Of Roadtrips, Past and Present
Maera's head throbbed, and Jaheira was withholding her headache tonic, purely out of spite, it seemed. "Jaheira, you said yourself last night that I'd been too serious lately. Time just got away from us!" The druid's pursed lips indicated that this was not a good enough excuse for getting barely three hours of sleep the night before setting out on a two day trip. Apparently, the resulting headache was to be viewed as penance. "Come on, Jaheira!" she pleaded. Behind her, Yoshimo chuckled. She shot him the best frosty glare she could manage. "Oh, this is not funny," she grumbled.
"I am not laughing at your pain, fair friend. Rather, I find Lady Jaheira's refusal to be amusing. She is a harsh mistress."
"You have no idea." Maera glanced back, down the line. Minsc was continuing to entertain Delon, who seemed enthralled by the giant ranger. It was a good match; Minsc was typically more comfortable around children anyway. The complex yet linear nature of normal adult thought confused him, which was why she had come to view him as a huge, sweet natured younger sibling, despite the fact he was probably nearly a decade her senior. She looked past him to Kelsey, and caught his eye. He was pale, and the dark circles under his hazel eyes looked like someone had smudged charcoal beneath them. He looked like she felt. She shot him a rueful smile, which he returned.
The highway that led east from Athkatla was level and broad, and Maera's spirits rose as they passed out of the suburbs of the city and into farmland. It warmed her to see Jaheira's countenance soften, and by noon, the druid was willing to part with her remedy to both Maera and Kelsey. As the shadows lengthened, Delon jogged up to Maera. "Ma'am? If we're going to stop at an inn, we'll have to stop at the next village. It's ten miles at least to the next one."
She was feeling surprisingly good, despite the lack of sleep, and Jaheira looked so pleased to be out in nature. "You know what, Delon? I think we're going to press on past the village, and camp tonight. But if you would, when we get closer, would you run into town and buy us some fresh bread for tonight's meal?" She fished a few coins from her belt pouch and handed to the boy, who beamed.
"You'll make an adventurer of him yet." Yoshimo remarked.
She gave Delon a clap on the shoulder and smiled. "Well, he did make this trip by himself the first time. I think he's got one up on us already."
They camped that evening near the roadside in a copse of oak. Delon had procured some warm, fragrant loaves of wheat bread, and Jaheira worked her usual magic on pot of stew. Maera looked about as her meal settled. Yoshimo was sharpening his katana, and Minsc was setting up the tents with Delon's assistance. Jaheira meditated a short distance away under a particularly fine tree, and Kelsey was jotting something in his notebook again. It was nice. It felt good, being in camp, in the open air with the stars above them, on their way to help someone, with an attainable goal in sight. Everything as it should be.
Except that it was all wrong.
Khalid should be sitting by the fire, playing checkers in the dirt with Imoen, glancing over at Jaheira occasionally with adoration in his green eyes. And Dynaheir should be pouring over her spellbook, silently mouthing the arcane words to herself as she studied. When Jaheira was finished, she would make her way back to the fire, plant a kiss on Khalid's cheek, and proceed to critique his checkers strategy. This would bore Imoen, who would wander over to Minsc, and attempt to steal Boo, prompting a mock scuffle that would end with her over his shoulder as he lectured her about taking other people's rodents. This performance would earn a patient eye-roll from Dynaheir, who would order him to put down the little thief, and the evening would end with Maera assigning the watch and Imoen carefully copying mystic figures into her own small spellbook under Dynaheir's watchful eye.
Tears stung her eyes, but thankfully, she could blame the wood smoke.
Maera had been kind and given Kelsey the last watch, and he slept hard. He woke to her nudging him, and he yawned and stretched and took his place on the perimeter, but halfway back to her tent, she stopped, rubbing her arms and staring into the dark. She looked back over her shoulder at him, then turned, and seated herself on a log not far from where he stood.
"Do you mind?" she asked. "I don't think I can go back to sleep."
"Not at all." He had always liked keeping watch; one simply stood and paid attention to one's surroundings. On quiet nights, it could be an almost meditative experience. But he couldn't stop himself from glancing at Maera every few minutes. She stared up at the sky, the leaf-filtered moonlight illuminating her face, her expression thoughtful. He couldn't help but wonder what was going on behind those remarkable eyes. "May I ask a question?"
In an instant, she was back in the present, looking at him. "Of course."
Her smile was faintly puzzled. "What about him?"
"Well…how well do you know him?"
He didn't so much see her shrug as hear her leathers creak. "Well enough for knowing him a tenday or so. Irenicus was holding him captive, too, though he didn't know why; we met up making our escape and he decided to throw his lot in with us. He's proven trustworthy so far. Why do you ask?"
Why did he ask? "He…well, he's a thief!" Kelsey replied lamely.
But Maera's smile became one of understanding. "Ah. I see." She patted the log next to her, and he sat. "Please understand, I don't have much use for robbing people, and as long as I lead this group, there won't be any of that. But you've traveled with adventurers before. A good trap springer and lock picker can be worth their weight in gold." Her face grew distant again for a moment. "Im certainly always has been."
"Im?" As soon as he spoke, it made sense and he felt slightly foolish. "Oh, your friend Imoen." She nodded. "Wait. The Cowled Wizards took her. She's a thief? I thought she was a mage."
"She is, but that's not how she started out. She only learned magic later. Mostly from Dynaheir, but also from a few friends in Baldur's Gate." She chuckled to herself. "We grow up surrounded by mages, and it takes us going out into the world for her to decide she wants to learn magic."
A puzzle piece slipped into place. "Baldur's Gate? Were you up there about two years ago?" She nodded again. "Are you-? You're that Maera? You stopped Sarevok Anchev and the Iron Throne! If not for you, there would have been a war!"
She laughed quietly, a little embarrassed. "I guess that would have been big news down here in Amn, too, huh?"
"Especially in the circles I move in. The iron shortage was all anyone could talk about that summer." He tried to cover his awe with a grin. "I knew there was something about you, but I didn't know you were famous. May I have your autograph?"
She gave him a playful shove that nearly knocked him over. "There. Will that do?"
"Sure." Her answering smile glowed in the fading moonlight, and the silence lengthened. "Tell me more about Imoen. I thought she was very brave, there on the Promenade."
"She's brave all right. But that was one of the dumber things she's done. But then…" Her voice was troubled. "I was still too confused to even be angry. I just wanted to escape. But she could remember it – what had happened to us. I – I guess that's why she did it." She heaved a sigh. "Tell you about her? She's absolutely obnoxious. She's smarter than she should be, sneaky as hell, and a pain in my ass. But I wouldn't change her for the world. She's always been there, right behind me, even when I didn't want her to be. She was the one who found me the morning after Sarevok killed Gorion She helped me bury him. She was there every step of the way, and she always had faith in me. If she ever doubted me, she never let it show. Every time I was sure I couldn't keep going, she was the one who told I could, and she..." Her words trailed off, her voice growing choked.
Her breathing was strained and labored, as if she was carrying something heavy and was about to lose her hold. Kelsey reached out in the dark and, though he'd been aiming for her shoulder, found his hand brushing her cheek. She didn't flinch away, so he let it rest there for a second before withdrawing. Her cheek was smooth and cool and dry. "If you need to cry, it's okay. I won't think less of you."
It seemed she had needed permission. He heard a ragged, tearful breath beside him, and he reached out again, found her shoulder this time, and felt her sag against his. "I don't know how to do this without her!" she sobbed. "She should be here! And Khalid, and Dynaheir! Everything's wrong and I can't fix it!"
He gently rubbed her upper arm, letting her grieve. He realized that this was probably the first time she'd let herself cry over recent events, and he felt strangely privileged at being allowed to witness it. "Now wait…" he chided gently. "Not everything's wrong. We're going to help these people in the Hills, and that will help us find out where Imoen is. You can still fix it."
She sucked in a shuddering breath and sniffled. Wiping his robe, she said, "Gods, I am so sorry about that."
"You don't have to apologize for being human."
"Still. Not exactly the impression I was hoping to make." His curiosity was piqued. Trying to make an impression? Really? "I go from autograph requests to a sobbing mess in under five minutes."
"From what you've told me, it sounds like the past few weeks have been hard," he offered, desperately wanting to keep her from feeling she'd lost face.
"That's one way to put it. You're right, though. I can't despair." She cleared her throat, and patted his damp shoulder sheepishly. "You know, you have a good shoulder for crying on."
"I've never been told that before, but I'll take the compliment in the spirit in which it was given." Her smile was a bit watery, but it was a smile all the same, and he mentally patted himself on the back. "I'm sorry that you've lost friends, and for the awful things that have happened to you, but…I hope you can forgive me for being really glad you've come to Amn."
"I can't bring back the dead, and the lost can always be found. 'Waste no time on that which might have been, lest ye ignore that which is,'" she quoted. She coughed self-consciously. "Sorry. Library brat. You grow up listening to Alaundo's proverbs and these things just slip out." He grinned. Smart girls are sexy, he thought, then immediately colored, thanking the gods he hadn't just said that aloud.
Thankfully she didn't seem to notice; the air paled with the approach of dawn, and Maera was looking to the horizon as she continued, "The sun will be up soon. And with it, Jaheira. Delon says we should get into Imnesvale an hour or so before sunset this evening. And then we can find out what's going on." She gave him a gentle nudge to the ribs with her elbow. "Come on, we should get the fire going so we can start breakfast."
He would never be able to explain the impulse that overtook him in that instant, nor why he was actually daring enough to act on it. He leaned in, and gave her a peck on the cheek.
He steeled himself for a slap or stiff rebuke, but neither occurred. He watched in utter astonishment as a blush spread across her face. She touched her cheek, startled. "What was that for?"
He shrugged in what he hoped was a nonchalant manner. "You looked like you needed it."
She stepped away a few strides, still pink, then turned. "I did." She hurried back towards the fire, and he sagged against a tree. Being smitten was kind of fun.
Maera kept trying not to look back in line at Kelsey as they continued to Imnesvale, because whenever she did, two things happened: she couldn't help but smile at him, and her stomach was promptly filled with butterflies. It was ridiculous. She had braved monster-infested mines, battled bandit kings, explored haunted ruins, and defeated her own evil half-brother, thus averting a war, and somehow, one red-headed sorcerer was making her nervous. Her head turned, against her will, and her lips curved, also against her will. Kelsey wiggled the fingers of one hand at her, and mouthed, "Hi."
It was completely ridiculous.
They turned off the highway at midday, and headed north along a much narrower and obviously rarely used turnpike. The sun was bright, but not too warm, the wind was fresh, and the air was rich with clover and honeysuckle. Birdcalls rang between the trees, and Maera thought to herself that this was the best part of adventuring. There were so many beautiful places yet to see in the world.
Delon had provided an excellent estimation of their travel time, because it was indeed an hour or so before sunset when they crested a hill and saw a small village nestled in the valley below them. It was really only a collection of buildings, a centralized location for supplies and socialization for the herders and farmers who lived on modest homesteads deeper in the Hills. But there were tents and ramshackle shelters set up in the dusty thoroughfare, and there was fear in the faces that watched them descend into the village.
"There's Minister Lloyd's," Delon said, pointing out a modest cabin on their right that was probably the grandest structure in the Hills. "He's the mayor here, and you should probably go talk to him." The boy scuffed the ground, obviously realizing that his part in the adventure was ending.
Maera extended her hand, taking his forearm in an adventurer's clasp. "You came all the way to Athkatla on your own to help your people. That was very brave, and I am very impressed. Thank you, Delon." The boy's eyes shone as he returned the clasp firmly, and as he walked down the thoroughfare to return to his home and family, he seemed a foot taller.
They made their way to the cabin Delon had showed them, and a knock on the door gained them instant access to a rustic, but pleasant, sitting room. Minister Lloyd was a large, nervous looking man, and his joy at seeing adventurers in his parlor was palpable. Maera struggled to keep a sober countenance he fussed over them. "Delon brought you? This is excellent, because things have only gotten worse since he left." Minister Lloyd outlined the area's troubles, with frequent interjections from his wife, Eina, a woman of equally generous proportions.
"First it started on the outlying farms, now it seems no one in a ten-mile radius is safe. The bodies are found with the skins inside out, gruesome business it is, but then they disappear the next day! The people are panicked - I'm sure you saw all the tents outside – no one feels safe on their own anymore. Just after Delon left for Athkatla, a party of adventurers led by the knight Mazzy Fentan came to help us, but we've heard nothing of them since then. And no one has seen our ranger, Merella, in over a week. As it stands, no one's been willing to go out to her cabin to see if there's any sign of her."
"What do you think has killing your people, Minister?" Jaheira asked.
"Some have said they've seen wolves by night, big, black wolves, but there's been no shortage of game, so why would they prey on people? And why would they come back for bodies? Some say the witch Umar herself has come back to harm us, though I don't credit that."
"It's those ogres, husband," Eina said firmly.
Lloyd deflated slightly. This was obviously ground they had gone over before. "There are ogres in the hills," he said, "but I do not think they are the cause of our troubles. Please, my Lady Maera, go to our ranger's cabin, and see if you can figure out what has happened to her. I am sure her disappearance and the deaths in the hills are linked!"
Maera nodded. "All right. We'll set out in the morning, and let you know what course we will take from there."
"Oh, thank you, my Lady! We will speak to you tomorrow, then!"
Minister Lloyd and Eina withdrew, and Maera opened the floor to discussion. "If the town's ranger and another adventuring group have gone missing, we need to be extra careful, Maera," Kelsey said. "We don't want to add ourselves to those statistics."
"Are you sure this is the wisest course?" Yoshimo asked. "We came here in the hope gaining gold for Gaelan Bayle, but these people are poor farmers and herders! They have nothing to offer us."
"I realize that, Yoshimo, but we still have the chance to help these people, which is important to me, at least. And it's still possible there are coins in this situation and we just can't see them yet. I'm not giving up on that, because raising that 20,000 gold is still my first priority."
"Very well, fair friend," the thief responded, his tone clearly unconvinced. Kelsey shot him a dirty look.
"At any rate, I understand there's an inn here, with a bathhouse, and I am going to avail myself of its services while I can. You're all free to do as you will, but remember, we are leaving for the ranger's cabin at first light."
The bathhouse was really only big enough to accommodate two bathers at any given time, so Maera was able to soak in solitude. Eyes closed, head tilted back, she lay in the tub, willing the tension to flow out of her tired shoulders. A knock at the door, and Jaheira's voice, announced the druid's entrance. She sat on the other side of the thin cloth partition.
"I hope I'm right about this, Jaheira."
"What I said to Yoshimo. About being able to make some money off this. And I hate that I even have to think like that. These people need help whether they can afford it or not!"
"Of all the necessary evils of civilization, money is perhaps the least necessary."
"You know, we had money. I wonder what Irenicus did with it."
Jaheira's voice tightened. "I do not care to think on what that man did else with anything of ours."
Maera sighed, feeling the belated sting of the thought. "He really did steal a lot from us."
"But not all."
"No, not all."
They were silent then, until Jaheira asked, "Have you had any more dreams?"
"Not since the last time we talked about it."
"Good." Jaheira cleared her throat. "And…this Kelsey. You have spoken to him much. What are your impressions?"
"Ooooh, I see." Maera splashed in Jaheira's general direction. "I like him, Jaheira. He's very easy to talk to – "
Maera blew a raspberry. "He is! So what do you want to know about him, since you're in here talking to me instead asking him yourself?"
"You are being defensive."
"You're being nosy."
"Thankfully, despite our recent trials, not everything has changed."
She could hear the soft smile in Jaheira's voice, and wondered exactly she was being defensive. "He'd really rather be a merchant than an adventurer. But there's family trouble, and well...sorcery doesn't exactly ask for permission when manifests. He seems to have been tossed out onto the road against his will, honestly."
"A bit like yourself, then."
"I hadn't thought it of it that way, but yeah, I guess so."
"So you would say there is a connection there."
"What are you implying, Jaheira?"
"I never imply, Maera. You should know that."
"Yeah, yeah. Would you hand me a towel, please?" Jaheira complied, and Maera quickly dried off and wrapped the towel around herself. She stepped around the partition. "I think he could prove a valuable addition, and I have to admit, I'm interested in the concept of sorcery. I've been around mages all my life, but I've never met a sorcerer before." She smiled a little to herself. "He's not what I expected. The way the Readers talked about sorcerers, you'd think they all fancied themselves dragons and went around with sheep's horns glued to their heads. But...Kelsey's just a regular guy."
"And perhaps that makes him more attractive?"
"Jaheira!" Maera stood and started rifling through her clothes, turning in the hope her blush would be less noticeable. "Since when are you a match maker?"
"I am not making matches, I am simply gaining an understanding of your current state of mind. It is important to me."
"Then you should know I'd never do anything without your counsel."
"But there are some decisions you should, and will, make on your own." Jaheira stood up. "I believe I shall bathe now."
Maera dressed quickly and left Jaheira to her bath. Twilight was sinking heavily over the hills, and with last few days of short sleep catching up with her, she retired to her room and slept. Irenicus haunted her dreams, taunting her, but somehow, she couldn't bring herself to tell Jaheira in the morning.