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Embers of Black - Chapter Fifteen

Patrick Braddock
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Trundling forward as best he could on the contraptions strapped to his feet, Talomanes made better time across the shifting snow than he would have otherwise. Snowshoes, the man had called them. The paladin had purchased them from the fellow who ran a small supply and sundries store on the edge of Germyn's Rest where he had left a letter explaining his absence.

That had been hours ago and Talomanes fervently hoped that those he had left behind, expecially Naestra, had followed his instructions and would wait for his return. I hope she isn't too angry with me when I return, he thought dryly. Knowing the assassin, she might carve her mark into his hide. That brought a slight chuckle to the paladin's cracked lips.

The day had thankfully been clear and still, the tracks from the companions' frenzied flight the day before still quite visible in the snow. A heavily-armored warrior followed by nearly a half dozen others leaves quite a trail. He hoped that a storm would blow up soon, though, to cover over the tracks and minimalize the danger to the settlers.

All through that night and into the morning, the paladin trudged across the snowy plains, eventually losing the trail from the night before in the newer falls of snow that had blown in with the blizzard. With a growing sense of futility, he realized that there was probably no trace at all left of the site where he had cut himself loose from the elves in in front of him.

It was nearly noon when a shadow flashed over him, sailing majestically in front of him on the snow. Turning his eyes skyward, he caught sight of a huge, winged shape that seemed to glisten like liquid metal in the sun. The creature's broad, sweeping arc made Talomanes think it was either hunting or looking for something on the snow. As it turned and came towards him once again, the paladin got a very clear look at it.

Dragon! The great, bat-winged beast glided overhead, its scales throwing back the light of the sun like a mirror. Its head turned left and right, searching the ground below. Suddenly, its eyes fixed on the paladin.

His body froze with fear, but he quickly shook it off. Drawing the dagger from his belt, he leaned down, slashing the bindings that tied his boots to the snowshoes. Once he was free, he hopped into the waist-deep snow and dropped to his knees, tunneling through the snow like a mole through dirt. Though he realized the dragon would be able to see the tunnel from above, he hoped he had a better chance below the snow than he would on top of it.

A great whooshing sound carried through the snow as the creature skimmed just above, causing loose flakes of white to rain down on Talomanes. Holding his breath, he counted nearly two hundred heartbeats before relaxing a bit, thinking the dragon had passed.

In front of him, there was a muffled thump, causing the snow before him to collapse inward. Then the ground was rocked by an even harder thud, the makeshift tunnel completely caving in around the paladin.

Vowing to die on his feet like a true Paladin of Torm, Talomanes burst upward through the snow, sending a cascade of sparkling ice into the air, drawing his great two-handed sword with one swift motion. Steeling himself, he raised his head, preparing to face his death.

Instead, he found himself nose to snout with a draconic face that held what could only be described as a bemused expression.

A head as long as he was tall capped a long, thick neck, the powerful body position in a squat resembling a cat, even to its tail curled around its legs. Dark silvery scales the color of burnished steel covered the entire creature like armor. Twin horns jutted from above its liquid silver eyes, running backwards, nearly parallel to its neck. Two giant whiskers fell from its jaw, looking like a thin mustache framing its gaping jaw. A jaw which the paladin noticed was filled with sharp teeth the size of rapiers.

The paladin hadn't realized he'd been standing there, slack-jawed and eyes popping from his skull, his sword hanging limply in his hand until a low groan sounded at his feet. Gathering his resolve in the face of the metallic monsters staring him literally in the eyes, Talomanes looked down.

There at the dragon's feet was a wiggling form wrapped in a bright red cloak. Muffled cursing came from within those crimson folds until finally a head poked out from under the cloth. A mass of dark curls spilled around a delicate feminine face, cheeks ruddy from the cold. A pair of dark eyes regarded first the paladin, then, with little fear, the great dragon crouching nearby.

Muttering to herself, the woman stood upright, brushing the snow from her cloak. Underneath, the paladin could see she was wearing heavy travelling robes of a bright green, the contrasting colors nearly giving him a headache with their hideously clashing colors.

"You should be more careful what you let follow you, human." It took a moment for Talomanes to realize that the dragon was talking to him in a low rumble, like the sound of rocks falling deep within a cave. "I am surprised even your weak eyes did not see this one creeping along behind you." The creature prodded the woman forward with a gleaming claw. She windmilled her arms as she tried to keep her balance but ended up plunging headfirst into the snow, bringing a rasping chuckle from the dragon.

The paladin's mind worked quickly. He thought this dragon was a silver dragon, one of the supposedly good dragons that inhabited Faerun. However, his experiences with dragons was limited to a single encounter, and he didn't know how that one turned out yet. Discretion without courage is called cowardice, and courage without discretion is called stupidity.

"What do you want of me, dragon?" he asked as he let his sword drop a bit. There was nothing he could to do save the woman if the dragon chose to make a snack of her, and little he could do for himself if the creature wished the same for him.

The dragon chortled again. "I like your fire, human." It leaned down, flicking a claw against the paladin's breastplate with enough force to cause the study steel to ring like a bell, making Talomanes' teeth rattle. "The task I have for you is a simple one, and one that you would most undoubtedly undertake on your own. Not far, there are two who are in need of aid, and you would do well to find them."

He shifted his footing on the snow. "I'm already looking for someone. Someones, actually. The rest of my group what I lost in the blizzard last night."

Nodding, the dragon replied, "Yes, I found their tracks this morning and saw that they led to a heavily warded cavern. They should be safe. The two I speak of have no such protections."

Not quite willing to trust the dragon, yet fearing he had little choice, the paladin relented. "Alright. Lead me to them and I'll fetch them to safety."

The dragon's face twisted into what could only be considered a grin. "Lead you I will, but not in the sense you mean." It leaned forward, resting the tip of a talon against the paladin's helm. "Know." The single word was followed by an arcane syllable that sent a ripple of magic coursing through Talomanes' body.

Consciousness faded to a tiny pinpoint of light and the paladin felt himself fall forward. The instant before he hit the snow, his vision returned in a blinding flash and he saw that he was soaring skywards. His view swung to the ground and he spied the red-cloaked woman kneeling beside a form that glinted with metal in the sun. My body�

The thought was ripped from him as his vision turned to the front, the ground tearing along underneath. Talomanes was awestruck by the sight of the ground slipping past at breakneck speed, furrows and drifts of snow shooting past almost before they could be seen. The sense of motion he was experiencing took his breath away, leaving his mind numb from the sight.

For what seemed like hours the view slid along, until finally it banked into a tight spiral and plummeted down into a tiny valley, the bottom iced over with the remnants of the river that had carved the gash. His view seemed to shrink a moment and he was standing in front of a narrow cave. Then, his sight left him completely.

Moaning softly, Talomanes stirred. The cold, wet press of snow against his face did much to rouse him from his magic-induced torpor. Shakily, he pushed himself to his feet, not an easy thing considering he was fully armored and standing in nearly waist-deep snow.

The woman was at his side, her body pressed uncomfortably close to his. Looking down into her face, he saw her large, nearly black eyes were wide with fear. Up close, he also saw that her delicate nose and mouth and her high, narrow cheekbones, though pleasing to the eye, also held a feral quality that made the paladin's palms itch.

"Can I help you with something?" he asked casually.

The woman's eyes widened even further, something the paladin had thought impossible. She took a stumbling step backwards, slipping and falling onto her rear. Her cloak fell open enough that the form of a flute case was visible slung over her shoulder.

"Hmm�so you're that mysterious bard who hasn't been very bardly at Goodman Calhen's inn, aye?" He regarded her wearily, wondering why she had chosen to follow him from the inn. And, for that matter, how?

His comment seemed to bring a bit of fire into her eyes. "Bardess, you lumbering, iron-shod idiot. Now, be a gallant and help me up." She held a slim hand out to the paladin.

Chuckling to himself, he stepped forward, drawing out a scathing oath from the woman. "Hey! Mind your big feet around that cloak! It's Tethyrian!" The humor faded from Talomanes, replaced by that nagging itch on his palms. The woman's voice, though a pleasant contralto, made his teeth ache almost as bad as his palms itched.

Taking her hand in his, he easily lifted her to her feet. The cloak and robes made her seem bulkier than she was, and she wasn't very tall, perhaps a touch over five feet. She seemed to weigh as much as a child.

The ease with which he pulled her to her feet brought an approving grunt from the woman. "It's nice to know you're good for something," she remarked with a smirk. Her expression deepened into a wicked smile as she rapped a knuckle against his armor. "Maybe we'll get you out of this and see what else you're good for, hm?"

Talomanes stepped back, confusion and embarassment flashing across his face. The bardess let out a mirthful laugh, her eyes dancing with merriment. Her lips quirked into a genuine smile as she leaned forward, extending her hand to him. "Bardess Anjolina at your service, good knight. Recently of Cormyr and rather more recently of Mirabar."

Surprised at the change that had come over the woman, the paladin took her hand, bowing low over it, his armor creaking from the cold. "It's a, ah, an honor to make your acquaintance, my lady."

Smiling at him, she went on. "And I haven't performed lately because I've been lacking in inspiration. It doesn't do to be a bardess if you don't have some songs of your own to sing, hm?" She trailed a finger along the inside of his armored forearm. "I saw you and thought that maybe you would give me the inspiration I needed. And your clumsy attempt at stealth could only have been overlooked by a blind toddler or that bunch of wailing harpies you arrived with."

Well, that answers the why and the how� "How did you manage to track me so easily without me seeing you?" Anjolina simply pointed at the snow, where Talomanes stood in waist deep snow. He turned, looked at the churned ground and the tunnel he had tried to dig, as well as the long line of snowshoe tracks stretching off to the horizon.

"Oh." He felt his cheeks flush with embarassment again.

His discomfort brought another peal of laughter from the woman, who slipped an arm through his. "Come, come, my good man. Let us go find what the good dragon has in store for us. And maybe make a song or two in the process, hm?"

Sighing, the paladin disengaged himself from her. He could either take her with him or try to get her to turn back, but he balked at leaving her alone on the frozen wasteland and, even if he did get her to leave, there was no guarantee she wouldn't just follow him again.

Resigning himself to his fate, Talomanes began plodding through the snow once more, following the course the dragon had shown him in his mind, not even bothering with his snowshoes. Anjolina laughed happily, following along beside him, pelting him with question after question about himself and his past.

"Yes, I can ride a horse." "No, I've never had to crawl through some slimy sewer." "Yes, I can really use this sword." "No, I've never seen a dragon before, either." "Yes, I can read." "No, I won't sing for you!" "No, I don't have any children." "No, I'm not married. Yet."

The last question seemed to throw the bardess of balance for a moment, as if she didn't understand what he meant. She recovered quickly, though. "So tell me, what do you really do?"

"I'm a holy paladin of the Church of Torm." He plodded along, trying to keep watch and answer the questions the bardess kept throwing at him. If I were a lesser man, I'd have slugged her and thrown her over my shoulder and left her in some snow-filled gulley. The thought brought a small smile to his lips.

Anjolina, meanwhile, was thinking of another question. "Well, paladin, what are you doing this far out in the middle of nowhere?"

"Looking for drow," he replied stoicly.

The woman stopped, standing still as a statue. "Drow? Out here?"

"Aye," he grunted. "And what you are doing up here? It's a long way from Sembia."

"Cormyr," she corrected him absently. "And Mirabar."

Stopping, Talomanes turned to face her. "Well?"

"Well what?"

"Why are you here?"

"Oh, that." She opened her mouth once, shut it, then tilted her head, thinking. Finally, she said, "A certain noble didn't really care for the price I asked for a performance at one of his estates."

Talomanes snorted softly. That story could be true, or it could be a lie. It had a kind of hackneyed ring to it that either bespoke an embarassing truth or a quickly-thought falsehood. Deciding to take her at her word for now, he plunged back into the snow, trying to reach the cavern the dragon had shown him before evening. The bardess moved to his side again, firing more questions at him as they trudged off into the endless expanse of white.


Embers of Black - Chapter 15 © Patrick Braddock

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