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Hero's Song - Chapter Fifteen

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"Yer cheatin!" hollered Khelgar, and we all burst into laughter as he threw his cards at me; I ducked in mock terror as a shower of cracklng paper descended on my head.

"I'll take that as a fold," I said smugly, and gleefully drew Khelgar's wager towards my pile of coins. Neeshka dealt out new hands, giggling incessantly at Grobnar's attempt to stay upright on his stool. We were all crowded around one of the smallish tables playing Snatch, some horribly confusing card game that Grobnar had taught us, and although he kept remembering new rules and forgetting the ones he had previously taught, we were enjoying ourselves regardless (thanks in no small amount to multiple glasses of Firewhiskey.)

"I'm missing a card!" announced Neeshka.

I felt deft fingers caress my ear momentarily, and then a grizzled hand held a card out over my shoulder, dropping it onto the table. "The new 'Captain' was hiding it behind her ear. I think you were right about the cheating, dwarf." Bishop appeared next to me, pulling up a stool. He smelled strongly of whiskey (though I'm sure we all did) and he dropped an arm around my shoulder (to my incredibly pleased surprise), grinning at Neeshka roguishly. "Deal me a hand, demon. What the hells is this game?"

Sand quirked an eyebrow at me. Khelgar said, "Uh...we're not quite sure, actually."

"It's Snatch! A most wonderful card game, my family has played it all their lives, it's actually quite simple..."

"I suggest if you're going to play, you try not to think about it too much," said Sand drily. "And keep drinking. It'll all make sense." He stared at the cards quizzically. "Or if not, at least you'll be drunk."

We played another round, and my heart beat erratically throughout; Bishop's voice rumbled across my ear every time he laughed, or cursed, and I felt the heat of his body through the thin tunic I wore. His was wearing the same genericaly boring short-sleeved tunic we all had been given by Miss Jen to wear while her keep servants cleaned our armor and oiled weapons and equipment, and the hardened muscles of his arm pressed against the skin of my neck, sending prickling sensations down my spine. I caught the knowing look that Sand passed to Elanee as she walked by us, and felt a sharp twinge of anger; who were they to begrudge me anything? I cocked an eyebrow in Elanee's direction as she settled at the bar, and she shrugged at me, her face blank.

"Oy, Harper!" Khelgar rapped the table in front of my face. "You're bet, girl."

Five hands later, Neeshka threw her cards down in disgust as Khelgar crowed happily, taking the rest of her coins. "That's it, I'm done with this tripe," she said. "Sal! Get me a drink."

I laughed as Sal shook his head in our general direction. It had been something of a surprise to find him here; he had given me a report on the Docks when we had first come in, and it didn't sound good for Duncan. "The Flagon'll always be there, though," Sal had said. "But I needed to go off in my own direction, and when I heard about Nevalle needin' people to help build this keep back up, well, I figured it was my chance." Now, he poured a drink for Neeshka, watching our game with an expression that crossed amusement with the look of someone who was on the receiving end of one of Qara's fireballs.

Soon my head was swimming, and I begged off any more cards. "You'll have all my coins if I keep playing," I laughed, and stood, Bishop's arm sliding from my shoulders. His hand lingered on my waist as I moved away, and I flashed a quick smile in his direction, the whiskey in my blood making more than a little confident.

I slipped out the back door, the chill of the air striking through my thin clothes and clearing my head a little. I started walking, hands in my pockets, my loose hair rustling down my back in the ever-constant breeze. I waved at some of the workers who were chiseling stone by torch-light; they stared at me. Friendly bunch. Casavir, Kana, and Nevalle were speaking quietly by the ruined tower, and I wandered over. Kana nodded cordially at me as I approached.

"Ah, Captain Harper," said Nevalle. He smiled at me, a light of mischief in his eyes. "You've been drinking."

"And you've missed quite a rousing game of Snatch, Sir Nevalle." My voice sounded giggly even in my ears, and I cleared my throat, promising myself I'd stay away from the Firewhiskey from this point forward. "But I believe Sal still has some spirits left over. All of you should go relax a bit; we'll have plenty of time for serious matters on the morrow."

"Aye, I'll think I'll take you up on that." Nevalle trudged towards the tavern, where laughter was even now pouring out of the windows. Kana turned to follow him, and glanced back at Casavir. Her voice came out uncertain, almost timid, much different from what I'd come to expect from her. "Are you coming, Sir Casavir?"

"In a moment, Lieutenant," said Casavir distantly, and she looked at him a moment longer, before following Nevalle.

I looked up at him, my voice teasing. "You look rather down-trodden, paladin."

"Don't...don't call me that." His voice came out quick, angry; it was a shock. It was the first time he had expressed anything other than cool, effortless concern. His eyes were like two blue flames, burning down at me. "You sound like him when you say that."

I felt like I'd been struck. The raw fury in his voice ignited my own anger, and I narrowed my eyes. "What business is it of yours?"

" is not." His face closed down. "But you have a duty, whether you will it or no. You cannot let...feelings...distract you from what you have to do."

"Oh, you're telling me about duty, Casavir?" I jammed an index finger into his chest, and he stepped back slightly, his eyes amazed. "You dare tell me about duty, when you know, you know all that 'duty' turns out to be is one more way everyone else can ensure you do their dirty work for them." I was practically hissing through my teeth. "Duty is a tool of the lords and nobles, nothing more. They're not concerned with what is right! They are concerned with their own damned survival, and they will do anything to ensure it."

"And do you know what is right, Harper?" His voice was calm, but low and dangerous, and for a moment I remembered that he was much, much bigger than me. "Do you know what is good? Or are you blinded by what simply looks good to you?"

I stared at him in disbelief; my voice was barely a whisper. "Leave him out of this."

"He is very much a part of this." Casavir's voice softened somewhat; his fingers cupped my chin, lifting my face so that our eyes met. " won't end well. You are leaving yourself wide, wide open, and all he will do is weaken you when you need to be strongest. Too many people are counting on you." He sighed and released me, rubbing his forehead; he seemed to deflate slightly. "And I do not wish to see you hurt."

My anger was doused like water tossed onto flames. "Casavir," I said softly. "He's on our side."

"Aye, for now. Maybe some day you will see it as I do." The mask fell in to place again, and he nodded at me. "Have a good evening, my lady." He turned, and made his way to the tavern, dissappearing into the warm glow pouring through the front door.

I wandered the ruins for a long time, the crunch of my boots on broken shale the only sound in the desolate place. Casavir's words echoed over and over in my head; one part of my brain scoffed at a paladin who lectured me on doing the right thing, when he himself couldn't commit to his own vows. But another part whispered that his words were logical, and they made sense; and that whatever Casavir felt about his vows, he was warning me because he cared about me.

And it was with these mixed thoughts that I turned my boots back towards the tavern, intent on sleeping off the last of the liquor, and stopped in my tracks. Bishop leaned against a crumbling wall, just watching me. The silence stretched between us for a moment, and then he looked out over our encampment below. "Saw you talking with the paladin."

I walked towards him carefully, stepping over loose stones. When I reached him, I had to catch my breath for a moment; the moonlight etched his profile perfectly against the blackness of the night, and the expression on his face was simmering anger and...resignation. He looked so painfully beautiful that I reached out, touching his face involuntarily. He looked at me, his dark eyes unreadable; his jaw was clenched under my touch. "Did you two have a pleasant conversation?"

"He was reminding me of my duty to the people of Neverwinter," I said gently. "Nothing else."

"Oh, your duty? Aye, I should have expected as much from a paladin." He chuckled disdainfully. "Get a pretty woman alone and talk her ear off about virtue, there's an idea."

"You know, some of what he said made sense."

Bishop stared at me; he stepped in close, his eyes simmering with gathering anger. "Aye, did it? Is that what you want, then? Some polished armor and a painted shield to keep your back stiff as a board, and your morals stiffer?"

"It's not like that," I said sharply. "Look, all of this shite that I'm caught up in, well...gods, what the hell would you do in my place?" I turned from him, pacing the cracked ground. "You heard what Zhjaeve said about this shard in my chest. Put yourself in my boots for a moment. You're the only one with the means to control a weapon that is capable of destroying something that is near invincible and threatens everyone." I shrugged at him, holding my hands up questioningly. "Your first course of action would be...?"

"Find a tavern and drown myself in a keg. Literally."

I couldn't help but laugh. His arms were around me, then, and his voice was whispering in my ear, "You and I could just leave, you know? There are other places to go; Cormyr, Amn. Or we could just find a little camp in the middle of nowhere, and stay there for a few years." His lips brushed the corner of my mouth in a sensual half-kiss. "You don't have to die for everyone just because some happen-chance in your youth left a little sliver of nothing in your chest."

My heart hammered. "Aye," I whispered huskily, shivering as his lips trailed down my neck. "And you'd just run off with me at the drop of a hat, would you?"

He chuckled into my ear. "I like that sharp tongue you have. And traveling with you has been the most fun I've had in years." A hand tangled itself in my hair, pulling my head back so that my lips were tantalizingly close to his. "And just maybe, I've developed a taste for that sweet skin of yours..."

His kiss was fierce and possessive, and I was nearly crushed against his chest. The hand in my hair gripped the back of my head, tilting it back so that my lips opened under the sensual probing of his tongue, while his other arm nearly circled my waist in it's entirety. I couldn't have wriggled away if I wanted to. If.

He broke the kiss to whisper, "Five minutes. If you're not in my room, I'm hunting you down." He let me go so fast I fell back against the balustrade, gasping as if I had run a race. He was gone almost as suddenly as he appeared, leaving me to slow the racing of my heart.

Exactly four minutes and twenty seven seconds later, I opened the door to his room and slipped inside.

o o o o o o

Smoke. It poured out of windows, out of doors, like black oil, smothering the sweet, damp air of the swamp with it's stench. Shouting, screaming; he ignored it all, even the pain that shot through him as he broke the arrow off in his chest. He'd pull it out later...or not, and be dead. It mattered little.

Footsteps, behind him. Someone trying to be quiet. He turned, his knife drawn, and leapt on the last soldier, blade flashing. The helmet rolled off as he slammed his attackers head into the ground.

Lem Cooley stared up at him, snarling. "You think you've escaped them, scum? They'll find you! They'll track you down until they have you pinned up on their front gates like a scarecrow!" His words were cut off as the knife slashed into his throat, warm blood spilling from the wound.

He stood with difficulty, kicking the body as he moved away from it. He had to get out of here; he staggered across the town square, peering through the flames. There had to be an opening somewhere...

Someone ran out of a burning building; Lena Hum, flames licking at her skirt. She wasn't screaming, or making any attempt to put out the flames. He saw why; a babe was in her arms, and even as he watched, she tripped, fell, and the fire licked up her clothing and caught on her hair. She scrabbled to push the babe away from her, but the fire raced down her arms, and danced happily over her child, catching instantly. It was then that she started screaming.

Something crumbled, inside of him, and he fell to the ground, gasping, as the full weight of his wounds came crashing down. He had killed all of them; every single last one. Eight soldiers. A full squad. His Captain would have been proud, had he not decapitated her.

It had been a perfect plan. He watched as Lena stopped clawing at the smoldering remains of her child, and lay still, the flames crackling over her corpse triumphantly. The villagers...they hadn't done anything to deserve it except be stupid, worthless villagers...

Forget it, his mind whispered. It's not important anymore.

His vision began to fade. In the distance, he thought he heard a voice...

"Lad, you're hurt! Hold on, I've got ye..."

o o o o o o

He awoke with a start, a cold sweat on his forehead. He glanced through the open window curtain; the moon was still high. It must barely be past midnight.

She lay beside him, eyes closed, sleeping and unaware. His eyes followed the faint scars that marked her lithe body; a faint, faded slash on her cheekbone, barely visible unless you were looking for it. A few smaller, near her hair line. Several on her arms; it was obvious to him, even if he hadn't known it already, that she fought with two weapons; her arms were well toned, and they bore more marks than any other part of her. Her legs, maybe one or two, faded beyond recognition. The newly healed, pinkish scar that ran up her abdomen, from the golem's blade. And then, the faint, curving white line that ran down her chest like an elongated crescent. Her entire body was cooler than his, but that scar had burned gently against his hand as he had touched her.

He was not the type to believe in epic heroes. The supposed savior of Neverwinter, wielder of the Sword of Gith, and here she lay, stripped to the skin and sleeping, her scarlet hair pooled around her still face like ribbons of blood.

He touched her carefully, sliding his fingers across her shoulder. She was just an elf. A woman. An interesting, attractive, mule-headed woman, but definately killable. She'd been hurt badly the last time they had risked their lives, and he hadn't been the one to save her, had he? It had been that blasted paladin, him and his god. Men like himself, when they touched things and tried to heal them; well, those things merely crumbled to dust.

He withdrew his hand from her reluctantly. He liked the feel of her skin; soft, woman's skin, no doubt, but the feel of steely muscle underneath intrigued him. Silk and iron, a mind sharp as a blade, and an array of words at her command that would make a Docks sailor blush...

He caught himself. She's a distraction, yes? Well, and he would enjoy it, while it lasted. Maybe convince her to give up this fool quest to save Neverwinter, and leave for somewhere that the King of Shadows had never heard of. He settled back into the bed, and she sighed softly, shifting in her sleep, rolling closer to him. He shut his eyes.

In his mind's eye, Lena burned again; this time, her hair was the color of blood, and her eyes were grey, like the silver of the sky before a storm. They burned like quick-silver, and the accusation in them was terrible to see.

Hero's Song - Chapter 15 © Avariel

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