When Druids Attack
They set out for Trademeet by mid-morning, Mazzy taking the point. It promised to be an easy trip, and Maera decided to use the time to get to know the halfling a bit better.
"It is a pleasant enough town," Mazzy said, "though a trifle more materialistic than is my bent. But I suppose that is to be expected, considering its origins." Maera's questioning look prompted her to elaborate. "They say it was founded by Waukeen herself, for the purpose of fair commerce."
"No wonder Kelsey likes it," Maera chuckled.
"Most of the merchant persuasion do," Mazzy replied, then said, almost to herself, "I never thought my next trip home would be alone." She looked self-conscious, clearing her throat as she continued, "I mean…not truly alone. Obviously, I am glad for the company of your party, but…"
Maera nodded in understanding. "How long were you with yours?"
"That's not a bad run."
"No, not at all." Mazzy gazed up at the sky; wispy mares' tail clouds streaked the vivid blue. "It is strange, how we may know something and yet never believe it. It is a dangerous profession we have chosen, but we always manage to overlook its hazards until they stare us in the face." Maera nodded, trying not to see Khalid out of the corner of her eye. He'd always walked to her left.
They were two nights on the road, and between the fine spring weather and the good roads, they made excellent time. But as they progressed, both Mazzy and Kelsey seemed concerned. The roads were almost deserted; they could go miles without seeing another traveler. "This is not right," Mazzy said on the third morning. "I have never seen the roads so empty, especially not this time of year."
Kelsey looked vaguely unnerved as he nodded. "This is caravan season. We should not be the only people out here."
The brush beside the road rustled, and a brown bear burst forth, roaring. Minsc's attempts to sooth the creature with soft growls and an unthreatening stance only seemed to make it angrier. It swiped a heavy paw at him, its claws screeching on his breastplate. Confusion suffused the ranger's broad face, and he looked almost sad as he drew his sword and split the bear's head in two. "It would not listen!" he said mournfully. "Why was it so mad?"
They had to dispatch three wolves and another bear before they reached the gates of Trademeet, which sagged under the weight of a curtain of vines, each thick as one of Minsc's wrists. An untidy pile of animal corpses, topped with the curled remains of a spider the size of a small horse, dominated what should have been a rather pretty common just within the gate. The pair of guards on duty, their mail stained with blood and ichor, brightened visibly at the approach of armed visitors.
"Mazzy?" asked one. "Mazzy Fentan? Thank Waukeen, it's good to see you again."
"Sorry we didn't clean up the place before you got back," added the other dryly.
"Furlan…Casterly…" Mazzy stared about, looking lost. "What is going on here?"
"The druids have turned on us!" Furlan grumbled sourly. "Animal attacks, vermin everywhere, plants springing up if there's even a handful of dirt… It's madness, plain and simple."
"But we have always had peaceful relations with the druids of the grove! What has happened to change this?"
"I don't know," Casterly said darkly. "You should talk to Lord Coprith about that."
"A grove of druids would not simply turn on a town for no reason." Jaheira said as they walked up the street. Weeds poked defiantly between every cobblestone. "The balance must have been disturbed in some way for them to feel the need to do something like this."
"I honestly can't see the people of Trademeet knowingly upsetting the druids like that." Kelsey replied. "Disrupting a deal like the one they had with the druids would be bad for business. Well, it is bad for business. I've never seen this town so dead."
Storefronts were closed, some boarded up, and tent kiosks were empty. The streets were virtually empty, despite the fact it was afternoon on a fine sunny day. "I believe the first order of business should be to seek out the person who will know the most about recent events," Mazzy said firmly.
"Lord Coprith?" Kelsey asked.
Mazzy shook her head. "My mother."
There could be no doubt that Vara Fentan was Mazzy's mother. She was poised, mannerly, and proved herself quite knowledgeable of the comings and goings of town. When they arrived, she surveyed her daughter's companions with some surprise, then understanding entered her eyes, and the questions were filed away for later. "I do hope you don't mind taking our tea out here," she said as they settled themselves on the spacious porch of the Fentan home. "It is such a lovely day, and I'm afraid the parlor is a bit small for all of us."
"Out here is fine," Maera said, taking a sip. It was delightful, of course. Vara had probably been born knowing how to make a perfect cup of tea.
"I expect you're curious about our situation," Vara said, still pouring. "It's all very strange. It started almost a month ago – little things at first. More rabbits than usual, children spotting a badger in their back garden, wolf howls that seemed awfully close to town, that sort of thing. But then they got bolder, and larger, and before you know it, there are snakes big enough to eat a horse slithering through the streets! The caravans have all stopped. We're lucky to get food into town these days, let alone trade goods. They say the guards have seen figures among the animals during the attacks, and I've heard just this morning that a druid was actually captured during the night, but he's apparently being held at Lord Coprith's, and there's been no other word." She looked at Maera apologetically. "Please do not be offended that I cannot offer you beds here, but…"
"That is perfectly understandable, Mistress Fentan, and we are not at all offended," Maera said. "I think we should talk to Lord Coprith soon."
"Indeed," said Jaheira, her expression dark. "I, for one, am most curious to know why this is happening."
They finished their tea, and withdrew from the porch to allow Mazzy a moment to speak to her mother. Vara embraced her daughter fiercely, and Mazzy descended the steps wiping her cheeks with the back of her hand, her expression daring anyone to make an issue of it. No one saw any reason to.
She led the way to the mayor's home, a stately building on the edge of the town common, and they were immediately granted entry to a fine, formal study. Lord Logan Coprith entered a moment later, and rather than the berobed merchant Maera was expecting, he was a fit, middle-aged man dressed in well-worn armor. "Mazzy Fentan!" he greeted the knight with a firm arm clasp. "And Kelsey Coltrane?"
"I'm not really here in a business capacity today, Logan," Kelsey said, looking slightly self-conscious.
"I have traveled home with Maera," Mazzy said. "And I find it overrun! What has happened here, my lord? What has occurred for the druids to turn on Trademeet?
Coprith sat his desk, looking apologetic. "We do not know. Last evening, a druid was captured outside the walls by the guard. He claims to have been sent to investigate these happenings, and I want to believe him, but the townspeople want blood. He would seem a perfect scapegoat, but I have no stomach for that sort of thing. Besides, if he's telling the truth, using him for revenge will only make things worse. But there's no reasoning with people whose lives have been disrupted like this." He shot Maera a quick look. "Your timing is really impeccable, you know. I was still trying to figure out how I would handle this, but now I think you've presented me with a solution. I feel that our…guest is honest, and that he's our best hope for putting a stop to this. If you feel that he is as well, would you be willing to help him?"
Maera nodded. "Where is he?"
"I've actually had him in the cellar," Coprith said ruefully. "I was afraid to put him in the town jail; he might have been pulled out and lynched in the night."
"Can we meet him?"
"Of course. Follow me." They trailed after him, down a flight of steps and into the house's cellar. Coprith knocked on door at the foot of stairs before unlocking it. "Cernd, it's Logan Coprith. I've brought some adventurers who may be able to help you." He opened the door, and gestured them in.
Coprith's cellar was actually rather nice – well lit, dry, and appointed with a few sturdy tables and benches. Seated at one was a dark-haired man who rose as they entered. "Greetings. I am Cernd. I trust Lord Coprith has informed you of my purpose?"
Maera stepped forward and introduced herself. "He has. He says you were sent to investigate. So what's happening here is not the result of the town disturbing the balance?"
Cernd spread his hands. "There has been no alteration of the balance that I can see. Therefore, I fear the fault lies with the druids, and I must discover why."
"Excuse us," Maera said, and with a hand gesture, called a conference. She looked at her gathered companions. "Well?" Heads nodded, even Yoshimo's. She supposed he was seeing the financial benefits. The huddle broke. "All right, we'll help. Let's work out the details."
They would slip out town under cover of darkness, for Cernd's safety, and he would lead the way to the grove. Hopefully, answers would be forthcoming from there. They retired to the nearby inn to rest and rejuvenate a bit before nightfall.
Maera sat with Minsc and Jaheira that evening, and Kelsey watched from a nearby table, parsing the relationships before him. They were a society of survivors; three people who seemed so different, but were yet so close. Minsc was as big in personality as he was in frame, and his exact level of insanity seemed to fluctuate anywhere from slightly dotty to potentially dangerous, but Maera didn't bat an eye at even his wildest pronouncements. He was speaking to her, waving a finger to emphasis his point, and she smiled fondly and seized the passing digit in her fist. They played a brief tug of war for it, until he freed himself with a laugh of triumph. Jaheira watched them with what looked like exasperated affection, but Kelsey didn't dare be too definitive regarding her moods. The druid wore her inscrutability like a suit of armor. Everything about her said 'Tread lightly,' so Kelsey did. She stood, and said something to Maera, who inclined her head deferentially as the druid withdrew. For all that Maera was leader of the group, her respect for and reliance on Jaheira was obvious. She hadn't talked much about that. He wondered what the story was.
"Ah yes," said an unctuous, lightly accented voice behind him, "the venerable art of observation." Kelsey glanced up as Yoshimo seated himself without invitation, a cup of wine held loosely in one hand. "A necessary skill for the merchant, as well as the thief."
"I personally don't draw many comparisons between the two," Kelsey said, a bit stiffly.
The thief's smile seemed to slide slightly, turning into something that was almost, but not quite, a smirk. "Of course you would not." He motioned towards the other table. "They do make an interesting study."
"They've been together for a while now. And they've been through a lot."
"Time can form strong bonds," Yoshimo agreed. "As can loss." His eyes cut towards Kelsey slyly. "And our young leader. A formidable and fascinating woman, yes?"
Kelsey wasn't sure he liked the thief's tone. "She is." His gaze was drawn back towards her. Minsc had departed, and Maera sat alone with her chin on the heel of her hand, chewing thoughtfully on the tip of her little finger, her dinner ignored. He tried not to stare.
Too late. The almost-smirk was veering rapidly towards actuality. "Yes, she is fascinating indeed," Yoshimo said, draining his wine and standing. "But fear not. I pose no threat to your ambitions."
"My ambit-" Kelsey cut the question off midway. Was he really that transparent? Yoshimo chuckled amiably as he sauntered off, leaving Kelsey to stew in unaccountable embarrassment. But then he thought, somewhat belligerently, that if his interest in Maera's company was already a matter of note, there was no good reason not to sit with her.
Insinuate that, Yoshimo.
Maera was still ignoring the rapidly cooling plate in front of her. "You should eat, you know," Kelsey said, sitting down across from her. Her focus snapped back to the here and now, and she smiled at him wryly.
"Self-appointed guardian of my welfare now, huh?"
"Hey, somebody has to be."
"Well, who's yours?" she challenged.
He gave a smiling shrug. "No one's appointed themselves yet."
"Maybe I should." She rested her elbows on the table, and her chin on her folded hands, shooting him another of those brilliant smiles.
"I'd like that."
She ducked her head, half-hiding her face behind her hands, still smiling. "And while I'm appointing myself to things, I think I'll name myself Queen of Sembia." He laughed as she shook her head. "On second thought, no. I'm terrible at accepting homage, and I don't think I'd look good in a crown."
"If you say so. I don't think you could ever look bad." Feeling bold, he reached across the table to tuck a stray strand of hair back behind her ear. Her eyes closed briefly as his fingertips brushed her ear. She'd enjoyed that. He swallowed, and hastily redirected the conversation towards the professional. "We have a long night ahead of us. It won't do you any good to skip a meal."
"I know." She rubbed her face, the humor fading. "I've got a lot on my mind. As usual."
"You looked like you did. You know if there's anything you want to talk about, I'll listen."
"Welfare guardian and sounding board? Is there anything you can't do?" Her smile was back.
"I'm not very good at keeping up with my own train of thought." His eyes dropped to the table; he wasn't sure he could bring himself to say the next sentence and still look at her. "You're important, Maera. To the group, and to… And I wouldn't want anything to happen to you." He looked up, and gave her shoulder a playful poke. "Like fall over from hunger."
She grabbed at the faux wound with a laugh. "And I appreciate that."
They sat in pleasant silence for a moment before he said, with mock sternness, "You still aren't eating." She laughed, and finished her meal.
Mazzy appeared at the inn shortly before midnight, a short bow slung over her shoulder, looking as alert and primed for action as if she were coming off a tenday's vacation. Maera was envious. They collected Cernd from Coprith's home, and were out the gates in half an hour, with no one but a pair of guards the wiser.
They headed southeast in near silence, and the land grew wilder and more rugged, tree shadows casting fantastic shapes across the ground. Occasionally, an animal would burst upon them, and they would put it down quickly, and with each one, Cernd's face would grow graver. "We draw near," he said after a few hours. The moon, having arched high overhead, was now setting, and the chill of predawn was setting in. "This grove was my home for a time, not long after I chose my path. I hope to find old friends here, and speak reason with them."
"And if there is no reason to be had?" Yoshimo's hand kept drifting down to the hilt of his katana. He was not in his element.
"Then I would be grieved," Cernd replied softly.
They crested a hill, and the valley of the grove lay before them. "Something is not right here," Cernd said, his placid face grown troubled. "You feel it, too, Jaheira?" The half-elf nodded.
"The grove is cut off," she said. "Someone has usurped its power." She looked revolted. "By Silvanus, who would do such a thing?"
"The greater my suspicions grow, the less I like them," Cernd sighed. He indicated the path ahead with his staff. "Come."
They eased their way down into the grove, when suddenly, snarling and grunting, a pack of trolls rushed them from the underbrush. Kelsey quickly loaded his sling, and whipped a bullet at the nearest, winging it nearly bare inches over Jaheira's head. Maera swung for another's leg, smooth and swift. Watching her fight was like watching a dance – a sharp-edged dance that involved a lot of blood. Fortunately, it was rarely her own. The troll folded on its wounded leg and she swung a hard diagonal cut, shouting, "Kelsey!"
In the split second it took for the arrow of acid to leave his fingers, he let himself watch her. She pivoted on her ball of her foot, whipping about to face the next troll, her movements fluid and economical. There were no wasted strokes, no flashy business. She fought with precision and awareness, composed and in complete control. She fought smart. Minsc was intimidating for his sheer size and vigor, and Jaheira's cold focus and ironbound staff would make a strong man quail, but when Maera turned her sword on an opponent, he would have just enough time to know he was going to die and probably never get the chance to strike back.
She was terrifying.
An instant later, the crash of something large stumbling in the undergrowth brought him back to the present. Jaheira had brought down another of the trolls, and another quick acid arrow dispatched it. A flaming arrow from Mazzy's bow struck another low in the gut, and the remaining troll, seeing no point in valor, fled back into the trees.
The sun was a sliver on the horizon when they came across a rough wooden henge when a group of druids were gathered, evidently preparing for a morning ritual. The quiet conversation ceased as they became aware of the new arrivals, and the air hardened with tension. Cernd stepped forward, raising his voice. "My brothers and sisters. I have been sent by the Grand Druid to gain knowledge of the attacks on the town of Trademeet. What crime against the balance has the town committed? Will no one tell me?"
"Cernd?" one of the druids asked, his tone uncertain. "The Grand Druid sent you?"
"Pauden, my friend, yes. If Trademeet has altered the balance, you have but to tell me."
"Things have changed, Cernd. We have a new leader."
"Gragus has stepped down, then?"
There was a snicker from the back of the group. Pauden turned on his sniggering compatriot. "It is no laughing matter, Dalok," he hissed.
The younger druid shrugged and addressed Cernd. "Gragus is dead. He lacked the strength to stand before Faldorn's challenge. That is the way of the wolf's pack and the lion's pride – why should we be different?"
"Faldorn?" Jaheira said. "Did she come to you from the north?"
"What of it?"
"I know her; she is a Shadow Druid! She does not believe in balance, only in violence!"
"Nature itself is violent!" shouted another druid. "With claw and tooth it defends itself!"
"You are not defending nature, you are attacking civilization!" Cernd said. "This is not the role of the druid!"
"This is not going to end well," Maera muttered to no one in particular.
"I am sorry, Cernd," said Pauden.
"No," Cernd replied, lowering his staff into a guard position before him, "I am sorry."
"I knew it," Maera sighed. The druids drew their weapons, and voices began to murmur spells. "Don't let them finish casting, Mazzy."
Mazzy nodded, and her first arrow caught the young hothead Dalok in the shoulder. Maera and Minsc charged the front line, while Yoshimo used the confusion they sowed to slip around to the back of the group. Cut throats could cast no spells. Cernd raised his staff, pointing it at the earth before Pauden, and a wave of insects burst forth from the ground, surging around the druids, biting and stinging. He immediately took a deep breath and began casting again; Jaheira kept to his right, fending off any attempts to disrupt him.
Kelsey alternated between spells and sling bullets, and he thought he and Mazzy were making a pretty good team, when he felt something strike him square in the chest. It didn't hurt, so he looked down, expecting to see some bit of rock on the ground nearby, or another sling bullet. All he saw was a small dart, throbbing slightly with his heartbeat. And then the reason for his legs giving out from under him was perfectly clear.
His muscles rebelled, tensing and convulsing. He couldn't draw a complete breath. His eyes were blurring; his hands and feet were going numb. And then there was a vision before him – a fair, round face, surrounded by pale blonde hair. Maera. He wanted to ask her what she was doing; pulling off her gauntlet and touching his chest, but his mouth didn't work. A pale green glow surrounded her hand, and he sucked in a deep breath. The burning faded, his eyes cleared, and he pushed himself up. "Maera. How did you…?"
She shook her head. "Later, okay? We need to get going."
The battle was over. At least half a dozen druids were dead, and the groaning injured were taking turns healing one another. Pauden winced as Jaheira pulled a bandage tight. "She has bonded herself to the grove, Cernd. That is how she managed to so dazzle the younger ones. She's invulnerable now, except in the challenge ring."
Cernd and Jaheira shared a look. "Then I must challenge her." Cernd said. "Lead us to her, and we shall end this."
Pauden led them through the grove, towards the stony hill that marked the outer boundary. He gestured them towards the large cave opening in the hillside. The interior of the cave was lit by glowing mosses, and before them stood a seat, where a woman with a sharp, hard face lounged.
"Who is this?" She jerked her chin towards Cernd.
"Faldorn, I am Cernd. I have been sent by the Grand Druid to put a stop to this abuse of the balance. The people of Trademeet have done nothing to deserve the plague you've set upon them, and it must stop."
"Do you remember me, Shadow Druid?" Jaheira spat.
Faldorn laughed harshly. "Well, aren't the Realms small? Did you get tired of making excuses for Nature's rape in the north, so now you've come to do it here too?"
"You have degraded this grove and broken the balance." Jaheira's eyes narrowed. "I will enjoy seeing you put down."
"And who will do that? You?"
Cernd quietly removed his cloak. "I will. My charge from the Grand Druid was to set this matter to rights and I will do whatever I must to see it fulfilled. I challenge you, Faldorn. And I will defeat you."
"Fine then," Faldorn sneered. "Let's see what you've got."
The challenge ring was a pit in the center of the cave floor. They gathered around it, and Kelsey stood near Maera. "Jaheira acts like she knows her."
"We traveled with Faldorn for a little while up north. A very little while. She and Jaheira had some philosophical differences," Maera replied.
Faldorn and Cernd circled each other slowly, armed only with plain staffs. The only sound was the click of wood on wood as they tested each other. Faldorn sprang forward launched a flurrying offensive, then quickly tossed her staff aside and stretched, her body blurring and shifting into a black panther. Cernd leapt out her way, his own body twisting and growing. His face distorted into a fanged muzzle; black fur spread across massive, hunched shoulders, and his growl of challenge echoed through the cave. Maera looked impressed. "I did not know he could do that."
The werewolf and the panther lashed at each other, claws raking as they howled and hissed. Faldorn darted around Cernd, tail lashing, muscles bunched to make a launch for his throat, but he slammed a paw into her side, sending her into the wall of the pit with a crunch of bone. She hissed in pain and anger, crouching, feinting to the left before charging at his leg from the right, claws extended. But he was ready for her, rounding on her with his jaws open. There was a feline scream, and a howl of triumph, and suddenly they were human again, Faldorn dead at Cernd's feet. He climbed out of the challenge pit, breathing heavily, bleeding from a score of wounds. "No more will this disregard for the balance be tolerated. The Shadow Druid is dead. The attacks on Trademeet will end, and we will now work to restore this grove!"
The other druids murmured to themselves, casting about fearful glances, but it was obvious from the number who gathered about Cernd to help heal him that Faldorn had not been nearly as popular as she'd thought.
It was amazing how different the landscape looked by daylight, but Kelsey was lost in his own thoughts and missed most of it. He gathered up his courage, and fell in beside Maera. Either she was getting very good at reading his face, or he simply had his question printed there in bold letters, because as soon as he came in step with her, she said, "You were poisoned. I purged it."
She shrugged awkwardly, pointedly not looking at him. "It's something I can do."
"You're not a priest."
"No, I'm not."
"Then you - There were rumors about you. About Sarevok Anchev. After the iron crisis, people said he was a child of the god Bhaal, and that he wanted you dead because you are too." She said nothing. "Are you?"
She met his gaze, and he was surprised to see apprehension in her eyes. "Would it change your opinion of me if I was?"
"Well-" He thought about that, about the woman beside him. Was his judgment clouded, biased by that beautiful smile and those long legs? It was possible, but after those long conversations, after everything they'd shared with each other, and everything he'd seen her do, what would it take to make him change his mind about her? "No. No, I guess it wouldn't."
Her eyes dropped, and she didn't respond for just long enough to make him wonder if he should elaborate somehow. The she murmured, "I am. Though I didn't know it until after Sarevok had already taken aim at me. I'm sure you can see why I don't exactly go around announcing it to people."
"What else can you do?"
She shrugged again. "Nothing earth-shaking. I can heal small wounds, that sort of thing. Kinda like being a priest, only I don't have to pray. It's just…there, inside me."
"Where did it come from?"
"Dreams. Very unpleasant ones. I started having them after Gorion died. I'd wake up in the morning, and my hands would be glowing. It was very disconcerting."
Now there was a problem he could relate to. "I know how that feels."
She gave him a long look. "You would, wouldn't you?" She smiled slowly, and his heart fluttered. "You were right, you know. About how nice it feels to have something in common with someone."
Her eyes were so dark and warm. They could cut through a man, yes, but they could also make him melt.
The people of Imnesvale had celebrated with ale and dancing. The people of Trademeet celebrated with money. Apparently having nothing to spend it on for the past several weeks had caused them to develop an allergy to it. Maera wasn't actually sure how many coins were thrust into her hands after Logan Coprith's speech on the town common, and she wasn't even going to try to count it. They were put up in style in the mayor's home and when they all gathered in the small second floor sitting room, she discovered she was not the only one who'd be so thanked. A small fortune in gold coins gleamed on the tea table.
She draped herself across an armchair, and every time she looked at the tea table, a feeling almost like embarrassment quivered in her gut. And yet, she couldn't stop looking. Kelsey was speaking, but she wasn't really attending.
"Runners went out on the caravan routes while Lord Coprith was still giving his speech. If we're willing to wait a couple of days here, we might be able to re-supply and re-equip when the caravans get here. I could probably get us some good deals." He was practically rubbing his hands together with glee at the prospect. Maera snapped out of her reverie.
"That's a good idea, actually. We could all use a few days rest," she said. "All right, then. Everybody's on their own recognizance until the caravans get here." She began pulling at the laces of her jerkin.
"What are you going to do?" Kelsey asked.
"Me? It's been a long day. I'm taking a nap." She peeled off her jerkin and corselet, dumping them unceremoniously in the floor, and was asleep in five minutes.
When she woke, the room was dark, lit only by a trio of mirrored lamps. The only sound was a steady clinking, coming from the tea table. She stretched, and at the sound, Kelsey looked up from the ledger he was busily filling in.
"Hi. I hope you don't mind I took it on myself to count this mess."
She sat up, licking her lips and rubbing her eyes. "No, that's fine. I was actually hoping you would." She looked around. "How long was I asleep?"
"Probably about three, four hours. I didn't have the heart to wake you up."
Stacking up her armor, she got up and stretched again, wondering why she hadn't chosen to sleep on the perfectly comfortable looking sofa only a few feet away when she felt something pop. "Where is everybody?"
"Yoshimo's off…being Yoshimo. Minsc said something about getting crackers for Boo, and I have no idea how involved a process that is. Jaheira went back to the grove for a day or so. And Mazzy's at her mother's – I don't think she's going to be coming back to Athkatla with us."
"I can't say that I blame her, after what she's been through," Maera said, rolling her shoulders stiffly. "I'd go home and stay for a while if I had the chance."
She wasn't expecting the flash of sympathy that crossed his face. "Home being Candlekeep?"
She shook her head. "That particular bridge is long burnt out behind me. I couldn't go back to stay now. Things are too different. I'm too different."
"Once again," he said, "I know what you mean." His expression was still somber, but there was a smile of understanding in his eyes. "I haven't been back to my mother's house in six years. And that's how I think of it, too. Even though I was born there, grew up there, it's not home. It's where my mother lives."
"Home's a concept, not a place." She rubbed absently at her collarbone
"That is very philosophical." He smiled, then tilted his head curiously. "Is that a necklace? I don't think I've seen it before."
She looked down, noticing that her necklace, a flat silver disc decorated with a circle of etched knotwork, had slipped from the neck of her undershirt. She didn't wear it for adornment, so she frequently forgot she even had it on. "Gorion gave it to me when I became a woman." She leaned down to let him get a better look at it. "He said 'Every woman needs a thing of beauty'."
"He was right." He turned the thin pendant over in his long fingers, noting the symbol of Oghma on the reverse. "So you wear it close to your heart."
"Something like that." Their eyes met, and the air seemed to grow very still.
He cleared his throat and looked away, giving her a chance to tuck it back into her shirt. "I, uh, I didn't know you were a follower of Oghma. I would have figured Tempus or something."
She chuckled at the thought. "Remember, I grew up in the biggest library in the Realms. And ever since I left, my life's been one long unending quest for answers, so…I feel a certain affinity for the Lorekeeper."
"That makes sense. By the way," he tapped the last entry in the ledger with a pleased smile, "we've got it."
Her eyes widened. "Really?"
"Really. If my math is right. Which it should be. And that's not counting Yoshimo's gems, which we'll be able to sell when the caravans get here. The good people of Trademeet were very generous."
"That…that is…" She looked up at the ceiling, surprised to feel tears starting in her eyes. She exhaled, on the verge of giddy laughter. "I never thought I'd be so happy about a big pile of money."
He stood, smiling at her. "Kelsey Coltrane, at your service, milady. General accountancy, financial advising, and provider of hugs. You look like you could use one."
"Yes, please." She wrapped her arms around him, laughing, and bowed her head against his neck. He was warm, and he smelled good, and she could feel his pulse, rapid and light, in his throat. And when they pulled apart and looked each other in the face again, the tense breathlessness returned. Oh, what the hell, she thought, and gave in.
It was not a long kiss, nor was it thorough, nor even deep. But he stepped back, sputtering and stammering, and grew as red in the face as if she'd stuck her tongue down his throat. "I…you…I…" He took a few deep breaths, as if he were working himself up to something, and met her eyes. She felt the corner of her mouth quirk in a smile, and it was as if he'd received a sign. He took her face in his hands, tilted it, and gave her the long, thorough, deep kiss she'd neglected to give him. Time stopped, and her awareness narrowed to him, his hands, his lips. Only two thoughts managed to rattle about in a mind gone suddenly, blissfully blank: one, she couldn't quite believe this was actually happening, and two, he was a very good kisser.
When they broke apart, a nervous smile crossed his face, and his eyes were anxious. "I haven't – I haven't ruined anything, have I?"
She rested her forehead against his. Her entire abdomen was fluttering, and she had to lace her fingers together behind his back to stopping them from shaking. "I don't think so," she said, feeling very pleasantly dazed. "Nothing feels ruined."
He tilted his head slightly, his breath warm on her cheek. "Okay." He looked more than a little lightheaded himself. "Can I do that again, please?" She nodded, tightly, excitedly, and he kissed her again, soft and slow.
They stood there for a moment, when the kiss was done, each unsure of what should happen next. "I think it's official," Kelsey said. "We are insane."
"Maybe. I don't think I mind, though." Her head was awhirl, but she steadied herself with a deep breath. "I'm, uh…I'm gonna go find Minsc. Tell him the good news. Um, about the money, I mean."
Kelsey nodded hurriedly. He didn't seem able to stop looking at her. "Right." He licked his lips absently and she had to force herself to keep edging towards the door.
"So I'll see you in the morning."
She had thought this was a complication, but as she leaned against the exterior wall of Logan Coprith's house, her heart pounding an ecstatic staccato in her chest, she wondered if it might actually be very simple instead.
The next morning, she sat on the front steps of the Fentan home, her legs stretched out in front of her as she drank more of Vara's excellent tea.
"You don't have to justify it to me, Mazzy. I understand."
"Perhaps I am trying more to justify it to myself," Mazzy said. "I have not truly stopped in so long, I suppose I feel a bit guilty doing so now."
"Well, there's no need for that. Besides, there's always next season."
"Aye, there is. And who knows what the next season holds?" Mazzy smiled, finishing her tea in one long sip. "I do hope you find what you seek, my friend."
Maera thought of the gold, carefully secreted in Minsc's pack. The information Gaelan Bayle had proposed to sell her was the most expensive she had ever bought in her life, but it would be worth every last copper to have Imoen back again. "I think we're close."
The first of the caravans arrived in Trademeet the next day, and there was almost a festival atmosphere was they unloaded. Kelsey had gone out as early as possible to handle the sale of the Umar Hills gems; the better to avoid having a lot of money on him as the crowds burgeoned. By mid-morning, his duty discharged, he wandered among the vendors, simply enjoying the rush and bustle of a busy market. He recognized a few faces from previous jobs, guards and buyers mostly, but did not feel inclined to stop and chat. He could already feel a gulf opening between the past and present, and he found he did not really mind the separation. The chief reason for this sensation manifested itself before him as he passed between two rows of stalls.
Maera stood at a bookseller's, carefully flipping pages to avoid bending them. Much to her embarrassment, she'd been in high demand since their return from the druid grove. ("Cernd did all the work!" she had protested to Logan Coprith. "We just took him from point A to point B!") There hadn't been much time to sit down and discuss What the Kissing Meant. Maybe there didn't need to be. Why overthink a good thing? Kelsey sidled up beside her and waited for her to look up. "Hi. Enjoying yourself?"
She smiled at him radiantly, and he took a moment to soak that in. She was smiling like that at him. "Yes! Well…I'll admit, the crowds do make me a little nervous."
She made a face at him. "The first actual town I ever saw was Beregost, and I thought it was huge."
He ducked his head in contrition. "Point taken. Would it be better with company?"
"It's always better with company."
She set the book down, and they continued down the row. She stopped short in front of a weapons merchant, lips set in a silent O of appreciation. It took Kelsey a moment to see which item caught her eye, but then he noticed it – a beautifully worked short bow hanging on the back of the stall. "I didn't know you were an archer too," Kelsey said.
"Oh, I'm not. I'm a terrible shot," she said, still giving the bow a thoughtful look. "But Im's very good. And she'll need a new bow. We never did find her old one…" Her voice trailed off, and she brightened. "It'll be a good present when we get her back."
The seller's eyes lit at her interest, and he lifted the bow down for her closer inspection. "It is enchanted, my lady," he mentioned, ladling on the charm with a generous hand. "It creates its own arrows, you see."
"Really? Could you show me?" The merchant strung the bow and bent it; a white-fletched arrow formed, seemingly out of the air, as he pulled the string. Maera's eyebrows went up. "How much?"
"Thirteen hundred, my lady," he replied suavely.
Kelsey couldn't help himself. "Oh come on."
"You don't even have five hundred gold in that bow, do you?"
The merchant twitched his shoulders like a ruffled bird. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I've dealt in the rare weapons market before. Even an enchantment like that isn't going to cost more than the bow itself, and you know it."
"If you're trying to haggle, you'll have to go elsewhere."
Time to play the ace, Kelsey thought. He shrugged with apparent indifference, and said, "All right. But…you do know who this woman is, right?"
"Two hints. She's from Candlekeep, and the Iron Throne consortium is not a fan of her work."
Something in the merchant's face froze. His voice lowered. "Is she-? Really?" Maera gave a self-conscious little wave, and Kelsey nodded.
"Now, you wouldn't want to be the guy who ripped off the Heroine of Baldur's Gate, would you? People talk." The merchant muttered something that sounded rather like a number under his breath. "What was that?" Kelsey asked innocently. "It's awfully loud."
Kelsey shook his head. "Seven."
"Now you're just insulting me! Eight fifty!"
"Done." Kelsey beamed at him. "Would you wrap it up for us?"
As they walked away, Maera rested the bow on her shoulder. "Thank you," she said.
"You're very welcome."
"So, how much of that was actual bargaining and how much was showing off?" she asked, smiling shrewdly.
"I was not…" He sighed sheepishly. The warrior woman won again. He rocked a hand from side to side. "About seventy thirty."
"You don't have to try to impress me, you know."
"It's fun, though." He grinned broadly at her; there was no stopping it. It was some magical combination of the day and the company, and he just felt good. The world seemed bigger and broader and more full of amazing possibilities than it ever had before, and the only rational thing to do was enjoy it. She reached out her free hand and took his, her smile grown arch, and suddenly it was even better.
"Far be it from me to keep you from fun."
They wove through the crowds, hand in hand, finding themselves eventually on the square. They sat on the retaining wall of the huge fountain, where they split a block of honeycomb and people watched. ("Wow, you think that guy's overcompensating for something?" "I'm sure that's not what he wants you to be thinking.") Maera sat cross-legged, her eyes bright as she laughed over some minor noblewoman's overblown outfit, and Kelsey realized, watching her as the fountain's spray refracted the golden light of the late afternoon sun, that he would never forget the way she looked, right at that moment.
If he knew how to work the magic, he could have let the day last forever, but it ended nonetheless, as days are wont to do. The morrow found them on the road once more, their direction set resolutely for Athkatla, Gaelan Bayle, and answers.