Chapter 99: Hook, Line and Sinker
After a night of restless sleep and bad dreams - dreams of the bandit camp in the Wood of Sharp Teeth, where every bandit she butchered wore the face of a friend - it came as a relief for Ember to wake up in Garren Windspear's cabin. The muffled silence of being indoors and the closeness of the lumber walls felt oddly comforting after several nights spent out in the open; she ran her fingers over the nearest wall, letting the sensation of roughly hewn wood under her fingertips draw her fully back to reality. Looking around, she could barely see enough to tell that the other beds in the room were empty; but for a bright stream of daylight that shone through a half opened hatch, the room lay in darkness. Judging by where the patch of light struck the opposite wall, it was well past her usual waking hour.
Moving carefully, Ember sat up on the bed. She didn't feel the least bit rested, but in all other respects, her condition seemed to be improved. The fever from the night before had passed, and the lingering ache where her side had been cut open had all but faded away; it was only when she probed the injured area with a finger that she noticed the remaining tenderness. In a day or two, even that would be gone, leaving her with only a faint scar as a memento from the fight.
The fight that had cost Ajantis his life.
A fresh wave of grief hit her. As clear and vivid as the experience itself, the memory of the startled look on Ajantis's werewolf face danced before her eyes. What had he thought in that moment, when the orc he was fighting had used such a healing gift? Could he possibly have realized the truth; could he have guessed that he was on the verge of killing someone he once called friend? Of course not, she tried to reassure herself. Even if he recognized the healing touch, he probably just thought she was some odd kind of orcish paladin, or possibly an orcish Bhaalspawn - no, why would he think that? After all, he never knew...
She forced back her tears, and wiped her eyes dry. It was not the first time she'd lost a friend, she sternly reminded herself, nor would it be the last. She didn't have time to waste on questions that could never be answered, not when it was perfectly clear what she had to do. Someone was responsible for this treachery; she had to find out who, and she had to deal with them. The more painful thoughts and questions would have to wait until it was over.
Doing her best not to wonder whether or not 'it' would ever actually be 'over', Ember carefully pulled on her clothes and headed to the cabin's kitchen, where she joined Mazzy in trying to convince Minsc that he still deserved to eat.
"Well, Sir Cadril, this is quite a situation," Garren Windspear said as everyone assembled in his kitchen.
"One might say that," the paladin replied wearily. He had lost a lot of blood, and was still pale.
"Lord Jierdan Firkraag hires you to find orcs, and you find orcs. He hires you," Garren said, turning towards Mazzy and Ember," to find werewolves, and you find werewolves. One could hardly be blamed for thinking that someone intended your groups to fight each other, hmm?"
"Can we be certain this someone is Lord Firkraag, though?" Mazzy asked.
"Certain? Of course not," Garren said, "but rest assured that you would not be the first to suffer because of his falsehoods and trickery. I have undergone the same, though my trial was less bloody."
"What happened?" Ember asked.
"My lands and my title were taken from me, almost overnight. I still bear the scars in my dreams..." The former baron sighed. "Firkraag sought my lands, so he discredited me. There were missing people only he could find, banditry only he could stop. Solutions to problems I am sure he caused."
"Aye, that makes sense," Yoshimo said. "I have heard his name mentioned in some less-than-reputable circles in the past. It seems he became wealthy and powerful far too quickly to be wholly legitimate."
"Indeed," Garren said. "The final straw was when my properties were razed in a single night; burnt to the ground, with no signs of invaders, raiding parties or even rogue arsonists. The people lost faith in me, and with nary an asset to my name, my influence crumbled. I had no choice but to sell the deeds to my lands to Firkraag, for a pittance. He got his wish, and I got this cabin." He held out his hands in a gesture of resignation. "What has happened to you is true to his style. As for which one of you offended him, and how, I cannot even begin to guess."
"He holds a grudge against the Order of the Radiant Heart, perhaps," Anomen muttered.
"I do not believe it is that simple," Sir Cadril said. "Firkraag did specifically request the services of Sir Ajantis and myself; we were told that it was due to our experience with fighting orcs this past winter. Why would he care about names if it was our Order he wished to tarnish?"
Ember listened in silence as the two surviving members of the Order argued about why they, of all people, had been targeted by such an elaborate plot. She did not say what she thought; to her, it was obvious that the larger party, fighting werewolves, was expected to slaughter the smaller party that thought they were dealing with mere orcs. Ajantis was always a better swordfighter than me, but until he stopped treating me like a simple foe, I was beating him. Whatever the reason, someone meant for us to obliterate them. Someone meant...
"Good sirs, calm yourselves! Any one of you could have slighted him in some way, without even knowing. He seems quite singleminded in his purposes," Garren said, interrupting the argument as well as Ember's unpleasant train of thought.
"Your grace, Mazzy asked, "what course of action do you recommend?"
"Your employer should be questioned, of course, and the Order must be informed of these events. If the two of you will assist me," Garren looked at Sir Cadril and Anomen,"I will write a brief report and have it sent to Sir Ryan Trawl. He is a friend of mine, and he will trust any account from my hand; I fear it would be most unfortunate to have the Order learn of these deaths through any other channel. A former courier of mine lives in a nearby village, and I am sure he would be happy to take this task. I can deliver my report into his hands and be back before nightfall, and in the morning, I can direct you to Firkraag's estate."
Less than an hour after the meeting, Garren rode off with his missive, leaving his son, Taar, to act as host to their unexpected guests. The young man took his duty very seriously, and did his best to make sure everyone was as comfortable as was possible considering the circumstances. Those who wished peace, he left alone, but he spoke at length with those who wanted conversation, and could add several details to his father's tale of Firkraag's dealings.
"My father is very much the trusting sort. That is why Lord Jierdan Firkraag was able to usurp his lands. My father languishes while Jierdan lives the high-life," the youth bitterly told Mazzy and Ember. "You could do much to bolster my father's spirit; bringing that Firkraag to task would help a lot. Please, if not for my father, then for yourself."
Ember was about to reply when Edwin, who had ensconced himself in a well-lit corner with his documents, suddenly cried out in glee.
"Ahh HA! I understand it!"
"Pardon?" Taar asked, confused by the wizard's outburst.
"Sorry to bother your petty concerns," Edwin replied disdainfully, "but I have translated some of the Nether Scroll! (Hmm... ancient magic at my fingertips, and more yet to decipher. It has been a good day.) What are you staring at? I've had my say; back to whatever you were doing, and let me work in peace!"
"Edwin is always like that," Mazzy told Taar.
"I see," the youth said hesitantly. "I... I trust that my father has not misplaced the faith he has in you."
"Rest assured, he has not," Ember said.
They sat in silence for a while, Edwin lost in his work and the rest lost in their thoughts. The peace was not broken again until the late afternoon, when one of the servants, a halfling named Jum, burst in through the cabin door in a panic.
"Run! Hide! There is trouble, I am sure!" he shouted, wide-eyed with fear.
"Quiet yourself, Jum," Taar said, "you don't want to alarm our guests. What is the matter?"
"Bandits! I saw them! Coming! They try not to be seen, but I saw them! Nearly here! Hide and run!"
"Bandits? I wonder what they are up to," Yoshimo said.
Sir Cadril stood up and reached for his sword. "We'd better go look. Wait here, lad."
Ember and her companions followed the knight outside. There were no signs of bandits, only bright afternoon sunlight and the sound of wind through branches.
A muffled shout came from the cabin behind them.
"Taar!" Mazzy shouted, and rushed back into the cabin. The youth was not there. A letter lay on the ground where Garren's son had stood mere moments ago. Jum crouched in a corner, shivering.
"W-w-wizard," the halfling stammered. "Came out of nowhere and grabbed the young master, he did, and poof! they were gone..."
"Dimension door," Edwin muttered with disgust as Sir Cadril picked up the letter. The paladin glanced at it, and wordlessly handed it to Ember; her name was written on the outside. A sense of dread filled her as she broke the letter's elaborate seal, which was stamped with Firkraag's crest.
"Ember of Candlekeep," she read, "I give you the opportunity to earn back your honour, and more. This game is interesting, but it drags on and on. Come, let us meet and decide who is... who is the better 'person.' To the northeast lies our battleground. You will know it to see it. Yes, I think you will know."
"We no longer need to question Firkraag's role in this, I suppose," Yoshimo said.
"Or who his target is," Ember muttered, crumpling the letter in her fist. She couldn't say she was the least bit surprised; if anything, the letter was less cruel than she'd expected.
"The evil man who tricked us has taken Garren's child?!" Minsc roared, rousing himself as if from a stupor. "No longer will Minsc stand for this treachery! There will be justice, for Minsc and for little Ajantis and for little Ember and for everyone! Minsc's blade will serve it in very large helpings! TREMBLE, EVIL!!"
"Your large friend has the right of it," Sir Cadril said, giving Ember a strange look. "Everything indicates that this is a trap, but even so, we must retrieve young Taar, and as quickly as possible. We should leave immediately."
"I agree." Ember smoothed out the crumpled letter and handed it to Jum. "When your master returns, give him this and tell him what happened. Tell him we've gone to confront Firkraag, and to rescue his son."
Clutching the letter in both hands, the still-trembling servant watched in silence as the adventurers gathered their gear and left the cabin, heading northeast.