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Hero's Song - Chapter Twenty-Two

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Nevalle was handing our cloaks to one of the servants when the keep door burst open. I was a sopping mess; my hair hung down my back in a long, wet curtain, and my leather armor seemed to weigh a ton, soaked with water and chafing my skin. I was cold and uncomfortable, but it felt incredibly good to be back inside the keep's walls, and I smiled wearily as my companions all crowded around us.

"You finally made it back," said a voice by my side. Bishop arched a brow at me. "Heard the Castle got ambushed, but you seem all right, nonetheless." His voice was off-handed, casual, but I was warmed at the look in his eyes; a mixture of relief and irritation. I could almost hear his thoughts... Think you can just go off and get killed, do you?

Khelgar was at my elbow, patting my arm as if he wasn't quite sure I was there. "By the gods, the next time Nasher tells us to stay behind, you better believe I'm tellin' him to stuff that crown o' his somewhere unholy! To attack Castle Never - the King of Shadows, Garius... they're getting bold, they are."

Neeshka grinned at me eagerly. "Did you get any gold with the knighting ceremony? I mean...not that you're carrying it on you...I already checked your bags."

I laughed at her incredulously. "I didn't even get a ceremony; Nasher knighted me over the corpse of a dead Shadow Priest after the attack."

"Were you the one that killed it?" Bishop asked, his voice coldly amused.

I winked at him. "Of course."

"Sounds like a ceremony to me."

"As much as I hesitate to inturrupt this delightful conversation, some of us want to know what efforts are being made for the war." Ammon Jerro, surprisingly, was standing by the door. He made his way over to us, staring me down. "Will Nasher commit his forces this time? And what of Waterdeep and the Lords' Alliance?"

Zhjaeve smiled slightly at my surprised expression. "Know that word of all of this has traveled before the Kalach-Cha. Our duty is to carry the battle to the King of Shadows, his servants, and gather others who feel the same. "

I nodded at her. "Nasher gave" here I glanced at Nevalle, "tasks to support the war. First off, anything that we find to injure the King of Shadows is going to be pretty useless if we can't get to him."

Elanee frowned thoughtfully. "The Claimed Lands kill all life that enter it... we wouldn't be able to reach the King of Shadows in time travelling by foot. The movement through the Mere is never swift, even in the best of times."

Bishop snorted ruefully. "If there's a path at all... we'd still need to know where we were going, and even then, we'd probably die getting there."

"I don't think there's an easy answer." Sand sighed, and rubbed his eyes. "As much as I hate to say it, I think we should ask Aldanon for advice on this."

"Well, it's a direction, at least," I said, amuzed at the wizard's expression. "And of course, we need to bolster the keeps defense." My eyes caught Kana's, hovering at the edge of the conversation. "That'll be your job, I'm afraid; I'm not strategically minded, and you know how to train the men better than I do. We'll need to recruit who we can." I rubbed my temples, frowning. "I'll take care of finding allies..."

She nodded. "Yes, my Lady."

I cringed inwardly on hearing those words. Ahh, nobility. The sickly sweet sound of someone licking my boot...

"And what of the Shadow Reavers?" said Casavir, his eyebrows up in question. "We can defeat them, yes, but they will only return, again and again. They cannot be ignored if we mean to prevail."

"Excuse me, but I may have a suggestion..." Grobnar raised his hand, jumping eagerly.

"Oh gods," muttered Sand. Bishop pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation.

"What is it, Grobnar?" I asked wearily.

"Well, sometimes these things come to you - I mean, we can't be the only ones the reavers have threatened or hurt." He smiled brightly at me. "We already have crossed paths with a bunch of allies and people and sorcerers and sages we never even knew before, and we did much of that through serendipity. So have a little faith...maybe an answer will come to us!"

Everyone stared at him.

Qara cocked her head at me. "I can set him on fire, if you like. It'd dry you out, too...a win-win."

Zhjaeve interceded. "Know that the gnome is correct; this may be the best we can hope for. We should search, but the problem of the reavers may be one that only time can aid us with."

"At the least, we have a path before us," rumbled the paladin, his eyes grim. "And an army to build."

"I, for one, have a bath to take, and clean clothes to put on," I said. "And so does Sir Nevalle. We'll start out in the morning, aye?" I nodded at them, fatigue dragging at me. "Best prepare yourselves; we've got a long haul before all of this is over with."

o o o o o o

I signaled to the bartender as I stood, glancing at my companions. "Go ahead and restock anything you need with the merchants; I'll pay our tab and finish up here, and meet you in a bit."

Everyone followed my example, standing and gathering equipment and armor they had shed when we had first entered the tavern to relax and eat. It was crowded as the hells in the little tavern; people had been evacuating Neverwinter for a goodly week, now, and most of them were travelling north, far away from the expanding boundaries of the shadow land, to take refuge in Port Llast. As my companions trailed out the door, I shoved my way to the bar, attempting to signal the barkeep's attention.

I glanced towards the fire, and noticed a young woman watching me. I arched a brow at her, but turned as the bartender approached me. "Aye lass, what can I do for ye? More ale for yer friends?"

"Not anymore, I'm afraid; how much do we owe you?"

I counted the coins into his hand, leaving a generous tip. I had a soft spot for anyone working in a tavern; I knew the sting of busking music on a corner all day only to have a few pennies thrown at you and some lukewarm compliments from the townsfolk. Even though those days were long gone (and I could make a pretty coin at any tavern if I wanted to) I still felt for those who lived off of drunken grattitude. He blinked at the coins in his hand, and stared at my smiling face. "I know the drink wasn't that good, miss."

"It wasn't half bad, either," I said, my smile widening, and turned away from his startled expression, trying to find a route through the crowd of bodies.

A hand touched my arm. "Excuse me..."

I looked up at the woman who had been sitting by the fire, watching me. I arched a brow at her, trying to contain my nervousness...I had had enough of assassins and spies to last me a lifetime, and I was beginning to learn people didn't just walk up to me out of curiousity anymore.

She was extremely pretty, I'd have to admit that; She had sun-kissed brown hair that suited her well, large brown eyes and delicate features. Her ears had the slightly pointed tips that marked a mixed heritage, and her smile was anxious. "Can I speak to you for a moment? It won't take long."

I eyed her suspiciously, but nodded. "Aye, if only for a moment."

She led me back to her seat...since nobody had taken it while she was up, I assumed she was a regular here (tavern ettiquette is stricter than some.) I sat next to her, and she faced me directly.

"My name is Malin; I'm a tracker in these parts. I saw you come through here before, asking questions about the Ember trial." She was examining me curiously. "Tell me something; the ranger that's travelling with you, Bishop. Why is he with you?"

I frowned at her, confused. "He helped us through Luskan to rescue a friend, and he's...been with us ever since. As to his own reasons, you'd have to ask him."

She didn't seem to notice the catch in my voice. She nodded at me thoughtfully. "Luskans...that makes sense. Bishop hates them." She stared at the fire, a bitter note in her voice. "It's the only real emotion I've ever seen from him, to tell you truly."

Her tone of voice, the familiar way she spoke of him, had half of me ready and willing to tag this half-elf as a predecessor...and a rival...but I ignored it. Well, attempted to, at least; jealousy is subtle when it rears it's ugly, green head. I narrowed my eyes at her. "How do you know Bishop?"

She glanced at me furtively, and chuckled. "I used to travel with him. No more, not after seeing what he did..." she seemed to catch herself, and sighed. "Just don't turn your back on him, all right? He's got a way of getting under your skin and making you trust him; and then he slides right back out, cutting you all the way." Her voice was tinged with sadness, and it finally swayed me.

I glanced over my shoulder, but my companions were long gone. I edged a little closer to her, leaning forward, worry in my voice. "Can you tell me what happened?"

She regarded me; there was nothing openly hostile or conniving about her mannerism, and I felt somewhat shameful for my earlier reaction to her. "We were running into squads along the border; small ones, two or three at the most, from Luskan. They weren't the usual border partrol; we usually just stayed away from them. These soldiers were...different." Her eyes were troubled. "Elite. Well trained, and travelling in pairs or small groups. Bishop...he'd just attack them on sight. No quarter, no mercy, no reason behind it that I could see, at all." She shook her head. "He never left a one alive. And towards the end, when I left him...he started torturing them."

My ears were buzzing. I could imagine the expression on my face, because her voice softened somewhat. "Whatever you think you know about him, whatever you...feel for him, in the end it's not going to matter. Do you understand?"

I felt completely deflated. From what I knew of Bishop...well, it made sickening sense, but...alas, my heart. It would not let me believe it. "I hear what you're saying, but...I trust Bishop, and I'm willing to give him a chance. I would with anyone. He's stayed with us...with me, thus far. He's risked his life with us, Malin.." I kept my voice as kind as possible. "And you...travelled with him quite a while ago, yes?"

"Aye, but you're not listening to me." She leaned back, and shook her head. "But, I can see he's already got you. At least, until he's finished with you." When she spoke next, her voice was quieter, her expression poignantly sad. "Just be more careful than I was. When it comes down to the wire, the one thing Bishop loves more than anything is himself."

o o o o o o

He caught sight of her as she exited the tavern, and placed two fingers between his lips, whistling sharply. The others wandered over as she made her way towards him, and he frowned at the slightly troubled expression on her face. "What's eating you?"

She caught his eyes, and the look was gone, replaced by that rare, heart-stopping grin of hers that always made his hands itch to pull her close. "Just the urge to get out of this town." She glanced down in amusement as the idiot gnome nearly threw himself at her legs, tugging at her arm incessantly.

"Harper, we've found them! The wisest sages you'll ever meet, and they know of the Wendersnaven!"

Elanee said dryly, "And they're almost impossible to understand."

Harper gave him an exasperated look as Grobnar began dragging her away, towards a smallish set of tents. The others turned to follow, Sand muttering to him in disgust, "I'm not sure I want to meet sages who Grobnar thinks wise." As he moved to follow the elven wizard, something caught his eye. He blinked, staring incredulously for a moment at the half-elven woman exiting the tavern, strapping her quiver around her shoulders. She glanced up, noticed him, and her lip curled in distaste. Malin, he thought thunderously. Her eyes flicked to Harper's retreating figure, and back to him, and a resolute, smug smile crossed her lips before she turned and walked away, dissappearing into the crowded Port Llast streets.

Bishop had half a mind to follow her and wring her scrawny half-breed neck, but the others were already dissappearing into the far tents, and so with a curse, he turned on his heel and followed after them, her expression burning in his mind. What in the hells had that thin-blooded wench done to be so pleased about?

o o o o o o

Nevalle greeted us as we walked through the threshold of the main gate, crossing the courtyard. "Any luck?"

"Aye, the Ironfists are with us," I said wearily. "The dwarves are preparing, but I'd imagine a representative will be here shortly. And...the lizardfolk are with us, as well." I couldn't keep the pride out of my voice. It had been a tough dance with words to get the lizards to side with me, but I had done it.

Nevalle's eyebrows shot up. "The lizardfolk?"

"Aye, that's my reaction, too," grumbled Khelgar, but I shrugged.

"We need all the help we can get, and they're with us to the end of it. They've lost their homeland to the King of Shadows' advance."

"Unfortunately, we couldn't find the Wendersnaven," intoned Grobnar sadly.

I bit my lip to keep from grinning. A few of my companions were coughing suspiciously, and Qara was snickering outright. Nevalle glanced down at the gnome. "Are you surprised? If you seek fairy tales, you'll only find them in books." His scathing gaze moved upwards, to me. "Perhaps now you will focus on more important efforts."

"Oh stuff it, sir knight. This whole mess is one big fairy tale," I said archly. "Besides, we have to cover every option available to us. And sometimes, stories and legendsare what save us, in the end. Ever thought of that? We didn't find the Wendersnaven, but Grobnar was given an...artifact, of theirs, that may prove useful." All right, maybe an invisible artifact that none of us could see; but I believed he'd been given something, and it was worth it to see Nevalle's sullen expression. There were bonuses to being a knight, I suppose; speaking to Nevalle as an equal was definately one of them. Not that I'd spoken to him any other way in the past, I thought with amusement.

"If the two of you nobles are done bickering, can we go inside now? If I don't get real food soon, I'm going to spit the dwarf over a fire." This from Bishop, standing off to the side and fidgeting with his bow impatiently.

"I'll light it for you," grumbled Qara.

"Ye're more than welcome to try, both of ye!"

I could see Khelgar squaring up for a fight, and sighed. "Enough," I said irritably. "We could all use food and rest...excuse us, Sir Nevalle." And with that, I walked blithely past him towards the keep's doors, where the smell of food was already wafting from the kitchen's windows.

o o o o o o

I heard the door creak open behind me, but didn't need to look up. By now, I'd recognize that lightly treading, near-silent footfall anywhere, and smiled slightly to myself, keeping my eyes trained on the page in front of me. He leaned next to me against the table, his arms crossed in front of his chest. "Not going to join the rest of us, Knight-Captain? Too good to blend with the commoners, are we?"

I ignored the baiting tone in his voice, and chuckled. "You know I'll be down later, ranger. I can't let Sal's new bard upstage me, now can I?"

"His songs are mostly about lillies, and dryads, and dancing vegetables, of all things. I think you'll be safe from that." He paced around the table. "You know, I saw an old friend of mine in Port Llast...ranger, by the name of Malin. You might have spoken with her?" The last barely sounded by a question; he seemed almost sure of my answer. But...not entirely.

I turned a page, eyes still down. "Aye, she spoke to me."

"Oh did she? And what did she have to say?"

"A lot about you." I glanced at him briefly. "Not to trust you. That you served only yourself."

He snorted derisively. "That all? Huh...same could be said about her worthless hide."

"She said that you tortured Luskans at the border." I kept my voice quiet and even, but my heart was pounding in my ears.

Silence reigned for a moment. The he placed his hands flat on the table, leaning across it to look me in the eye. "And if it was true, what would you think about it?" His voice was so cold it chilled me quicker than a blast of winter air, and I couldn't miss the dangerous undertone in his words.

I met his gaze firmly. "You really care what I think?"

"Aye, lindo, I do. Answer me." He nearly growled it.

"I have, traveling with me, a paladin who's betrayed his oaths. I have an elven wizard who can barely reign his tongue half the time, and who used to serve the Luskan hosttower. A sorcerous who nearly destroyed my uncle's tavern, and him along with it. A dwarf who abandoned his homeland and his people for a purely selfish pursuit to better his fighting skills." My eyes bore into his. "And a warlock, who's ill-placed war cost me the life of my mother; who is the reason I have this shard in my chest; and who murdered my friend, his own kin. Do you really think I give a damn about what you've done in your past? About what any of you have done? Do you not think I've probably killed more mothers' sons than you have, by now?"

He seemed frozen, his eyes locked on to mine. I broke his stare, glancing down into the book before me nonchalantly, and when I spoke again, the edge of anger was gone from my voice. "Besides, it's not my place to judge you," I said lightly. "Merely to kiss you."

He snorted in an ill-supressed laugh. "By the hells, woman, you'll say anything, won't you?" The book was pulled from my face, and a pair of rough, scarred hands grabbed my shoulders, pulling me forward over the table. "So kiss me, then." It came out almost a command, his voice gruff from his receding anger; and then the mood lightened considerably as I obliged him.

Needless to say, it was a while before we both made it down to join the others.

Hero's Song - Chapter 22 © Avariel

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