CANDLEKEEP – PART II
Stepping through Candlekeep's gates, passing both the new Keeper of the Portal and the watching sentry, brought Kivan a sharp, stark reminder of just what Rain had faced the last time she had returned to her childhood home: the cold, unfriendly reception she had received from many of the library's inhabitants, and the strange, almost…off attitude of the people towards her, folk that she had mistakenly believed she had grown up with. Then there had been her foster-father's letter to her, and the truth of her dark birth, revealed at last.
Now, Kivan was no less wary, mistrusting the motives this prelate might have to acquiesce so readily to Rain's request to walk the halls of her former home. It did not sit well with him. Rain, too, was uneasy; he felt her own caution in the familiar sense of her that came to him through the Spirit, and he saw it in her guarded expression, for she was unable to lower her defences and simply give over to her sorrow, not even here, in this place so familiar to her. Or perhaps, especially not here. Too much blood had been spilt in the grounds of the lauded library. Many innocent lives lost, all for the sake of Sarevok's doomed war for the Sword Coast, his fruitless attempts to rise above his sisters and brothers.
It made him more worried, wondering what awaited Rain this time.
Perhaps he was being too suspicious. Perhaps there was no snare, this time. No trap or hidden catch. But he doubted it. His need to protect Rain, his beloved, beat as fiercely in his heart and blood as it ever had, and it did not matter that, between them, they commanded more power than these guards on the walls and in the turrets could ever imagine, ever comprehend. Kivan trusted in his instincts; he remained sharp-eyed and vigilant, ready to defend her.
Rain, he realised in the next moment, shared his misgivings.
"This seems too easy," she murmured, her soft words for his ears alone. They moved together more closely on the path of white stone, taking them out into the midst of the outer bailey. The wide sward stretched either side of them, the short grass a deep emerald in the dense shadow cast by the keep's high, inner curtain wall. "There will be a price to pay, I am sure," she continued in that same quiet tone. She was not bitter about it, just matter-of-fact. "These monks will prize knowledge above all else, just as Ulraunt and the others did. This prelate will want something from me, I am certain."
Kivan nodded soberly. "I suspect the same, amael. Keep on guard here, but do not let it prevent you from doing what you came here to do. It is your right to be here, to say your farewells. It was your foster-father who fell while trying to protect you, and it was your friends who were slain. Do not feel rushed in your time here, regardless of what these monks might want of you."
Rain stopped and looked up at him, her face tilted to his. Her eyes, dark as the sea, were very serious. "You always know the right thing to say to me," she said, and her voice was tender. "The right thing to bring me back to the important things, to what really matters." She smiled at him, softly, and lifted a hand to his shoulder, gently adjusting the fall of his cloak where it draped back from his neck.
His lips twisted ruefully, but his heart was warmed. "I am not so good with words as you make me out to be," he observed, a little wryly, but Rain shook her head.
"You are, beloved," she said, and she was as serious as before.
He gave in then, and his smile for her was glad and unfettered, his eyes revealing his love and his pleasure. He bent his head and kissed her brow, where the delicate spring vine weaved across her temple, flourishing its very-fine, dainty green leaves. "Vanima," he whispered reverently, and then drew back.
Together, they turned to face the grand archway ahead of them, the entrance in the grey stone wall that led to the library's inner courtyard. The pale path continued beyond it, ending at the edge of a paved garden, the cobblestones set in concentric circles, spiralling across the yard. It was neat, orderly. A very human way of trying to control the contained space around them. The gardens were tidy, the bright flowers perfectly aligned in their beds, and the fountains splashed cool water, the sea-breeze carrying the fine droplets far from their marble rims.
The library fortress presided over it all. It had its own rigid splendour, Kivan was forced to admit, and the keep's many towers and pointed spires, reaching for the azure sky, were impressive. One could easily imagine the shapes of tall, tapering candles in the library's design. Above the stone lintel of the keep's main door, there were rows of narrow windows, marking each floor. Vague, indistinct shadows moved behind some of the frosted, bubbled glass; people, looking intently through the opaque panels, down upon the bailey.
Kivan's eyes narrowed on them. "We are being observed," he said in a low, leashed voice.
Rain nodded, her gaze following his. She sighed then, and dropped her eyes back to the courtyard, to where scholars in long robes wandered in quiet reflection, or read leather-bound tomes and unfurled scrolls, pondering their writings.
"It is so strange," she said after a time, an almost haunted note in her voice. "It feels the same, seeing how life just goes on for them, as it once did here, but the faces are different, and everyone I knew are long gone." She was pained, saddened. Her grief rose through the sudden cracks in her composure. "Do they even know what passed here? Do they even think of the bloodbath that drowned these halls, that took the lives of so many decent people?" Her voice hardened, taking on a brittle edge. "They care not for Gorion and Winthrop, and the good folk I knew. They know nothing of the people who came before them, who were so brutally murdered. Their shades walk here now; restless ghosts. Were it not for their deaths, these new monks wouldn't even be here to guard these books, to hold Candlekeep in their care."
Rain's bitterness was very unusual for her. It did not come naturally to her, that cynicism, despite the cruel ordeals of her life, and Kivan glanced down at her in concern. In gentle understanding, he reached around her pack and settled his hand on her shoulder, letting her know he was there. There was still a hint of the sun's warmth in her black leather vest, despite the shadows falling across the path. Rain stirred then, shaking off her dark reflections, and she looked up at him in grave apology.
"I am sorry," she said quietly. "That was unfair of me, wasn't it. It is not their fault that life continues. I am the one who remembers, and I am the one still burdened by the loss of my foster-father, and all these ghosts. And my own responsibility in it," she added more grimly, a shadow that he recognised darkening her eyes again.
That was a sentiment that Kivan understood intimately, but Rain was being too hard on herself. "You do not need to apologise to me, amael," he said gently. "We both remember what happened here. And you had no part in their deaths, Rain. Do not forget that." For emphasis, he briefly tightened his fingers in her shoulder, assuring her of his faith in her, his staunch support. "Come, love," he said then. "Let us go and pay our respects to the dead."
Rain lifted her chin a little, squared her shoulders, and then firmed her expression, taking on her look of determined resolve that Kivan knew so well. When she stepped out with him, the two of them striding for the archway, she seemed to take possession of the path before her, walking past the pair of guardsmen on duty at the entrance to the courtyard without even glancing at them. The soldiers, Kivan noted, knew very well who she was; their eyes were riveted on her sleek ebony frame, decorated only by her paired swords in their crimson sheaths, and the loose fall of her sunset hair, cascading down her back past her leather pack. Word had obviously spread of their arrival. At the awed, bemused glances the guards were unable to fully conceal, Kivan felt a jolt of fierce satisfaction. He suppressed a feral smile.
Let them look. Let them see how magnificent she is. Let them know just what a powerful force to contend with she is.
In the courtyard, he padded alongside her, his feet silent on the cobblestones. He held himself with quiet self-possession. He was aware of the startled stares of the scholars, and the murmurs and speculation that rose in their wake, and he did not care at all that his ragged cloak was being remarked upon, and the red berries in his braid. It did not ruffle him at all. He was what he was: woodswalker, warrior and hunter. Everything that Rain needed.
She, too, ignored the library's visitors and monks, but one thing did make her pause, slowing her steps. She glanced over at one of the fountains, looking beyond it. Kivan followed her gaze, pausing beside her.
A small, fair head could be glimpsed peeking above the rectangular marble rim. A moment later, a little human girl stood up, hefting a rather large, striped ginger cat in her spindly arms. The furry animal seemed much too heavy for her to manage. The little girl didn't seem to mind, though. She spoke to the cat in a fond but admonishing tone, and the cat wriggled, trying to squirm out of her grip. In the next instant, the cat was trotting away through a garden bed, its tail held straight, proud and high, and the small child was chasing after it, telling the fleeing creature how naughty it was.
Rain let out a delighted, amused laugh. She turned to Kivan then, and his heart leaped at the renewed sparkle in her blue eyes, the dark cloud that had overcome her earlier dispersing. "Perhaps it is good to see life go on after all," she said with a smile, and Kivan grinned at her in answer. He took her hand as they began to walk again, heading for the polished marble steps leading up to the library.
"So, did you and Imoen ever torment the poor cats of the keep?" he teased her in a low voice, mischief in his eyes.
"Torment? Never." Rain tossed her head. "We may have…played with them, frequently, and followed them into the stables and cellars, but we always behaved very nicely." Her next smile held its own sly mischief. "We saved our torments for the monks. And Ulraunt. And Winthrop. And the guards."
Kivan snickered, very amused. He liked the idea of a young Rain and unruly Imoen menacing the inhabitants of the keep. "I am sure you did," he said dryly, wondering just what trouble the pair of them had caused between them.
Rain's smile slowly faded, though her mood was lightened. She gently squeezed his hand with her fingers. She knew exactly what he was about, trying to distract her from her sorrow by thinking of happier times. "Thank you," she said softly.
He smiled at her gently in answer.
They stepped up onto the wide marble platform before the library's doors, then, and strode forward, Rain sweeping towards the next pair of guards without hesitation, like the unstoppable storm wind that she was. They gave way before her. Realising she was not about to wait for them, one of them took a swift but awkward step backwards and turned, opening up one half of the paired wooden doors for her entry. The threshold loomed. Kivan slowed a little to let Rain precede him, and then he followed her into the dim stone foyer, the door closing behind him again to shut out the thick salt air. His keen eyes adjusted easily to the low light levels; his black irises widened, drinking in the candlelight.
The library was just as he remembered.
Heavy stone walls and a muffled hush, the grey carpet dampening the steps of the library's visitors. Though for now, only he and Rain were in the foyer, and the nearest of the brown-robed monks was some distance away, on the far side of the library's grand open chamber. Two tall iron candelabras lit the entrance to the carpeted stairs. Rows upon rows of shelves crowded the main chamber, stacked full of books, and a score of oil lamps glowed in special stone recesses set into the walls, the yellow flames kept far from the precious tomes. In the foyer itself, marble statues of Alaundo's likeness reigned, the ancient scholar welcoming all seekers-of-knowledge to his famed library.
Kivan glanced at one of the statues and was reminded of the sage's prophecy, the one foretelling of Rain, Gorion's ward. He wondered what Alaundo would think of her now.
Rain's thoughts must have been following the same path as his, for she, too, gazed long at the statues, and her expression was musing. But she said nothing of Alaundo. Instead, she slipped her hand behind his elbow and linked her arm with his, and wandered slowly with him into the vast chamber, taking her time as she looked upon her old home again.
"Everything is so familiar," she said with quiet reverence. Her eyes were wistful, full of sad nostalgia. "The books, the candlelit alcoves… The smell of parchment and leather bindings. Even the beeswax they use to polish the desks and tables. It is the same."
Those scents certainly carried, and the burning lamps gave off a clean, faintly-sweet aroma, but underneath it, the air was dense and dry. Stale. It made Kivan long for the fresh air of the courtyard, to be away from these confining walls. He made no complaint, however. He simply strolled with Rain through the library, content with the satisfaction that her homecoming brought her, though her memories were bittersweet. She fell silent, and they stopped together in the midst of the chamber, surrounded by books and lamps. The monk disappeared into a study alcove. Rain gazed about herself, her eyes solemn. Then she sighed and leaned her head on his shoulder, and the warm scent of her hair tantalised his senses, making him forget all about the mustiness of the library.
He looked about with her, and his own memories of this place rose, one of them clear and sharp and rippled through with unexpected laughter. He grinned suddenly, his eyes gleaming with mirth.
"Do you remember the two old scholars who accosted you last time?" he asked her, his smile widening. "What were their names again?" He knew full well, for the utter hilarity of that very enlightening encounter was imprinted vividly on his mind, but Kivan wanted to see Rain laugh, to draw her out of her melancholic silence.
She groaned and hid her suddenly-pink cheeks in his arm. "I knew you were going to bring that up," she told him, her muffled voice chagrined, but he felt her spike of mirth through the Spirit. She lifted her head and gave him an amused, embarrassed grin. "Theodon and Jessup," she said with a laugh. "I couldn't believe how much they humiliated me. I was very sincerely regretting walking through that front door," she said, flickering her eyes briefly towards the foyer. "I was so mortified, I just wanted to crawl beneath the staircase and hide."
Kivan laughed with bright, keen humour. "I thought I saw you sidling towards it," he said with a sly grin, wrapping his arm around her shoulders to prevent any escape. "Hmm, what was their very descriptive account of you again? Running around the keep in the buff, naked as a jaybird? Stealing Khelben Blackstaff's cloak and tying it around your waist?"
Rain flushed even pinker, but her eyes gleamed with both the candlelight and her own humour. "At least they didn't actually have the portrait with them," she said dryly.
"What, the one of you on the bearskin rug, in the buff?" Kivan flashed a wicked smile at her. "It is probably just as well, or Coran and Xan would have been in raptures. As it was, we all had a rather…inspiring vision of you. It was most…distracting."
She laughed again, more quietly this time, and her face sobered. She looked up at him and lightly cupped the sharp plane of his cheek in her palm. "Even for you?" she asked softly, a hint of shy hesitation about her. But she held his eyes steadily, awaiting his answer.
"Even for me," he admitted with absolute honesty, and then smiled at her.
Rain relaxed and smiled back at him, her eyes warm and tender. She stroked her fingertips down the side of his face. "You have helped me again," she said evenly. "Of everyone in the keep that day, I at least know that Jessup and Theodon were themselves, not...replaced. They were genuine in their fondness for me. That is something I can take away from here, and remember when my thoughts start to drift back to the other, terrible things." She lifted herself on her toes and brushed her soft lips over his. "You are good for me," she whispered, and Kivan felt exactly the same way about her.
They walked the rest of Candlekeep's great library, Rain settling into a deep silence once more, saying her quiet farewells to her ghosts. Kivan did not disturb her with unnecessary talk. She seemed distracted, lost in her thoughts whenever she found a familiar, lamp-lit alcove, or picked up a dusty, ancient tome that she had read as a girl, but she was always aware of him, and they moved in harmony together, past the many shelves.
It was on the second floor that they came across the first of their watchers. Three monks, garbed in their cassocks, stared at Rain with blatant, unconcealed interest. They sized her up from beneath their cowls, looking at her as though she was something volatile and destructive; a lethal, but inexplicably-compelling creature that stalked the halls of their library. From the wary set of their stances, the monks feared that, at any moment, Rain might snap her fingers and set fire to every book on the floor. Which she very well could, if she wanted to. She kept walking, saying nothing, and the monks' gazes slid to Kivan, taking his measure.
He looked one of them directly in the eye, hard and unforgiving. He sent a very clear message.
Leave her be.
The monk swallowed uneasily and made no move to follow himself and Rain up the next set of stairs.
On the fourth level, where the library's residents had their small, staid chambers within the keep, Rain paused outside the door to her old room, alongside her foster-father's, but did not linger. She gave Kivan a small, sad smile as they continued on their way, in the direction of Ulraunt's former study.
"I do not think they would have kept anything of mine," she murmured, "and my room is likely taken by now." Her eyes darkened. "And Gorion's, too," she added softly.
Kivan nodded quietly, understanding her reluctance to disturb the keep's new occupants. He looked ahead to where the Keeper of the Tomes had once held office. The door was opened wide, and a tall figure, robed in blue, stood with his back to the hearth blazing within the chamber behind him, the firelight flickering over the man's shorn head. Gathered outside the prelate's receiving room were many more of the monks, waiting with a still, sober patience for Rain's arrival.
It had the feel of a reckoning. No, not a reckoning, Kivan silently amended as he looked at the hooded monks, but an important occasion. An event of grave historical significance. He slanted a look at Rain, and he saw the steely purpose in her eyes, in her proud carriage. She was preparing herself for a battle of wills. Together, they approached the study with brisk, fluid efficiency, and the monks parted before them, stepping back silently to let them pass.
Kivan and Rain reached the doorway, and entered without ceremony.
The prelate watched them come. He stood motionless and regal behind his large, ornate desk, his hands folded calmly within the sleeves of his robes. He was not young, perhaps approaching middle age for a human, but there was a liveliness in his sharp hazel eyes that gave Kivan fair warning: this was a man of fierce intellect, and right now, his voracious interest was directed squarely at Rain. Kivan tensed, the corded muscles of his arms bunching.
"Ah," the man said, staring openly and unabashedly at Rain's lovely, sharp face. "You are Rain, Gorion's ward. The woman I have heard so much about." He swivelled his avid gaze to Kivan, marking his tattoos. "And you, Kivan of Shilmista. Yes, I know your tale. I know what befell your late wife."
At that, Kivan nearly snarled, his lips pulling back from his teeth as a quick burst of anger went through him. The callous, unfeeling way that this scholar, this historian, spoke so casually of Deheriana's fate, as though she was a mere footnote in some greater text, made him more furious than he could suddenly contain. His wife had never been a footnote to him. The prelate, however, had already moved on, unaware of the strong reaction that he had provoked in him.
"Sit, please," the head of the order said, revealing a pale, ink-stained hand to gesture at the pair of green-upholstered chairs drawn up before the desk. Another figure waited in the firelit shadows in a corner of the room; a robed monk, holding a writing tablet in his clasped hands, standing behind a smaller table set to one side of the hearth. A scribe, Kivan presumed. "I am Aldith," the prelate continued. "Take your ease, please. Your journey has been a long one indeed, Rain." He flickered his hand towards the open doorway, sharply and with command, and one of his monks closed the heavy door, trapping them within.
Rain was very still, unmoving. She stared directly ahead at the prelate, matching him glance for even glance, but Kivan knew that the intuitive part of her was focused on him, aware of the impact of the man's careless words. He sensed her hesitation. Quietly, knowing that she must not be divided in herself, that she shouldn't also need to worry for him, Kivan lightly rested his hand on her shoulder, telling her without words that he was well. I am fine, love. Continue.
The tension in her shoulder ebbed a little, but she remained on guard. "Thank you," she said to the prelate. Gracefully, she slipped off her pack and set it on the floor, and seated herself with elegant poise on the edge of her chair, allowing for her long scabbards. She folded her hands neatly in her lap.
At her acceptance, both Aldith and the scribe took their seats also, but Kivan remained standing, taking up a protective position at Rain's back. For now, he was unwilling to concede the higher ground. Aldith arched a dark brow at him, and Kivan looked back impassively, his expression devoid of all emotion. He rested his hand on the wooden back of Rain's chair.
"So," the prelate said, turning his attention to Rain again, "you have returned to your former home. May I ask why you have come?"
Rain regarded him steadily. Though she was calm, composed, Kivan could sense her coiled, taut power. There was a sudden tension in the room; an imperceptible tightening, as though the conversation hung finely balanced on the keen edge of a knife.
"Did your gatekeeper not tell you?" she enquired politely, raising one delicate red brow. From where Kivan was standing, slightly to one side of her chair, he could see the slant of her face, her beautiful tattoo twining down her temple and cheek. "I am here to say my farewells to the people who once lived here, who were slaughtered when Sarevok Anchev's dopplegangers infiltrated the keep." Her expression was grave, her body light and motionless in her chair. "Many good people, folk I knew well, died here in horrific circumstances. My foster-father, too, was murdered not far from Candlekeep's walls. I have mourned them all, and I honour the dead, but I have not been able to come back until now, to pay my final respects." The last of her words were said more quietly, lending a solemn emphasis to this meeting.
Aldith contemplated her soberly. "A noble sentiment," he said after a small pause. "I am aware of what occurred in the library. When I assumed my position here, I had the halls cleansed of any malignant presences. What remains we found were consecrated and buried."
Rain nodded, though Kivan could tell that she was not entirely satisfied. "It was not just the monks in the library," she said with a slight edge to her voice. "It was also the folk who lived in the outer bailey, who ran the keep. The inn-owner. The guards. The folk who worked the kitchens and stables."
The prelate seemed to sharpen a little, his eyes narrowing on her alertly. "Yes, yes," he agreed with a touch of impatience. "I am aware of that, too. Their loss will not be forgotten." He leaned back in his chair then, dismissing her concerns, and steepled his fingers before his lips. He regarded her speculatively. "What I want to know," he said, cutting to the chase, "is why you, Rain, would choose to turn down divine power, to remain a mortal when you could have ascended to the glorious ranks of the celestial." Aldith's canny eyes darted briefly to Kivan, and then back to Rain.
She gazed at the prelate just as directly, just as boldly. Her slender, ebony-clad body was perfectly still, perfectly primed. In that instant, she reminded Kivan of a sleek pantheress, ready to strike. If Aldith could not sense his sudden peril, then he was a fool.
"And is this the price of our entry to Candlekeep?" she asked in a silky, dangerous tone, each word a blade.
Behind her, Kivan tensed. His jet eyes were riveted on the head monk. He saw the instant that Aldith realised he had pushed Rain too far; he saw the moment the prelate's hazel eyes widened ever so slightly, surprised. Then Kivan understood.
In this duelling of wits, this contest of wills, Rain had already won. She had what she had come for; Aldith did not. The monk hungered for the knowledge that only Rain and Kivan could give him. It was a thirst in him, awakened by the arrival of Rain, daughter of Bhaal, at Candlekeep's gates, and Aldith wanted to slake his great thirst, to plunge headlong into it until he was thoroughly satiated.
Rain could walk away from this meeting and leave the library's new caretaker unfulfilled.
Aldith knew it.
He changed tact. "Forgive me," he said hastily, his tone impeccably courteous. "It was not my intention to insult you in any manner, Rain. I am doing what I do best: bartering for knowledge. I am sure you will understand my goals." He made a conscious effort to ease back into his chair, studiously ignoring the way Kivan's eyes were trained upon him so intently, tracking his every tiny move. "Truthfully, I am quite fascinated by you, Rain. It is not every day that a woman of your calibre turns up at my library."
She looked at him expressionlessly, unmoved. Kivan knew very well that any attempt on Aldith's part to appeal to her vanity would fail dismally.
The prelate tried again. "You crushed Jon Irenicus, the elven mage who imprisoned you."
Rain tilted her head a little, still so carefully poised. "Yes."
"And you are favoured by Queen Ellesime, ruler of Suldanessellar. You both are," he added, flitting his gaze to Kivan again.
"Yes," she said again, very simply.
Aldith stared at her, and then surprised them both by letting out a sharp bark of laughter. "Truly, are you always this short-tongued?" he asked, giving his head an ironic shake. "Trying to drag words out of you is like trying to pull splinters from my palm."
Kivan suppressed a sudden smile; his beloved was doing a good job of emulating him.
Rain must have sensed his wry amusement, for her own lips twitched into a smile. "If you want to read about my life," she said with her own irony, "then you should go and speak to Volo. I am sure he would be very happy to provide you with a copy of his illustrious writings."
"Volo is not here," Aldith countered, though his eyes gleamed with sudden appreciative glee at her verbal sally. "You are."
And just like that, the rigid tension in the room was broken. Something eased between the three of them. Their mutual wariness did not disappear entirely, and their wits were still honed, ready to dance, but they understood one another better now. Rain subtly relaxed in her chair, not so stiff, and Kivan reached out and settled his hand on her shoulder again, giving his silent support.
Aldith gazed at her keenly across the polished surface of his desk. "Let me be frank with you, Rain," he said. "I want to hear of what transpired in Tethyr. What truly occurred, and not what the rumour-mongers say. What led to your choices, to the chaotic culmination of the Bhaalspawn wars?" His eyes took on another hungry gleam. "Think of it as setting the record straight, once and for all. Within these four walls, I will listen, and I will not judge. What say you?"
Rain considered him a long moment. She gave nothing away, her expression smooth and serene, but Kivan knew she was weighing her options, trying to gauge what this might cost them; both her and him. He kept his hand on her leathers, sending her his reassurance through the Spirit.
Do what you need to, love. I am here.
She glanced up at him, and his eyes locked with hers. His mouth softened ever so slightly as they made their decision together.
"Very well," Rain said, turning back to Aldith. "You will have our account. But this may take a while," she warned.
"Of that I have no doubt." Pleased with her agreement, the man leaned forward in his chair again and reached for a full crystal decanter on his desk, eager and solicitous. "Wine?"
Rain nodded, accepting his courtesy gracefully, and Kivan finally relinquished his place at her back. Stretching his arms up easily to reach for his bow, he gave Rain a familiar, warm glance, content with the turn of things, and pulled Taralash over his head. His leather pack followed.
"I might as well make myself comfortable," he said to her with a hint of humour as he dropped down lightly into the other chair, pulling it up beside her, and Rain smiled back at him.
Aldith looked at them both attentively, ready to begin. "Start, Rain," he urged her, but then appeared to remember something. He turned his head to indicate the scribe, still watching them vigilantly from the corner. "Do you mind if we take a written account of your tale?"
Rain shook her head, her russet hair falling about her black leathers. "No, I do not mind."
The scribe lifted a parchment from the thick sheaf on his desk, smoothed it over his tablet, and then dipped the nib of his quill into an inkpot. He looked at Rain expectantly.