Chapter 89: A Warm Welcome
What had started as a convenient campsite on the outskirts of the forests of Tethyr, situated where the main road between Athkatla and Tethyr branched off towards Murann and Riatavin, had grown into Trademeet, one of the largest and most distinctive towns in Southeast Amn. Every building in the town was made of wood, taken from the massive forest to the south. Skilled woodcarvers, inspired by the art of a half dozen different cultures, wrought leafy vines, waterfalls, and stylized animals on shutters, doorposts and eaves, and the streets were paved with coloured stones, often laid in giant mosaics. It was a beautiful town, one that had prospered even when its patron deity, Waukeen, had disappeared during the Time of Troubles, and it was known wide and far as a peaceful haven on the most important trade routes in Amn.
Ember and her companions arrived at the peaceful haven to find it under attack.
At the eastern entrance to the town, the ornately carved gates had been destroyed. Heavily armed guards were defending the opening against a score of animals; black bears and brown bears, wolves, snakes, and giant spiders swarmed around the gates, charging the guards and tearing at the walls, attacking with an unnatural ferociousness that reminded Ember of how dire wolves behaved, except only worse.
"How can this be?" Minsc bellowed, a shocked expression on his face. "Boo does not believe his eyes!"
"Neither do I," Ember muttered, staring at the chaos in front of them.
"Come, my companions! We must assist them against these beasts!" With that, Mazzy drew her sword and ran towards the spiders. Jolted out of their stunned inactivity, Anomen and Yoshimo followed the halfling, while a bored-looking Edwin chanted a short spell, sending a small fireball towards a cluster of snakes. Minsc went after the bears, hollering and waving his sword to scare them away, but they paid the unhappy ranger no heed until he joined the battle against them.
With a bloodcurdling howl, a frenzied wolf lunged at one of the guards, knocking him to the ground and ripping at his armour, trying to bite through the chainmail. Ember ran towards them and knocked the wolf off the guard with a quick jab of her staff. The creature rolled away, then got to its feet and slowly padded towards her, drooling and snarling, looking for all the world as if it had gone rabid. But that can't be it. Determined to learned what caused its madness, Ember locked eyes with the wolf and whispered a short cantrip that would let her touch its mind.
Except she couldn't get in.
The wolf's mind was locked against her.
A powerful will, far stronger than the wolf's own, drove it to attack the town. The force of this will overrode every natural instinct the wolf had; food, drink, shelter, hiding from foes - none of that mattered to the wolf any more. Its only desire was to destroy Trademeet, and nothing could get through to it to convince it otherwise.
Going rabid would almost have been a blessing, Ember mused bitterly as she knocked the wolf down a second time. Summoning all her strength, she brought her staff down upon the wolf's neck. She could almost hear a snap as the spine broke. The wolf twitched spasmodically, then lay still, reduced to a pile of meat and bones through her will.
Pushing the wolf's death from her mind, Ember raised her staff and moved to head off another wolf. Beside her, the guard scrambled to his feet. Other than a bloody gash across his cheek, he seemed to be unharmed.
"You... you spoke to the wolf," the guard said, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.
"It was just a cantrip," Ember said, and knocked a wolf into one of the rosebushes that grew at the foot of the gate posts. She was tempted to cast a spell that'd make the thorny brambles ensnare the wolf, but it'd only delay the inevitable; there was nothing she could do for these creatures, other than giving them a quick death. "I wanted to see if I could make it stop attacking, but I can't."
"Is that so," the guard grumbled, and brought his sword down on the charging wolf.
Within a few minutes, the fight was over. The animals all lay dead on the bloodstained ground, as did two of the guards, and many of the defenders had been injured; Anomen was already kneeling beside a wounded guard, both of them bathed in the soft glow of healing spells, and Mazzy seemed to be preparing a bandage for one of the three guards she was talking with. Ember gingerly stepped around a dead bear, making her way towards a young man who was laying on the ground and clutching his belly, and found her path blocked by the guard she'd saved and a stern, blonde woman whose guard armour was accented with red stripes.
"You are a druid?" the woman asked bluntly.
Now what? "Yes, I am," Ember replied. "What of it?"
"Just what I needed," the woman grumbled. "Dobson, get her to the Trade Hall before this gets out."
A trickle of fear wormed its way down her spine. "What are you talking about?"
"It is for your own good!" the guard said, and tried to grab her by the elbow.
"Let go!" Ember pulled her arm free of the guard's grasp.
Moments later, the guard was shoved away from her by a furious Minsc. "What are you doing to my witch?!" he demanded, glaring at both the captain and the guard. "You will not touch her, or Minsc will have to make very bad things happen!"
"Er..." the guard stammered.
"She is not safe here," the captain said, glaring back at Minsc before turning to Ember. "I have nothing against your kind, but my townsfolk do, and the last thing I need is the problems your presence on the street would cause. So, will you let Dobson escort you to the Trade Hall, or am I going to have to arrest you for your own safety?"
"First, tell me why druids are so hated here!"
"Look around," the captain said. "Who do you think caused this?"
Druids did this? Ember's blood ran cold. What kind of druid would-
Shadow druids might. If they hated a forest town enough, they just might.
"I"ll go, if Minsc can come with me," she said.
The Trade Hall was a very large building, with creamy white walls that were accented by roof shingles and support beams the colour of rich honey. Its doors were made from carved and polished oak, as were the window trimmings and the furniture within it, and the floors were covered with smooth slate tiles.
Being locked in one of its offices for over an hour had given Ember ample opportunity to study the hall's construction.
Whatever it was that was going on, she didn't like it one bit. It had all happened so fast; Dobson, the guard, had led them away from the battlesite without giving her a chance to alert the others, and she could only hope that someone had let them know where she and Minsc were. Nobody had said a word to them as they were escorted into the building and locked in the office, and nobody had come to offer any explanations since; they had been left completely alone, with only a jug of water and some goblets to keep them company. Ember was starting to wonder if she'd been arrrested after all.
Suddenly, Minsc jumped to his feet. "Boo says someone is coming!"
The door opened, and a broadshouldered man wearing dark plate mail stepped into the room. "Greetings," he said, extending his hand first to Ember, then to Minsc. "I am Lord Logan Coprith, High Merchant of Trademeet. I apologize for the welcome you have received, but it was necessary; we have had a troubled season, and strangers, especially druids, are not easily trusted these days. However, Mazzy Fentan has told us of the assistance you have given her, and your actions at the gate speak for themselves. For both these things, you have our gratitude."
"What has happened here?" Ember asked. "Before they locked us up in here, the guards implied that druids have set the forest animals against you."
"And so it does appear," Lord Coprith said wearily. "The very land is against us. Animals attack, and even the foliage strangles. At first, we did not know where to place blame, but members of a caravan that was attacked in the forest saw several figures directing the chaos. They were druids, belonging to a nearby grove that has always been peaceful in the past. Pardon me." The High Merchant poured himself a goblet of water and drank deeply from it before continuing. "There may be a way to discover why they have turned against us, but I will require outside assistance. Mazzy has vouched for you and your companions, and I think you may be ideally suited for my needs."
"I see," Ember said. "What do you have in mind?"
"A druid entered the town last week. The townspeople captured him, and would have quartered him in the street if I had not locked him up. He claims he is here to investigate the druids in the grove, and I believe him. Unfortunately, many of our citizens already believe him guilty, and he remains behind bars if only to avoid a public burning. What I would have you do is escort him to his task and see what you might learn. I would seem to be collaborating if my men or I were to help him, and alone he may not make it out of town. Will you help?"
"We can not allow our brothers in the woods to fall to evil!" Minsc exclaimed. "If they have forgotten the friendly handshake of goodness, then we must remind them with a bootkick of justice!"
"If there is anything I can do, I will do it," Ember said, "but I'd like to know more of this druid. May I speak with him?"
"Of course," Lord Coprith said. "You may pass and speak with him. He may also leave under promise of your care."
Two guards were summoned, and escorted Ember and Minsc to the basement. Made of stone, it was considerably cooler than the wooden chambers of the main level and contained, in addition to several storage chambers, a dozen or so iron barred cells. The druid, a tall man with tattooes on his face and feathers in his hair, was in the farthest cell, sitting crosslegged on the floor with his eyes closed and his hands folded in his lap; as soon as the guards withdrew out of earshot, he looked up and studied Ember and Minsc with piercing dark eyes.
"Hello and well met to you," he said. "I am Cernd, though my identity is surely no secret after the fuss I have caused here. You look pleasant enough; are you friends of that charming Lord Coprith? I've made very few friends among the merchants."
"Well met, Cernd," Ember replied. "I am Ember, and this is Minsc. Lord Coprith has asked us to escort you out of town, but I wanted to talk with you first."
"Coprith chose well: caution will win the day," Cernd said, and smiled. "He seemed less prone to rash action than the merchants, though I admit they had little reason to trust me. I should have crept quietly as the vine instead of blustering as the wind. On occasion I forget the subtleties that allows nature to progress. Ahh, the blight shall pass, and I will return to cultivate better relations when the time is right. For the present, what do you wish to know?"
"What exactly are you trying to do here?"
"I was sent from the north to investigate why the druid order of this region has severed its ties with the traditional hierarchy. It is not unheard of, but the attacks have me worried. It can only lead to greater evils; these people will eventually strike out as an animal cornered. Answer me this: you are a fellow servant of nature, are you not?"
"Yes, I am."
"Little Ember follows the Lady of the Forest, as does Minsc," Minsc said proudly.
"Then both of you will recognize the danger," Cernd said. "The balance of this area is in disarray, and once it falls there will be hardship for all. I know many druids in this region, and they would not support such actions without due cause. I suspect that there has been a change in leadership here."
"Do you think shadow druids might be involved? They're the only druids I've encountered that might do such a thing," Ember said, and added apologetically, "not that I've met many other druids, that is."
"Young one, the sapling can feel the weather as well as the tree does. I have also seen the influence of shadow druids in these attacks," Cernd said. "It is the duty of any druid to find this new leader and ascertain if this is for the best of nature. I might succeed alone, but I would much rather have the backing of others. Are you up for the task?"
"Yes," Ember said. "I will help as best I can." She signalled to the guards to return, and had them unlock Cernd's cell. The druid stood up, stretched his arms, gathered his coarse brown robes around him, and fetched a staff from the corner of the cell.
"Then let us go and do what must be done," he said, and strode out of the cell like a king leaving his audience chamber.