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The Irony of Fate


DalreïDal

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Due to some weird glitch, I had to repost this. Now I don't remember what I had written as an intro, and I'm in too much of a rush to think up something new, so without further ado, here is the re-posted 1st chapter, and a new one too! Enjoy!

 

And, please, PLEASE, read and review, folks… I live for your reviews! (Alright, not quite, but almost!!!

 

The Irony of Fate

Chapter I. A fateful departure.

 

Dawn was just breaking. It would be an overcast day, and the pale light slowly dissolving the night was a sad grey colour. Ilire leaned on the windowsill, watching her new husband ride out the gates of his family’s estate. His ankheg full plate-mail and helmet, for all their polishing, failed to glint off as usual in the uncooperative light. His huge warhorse, a northern breed crossed with a smaller Amnish horse, never tired from carrying his rider and his armour even for the long road awaiting him back to Amn.

 

At the gate, her husband paused and turned on his horse to watch her standing at the window of their room on the third story. It was too far for her to see, but she could imagine the sadness on his face and the grave duty in his eyes. He stayed there, looking up at her across the courtyard, until a second horse arrived a few minutes later.

 

The second steed was also mounted by a man in full armour, and this one carried a banner emblazoned with the easily identifiable crescent of the Order of the Radiant Heart.

 

Her new husband turned from the window to face the banner carrier, and with one last look and one last wave at her, he pushed his horse at a slow walk down the street, towards the south, disappearing beyond the estate’s gates.

 

He had left the Ilvastarr estate. Soon he would leave the wealthy district where his parents’ house was. He would then exit Waterdeep, and ride down the Trade Way along the Sword Coast to Baldur’s Gate. He would go further south on the Coast Way until at last he reached Athkatla and the chapter of his training.

 

He had been summoned by Sir Keldorn himself to be debriefed regarding the accomplishments of his Wanderings, and to be given a mission as one final test for his knighthood. He was awfully nervous about the whole process, but Ilire knew he had no cause to worry. He was as dedicated to the cause of his god as she was dedicated to the training with her blades.

 

She was happy for him that he would be soon accepted as a paladin in his own right by the Order, after all those years of training and serving, and this last year of Wanderings. Helm knew he had defeated more horrors than many paladins of the Order in just the last few months.

 

Still, it seemed rather unfair, even if Sir Keldorn had no way to know, with the slow transmission of messages being what it was, that her husband would be called away the very day following the official ceremony of their wedding. Cancelled, the honeymoon to Neverwinter when they were supposed to forget about fights and death and Bhaal and machinations to take over the world for a few days.

 

Ilire supposed she should be proud of herself to have put up a brave face when he had left their room that morning. She had smiled and told him to come back soon, because she would be waiting for him. She still wondered how he had convinced her that she should not follow. His arguments about danger along the road hardly seemed reassuring. Yet, she knew as well as he did that the Order would want him to accomplish this last mission alone and besides, there was Dynaheir who wanted to take full advantage of the libraries of Waterdeep, Imoen being too curious as usual and having unearthed worrisome rumours about Undermountain, and Jaheira and Khalid who were grateful for an occasion to spend some time with some of their fellow Harpers who they had not seen in a long time.

 

When her husband disappeared beyond the gate, Ilire turned and leaned back against the wall besides the window. She felt miserable because she could not quite shake the feeling that such partings were what awaited her for the rest of her days. That there would always be duty to be taken care of somewhere else, rather far from home; duty more important than her or whatever family they could have together.

 

She berated herself. He was going to be dubbed. What was she complaining about? Besides, what else had they done of the last year than take care of all her problems? It was about time he did something for himself.

 

She angrily snatched her blades from the weapon stand and stalked the corridors silently until she exited in the backyard by a service door. She let the scabbards down on the ground by the door, and began warming up with stretches and slow thrusts.

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Chapter II. Reminders of unglamorous adventures

 

An hour after Ilire started her morning exercises, the risen sun had heated the humid atmosphere under the clouds to the point of almost unbearable heat. She was truly working hard now, panting in controlled breaths and sweat running down her face and making her clothes stick to her skin.

 

Block, thrust, parry, deflect, counterattack. Change leading hand. Block, thrust, parry, deflect, counterattack. Change leading foot. Block, thrust, parry, deflect, counterattack, parry, spin, slash. Change leading hand. Block, thrust, parry, deflect, counterattack, parry, spin, slash.

 

Moves came to her as symbols in her mind, quicker than words or images, and her body moved even before the thoughts of what she needed to do were fully formed.

 

She was interrupted by the sound of the door closing and she turned, panting, to see her new brother-in-law exiting the estate by the service door, with a long sword in an elegant scabbard at his left hip.

 

“Good day to you, my lady,†Gotom greeted her with an easy smile. “Father, Mother, my wife and I were wondering if we should take our breakfast without you, but your companions told us you were probably training. Your friends have all left for their personal activities; they seemed to think that your exercises could take significant time. I told my family not to wait for us and that I would train with you, if you would?â€Â

 

She nodded. “Thank you, I would appreciate it. I tire of fencing with empty air.â€Â

 

“Then we shall enjoy a brunch later on, so my beloved mother does not badger me about my manners in making a lady skip breakfast?â€Â

 

She flashed a sly smile. “Your mother made friends easily with Jaheira, did she not? Don’t worry, we will eat later and I will make sure Lady Ilvastarr has no cause to complain of your behaviour.â€Â

 

They bowed to each other, and Ilire sheathed her off-hand katana to face Gotom with a single weapon, the same as he.

 

“Oh, m’lady, you can keep your second weapon. You have already trained for over an hour, while I am fresh. It should equal our chances, don’t you think?â€Â

 

She hesitated slightly, but finally shrugged and took her katana again. They began circling each other, carefully watching the other’s step, grip of weapons, and moves of the eyes.

 

Gotom tried a half-hearted attack, which Ilire parried easily. They exchanged a few thrusts and slashes, getting used to each other at an easy pace, since they trained with real weapons.

 

Suddenly Gotom lunged at her with a vicious, low slash to her left knee. She noted that he had been prepared to hold his blow back should her response be too slow. Her right katana caught his sword just below the guard and she spun, forcing her opponent’s blade up and over her head. At the last moment she flicked her wrist not to cut his skin and the flat of the blade hit his neck, while his sword sailed past her, driven by the force of his own blow. Her second blade pointed at his side, ready to thrust into his abdomen.

 

He froze, looking at her grim expression, the sharpened steel cool against his neck. She took her weapons away and bowed slightly, before returning to her combat position. He swallowed and resumed. He tried every thrust, slash and move he knew. Each time she blocked, parried or sidestepped with brutal efficiency. Her strength was unsettling. His arm was tired from clashing with her blades, and she wielded two heavy katanas for over an hour without showing any sign of fatigue. Each move she made was precisely calculated, graceful and yet brutal, and executed with a carelessness and automatism that said she had seen it all before. He realized he mastered no move that she would not know how to block and answer to; she could easily see what he was going to try two or three slashes ahead.

 

At length he declared forfeit. He was trained with the blade and held no fear of the thugs roaming the poorer districts of Waterdeep, but his skill was in no way comparable to hers.

 

They bowed to each other and she sheathed her blades slowly and ceremoniously.

 

“Congratulations, m’lady.â€Â

 

She gave a pale smile and bowed again. “Thank you, m’lord.â€Â

 

They made their way inside. Just inside the door, they parted so they could change before they went to take their brunch and Sinna, Gotom’s wife, took Ilire’s arm to accompany her to the bathing chambers.

 

She giggled and elbowed Ilire gently. The two women, even if they did not know each other very well, got along surprisingly well. Ilire found it a relief to have something of a sister who did not entail all of Imoen’s at times tiresome pranks.

 

“You so completely bested him,†Sinna whispered conspiratorially.

 

Ilire smiled and shrugged. “Thank you, but your husband is very talented.â€Â

 

“But he could not land a single blow on you!â€Â

 

The good-humoured smile faded slowly from Ilire’s lips. “No, but he could defend himself against me, while he spends most of his life within the estate’s walls, doing tasks of administration. He is very disciplined in the training with his sword and very skilled for someone who has so little time to dedicate to the training at arms.â€Â

 

Sinna smiled. “I see what you mean, but still, you beat him effortlessly.â€Â

 

The adventurer had a humourless smile. “I’m not belittling him. Training is one thing. Fighting for one’s life is quite another. Besides the sheer amount of time I’ve spent with those two blades in my hands in the last year, fighting to survive puts some sense of urgency in your learning of fighting skills. Under the adrenaline of battle and the fear for your life, I assure you that every tiniest detail of the attacker’s moves and strategies are forever imprinted in your mind.†There was a shift to something far darker in Ilire’s countenance. “Some adventurers I’ve met say that when you kill people, you can only remember the first ones, but that after some time you cannot remember their faces clearly. I don’t know how people can get used to killing or being killed. I don’t know how they can forget a single grimace of agony or scream of pain.†She suddenly stopped, as if broken from a trance and reminded of reality. Sinna was very much aware at that moment that Ilire was a Child of Murder, even if she expressed revulsion towards so much death. Ajantis never spoke of the battles when he was home, only of the results, the peace he accomplished by these fights. Sinna suddenly wondered if her brother-in-law had similar, sinister thoughts about those they had to kill or be killed by.

 

“Adventure is not as glamorous as bards want to make it sound,†Ilire concluded in an attempt at lightening the mood. “But there are things that need to be done, and there is not always a pleasant choice available to you. I’m glad that you and your family can choose what you will do of your life. I hope I will be given that chance too now, with Ajantis. But we won’t shirk duty if it comes.†Then she took a breath. “Forgive me for my dark words, Sinna. Ajantis’ departure has put me in a dark mood, and I worry for his safety. The Sword Coast is not the safest place to travel on Toril, and I worry for him, even if I know he’s well capable of taking care of himself.â€Â

 

Sinna bowed her head graciously, relieved that the subject was returning to a safer topic. “I understand, Ilire. I am sure Ajantis will be safe. No bandits would dare attack a battalion of men from the Order. Come, let us change and share some food, it will take your mind off your worries.â€Â

 

Ilire gave her a weak smile and followed her into the bathing chambers.

 

***

A tenday later, Imoen had receded down into mild depression upon the discovery that the possible entrance into Undermountain she had heard about was all just a hoax to attract and rob fledgling adventurers. Obviously the thieves spreading the rumours had regretted their choice of prey for once. Imoen, for all the easy grins and the pink hair, was still a skilled rogue and a formidable mage… The city guard was very surprised when a band of mind-dominated thugs showed up on their doorstep, covered in magical glue and feathers, to confess all their crimes.

 

Dynaheir was beginning to show boredom regarding dusty tomes and expressed a healthy desire for seeing first hand all the monsters and try all the spells she had read about in the last days.

 

Minsc was as happy as ever participating in the training of Waterdeep’s guards. His brash outspokenness had at first frightened the poor guard captain, but Dynaheir’s petition in favour of her bodyguard’s talents had not fallen on deaf ears. After witnessing the ranger’s uncanny skill with his massive two-handed sword and his bow, the captain had been very grateful for Minsc’s participation in the duties of the city guard.

 

Jaheira and Khalid had spent the last week at the Harpers’ chapter, but now they were back at the Ilvastarr estate with the rest of Ilire’s companions. Jaheira began to show her typical she-bear impatience to find herself outside of the confinement of city walls, and Khalid did his best to contain her.

 

The whole of Ilire’s adventuring company was currently guests at the Ilvastarr estate. While the five invited companions had all been polite and slightly embarrassed to find themselves in a noble manor, it was still easy to get an accurate impression of their personalities. Minsc’s enthusiasm for battle had been established quickly enough, although he obeyed Dynaheir and refrained from shocking the noble ladies with grand declarations about butt-kicking evil. The invoker’s manners would not have been displaced in a royal court, and so she impressed the Ilvastarr family, who understood her need of an efficient bodyguard, even if he was simple-minded. Imoen was everything they expected of a little sister, mischievous but always well-meaning. Khalid was obviously timid and his stutter was noticed, but the Ilvastarr were too polite to comment, even Gotom’s young son. As for Jaheira, her decisive attitude, sharp tongue and motherly aggressiveness and protectiveness towards Ilire had been easily spotted.

 

Ilire had said she would wait for Ajantis to come back, and she would. For the time being, her companions were enjoying the break from the incessant battle, and were not impatient enough to press her.

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Chapter III. Events unfolding

 

The smile on Gotom’s lips when he arrived with a sealed letter, intruding upon Ilire’s evening meditation, told her immediately whose letter it was. She jumped to her feet exuberantly. It was good to see her smile; Ajantis’ absence obviously affected her and her brother-in-law wondered how she would fare with a paladin husband often away because of his duty.

 

Ilire happily snatched the letter from Gotom’s hand and broke the seal, not even waiting for him to leave her alone to read her husband’s letter. The nobleman nevertheless exited the small study she used to meditate, but waited just outside the door, impatient to finally get some news from Ajantis, just like the rest of the family.

 

When he peered back inside fifteen minutes later, Ilire was meditating again, the folded letter resting on the floor before her. He cleared his throat and she looked up to him.

 

“He went off to risk his life without me,†she provided with a pale smile.

 

She seemed upset, and he could understand her. She was an adventurer and she had been awaiting word from him quietly at home for two weeks.

 

“What mission did he undertake?â€Â

 

She shrugged. “He’s marching to a lord’s land in the east of Amn for some ogre chasing. He’s in charge of a small group of squires. It shouldn’t be too dangerous or too long. He received a leave of a month after this assignment; he should be able to finally spend some time with his family after being away for so long.â€Â

 

Gotom lifted an eyebrow and gave her a crooked smile. “While I would be delighted to spend some time with my brother, I do believe he will wish to be with his new wife.â€Â

 

She smiled again. “I would not wish to steal him from you. We’ve been traveling together and living together for over six months; I will understand if he wishes to see his family. It’s been so long since he’s been here for any length of time.â€Â

 

Gotom nodded. “Yes, but we all knew we would not see him much when he chose to become a paladin. We were prepared for that,†he added with a hint of double-meaning.

 

She gave him a cool look. “Don’t mistake me; I am very well prepared for that. What I doubt is that he is prepared to have an adventurer for a wife. And a grumpy druid for something of a mother-in-law.†She grinned. “You see, my party’s informant can’t seem to understand that she’s supposed to be on vacation, and she reports she sneaked upon the chambermaid telling one of the scullions that Jaheira is just about to wear a path down the floorboards of her room. I’m doing all I can, but I can’t hold her in place much longer. Soon enough we’ll have to see what ‘that insufferable paladin who doesn’t know the difference between gallantness and insulting patriarchy’ has gotten himself into.â€Â

 

Gotom smiled at the image Ilire was painting of her druid companion. He could easily picture the half-elf pacing endlessly in her room while Khalid tried with some success to calm her down.

 

The nobleman gestured to the letter still on the floor. “Can I see what the ‘insufferable paladin’ has to say?â€Â

 

She coloured slightly and separated the different sheets of parchment, extending him one. “Here is the one he intended for you all to read. He says the other half is just for me.â€Â

 

Gotom pretended not to notice Ilire’s blush and embarrassment, and unfolded the letter to read about his brother’s uneventful passage in Athkatla.

 

***

When a month later no one at the Ilvastarr estate had received another word from Ajantis, Ilire wrote to the Order. Two days later, long before her letter could have reached Athkatla, she received a message from Lord Firecam.

 

Lady Ilire Ilvastarr of Candlekeep,

 

Lord Ulguth and Lady Mara Ilvastarr,

 

Gotom and Sinna Ilvastarr,

 

Elina Sarris,

 

I request your forgiveness in receiving such a letter from a man you do not know. I am your humble servant, and I write on behalf of Squire Ajantis Ilvastarr. I trained him personally for many years and he spoke much of his beloved family to me. When he arrived from his Wanderings, he also had much to say of Lady Ilire of Candlekeep and the worthy battles he fought with you and your companions in the name of Light. Sir Ajantis therefore asked me to write to Lady Ilire and his family should he delay in his return to Waterdeep.

 

Two tendays ago, 13 Myrtul, a missive arrived at the Order, informing us that his detachment of men at arms had arrived safely at the Windspear Hills, the lands of Lord Firkraag. Taking into account the scope of the orc invasion the landlord was complaining of, Ajantis planned to stay in the Windspear Hills for a tenday, and return some five days ago.

 

I write to you as he requested of me, but I pray that you do not worry for his delay. It is probable that the hunt took more time than planned. In any event, we are sending reinforcements to insure Ajantis’ and his men’s safety.

 

I transmit to you Ajantis’ sincere apologies and regrets for not returning to you as soon as planned.

 

Sincerely,

 

Sir Keldorn Firecam

 

Since the letter was addressed to her first, Ilire was the first one to read it. She gave it to Ajantis’s mother and her husband read it over her shoulder. Once Ajantis’ parents were done, they looked up to their new daughter-in-law with unmistakable anxiety. After what had happened to their eldest son, they could not help but worry when one of their children was missing.

 

“Don’t worry,†Ilire tried to reassure them with a smile, “the Order already sent reinforcements. The orcs will be taken care of in no time.â€Â

 

“But what if the reinforcements arrive too late?â€Â, Lady Ilvastarr panicked.

 

Ilire shrugged carelessly. “Ajantis is more than up to facing a few orcs, especially if he’s got a group of men with him. Mere monsters like orcs are no danger to him.â€Â

 

“Mere monsters?â€Â, Lord Ilvastarr croaked. “Orcs are intelligent and organized, and they almost burned the Sword Coast to the ground more than once.â€Â

 

Ilire gave him a warm reassuring smile. “Orcs are intelligent and organized, and their raids are rightfully feared all over the Sword Coast,†she conceded, “but they are still no match for squires of the Order. Ajantis is not a simple village guardsman anymore. We have done nothing but fight for the past half-year, and some of the things we faced were much worse than orcs. I say that orcs are ‘mere’ monsters because Ajantis has fought vampiric wolves, wyverns, one of Bhaal’s death stalkers, and the gods remember what else, since he began travelling in my party. Orcs are pretty high on the list of dangers, but only if they outnumber you. Obviously this will not happen to Ajantis and his contingent of men of the Order.†She took a breath. “Nevertheless, I think it’s about time I check his determination.â€Â

 

Lord Ilvastarr frowned. “His determination? What do you mean?â€Â

 

She smiled fondly. “Ajantis once said that he could imagine having a wife by his side while he lives on the road. I think it’s about time I remind him of that.â€Â

 

“Not a second too soon,†Jaheira grumbled under her breath. Khalid smiled knowingly and put an arm around her shoulders to pacify her.

 

“For once I agree with Mother Jaheira,†Imoen quipped, edging carefully around Minsc’s hulking mass to be out of range of the druid, “it’s going to be good to hit the road again! All this noble house and noble quarters are nice, but my fingers are getting itchy… Uh…â€Â

 

The thief had failed to notice that while she did put herself in safety from Jaheira, the move would make her well within range of her sister.

 

“I said no stealing!†Ilire exclaimed, snatching her sister by the ear, although she did not twist very hard.

 

“My, Ilire, you have no idea how to do that,†Dynaheir observed amusedly. “Let me show you.â€Â

 

She made to move to Imoen, but the thief shrieked in mock terror and slipped away from her sister, disappearing up one of the service stairways to gather her gear in her room.

 

Ilire shook her head. “How quickly did I forget the joys of party leading,†she observed out of the corner of her mouth to Sinna.

 

She got a smile and a chuckle out of Lord Ilvastarr.

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It's been a while, but I haven't abandonned this storyline, I promise! Please, send reviews, and constructive criticism is always welcome!

 

Chapter IV. The Order’s Conclusion

 

Lady Sinna Ilvastarr sat daintily in her cushioned armchair and wriggled her hands, letting her cup of tea cool slowly on the low table in front of her. She rested in one of the small studies, taking the mid-morning tea alone, since Lady Mara was unwell. The worry for Ajantis, and now for Ilire and her companions, taxed the fragile older woman’s health.

 

Because of Lady Mara’s indisposition, much of the estate business was resting on Sinna’s shoulders at the moment. Despite the amount of responsibility it represented, Sinna liked the job. She had been taught and raised to be a lady of proper standing and a capable regent to an estate and its lands if need be, should her father or, later, husband go away for some reason. She was talented at what she did. She knew when her presence was required to hold a household together and when she could allow herself the luxury of some time alone to reflect and tend to her own emotional turmoil.

 

She took advantage of one of those moments right then. It was four tendays since last they had heard about Ilire. The adventuress had regaled them about tales of the road; the weather was fair for so late in the fall, and there had been no shortage of antics, either from her companions or from the group of merchants who had hired them as escort. Ilire and her team received some gold to accompany and ensure the caravan’s safety from Daggerford, a small town just south of Waterdeep, down to Baldur’s Gate. Ilire had related in her last letter how Jaheira had used her druidic talents the day before to convince a bear to walk ahead of them for half the day to scare away three bands of brigands trying to ambush them.

 

It was the first and only letter the Ilvastarr had received from Ilire and her companions. The kensai had been less than a day from Baldur’s Gate, and had taken advantage of her chance meeting on the road with a messenger heading north to send a message to Waterdeep. There had been no word from her since.

 

As if Ilire’s prolonged silence had not been cause enough for worry, the Ilvastarr manor had received a long letter from Lord Firecam two tendays ago. The paladin had tried, rather unsuccessfully, to conceal his worry under his best assurances that everything possible was done to explain Ajantis’ delay and to find him.

 

After two tendays without news from Ilire, a very worried Lord Ulguth had written another missive to the Order, a lengthy letter explaining his concern over the disappearance of first his son, then his new daughter-in-law. The possibility of an organized attempt at harming his family, either for ransom or for vengeance, understandably worried Lord Ulguth. He had doubled the guard to his estate.

 

Sinna did not really know what to think of all this. She was troubled at the prospect of someone wanting revenge against the Ilvastarr family and would not go to the market or the theatre alone anymore, while she had been a considerably adventurous lady before. She was also very worried for Ilire, even if she knew her new friend was a tenacious and capable fighter. Ilire would not have stopped sending letters unless something grave was happening, and the same could be said about Ajantis.

 

Sinna so wished that this family, which had already been faced with the death of a child, would not have to mourn another son and his new wife.

 

She wished she would not lose the vibrant, lively new friend she had made, whom had seen so much of the world even though she was barely twenty years-old. Sinna wished she would still hear Ilire’s incredible tales of adventure and the mundane, simple facts of life that changed when one lived on the road, in inns and such.

 

A servant suddenly knocked on the door, came in and bowed.

 

“Yes, Sally?â€Â, Lady Sinna greeted.

 

“An armed and armoured man awaits in the hall, milady. He asked to see the Lord and Lady of the house. I sent Rus to Lord Ulguth, but while Lady Mara is indisposed, I thought you would be the Lady of the house. Do you wish me to go find your husband?â€Â

 

“Please do, Sally. Did the man name himself?â€Â

 

“He introduced himself as Sir Keldorn Firecam, a humble paladin of Torm.â€Â

 

Sinna paled at the news. It was improbable a man of such importance to the Order and a rightful Lord would come all the way from Athkatla to Waterdeep to deliver happy, casual news. Sinna allowed herself a moment to regain control of her senses. Once she was certain she would not faint, she stood.

 

“Please find Gotom and bring him to the salon.â€Â

 

The servant bowed. “Immediately, Lady Sinna.â€Â

 

Sinna crossed the manor on unsteady feet, walking slowly so she would give off the impression of calm countenance. She reached the hall all too quickly for her liking. Lord Ulguth was already there, standing with Lord Firecam in uneasy silence.

 

“Ah, Sir Keldorn, here is my daughter-in-law I spoke to you of, Lady Sinna Ilvastarr. Sinna, Sir Keldorn Firecam.â€Â

 

She curtsied, “Lord Firecam.â€Â

 

He kissed her hand like a perfect gentleman. “Lady Sinna.â€Â

 

He straightened and she observed his features for the first time. While an older man, he could be no more than forty-five, and still fit and strong. His armour was lined with dust from the road and she realized that he had come to their estate first thing upon arriving in Waterdeep.

 

“Milord, you must be exhausted from the journey. Would you wish some refreshment? A cup of tea? A glass of wine?â€Â

 

His hair and beard were streaked with grey, and his black eyes had a definitively fatherly kindness in them, although he was a man obviously tired from the physical exertion of a long ride and weighted by sorrow and responsibility.

 

He smiled in an exhausted kind of way. “That is very kind of you to offer, milady. A glass of wine would be most welcome.â€Â

 

She gesture to one of the servants waiting in the corner, and the man left after a slight bow.

 

Sinna joined in the uneasy silence. She wondered why it was necessary to wait for her husband at all, since everyone knew by then that the news were dire. The servant came back with the wine. Sir Keldorn accepted it with a polite nod and sipped on it.

 

When Gotom arrived, he paused uncomfortably at the door before stepping in.

 

“Sir Keldorn,†Lord Ulguth began once the introductions were over, “I take it you have news?â€Â

 

The paladin took a breath. “Indeed I have, Lord Ulguth. I come here in my quality of member of the Order, as well as friend to Ajantis. I have personally spent a month in the Windspear Hills, searching for any sign of him, and then another tenday on the road he should have taken to come and go back. No trace of him could be found.â€Â

 

He paused shortly so the three people in the room could realize the importance of his words. The only woman sank in a chair, a hand over her heart. Her husband went to stand next to her and put a hand on her shoulder, his mouth set in a straight line.

 

“I am deeply sorry to announce you that the Order has declared Squire Ajantis Ilvastarr deceased, disappeared on the line of duty.â€Â

 

Sir Keldorn bowed his head and took a step back. Sinna stood up on unsteady legs and turned to her father-in-law. He slowly lifted his hand to cover his face. She let out a sob and took him in her arms. While Lord Ulguth was usually very controlled and official, he suddenly threw his arms around her and buried his face in her shoulder, shaking with tears.

 

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,†she cried with him. She felt Gotom’s left hand on her back, and his right hand went to squeeze his father’s shoulder.

 

After a while Lord Ulguth drew back. Sinna wiped her face carefully with her handkerchief.

 

“Sir Keldorn? What of Ilire?â€Â, she inquired.

 

The paladin took another long, steadying breath. “She has also vanished, but we are not ready to declare her missing definitively yet. I have come to Waterdeep in part to investigate about her disappearance; she never reached the Order’s headquarters in Athkatla, even though her message informed us she planned to arrive a month ago. I have found trace of her and her companions in Baldur’s Gate, but not further. An innkeeper told me they stayed at his inn for two nights, then left south. On my way back to Athkatla, I will stop in Baldur’s Gate, and I assure you I will do everything I can to find her trail. Rest assured, we are doing everything within our power to find her.â€Â

 

Sinna nodded tearfully. Lord Ulguth cleared his throat. “Sinna?â€Â

 

“Yes, Lord Ulguth?â€Â

 

“Would you come with me? I do not have the courage to announce this to Mara alone.â€Â

 

Her face became stricken. “Of course.â€Â

 

Lord Ulguth shook Keldorn’s hand and Sinna curtsied. She took her father-in-law’s arm and they left the room. Gotom waited until the door closed safely behind them, and the sound of their footsteps faded down in the corridor.

 

“Sir Keldorn, did you really find no trace of Ajantis? Or did you wish to spare my wife the account of a gruesome discovery?â€Â

 

The old paladin shook his head wearily. “No, milord, I meant that we found no trace at all. Innkeepers and villagers along the way told us that the contingent passed through the lands, and all leads to think that they reached the Windspear hills safely. Lord Firkraag assured us they met once. They were supposed to return to him for a report after a few days, but they never did, and Lord Firkraag sent a message to the Order shortly after this. Lord Firkraag has been very helpful in the search of his lands, but we could find no hint of the passing of Ajantis’ group. It is as though they all just vanished.â€Â

 

Gotom considered a while in silence. “That is unsettling. Could they have been attacked and taken prisoners?â€Â

 

Keldorn shook his head. “It doesn’t seem probable. We would have received a ransom demand by now, and we would have found traces of a fight. There is a mystery in this, but we do not possess the luxury of time to study it as we might like. There is Ilire’s disappearance and some trouble in Athkatla that the Order needs to see to.â€Â

 

“So you have given up on Ajantis?†Gotom regretted his harsh accusing tone the second it left his lips, but the words were already out of his mouth. His brother was missing; it felt wrong that search for him should be abandoned because of another matter that seemed more important.

 

Keldorn’s eyes spoke of heavy sorrow. “No, we have not, Lord Gotom. Please keep in mind that I have trained Ajantis as a squire myself. I think of him as a friend, and he was a very good man whom I wished to see live a long and happy life. The only thing we did not do to find him in Windspear is turn every stone to see if there might be a trace of his passage under it. We did not give up; there is simply nothing else to try.â€Â

 

Gotom nodded in shame and pain. “Please forgive my inconsiderate words, Sir Keldorn. In my sorrow I forgot that you also lost a friend.â€Â

 

The old paladin put a fatherly hand on his shoulder. The two of them shared their pain in silence for a while, and then Gotom took an audible breath.

 

“And what of Ilire? Is there any hope yet to find her, or did she disappear like Ajantis?â€Â

 

“At first, she seemed to have vanished, but she left more traces; the Coast Way is more populous than the farmland between Athkatla and Windspear. We have not yet followed every lead we have uncovered about her passage, but I assure you that we will investigate matters further when we reach Baldur’s Gate on the way south. We will stay on the Sword Coast as long as necessary to find her.â€Â

 

“Unless she has vanished with all her companions, as did Ajantis,†Gotom pointed out, alarmed. “Please answer truthfully to me, Sir Keldorn. Do you think the two events are somehow linked? Do you think it is a blow intended for the Ilvastarr family and not just two chance events?â€Â

 

The paladin considered his words carefully. “The disappearance of two such seasoned adventurers is suspect in any case, but I do not think the events are related to your family. There would have been some threats delivered, or some other words from the villains.â€Â

 

Gotom nodded. “That makes sense. As dire as our loss is, it does ease my mind to think that the rest of my loved ones are safe.â€Â

 

“I understand you. I have a wife and two daughters myself, and the only thing I can imagine being worse than losing one is to fear that someone wishes to attain to the life of the other.â€Â

 

Gotom took a breath. “It is very considerate of you to have come to deliver us the news in person. It could not have been an easy journey from Athkatla. On behalf of everyone, I thank you. Maybe we could offer you accommodations for your stay in the city?â€Â

 

“Thank you for your kindness, but I have quarters at the Order here in Waterdeep. I understand that your family needs some privacy right now. Send for me at the Order should you need anything; I will send messages to you as often as possible when I journey back south.â€Â

 

The two men shook hands, and Keldorn bowed his head before leaving. Gotom took a moment, then, to send the servants away. He sank in the chair and buried his face in his hands.

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Sorry for the month of disappearance, folks. And, err, sorry for the piece of life… just skip ahead to the story if I bother you…

 

I swear, for a while there around July 24th I was convinced that damned ship (the CCGS Amundsen) would never leave the port, but believe it or not, it DID. Today is the 26th day in a row that I’ve worked. Some piece of advice: don’t try to move your lab from your university to a ship when you work with gas chromatography. It’s work for crazy people like me. The damned piece of equipment weighs like 80kg and is as fragile as dried leaves. And you have to move it 2 or 3 floors down in a ship’s steeeep stairways. But now the lab is all set up on the ship and waiting for me, all set and ready, for when I get onboard in 9 weeks.

 

Well, at least I’ve lost 5lb and gained some nice biceps. And my advisor was very comprehensive when I said I’d disappear for a week on vacation. And I got to have a nice, cool, wine drink. I guess that’s some sort of compensation :cry:

 

So that explains the long absence. I’m back to having a life now (at least, I hope so!), and should start updating more regularly again. Until I disappear another 6 weeks in the Canadian far north (North-West Passage) in October. Darn, it was hard watching the Amundsen go with all those people I’ve gotten to know in the past month, and me staying on the wharf… I can’t wait until it’s my turn now!

 

And on with the story… that’s the reason you’re here after all…

 

Chapter V. The search

 

The Ilvastarr received many messages from Keldorn, as promised, while the paladin journeyed south and then investigated around Baldur’s Gate for many days. Gotom found his letters more controlled than their private talk, and suspected the paladin was withholding painful information from them to spare their sensibilities.

 

However, there came a day when the Ilvastarr felt Sir Keldorn’s research was slowing to a standstill, and four days later, they received his last letter written near Baldur’s Gate.

 

Lord Ulguth, Lady Mara, Gotom and Sinna Ilvastarr, and Elina Sarris,

 

We have concluded our investigation today. I had written a few days ago to inform you that we had found partial evidence that Ilire and her companions might have found themselves embroiled in a fight. Following our lead, we confirmed our suspicions. We have discovered the site of the fight, and turned the place upside down in our search for any hint of the outcome.

 

It was very difficult to draw conclusions, but we finally were able to determine that Ilire and her companions lost the battle. All the signs led us to believe they were taken prisoners. We have found those who captured them and questioned the ruffians extensively. We have uncovered much greater felony than we expected; those bandits were subjected to the effects of a geas, and we could not withdraw any information from them before the foul spell took their lives for their failure to carry out their next orders. We could not save their souls the grim fate awaiting them, even with the help of High Watcher Seadell, the priest of Helm in charge of the temple in Baldur’s Gate.

 

Since there is little even an inquisitor such as I can do against the magical power of a geas, we have petitioned Halbazzer Drin of the Sorcerous Sundries for help to discover who had ordered Ilire taken prisoner. Even this experienced mage has been unable to unravel the protections granted by the geas to the minds of the thugs who battled Ilire.

 

In the absence of a more experienced spellcaster we knew of in Baldur’s Gate, we have decided we should go back to Athkatla and search for assistance from another trustworthy and capable mage who would hopefully be more powerful than Halbazzer Drin. The relationship between the Cowled Wizards and the Order being what it is, we are forced to acknowledge that our chances to discover anything else about Ilire’s disappearance are slim.

 

Sir William Synecho, an experienced inquisitor and an old friend of mine, volunteered to stay in Baldur’s Gate in case some word of Ilire resurfaced. We have also received the unconditional support of the Flaming Fist in our search. Out of gratitude for what Ilire did to insure peace between the Sword Coast and Amn, they have guaranteed their stalwart vigilance, and that they will provide any assistance she might require should they find trace of her.

 

The rest of my company will go back to Athkatla and hope that luck smiles on us, and that we may find another mage with the ability to pierce the mystery of the geas.

 

I offer my deepest regrets that I have no more certitude to offer. Please rest assured that the Order will not sit idly by, and continue to search for Ilire and her companions in any way we can.

 

 

Sincerely,

 

Sir Keldorn Firecam

 

***

Sir Keldorn was weary and disheartened when he finally reached the Order headquarters. It was yet another day spent losing time, waiting, meeting wizards and dismissing their help out of hand because of their obvious evil or lack of necessary power. The first days, there had been more worthy candidates, but as time went by, the Order rather exhausted the pool of applicants.

 

That night, when Keldorn arrived at the Order, Prelate Wessalen was waiting for him. The aged paladin was a man who bore the weight of responsibility well, but every senior member of the Order could recognize the Prelate’s ‘I-don’t-want-to-say-this-but-I-have-to’ look.

 

“Sir Keldorn, might I have a word with you?â€Â

 

“Of course, Prelate.â€Â

 

The two men made their way to the office of the leader of the Order’s chapter of Athkatla. The Prelate closed the door behind them and gestured to Keldorn to sit down, while he took his own chair.

 

“Did you have any success with today’s interviews, Sir Keldorn?â€Â

 

The paladin shook his head tiredly. “Unfortunately not, Prelate. I fear we have exhausted the population of mages of Athkatla. There might be a few people worth questioning in the surrounding towns of Amn or near our borders with the Sword Coast, but I fear that every spellcaster in Athkatla has been subjected to our examination.â€Â

 

Wessalen nodded thoughtfully. “I was afraid so.â€Â

 

In the dragging silence, the old leader tried to find the right words to voice his dismissal, even though Keldorn clearly knew what orders were to come next.

 

“I know you have invested many personal feelings in this search, Sir Keldorn, but I fear the time has come to acknowledge that you have done everything that you could.â€Â

 

Keldorn gave a long-suffering sigh. “Aye, I was coming to that conclusion myself.â€Â

 

There was a short silence.

 

“I am sorry,†the Prelate said softly.

 

Keldorn nodded. “It is difficult for one such as me, who has seen so many battlefields in my life, to accept to sit idle with the knowledge that someone is being held prisoner. It is even harder to give up the search, because I know the captor must be someone very dark indeed, if he employs people willing to submit to geases.â€Â

 

“I understand.â€Â

 

The inquisitor drew a breath. “Was there… any task you wished me to accomplish, Prelate?â€Â

 

The older man cleared his throat. “You have been on duty constantly for the past two months. Perhaps you ought to take a few days leave?â€Â

 

Keldorn shook his head. “I would rather continue the search for a capable spellcaster, however fruitless, if the Order does not require my services more urgently. I feel a duty to Ajantis’ wife – he was my squire, and I was supposed to train him until Helm’s service was as safe as it could be. Moreover, Ilire was abducted on her way here, to try and correct our failure in protecting the life of her husband.â€Â

 

Wessalen nodded. “I understand. There are troubles, however, which the Order must see to, and I could think of no one I would trust with this mission as I would trust you.â€Â

 

“I am listening, Prelate.â€Â

 

“There is a cult rising in Athkatla. The church of Helm is concerned about the likely possibility that it is a worship of a false god. They have asked for the Order’s help in the matter. There is a stirring among the faithful of the temples, and High Watcher Oisig is worried that this cult asks unwarranted sacrifices of its followers.â€Â

 

“What sort of sacrifice is asked?â€Â

 

“There are rumours that people are forced to remove their own eyes.â€Â

 

Keldorn stared unblinkingly at his superior for two seconds. “I will investigate this matter first thing tomorrow morning.â€Â

 

Wessalen bowed his head. “Thank you, Sir Keldorn. I knew I could count on you. Considering the nature of the cult, I feared letting anyone but someone possessed of your faith deal with this matter.â€Â

 

“Such a cult will likely be dangerous. Can I expect reinforcements?â€Â

 

“With the Fallen Paladins spoiling our reputation, the Shadow Thieves and their adversaries killing people on the streets, the Docks out of control and the political agitation regarding the ascension of that strange wizard – Xzar – in the Cowled Wizards’ organization, I fear I have few knights of experience to spare.â€Â

 

Keldorn nodded understandingly. “The first few days should be relatively without danger as I gather information on the cult and such. Only when it is time to strike will I require assistance. Perhaps in a few days time you will be able to liberate some warriors?â€Â

 

“That should be possible,†Wessalen agreed. “Sir Ryan Trawl tells me he could contact his squire, a young warrior-priest by the name of Anomen Delryn, if need be. The young man recently left for his Wanderings, but I am told he is still within the city walls.â€Â

 

Keldorn’s brow drew together in thought. “Anomen Delryn? Is he the poor boy whose father made a scene when he was squired?â€Â

 

Wessalen nodded. “Yes. He is a good lad, even if very undecided regarding his place in the world. Sir Ryan tells me his skill at arms is faultless. Would you like me to tell Sir Ryan to summon him?â€Â

 

Keldorn shook his head. “No. The poor boy would probably think he’s recalled for his Test before he even started his Wanderings. Perhaps I will go ask him my assistance personally if you can find no one else in a few days time.â€Â

 

“Very well, Sir Keldorn. I hear he stays at the Copper Coronet at the moment, should you need to meet with him.â€Â

 

Keldorn nodded absently, wondering what strange place for a man in the full armour of the Order to dwell.

 

“That will be all, Sir Keldorn.â€Â

 

The paladin stood and bowed. “Have a good night, Prelate.â€Â

 

Keldorn, even though he was dead tired, resisted the urge to just go to his cell and collapse on the bed after he extirpated himself from his armour. Instead, he gathered his belongings, slung his pack over his shoulder and made his way to the Government district. It was well after dark, and there was talk of vampires loose on the streets at night, so Keldorn kept to the main roads and well-lighted alleys. He reached his familial estate without troubles and in little time.

 

When he came in, Peony poked her head out of the kitchen and, when she saw it was him, she made a joyous smile.

 

“Master Keldorn! What a joy to see you! It’s been so long since you’ve been here!â€Â

 

To Keldorn, it seemed her smile was a bit forced, but he could not understand why, so he let it go. He smiled back.

 

“There have been many grave matters to be taken care of at the Order, but I am back home now.â€Â

 

Upon hearing the voice of her husband, Lady Maria interrupted her reading of a tale to her two daughters. While the youngest one was still young enough to listen raptly to every detail, it was obvious that the teenager was thoroughly bored with the tales and wished she could read something more adventurous before going to bed. However, she refrained for the sake of her young sister.

 

At the sound of their father’s voice, both girls jumped up and ran to crash into Keldorn.

 

He laughed and hugged both children.

 

“Dad!â€Â, Vesper exclaimed. “You haven’t been here in ages!â€Â

 

“It’s true, but I’m back now.â€Â

 

Surprising movement out of the corner of his eye, he lifted his head and saw his wife on the threshold between the dining hall and the waterpiece. She stood there with a small smile, wearing her favourite gown, the one draped over with many layers of interwoven blue and white veil. Keldorn smiled a private smile to her. She lowered her eyes and blushed, embarrassed by his manner in front of their children.

 

Keldorn was forced to read the rest of the tale before he could send both his daughters to bed and bathe. When he reached the chambers he shared with Lady Maria, she was in a bathrobe and brushing her long, golden hair, sitting facing her mirror.

 

“You have been away for two months, Keldorn,†she began.

 

Although her voice was soft, the reproach in it was unmistakable. He sighed and gently took the brush from her, starting to pull it along her hair gently.

 

“I know, Maria. I so often wanted for you to be there, so I would have someone to confide in and ease the heaviness of my heart. I asked Prelate Wessalen to send a message to you explaining my journey to Waterdeep. Did he not write to you?â€Â

 

She nodded, looking at him with her clear blue eyes in the mirror. “He did. I’m sorry for Ajantis.†Knowing the young man would miss his family, Lady Maria had invited him for supper many times during his training as a squire. With his impeccable manners and his ease with the children, he had conquered Maria’s heart.

 

“On the way to Waterdeep and back,†Keldorn explained, “we learned more about Ilire’s disappearance. You must have heard about her; she is this Child of Bhaal who is the Hero of Baldur’s Gate. She also married Ajantis a few months ago, and she disappeared soon after her husband. I had to search for her.â€Â

 

Maria nodded. Keldorn thought her silence peculiar, but he did not give it much thought.

 

“With Ajantis missing because of a mission I sent him to, and in my inability to find any trace of him, I felt responsible for Ilire’s safety. I did my best to fulfil my duty and find what had happened to her, but it has proven difficult. I spent weeks searching for traces of her in Baldur’s Gate.â€Â

 

“I know. I received your letters,†Maria said. It seemed to Keldorn her voice was a bit cold, but he dismissed it.

 

“I have just recently returned to Athkatla. I wanted to come back to you, but I needed a few days to do research here.â€Â

 

“I see.â€Â

 

“Prelate Wessalen and I discussed tonight. There doesn’t seem to be anything left for me to try. Much as I loathe admitting it, I failed to locate Ilire.â€Â

 

There was a silence. Keldorn set down the brush, but kept caressing her hair slowly.

 

“Will you stay with us a while?†Maria asked carefully.

 

“Duty calls again. There is a cult that needs investigating. I will begin my inquiries tomorrow. It is a dark cult, and it warrants swift intervention.â€Â

 

“Of course.â€Â

 

She rose, freeing her hair from his grasp, and walked to the bed woodenly. Her displeasure was so obvious that Keldorn felt forced to justify himself further.

 

“The cult states a new god has risen, but the Watchers received no indication that it is the case. It is more likely that the worship is of a false god, which lulls followers with promises of power to exact some price on them. There has been talk of people gouging out their own eyes in accordance to the teachings of that cult.â€Â

 

Maria made a face while she removed her bathrobe. “I am sure I do not need to hear any gruesome details, Keldorn,†she snapped.

 

She lay down in bed and carefully arranged the covers over herself. Keldorn stayed nonplussed by her sudden avoidance of his presence. After a few seconds of hesitation, he put out all but one of the candles in the room, disrobed and entered the covers besides her.

 

His advances were met with a stony absence of response and a firm, “Good night, Keldorn.â€Â

 

Sighing, he stretched and snuffed out the last candle, settling to sleep in the comfortable bed. The bed was almost too comfortable; he had grown unaccustomed to such luxuries and he turned around in the bed a while before he could find a comfortable position in the too soft matress and drift off to sleep. His wife ungraciously accepted his arm around her to sleep.

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See, I hold my promises ;)

 

Chapter VI. A lonely lady and a furious master

 

The next morning, Keldorn left at the first hint of greyish light in the sky. Lady Maria ordered Peony to watch the children and prepare them breakfast when they would wake. The servant needed no explanation why her mistress felt the need for loneliness this morning. The disgruntled lady exited the estate and went to sit on the beautiful fountain’s ledge in the Firecam courtyard.

 

She played idly in the water with one hand, but her thoughts were elsewhere than on the refreshing touch of the cool water between her fingers. She had put on her black and grey robe this morning, the saddest of all she had, but Keldorn had not even noticed it, no doubt already absorbed in thoughts of his next assignment. To think the man would dare making advances when he did not even stay twelve hours in the house, after two long months of absence. Two months writing to her how terrible life was, out there in the Order; he did not even have the courtesy of leaving her an address where she could write back with a vengeance to tell him how miserable life was at home without him. Sometimes when she was particularly lonely and frustrated, like this morning, she thought ungraciously that if the Order finally succeeded in making her a widow, life would not feel so unfair and cruel.

 

The gall Keldorn had to tell her that he felt duty to another man’s wife, duty enough to spend months searching for Ajantis, then his wife, while leaving his own wife and two daughters alone.

 

Her cheeks were flushed in anger, she knew, and she was glad she was alone by the well and not in a reception where ladies faultlessly noticed these things. Why was there always duty, then another duty, and then again another duty, keeping him away from his family? When had his family ceased to be an important priority in his life? How could he care so much about strangers foolish enough to gouge out their own eyes at their cult’s request, if he could not even care to spend a day at home and ask how his daughters were doing at school? How were the estate’s finances going? What should be done with the very young Lord Kartal who had asked for Leona’s hand, even though she was only fourteen? It was becoming humiliating to have to keep telling him that she had not had an occasion to discuss matters with her husband, and that he should await the opinion of the young lady’s father on the matter.

 

She was so deep in her thoughts that she did not notice anyone’s approach before she heard his voice, “Why, my lady, is this not a very sad gown?â€Â

 

She looked up to the elegantly dressed man and his two guards in radiant tabard over sparkling armour. All noble that he was, she was in no mood for flippantness.

 

“I would think, my lord, that it is very improper for a man to comment on a woman’s choice of gowns,†she snapped.

 

His pleasant smile faded to be replaced by seriousness. “Please forgive me, my lady, I meant no disrespect. You seemed lost in thought and I merely wished to lighten your mood.â€Â

 

She relented. Slightly. “I could better forgive you if I knew your name, my lord.â€Â

 

The easy smile returned. He removed his hat, revealing his grey, thinning hair, and it was more obvious now that he was considerably older than her or Keldorn.

 

“Sir William of Thorpe, at your service, my lady.â€Â

 

At least he had the decency not to request her name in return, but she felt more generous already.

 

“And I am Lady Maria Firecam.â€Â

 

He took her hand briefly and kissed it, and when he gave no indication of leaving, she realized she had been expecting him to turn his attention elsewhere, just like she always felt Keldorn did. She flushed anew in anger and shame, and hastily cast her eyes downward.

 

“Pray tell, my lady, how have I offended you? Please forgive me.â€Â

 

She waved him off impatiently, annoyed at herself. “You have not offended me. Please forgive my moodiness; I… am having a difficult day.â€Â

 

The man nodded once, and then with a move of the hand commanded his guards to step back a little distance.

 

“So early, and already a difficult day?†he inquired.

 

She sighed. “Yes, well, husbands who happen to be knights of the Order of the Radiant Heart tend to disregard what wee hour of the morning they choose to leave.â€Â

 

“Ah, I see,†he answered. “And what late hour of the night they come back at, I presume.â€Â

 

She looked at him, flushing in scandalized embarrassment. How dare he suggest in such a way that her nights were lonely? “If you mean to imply…†she began angrily.

 

He lifted his hands in surrender. “Not at all, my lady. I merely observe that you look exhausted. Perhaps I could offer you a cup of tea to help you to wake up?â€Â

 

She looked at him coolly. She should refuse; it was obviously improper, after all. Although, being in the mood she was in, she suddenly sent thoughts of propriety and Keldorn’s opinion to the Nine Hells and beyond.

 

“That would be most kind of you, Sir William,†she answered.

 

***

“What?â€Â

 

The ominous, false calm hinted to in that simple statement from Master Firkraag sent little shivers of dread up Conster’s spine, and he willed his shaking legs to steady. Even in his human form, Master Firkraag was a terrifying entity.

 

“As I said, Master Firkraag, I have lost track of Ilire of Candlekeep near Baldur’s Gate. A most unpleasant experience it was to try to locate her again through the layers of spell that have been woven over my scrying beacon.â€Â

 

Red dragons were known for their temper, and Conster knew he was putting one in a very foul mood with each further word. He therefore fell silent. The silence dragged on, as ominous as the tightly controlled calm of earlier.

 

“You know, Conster, the day started marvellously. I watched those foolish knights of the Order getting up, shaving and polishing their armour, thinking it is yet again their first day of search for orcs in the Windspear Hills. So I feel generous today,†Master Firkraag pronounced. “I will therefore give you a chance. I will try myself to pierce the enchantments put over your spell. If I fail, you will be safe. If I succeed, however, it will be proof of your incompetence, and I will roast you and eat you as appetizer for lunch. Now. What did you use to scry for Gorion’s ward?â€Â

 

Conster, big beads of sweat rolling on his forehead, extended a shield-shaped brass button to his master. At his questioning frown, he explained, “I took it from Ajantis. It’s a button from her weapon straps, which she gave her husband as a symbol that he is her defender.â€Â

 

The human-shaped dragon snorted in a very reptilian matter. “How very touching.â€Â

 

Firkraag uttered the incantations, waved his hands, and poured his spell components. He plunged deep into the spells, following the scrying beacon put in place by Conster. He soon hit the first veil of spells, and tore it apart effortlessly. He managed to tear through five of the many more levels of protection. The one who had created those veils of magic was a master of the Weave, while Firkraag was a dragon more intent on amassing a hoard of material treasures than of mental knowledge. The dragon was far enough in the searching spell, however, to get wisps of Gorion’s ward, and general impressions of where she was.

 

He recognized easily where she was, who she was dealing with, and lingered a while, tasting the sweetness of her suffering and making mental scores of what would need settling between him and the mage who for now deprived him of his revenge.

 

He emerged from the spell after a short while, an expression of lust on his face still; how he wished it was his claws that inflicted such pain on her, and not some aseptic spell or knife from the mad mage of Waukeen’s Promenade.

 

Conster’s knees could be heard knocking together when Firkraag emerged from the spell with lust in his eyes. Obviously, Conster misinterpreted the object of his master’s desire. The dragon took great amusement in his slave’s fear.

 

“Those spells were obviously too much for you to overwhelm, since even I, in my great knowledge, could not unravel them. I did not really need to try, however, since I could recognize the mage who made them.â€Â

 

“You could, great Master?†Conster asked, relief making his knees give way partly. “Who is it, then?â€Â

 

“The mad one, Jon Irenicus. He is holding Gorion’s ward captive.â€Â

 

Conster’s expression turned to dismay. “Captive? Then your revenge is denied! She was meant to come here in search of her husband, but how can she, then?â€Â

 

Firkraag smiled, and his teeth looked disturbingly sharp. “Oh, I do believe Irenicus has bitten into something too big for him this once. He will not hold her forever. Ajantis and the others are mine; as long as Ilire does not come here, they are trapped in the loop of time. They will never escape it. I can wait for Gorion’s ward to escape Irenicus. Weeks, or months, I care not. She will.â€Â

 

Conster smiled ecstatically. “Master Firkraag, the cleverness of your mind amazes me. I wish only to be worthy of serving you and bask in the glory of your intelligence.â€Â

 

Firkraag let out a low, rumbling draconic laugh. He almost purred in pleasure. “You have some future in serving me, Conster.â€Â

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I know I've been gone for a while, but I had to move to my brand new appartment (mostly it's brand new because we've scrubbed it and painted it new). Now I'm back to the once-every-other-week regular schedule :(

 

Please, read and review!

 

Chapter VII. Lonely Misery in the Darkness

 

Ilire pulled at her binds with all her might, increased tenfold by her pain, fear and anger. She screamed when the mad one slipped a finger in the cut he had just made across her abdomen. Her whole body went limp and filled with the sensation of crawling ants. Her head fell back down on the merciless stone table and rolled helplessly from side to side, all wind gone from her. Her torturer did something to her insides that felt nauseatingly like he hooked her intestines with a finger.

 

Pain was too much. Consciousness slowly slipped away, and she welcomed it. If only she could die. Everything would stop then. It could not go on like this.

 

“Pain will only be passing,†the mad one reminded her with his vacant, uninterested tone.

 

It jolted her away from unconsciousness. Tears fell from her eyes. Why did he not allow her to pass out? It was all she wanted. All she had ever desired. All she would ever expect from life ever again. Nothing more.

 

She heard him wave a spell and her skin tingled with a new sheen of cold sweat of dread. She recognized that simple spell. She had never thought it could bring so much pain.

 

Flames poured from his fingertips into her insides. She had thought earlier that all strength and wind had deserted her because of the pain, but somehow her lungs filled with air and she let out a long, shrill scream.

 

“No!†she panted when the flames were extinguished. “Stop! Please stop! Why are you doing this?â€Â

 

Before that instant, she had never spoken a single word to him during the tortures. The first day, when she had awoken groggy and nauseated in a cell to find him standing with his arms crossed before her, she had asked him who he was and why he held her prisoner. He had declared haughtily it was all irrelevant. From the fist time he had drawn a knife across her skin, she had never said another word to him.

 

“Why! Tell me why!†she screamed.

 

The silence dragged on, and he had stopped, most uncharacteristically, his tortures. She took it as a sign she should keep talking.

 

“What do you want from me? Tell me what you want! Tell me what you want me to do to stop torturing me!â€Â

 

“Torture?†he repeated with a kind of cold puzzlement. “I seek to liberate you. If you only let go there will be no cause for pain.â€Â

 

He moved his fingers. She screamed again.

 

“Let go?†she cried. “Please, I don’t understand! Please, I will do anything you want! Just explain it to me!â€Â

 

“I cannot explain,†he said. He merely elevated his voice to cover the sound of her screams, while his hands resumed their grim movement. “When you are ready, you will see what I mean, and only then will you free the potential within.â€Â

 

At the word “potentialâ€Â, its meaning filtered by unfathomable pain, a switch flipped in her mind. She understood what he meant. He spoke of the darkest recesses of her mind, where she now knew the essence of Bhaal lurked, with its dark promises of power and its superb indifference to the pain that seemed to blow her identity to pieces.

 

It seemed the pain, helplessness and despair her captor dosed so carefully were cleverly designed so she would hear the offers of Bhaal more clearly. They drew forth tantalizing images of her torturer’s blood spraying in the air, its copper taste on her tongue, the joyful redness of it splashing the walls. A feeling of unstoppable power and remorseless ruthlessness blossomed inside her, even through the agony of pain.

 

She reeled in fright from such a dark power inside of herself. Her identity still asserted itself enough to keep the essence from taking over and try what it would to stop the madman torturing her. With her last resources, Ilire shut and sealed a mental iron-bounded door on the essence of the god of Murder.

 

And her mind, in a last reflex of self-preservation, shut her consciousness away from the pain which called the essence forward. She passed out.

 

The mad mage stopped immediately when her breathing became even and shallow instead of laboured and ragged. Noticing her unconsciousness, he frowned and tried a few divinations to determine what had happened. Noting that the first step of the process had been accomplished – she had proven resistant beyond reason to acknowledge the godly essence within her – he smiled. It was not a satisfied or smug smile. It was a cold smile that never reached his dead eyes. The kind of smile a snake might do.

 

***

When she woke next, Ilire could barely move. She thought she should still have been unconscious, but a forceful heave forced her on her side. She retched. Blood, mixed with what seemed like bits of carbonized flesh, escaped her mouth. She coughed weakly to keep from choking on her own bloody vomit.

 

The effort of turning on her side and coughing hurt so much that she fell unconscious once more. When she emerged, an indescribable moment later, she pulled herself in a sitting position. She leaned back on the bars, letting her head rest back on their cruel hardness.

 

“Child? Are you alright?†she heard Jaheira from the next cage. Dynaheir used to be between them, but she had been gone for days.

 

Ilire’s mind refused to process the fact that someone had addressed her, so Jaheira’s worry remained unanswered.

 

Ilire thought of Ajantis. She was certain he was dead. If he was not, he would not have left her in this dungeon of madness to be tortured until she lost all sense of herself. She had trouble remembering her own name and that of her father, but she could easily recall Ajantis and his grave grey eyes.

 

She wondered what she had done to deserve being tortured to death by a madman in this damp dungeon.

 

She had always upheld the law. Fended for the weaker. Kept the villains in line. Fought for justice. She knew she was supposed to be a Bhaalspawn, but she always wondered where the essence of Murder was supposed to be within her. She was a fighter, and she fought, but to her the blade mastery was a form of art, and she used it to kill only when there was no other way, and when it would serve the greater good.

 

It seemed immensely unfair that she should suffer a Hell while still alive for sins she had never committed. She did not have the stuff of a martyr, and she did not accept her fate stoically.

 

She wondered why no one bothered to look for her. Dynaheir and Minsc were far enough from Rashemen, but it seemed the Harpers ought to have searched for Jaheira and Khalid. It seemed the Dukes of Baldur’s Gate owed her and Imoen at least the courtesy of finding out why they suddenly disappeared right outside their gates.

 

No one shared her opinion, it seemed, since she was rotting there alone with her companions, with no one bothering to try and find out what was being done to them.

 

***

The tortures resumed with cruel regularity. Ilire had never realized life could feel so long. The mad one never tired from his torture. Sometimes she had to hold the latch to the iron door within her mind, because the pain was so great that the temptation to let the essence loose to try what it would was almost too great to resist.

 

Sometimes her torturer spoke, now, telling her that if she just let go, there would be no cause for pain anymore. She resisted, although her will was eroded with each day of torture. She began wondering why she bothered resisting. He would never stop unless she let go.

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Hi everyone!

 

I’m finally back from the Arctic, and with plenty of images in my head and ideas. Here is a new chapter for “The Irony of Fate†and I should be able to keep updates on this story every two weeks.

 

I’ve been craving for reviews for two months! Please give me a good fix :)

 

Chapter VIII. The Light at the End of the Tunnel

 

When Imoen unlocked the door to her sister’s cell, Ilire stepped out as though in a dream, half-convinced it was just an illusion woven in her mind by their captor to dull her resistances.

 

They made their way warily through the underground dwelling of their captor, and soon they crossed paths with a rogue, easily identifiable by his black leather armour and the throwing knives in his sash. Ilire led her party, as usual, and asked him who he was. Without answer, he lunged for her.

 

Time slowed in her mind. This in itself was not unusual; she could do it to some extent when she fought, when need was great enough. What was unusual was the sudden surge of lust that flamed hotly throughout her body when she sidestepped his first blow and her katana flew at his neck. Her eyes opened wide in expectation. Her lips parted so she could pant in the sweet air, filled with the scent of sweat, leather, and steel; the smell of battle. She held the hit of her katana in an iron grip, she aimed true, and the blade connected with the thief’s neck.

 

His head went flying. Blood poured out of his neck in a red geyser that showered Ilire. It landed in her hair, on her clothes, in her open mouth. She tasted and smelled it with delight. It glistened beautifully on the length of her curved blade, dripping slowly, almost poetically, down the edge. It seemed her blade, which she had always considered to be an object of beauty in itself when she moved it in the practiced moves of the kata, had on the contrary always been meant to be dripping in blood in such a way.

 

Pain exploded in her chest. It brought her to her knees and she realized what she had done. What she had felt and thought. Leaning heavily on her blades, tipped in the ground, she retched over the legs of the body she had just killed.

 

The pain had snapped her out of the lust to kill, and reminded her forcefully that she should not give in to it. It had been what the mad one wanted. She had resisted him all that time. She would not grant him victory now that she was finally, finally free.

 

She pushed her locks out of her face and batted Jaheira’s hands away – the druid had been holding her hair. Ilire stood and with steely determination barked, “Resume formation!â€Â. Even stalwart Jaheira flinched and hastily moved back in line.

 

They would get out of that stinking dungeon. And soon.

 

***

Sir Cadril shifted wearily his weight from foot to foot, thinking to himself that he should have been more careful regarding his words about Sir Karath’s daughter around Sir Vandren, one of his close friends. Regardless, Sir Cadril figured he deserved to be punished with guard duty for his inconsiderate words about a young Lady. He would remember this lesson, that was for sure. Guard duty rated higher on the boredom scale than even assisting the teachers of the youngest apprentices in their first class of weapon mastery.

 

At least, Lady Irlana was not bad company. Even if supposed to be stoic and dull guards, they were allowed to speak to pass the time. Unfortunately, they had both run out of topics of conversation some two hours ago.

 

Sir Cadril looked up with boredom when another group of petitioners to the Order approached. He wished they were instead some strangers to the city who were lost and looking for their god’s temple; at least if they asked for directions he would have a chance to inquire where they hailed from and hopefully pick up an interesting conversation, even if only for a few minutes.

 

When they came nearer, however, they proved entirely different than he had expected. The four men and women were adventurers, and rather badly battered at that. The leader, especially, was a grim icon of savagery.

 

She wore a dirty tunic which had probably been yellow in the distant past, but had been smeared over with soot and grime but, most obviously, blood. Puddles of it marked her arms and abdomen where slits and tears in her clothes indicated she had received hits of blades. Streaks in the shape of fingers marred the edge of her tunic, from the fingers of assailants who had clutched at her as they fell. Fine droplets had sprayed her clothes, face and hair. She walked with a decided step, people parting hastily in front of her with small horrified squeals. Coagulated blood stained both her unsheathed blades. She carried them at the ready, a menacing and rude habit in the middle of a civilized district of a well-kept city such as Athkatla.

 

The adventurers walked directly towards the Headquarters’ doors, and stopped right in front of Cadril and Irlana. The leader’s eyes swept from him to Irlana, then back, and she addressed him.

 

“Are these the headquarters of the Order of the Radiant Heart?â€Â

 

A fleeting fear twisted in the pit of his stomach; she made it seem as though she would cut him down if he answered positively. Lady Irlana, too, held her shield at the ready, and her hand rested on the hilt of her sword.

 

“It is, my lady,†Sir Cadril answered cautiously.

 

“I am looking for one named Ajantis Ilvastarr,†she stated.

 

Sir Cadril frowned. “There is no knight by that name in this chapter. The name is vaguely familiar, maybe he passed by recently?â€Â

 

Her katanas lowered a bit. “Then might I speak with Sir Keldorn Firecam?†she asked.

 

Sir Cadril stole a quick glance at her companions. An equally grim half-elven female accompanied the leader in yellow tunic; she bore the symbol of Silvanus on a pin at the collar of her armour. A huge man stood behind them with a magical, gleaming and threatening two-handed sword slung carelessly across his massive shoulders. A sneaky-looking Kara-Turan in studded leather, with a katana belted at his hip and a short bow on his shoulder, leaned casually on the stone parapet behind them. None of them were likely to be acquaintances of the well-known and respectable paladin.

 

“Who asks for him?†Cadril asked in a bland tone.

 

The force of her glower almost made him take a step back. “I am not sure my name would mean anything to you,†she spat. “I am Ilire Ilvastarr.â€Â

 

Raking his brains, he tried to place the name, but it was totally unfamiliar to him, except the family name which she had just used to name Ajantis. He stole a glance at Lady Irlana. She shook her head; she did not know that name either.

 

“Please forgive me, my lady, but this name is not…â€Â

 

“Ilire of Candlekeep,†she provided.

 

Cadril paused, thinking this name sounded vaguely familiar, but a glance with Irlana confirmed that she did not know this name either.

 

“Ilire of Candlekeep, the ward of the sage Gorion.â€Â

 

Receiving again a blank stare, she shifted her grip of her blades to point them backward, and bowed ironically.

 

“Ilire of Candlekeep. You know, that nameless adventurer who just so happens to have stopped one Sarevok Anchev’s machinations to start a war between Baldur’s Gate and Amn?â€Â

 

Sir Cadril stared at her anew. It seemed unlikely that she could be the grand and noble adventuring lady whom they had heard of here; people said she helped nations and peasants alike, that she considered no request too low for her. They said she was beautiful and fair. The description seemed hard to fit with the young woman standing in front of him now, looking as though she just emerged from a blood bath.

 

“Please forgive us, Lady Ilire,†Lady Irlana said. “It was hard to recognize you for who you were in that garb. Unfortunately, Sir Keldorn is on duty at the moment, and not within the Headquarters.â€Â

 

“Then where can I find him?â€Â

 

“We do not know, Lady Ilire. He is on a secret assignment of some sort. If you wish to learn more, you should seek an audience with the Prelate.â€Â

 

“Thank you.â€Â

 

Without waiting for Sir Cadril to open the door for her, she pushed it open with her shoulder and went in the Order.

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Chapter IX. Hope shattered

 

Prelate Wessalen lifted his head from the report about the cleaning staff’s monthly wages when he heard loud voices arguing just outside his office. Hearing the tone rising and the imminence of open conflict, he hastily crossed the room and opened his door. Whoever dared come to blows within the walls of the Radiant Heart would likely calm down when faced with the Prelate himself.

 

When his eyes took in the scene – a blood-covered young lady with two ready katanas in her hands and her three companions, all holding weapons at the ready, faced Sirs Zarath, Ryan, Donalus and Mardus – he realized he had not counted on weird strangers being the cause of the noise.

 

The young lady, obviously the group’s leader, turned to him and smiled. It seemed out of place in her grim countenance.

 

“Ah, Prelate Wessalen. So good to make your acquaintance.â€Â

 

“What is the meaning of this?†he could only answer, staring from her to her companions to the knights who had been trying to keep her away from his office, apparently.

 

“Frankly, Prelate,†the young lady said jovially, “I consider the delay to get an appointment with you to be unacceptable. These kind sirs here were trying to convince me otherwise when you had the kindness to open your door yourself.â€Â

 

Prelate Wessalen looked from one paladin to the other in stunned puzzlement.

 

“But what can a petitioner want with the Prelate? There are a number of knights who answers pleas from the faithful…â€Â

 

“I am afraid it is your direct intervention that I need, Prelate. I am Ilire Ilvastarr, and I am looking for information on the whereabouts of Ajantis Ilvastarr, my husband. I thought my best chances were to speak with Sir Keldorn Firecam, since he was in charge of the investigation regarding Ajantis’s disappearance, but I was told that Sir Keldorn is not here at the moment. I want to know what has happened to my husband. Will you ask me, then, as your subordinates have done, to get out of your sight and come back in eight days when I can have a regular appointment, Prelate?â€Â

 

She made it quite clear what she would think of him should he throw her out without a word about her husband.

 

Wessalen stepped aside from his door and gestured for her to go in. She waved off her companions and came in his office alone.

 

“Sir Ryan,†the Prelate ordered calmly, attempting to return the Headquarters to their usual quiet, “please see to these people’s needs. Obviously they have been through a lot.â€Â

 

He closed his door and, at his invitation, the blood-soaked Lady Ilire Ilvastarr collapsed in a chair.

 

“Please, my lady, tell me where you come from in such a state. We thought you dead for over a month!â€Â

 

She eyed him with cold contempt.

 

“Held prisoner and tortured,†she provided succinctly. “Escaped – fought our way out of Hell, more or less. Satisfied?â€Â

 

Prelate Wessalen cleared his throat. “Not really, my lady. Who held you captive? Where were you being kept? Where and how were you captured? You have to believe me when I say that we moved earth and sky to try and find any trace of you, but could not.â€Â

 

“Thank you very much for your efforts,†she replied stiffly. “I don’t know why we were captured, or by whom. We were held by a man named Jon Irenicus, but that is about all the information I have about him. He never spoke much. Half his lair was connected to Waukeen’s Promenade – which, by the way, about half is missing by now – but the other half could be far removed, and was only linked through magic portals with the other. Now, maybe it is about time you realize that you have not yet spoken a single word of my husband or Sir Keldorn. Perhaps you should know that I have been having an incredibly bad week, or maybe month, I could not tell. I think you would do well to answer my questions now, as I am about to lose my temper.â€Â

 

“Of course.†A dragging silence fell between them, but Ilire waited through it patiently despite her obvious bad mood. “Your husband, Squire Ajantis Ilvastarr, was declared missing in the line of duty two tendays ago, after a month without word of him or the men of his squadron, and a tenday of investigation. I am sorry.â€Â

 

Ilire’s face became strangely blank and stayed that way for two long seconds, after which she brusquely stood up. Her two katanas clattered to the floor and her chair fell backwards. All colour drained from her face, contrasting starkly with the dark circles under her blue eyes and the black droplets of dried blood on her face.

 

Wessalen slowly followed to his feet, not wanting to startle her.

 

“Everything else, but not this,†she whispered.

 

Her voice was filled with such dread that a shiver ran up the old paladin’s spine.

 

“I beg your pardon?â€Â

 

“I could take anything else, but not this. I took everything else. Not this.â€Â

 

Her eyes turned back in her skull and she fainted. Wessalen had only to take a step to catch her in his arms before she fell to the floor. Torm granted his hasty and urgent prayer and the paladin’s hands filled with healing energies. Ilire let out a sleepy groan, but opened her eyes. She sat up, despite Wessalen who tried keeping her laying down a moment, so she could regain her composure.

 

But then she turned away and started crying, covering her face in her hands. Wessalen took her in his arms, the way he would have taken his infant daughter when she woke from a nightmare.

 

The strong warrior, the Hero of Baldur’s Gate, cried in raking sobs in his arms. Her tears flowed, and her body shook with such power that he thought she would tear herself apart.

 

“Every horror and indignity I suffered in that filthy dungeon… I survived through it all because I would get back to him. Why did I endure all this for? Now what do I get back to?â€Â

 

Wessalen tightened his arms around her. Though she had said nothing of the atrocities she had endured, the raw horror in her voice alone sufficed to make cold sweat run down his skin. His mouth was dry.

 

“I’m sorry,†was all the inappropriate answer he could come up with.

 

He would have expected her to snort, but she started crying again, not moving away from the comfort of his arms.

 

***

Keldorn did hear the large commotion in the gallery of sewers above him, but could not investigate what had caused it, as he was himself rather busy battling a score of zombies. While no such monster could match in battle an experienced paladin such as him, en masse as they were in those stinking tunnels, they were a force to be reckoned with.

 

The commotion went on for some time; he recognized mages and priests exchanging spells as well as warriors exchanging insults and blows. A dwarf’s raucous and strong voice carried far in those cramped tunnels, and Keldorn managed to hear some of his words; he insulted his attackers who refused a real fight and kept him stuck in a web.

 

Eventually the sounds of battle died down, however, and Keldorn approached the end of his own battle. Only three zombies still survived his Holy Avenger. Suddenly the paladin heard the whistling of arrows and he sidestepped hastily.

 

The arrow had not been aimed for him, though, because it sunk faultlessly in the middle of the closest zombie’s chest, staggering it a few paces back. More arrows, bolts and sling bullets whizzed past him, unnervingly close, but all found their marks. He had stopped watching where the projectiles came from by then, grateful for the assistance even if he would have survived this fight alone.

 

Suddenly someone burst at his side, slashing to the left and right, and the last two zombies fell dead. Keldorn looked up to see a blood-soaked young woman bring back her katanas in defensive position, surveying the corridors up and down from there to make sure their position was safe.

 

She was so young, and so much pain shadowed her eyes and face, that he immediately switched into “fatherly modeâ€Â.

 

“Halt and go no further, laymen!†he exclaimed, stepping in front of her on the path to the lower parts of the sewers, from where the zombies constantly emerged. “There be a grave evil here, the source of which I have yet to find. Please, forgive the harshness of my tone, but state your business in this place.â€Â

 

She looked at him straight in the eye with the unassuming confidence of an experienced leader and adventurer.

 

“If there be an evil here, I assure you that we are well equipped for it. So are you, I see." A ghost of a smile crossed her face. "Forgive us for spoiling your fun with those zombies. Might I know your name?â€Â

 

“I am Keldorn, servant of the Most Noble Order of the Radiant Heart.â€Â

 

“Introductions seem to be in order, then. I am Ilire Ilvastarr.â€Â

 

Keldorn forcefully closed his mouth.

 

“Ilire Ilv… But, by Torm!†He floundered for a moment. “Ilire Ilvastarr! But what are you doing in Athkatla! How did you get past the Flaming Fist and Sir William in Baldur’s Gate?â€Â

 

Her expression turned sour. “I’m sorry, Sir Keldorn, but I have no idea what you are talking about. If you were trying to keep me north of Baldur’s Gate, your men have done poor work. I did not even try to avoid the main roads and inns.â€Â

 

“No! Not at all! When you disappeared, I spent a whole tenday in Baldur’s Gate searching for you, and I left Sir William behind in case he could surprise any rumour about you! How did you suddenly reappear in the world without his notice?â€Â

 

She looked up and down the corridor again. “This does not seem like a very safe place where to have a lengthy discussion. Prelate Wessalen promised you would agree to give me a detailed report on your investigation regarding Ajantis. Would you tolerate letting evil be for the time of a night, so I could learn what has happened of my husband?â€Â

 

His shock faded into painful memory at her words. “Of course. Let us be away from this stinking place.â€Â

 

He followed her and her companions out of the sewers. On the way out, Keldorn noticed that the thugs who camped constantly in the sewers, and whom he suspected of guarding some illegal business or another, were now dead by the hands of the adventurers of Ilire’s group. Keldorn had avoided the dwarf’s party because they outnumbered him and were obviously capable, but he felt no guilt or shock to see Ilire’s companions searching the bodies. Ilire employed the services of a thief, and the Kara-Turan informed his leader of the presence of two secret passages in the vicinity. Keldorn smiled to himself; he had been right about the bandits guarding something. Ilire answered distractedly to the thief that she might investigate the secret doors, but some other time.

 

They exited the sewers and everyone took a good long breath of the cleansing air. They set to walk at a brisk pace towards the district’s exit.

 

“I’m told the biggest inn in the city is the Copper Coronet of the Slums,†Ilire began once they were out of the Temple district. “I’m afraid we can’t afford much more at the moment. Does it offend Lord Firecam to be seen in such lowly company?†There was an edge to her voice. Keldorn was starting to find her impolite.

 

“I have slept in rancid dungeons before,†he replied icily. “I have seen worse accommodations than the Coronet.â€Â

 

She failed to answer, but shot him a smile out of the corner of her lips. The group crossed the city at a fast pace, keeping to the main streets because dusk was falling. When they neared the Slums proper, a man suddenly slithered out of the shadows and addressed Ilire by name.

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Sorry about this being late, I forgot about it last week-end, and I’ve been busy… but here it is, and it shouldn’t delay Out of the Dark and the Mist. Please read and review!

 

Chapter X. Acceptance

 

When at last they passed the doors of the Copper Coronet, after a forceful meeting with one Gaelan Bayle, Keldorn shared Ilire’s frustration and impatience. How would a man dare to make a lady in need pay such an outrageous sum as twenty thousand gold pieces for information that could, or not, help her find her own kinswoman? And this was not even mentioning that the man making the demands was speaking on the behalf of a shadowy but undoubtedly disputable organization on which identity Keldorn had his ideas.

 

The way Ilire had taken the man’s speech in stride told Keldorn this was not the worst she had seen recently.

 

Some very dark thoughts brooded in his head when suddenly he was startled out of his musings. Another man addressed Ilire as they crossed the crowded common room of the Coronet, in search of a table where to sit down.

 

“What brings you, fair lady, to this cesspool of corruption?â€Â

 

Keldorn winced in spite of himself. Ilire was obviously in no mood for such flowery speech. However, although she did snort and muttered “Fair lady? Hardly,†under her breath, she turned to look at the young man calmly enough. Examining him, Keldorn quickly recognized the symbol of the Order emblazoned on the shoulder of his armour. After a moment of confusion as to the reason of the presence of a squire of the Order in a seedy tavern like the Coronet, Keldorn suddenly remembered that Anomen Delryn was supposed to be here, trying to find someone to go Wandering with.

 

The young man, whether he was Anomen Delryn or not, was a handsome one. He had thick and wavy brown hair carefully trimmed – surely the man had not put on his helmet of the whole day – and an equally well-cared-for beard. His square jaw was harmoniously counter-balanced by his full mouth and small straight nose.

 

Ilire looked at him for a second. “This cesspool of corruption is all I can afford for now,†she answered levelly, “and my companions and I definitely need a rest. So here we are. What about you?â€Â

 

“I am Anomen Delryn, a squire who looks to be knighted into the Order of the Radiant Heart. I am in search of worthy companions.â€Â

 

“Ah. So you’re looking for adventure?â€Â

 

“There is more to it, my lady!†he exclaimed enthusiastically. “I seek to prove my worth to the Order by grand deeds in battle, done in the name of Light, and for the glory of Torm, our patron deity.â€Â

 

She stared blankly at him and Keldorn readied himself to restrain her should she do something… harsh. He was not sure at all what effect this over-zealous squire was having on her.

 

“Just how old are you, by the way?â€Â, she asked matter-of-factly.

 

Her interlocutor frowned and took a step back in confusion. “I… I am twenty-five, my lady. Why would you ask that?â€Â

 

She shrugged. “No matter. I could use another companion in my party, if you’d like to join us, but before you accept, I should tell you that my ultimate goal is to rescue someone wrongly taken captive by the Cowled Wizards. I suspect it’s going to be risky business.â€Â

 

The squire beamed happily at the news. “And who is this person you would rescue?â€Â

 

“A childhood friend. Her name is Imoen. In truth, I consider her more of a sister.â€Â

 

“The rescue of a childhood friend? Ah! What a worthy cause to pursue!â€Â

 

When Anomen went to sit with Minsc and Jaheira to discuss party formation and strategies, Ilire watched him go.

 

“Strange young man,†she muttered to Keldorn. “I can’t believe he’s twenty-five. He’s way too green to be that old.â€Â

 

The old paladin felt a sudden ache in his heart; everyone should be that green at twenty-five. The harsher and bloodier lessons of the life of adventurer should come later. Obviously that had not been spared Ilire. The young woman and paladin sat alone at a table in a corner, and the waitress came to take their orders. Ilire took only a glass of water, but Keldorn did order some food.

 

“Keldorn, please tell me about Ajantis,†she simply pleaded then.

 

He took a breath and set his shoulders. He told her, everything from the date Ajantis had arrived in Athkatla from Waterdeep to the day the Order had been forced to declare that nothing else could be done and that he was missing for good. Her eyes filled with tears on more than one occasion, but other than that she displayed no emotion.

 

“Keldorn, I need to know,†she said at the end of his tale. “If there is anything, anything that can be done, that can be tried, I will do it. But if there isn’t, then I will have to give him up and search for Imoen instead.â€Â

 

Keldorn took her hand. “I’m sorry, Ilire. I, and every other knight of the Order present, did everything we could to find him. There isn’t anything left to do.â€Â

 

She closed her eyes and a few tears fell from them, but she nodded with determination. “Then we will concentrate all our efforts on Imoen, hoping that at least she can be saved.†She freed her hand and stood up. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll rent us rooms and take a good bath now.â€Â

 

“Of course.â€Â

 

She had just left when suddenly the stern half-elf was standing by Keldorn’s table, looking at him pointedly.

 

“Forgive me, my lady, but I believe the introductions were not made properly. I think I missed your name.â€Â

 

“I am a druid, and my name is Jaheira,†she provided flatly. “Is it as bad as it looked?†She nodded her head stiffly in Ilire’s direction.

 

“I am afraid so, my lady,†Keldorn sighed with sorrow.

 

Jaheira looked away. “Dear Silvanus,†she whispered. She seemed lost in thought, and then she turned back to Keldorn. “Sometimes I find it hard to understand why the gods would choose this child and take away from her everyone she ever loved. Her foster father, her husband, and now her sister.â€Â

 

The druid pulled the chair, and then remembered her manners. “Do you mind if I sit with you for a while?â€Â

 

“Of course not, my lady. Take a seat.â€Â

 

She sat wearily. “What do you plan on doing, Sir Keldorn?â€Â

 

“A simple Keldorn will be fine, Jaheira. But why do you ask about my intentions?â€Â

 

She looked at him as though he was daft. “Do you plan on going back to investigate your vicious cult alone, or do you wish our company on your quest?â€Â

 

“I would think it an obvious point of honour and duty to accompany Ilire on her search for her sister, since it is the Order’s failure to locate Ilire’s party while you were prisoners of Irenicus that led to Imoen being abducted by the Cowled Wizards.â€Â

 

The druid nodded approvingly at him. “Forgive my harsh questioning, but our recent experiences have rendered me suspicious. I think you should know a few circumstances regarding our captivity.â€Â

 

“I agree. We found traces of a fight near Baldur’s Gate, in a clearing just east of the gates, but not another sign of you. It seemed most peculiar that you disappeared so abruptly.â€Â

 

“That clearing just outside Baldur’s Gate, you are talking of the glade with a big oak tree with three rocks at its base?â€Â

 

“That very one. Was this really where you were captured?â€Â

 

She nodded, her expression darkening at the memories. “At first we were set upon by bandits who told us we were the biggest bounty they had ever seen. We battled them and many died, but then three other people joined the fight. There was a man and two women. I can tell you that they were not in harmony with nature.â€Â

 

Keldorn frowned. “Not in harmony? In what way?â€Â

 

“I felt a definitive touch of negative energy in them.â€Â

 

“Undead?â€Â

 

“Yes, but not your common brand zombie, stinking and easily dispatched. These were sophisticated creatures. I think those three were vampires and not mere fledglings either.â€Â

 

The old paladin considered in silence for a while. “Why would vampires attack you and then deliver you to someone else?â€Â

 

“I do not know. This ‘someone else’ bears the name of Jon Irenicus. He tortured us. In his own words, he ‘experimented’ on us. The nature or goal of these tests, I could not begin to guess at. He took the life of my husband to show death to Imoen, and he did the same to Dynaheir, another of our long-time companions, for Ilire’s benefit.†The druid’s gaze turned as hard as steel. “But these deaths are the most merciful act Irenicus did to us of all the time we spent in his ‘care’. Whatever this blasted excuse for a mage did to us, it triggered a change in Ilire. I can feel her life essence slowly losing harmony with nature.â€Â

 

“Are you referring to her parentage?†Keldorn asked.

 

“I am,†she replied coldly. “I was not sure the Order would have wished you to be aware of that.â€Â

 

“The Order considers her a victim of her heritage, if that is the aim of your intensive questioning,†the paladin retorted defensively.

 

“I am glad to hear that,†Jaheira answered with a dry smile. “But I wanted to point out that Ilire’s balance is unstable at the moment, as a consequence of Irenicus’ ‘experiments’.â€Â

 

“Ah. So you wish to warn me of a possibly difficult paladin duty, should she lose harmony with herself.â€Â

 

The druid rose from her seat. “No, Sir Keldorn. I am warning you that, should Ilire do anything you might disagree with, it will not be her fault. It will be Irenicus’ fault, and I will lay blame at your feet for letting us rot in that hellish dungeon for long enough for Irenicus to do to her what he did to her. I bear the responsibility of my helplessness. So should you.â€Â

 

She turned away stiffly and disappeared upstairs, leaving a grieving Keldorn behind.

 

***

Because of Jaheira’s warning, Keldorn was especially wary and observant of Ilire’s behaviour in the next few days. To his relief, he saw nothing that hinted at a dark influence from her parentage. The consequences of her ordeal with Irenicus were plain to see, and worried Keldorn for her in a fatherly manner, but there was nothing darker than that.

 

Among the visible effects of her trauma, there was the fact that Ilire ate preciously little, and the smell and sight of meat appeared to sicken her. From the dark circles under her eyes, Keldorn guessed she slept little and badly. She had taken to wearing a sleeveless tunic to fit the warming Amnian spring, and he could see marks on her arms that were not fully cicatrized yet. She occasionally turned her back on the carnage once they were done with a battle.

 

Other than that, she was what anyone would expect of a seasoned adventurer. She did not shy before battle or blood, fought with exceptional competence, stood up for just causes, pitied defenceless opponents but was ready to kill if necessary, did not give any attention to pain, and led her party decisively.

 

It took them only five days to overthrow the cult of the eyeless that Keldorn had spent two tendays investigating. They infiltrated the ranks of the faithful, gained enough of the recruiter’s trust to be given an important task, reassembled the ancient artefact of mighty power that the beholder wanted for itself, and used it against it instead. And so, five days later, the evil cult that had prayed upon the faithful of the Temple district was destroyed.

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Chapter XI. Heavy burden

 

On their second night in the sewers, Anomen sat looking into the flames of their cooking fire, thinking back rather dazed on their recent accomplishments. He could hardly believe all the terrifyingly powerful creatures they had dealt with in so short a time. This life of adventure was incredibly more fast-paced than the campaigns he had the habit of with the Order. He realized now the need for such Wanderings before a squire was knighted.

 

Sir Keldorn, from the height of his superior worldly experience, took it all in stride as though it was natural, but Anomen thought secretly and haughtily that at his age, he must find the days long. From the casual calm of Ilire, Jaheira, Minsc and Yoshimo, Anomen understood that these four too had the habit of facing so many enemies on such time scales.

 

It was stimulating and terrifying at the same time. He was learning much, and quickly. Ilire had offered him a place on the front line, which he had accepted, and he stood to her left, with Keldorn to her right. Minsc held the rear-guard and served as their archer. Anomen learned to man the front line of such a small party efficiently. He learned to concentrate his efforts with those of his companions on a single enemy. He learned to fall back before too many monsters to lead them into a thief’s traps. He learned to spare his strength so he would not tire out before the end of a long day of battles. He learned to use his spells in the heat of battle and to coordinate a change of positions with Jaheira so each could cover and protect the other while the other was busy casting.

 

He spent the first two days adapting to this new rhythm of battles, but after that he had the luxury of time to acknowledge his intriguing new leader. Even though they rested at the bottom of the sewers of Athkatla in a city hidden underground, filled with utterly depressed people, Anomen had wished to share a cup of tea with Ilire that night. However, she had gone away earlier to wash and change, he gathered, but when she delayed in her return, he began wondering what was taking her so long.

 

Finally, he turned to the druid, who made it very clear by her attitude that she was the second in command, “Lady Jaheira?â€Â

 

“Yes, Anomen?†The woman also made it plain that she did not hold much sympathy for him. Whenever she said something to him, he was never quite sure if she complimented him or meant to scorn him with lashing sarcasm.

 

“Do you know what might delay Ilire? She has been gone for much longer than she said. I would go in search of her, but I fear to embarrass her by coming upon her as she bathes.â€Â

 

He had thought the matter trivial, but the look of concern that transformed the harsh half-elf’s face told him it was anything but that.

 

“How long has she been gone?â€Â, the druid asked.

 

“I am not too sure, my lady. Maybe forty minutes?â€Â

 

Jaheira snatched her staff in one hand and his arm in the other and dragged him forcibly along in the general direction Ilire had left.

 

“Anomen, you are a cleric and therefore share the position of healer of this group with me,†she stated.

 

When it became obvious she was expecting an answer, he replied, “It… it is an honour to me, my lady.â€Â

 

“Therefore there is some information that I must share with you regarding Ilire’s… condition.â€Â

 

“Ilire’s ‘condition’?†Anomen echoed. “What condition?†he asked worriedly.

 

“Perhaps you are aware that we recently escaped from captivity?â€Â

 

“No one stopped to tell me the story,†the young priest accused somewhat ungracefully, “but I had gathered as much from your conversations.â€Â

 

“Well, we were tortured. I am afraid Ilire refused to tell me the full extent of the damage she suffered at our captor’s hands.â€Â

 

Anomen thought about this in silence for a moment. “That would be a serious cause for concern,†he conceded. “I have not noticed any sign of weakness or illness in Ilire, although I have not been looking specifically for such symptoms. Do you suspect anything in particular? Do you know why she would hide her injuries from healers?â€Â

 

Jaheira looked at him out of the corner of her eye with a ‘do-I-really-need-to-tell-you’ look, before she spat, “Because Irenicus obviously tried to deprive her of any dignity, and she does not wish to tell me or anyone what exactly he did to accomplish that. To be frank with you, Anomen, I am not sure I wish to know. You were never in the dungeon, so you would not know, but after I saw what he… what he did to the helpless corpse of my husband… I fear what he might have tried with Ilire’s living body.â€Â

 

A shocked silence on Anomen’s part answered Jaheira’s words. He had not foreseen that this group’s past was tainted with such felony.

 

“My most sincere condolences. Was this Irenicus punished?†he asked.

 

The druid snorted and gave him another of her withering looks. “Unfortunately not. He left with the Cowled Wizards for ‘unsanctioned use of magical energies’, along with Imoen.â€Â

 

Anomen cleared his throat. “Then I would suppose he is being punished by the Cowled Wizards as we speak, my lady. Perhaps you are not quite aware of it, but the mages are very…â€Â

 

She cut him off with an exasperated sigh. “He was not taken by the Cowled Wizards. He so clearly overpowered them that he set conditions to his surrender and willingly went with the Cowled Enforcers.â€Â

 

The cleric let out a shocked gasp. “The traitor! What conditions?â€Â

 

“That the Cowled Wizards take Imoen also. So you see, I have doubts that they are really punishing him right now. I would rather think they try to keep their ground in negotiations, at the very best.â€Â

 

After a hesitant silence, the young squire went on, “Does this not bode unwell for Lady Imoen?â€Â

 

“It does,†the druid replied darkly.

 

They stopped, because they had reached a branch on the path of floating walkways of the underground town. They looked around, but even Jaheira’s keen eyes could not make out Ilire in the cave’s darkness.

 

“I will look this way,†Anomen proposed, pointing off to the right, towards the less circulated part of the city. Jaheira nodded distractedly and headed left. Anomen had walked only a short while when suddenly he heard the sound of someone retching. Guessing rightly that it was Ilire, he rushed to a small alcove in the rock wall, plunged in darkness in the cave’s gloom. The ceiling hung so low that he could not walk underneath with his back upright. He stopped by the entrance.

 

“Ilire, my lady? Is this you?â€Â

 

Another fit of heaving answered him. He noticed the unmistakable smell of blood mixed with the acrid smell of vomit. He also recognized with horror the smell of burned flesh. Throwing caution to the winds, thinking she might have been under attack and left for dead in that black hole, he bent his head and stepped forward into the dark. He blinked a few times, but his eyes adjusted to the dimness quickly, letting him guess Ilire’s prostrate form out of the shadows, holding her hair while she retched.

 

Understanding dawned on Anomen, accompanied with a chilling dread that set cold sweat running on his skin. The smell of blood and burned flesh did not emanate from any outside wounds inflicted by some ambush while she was isolated from her party; the smell came from what she vomited, what was left of some inner injury she endured he could not guess how. He stood there, frozen, until at last she sat back on her heels and leaned against the wall in obvious exhaustion.

 

He realized she had not heard or seen him reaching her refugee, because she startled at the creaking of leather when he crouched besides her.

 

“Easy, Ilire. It’s only me,†he whispered. He found himself strangely cautious, fearing to even reach out a hand to her shoulder to reassure and steady her. When he slowly reached out with a hand, she shied away from him. He briefly considered going in search of Jaheira, but he would not leave her there alone in a dubious state of health. Gathering his resolve, he extended a hand and put it on her shoulder.

 

“My lady, are you ill?†He felt foolish for asking, but he could think of no better way to assess her state.

 

She grunted and tried to move away from him, but the hole in the rock was not that big.

 

“Please, my lady, I am merely trying to help you. Is there any injury that I could heal for you?â€Â

 

She croaked a laugh. “I don’t know. Can you heal what doesn’t leave marks?â€Â

 

She was so weak that she could not really resist when he pulled her gently towards him and put his arm around her shoulders. “I would hope you would let me become your friend, and friends can usually help with those injuries. Now, please, my lady, come out in the light so I can see what is ailing you.â€Â

 

He pulled her out and sat her down with her back against the wall. He looked around, but there was still no trace of Jaheira. He knelt besides Ilire.

 

“My lady, I think I must ask uncomfortable questions of you if I am to help you at all.â€Â

 

She opened one teary eye to look at him, but soon closed it and turned her head away.

 

“How were you injured in such a grievous manner? How could I cast healing spells on you in the past two days and not repair this as well?â€Â

 

She shrugged. Sighing, Anomen turned her face to him, held her chin gently but firmly with one hand and lifted her eyelids to look at the abnormal paleness of their insides. He then took her hand and pressed on her nails briefly, to see the colour returning there much too slowly. He touched her wrist and felt for her pulse. It was weak, irregular, and slow.

 

“My lady, I see all signs I can detect of severe blood loss, but there are no visible injuries on you. I must conclude that you bleed internally. Did you receive today a blow that could have caused such injury? Or do you hide this fact from me and Jaheira for two days?â€Â

 

She had turned her head away as soon as he had released her face, and he saw tears streaming down her cheeks. Faced with her continued silence, he let out a long sigh of frustration.

 

“My lady, I know this injury must hurt. If only to eliminate the pain, will you not tell me what I need to know to remove it?â€Â

 

“You’re a near stranger, Anomen. I couldn’t tell Jaheira what Irenicus did to me. Do you think I could tell you?â€Â

 

“I am a healer, my lady, and held to the secret regarding whatever treatment I may dispense,†he said. “If it pleases you better, you can pretend you do not know me at all, and I will never again hint that I know anything regarding this.â€Â

 

She turned and stared at him fiercely. “Swear it on your honour.â€Â

 

He returned her look with equal intensity. “I swear on my honour as a squire of the Order of the Radiant Heart.â€Â

 

“No. Swear on your honour as a priest of Helm.â€Â

 

He bristled indignantly. “Do you think a cleric of the Watcher holds honour in greater virtue than a squire of the Order?â€Â

 

“No, I merely think that you view yourself primarily as a disciple of Helm. Now, swear, or go away and let Jae find me.â€Â

 

He went to a knee, bent his head and swore ceremoniously, “I swear, on my honour as a servant of Helm, to never again let transpire anything of my knowledge of your injuries, my lady. I will carry it as a secret to my grave.â€Â

 

She nodded. “Thank you.†She took a breath. “This has been ailing me for weeks. Irenicus healed… You do know who Irenicus is?â€Â

 

“Jaheira told me a little of him, yes.â€Â

 

“Well, he would torture me, and then heal me so he could torture me again. He healed most of what he did, but he always carefully left me with some of my injuries so I couldn’t really get any sleep.†She took a breath, and began her tale. “He liked… what he liked best was to…â€Â

 

***

She had not realized how heavy the secret was. She had not suspected how liberating it would be to retell everything that had been done to her to someone who cared and was horrified by what had been done to her. It was good to have someone tell her that such acts were of an unspeakable evil, and that surviving it was a striking display of strength. It felt incredibly soothing to have someone tell her that she was of impressive determination to go on despite the injuries and trauma, and that what Irenicus did was disgusting.

 

As arrogant as Anomen could be, when he slipped in his role of healer he was as considerate, gentle and reassuring as you could hope for. He made it clear that Irenicus was disgusting and filthy. Not her. Only what was done to her.

 

He told her he could not heal everything in a single night, and that he would require assistance from a more experienced cleric. He promised her he would speak with High Watcher Oisig and ensure he would have assistance without revealing anything of what had been done to her. However, he could still help her right away. After a greater restoration and spells of healing, curing poison and disease, she did feel better.

 

Despite Anomen’s assurances that he could not heal everything in a single night, when he finished his spells, she almost felt as though she was alright, just because she had told him everything.

 

And when he took her in his arms so she could cry, it felt like he had gathered all her broken pieces and was pulling her back together.

 

***

Jaheira was deeply worried when she finished exploring her part of the walkways and found no trace of Ilire. She backtracked to where Anomen had gone. When she found him shortly after, she was greeted by a peculiar sight.

 

At first she rushed, thinking he restrained Ilire who had a seizure, but when Jaheira caught the look of pure wrath etched on his features, she stumbled to a halt. He was not restraining her at all. He was holding her in his arms as she cried, and by the look on his face she had told him at least part of the reason why she was crying.

 

Ilire was too lost in her grief to notice anything of the outside world, but Anomen did lift his head when he heard Jaheira’s footsteps. The look of distilled righteous anger on his face did not change, but he slowly shook his head to gesture her that he did not need her assistance.

 

Jaheira, greatly surprised, retreated, but promised herself that she would get answers out of him later.

 

***

Anomen’s mind was reeling from everything Ilire had told him. Considering the sheer amount of horror that seemed to have been deposited on his heart, it seemed it had taken all too short a time to tell. He wondered how she managed to set a course to follow and to fight on every day, after what had been done to her.

 

He had seen many seasoned paladins come back from the one battle too many, their minds and will destroyed, and seen them spend the rest of their lives in the temples, tended to by clerics at all times, to ensure they ate and washed and walked once around the courtyard everyday.

 

What had been done to Ilire was considerably worse than seeing the ugliest face of war. She had been subjected to an organized attempt to break her body and mind. Anomen could not imagine what goal but the purest cruelty one could have to inflict such grievous treatment to a person.

 

When he saw Lady Jaheira come their way, he gestured her away; Ilire was crying all she was worth and she needed it. Since it seemed she could not do so in Jaheira’s presence, then it seemed better to keep the druid away for the moment.

 

At last, Ilire’s tears stopped flowing. She sagged in Anomen’s arms, obviously falling asleep. He held her for a moment, not daring to move, but after some time he was forced to acknowledge that he would have to either spend the entire night like that or lay her down. The move woke her, and she sat up to rub her eyes. Anomen waited patiently until she looked at him.

 

“Thank you,†she said simply. “I feel much better now.â€Â

 

Anomen smiled. “I am glad I could help you, my lady, but rest assured that any injury that might still resist the restoration will be taken care of as soon as we return to the surface.â€Â

 

She nodded, then sighed and got to her feet. Anomen helped her up, holding her forearm, and they went back to the party’s camp together.

 

***

It was three days before Jaheira could talk to Anomen alone. She pulled him aside while Ilire and Yoshimo were busy negotiating price with Ribald regarding the spoils retrieved from the lair of the Cult of the Eyeless.

 

“What did you do to her? And what did she tell you?†the druid demanded with her usual aggressiveness.

 

Anomen, no matter how arrogant he could be, had been born and bred to discipline and usually bent meekly to orders. He often discussed and tried to show off while it was time to plan an attack or a course of action, but he never argued when it came to action, knowing that lives depended on the swiftness of intervention. Jaheira was therefore surprised to see the bland look of denial on his features after she delivered a direct request with forceful authority.

 

“I did my best to heal her injuries, my lady,†he answered evenly, “and what she told me will stay between us.â€Â

 

She narrowed her eyes. “I was her healer before you were even squired, cleric!†she huffed. “Don’t you think I should know what’s wrong with her?â€Â

 

His quiet confidence irritated her, to say the least. “Knowing what I know now,†he replied, “I would not have regretted not being into the confidence had she chosen to tell you, Lady Jaheira. I cannot say it proved a pleasant experience to hear what was done to her. It is still a small price to pay to help in her healing. However, I made a solemn promise to her that I would never reveal her secret, and I will not. In exchange, I received her oath that she would accompany me to High Watcher Oisig so he could complete Ilire’s healing. I promised her that I would tell the High Watcher what needed to be done, without explaining to him why. I can assure you that, tomorrow at the latest, there will be no traces left of Ilire’s injuries.â€Â

 

He turned and left Jaheira alone in her corner between two shelves. He surprised a glance from Ilire, who had been watching their exchange suspiciously. He walked to her and murmured in her ear, taking advantage of an occasion when Yoshimo was the one doing the dealings, “Do not worry, my lady. Your secret is still safe with me.â€Â

 

She gave him a faint smile. “I know, Jaheira’s look of frustration already told me all that.â€Â

 

Anomen chuckled.

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Chapter XII. Burdens of a different sort

 

Two tendays later, Ilire led her group of adventurers to the Government District in search of a magic license for Aerie, their newest companion. When they arrived at the square in front of the building housing the city administration, Ilire surprised a longing look on Keldorn’s face while he looked down to their right at a well-kept and spacious estate. Ilire wondered curiously if she should ask what was on his mind or risked prying. He spared her the need to make a decision when he sighed and spoke.

 

“It has been some time since I visited my family. Perhaps we could go and I could introduce you, I live just over there.â€Â

 

Ilire stopped dead in her tracks and stared blankly at Keldorn.

 

“Your family,†she repeated flatly.

 

Keldorn blinked a few times in puzzlement at her strange manner, and explained, “Yes, there are my wife Maria and my two daughters, Leona and Vesper.â€Â

 

Ilire stared back at him without reaction for a long time, before she declared slowly, “Yes, I think it would be best if we visited your family as soon as possible. Since we’re presentable for the government clerks, I would think we’re clean enough to pay a visit to your wife. Just over there, you say? Is there any history to the Firecam estate, as there is for your armour?â€Â

 

The old paladin smiled enthusiastically and recounted the glorious history of the Firecams while he guided his new adventuring companions towards his estate. When they arrived, Keldorn opened the door and gestured them all in.

 

Peony stuck her head out of the kitchen at the sound of the door and smiled at the visitors, though Keldorn noted she clearly forced the smile.

 

“Ah, Lord Keldorn, it is good to see you again. And sooner, too, this time!†She stepped back from the table where she was washing the breakfast’s dishes, and quickly wiped her soapy hands and arms on her apron.

 

“Yes, my duty allows me to spend more time in the city,†Keldorn explained. “Peony, I would like you to meet my new travel companions. We have already eradicated an evil cult together, and now I assist them on their quest to liberate one of their members. This is Ilire Ilvastarr of Candlekeep, their leader. With us are Anomen Delryn, Squire of the Order of the Radiant Heart, Minsc – and Boo – of Rashemen, Yoshimo of Kara-Tur, Aerie and Jaheira.â€Â

 

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, m’ladies, m’lords.†The servant curtsied politely.

 

“Please, Peony, is your mistress home?†Keldorn asked.

 

The servant nodded with obvious nervousness. “Yes, my Lord. Let me go get her.†She disappeared upstairs and came back a few seconds later, followed by an imperial noble lady who could be no one but Maria Firecam. The cook disappeared deftly back into the kitchen.

 

“Who are these vagrants, Keldorn? Peasants out of Calimport?â€Â

 

Ilire had preciously little tolerance for Amn’s strict enforcement of the nobility system, and Maria’s diminutive commentary alone would have been enough to make her blood boil, but the adventurer could feel sympathetic to a paladin’s wife, so she schooled her features and kept her peace.

 

“Maria,†Keldorn tried valiantly, “these are the worthy companions with whom I have fought and eradicated the cult of which –â€Â

 

“I don’t care!â€Â, his wife snapped. “Why should I care for the vagabonds you run away with! When you free yourself from your duty, you do not even have the care to stay long enough to leave your scent around this place! This is supposed to be your home, Keldorn!â€Â

 

“But… but, Maria, you knew that my duty to my god and the Order would always be the most demanding… You knew this when we wed.â€Â

 

Maria looked at Keldorn and for the first time since her appearance something seemed to mollify in her expression, but only briefly.

 

“Yes, I was aware, but I failed to realize the scope of the sacrifice it would demand. Keldorn, this is not enough anymore. I… I am seeing someone.â€Â

 

Maria fell silent at the paleness betraying her husband’s fury.

 

“Who is… who is this person?â€Â

 

Maria was strangely collected. “His name is Sir William of Thorpe. He is from Trademeet, but stays for a few weeks at the Mithrest for business. He… he took the girls to the circus, Keldorn.â€Â

 

There was a long, taut silence.

 

“Leave me, my lady. To look at you now… to look at you now is madness.â€Â

 

Maria nodded slightly and turned away, regal as a queen, to walk back up the stairs. When she had disappeared from view, Keldorn tore his eyes away from the top of the stairs.

 

“I must… I must see this Sir William,†he declared.

 

“Alright, Keldorn,†Ilire agreed smoothly, putting a hand on his arm, “but we will go tomorrow.â€Â

 

“Tomorrow!?â€Â

 

“Yes, tomorrow. You are not capable of being reasonable this morning and, while it is entirely understandable, you should be calmer when you go looking for a resolution to the present conflict.â€Â

 

The paladin protested, but when it became clear that Ilire would not let him go to the Promenade right away, he bent to her will. They spent the morning filling paperwork in the government building to obtain a magic license for Aerie, and then moved to the Bridge District to investigate the murders there. When they reached the Copper Coronet, dusk was falling.

 

That night, Ilire sat down in front of a brooding Keldorn with her usual glass of water.

 

“I figured you might come to the point of feeling like talking about now,†she said.

 

The paladin shrugged unhappily. “It seems there is very little to speak about. My wife is breaking the vows of our marriage with another man. While my duty is clear, it would tear my heart to call my own wife before a tribunal. This Sir William… I must speak with him, try to understand…â€Â

 

Ilire took a steadying breath. “I know that, Keldorn, but for the sake of your marriage, I think I must say something on Maria’s behalf.â€Â

 

The older man looked up at her.

 

“I had trouble believing you were married. You’ve been with us for two tendays already and you never mentioned your family or asked to go sleep at your own estate while we’re in the city.†She chortled. “And here I was thinking I was the only woman foolish enough to marry the duty of a paladin of the Order.â€Â

 

Keldorn, at first baffled, suddenly grew angry. “Maria did not marry my duty to the Order! She married me, and she was well aware of my responsibilities when we did.â€Â

 

Ilire considered him coolly. “Yes, I am sure she was. And when you go home, do you find it empty?â€Â

 

“No, there is Peony, Stail and Reold taking care of the household, and the girls are there if Maria is not.â€Â

 

“And do you sometimes arrive late from the Order only to find no food left over so you can eat something?â€Â

 

“No, there is always…â€Â

 

“And do you have to complain about Maria’s administration of the Firecam affairs?â€Â

 

“No! Maria is well…â€Â

 

“And do you sometimes feel neglected by the other nobles because of your frequent absences?â€Â

 

“No, I don’t…â€Â

 

“Then why do you feel like your duty to the Order is more important and demanding than all those duties your wife takes care of?†Keldorn looked at her in displeased anger. “Keldorn… when your daughters were born, were they warned that their father would always be away? You have to realize that the sacrifices you make are not only paid by you and by Maria, who once willing accepted such a price, but also by your daughters.â€Â

 

Keldorn sighed and looked away, obviously fighting off tears. “Did I fail them so completely, then? Do I have to fail the duty to my family to fulfil my duty to my god?â€Â

 

Ilire shook her head. “No. I think no one in this city or in the Order considers that you have failed Torm in your years of service. Perhaps… perhaps you should consider that it is time to shift the focus of your duty from the Order back to your family… before it is too late.â€Â

 

Keldorn nodded slowly. “I cannot relinquish my duty to help you free Imoen, but I see your point… but I still must see this Sir William, hear it from his lips that he dishonoured a woman he knew was married, and why he did so…â€Â

 

“I understand that, Keldorn, but please… just give Maria the benefit of the doubt until you’ve heard the whole story… until you’re ready to hear the whole story.â€Â

 

“Aye… I will do so.â€Â

 

***

 

When they did go see Sir William the next day, Keldorn made an effort to remember Ilire’s council, and found with a mix of relief and frustration that William had done nothing but take innocent walks with his wife. And the man spoke words surprisingly similar to Ilire’s: Maria was to be forgiven the weight of her loneliness.

 

Keldorn went to his estate alone, afterwards, and when he came back, it was to announce that he had settled things positively with Maria and he would stay with his family for a few days, but would travel with them again afterwards if they were willing, until he had acquitted his duty by freeing Imoen.

 

Ilire cheered for him but, later, once alone in her room, she found herself thinking back of Ajantis, leaving her alone in his family’s estate that morning long ago. How she wished she had known how to phrase her own needs at that moment, and make him stay. However, she knew it was just childish wishful thinking, because she had had a very good reason to let him go. She had taken the logical decision to stay in Waterdeep with her party, but he had needed to report to the Order.

 

Still, she understood Maria’s reaction only too well. Sighing in her pillow, she thought back of Ajantis and of all the time he had spent being with her instead of fulfilling his duty. She reminded herself for the hundredth time that, despite the hardship of being the second priority in his life, every moment had been worth it. And she would have him back, with all his forgivable human failings, any instant he came back alive to her.

 

She cried herself to sleep that night.

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I'm late. Sorry. Blame it on the ASLO deadline having a positive interaction with lab rat weekend and forcing a decline in hobby hours. :D I'm now back in business and exhibiting a satisfying recovery from the braindead state. Awr! À l'attaque!!! (and please review :))

 

Chapter XIII. Moving On

 

Four months passed in a blur, while Ilire and her comrades travelled across Amn, helping whenever they could while gathering gold for Imoen’s rescue. Ilire’s companions kept changing; Nalia, Jan, Viconia, Mazzy, Valygar and Minsc exchanged places on the team, while Jaheira, Keldorn, Yoshimo and Anomen remained her close companions for the whole time. Ilire would have been lost without the steady and unfaltering support of Jaheira. She would have died a dozen times over, both feet in a trap, if not for Yoshimo’s quiet but efficient skills. She would have been much more hard-pressed on the front line without Keldorn at her side. And, without Anomen… the burden of Irenicus would have been much heavier. For all his arrogant brashness, his trials and his vulnerabilities, the cleric had become her friend. He reminded her that everyone could let go of the past, no matter what.

 

***

After four months in Ilire’s company, Anomen often felt like he had travelled with her four years instead. Fighting at her side had been his first experience at fast-paced, small-party adventuring, during which he had killed more monsters and brigands than in all the previous years of his life. His existence had also hinged on a few critical events; his sister had died and he had taken the difficult decision not to avenge her death, trusting the authorities to find and judge the culprit. For doing what was right, his father had rewarded him with bitter words of rejection, but the Order had knighted him. Anomen knew he owed his knighthood to Ilire’s advocating of the path of law. His father disowning him had been cruel and painful, but after a few days, Anomen’s pride at being knighted had resurfaced over the hurt of betrayal, and he had thought things were settling for the better. But then, his father had died, and he had almost lost his mind to rage when confronting Saerk. It was again thanks to Ilire that he had maintained his sanity and his standing as a lawful knight of the Order.

 

Had he not known of Imoen’s disappearance and Gorion’s murder, he might not have listened to Ilire’s advice regarding Moira’s and Cor’s deaths. He had been so close to giving into mindless rage that he was unsure he would have listened to Ilire if not for her argument that she knew what he felt, but that he must not obey his own thoughts.

 

He thought back about his foolish boasts of killing twenty giants all by himself – when it had been the deaths dealt by his whole battalion – and felt ashamed. He wondered why she had not kicked him out of her party right away, or later when Moira’s death had rendered him boorish and moody.

 

But there he was still, four months later, on their last mission before they went to Spellhold. For the past month, Jaheira and Ilire had been arguing and trying to gauge their chances at facing Irenicus – because they were convinced he had managed to wrench the asylum’s control from the Cowled Wizards. Ilire, under Jaheira’s urgings, had constantly postponed their departure.

 

Anomen could hardly believe the collective power of his party, combined with the legendary objects of magical power they carried and used. Still, after hearing what Irenicus was capable of, he understood Ilire’s and Jaheira’s caution and agreed that they had better hone their skills in Amn before risking the confrontation in Spellhold. He shared the party’s uneasiness at delaying Imoen’s rescue, but he realized it would do her no good if they all died in the attempt.

 

For the last month, Anomen had been thinking back on all his time in Ilire’s company, and found he had heard little about her, busy as he had been speaking about his own troubles. So he had questioned her about her adventures and she had told him about her husband. It seemed strange that someone so young was already a widow, but he was well aware of the dangers of a career in the Order. He had expressed his condolences for her loss, but she had shrugged and said he had been gone for months, and that it did not hurt as it used to.

 

More dark tales littered her past, and at Anomen’s friendly offer of confidence, she unburdened herself by sharing them with him. When she would smile at him after one of her harsh stories, he was reminded that he was not the only one with a difficult past. Sometimes it felt like they were learning how to smile again together.

 

He had questioned her further, many nights around the campfire, and he had learned much of her former home of Candlekeep and her adventures on the Sword Coast. She had impressed him with her simplicity of mind, the brightness of her soul, her resilience to go on despite people’s prejudice about her parentage, and her gentle kindness and generosity.

 

To put it simply, he had realized he was in love.

 

And so, for the last tenday Anomen had watched her smile at him at times, and ask his opinion at others, and share a tea with him some nights, and fence with him to warm up some mornings. He had tried to determine what he should read in her attitude. Simple camaraderie? Close friendship? Something more?

 

He had called her a dark flame once, just before his test, and each detail of her blush and fluttering eyelashes had been imprinted in his memory. She had not pushed him away then; she had blushed and smiled timidly. He could only hope she would not push him away now… now that he spied a crimson rhodelia growing in the thickets by the side of the road.

 

His heart started hammering because he had been pondering what to do for the last tenday, and he seized his courage despite his nervousness. He asked Ilire if he could take her a few strides from the road to speak to her. The rest of the party gave them curious glances as they walked past. A range of messages were on their faces, from Aerie’s innocently inquiring look, Yoshimo’s lecherous wink, to Keldorn’s stern fatherly glare.

 

Anomen waited until the party had progressed further down the road, and knelt in the bushes to pluck the deep red flower. He beckoned Ilire closer. Unhindered by armour as he was, she gracefully folded her legs under her and knelt besides him in the grass.

 

“You see this flower I have picked, here?†he began. He wondered if she could hear his heart, but hoped not. “‘Tis a rare find… a crimson rhodelia, if I am not mistaken.â€Â

 

Making an effort to control his shaking fingers, he extended the flower to her. She took it and turned it under her nose to taste the aroma.

 

“It is a beautiful flower.â€Â

 

“‘Tis a most stately flower, my lady. Its color has the most fiery temperament, yet its aroma is sweet. It is the flower of lovers, yet it is also the flower of vengeance and warriors.†Her eyes flickered worriedly to his face at the word “loversâ€Â. He went on in a whisper, “It reminded me of you, my lady. Beautiful to look upon, yet with a powerful nature. I find myself drawn to its scent, giving myself over almost to distraction.â€Â

 

She blushed and looked away. “You are quite the flatterer, Anomen.â€Â

 

“Nonsense, my lady. Flattery would imply that I was exaggerating. I find, instead, that this flower is but a pale imitation of the attraction you hold for me.â€Â

 

Her gaze shifted worriedly to him once more. He berated himself for not remembering his lessons in chivalry sooner: one should not make a lady feel pressured.

 

“You may find what I say forward. And if it is unwelcome, I shall desist.†When no immediate request of peace came forward, he let out the breath he had been holding. “But I have found my feelings for you to have grown beyond those of mere friendship or alliance. I have said many times how grateful I am, but I have never told you that I was attracted to you from the start… your heart and bright soul, not to mention your beauty. Do… do my words offend you, my lady? Have I overstepped myself?â€Â

 

She looked at him a long time, an indecipherable conflict in her eyes, and then turned away.

 

“Oh, Anomen. You have not overstepped yourself. You are being a perfect gentleman, but please, understand that I don’t know… I don’t know how to react to this. It’s been so long since Ajantis, but I never allowed myself to consider… to think of another.â€Â

 

“I understand, my lady,†he answered quietly.

 

“Please…†She sighed and raked her hand through her hair. “I appreciate your presence, and I consider you a good friend, but my feelings beyond that are all but clear. Just give me some time to think it through?â€Â

 

Anomen smiled in understanding, even though his disappointment and embarrassment did not make it easy. “It was more than I could have hoped for, my lady.†He took her hand and kissed it briefly. “Come, then, good lady,†he said, helping her to her feet. “Let us continue on your quest and we can talk more at a later time, and I shall be free to complement you at your leisure.â€Â

 

She gave him a one-sided smile.

 

“Would you like me to adorn the rhodelia in your hair, my lady?â€Â, he asked.

 

***

Anomen smiled hopefully at her when he asked her if he had offended her. In the stretching silence that followed, Ilire wondered why she could not bring herself to put a definite cross over Ajantis and move on. Maybe it was Anomen, she mused. With his prayers to Helm and his pride in finally being knighted in the Order, he reminded her of Ajantis somewhat. Still, the two men were intensely different – Ajantis being timid and with a bard’s sensible heart, and Anomen hiding his self-doubts behind a harsh and arrogant façade.

 

Anomen was a good man. She knew he understood her torment and her struggle with the taint, because he hosted a likewise rage within himself. She sometimes thought he was the only one who could judge her objectively, and she took solace in the fact that he thought she was a good person, and not an evil to be scourged from the land. He was a good man, he understood her and did not judge her, he was a reliable companion, and he was so touching when he opened his heart to her.

 

Torn between her ties to the past and her hopes for the future, she asked him for more time. He accepted gracefully.

 

Then he innocently requested to adorn the rhodelia in her hair. Memories violently boiled up to the surface of her mind. She rebelled against them and pushed them aside. Ajantis was gone. For good. Anomen did not have to suffer because another man had put another flower in her hair a long time ago.

 

She forced a shaky smile to her lips. “I would like to, Anomen.â€Â

 

Taking a step forward to stand at her side, he gently trimmed the stem of the flower in her hair above her ear. He drew back with a smile. She reached up to touch the flower tentatively and laughed out loud.

 

“It’s so big. Don’t I look silly with this huge red blotch on the side of my head?â€Â

 

Anomen let out a joyous laugh. “Not at all, my lady. It stands beautifully against your dark brown hair.â€Â

 

She realized she had been inviting compliments and blushed. She turned briskly and embarrassedly to the road. “Let’s get back to the others.â€Â

 

“Of course.â€Â

 

So they made their way towards the others who waited for them some distance down the road. However, before they reached the rest of the team, Ilire and Anomen were ambushed. Ilire silently cursed herself; she should be wary in all circumstances, even when the safe passage of others before her gave her an illusion of safety. The bandits who jumped at Ilire and Anomen had had ample opportunity to sneak close and divide their forces to also keep the rest of the party busy.

 

However, no bandits could hold their ground with such fierce adventurers, and the combat was quickly over.

 

Besides Keldorn who had a bolt in the liver, everyone sported nothing but scratches and bruises. Ilire had a harmless if spectacular bloody gash on the cheek. Jaheira offered to heal it, but the warrior declined, preferring to keep the healing spells in case of a serious incident happening farther down the road.

 

And so they continued on their way towards the Windspear Hills, to give the dryads’ acorns to their queen at last, and to see what could be done with Lord Firkraag’s infestations of ogres.

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New chapter, making up for last chapter which was late :thumbsup:

 

Chapter XIV. Windspear Hills

 

As they approached the Windspear Hills, a feeling of strangeness progressively overcame Ilire. This was where her late husband had disappeared, so long ago. This was where his grave was, whatever it may look like, and a moment of self-flagellation made her think she had not even bothered to come once before to pay her respects. She pushed the silly thought aside forcefully; she had been concentrating her attention on trying to free Imoen.

 

A year after his disappearance, there she was at the place where he had disappeared, with a flower in her hair that had been put there by another man. She thought tartly that maybe seeing for herself that Ajantis was nowhere to be found would help her to let go of the past, move on, and find some sense of closure.

 

Silent, she looked around at the desolate sandy hills and followed Keldorn’s lead. The paladin knew the place like the back of his hand for having spent weeks there in search of Ajantis. He deftly guided them towards the dryads’ grove; Ilire was relieved to finally deliver the dryads’ acorns to their queen.

 

Keldorn pointed a red-painted rock by the side of the road. “This marks the limits of the Windspear Hills proper. It is the frontier of the land belonging to Lord Firkraag.â€Â

 

Ilire nodded distractedly and they continued on their way, but Lord Firkraag’s problem of ogres confronted them sooner than expected. They were less than a league inside the border when suddenly an aggressive-looking group comprising an ogre, an ogre-mage, a wyvern and two orcs made its way towards them purposefully.

 

“Careful, Ilire, I did not see where they came from,†Jaheira warned, concerned that such a large group had managed to slip from her notice. It was not often that nature failed to alert her to the presence of danger in the wilderness.

 

Ilire’s team stopped while they had the advantage of the slope. Ilire, Keldorn and Anomen stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the first line, with Yoshimo behind them, Aerie with a defensive spell ready, and Jaheira guarding the rear.

 

The monsters, unbidden, approached until they were within a mere thirty feet of them.

 

“We shall cleanse the lands from your scourge!â€Â

 

Ilire’s group exchanged surprised glances. This was a most unusual challenge, coming from a group of malefic creatures.

 

“Scourge?†Ilire echoed. “We are no scourge upon the land. We came here to –â€Â

 

“No more lies! We will hear no more of your lies!â€Â

 

The huge ogre leading the group ordered the attack with a move of his hand.

 

“Hold positions!†Ilire ordered. “Range weapons on the captain!â€Â

 

Ilire’s party reacted as one and, to tell the truth, they hardly needed her order. They were well used by then to the tactic. Anomen, Jaheira and Aerie rained bullets from their slings, Yoshimo let fly an arrow and Keldorn, a bolt. Ilire did not move on the front line, her two katanas drawn and ready. They always conducted a grouped ranged fire first, while out of enemy reach, and then they switched to melee when their opponents closed on them.

 

Four out of five missiles hit their target, among which Anomen’s well-aimed bullet that hit the ogre straight on his helmet. The monster drew a staggering step backwards. Taking a hand up to his forehead, he looked at his lackeys running to the attack on each side of him. The first line of fighters of Ilire’s party switched to close combat weapons.

 

“Hold!†he screamed.

 

The monsters drew to a grudging halt. The air quivered from tension. Ilire’s blades hungered for blood, but an ogre stopping an ongoing attack was a highly unusual event that deserved investigation. So she remained still, but ready.

 

“Have you decided to reconsider your attack and discuss instead?†she said.

 

The huge ogre slowly pushed past his monsters, staggering slightly from the bullet to his head.

 

“Don’t you recognize me, my lady?†the ogre responded.

 

“Recognize you? I’m sorry, I don’t count many ogres in my acquaintances,†she retorted.

 

“We are being played for fools. Do not fall for it. Can none of your companions dispel this magic? Can’t Lady Dynaheir see through this illusion?â€Â

 

Ilire staggered back a step and only held to her feet because of Anomen’s and Keldorn’s hands on her elbows.

 

“How do you know Dynaheir’s name?â€Â

 

Keldorn let go of her elbow and cast something. The ogre waited patiently and without moving until Keldorn’s spell was finished.

 

Nothing happened.

 

“I cannot dispel this magic,†Keldorn observed warily, “if magic there is.â€Â

 

“I have no reason now to suppose that you are truly a wyvern, so I would thank you not to do the same,†the ogre observed wryly.

 

“S-sir Keldorn?â€Â, Aerie quipped from the rear of the party.

 

“Yes, Aerie?â€Â

 

“Th-there is magic at work here.â€Â

 

The inquisitor turned to the cleric-mage. “Can you dispel it?â€Â

 

“N-no. I think the m-mean m-man, Edwin, could, but I can’t. I-I can a-almost identify it. I think you sh-should be able to get rid of it, Sir Keldorn. You w-would have a better chance with True Sight than Disp-pel Magic. Y-you would have to focus on the th-third gateway, though. This is a powerful spell. M-maybe you could unravel it by the ends of the alteration threads too, if you c-can’t catch the wisps of illusion on the third gateway.â€Â

 

The old paladin stared for a moment at the so young-looking elf, reminded that she was not quite as naïve and inexperienced as she looked.

 

“I do not know what the third gateway is, Aerie,†he said.

 

“You c-can distinguish the alteration school of magic from illusion, can’t you?â€Â

 

He nodded.

 

“Then instead of c-concentrating on dispelling illusion while casting True Sight, just lunge for alteration and hold onto it. That should t-tear the spell apart.â€Â

 

Keldorn smiled inwardly at the near disappearance of the girl’s stutter when she was in charge of anything. He turned to the group of monsters and started to cast his spell, focusing on any wisp of alteration he caught around them.

 

He was not quite sure what he did, but when the white eye appeared above his head at the end of his spell, a seeming mist evaporated from the scene. He now stood in front of a group of paladins of the Order, wearing its crescent emblazoned on their armour.

 

And then he caught sight of exactly who stood in front of them, pale and a hand to his aching head because of Anomen’s sling bullet. Worried for Ilire, he turned to see how she reacted to the reappearance of a husband she had given up on.

 

I should be too shocked to think, she reflected, looking at Ajantis’ grave grey eyes. But she had already been shocked by Dynaheir’s name earlier, and it seemed her brain could not sustain two moments of arrested thoughts in so short a time. It’s not possible. It can’t be him. How could he be here all this time? It’s not fair! Why does he reappear just when I thought I was letting go?

 

Ajantis extended a hand towards a frozen Ilire, and gently touched her cheekbone just above the cut that bled all the way down to her jaw.

 

“My lady, what caused you such a grievous wound?â€Â

 

Flinching at his touch, she roughly freed her elbow from Anomen’s hand and planted both her blades in the scarce grass at her feet. Crossing her arms on her chest, she held herself up right before her husband and glared at him. She punched him with the palm of the hand square in the middle of the chest, with all her strength. She hurt her hand and the force of the blow drew Ajantis a step back.

 

“A grievous wound?†she repeated incredulously. Her eyes filled with tears. “You disappear for over a year and the best you can find to inquire about is the least of my concerns?â€Â

 

She let out a sob, shoved Anomen and Yoshimo brutally out of her way, and started running back the road from whence they came.

 

Ajantis grimaced slightly while he touched the spot she had hit, and lifted his other hand to his head again. Taking a step forward, Anomen healed him before turning to Jaheira, who had uncharacteristically watched Ilire go without moving.

 

“Please, my lady, go find her?â€Â, Anomen asked the druid.

 

The half-elf stared at him pointedly. “I would think you would prefer to speak to her than to Ajantis.â€Â

 

The cleric took a breath. “My wishes are irrelevant, Jaheira. She needs you at the moment. Go find her and, please, heal the gash on her cheek and make sure it doesn’t leave a scar on her face. We are unlikely to go any further today, and we might as well make use of our healing spells.†Anomen sighed. “She carries enough scars as it is,†he added under his breath.

 

The druid bowed her head curtly and left, tracking Ilire’s steps in the dirt and the trampled grass.

 

***

 

Ajantis felt intensely grateful when suddenly his thoughts were cleared with the touch of a healing spell. He did not know the cleric, but his armour bore the crescent identifying him as a fellow member of the Order.

 

Then reality hit him with more strength than Ilire’s blow earlier.

 

“A year?†he exclaimed in disbelief. “What does she mean I’ve been gone for a year?â€Â

 

He stared uncomprehendingly at her companions; he only recognized Jaheira and Keldorn, and had no idea who the Order cleric, the kara-turan or the elf in mage robes were. He looked from Sir Keldorn to the other man of the Order. The cleric’s eyes turned to steel.

 

“She means exactly that, Squire Ajantis. You have been gone for a year, and you do inquire about the least of her concerns.â€Â

 

Sir Keldorn put a restraining hand on the younger man’s arm.

 

“Anomen, Ajantis obviously was under the influence of a spell. There is no reason for such animosity.â€Â

 

Anomen relented slightly. “I am aware of that, Sir Keldorn.†He turned to Ajantis. “Please forgive my harshness, but such treatment she has been subjected to fills me with anger.â€Â

 

“What treatment?†Ajantis tried again.

 

Keldorn and Anomen exchanged a look.

 

“Ajantis –†Keldorn began, only to be cut off by Anomen.

 

“I will tell him, Sir Keldorn. Please, see with the men if any other wife should be made aware that she is not indeed a widow.â€Â

 

Anomen took Ajantis by the elbow and guided him away from the others. When they were well out of earshot, Anomen released him and looked sadly at him a long time, apparently trying to determine where to begin.

 

“Forgive my earlier outburst, and please forgive my bullet to your head.â€Â

 

Ajantis cocked his head and crossed his arms. “There is nothing to forgive; you thought you were defending yourself against an ogre and you healed me. Could we not lose time on trivialities? Obviously I have been under some sort of spell and much as happened in my absence. Would you please fill in the blanks for me?â€Â

 

Anomen took a breath. “Regarding the time before I met Lady Ilire, Sir Keldorn would be better suited to tell you everything in detail; he is the one who conducted the search for you. I only know that word reached Waterdeep that you had not returned from your mission in the Windspear Hills at the foreseen date. Lady Ilire decided to come south in search of you. Meanwhile, Keldorn left Athkatla for the Windspear Hills to look for any sign of you. He could find none and, when he went back to the Order headquarters, Lady Ilire too had disappeared, somewhere on the road.â€Â

 

Ajantis frowned. “Ilire had disappeared? Where?â€Â

 

“Captured near Baldur’s Gate,†Anomen provided grimly. The livid rage etched on his features spoke clearer than any words the terrible consequences of Ilire’s captivity.

 

“Captured? By whom?†Ajantis demanded angrily

 

“A madman by the name of Jon Irenicus,†Anomen uttered through gritted teeth.

 

“And who is this Irenicus?â€Â

 

“Little is known of him. He is an adept of the magical arts, and owned an underground complex beneath Waukeen’s Promenade in Athkatla.â€Â

 

“But… more must be known of a man who managed to capture warriors such as Ilire and her companions.â€Â

 

Anomen’s eyes hardened. “The man is a twisted bastard not worthy of rotting in the deepest dungeon there is to be found on the face of Faerûn. I even doubt he is worthy of spending the rest of eternity in the Abyss. Somehow a worse fate seems warranted for him. But nothing more is known of him.â€Â

 

The fierce hatred he heard in the voice of a righteous knight of the Order took Ajantis aback.

 

“Sir Anomen, such spiteful words do not become a man of the Order.â€Â

 

Anomen stared back at him with an unchanged expression. No abandonment to rage justified or excused his words, only the determination of a man who realizes exactly what he is saying. His voice low and menacing, he enumerated the list of Irenicus’ crimes. “The twisted maniac killed Khalid and desecrated his body beyond hope for resurrection. He did it to show Imoen. He tortured Dynaheir to death before Ilire’s and Minsc’s eyes. I will spare you what he did to the living.â€Â

 

There was a silence.

 

“Minsc and Imoen are also missing from our old group,†Ajantis observed, “aside from Khalid and Dynaheir. Where are they?â€Â

 

“Minsc is the new ranger of the Umar Hills, maybe a ten hours’ walk north of here. Imoen is currently the captive of the Cowled Wizards, along with Irenicus.â€Â

 

Ajantis frowned. “Imoen is full of mischief, but she wouldn’t do anything to warrant –â€Â

 

“When Ilire, Imoen, Jaheira, Minsc and Yoshimo escaped from Irenicus’ dungeon, the mage unleashed a great conflagration of magic in his battle against the Shadow Thieves. The Cowled Wizards intervened and seized any involved. Since Irenicus had killed all the thieves and a few of the Cowled Wizards, that left no magic users but himself and Imoen, and both were taken. Jaheira told me that Irenicus overpowered the Cowled Wizards and set a condition to his surrender: Imoen would come with them. The Cowled Wizards complied. Recently, we have purchased a way to the Cowled Wizards’ Asylum with the Shadow Thieves –â€Â

 

“The Shadow Thieves! How could Ilire fall so low as dealing with Shadow Thieves?â€Â

 

“Offers of help to enter the Asylum did not exactly rain on us,†Anomen remarked coldly. “As it was, we had a choice between vampires and the Shadow Thieves. What would you we have rather chosen?â€Â

 

Ajantis raked his fingers through his hair. “The Shadow Thieves, I suppose,†he conceded, “although it seems unlikely no one else was willing to help.â€Â

 

“As you must know, the Cowled Wizards are a powerful organization. Few are willing to test their wrath by aiding the liberation of one of their prisoners.â€Â

 

The paladin nodded wearily. “I guess. So, if you have purchased a way to the Asylum, why are you in the Windspear hills, and not on your way to rescue Imoen?â€Â

 

“We did not dare go yet,†the cleric answered simply. “We feared we would be brushed aside effortlessly by Irenicus should we make the attempt too soon.â€Â

 

Ajantis stared in silence, trying to digest all this.

 

“If it is the Cowled Wizards’ Asylum, why do you fear facing Irenicus? Was he not taken prisoner?â€Â

 

“He was, although Jaheira tells me he had sufficient power to bully the Cowled Wizards and set conditions to his surrender. It is unlikely he will sit in a cell and wait for his captors’ good will. We prefer to suppose and prepare for the worst, so we will avoid unpleasant surprises.â€Â

 

Ajantis nodded. “That is wise. Who is this Yoshimo you mentioned, who escaped Irenicus dungeon with Ilire?â€Â

 

“He is the Kara-turan you have seen in our company. He has also been a prisoner of Irenicus, although for only a short time, and did not suffer the full extent of the madman’s ‘care’. Aside from Sir Keldorn, whom you apparently know, our other companion is Aerie. She is a cleric of Bhaervan and a mage.â€Â

 

Ajantis nodded distractedly, at a loss to order his thoughts and all the questions he needed to ask. Furthermost in his heart, however, was worry for his lady.

 

“Was she… was Ilire hurt badly by this Irenicus?â€Â

 

Anomen’s eyes turned flinty. “Yes.â€Â

 

The silenced dragged on. “Could you elaborate?†Ajantis pressed.

 

“She was tortured. Gruesomely tortured. It took a week worth of my most powerful healing spells, combined with the restoration power of a High Watcher, to heal everything that had been done to her body. Unfortunately, there is little we can do about what was done to her mind. I think we can consider it a victory that she recently has begun to smile again.â€Â

 

“A week worth of healing spells? But what in the name of Helm had been done to her?â€Â

 

“I do not suggest you ask her.â€Â

 

“That is why I am asking you,†Ajantis pointed out.

 

“She only revealed the extent of her injuries to me so I could heal her, and I promised her never to repeat what she told me. Furthermore, I promised her that I would never act as though I knew anything of the tortures she endured. I broke my secret to an extent in revealing this to you; I feel justified in doing so because you must be warned, but I will tell you no more.â€Â

 

The absolute finality to Anomen’s statement annoyed Ajantis; he was her husband, after all. The cleric apparently followed his train of thought, because he relented partly and added, “I do not refuse this to thwart you. Lady Ilire told me what had been done to her, but only because I needed to know so I could heal her. Irenicus held her in captivity for over six months. Her accounts of his tortures are like nothing I have ever heard, even though I have been in charge of knights of the Order who had been captured by various organizations for information. Unlike what is generally believed, torture is a lengthy process. The prisoners are starved, kept awake for days, kept in the cold and humidity, and so on, for weeks or months before their questioning begins. Irenicus did not proceed in this way. He attacked her body with a meticulous fury that I do not understand. I do not know what he tried to accomplish by it, but I can tell you that he spared nothing, nothing to Ilire. I was not making a figure of speech earlier when I said it is a victory she can smile again… There are plenty of scars on her already; please do not remind her of it needlessly by questioning her regarding them.â€Â

 

A sick and cold feeling nestled in the pit of Ajantis’ stomach. “He spared her… spared her nothing, you say.†His mind tried to imagine what would make a battle-hardened cleric pale at the mere mention of it.

 

Anomen shook his head.

 

“Why?†Ajantis whispered.

 

“I do not know,†Anomen answered cautiously. “Lady Ilire mentioned that he spoke of her potential once, but nothing else.â€Â

 

Ajantis felt the need to sit down. “Her potential as a Bhaalspawn? Was it what he tried to liberate by hurting her?â€Â

 

“I do not know,†Anomen said, “but that is obviously a possibility.â€Â

 

There was a silence. Ajantis was lost in his swirling thoughts.

 

“How does my disappearance in the mists of a spell fit into all this?†he asked.

 

“I do not know. I merely told you what happened to Ilire while you were in the clutches of the illusion. As for the reasons of your disappearance, you should consult Sir Keldorn; I am sure he will understand what is going on.â€Â

 

Ajantis nodded and got up. “I think I must speak with Ilire first, however.â€Â

 

For the first time, Anomen averted his eyes as he nodded. “Of course.â€Â

 

Suddenly realization hit Ajantis. “There was a flower in Ilire’s hair,†he stated in a very accusatory manner.

 

Anomen took a while to bring his eyes back on Ajantis’. “There was,†he agreed.

 

“Are you the one who put it there?â€Â

 

Anomen wished he had spoken with Jaheira and asked her to pretend she was the one to have done it. He was not sure the druid would have agreed to any sort of lie, but since he had managed to get Ilire to speak and to be tended to by High Watcher Oisig, Jaheira had warmed up to him and held him in more respect. Maybe she would have agreed to preserve his dignity and save Ilire the pain of having to explain to her husband why there was a flower in her hair put there by another man.

 

Anomen took a breath. “Yes,†he told the truth.

 

Ajantis’ eyes narrowed.

 

“I just thought it might brighten her up, and make her forget about the battle for a while,†Anomen defended himself.

 

Ajantis glared at the knight for a while, before he turned his back and strode back towards the others.

 

----------------------------------

Edit: added a paragraph about Ilire's pov regarding Ajantis' presence just before he reaches out to her wound, following a helpful review by arabellaesque on fanfiction.net.

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Chapter XV. Silence

 

Ajantis could not begin to sort out how he felt. He was angry, worried, sad, and confused regarding what this Irenicus had done to the woman he loved. He was puzzled over his lengthy disappearance and his strange lack of recollection of time gone by. He wondered why no one had searched and found him before now. And he felt betrayed that Ilire had let another man put a flower in her hair. He tried to understand what it must have felt like to have him disappear for so long and believe she was a widow; maybe she had thought it was time to move on? Instantly he rebelled against that train of thought. Why hadn’t she looked for him? He had been there, under some sort of spell, apparently, all that time. He had been waiting for her, in a way.

 

Before he had a chance to order his thoughts, he found himself back with the other knights of his battalion. The men were discussing quietly with Sir Keldorn. The aged paladin appeared to be relating to them what had happened since their disappearance. All bore grim expressions, but Ajantis had no doubt his scowl was the worst of all. The Kara-turan Yoshimo was throwing his dagger at a tree a respectable distance away and the cleric-mage Aerie was fussing with her robes while she waited.

 

Sir Keldorn turned away from the other knights when he saw him and walked towards him.

“Sir Ajantis, it is good to see you again.â€Â

 

“I wish it were in better circumstances than being pitched against each other,†Ajantis observed dryly.

 

“Of course,†his old mentor answered quietly. “Something grave happened. I think I should speak with you –â€Â

 

“I would speak with my wife first, Sir Keldorn.â€Â

 

The paladin appeared about to protest, but finally he bowed his head and yielded. Ajantis strode away from the men, into the wilderness off the road. The Windspear Hills offered nothing but an arid and desolate landscape, and progress was easy over the scarce grass and around the rare bushes.

 

He made no effort to be silent, but even if he had, he was sure Jaheira would have detected his presence long before he was within hearing range of their conversation. As it was, they were totally unsurprised when he came upon them; they were both staring in his direction when he rounded the big boulder behind which they sat. Jaheira had an arm around Ilire’s shoulders, who sat with her knees in her arms and her back against the rock. Ilire’s face was set into the hard lines of when she prepared for a hard battle. That look, as though she prepared to defend her very life against him, on top of every other emotion swirling inside of him, angered him beyond reason.

 

“Jaheira, if you would leave us alone for a moment, I would like to speak with Ilire in private.â€Â

 

The druid snorted and strode away, after a short bow of the head to Ajantis.

 

***

When Jaheira left them alone, Ilire awkwardly got to her feet to face her husband, wishing she could just throw herself in his arms and forget everything like she used to.

 

She remembered the first time he had taken her in his arms. It had required careful planning to catch him unguarded in a moment when he did not fear such a short lapse in vigilance would endanger him and everyone else. He had asked for her hand in the middle of a three days expedition in the wilderness, and when they had finally reached an inn, she had followed him upstairs to relieve her shoulders of the weight of her pack, and to have a moment alone with him. To her surprise, she had not needed to ask. As soon as they were in relative private, he had turned on her and asked her if she cared to wait for a few minutes. Intrigued, she had agreed and let her pack down in the middle of the corridor. He had gone to his room and come back a few minutes later, without his armour. Without a word, he had come to her purposefully and enfolded her in his strong arms, holding her against his chest. She remembered how the world had ceased to exist for a while, how her father’s death, the machinations of who would turn out to be her brother, and all the other concerns of her adventures had evaporated from her mind. Everything. All had been replaced by warm and glowing contentment, which had exploded into bright joy when he had spoken softly and said he loved her.

 

More than anything in the world, more than escaping her heritage, more than seeing Imoen safe again, she wished she could ever find a haven from the memories of Irenicus. If only for an instant.

 

There was a flinty glint in Ajantis’ eyes that told her that it was out of the question at the moment. It hurt. More than she could put it in words in her mind.

 

It hurt, because that was all she asked of him regarding Irenicus; no explanation for his absence, no justification for not coming to her rescue when she had been helpless, no reminder that he had failed his vows of marriage in denying her protection when she had most needed it. She only wanted him to help her forget, and he denied her even that. He had been there in the Windspear Hills, twiddling his thumbs, while she was being cut open and ravaged by spells in the mage’s rancid dungeon. She knew she would not have felt like he had stupidly been doing nothing and leaving her to her fate at Irenicus’ hands, if he had not denied her his comforting presence.

 

It hurt because, even if Firkraag’s desires of tormenting her by having Ajantis die by her hand had been thwarted, she felt no closer to him than when she had thought him dead or than if she had really killed him.

 

It hurt because she had often daydreamed of what it would be like to have him back, and not once had she considered the possibility of a cold look in his eyes that held her away.

 

And it hurt because his reaction was exactly what Irenicus had described. Apart from his one rambling about her “potentialâ€Â, he had spoken little. However, every word was calculated, dosed as precisely as the tortures and the spells, to hurt just as much. He had said that no one could truly love her with the essence within her; that the very few who would not run away, either in fear or righteous disapproval of her nature, would be disgusted by the desecration brought to her body, by blades and spells and flesh, his and that of some – carefully chosen to be the most brutal – of the vampires’ prisoners.

 

Irenicus had made a constant point that she was the child of a god and she was not a slave to death. People would despise her out of revulsion for her vile nature, would hurt her by fear of her power over their lives, or would try to stay away from her notice in dread of her heritage. He had argued that the only ones who would remain by her side were the ambitious and evil who would seek to better their station by gaining her favour. She struggled against the idea every day. She forcefully reminded herself that Jaheira, even if the druid would not admit it under torture, considered Ilire half the daughter she had never had, even if her presence had led to her husband’s death. Ilire fought to keep in mind that Minsc thought her the greatest evil-butt-kicker in history, even if she had been unable to do anything while Dynaheir was killed. She clutched to childhood memories of games with Imoen, of a time when there had been no godly essence involved and when she had had a friend. She strained to appreciate Aerie’s naked and naïve honesty, and not to dishonour her with speculations of how the gentle avariel could be perverse enough to stick around a bringer of death if she was nothing more.

 

And some nights, when after the nightmares she failed to hold any of those beliefs with conviction, she thought of Anomen, who knew what had been done to her. Anomen who had held her when she had told him everything, who had shed tears over her wounds, who had said that every one of Irenicus’ words was untrue, that no one would be disgusted of her for what vile acts she had been a victim of. That anyone would be disgusted of those who had done it to her, not of her.

 

It was the one thread of sanity and possible redemption she had been clutching to for the past four months.

 

And Ajantis, her husband, the man she loved, was snapping this fragile hope now. The one, of all people, who she had expected to look past anything because of his love for her, was not looking past. He held her away, just as Irenicus had said.

 

It hurt so much that she could not cry. She could hardly breathe at all. An awful silence lengthened while both searched for words. It seemed to grow into a living thing, with a gaping maw ready to swallow them whole and sharp talons to rip any attempt at communication to shreds. Its shadow obscured the past and the memory of their complicity and wordless understanding. Ilire was the first one to find the silence unbearable and break it.

 

“What are you going to do now?†she croaked.

 

He flinched. “What do you mean, what am I going to do now?â€Â

 

“Aren’t you going to write to your mother to tell her that you’re not, in fact, dead?â€Â

 

He stared at her incredulously. “Of course I will. As soon as I get back to Athkatla.â€Â

 

“Ah. You will be leading your men back to the headquarters, then.â€Â

 

The hardness of his eyes spilled to the rest of his face. “If my lady orders me away, then I suppose I shall.â€Â

 

She thought the tears ought to sneak past the lump in her throat then, but they didn’t. “That’s not what I meant. I thought that was what you were saying.â€Â

 

“It was not,†he retorted stiffly.

 

Another silence descended.

 

“Why did you hide from Keldorn when he searched for you?†she asked.

 

He frowned at her. “I did not hide from Keldorn. We must have been under the influence of some sort of spell; an hour ago I was convinced I arrived here yesterday.â€Â

 

Awkward silence engulfed them again.

 

“Then what are you going to do now?†Ilire asked again.

 

For a fleeting instant, he wished he had not received an utterly proper education. That way he could have allowed himself to yell at her that from his perspective, it looked like she would prefer he left her alone with Sir Anomen and never speak to her again. Instead he controlled his breathing.

 

“I will try to uncover the reason why I cannot recall the time I spent here. At first, I felt like I arrived here only yesterday, but now that the spell fades off, I remember numerous mornings waking to the thought of reaching this place only yesterday. I would offer to assist you on the quest if I was certain you wished to undertake it. The woman I used to know would have, but now I am not so sure.â€Â

 

He might have punched her in the gut that he would not have cut her breath any more efficiently.

 

“What do you take me for, Ajantis? Of course I will try to see what Firkraag’s trying to hide under that spell.â€Â

 

“Then shall we go speak with Sir Keldorn and see what he has to say about it? Sir Anomen suggested that I speak to him.â€Â

 

“Then let’s go.â€Â

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