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The Irony of Fate


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Sorry for the day late! *shy*


Chapter XVI. Hurt


Ilire was amazed at herself that she managed to walk back with him to the other men. She discussed very calmly of what needed to be done and of Firkraag’s potential reasons for trapping a group of knights in time.


After a short and terse discussion between an uneasy Keldorn, a group of uncomfortable knights, an angry Ajantis and a devastated Ilire, Ilire’s and Ajantis’ groups concluded that Lord Firkraag had wished them to attack each other. With the adventurers’ superior experience and equipment, the squires would likely have lost, so it seemed Firkraag’s plan had entailed Ilire killing her husband.


“It seems the whole world but myself always knew I was a Bhaalspawn. Maybe Firkraag figured it would be entertaining to watch my reaction when I would realize what I had done,†Ilire hypothesized.


Ajantis averted his eyes.


“Well, we will not know before we investigate,†Keldorn observed, “and obviously that will have to wait until tomorrow.â€Â


“And why would you be ordering us to wait?†Ilire asked aggressively.


The paladin glared at her with all his fatherly authority. “Emotions are running high enough as it is. Let it rest for a night, Ilire.â€Â


She fell silent and Keldorn, to soften his harsh words, took her elbow and gently guided her to the cabin nearby. It was the home of a man named Garren Windspear, the former Lord of Windspear Hills. On the way, Keldorn informed the others that Garren had been very helpful in the search for Ajantis, and would probably have a theory on Firkraag’s motives. Besides, he could offer lodgement for the night, and could call on some good relations with the Order in Athkatla to get information regarding the new landlord.


To Ilire, the dinner seemed to pass in a daze. Everyone apparently enjoyed the occasion to relax and forget their predicament for a short while. Ilire excused herself early, lest she dishonour the host by being sick because of the dead rabbit staring at her with dead, white eyes from the platter in the middle of the table, his insides emptied just like Irenicus surely had dreamt to do with her a few times.


Once out into the open, she drank in the cold night air in great gulps, trying to slow her heart beat and regain control of her senses. She wandered some distance from the cabin and collapsed by the riverbank nearby.


She had never felt so alone in her entire life. She could still hear faint sounds coming from Garren’s cabin, the laughter and loud conversation of a dozen men assembled. She had stolen only a glance at Ajantis during the dinner; he had been glowering at her from the other end of the table, and hastily turned back to his men when she looked his way.


There was very little wildlife in the Windspear Hills, and not even one spring peeper or one nightlark filled the silence to make Ilire feel less alone. Loneliness crushed her chest like a physical weight. She felt alone with her memories, alone with the responsibilities of party leadership, alone with her worry for Imoen and what the bastard Irenicus could be doing to her at the very moment, alone with her feeling of being abandoned by Ajantis. The only one she felt like she could have spoken with was Anomen, and she was unlikely to go anywhere near him while Ajantis glowered at her like he had glared at her that night. Aerie was much too naïve to be anything but traumatized by such dark thoughts, Yoshimo just plainly wouldn’t care, she couldn’t imagine speaking of matrimonial matters with Keldorn and his own perceived failures to his wife, and well, she did not feel like coping with Jaheira’s sharp tongue at the moment.


She begrudged this to Ajantis too. The little comfort she could have taken from just sitting near Anomen, and the way he would look at her, smile and, seemingly reading her thoughts, tell her that everything would be all right.


She tried to hold the tears in check, but it was no use. It only served to give her a headache from the build-up of tension.


She nevertheless cut herself up abruptly when she heard someone coming. She found herself, despite everything, hoping it would be Ajantis coming to set things straight between them. It was not.


It was Jaheira, coming slowly through the underbrush to give her time to compose herself if she could. She could not.


When the druid caught sight of Ilire’s face, however quickly she turned it away, she said in an uncharacteristically gentle tone, “Ilire, what are you doing here crying alone in the dark?â€Â


“I’m doing what I want!†Ilire retorted with unusual childishness. “I don’t want your scolding tonight! Stow it away for tomorrow if you want, but not tonight! Just leave me alone!â€Â


Jaheira sighed and knelt besides her, without an expected sharp retort. With a hand on the young woman’s chin, she forced Ilire to look up at her. The adventurer’s face glistened with wet tears in the moonlight. “Oh, child, did you think I would forget you out here alone tonight? Do you think I would scold you for your pain?â€Â


Startled by the gentleness of the druid as she put an arm around her shoulders and drew her into a motherly hug, Ilire started sobbing again.


“Why wouldn’t you be scolding me? I’m only being weak. Leave me be.â€Â


Jaheira stroked Ilire’s hair softly and let out a long sigh. “There is no weakness in searching for balance by letting go of some of your pain. I understand how you feel.â€Â


Ilire cried a while in silence, too startled to say anything. Jaheira thought to herself that Khalid would have done such a better job out of this. It had always been easier for him to speak to Ilire of such personal matters, it seemed.


“It is not always easy being married,†Jaheira mused aloud.


A fit of sobs answered her. “What are you talking about? You and Khalid never argued!â€Â


Jaheira chuckled. “Oh, we argued all right. We only did it out of sight, and did not let it affect our skills as adventurers.â€Â


“I knew you would get to the scolding part eventually,†Ilire muttered tartly, stiffening.


The druid laughed. “I did not mean it that way. I meant to say that I know what it is like to have an argument, and being unable to set things straight right away, while acting normally around others. But do not despair. You and Ajantis have only found each other again. Things will settle in time.â€Â


“I would think a half-elf has a different grasp of time than human me. Besides, this is not an argument we had. This is…†She searched for words a moment. “Oh, Jaheira, the way he looked at me. It was like speaking to a stranger. He said he did not know what kind of person I was anymore. I was so hoping that he wouldn’t care what Irenicus did, that he would just hold me and make it all go away, but no! He just threw it all back in my face! As though it’s my fault, and he looked at me so coldly, like I was the most disgusting thing he had ever set eyes on, that I don’t think I could have been more ashamed of myself. He was speaking of himself outside of my plans as though it shamed him to be associated with me, and he said he didn’t know who I was anymore!â€Â


Jaheira hushed her, trying to be gentle despite a smothering anger. Her frustration at Ajantis wanted to make her snap something along the lines of “Oh, come now, child! I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way!â€Â. Instead, she took a few calming breaths, slowly stroking a hand down Ilire’s hair and holding her head against her shoulder.


“I understand how that makes you feel,†she said.


She wondered whether she had chosen the right words, because Ilire’s tears doubled in intensity. The sobs did not choke or rake Ilire anymore, however, but sounded more liberating, and the druid decided at last, with definite relief, that she had chosen well.


I hope you are proud of me, Khalid, she told his spirit silently, because I am making a big effort. She could almost hear his laughter in her mind, but even that memory was fading. What she would not have given to see his smile clearly again, study each detail of his features like she used to. She made a face when she thought of what it must be like for Ilire to find her husband again, whom she had believed dead for longer than even Jaheira, and to be welcomed by a cold look.


She let out a sigh. “Oh, yes, I understand how that makes you feel.â€Â

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*Seems like the update didn't register, so I'm trying again*


Sorry for the lateness of the chapter! I blame it all on the mating season! (I’m speaking of birds, here, eheh) Birds are singing each morning and I can’t help myself, I have to get up to watch and listen to them even if it’s only 5. Then I fall from exhaustion around 8 each night, and I still have to work in between. So fanfiction pretty much goes out the window for the month of May. As though it’s not enough, I’ll be away for a 12-days birding trip, 1200km from home, starting the 9th, so unfortunately the chance for updates before June are slim.


But I’ll be back with more chapters when warblers stop singing, I swear :crazyeyes: Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this chapter. Please read and review!


Chapter XVII. Paradoxical Distance


The twelve of them could not fit into Garren’s cabin together, so after dinner they set up their bedrolls on the porch. Ilire conspicuously avoided Ajantis’ presence and, with the rest of her team, she set up her cot on a side of the porch separated from Ajantis’ by a corner of the house.


Well into the night, some sound alerted Ajantis and suddenly jolted him awake. Overwhelming his disorientation took him a while; he wondered why a wooden roof hung over his head instead of the familiar tarp of his tent. It seemed that, despite Firkraag’s spell, sleeping in the tent had grown into a habit.


But then he remembered being at Garren’s cabin after finding Ilire again in the company of one Sir Anomen, and doom crashed down on his head again. He also realized that what had woken him were the sounds of muffled whispers and hushed sobs.


He had always awoken to Ilire’s nightmares, from the very first night he had slept next to her under the stars, on the road north of Nashkel. He possessed some kind of antennae that alerted him when she was distressed. His antennae had clearly betrayed him, however, while she had been in Irenicus’ clutches.


He did not need to ponder his actions. Silently he got up and turned the corner of the house. Even through the fog of sleep, he could still feel the pain of Ilire’s betrayal, but his only possible course of action was to go to her, take her in his arms and shake her awake, so he could hold her and reassure her when she would emerge from the nightmares, drenched in sweat and shivering.


The sight that greeted him when he turned the corner froze him dead in his tracks.


Ilire was already awake and clutched at Jaheira as though the druid was the only lifeline keeping her from drowning. The half-elf, uncharacteristically silent, held the young woman with fierce protectiveness, as though to dare Bhaal’s essence itself to come and face her.


What halted Ajantis, however, was Anomen kneeling besides the two women. The caring and naked concern etched in his features sent a cold jolt through Ajantis. His hand squeezing Ilire’s shoulder in a platonic gesture of comfort, the cleric murmured a prayer of protection.


At that moment, Anomen lifted his head, his regard caught by a move or a ray of moonlight playing over a new silhouette in the dark, and saw Ajantis observing the three of them. Letting his hand fall away from Ilire’s shoulder, he took a step back as though to leave his place to Ajantis.


Ajantis’ eyes went wide. Gulping a mouthful of air, he staggered away from the corner and nearly stepped on his sleeping comrades in his hurry to stumble away from the house. Very much in shock, he walked away until he collapsed on the bare ground some distance from the cabin. He sat down and looked out unseeingly into the night.


Ajantis thought ungraciously that it would all be much simpler if Sir Anomen was not so perfectly honourable; he could simply blame him for the difficulties with Ilire and challenge him for honour’s sake. But no, he could not give Ajantis any reason to hate him; surely he had had an occasion to take Ilire in his arms when she had awoken, but he had let Jaheira do it. More than that, he had yielded to Ajantis when he had seen him.


Then Ajantis forcefully pushed the thought out of his head, fustigating himself for being so full of ill-will. It was not befitting of Helm’s doctrine, and he should not blame Sir Anomen for the very reason that he was not blameable in the least.


Still, it felt wrong that Sir Anomen should be there by Ilire’s side to comfort her, while Ajantis could only stand by, watch and do nothing. He had always tried to help his wife with the taint, even though her nightmares and the evil essence she harboured within had always left him helpless. Ajantis knew better than anyone all she had sacrificed in her adventures, the goodness of her heart and her honourable way of life. Once he had overcome the initial shock to learn she was a Child of Bhaal, it had seemed to him that the taint had left Ilire unmarred, except for her terrible nightmares.


All he had ever been able to do to help Ilire against the taint was to be there for her when she woke from her nightmares. But she had turned to Jaheira and Anomen for that as well.


Ajantis remained a while sitting not far from the cabin, praying to his god of watchers for acceptance of the changes in Ilire’s life, before he went back to his bedroll to rest uneasily for what was left of the night.



It seemed things would keep going from bad to worse. The next morning, Garren left for Athkatla to gather some intelligence on Firkraag, but the new Lord of Winspear used the occasion to stage another scheme. Apparently frustrated that his plans for Ajantis’ death had been foiled, he sent a group of his servants who abducted Garren’s daughter and promised Ilire would be blamed for it. When she angrily demanded why Firkraag relentlessly persecuted her, the leader of Firkraag’s servants explained that his master wished to sate his desire for vengeance; he had been wronged by people related to Ilire who were now safe from his wrath in the arms of death, so he was left with accomplishing his revenge on Ilire herself. And then the abductors attacked and bloody battle ensued.


Once the last opponent was dead, oozing blood and other guts on the rough plank floor of Garren’s cabin, there was a short stunned silence while the warriors caught their breath.


“This was far too messy,†Ilire observed coldly in the silence. “We should have dispatched our efforts more efficiently and focused on the spellcaster.â€Â


This sounds more like the Ilire I used to know, Ajantis thought quietly to himself.


“If we are to go after Garren’s child, I will be the one to lead us,†Ilire added with an iron voice.


Ajantis tensed and glanced at his wife’s travelling companions, who seemed to share his uneasiness at the dead calm of her voice. Ajantis looked at Keldorn for advice or support, but the older man averted his eyes quickly, reminding Ajantis that he had to take the decision alone. Keldorn, as a member of her party, was subjected to her discipline, while Ajantis, her husband, was not.


The irony of it.


Ajantis felt the eyes of his men resting on his back, no doubt wondering how he would react to being so forcefully ordered to surrender authority. A cold unyielding hardness glinted in Ilire’s eyes just then. His impression of abandonment came back running.


“You have the habit of command, my lady,†he answered stiffly. “If you wish to lead us, then I will follow your orders as I have many times before.â€Â


She nodded at him briefly before she surveyed the room.


“We can function as two groups; my six adventurers and your five paladins. I will not have the luxury of time to shout orders at everyone. I trust you all to be experienced enough with the battlefield to handle yourselves. I will have a word for the paladins of the Order, however, who might be more used to pitched battles than to skirmishes such as those awaiting us. My only order is: focus your efforts. Avoid being outnumbered at all costs. Whenever possible, pitch yourself two or three on the same enemy before moving to the next one. An overwhelmed enemy falls more quickly, because he receives more hits but mostly because he can’t avoid everyone at the same time. As for general orders: step back before undead. Sir Anomen can hold them off with Helm’s power without fear of being drained of his life force, because he wears a protective amulet. Never break ranks; my archers, clerics, thief and mage will need the protection of a front line to use their spells without interruption. Use ranged weapons whenever an enemy is at a distance and making its way towards you without retaliating in kind. Don’t step into elemental damage uselessly; Keldorn and Jaheira are well protected against it by their helmets and will deal with that sort of threat should we encounter one. Remember to await the thief’s word before stepping forward; there will be all sorts of traps in this dungeon.â€Â


Ajantis nodded absently at each command. “The same as usual, my lady,†he summarized. “I will issue orders to my squadron, and we will follow your lead.â€Â


She gave him a curt nod before storming out of the cabin, the adventurers and paladins close on her heels.

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I'm back! I'm not as busy as I feared I'd be, so here is a new chapter :)


Chapter XVIII. A conspirator


Ajantis watched silently while Ilire executed her traditional morning kata. Her figures bore the same effortless grace he remembered, but that was about all he recognized. She moved a lot quicker than in his memory, and he already recalled her being faster than anyone else. There was also a raging edge in her thrusts that had not been there before either. Unexpectedly, he felt as though he observed a somehow familiar stranger.


Detecting a presence next to him, he turned to find his mentor Keldorn there. The older man gave him an encouraging smile.


“Shall we spar to warm up, Squire Ajantis?†the inquisitor asked. A roguish smile appeared on his square, benevolent face. “To remember the good old times.â€Â


“It will be my honour, Sir Keldorn.†Ajantis started removing his strength-enhancing gauntlets, but was halted by his mentor’s chuckle.


Keldorn patted his wide leather belt. “Girdle of hill giant strength. I believe we can spar fairly by both using all our gear. Lady Ilire quickly assessed what equipment I needed most. Obviously she had experience gearing a paladin for adventure.â€Â


Warmed instantly to hear this everyday-life detail about Ilire, Ajantis smiled.


“Indeed, she had,†he chuckled. “She kept complaining about my strength – or the lack thereof – and my foolish choice of the two-handed sword as my main weapon. Can you believe it? My own wife is stronger than I am!â€Â


Keldorn laughed. “She is also stronger than me. Speaking of wives, Maria will be delighted to hear that you are alive and well. We were all…†Sighing, the old paladin searched for words a while. “We were all very sad when you disappeared.â€Â


They circled each other and exchanged a few thrusts and parries. Ajantis thought to himself he should stop torturing himself, but could not resist asking, with more scorn than he cared to admit, “Was my beloved wife so devastated then, Sir Keldorn, to abandon me here all this time? I’m not even sure if she cared to cry,†he added under his breath as was his habit.


His last thrust cut through Keldorn’s vanishing guard and clanked against the inquisitor’s breastplate. Fortunately, they both checked their strength because they trained with real and deadly weapons, and the sword did not dent the armour.


Keldorn’s warm smile had turned to a no less fatherly glower. “She did little else for two months, Ajantis. If you must place blame on someone, place it on me. The first night after they escaped Irenicus, Ilire came to ask me if she could do anything to find you. I told her that unless she wished to turn over every stone in the Windspear hills to check if there was trace of you underneath, there was nothing more for her to attempt. She took the difficult decision any responsible commander would have taken: she decided to go after Imoen, hoping that she could still be saved.â€Â


His feelings a mix of anger and shame, Ajantis remained silent.


“I assure you that neither of us took that decision lightly, Squire Ajantis. I journeyed to Waterdeep myself to announce your death to your father and family.â€Â


“Sir Keldorn,†the young paladin began slowly, “please forgive my careless words earlier. The long time I spent in Firkraag’s clutches still confuses me, and I had not realized everything that has happened in the meanwhile. I understand the difficult decision that had to be taken.â€Â


“I expect no less from you, Squire Ajantis, if you wish to prove yourself worthy of leading men into battle.â€Â


The cavalier bowed his head. “I do my best, with Helm’s guidance.â€Â


Keldorn’s tone was much lighter when he reminded his young colleague that they should warm up lest Ilire leave them behind in her unbelievable race across the dungeon.


As they started fencing again, Keldorn inquired, “Do you still pursue the way of the cavalier?â€Â


“Of course!†the young paladin answered eagerly. Then he blushed. “But please do not take my enthusiastic answer as a lack of appreciation for the skills of the inquisitors and undead hunters.â€Â


“Ah! Don’t worry, I did not take it so,†Keldorn chuckled. “I merely expressed curiosity about how you could see through Firkraag’s illusion where I could not, even with my training and experience at detecting and dispelling magic.â€Â


It was Ajantis’s turn to let his guard falter. Keldorn’s Holy Avenger struck Ajantis’ Spider Bane near the hilt and disarmed him. Bending to retrieve his weapon, the cavalier paused to look at Ilire, still in the middle of her kata.


“I recognized her battle formation and her strategic use of ranged weapons,†Ajantis explained. “That made me suspect it might be her, along with the fact that monsters were actually trying to speak with me instead of either attacking or fleeing. I was not absolutely certain, however, until I saw an orc wielding two long swords. No matter what Firkraag would have made Ilire look like, there was nothing in the world to hide her kensai fighting stance.†Ajantis turned briefly to glance at Keldorn, then back to the fluid, deadly, graceful moves of Ilire. “Tell me, Sir Keldorn, have you ever seen such peerless skill? Such beauty,†he murmured under his breath.


Keldorn shook his head. “No, I have not. But I think there is more to it than that. I would not think to look for such skill in an orc. I think that it was your love for her that allowed you to see through the illusion. With your love, you saw past everything else and recognized the one element that Firkraag’s illusion could not strip her of.â€Â


Ajantis turned to glare at his mentor, ready to ask him if he tried to accuse him of refusing to see past some other things, but at that moment Ilire finished her kata. Seeing everyone seemed ready and waiting for her, including Ajantis and Keldorn standing there looking at her, she ordered everyone into battle formations. After an awkward glance at his former pupil, Keldorn left him and went to stand at Ilire’s right.


Following Keldorn’s guidance, they set off towards the ruins to the northeast.



When Ilire reached the bottom of the steps leading to the large cavernous chamber where Firkraag resided and saw what the Windspear Lord was indeed, it suddenly became abundantly clear where he had found the magical power to cast the spell which had kept Ajantis and his five companions oblivious to time passing by for so long.


Lifting a hand imperiously, Ilire kept the cavaliers from rushing instinctively to battle their natural enemy. Aside from Ajantis, she recognized two other paladins of his battalion as cavaliers, by their aggressive fighting style and the way they did not even bother to carry ranged weapons.


“Keep calm,†she ordered under her breath. “We’re not burned to ashes yet, it must mean he’s willing to talk.â€Â


“And he has excellent hearing too.†The dragon’s low-pitched voice nevertheless rumbled and echoed powerfully within the chamber. Ilire had no doubt that he could shake the very rock of his cavern if he so wished.


She wished she had the cavaliers’ intrinsic resistance to fear.


She slammed the image of Irenicus’ expressionless face in her mind, the way one slams a door, and reminded herself fiercely that a mere red dragon was nothing compared to the madman who had tortured her.


Her eyes as hard as steel, she descended the last step. Her booted foot landed on the brown dirt forming the floor of the cavern. She stole a look at the high walls rising on each side until they disappeared in the darkness overhead. The far end of the cavern opened on an underground lake, its dead calm, mirroring surface only troubled by an occasional droplet of water falling from the overhanging stalactites. A few stalagmites rose from the ground a short distance behind the towering red form of Firkraag.


“So, puny mortal, it seems you are conveniently awed by my presence and the grandness of my dwelling.â€Â


“I will agree that the size is impressive,†she conceded, knowing better than irritating a red dragon by failing to flatter his arrogance, “although I did not come here to admire the view. I have no doubt that, in your great wisdom, you have divined the reason of my presence.â€Â


He lifted an irate eyebrow at the uncontrolled irony in her voice, but made no comment. Ilire noticed the dragon had a “petâ€Â, a wizard judging from his robes. The human seemed in the middle of his thirties and stood respectfully a few meters behind and beside his master. The mage snorted at her words, no doubt speculating how long it would take before she ended up fried and devoured as appetizer.


However, the prospect did not worry her overmuch; she calculated that she was more valuable than that to Firkraag. She knew not his motives, but he would not have captured and cast illusions on Ajantis and his men, then abducted Garren’s daughter, if not because he wanted something from Ilire. So she could safely express a part of her displeasure at being manipulated for the amusement of a dragon.


“Indeed I have,†Firkraag purred with satisfaction. “You come here to restore your reputation.â€Â


She frowned. “Not exactly. I am here to retrieve Iltha Windspear, Garren’s daughter.â€Â


The dragon showed his long teeth in a smile of pure evil. “That is what I said: you come to restore your reputation as a fearless and successful fighter. You wish to erase your failure to protect the girl in the first place.â€Â


Ilire disagreed with his interpretation of the facts, but sighing she decided that arguing over the phrasing would accomplish nothing. “I guess I am,†she agreed, “but it hardly seems worth all your gloating.â€Â


Firkraag’s rumbling laughter filled the cave and drummed against her ribs. “Ah, but because my plan has worked,†the dragon crowed.


Ilire knew instinctively that Anomen was about to do something foolish and, before he could make a sound, she lifted her hand to stop whatever arrogant words were about to spill out of his mouth. In truth, the absence of a fight between Ajantis’ and Ilire’s group proved Firkraag wrong, but it would be very dangerous to remind a dragon that mere humans had foiled his plans, be it only in part.


“Yes, you did manage to abduct Iltha while she was under my protection. But I wonder, why her?â€Â


The dragon’s smile stretched into something terribly ugly. “For the very same reason that I have interested myself in you. Someone needed to be taught a lesson.â€Â




“Well, yes. I amused myself watching him fall from his mighty throne of Lord to that of a simple vassal. At first, that is. Lately, he has turned impossibly boring and frustrating. Can you believe he actually is satisfied to live in his simple cabin as my serf? He willingly pays tribute to me and thanks the gods for the lesson in humility I have taught him. Something needed to be done about his attitude. With his quiet acceptance of his fate, he was spoiling my fun.â€Â


“That would explain why Iltha is embroiled in all this,†Ilire said. “But why me?â€Â


“Ah, that was the most masterful part of my plan. Can you not, even with your simple human mind, understand it?â€Â


She sighed. “Yes, you managed to abduct the daughter of a friend while I was present and make me look incompetent. Satisfied?â€Â


Cold unfeelingness descended in her heart when she saw his gloating, red dragon smile. If you think I still have any pride left to walk on after Irenicus, you are more stupid than one of your goblin servants, she thought flatly. Pride was a foolish thing. It only made it harder on you and easier on others when they had the upper hand. Strange to think she had actually learned a useful lesson from the madman.


The dragon laughed again, a sound of pure evil delight. Ilire repressed a wan smile. This arrogant creature thought he was clever and evil; he had no idea of the scope evil could encompass. Absence of compassion and indifference to life itself: those were the true tags of evil. Not this ridiculous smugness for nettling one woman and her companions.


“Oh, but you are much more amusing than I had foreseen.â€Â


She bowed, careful to keep the irony out of her voice. “Why, thank you, Lord Firkraag.â€Â


“Your performance is almost enough to erase the debt contracted by those now safe from my revenge.â€Â


“Debt? What debt do I owe you?â€Â


“Perhaps the druid would care to share her suspicions with you?†Firkraag hissed.


Ilire turned to Jaheira with a feeling of betrayal. She viciously suppressed the desire for tears. Come on, you must be used to it by now, she told herself.


“I swear, Ilire, I did not recognize the name,†Jaheira began uncomfortably, very unlike her usual ironed and controlled voice. Then she suddenly grew a backbone and she added belligerently, “I didn’t recognize the smug serpent’s…â€Â


“I believe you,†Ilire cut before the irate half-elf managed to make their situation any worse by insulting a red dragon while standing right under his nose. However, the unspoken insult seemed to amuse him and he laughed again. “So you recognize the name Firkraag now?†Ilire pressed.


“A long time ago, before Gorion rescued you, Gorion, Khalid, Dermin and a few other Harpers were sent to deal a lesson to a red dragon in the Spine of the World, because he had destroyed a temple of Mystra.â€Â


Ilire squeezed Jaheira’s shoulder to signify her forgiveness for not readily recognizing Firkraag’s name.


“Dermin… Dermin introduced Khalid and me when they got back to Tethyr…â€Â


Ilire’s hand on Jaheira’s shoulder travelled across the druid’s back and she hugged her tightly. She let go when Firkraag addressed her again.


“You appeared an ideal candidate to take revenge on for those dead fools Gorion and Khalid, who are now beyond my reach to punish. As for Dermin, I hear Jaheira here already dealt him a humiliating blow. The others are either dead or living in squalor to my satisfaction.†An unholy and unsettling glow appeared in the dragon’s eyes. “Moreover, you were such a fascinating creature, I have enjoyed greatly watching your struggles on your long way here. It had been a long time since a puny mortal such as you had the honour of capturing my attention and being a cause of entertainment.â€Â


The dragon’s apprentice suddenly glared very venomously at Ilire. She ignored him and his foolish ambition.


She bowed. “I am honoured, Lord Firkraag,†she stated, but she allowed some irony to creep into her voice. The dragon would appreciate that she recognized he had the upper hand but could do nothing about it. Obviously he would not get that out of his pet wizard.


Firkraag purred a chuckle. “Yes, you are much more amusing than I had thought. And a Bhaalspawn on top of that. You are on a collision course with many great characters of this world, and the show promises to be bloodthirsty, savage and pleasantly chaotic.†The dragon waved a claw in dismissal. “Go and do as you will. It will be far more amusing to see you struggle than tell you what will happen or stop you right now.â€Â


Ilire had had just a little too much then. She had been satisfied with the conversation until the dragon abruptly decided that it was over.


“Wait a second here, Lord Firkraag. I fight for a reason, but that is not your amusement.â€Â


The dragon flashed a predatory grin. “No matter your reasons, the results remain,†he stated, frustrating Ilire with the incontestable truth of his words.


“Maybe,†she hissed. “Let us drop the point, as the argument will no doubt prove useless. You acknowledged that I came here for a reason, and that reason is Iltha.â€Â


“Oh, that worthless girl.†The dragon waved a claw to brush the matter aside. “She served her purpose in the grander scheme of things. She has no more worth to me. You can have her if you wish.â€Â


Ilire wondered how one could be as intelligent as a dragon and yet as foolishly arrogant. To think he considered the “grander scheme of things†to be his own petty revenge against dead people. Out of a child, such words would bring forth a benevolent smile; out of a mature red dragon probably a couple of centuries old, it was baffling.


The apprentice distracted her from her musings. He suddenly exclaimed indignantly, “What! But Lord Firkraag, you are going to let them go? Your revenge and the means of your revenge together?â€Â


Sighing, the dragon roused a thin cloud of dust where his breath swept the ground. “I am satisfied with what little part of my revenge I have accomplished so far – for now. If the whim comes to me later, I can always find these puny mortals and take the ultimate revenge for a foster father and a husband – their lives. In the meanwhile, I will indeed let them go. Although I am aware that you hoped to be given the girl for your loyal services once I had no more use for her. I might consider keeping her then.â€Â


This time, even if she knew that everyone would erupt in angry insults at this, Ilire let them.


“How dare you!†Anomen said.


“Such evil will not be tolerated,†Ajantis vowed in a low, eager voice.


“I won’t let a young woman be used in such a manner,†Keldorn growled.


“The Harpers should have killed you all those years ago,†Jaheira spat.


Aside from those known voices, Ilire could not make out any words in the torrent of righteous oaths that exploded behind her. Once silence had descended once more, she looked up calmly at Firkraag.


“It seems we have a disagreement at last.â€Â


A predatory gleam appeared in his eyes. “Would you be eager for a confrontation, then, puny mortal?â€Â


“I am sure I can come to some sort of agreement if you let me discuss with your apprentice in private. After all, you do not seem to have many grievances with the fact that we butchered your servants on our way here.â€Â


Firkraag laughed and the mage glowered.


“I am not so easily dispatched,†the wizard protested. “Failure in the service of my master means death. Obviously I am capable.â€Â


“Then, Conster, by all means go and defend your claim,†the dragon ordered.


“Gladly, Lord Firkraag,†the apprentice answered, and he dimension-doored.


Ilire looked the red dragon in the eye. “Enjoy your show for now, dragon, but I will come back.â€Â


“A threat, puny Bhaalspawn?†Firkraag purred.


She gave a predatory smile of her own. “As is customary to say in those circumstances, I am merely delivering a promise.â€Â


He was laughing again when the large group left the chamber. It was a good thing that he considered her too entertaining to attack straight away. Unprepared, Ilire was well aware that a number of them, if not all, would die if a beast like Firkraag attacked. They needed backup from summoned creatures – probably a fire elemental, so it wouldn’t be burned by the dragon’s breath – and protection against fire – she did not remember the exact spell, but Anomen or Jaheira would tell her. More than that, they needed a battle plan which everyone had knowledge of and had agreed to.


When the dozen of them arrived at the top of the stairs a quarter of an hour later, Aerie and some of the paladins in heavy armour were panting in tiredness from all the steps. Conster stood in the middle of the room, making a show of holding Iltha by the chains running from the binds at her ankles, wrists and neck.


“We have a score to settle first,†Ilire told him calmly. “Let her go.â€Â


He smirked and gave a brutal shake of the chains. Iltha cried out, fresh blood flowing from the mangled skin at her wrists and neck.


“Yes, you and I have a score to settle, foolish woman. Get your dozen bodyguards out of the equation.â€Â


“That is out of the question!†Ajantis exploded.


“My lady! You will not!†Anomen exclaimed at the same time.


The two men exchanged a hostile look. Ilire’s icy glare made them look back at her in sheepish obedience.


“Ajantis, take your men out of here. Jaheira, get my party out of the dungeon. Wait for me outside. I’ll handle it.â€Â


“Ilire, I will not…†Ajantis began, but never finished his sentence. When the world covered in mist and then cleared again to reveal the outside of the ruins, he did not bother to state the rest of his idea.


One of the dragon heads over the entrance suddenly came alive. Its rocky eyes and lips became animated. “It’s only fair,†Firkraag’s voice boomed, “don’t you think? She agreed to a duel. I am merely ensuring your respect of your leader’s wishes.â€Â


“And who is to say that you will not join the fight?†Ajantis growled.


Anomen did not say anything, but by the angry red colour of his face, it could be guessed he rather agreed.


The dragon laughed. “Humans and their foolishness. How can they ever hope to pierce the mystery of my motives? Listen carefully, foolish creature. She keeps me entertained. As long as she fights, she does. I have no desire to see her dead just yet.â€Â


“And yet you have her fight your apprentice,†Keldorn remarked.


“Yes, well, I will not shed tears over her death should Conster overcome her. The point is, as long as both live, the dungeon is sealed to you. Should Conster perish, the spell will vanish. In the instance of her death, should I gather her ashes and send them out to you?â€Â


“By the horns of Sylvanus!†Jaheira exploded. “Vile worm! You just cower beneath the earth like the w…â€Â


The druid’s voice faded from Firkraag’s ears when he abandoned the stone dragon head to return to his own chamber, to listen with full attention to the detonations of magic and the battle cries on the upper floor.

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Back in business after a conference meeting in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Fascinating talks of oceanography and limnology, nice scenery, cold and rainy weather, and cute puffins and lots of seabirds. Two “lifers†for amateur birder me: puffin and thick-billed mures :D


But now I’m back, and until the Summer Festival starts keeping me busy with its nights of world music and its one metal night, I should post more regularly :p Thanks for hanging on, and please read and review :D


Chapter XIX. Lasting conflict


Ilire emerged from the dungeon nearly two hours later. One arm draped gently across Iltha’s shoulders, she led the girl out into the sunlight again. Some of Ilire’s companions had been sitting on the ground, others pacing, others sparring friendlily. When she stepped out of the dark entrance of Firkraag’s lair, her friends jumped to attention and immediately Anomen was by her side.


First, he looked Iltha over quickly, satisfied to find no trace of abuse, and then he turned to the kensai. Her clothes were scorched and drenched in blood, although he could not be sure if it was hers or Conster’s.


“My lady, are you injured?†he asked.


She shrugged. “No. A couple of potions took care of my hurts and bruises. I’m just a bit tired.†Turning away from the uncomfortable concern in the cleric’s eyes, she called Aerie. A look of righteous anger on her features, the elf approached quickly.


“I ho-ope you m-made that stup-pid mage p-pay for his evil deeds and amb-bition,†the cleric-mage muttered.


“He died,†Ilire confirmed. “Can you take the binds off Iltha, please?â€Â


“Of course.†Aerie bent her head of blond hair over the metal cuffs circling the girl’s wrists and started waving her hands in an easily recognizable pattern. In a few seconds the spell was complete and the binds snapped off Iltha.


“Thank you so much,†Iltha said, rubbing her wrists reflexively. “They were too tight.â€Â


“If you will allow me?†Anomen said, holding out his hand.


The young woman shot an uncertain look at Ilire out of the corner of his eye.


“Sir Anomen is a cleric of Helm. He will heal your wrists and ankles.â€Â


Smiling timidly, Iltha slowly extended her hands to Anomen, who gave a quick chant. He touched Iltha’s wrists lightly and the charred flesh closed under the brush of his fingertips. Gasping in marvel, she turned her hands over to examine her skin, healed without even a faint scar.


“The cuts are gone! I’m healed!†Suddenly lunging for Anomen’s hand, she shook it frantically with both of hers. “Thank you so much!â€Â


Chuckling embarrassedly, Anomen slowly took his hand away. “Think nothing of it. Helm would not want an innocent suffering from such villainy.â€Â


Putting her arm over Iltha’s shoulders again, Ilire steered her down the steps leading to the Windspear plains.


“Come on, Iltha, let’s take you back to your father’s cabin,†Ilire said with a warm smile.


Out of silent agreement Yoshimo and Jaheira slipped into the bushes to scout ahead, while Ajantis gestured his men into defensive positions. They made their way to Garren’s cabin without any trouble.


Iltha broke from Ilire’s arm a hundred yards from the house of her father, spotting him on the doorstep anxiously watching them coming closer. She sprinted up to him and jumped into her father’s arms. Hugging his daughter tightly, he looked up to the sky and thanked the gods that she was alive and uninjured. He only let go of his daughter when Ilire came near, and he hugged her just as fiercely.


“Thank you. Without you Iltha was lost to me.†Then pulling back, he held the adventuress at arms’ length. “Did you find what Lord Firkraag wanted with you?†he asked gently.


“He wanted entertainment,†she answered. “The kind of entertainment only a red dragon can find enjoyable.â€Â


Garren let go of Ilire and stepped back in surprise. “A red dragon?†he repeated in disbelief.


Ilire nodded mutely.


“Had I known, I might have received some help from the Council of Six when he took over all those years ago.â€Â


“I’m sorry, Lord Windspear, but the government was unaware of Firkraag’s nature,†Keldorn apologized. “Everyone thought Firkraag’s ascension suspicious, but without tangible proof we could not petition the Council.â€Â


Garren forced a smile. “Please, Lord Keldorn, I have abandoned all claims to the title long ago. I am content now to be simply called Garren. You were very supportive of me, and I do not forget that many good people helped me all the same. Thank you.â€Â


Keldorn smiled back.


“In any event, this is grave news. I will never sleep soundly now that I know I live right under the nose of a red dragon.â€Â


“Not for long,†Ilire muttered.


“Ah, finally a fight worthy of my skills!†Anomen exclaimed.


Even if she was aware that Anomen had had no intention of being funny, Ilire smiled wanly. It felt good to smile and be amused at something, even if an unsuspecting Anomen.


“The Order will be glad to have a chance to bring down such an evil beast,†Ajantis said.


She let out a bitter laughter. “I have no doubt it would be, but this fight is mine. I won’t lead an army down there to fight him. I will take my party.â€Â


“B-but, Ilire, are you c-certain?†Aerie asked, wriggling her hands nervously. “Firkraag is s-so big, and I can see he is a mature red dragon. A dozen would not be t-too much to battle him.â€Â


“You don’t have to fear him, Aerie. I don’t plan on getting us all killed, but I won’t have an army behind me when I face him. I’m a kensai. I’m a duelist. I’ve made my peace with having a few companions with me when I face an opponent, but a dozen is definitively too much.â€Â


She carefully avoided looking at Ajantis while she made that declaration. After a short silence, the cavalier let out in a clearly frustrated voice, “I understand that, my lady, but what is the use of risking lives uselessly?â€Â


She glared at him. “Unless you have forgotten the past – in addition, of course, to those last few months in a loop of time – you should realize you are asking just what the use of my whole life is.â€Â


Blushing to the roots of his hair, Ajantis nevertheless put up a brave defence. “That is certainly not what I meant. By Helm, is she difficult,†he muttered under his breath.


“Is it not?†she pressed in a brittle voice. “A Bhaalspawn, a seed of chaos in your fine orderly world, Ajantis, the child of an evil god, here to bring misery on everyone and especially those who mean something to me. My very existence endangers countless lives aside from those I’ve already managed to finish – Gorion, Alora, Khalid, Dynaheir, name them. What is the use of that?â€Â


“Ilire, you know that is not what I meant,†he declared stonily.


By that point, Jaheira and Keldorn had both tried to distract them by coughing a few times, but were utterly ignored. It was finally Aerie who, with uncharacteristic decisiveness, took Yoshimo and Jaheira by the arm and dragged them along away from the quarrelling couple.


Ajantis’ men had already moved away a few steps, embarrassed at seeing their commander having a quarrel with his wife. Garren, Iltha, Anomen and Keldorn followed in defeat.


“Oh, of course I know what you mean!†Ilire exclaimed, her eyes dry and her voice pitched higher than usual. “Sure I know! How would I know? I remember very well words disturbingly similar to those falling from your lips somewhere in Cloakwood, don’t you remember?â€Â


“Ilire, it was just the shock…†he tried, but was interrupted again. With a jolt he realized it was the first time since she had slapped him the day before that he felt like he knew the person he was speaking to. Strange that it should happen in the middle of our worst argument ever, he thought bitterly.


“And for a day now you’ve done nothing but telling me you don’t recognize me anymore and question almost each order I give to my own party! How is that supposed to make me know you don’t mean precisely that I’m a danger?â€Â


He took a breath to calm himself. “That is not what I meant,†he repeated.


“Then what did you mean?†she exploded.


“I meant that you didn’t use to slap me when I asked who hurt you, and you didn’t use to avoid me, and most of all you didn’t use to abandon me to go have another man put flowers in your hair!â€Â


Anger emptied from her in an instant.


“I… abandoned you,†she repeated flatly. “To go have another man put flowers in my hair.†There was a dead moment of silence. With a strange detachment she observed his features frozen in fury. Then she chortled a bit of a laugh. “You understand nothing, Ajantis. Nothing. I don’t know you anymore, it seems.â€Â


Turning away from him, she looked briefly from left to right to spot where the others had chosen to stand while pretending not to notice what was going on.


“Tomorrow I will go back to battle Firkraag as I have promised,†Ilire said. “I will lead my party down there. You may join if you wish, or you may sate your desire to be abandoned by staying behind with your men. That is the end of the discussion.â€Â


She walked away and quickly went to Jaheira, who stood clearly visible and had glowered at them while they argued.


“I need your advice on spells to battle a red dragon,†she said before the druid managed to get a word in edgewise. “Aerie’s and Anomen’s too, while we’re at it.â€Â


The two other clerics materialized by their side, out of nowhere it seemed. Ilire ignored the concern on Anomen’s face, the worry on Aerie’s, and the fury on Jaheira’s.


“What do we have in terms of protection against fire?â€Â



They took an early breakfast the next morning. Even though no formal arrangements had been made, the climate over the very silent table sharply reminded that in little time half of them would head to Firkraag’s dungeon, while the other half would return to Athkatla.


Suddenly breaking the tense silence, Ajantis asked, “Sir Keldorn?â€Â


“Yes, Squire Ajantis?†the older paladin answered.


“I have something to ask of you.â€Â


“Well, what is it?â€Â


“I would like to transfer command and responsibility of my men to you, so you can lead them back to Athkatla. The Order needs a report about Firkraag, and someone there needs to know what happened to us, so another group of knights can be sent should we fail to bring the beast down.â€Â


“I will not fail,†Ilire stated with a voice as hard as iron.


Keldorn coughed to bring Ajantis’ attention back on himself. “I am honoured that you would think of me, but I have my own duty to Ilire. I have promised that I would assist her in the search for her sister, and it will soon come to that directly. I would fail to honour my engagements if I deserted now.â€Â


“Very well, Sir Keldorn,†Ajantis capitulated. “Maybe Sir Anomen, then?â€Â


Alarmed, the cleric turned to Ilire and shifted uncomfortably in his chair.


“No,†she said flatly. “No offence intended, Jae and Aerie, but you split your efforts between two things. I need a cleric like Anomen.â€Â


“I don’t remember you having another cleric around than Jaheira back when on the Sword Coast,†Ajantis remarked tartly.


“And I remember you saying how much you missed Branwen’s – what was it? Her hands? – when I switched her for Minsc and Dynaheir.â€Â


“I missed Branwen’s healing spells, my lady,†Ajantis muttered, blushing.


“Ah, it must have been her ‘healing touch’ then, yes,†Ilire said.


Keldorn coughed again. “Visibly neither of us can go back to Athkatla right now.â€Â


“Squire Ajantis?†one of the men spoke up.


“Yes, Barin?â€Â


“Well, it’s your decision, but we could go back alone. Five squires don’t have much to fear on the road.â€Â


After a silence, Ajantis turned to Keldorn for advice. “What do you think, Sir Keldorn? Can I so easily drop my responsibility to my companions?â€Â


“Bah! Why don’t you think for yourself instead of always asking Keldorn’s opinion?†Anomen exclaimed. “Always following orders like this, you’re never going to earn your knighthood.â€Â


Unable to form an answer immediately, Ajantis fumed in silence for a while. Whatever scathing retort he might have composed was cut short by Keldorn’s intervention.


“True that you were not so eager to listen to my advice while you were still a squire, Sir Anomen, but might I remind you that you were knighted only a short time ago, and had been following quite a bit of advice yourself?â€Â


Blushing, Anomen angrily took his breath, an indignant answer imminent. “Let it rest, Anomen,†Ilire said quietly. Turning to her, Anomen felt his heart sink; she had enough to deal with already. She should not have to put up with his petty wounded pride now. He slowly sighed his breath out.


“Regarding the circumstances you are currently in,†Keldorn answered Ajantis at last, “I think your duty lies here, by Ilire’s side, and your charges should be expected to be able to return to Athkatla alone.â€Â


Ajantis bowed his head to his mentor. “Thank you, Sir Keldorn.†Then he turned to his men. “So you heard. Pack your things and return to the Order headquarters. Ride hard and keep to the main roads. If all goes well we will follow you in a day or two.â€Â

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Chapter XX. The confrontation


“Cast the protections from fire,†Ilire ordered under her breath.


They had went as far down as they had dared in the stairway, and carefully avoided making any unnecessary noise for fear of alerting Firkraag. Aerie had already successfully summoned and won her mental battle for control of a fire elemental. The huge mass of flames and molten rock stood close by, its misshapen back hunching two feet above Ajantis’ head.


Aerie, Jaheira and Anomen started chanting together the spells of protection against fire. Ilire called upon her own inborn ability to lend more power to her blows. Ajantis used his cavalier’s skill to iron their resolve against the fear of facing a red dragon. After a second wave of chanting by the clerics, the six of them were protected by fire. Aerie, as planned, cast a spell of haste on them, and they made their way down the stairs will all the speed granted to them by the magical power of their mage.


Firkraag’s laughter rumbled through the cavern when he saw them arrive.


“Back so soon, puny mortals? And, oh, how scary, bristling with magical power… My, I have never seen the likes of you,†he finished in an angry spat.


“I don’t think you have indeed,†Ilire snarled, taking her agreed position right in front of the dragon with Jaheira. Anomen and Ajantis went to take the right flank, and Keldorn the left with the fire elemental. Aerie, alone and feeling uncomfortably isolated, stood a good distance afar to avoid the deadly dragon breath.


“Is that your pathetic challenge, human?†Firkraag mocked, making a show of studying his claws.


Knowing better than wasting time talking while her protection spells withered away uselessly, Ilire raised her lead hand katana and slashed at the exposed scaly skin of the dragon’s shin.


“It is.â€Â


“You have exhausted my tolerance, puny mortal!†the dragon roared.


Ilire had hoped to provoke him into using his breath right from the beginning, when the fire protections were firmly in place, but her plan failed. A mature red dragon such as Firkraag knew to keep his head cool when fighting for his life against a party of adventurers who, while not overpowering, were experienced enough to give him trouble. Actually, he rather enjoyed the challenge and coldly surveyed the battlefield.


The isolated mage freed her spell trigger, which lowered his magic resistance much too low for his liking. Anything could go through his hide now, and the elf no doubt had a few nasty spells in store. Acknowledging her as the worst threat at the moment, Firkraag began reciting a spell to strip her of her predictable magical protection against fire. He batted his wings once to send Ilire and Jaheira flying to keep them from interrupting his spellcasting, while dancing from foot to foot around the other fighters’ attacks.


It would have been satisfying to pursuit Ilire and Jaheira and tear off their limbs while they were still stunned by the buffet of wind, but he had more urgent things to take care of. There would be plenty of time to gut them, cook them and eat them later.


The eldest paladin’s holy blade swung in dangerously competent blows. Firkraag had to suppress the urge to snicker in disgust at the holy aura of the two-handed sword. Paladins and their avengers; it seemed narrow-minded if not foolishly arrogant to imbue a weapon to deal death with holy energies, did it not? Nevertheless, the result remained: the blade was dangerous and the grey-haired paladin kept aiming for his Achilles’ tendon or the ligaments behind his knees.


The cleric, while not exactly menacing, hit repeatedly with all his considerable strength on the dragon’s toes. Such injuries could become impairing.


The younger paladin slashed determinedly at everything that came within range. His furious hits accomplished little against Firkraag’s hardened scales, but the superb disregard for the dragon’s slashes of the tail belied danger nevertheless.


Firkraag’s abjuration spell ended at last, with a blue sphere of magical energies flying at the elven mage to strip her of her protection from fire. The dragon expected the mage to stagger in fear – she was pale enough as it was, if any more blood rushed away from her face, she would faint. Unexpectedly she held her ground, battle-ready, observing the dragon closely.


He suppressed laughter at her useless challenge to better fill his lungs. Fire erupted from his nostrils, exploded through the air and whooshed pleasingly in rippling waves of liquid, living yellow flames. Firkraag lost sight of the frail elf in the blinding flash of his dragon’s breath.


He turned his full attention to the older paladin – Keldorn was this one’s name, the dragon remembered from his servants’ intelligence. He roared fearsomely in his face, discovering his long sharp teeth in a display that never failed to send even the hardiest of warriors running. Blatantly ignoring the threat, the paladin brought his sword about and smashed it right in the middle of Firkraag’s lower jaw.


The dragon staggered backwards at the pain that exploded in his head. The other warriors cried joyously and scored vicious hits at his thighs, taking full advantage of his momentary lapse of attention.


“I will crush you all!†he bellowed.


With a powerful blast of his wings, he sent the paladin and the fire elemental flying. The violence of the blow knocked the air out of Keldorn’s lungs and his helmed head rolled heedlessly from side to side when he crashed to the ground.


Turning on the others, Firkraag breathed fire in the midst of them to cover his retreat. Taking a step back, he started his next spell. Pathetic hits across his feet followed a few seconds later, but were ineffective to halt his spellcasting. When the last word of power rolled off his tongue, he proudly gave a wicked grin to the helpless warriors facing him, smugly displaying is healed jaw.


However, a new scar had appeared on his perfect glossy scales, he noted with fiery loathing; a slash from the second paladin – Ajantis, the very one he had held prisoner – had cut open his thigh and now, even after the healing spell, his red scales were misshapen, hinting to the stitch in the flesh underneath.


“You will pay for that,†he roared. Striking down like a viper, he snapped his healed jaw over Ajantis’ arm and bit it off. The man let out a most satisfying shriek before he fell backwards and started writhing on the ground like a metal-clad worm. A geyser of blood sprouted from the wound at each heart beat.


As appealing as the sight was, Firkraag could not linger to watch it. With studied carelessness he picked the shredded armour out of a gap between two of his teeth and tossed the twitching limb aside.


Flapping his wings again, he knocked Keldorn and Jaheira aside. He laughed.


“You will all die!â€Â



Anomen ducked and rolled under Firkraag’s wing just before it flapped. The breath-stealing rush of air slashed just above his head. The priest pushed all feelings from his mind, focusing solely on the coldly calculating thoughts of a warrior and healer. Not interrupting his roll, he snatched Ajantis’ writhing arm from the ground, and sprinted towards the fallen paladin.


In merely two or three seconds, Ajantis had already lost consciousness, and the well of blood diminished steadily with each weakening heart beat. Anomen roughly pushed the arm back into the shoulder socket, and held it there with one hand, hoping no torn piece of armour was getting in the way. He only had one chance to save Ajantis, and he did not possess the luxury of time to make sure he was doing it right.


The dragon’s groans of pain, the deafening roar of his flames, the clash of metal against metal-like scales, the warriors’ bellowing cries and Aerie’s chanting assaulted his ears. He pushed it all aside in his mind.


He fell to the calm core of his being where his faith in Helm resided. A heartfelt and urgent plea, accompanied with a too-long incantation, granted him a connection to his god. Being permitted to tap the divine power of Helm had always awed him, but his urgency was so great that he barely contemplated the feeling this time.


Anomen released the energies granted to him into the most powerful healing spell in the mortal spheres of existence, and focused it on Ajantis’ shoulder.


With the spell over, Anomen stayed frozen in trepidation for a second, despite the worrisome grunts of pain from his companions, who still battled the raging fury of fire, teeth and talons that was Firkraag.


Finally Anomen dared give an experimental tug on Ajantis’ arm. The cavalier groaned groggily. But the arm held.


Anomen let out his breath and sent an instant and heartfelt thanksgiving to Helm. Taking hold of the paladin’s good arm, he roughly pulled him up. At the sleepy grunts of protest, he urged, “You need to get out of the way! I don’t have another spell like that in memory!â€Â


Brusquely Ajantis jumped to his feet, testing his arm. He flexed his fingers just once before seizing his weapon lying by his side on the floor. Rushing back to the fray, he threw at Anomen over his shoulder, “I’m fine! Resume battle!â€Â


Anomen could have yelled in helpless frustration at being ordered around by a squire, but he definitively had better use for his time. He banished as best he could his thoughts of injured arrogance from his mind, knowing Helm did not exactly approve of them and he greatly needed his god’s support just then, and he plunged back to the calm core of himself.


He used his wrath against the evil creature they were battling to channel down the righteous fury of his god in a shower of hailstones. The spell hit Firkraag just in the middle of trying to decapitate Ilire. It was not his first attempt, but beheading one unarmoured woman proved more difficult than it should have been.


Fortunately, the dragon staggered, the accumulation of injuries from the long battle making his terrible attacks weaker and slower. He had changed his tactics from fearsomely offensive to warily defensive.


Suddenly, while Anomen tried to determine which of his badly battered companions had more urgent need of his healing skills, he saw Ilire slay Firkraag.


The dragon stretched and landed a blow on Jaheira, who flew backwards from the punch with blood flowing in dark stains over her breastplate. Ilire, with an inarticulate cry of fury, drove her left katana down to the hilt between two of Firkraag’s ribs. Recoiling and collecting himself, the dragon let out a wheezing breath, but Ilire took advantage of the motion. Tightly gripping the katana’s hilt, she used it as a handle and swung with Firkraag’s move. Stretching up in one fluid motion, she stuck her feet behind one of the erect plates ornamenting the dragon’s pine.


He let out a terrifying roar of pure fury and started moving in wide, sweeping, disorganized moves to try to dislodge Ilire. Petrified, Anomen analyzed with an inaccessible part of his mind that the cavalier’s spell must have faded, because fear gripped him so tightly that he could not even move his little finger while the woman he loved was in mortal danger.


The kensai held on with a warrior’s strength and twisted about with stunning dexterity, abandoning her off-hand katana in Firkraag’s flank. Using both hands and feet to secure her precarious position on the dragon’s back, she ran up his spine to his shoulder blades. She dared not go higher for fear of his rear claws scratching her off the nape of his neck. Straddling him between two hard vertical scales, she planted her feet against the unevenness at the junction of scales on his back. She shifted her grip on her sword to hold it its blade downwards in both hands and aimed carefully. She strained with all her considerable strength to hold on while he thrashed about viciously, until he stretched in the good direction and she saw her opening.


When he stretched his neck, the vertebrae parted slightly, giving a window to the nerves unprotected by nothing but softer cartilage. Ilire drove her katana down between the bones and strained in a visceral effort to drag her blade across the massive chord of nerves running inside the dragon’s spine, despite the skin and scales and cartilage she had to cut through. Blood welled up around her blade, sprouting up high enough to shower her hair in the fiery liquid. It flowed over her hands and legs to fall on dark rivers on the dragon’s flanks.


Stumbling, then falling forwards, Firkraag let out a wordless grunt of pain. His hindquarters failed him utterly, and his forehand claws gave nothing but useless twitches. Ilire’s party took a prudent distance from his head, though, because he trashed his neck about violently, letting out little clouds of smoke and occasional bursts of flame by the nostrils.


Ilire slid down from his back on his blood-slick flanks. She looked at the agonizing creature in its big yellow eyes.


“Enjoyed the show, Lord Firkraag?†she asked venomously.


“To… the Abyss… with you,†he sputtered.


“What a humiliation it must be, Lord Firkraag, to have a puny human such as me ride you.â€Â


His eyes widened and he tried to roar, but only frothing blood and a wheezing rumble escaped his lips.


“I think you will be spared any further humiliation, since you will die shortly,†she added. “At least you have that comfort, which you refused me while I was in Irenicus’ clutches.â€Â


In a final challenge, the dragon filled his lungs in a mighty effort, and he breathed his dying fire in the arrogant woman’s direction. When he let out his last breath, the last image he saw were his flames filling his field of vision, and the flare of fire surrounded the one who had brought him to his knees. His yellow eyes glazed over, and Firkraag died with a draconian smirk on his lips.

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Chapter XXI. Mending


Ajantis had half expected a confrontation with Anomen over who would carry her. With the emotions of battle still running high, he had been ready for a challenge. To his surprise, however, the cleric yielded with unassuming diffidence as soon as he exhausted his last healing spell on Ilire.


Once through the ruin of Firkraag’s lair, Jaheira briskly led the party towards Garren’s cabin. Ajantis followed without question, even though he did not wish to overstay his welcome with the former lord of Windspear; he desired more comfort and safety for Ilire’s recovery than the best he could offer in an encampment in the wilderness. When Garren and his daughter saw Ilire’s party coming back alive from the confrontation with Firkraag, they welcomed them to grateful and ecstatic congratulations. Ajantis, who had begun to feel the strain of Ilire’s weight in his arms, did not even have to ask; Garren led him inside to the ware room, where the former lord and his daughter hurriedly set a comfortable bedroll.


Ajantis carefully put Ilire down. After doing so, he turned to Garren and Jaheira standing in the doorway.


“Please, I would like some privacy with my wife now.â€Â


Garren hastily fled under Jaheira’s glower. The druidess glared at Ajantis a while longer before turning on her heel and storming off.


By Helm, warning delivered, Ajantis thought. Closing the door, he sighed and lowered his head. Leaning against the doorframe with a hand, he remained motionless for a long time.



Ilire woke to the feeling of a thumb striking the back of her hand, slowly and regularly. He must have felt her stirring, for she heard his low, steady voice.


“You gave me a scare, my lady.â€Â


In a moment of sleepy confusion, she luxuriated in the warmth of her covers, the tenderness of his touch and the loving concern in his voice. Then grim reality crashed down on her head again. In the weakness of battle passed and sleep eroding her defences, she burst into tears. Tearing her hand from his grasp, she turned away from him and buried her face in the pillow, gathering an armful of covers to hug them to her chest.


“Oh, Ilire,†he sighed.


His big hand pressed her shoulder and he pushed her hair away from her face, not that it allowed him to see it. Moving to her other side to take her hand, he gently but relentlessly pried her fist open and patiently caressed her now nerveless fingers.


Startling him, she turned her head slightly away from the pillow and hiccupped, “Why don’t you leave me alone, Ajantis? Surely you don’t need to sit there and watch me cry.â€Â


There was a short hesitant silence on his part. “And where else than at your side, trying to alleviate your pain, do you think I wish to be?â€Â


She snorted and cried anew. It took her a few seconds to control her voice enough to speak again.


“I don’t know. Surely your duty must call you elsewhere than at the side of your betrayer of a wife to uselessly listen to her tears.â€Â


She wondered sadly where the three-feet-thick, magically-enforced, metal-banded brick wall rising between them had come from. It seemed to have sprouted out of nowhere. She remembered the time where she would sit next to Ajantis, he would look at her seriously and ask her what was the matter. She would squirm and come out with it. Other times, he would sigh when he looked her way and polish his armour for far too long, and she would walk over and ask him what was going on. They would disagree and discuss, but they never truly argued, and it always ended with a hug and a feeling of relief on both sides.


Until he disappeared, she was captured, and the wall of incomprehension rose a league tall between them with the league-deep trench of hurt on each side. It seemed all but insurmountable.


“You never seemed to think my presence useless before,†Ajantis remarked acidly, although he did not let go of her hand. “Perhaps I should go and fetch Sir Anomen?â€Â


By the way he very suddenly fell silent, she knew he regretted those words.


She snorted in the pillow. “Anomen so has nothing to do with this, Ajantis. He so has nothing to do with anything. We are perfectly capable of arguing just between the two of us.†She swallowed stinging tears, wondering how things could have deteriorated so much between Ajantis and her; how their complicity and easy smiles could have been turned to bitter confrontation and hurtful words. “I’m tired, Ajantis, and I need to rest now, not to argue with you. Could you please –“


“Ilire, please be honest with me,†he cut her.


She tore her hand from his and banged her fist in the pillow. “By Lathander, I never lied to you.â€Â


“I was making a request, my lady, not an accusation. If I ask a difficult question, will you answer honestly? For the sake of everything we ever shared.â€Â


She swallowed more painful tears. “Yes.â€Â


There was a long silence. He cleared his throat a few times before actually saying, “Do you love Sir Anomen?â€Â


She chortled in the pillow. “That’s not a difficult question. It’s only hard for you to ask and wait for the answer.†She turned on her back and dried her tears. She looked him in the eye a long time, his dark grey eyes troubled, but still hopeful. She took a few deep, steadying breaths to take control of her voice. “The answer is no, Ajantis.†She saw his shoulders sag with relief and hurried to conclude before he relented completely and she lost her nerve. “The truth is that I do not know what I feel, and I told him as much, and yes, that was before I discovered you were still alive. I had begun to think it felt good to have someone watch out for me, and be thoughtful, and nice, after all this time. It felt good that he seemed to forget about duty for a little five minutes when I was talking to him. I was alone, Ajantis… with Imoen gone, he was my only friend. There was Jae, but you know you can’t talk of everything with Jae; she’s like my mother more than like my friend. But I never had a chance to discover if it would go further than that, because you suddenly rose from the grave.â€Â


He seemed all at once relieved and hurt. “So you do not love him,†he suddenly repeated, and pain disappeared from his expression, as though he had taken the decision not to let any other consideration hold any weight.


“I told you, no I don’t.â€Â


“My lady…†He coughed and looked at her in his trademark, intense manner. “I cannot begin to think what it must have felt like to think me dead…â€Â


“For over a year,†she reminded him brutally.


“Helm, did it have to be that long,†he muttered to himself. Then, aloud, “Yes, for over a year. But I had no control on the situation.â€Â


“No,†Ilire conceded ungraciously, “and neither did I.â€Â


“Ilire, my lady… despite the words we have exchanged, is there no part of you that is happy that I am alive?â€Â


At that her eyes filled with tears again. “Oh, Ajantis, of course I’m glad you’re not dead. And it hurts so much that we can’t seem to become as close as we were.â€Â


“Then let me hold you in my arms, my love, and let us endeavour to mend this distance between us.â€Â


He wrapped his fingers around her upper arm and tugged gently. She sat up in response and he slowly moved to embrace her. Very self-consciously, she slid her arms around his neck and rested her forearms across his broad shoulders. She buried her face in his shoulder and relaxed, his hands tall and warm on her back. His breathing became laboured and heavy as she threaded her fingers up through his short hair.


“Why did you not look for me, my love?†he asked through tears.


She pulled away from him. “Look for you?â€Â, she exploded. “But you were dead, can’t you get that in your head? Keldorn had already spent over a month looking for your corpse and found nothing. There was nowhere left for me to search. With Imoen counting on me to get her out of Irenicus’ clutches – what would you have done in my place?â€Â


Troubled, he frowned unhappily before sighing. “I am sorry, Ilire. I would have done the same.†Then, under his breath, “Helm forgive me.â€Â


She usually let it slip when he muttered in that way, but now she did not.


“Is it really something to be forgiven, Ajantis?â€Â


He silently shook his head with a faint smile. “I was asking forgiveness for my selfishness when I did not understand your trials, distracted as I was with mine.â€Â


It rubbed her the wrong way, but she controlled her temper. “Helm is the one you feel the need to ask forgiveness to?â€Â


Colouring and coughing embarrassedly, he slowly disentangled himself from her embrace to get down on his knees in front of her.


“Ilire,†he said intensely, “I humbly ask your forgiveness for my selfishness in not understanding the trials you have had to endure. I beg you to forgive my absence. I have failed you, my lady… I should have been by your side.â€Â


She smiled wanly. “Now I remember why I married a paladin… not even a bard can beat their apologies.†He smiled and made to take her in his arms again, but she knelt in her turn. “I think I have apologies to make too. I’m sorry that I didn’t look for you – didn’t know you were even still alive. And… and for Anomen. I… I’m sorry – you know I paid more respect to your memory than jumping into the first man’s arms. I swear I wasn’t… wasn’t looking for…â€Â


This time, he shook his head and took her face in his hands. “Hush, my love, I know.†And he drew her in his arms again. This time she let him and relaxed.


“Thank you, Ajantis.â€Â






He pulled away and scrutinized her face. “My lady, I wish to pledge myself to you again. If you will still have me… I will never leave your side again. I swear, my lady, I will never fail you again. Never let you at a madman’s mercy again.â€Â


Her eyes brimmed with tears and she smiled. “Good. That way I won’t have to promise never to let you fall prey to a dragon’s illusions again.â€Â


Ajantis sighed and pulled her head to his chest. She settled there, her ear against the strong beating of his heart, and they were content with the silence for the first time since their reunion.

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I admit I’m a little disappointed… I was hoping for a few more reviews on the previous chapter before posting this one. But eh, no matter, here it is. Thanks for reading and please leave a review or two!


Chapter XXII. Loneliness of an unexpected nature


When dinner time came, Ilire limped to the kitchen on Ajantis’ arm under the cheers of her team, Garren and his daughter. Her injuries had unsettled her stomach, so she could swallow no more than some soup, but the relaxed and friendly atmosphere around the table, now that she had made up with Ajantis, made the dinner delightful. Only Anomen did not share the easy smiles and boisterous good humour. He stayed uncharacteristically quiet throughout the dinner, but Ilire was too tired to take notice, and no one else paid much attention to the silent cleric.


After some soup, Ilire headed for the stream and, with Jaheira’s help, she cleaned off the remaining blood from her hair and skin. Exhausted afterwards, Ilire went back to her bedroll even though it was only early evening. It was something of a pleasant surprise when Ajantis, after easing her down between the covers, lay down besides her and put his arm around her waist.


Silently Ilire let him slide under the blankets with her. He propped himself on an elbow to carefully arrange her pillow and covers – in a flash she remembered him setting up her bedroll with many blushes and much embarrassment early on in their relationship. Despite his lack of confidence, he had not exaggerated when he had said he knew how to make her comfortable.


“My love, you are shivering from the cold,†he said softly, and stretching he retrieved his cape which he added on top of the covers. He muttered to himself, “I should have asked Aerie to warm the stream for her.â€Â


Ilire was too exhausted to move much, but she nevertheless buried her head in the cape.


“I had even forgotten your smell,†she mused.


He stopped breathing for a moment, before sighing and bringing his hand up to thread it slowly through her hair. He had always done that, combing her hair until he fell asleep with his fingers entangled in her tresses. He had done the gesture countless times before, but it did not feel familiar anymore, only strange and slightly out of place. It felt like lying with a stranger whose each move she could predict, and Ilire thought she would drown in that sorrow.


Her expression must have betrayed her, for he asked tentatively, “Ilire? Would you rest better if I did not disturb you?â€Â


She violently pushed all the sorrow to the back of her mind. In a rush she turned to bury her face in Ajantis’ shoulder and pulled him close. She wanted the distance and the absence of familiarity to disappear. She wanted to go back to her feelings and feel again like she used to when her lover held her in his arms.


“I’m sorry, my love,†she mumbled. “I’m so tired… would you just hold me?â€Â


Sliding an arm under her head, he pressed the other to her lower back, holding her tightly. “Until my last breath.â€Â


Yet the feeling of strangeness refused to be shaken off. It was the chest of a man she was pressed into; the chest of this man she knew well – she knew each muscle, each curve of the skin over each rib, each steady beat of his heart. And yet, she had gone without his embrace for so long that she felt just like she had the first time they had been together: all new, awkward and not too sure what to do with it.


Her exhausted body did not allow her reflection to continue beyond that. She toppled over the edge of sleep and spiralled far down into oblivion.



She woke shortly later because of the sixth iteration of the same nightmare. Like the previous times, Imoen spoke the fated words, “You will be too lateâ€Â, and Ilire jerked awake at the sight of Irenicus’ sneering face, his words still echoing in her ears. “You will accept the gifts offered to you, if only because of the weak who will suffer because of you.â€Â


A man moved next to her and grabbed her arm, but she punched him blindly in the dark and scrambled away.


“Don’t touch me, you madman! Don’t touch me ever again!†She screamed with all the hysteria of a trapped and tortured woman.


And then, the shooting pain in her ribs brought her fully awake. In the dim moonlight trickling through the small window, she could just discern Ajantis slowly rolling away from her in complete silence, not even drawing a breath.


She collapsed right back down to the bedroll, and tears flowed over her barriers. “I’m sorry, I was having a nightmare, I didn’t know it was you, I didn’t mean you…â€Â


“I know, Ilire,†he cut her gently, rasping and breathless. She had knocked the breath out of him with her punch.


Right then the door burst open. Blinking and squinting, Ilire looked up at the bright square of light until she could see Jaheira in the doorway, standing with a lantern in one hand and her staff in the other. The druid glared down at Ajantis with a furious scowl.


Ilire’s cheeks flamed in shame. “It’s alright, Jae,†she whispered with as much dignity as she could muster. “I was just having a nightmare. Please, leave us alone.â€Â


Her face softening, the druid nodded silently and closed the door. Other sets of footsteps approached in the corridor, and Ilire was grateful that only Jaheira had seen what she had done to Ajantis, even though it was by accident.


In the returned darkness, Ajantis tentatively took Ilire’s shaking hand. He breathed slowly and heavily, and tears lurked in his voice when he spoke. “What terrible things you have endured, my love. I must ask your forgiveness that it was without my support…†Gently he pulled her down with him to the bedroll and folded her up in his strong arms, muttering to himself in her hair, “I don’t need to hear those terrible things listed; it’s more than enough to feel her shaking, she who is so strong…†He cleared his throat, and then spoke louder. “Try not to think of him anymore, Ilire. He cannot hurt you here, and I swear I will never let him hurt you again.â€Â


She dried her tears against his shirt. Familiar words came to her, but they sounded somewhat hollow now. “Thank you, Ajantis. Your presence… you make me feel safer.â€Â


“I will guard you with all the strength Helm has given me. Sleep now, my lady.â€Â



Unexpectedly, the morning was cruel. Her face, still blotched with tears, felt dry and stiff. She lay in Ajantis’ arms, his fingers entangled in her hair, but nothing was left inside her but a barren wasteland. No feelings. No warmth, tenderness or desire aroused by his presence. She watched his face, serene in sleep; a strong, courageous and loyal man. Dutiful. Thoughtful. Who loved her. Loved her enough to forgive the crimson rhodelia in her hair and her statement that she did not know what she felt anymore.


It was treason not to feel anything in return. She should be feeling in return. There was no reason not to. He really was alive, after all those months of wishing he were. She had not killed him despite a red dragon’s machinations. They had even reconciled.


But there she lay, looking at his face, conscious of his arm around her shoulders and his fingers in her hair, and yet no answering love sprouted forth from her heart anew, like a stream coming back to life after draught.


Eyes brimming with tears, she disentangled herself from his arms. He stirred and mumbled her name sleepily.


“Don’t worry,†she murmured, “I just have to go to the restroom.â€Â


He groaned something that might have been his agreement and fell back asleep. Silently she exited the room, closed the door and tiptoed across the kitchen and outside. With dawn yet to break, everyone still slept soundly. After the visit to the restroom she had promised, she went to sit on the ground near the pond behind Garren’s house, and looked at the sky slowly brightening with the approaching sun.


She sat there, meticulously pushing down in a tiny corner of her mind all her thoughts of love long dead inside of her, replacing them with the forceful statement that it was the shock, that it would all come back to what it once had been, until Jaheira, always the first one up with her senses finely attuned to nature’s cycles, came to take her to breakfast.



The gods knew she tried. With all the strength of her mind and all her heart’s determination, she tried to act as though everything was back to what it once had been. She set her party to explore the lands of Windspear Hills in the next few days, to hunt down the last orcs and werewolves.


She sat next to him at meals; she shared his cup of wine; she smiled and spoke to him around the fire at night before they retired to their bedroll or their room; she reached for his hand when they were in safety; she let him stand to her right in battle to defend her.


Sometimes, it felt as though it clicked back into place; they would engage in a passionate discussion about battle tactics and for a few minutes it felt as though everything was well again. Then they would drop the last lines of their argument and reach an agreement, and she would suddenly feel very self-conscious again. Other times, he would back down in front of Jaheira’s commanding attitude regarding the set up of the camp, and Ilire would find herself smiling fondly at the paladin losing all his means faced with the formidable druid.


But those moments were fleeting. Most of the time, she would feel like a stranger, both to him and to herself. Ajantis was no fool, and he could feel it. Sometimes she caught him frowning worriedly at her, but he did not press her with questions.


And, one afternoon while they set up camp half a day’s walk from Garren’s cabin, ready to head back to Athkatla the next day, she met Anomen on the trail leading down to their source of water. She was going down to fetch water while the cleric was coming up from his bath. With her hands full with two empty buckets, she tried to manoeuvre around him on the trail, but the road was a narrow one. Anomen, by chance of circumstance, chose to move the same side as her, and they danced from one side to the other a few times. They were both smiling in amusement when Anomen took her elbow and guided her one step down, past him. It was just a casual, innocent touch; he let go immediately and went back up the trail without even looking back at her.


She went down to the water, her heart racing, her knees shaky and her morale lowest since she had escaped Irenicus.


She was married to Ajantis. More than that, she had decided that she would love him again, just as strongly as she used to. Then why did Anomen’s simple, meaningless touch on her elbow made her heart race so?


Why could she not just set her mind on something and really put her heart into it? Why did she always think back about Anomen, who seemed to lose himself when he looked in her eyes, who never made her feel second to his duty?


When she reached the water’s edge, she was distracted, and she slipped. Her feet flew past her and she ended up sitting in the middle of the stream, her clothes and boots filled with icy water. The cold was shocking. The cold was fitting.


She started crying.

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Chapter XXIII. Solitude and welcome loneliness


The three days it took to go back to Athkatla seemed to stretch to a very uncomfortable eternity. She managed to avoid Anomen without making it too obvious a manoeuvre, but Ajantis’ growing distress at her suffocating despair transformed the journey into a living hell. His eyes on her every time he was not surveying the road. His frown when he looked at her, which started concerned and questioning, only to transform into angry and demanding. The unshed tears in his silence at night.



The morning they were supposed to board Saemon Havarian’s ship and head to Brynnlaw to rescue Imoen, Anomen went down from his room at the Copper Coronet to find the entire party assembled at a table in the common room. Ajantis angrily paced back and forth in front of a sombre-looking Jaheira.


“Lady Jaheira? Is something wrong?†Anomen inquired cautiously.


With an air of careful flatness, the druid stated, “Ilire went for a trip to Trademeet.â€Â


The cleric frowned. “Trademeet? But what does she…â€Â


“Solitude,†Ajantis spat querulously. “She wrote she needed solitude.â€Â


“Ah,†Anomen replied slowly. Clearing his throat, he took a seat with them. “Shall we go after her and make sure she is safe? Travelling these roads alone might not be the safest…â€Â


“No,†Ajantis interrupted. “She can handle highwaymen. She said she needed solitude. She shall have it.â€Â


Anomen bit down on the retort his wounded arrogance suggested, and instead simply backed down. He felt in a too precarious situation with Ilire to risk getting between her and her husband by a careless comment.



When the walls of Athkatla reappeared on the horizon, the serenity of solitude Ilire had experienced for the last three days slowly faded to be replaced by dizzying unease. Nevertheless, she refused to listen to her treacherous and cowardly heart urging her to run back the way she came, and willed her feet forward. She had been away for long enough. No matter the state of torment of her heart, Imoen deserved a rescue.


But with the relatively clear road from Trademeet to Athkatla, the city walls entered Ilire’s visual range rather early, and as the miles and hours passed, the dizzying unease spiralled down into nauseating disgust to end up in dull, throbbing, weary desire for it all to be over. Surely what was to come would not be pleasant, but it would undoubtedly feel better than this.


The last miles to the gates stretched to a thousand years, and then the last yards from the doors to the Copper Coronet piled together in a single step. The dizzying unease surged up again and made Ilire’s legs crawl with the feeling of ants. Her head felt heavy and light at the same time.


She unsteadily pushed the Copper Coronet doors open and the smell of smoke, food, spilled ale and piled bodies assaulted her nose. She stepped from the dark dusk into the dim candle-lit common room and, forcefully lifting her eyes, surveyed the people present.


She found her party easily enough, sitting at their usual table near the back doors. Aerie was reading some tale to a score of street urchins in filthy rags, many plates of food picked clean lying on the table in front of them. Yoshimo was playing dice in his usual corner and, judging by the red-faced fury of his opponent, was cheating again. Jaheira was angrily tapping her fingers on top of the table while watching the door; the drumming of her knuckles stopped when she noted Ilire’s entrance. Anomen was nowhere to be seen; Ilire assumed he must be making his evening prayers to Helm. And, finally, Ilire looked towards the end of the table farthest from the noisy children. Keldorn and Ajantis sat there, discussing quietly.


Her head light and her feet heavy, she crossed the common room. Everyone fell silent as she approached the table, all having noticed her arrival by Jaheira’s sudden immobility. She looked around and nodded her greetings to all before finally resting her stare on Ajantis. He looked up at her with a mix of dejected sadness and hope in his eyes.


“Ajantis, we need to talk.â€Â


He nodded and followed her upstairs to what had been their room. The door closed behind them with an artificially loud, ominous sound of finality, and Ilire precipitously sat on the edge of the bed before her legs gave out. Rather faintly himself, Ajantis pulled a chair to sit in front of her. The silence dragged on and on while they averted their eyes. Ilire knew she was the one who had to speak, but she could not find the words.


“Ajantis, I’m sorry.†Ajantis’ wide shoulders sagged with the confirmation of what he had known was to come. “I’m so sorry, but I must be honest with you… and with myself. I don’t know what happened… really I don’t. I wish I could say it’s what Irenicus did… but I don’t know. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s just that in a year I’ve changed apart from you, aside from what Irenicus did to me, and we just don’t fit anymore…†She paused to cry and collect herself. “I’m sorry, Ajantis, we can’t go on like this.â€Â


He looked up at her then, something strangely chilly in his eyes. “So it is over, Ilire?â€Â


The sharp words cut straight to her heart. She cried a bit more. “Isn’t it? Can’t you tell? I tried, I swear I tried, but it just won’t click anymore, and each moment just makes it worse…â€Â


He shifted agitatedly on his chair, raked his fingers through his hair. “Is there anything you wish to blame me for?â€Â


She shook her head and tears fell down her cheeks. “No… nothing. You’ve been gone for so long… I think my heart all dried up and it can’t realize that I’m not alone anymore. I just can’t… can’t feel like I used to.â€Â


“Can’t you give it another try?†he asked again, more desperately this time. “By Helm, it can’t end like this,†he muttered under his breath.


She burst into sobs at that. “Ajantis, I’ve given it the best try I can… if I don’t stop right now I’ll just collapse… I can’t deal with all this inside of me, worrying for Imoen, the essence of Bhaal, the nightmares getting worse, the scars from Irenicus, and now… now my heart ripped to shreds each time I look at you because it doesn’t wake in me the emotions I want it to… I’m sorry, Ajantis, I can’t, I just can’t… I’m sorry. You’re… you’re a good man. You’re strong, and courageous, and you’ve gained much confidence in the while we’ve been together… What we had… it was never a waste. I’ve been happy with you… I’m sorry it has come to this.â€Â


Ajantis had started crying too. It did nothing to help her heart. “I was happy with you too, Ilire… but can we not speak of it anymore? It sharpens the grief.â€Â


She stood up and pulled him up to his feet. “I’m sorry I hurt you, Ajantis… but I’d still miss you if you were gone from my life. Please, at least can’t we be friends? You were my best friend… if I can’t find again all I lost when I thought you died, can I at least not lose our friendship?â€Â


Ajantis swallowed his tears and nodded silently, not trusting his voice. It was a long time before he collected himself enough to speak. “I am very sorry too, my lady. I have pledged myself to you; I would not abandon you because you wish to change the state of our relationship. If you wish me by your side, then I will stay and be your friend.â€Â


She thanked him, and then hugged him. It was a closure; his arms tightened around her waist, making her acutely aware that it was the last time he held her so, and that he wanted to imprint the shape and feeling of her body into his memory. It was a bittersweet ending of a sort.



It was awkward when Ilire packed the last things left in Ajantis’ room and went out. Her eyes were red and swollen and the last thing she wanted was to cross the common room to go ask Bernard for another room. So she just grabbed her pack and headed for the roof. Her arrival caused a momentary silence among the local fauna of shady characters populating the place, but when she turned her back on them to go stand at the edge of the building, they resumed their secretive activities.


She looked out into the night life of the Slums for a long while, tears flowing down her face once more.


It’s done, she kept repeating herself. How can it feel so hollow and so painful at the same time? Late into the night the cold chased her back inside. At least, the shivers had distracted her so she had stopped crying long enough for her face to be reasonably presentable.



Expectedly, the morning was cruel. Ilire had not slept much, and there was the unpleasantness of a divorce to be taken care of before they set off to Brynnlaw and might not come back alive. She was amazed at herself, and also at Ajantis, that both of them managed to remain calm and composed while the clerks took care of the paperwork. They had left the Copper Coronet before any of their companions emerged from their room, and when they came back from the Government district, the party was assembled at the table and waiting for them for breakfast. The ordinariness of the picture struck Ilire; today certainly did not feel like any other usual day.


“Ah, there you are,†Jaheira said crisply when they arrived and silently sat at the table. Yoshimo left to go ask Bernard to bring them their food. “We were wondering when you would join us.â€Â


Ilire and Ajantis exchanged an uneasy look, and the paladin averted his eyes. Obviously this was too much for him. So Ilire studied the pattern of dirtiness and knife marks on the table for a few seconds before taking a steadying breath.


“We went to the Government district this morning. The divorce is official and effective as of this morning, and now if no one would speak of it anymore we’d be grateful.â€Â


Jaheira’s eyes first widened in surprise before warming with compassion. She silently nodded in acceptance. Other incredulous stares travelled around the table.


“Oh, and, Keldorn,†Ilire added with effort, “I am ordering you back to your family.â€Â


The older paladin paused thoughtfully. “I thank you for considering this, but it is my responsibility to assist you in freeing Imoen. I do not wish to sit idly by while a young lady is the wrongful captive of the Cowled Wizards. I also feel I have a score to settle with this Irenicus concerning your own captivity and the way he outdid me.â€Â


His well-stated argument lacked conviction in the delivery, however. His understandable desire to go back to his family, especially after what had happened between Maria and Sir William, interfered with his perceived duty to try and convince Ilire to take him on the trip to Brynnlaw.


“It is to your credit that you view it so, my friend,†Ilire said softly, “but I free you from your promise to help us. You have already done more than what I could have asked of you and I have other worthy companions who will help me in the task. I think your wife deserves that you go back to her now.â€Â


The paladin visibly warred with the idea for a while, before he bowed his head in acceptance. “Thank you, Ilire. It was an honour travelling and forwarding Torm’s cause in the Realms with you. I hope that you will stop by my estate and introduce Imoen to my family once you get back from Spellhold.â€Â


Ilire smiled faintly. “I will, Keldorn, don’t worry.â€Â

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A chapter from an author back from the dead...


Chapter XXIV. The Voyage


The sea trip to Brynnlaw felt like a moment outside of time, as though they had always been there and would always be there. Ilire spent the first day meditating alone in her room, sitting cross-legged on the floor of her cabin while the rhythmic rocking of the ship sent her spiralling down into herself in search of balance and serenity. For a very long while she looked for reconciliation among her feelings, and every negative emotion resurfaced, one after the other… at times she had to resist the urge to open her eyes and take in the reality of her surroundings to flee the unbearable intensity of her ill-defined unease.


After a long moment of contemplation, however, the smothering darkness started to fade and unravel into its individual sources. The insecurity placed in her by Irenicus; the constant worry about Imoen’s fate; the erosion of her control with the essence of Bhaal closer to the surface; the pain from the news of Ajantis’ death; the slow recovery of her heart which had started to reach out towards Anomen; the shock, which had felt like fate itself betrayed her, of seeing Ajantis alive again; the impossibility for her feelings to come back towards Ajantis after being so brutally forced to cope with the horrors of Irenicus’ dungeon, Imoen’s abduction and Bhaal’s nightmares without him. At some point she felt rather disappointed in herself that she had needed a man at her side, even if it wasn’t the man she had desired at first, to help her through the aftermath of Irenicus’ tortures. But after another long while of meditation, she let it go; who would not have needed the comfort of a friend in those circumstances? And she had felt the need for Anomen’s presence because she had somehow sensed, even before speaking of her trials to him, that he would be up to the challenge and would know what to say to make her feel better.


And so she made peace with herself. She had been loyal to Ajantis until the end; that the end was the failure of their relationship rather than his death was not something she should feel guilty of. She would not feel guilty anymore. Sorrow still occupied an important place in her emotions, but its acceptance transformed it from a crushing weight into something she could learn from; something that would make her stronger for overcoming it.


With that resolution, Ilire breathed a sigh of relief; reality slowly came back into focus and reasserted itself in her perceptions. She slowly disentangled her heavy limbs and lay down upon the rough floorboards to let the numbness fade from her feet and legs. The knotted muscles of her entire body released weeks of accumulated tension; her throbbing headache, which had not given her a minute of respite in a tenday, had disappeared altogether.


It had been much too long since she had allowed herself a much needed meditation.



When she exited her room in search of water and a bit of food, her interior calm made the world seem strangely subdued. She crossed Jaheira’s path as the druid came from the kitchen, and the half-elf silently took Ilire’s elbow to guide her to her room. Once alone behind a closed door, Jaheira gestured to the bed and Ilire obediently sat down. The druid rummaged in her personal belongings for a while until she extracted a handful of bundled cloth from her pack.


Silently she extended the black silk to Ilire. Curious, the kensai opened it cautiously, to discover dark flakes of brittle choclatl.


“Choclatl!â€Â, she exclaimed in delight. “Jae, where did you find choclatl? Can I have a bit?â€Â


The druid snorted. “Of course you can have a bit, child, I bought it especially for you. A black market merchant on the docks sold it to me while Linvail introduced you to Havarian. I heard choclatl is the best remedy against heartache. I thought you might appreciate some.â€Â


Gingerly Ilire took one flake and let it melt on her tongue. She closed her eyes to better savour the bittersweet taste.


“You could probably use some too,†the warrior commented slyly.


“That is a reasonable assessment. You don’t mind sharing?â€Â


With a smile Ilire gestured Jaheira to come sit with her. The half-elf took a seat next to her friend and helped herself to a flake of choclatl.


“So, how are you doing, Ilire?â€Â


“I’ll be all right,†she said with a quiet shrug. “It hurt to take the decision, but I think it was the hardest part… it just wouldn’t mend between us. What I dealt with without him… Doesn’t that sound strange to you? I lost him not because he died, but because I thought for so long that he was gone for good, and I forced myself to acknowledge that he would never be there for me again so many times, that when I found him, I had lost the habit of reaching out to him.â€Â


Jaheira shook her head. “No, it is not strange, Ilire. Relationships necessitate time and effort… when we are too long apart, we stop functioning as a pair, and become separate individuals again. Khalid and I tried to go on different missions for the Harpers a few times, and we quickly discovered that it isolated us from each other. That is why we decided to always travel together afterwards, and to choose only assignments that would allow us to do so.â€Â


Ilire nodded and took another bit of choclatl. “I don’t know if it’s better against heartaches than other causes of sadness, but choclatl will always make you feel better…â€Â


Jaheira chuckled lightly and took the last treat. “That is for sure. Maybe we should not question it and just appreciate it.â€Â


They did, in silence.



When finally Ilire reached the kitchen in search of something more sustaining than choclatl, the day had progressed well into morning, and each member of her party but Anomen had already deserted the galley. The cleric sat at a table under a porthole, quickly scribbling something in his journal.


The scullion she went to for breakfast remarked in an ungracious grumble that she was late and breakfast hours were over, even as he served her a bowl of oatmeal and a glass of water. She offered her assurances that it would not happen again, took her breakfast and walked to Anomen’s table. He put his diary aside when she arrived by the side of his table.


“I hope you don’t mind me sitting with you? I didn’t mean to interrupt…â€Â


“Of course not, my lady. Please join me.†She set her meal down and Anomen frowned at her. “Are you well, my lady? You look very tired.â€Â


She smiled at his concern. “You’re right. I meditated all night long, so I’m tired… but I feel much better. Were you writing in your diary, or is it some sort of report for the Order?â€Â


“It is merely my journal. I was writing of my worry for your childhood friend, who I hope we will soon be able to liberate, and of my eagerness to fight this bastard Irenicus who had the foulness…†Blushing, he trailed off. “Forgive me, my lady, I did not wish to remind you of the mad wizard’s evil, but the knowledge that each moment brings us closer to his lair makes my blood boil with righteous fury!â€Â


Ilire, even though a reference to Irenicus sufficed to spoil her appetite, made an effort to complete her meal; she needed the sustenance. Anomen shifted in his chair uncomfortably. Finally, he said what was obviously on his mind. “Ilire, please forgive me if you do not wish to speak of it, but I am concerned about you. I want to reassure you that I will stand by you and defend you until my last breath. Nevertheless, we are about to face Irenicus again… I hope the possibility does not disturb you overmuch?â€Â


She sighed and distractedly played with the splinters coming away from the table’s edge. “Obviously I’d feel much better if I never put my eyes on the son of a bitch ever again, but… it’s irrelevant when considering that he holds Imoen captive. No matter what he did to me… what memories might come awake when I see his snarl again… I will hold together for Imoen. But thank you for you concern.â€Â


Anomen nodded quietly.


“I’m just afraid he’ll use her to wake the taint in me,†Ilire went on. “That’s the only thing I can imagine not being able to bear. He already eroded my will with his tortures… I wouldn’t put it beyond him to devise a plan to push me over the edge.â€Â


Without warning, Anomen’s big, warm hand had captured hers and was squeezing her fingers. “Ilire, you can resist anything. You are of extraordinary strength of character; you have to trust in yourself. You can face him, as well as anything else you wish to. Please do not let the twisted bastard make you doubt yourself.â€Â


She did not answer or move right away. At length she nodded, and he slowly released her fingers.



Ilire had not known how far Brynnlaw was, but she welcomed the respite even as she fretted about the delay. Saemon Havarian informed her that the trip should take six days, assuming usual winds for the season. Halfway through the distance, Ilire felt like she had slept and eaten more in the last three days than in the preceding year altogether, and she felt calmer and stronger than she had in a long time. Ajantis did not exactly avoid her, but he did make an effort not to spend too much time in her presence, despite the limitations of being both stuck on a two-hundred-feet galleon. Even though her former husband seemed to be coming to terms with their rupture, some awkwardness lingered.


That night, Ilire made another nightmare. When finally her companions tore her away from the dream, she found her whole team bent over her with worried frowns. Jaheira and Ajantis were directly over her, the druid restraining her and the paladin holding her hand tightly. Wearily, she fell back against her pillow.


“It’s all right,†she said. “Just a nightmare.â€Â


Yoshimo, Aerie, Anomen and Ajantis slowly left the room, leaving only Jaheira who smoothed her hair back silently. Ilire did not feel like talking – well, not to Jae anyway – so she let the druid caress her hair and relaxed back into sleep. When Jaheira took her hand away from her forehead and tiptoed out of the room, Ilire resurfaced from her light doze and sat on the edge of her bed, trying to sort through her dream’s impressions. Finally, she stood up and pulled a presentable tunic over her sleeping shift. She stopped by her cabin’s door for a while, listening to the creaking of the ship as it rocked over the waves, and to the silence of the narrow corridor. Taking a breath to gather her resolve, she slid the door open and slipped outside, closing the door quietly behind herself. Two doors down, she knocked.


She was half afraid he might be asleep already, and she did not want to disturb him anymore than she wanted to knock too hard and wake someone else. Her fears proved unwarranted, however, when the door opened to reveal him, standing there with the look of a man who knew who would be knocking on his door. He held a flickering candle in his hand and wore a tunic over his trousers.


“Can I talk to you for a minute?â€Â


He withdrew from the door and gestured her in. “Of course, my lady.â€Â


She entered the small and tidily kept cabin, looking; few of his personal belongings were visible apart from his weapons and armour on a stand in the far corner near the bed. The sparse furniture comprised a small bed, cramped between the door, a chest and the nearest wall. Not wanting to keep standing awkwardly in front of him, but not daring to gamely sit on his bed either, Ilire settled on the chest that no doubt held his clothes. She fiddled uncomfortably with her sleeves while he lit a single lantern in the room.


“Do the nightmares keep sleep from you? I thought Lady Jaheira would calm you enough that you might find peace again tonight.â€Â


She shook her head. “It’s not the nightmares… well, not directly, anyway.†Nervously she raked her fingers through her hair. “Anomen… I need to talk to you.â€Â


There was a short, strained silence, and his voice was equally tense when he said, “I am listening, my lady.â€Â


“These last days… I’ve been doing a lot of looking myself in the mirror and being honest with myself. It’s something that can shake you, and I didn’t have the luxury to be shaken when we were gathering gold to pay for information about Imoen’s location. And while I have admitted something to myself… I think I should also be honest with you.†Taking a breath, she forced her eyes away from their blind contemplation of the far corner of the room back to his face. The room floated in darkness, but she could see his expression well enough; the uncertainty and the hope there. “The nightmares tonight… they demanded that I come and speak with you, because it is of extreme consequence for the future of our quest.â€Â


He slowly came to kneel in front of her, taking her hand. She looked down at his serious, eager expression. “Tell me what distresses you, my lady, so that I may reassure you.â€Â


That remark was so knight-like that she could not help but smile amusedly at him. However, her amusement quickly faded to be replaced by the uncomfortable necessity to speak.


“In the nightmare… we were facing Irenicus, and he was not using Imoen to try to manipulate me like I told you I fear. He was…†She took a breath. “It was you Irenicus threatened and tortured. But my mind could not have turned that fear into a nightmare if I had not already admitted to myself that I…†She swallowed, and went on forcefully. “That I care for you beyond the mere bonds of friendship.†She went on in a rush, “I know you must think me dishonourable to come to you so soon after Ajantis, and I have no right to expect you to accept being pushed aside and asked for again, but I swear…â€Â


“My lady.†He had spoken in a soft voice and he slowly raised her hand to his lips. “I do not think you dishonourable. I cannot guess what you must have gone through to discover him alive again, and to find that what you once shared with him was not enough anymore, but I can have compassion for it. And I do not feel as though you have toyed with me or my feelings; when I adorned the crimson rhodelia in you hair, you told me that you needed time to think, and I was ready to accept that.†He kissed her hand again, his dark eyes looking up in hers intensely. “Just as I am ready to accept a closer bond to you now, at whatever pace you are ready for, Ilire.â€Â


He held her hand, kneeling in front of her, for a long time, before she found her voice again. “Thank you,†she whispered.


He smiled, and did not show any indication to move any time soon. She stood and he rose in answer. He started to move, but obviously changed his mind from embracing her to simply stroking her cheek.


“Please, rest assured that I will not give any occasion to the mad mage to use me as a way to manipulate you. I will stand by your side and defend you, my lady.â€Â


She smiled. “And I’ll make sure nothing sneaks on your right side.â€Â


With his hand cupping her cheek, he stroked his thumb across her cheekbone a few times, observing her a little worriedly. “Will you be able to find restful sleep this night, Ilire? Do you think the nightmares will come to haunt you again despite my assurances?â€Â


She shook her head and closed her eyes. “No, I don’t think my subconscious has any more messages to pass along tonight. Still, a little reassurance couldn’t hurt.â€Â


Hoping he would take the hint, she closed her eyes and took half a step towards him. He gave off a satisfied sigh and pulled her in his arms. Even though she knew it was not a good way to start any relationship, the comparison with Ajantis just sprung to her mind; Anomen stood a good four or five inches shorter, which made it a lot easier for her to lay her head on his shoulder instead of on his chest. Anomen was also stockier than Ajantis, even though both men were fit by all standards.


But then Anomen turned his head and rested his cheek on top of her hair, sighing contentedly again, and she realized that he was abandoning himself to her touch. He was completely dedicated to her in that instant. He was not thinking that it was late and that they would do better to sleep so they would be ready to face the difficult battles that were doubtlessly going to come in the next days; he was not wondering if anyone would intrude upon them; he was not carefully weighting if her embrace was interfering with his duty.


Resentment and release and warm satisfaction washed over her at once in a violent swirl of emotion. She buried her face in Anomen’s neck, unable to stop her tears. After a moment’s hesitation, the knight tightened his arms around her.


“My lady? What is wrong?â€Â


She took a few calming breaths. “I’m sorry. Letting go is harder than I thought. I don’t know… I don’t know if it’s a good idea to go much faster than this. Do you…â€Â


“Hush, Ilire,†he whispered again, slowly stroking down her long brown hair. “I have told you that I am ready to adjust to any pace you wish to set for us. I will be here, waiting for you, if and when you need me.â€Â


“Thank you,†she murmured, her face still in his neck. His gentle touch on her hair calmed her and she relaxed, abandoning herself to his care, until she was composed enough to pull away. She put her hand on his cheek and his dark blue eyes looked at her with contentment. Something more there too, but she was not yet ready to contemplate it. “Thank you so much, Anomen.â€Â


“Do not thank me for making me the happiest man in the world, Ilire.â€Â


Even though the phrase might have sounded worn, he said it with such a genuine smile that she did not doubt his honesty. Half amused, half moved, she reluctantly stepped out of his arms. He captured her hand and kissed it once more before wishing her good night and gallantly opening the door for her.


Ilire felt strangely self-conscious when she lay alone in her bed. She found herself thinking back of Anomen’s embrace, and surprisingly missed his presence. She needed another moment of looking herself mentally in the mirror to let go of the insidious guilt that she had not felt that way about Ajantis since the third day in Irenicus’ dungeon.

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Ah, here it finally is. I've had a lot of trouble wrapping this one up. You'd think writing something so short should be easier. It was all nice and clear up to this point, but I really wasn't sure how far into the future I wanted to go and putting Ilire's feelings into words proved more challenging than I had foreseen at first. But there it is.


A big THANK YOU all who've read this and kindly left reviews or constructive criticism. Just seeing the hit number going up helps :p If it wasn't for your constant encouragement I might have abandoned this one. I dedicate it to you all!




Ilire remembered it well enough; the racing heart each time you caught the other’s gaze, the incessant desire to smile, the overwhelming rush of energy that seemed ready to burst out of you any moment. However, even the pleasurable sensation came to her with some apprehension, and she realized that Anomen did not understand this. To him, requited love at long last had opened a world of possibilities; he could barely contain himself and his enthusiasm, despite the dark prospect of a quickly approaching confrontation with the Cowled Wizards and Irenicus himself. And while Ilire did experience all these emotions when Anomen was near, it was no longer with careless exuberance, but rather with some relief; after the emotional upheaval associated with her previous relationship, she had been unsure of being capable of falling in love. Even though she felt a thrill, it was different now; she felt calmer, more thoughtful, and even a little apprehensive.


She knew, first-hand now, that it was no guarantee – that a fluttering heart did not necessarily mean she had found the man of her life. She could certainly develop strong bonds and feelings for this man, but it could all be shattered, like other illusions of youth she had lost. It could all turn to bitter disappointment and hurtful words.


Her mind held no sway over her heart, and the heart held little reason.


She fully realized the risks and the immutable strength of the sways of the heart now. She could no longer simply jump headlong into a new relationship with a thrill and enthusiastic hope. She let it carry her away, a little fearful, hoping she could really trust her heart into Anomen’s care and come better for it.


Anomen did not understand this; for him it was all new and shining. She doubted he could even recognize the illusions he nourished and that could be shattered.


But, despite the apprehension, each moment she spent in Anomen’s company soothed and healed her. She quickly came to relish each instant of his abandon. Being second to nothing, not even duty, felt infinitely good, satisfying, and soothing. Anomen did not make her feel as though she was asking too much, or that she was difficult or unreasonable. He appeared to naturally consider his partner like the most important part his life. She cherished the vulnerabilities hidden under his arrogant manners, and the complete trust with which he opened himself to her, without fear of her judgement, without holding anything back.


So when Spellhold’s ominous dark towers appeared at the horizon over the waves, three days later, she could look towards the future with much more confidence than she used to, because of the comforting presence by her side. The hot sun on her face and the fragrant wind in her face, she reflected that her mind did have some sway over her heart; she could have decided to sink into despair then, but instead decided to order her heart to give love another chance.


She did not deny that it was but a chance thing, but once naïve illusions were shattered, chance was all there was left. She no longer clung to irrational hopes that everything would go right for the rest of her days, but instead took a leap of faith. She chose to risk that love would work this time around, because the two men were different and what she had lacked so direly in one, she had found in another.


Ilire turned to Anomen, who had been standing next to her on the bridge, watching Spellhold emerge over the horizon. He smiled at her and put his hand over hers in reassurance. Something warm and pleasant invaded her heart at the sight of his private smile. Slowly stepping towards him, she put her arms around his neck and kissed him.


The gloom of harsh reality would reassert itself soon enough when they would set foot on Brynnlaw; for now she indulged the selfish desire of wanting something good for herself. She took his hand and started towards her cabin. A brief hesitation flashed in his eyes before he followed her. However, it seemed her certainty in addition to her intent transpired in her expression, for he surrendered to her confidence and followed her, without questioning her sudden change of pace.


Maybe he understood her better than she had realized, she reflected; after all, he had just taken his own leap of faith.



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