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Embers of Black - Chapter Three

Patrick Braddock
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The man slipped through the eastward-facing doorway of the small stone church quietly, making sure not to disturb the figure clad in a pale rose-colored robe who kneeling in front of the icon of the Morninglord. It was just barely sunrise and there was just the two of them in the building.

He knew a temple to Lathander Morninglord, God of Renewal and Rebirth, wasn't the place to pray to Torm, yet he felt comforted somewhat by the gentle nature of the deity. He approached the altar, trying to avoid drawing notice from the person a few paces in front of him.

Kneeling brought a slight jingle of mail and creak of leather. Holding his breath, the man waited to see if he had broken the praying figure's concentration. Deciding finally that he hadn't, he bowed his head, offering first a prayer to the God of Loyalty before giving thanks to the Morninglord, as well. After a moment, he said a short prayer to Tempus, God of War, and Tymora, Goddess of Luck. Having a few more gods on my side wouldn't be a bad thing, he thought.

As he rose to leave, the figure in front of him rose as well. Blinking, the man began to apologize. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to disturb your meditations."

The robed figure turned and the man found himself staring down into a pair of sky blue eyes. "Do not worry, traveller. All are welcome in the House of the Morninglord." A soft smile arched a pair of full lips. Shoulder-length blonde hair framed a soft face. A thin, pert nose, combined with the set of her eyes and her expressive lips, gave her a tender, if somewhat mischevious, quality. "I am Ashera, Cleric of Lathander." She offered her hand to him.

Stripping off his leather gauntlets, the man took her small hand in his larger, bowing low and brushing his lips against the back of her hand. Straightening, a faint blush in his cheeks, his eyes held hers as he replied, "I am Talomanes Indurian, Paladin of Torm." His mind began babbling about the beauty of the woman before him and it was all he could do to clench his jaw and keep from making a complete idiot out of himself to her by doing something so foolish as giving his mouth over to his mind.

The cleric mistook the clenching of his jaw, pulling away from his slightly. "I am afraid I cannot stay long," she explained softly. "My duty is to accompany the priest of this church. He travels with Lord Ithad's expedition."

The man named Talomanes' face lit up, his lips twitching into a half-smile. "I am also to accompany the expedition. The Temple felt my blade might be needed and asked me to report back when the expedition returned." He paused, an idea flashing through his mind. "Perhaps you would care to accompany myself and my companion?" He tried to keep the hope from showing too much in his voice.

Ashera smiled again. "I would like that, I believe. Let me gather my things." She turned from the paladin, calling softly. "Yerik? I'm leaving now. Bring me my things?"

After a moment, a dark-haired boy came through a doorway at the back, carrying a pack and a set of saddlebags. He struggled under the weight so Talomanes stepped forward, bending down to lift the saddlebags and sling them over his shoulder, pausing to heft the journey pack from the lad as well. From closer up, he guess the boy was perhaps twelve or thirteen, but he couldn't say for sure. "How do you do?" he asked as he smiled down at the boy.

"Fine, sir!" A smile lit up his face and his eyes widened as he caught sight of the paladin's mail and the hilt of the sword poking over his left shoulder. "Wow! You must be a knight!" He stepped in, poking Talomanes in the ribs and watched the mail move under his finger. "Wait until Jerral hears about this!" Laughing, the boy began to run for the door.

As he passed Ashera, a slim hand caught him by the arm. "Take care of the churck while I'm gone," she warned him, her voice full of mock sterness and her lips pressed into a frown that curved curiously upward at the ends.

Yerik merely snorted, leaning in to poke the cleric. "You take care of my knight, too! Don't let a dragon eat him before I can show him to Jerral!" He broke free from her grasp, throwing one last beaming smile at the paladin before slipping out the doorway and disappearing into the street.

Ashera stood staring after him for a moment before turning back to Talomanes. "This way, Sir Knight." She motioned for him to follow her, a slight smile on her lips. Outside and around the side of the church she led him. Underneath a small overhang was a bay gelding, nosing idly in a trough of oats. "This is Courage," she said, patting the horse on the rump affectionately.

"Courage?" the paladin asked with a smile.

She nodded. "Because I have to work up my courage every time I try to mount him. He used to be an unruly beast before I got him." The horse responded by flicking his tail at her lazily, which caused her to laugh happily.

The paladin chuckled softly, moving to the opposite side of the horse. He set down Ashera's pack and saddlebags so he could strok the horse's nose, letting it get to know his smell before he slipped the saddle on. Cinching the belly strap, he slung the saddlebags over the gelding, then moved around to stand beside the cleric. Blushing furiously, he bent down, taking hold of her waist and lifting her onto the horse, grunting a bit from unexpected strain. She's heavier than a thing that small ought to be! he marvelled.

Reading his expression, Ashera grinned at him, parting her robes briefly to give him a glimpse of a finely-crafted mail shirt. He laughed a moment then retrieved her pack, handing it up to her.

She drew a sturdy iron-headed mace from the pack before wedging it in front of her. Looping the thong at the end of the haft of the mace around her saddlehorn, she let it dangle, slapping against her leg.

"If you'll allow me, m'lady?" Talomanes asked, taking Courage's reigns in his hand. A smile and a nod to him and he was moving, leading the horse and rider a short distance to the stable where he had left his own bay chewing contentedly. After slipping the stablehand a silver mark, he mounted, leading the lady cleric through the waking streets of Develor.

Standing in the common room of the inn called the Singing Weasel, Talomanes stretched, working his muscles under the mail shirt. The night before had been the first time he had slept without his shirt, and not having to stand watch for half the night had been wonderful, as well. Even if that blasted woman took the bed without a word of thanks! he thought glumly.

Ashera stirred beside him, her gaze sweeping around the room, taking in the workers sharing breakfast and a warm fire before heading off to whatever errands they had that day.

From the top of the stairs came the sound of a door opening and then closing a moment later. The paladin's companion appeared at the top of the stairs, wearing her customary leather armor, though today she hadn't bothered to hide her face. Her daggers hung from her belt and from over her shoulder poked her quiver of arrows and her short bow. Her eyes swept across the paladin as if she didn't see him, instead resting on the cleric. She looked at her for a long moment before descending the stairs.

"It's about time you were ready," Talomanes playfully goaded her, earning him a cold look.

"At least I don't snore like a troll." With that, she brushed past him, heading outside. Talomanes and Ashera followed her with their eyes then turned to look at each other.

Blushing slightly, the cleric lowered her gaze. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize�" She couldn't seem to find the words.

Blinking, Talomanes didn't understand her meaning. "Her? Oh, she's just-" His eyes widened as her finally caught her meaning. "Oh, no! No no no!" He chuckled. "If she heard you say that, she'd probably whip you right here and now." Smiling, he turned to look out the door. "No, she approached me before I left Waterdeep, asking to accompany me here, though she's never mentioned why."

Ashera nodded, her eyes coming up again to study the paladin's face. He can't be more than a year or two older than I, she thought to herself. Yet he seems to at home in the world despite being raised in a temple. She envied him for his world-wise attitude, though she didn't regret her own upbringing. Her father had done all he could for her, eventually sending her off to the bustling trade city of Suzail to get a better education than she would had she stayed with him.

After a few minutes, Talomanes' companion returned. She glanced at him, her eyes ice. Then, she nodded to the other woman. "If he did not tell you, I am Naestra dar'Segra, formerly of Waterdeep." She turned to look at the paladin. "My horse is ready if you wish to begin this foray." So saying, she turned on her heel and strode out of the inn.

Grumbling to himself, Talomanes gesture for Ashera to follow the other before bringing up the rear. I have the feeling it's going to be one of those days, he thought to no one in particular.

Outside, the three mounted. "We should pick up a few more things at the bazaar before we head to the muster," Ashera suggested. After getting a nod from her two companions, she led the way deeper into Develor.

Frustrated, Talomanes swore under his breath, hastily saying a prayer of forgiveness to Torm right after. He turned his attention back to haggling with the crone he was haggling with over a vial of what she claimed to be an antidote that was proof against any kind of venom. After a bit more arguing, they agreed on ten cold crowns which the paladin parted with reluctantly. His stockpile of coins was dwindling, fast.

He tucked the vial into a small, velvet-lined case, where three other vials already rested, healing potions that he had procured from a gnomish priest of Gond, the Wonderbringer. The four draughts had cost nearly his entire supply of money.

Slipping the case into its place in his pack, he ran through his list one last time, pulling up whatever else he might need on a protracted journey. Another whetstone, oil for my mail, a needle and a spool of thread� He trailed off, trying to remember anything else he might need.

A quick stop at an armorer got him the whetstone and oil, leaving his purse only a few silvers lighter. The needle and thread he purchased from a clothier, who let them go for only a single silver mark. Slipping these items into his belt pouch, Talomanes tried to think of anything else that might be of use during the expedition.

His attention was drawn to an inn across the street from the clothier's shop, from which the smell of baking bread wafted. It's still nearly an hour until I'm to meet Naestra and Ashera�a little something to eat wouldn't be bad while I wait. With his mind made up, he headed to the inn, whose sign proclaimed it the Wandering Shepherd.

Inside, he seated himself, ordering a glass of cool milk and a slab of hot bread, slathered in butter from the pretty, golden-haired serving maid. The room was rather empty, as it was still several hours before noon. Only a few travelers like himself were there, including a party of halflings, discussing something over heaping plates of fried eggs, bacon, and toasted bread.

He thanked the serving maid as she brought him his meal, handing her the coins for the food as well as a gold crown for a tip, which caused her eyes to widen. The paladin waved away her stammered thanks with a good-natured smile on his lips. "Just make sure my cup stays full, hon," he told her. Nodding and laughing happily, she bent down, kissing him on the cheek before swaying back to the kitchen.

Turning back to his meal, he caught sight of one of the halflings giving him a huge grin and a wink, which he returned. Chuckling to himself, he took a sip of the milk, wetting his mouth before tearing a chunk of steaming bread loose with his teeth.

As he ate, a well-dressed man came in, asking to share Talomanes' table. Waving the fellow to a chair opposite him, the paladin offered to buy the man something to eat. Chuckling, the man said, "I'm fine, friend. Just too many hours out and about this morning."

Nodding, Talomanes asked, "What do you do, if I might ask?" He took another bite of buttery bread.

"Oh, I trade in this and that. I just got done bringing in a load of metal stock for a smith. From Waterdeep."

"Waterdeep? I've come from there, too!"

The merchant smiled. "Yes?"

Nodding, Talomanes explained, "Aye, my companion and I journeyed up through Longsaddle and Mirabar before crossing over the Spine."

"Ah, I struck out to Luskan, caravaning a load of pottery for shipping across the sea. Then I ventured through Icewind Dale, unloading some of my metal before heading this way."

Drawing the merchant into a conversation about the City of Splendors was easy enough, as the man seemed to enjoy having someone with whom to talk about his home. Talomanes likewise enjoyed the conversation, his attention only wandering once, when a pale, white-haired man clad in black leathers came from upstairs, following by two women, a black-haired maiden wearing a crimson cloak and black riding dress and a fairer-haired lass wearing a white blouse and black leggings with a scabbarded sword hanging from her belt. The two exhanged some words with the man in black and then all three left the inn, carrying saddlebags and travel packs.

The paladin turned his attention back to the merchant, who was cheerily relating a tale about a visit to the Moonshae Isles where he was supposedly accosted by a group of rather bawdy mermaids.

After sharing more laughs and tales with the man, whose named he learned was Edrick, Talomanes excused himself, gulping the last of his milk and giving the serving maid a smile before slipping out the doorway. The wind had picked up again while he had been inside.

Drawing his cloak around him, he hurried down the street, towards the stable that held the three horses. Behind him, three mounted figures left the stable of the Wandering Shepherd, heading towards the city gates to the south.


Embers of Black - Chapter 3 © Patrick Braddock

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