Chapter 93: A Hero's Welcome
The following afternoon found the group back in Trademeet, assembled in Lord Coprith's office and waiting quietly while the lord read a letter they'd brought from Cernd. It was a letter of truce; it detailed how Faldorn's actions had created the rift between them, it announced that the problem had been dealt with, it offered gifts of reparation, and it spoke of a desire to mend the gap. Lord Coprith read it slowly and thoroughly; when he finished, he put the letter down on his desk and looked questioningly at Mazzy.
"I vouch for every word, my liege," she said.
The lord glanced at the document in front of him, then looked up at Ember, and smiled. "It would appear we owe you a debt of gratitude! Not only did you return our lady knight to us, but you have also been instrumental in setting things right between us and the forest," he said. "I count you among the Heroes of Trademeet, and you shall be toasted and rewarded tonight!"
"Thank you," Ember said, feeling slightly bewildered. Heroes of Trademeet? Just for this?
As they left the Trade Hall a short while later, Ember turned to Mazzy. "All we did was deliver Cernd to the grove," she said. "He did all the actual work. As much as I like not being treated like a criminal anymore, I don't see that what we did deserves this kind of treatment."
"If not for you-"
A faint smile crossed the halfling's face. "If not for us, then, Cernd might not have been able to reach the grove. Small as it was, our part in this matter is of almost as great importance as his, and is enough to be recognized in Trademeet. The town has a great tradition of celebrating those it could consider its heroes, and you have just joined those ranks."
"I see what you mean," Yoshimo said, and gestured down a side street that offered a clear view of a fountain in the middle of a town square. Several statues stood around the perimeter of the fountain; most were of humans, but one looked more like an elf, and two were the size of halflings.
"My companions and I," Mazzy said quietly. "The statues were erected last spring, after we brought about the departure of a group of Dao djinn that were ruining trade for the entire town. They had come in pursuit of a rakshasa, and kept all caravans away from Trademeet until it was found. We managed to locate and dispatch the creature; it had killed old Adratha the potions maker, bless her soul, and was masquerading as her. Once we presented evidence of the rakshasa's death to the Dao djinn, they left town, and business could resume. In gratitude, the merchants paid to have us ...immortalized, as they put it."
"Boo says you must miss your friends a lot," Minsc said.
"Yes, I do," Mazzy said, staring as if transfixed at the fountain. "But at least they rest honourably now; knowing that will make their absence easier to bear." With a sigh, she tore her gaze away from the statues, then turned towards at Ember and the others. "Come, my friends. Let's get you ready for tonight."
That night, Ember and her companions were introduced as Heroes of Trademeet at a great party in the main chamber of the Trade Hall. In front of an assembly of Trademeet's nobles, merchants and guild masters, Lord Coprith held a speech about the renewed bonds of friendship between town and nature and the group's role in making it happen, and presented Ember with several magical items - four pieces of protective jewelry, and a small but powerfully enchanted shield - that the town had gained through dealings with previous Great Druids of the grove. As the group's actions had aided both Trademeet and the grove, it was only fitting that their reward should have ties to both parties, Lord Coprith proclaimed, and the hall rang with applause as Ember accepted the items from him.
After the speech, a throng of finely dressed people gathered around Ember and her companions, offering praises and congratulations and handshakes, and all eager to do so at the same time. A dizzying array of lords, ladies and merchants introduced themselves to Ember with a handful of flattering words; she barely had time to stammer a 'thank you' to each before they moved on and were replaced by another well-wisher. It was as chaotic and confusing as any battle, and it came as a relief when Trademeet's finest began to take more interest in each other and in the large, tidbit-laden tables that stood at either end of the hall, than in Ember. Weaving her way through the everchanging mesh of people that milled around the chamber, she headed towards one of the many benches that lined the walls and sat down with a weary sigh.
"All this attention is a little overwhelming, no?" Yoshimo asked, sitting down beside her.
"A bit, yes," Ember said, letting her head rest in her hands. If she could have had her choice, she'd be resting at their inn right now; the lengthy walk from the grove had been tiresome, and she felt very out of place at this gathering. Granted, she was clean and didn't smell of sweat and swamp water, and the simple grey gown Mazzy had helped her find was finer than anything she'd had to wear since she'd left Baldur's Gate, but with everyone else in the room dripping with more finery than she'd ever seen before, she felt drab and insignificant and nothing like a guest of honour.
She couldn't tell whether or not she actually minded.
At least the others seem to be enjoying themselves, she mused, looking around the room. Minsc was standing not too far away, munching on what appeared to be a honeyed chicken leg while he showed Boo to a small group of giggling children, and Edwin was talking animatedly with one of the nobles, a man wearing a distinctive suit of ornamental, bright green chainmail under a rich velvet cloak.
Anomen, on the other hand, did not appear to be having a good time. The cleric had been in a bad mood ever since they arrived back in Trademeet, and judging by the dour look on his face as he approached Ember and Yoshimo, his mood had, if anything, worsened.
"Young Anomen! Why so glum on such a festive occasion?" Yoshimo asked.
"I... I do not think it a prudent topic of conversation," Anomen said between clenched teeth. Behind him, someone cheered for Mazzy; a flash of anger passed over the cleric's face.
"This eve," he growled, "more than a dozen different people have thanked me for my role in saving their knight. The lord of this town used the same title in reference to Mistress Fentan; even the Shade Lord himself spoke of her as such! How is such falsehood to be endured?"
"Falsehood, you say?" Yoshimo asked. "What makes you so sure?"
"How could it be otherwise?! I know of no order that would accept one such as her, so how can she allow herself to be spoken of as a knight? Aye, if not for her status as recently bereaved, I would scarce be able to hold my tongue on this matter!"
"Can she really help what her townsfolk call her?" Ember asked, taken aback by the venom in Anomen's voice. "She told us they like celebrating people here, didn't she? Just look at us, their newest Heroes..."
"Aye, perhaps, my lady," Anomen said, sounding not quite as irate, "but you may be in the wrong. And even should you be correct: will it stop at this, or will they one day address her as a paladin?"
If Arvoreen wills it," Mazzy said. The halfling was standing behind Anomen; her face was calm and collected, but there was a hurt look in her eyes. "Or do you think me not fit for such aspirations due to my parentage? My stature?"
The cleric's face turned red. "There... there has never been a halfling paladin."
"That much is true," Mazzy replied. "I am not likely to ever receive such a calling, and I know very well that no Human order would embrace me. These things do not mean that I can't aspire to live the example; acts of kindness and justice bear equal weight whether they are done by a paladin or by the lowliest beggar."
"And what about truthful conduct?" Anomen snapped.
"You are only a youth, so I shall let your insult melt away," Mazzy said. "I may be no paladin, but I do have the honour and privilege of being a Truesword for my God, and that calling carries more weight than I think you realize. With or without an order, I know what code I am bound to. I know what I am." She turned to walk away, then looked back over her shoulder and added, "I can only hope that you will one day be able to say the same about yourself."
Clenching his fists and looking fit to burst, Anomen stared at the ground, then drew a deep breath and slowly exhaled. "The sooner we are gone from this wretched place, the better," he muttered. Ember was about to suggest that he go back to the inn and calm down when the main doors to the chamber burst open and a young man rushed in.
"By all the gods, you must help me!" the youth shouted in a panicked voice. "They've taken Raissa!"
Almost instantly, he was surrounded by a clamouring mass of people. "Tiris? We thought you still in Imnesvale!" a woman cried. "What has become of my daughter?!" a man bellowed, forcing his way through the crowd.
Shaking and stammering, Tiris told the story of how he and his bethrothed, Raissa, were on their way home from Imnesvale when they were assaulted by two men, who knocked them out and locked them up in a small shack. "They took Raissa away first... I was tied to a chair, and could do nothing to stop them," he moaned. "Later, one of them came for me, or so I thought. He untied me, and I managed to knock him over... I bolted out the door, and heard someone behind me... I... I saw him, I turned and saw him! He was a... a man, or a creature that looked like a man... but he had no skin!" A gasp went up from the crowd.
"All I saw was his... his muscles and sinew!" the youth continued. "He hissed, a dreadful sound, and tried to grab me, but I fled as quickly as I could. I heard it shout behind me, once... it said that it would get me, that it would find me. I didn't stop running until I couldn't hear it any more. What manner of creature could this be?" Tiris asked despairingly. "What kind of magic would create a horror such as this?!"
"Could you show us where the shack is?" Lord Coprith asked.
Tiris nodded. "It's not too far from the Southwest Gate."
"Good, good," the lord said. "Is there anything else you could tell me about them?"
"Um... I think I heard the name of one of the men, when they tok Raissa away. One of them called the other... Rajik, or something like that."
"Could it have been Rejiek?" Ember asked, raising her voice to be heard.
"Yes, that's it! That's his name! How did you know, my lady?"
"It is the name of a murderer that escaped from Athkatla recently."
"Oh... oh, no!" Tiris sobbed. "Raissa..."
Lord Coprith patted the youth's shoulder reassuringly. "Have no fear, lad, it may not be too late. Come, show us to the shack." Turning towards Ember, the lord added, "You are familiar with these villains. Will you assist us?"
"We will take the bootheel to their evil ways!" Minsc bellowed, and joined the flock of guards that rushed out of the hall, following Tiris's lead.
"(Wonderful. Even more 'heroic' behaviour,)" Edwin grumbled.
"Enough of that, Edwin. Let's go," Ember said, and led the rest of her companions out of the hall, hurrying to keep up with the guards.
She didn't feel the least bit tired anymore.