Chapter 95: Education
It was hard to imagine sparring partners more mismatched than Mazzy and Minsc. The blade of his sword was easily as long as her entire body, and she couldn't strike at his torso without jumping, yet here they were, circling each other with drawn blades in an eerie dance in a roadside clearing. The halfling easily dodged Minsc's heavy blows, and the ranger's large reach kept Mazzy from getting near enough to strike him, but slowly, surely, one or the other kept finding a way to get just a little closer to a true hit.
"It's very strange to watch, isn't it?" Ember said to Yoshimo as they ended their sparring round. Her new scimitar was starting to rest comfortably in her hand; even though her reflexes still hadn't forgotten the many swordfighting techniques that just didn't work with a curved blade, it was getting steadily easier to resist the urge to stab the blade at her opponent. All in all, she had to consider the evening as time well spent; Mazzy claimed this particular clearing was the best campsite for miles, and with a new weapon to get used to, the extra sparring time was more worth to Ember than the scant distance they could have walked in the last hour of daylight.
"A most curious sight, indeed," the Kara-Turan replied, wiping his katana with a silk cloth, "but they will both learn much from sparring with someone so unlike themselves, no?"
Ember watched as Mazzy aimed a mock blow at Minsc's calves - a blow that would have hobbled the giant, had it landed - and nodded. "I imagine they will."
"Are you ready for the shield, my lady?" Anomen asked.
"I suppose so," she replied, and headed towards the campfire. Edwin sat there, watching over both the fire and the rabbit stew that bubbled in a pot over it, but also, as usual, deeply engrossed in a pile of scrolls; he didn't as much as look up as she retrieved the Shield of Harmony from a sack. The whole thing was Anomen's idea; she'd offered the shield to him back in Trademeet, but he'd said it was too small and light for his preferences. Instead, he'd suggested that it would make an excellent complement to her new scimitar, and offered to teach her how to use it. She'd agreed to give it a try.
Her first lesson started with adjusting the shield; there was a broad leather strap on the back which would go around her lower arm, and Anomen helped her tighten it just enough to fit comfortably. "If the shield is fitted just so, the weight of it will not be able to shift around your arm, yet it will not impede your movement," he explained. "Ideally, the shield should feel like an extension of your arm."
"It feels lighter than I expected," she said, moving her arm experimentally. It felt a bit strange, but as long as she held the handgrip and didn't just let the shield hang from the leather strap, it wasn't too bad.
"Having the weight distributed properly, as it is now, further eases the burden of even the lightest of shields," he said with a smile. "Now, if you'll allow me..."
He proceeded to show her how to change her combat stances to benefit from the shield, as well as some simple blocking moves. It wasn't just a matter of learning how to move and balance herself with a shield; her shield arm was no longer just a counterweight to her sword arm, and she had to teach her body to be aware of its new defensive abilities.
"Now, let us try some gentle sparring," he said after a while. "Try to block my attacks with the shield."
Assuming a battle stance, she waited for him to strike at her with his war hammer. Her first instinct was to retaliate, her second to dodge; she suppressed both, and raised her shield to block the attack. The hammer caught the shield in a slightly awkward angle, and a numbing jolt shot up her arm. Wincing, she let go of the shield's handgrip, flexed her fingers and returned them to the grip.
"Again," she said.
She caught the next few blows better, and the impact of them felt far less jarring than the first. Readjusting her balance was proving to be a bit tricky, but the shield itself barely weighed as much as her scimitar, and her arm didn't really feel burdened by the weight at all.
"Recall how you defend yourself with a staff, and see if you cannot utilize that knowledge."
She nodded, and tightened her grip on the shield. When the next blow came, she swayed slightly out of the way, then brought the shield up to meet it, somewhat like she would have done if she'd had her staff in her hand. Anomen's war hammer was deflected away from her, and her arm, more ready for the force of the impact this time, barely felt jolted at all.
"Well done!" Anomen cried, visibly pleased. "Let us end this session, my lady; you've had quite enough for a beginner. How do you feel about using the shield?"
"It does feel a bit odd, but I think I could get used to it."
"I am glad to hear it. If you should become accustomed to using this shield, it could prove a significant increase in your defensive capabilities, and the magical protection it offers is quite invaluable."
She glanced down at the shield. Deceptively light and slender as it was, it was far stronger and more resilient than unenchanted steel, and the spells woven in it would protect her from most mind-controlling magics. He was right; it was invaluable. "If only it'd protect me from horror spells, too," she said with a small grin, "then it'd be fairly perfect."
"Aye, indeed, but I should be able to compensate for that gap in its abilities..." The cleric's smile faltered. "At least, I shall endeavour to do so. In Trademeet, I was fortunate enough to counter the skin dancer's spell in time, but I was almost too late. I should have cast my counterspell sooner; preemptively, even."
"Well, having been struck by such spells on more than one occasion, I'm glad you were there to cast it at all," Ember said, pulling the shield off her arm. "Do you think it'd be possible for me to learn how to cast that spell?"
"In truth, I could not say. I do not know, or indeed understand, how your goddess chooses to bestow her gifts. All I can do is tell you what I know of the spell's workings, and suggest that you beseech her for it. The rest is in her hands." Anomen put own weapons down, and extended a hand to her. "Come now, my lady. Let us see if our supper is finished, or if the wizard has left it to burn in the pot."
Around sunset, a group of gypsies arrived to spend the night in the clearing. They arranged their three brightly decorated wagons in a semicircle at the edge of the clearing, lit two large campfires, and introduced themselves with a song, a dance, and spiced cakes. The group consisted of two families, linked through marriage, who were on their way north to trade goods and perform at summer fairs and carnivals on the sword coast. Their winter home was in the forest of Tethyr; as they all sat around one of the campfires, Mastav, the head of one of the two families, told Ember and her companions about how the recent druid troubles had affected them.
"We were forced to flee from the deep forests by the attacks of wild animals. My brother was... killed... most horribly by a pack of wolves, as were others. We went to Trademeet for refuge, and were greeted with accusations," he said. "But now that the attacks from the animals have stopped, we are safe, and when the leaves fall, we will return to our forests again. We thank you for this, our friends. You who are heroes in this place will always be welcome in our tent!" Mastav raised a goblet of wine, and the gypsies all cheered.
"Thank you," Ember said, blushing happily.
More cake and wine was fetched from one of the wagons, and conversations flowed freely as the treats were passed around the campfire. Only one of the gypsies was quiet; Kveroslava, Mastav's wife, a woman with greying hair and a gentle face who watched with a smile as her oldest son asked about adventuring and large cities, and her youngest son asked why Minsc was so big and Mazzy so little. Only when the campfires started to die down, and her friends and family retired by ones and twos to their wagons, did she speak.
"If you wish," she said, "I can tell you something of your place in the future. Do any of you desire the benefit of my gift?"
"Can you tell Minsc where he will find his witch?!"
"Come and sit beside me, good man, and I shall tell you what I can see."
Minsc obediently sat down beside the gypsy, and let her take his hand. "Close your eyes, and let Kveroslava feel your aura... Your future is unclear, ranger," she said, cradling his giant hand in her palms. "You are a gentle man with a will of iron. A goddess fondly looks down on you. Continue your fight against evil... it shall serve you well."
"Oooh! This is most goodness of news, is it not, Boo?!" With a happy grin, Minsc gave Kveroslava a crushing hug, then returned to his seat.
Ember watched as most of her companions - Yoshimo gracefully declined - placed their hands in the gypsy's and let her do her reading. In Mazzy, she saw what she called a rare bond to the halfling's god, and advised her to continue to cherish virtue and honour; Mazzy thanked her for her well-spoken words, and sat down to contemplate them. In Edwin, she saw a bitter man, lusting for power; he was advised to guard against the unknown and mark his friends, for they, not his allies, would save him in the end. The wizard was less than pleased, and complained loudly about useless premonitions and unshaped talent. When it was Anomen's turn, the cleric eagerly offered her his hand; in him, she saw conflict. "Soon you shall stand on a precipice," she told him, "to overcome, or be lost in darkness forever."
Anomen pulled his hand back as if stung. "I... see nothing of myself in your words, woman. A waste of my time and nothing more," he muttered.
The gypsy's gaze locked on Ember. "And you, friend?"
Ember looked into the woman's gentle eyes. Minsc and Mazzy's predictions had been vague enough, but Edwin's had seemed more specific, not to mention Anomen's prediction. Was it his test for knighthood the woman had seen?
Even though Kveroslava had seen nothing about Imoen in Minsc, Ember couldn't help but wonder what the gypsy might see in herself. Was there even the slightest chance that she might be able to see something pertaining to Imoen? Was that chance worth whatever reaction Kveroslava might have to her blood?
"I don't know," she said. "I am curious, but... I tend not to do well with fortune tellers. Or them with me, rather."
"Kveroslava understands! Do not worry, child. I cannot see far, and I am not afraid."
She couldn't let the chance go by.
"Just... don't look too far," Ember pleaded, and placed her hand in Kveroslava's.
Kveroslava smiled as she stroked Ember's palm, following the furrows and lines with her fingertips. "You are a strong woman," the gypsy said quietly. "You have powerful blood and a... a destiny that shines so brightly. But you are not alone... there is another. Another who calls to you for help..."
"I see a man," Kveroslava continued, her voice rising and her fingernails digging into Ember's palm, "a dark man whose life has been taken from him... I see this other... she screams! She screams! There is a beast... a beast of terrible power! And... a dark man... the Exile. He smiles! He smiles! I... I... NO! No more!" She let go of Ember and slumped forwards, breathing raggedly as she supported her head with her hands.
"I'm sorry," Ember whispered as she stood up, tears filling her eyes. She should have known better than to go near a fortune teller ever again; her reading had gone better, and far, far worse, than she'd feared.
"Minsc remembers little Imoen screaming," Minsc said meekly, wiping his own eyes. "I couldn't help her..."
"That could be the past, couldn't it?!" Edwin asked frantically. "Say it was the past!"
"I c-cannot say. Please forgive me, good woman," Kveroslava said, giving Ember a look of pity. "Your path has overwhelmed my limited gifts. I wish you... good fortune."
Ember didn't reply. Wordlessly, she stumbled away from the campfire.
"Is there anything I -"
"Can you get me eight and a half thousand gold pieces?"
"...This instant? Alas, I cannot."
"We need to finish this as soon as possible. And once we pay those ghouls their ransom money... we have to be prepared to fight."
"Do you? Because if Kveroslava's vision was true, I don't think the Cowlies will be the main obstacle in the end."
"You speak of your captor."
"He's held in the same place as Immy. And even Edwin would have to admit he's extremely powerful. It'd be nice to think she just saw our past, back in his dungeon, but..."
"You fear the Cowled Wizards may not be able to hold him."
"He is not invincible; he cannot be. Rest assured: we shall reclaim your friend."
"Thank you, Anomen. It... it helps to hear that." She turned, then, and looked at him. In the flickering light of his torch, her countenance was calm, serious, perhaps even stern; it belied the story told by her red-rimmed eyes. "You know, there is one thing you could do for me, after all."
"Aye, my lady?"
"Tell me how you remove fear."