Beauty and Fae
While Greengrass was still a month away, the storm had blown off, and the sun was shining, reflecting off the snow in a blinding display of winter light. When one stood in the sun, shielded from the wind, it was actually pleasantly warm. Of course the shade still held the bitter cold of the winter.
Misara was dressed in a light blue silk dress, her fur lined cloak over her shoulders. She stood on a watch platform just inside the wall, eyes shaded against the light, her hair blowing free in the gentle but cool breeze. The cold did not touch the Tel'Quessir as it did the N'Tel'Quess, and she was quite comfortable in what she wore.
She looked down at Epcha, where he stood at the gates. He wore his arm in a sling. She suspected that the injury was bothering him, but he did not show it. She had taken him and six other young people out into the mountains two days before. They had had good or ill, luck, depending on who was asked, for they met a pair of foraging ogres.
The young ones had done well in the battle, killing both beasts with only a little aid from her. All had been hurt, the worse a young woman of seventeen who had broken her ankle, and several ribs.
She shifted her gaze back to the side of the mountain, enjoying the dazzling play of light off snow. So beautiful, and yet it could blind a person were they not careful.
Misara had tended all their wounds, calling upon the divine powers of Corellon Larethian to heal them, or at least treat them. She was grateful for the power. More than once her god had refused it to her when it came to healing the wounds of N'Tel'Quess.
Into such thoughts came the realization that she was looking at something. Movement on the path that led up to the village; a single rider on a white horse, climbing the switch backs. She looked around, but no one else seemed aware of the approaching visitor. She was not that surprised; her eyesight was much sharper than that of the humans.
Not saying anything, she left the tower, walking towards her house. It was no longer her part to tell these people what to do: To warn them of danger and plan for them. She would be there to help them, if they needed it, but it was time for her to trust them.
She pushed her door open, noticed immediately that Mary had been cooking once more. A small pot was warming on the side of the fire, the stew within bubbling gently. Protecting her hand with a cloth, she took the pot from the fire and set it on the stone mantle to cool. By the time she had washed her hands the stew was ready to eat.
There were bits of lamb with vegetables and chicken stock, as well as the subtle hints of spices. Spices. Expensive, rare, and Mary was using what little supply she likely had to improve Misara's meals. The people of Deep Cleft had so little, and they wanted to give her so much.
They were proud and would not appreciate her treating them as if they were beggars. So she ate the stew, and would compliment Mary on her cooking, as she always did.
The sounds of voices, muffled by the walls of the cabin, came to her. She recognized Epcha's voice, raised above the others. They had seen the rider, still some minutes away from the village; a little later than she would have preferred, but not terribly so.
There was activity outside, Epcha giving orders, people moving to defensive positions in case they were needed. Darvin would be out there, watching, ready to make a quiet suggestion if it was needed, but willing to let the young defenders learn their own lessons.
There was a knock at her door.
"Come in," she said.
"Lady Dawntide," Defan said, "Epcha says a rider is approaching."
"Just one?" she asked.
"That is all we can see." There was excitement in his voice. "Epcha has sent Woric and Zaram up the chimney with the field glass to make certain that it is only one."
"Very well," she told him. "It sounds as if you have things well in hand. Tell Epcha he can call me if he feels there is a need."
Defan smiled at the vote of confidence that she had given him and the others. He stood up straighter as he said, "We will." Then he closed her door, a little too hard really, but she could understand his excitement.
She sat back in her chair, listening to what was going on outside. She wanted to open the door a little and watch what was happening, but she did not. They needed to know that she trusted them.
She heard, clearly, the call for the rider to halt and be identified. She wondered how close they had let him or her get. Were Woric and Zaram focused on the rider at the gates, or were they trusting their companions to deal with that and instead looking everywhere else?
There were more shouts, but she could not make them out very well. Then the call to open the gate reached her. They were going to let the rider in. She stood, picked up her sword belt, and then girded it around her.
The time seemed to crawl by with no sounds of alarm raised outside. Perhaps a minute later there was a knock at her door.
The door opened and Darvin stood at the threshold. "The rider is asking for you."
"She asks to speak with Lady Anor'Esira," he stumbled over the Elven word, "Holy Paladin Corellon Larethian."
"Well, that is I. Did she give a name?"
"Rowan Jassan, Paladin of Sune."
"I see." She removed her sword belt from around her waist. "Please, tell her that I would be pleased to see her." She put her weapon aside.
Darvin nodded, seeming to relax slightly. He turned and called to someone she could not see, "Lady Jassan, please, come."
Several seconds later Rowan Jassan stood in the doorway, helmet tucked under her arm, long cloak thrown back to reveal the armour she wore. Her skin was pale, where it was not chafed from the cold, her hair bright red and her eyes a green that was almost black. Surely this was a woman favoured by Sune.
"Please, enter and be welcome."
"Thank you Lady Anor'Esira," Rowan said, the slightest accent to her Elvish.
Misara could see the slight colouring of Darvin's unscarred cheek. Rowan had unknowingly insulted his poor ability with her language. Or perhaps it was not unknowing.
"If you will excuse me Lady," he said to Misara, giving her a half bow, and then left, closing the door.
Rowan removed her riding boots, and hung her cloak on a peg, the walked across the room to stand in front of Misara. She bowed. "I thank you for taking the time to see me Lady Misara."
Misara took note of her change in address. Still respectful, but more intimate now that no one else was around. "I would never refuse a request for someone who had travelled so far to see me. Please, sit and be comfortable. I have food if you are hungry, and some water, or wine if you wish."
"Thank you, but there is a message I must give you before I can take advantage of your generosity and your company Lady Misara."
"Then please, sit, and we will speak in comfort."
Rowan removed her weapon belt and placed it to the side before sitting. Misara watched her, took note of her fine armour, and the confident way with which she moved. The woman, while young, had been tested by her calling, and she had passed. That she was as she said, a Paladin of Sune, Misara had no doubt. There was no hiding the favour of Lady Firehair.
"I have come from Silverymoon," Rowan said. "I was sent to find you by Sir Domas Telbaker of the Church of Tyr."
"Domas?" Misara asked, feeling her heart beat faster. When Domas called her, it meant some great adventure or another. It had been years since he had last... It had been years. Twenty of them. Domas had been a man in his prime when she had last seen him. Two decades would have changed him, it was the way with the short-lived humans. He would be an older man, likely one with responsibilities to his church.
She did not see them riding off together on some great venture. "What does Domas want?"
"He needs help. There is a Dark Champion, a Black Guard, who roams the roads of the Silver Marches, and he has challenged a number of Holy Knights, including Paladins, Warrior Priests and Lay Warriors, to single combat. He has killed over thirty fine men and women, that we know of. Domas says that you can beat him."
"There is more to this than that. Domas could find someone else to handle such a threat I think. Tell me how this all began."
"I suppose it starts with Sir Telbaker. He had been living in Silverymoon, making it a base from which he sought out the evils of the North. When Lady Alustriel set about forming the Silver Marches he saw a great opportunity to strengthen the forces of good in the North."
Misara smiled and nodded. "He would."
"He requested permission from Lady Alustriel, as well as approaching the leaders of the other churches in the city, and with their blessings had a small keep built halfway between Silverymoon and Quaevarr.
"From there he installed forces that would be able to go where they were needed to help the good people of the Marches, to fight any evil that might raise up. They, we, are independent of any one city so we can travel where they were needed with no concern about leaving something undefended."
"But for the keep," Misara said.
"Green Stone Keep is not a defensive position. It has been left all but empty before, it will likely happen again. And while named a keep, it is more of a manor. No enemy to the Silver Marches that takes the Keep will find it a useful holding."
"I see." Misara had to admire Domas for his work. He had put together what was probably not an insignificant force, and he had done it in such a way to avoid making him seem like a threat to any of the people he was trying to protect. Perhaps he had listened to her all those years ago.
"The size of our force has grown significantly over the past few years. While there is of course a shrine to Tyr in the Keep, he did not dedicate the keep to the Just god. That made it easier for Paladins and Holy Warriors of Helm, Lathander, Mielikki, and of course Sune, to join with him. Together we work to stop any who would pervert the vision of Lady Alustriel and the others who wish to see the Silver Marches become a home for good, freedom loving people."
"Have you been successful?"
Rowan smiled, and lifted her shoulders. "Who is to say? We have done a great deal of good, but there is so much more to do. It will be future generations that will decide our success or not. All we can do is our best."
"Well spoken Rowan of Sune."
She smiled at the compliment. "It is something that Domas often says. He tell us that you taught it to him."
"Perhaps I did," Misara said thoughtfully.
"To continue, for a year now we have known that something is happening, an attempt made by someone to create something else of the Silver Marches. It could be the Zhents, or forces from Luskan, or agents from Shade, or the Drow, or the monsters to the North, or something completely different. We had just begun to turn our attention to this threat when the Dark Champion appeared and started to kill our people.
"Important missions failed. Our people are in a state of disarray. Many younger members ride out to find him, to take revenge for fallen comrades, only fall to his blade. By appearing suddenly as he does, and almost anywhere, he threatens all of our operations.
"That he challenges us to duels of honour, and wins by skill of arms and the support of whoever he calls his god, makes it difficult for us. He must be beaten fairly, or there are those of our orders who may begin to doubt our cause. That would be just as disastrous as his continued killing of us.
"It was a difficult situation, and we were not certain how to best deal with it, for there were many proposed solutions and where we were once united, we grew fractious. Then a priest of Corellon Larethian came from the temple at Silverymoon and told Domas that you were close by and could perhaps be called upon for aid.
"Domas was overjoyed to hear of this. Most of the others did not understand how one Elven Paladin could be of any assistance, but he was steadfast in his demand that someone be sent to find you. He would have come himself if the other leaders had not refused to allow him to endanger himself in such a manner."
"So you were sent instead?"
"Might I ask why? It seems that travelling on your own at a time like this would be inviting disaster."
Rowan smiled. "It was necessary to find you, and I trusted in Sune to protect me, and, the truth is I really wanted to meet you."
She nodded. "Domas is not the only person I have met who speaks highly of Misara Anor'Esira. My mentor, Seomon Westride, talked often of you."
"I can't believe that he had anything good to say." Seomen and she had never been on the best of terms.
"Well, he said that you were arrogant and obstinate, and certain that your way was the right way."
"That does sound about right." She smiled, remembering the many arguments from long ago.
"He also said that you were, much to his annoyance, usually right, very beautiful, and he called you a True Elven Paladin."
Misara felt her cheeks grow warm. "I'm wary of such comparisons, and calling me the true anything is not really correct."
"He did not think so, nor does Domas from what he says."
"No matter." She did not want to speak further of it. "Domas wants me to slay this Black Guard."
"He is certain that you can do it. And that you can find out who he is loyal to."
"I might, but, at the moment, I have sworn to protect this village."
Rowan frowned. "Surely you must see the importance in dealing with the threat the Dark Champion represents."
"I do. But I also see the importance in protecting this village. They are tied together. What is the value of defeating that one man if I let this village fall? The people here are part of the dream that Domas seeks to protect."
It was obvious that Rowan had no answer for that. Once or twice she looked as if she were about offer an argument, but instead said nothing, as if she realised the flaw in what she was going to say. In that manner she was smarter than Seomon.
Finally Misara took pity on the young woman and said, "I will talk to Darvin Fullerson and ask him what he thinks. It may be time that Deep Cleft stands on its own, but it will be his decision to make."
Rowan looked relieved. "Thank you Lady Misara."
"I would make a request of you, however."
"What is it?"
"Do not call me Anor'Esira. Call me Dawntide if you must. You shame Master Fullerson when you use a name that he cannot pronounce well."
She actually looked surprised. "I did not know. I meant no harm."
"Meaning no harm and causing no harm are two very different things. That is a lesson that I tried to teach both Seomon and Domas."
"You seem to have no compunctions about shaming me," she said, her voice tart.
"It was done on purpose, with the hopes of teaching an important lesson." Misara got to her feet. "There is a difference. I hope that you understand that."
"Is there really a difference?" Rowan countered.
"I believe so."
"Believing so and it being the truth are two very different things. That is something that both Seomon and Domas taught me. Can you claim that you know what the truth is?"
"I like to think that I have learned a few things in the many decades that I have seen pass."
"Wisdom is not only the purview of the aged, and those who have seen many years pass are often blind to the new." Rowan's tone was sharper than it had been, and her entire posture was challenging.
Misara thought about that, and what Rowan had said. "I think I owe you an apology Rowan. I am sorry for what I said. I should have known better."
"Making an error is forgivable," Rowan said. "Refusing to acknowledge it or make amends is the path of evil. Thank you for your apology."
"Thank you for making me realise that it was required."
It did not take long for Darvin to arrive. He removed his boots and moved close to the fire, but he would not sit, so Misara remained standing as well.
"An old friend has asked for my help," she told him. "I am not willing to leave Deep Cleft while I am still needed."
"I thought that might be it," he told her as he nodded. "To be truthful, I think this is a good thing. You should leave."
She was a little surprised by his words, and, perhaps, a little hurt. She did not show that. "Are you certain?"
He nodded again. "I know this may seem ungrateful after all you have done for us, but the truth is it is time for you to leave. You have dealt with our immediate problems. You have helped our children to become adults, maybe a little sooner than any of us would have liked, but it was necessary. We can protect ourselves again, and you have given us hope.
"If you stay, well, people might become dependent on you. This is the best time for you to leave. I am sorry to have to say that, but it is true. If you stay any longer..." he trailed off.
Misara smiled at him and reached out to place her hand on his shoulder. "You have no reason to be sorry Darvin." It was the first time she had called him by his first name. It was the first time it felt right. "You are right. Forgive me for forgetting how I was to truly help you."
He did not look embarrassed, and he nodded. "We will never forget you. And we can never repay you for everything you have done."
"You can repay me by living well, and making a good life for the people here."
"We will do that."
She laughed, and stepped back from him. "I expect to come back here in a few years and find that Inn I always hear you talking about."
"We'll sit at the table near the fireplace and I'll treat you to the best wine in the house."
"I'll hold you to that. Lady Jassan and myself will be leaving tomorrow."
"I'm sure some people will wish to speak with you before you leave." He looked at Rowan. "Lady Jassan, please, make yourself welcome. If there is anything you want, please just ask. Will you join us for a meal?"
Rowan looked at him, and then at Misara, then back to Darvin. "Thank you Goodman Fullerson, but I must regretfully turn down your offer. I am currently observing a set of holy days and my food is somewhat restricted. I have everything I need in my pack."
"Of course," he said, then took a step back. "Lady Dawntide, Lady Jassan, please excuse me."
After he had left Misara turned to look at her. "Holy days?"
Rowan smiled. "You reminded me of some things, and these people do not look as if they could spare the food they would use to feed me in any way that they would feel is proper."
Misara nodded. "That is very true."
"I suppose you've had to deal with that problem?"
She nodded. "I managed to talk them down to a place to stay and two meals a day, and at the time that I made that agreement they thought I was simply a sell sword, just as likely to run as to fight for them. When they finally realised that I was a Paladin they wanted to offer me so much more, but I held them to the word of our initial agreement."
Rowan laughed and leaned back in her chair. "I will enjoy a good night's sleep, in warm room, and in a comfortable bed."
"Would you like a bath as well?"
Rowan smiled widely. "Lady Misara, I would do terrible things for a bath at this moment."
"Just help me to boil some water."
The clear, sunny weather of the previous day was gone. Ocean grey clouds covered the sky, and the dry, cold wind slid its way through the smallest openings. It looked as if it might start snowing again.
In front of the main gates, in an open area that served as the village's common, Misara and Rowan prepared to leave. Rowan's packs were not as full as they had been when she arrived. Citing the need to travel quickly, she had left foodstuffs and a number of small, useful items in the village.
Misara was leaving behind more than that. Roathe, a small, Rashemi bred pony that had served her as a packhorse for almost five years, would stay. She had no doubt the sturdy little beast would enjoy her new life, which would include a warm stable to sleep in and the village children who absolutely adored her. And without Roathe's company she was conveniently forced to leave other items in Deep Cleft, including some extremely ugly but valuable gifts she acquired before coming to Deep Cleft.
Rowan's horse, Rose Thorn, stood near the gates, looking majestic, which Misara thought was half his purpose. The beautiful horse was obviously a Paladin's mount; no other horse could look so bred for beauty and yet survive a trek through the North in the winter.
Misara's own horse, Iron, was an ill-tempered looking creature with an uneven coat the colour of his namesake. A horse with the bloodlines of a Tuigan mount and some wild breed, he was a survivor. Blocky in appearance and all muscles, he was easily the ugliest horse that Misara had ever seen, let alone owned.
"Be careful Lady Dawntide," Darvin said to her. "Be careful, and may we meet again."
She had said all her goodbyes but this one, and she stepped back and bowed to him. "Sweet water and light laughter till next we meet Darvin."
She turned and walked over to Iron, grabbed him by his mane-she did not use a saddle or bridal-and pulled herself onto his broad back. The horse simply stood there, as if her weight, that of her armour and weapons, and the heavy saddlebags already draped across his shoulders, were nothing.
She directed Iron about with her knees and turned to look at Rowan. "Are you ready to ride."
Rowan was already on Rose Thorn. She smiled and nodded. "Of course."
"Then let's go."
Rose Thorn looked as if he wanted to run. He kicked at the snow-covered ground with his front hoof, and then started forward at a run. Iron simply started forward, moving at a quick walk, a pace he could maintain for hours in the deep snow.
She was hardly out of the gates when she heard "Misara, wait!" Turning, she spotted Epcha running towards her. He was carrying a bag, and wore a sword belt. She had been afraid of something like that happening.
With the gentle pressure of her knees she brought Iron to a stop and turned him so she could face Epcha.
He slid to a stop near her, almost falling. "Misara, please, take me with you. I want to be a Paladin. I want to go with you."
Some of the people watching were surprised by Epcha's declaration. Others seemed to have been expecting it. All were watching. Rowan had brought Rose Thorn back and was watching as well.
Misara looked down at the young man, trying to remember when she had simply seen him as a boy. "If that is truly your calling Epcha, you will make a fine Paladin. And I would be honoured to take you on as a squire, but," she looked around, "can you really afford to leave?"
Epcha said nothing for a moment. He looked away from her and at the village behind him. He turned back to her. "I want to come with you. I want to learn."
She smiled down at him. "I would welcome your company, but my need for you is much less than that of others. Tell me, could you really leave here and not regret it? Would it not be in your thoughts?"
He shook his head.
"You are young still Epcha. In a year or two when Deep Cleft no long needs you as desperately as it does now, when you can leave with a clear mind, then you can start on your journey. Until then, stay where you are needed. There are many valuable lessons for you to learn here yet."
He nodded, agreeing with her while at the same time he looked crestfallen. "Will you come back then?" he asked hopefully.
"Your calling will lead you where you need to go. I hope that means our paths will cross again."
Epcha said nothing to that. Darvin stepped forward to put an arm around Epcha's shoulders. "Fair Travels Ladies Paladin," Darvin called out.
Misara nodded to him, then turned Iron about and rode off, not looking back.
She rode down the trail for several minutes before Rowan rode up beside her.
"That young man loves you," she said.
"Do even the Paladins of Sune play matchmaker?"
"Of course. A fact I'm certain that you learned during your travels with Seomon."
"I do know Epcha thinks he loves me, but he is more in love with what I am. What he thinks I am."
"For someone his age those two things are not all that different."
"I know, but he will get over it. I hope his calling is true."
"Would you really take him on as a squire?"
"Yes. In a moment."
"How would you train him? Your ways could not be his."
"I know, but he would make a fine addition to the ranks of Tyr, or Lathander."
"He was a handsome enough lad, perhaps he might serve Sune."
"Does that mean in a year or two I might have to race you back here to see which of us claims him?" she asked with a grin.
"It might come down to that."
"Well, when the time comes, may the best woman win."
"I'm sure I will."
Misara laughed at that, and they continued to the ride down the path in a comfortable silence.
When they reached the bottom of the trail Misara noticed a large hand, sticking up from the snow.
"I might have missed this place were it not for that," Rowan told her.
"Yes, well," she looked up at the clouds, "it is not really needed any longer, and the snow should come soon, so..." Iron shifted to the side, then kicked at the frozen limb, driving it under the snow with a crack of bone.
"How many other bodies are under that snow?" Rowan asked her.
"In one respect, far too many. In another, not nearly enough." That said Misara turned Iron and then set off down the snow covered trail. Rowan and Rose Thorn were right behind.
It was hours later, after the sun had set, not that that meant much with the thick, falling snow, that the two Paladins stopped for the night. In a small gully, which offered some protection from the wind, they set up a simple shelter of a windbreak and a lean-to. After feeding the horses a mixture of grain and oats, they built a small fire and heated up some trail rations.
The fire had died down to coals, glowing dimly, by the time they had finished eating. Both women sat outside of that tiny light, facing away from it lest their night vision be compromised.
"Why were you in Deep Cleft?" Rowan asked.
"I was heading down from the mountains when I just found the village. I had only planned to stay a day or two, for a little rest, but I could tell they desperately needed help. There was nothing that required my immediate attention, so I stopped there." She said nothing for a few seconds, just stared out into the darkness. "It is an old story. They had a good iron mine, and an excellent place for a village. An orc band tried to take it away from them. They drove it off, but at the cost of almost half the village's population.
"When a group of bandits arrived, demanding food and anything else of value, the survivors chose to give it to them rather then risk another fight. That was four years prior, and since then two more bandit groups became involved in bleeding them dry. They were almost finished when I came along."
"So the bodies at the bottom of that path were bandits."
"Most of them. With the bandits gone, and the young people trained to fight, I think that they will survive. All they need is a chance to sell a full year's production, perhaps hire some guards and encourage a few more settlers. If they manage that, Deep Cleft will be well on its way to recovery."
"There are other little villages like that. The Silver Marches is full of frontiersmen and women who want to start a new life. We help them as we can. It is good that you are willing to help us defeat this Black Guard."
Domas might have saved everyone some trouble by simply sending out a group of hired fighters to kill this man as soon as the trouble started, Misara thought, but did not say aloud.
"What if I fail to defeat this man?"
"Domas does not think that will happen. I believe him." Her voice was full of confidence.
"Let us hope that his trust is not misplaced then," Misara told her. "Now, it's late, and the day has been long. I will take first watch. Get some rest. I will wake you later."