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Embers of Black - Chapter Six

Patrick Braddock
Old Vault Category: 
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As the sun touched the western horizon, the wind had picked up again, howling fitfully across the tundra. It pulled and tugged at the trailing tatters of Talomanes' cloak, threatening to tear away what little protection the ragged fabric gave. The gale was like a living thing, seeking to drive its icy fingers into his heart.

"How much farther?" he yelling into the wind.

Faintly, Naestra's voice floated back to him. "Not long. Perhaps a mile." He grumbled to himself, shivering and trying to draw his ruined cloak tighter around him.

It was Naestra who had suggested they spend the night in the shelter that they had shared that last night before reaching Develor. From studying her map, she said that it was closer by a few miles. If they pressed for the town, they would be riding in pitch blackness. And with the orcs around, still, and whatever it was that had destroyed the expedition, Talomanes hadn't wanted to take that chance.

Turning his thoughts from death and orcs and foul magicks, he allowed his eyes to wander over the horizon.

The sun, burning a fitful orange color, was already halfway buried in the ground. The sky was rich with oranges and yellows and pinks, giving way to a deep, velvety purple overhead and fading nearly to black to the east. The surround landscape had picked up the color of the sunset, the normally pristine white snow now matching the countless hues of the sunset. The beauty of the scene was at odds with the terrible memories of a few hours ago, but it still brought a bit of warmth to the paladin's heart.

A soft rustle, barely carrying over the wind, and a warm presence at his side told him Ashera had quickened her pace to walk beside him. Silently, they walked together for a while, two pairs of booted feet making tracks in the thin crust of snow.

A violent shiver rocked the cleric as a sudden gust of wind found its way beneath her clothes. Without hesitation, Talomanes stripped off the remnants of his own cloak, wrapping it around her shoulders. She was nearly a foot shorter than he and the cloak protected her more than it did him. The frigid air bit at the exposed skin of his forearms and forced what little warmth was left out of the steel mail he wore, biting fiercely at the rent in his armor where the broken arrow shaft still protruded.

Turning crystal blue eyes up at him, Ashera smiled gently, huddling up against him. Ignoring the numbing pain from the arrow and the blistering cold, he wrapped his left arm around her shoulders, drawing her close to him so that his body might warm hers. Together, to made their way across the wind-scorched tundra, eyes downcast and following the footprints Naestra had left in the snow.

As he walked he turned his mind to the woman walking beside him. So gentle and frail, yet� He had seen her smash an orc down with her mace as it had tried to pull her from her horse in a skirmish with a small scouting party. And again, after a black-fletched arrow had felled her mount, she sent another beast to Gruumsh's realm. He rubbed her shoulder with his hand, feeling the finely crafted mail rippling under his touch. Soft in appearance and hard as steel underneath, he thought. That thought brought a smile to his lips.

Abruptly, Naestra was in front of him, catching him by surprised so that he almost stumbled into the leather-clad woman's back. "We're here," she said simply, pointing.

Sure enough, the lean-to was only a dozen paces ahead. So wrapped up had the paladin been in his contemplation of the woman on his arm that he hadn't even noticed.

As Naestra slipped into the shelter, he squeezed Ashera affectionately and was rewarded with a shy smile, her eyes shimmering in the fading sunlight. She turned towards him, her face lifting up so she could gaze into his eyes. A stray gust of wind tugged at the hood of her cloak, stirring her hair. Her full lips pursed, parting slightly, her eyes closing halfway.

Kiss her, fool! part of his mind screamed. No, don't! She'll think you're just some uncouth barbarian, another part warned. Caught between those two warring parts of himself, he froze. Finally, something in his thoughts seemed to backfire and he made a sound partway between a snort, a cough, and a nervous laugh as his brain failed completely.

Ashera's eyes popped open, her face blushing crimson, visible even in the dim twilight. Her lips tightened into a thin line as her eyes filled with confusion.

Having gained some control over his actions again, Talomanes reached up, timidly brushing her cheek with his gloved fingers. She smiled shyly at him again before slipping into the shelter with Naestra.

Cursing himself, the paladin gave in to the sudden rush that overtook him and flailed about blindly with his arms, lashing out with his feet and kicking at whatever offending clump of snow caught his eyes. Fool! You should have kissed her when you had the chance! his mind scolded him. Now she probably thinks you're some half-wit from a backcountry who doesn't even know how to kiss a girl! the other part of his mind howled at him. Still a third part of him replied, Well, it's true! Admit it, you don't know what to do with a girl, do you?

With that, the sudden rush of embarassment, nervousness, fear, and a host of other emotions died down to a muted buzz. Grumbling to himself, Talomanes crossed over to the entrance of the shelter and slipped inside.

The three of them sat around the fitful fire, eating their meager supper as if it were a banquet. To Talomanes, the fresh-baked bread and milk he had eaten that morning seemed almost a lifetime away. The hard travel bread and tough, leathery jerky tasted better than he had thought was possible.

After washing down his meal with a bit water made from snow they had melted in a small pot over the fireplace, the paladin got up and turned, making his way to the entrace of the lean-to.

Lifting aside the cracked, weathered curtain that served as a door, he surveyed the surrounding plains, trying to keep as little light from leaking out as possible. There was no sign of movement in the faint moonlight, so he stepped back, letting the curtain fall back into place.

By that time, the two woman had finished up their own food. Ashera was busy using the light of the fire to read something from a small, unmarked book, her lips moving slightly. Probably a prayer book, Talomanes thought.

Naestra, meanwhile, was busy checking the condition of the score or so arrows remaining in her quiver. With a practiced eye, she checked the fletching for any imperfections, then the shaft for any nicks or scrapes that would have to be smoothed out, lest they through off her aim. Finally, she checked the arrowhead itself, using a small whetstone on any she thought was the least bit dull.

Sitting across the fire from them, Talomanes took his two-handed sword from where it leaned against the smooth stone wall that served as one side of the shelter. With a smooth motion, he unsheathed it, laying the leather-covered wooden scabbard aside.

Opening his hip pouch, he pulled out a whetstone, dabbing a bit of honing oil on it from a small iron flask. With strong, even motions he worked the whetstone along the blade, evening out the nicks from steel and bone and bringing a razored edge back where the metal had dulled.

When he was finished, he resheathed his sword and leaned it back against the stone wall. Grimacing from the pain from the arrow in his shoulder, he slowly eased out of his mail shirt, working the inch or so of the wooden shaft so that the mail didn't catch it and tear anything more inside of him.

With his armor off, he got a good look at the wound and breathed a silent prayer to Torm that the arrow hadn't been a few inches down and to his right. A shadow fell across him and he raised his eyes, looking up into Ashera's face as she bent over him, concern and worry in her expression.

"Here, let me," she whispered as she knelt beside him. Taking the broken stub of the arrow in her small hand, she looked at him, her eyes meeting his. His face hardened and then he nodded slightly.

With a yank that brought a strangled yell of pain from the paladin, she ripped the wickedly barbed arrow from his shoulder. Fresh blood spilled down his shoulder, dripping onto the floor of the shelter.

Already she was moving, speaking softly, beseeching Lathander for his aid as she moved closer to paladin. Her right hand was limned briefly in a pale blue light as she grasped his shoulder. A warmth seemed to spread through Talomanes, moving outward from her touch. The agonizing pain from his shoulder dulled into a muted ache, the flow of blood from his wound slowing and finally stopping all together.

"There," she said softly, her breath warm against his cheek. "It will be tender, but I'll have another look at it tomorrow, after I've had a chance to pray to the Morninglord for more of his healing power."

Talomanes turned his face to hers, no more than a few inches away. His eyes drank in the softness of her face, the wonderful color of her eyes, like a warm spring day. She pursed her lips slightly, the corners turning upward. The firelight reflected in the liquid pools of her eyes. Slowly, the paladin leaned forward, his mind quiet and his actions his own.

Ashera's eyes closed slowly, her head tilting slightly as her lips moving to meet his kiss. His lips stopped a hair's breadth from hers as the fire suddenly went out. Shocked, the paladin sat stock still, confusion immobilizing him.

From across the firepit came the sounds of Naestra slipping out of her armor, tossing it loudly onto the ground piece by piece. The sounds of her bedding down beside the embers of the fire were interspersed with dark mutterings about the idiocy of men and the stupidity of women.

Talomanes turned back to Ashera, only to find her gone. The soft sounds of her getting ready for sleep came from somewhere in the darkness. Feeling more alone now than ever, the paladin stretch out on the cold ground, using his mail shirt as a lumpy pillow, the shreds of his cloak thrown over it to make the cold metal not quite as uncomfortable.

Staring into the darkness overhead, he swore that he'd stay away from women, wine, wealth, and anything else that would confound his faith, confuse his mind, and generally make an idiot out of him.

There was a soft whisper of motion beside him and he felt a hand slip into his. Squeezing it gently, he smiled into the darkness as he laced his fingers with hers, his recent oath forgotten.

Closing his eyes, Talomanes was soon fast asleep.

Beside the sleeping paladin, Naestra stirred fitfully. Her good hand was held in his, so she held the long dagger in her left hand, counting on her training and a bit of luck to strike a swift, killing blow.


Embers of Black - Chapter 6 © Patrick Braddock

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