The forest was wet - soaking wet. The ground, the air, the trees - everything was drenched through. It had been raining for nearly a week now, seemingly without relief. The small, numerous drops of rain fell onto the broad leaves of the trees, where they collected into larger drops that fell heavily onto the ground beneath, in a never ending chorus of drips, drops and splatters.
The pouring rain had turned the undergrowth into a sodden mass above the saturated earth, and every small dip or hollow became a muddy puddle, some deceptively deep. What few paths there were were slippery, sliding trails of sticky mud, which sucked at the feet of all who passed and made travel all but impossible.
As a result, not many made their way through the woods, only a few poor unfortunates with no option but to do so...
Sodding bloody, sodding gods! Only a sodding disincarnate bloody being would even consider the possibility of a journey at this time of year, not to mention in the middle of the biggest downpour in living memory, I curse bitterly. And for what? Some stupid wild-goose chase! It was nearly a week ago that our Goddess appeared in our grove, driven into a mortal body by some strange process that I don't even begin to understand. She was barely there five minutes before she started sprouting sodding prophecies like there's no tomorrow. I mean, what on Toril does 'find the seeds of rebirth from the blood of the dead' mean when it's at home? I didn't become a druid to be at some god or goddess's beck and call, that's what priests are for, but I'm still the one whose been sent off into these sodding bloody woods! Stupid bloody Gods, they might be in mortal form now, but they still haven't got two grains of common sense to rub together, but it's not them who suffer the consequences, oh no! Some things never change. She wasn't particularly remarkable in human form - just looked like normal, only with more bloody arrogance than anyone I've ever met before - this unspoken thing that She's so much better than us, just cos She can throw lightning bolts and such like! Well, if there's one thing growing up on the streets taught me, it's that that kind of claptrap is nothing but complete and utter bollocks,
It was nearly a week ago that our Goddess appeared in our grove, driven into a mortal body by some strange process that I don't even begin to understand. She was barely there five minutes before she started sprouting sodding prophecies like there's no tomorrow. I mean, what on Toril does 'find the seeds of rebirth from the blood of the dead' mean when it's at home? I didn't become a druid to be at some god or goddess's beck and call, that's what priests are for, but I'm still the one whose been sent off into these sodding bloody woods!
Stupid bloody Gods, they might be in mortal form now, but they still haven't got two grains of common sense to rub together, but it's not them who suffer the consequences, oh no! Some things never change. She wasn't particularly remarkable in human form - just looked like normal, only with more bloody arrogance than anyone I've ever met before - this unspoken thing that She's so much better than us, just cos She can throw lightning bolts and such like! Well, if there's one thing growing up on the streets taught me, it's that that kind of claptrap is nothing but complete and utter bollocks,I think angrily as I trip other yet another hidden tree root and almost go flying into the sticky mud again. As I slowly regain my balance, I'm distracted by a loud miao from Yesorna, my lynx friend.
"What is it now, you useless fleabag?" I mutter as I bend down carefully to look at a set of half dissolved footprints she's drawn my attention to. Yesorna gives me one of her 'looks'; a look haughtier than any queen or Goddess could ever manage, before turning about to present her rear to me.
I roll my eyes at this before speaking, "Oh stop sulking, little miss high and mighty. I know you ain't got fleas. What happened to your sense of humour eh?"
She can't talk to me, of course, but most of the time she communicates just fine without - more clearer than most people in fact. This time another look tells me very clearly that a week and a half of this sodding forest and the bloody rain might have had something to do with it.
"Alright, alright. Don't know why you're looking at me like that anyway, it wasn't my idea to come out here after all. Why didn't you go and stare at Her divinityship like that when She started sprouting prophecies like their going out of fashion, if you didn't want to be sent off like this, eh? And don't go shrugging your shoulders at me neither. Anyway what's with these sodding footprints?" I ask curiously.
Though my link with Yesorna doesn't stretch to full telepathy, we can project simple images into one and other's minds, and I smile broadly as the familiar face of my friend Gorion appears in my mind. "Gorion? Good old Gorion? Now what's a sensible young mage like him doing in these sodding woods at a time like this? It's only poor druids - and their faithful animal companions of course - " I add hastily, as Yesorna gives me another of her looks, "that are unlucky enough to be out and about now. Oh well, I guess he can't be too far ahead, or the footprints woulda dissolved or something by now. Come on then you, stop gawking around and lets get a move on." I say as I stand up and stride forward along the path, only occasionally slipping in the mud.
It was about half an hour later that I finally caught sight of Gorion, using the infravision I inherited from my unknown elven father to pick out his hunched over figure easily. 'Cooee! Gorion!" I call out to him loudly, and I'm a bit surprised when he whips round like lightning and falls into a spellcasting pose before relaxing as he recognizes my soggy self.
"Kemenorel?! What are you doing here?" he asks in a shocked sounding voice - not really the reaction I was expecting, I must admit.
"Now is that any way to greet an old friend eh? What did you think I was, a bandit?" I say as I stride forward to hug him - it's definitely nice to see him again.
"No, not a bandit, Kemenorel. These past few weeks I have chased by a group of Bhaalist's and I feared that they had finally caught up with me." Now that I'm standing closer I can see that he looks more tired than I think I've ever seen him, and I wonder exactly what he's got himself caught up in this time.
"Now how many Bhaalist's would know your name, Gorion? What you been up to piss them off so much anyhow? I thought they'd all gone to pieces now that Bhaal's gone and popped his clogs."
"A long story I'm afraid, one best told in front of a warm fire with a mug of good mead each. But what are you doing here my friend? I thought your grove was far to the east of here," he asks, a look of curiosity on his face.
"Top secret druidic stuff, mate, of which I cannot reveal a word, except to say it's a complete and utter waste of time that's leading to yours truly getting soaked to the bone. Now what was that you said about a hot fire and mead? Sounds like a fine idea, but there ain't nowhere like that for leagues round here, not til you get to Beregost - excluding Candlekeep of course," I say, thinking longingly of a nice comfortable inn to relax in until these stupid rains stop - whenever that will be of course.
"Had you not heard?" he asks, looking surprised, before continuing on, "No, of course not. The old keep of Bhaal a few leagues to the west of here was liberated by a group of adventures recently, and two of them have set up an inn there - the Friendly Arm Inn and a fine establishment I hear. I'm on my way there now to meet with Tlaman, to answer a most urgent summons of his."
"Tlaman?" I roll my eyes at the thought of that pompous fool of a bard. "What did he do, break a nail or something?"
Gorion smiles one his rare smiles before answering, "Come now, Kemenorel, he's not that bad. It's something to with his sister apparently. She got involved in a Bhaalist scheme of some sort, and as I've been dealing with various Bhaalist plots recently, I thought I should go and see if I could be of use."
"Well, you just better hope that she isn't as insufferable as him or you'll be in a fine pickle, make no mistake." I pause before continuing, as a thought comes to me, "Then again. I don't thinks it's possible for anyone else to be as full of themselves as Tlaman is - some things are just to scary to consider."
"Don't forget the way Tlaman's people expect women to behave. Growing up in such a culture, I expect quite the opposite," my friend says, shaking his head.
"How could I forget,' I say bitterly, "It makes my blood boil the way he treats women - like they're nothing more than children or intelligent pets. Still brightens up my day to remember hearing that Tetherian druidess giving him a right piece of her mind when he started airing some of his opinions. No one talks like that to Jaheira and gets away with it."
"I am sorry I missed that, I must admit. Jaheira certainly has a...volatile...temper. Still, what say we head off towards this inn and find out exactly what the problem is, rather than standing around here getting even wetter?" Gorion suggests.
"Sounds like an excellent idea, " I say as we squelch off through the pouring rain.
I bend down over the corpse of the women - Tlaman's sister, Tanara, I presume - and shake my head. I can't believe all that's happened in the last fifteen minutes since we got to this inn. We came into the common room, met Tlaman, who decided to take us upstairs to meet his sister and her children, and everything was normal. When we got up to her room though, all hell had broken loose. A bunch of Bhaalist's had broken in somehow and were trying to some kind of sacrifice thing - I still don't know what kind of mess she got herself into but it must've been something pretty serious. I shudder as I remember what I saw when I finally managed to open the door...
...This room is a nightmare - in the middle there's a large altar, I think, covered in blood and gore, and two black robed figures stand in front, chanting a very ominous sounding chant, while another stand on the other side. They seem to be holding something up between them, and it takes me a second to realise what it is - the mutilated corpse of a young child, while a screaming baby lies on the altar itself. A wave of pure anger washes over me as I see a knife flash forward and I charge, swinging my scimitar and screaming like a maniac as I run towards them.
Before I can reach them though, two other robed figures, standing to the side, over the body of a woman, leap towards me, and I have to fight as hard as I can to avoid their blows. I'm dimly aware of Tlaman and Gorion entering the room, but I have no idea of what they're doing, I jus hope they've managed to get to the trio round the altar.
These two I'm facing can certainly fight, I mutter to myself as I dodge backwards, just managing to avoid a deadly lunge to my chest by the skin of my teeth. The one who lunged forward is a bit off balance though, and I quickly step forward, bring my scimitar up and slash across his throat, killing him. I leap back again to avoid the other one's blade and barely notice the kicking and gurgling of the first as he dies.
The second one seems to have been driven into a fury by the death of the first and attacks me harder than ever. It's all I can do to defend myself, let alone launch an attack, and I'm picking up a fair number of minor wounds. Blood flows down my arm and I can feel my grip loosen on the hilt of my blade when three glowing balls of red light appear and crash into his body, hard. He's knocked back and I quickly take advantage of this to impale him on my blade...
...I shake my head and try to focus on the present again, and keep my eyes away from that bloody altar, and the corpse of the poor child lying in front of it. The other child keeps screaming though, and I sigh, grateful that at least one survived this massacre.
There's nothing I can do for the dead child I know, just from the brief look I had when I entered the room - some things are beyond even nature's power to repair. The woman may be a different matter though, and I roll her corpse over to take a closer look. There's a large jagged wound to her heart, but I think I should be able to raise her. It's only recently that I've learnt how to do this, and this is the first time I've had to do it on my own. I take a deep breath as I begin my chant to draw upon nature's power.
"I call upon the power of nature in all her glory and power,
in the new life of spring,
in the fullness of summer,
in the waning of autumn
and in the silence of winter;
Let the power come!
I call upon the spirits of the forest,
of the mountain and the plain,
of the jungle and the river,
the swamp and the ocean,
of all the world;
Let the spirits come!
I call upon the elemental powers,
the heat of fire that is life,
the fluidity of water that is life,
the strength of earth that is life,
the freedom of air that is life;
Let the four elements come!
I call upon thee to return the lost life force to this woman, this Tanara.
May the vitality that is nature's gift be returned from her,
so her heart may beat once more,
so her lungs may draw breath once more,
so her brain may think again.
So she may live again
For this, I call upon thee!"
As I chant the words, I feel the terrible power of nature build up within me, and it passes through me into her body, healing her wounds and restoring her to life. I am a conduit for the most magnificent force there is - that of life. I feel the healing energies funnel into her body and into her soul and revive it - they seem to wrap and wind glowing blue cords around the whisper of her soul that remains, and I see it begin to grow and glow and pulse once more with the shining power of life! I see the wound on her chest close up, and she begins to breathe once more. Her eyes open slowly, and she looks at me with a look of confusion, like someone whose just been woken up from a deep dream. Those are the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen, I think, still dazed by the spell, but I don't think I've ever seen so much pain in anyone's eyes before. She has seen more than most I'll bet, and there are some scars even the most powerful healing can't help with.
She starts to raise her head, but I lay my hand on her shoulder, "You just lie there for a little bit more love, alright. You're still on death's door and your body's had a bloody big shock, if you'll pardon my language." I sit back and begin to call upon the few remaining healing spells I have at my disposal, channelling their power into her body too. As I cast the last of spells she gives me a strange look, I think it might be of gratitude, but it's buried deep behind a moat of pain. She stands up slowly, refusing my offered hand. I watch her walk the short distance to the bloody altar, and watch, with tears in my eyes as she kneels down next to the body of what must be her dead son.
His body is mutilated beyond belief, covered in more cuts and wounds than any I've seen before, and when she looks at me hopefully I shake my head gently, in answer to her unspoken question. "His body is too far gone for my magic to be able to call him back, and it would cause his soul untold amounts of pain to do so," I say softly. "I'm very sorry, but there's nothing I can do for him."
At my words, tears begin to roll down her face, cutting deep into my heart, and she picks up the poor corpse and rocks it gently in her arms.
"Tanara, what happened here?" Tlaman's voice s harsh with pain and grief I see, but it cuts into the sombre mood like a knife, "Tanara, I asked you what happened here? Answer me woman!" I know he's speaking to her like that cos he don't know no other way to deal with the pain and grief that are written all over his face, but I don't think she's gonna hear it that way.
I watch with a mild feeling of dread as Tanara lays down her dead son tenderly before standing up to turn about and face her brother. She begins to speak in a low monotone, each word spoken clearly and separately, "What happened here? You want to know what happened here?" She pauses and takes a breath, and I think this is the calm before the storm. "Well, let me tell you what happened here then, brother dear. When I came up to my room with Ki'el and Avan, five priests of Bhaal were waiting for me - I even recognised some of them from the Temple. They quickly subdued me, and started preparing to sacrifice Avan. But because this would be such an important sacrifice, and they wanted to make sure that Bhaal's essence would return to the Abyss with all the other parts, they decided to deconsecrate this room. You did know that this used to be a keep of Bhaal didn't you? Oh good, I'm glad one of us did!" she says, ending on a shrill note. Stepping forward, closer to her dumbfounded looking brother, she continues talking, her voice rising in volume.
"Do you know how Bhaalist's' go about reconsecrating a temple, Tlaman? Do you? I think not. Well, let me tell you - let me further your education somewhat. Firstly, you lay out an altar, with four big smelly candles around it, and lots of stinky incense. Then, you take baby, preferably a boy, but a girl will do. In this case, they were lucky - they had a young boy just the right age - why he had even been born in a Temple of Bhaal and dedicated to Him at birth. First they covered his small body in some 'holy' symbols, and then you cast a spell to keep him conscious through all kinds of agony. Then, you take a knife and cut lengthwise along all his limbs, exposing the bones and severing major arteries as you do so. Do you know how loudly a baby can shriek when someone's doing that him? Do you? Well don't worry if you can't, for it's a sound I'll hear every second of every day I live! Then you cut him up some more, trying to cause the most gut wrenching, heart stopping agony you can, before stabbing through the heart, finishing the ceremony. That was the last thing I saw before they killed me too, but I believe that you three burst into the room just a moment later - a moment too late." she stops again, and tears start to pour down her face.
"Where were you Tlaman? Where were you? You said you'd be here to protect us, but you weren't! You gave me your word when you told me to stay in this place! But you've broken it Tlaman, you couldn't keep your promise and because of that my son is dead! The son I sacrificed so much for and gave so much too is dead, and it's all your fault! Because of you, Tlaman, because of you!" she finished her wild speech and stood there trembling, and I don't think my heart's ever been moved so much - but it had quite a different effect on Tlaman.
"You ungrateful little bitch! he snarls angrily, drawing himself up. "How dare you speak to me, your elder brother like that?! It seems you have spent far too long amongst these strange southerners, and I should have taken you to task for it long ago. What right does some silly female who can't even look after herself for five minutes have to talk to me like that? Perhaps if you had taken more care your precious son wouldn't be dead right now..."
Tanara interrupts, looking furious, and I try to rouse myself from my shock to stop their angry, destructive words. "How dare you?! How dare you say that Tlaman! It was your idea to stay here, not mine," she continues, turning her anger upon her brother, "Do you value your word so little as to throw it away like this? And what do you mean, I can't look after myself? Do you forget that I escaped from both my brutish husband and the Temple of Bhaal and travelled half the length of the coast to find you? Are your memories as useless as your promises? And I will speak to you any way I please, for you are not worthy of my respect!"
"You little..." Tlaman growls, stepping ominously towards his sister and I prepare myself to intervene if he turns violent. "As if any of it is true anyway," he says with a toss of his head, "You just got knocked up by some passing stranger you took a fancy too and couldn't admit it. Do you really think that your female child is the daughter of a god? I've humoured you so far, but no more. Bhaalspawn indeed!"
Tanara turns a deathly pale at this, and I support her as she wobbles on her feet, but before I can talk, Gorion speaks softly, his tone quietly reproachful. "Tlaman, what is this? Is this child truly a Bhaalspawn? I've spent the last year travelling the length and breath of Faerun looking for such women unfortunate enough to be chosen by Bhaal. I cannot believe that one who has spent so much time around the Harpers could fail to realise the significance of this! Bhaal is dead now, but could return unless we manage to safeguard His offspring. All it takes is one to be saved and the Realms will be spared yet more evil - already the balance is tipped too far that way. I would have expected you, of all people, to realise this!"
Tanara speaks again before a shocked looking Tlaman can reply and I try and focus on her vehement words, confused by all I have heard. "You see, it *is* true, you bastard! Do you think I'd make something up like this? Do you think that being raped repeatedly by the God of Murder and nearly dying is something I'd make up?!" She pauses, her voice cracking with emotion before continuing, "Anything would be better that what I endured, that what truly happened - I still bear the physical and mental scars of His terrible embrace. And you thought I was lying," and now her voice drips with contempt, "Well, you are no brother at all if you think that. I want no more to do with you!"
"No brother at all, eh?" Tlaman says in a dangerously low voice, one I am surprised to hear from such a fool. "No brother at all? Well if that's how you feel, so be it - you shall have no brother! I hereby revoke our relationship and cast you out into the world. May no clan offer you shelter, clanless, outcast woman. May you wander the plains till your death, all alone in the world, knowing the price you have paid for your folly!" And with that final comment, he turned upon his heel, somewhat flamboyantly I feel, given the circumstances, and leaves the blood soaked room, slamming the heavy door behind him.
"Good riddance!" Tanara yells, before collapsing in my arms, crying her heart out.
My son is dead - they have killed my son! I swore that this would not come to pass, but my promises have been as nothing - nothing at all! My son is dead! my mind wails as I sit in a strange room, absorbed by my grief, barely aware of my surroundings. A part of me thinks that several hours have passed since...since...since they killed him. Once more my grief overwhelms and swallows me, a vast black pit of despair, anger and self-recrimination that consumes all in its path. My mind is blank, as I sit there watching my son's torture and death repeat themselves again and again in my minds eye. Only a small part of me takes note of what is happening around me and hears the conversation going on.
"I don't see having that much of a choice, really - if there's a whole horde of Bhaalist scum after her not many places are safe at all" a man's voice thick with a city accent says.
"I agree, my friend. Candlekeep itself is the only place that springs to my mind. The First reader, Ulraunt is somewhat of a fool, but Tethtoril is definitely not and he is more than capable of safeguarding Candlekeep against any more murderous Bhaalist's," a second man replies, and his voice is different, more cultured, the small part of me notes.
"I 'spose it could work, but what about all the passing scholars and nobles - I reckon they'll have more than a question or two about a little human girl with drow colouring. Besides which, is a glorified library much of a place for a child to grow up? All those high stone walls and rules."
That same small part of my mind calls alarm at this statement and tries to rouse me from my grief. They want more stone walls for us! it yells desperately, but my grief is too powerful.
So? What is *that* compared to his death?! My son is dead - murdered - tortured. They killed my son! it repeats again and again.
But stone walls - it'll be the Temple all over again. It'll be *here* all over again! My son is dead! They have killed my son! What is anything compared to this? My so is *dead*! They have killed *my* son
My son is dead! They have killed my son! What is anything compared to this? My so is *dead*! They have killed *my* son! the black pit roars once more, filling me with another lifetime's worth of painful, agonising grief.
But walls?! That's what killed him - do you want *us* to die as well? the treacherous voice says weakly, but its power is all but gone, destroyed by my grief.
My son is dead. They have killed my son.
My son is dead. They have killed my son.
My son is dead. They have killed my son. my mind chants, blocking out the other voice - My son is dead, and I have no time for such worries.
The conversation in the rooms continues on, oblivious to the silent struggle within me.
"I agree with you, but I feel that those are small risks, comparatively. Where else could provide even a fraction of the safety Candlekeep offers? Bhaal's followers will stop at nothing to return their God to life and to power, and that child is pivotal to their plans."
"I've been thinking about that myself too - what about one of the deep forest groves though? No one but us druids knows where they are exactly, and they should be safe as houses there. Nature watches over her own and she can do just as much damage as a shed load of flashy wizard spells - if not more. Think about it, Gorion, no loose-tongued scholars or nobles wandering through asking awkward questions and regaling others with tales of a drow-like girl over a mug or two of ale. Also, the woods'd be a much better place for a growing child - fresh air and suchlike."
Open forest? The outdoors? that small part of me says, but I barely acknowledge it, Think of it - Open forest, the outdoor - no walls! This dimly penetrates my grief stricken mind.
"But I cannot imagine that Tanara would want to live in a druid grove with a young child - unlike you, she is no druid."
"'Spose so - maybe Candlekeep would be best - she's probably sick and tired of travelling and living rough. It's easier by far to get to Candlekeep from here as well - no muddy trek through the woods in this sodding downpour."
No! Don't let them put us behind walls again - say something!! it screams at me, and it finally breaks through.
Woods? The forest? I think dimly, my mind dizzy with grief.
Yes! Woods, not walls! We wouldn't be trapped anymore - say something!
I blink, fully aware of my surroundings at last. I am in another of the inn's comfortable rooms and my sleeping daughter lies sleeping in my arms. The blood has been cleaned off both of us, and Avan has a peaceful expression on her dark face. "No," I croak weakly, my voice harsh from hours of weeping. "No more walls - walls trapped me in the Temple for almost a year, away from the sun, the moon and the stars, and walls trapped me here - and lead to my son's death! I will have no more of walls do you hear!" It is not until I see the shocked looks on the faces of the two men in the room that I realise that I have been shouting loudly.
The grey robed man glances at the other before speaking, "If that is what you wish, then let us begin to make arrangement. I agree with Kemenorel that the druid groves can offer you both a high degree of safety. I am Gorion, Tanara, a wandering mage, and this is Kemenorel, "he says, indicating the other man, "a druid from a grove to the east of here."
"It'll be a long old walk there, love, and with the weather as lovely as it is, not much fun neither, but we'll make it through, don't worry," the second man says. He has slightly pointed ears poking through dishevelled brown hair, and a strange, almost delicate cast to his features. I realise that he must be a half-elf and look more closely, having never been so close to one before.
"I wish to leave this...this *place* as soon as I can - it has too many memories for me. But first, I need to bury me son - to send him on to the afterlife," I say calmly, belaying the roaring wave of grief that threatens to overwhelm me once more. They have killed my son!
"Of course, love. I don't know what rites and suchlike your people follow, but I can officiate - if you'd like that is." the half-elf, Kemenorel, offers, a look of deep sympathy on his face.
"It is a simple ceremony, one that should take place at dawn, to symbolise the rebirth of the soul into the next world," I say thinking once more of the legends of my childhood that speak of the Realms of the Dead. It is said to be a happy place, where families and friends are reunited once more, in a land with bountiful food and water and a clement climate, so unlike the Land of the Living. A sudden realisation hits me - he won't be suffering anymore, for nothing can hurt him there. All of my clan who died in the plague will be there - my mother, my father, my siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts. They will care for him until it is my time to join him. No more will this harsh would hurt him or cause him harm. He is safe at last from those who wish him ill - safe at last. A strange sense of peace descends upon me as I realise this, and though the pain of his death still tears at my heart, I am soothed by my revelation. The fact that I will be leaving this ill-omened inn behind also soothes me - I am returning to a free place, much like the one I grew up in.