nowhere. The humans looked at them strangely, and the elves just looked at them. They had no kin and no country. Little wonder they'd chosen a life of wandering rather than the settled one of a married couple.
A bird flapped in his roost and Xan jerked again. He knew he should be paying more attention to the watch rather than let his thoughts wander over such pointless subjects. Why could he not focus? But Kivan seemed unconcerned by the noise and Xan's mind gradually drifted away once more.
He considered the women they travelled with. It wasn't that human women couldn't be attractive; at their best they had a kind of unspoiled loveliness that made him think of spring. Though they could never hope to match the aching, pure artist's beauty of the elven woman there was a sort of earthy charm in their rounded forms. But it was ultimately a hollow attraction, like spring itself a fleeting thing.
The girl. Her image suddenly came to him and he felt surprise, like one discovering something he hadn't realised he'd lost. How long since he'd thought of her? 'The girl' he always called her, for she had no name that he knew.
Where was it? It hardly mattered now. Some forsaken human town, the same as any other. Dust and noise and fouler things still. He'd stopped into the most respectable-looking inn he could find, a challenge in that place. Xan ordered wine and porridge and the combination earned him an endless stream of jibes from the fat landlord. He brushed it off though, as he always did, and seated himself in the farthest corner.
He barely noticed when the maid brought his meal, but for some reason he glanced up. There, beaming down on him was a creature in a patched frock; her hair was carelessly plaited and smudges of dust surrounded her large brown eyes, yet somehow she seemed such a vision of perfect charm he could hardly take his gaze from her. Everything about her seemed to brim with life.
He watched that night as her bare feet swept across the straw-covered floor like a queen over her ballroom. She laughed and talked merrily with everyone, not least with the mysterious elf who had clearly taken an interest in her. She would stop at his table and steal sips of his wine, paying for the theft with a glowing smile. For his part he tried to understand his attraction; not desire, surely, even for a human she was barely more than a child. Yet he watched her, and felt a kind of joy when she stopped in her work to chat with him.
The noise of the common room didn't seem as loud that night, and the humans' raucous music more pleasing to the ears. A burly fellow slapped his back and laughed warmly, saying words that made his cheeks colour. For one evening in those lands he felt almost happy; though he was a lonely stranger, he felt almost that he belonged. But he was younger then, and perhaps the knowledge of later years had clouded the memory.
Xan jumped hearing a noise approaching through the undergrowth. He rose quickly to his feet, but Kivan merely spoke to the intruder.
"Must you make so much noise? Any beast in the wood could hear you."
"Then let them revel in the sound of my fair voice, before my bow sends them to their gods!" the intruder slurred in reply.
To prove his point Coran sprawled out on the forest floor at their feet, sending a song of ripe love into the trees before Kivan harshly silenced him.
"Ah, my friend, if a man cannot sing in the wood then life has become grim indeed," Coran laughed.
"You are drunk," Xan remarked.
"My lord, you are wise as you are noble. I am indeed! But I am not a selfish man. Here, my friends, join me."
He held out a mostly-empty wineskin to Xan, whose eyes narrowed in reply. Kivan's response was no warmer and Coran shrugged.
"Hospitality has no more meaning, I see. Alas! But fear not, my sweet beloved Elverquisst—your darling has not deserted you."
He laughed and gave the wineskin a kiss before taking an immoderate swig.
"Have you nothing else to do tonight?" Xan asked.
He immediately regretted the statement as Coran cheerfully took the bait.
"Who's to say it hasn't already been done? Though I am not one to rest on my triumphs. Ah, you wound me with your cold looks, my lord. But wait—of course, it is so perfect!"
"What is?" Xan groaned, not really wanting to hear the answer.
"So devious in its simplicity, so faultless in its logic!" Coran continued, ignoring him. "So remarkable that the fates themselves must have arranged it!"
"What?" Kivan said severely.
Coran rolled off his back and looked at them.
"Think, my friend. We men are three. And what is waiting in the camp? Three available ladies! Let me check my sums, just in case." He held up three fingers on one hand, then three on the other. "Yes, blonde, brunette and redhead. A fine selection. Marvellous, is it not?"
"You are entirely mad," Xan said, shaking his head.
"Not entirely," Coran replied, and a crooked smile spread over his face. "I shall even let you take first pick."
Xan's mouth opened but Kivan spoke.
"Your words disgust me. Do not speak of these women as if they were game for you to hunt."
Coran's grin faded somewhat under the ranger's glare but he quickly recovered.
"But what if the quarry enjoys the hunt? It would be cruel to deny them the chase."
"I severely doubt that any of the women here would appreciate your salivating pursuit," Xan remarked.
"Do you truly think so?" Coran replied. "Then you must know little of women."
Xan gave him a baleful look and turned his gaze back to the trees.
"Oh, do not be so sour!" Coran said. "The sky above us is dry for now, and the night winds are calling. Have a drink and let us go and revel in them. When we return I guarantee your blood will be pumping."
"My blood shall be thinning you mean—rain or no it is cold tonight," Xan grumbled.
He pulled his cloak tighter around him and Coran's eyebrow raised.
"Cold? We do need to limber you up. You sit like an old human fellow all hunched over your book, complaining of the slightest breeze. Take a drink, won't you?"
Xan frowned but quickly reached for the offered wineskin. A taste of Elverquisst was too hard an offer to refuse that night, even if meant swallowing his pride with the wine.
"There you are!" Coran exclaimed. "One down, one to go. Come now Kivan, don't hold out. Have a drink and we shall all go find some mischief."
"We are on watch, if you have failed to notice," the ranger replied, making no move towards the wine. "And I cannot fathom what sort of mischief you would have planned."
"Perhaps a little game of 'guess who's in the bedroll'?" Coran smirked.
"Do you ever think of anything besides a woman's thighs?" Kivan said wearily.
"Of course. There are her lovely breasts, her smooth round—oh, why are your frowning?" Coran laughed. "I only act the clown to cheer you up. The Seldarine know we could use it. There's too much grimness in our little band for my liking."
"That is because our task is grim. We are hunting murderers and thieves, and assassins pursue one of our group for reasons we do not know. We all face death at any time. If you try to make light of that then you are only a fool."
Coran sat up. "Why, for desiring to live a little before I meet my end? That is not foolishness. What's the point of being alive if you are already dead? You might as well be in the ground, a hero for the maidens to bewail and the bards to croon over. Come, have a drink. We can talk about the ladies we've known, and toast the fond memories. Surely you cannot find that offensive."
Kivan's look seemed to suggest otherwise, and Coran sighed loudly.
"Then battles, then! How many orcs have we slain on a summer's night? How many silver horns have called out to the moon? You are a hunter of the deepest forests, and Xan is a defender of a fabled city. You must have tales to tell."
"We are not at some Coronal's feast," Xan said. "Look around you. We are three ragged and battered men, perched on the cold rocks of some forsaken wood that holds considerably more beasts than maidens. Kivan is right—show some sense, for once."
His reply was sharp and cool, and Coran's grin finally faded.
"With respect, my lords, it is plain to me now that I am the only one here who does have any sense. But if you will not allow your spirits to be lifted, then I shall take my leave before mine crumples and withers like a plucked bloom. Fare thee well, my merry fellows."
Coran swept himself up and into a nimble bow before departing back into the wood. Xan let out a breath, letting the cool stillness wash over him again.
Woe betide us all when the fool speaks wise, he thought to himself. However much it pained him to admit, Coran was closer to most of his kin than he. How many elves danced and drank away a summer's night, never giving a thought to the grim-faced watchers who patrolled the forest's edge? How many lovers made their tryst under the moon without thinking of those who went without a companion for their sakes? Xan knew well the answer to those questions, as he'd been on the outside looking in for longer than he'd care to remember. But that was as it should be; to be a guardian inevitably meant to stand alone.
But not always alone. That was the difference between him and his fellows, and Xan knew it well. The other guardians had lovers and friends waiting for them when their patrols were done, but the best he could hope for was a too-short stay in an empty villa. At least Kivan had an excuse for his grimness, what was his? Xan glanced at him and was surprised to see him looking back.
"I thought perhaps you'd fallen into reverie," the ranger said.
His tone was rather brusque and Xan sat up straighter.
"No. I was only in thought."
"Are you in pain?"
Xan started at Kivan's unexpected comment.
"Why should you ask that?"
"You were limping on our march," he replied, turned his gaze back to the trees. "You often struggle, I have noticed, but today it seemed like your pack was too heavy for you."
"If it was, it is my own fault," Xan said. "No one forces me to carry anything."
Not exactly true; like the rest of them his pack was bursting with excess food and other random bits of kit that they carried on the off chance some of it might prove useful. Still he had no intention of mentioning that to the tireless ranger.
"I can carry more than I do, if you wish to lighten your burden," Kivan continued. "If you are ill you should not strain yourself more than necessary."
"I am not ill," Xan exclaimed, more firmly than he intended. Kivan said nothing.
Xan leaned his head forward and groaned inwardly. He shut his eyes again, searching for the peace of the night. The ranger's eyes were keen but if he noticed his weakness, then it must be obvious to all. He needed rest. He needed to sleep. He needed...
Somehow the girl flashed back into his mind. The fire in the grate had finally grown dim and the inn's patrons slipped away, one by one into the night. Reluctantly Xan rose and drew himself off to bed. At the foot of the stairs he felt a light touch on his sleeve. It was her.
"Are you retiring, m'lord?" she said. "If you want I could call on you in a while, just to see if your room's...suitable."
There was little hiding what she meant. Xan looked at her, with her flushed cheeks, her smile that was just for him. Her breast rose and fell with the anticipation of the offer. She placed a hand over his as it rested on the banister. It was rough and callous-worn, one that spent more time in dishwater than caressing flowers. But it was warm, and he found it pleasing. Xan looked into her eyes. He'd thought she was young, but now he was not so sure.
She glanced at him expectantly, awaiting his answer. His mouth felt suddenly dry but he spoke.
"Yes. I would...like that."
The girl beamed at him and left to finish her duties. He stared after her, wondering if he'd actually said those words, but he retreated to his room, leaving the door unlocked behind him.
He rode away the next morning when the air was still grey. As he glanced over his shoulder at the sleeping hulk of an inn it occurred to him that she never even told him her name. She never told, and he never asked. Perhaps they both knew it didn't matter. He was leaving and he wasn't coming back.
Except, he did. Not the next season, not for years. Years of travel and troubles filled his mind, pushing that one night further back. As if guided by an unseen hand though he found himself in that same inn, looking around the place with the vague feeling that it was familiar. The answer hit him like water and his heart raced, wondering if the girl was still there. Would she remember him? What would he say? Oh, Seldarine, what if...?
But there was no girl in sight. An indifferent boy served him the wine that the heavyset woman behind the bar had poured. Xan forced himself to relax; it was folly to think the girl would still be there. Surely she would have moved on, married perhaps, or even...
As he mulled over the possibilities his eyes focused on the woman behind the bar. Her plump face was chapped and her grey-stained hair was piled carelessly on her head. He watched as she methodically wiped the bar with a rag, her eyes empty and dull as they focused on her task. Something in the way she moved, it caught his eye. A vague familiarity like the inn. Then a cold feeling built in his stomach and flowed up his spine—it was her.
He swallowed the bitter wine hard, almost in a panic. How could it be? Surely not, it was her mother perhaps, her grandmother even—but no. It was her. Was it so long? And how could all the years of the world turn that bright-eyed young girl into...that? He couldn't understand. It was impossible, a cruel joke, some vile curse perhaps—but no. It was her.
At that moment the woman looked up and her eyes met his. Perhaps she saw the horror in his face, or perhaps she recognised him; elves were not so common there and he would have looked little different. A kind of shock came over her red cheeks, turning them white before going redder still.
Xan stayed frozen to the spot. They just stared at each other, neither moving. He tried to read the thoughts in her eyes but even his enchanter's skills failed him. She just—looked at him. What was he to her? A faded memory of youth, suddenly made flesh? A forgotten fling? Or a lost fantasy of an elven prince, who once came to carry her away from the promise of drudgery her life held?
He never found out. A girl burst through from the kitchen, squabbling at her mother for something or other. The woman turned and shouted back, her voice even drowning out her daughter's. The spell broke from him. He threw some coins on the table, how much he didn't know; likely ten times what the wine was worth but he didn't care. He fled the inn, mounted his horse and rode until the daylight faded.
Xan made camp in the wilderness that night, and it was only by grace he didn't find himself under attack. Staring into the fire his only thoughts were on the girl. He felt broken, like his very memory had been betrayed. Why did it upset him so? He knew the realities of human existence. At least he took comfort in thinking none of her children bore elven features, at least, none that he had seen.
But he couldn't stop wondering if the girl still lived in the shell of that woman, if it wasn't her eyes that looked at him from that weary face. As if her face was a mask that he could tear away, revealing the girl beaming out at him, young and lovely once more. Did she still laugh? Was she...happy? Perhaps he read too much into one night. Likely she never thought of him, likely she never cared. She never even told him her name. So long ago now. Whatever she felt, the girl is long dead.
The shape of trees came to Xan's eyes. He blinked, trying to focus. Startled he realised the air was light; dawn was near. He moved his stiff body to rise but he heard Kivan's voice.
"Do not fear. I have been on watch."
Xan turned to him.
"I was in reverie—" he began, his voice sounding confused.
"Yes. I did not want to disturb you."
Kivan rose up and stretched, facing the lightening hills to the east. The skies were grey but the promised rain still held off. Xan rubbed his eyes and felt his idiocy strike him. Falling into reverie in the middle of a watch? Supposing Kivan had not been there and they'd come under attack? He truly was older than his years suggested.
"You should have woken me," Xan said.
"Why?" Kivan asked. "You needed rest, and I need no aid to keep guard."
"Perhaps, but that is not the point."
"We all need rest, my friend," he said. "The road wears hard on us all."
Xan bristled slightly at the ranger's attempted coddling. But who was he fooling? Even Coran with a belly full of wine wouldn't have faded out so quickly. He was weak. His body hurt. His head hurt. His very spirit ached, and he woke from dreams in pain. He was freed from the mines, but there was no freedom from pain. And rather than fade away it only grew stronger.
Kivan came and sat across from him. He leaned forward, examining Xan with keen black eyes that made him rather uncomfortable.
"You find reverie difficult, do you not?"
"Yes," Xan replied, looking away from those eyes.
Kivan straightened up and was silent for a time.
"I could not manage it for years," he said quietly. "When I did...the pain I could not bear."
"Yes," Kivan sighed. "But I needed to. I forced myself past it. The pain did not matter anymore. It still brings me pain, but I do it because I must."
"I understand. I know I have been weak, preferring to face phantoms rather than real nightmares. Though it has ever been so."
The ranger shook his head. "It is not about cowardice. You must move beyond these things if you ever are to heal. You must let go of your guilt."
"Why would you say guilt?" he asked, surprised. "I was not to blame for my torture. Perhaps I should have been more wary, but I was ambushed—"
"Guilt over your own weakness," Kivan interrupted. Xan's mouth closed.
"Yes," he said slowly. "Perhaps you are right."
"When were you last in communion?"
"I don't know," Xan said. "It has been long...a long time."
"For me also," Kivan replied. "But if you would like, I will open myself. I will show you her...I will show you Deheriana. You may show me whatever you choose, and I will see it with you."
A grim smile flickered over the ranger's face, and slowly an answering one formed on his.
"Yes, my friend. I should like that very much."