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Hero's Song - Chapter Seventeen

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He bent over his bow, his knife whittling quickly, expertly, his ear sharpened to the sound of something moving through the forest. Something big. Bishop has listened to him for near half an hour, perfectly willing to allow the paladin to stumble around for as long as he liked. These woods outside the keep were big enough to make anyone lost in a matter of minutes.

A creak of plate-mail announced that his guest had arrived. He remained bent at his task. "I could hear you coming a mile away, paladin, crashing through the undergrowth like a giant metal boar."

"I mean to speak with you," said Casavir, his voice stern, pious, and sickeningly calm.

"Aye, I'm sure you do." He turned them, eyeing the other man, his lip curled disdainfully. "Come to tell me to leave her alone, have you?"

"This isn't just about her, ranger," growled Casavir. "I've come to tell you to leave all of us alone."

Bishop laughed. "Oh, you paladins just kill me." He circled the other man, fingering his bow as he spoke. "So valiant on the battlefield, and why wouldn't you be? You must need some way of venting all that pent up frustration; when all you really need to do is admit that you need a drink from a wench's cups like the rest of us."

Casavir whirled on him, his hand on the hilt of his blade, eyes flashing. "Do not speak of her that way!"

"Oh, don't be defending her honor," Bishop waved a hand at him dismissively. "She can do that herself, or haven't you noticed? She's nearly as good a warrior as you now, and her magic doesn't rely on some god's will to be cast." He grinned at the paladin, his eyes mocking. "Besides, I know what she likes; a man who isn't afraid to make the hard decisions, the kind of decisions she makes every day! Not some knight who can't even figure out whether he's coming or going, who wants to weigh her choices down with morality and rules. By the hells, if you were leading us, we all would have died long ago." His voice lowered into a growl. "She does what needs to be done...and so do I."

"Don't compare yourself with her, Bishop," said Casavir; his face was a mask, seemingly unstung by the ranger's barbs. "She cares for people, cares what happens to this place, but you would grind it beneath your heel and laugh while the rest of us bled. She is not like you, ranger." The paladin's voice was low and dangerous. "And she'll see you for what you are, soon enough."

"Oh, I suppose you've got me all figured out, haven't you?" Bishop snarled. "Not everything is black and white, and not everything can be solved with a damned hero in shiny armor." He spit in-between the paladin's feet. "Get out of here. Before some stray wild animal decides to rip you into shreds."

o o o o o o

I groaned. "If you show me one more missive to sign, Kana, I'm going to make you eat it."

Kana opened her mouth to reply, no doubt with some polite reminder of my duties, when Grobnar exploded into the room, sending my papers flying everywhere (to my secret delight.) "Harper! They found it!" He stepped on a misplaced sheaf of keep orders, and his foot slipped, sending him sliding into my desk with a dull thud.

I quirked an eyebrow, stretching over the top of my desk to look at him. "You realize how many things 'it' could be at this point?"

"Oh, this is the big it!" My bottle of ink had toppled off of the desk, and when Grobnar stood, I couldn't help bursting into a fit of giggles. Black ink splattered his face and hair, and thanks to his enormous grin, it was running down into his teeth as well. He scrambled to my side and snatched my hand, yanking me to my feet.

"But...but Captain--" Kana called after me, a frown on her face, as I was lead across the hall and into the library. Qara glanced at us as we walked by her, and blinked at Grobnar's ink-stained face. "What's going on?"

"The usual. Sure to be something dangerous, no doubt." I grinned at her as Grobnar dragged me into the back study, where Aldanon usually made himself comfortable. Sure enough, the wizened man was bent over a huge tome, his expression one of rapt concentration...while Sand looked on with an expression of rapt confusion.

The old man looked up gleefully. "Ah, young lady!" He smiled at me, gesturing me over to the talbe. "Come in, come in. I believe I may have found out how we can locate that Haven you're looking for."

"What? Really?" I was amazed; of all things! I was beginning to believe that Ammon Jerro's Haven was just a myth after all. "Where's Shandra?"

"Here," she said, stepping into the room behind me. "The others are coming, too."

"He's been explaining to me what 'reagents' we'll need..." began Sand, looking at me in askance.

"Yes, dragon's blood, for starters. Oh, and lich dust. And there seems to be something here about three keys..."

"Master Aldanon?" Aldanon's manservant came running in, waving a map. "I did what you requested; it worked! I've marked the most likely location on the map...oh!" He stopped when he saw us all staring at him. "It seems he's already told you, Captain."

"Told me what?"

"Yes, what is all this about?" Aldanon slammed the book shut, glaring at his servant.

The man coughed nervously. "Um, Master, you told me to have the Many-Starred-Cloaks try and scry a specific location, and...well, you were right! There's an area farther north, deep in the mountains, that the scrying spell couldn't touch. It's the most likely place for the Haven."

Multiple pairs of eyes looked back at Aldanon, who cleared his throat. "Yes, er...thank you. Well, I guess you don't need to find me dragon's blood after all." He looked at me hopefully. "Although, if you have any extra time, I could use some..."

I sighed, exasperated. "Looks like we're heading into the mountains." I reached over, touched Shandra's arm lightly. "You ready for this?"

"Not at all." She smiled at me weakly. "Just make sure I get there in-tact, all right?"

Bishop quirked an eyebrow at her from where he leaned in the doorway. "Your blood will, at least."

"Oh stuff it, Bishop," said Neeshka irritably.

"Or what, demon? You'll steal my teddy bear?"

I glared at him. "Are you done?"

"Far from it, 'Captain.'" His voice was dripping with sarcasm. "Please, come let me know when we're ready to leave. I'm most eager to risk my life yet again on this fool's quest of yours." He turned after giving me one last, furious look, and disappeared down the hall.

Qara whistled long and low. "Lover's quarrel?" She smirked at me knowingly.

I slowly, carefully, unclenched my fists.

"Do you ever think before opening your mouth, girl?" said Sand sharply, seeing the look on my face.

"I don't have time for this," I said quietly. "Everyone, just get ready, please. We're leaving in an hour." I walked out of the room, feeling their eyes on my back.

Well, of course he didn't like it that I was staying to fight. He'll get over it. What kind of person wouldn't fight after seeing what the King of Shadows had done to West Harbor?

He'll get over it, I thought to myself. He has to.

o o o o o o

It took us close to two weeks to reach the point on the map Aldanon had marked for us. Over the first half of that last morning, as we trudged up whatever we could find that constituted as a trail, the natural sounds of the forested mountain around us slowly died away, leaving a thick, oppressive silence. When we crested the final ridge, and a clear, manicured path lay before us, I called for a rest. The air was thin, and cold, and we were all out of breath.

Bishop hadn't spoken to me since we'd left, but still he watched me. The hood of his cloak was up due to the chill, and he sat against a jagged outcropping of rocks, his dark eyes following me as I moved between everyone else, checking injuries and helping to tighten down or loosen equipment. His anger was still tangible; I didn't know what had set a fire under his trousers, but I wasn't going to be the first one to break the silence, that was for sure.

Shandra sighed as I loosened her platemail; she'd taken to wearing it recently, claiming that if Khelgar could do it, she could as well. Of course, after the first day of wearing it around she could barely walk, and even now she smiled at me gratefully as I helped her remove the bigger pieces. "Thanks. My back is killing me. What the hells was I thinking?"

"Ah, don't take it hard, lass. Wanting to be like me is perfectly normal after being exposed to me masculine grandeur." Khelgar grinned up at her, ducking the playful swipe she aimed at his head.

I chuckled as I dropped her armor by her feet. "Yes, well, the rest of us are smarter and refrain from emulating you, dwarf." I patted my own leather armor contentedly.

Neeshka was peering up the head of the trail. "Hey you hear something..?"

Casavir stood, drawing his sword. "Aye, I hear it too."

A low whispering crept through the trees, and I moved quickly to my gear, drawing my swords from where they rested against my pack. Everyone moved to their feet, bracing themselves for...what? We waited, tensed, but soon the whispering died away, and silence descended on us again.

Elanee looked at me, her eyes wide. "This place is wrong," she whispered. "This silence...I can't even hear the trees."

Shandra was buckling her armor back on, Khelgar helping. "I don't want to rest anymore," she said nervously. "We need to move."

"No argument here," muttered Sand.

"Aye, pick it up then," I said, frowning up the path ahead of us. "Be careful, everyone."

We picked our way down the path, high stone walls rising on either side of us. The only sound around us was the crunching of our boots on the dirt and the pounding of my heart beating noisily in my ears. We turned the corner and the pathway spread out, into a small canyon full of debris. On the far side, was a small, unassuming doorway, iron bars firmly blocking our entry. So was the enormous iron golem, standing silently in front of the gate. It didn't move as we walked towards it, picking our way over the fallen rocks, past rusted metal braziers obscured almost completely by crumbling shrines. I stopped in front of the was much, much taller up close.

I glanced back at my companions, spread out behind me. Neeshka shrugged at me; Grobnar said, "Why, it's most wonderful, don't you agree? I wonder how long it's been standing here. Maybe you should ask it?"

"That's your advice?"

Grobnar nodded at me eagerly. "Oh yes!"

I stared at him. "Talk to the hulking guardian golem?"

"Well, yes. I mean, you must be polite, of course."

I craned my head back, looking up at the thing. "Maybe I should start by politely trying to convince him not to rip my arm off and feed it to me?"

Qara kicked Grobnar in the leg lightly, illiciting an indignant "ouch!" from the gnome.

I licked my lips nervously. "Hello?" I called.

The golem creaked into life; it's eyes opened, glowing slowly with an inner fire. The shapeless head rotated down, and those eyes seemed to stare straight through me. "Only those of the Jerro bloodline may pass." It's voice was sultry coal, glowing embers, with a hint of menace that burned at the edges of it's words. Well, looking good so far, I thought.

"I'm Shandra Jerro!" said Shandra, shoving her way to my side. "So, let us in!"

"Oh yeah," I murmered to her as the golem turned it's head. "That was epic."

To my left, Bishop snorted in what suspiciously sounded like a supressed chuckle.

Shandra glared at me. "And 'Hello?' is much better, is it?"

"Though you may have Jerro blood, you are not the Master of this place," the golem intoned. "There are trials set up for one such as you; I cannot let you pass until you have faced all three."

"Three trials?" said Sand incredulously.

"Talk about your paranoia," said Neeshka.

"We don't have time to discuss it; we must act." This from Casavir, standing towards the back, his hand resting easily on the sword.

I looked up at the golem. It stared down at me, it's eyes still burning steadily.

"So," I said, steeling myself. "About these trials..."

o o o o o o

I gasped for breath, slapping at the flames still smoldering on my armor. "That's three," I said. "Honestly, Shandra, were all your relatives this...difficult?"

"You're one to talk. You have a piece of the legendary Sword of Gith lodged in your chest, and your father conveniently forgot to mention it to you for most of your life."

I grinned. "Oh, touché."

A hand quickly brushed down my lower back in rapid strokes, skimming over my rear extremities briefly. I whirled in shock, to find Bishop standing behind me.

"Just putting out the rest of the fire," he said, his voice dripping with irony. "You know, you should really watch where you sit down after battling fire elementals. Not safe, you know." He flashed a quick grin, and moved past us towards Qara and Khelgar.

Shandra was sniggering quietly. "Oh, shut up," I said, but my heart felt lighter than it had in days. "Are you ready to do this?"

She nodded, sobering. I whistled to get everyone's attention, and they followed as we made our way back to the golem, who was watching our approach with impassive unconcern. "All right, guardian," I called. "We've completed your trials."

"So you have. But the spilling of Jerro blood is still needed."It creaked, metal hinged arm bending at the elbow, palm facing upward. Then, it waited.

I looked at Shandra. Her face was pale. "Hey," I said gently, and her eyes flicked to me. "Just...take your time. You don't have to do anything you don't want, you know."

She looked back at the golem's outstretched hand, and shook her head. "Not after coming all this way. No, I'm...fine." She inhaled deeply, and drew her boot-knife, stepping towards the guardian. Opening her palm, she flicked the edge of the blade across it quickly, and let the welling crimson liquid spill into the golem's hand. "There," she said, stepping back quickly. "Now, let us--"

At the same moment that the metal bars lowered on the door beyond her, a flash of light nearly blinded us, and my hand flew up instinctively to cover my eyes.

When the light faded and I uncovered them again, the door was open. And Shandra was gone.

Hero's Song - Chapter 17 © Avariel

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