Once the food and spirits were tested for poison, we sat in groups around the casks, drinking from bowls, sometimes straight from the barrel. There was no inn, and once the bodies had been cleared off and buried, we went back to the abandoned farm. No one wanted to sleep in the Keep. In the open, a sharp wind from the mountains was better then corpse-rot.
Away from the stone walls, every solder and Cloak tried to regain their humanity. We had won, after all---against Luskans, mere men and women, who managed to steal and murder and rape worse than any undead force. But when the ale was passed around, every glance at the shadowy Keep sobered even the most grizzled veterans until they found themselves talking in whispers, or merely falling silent before retreating into canvas tents. We fought to save that place? Only the gods could understand why.
Immune to any natural chill, I spread out on the ground, a bottle of wine cradled in the crook of my arm. The overcast, nighttime sky did nothing to make the Keep more inviting. The shadows merely lengthened.
Once I pulled off the bottle's cork with my teeth, I sat up, emptied the first dram on the ground. “For you, Cormick---though I don't think they drink in whatever heaven you're in.” Yes...eternal happiness. I didn't want to think of any other alternative, and I didn't have to as the wine warmed my throat. Though I didn't get drunk like other people, the alcohol made a pleasant physical sensation, like a hot bath, and with him gone, there were too few pleasures left to me. I closed my eyes to intensify the feeling, but an image of Cormick---no, the incubus I saw at the Moonstone Mask---rose up in my mind, uninvited and unwelcome.
Undaunted, naked, and more sculpted than my Cormick had ever been, he beckoned me with a fleshy wing-tip, “Ya wanted me to live, and I am.”
I can't make a demon.
I took a long pull, fuzzing my thoughts for a moment of brief bliss before they came thundering back. I just become one. I squinted back at the Keep, put the the narrow neck to my lips, and intended to empty the entire bottle when I felt a large group clank into formation behind me.
Sir Nevalle strolled up to me, shining in the reddish-gold bonfire as a company of bodyguards trailed in formation behind him. All of them glistened, but Nevalle's platemail shone mirror-bright, as if it had never been in a battle, but was only brought out upon state occasions and then polished by some nameless retainer. Over the armor, Nevalle wore his splendid blue Nine tunic, the fisted eye embossed in gold thread. Nevalle's features were even, rounded curves, balanced from every angle. Perfectly quaffed, evenly cut, his blonde hair held just enough wave to reflect the light from his armor, and his tone held the formality only years of court and generations of good breeding could produce, “Squire Chidi, may we speak before you take a well-deserved rest?”
My first response was to imbibe the dregs of my bottle. I had removed the armor he'd given me and was wearing nothing but an under tunic. I washed my hands, hair, and face free of most of the gore, but the rest was still soiled from crawling through underground tunnels and avoiding Luskan blades. My dark hand wiped at some vagrant stains on my paler tunic, but I gave a genuine smile to Nevalle I brandished my empty bottle with a wink, “I'd offer you libations, sir. But sadly, there's no more lubrication.”
Though I knew Nevalle had a ready wit, his hazelnut brown eyes were focused on me without a hint of his usual mirth, “If I may say so, madam, I suggest you be serious.”
“You may not,” I chuckled, wishing he had made some jape, “If you’ve come to flatter, I must say, I expected better verbosity...”
“No flattery. No witticisms,” Nevalle removed his longsword, a beautiful weapon of blue steel as he approached me with a stiff, formal stride. “Kneel, Squire Chidi.”
I knelt on the bare earth, but I frowned up at Nevalle. I had to run a hand through my hair to see him properly, “If this is an execution, well, don't I get a final request, such as 'Please don't kill me. I'll kill more Luskans next time?'”
I stopped wagging my tongue as Nevalle touched each of my shoulders with his sword, “Lord Nasher has issued a commission---not an execution. Since you have been the one to cleanse this place of the evil that corrupted this ground. Therefore, this Keep---” he gestured dramatically at the decaying walls “----is yours.”
Several solders, probably the more restless ones, came over to see why Sir Nevalle of the Nine was pointing a sword at their leader. Nevalle raised his voice, making eye contact with every face he could, “The Shadows are lengthening. We must be prepared for the fight to come. That means fortification of key areas like Crossroad Keep. That is why this Keep is yours, Captain Chidi. You have proven your worth as a commander. Let us hope you prove an able steward.”
“Sir?” The smoke from where we burned the carcasses of Garius and his unholy lackeys still lingered in the air like a haze even as a sudden stab of moonlight illuminated the ruins, “Can't you smell the air? This place is barely inhabitable.”
Nevalle inspected his sword before sheathing it and gazing down at me, “You question the decision of your lord?” A faint wrinkle appeared on his forehead.
“No, I...merely wonder, sir. It's a habit I can't seem to break.”
Nevalle sighed, “In all earnestness, Neverwinter needs you.”
“It needs a miracle.”
“Well, that is your specialty, from what I gather.”
In the wan illumination, my green eyes glowed with their own light, “Would you have me shut my eyes and pretend that this place is not full of death?”
We locked eyes likes two combatants. Nevalle spoke low, so that only I could hear, “Death is everywhere, Half-Breed. You should know that better than most. Now get off you gods-damned knees. You will be a Captain. And you will be grateful.”
I leaned forward, performed a mock curtsey, “I thought 'grateful and on my knees' was exactly where you and Nasher want me to be?”
He gave a look of utter contempt that only lords can give, “Neverwinter---Lord Nasher--- saved your life---”
“---And I just saved this Keep, these people. I just made another vital corner of Nasher's realm safe, if not tidy. Even I've lost count of all the bloody 'good deeds' I've done... Do I do it from the goodness of my heart? No more than you. It's about power. I can make things happen. It's why I'm alive. You have ambition. Good for you. But I want no part of it. I haven't done this for fame and glory. I'm just trying to stay alive long enough to kill the King of Shadows. End of story.”
“Be that as it may, I, lady, am anything but ambitious. I plot to secure the safety of my land and its people. That is my ambition. You might help, or become a threat. I'd prefer to have your help. Therefore, I will ignore this little outburst. But I don't expect this disrespect in the future. Think what you will of me, but you have vowed to serve Neverwinter, so at least maintain the appearance of gentility, if not the substance. We'll be of little use against the King of Shadows if we all start killing each other.”
He looked at the Keep, then back at me as he tied a red tassel of rank to my upper shoulder. “Serve well,” he intoned before he touched his lips to mine in the way of knights. His taunt mouth seemed certain that I wouldn't serve well at all.
I tried to calm down. After all, I like what he just said. I took all this seriously, but I always seemed to be at odds with everything. I pulled on the ribbon as he pulled me up. My voice was chagrined, “I might not be as well-mannered or well-bred as you would wish, but I am honest. I will bury Cormick...then I will serve Neverwinter, as promised.”
Nevalle suddenly held me at arm's length, “Such an oddity you are: a demon's bastard with the will of a queen.” I might have slapped any other man for the insult, but Nevalle said it without malice---only curiosity. What will come of this? the slight wrinkle on his forehead asked.
I straightened my back, tried to sound authoritative, like a queen, “We are all singularities, Nevalle. Even you.”
Nevalle slipped into a smile as easily as slipping on a night gown, “Oh, I am.” It was the white, luminous smile of the most eligible man in Neverwinter, a smile that promised everything and nothing, that must have had many maidens and matrons slipping out of their undergarments.
I did contemplate slapping that grin off his face.
My thoughts must have been easily read, for he held up the index finger of his well-manicured hand and wagged it at me, “I have retainers for a reason, Amara. You have a history of thrashing those around you.”
“You have anticipated me, sir. But you won't always have retainers about you---unless you take them with you to bed,” I looked at the thirty-odd men and women. “I imagine it becomes quite crowded in there.”
He laughed, “Debaucheries aside, there is a prisoner that asks to see you---This is not a Luskan. It's a gith that Garius had under lock and key with Aldanon.”
“I'm certain you can handle the situation until I return.”
Sir Nevalle raised his voice, filled it with good humor for anyone who might be listening, “Neverwinter is in great need of inspiration, captain.” I opened my mouth to protest, but he cut me off with the palm of his hand, “I know you would say something disarmingly humble,” he chuckled, “but let’s skip that. You know your abilities. And I know your abilities. And you know that I know what you know.” He spread wide his arms, and turned around to make eye contact with the men, “Shall we agree to be 'knowing' partners in this business of war, Amara Chidi?”
There was a smattering of rugged cheers from his men and the group of tired, curious Cloaks as I came to stand beside Sir Nevalle.
Just when Nevalle extended his hand, I showed off my bright fangs with a smile that said, You know I can't refuse, Nevalle, but I'll be damned if I make it easy.
He gave a wry eye at our joined hands, but raised the other high, “For Neverwinter!” he chanted.
Though this man, this knight, was my superior in breeding, in manners, political acumen, these people hurrayed loudest for me, the demon bastard, Amara Half-Blood, warlock from the most remote corner of Neverwinter. I felt my blood surge as I pumped my fist against that dark sky. My skin and the night were one shade, and a phosphorescent nimbus, a by-product of the magic still surging in the air, settled on me like a crown. They were already whispers about what had happened in the chamber where Garius had died. Some said the magic of the Luskans' own dark ritual turned on them. The more romantic whispered that Amara Half-Blood gutted Garius herself and spat, “For Cormick!” as the mage's body fell to the ground. Others said that Amara had summoned a demon that killed the shadow priests. Other tales said that an avatar, maybe of Tyr, maybe of Mystra, had turned up and punished Garius for dabbling in forbidden shadow magics. Even stranger versions said she became a demon and destroyed every enemy in the room with a word of terrific and hellish power.
Whatever had happened, I was at its center. And events seemed to circle round me like spokes round a wheel.
* * *
The dawn held no redness, but was full of purples, oranges, and then golds before the sky became a bright blue. It was the first dawn I had watched from the Keep. Kana, the seneshal Nasher had appointed, greeted me with a deep bow at the base of the steps running up to the castles' interior doors. The doors had been completely destroyed by the Many-Starred Cloaks, but already there were new planks being fashioned to make it, I was assured, even stronger than before. Kana gestured at the castle, and explained the condition of the keep as we walked from room to room. Her voice had hints of an eastern lilt, which was soothing as she spoke deliberately and to the point. The castle, but hadn't been lived in for many years. The paint on the walls was cracked if not completely worn away, revealing the stone walls behind. At least there was good stone for the foundation. Most of the repairs there would be cosmetic: bedrooms, library, war room, stateroom. Once the bare walls had been cleaned of the Luskan debris, it would be easy to screen the walls, bring in tapestries and furniture. But outside the castle was another matter. There wasn't one complete building. I already had to make the decision of which buildings would be rebuilt first---all before the walls or roads were properly restored. We'd need mining operations to unearth raw materials. Then we'd have to woo workers and craftsmen out to the Keep: blacksmiths, cobblers, farmers---every trade that ensured the Keep was self-sufficient if it was cut off from Neverwinter. Crossroad Keep was on a major trade route, which would only open if the roads were reliable and safe. Otherwise, any travelers would be easy prey not just to minions of the King of Shadows, but more mortal foes like bandits. Though I could not escape these day-to-day business of management, my true concern was whether or not it would stand the assault that was coming. We needed soldiers. But there was one thing that took priority---even over building the army.
I dismissed Kana when the caravan finally arrived from Neverwinter. The priests had brought Cormick's body to Crossroad Keep. They were willing to carry him when they discovered I was going to bring him home.
Khelgar wanted to go to West Harbor, but at least one fighter needed to stay in case we didn't return. Secretly, I hoped that Khelgar would get a little more experience leading the men. But even my best arguments did nothing to convince him until I swore that at least three would go with me. Casavir and Shandra were going. They didn't even pretend to listen as I tried to tell them they had to stay. Bishop was needed to scout. Neeshka had wanted to go, but I remembered too well the way she had tried to insinuate herself between me and Cormick. I didn't like admitting it, but it still stung. Sand and I decided that he need to stay—he was simply too good at administration to risk losing. Elanee refused to go, and I could tell from her face that something was wrong in the Mere or her relationship with the Circle. Grobnar also wanted to go, but I set him to assisting Master Veedle, the architect re-building the Keep.
Casavir, Shandra, and Bishop were all on horseback. I drove the wagon that carried Cormick's body. As we prepared to leave, everyone at the Keep seemed to come down and pay their respects. Cormick was a popular man, very respected. The priests hung garlands from the wagon and chanted the song reserved for those who died honorably in battle. Even Nevalle had stayed, saluting the coffin while all his retainers imitated the same gesture of respect, before heading back to the city. The Cloaks, many who had served with 'good ole' Cormick, gave a formal salute led by Kana as we passed through the broken gates of Crossroad Keep and headed south to the Meredelain.
We made good time. There were few travelers, and no bandits thought we looked vulnerable or wealthy enough to bother. Bishop stepped through trails and found paths as if he had been born in the Mere and pointed us towards shortcuts even I would have never found.
Once the road started giving way to denser and denser woods, I knew we getting close. There is a smell of water flowing through the marshes that some find repugnant, but to Harbormen, it is the familiar smell of things growing in hidden depths. The trees became moss-lined with roots that looked more like human knuckles grasping at the water than anything vegetable. There was also the song of marsh birds: storks, crimson cranes, the large-billed marlin, who always hides, but has the most beautiful song.
But the deep life in the Mere that I had known all my life was muted. The closer we came, the colors themselves seemed...subdued. There wasn't a hint of bird-song; the few birds I did see were far away, flying away from the heart of the Mere, which was our destination. Though I had heard the dark warnings, each step made me more and more certain that something was wrong with the Mere---something that made even a warlock's hackles rise.
“When you said you lived in the swamp, you weren't kidding,” Bishop muttered when the road ended, all we had was the trail. He looked around, and I could tell he sensed the wrongness too. If he were an animals, his eyes would be rolling in fear, but since he was Bishop, he kept pacing, as if he wanted to bolt away.
“I'll lead from here,” I said. “I wouldn't want you to get scared
“Some of us, those with sense anyway, are scared,” Shandra replied. “It's a swamp. They're dangerous, even when they aren't haunted. This is where the Shadow army marched bef, right?. And...Elanee did mention that there have been fights here for hundreds of years, ruins of ancient empires reclaimed by the waters...”
I snorted, “You've been listening to too many of Elanee's tales.”
The closer we got to West Harbor, the more my memories came in a rush of fragments. I even remembered the night I fled this Mere, the torn hem of my robes as it caught on the undergrowth. I recalled too the feeling of being hunted and terribly alone. I could almost see that Amara: skinny, weaponless, emerald eyes wild, waiting for the attacker to come around ever bend in the road. All she knew was that she was a demon. She was far scarier than anything she would meet.
I shook my head. Almost nine moons ago, when the crops, the earth herself was dripping from too much fulness. Now, the crops had been harvested long ago, the snows had come, and the earth warmed again to the touch of the sun, who wept at her beauty. That's the old stories, older than even the Lord of the Morning.
When we reached the outskirts of West Harbor, we were greeted by two men with taunt bows, “Who goes there?” one asked. I recognized the feigned gruffness through the gray hood.
I stepped into the light, “You wouldn't put an arrow through a face as air as mine, would you Georg?” I wore dark leathers, a black scarf around my black hair. I must have looked like a living shadow, a restless ghost. There were many of those in the Mere.
“Amara?” he stammered, “You're back! Do you hear that, Wyl? Amara made it!” Georg, the captain of the militia, was as bald and friendly as he ever was. His brown, amused eyes took in me and each of my companions. “Well met!” he said, extending his hand.
Wyl Mossfield stayed back, watching Georg greet each with open hostility. When he looked at me, his voice held his usual, rough contempt, “You planning to stay long? Or do you want to bring another army down on us?”
I gave him a look of disgust---a look I always seemed to reserve for Wyl, “If another army comes, just remember to stand behind me again. I wouldn't want you to get that pretty face bashed in. ” The last time I have seen him, I had saved his life. He had apparently forgotten.
Wyl glared at Bishop through his shaggy brown hair and muttered something about witches. Bishop---almost casually---touched the knife handle at his belt. Bishop turned his glare at the youth, then folded his hands against his chest and preceded to watch Wyl until Wyl moved behind Georg's back to avoid the ranger's glare.
Georg raised an eyebrow, “It's good to see you've got friends, Amara.”
“Where's Daeghun?” I asked, half-hoping he was gone, as he usually was.
”He's at the house, but you're lucky to catch him. He's been in and out of the Mere ever since you left.”
“Is Rhetta in town?”
“And what about...Cormick's folks?”
Georg lit up, “Do you have news of ole Cormick? I heard he's one of Nasher's finest---” He smiled at Shandra, “Now, I could tell you tales of that boy that would make yer ears blush.” He laughed, but stopped when he saw our grim faces.
He ran a nervous hand across his shaved head, “What's wrong? Must be bad to bring you back here.”
I motioned for Georg to follow me. I walked to the wagon, put my hand against the wooden box. But I couldn't form the words He's dead.
“Gods...” Georg whispered.
“I need discretion. Don't say anything until I talk to Cormick's family, Rhetta, and Daeghun. Can you do that?”
He nodded. “Aye. Of course...”
I climbed into the wagon,“Can you feed all three?”
“I can keep your friends, Amara. I'm just sorry---this is a sad day.”
As I led the team into West Harbor proper, the first thing I saw was houses and barns made of timbers so old and weather-blown that they looked silvery in the light. Lean-tos had been added here and there as families expanded, either with birthing a babe or taking care of an grandparent. There were smoking stacks pointing through the roofs, evidence of cook stoves and winter grates. Wooden post fences, some painted, but most were as worn as the planks on the houses. There were wraparound porches, often screened with fine meshing or cloth. There had to be something to keep the mosquitoes out.
How many identical days had I sat, watching the change from night to day to night to day in a monotonous succession of moments, as if I were moving forever on the rivulets of water that always dampened this ground? Those currents dictated the rhythm of the seasons: wet---all wet, never dry, though surely as hot as any hell, or as cold as the peaks of the Spine of World.
The rain began to fall.
I plodded to Cormick's old home. Cormick's casket will soon be as worn as these houses.
I knocked on the door. My hand was like a dark shadow on the pale wood.
“Coming,” Cormick's father, Kai, answered with the booming voice of a much younger man.
I crossed my arms as the door opened as the warm light of the fire and the candles spilled over my face, surely my horns. The rain glistened on features that had locked so many doors...
Kai, large and gray-headed, squinted at me, “Why...little Amara? I won't call you big, though it seems like ya've grown. Get in here before ya catch a fever.”
He pulled me in before I could protest, shaking my hand warmly. His fist engulfed mine, “Morimee! Come in here, and bring the tea...and...Would ya like something to eat?”
Cormick's mother came into the room, and I realized how much he favored his father---except for those dark, liquid eyes, “Why Amara, what news from the great wide world?”
She also shook my hand.
I took a deep breath, “I..” I would have been able to speak if her eyes didn't look at me just like Cormick's.
“We've heard all sorts of rumors...” Kai began.
I had to close my eyes to to find the words, “When I was in the wilderness, trying to find my way, Cormick guided me. He literally put shoes on my feet. Then, when I was in Neverwinter, I joined the Watch, and Cormick and I worked together on numerous missions. We also became close friends. He was the best at what he did, and many flocked to the Watch just to serve with a real hero. Your son. I don't think I knew a finer man. “
“Knew?” Kai looked at his wife and looked at me. “What happened?”
“Cormick was ambushed by a local gang, Every coward involved in the attack is dead now, but Cormick but was hurt real bad. I was there with him when he... passed... If I could have switched places with him, I would have. I might not have been able to save him, but I brought him back to you. I think he wanted to be buried here...”
“I want to see him,” Morimee whispered.
“The priests already prepared him.” I said. “He's outside, whenever you are ready...”
“Ya have me, Amara...” He kissed the space between by breasts, “...every part.”
Kai turned toward me, “I think we just need some time to let it settle.”
And they had already lost a daughter, now a son. They would have no other children, no grandchildren..
His mother turned toward me with tears in her eyes, “Thank ya for bringing him back to us.”
“Cormick was the best thing that ever came out of the Mere.”
Kai smiled. “That is the truth, though we always teased him about it..”
Then Morimee was weeping. She nodded once. She tried to smile, to be brave, but a high-pitched wail made her whole body shudder. Kai was beside his wife. “There, there, love.” He whispered, cradling her in his arms.
Then Kai met my eyes, “The ones who did it...are ya sure they're dead?”
“I did it myself.”
He nodded. In the Mere, if someone spilled blood, then the family of the injured could name their due There were no judges or lawyers. Justice was swift. There were few murders, but one that I ever remembered. It was the family of the murdered who took the murderer to the cross roads and cut off his head. The body was thrown without ceremony into the Mere.
“Here. I have something. It's not enough, but ya deserve something for doing this.”
“Keep it, please...”
Kai waved a finger at me, “Hush.” He turned to his wife, “Mori, I'll be right back.” He nodded at me to follow him.
We walked through the front parlor to an old writing desk. Kai shuffled through some papers. “He wrote. Every week.” Ki said over his shoulder. “Like clockwork. I knew something...when he didn't write. Did ya know?” He held up a letter. I could see it was filled with Cormick's chicken scratches.
He placed the letter in my hand gently, “Ya need to keep that.”
I shook my head, “I can't keep that.”
“We have plenty of letters. Years of letters. But, I know he'd want ya to have that.”
“...you know then...”
“Ya were going to pretend nothing had happened between ya. I know. To everyone else, that's all they need to know. But not to us.”
“You don't disprove?”
“Well, it was a surprise. Morimee couldn't help but think of what yer kids might go through...But he loved ya. It's obvious. And ya love him,or ya wouldn't have come here. That's enough fer me. I won't forget what ya've done. I'm just sorry...” he put his hands over his eyes.
I clutched the letter in my hand like a moth that might fly away, “Thank you.”
“I should see to my wife. We'll talk. After...”
I nodded, “I'll see myself out, sir.”
Instead of tearing into the envelope, I hid it in the safest place I could, given the circumstances: the same pouch that concealed the shards. Once outside, I touched the wagon at the place where Cormick's head lay. This was the end of whatever journey we had set out on. I didn't expect to come back---not alone, anyway. All the Keeps, all the titles in the world could not bring Cormick back or pluck off these horns or make Lorne a decent man. Two Harbormen dead. And how many more because of me? I stood there, like the lone survivor of a tragedy...But this wasn't a play. The tragedy was always me.
I tried to form a prayer, but the words of comfort wouldn't come. Instead came the phrase, Now I have to tell Rhetta, the one women who was like a mother to me, that I killed her son.
My final smile for Cormick was bitter, but I only mocked myself, I'm sorry I mucked up everything beautiful between us.
The growth between the houses was as it ever was. Thick and dank. The only tameness came form the Harbormen. I heard voices. As I followed them, I came to a small clearing beside the river. Shandra and Casavir were talking in low voices. Shandra pointed toward Daeghun's, but Casavir shook his head and pointed at Cormick's.
I shook my head, “What are you green-knees doing here?”
“How did it go?” Shandra asked.
“About as good as it could,” I didn't touch the letter or mention it. It felt too...intimate. “I've already been to Cormick's. Now I'm headed to Lorene's mother's. Then I'll go...home.” Home? Daeghun's house had never been more like a place I had lived.
Shandra hugged me, “No more of this 'alone' business, Amara. I lost my whole family, and I had to face it alone...I don't wish that on anyone, especially when doesn't have to be.”
“I just...When I left here, it was a lark. I didn't even have shoes. Things here---are complex, like the Mere. There's lots of layers, and just when you think you're walking on solid ground,” I snapped my fingers, “you're dead.”
“You're not the one who died, Amara. You're a captain with a Keep. They tell stories about you now.”
I laughed, “I can't imagine what version they'll hear. I'm...not even certain what happened,” I looked at Casavir. We had not been able to talk about what had happened in that summoning circle. I had been avoiding the subject---avoiding him.
“Well, I was there. Do you want to know what I saw?” Shandra asked. She answered her own question, “I've never seen a magical battle like that before. There was lots of flashing lights...of confusion, but I saw enough. It took one word, and Garius was gone. I felt light-headed after, and everybody was knocked to the ground. I think every one of us had a headache for the rest of the day...that was some spell. Is that what you saw, Casavir?”
He met my eyes, but I couldn't tell what he was thinking,“...Something like that.”
He's lying...for me.
I know what he saw. He saw me become a demon, and he called me back. He's probably as perplexed by what happened as I am.
I was thinking so much that it took me several moments of staring before I realized I was looking at Rhetta, who sat on her porch, drinking sweet tea from mugs I had helped Bevil make for her. She looked just like she did when I was a child---a handsome woman---except now her hair was grayer, but the red that showed was still thick and dark.
“Rhetta?” I asked. And suddenly, I felt the memory of my fight with Lorne as clearly as If I still stood on the tourney ground.
Lorne saw me. He took a dirty fingernail and traced it across his neck, licking his eel-like lips all the while...
She looked a me. “Amara? Come over here, let me look at you. You look... proper.”
“Fucking cunt,” he spat in my face as he pinned my neck with his forearm and slashed downward at my exposed throat.
I tried to ignore the memory, “It's still me, Rhetta.”
“And who are these folk?”
“This is Casavir and Shandra. They are friends of mine.”
“Well, you're both welcome. Come on up...”
“Is Bevil around?”
“He's off doing some work for the militia.” Rhetta wagged her finger at me, “He would be sore if he knew he missed you.”It had always been a running joke between us that I would have to marry Bevil, just to have her as a mother-in-law.
But I couldn't smile, “I wouldn't mind seeing him either, but I have something I need to talk to you about...”
“I know that look, girl. I'm assuming you can speak freely with your friends here.”
“You're a good mother, Rhetta. I always envied your boys---that they had a mother like you in their lives. When you asked me to find out about Lorne, I did. And I am sorry, Rhetta, that ---
“He's dead, isn't he?” she said it calmly.
I looked into the distance,“Yes. He joined the Watch for a bit, served with Cormick, but there was always bad blood between them. I don't think Lorne ever forgave him for beating him in the Harvest Fair. Lorne ended up as an assassin in the Luskan army. Then he started working for a man named Garius, and I'm sorry to say, there was a lot of bad things that he did. I was working for the Watch in Neverwinter, and the Luskans were trying to frame me. I was made a squire so I would be tried in Neverwinter. During the trial, I had to fight Lorne, and...he fell, Rhetta. I'm so sorry.”
“You killed him.”
I wanted to see the eyes of an animal when I looked at him, for an animal can't help its nature. But the fevered glint that thrashed in his eyes as he pinned me to the ground, prepared to cut my throat, was entirely too knowing. I saw bliss, there, in that manic abandon. I saw my death in those round, dull eyes.
I got down on my knees in front of her, “You can take justice on me, Rhetta.”
“All the people he's killed, their family could claim the same on me. Get up, Amara. It's about time Lorne paid his own reckoning.”
I extended my palms in gesture of submission, “I killed your son.”
As he tugged me to my feet, I always knew Rhetta was made of steel beneath that lovely form. She had to be strong to raise her sons with a terrible father, whose only gift to his sons was to leave,“You, of all people, must remember what Lorne was. He was a monster to you, especially. Don't think I'm dotty. Bevil's told me just about everything, now. It's taken me some time to understand, to quit blaming myself for what he became. The boy I raised, he died a long time ago...I'm just sorry you were a victim of his cruelty, but don't apologize for standing up for yourself, for all those people he hurt.”
Shandra spoke tentatively, “I saw the fight, ma'am. Amara tried talking to him, but he wouldn't listen. And Amara had the chance to choose a champion to fight in her stead, but she insisted that it was her fight.”
Rhetta grinned, “That's Amara. Always made of tougher stuff. She even puts us Harbormen to shame.”
“It's the demon in me.”
“Take some credit. Whatever you have become is because you're you. That's why Bevil thinks you hang the stars.”
I sipped at some tea that Rhetta offered, “He'll probably change his mind now.”
Rhetta shook her head, raised a finger, “That son is mine. And he would forgive you anything.”
I handed my cup to Shandra with a nod of thanks, “Have you spoken to Daeghun lately, Rhetta?”
“Very briefly.. he seems preoccupied. Who isn't with all the strange things happening in the Mere. There were many times that I went to your father, telling him he needed to be kinder too. But he can't understand my concern. How could he? He's an elf. He doesn't have the same...needs. But in your his case, he didn't refuse to change out of malice. It was just lack of understanding.”
Shandra handed her cup to Casavir, who empied it as I began to speak to Rhetta, “'Lack of understanding,' well that's one way to put it. You and Brother Merring....have both said something similar. But I don't think either one of us is willing to change. He will always hate me, Rhetta. And I won't accept being hated.”
Rhetta refilled Casavir's glass. He gave a sheepish grin as he took another long, appreciative sip. “So, have you talked to him yet?” Rhetta asked me.
“Amara! Still dragging your heels when it comes to Daeghun. You have to give a little if you want to gain anything.”
I smiled, but then I remembered the letter. I could almost feel its weight, the press of his hand as he made the letters...“I also came for another reason, Rhetta. Cormick died. I brought him to his folks.”
“Not Cormick, too” Rhetta whispered. “He was in his prime. And such a sweet boy---a sweet man.” She did start to cry, but held out her hand when I went to hold her. Rhetta didn't accept anything she thought was pity. “Now don't you be trying to comfort me.”
She away the few trickles of tears as if somewhat ashamed of those few drops.“You need to go up to your father, Amara, and you to need to have a good cry yourselves. Now,” she said to Casavir and Shandra,” if you' can excuse an eccentric old woman...Git” she smiled. They smiled back. Rhetta planted a kiss on their foreheads.
Then she came to me, opening her arms wide, and I did what I always did: I fell into them gratefully, nuzzling in the scent of this woman as if she were my mother. “I have missed you, Amara, and I keep praying for you. But don't blame yourself for what happened with Lorne? Alright?” She kissed my forehead. I could tell she would mourn, for this son who was always lost to her, but not where I could see.
“Thank you for your hospitality, ma-am.” Shandra said gently.
“Is there anything we can do for you, madam?” Casavir asked.
Rhetta shook her head, but pointed at me, “Just keep her outta trouble.”
As we trudged towards Daeghun's, she waved a solemn goodbye from her porch.
If I closed my eyes, I could still find my way. My feet knew. This is it, Captain of Neverwinter
. I should be able to knock on my foster father's door without all the old weights slowing my life back to those moments that seem eternal, when I was young enough, naive enough to care whether or not he loved me.
l...I looked at Shandra and Casavir, “You two might want to step back...He might be armed.”
“You've got to be joking,” Shandra said nervously. “She's got to be joking,” she said to Casavir.
The paladin took her elbow and guided her a safe distance away, “In my experience, when dealing with father figures, especially those with attractive daughters, it's best to assume they're already armed.”
Shandra frowned, “This is one of those times I have no idea what you're saying...”
“Pitchforks hurt.” His voice was deadpan.
“Why would---Oh...” She crossed her arms as she looked at Casavir, “Thanks for destroying my maidenly innocence.”
Casavir voice was full of knightly gravity as he took her hand, “My lady, one night of your maidenly charms would be worth a thousand pitchforks.”
Shandra sighed, every inch the grateful maid, then chuckled as she pulled her hand away, “You great big liar!”
“Being charming isn't the same as being sincere. But I meant what I said. Any man who would run away at the first sight of an angry pitchfork is unworthy of you.”
“Oh. When you say it like that...thanks.”
Though her skin was rather bronze at this point, Shandra looked a bit flushed. She looked at him, and what was there lit her features, which were already quite lovely. She looked like one who wanted to be seen. But Casavir was already looking past her golden head to where I stood, watching these two beautiful people with a stab of envy. The possibilities they had...the possibilities I would never have...
I knocked on my foster-father's door with a bitter taste in my mouth.
The door flew open, as if he had been watching the door for some time.
“Es---” Daeghun's ageless face and deliberate voice was full of longing...until he saw my horns.
“Amara---” His voice changed so quickly I wondered if I had imagined the other, “What are you doing here? Do you still have the shards?” Daeghun was shorter than I, but it felt like he was looking down at me from a great distance.
“Yes—I have them.”
Daeghun reverted to elven, as he always did with me, “you bring trouble to my door. Do you want to bring death upon us all?”
I slipped easily into elvish, “I came back here because I had to.”
He pulled me inside with the same strong grip I remembered. “Explain.”
I nodded my head at Shandra and Casavir. I stopped, reverting to Common, “We have guests.” I gave them a look to show how embarrassed I felt.
My foster-father looked behind me with an elven glare that far exceeded what Duncan or even Sand could do. His large, hazel eyes was the dominant feature, and what made his glare so effective. He had the stare of some fey creature that belonged to the wild. He leveled it at Casavir and Shandra, conveying his anger and distrust just with those eyes. The rest of his face seemed to lack expression, but with a gaze like that, he had no need of further expression.
“We can wait outside,” Shandra smiled, “I'm certain you two have much to discuss. Just holler if you need us.” But Caviar returned his gaze. He tipped his head at the elf, “I only wish to greet the one who raised Amara.” Then he extended his hand; it was a Harbor greeting, not something one saw a paladin of Tyr offer to a man who looked like he might kill him rather than take it.
Daeghun didn't move, didn't acknowledge the hand. “Keep your hand, stranger,” Daeghun drawled, “it's apparent that I did not raise her well.”
Casavir's hand lowered, but his eyes did not, “You do not understand---”
“Oh, I understand human... Amara, is it not enough to make mischief with the local priest? Must you shame me in Neverwinter as well?”
I had to think before I could remember what he was talking about, “That was...five years ago, Daeghun!”
“Not to me. But we trail from your task, which you have apparently failed. ”
It was one thing to take Daeghun's upbraiding, but it was something else to have it witnessed, “Casavir, Shandra...Why don't you head back to Georg's. It well past supper, and I'm sure you're as tired and hungry as I am.”
Shandra turned to go, but stopped when she realized Casavir wasn't moving.
Somehow, I sent the thought through on the breeze, You can't save me, not from this...hoping Casavir would catch it. Shandra understood, said something to him. I could do see her mouth moving. He nodded. Said something back.
I closed the door. Hard. It made a familiar thunk against the frame, “That was rude, Daeghun.”
Daeghun's home had changed little. There was a smell of woodsmoke with roast mutton, probably what he had for supper. Rugs of various colors lined the entryway from the door to the mantle, which he stood before. Maps and paintings hung to either side, but he looked at the fire rather than at me. “If they are your friends, they should not have let you bring the shards back here.”
“I was quite...” I crossed my arms, “determined.”
“Yes, I have run into your determination.” For the first time, he noticed my clothes were wet and dirty, as was I. We had to leave all our finery at the Keep. It was too risky to travel in gilded armor in the Mere, so Daeghun saw my padded armor, inky cloak---not things a Captain of Neverwinter would wear. But even if I was dressed and helmed in the finest armor, his response would be the same. For him, I would always bring trouble.
He reverted again to elven, but he did not offer any elven hospitality: clean vases of water to wash hands and face, sometime times feet, honey-sweetened fruit, spiced wine to remove the rain's chill. He called me a name, which roughly translated, means bull with too big horns. “Speak what I need to hear, bull.”
Rationalize---remove emotions until you see the truth. I remember your lessons, elf.
I wiped the rain from my forearms, “First, I went to the sage, as you bid me. The shards are from the silver sword. That's why the gith have attacked. It is a great offense to steal a silver sword. I have several fragment, including a shard in my chest. The scar. Now I know why you never spoke of it. But now, you have to tell me everything...my mother...”
I couldn't keep the emotion from my voice.
Daeghun held up a dismissive hand. I could only tell by a slight tightening in the corner of mouth that he was annoyed, “That can wait. Second?”
“Second, Lorne Staring became a Luskan assassin. He tried to frame me for the murder of a Luskan town called Ember. I won my trial, but Luskan demanded trial by combat. They made me fight Lorne. He is dead. I already told Rhetta.”
“Lorne was always looking for dis death. Next?”
”I've been tasked by Nasher to repair Crossroad Keep, which is now my keep---I'm a captain now--- and prepare a defense against the King's armies."
“You---a noble? I may not understand human notions of nobility, but why would Lord Nasher elevate you, of all people?”
“It's to keep me loyal, Daeghun. I had to take the oath of knighthood: to serve Neverwinter. Nasher knows I won't back down from my word, or I lose Never winter's protection. Even if he doubt's my motives, he knows I'm caught. He needs an army to protect his kingdom, and I need one to take to the King of Shadows, the real threat. A knight captain has a greater chance to stir people to her banner than just a lone Harborman.”
Daeghun held up his hands, “Politics,”
I tried to shock him, “I've seen the King of Shadows. He is a warlock, like me. And he is experimenting with raising the dead.”
“I determined as much from the Mere...Is that all?”
I looked away. When I spoke, I spoke in Common, “Cormick was...murdered. I brought him back to his parents.”
“I didn't know you were that close,” Daeghun's tone was ambiguous, made me angry in a way only he could.
“Despite everything, we've managed to find each other,” Cormick placed his cheek against mine. “That don't happen everyday.”
I clung to the memory, unconsciously touching my cheek, even as I gave Daeghun a look that told him to drop it.
Daeghun, rather then notice my reaction, was thoughtful, absorbing every bit of information. “You should be at the Keep, rather than here.”
I had to choose each word carefully before I spoke, or I would scream, “Well, I am here now, Daeghun. You could be happy to see me.”
His tone was dismissive,“Too risky.”
“'Too risky'? You are the one who sent me after bloody fool's gold. How many years did you throw away, all because you couldn't say, 'You have a fucking shard in your fucking chest!'”
His voice was chill, “I did not know. The wound in your chest, the blood. The shard must have passed through Esmerelle and into you. She died so that you might live. But such knowledge, of her, of the shard, wouldn't have done you any good, bull.”
“It would have helped me to understand---”
“---Understand what? So you could feel the same loss as I? You're already upset...”
“Upset? How would it upset me? I would have known that she loved me,” I touched the scar. “Here, where I have felt deformed, here is the evidence that Amara Chidi was loved. For once. Everything else, like these horns, these fingers, would have seemed small in comparison.” I looked at my delicate hands, closing my fist until the extraneous digits disappeared, “At least, that's what love is supposed to do...”
“Amara, you know little of love. Love breaks everything. It leaves you hollow. It's like swamp lights that flicker like torches, but disappear, leaving you neck deep in filthy waters.”
“No, ” I touched space where Cormick's letter lay. I didn't have to read it to know that he had loved me. “You're wrong, Daeghun, about a great many things. You'd let your rancor drown both of us. Well, I won't listen to any more lies.”
He bristled, “I never concealed what was important. You have demon blood. Your life was never gong to be easy, with or without the shard.”
“Thank you for reminding me Daeghun. You were always reminding me every moment you could. Don't worry, I've never forgotten. How the hells could I?”
“I remind you because you have to be on your guard. I don't care if Nasher makes you one of the Nine. You're still the little girl playing with things she should leave alone.”
“This might surprise you Daeghun, but I am not some animal that needs to be domesticated. I was supposed to be your daughter.”
“You think I asked for this? I did not ask to take care of you. I did it because I promised, but after losing Shayla and your mother, I couldn't lose someone I loved again.”
I wanted to hurt him, “Duncan should have raised me. It would have made everyone you, dear-dead mother, much happier.”
“Say your peace, but keep your mother out of this conversation.”
“You meant Esmerelle 'Just-Fallen' Chidi? The stunner, who you and Duncan fought over? You know what I think of the great hero? It's because she couldn't keep her knees together that we're in this big, bloody mess---”
Daeghun struck my left cheek with a practiced backhand. It was blow made to instruct rather than harm.
From beneath my brows, my green eyes became dangerous slits, “Come on, Daddy. You can do better than that. Unless you're getting old...”
He grinned wryly, “Go on, continue Amara. These are the sorts of conversations fathers and daughters are supposed to have.”
“If I have a father, it's not you...”
“Then appeal to him.”
“And prove you honest?” I laughed. “I'm rather tired of that game, Daeghun.”
I paused. I almost told that blank face, just to see some expression, even if it were rage, but I thought better of it. I'd keep him in the dark, just like he'd done to me, “Don't worry Daeghun. I will trespass no more on your fine hospitality. My companions and I will stay at Georg's tonight. Once Cormick's in the ground, I'm leaving, and I don't plan on coming back---not to this house. “
“Bull, why must you always push me?”
Instead of answering, I opened the door.
“It's what bulls do. We tear up everything.”
I slammed the door shut behind me.
By the time I left Daeghun's, it was night. Selune was full of promise, practically rolling across the sky with a trial of stars churned in her wake. I used to imagine that someday, I would reach those stars, see what they were made of. I used to think that people lived in the sky, just like we lived on the ground, making constellations out of our strange lights and shadings...
I stepped beneath my favorite tree. A willow--- gnarly and lichen-covered. It was where I would do my gazing. I climbed to the indentation that still seemed as if it had been specially carved for my body. Here I belonged, if nowhere else...
“Don't cry, Amara. There's no point,” I whispered to myself. Yet the tears fell silently. I curled my feet against my chest, put a hand against my forehead. Bloody elf. I'm done---
I heard something rustling in the undergrowth. I held my hand, readied my blasts---
Bishop stumbled into the tree with a thunk. “Fuck!” he spat as the branched recoiled, hitting him right in the forehead.
I grabbed a branch, tilted my head, and cackled like a swamp hag.
He turned around, tense, ready to strike at whatever was stupid enough to laugh at him.
I wiped away the remaining tears with my fingertips and frowned at them.
He looked up. "Fuck you, Mar.”
I snorted, “How did you know it was me, oh mighty ranger?”
“Only one can laugh at me with such contempt.”
“Are you lost, little boy?” I asked sweetly.
“No. I'm scouting. Wandering.” he took out a flask, rattled the contents until they swished, “Celebrating.”
“You shouldn't drink.” I folded my arms, remained where I was. We both know what happens when you drink...
With a quick, abrupt motion, Bishop threw the flask into the river. I could hear the splash as his eyes met mine, “I hope some fish chokes on it.”
I looked down at him. Even the moonlight did nothing to soften him. His reddish hair, his stubble seemed spiky, likely to cause pain if touched.
“Ranger, just leave me alone,” I climbed up the smooth, greyish bark, pitting several branches between us.
“Why are you alone, Mar? Shouldn't you be catching up with your kin, maybe kissing a cousin...”
I let my night vision take hold, revealing the faint glow of the leaves wherever I turned. Not being a chipmunk or any other sort of animal that likes to climb in trees in the dark, I looked for a way down. It had been a while since I had climbed so far up a tree on anything but a dare, but I managed to get down without falling, though I did make a slight thump as my feet connected harder than I expected.
I held out my hand at the ranger, daring him to say something about my lack of balance, but he merely smirked. “If your looking for your kin, Mar, snakes tend to stay on the ground.”
“And what are toy kin to ranger, besides dung beetles? Wait, wait, that's right: I don't care
"You may not care about me, but I found out something interesting about your Harborman.”
“Please, enlighten me with your genius.”
“He was engaged, but you probably already knew...To Kana. Small world, isn't it? I wonder if Nasher knew...” a flash of teeth in the moonlight, an animal smile.
I grabbed his collar, “That's a big fat lie. You should have kept it in your big, fat head.” I flicked his forehead with my finger.
“For someone with such small hands, you really like to poke and prod.” He smacked my hand away, “I'm not a dog, captain. But I do bite. ”
“Is there where you try to throw doubt over my relationship with Cormick, and then, for some reason only the gods know, get us to fumble into your unwashed bedroll?”
He raised his arms and shouted at the sky, “Can't we just skip all that and get to the fucking?”
I laughed. The way he said it was like a parody of the lecherous tripe he usually said.
Bishop smiled, “I was articulate once, but when you work with Luskans, you're expected to talk a certain lingo. It's all 'kill, kill, kill.' and 'fuck, fuck, damn, fuck.'”
I laughed again.
“I came from a place this---off the beaten...before they came.”
“You don't think I would work with Luskans willingly.”
“I don't understand.”
“You've never been a slave.” I could tell by his tone that he wanted the conversation to end.
And so, we were silent. There was only the sluggish sound of the river, the sound of frogs, of night beetles.
As Bishop spoke, his voice softened. It was as if the ranger were speaking the way he might have spoken when he was a youth, “Nights like these, we used to go skinny-dipping in the creek, whatever the weather---as long as there was water, were we in it.”
When I didn't respond, he continued, “Mar, I know we have bad blood, but can everything can start from here?”
I laughed. It was a mean laugh.
“I should've kept my mouth shut.”
“You really think a couple of words will wash all the shit you've pulled off? You must think I'm a drooling, stammering half-wit.”
“Let it go, Mar.”
“No. I know what you are. You aren't even dirt because dirt at least, nourishes plants, makes things grow. You're just a waste---a walking, talking, waste of air.”
“Aww. Did I hurt its feelings?”
His gravely voice sounded worn, “According to you, I don't feel. I don't breathe...So why don't I just slit your throat right here? That's about all I'm good for,” He brushed his fingers over the knife's handle, but didn't draw. “It's what you want, isn't it? To be with your dead sweetie instead of weeping in the dark, alone with someone not even worth the trouble to kill.” “How romantic,” I offered him my back. “If you're going to knife me, then do it. If not, get the bloody hells away---”
There was another sound in front of us. I looked up.
He was going further into the trees, but his height, his broad shoulders, were as unmistakable as his Marshal's black and white uniform. He stopped once, turned his head right to where I was, and smiled that crooked, bright smile...
“Cormick”? I whispered, afraid that if I named him, he would disappear like any other dream.
I stood, completely transfixed on what I saw.
“Don't change the subject,” I heard Bishop growl.
I looked at the ranger as if seeing him for the first time, “Listen to me, for once. Nothing you do will ever be forgiven. Not by me. I will always remind you of everything you fuck up. If you ever thought different, then you're stupid as well as evil.”
He ran a hand through his hair, made it stick up even more, “But you need me, Mar, so what does that make you?”
“Desperate. Maybe crazy. I haven't decided which,” I smiled. Well, I was seeing dead people,“I'm leaving. Now that you mention it, there are some cousins I want to screw---anything to get your stink off my skin.” I stepped beyond the canopy of the willow, leaving Bishop behind to do whatever freaks like him did for kicks.
There was enough moonlight for me to see the dirt path that his vision of Cormick took as he moved towards the orchard. I didn't see him actually move. Whenever I would blink or turn away, he would be just closer to the Mossfield's plantation. Actually, it was a failed orchard. Ma Mossfield, who was from Amn, tried to make a fruit grove from seeds that she brought with her when she married her husband, whose family were Harbormen. She even had magics cast and prayers made to make the grove live. And it did, in a monstrous sort of way. The apple trees and pear trees were fine, but the oranges and lemons were puny and rancid. If you took bite from her orchard, you were just as likely to get sick as full.
“...The Princess of the Lost Heart...I think I've heard that story...Without a heart, the Princess becomes something deadly. Isn't she tall, and dark, with green eyes that cut right through a man like a basilisk's glare?” I rolled my eyes, “And black hair,” He tried to pull my hair behind my ear, but it was too dense, “thick and smooth as flax? A voice like a siren's? Her look maddens every admirer, but I heard it's with her voice that she weaves her spells, and so voice and beauty, which should enchant, only deal destruction and death.”
Cormick stopped in front of a tree I hadn't seen before. Though Cormick was tall, this tree was taller. It looked like something from some foreign land, some windswept dessert, rather than the Mere. He rooted for something in the lowest branches, and his dark curls bobbed as he removed whatever he found there.
My entire body tensed, waiting for some attack, but I couldn't keep the longing out of my voice, “I thought I wouldn't see you again.”
He turned slowly, cradling something in his vast hand. It was leaking something dark and sticky onto his pale palm.
Suddenly wary, I raised a fist at this imposter,“He is dead! Dead! Why do you torture me with his form?”
Cormick put his free hand up to his mouth and his finger against his bearded lips, as if telling me to be quiet. Then he tapped his forehead twice with his broad finger, as if to say, Think, Amara.
His forearms were dark with course hair as he lifted his hands, revealing what he held to me. His eyes were full of depths, absorbing the vague moonlight rather than reflecting it.
If you fall
I will rise someday
as the leaves fall down
in the Meredelain.
Part of me kept repeating a fevered warning, Look away, Amara---look away
, even as he approached, or maybe I floated toward him. I touched my scar, remember how he pressed his lips against it, “My heart...oh Cormick, where is my heart?”
He blinked. Death. No more.
I looked down...
* * *
Cormick's parents decided to bury him in the morning. The ceremony was one unique to Harbormen. When parents lost a child, the custom was for them to put the boy or girl back in the ground. They gave the child life, so they made that final bed, kissed the cold eyelids, bid their babe a good sleep'and an awakening into some time and place where they would all meet again.
Instead of Brother Merring giving a benediction, an older man with an aged, tangy, but powerful voice began to sing.
won't you take my shirt instead.
Or my house, my stove, and every bed.
Don't take away what I treasure most---
Don't make my little babe a ghost.
won't you take me instead.
I saw Cormick, gliding past the singer, shaking his head, as if to say That's not it at all
When I blinked, he was gone. I rubbed the bridge of my nose with my thumb and index finger.
I felt a light hand against the small of my back.
“I think I need to drink to stop seeing things---” I said to the poor bastard behind me, whoever that happened to be.
“Uh...where did you meet up with Cormick?” a familiar female voice asked. I couldn't place it until I turned. The girl, her belly swollen with a babe was a certain long-lashed Mossfield. She dropped her hand. I couldn't remember her name, but I remembered...other things. She may have asked the question, but was already looking for a way to end the conversation and avoid any other strange thing I might say.
I tried my most-winning smile, but she flinched as I tried to answer her question by speaking deliberately, and I hoped, quite sanely, “I met Marshal Cormick at Fort Locke. He encouraged me to join the Watch.”
“I heard he was engaged...”
I shrugged. I was always good at faking ignorance.
Delighted she could reveal something I hadn't known, she spoke in a poor attempt at a whisper, “I heard it was a swordswoman. Cloak. She was eastern, funny name: Cone, Conna---something like that.”
“Kana?” I asked. My voice sounded very small.
“Yeah, did you meet her?”
“She's manages the Keep, but I...never saw them together....” Kana? That couldn't be right. Then Bishop would have been speaking the truth. It wasn't true---couldn't be true, but why did it hurt so bloody much?
“Well, if I heard right, he was crazy about her. And you know how many of us ladies well, knew Cormick,” she had a faraway look to her face. “I know I woulda married him, but he never asked no body in the Harbor. When he left, he broke all our hearts.”
“I can imagine,” I didn't want to be sarcastic, but I felt as if this woman had just gutted me with a very blunt weapon, one that hurt rather than killed.
Caught up in her own thoughts, this Mossfield didn't catch my tone, “Funny that you found him. Of all the West Harbor girls, you're the least likely to nab him.” She laughed, putting her hand to her belly, as if she were imagining what her life would be if it were Cormick's, “I guess he was always made fer better things than us.” Then She gave me a mean grin. The us
. “But you managed to bring some fine-looking men---very fine---back with you.” I followed the upward glance of her long-lashed eyes, that Cormick had once found pretty.
Bishop had entered the inn. The ranger was dirty, but his cloak and gear were expensive, and looked it. He liked to have the best, though he never seemed able to maintain it. Taller than most of the Harbormen, his rugged features were emphasized by his stubble. I don't think I had ever seen him clean shaven, yet the man was graceful. I had to give him that. Once he leaned against a wall, a lone, solitary figure, his stance invited nothing but confrontation.
The ranger cased the room as he shrugged off his cloak. His well-fitted armor gave him bulk. The man at the tap offered him a mug of ale, but he denied it with a curt nod. Suddenly, Bishop turned his head. He looked right at me, he saw me watching him, and pressed his lips together, making a motion like a kiss.
The pregnant girl eyed Bishop unabashedly. “Whew. That sure makes me wish I wasn't married,” she sighed.
I smiled, “Maybe I should tell that to your husband? Who is the lucky fellow?” I looked around, as if trying to find him, “Is it your brother? I always told Wyl that no woman in her right mind would every touch him, but, it appears I was mistaken.”
It took a moment for the insult to sink in. Once it did, her lovely eyes widened in disgust, and a frustrated humph could be heard as she waddled away from me with as much outraged dignity as she could muster.
I threw up my hands, as if in protest, “No, no, no! Don't go. There's so much fat to chew---” She ignored me completely, which was well-enough, but I kept speaking to her back, raising my voice the farther away she moved. “Really, I'm blushing, you just can't see it. I am abashed. I need a priest. And lots of penance. Oh gods, why do you make me say such wretched things? I think I'm possessed. Yes. I need an exorcism---I...” I put my hands to my forehead in a gesture of woe, but widened my eyes, made my fingers tremble as they discovered my horns, “I am...entusked
The whisperings and looks I had almost forgotten had now begun again with unabated vigor. I knew this encounter, as she would likely relate it, would become just provide further evidence for many in West Harbor---as if any was needed---that Amara Chidi was a fantastic bitch.
“Did you call for an exorcism...I think I already tried that. It never seemed to work.”
I didn't looked at Brother Merring as he sat beside me.
“Maybe because your methods were flawed,” I drank, “but then, I was just 15.”
“Fifteen going on fifty. Daeghun still hasn't forgiven me.”
I lookked at the priest. He still wore The red roves with the yellow cowl---red gloves too. His brown hair and beard were always cut in the style of the city, where he came from. The beard was still thick, well-trimmed, even in West Harbor, where most men didn't take the time to look in a mirror. He smelled like the incense from the shrine, which clung to his robes like a cologne.
“Daeghun doesn't forgive anyone. The bigger question is: Have I forgiven you?”
Merring was a man of the world, while Tarmas withheld his knowledge from me when he made Amie his apprentice. Merring told me stories, taught me history and any subject I had an interest in. He was intelligent and kind. His mean was gentle, and I was unaccustomed to gentleness from men. I think he considered me his protege. Back then, he seemed older and wiser, though he wasn't as old or as wise as I wanted him to be. But it was enough, once upon a time.
“Was there anything to forgive?” he asked, genuinely concerned.
“Not really. I knew Lathanderites weren't chaste. We had some good times. But it's all ancient history.”
“It hasn't been the same around here since you left.”
“Is that your way of saying that you missed me?”
“Of course. Who else can I debate?”
“Well, life's rarely fair.”
“That's what Lathander's for.”
“Let's not debate that here. I'm likely to become provoked.” I looked at him from beneath my brows, “You remember what happens when I get provoked.”
He tapped his jawbone, “My jaw still clicks from where you broke it.”
I shrugged, “Seriously now, the taint. It's worse than before...”
Merring looked around, but no one was listening in. Still, the priest lowered his voice, “Most of the Harbormen aren't talking about it, but my divinations all say the same thing: devastation from something...unnatural. I've tried warning them, but they don't listen. I sent word to Neverwinter, but they don't have the troops to spare.”
“I am the captain of Crossroad Keep. Tell anyone who needs a safe haven they'd be welcome.” I smiled when I saw his eyes widened in surprise, “Trust me, 'captain' sounds very fine, but there was a lot of 'demon witch' in between.”
“Has so much happened? Ever since that night, I have replayed it in my head. And every time, I go with you...” He folded his red-gloved hands together. It was a nervous gesture I remembered well, “Are you happy, now?”
“Not so much. But it's been a long year.”
“I'd like to hear about it, but I don't suppose we'll get the chance. You're leaving tonight, correct?”
“Yes. We cannot linger.”
“Are there priests at your Keep?”
I tugged a stray lock of hair, “Not yet, but we need as many gods as will help us.”
He was thoughtful for a moment, “I may come. I will do what I can here, but if things get bad, I'll take whoever I can to your Keep.”
I touched his red forearm, “Rhetta and her kids? Cormick's folks?”
He smiled, “I'll even try Daeghun---if he doesn't kill me.”
“You're a good man, despite being a priest.”
He held out his hand. I took it, “And you're a good woman, despite being a demon.”
“Just remember what I said, if things get bad...”
“I will remember. It had been good to see you well. May the Morning Lord protect and keep you, Amara.” He made the blessing known as Lathander's sun, which was a blessing that only priests of Lathander could make.
I bowed my head to receive the blessing. When I looked up, Brother Merring stopped in mid-sentence. He looked at me, as if stuck by a sudden pain.
His face was as red as his robes. “I'm sorry,” he muttered, “I think I need some air.”
“Do you need help?”
He held up a hand. “No. No...I'll be fine. Good journey, Amara.” Holding a hands against his forehead, Brother Merring gave me a wan smile before walking slowly towards the door.
“Amara's always been...” I heard Georg snort. He seemed to answering a question someone had asked.
I walked to a table where Shandra and Georg sat side by side, “Come, spit it out, sirrah. You were going to say that I'm 'evil,' or perhaps 'impolitic?' Or maybe 'swamp-addled?'”
Georg laughed, “Sometimes you used words I had never heard before, then, you were cussing as well as any fishwife....Coarse, Daeghun never spoke like us. He uses elfish. And me made you speak it too. So even your common had something elfish, sometimes. He was so quiet and you were...liable to say anything. ”
Instead of saying something, I took a drink of ale. The foam clung to my mouth. I couldn't help joking, “Look, I'm foaming at the bit.”
Georg laughed, but he had been drinking pretty steadily. Shandra laughed too, but it was a laugh more out of pity than mirth.
“Say something Elven, Amara,” She teased.
I wiped off the white foam, “No. It's Daeghun's tongue, not mine.” I kept wiping at my mouth I took the edge of my sleeve and daubed it all off.
“Where is he?” Georg asked, “He likes his space, but if I remember right, Daeghun was the one who took Cormick to Neverwinter when he was just a lad, introduced him around...”
I clenched my jaw, “The 'Great and Terrible' is not coming. You don't have to fake surprise, Georg. Everyone knows Daeghun would only turn up to say, 'That's not how the wood elves do it.' Then he'd spend the whole evening trying not to be offended by our savage customs.” I took another drink. When I spoke, I imitated Daeghun's voice, “'Leave it to humans to find an excuse to drink even when someone dies.'”
I saw Casavir shake his head. If I didn't know any better, he was covering a laugh. "Sir,” I said, pointing an accusatory arm, “Don't you dare stifle a chuckle on my account.”
The paladin was one that many eyes and thoughts followed, but no one approached him until a small gang of shy kids slowly advanced. When the paladin spoke to me, one a little girl, the bravest of her companions, sat beside him on the bench. Casavir bent down, asking her questions as they spoke eye-to-eye. Soon the girl was chatting. When the girl paused for breath, Casavir smiled at me.
“He's the Orc Killer, isn't he?” a little blond-haired boy suddenly asked me, staring at Casavir.
I nodded, “The orcs are afraid of him---with good reason.” I raised my voice so that Casavir could hear as well as the children, “When I first met him, I was in the mountains round Old Owl Well. From the mountain, a huge army of orcs descended on our little band of four. There were more orcs than I had ever imagined; they were on us thick as flies on a dead dog. They fell upon us, brandishing curved blades and filling our ears with blood-curdling roars. We fought them, expecting our doom to fall. But suddenly, a silence fell among the orcs. I did not know orcs could be afraid, but they were. They scratched their filthy heads and seemed to wait for something to happen. And that was when he appeared over the horizon, a company of able warriors at his back. They slew the orcs, who called him Katal-Mach, which means 'One who Loses Himself in Battle.' As the orcs lay in their black blood, he removed his helm, his eyes shining from battle, and said, “My name is Casavir, my lady, and I am a servant of Tyr.'”
As I told the story, even some adults stopped to listen. “Is it true?” another boy asked.
“Go ask him,” I said, nodding at Casavir. “Real knights are rarer than diamonds, but he certainly is one.”
“What about that one?” another youth asked, pointing at Bishop. “Is he a knight too?”
I laughed. “No. He's a scout, like Daeghun.”
“Is she a knight?” another asked, looking at Shandra. “She looks more like a princess. But I suppose princesses can be knights...”
“Well, that beauty has fought more battles then most princesses. She's fought assassins, lizardfolk, demons...before that, she was a farmer.”
“I hear you talking about me,” Shandra said, coming over.
“Harbormen love their stories,” I replied. “Do you have one, Shandra?”
“Well,” she turned towards the children, “did you all know that Amara is a captain now? She has a whole Keep to manage. She's a noble too.”
“Shandra---” I interrupted, rwitching my fingers through my hair.
Shandra may not have been a great story-teller, but she had experience, and her story held a ring of sincerity. As I listened to her tell my story, her version made me feel more humble than the best bard in Neverwinter. She didn't exaggerate. She said it all very simply: Amara did this. Amara did that. So simple, but more effective than all the speeches I found myself making.
When she finished, I hugged her, “You're the best farmer I know.”
“I wasn't a very good farmer, you know,” she muttered as she patted my back. “I'm better at fighting things planting seeds.”
It was also the custom in West Harbor to tell stories after a burial---usually involving lots of ale. Harbormen didn't drink at all when work was to be done, but on feast days, weddings, and funerals, they imbibed enough ale that soon eveyone thought they could tell a good tale, dance a jig, or sing...
So it was only natural for Cormick's mother put a hand on my shoulder and ask, “Will you sing?” Several heads turned on my direction expectantly. I had sung at every other occasion that called for it. And there were many times that folk said, Poor Amara may not be a looker, but at least she's got pipes!
I didn't say, I don't think I can sing again.
But I couldn't smile, I couldn't find the words. I could only look at Morimee with panic-stricken eyes as she regarded me with Cormick's kind, steady gaze.
Surprisingly, it was Casavir who stood. “May I sing?” His rich voice carried across the room when it was pitched not much higher than a whisper. “I'd like to sing something in Cormick's honor.” The paladin, with his voice, his sad, brilliant eyes, his strong, even features, was something that wasn't often seen in West Harbor.
“It is you who honor us, Sir.” Morimee said as made a gesture of thanks, “My son seems to have kept... good company.”
I realized that Casavir almost always closed his eyes when he had to sing or when a crowd focused its attention on him. Though the paladin gazed at the floor, his bass carried across the room and into the gathering night.
The blindness is from above:
Lord Ao, high god,
Lord of all things,
so is it a punishment,
or a blessing?
Even Try does not know,
but he must carry the darkness
like a shield across his back.
I thought I had heard all of Tyr's songs, but this was a new one, written after he was blinded and maimed in his battle with the Chaos hound.
Can you learn to walk
Can you learn to fight
without a swordhand?
Who is lame before the Lord?
Everyone of us.
The Maimed Lord has given himself
so that you may know
those things beyond
even justice's eyes.
The grim lines of his mouth
are crossed for you.
Though we all yearn for succor,
I looked at Casavir's bowed head, the strong muscles of his neck.
But the days are full of woe
for the Just.
We will only smile
When the hammer falls hardest,
in the darkness.
* * *
Dear Ma and Dad,
I got the knee socks. They have kept my feet snug even if I've had to be in some pretty damp places. Nobody in Neverwinter sews half as well as the smallest girl from West Harbor. Let me know if anyone wants to set up a shop. It may not draw the Lords and Ladies, but my men would be grateful.
You asked in the last letter, and I think you should know first. Ya did give birth to me, so I think I owe ya just a bit. Before the gossips get it wrong,I plan on making grandchildren for you both. To accomplish that, I need to get married. I've asked, and she said yes. So, did I mention grandbabes? Lots of them. You won't know what to do with um. We'll come, make it official, but I know ya'll will treat her right. Gods know they'll be enough wrong from every other direction. Just look at my other letters, if ya need convincing . I'm going to be taking order from her, in more ways than one. She's already done thing, I couldn't dream of. 'And that's what the world needs right now. I'll be happy just to be able to kiss her, and say she's mine. But ya'll probably don't need to hear any more of that. Ya'll see enough of it when we come down.
And don't say anything about it being too dangerous to visit. I'll cut down anything that even thinks of hurting us. We've got important things to accomplish, yet, like making babes that will love ya as much as I do--- probably more. Because I know you will spoil them worse even than ya did me.
Ever your grateful and loving (and soon to be hitched),
The flap of the tent lay open, letting in the firelight. I lay awake on my bedroll, smoothing, re-reading the letter until I had it memorized. My eyes drifted towards the sound of rain, and I imagined how drop by persistent drop, it would reclaim the way back to West Harbor.. No matter how loving, how promise-crammed we are, how easily we return to nothing... Just as this paper, no pmatter how full of meaning for me, would melt so easily in the rain. Still, I clutched it with greedy fingers. Just as the Harbormen had stubbornly cleared pathways and rebuild their homes and returned to the job of planting even in the midst of invasions and disasters, I would not---
Lightning flashed. A peal of thunder cracked over the campsite. It sounded very human.
I stood. A shadow fell across the tent flap.
“Amara?” someone asked.
“Who's there?” I threatened.
“It's me, Casavir...It's time to switch watch...”
“Bloody hells, Casavir. I was just about ready to...”
“Did I scare you?”
“No. I'm just....feeling cautious.”
“This Mere would make anyone cautious.”
“Step in, get out of the rain. As much as I like to stay alert, we'll not see anyone coming when it's like this outside.”
Casavir stopped into the tent. He saw the letter I still held, “I'm sorry. I'm blocking your light.”
I tucked the letter away. “It's alright,” I said, preoccupied. Now that I had invited, I didn't have anything to say. So I fidgeted . I wanted to read the letter again. My eyes wandered with my thoughts.
After a time, when we both stood in silence until Casavir spoke, “It must be hard coming here. But it was the right thing to do.”
“He deserved it. Sometime I will ask you more about him. But tonight, I think the sooner I get this day over with, the happier I will be.”
“I understand...Then, let us speak of what we've been avoiding...”
I met his eyes, but did not speak. There were several things that came to mind: Brother Merring... Daeghun....
Casavir cut right to the point, “The Keep. What happened there. You became a demon.”
I looked away, “You say that rather calmly, paladin of Tyr.”
He moved so that he was in my line of sight, “I already told you. You are the sign, whether you believe it or not.”
“Then how come I felt the urge to maim and kill? Well, more than usual...”
“But you didn't.”
I flicked a hand in his direction, “Because you did...what you did---whatever it was you did.”
I expected him to have another firm answer, but I was surprised when he looked just as perplexed as I did, “What did I do?” He shook his head. “I saw the darkness rise, and it seized you, but I reached out. I don't know what I thought I was going to do, but---”
“Well, it certainly worked. Do you think you could do it again? If the need arose? I think the more I'm around shadow and summoning magics especially, the more I'll be at risk.”
“Do all warlocks go through that...transformation?”
I shook my head, “The only other warlock I have met is the King of Shadows, and we haven't had a chance to compare notes. But I think it's safe to say that this is to do with my father---whoever he is. I think---no, I know--- he's given me powers.”
“Can't you refuse them?”
I patted my chest with my palm, “I Asked. And I won't justify it.”
Casavir paused for a moment, processing just what a warlock would Ask for, what she would be given...“Just tell me one thing, Amara: was it to restore Cormick?”
I nodded. I ran my hand over my horns, “I have no excuse. I tried to bring him back, but, I made it worse...
Casavir put a hand on mine. He looked at me a long time. “I would have done the same,” he whispered and then turned quickly away. “But we must do whatever we must to keep you in control of yourself. The last thing he would have wanted would be for you to become what we're fighting.”
At the Moonstone Mask, there was an incubus. It took his form, and I think I turned him into it---”
“ Let's hope it was just a deception. You made a mistake; we all do.”
“I know. Thank you for reminding me that we're both fallible, if not entirely human,” I smiled.
Casavir's voice was stern, “No more calling on dark powers.”
“Cross my heart---what's left of it anyway.”
There was another flash of lighting.
“Sealed with a thunderclap. That's always a good sign, “ Casavir said wryly as he looked up. “Why do I feel like a horde of orcs is just about ready to descend from on high?”
“Because a horde of undead led by an immortal shadow king is about to swarm the Sword Coast?”
“Right. I knew they made you captain for a reason.”
“Besides my good looks, charm...and the ability to wield demonic hellfire?”
He shrugged, “Well, you did rip a man's ear off with your teeth.”
“How did you know that?”
“Khelgar told me.”
“Bastard.” I laughed. “I rip something of his off with my teeth...”
Another flash. The wind tore the tent flap open. Casavir closed it after a great effort that took both of us. We were both wet, shaking, somehow we were tangled up in the canvas.
Suddenly, I smelled mint.
We're all the same in the dark.
“Casavir, you need to get away. Now!” I embraced my powers with a flick of both my wrists. Nothing happened. The Mere---the taint. Must be effecting my magic.
Casavir looked at my impotent gesture as Shandra screamed. With the fire snuffed out, Casavir and I ran as well as we could in the tempest. All of our tents were situated around the campfire, but when we emerged from the ruins of my tent, the rain stopped completely, as if the storm hadn't raged around us mere moments ago. Magic, I thought as my night vision caught a figure outlined in reddish fire, as if the hellfire of the Abyss still clung to its naked form.
This tall, winged demon bent over Shandra's body. Her fair hair, wet from the rain, clung to her cheek, which was far too pale. Her mouth was open, as if she were pleading with this monster.
No. Even before it turned, I knew the face it wore, “Step away from her, fiend.”
“Jealous?” Suddenly, the campfire roared, but cast a lurid purple light, the hottest part of any flame. And this demon wore Cormick's face, his hair, his beard above a too-perfect body.
Cormick?” Casavir reacted very quickly. He stepped in front of me, trying to draw its attention away from Shandra and me, “How do we know this is you and not some clever deception?'
Cormick narrowed his dark eyes, “What are ya doing with my woman?”
Casavir held up his hands, “Nothing...' he said, but managed to imply quite a bit.
“I've heard that tune before, haven't I? Yer still the same punk ya were when ya joined the Watch.” Cormick made a dismissive gesture, and Casavir flew back through the air until he fell to the ground.
I was stuck between helping Casavir, who lay still, or Shandra, who was crying.
“Cormick,” I pleaded with the incubus, “You know its you I bloody love. If you really love me, then prove it. Let her go. Now.”
The plea degenerated into an order, but Cormick dropped her. Shandra grabbed her neck. Where his hand had been was raw and welted. She couldn't seem to move away from the incubus, but if I could just keep his attention on me...
The incubus turned towards me with tears in his eyes, “Amara...lost Amara...you had my heart...”
I tried to keep calm, but my pulse was wild, “Have you been...feeding?”
He smiled that lovely smile, “Shh.”
I felt nauseous, “How...?”
“Yer heart called me. It beats blood through you, I can hear the song. Can ya hear it? It says 'If you fall I will rise someday'...It means that we're supposed to be together. Ya ate the fruit, now,” he held his big hand out to me, “time to rise.”
“Destruction. Death. No more.”
“Sounds like a slogan.”
“Ya'll know soon enough...” when he spoke again, his voice was a Command. “Now come to me, Amara Chidi. And we'll be married like we were supposed to be. ” The incubus flapped his wings.
Stall. “You're an incubus. I just can't make a commitment to someone who'll be sucking on other people.”
He laughed, “It's not like they'd mean anything. Ya'll always be my girl. Besides, ya might change yer mind once ya rise.” He gestured for me with a flick of his fingers.
I put my hand on my hips,“Why didn't you tell me about Kana?”
“Ya didn't ask. Why didn't ya tell me about Merring...or the shard? Or the dreams? How many times did ya run from those questions?” He wrinkled his nose, “You ask questions well, Amara, but yer weren't the best at answers.”
“Wow. You're pretty insightful for a demon. I'm guessing you're reading my nastiest thoughts. Desire demons can do that...or someone has informed you.” I shook my head, “For what its worth, whatever I did or didn't do, I loved you as best as I could.”
“And I ended up dead. Remember: I'm doing this because it's what's best, love,” he opened wide his arms.
“Tell that to Shandra and Casavir, you---” I again summoned my powers, but nothing happened. It was as if I couldn't remember the words, the motions to bring forth the energies...
He laughed, “Oh, I had forgotten how funny you look when ya get flustered. Yer powers aren't going to work here. The fruit is quite potent...”
The fruit...My eyes went to Cormick's eyes, though I knew that was an incubus' most dangerous weapon. They didn't seem to have an end, yes, I could spend eternity swimming in those depths, suffocating in his depths...
Casavir came from wherever Cormick tossed him. He looked like he had been rolling head over heels in mud, There was blood staining his chin, but he ignored it as stood between Cormick and me. The paladin held up his warhammer, just as he had against that innumerable horde of orcs, “I'll use this, if I must.”
Cormick tossed back his head and began to laugh, “Cas, Ya went after every cunt with two legs. Then one day ya day ya just 'changed yer mind'.” He snorted, “They only let you in the temple as a joke. Ya were always throwing yerself on whatever was there---women, gods, vengeance---” Cormick sniffed, “Wait. Amara doesn't know. Oh, don't glare at me, pal. I won't tell her. I wouldn't want to spoil yer chances with her fine cunt. Ya could say it's worth dying for.” He smacked his knee.
“It's not Amara's fault you died,” Casavir's velvet voice sounded groggy, as it did sometimes when I would wake him in the morning.
The incubus laughed, “So handsome, Cas, but so dense. Why don't ya step aside? A woman needs a man who's along for the long haul---in this case, eternity. Yer good at pretending to care, to be good, but underneath, yer scared shitless.” Only then did I realize that this trade was a spell. Casavir made a barely perceptible nod of his head, but by the end of the incubus' speech, Casavir was rigid and still as stone.
“Ya know I'm better---” Cormick said, circling the paladin, “always have been. That's why I was a Marshal, and ya were a deserter---why I got everything and ya lost everything---”
Suddenly, Cormick toppled, an arrow in his wing. He bellowed, flapped his wings.
“I owed you one, Harborman,” Bishop hissed from behind us. He buried three more arrows in rapid succession into the same wing until the incubus couldn't fly.
Biting his bottom lip, Cormick pulled out the arrows. The dark blood spurted from his wounds over his naked shoulder. He held up all the arrows, and I saw reddish fire skitter around them, straightening them, as the hovered in front of Cormick. He said a word, gestured to where the arrows came from, and they sped with a whoosh
right back at the ranger. I heard a thunk
as they hit their target.
Shandra used the opportunity to try and sneak past the incubus, but Cormick grabbed her. He held her up by her throat, “Stop squirming, Shandra. I was hoping we'd save that for later. What else are fiends for, if not the occasional fuck?” He dropped down to kiss her neck, caress her breast.
I felt the pit of my stomach turn to ice.
Cormick looked at me. He was suddenly around me...suffocating me like a noxious vapor. Here is your heart, he said as he materialized before, pointing at his bare chest. He exuded not sweat, but but some sort of narcotic, that blurred my vision, slowed my reactions. Even so, my head arced towards his. Some deep, hidden part of me knew what to do. I bit him. It was purple: bite, blood. It felt like acid, at first, then it was heavy and sweet as clotted cream.
“Ikenna!” he panted, curling his fingers round my hair. “The things ya do with that mouth...sweet gods, woman...ya'd make an angel come.”
His skin was fire-textured, like sand.“What about a demon?” I whispered, still licking the rivulets of blood that came from the bite I had made.
Pulling my lips from his chest, he kissed me as the purple blood covered both our faces. His hands were already between my legs.
But I was still Amara.
I patted his hand away playfully. “Five's a crowd,” I chuckled.
“Let them watch,” he rubbed his hand very hard.“It'll be quite the show. I've learned a few...tricks since last time.”
My hand tugged his beard until it must have been painful.“But... it needs to be right,” I pouted.
“...Cause we're right. So right..oh, I remember....”
“Once they're gone, then we can let go of the past, and move towards out future---our eternal future,”
“I love it when ya get all brutal.”
“The paladin first,” Cormick cooed. “I want to see ya take him.” He made a gesture, and Casavir shook his head.
I opened my arms to Casavir, “Am I still the sign you're after?”
Instead of answering me, he made Lathander's circle in the air between us, “Remember who you are, Amara.”
“Do you now who you are?” I asked, moving toward him. “You poor, sad, lonely, thing. How many years, wasted? Oh Casavir...Casavir....look at me.....”
He closed his eyes.
I bent over his ear, “What if I had met you first?” I could see the silver in his dark hair. Please paladin, play along.
Casavir opened his eyes, and we locked gazes, “Don't tell him, Amara.”
“What?” Cormick said. “Don't lie to the poor bastard. Just eat him.”
Keep being smart, Casavir.
I draped my arms around Casavir's shoulders, even though he wore his armor, I traced my fingers as if I caressed the skin beneath,“Did you think all this would make me nice, Cormick?” I laughed. “Come here, paladin. I think it's time we consummate our long flirtation. I'll be nice, though, Cormick, and let you watch.”
“Ya shouldn't say things like that.”
I looked lazily back at Cormick, “Would I lie, love?”
“If yer going to be ungrateful,” he pulled me toward him with one hand and threw the paladin through the air with the other. Then the incubus flung me to the muddy ground. I blinked as the world spun for a sickening moment as the wind was knocked out of me.
Cormick was on top faster than a human could be, “I'll fuck ya til ya mind me.”
I could use some hellfire about now. “Maybe I don't want you. Ever consider that?” I winced, waiting for some attack.
The incubus wrung his hands, practically moaned, “But, I...thought ya wanted me forever...” It was a pitiful sight.
“Nothing lasts Cormick,” I put my hands to his face, it was the only part I could pretend was familiar, “This should of ended when you bloody died!”
“But who's fault is that, love? If I'm not this monster that ya've made of me, I will suffer for eternity. Ya know what waits for me? No paradise. No rest. No new world. Just The Wall of the Faithless, where I will forget everything but regret. ” His wail was like a spear to my belly.
“Cormick...There must be something---let me help you. ”
“I already wish I'd never seen ya...” He sobbed, even as he kissed me. “I'd ask ya to kill me, but I don't think ya have it in ya, not now. But we'll just give it time---yes---”
“We?” I asked between kisses.
“His Highness. Or 'Daddy,' as ya've called him before.”
I pushed him away, “I will not be part of his plots. And neither should you.”
“You will bring the Fourth to Him.” He smiled as he pushed my knees apart with his knee,“Ya don't really have a choice. Neither did I. None of us do.” He straddled me, his eyes reflecting nothing but malice,“This has been set from the beginning. Just give into it, love...” I realized that the way he had me positioned was exactly the way Bishop had attacked me at the Flagon. A hand went to my throat, pushing back my head as his fingernails dug into my cheeks. His fangs tore at my wrist, and he licked it loudly as he stared up at me with dead eyes.
Though I felt weak, the rage drove out every other thought, “You're not Cormick. And I'm not your girl.” I freed my hand enough to slap him, raking my fingernails against his skin.
He grabbed my hands, pushed them down behind my head, bruising them. But one hand I knew I could free. “This is what ya've been aching for...”
“Just try, motherfucker. I'll really kill you this time.”
He slit his eyes, spoke slow and dangerous, “And they lived happily ever after.” He giggled hysterically, “It's what the story says, dark princess. Us. Happy, even if we don't have hearts, we have something better.” He forced one of my hands down to his crotch.
The incubus did not seem beautiful, merely grotesque when he left my nightshirt and I felt his appalling flesh against mine. He tried to thrust, but I grabbed his balls, twisted them savagely until the skin tore. I held on as he let loose an inhuman shriek of anguish and fury above me. I twisted again, using both hands, and this time the cry turned shrill, and Cormick twisted my wrists until I had to let go. He immediately flew up as fast as he could away from me, wincing all the while. With his injured wing, he was barely able to keep himself upright.
He, a broken, bloody thing, could only hover above the purple fire long enough to address me, “We could have been together, and now ya've tainted it. Now, it's done. I'll do the worst thing I can. I'll leave. I'll forget ya,” He flashed his fangs. “I'll be the worst thing thing ever came outta the Mere.”
I spat, “Why don't you come back here and tell me that---”
“That holy cunt is yers boys. May she do ya the same turn she did me.”
The otherworldly, purple light went out, and the incubus disappeared. I knew he wouldn't be returning. Not as my Cormick.
I couldn't stand, but I raised my fist and shouted. It was if all the rage inside fought for release in my cry, “Whatever you are, we are enemies! Do you hear that, father? I renounce you, I curse you! I would shed every drop of your blood from my body if I could. But I can't. But it will serve me---not you!” I pushed down my shirt, which only made me angrier, “Fuck you, daddy--- fuck you
!” I trembled with rage like some do with fevers. Maybe I was sick from all that anger.
He must have heard, for my powers of summoning, of command, had not returned, aching to be used. The shards, however, tingled as if to say, forge me, wield me, but as I rubbed the dark blood off my face, I realized I, Amara Chidi, was vulnerable.
Bishop stood over me.
I wanted to laugh, but I didn't have the energy. “Just do it, Bishop.” I whispered, closing my eyes.
He dropped his cloak down over my shoulders. Amazed, I turned to look at him. I gave a stare that Shandra had dubbed my “hellfire stare,” because my wide, emerald eyes, at such times, burnt right through whoever they were directed at. Instead of meeting my gaze, the ranger crouched down and fastened the cloak with special knots that would keep out any rain. His hands were strong and deft, and, for once, I didn't want to punch him.
When he finished with the ties, Bishop held up his hands. I met his flame-eyed gaze with a steady eye as placed my hands in his, and he helped me to my feet.
Bishop seemed amused by the question, but didn't answer it. He ran a hand through his short, ruddy hair and and moved soundlessly to the remains of the campfire. He lit it with a flint and stone.
I heard Shandra's voice, and I followed it. She leaned her back against a tree. Casavir was beside her. “Are you alright?” I asked as I put a hand gently to her forehead, smoothing down the panic I saw still clinging to her face.
Shandra's eyes were wide, and she clung to Casavir, who rocked her like a child. He was muddy and had a nasty cut from his nose to his cheek, which still bled. He had taken care of Shandra before healing himself.
“What the hells happened, Amara? What was that...thing?” her voice was filled with trust that I would have answers---that I would make things right.
I stopped, licked my lips. My mouth was dry. The bruises she had...
Casavir looked behind Shandra's fair head at me. He saw the cloak, first, and his eyes narrowed, but when he saw my face, his blue eyes softened...Suddenly, I was seized with the desire to cry and be held like that.
Instead of acknowledging any desire, I concentrated on what needed to be done.
I patted Shandra's cheek, which was wet from sweat and tears as much as rain. I looked at the bruises blooming darkly on her pale skin until I could meet her searching eyes with assurance. “It is a thing
. And I won't let that thing
harm you---any of you---again,” I swore as the storm, unabated, began to thunder around us once more.
* * *
Morimee once again had her Cormick-eyes on mine. “Sing for us, Amara,” she said, and every head turned in my direction.
“I don't think I can sing again,” I said.
“Then don't sing.”
The wooden walls seemed to darken, move back. There were chair everywhere, all facing forward. I was in one. In front of the chairs---so many chairs---was a raised, painted platform. There was magics cast to brighten the stage as bright as daylight while the audience was in complete darkness. Every seat was filled.
I stood. Something pushed me towards the stage. I felt three hands on my back, but I couldn't turn to see who they belonged to.
Suddenly, the stage lights nearly blinded me. I stumbled the last few steps to center stage, but I hadn't rehearsed. I don't know my lines. I couldn't see or hear the audience, but it felt like a million pairs of eyes were focused on me...waiting for me to do my part. But I had played so many: would I be the lover?The villain? The clown? The fool,---yes, I played that part most---
“The Sword,” a boy's voice whispered.
I looked down. I held a prop silver sword in my hand. As I slowly raised it, an “ahh” went through the audience, as if it were a wonderful stage effect. When I looked at the sword again, it wasn't a prop at all, but a sword carved from silver and shaped like a thunderbolt. It was heavy. It was more real than I was. It was then I realized that I wore a mask.
Then music swelled. There were strange instruments I had never heard before, but the thrums, the sounds, though foreign, were loud and strong, and it made me feel like I could do anything.
I opened my mouth, which was as real, as substantial as the sword I held:
At the end of my grief, there was a door.
My voice boomed and echoed from the ceiling to the depths below. It felt like I had said these words timeless times before. But this time, I knew it had happened.
You who die without love, remember:
That which returns from oblivion
returns to find a voice.
The soul is as it ever was,
silver-streaked and molten;
it survives all beings,
becomes the hand that opens.
At the center of the Wall, there is a tree,
fragrant and fetid, green as marsh grass.
That which you call love,
Edited by Raenemon, 19 June 2010 - 07:24 PM.