Kal, Viconia, Keldorn, and Yoshimo assembled in the taproom of the Flagons the following morning. After a few minutes, Keldorn was about to ask where Anomen was when he appeared, red-faced, at the top of the stairs.
"Is there a problem, Anomen?" Kal asked.
"Er...nothing important, Kal. It appears only that...I forgot something at the Copper Coronet. I was about to polish my armour this morning when I discovered that my armour polish was not in my pack; it was likely misplaced and left in my room in the Coronet, since I did polish my armour yesterday morning."
"Right. Well, let's go down to the Coronet and pick it up. No inconvenience."
The Copper Coronet had not changed much from the previous day, except for one thing. A red-haired young woman in mud-spattered, travel-stained blue robes was apparently discussing something with the leader of one of the adventuring groups, a fighter by the look of the sword at his waist. Anomen climbed the stairs to get to the room he had previously occupied while the party waited for him by the door.
The young woman's voice raised, suddenly, as the man she was talking with started shaking his head. She held her hands out imploringly, but the warrior shook his head and turned away. She also turned away, gaze roving over the other adventurers clustering the bar, but not a one responded.
"Is that...is that all of you?" she asked in an exhausted voice. "I...the lives of my family depend on your assistance! None of you are willing to help?"
The deafening silence that followed was answer enough. Some of the adventurers at the tavern even went so far as to turn their backs toward her.
Kal's expression grew grim. If you can't or won't do it, at least have the guts to say it to her face. As for him, this was just the thing he was looking for, and if there was one thing he'd learned during his numerous trips up and down the Sword Coast, it was that he had a positive talent for doing things that most other people couldn't.
"Easy, now," Kal said as the party approached her. "What's the problem?"
"My family's lands are under siege...we're being attacked by something, I don't know exactly what...and no one here will help me!"
"Well, you've just found some people who will help you," Kal assured her.
She remained doubtful. "Really?"
"On my honour as a knight, m'lady, I so swear it," Keldorn said firmly.
"A...a knight of the Radiant Heart! Oh, thank the gods! My family's lands...three days east of here on foot - are under attack, and we...we can't hold out much longer. We have to get there as quickly as we can!"
Keldorn was nodding. He turned to Kal. "On fast horses we can..." he began.
"Can Anomen ride?" Kal interrupted.
"No," Keldorn said. "His priestly training has prevented him from attending some of the knights' classes."
"Then it doesn't work, Keldorn. If Anomen can't, that means too many of us can't ride, and it's been extremely rainy and muddy lately. I can't ride, Viconia can't...Yoshimo, can you?" Kal asked, suddenly realizing that he'd never bothered to ask. Yoshimo shook his head.
"Even if she can ride, that's two of six. I don't think we have time for the fumbling and bumbling that an attempt to throw us on horses would result in." Kal stared at the ceiling, planning rapidly. "We'll do it this way. You and Anomen get over to the High Hall and secure the supplies we'll need for a three day overland trip. I'll pick up everything else we need from the Adventurer's Mart, and we'll meet at the gates in an hour."
"A sound plan," Keldorn agreed.
"What's your name?" Kal asked the woman, another thing that he hadn't bothered to ask. That was two rare slip-ups for him.
"Nalia. Nalia de'Arnise. My family's keep is known as the de'Arnise hold."
Kal turned to Yoshimo. "I know this isn't a lot of time, but find out whatever you can about the de'Arnise hold and surrounding terrain. If we're going to help, we're going to need to know something about where we're going."
Yoshimo didn't bother responding, heading right for the door. An hour wasn't a lot of time, and he evidently intended to use as much of it as he could.
"Should...should I travel with you?" Nalia asked. "I...I can pick the odd lock or two, and I've had some formal magic training. And I can...tell you a few secrets about the keep."
"Of course you should. You're a mage?" Kal asked, to confirm.
"Yes. Father always said that I'd have to learn how to take care of myself if need be."
"All right. Come with me and Viconia, then. That's Viconia," Kal said, gesturing, "but there will be plenty of time for introductions later. For now, let's get going."
Anomen came down the stairs just in time to see the group split up and head for the exits. "Excuse me? Excuse me? Kal, what is going on?"
Kal turned to look at Anomen over his shoulder, not even breaking stride. "We found something to do."
It did take a little over an hour to get everything prepared, but the party left in reasonable time. Yoshimo had indeed delivered, with a roughly scrawled map on crumpled parchment indicating how to get to the hold, with treacherous areas marked, as well as a serviceable map of the De'Arnise lands.
It had been a while since Kal and his party had done overland travelling. Not that he lacked experience, having spent the better part of a year wandering around a more northerly area of the Sword Coast. Muddy and rainy travelling was not unfamiliar to him.
Amn, being at least a somewhat coherent political entity, kept its roads a little clearer than the ones found further north around Baldur's Gate. For a half mile out of the city, the road was paved, and the party made good time. The wetness about them did little except make the roads a little slippery, which everyone could handle. Small dips in the road collected puddles of muddy water, splashing slightly as the party moved by.
After that half mile, however, the paving stopped. The setting of the stones became far less regular, and eventually dispersed into a stone or two every few feet before vanishing entirely. Beyond that, there were a number of well-travelled trails, but none paved. Grass and weeds which dared venture on to the oft-used roads were quickly beaten down by hooves and wheels and feet, and so the trails were bare, uncovered earth. Rain transformed it rapidly into mud.
The first into the mud was Keldorn, whose boot sank two inches in on the first step. He pulled it free a few seconds later, a loud sucking noise coming from the mud. Without saying a word, Kal moved off the path and on to the damp grass beside it. The terrain was uneven, gently rolling and studded with rocks and trees, but it was better than wading through mud.
The smell of rain still hung in the air well into the day, the sunlight that might have cleared it up blocked by a wall of grey cloud. The air was heavy and thick with moisture, and it lay like a blanket over everyone's mood.
"So, Nalia, what's the nature of this threat we're going to help out with?" Kal asked.
"It's a small force besieging the keep," she answered.
"An army?" Anomen asked.
"Not quite," she corrected. "It's an army-like entity, I'll grant you, but it isn't nearly large enough to be called an army. It outnumbers the number of guards in the keep approximately three to two."
"A difference of precisely how many?" Yoshimo wanted to know.
"Sixteen to eighteen."
Now everyone was crowding around, asking questions. Viconia spoke up. "And how are our five going to make a difference?"
"Most of the besieging forces are standard mercenaries - with just enough skill to use a sword, but not much beyond that. Unfortunately, our guards are much the same way. The way I figured it, a few experienced warriors could turn the tide and make all the difference we need."
"You were right to ask us, then," Anomen said, thrusting his chest forward. "I am easily the equal of three or four. In valiant combat, I am unstoppable!"
"That's good," Nalia replied neutrally. Anomen looked like he wanted to say something else, but didn't. They continued on in silence.
Kal kept an eye on Anomen's expression as they walked along. Anomen was clearly not paying much attention to the people around him. He was nervous, and edgy, and...fearful?
That can't be right, Kal thought. Fearful...of what?
Anomen's hands flexed unconsciously, gripping into fists and then relaxing only slightly. They twitched as if to take up his mace into a fighting position.
As evening was approaching, Kal spied a section of forest off the path that seemed fairly dry, with a small stream running by it. There was perhaps an hour or two of daylight left, but it seemed a good spot. There was no point in going for another hour or two and then having to pick a poor campsite.
"I object," Anomen said, when Kal pointed out the campsite he had picked out. "It is not a defensible position!"
"And...?" Kal asked with just the slightest edge in his voice.
"What if we are attacked in the middle of the night? We will perish without the chance for glorious combat! In this position, we shall be overwhelmed and defeated!" Anomen's eyes were showing fear again, but not because of the prospect of being defeated.
"Let me get this straight...you want a defensible position because you're eager to engage in ‘glorious combat'?" Kal asked him.
Anomen nodded. "Such is the task of all true servants of righteousness!"
"Perhaps you can during your watch. But, as you may notice, your watch won't be the whole night. At other times, you won't have the opportunity...and neither will anybody but the one person on watch."
Anomen's eyes seemed to bulge out a bit. "I am always ready for glorious combat!"
"In your tunic?" Viconia asked scornfully. "Unless you intend to sleep in your armour."
"And why not?" Anomen said. "I am of Helm's faithful, and I should be on guard at all times!"
Kal shrugged. "If you want to. But my objective is not to get attacked - which is why these tents are black, you might notice. If you're so passionate about it, why don't you try sleeping a night out here in your armour? If it works for you, we'll try it your way."
"I shall!" Anomen declared.
Kal shrugged again. "Suit yourself."
After pitching the tents, Kal gathered some wood and started a fire in a pit dug in the middle of the campsite. Then he removed some cooking gear from his backpack and began to set up.
"What is it that you are doing?" Anomen asked.
"Well," Kal said, adding some water to a small pot, "I'm setting up cooking gear. This is done primarily in advance of, well, cooking. And, of course, cooking is done to prepare food." Do I need to explain what food is?
Anomen looked shocked. "That is menial work!"
"And do you think there's anything wrong with that?" Nalia asked, a little bit of challenge in her expression. "Someone does it, you know, unless you've been eating raw food all of your life - not to say that there's something wrong with eating raw food, but I don't think you have. Anyway, just because the work they do is menial doesn't mean that they're inferior."
"I...I would never claim so, milady. But it is not a knight's duty!"
"Then you're so lucky I'm not a knight, aren't you?" Kal replied, as calmly as he could manage. "Unless you'd prefer to chew on iron rations. They're nourishing, I'll grant you, but hardly a desirable experience." Kal gestured to the tightly-tied packs of dried food.
"Young Anomen, I think you need to learn a better distinction between what is a knight's duty and what a knight may do," Keldorn said.
Anomen grew stiff. "If I need to learn, Sir Keldorn, I doubt that you could teach me." He stood and walked off.
Keldorn sighed. "It is ever so with Anomen. I cannot reach him. I can only hope that you have more success, Kal. As for the cooking - firstly, I thank you, and secondly, I am more than willing to rotate duties with you. There are at least some things I remember from my adventuring days, and you are right - iron rations are not ever pleasing meals."
"Keldorn, you don't have to...." Kal began.
Keldorn shook his head. "No, but I will. At least once, to provide perhaps a bit of an example to Anomen."
Kal shrugged. "As you wish."
"If I may ask, Kal - where did you learn such a thing?" Yoshimo asked. "I would guess that it is picked up from adventuring, if not for one thing." He gestured to the array of spices and seasonings that were partially visible inside Kal's backpack. "I have some minor proficiency in the art myself, though it is with Kozakuran cuisine. However, even though I am unfamiliar with the style as practised in this corner of the world, I recognize the mark of a professional when it meets my eyes."
"I wouldn't call myself a professional, exactly," Kal said a little dubiously.
"He is being modest, as he tends to be," Viconia commented. "Professional or not he is better than most, I can assure you of that."
"Ah," Yoshimo said with a smile. "But my question remains."
"I learned from Khalid, actually," Kal said. "I never found out where he himself learned. But it was different, with Khalid - he had a real passion for cooking, and he was far, far better than I ever will be. He taught me a number of things about adventuring, of which cooking was one."
Kal added spices and some food to the pot, then sat down and leaned back. "We rotated. Kind of. Khalid would cook most of the days we had to stay out in the field, and a number of days when we didn't. He taught me on the side, and I ended up covering for him on the days when he couldn't or didn't want to, which weren't many."
"You were fortunate," Keldorn said. "On my journeys it was often the case that we rotated among all members of the party, and none of us had any particular talent. Certainly the result was more palatable than iron rations...but just barely."
"Oh, I insisted on trying that the first time. Khalid wasn't one to talk me out of it either - he was part of the ‘learn by experience' school. I tried it one week and at the end I admitted Khalid was right and let him do the cooking. Ajantis tried, too, but he only succeeded in creating a series of small disasters."
Keldorn chuckled. "Of that I am aware," he said. "I tried to teach him the basics, and he tried to learn, but I admit it was an utter failure. I was never the most talented cook myself, however."
"No, I think it's something natural," Kal said with a smile. He leaned forward and stirred the pot. "Jaheira was no good, either, and Imoen didn't exactly have the patience for it. And Viconia, here...well...."
"Drow nobles do not cook," Viconia said with a smile of her own.
Nalia looked up from her spellbook. "You feel you're above cooking?"
Viconia shook her head. "No, that is not it at all. What I mean is that in drow society, drow nobles do not cook. I was as completely unfamiliar with the process as I was unfamiliar with the sky."
"To her everlasting credit, she tried, she certainly tried," Kal said. "But she managed to accomplish the most amazing fusion of burnt food to iron. After she ruined a few pots, we decided together to exempt her from any kind of cooking, or should I say, property destruction."
Viconia turned towards Kal, hands on her hips. "I recall threatening you with various types of spiny death if you ever mentioned that again."
Kal grinned wider. "Yes. Yes you did."
Viconia held her gaze for a few more moments, prompting Keldorn to draw in a breath, almost reaching for his sword. Then Viconia started laughing and playfully swatted Kal across the shoulder in mock disgust. Keldorn let the breath out...slowly.
Keldorn was disturbed. It wasn't by Viconia, exactly. He was more disturbed by her expression. She was happy, joyful even, and clearly comfortable with where she was and what she was doing. And she was just as clearly absolutely genuine - she was not hatching some evil plan, nor plotting to kill them all. To someone who had become accustomed to labelling all drow as evil, this was profoundly disturbing, and Keldorn could feel his mind resisting.
Why? He knew about Drizzt Do'Urden, clearly a hero and clearly drow. He didn't have a problem with that. Viconia was also a priestess of Shar, and that would be enough reason to be suspicious. But it wasn't as if every priestess of Shar was evil, and Keldorn knew that even the purest-hearted peasants offered a few words to Shar every now and then when they despaired.
Shar was a good reason. Keldorn knew that. Yet somehow, that didn't bother him as much, and it should. Or rather, if it had to bother him at all, her priesthood should be the only thing to do so.
Keldorn gritted his teeth. Torm stood for loyalty, and chief among those loyalties was a loyalty to justice, justice that was fair and true and equal for all, human or elf or dwarf or gnome...or drow. And Torm had never once promised that those loyalties would be easy.
But why in the names of all the gods did it have to be so hard?
The conversation went on, ignoring Keldorn's inner turmoil.
"I probably wouldn't be much better," Nalia admitted. "Nobles here don't do any cooking either. Not that I didn't pick up a little bit here or there, but there was always my aunt barging in and taking me out of the kitchen, telling me that good little girls didn't explore the keep and, in fact, sat in their rooms all day."
"Wait...," Keldorn said, coming out of his reverie. "De'Arnise Hold...your aunt...not the Lady Delcia Caan?"
"The one and the same," Nalia said with a nod.
"Oh," Keldorn said, quite at a loss for words. "Oh. Uh...well, then."
"You've met my aunt before?" Nalia asked perceptively.
"Once or twice. You'll forgive me if I don't go into further detail," Keldorn said.
Nalia nodded. "I know what you mean."
"There!" Kal said with some satisfaction, as he stirred the contents of the pot one last time, throwing in a pinch of something from an earthenware jar. "Done. Yoshimo, bring Anomen back from his extended sulk, would you? I'm thinking he might have tripped over something." Yoshimo nodded and left.
Kal brought out a number of bowls. "I can't say this is going to be particularly memorable...but it beats chewing on dry-as-a-bone rations."
Keldorn chuckled. "I think you might surprise us all."
All That Glitters...43
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