The fight was over before it had begun. Ten or so indifferently trained and equipped men-at-arms against five experienced and edgy adventurers and one recently resurrected murderer was really no contest at all. There wasn't even any time for the woman on the steps to object, and when it was all over, she stared mutely at them, eyes wide.
Now that they were arrived, there was sound and smell to accompany the sights, and Maera wasn't sure she was particularly glad of that. Saradush stank of sweat, sewage, and blood, and the normal bustle of a city center was absent, replaced with the shouts of soldiers and a steady wooden creak and thud, like the drawing and release of a monstrous bow. Maera swallowed hard. It was a sound she had never heard in person, but she knew it all the same. Siege engines - ballistae, mangonels, and gods knew what else. As if to confirm the sinking realization, a chunk of irregularly shaped rock sailed over their heads and smashed into a disused fountain on the far side of the plaza. Stagnant water pooled outward from the broken base. The few citizens in the plaza square scurried past, wary, but not shocked. Apparently such scenes had become commonplace.
The woman had not moved. "Tall, blonde hair, sword with a golden hilt… My gods. If you're here, then…" She blinked, and then rushed down the steps towards them. "You're Maera of Candlekeep, aren't you? How did you get here?"
"I doubt you'd believe me," Maera said.
"You would be surprised what I am willing to believe, these days."
"Who are you? And how do you know my name?"
"My name is Melissan. And I think you'll find there's not a person in this city who does not know who you are." Another boulder screamed overhead, crashing into the paving stones and sending shards of stone sharp as knives flying in all directions. "It's not safe here in the open. We should get under cover." She shot Maera an ironic little half-smile. "Welcome to Saradush."
They wound their way through the rubble-choked streets, and it seemed their guide was fairly well known. People ducked their heads and smiled with a sort of cautious, hopeful respect, before turning wary gazes to Maera and her companions. Sarevok was tagging along, quite uninvited, but Maera was too rattled to tell him off. More than once, a sibilant whisper of "Bhaalspawn" hissed as they passed, and Imoen found as she pressed close to Maera's side that she was clutching her sister's belt, something she had not done since they were children.
"Who is besieging the city?" Jaheira asked, using her staff to lever a pile of twisted lumber, the remains of a street kiosk, out of her way.
"The leader of the army is named Yaga-Shura," Melissan said, nodding to a pair of men who were attempting to shore up a damaged wall. "He is a fire giant…and he is also a Child of Bhaal, like yourself, Maera." Maera opened her mouth, but Melissan raised a hand. "The situation is more complicated than even that, though. We need a place to sit and talk. There is much you need to be made aware of. Follow me." They trailed behind her in confused silence as she led them to a sprawling old inn located on the back street that had probably been a fairly smart area of town. "The Tankard Tree," Melissan announced. "There are no rooms left in the city, but the proprietor turns no one away. It's been something of a base of operations for us lately."
"Us?" Maera shrank slightly from the hard gaze of the handful of people loitering defiantly on the inn porch.
"Yes. Come." Melissan gestured towards the door and smiled her odd little smile again. "The other benefit of the Tree is its extensive cellar. They're in no danger of running out of ale anytime soon."
They were seated at a dark corner table, as far from the watchful eyes of the rest of the common room as they could get. Melissan tapped the table restlessly as she began to speak. "Where to begin?" she asked herself softly.
"Bhaalspawn with armies is a good place," Maera said. The floor shook slightly as another missile impacted somewhere in the distance, as if to emphasize the point.
"Fair enough," Melissan replied. "As I said, the city is besieged by a Bhaalspawn named Yaga-Shura. He is allied with other of his…your kind. They have all raised forces under their own banners, but there is an obvious element of cooperation between them. They call themselves the Five.
"At first, many dismissed the reports of them as rumor. Times past in Tethyr, armies marched for the most spurious of reasons, and no one wanted to believe that such things could happen again." Maera glanced at Jaheira; the druid's lips were compressed. Melissan continued. "But it was not long before every town and village in their path was put to the torch and sword, and the old symbols of Bhaal emblazoned for all to see. Those who could flee the onslaught did, and came here. Saradush is filled to its walls with refugees, who came here for the protection offered by a fortified city, only to find themselves trapped when Yaga-Shura marched on the city." Melissan took a deep breath. "Which leads us to our current, precarious situation. And my folly." Questioning looks all around urged her to continue. "I have…taken an interest in the Bhaalspawn for some years now. I have met many in my travels, and before events pushed us to this present, bloody state of affairs, I had brought them together for mutual protection and benefit. There are, at present, approximately fifty Bhaalspawn, other than yourselves, here in Saradush. And to the best of my knowledge, with the exception of the five beyond these walls, there are no more."
Maera rocked slightly in her seat, and she and Imoen exchanged a disbelieving look. Kelsey gently rubbed her upper arm as Melissan's information sank in. "And just who are you," Sarevok rumbled softly from deep in the shadows, "to take such an interest in the affairs of the children of a dead god?"
"I know you, Sarevok Anchev," Melissan returned calmly, "and I'll admit I was quite surprised to see you at all, much less in your current company."
"He is not with us," Maera said firmly. "He may have gotten here the same way we did, but that's as far as it goes. And it would be a good idea for him to remember that." Her eyes met his, and he was the first to look away. "However – and I can't believe I'm saying this – he does have a valid question."
"He does," Melissan conceded, dropping her eyes. "In my youth, I was a Bhaalite." She paused for the wave of reaction to circle the table. "But then the Time of Troubles came, and Bhaal was killed, and the faithful were told not to lose hope, because he had foreseen his death and taken steps to ensure his rebirth." She sniffed bitterly, her tone grown mocking. "Yes, a crowd of children would be his salvation. It was a foolish plan, and my heart broke from the Lord of Murder that day. I have no desire to see him returned, and I will do all in my power to prevent it."
"So you're doing this to spite him?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes."
"There is another issue not yet addressed," Jaheira said. "When we arrived, you were arguing with those soldiers. You wanted to see someone called Gromnir. Who is that?"
Melissan folded her hands. "He is the current, de facto, leader of the city. He was the head of the city militia, but when the rumors about the armies of the Five began to circulate, the townspeople felt their Lords weren't doing enough to protect them. They demanded Gromnir be given control of the city, and he was. But they have come to regret that decision. He has done nothing in the defense of the city, and it is obvious he has no intention to. Those few souls manning the walls, attempting some token defense, do so only in the absence of direct orders not to."
"So there's an army out there, laying siege, and the only things standing between them and every person in this city are the walls themselves?" Maera demanded.
"Well put," Melissan said. There was another rumble, closer this time. "You see now why I wished to speak with him. I have tried very hard to do what I can here, to help as many as possible, to shoulder my share of the responsibility. After all," her voice dropped, "Yaga-Shura may not have come here, had I not chosen this city as a shelter for the Bhaalspawn that I...have charge of. Gromnir is also a Bhaalspawn, and I was hoping I could appeal to him on that basis. But he sees no one. He remains locked in the city Keep, doing nothing." She glanced at the window, noting the barmaid hanging a heavy black drape over it. "The curtains are going up; it must be near sunset." She stood. "I must go. I am expected elsewhere. We should speak again, in the morning. Maera, your appearance has given me some hope that we may be able to resolve this situation. Saradush may not be beyond help after all. For now, I would advise that you remain here. It's apparent you can handle yourselves, but it would be wise to avoid confrontations, I think." She inclined her head, and with that, departed.
Maera rested her elbows on the table and covered her face with her hands. "Oh gods," she moaned, voice muffled. She exhaled heavily and removed her hands, straightening in her seat. "Alright. She said there aren't any rooms; let's see what kind of arrangements can be made. And do our best to be inconspicuous tonight."
"Inconspicuous does not mean breaking a man's jaw, Maera!"
Jaheira glowered at the younger woman, who sucked air between her teeth as Kelsey daubed her knuckles with witch hazel. The buzz of conversation was returning to the common room as the militia guard she had put through a table was helped out of the inn by his slightly less battered comrade. The freckled young barmaid who had been the object of his unwanted attentions was fluttering about them, offering free drinks. Imoen gregariously accepted on their behalf, and Minsc walked her back to the bar in gentlemanly fashion, having apparently appointed himself her champion for the rest of the evening. Sarevok was nowhere to be seen, and that was the only thing that had happened that evening that gave Maera any real pleasure.
"He wouldn't take no for an answer, and that girl's skinnier than Imoen!" She winced as Kelsey began to wrap her hand.
"Minsc had the matter entirely in hand. You lost your temper!"
Maera raised her wounded hand in surrender, the bandage serving as her white flag. "Alright, fair cop. I did. I'm sorry." She sighed. "It's been a hell of a day, Jaheira."
Jaheira's face softened. "It has. I am going to see about finding a place where I might have some solitude; I heard earlier that the roof is still clear. I shall see you in the morning."
Minsc and his new friend returned to the table with three tankards of ale and a steaming mug that he set down in front of Maera. She raised a questioning eyebrow and took a sniff. "Herb tea," he informed her. "Boo thinks you have had enough ale tonight." The hamster perched on his shoulder squeaked the affirmative, and the barmaid giggled as she collected their empties.
"Thanks, Boo," Maera grumbled darkly, taking a drink. It was actually fairly good.
They drank in relative silence for a while, until Imoen grinned and elbowed Kelsey in the ribs. "Hey, Red, that girl at the bar's checking you out."
He shot her a skeptical look. "What?"
"Seriously! Dark-haired girl near the end, blue dress. She keeps looking at you. You might wanna mark your territory, Mae."
Maera, sunk low in her chair, cheek resting resignedly on her fist, made a dismissive gesture with her injured hand. "I've already gotten in trouble once tonight for defending people. He's on his own."
Kelsey stuck his tongue out at her. "I love you too."
Imoen giggled suddenly into her drink. "She's coming over here!"
The girl approached tentatively, chewing furiously on her lip. She was young, twenty at the oldest, and softly pretty, with a cloud of black curls flowing about her face. "Um…excuse me. Are you…are you Kelsey Coltrane?"
His eyebrows shot up. "I am, actually. Can I help you?"
Relieved, she put a hand over her heart and smiled. "Oh, thank the gods. I was afraid you weren't, and I'd made a fool of myself. You just look so much like him. Or, I guess, he looks like you." Noting his blank expression, she tilted her head. "You don't recognize me, do you?" He shook his head mutely, and she held out her hand. "I'm Mirena. Mirena Renoe."
He was too stunned to take it. "Oh my gods. Mirena? What are you doing here?" Maera, Imoen, and Minsc exchanged confused looks, and Boo ran down Minsc's arm onto the table, as if to get a better view.
"Well, Kelvim and I were actually supposed to leave last week, but…well, nobody's getting out of the city right now," she said ruefully.
Kelsey paled. "Kelvim's here?" he whispered.
"He's upstairs," Mirena said, then laughed faintly. "We actually have a room, so we're doing better than a lot of people right now, but...he got hurt a couple of days ago… got too close to a wall that had been weakened by the bombardment. A beam fell across his chest. I think some ribs are broken, but I can't tell." Worry crept into her voice. "He's started coughing, and there aren't enough healers in town right now. I don't know what else to do for him."
Kelsey stood suddenly, pushing his chair back with such force it almost tipped. "I have to get Jaheira."
"Kelsey!" Maera grabbed his arm. "What's going on?"
"He's my brother," he replied shortly, then looked back at Mirena. "Please take me to him."
She nodded, and headed for the stairs, Kelsey at her heels. Maera blinked, then charged after them. Imoen and Minsc watched them go. "Kel…vim?" Imoen asked. "Their mom must have really liked that prefix."
Minsc sank his chin into his hand, looking perplexed. "Boo and I are so confused."
"That makes three of us, big guy."
Jaheira poked and prodded at the torso of the young man in the bed. "And the cough, is it productive?" she asked clinically.
Mirena had not exaggerated; there was a strong family resemblance. Kelvim was perhaps a little broader of chest and shoulder than his older brother, and his hair would more properly be called auburn than red, but Maera now felt she had a fairly good idea of Kelsey's appearance at twenty. The patient nodded. "Yeah, sometimes. But mostly it just hurts like hell."
"One of your broken ribs bruised your lung; it is a wonder it did not puncture it. Given time, the damage could have caused pneumonia." Mirena gasped. "But it is easily enough dealt with." The druid closed her eyes and laid her hands on Kelvim's chest, and they began to glow with the familiar, soothing light of healing. After a moment, she removed them. "Breathe deep." He complied, and she nodded. "The ribs are still weak, so I would not advise a great deal of activity for the next day or so. But you will recover now."
"Thank you, Jaheira," Kelsey said gratefully.
"You are welcome." She bent her head in acknowledgement. "Good night."
Kelvim pushed himself up, and Mirena hurried to put some pillows behind him. "Thanks, Ren," he said softly. He glanced at her, and at Maera, who watched in silence near the door. "May I have a word with my brother, please?"
Maera caught Kelsey's eye. "I'll be downstairs." She and Mirena departed, and the Coltrane brothers looked at each other for a long, painfully silent moment.
"Well," Kelvim said softly. "Of all the places, and of all the circumstances, to see you again."
"What are you doing here, Kelvim?" Kelsey asked. "You should be at home."
His brother barked a humorless laugh. "This from the guy who hasn't been home in what, six years? No, it may be bad luck that we're stuck right now, but I needed to be here." He cast Kelsey a hard look. "Playing adventurer now, huh? Just as well. It's not like you've done anything for the business lately."
"Birinar wanted me out the way, and he gave me the least consequential assignments he could to make sure of it. You know that." He knew the justification was weak, but it was the only one he had.
"And you let him! Oh, you let him. It must have been really nice to be able to just walk away. You would think the eldest son and heir might have had just a little bit of sway to keep his own uncle from making a complete hash of everything, but I guess not. You want to know what I'm doing here, big brother? I've spent the last year and a half traveling around half of Faerun, putting out Birinar's fires. I intend to oust him by winter. Assuming I don't get killed here, of course."
Kelsey's eyes widened with newfound respect. "You're taking over?"
"Someone has to. Do you know even half the shit our dear uncle was involved in? The things he's dragged our family name into? No, you wouldn't. Because you've been off doing your own thing, which must be so nice for you." Kelvim laughed mirthlessly again. "And to think you were the one who actually knew Father. I was eight when he died, Kelsey! So if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna take a moment to laugh at the irony of the fact that I'm the one who stepped up when responsibility reared its ugly head, instead of running for the hills." Kelsey stared at the floor, saying nothing, and his brother eyed him hard. "Not going to bother defending yourself?"
"I think you've summed it up pretty well." Kelsey's eyes remained fixed on the floor.
"Dammit, I've been waiting years for this. The least you can do is argue a little."
Kelsey shrugged. "You're right. I did run. I could have come home and called Birinar out for the way he was running things any time. I didn't. I let him roll me over."
A long silence, and a shrewd look preceded Kelvim's words. "So...you're agreeing with me. I'm right and you were wrong?"
"In a nutshell, yeah."
"Huh." Kelvim pinched the bridge of his nose. "You know, conversations like this never turn out the way you imagine they will. I had this whole script in my head, and I was going to just decimate you."
"You were doing a pretty good job of it."
"But then you had to go and agree with me!" Kelvim shook his head. "You're just like Mother, Kelsey. You're too nice."
"You're not the first person to say so. But in this case, it's not niceness, it's honesty." Kelsey sighed, an old shame he had never quite learned to ignore welling up within him. "I let you drift. You and Mother." He straightened his shoulders slightly. "Okay, I actually do have one thing to say in my defense."
Kelvim, still not sure how to react to the change in tone, gave a small shrug. "Alright."
"I'm not playing adventurer. I am one. But I'll admit that's a somewhat recent development."
"Well, it's really a pretty short step from caravan jobs to that, right? With the-" he wiggled his fingers - "and all."
"It's called sorcery," Kelsey chuckled. "We're not in Amn at the moment, and I'm not afraid of it anymore." He crossed his arms, watching the ghost of a smile tug at the corners of his brother's mouth. "Remember when I first started casting? You used to bring me leaves and little pieces of paper to set on fire."
"Until Mother caught me trying to steal letters out of Father's study because I'd run out of ideas for flammable things. I was a weird kid."
"You've turned out okay." Kelsey dropped his head and muttered, "No thanks to me." Kelvim looked down as well, and the silence stretched. "So…you and Mirena, huh? Mother always used to joke about you two being inseparable. I had no idea it'd actually take."
Kelvim smiled, proud and slightly reticent. "Yes and no. Her parents sent her off to school in Baldur's Gate, of all places. I didn't see her for four years. But she came back, the summer before last, and…it was like nothing had changed." He cleared his throat. "Well, she had. She'd changed a lot. But I've been really glad to have her with me on this trip. I don't know what I would have done without her." He shot his brother a glance, a glint in his eye. "So…you and the blonde, huh?"
Kelsey felt his burning ears betray him. "That obvious?"
"You may as well have it embroidered on your shirt. But I gotta say, man…well done. She's, um… she's impressive." The brothers shared a chuckle, then Kelvim looked back down at his lap, the humor fading from his eyes. "Look, Kelsey…we're not okay. Not yet. There were times when it would have been better if you were dead, rather than have a big brother out there who couldn't care less about me."
He could not have more effectively cut out Kelsey's heart with a scalpel. "Kelvim, I…"
"I know that isn't true. Logically, I know that. But that's what it felt like." His eyes found Kelsey's again. "It is good to see you again, though."
It was true that the Tankard Tree had no rooms, but it had plenty of spare corners and floor, and that space too was at a premium. The party had managed to stake out a small rectangle against the stairwell, and Maera sat on the bottom step, waiting as the rest of the room bedded down. She heard soft footsteps descending, and looked over her shoulder at Kelsey, who leaned heavily on the banister. She bit her lip. "How did it go?"
"Other than being rather correctly informed I am a complete failure as a brother and son…not bad."
She cringed in sympathy. "Ouch." Standing, she took his hand and led him to the nest of blankets and cloaks she had laid out for them. He sat, tugging at his boots inattentively, and she waited for him to speak.
"I guess it never occurred to me how angry he must have been," he said, his voice low, "and how justified he was in feeling that way." He pulled off his robe, stuffing it behind him almost angrily. "Our mother just…checked out after Father died. He had to go through the roughest years of any kid's life on his own. I was a complete non-entity. I was so wrapped up in myself I didn't even think…" He sighed deeply. "He may not hate me, but gods... how can I ever make it up to him?"
"I think he's the only one who can decide that," Maera said softly.
Kelsey nodded, a slight chuckle catching in his throat. "Yeah, you're right." He took her right hand in his, running his thumb over the creases in her palm. "I am so ashamed of myself, Maera."
"Shame serves us best as a door," she said, and he raised his eyebrows.
Her smile had a sheepish cast. "I've had Alaundo on my mind a lot lately." He nodded, and tugged on her hand gently, pulling her closer. She clasped her arms around him, resting her forehead against his cheek.
"How are you holding up?" he whispered. "Everything that's happened today…do you want to talk about it?"
"I don't know. Taken all together, it's just so much, so I'm trying to break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces, and it's still…" She exhaled. "All I can say is the more I see of other Bhaalspawn, the more I realize Im and I are the exceptions that prove the rule. And I don't know how I feel about that."
"If it helps," he offered, "I don't see a Child of Bhaal when I look at you."
She tilted her head to kiss his cheek. "You have no idea how much that helps." He smiled.
"And you know Jaheira and Minsc feel the same way. They love you, too. You and Imoen. They see you for who you really are. And anybody who would run away from either of you after finding out how you happened to come into the world is a narrow-minded coward. Because what you've done while you've been here is a lot more important."
Maera tried to swallow past the sudden tightness in her throat. "Thank you." His arms tightened around her.
"I may have messed up with one family," he murmured, "but I'm not going to with this one." He blinked suddenly, and cleared his throat. "Uh, I mean…"
"I know what you mean," she said, smiling softly.
They sat in silence for a moment. It had been such a long day, and Kelsey felt himself teetering on the edge of an fatigue so profound it felt akin to intoxication. Thinking was so difficult at that stage he spoke without bothering with it. "Maera, there's something I ought to tell you. I meant to sooner, but then we had to leave Suldanessellar, and everything's been so hectic, but I have the feeling if I don't tell you now, I may not get another chance." Her eyebrows went up, and her brow was furrowed in puzzlement. "Before we left, I contacted an old friend - well, friend of my father's, anyway - and she told me she was selling a house of hers outside Berdusk. It's a nice place; I've been there before, several times. So, I wrote some letters, made some arrangements, and…" He loosened his arms from around her, dug into a side pocket on his pack, and pulled out a slightly crumpled sheet of folded vellum. "You're looking at the new owner of a five bedroom villa on fifteen acres three miles from Berdusk."
She blinked. "You bought a house?" He nodded. "Why?"
He worked his mouth for a moment, a hundred different justifications warring for his voice. It was an investment, it could be a base of operations, it could provide a useful space for training. But the truth battled its way through. "It has a library."
She stared, first at the paper, then at him, her eyes widening. He wasn't sure he had ever seen her so shocked. "You bought it for me?"
"In a manner of speaking…yes." She continued to stare, unblinking, and his stomach sank. "Okay, I overshot, didn't I? Far too big a gesture…damn it, I'm sorry, Maera, I shouldn't have-"
She suddenly shook her head, a giddy, half-hysterical giggle escaping her lips before she hastily covered her mouth. "No, it's not that! It's not that at all! It's just…I've never lived in a house before!"
He tilted his head realization dawning. "My gods…you haven't, have you?" She shook her head again, and he asked, with extreme caution, "Would you want to?"
"I…I've never really thought about it, honestly, but then…I never thought I'd have the chance, either."
"You could," he said carefully. "If you wanted."
She took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. He really was absolutely astounding sometimes; capable of doing the most extraordinary things for the most mundane reasons, and he didn't even realize it. The thought of a place where she could stop - not an inn, not a roadside camp, not the home of another – was both terrifying and exhilarating, and in the midst of so much madness, they were such wonderfully ordinary sensations. She lay back, taking his arm and pulling him along with her. With a little careful maneuvering, they curled up together, his arm draped across her waist. "Tell me about it," she murmured. "The house. What's it like?"
"Well…" He gathered his thoughts. "It's two story, but it has an attic. It's built out of this beautiful golden-brown stone, and the last time I saw it, it had red shutters." She wrinkled her nose, and he said, "We can repaint those." Seeing that the thought appeased her, he smiled and continued. "It sits at the top of a hill, overlooking a little valley, with a stream running through it…"
They lay on the hard floor of an overcrowded inn in a city whose only defense was its ever-weakening walls, but wasn't it nice, Maera thought as she drifted to sleep, that for a little while, they could imagine themselves somewhere else.