Fate and Chance
The next morning, they broke their camp and prepared to depart, all but Kelsey, and Maera found that the strangest things, like having to separate her bedroll from his, made her throat tighten curiously. She had lived twenty-two years of her life without him, she chastised herself; she could survive a brief separation. A few days? A week? That was nothing. There was no need to be such a girl about it. But then she saw him straightening his belt pouches, and the lump returned.
As they made ready to leave, Imoen popped onto her toes, and to Kelsey's astonishment, kissed his cheek. Jaheira solemnly clasped his forearm, and Minsc treated him to a bruising back clap. He faced Maera, rubbing his stinging shoulder, and his eyes went soft. Her quivering chin had betrayed her, damn it. "Be careful," she managed.
"You too." He took her hands in his. "But just in case…" He reached into an inner pocket of his robe, withdrawing a folded parchment. She opened it, her brow drawn in confusion. It was the deed to the house in Berdusk.
"Why are you giving me this?"
"Not that anything will happen to me, but…I'll feel better knowing you have that." He forestalled her protest with a raised hand. "Please, Maera. Humor me, okay? You can give it right back when I get to Amkethran." She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. "Hey," he whispered, catching her chin in his hand, "there is nowhere I wouldn't go to see you again. You are the best thing that's ever happened to me; why would I stay gone any longer than I have to?"
She smiled in spite of herself. "Flatterer."
"Who, me?" He looked pleased with himself. "I'll see you soon. I promise."
"I hope you find them."
His smile grew strained. "Me too."
It was difficult not to let their parting kiss linger, but the sun was climbing and their audience was restless. They shouldered their packs and walked away, and Maera only looked back once, to see Kelsey threading his way through the abandoned siege camp, north towards the only bridge left standing. Please let him find them, she prayed. Don't let this be in vain.
They walked in silence, following the empty trade road south, skirting the wooded mountains. Imoen fell into step beside Maera, and reached for her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. "He'll be okay," she said encouragingly.
"If you ask me, we have relieved ourselves of dead weight," Sarevok opined from the rear of the group. Maera inhaled sharply between gritted teeth, but Minsc, of all people, beat her to a reply.
"Boo says that you were not asked," the ranger snapped. The hamster gave a decisive squeak.
"Hey Sarevok, here's something to keep you occupied," Imoen said over her shoulder. "How about not being an enormous jerk today? See how that works out for you." She glanced at her sister, lowering her voice. "Mae. Seriously…why?"
Maera shook her head, resigned. "I can't explain it, Im. I honestly can't. Oghma knows I wish I could, but... I'm sorry. I know it's…not pleasant, having him along."
"'Not pleasant'? When did you get crowned Queen Understatement? Look, I don't deny that he's a good fighter, but he's hurting your focus, and that's always been your edge. Whatever is going on here, figure it out so it doesn't accidentally get you killed."
They had known each other more than half their lives, and yet every time Imoen let the sunny mask slip to reveal the sharp mind behind, she was surprised. Maera dipped her head in acquiescence. "You're right, Im. I will."
Imoen smiled, cheery and arch once more. "You'd better. Because I'd hate to have to explain to Kelsey why I set you on fire. He might frown at me. Or do that thing with his eyebrows."
Maera chuckled, backhanding her sister's shoulder affectionately. And between one step and the next, everything went dark.
She blinked hard, disoriented and out of sorts, and as her wits returned, she realized she was in the pocket plane, alone. The only light was that which radiated from the solar, who stood before her, hands clasped demurely. "Where is everyone?" Maera asked.
"Your companions remain in the mortal realm."
"Aren't they going to be a little worried that I just vanished?"
"No." The familiar, peaceful smile spread over the solar's lovely face. "We are not within time now. All that you see and experience here will, for them, seem to occur between the space of two breaths. Worry not, godchild."
"So why am I here?"
"It is time," the solar said softly, "to learn of your origins."
A chill spread in Maera's stomach, and she swallowed. "Why is that?"
"All things have their beginning, godchild, and the place in which a journey began is often just as important as its destination. Observe."
The room changed; it was suddenly lighter, and Maera realized they were in a temple's sanctum. There were no hangings on the walls, no relics or symbols to be seen. The windows were boarded shut, and a barricade of chairs and benches had been forced before the door. The room was crowded with bedraggled, frightened people, more than half of them children, and Maera was sure not one of the youngsters was more than five years old. One of them, a small, dark-haired boy, no more than three or four, caught her eye – he was huddled against the wall, in the shadow of an upended bench. A woman in a black robe trimmed with crimson stood before the bare altar, where a squalling infant kicked fretfully. No one seemed to notice them.
"They cannot see us, godchild. We are simply standing in a memory."
"What is this?" Maera whispered.
"The Time of Troubles draws to its end. The gods will soon be returned to their divinity. But these lost souls have no consolation, for their god is dead, having left only the promise of his return."
"They're Bhaalites." Maera stared at the thin, hopeless faces. "Then the children are…"
"The Lord of Murder foresaw his fate many long years before it occurred, and he planted these children among the races of the Realms. Here were gathered nearly all of the human children. You were the lastborn of them."
Maera stared at the infant on the altar, as the woman in black slowly drew a curved knife. "That's me?"
The solar nodded. "Watch now. And learn."
There were shouts outside the blocked door, and the Bhaalites murmured fearfully among themselves. The murmurs grew to shrieks of alarm at the sound of battering; someone was trying to get in by force. The woman at the altar spun about. "Harpers!" she hissed. The pounding grew louder, joined by the crack of an ax against the wood. The Bhaalites clutched the terrified children, backing towards the altar. The door groaned, and the woman cried, "Do not let them take the children!"
Whatever reaction Maera had expected from those words, it was not the one she saw. Daggers were drawn; hands descended on small faces, the contents of upturned vials were forced down tiny throats. Maera gasped in abject horror, too stunned and sickened for words. The first of the Harpers pushed through the flimsy blockade and voiced the revulsion she felt. "NO!"
She knew that voice. His hair and beard were shorter, and there was less gray than she remembered, but there was no mistaking Gorion. The Bhaalites turned on the Harpers, leaving the dead and dying children on the floor, but they were poorly armed, and the Harpers were enraged. The fight was vicious and extremely short, and soon they were dragging bodies out of the room. But the woman in black, and the baby, had vanished.
Only Gorion seemed to notice their absence. His eyes darted about the room, seeking the point of her escape. The little boy Maera had noted earlier lay on the floor near him. Slowly, he opened his eyes; Maera realized he had been playing possum. He reached for the hem of Gorion's robe, but the man had eyes only for those who had disappeared, and did not see him as he stepped forward. He had spotted the indented panel behind the altar, and pressed it. Maera and the Solar followed his wary progress down a sloping tunnel, which ended in a tiny underground room, barren but for a small secondary altar. The woman had placed the baby on it, intent on finishing what she had begun, but Gorion's approach was not soundless, and she straightened, and turned to face him.
"Alianna," he said softly. "I knew it was you."
She laughed, a shattered, clattering sound that hurt Maera's ears. "Gorion. Still trying to fix people, I see. How long has it been?" she asked conversationally, ignoring the sobbing baby. "Fifteen years? Twenty?"
"Twenty or so, I'd say," he said, edging towards her. "Put down the knife, Alianna. Let that little one live, at least."
Alianna sniffed mockingly. "The Lord of Murder gave her to me. I bore her. She is mine to do with as I will, and she was born for HIS return!"
"She is your child? You bore one of the Children?"
Maera gaped. This was her mother? All the childhood hours spent wondering, and this was the truth. She stared at Alianna, wrapped in her dark robe and clutching her wicked knife. She was tall, and blonde as well, and there was something familiar in the shape of her jaw and brow. But Alianna's was not a face formed for laughter. She glared at Gorion with burning contempt, her mouth twisted with bitterness. She was a woman carved of black marble, cold and untouchable, and Maera realized with a start that looking at her reminded her uncannily of her Slayer self.
He always said she was his friend, said a small, hurt voice. How could he lie to me like that? The answer came in a reasoned tone that sounded rather like Jaheira. Look at her. How could he be honest?
Alianna rolled her eyes. "I see you have not outgrown asking obvious questions."
"Killing her will avail you nothing, Alianna," Gorion said. "Bhaal cannot return in this way. There is no need to kill your own child!"
"What do you know of Bhaal's promises? And what have you ever known of me?" she cried, her eyes wet. She wiped them with the back of her hand and scowled at him. "Look at this. Twenty years and you still try to save me from myself. I didn't need it then and I do not need it now! No wonder you became a Harper. You can't leave well enough alone!"
He extended his hand. "Give me the knife, Alianna."
She shook her head slowly. "She has to die. That's why she was born." Alianna turned back towards the altar, raising the knife…and suddenly stiffened, a small, surprised gasp her only sound as Gorion withdrew the dagger he had plunged into her back.
He gently eased her down onto the floor, straightening her limbs and closing her eyes. "You're right. I did always try to save you. And I always failed, didn't I?" He stood, approaching the infant, who had cried herself almost to exhaustion on the cold altar. "I suppose you will have to be my victory, little one," he said softly, carefully taking the child into his arms and wrapping the sleeve of his robe over her. He turned, climbing the tunnel back into the sanctum.
The little boy was nowhere to be seen.
The room faded, the baby vanished from his arms, and his appearance began to shift to the man she had known at the end of his life – hair grayer and longer, his elaborately embroidered arcane robe becoming the simple garb of a scholar. Maera glanced at the solar, uneasy, and was given a gentle, knowing smile. "The wraith wounded you, I know, but you are meant no harm here. This is Gorion, and he is here to answer your questions, as am I."
Maera looked at him in silence. She finally had the chance to speak to him again, and she couldn't think of anything to say. Her mouth worked uselessly for a moment, and at least, words emerged. "My mother was a Bhaalite?"
"Yes," Gorion said. "Though I did not know that until I saw her there. I had certainly never expected to see her again."
"Doesn't exactly match up with the story you told me."
He spread his hands in admission. "Can you permit me one final bit of obfuscation? I had hoped you need never learn the truth." His eyes cut towards the solar in wry defeat. "It was seem I was wrong."
"So what was the truth? You always told me she was a friend. Obviously you knew her, but that-"
"I did call her friend once, so what I told you was a sort of truth." He took a deep breath, collecting his thoughts. "Alianna and I were students under the same master for a time in my younger days. She was some years my junior, but in intellect, she was by far my superior. She was brilliant, Maera, utterly, unfairly brilliant. To say she had a remarkable mind would do her a disservice. I was…intrigued and intimidated by her all at once, and while I would like to characterize our brief youthful indiscretion as torrid, in truth, she was right. I was just trying to save her from herself.
"For the truly exceptional mind, the world can be a deeply frustrating place. All its problems and vexations…the solutions seem so easy to someone like Alianna, but no one else can see it. To her, the world was drowning in willful stupidity. And it made her so angry. As I came to know her, I could see it in her, and convinced myself with youthful bravado that all she needed was a reason not to be." He shrugged. "But instead we drifted apart, and I never saw her again until the night I found you." His eyes met Maera's. "When you were small, part of me feared I had volunteered to raise you out of some desire to make it up to myself. But you are so much your own woman; I saw so little of her in you, and I must say, I was relieved. You have her iron will, yes, but none of her rage."
Maera chewed on her lip, trying to process the new information, even though she knew it would ultimately be futile. There was too much; it would wash over her and away, gone too soon for any of it to truly sink in. And by the time it did, the one person who could make any sense of it would be gone again. She looked at Gorion. "I guess I have you to thank for that."
"I would not feel comfortable making that claim, child." He smiled slightly. "Better to say, I think, that I was very lucky."
She knew that smile. It was more an upward rearrangement of beard; all the expression was in his eyes. It was the most familiar expression in the world. Her vision blurred, and she realized she was crying. "I miss you so much." She tried to stifle the sobs against her hand, but it was no use. "Gods, Gorion, I don't know what I'm doing! I feel like such a fraud! Everyone looks to me like I should have some special, secret knowledge of what to do, but most of the time it's all I can do to keep one foot in front of the other anymore. What if I let them down? What if more people get hurt because of me?" She heaved a few deep breaths, and laughed weakly. "And the worst part is, I think I'm most scared of somebody noticing how scared I am."
"May I impart a bit of wisdom, Maera?" She nodded desperately. "You have just described the most common fear in all the world. No matter your age or experience, you will always feel that way. That was the exact state in which I spent the entirety of your youth. It is the nature of life itself that we fly blind, and yet we always fear we will be caught at it."
She chuckled tearily. "I don't know how comforting that is, but thank you anyway."
"You are welcome." Sadness melted into his smile. "Tell me…how do you keep?"
She sniffled, wiping her eyes. "Apart from the obvious?" She couldn't help herself.
"Yes, apart from that." The amused reproof in his voice at once made her smile and sharpened her heartache.
"I'm…I'm okay, actually. I think. I've been really lucky to have met some of the people I have since you-"
She cut off, unable to finish the sentence, and he nodded. "Good companions on the road are often the only thing that makes it bearable."
"Yeah." She shrugged with forced levity. "And I've still got Im."
One gray eyebrow arched. "Is that meant to reassure me?"
"Hey!" She made a face at him, and they laughed. Suddenly, it was a summer day in Candlekeep again, and they were sitting in the garden, eating cherries and spitting the pits into the flowerbeds, much to Ulraunt's disgust. And the reality of his death struck her anew, the old wound aching fresh. It had never gone away. She had just gotten used to it. "I…I hope you're not disappointed in me."
He shook his head. "Never." He extended a hand to brush her cheek. She started at the contact – she had not thought he would be able to touch her. "Know this, Maera, and remember it: I am so very proud of you. Of the woman you've become. And I am grateful beyond measure to have known you." Her eyes filled again; no words could force their way past her tightened throat. She pressed his hand to her cheek desperately, trying to set the image of him in her mind. Then the solar spoke.
"Our time here is nearly ended, my dears," she said gently. "And yet, there is one question you have not asked, godchild."
Maera tore her gaze from her foster father and looked up at the solar, composing herself. "The little boy? I don't have to ask. I know who he is."
The solar nodded. "Then make your farewells, my children. It is time."
Maera looked back at Gorion. She had never called him Father; she'd never needed to. He was, and would always be, far more than just a title. "I love you," she whispered.
"I love you too, my girl. Good-bye."
Her foot slipped as she faltered mid-step, back at the head of her group, back in the dust and wind of the mortal world. Imoen shot her a concerned glance. "You alright, Mae?"
"Yeah, just…got lost in my own head. Look, Im, what we were talking about before… I think I understand now."