Chapter 90: Peace and Harmony
After a quick conversation with Lord Coprith and with Mazzy, who immediately offered her assistance, the halfling led Ember, Minsc and Cernd to another office. Minsc pulled the door open, revealing Yoshimo and Edwin sitting at a large table of polished oak. Anomen stood in the middle of the room, looking as if he'd been pacing back and forth and then stopped in mid-stride at the sound of the door.
"My lady!" Anomen exclaimed. "Have they treated you well?"
"Reasonably," she replied. "This is -"
"The druid they wanted us to escort," Edwin said dourly. "Yes, we are well aware of the situation. Since he is with you, are we to assume you agreed to the mission?"
"Yes, I did."
"(Of course she did,)" the wizard grumbled.
"My lady, I must question the wisdom in doing such a service for these people," Anomen said. "With the unkind manner in which they have welcomed you, I see no reason to trust that they will treat you courteously when we return."
"Things are not usually as they are now," Mazzy said. "Under normal conditions, all travellers are given a warm welcome, and we are at peace with the druids of the forest. This situation need not last; we may well be able to put an end to it."
"But why should we have to waste our valuable time with this... this nonsense, when there are far more important matters to attend to?!"
"I must agree with the wizard," Yoshimo said. "Our skills and talents do, of course, make it far easier for us to get this druid - your name is Cernd, is it not? - out of town than it would be for the guards, but escorting him into the forest sounds both time-consuming and dangerous."
"Aye, indeed! One must wonder why they would ask such a favour of a group of strangers, when they would not send any of their kind."
"I am one of 'their kind', and I am going."
"Minsc will also go, for Boo must know what has changed the animals! His very own hamster spirit is in danger until this evil is found and tied down with many difficult knots!"
"(I think we have little to fear from a dire rodent.)"
"You have been away for some time, no? There may be things your townsfolk are keeping from you."
"Are you questioning the honour of Lord Logan?"
Wouldn't it feel good to just kill them all?
"SHUT UP!" Ember shouted.
The room fell silent. Six pairs of eyes, their expressions ranging from confusion to wariness to calm curiosity, stared at her.
Ember drew a deep breath and forced herself to calm down. "You can speculate all you want; it won't matter, because I didn't accept this mission for the sake of the town. But if it helps, I don't think they know anything more than what they've told us, and they are going to pay us enough that not even you, Edwin, can consider it a waste of time." The wizard huffed angrily. "So, if you're done arguing about a decision that has already been made," she continued, "we have to go prepare to get ourselves out of town."
She turned and walked out of the room along with Minsc, Mazzy, and Cernd; a few moments later, the three others followed.
The group escorted Cernd out of Trademeet an hour past sunset. Mazzy led them all down a zigzagging path through empty streets towards the little used western gate, where the guards studiously took as little notice of the group as possible; once out of the town, they looped around it, moving first southwards, then eastwards, and headed into the forest.
It was far from a pleasant jaunt through the woods. The forest floor was damp, with many small puddles and patches of waterlogged moss to step into, and the drier areas were clogged by heavy undergrowth. Traversing that kind of landscape would have been difficult even in daylight; in the glow of Edwin's magelight, it was almost impossible, and the effort only served to worsen everyone's mood. It came as a relief when Cernd called for a halt near a giant sweetmaple tree, large enough and dense enough to provide a sheltered campsite for the night.
In the early hours of morning, they woke up to the slow pattering of rain against the tree's canopy, and the dawn was hidden behind a thick layer of grey clouds. The rain only intensified as the group prepared to continue, and when they moved onwards, large drops pelted the ground around them, bouncing off the leafy fronds of ferns and spawning ripples on the many puddles that lay along their path. The sound of the rain mingled with croaking frogs and a few chirping birds, and every now and then, the quiet chorus was accented by a peal of thunder as it rolled across some distant, unseen hill. It was a very different forest from the ones Ember had seen before, but its presence was still somehow familiar, almost like some distant cousin or a long-lost friend, and she felt infinitely more comfortable traversing its wet and tangled paths than she had felt in the shadowed forests around Umar Hills.
"Rain," Edwin grumbled, making the word sound like the foulest of curses.
The group had followed the uneven trail for about an hour when Cernd suddenly veered off the path, into an almost inpenetratable tangle of shrubs and ferns. "There are trolls ahead. I would prefer to avoid them," the druid murmured in explanation. They headed away from the path, moving as quietly as they could, but it was impossible to avoid all sounds; before long, a splash and a muffled curse told their surroundings that Anomen had stepped in a hidden mudhole. The noise was answered by growls, grunts, and the sound of several bodies crashing through branches.
"How many of you have fought trolls before?" Cernd asked.
Mazzy, Yoshimo, and Anomen raised their hands.
"Good. Do you all know what must be done?"
"What does it matter as long as I know what must be done? (And I do,)" Edwin said, a wicked grin spreading across his face.
Four trolls burst out of the undergrowth. They were as tall and gangly as the sketches Ember had seen of them, with long, sinewy limbs and gaunt faces; the slimy appearance of their yellow skin, and their smell, which reminded her of rotting moss, came as more of a surprise.
With a ferocious roar, Minsc charged at the beasts and brought his sword down on a troll leg. It was a blow that would have severed the leg of a human, but it barely broke the troll's skin, and the cut immediately sealed itself.
"Just knock them down! Keep them busy!" Mazzy shouted, using her short sword to ward off one of the trolls. Anomen struck another troll with his warhammer, bowling it over into cluster of reeds, and Cernd and Yoshimo worked together, using staff and katana to trip up one of the trolls, forcing it to its knees. Ember tried using her own staff to do the same, but the troll was more agile than it looked, and easily avoided her attempts to get at its legs.
Edwin raised his hand and chanted a string of syllables. A sphere of flame struck the troll Anomen had knocked over, setting both it and the reeds around it on fire; as resilient as it was when it came to physical damage, the troll's flesh burned easily, and within moments, it was reduced to a charred husk.
The troll Ember was fighting lunged forward, trying to grab her face with long, clawed fingers. She brought her staff up and rammed the end into the troll's shoulder, knocking it away from her and towards Minsc, who struck it with the flat of his sword. It hissed sharply and clutched its arm, which appeared to be wrenched out of its socket or maybe even broken. Guttural screams of pain filled the air as one of the other trolls clawed frenetically at its own torso, which was being seared by spatters of a bright green fluid. Edwin shot a jet of flame at its head, and it crumpled to the ground. With a gleeful look on his face, the wizard spun around, aiming the flame jet at the remaining two trolls.
As quickly as it had started, the fight ended, leaving behind only the stench of burnt troll flesh and a few smouldering plants which were soon put out by the rain.
"Pathetic skirmishes such as this aren't worth the time I spend cleaning my weapons after the battle," Anomen grumbled, using wet grass to wipe troll slime from his hammer. Behind him, Mazzy and Edwin argued about whether or not the wizard had aimed his spells carefully enough to not endanger his allies during the battle.
"Pathetic or not, it appears to have drawn attention," Yoshimo said quietly. An old man, dressed in wet hides and supporting himself with a crooked staff, was walking towards them along the path the trolls had created through the undergrowth.
"You there!" the man shouted. "You will go back the way you have come! This area is under care of the druids of Tethyr, and if you do not leave you will face nature's wrath!"
"And by what authority do you make this threat, Pauden?" Cernd asked, stepping forward to place himself between the man and the rest of the group. "This is not the way of right-thinking servants of nature. Explain yourself."
"Cernd!" Pauden exclaimed, clearly surprised to see the other druid. "You... you have been away some time. Much has changed."
"So I see, though I am confused. The Grand Druid has not heard good things about what has happened here."
"It is the new way, Cernd. We have a new leader to follow, and she has moved us in this direction."
Cernd nodded. "I guessed there might be a new leader; Gragus would never have allowed this."
"She is a shadow druid. Her name is Faldorn."
"Faldorn? Minsc remembers Faldorn! She is a very bad girl!"
"I don't think we could forget her if we tried," Ember said. "We met her last autumn; she was with a group of Shadow Druids in Cloakwood. In her eagerness to destroy an old mine in the forest, she almost drowned us and dozens of others."
"I know of that group. Their removal was a blessing for the Sword Coast," Cernd said, and turned to Pauden. "But now you follow a leader from that stock, obeying her as ants do their queen? Have you not the courage to face her?"
Pauden looked down. "She is very violent, and... she has bonded with the grove."
"She would do such a thing? Performing such a ritual is unheard of, and quite costly to the grove!" Cernd exclaimed, more agitated than Ember had thought him capable of.
"Nevertheless, she has done it. She is now invulnerable outside of challenges, and none have dared issue one as of yet."
"Then I shall discuss this matter with her in a language that she will understand," Cernd growled. "Get out of my sight."
"Walk carefully, Cernd," Pauden said. "I do not enjoy this new role we take, but others do." The older druid bowed his head slightly towards Cernd, then turned and headed back the direction he came from.
"This is worse than I feared," Cernd muttered. "I would never have imagined that any druid, not even a shadow druid, would dare to bond with a grove!"
"If anyone would do it, she's the one," Ember said. She remembered all too clearly what Faldorn had been like; she'd gladly rid the world of people, if she could, and by all means necessary. "What can we do to stop her?"
"I will challenge her for leadership. The ritual of the challenge will temporarily sever her connection with the grove. She will have to fight me as she is, with only her own strength."
"But Boo does not trust Faldorn!" Minsc exclaimed. "She will try to douse our flames of righteousness with the waters of treachery! The mean little girl will not fight fair, like heroes do!"
It does not matter," Cernd said. "As she denies her people's place in the balance, she cannot fully understand her own place, and the only one she will deceive is, ultimately, herself. Come, my friends, let us continue. The grove is not far."